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If I could go back in time and change the way I learnt languages in general and Chinese in particular, there are many things I would do differently. In fact, a lot of the things I write about language learning these days are based on what I remember myself doing or have observed other people doing while trying to learn a language, then relating that to what I know about the subject today.
One of the areas I think I did worst in when I started learning Chinese was vocabulary. I don’t mean that I didn’t learn enough words or that I used a horribly inefficient method, I think I did okay. The problem was that I learnt the wrong words and I was stubborn enough not to fix that for years. This is what I want to discuss in this post.
Your vocabulary is like a garden – it needs tending
I think it helps viewing your vocabulary as a living thing; a garden seems like the best analogy. Plants in a garden take time to grow and the overall results benefit from planning ahead. A garden can also have different functions and will require different plans depending on what that function is.
Most importantly, you need to keep an active relationship with the plants in your garden, identifying which plants to keep, which to prune and which to get rid of altogether. If you let everything grow without control, your garden will turn into wilderness. Vocabulary should be regarded in this way, too.
Some common problems and how to avoid them
The most common mistake I see with ambitious students (including myself years ago) is that they tend to think only in terms of quantity: the more the merrier. While it might be true that knowing many words is good in general, this isn’t always the case, especially not in the short run. At least, it’s not that simple.
The problem is that you only have limited time available to learn and maintain vocabulary, so it matters greatly which words you choose to learn. Of course, it’s hard to know which words are important before you know them. A native speaker or an advanced second language learner can tell you which words are essential to know and which aren’t, and sometimes frequency data can give you useful clues, but on your own, knowing which words are worth adding remains a problem.
The best way of dealing with this problem is either to add words from trusted sources or to prune and manage your deck actively. Doing both is also an option.
Adding vocabulary from trusted sources
The first solution involves mostly reading material that has been designed for you or someone at your proficiency level. This includes textbook, graded readers or other learning materials aimed at second language learners. In these texts, you’re unlikely to find extremely rare characters or words, so you can be relatively confident that what you’re learning is useful.
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Tending your vocabulary garden
The second solution, actively managing your vocabulary, is a must as soon as you start approaching authentic texts. They will contain a very large number of words you haven’t seen before and adding everything to Skritter isn’t going to work. Even if you spend the time necessary to accomplish that, it still wouldn’t be a good way of learning because you would waste time learning words that aren’t actually improving your overall language proficiency that much.
Actively tending your vocabulary garden is important. Delete words you don’t like, that seem less important than when you added them or you think are slowing you down in general. Edit any character or word that you don’t like or that isn’t clear enough. Save other types of information you pick up about characters and words (the easiest way to save these is by editing the custom definition).
Ready-made gardens and vocabulary lists
This is why I don’t really like importing lists created by other people. If I wanted a garden that suits my preferences and needs, I wouldn’t go online and just download a ready-made one. Similarly, unless you’re a true beginner, other people’s lists comes with problems attached.
I do sometimes use lists created by others, but mainly to find a certain kind of vocabulary (based on a textbook for instance). In these cases, I always spend a lot of time making the list my own. I edit the definitions, delete things I don’t need and add things I think are missing. I don’t just add the list and expect it to merge with the vocabulary I already know. Naturally, editing a list takes time and I don’t do everything at once; everything is done on a need-to basis.
Growing your vocabulary
Following the advice in this article would have saved me a lot of time and accelerated my learning quite a bit, all the way from the beginner level up to advanced. It’s a grave mistake to think you have to catch them all or try to learn every single new character/word in a text you’re reading. Your time is limited, don’t waste it learning words you don’t really need!