Update: a more concise version of this post is available here.
About 18 months ago, a post entitled ‘Massive Vocab Building‘ appeared on TMJ, in response to a question by Mat Fay Long about how to improve study time.
In it, I advocated working through lists of vocabulary that were related in some way – perhaps by some common character or theme.
Here are the ways of working with the lists that I advocated at the time:
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
I also said:
We can then use Anki later to make sure you don’t forget what you’ve learnt.
However, this is clearly not good enough, because both Mat and I got lazy.
For example, I found that drawing pictures became all I ended up doing, and that I ended up working on ever-more elaborate works of arts – my drawing improved dramatically, but I ended up practicing almost no Cantonese. This led to a gradual downward spiral, the result of which was that all I did for about six months was speaking, with no improvement in my Chinese abilities.
Whilst I don’t think I want to retract anything I said in that post, what I need to do is add an incredibly important extra something.
An Incredibly Important Extra Something
That extra something requires a native and a recording device.
What you need to do is to turn the vocabulary lists into mp3s. It is similar to the method outlined in ‘The Sound of Progress‘.
Basically, you generate lots and lots of i+1 content. You can rely on this content because it comes from a native speaker. Additionally, it completely frees you from the shackles of lousy romanization systems – you don’t need to know how a word is romanized, or what tone a character is – only how it sounds.
You get your native to go through the list of related words, with descriptions and example sentences where necessary. For example, you could go through 車-related compounds – 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. They’re speaking too fast? Tell them to slow the fork down!
Make sure you record everything – you can listen to your i+1 content as many times as you like, and pick up vocab, pronunciation, 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.
I’ve made around 100 such mp3s for Mandarin and Taiwanese with my friend over the last couple of weeks, and they are especially effective at clearing up interference in characters with tones I’m unsure of. For example, I kept forgetting that 漲 was pronounced zhang3 in Mandarin. Therefore, we recorded a three-minute mp3 in which we discussed 水漲, 通漲 and 漲價, mostly in Mandarin. After carefully listening to the recording a few times, I can now get the pronunciation correct when reading Chinese newspapers.
Also, I sometimes add vocabulary learnt in this way to Anki, and sometimes not. It depends on my mood.
Obligatory Closing Questions
Has anyone else tried doing anything similar? How did you get on? Let me know in the comments section! 🙂
 I would like to make a qualification, however: don’t spend too much time on stuff which doesn’t actually involve speaking.
Example #1: a 5-second stick-man sketch is much better than a detailed watercolor that takes hours to complete.
Example #2: If you have a jar of jam in the house, by all means go and find it when you want to learn the word 果醬, but don’t rush out to the supermarket to buy a jar if you don’t. Too much time wasted.
Example #3: Your vocab list does not have to be perfect. It should really just be a reference for making mp3s, and can be edited at will. As long as you can read it, you’ll do fine.