Only learn the Chinese for words you actually use

This seems obvious, but think about it – how much time learning Chinese is spent on words that you actually use? Words that you know is one thing but here I’m talking about words for the equivalents that you use on a regular basis in your mother tongue. Basically, only learn what you’ll use.

The obvious argument to this is that learning a language is about acquiring as many words as possible, which is true, to an extent, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. Do you want to become a linguist or learn enough Chinese so that you can accomplish and talk about the things that matter to you?

Next time you are in Chinese class feverishly writing down words to review, or writing/drilling lists of words to learn, have a look over the list and ask yourself how many of these words would you do you use in your mother tongue. If the answer is not much then you might not want to spend to much time on them. Learn to recognise them by all means, and that will come naturally with time, though when your aim is to learn as much useful language in as little time as possible it pays off to be selective.

Quick Tip

When you’re speaking Chinese with your friends or teacher and hit a word that you don’t know in Chinese but do in your mother tongue, you know the feeling, it’s like hitting a wall in your flow of speech, pull out a notebook and jot down the word. This way when you get home and have time to study you can focus on the words that you actually use so next time you won’t be caught short.

8 responses to “Only learn the Chinese for words you actually use

  1. I hope the teachers would consider this too! For example after taking classes for 1,5 years in Finland and 1 in China there still haven’t been a lesson about going to hair salon.

    I used to carry a small notebook with me and had this idea of writing down words I didn’t know so I could check them later. But in the end I just ended up explaining the thing in other way, not writing down and then forgetting the word I was missing.

    1. Hi Sara,
      Long time no speak 🙂 I’m glad you took the time to respond, because the situation you described is exactly the thing I want to emphasise is happening. You spend 1.5 years learning Chinese, yet you don’t know how to ask for a hair cut in the hair salon. Just make sure when you are learning that you don’t spend too much time pondering over words you’ll never use anyway, and try and find useful words for yourself.
      PS hope you are doing well in China!

  2. Dave, I agree with you completely – there is a lot of wasted time on words that frankly will seldom be used.

    I actually wrote a post on that a while back, called Why a meal is worth more to me than my Grandmother to give a similar message.

    But of course our ‘needs’ change, and although I never would have bothered learning the Mandarin word for ‘humidity’ while living in London, now that I live in Hong Kong, it’s one of the first words I looked up when summer arrived!

    PS. It’s 湿度 / 濕度 (shī​dù)

    1. Good point Greg that the need to learn vocabulary change according to where you live for example. In Finland all the Chinese lessons are usually based on travel vocabulary, which might be ok for the majority, but I wanted to learn something else too.

  3. Hi Dave,

    please, I need your help!

    the software”Chinese Touch 1.5″ on my Nintendo DS (with R4 module)doesn’t work.
    I have also tried on a pc(windows XP)with software nds emulator “Resume” but the result doesn’t change.

    This is the error visualized by the “Resume”:
    critical error initializing fat driver

    what do you think?

    thanks so much, bye

  4. I totally agree with your post. I remember learning a smattering of Mandarin before I came to China. When I arrived in China and used some of the words I had learned, many Chinese said ‘No one uses that word! It does mean what you think it does, but it just sounds so strange because we rarely use it.’

    So much time is wasted with attempting to remember words that no one actually uses, or could have been better spent remembering another much more commonly used word.

    If a person has the luxury of living in China then they soon get to know the most commonly used Chinese words simply by listening to them being used.

  5. Can someone point me toward an authoritative list of “real” Chinese vocabulary? One of my own students (here in Ningbo) got a glimpse of one of my personal flash cards and quipped, “Those aren’t normal words.” They had come from the end chapter of a Chinese primer for English speakers that I obtained in Tianjin! It’s easy to google up lists of the “1000 most used words” in English. The lists may not correspond 1-1 but there’s a core number of words they agree on. What about the same for Chinese? Dialects aside, everyone wears shoes, etc., dui4 bu2 dui4?

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