A few days ago, I got this excellent question from Mat Fay Long:
Is there any learning trick where a small investment of time can have a big enough learning payoff? I was thinking that on the subway I can either read learning materials in Cantonese or listen to lessons/music on my iPod. Learning books are a bit tough to find but they help my character recognition, and Cantonese music can always help my listening skills. I’m very much still a beginner but I feel that the next steps ahead of me will be very important down the line and I don’t want to advance at a slow level like I did the first two or three years where I didn’t take it seriously enough. Any suggestions?
My suggestion is to learn as many nouns and simple action verbs as possible at the moment. For example:
> Wheel 車呔
> Steering wheel 軚盤
> Windscreen 擋風玻璃
> Lights 車燈
> Indicators 閃燈
– Drive 揸車
– Crash 撞車
> Bedroom 睡房
>> Bed 床
— Make the bed 執床
>> Drawer 櫃桶
— Open the drawer 開櫃桶
And so on – we can then do this for lots of other themes.
This probably seems a little counter-intuitive – surely we should be spending time on grammar, too? And do we really need to learn all these specific, low-frequency words?
As it happens, we don’t need to worry about grammar yet, but we do need to learn this vocab. These are all words that we know in English (therefore meaning they’re worth knowing in L2, too), and they all relate directly to real-life. This is very important, because not only can we practice them frequently, we also have lots of context for them, which makes them easy to learn.
Things which are context-rich take a very short time to learn, because we already have lots of connections between the vocabulary that we want to learn and the real world. This means that we can clock up massive amounts of vocabulary very quickly.
So, the ‘trick’ here is to focus only on items for which we have sufficient context.
In the beginning stages, that means that if we have nothing in particular to focus on, we should default to clocking up nouns and action verbs, because we can create context endlessly ourselves.
1) We can draw pictures
2) We touch and pick up objects we’re learning L2 words for
3) We can link together related vocabulary thematically (as above)
4) We can do actions ourselves
By practising like this, we link Chinese words and characters to the things that they actually represent, rather than their equivalent English words*.
This then allows us to see patterns in how Chinese is used to describe objects: after one look at the first vocab list we can see immediately how frequently the character ‘車’ is repeated. We can also see how there’s a tendency toward two-character formations. You may not think you need the word ‘閃燈’, but it’s teaching you a valuable lesson about how compound nouns are formed (and more – see below).
More Bang for your Buck
So, although it might seem counter-intuitive to focus on apparently technical or specific vocabulary which doesn’t seem useful, we should do so anyway because:
- It’s very easy and quick.
- We’ll come across other, potentially more useful words in the future which use the same characters, thereby giving you a big future discount.
- It’s important for learners of all levels to tie words to concrete concepts wherever possible. (To repeat: the more connections L2 items have with the real world, the less likely we are to forget them.)
Example #1: Learn the Chinese word ‘閃燈’, ‘indicator (on a car)’, (not high-frequency), and we’ll understand ‘閃’, ‘flash’ (high-frequency) and ‘燈’ (very high-frequency) later.
We’ll also be able to pick up the meaning of ‘go’ for 閃 later, because we’re just adding a meaning to a word that we have a good foundation for already. (Think: we’ve already spent lots of time on getting the tone right for 閃 when we learnt it in 閃燈; we don’t have to learn it a second time.)
Example #2: Learn the Chinese word ‘燈塔’, lighthouse (not high-frequency), and we’ve just set ourselves up for ‘燈’, light, and ‘塔’, tower.
Long-Term Retention: SRSing
We can then use Anki later to make sure you don’t forget what you’ve learnt. I’m currently using cards where I have to draw out whatever it is I’m learning. Going back to the example of the car, I would make 8 flashcards, where the question is exactly as below:
2) 車 > 車呔
3) 車 > 軚盤
4) 車 > 擋風玻璃
5) 車 > 車燈
6) 車 > 閃燈
7) 車 > 揸車
8) 車 > 撞車
(I might just do a driving/crashing action for the last two – these are harder to draw.) I write out the words as well after drawing.
- In the early stages of learning, we should focus only on vocabulary for which have sufficient context, because, with a relatively small amount of repetition, it’s easy to learn and hard to forget.
- Once we’ve built up a strong vocabulary, we’ll be able to learn new words super-quickly because they fit into what we already know well.
As ever, there’s much, much more to say and elaborate on, but I want to get back to learning as quickly as possible!
If anything I’ve written is unclear, or if you’ve got other ways of learning vocab, do leave a comment below!
*The bilingual vocabulary lists above for ‘car’ and ‘house’ are bilingual only for my own convenience: it’d be too much work to upload high-quality pictures for each item. We should really be working from L2-picture lists – try to avoid English as far as possible!