Learning Chinese Vocabulary – The Ultimate Guide
Here we will share with you all kinds of tips and tricks for learning new Chinese words, building and broadening your Chinese vocabulary and of course, we’ll even throw in some useful vocabulary lists with translations and pronunciation!
Having a broad Chinese vocabulary is going to help you to converse a lot more effortlessly in Chinese and talk about a lot of interesting topics. However, it’s building up your Chinese vocabulary that is the challenge.
I am a firm believer that vocabulary is the cornerstone of a language, NOT grammar!
Think about it for a minute…
If you wanted to ask somebody for directions in Chinese and you knew the correct way to ask but you didn’t know the word for the place you were going to… then how on Earth would that help you?
On the other hand… If you DID know the correct word, then even if you didn’t know the correct word order, it’s likely you would still be understood!
That’s the power of vocabulary.
If you’re a beginner learner of Mandarin, you would also benefit from reading the bullet-proof guide to fluency in Mandarin
Contents (click to be taken to that section):
- How to start learning Chinese vocabulary from scratch
- Mining for new Chinese words
- Best ways to remember Chinese vocabulary words
- How to broaden your Chinese vocabulary
- Why it’s important to have a large and broad Chinese vocabulary
- Anchoring your Chinese vocabulary through speaking practice
- Essential Chinese vocabulary for beginners
How to start learning Chinese vocabulary from scratch
When starting to learn Chinese as a beginner it’s often quite overwhelming. Suddenly, you’re faced with this completely new language, which has a completely new structure and completely new and weird-looking/sounding words!
Where on Earth do you start?
The answer to that question is: with something simple.
If you choose good beginner resources, then you won’t have to worry about what words to learn because it’s likely the books or courses you’ve chosen will already contain the most useful words for beginners.
What you should be concerned about is how you learn the new words.
It’s important to not simply memorise Chinese words from a word list.
Rather, you should be looking to learn words from context.
Well, first of all, you will be able to remember the word better if you have seen it or heard it in a sentence and second of all, it’s a lot easier to gauge a word’s meaning when you have been exposed to it in context.
Chinese words can also have multiple meanings, so it’s a lot easier to understand a word’s different meanings by seeing or hearing it used in context. This is something I learned when I was studying Chinese. I’d often spend time memorising new words, but I later found myself confused as to how to use those words when speaking because I hadn’t actually heard or seen examples of how native speakers used them in conversation.
This brings me to my next point;
Learn conversational vocabulary
Most people’s goal when learning Chinese is to be able to speak the language and have fluent conversations with native speakers. If that isn’t your goal – feel free to skip this piece of advice!
When I was learning Chinese, I would bring my textbook to my Chinese tutor, who would then help me to work through the lessons and dialogs. One reason that it was so useful to have a tutor was that she would point out Chinese words that were very formal or very rarely used in conversation.
This saved me from wasting time learning Chinese words that I would probably never use and would very rarely encounter in normal conversation.
My point is, make sure the words you’re learning are practical and actually used in conversation, otherwise, what’s the point?
Sure, when you’re more advanced in Chinese and you want to understand the news or talk about politics, you can learn more formal and professional vocabulary. However, as a beginner, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
By learning words that you’re likely to hear and use in conversation, it’s likely that they will more easily stick in your long-term memory.
What about the characters?
I’m a big advocate of waiting 2-3 months before starting to learn Chinese characters. So, if you’re a beginner I would just focus on learning words through Pinyin initially.
Once you have passed that 2-3 point and want to begin learning characters, then it’s going to be easier because you will already have built up a rudimentary Chinese vocabulary and can start learning the characters for the Chinese words you already know!
How do you do this?
Well, if you’ve followed my advice about learning conversational vocabulary then once you start learning high-frequency characters, you’ll find that many of these characters will correspond to the Chinese words you already know, so there’s no extra effort required on your part.
Just make sure you choose a great resource to work from when learning characters. I for one do not recommend using Heisig, instead, see below for my favourite book on learning Chinese characters.
