Chinese vocabulary acquisition tips: part II, the difficulty curve

One of the things that I found most interesting about Chinese vocabulary acquisition is that the difficulty fluctuates over time as your vocabulary increases. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to get easier or harder in a linear fashion. Instead, it’s more like a bell curve with part of the left-hand side removed (see diagram below). In my experience, vocabulary acquisition starts off at a medium-high difficulty, increases to a high difficulty and then reduces to a low difficulty. I will describe those three phases in more detail below.

Diagram: Chinese Vocabulary Acquisition Curve

Low-Tier Vocabulary (1 – 300 words): Medium-High Difficulty.

The first 300 words that you learn should probably be the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) level 1 and level 2 words.  These are practical, every-day words that have a good amount of utility. They are relatively straightforward to understand, and to use. The downside is that these 300 words contain 347 new unique characters, which amounts to 1.16 new characters per word. This is a higher density of new characters than you will experience at any other point in your Chinese learning journey, and this density of new characters is the main reason why these first 300 words are difficult to learn. A character is the basic unit of information in Chinese, so it is often difficult (though not impossible) to guess the meaning of a character from its component parts. As a result, the only way to learn most of these words is via rote memorization. There is no shortcut. The good news is that if you develop a study habit, you can acquire all of these low-tier words in about a month (at a rate of 10 words per day).

Mid-Tier Vocabulary (301 – 2,500 words): High Difficulty.

For me, these words included the HSK3-HSK5 vocabulary lists. They are similar to the first 300 low-tier words with a couple of key differences:

  1. These words are substantially lower in new character density than the words at the previous level, at 0.61 new characters per word. That means you will see characters you already know from the previous levels in these words that do not need to be re-learned. In other words, in the average new word you see at this level, you will probably only need to learn about half of the characters (vs 100% in the previous level).
  2. The number of unique characters you learn will increase by a lot in absolute terms. Consequently, the more characters you know, the more they start to look like each other and the more difficult they are to tell apart. This was the main source of difficulty for me in learning Chinese vocabulary at all levels, but especially at this stage. The subtle differences in characters can be really difficult to notice, especially without adequate context.
  3. These words tend describe less tangible things than the previous 300, so it can be difficult to initially grasp their meaning (ex: 甚至 which means “to some extent” vs 狗 for dog).

High-Tier Vocabulary (2,501+ words): Low Difficulty.

You have finally hit the dip in the roller-coaster! It’s hard to define exactly how this part of your journey will go, because this is when I dropped the HSK lists and starting learning words from books, but at this point new character density drops like a rock. At around a 5,000 word vocabulary, I would estimate that you only see a new character in one out of every five words or so. This means that learning new words involves guessing what a combinations of characters you already know means. For example, kangaroo = 袋鼠 or “pocket mouse”. If you already know 袋 and 鼠 it’s much easier to remember that pocket + mouse = kangaroo than having to memorize two completely new characters and then remember that the combination of them means kangaroo. At this point, learning vocabulary became extremely fun for me!

In conclusion, if you’re struggling with learning vocabulary in the low and mid tiers, just know that it becomes much, much easier as you go on, even fun! Just stick with it and I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.

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