If you are getting a large amount of exposure to native content as part of your learning process (something that I highly recommend), one problem you are going to have to contend with is learning all the new words.
This is especially so if you’re just starting to read native content, because you won’t have a sufficient vocabulary base and it will be easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of new vocabulary to learn.
One of the best ways to control this is to give yourself a quota of new words per day, and make sure that you don’t exceed it.
The quota should have a hard and a soft limit, with the soft limit being the minimum number of new words to learn per day, and the hard limit being the maximum number of words to learn.
What you set those limits to will depend largely on how much time you have available to study and also your Chinese level, but generally speaking, I think it’s a good idea to aim low on these limits and then gradually increase them once you find you can handle the load, rather than trying to go all out at the beginning. The key is to encourage sustainable learning because you’ll get greater benefit from regular, consistent learning over a long period of time compared to short bursts of intense learning at irregular intervals.
When I’m in ‘vocabulary learning mode’ I’ve found that a quota of 5-10 words a day is a nice comfortable and sustainable rate (with a word possibly containing 1 or more new characters). It’s something I can easily do day in, day out, without any pressure, and without too much build-up of revision time. I could learn more but then I’d find I’d be spending more of my time learning and revising new words instead of consuming native content, which is not a trade-off I want to make (consuming native content essentially doubles as a natural form of revision anyway). 5-10 words a day doesn’t really seem like much, but over time it all adds up.
If you set yourself a quota that is smaller than the amount of new words you encounter, you might start to worry that you’ll miss out on learning important/useful words by not learning everything at once. This fear of missing out has become especially pronounced in the age of SRS which offers the seductive promise of being able to remember everything forever simply by adding words to your revision queue.
The thing to realise however is that you don’t need to learn everything immediately and in fact doing so is not productive, firstly because you’ll spend a lot of time learning words that won’t end up being useful, and secondly because you’ll spend too much time on vocabulary learning and revision at the expense of other skills.
You should set aside concerns about missing out on useful words because as long as you are getting regular exposure to native content, you won’t miss anything important.
This is quite logical once you think about it, because by definition, important words will show up on another day and you can add them to your quota then.
The ones that don’t show up again are not important or relevant to you yet, and therefore aren’t worth your time learning until they start showing up more.
It’s a more productive use of your time to focus on words that are appearing now rather than on ones that might appear again at some indeterminate point in the future.
Having a limited number of places in your daily quota combined with so many new words to choose from means you’re going to need to prioritise which words will fill up your quota, and which words you can leave to another day.
I tend to prioritise in the following order:
Names of people/places. These take top priority for me because in a given novel/T.V. show the names will be repeated often enough that it should be quite trivial to keep them in memory, likewise for people and places that regularly appear in the news. Common characters used in names and surnames will also continue to pop up in different variations in other novels/shows as well as newspaper articles or anywhere else you might expect to find a name, so they’re always useful in that respect.
I typically don’t place too much emphasis on learning the meaning of the rarer characters used in names, more just the pronunciation.
It’s also a good idea to look up the pronunciation of surnames even for characters you think you know, because quite often the pronunciation of a character when used as a surname is different from the pronunciation you might be more familiar with e.g. 单 Shàn, 曾 Zēng, etc.
Words that look suspiciously like words I already know how to pronounce. At higher levels, I’ve found more often than not that less-common words containing parts of characters I already know typically contain different pronunciations to what I’d expect. A few off the top of my head include 倩 qiàn, 栉 zhì, 狄 dí and 耿 gěng. If you don’t make sure to learn the correct pronunciation, you’ll fall in to the trap of guessing the incorrect pronunciation and then start to reinforce that mistake each time you see the character, which will make it that much more difficult to correct later.
Words that I’ve seen previously, but that I didn’t learn because I’d already filled up my quota for the day. Logic dictates that these words are more common (at least in the context of whatever content I’m reading/watching at the time) and therefore more likely to be worth learning ahead of others.
Other new words. If I’ve still got room to spare in my quota after all of the above, then it’s first come, first served.
When learning a new word, I’ll look it up in the dictionary to get the meaning, and then relate it back to the part of the novel where I read it, or the T.V. show where I saw it.
Even now, I can still think back to the stories where I learnt many words in my vocabulary because those stories serve as a memory hook that helps define the words for me. Having vivid context from a surrounding story makes it easier to remember words, so I typically won’t need to spend much effort trying to memorise the meaning because I can just think back and remember the context of when I first learned the word.
I’ll also add the word to a flashcard program. Pleco is my flashcard program of choice due to the excellent dictionaries available, but I don’t like to build up large flashcard decks, and typically delete my deck once reviews start to take more than 30 mins a day and start over (see here for discussion on why this is a good idea). Instead I use flashcards to get vocab in to short-term memory, and then use regular reading and exposure to help with long-term retention.
Having a daily quota helps keep vocabulary learning manageable. Regular reading helps you catch common words that you missed in previous days and reinforces knowledge of existing vocabulary.
Combined, these two techniques are a fantastic way to build your vocabulary and improve your Chinese.