To sum up, starting out learning new Chinese words is relatively simple but if you’re really looking to bolster your vocabulary with A LOT of new words you’re going to have to find these words somewhere. That where the next section comes in.
Mining for new Chinese words
The process is vocabulary mining is basically finding sources to extract new words from and then learning said words.
New Chinese vocabulary words can come from TV shows, podcasts, movies, textbooks or storybooks. What you use to ‘mine’ for new words is up to you and largely dependent on your level of Chinese.
What’s the best way to mine words based on my current level?
Lingq is probably the best tool you could use for finding and learning new Chinese words as that’s exactly what it was created for! You see, Lingq has a library full of Chinese texts, ranging in difficulty level from beginner to advanced.
You can read through the texts on Lingq and each word will be highlighted. As you read you can save new words (called ‘lingqs’). These can then be reviewed later. Words which you already know can also be added to your ‘known words’ list and from then on will not show up as highlighted anymore.
Lingq keeps track of how many words you read and how many new words you learn as well so it’s a fantastic way to track your vocabulary count and overall progress in Chinese!
If you’re a beginner however and don’t know any characters yet, I would just recommend listening to ChinesePod or ChineseClass101 podcasts/audio lessons and following the transcripts – you can pull new words from there.
Another great way to mine for new words is to use Chinese comic books or manga! If you’d like to know how to access Chinese language manga online for free and use it to learn Chinese, then check out the series I did on YouTube about learning Mandarin through manga.
Ok, got it. Now, what do I do with these words?
If you’re using Lingq to mine for vocabulary, then that’s all you need. As mentioned above, Lingq allows you to save words, review previously learned vocabulary and track your progress! Awesome!
If, however, you aren’t using Lingq, then I would recommend an app called ‘Pleco’. Pleco is by far the best Chinese dictionary app available.
Pleco also works offline, so you don’t have to worry about being connected to the internet to use it.
Pleco allows you to search for words in Chinese hanzi, pinyin or your native language. Pleco then provides the translation of the word, pronunciation and example sentences as well. You can then save these words to a list for reviewing later.
An even better way to use Pleco is in combination with another app called ‘Anki’. Basically, you can export the vocabulary lists you create in Pleco and import them as flashcards in Anki, which you can then review.
Anki is a really powerful tool for remembering information and this leads me to the next section…
Best ways to remember Chinese vocabulary words
Once you have chosen your learning resources and began diving into dialogs and conversational Chinese, you’re going to need a way to review the words you have learned.
For this, there are two methods I can highly recommend:
Method one: using flashcards
Flashcards are a really powerful way to review Chinese words or any short piece of information you want to remember.
Now, you could do it old school and actually make physical flashcards, but there are a number of issues with this approach.
- Making physical flashcards takes a lot of time and effort
- Physical flashcards are easy to misplace or accidentally damage
Keeping this in mind, I would suggest making use of a digital flashcard tool, such as Anki.
Why is Anki so good?
Well, Anki is an all-purpose flashcard tool that can support decks of over 100,000 cards! Anki also allows you to add audio, video, and images to your cards giving you endless options in terms of customizing and creating your cards.
Anki is also free! It can be used on desktop and mobile phone, so you can even review Chinese vocabulary while on the train or at work.
Anki also makes use of spaced repetition – a clever algorithm which only shows you the flashcards which you’re about to forget. In other words, Anki’s algorithm knows exactly when you need to review which word. Pretty awesome, right?
Method two: using gold lists
The gold list method for remembering Chinese vocabulary is in contrast to the flashcard method I mentioned above.
You see, using the gold list method, you don’t consciously try to remember words at all. It sounds strange but it’s remarkably clever and simple to use as it requires no technology to implement.
One similarity between this method and the flashcard method above in that they both make use of spaced repetition. More on that shortly.
For this method, all you will need is a notebook (with lines), a pen/pencil and a list of words you want to remember.
Once your tools have been assembled, it’s time to create your first ‘gold list’. Open your notebook on a double page and on the left-hand page write out 25 words, all on separate lines, going down the page. Number each line and add any useful information about the word next to it, such as pronunciation, translation etc.
