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01 July, 2007:
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Activate Your Vocabulary

Learn Chinese in Beijing
Hutong School

Use new vocabulary in real conversations instead of relying on rote memorization

Often, in a university program or any Chinese curriculum taught by older Chinese teachers, the method generally involves rote memorization of long lists of vocabulary. I have certainly encountered this style more in Chinese classes than in classes for any other language. Teachers assign a list of vocabulary for a night or some other period of time, and the next time the class meets there will be a 听写 ting1xie3, or dictation quiz.

It seems that this is pretty much the only way to learn Chinese characters, and it is pretty close to the way that Chinese people learn characters. That is, the teacher assigns characters to learn, and the students memorize them. The fundamental problem is that students learning Chinese as a second language need to learn both the characters and the vocabulary items.

The problem is that rote memorization is a very difficult way to learn vocabulary. It’s easy enough to memorize a list of words and pass a test the next day, but how do you make those words part of your vocabulary that you can use properly in conversation?

Activating your vocabulary means using newly learned words in real life situations. Of course, it is easier to do this if you live in China or with Chinese speakers. Difficulties notwithstanding, if you want words to come more fluently and really become part of your everyday usage, then you need to use them when you learn them. For spoken Chinese, this means trying to use vocabulary items in conversation.

The same idea can be applied to writing too. Memorization is still pretty much all there is for learning characters, but it may help to do a bit more than simply copy lists of vocabulary. Write new sentences or keep a journal to help activate your written vocabulary. Also, look in printed materials and electronic materials to see examples of newly learned words in their context.

Languages are tools that are used to communicate in real life. They are much more than lists of facts printed in textbooks. If you want to give vocabulary items a place in your memory and abilities with a language, then the best approach is to use that vocabulary as much as you can. Activating newly learned vocabulary provides the ability to optimize the power of your newly acquired language skills.