How important is vocabulary when learning Chinese? A follow-up

In a previous article I discussed the connection between vocabulary acquisition and the growth of my overall Chinese ability. There, I stated that vocabulary acquisition was perhaps the most fundamental building block of my Chinese ability; and I described how a lack of vocabulary limited the development of my other skills. I still believe that is true… up to a point.

Now that my vocabulary has improved further – I have around 10,000 Pleco flashcards, plus an unknown number of additional words that I have passively acquired – I seem to be well over the hump when it comes to vocabulary, and vocabulary acquisition has become secondary part of my study.

What do I mean by over the hump? Two things.

First, it has become very easy to guess words from (1) their component characters, and (2) their context. For example, I recently came across the word 方向盘. At first, I had no idea what it meant. I did know that 方向 is direction and 盘is plate, but that on its own was still not that helpful. Then as I read on, I learned that the 方向盘 was being used to steer a car and it clicked; a 方向盘 is a steering wheel. Based on this process, I find that the more I read, the more new words I can simply infer without study. This made active study of vocabulary less critical.

Second, I have realized that there are a lot of words I simply do not need to know. For example, in English I have heard the term catalytic converter many times. What do I know about catalytic converters? I know they’re part of a car, I (think) they’re connected to the muffler and I know they are commonly stolen. Do I have any idea what one looks like or what it does? Could I explain what a one is to someone else? No way. However, based on my own assessment, I know all that I need to know about catalytic converters. Lately, I find that more and more words fall into this category, they are “nice to know” but not “need to know”.

So, when did this shift start to occur? Though it will probably differ from person-to-person, for me it was around 4,000 words. That was the point where I felt like I could catch the general meaning of a novel without the need to look up too many words, and I could read for pleasure and immerse myself in the story, as with an English novel.

That said there were big gaps in my comprehension. In the case of 撒哈拉的故事 (The Story of the Sahara) I remember reading that 三毛 (Sanmao) was out in the desert, and that her husband had became stuck (in quicksand? In mud? I still don’t actually know because I didn’t look it up) and at that point she thew something out to save him. It turns out it was the seat cushion from her car. I did learn that word via a Pleco flashcard and I don’t think I have ever seen it since.

So, at that point in my studies, I just absorbed what I could from the text as I read and filled in the rest with my imagination. It requires some degree of discipline to just go with the flow and not look up every unknown word, but it makes reading 100% more enjoyable.

In conclusion, I still believe that vocabulary acquisition is absolutely critical up to around 4,000 – 6,000 words, but once you reach that point you can take it easy and new vocabulary acquisition should take a backseat to other aspects of your study.

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