Don’t rush through the process of writing each word, as the physical process itself will help to anchor the words in your memory. Once you’re done, read through the list to yourself, out loud.
You can repeat this process as many times as you like, with new words of course, just make sure to number each subsequent list accordingly (i.e. 1-25, 26-50, 51-75 etc) and write the date above too.
Now, here comes the important part, don’t look at those words again for approximately two weeks.
Because your aim is to get the words into your long-term memory through spaced repetition.
So, after two weeks, go back to your first list and ask yourself which of the words you have remembered the best. Put a tick beside the 8 words you feel you have remembered the best and re-write the remaining 17 words at the top of the empty right-hand page. This is your first ‘distillation’.
Now keep repeating this process, being sure to leave at least 2 weeks in between each review. You should aim to tick off about 30% of the remaining words each time and then carry over the remaining 70%. Eventually, all the words will work themselves into your long-term memory without you having to consciously make an effort to remember them!
Sound too good to be true? Try it for yourself!
Both these methods are effective for remembering Chinese vocabulary, it’s up to you which you want to use. You could even use a mixture of the two!
How to broaden your Chinese vocabulary
Building up a broad vocabulary of Chinese words will enable you to converse about a range of different topics.
So, how do you make sure you’re building up a broad vocabulary and not a narrow one?
The best way to do this is by studying Chinese from a range of resources which each look at the language slightly differently.
By learning from a range of resources, as opposed to just one book or course, you will be able to accumulate a more well-rounded vocabulary. Why? Because different resources teach different words.
A lot of the time you’ll find some resources teach a lot of the same words, but this is okay too because these words will be presented in different contexts, giving you more ways to remember them and understand their meanings.
Using a number of different resources is like attacking an enemy with a multi-pronged approach as opposed to just hitting him from one angle – It’s just a lot more effective.
Studying from Chinese from different resources is also more fun and more interesting. It’s easy to get bored of a textbook or course if that’s the only thing you’re studying from every day.
Choosing textbooks or courses that teach a lot of vocabulary is also important for being able to learn new Chinese words.
Personally, I don’t consider a grammar book as a core study resource. It’s more of a reference or supplementary resource you can go to for a quick recap/overview of grammatical structure.
In fact, why use a grammar book at all when you can just go to the Chinese grammar wiki?
As I said above, choose resources which contain a lot of content in the form of dialogs and spoken Chinese. Need help? Check out our curated list of Chinese learning resources.
Why it’s important to have a large and broad Chinese vocabulary
There are a lot of reasons for why knowing a lot of Chinese words is really good. Some of the main reasons include…
- To increase your understanding of written and spoken Chinese
- To allow you to communicate more effectively, with little grammar
- To enjoy listening to more interesting things
Knowing a lot of Chinese words will improve your knowledge of the Chinese language as a whole. Why? Because vocabulary is the core of any language.
The more words you know, the quicker you can learn new ones. You see, as your Chinese vocabulary grows, you will begin to pick up on patterns as to the way words are formed. So, when you learn a new word, it’s often easy to liken it to one you already know and create an anchor in your mind, so you won’t forget it.
Let me give you an example:
The word 办法 in Chinese means ‘way’. I already knew this word when I learned a new word, 方法, ‘method’. Do you see how the last character is the same? I was able to link 方法 to 办法 and remember it with ease.
When listening to Chinese native speakers talk, you are going to need a sizeable vocabulary to understand what they are saying.
Well, think about how many words you use in a simple conversation in your native language. Now, think about your friends and the way they speak. You’ll realise that not everyone speaks the same way. Depending in their personality, age, gender etc they will use different words in conversation.
So, to be able to understand native speakers in basic conversation, without too much of a problem, you cannot simply rely on the words you learned from your textbook.
Listening comprehension is also where vocabulary trumps grammar. If you’re Chinese vocabulary is large enough that you can understand the majority of the words being spoken, then that’s usually enough to make sense of what is being said, even if your grammar isn’t up to scratch.
