More haste = less speed

It’s not uncommon for some learners of Chinese to decide that they want to learn Chinese as fast as possible, and they decide that the best way to do this is to try and learn as many new words per day as they can.

Although they have the best of intentions, this can be a flawed approach because increasing the number of words you learn per day can decrease the amount you learn, especially if you are talking about learning words in the long-term such that they are useful to you in daily life.

Although this might seem counterintuitive, if you think about it for a bit it does make sense.

Each day, everyone has a limit to the amount of time that they can spend studying vocabulary (whether that’s half an hour, or four, five or even more hours), and whatever amount of time that is, you need to distribute it amongst the words you want to learn. The more words you learn, the less time you have per word, and/or the less time you can spend doing other learning activities because vocabulary acquisition is taking up all of your study time.

For example, let’s say you have 1 hour per day for studying Chinese vocabulary.

If you set yourself a goal of learning 10 new words, that’s about 6 minutes per word.

If instead you decide to learn 20 new words a day, this reduces the amount of time per word to 3 minutes each.

Perhaps 3 minutes is still plenty of time for you to learn a new word well, but you should be able to see the basic principle that’s at work here - by increasing the amount of words you learn on any given day, you are decreasing the amount of time you can spend on each word. Either that or you are decreasing the time available to spend on other activities that can help improve your Chinese.

Add too many new words, and eventually you’ll hit the point where you are decreasing the quality of the learning that you are doing.

Obviously each person has their own sweet spot for the amount of time to spend learning a word, and it’s something that will change over time for each person as their Chinese ability improves.

It’s important for Chinese learners to find the correct balance between quality and quantity, and it’s important to consider what it means to have learnt a word. If you’re not careful and you don’t pay attention to this and simply think that adding a word to your SRS program means that you’ve learnt it, then you’ll end up with a whole bunch of half-learnt words that you can’t really use in practice, even though you might be getting all these words ‘correct’ on your SRS revisions.

This problem will become apparent when you try reading an article and you think “ahh, I know I’ve learnt that word but I can’t remember what it means”.

Actually, what that indicates is that you haven’t really learnt that word properly yet.

This is a common problem when vocabulary acquisition drives your learning process, especially if you are doing vocabulary acquisition to the exclusion of other activities such as reading, listening or watching native content.

Getting back to what it means to learn a word, consider the following questions:

  1. Can you read it?
  2. Can you write it?
  3. Do you understand the meaning?
  4. Can you understand it if you hear it in isolation?
  5. Can you pronounce it?

If you can do this, you’ve learnt the word to a basic level, but that’s not really enough to use it in real life. Consider the next set of questions:

  1. Can you read it and instantly know the meaning and pronunciation without thinking?
  2. Can you understand it if you hear it in a sentence spoken at native speed?
  3. Can you use it in a sentence without pausing and thinking?
  4. Will you still be able to do all of the above in 1 month’s time?
  5. In 1 year’s time?

These are the things you will need to be able to do if you want to be able to comfortably read a book or watch TV or converse easily with a native speaker.

Obviously it takes more time and effort to learn words to this level, which then gets back to the main issue, because spending more time per word means learning less words per day.

Learning less words per day is not a bad thing and is not something you should worry about as slowing down your learning.

You don’t need to learn every new word right now. The important ones will come up regularly and you can learn them then. The ones that don’t come up regularly are, by definition, not as important to you and so you can safely ignore them until later. As long as you are learning things and you are consistent and regular in your study you will make progress.

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavour and is something that will take you years.

Rather than setting your goal as ‘x number of words per day’ you should set your goal as ‘x number of days in a row learning Chinese’. It’s a far better way to make progress and it will help you develop sustainable study habits.

© Copyright 2021 Imron Alston