Add words I come across, or stick to learning high frequency characters?

I’ve learnt Chinese on and off over the years (a lot of off…), but until this year I never made a decent attempt at learning characters (which frustrated my teacher quite a lot, when I was going to lessons regularly…) or even learning vocabulary in a systematic fashion. Since starting skrittering in March I’ve worked through HSK 1 and 2, and I’m now about two thirds of my way through HSK 3. I’ve been loving it!

I’ve been trying to get listening exposure through the likes of popupchinese, and new words come up a lot. My question is, is it best to add the more common ones of these that I don’t know, seeing as then I’ll have learnt them in context (and therefore be able to hopefully remember them better/use them better in real life), or considering my still basic level of vocabulary, should I rather prioritise getting through HSK 3, then 4? I thought this would be a relatively simple question to answer via word frequencies (as to which I should or shouldn’t add), but some words that seem to be basic are quite low frequency compared to what I’m working through now - for instance, 买单, to ask for the bill, is described in a podcast I listened to as a really common and useful phrase to know, yet it isn’t present even in HSK 6, so I presume therefore it is very low frequency. Yet it seems a shame to waste the opportunity to learn it within a context.

So, to boil it down: Is the trade off of delayed learning of more basic words worth it to learn more words of lower frequency for which I have greater context? At the moment I’m basically learning words with no context, and then later contextualising them as I come across them in other material.

I can’t wait until I’m through HSK 4 and 5, when I’ll hopefully be able to focus more on listening and comprehension, rather than just learning vocab!

The thing is, as you’re saying yourself, the ones with the context tend to stick better and you learn how they are actually used in a sentence. Especially if you use that stuff in real life or at least repeat the lessons from time to time. So… I’d say if you find the lesson useful and it’s something you see yourself saying/writing at some point just add the vocab to the list. It works the other way, too… your podcast lessons will stick better if you’re also skrittering the new words.
HSK is a nice guideline, but it’s also nice when you get to a new HSK list and you already know a bunch of words and can skip them. ^^

I did a combination of both. I started off going through the Remembering the Hanzi list and then switched over to the HSK lists. I was in China at the time and felt like while out and about I was seeing and learning a lot of new things, but not keeping track of them very well. What I ended up doing on Skritter was to continuously add from the HSK lists, but also created my own custom list which was comprised of all the other stuff I saw throughout the day.

Learning high frequency characters and words is great, but isn’t as motivating as connecting with things you’re actually seeing. For example, I’d add all kinds of low frequency words from a museum For example, 青瓷 (celadon), which is commonly used to describe the color of ceramics and pottery. Is it useful? Probably not, but it felt good to make the connection since I was seeing it written every where in that area of the museum. One of my favorites was throwing words from my visit to a planetarium into the mix.

Personally, I think students should be very careful adding words from lists that are either at or above their current level. These words don’t tend to stick and the more advanced the word list is, the less useful the words are. The really basic lists are okay, but as soon as you leave the beginner area, those words are somewhat arbitrarily chosen by someone who isn’t you.

This is my standard advice put very briefly (relevant for non-beginners since for beginners, what you need and what the lists will provide should be close to the same):

  1. Add words based on your communicative needs; this should be your main method
  2. Use word lists below your current level to plug gaps, not to expand vocabulary

Thanks so much for the advice, guys. I think I will have a bit more of an emphasis on characters I’m coming across through other sources now!

1 Like

I use the Pleco dictionary on android and installed the Oxford Chinese Dictionary addon. Now whenever I get words I’m unfamiliar with, I can look them up on Pleco and get example sentences/phrases for context.

I used to just blindly study HSK/TOCFL levels, but it got really boring, and I never felt any progress in actual reading. Now I convert novel chapters into wordlists and study from there. Much more fun!

I personally went from almost no Chinese to HSK 5 after 1 year and HSK 6 after 2 years. I personally took a hybrid approach preferencing things that I picked up myself:

  • Learn my own words when I find something useful (e.g. from an article, a movie, a conversation,…)
  • Learn HSK Lists when there is nothing else to learn

HSK vocab lists helped me to get on speed. I pushed the words into my mind and just tried to use them. It really helped. I believe words are very useful up to HSK 5. Most of the HSK 6 vocabuarly gets less relevant in daily conversations, but more important for reading rather complex articles.

Best wishes

I spent some more time thinking about this and adapted an article draft I already had written since before. My answer is still the same: learn mostly things you encounter when using the language, but use lists to supplement that, especially below your current level. Here’s the full article:

Which words you should learn and where to find them

Note that I wrote this entire article using only the 1000 most common words in English plus one (Chinese) to show how important it is to learn the right words.


@darkeichorn That is good to hear about the usefulness of HSK 5/6. At the moment if I come across a word and it’s HSK 5 or below, I’ll generally add it. If it’s HSK 6 or non HSK then I generally um and ar a bit before deciding. But I had been wondering how useful a guideline the levels were!

@SkritterOlle Thanks so much for that article. This rule of coming across things three times as a test for usefulness seems particularly relevant to me, as my tendency is to feel that by not adding a new word I’ve come across, I’m letting something valuable slide into oblivion. Incidentally, what happens with adding words at a very advanced level of Chinese, such as that which you have reached? Do you find that you just don’t really come across any new words to add in day to day life?

Oh, I coma across new words all the time, but most of the time I can guess what they mean from context or based on the component characters, so I very seldom look things up. I think word learning at an advanced level is more about converting passive knowledge to active ability. I might be able to read most texts without too much trouble, but I wouldn’t have be able to write those texts myself, using those rods. I could have written them to mean roughly the same thing using my own words, but that’s different. I have a lot to learn.

In English, I have read and write enough to have an intuitive feel for howe most words are used and I very rarely consult dictionaries when writing, but my Chinese falls short of this. I think that there will always be a gap, regardless of how much Chinese I study; there’s simply no end to learning about how words are used in a language which has little or no connection to other languages you know. I don’t mean to be discouraging, though, I just mean that the distance from “advanced learner” to “educated native speaker” is very big and you can spend as much time as you want trying to closet it.

1 Like

That is one thing that continually strikes me, is Mandarin’s complete lack of relationship to English, which is the only language I know. But even though it makes for difficulties, the complete foreignness of it is one of the reasons I persevere! It is encouraging to hear that context and component characters are enough to free one of dictionary dependence too.