Initially, it’s more important to focus on learning new words than it is to focus on using these words yourself. However, there comes a time where you will start to speak and when you do, it’s a great way to convert all your passive vocabulary into active vocabulary.
Not sure what I mean? Read on…
Anchoring your Chinese vocabulary through speaking practice
Once you have your resources, which focus mostly on dialog and spoken Chinese and you are ready to go with Anki/gold lists (or another spaced repetition-based memorization technique), it’s time to practice what you have learned through actively using your Chinese vocabulary in conversation.
For lots of people, the thought of actually speaking Chinese is rather daunting and if you’re not living in China or Taiwan, then it’s easy to keep putting it off. All I would say is just do it.
When I lived in China, I initially didn’t need to use much Chinese in my day to day life. It seems weird but due to my living and working circumstances, I was surrounded by a lot of English speaking people a lot of the time.
And, surprise, surprise, my Chinese didn’t improve much during this time.
It was only until I changed job and moved in with two Chinese roommates that I found myself having to speak Chinese every single day, and guess what? After only a few months my Chinese had improved dramatically! By the way, If you’re interested in my story you can read more about it in my e-book.
Speaking Chinese is the process of taking all you have learned passively and converting it into active, long-lasting knowledge of the language.
You see, it’s like with martial arts. There’s only so much you can learn by watching and imitating your sensei. It’s not until you actually begin sparring with opponents that the real learning begins.
Trust me, I know how you feel. You’re probably thinking you aren’t ready, you haven’t learned enough, or your pronunciation isn’t good enough yet.
Here’s the truth though, you’re never going to feel 100% ready to speak!
So, throw on those gloves and get in the ring!
Once you start using the Chinese words you have learned, they will begin to stick in your long-term memory and become part of your active vocabulary.
Active vocabulary words are those Chinese words that you can use spontaneously in conversation without needing to think too much.
In order to speak fluently, you are going to need a large active vocabulary. By the way, my definition of fluency here is borrowed from Glossika – being able to say a sentence, fluidly, at normal speed and without stuttering.
At this point, you’re probably thinking…
“Yeah, great but where do I find people to speak with!?”
Assuming you don’t live in China, Taiwan or another Chinese speak country, then your best bet would be to find native Chinese speakers or tutors online!
And, the best way to do this (in my opinion) in using iTalki.
iTalki is a platform which allows language learners to connect with native speakers and professional tutors/teacher of the language they are studying.
You can view different teachers’ profiles on iTalki, view their hourly rates and set up a lesson with someone you like the look of. Lessons are done through Skype and most of the teachers/tutors on their will tailor a lesson to your specific level and language needs. You can, of course, also just tell them what you want to learn/focus on for the session.
So, why is iTalki so great?
First of all, iTalki gives you the ability to search for a teacher that resonates with you. Secondly,the hourly rates charged by teachers/tutors on iTalki are generally very affordable and often much cheaper than what an in-person lesson would cost.
Thirdly, having Chinese lessons over Skype gives you the convenience of learning from the comfort of your home, on your own schedule.
Essential Chinese vocabulary for beginners
|Hello (formal)||nín hǎo||您好|
|Good morning||zǎoshàng hǎo||早上好|
|Good afternoon||xiàwǔ hǎo||下午好|
|See you tomorrow||míngtiān jiàn||明天见|
|Nice to meet you||hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ||很高兴认识你|
|How are you?||nǐ hǎo ma ？||你好吗?|
|How have you been recently?||nǐ zuìjìn zěnmeyàng ？||你最近怎么样?|
|Bye bye||bài bài||拜拜|
Famous cities in China
|To drink water||hē shuǐ||喝水|
|To eat food||chī fàn||吃饭|
|To sit down||zuò xià||坐下|
|To watch TV||kàn diànshì||看电视|
|To listen to music||tīng yīnyuè||听音乐|
|To speak Chinese||shuō zhōngwén||说中文|
|To ask a question||wèn yīgè wèntí||问一个问题|
|To learn English||xué yīngyǔ||学英语|