Chinese vocabulary acquisition tips: part I, background

When I started to learn Chinese, I made a series of assumptions about my journey at the outset. Some of these assumptions proved to be correct, and others proved to be inaccurate. The assumption that proved to be the most inaccurate was that a mastery of the 5,000-word Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) level 6 exam curriculum (the highest level offered at the time) represented a mastery of the Chinese language. I further assumed that because 5,000 words was mastery, I could achieve my desired level (conversational fluency) around the HSK 3 or 4 level, or between 600 and 1,200 words. For me, this meant being able to comfortably hold general conversations on non-specialized topics, understand some television (TV dramas) and read simple books like Harry Potter translated into Chinese.

Needless to say, I was nowhere near capable of these tasks after I passed the HSK 4. In reality, I was only minimally able to do these things at a 2,500-word vocabulary, which corresponds with HSK 5. I would say that only now, at around an 8,000-word vocabulary am I comfortable with them. Furthermore, I am aware that my comfort level will only increase as that vocabulary increases further. In short, even at 8,000 words I do not feel like I have reached a plateau in terms of the value of additional vocabulary.

This journey was important, because it led me to two key realizations:

  1. The HSK test structure can trick you into thinking that learning Chinese is quicker and easier than it actually is. This can actually be a good thing. If I had realized how difficult Chinese would be at the outset, I may never have started learning it. By the time I realized how much work it would really take to achieve my goals, I was already in too deep in to turn back.
  • Vocabulary is absolutely critical. If you want to learn intermediate-to-advanced-level Chinese, you’re going to need a lot of it (5,000 to 20,000+ words depending on your desired level). This means that the process that you use to learn vocabulary is extremely important.

Given the importance of vocabulary in the Chinese language. I have decided to post a few articles with my best tips for vocabulary acquisition!

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