Massive Vocab Building

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?

(Emphasis added.)

My suggestion is to learn as many nouns and simple action verbs as possible at the moment. For example:

Car 車
> Wheel 車呔
> Steering wheel 軚盤
> Windscreen 擋風玻璃
> Lights 車燈
> Indicators 閃燈
– Drive 揸車
– Crash 撞車

House 屋企
> 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:

  1. It’s very easy and quick.
  2. We’ll come across other, potentially more useful words in the future which use the same characters, thereby giving you a big future discount.
  3. 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:

1) 車
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.


To summarise:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!


9 thoughts on “Massive Vocab Building

  1. As the person who wrote the e-mail I thought I’d give a status update after about a week of study. I made short vocab lists that were specific to certain activities, then in my spare time I’d memorize the words. I did this just three times with lists that averaged about six words each. This method does work (I can’t see how it wouldn’t after just two days) and I think the best part of it is the simplicity and ease of set-up. You find something you’re interested in, you create your own list of related words and then you just go over them until you get them right like Eldon said. When you’ve memorized certain characters, no matter how small or trivial, they will connect to many others and you get a stronger effect when you read other subjects. At least three of the words I learned will branch out to other areas, I can see they’re just very common.

    I do want to mention for any brand new learners out there, double check with a native speaker before learning any new material!! You can’t go picking words out of Google translate or an online dictionary and expect identical meanings. Many times I wanted to learn a word combination only to hear that it just wasn’t right, or worse never even used. It can be a waste of time when you find this out, especially after learning the words. In the beginning make sure that the translation from Cantonese to English is accurate (ie I found that sik-ga doesn’t really mean a gourmet chef, it means food expert: 食家). Of course a great chef can and will be a food expert but it’s important to know the difference between the two. If you don’t live in Hong Kong or relying on just yourself you are more likely to make simple translation mistakes, double check everything!!

    Lastly, I think it’s practical to admit that most learners won’t get %100 of what they try and put down on their lists. I know that certain words for me I just didn’t feel like practicing because I know most Cantonese speakers dodn’t talk in that way and there are other ways to get a point across. However, to overcome this laziness it makes sense to just make BIGGER lists. It might take someone two hours to put together 50 words or phrases to study, but if 35 of those phrases are learned in the span of two or three weeks it will make a huge difference compared to just trying to look at 10 words. Bigger lists might be more difficult but it’s a way of overcoming any laziness on the part of the student.

    That’s about it, I have a long way to continue and am still very much limited in Cantonese. Eldon, what you advised is a big help and a great way to learn!!! And most importantly it works!!

    • Thanks for the response! 🙂 RE your point about double checking everything – I’m aware it’s annoying to find you’ve memorised the wrong thing, but the feeling of having to double check everything will be enough to kill your progress in the long run. (It’s not practical to have someone vet *everything* before you learn it, even if online dictionaries and Google Translate are lousy. Best to just get the info direct from a native in the first place and not have to worry about it, if convenient.)

      Also, don’t forget that you still have to make an effort to connect all those words to real life. It’s mostly a waste of time to just work from word lists (as opposed to labelled pictures – sorry if that wasn’t clear or if that wasn’t what you meant!)


      • I find that making vocabulary lists takes too much time to be worth it. It seems like you spend more time making the lists than you have time to actually go over them. Unless they’re pre-made by someone else, that is. For me, I just look up words that I come across that I don’t know and move on. If I review I review the word in context, such as by reading or listening to the material that I encountered it in again. Many times I have to look up a word several times, but in this electronic age it’s so easy to look up a word these days that it seems that specially preparing material to try to memorize it at first sight in order to avoid subsequent effort looking it up is not worth it to me. Unless there’s a specific situation I have to prepare for, I would not bother (such as in the unlikely event that I were called on to be an interpreter). After looking it up numerous times eventually you’ll remember the word. I have also encountered the same situation with dictionaries not having the translations that people consider to be correct. If you want a “correct” translation that accurately reflects what people in the field use, I would suggest checking Wikipedia cross references, of course this only applies to certain terms and you won’t be able to find everything. If prepared materials exist (such as ANKI decks) and they’re good, they might be worth giving a look at (there are many words that have exact equivalents), but unfortunately in Cantonese these are usually very deficient because they’re just limited to very basic words, often plain wrong, and/or don’t distinguish between the written language and the spoken.

        • You may be right. I agree that prepared materials are best, but as you say, it’s a case of finding them.

          The lists may, at least, form useful lesson material, but I must admit that I haven’t used any for a while.

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  4. It’s been a super long time but I thought I’d come back in with an update. In retrospect I studied these vocab lists a month or two before my wedding and it was a case of just learning as much as I could because there would be so much Cantonese spoken at the wedding banquet. Afterwards I got lazy and I’ve taken a super passive approach. I still believe the best way to improve is vocab building and I still use Anki which of course works. No matter what a new learner would have to build vocabulary to understand the spoken L2 or L3. I also translate Youtube videos and study Chinese news reports; anyway, good luck to anyone getting their feet wet with Canto! Don’t be lazy like me!!

  5. Hey Matt!

    Congratulations on the wedding!

    Haha, ‘laziness’ is a very easy trap to fall into! (Actually, I learnt almost no new Chinese over the last semester of university, although I did rack up a lot of speaking practice with mainland students.)

    It would tend to suggest that you could consider changing your learning method.

    Indeed, some kind of update to this post would be to turn the vocabulary lists into mp3s, kind of using the method outlined here:

    Basically, you generate lots and lots of i+1 content.

    You get your native to go through the list of related words, with descriptions and example sentences where necessary. In this case, you would go through the eight 車-related compounds listed above – 車呔 , 軚盤, 擋風玻璃, 車燈 etc.

    You can ask them specific questions about what you would like to learn, preferably in Chinese, and ask for clarification whenever you don’t get something.

    Make sure you record everything – you can listen to your i+1 content as many times as you like, and pick up vocab, pronunciations, grammar and so on.

    I usually try to get each recording to be about three minutes long – this is a manageable amount to listen to repeatedly later. I also add instrumental backing music to make it more interesting to listen to, using Audacity.

    Of course, there are lots of other subtleties, but it’s best that you just try on your own and see what does and doesn’t work.

    Hope that’s clear – if you get a chance, do give it a try. I’ve made around 100 such mp3s for Mandarin and Taiwanese with my girlfriend over the last couple of weeks, and they are especially effective at clearing up interference in characters with tones I’m unsure of. This is because of the sheer number of repetitions that you can do.

    Best of luck! Try to get unstuck!


    P.S. Sometimes I add vocabulary learnt in this way to Anki, and sometimes not. It depends on my mood. 🙂

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