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How I Memorized 600 Chinese Words in 2 Weeks

How I Memorized 600 Chinese Words in 2 Weeks

Three weeks before my HSK 4 exam, I roped my teacher into helping me prepare for my test (rather than focusing on the conversation based lessons we had focused on before). I had worked through several Memrise desks geared towards the HSK tests, worked through four levels of practice tests and had a year of Chinese under my belt.

But my teacher had a book that I did not have – one I did not even learn of in my research online (and I did quite a bit of research when preparing for my HSK exam).

This book included the official exams administered by Hanban the year before and in this book, there was the “official” 1,200 word list for the level of the exam I was planning on sitting.

She began quizzing me on the words in the list and we worked through letters A-B. It quickly became an absolute torture.

I only knew about half of the words.

And when she went back through to review the other half with me at the end of the lesson, I only remembered about 50% of what she had just told me.

Things were not looking good.

It turns out, that the vocabulary lists I had studied on Memrise weren’t exactly what I needed and I was not at all where I needed to be in terms of “test vocabulary”.

A week later I received a scanned copy of the word list by email and I immediately printed it out, going through all 19 pages, highlighting the words I didn’t know after work that evening. The next day I went back through the list, defining the vocabulary that was unfamiliar to me, doing a quick tally of how many more words I needed to learn.

In total, there were anywhere from 9 to 43 words per page that I either hadn’t seen before or that hadn’t stuck with me. Estimating the average at 30 per page, that left me with about 570 words I needed to learn in two weeks.

Needless to say, I panicked.


Because on top of needing to learn to recognize (and even memorize) the character for each word for the reading/writing portions of the test, I also needed to learn its associated sound for the listening portion (meaning I needed to memorize the pinyin for the character as well). This essentially doubled the amount of vocabulary study I needed to do. When I calculated it out based on the 15 days I had left, that was 76 words per day (if you count learning the pronunciation and the character as two separate words, which I do).

Once the initial “oh no, what am I going to do?” wore off, I took a deep breath, sat down and got to work. I had already registered for the test and there was no turning back.

How I Learnt Nearly 600 Chinese Words in Just Two Weeks

I decided to take a diversified approach to my vocabulary study for a few reasons. The first is that the different contexts would help me better remember the word. The more times you see a word pop up in different places, the more likely your brain is to file it away as “important” and thus, the more likely you are to recall it when you hear it again. The second reason is that varied study methods would keep my routine interesting reducing the risk of both burnout and getting bored.

So here are a few of the ways that I approached my studies:

1 // I printed out the vocabulary list so that I had every single word I needed all in one place. For me, this is a really big deal. It’s actually why I made my Russian alphabet printout.

2 // I worked through the list, highlighting words I didn’t know, making sure to include any words I was even moderately unsure of in my vocabulary list. I then worked with my tutor to verify the definitions I had pulled from Google Translate. I want to point out that I looked up each of the words myself before reviewing them with my teacher. I think that this is an important step – the process helped me retain a few of the words I researched early on.

3 // I created a Memrise deck with the words that I still needed to work on and nothing else. All the words I had a good familiarity with I was already getting in the other decks I was using (I still continued to use those other decks in addition to the new deck I created because I truly believe that the more times you’re exposed to a word, the more likely you are to remember it).

4 // I wrote out flashcards for the words I was unfamiliar with by hand and used them when I didn’t feel like using an electronic device. I also did this because it gave me a new context in which I could get exposure to the new vocabulary. And there are studies proving that writing things by hand help you retain information. Like I said in the point above, the more times and places you see a word, the better chance you’ll have of it sticking.

5 // I continued to work through practice tests so that I could see the words in the context of the exam. It can be easy to recognize a word when working through flashcards, but when you see it elsewhere, you may struggle to remember the meaning. I didn’t want any surprises on the exam.

6 // I took breaks when needed. Cramming for two weeks straight is no easy feat. When I started to make silly mistakes in my review, I stepped away from studying so that I didn’t burn out.

7 // I frequently varied the way I studied vocabulary. I didn’t just review on Memrise, just use my flashcards, or just pour over my word list printout. I kept all three on hand so that I could rotate them at random to keep myself on my toes.

8 // I continued to work with my tutor, reviewing the material and using the new vocabulary to study new grammar points.

9 // I convinced M to quiz me at random when he wasn’t busy. Your study partner doesn’t need to be able to speak the language you’re learning if you give them the right tool to test you (I gave him the pinyin and English meanings of the words and asked him to quiz me on either).

10 // I wrote out every single question and answer I got incorrect on my practice tests. This was a long and tedious task, but it was so worth it. I found that I understood the questions and responses so much better while I was writing them than I did while I was taking the test.

11 // I didn’t try to multitask whenever I sat down to study. I focused 100% on learning the new vocabulary. No music, no Facebook, no interruptions (at least, those that I could prevent).

12 // I stopped looking at any resources that weren’t directly related to my exam.

13 // I made an audio recording with every word on the test and listened to it while I was in my car.

14 // I continued to study grammar on the side because those new vocabulary words occasionally made an appearance in this part of my study as well.

In total, I spent several hours a day studying the new vocabulary, but the longest block of time I studied was somewhere around 2 hours. The reason I had one long block of time was to do one practice test per day (which was over an hour long). Aside from that, most of my study was broken up into 10-30 minutes intervals throughout the day.

As I worked through my studies, I found that not every single one of the above methods really worked for me. Once I realized this, I began to focus on the more productive tasks, hoping to make my study time that much more effective.

So what didn’t work for me?

3 // Looking at the vocabulary list after I initially went through it to find the words I didn’t know. My vocabulary list printout initially helped me pick out the words I still needed to study, but after that, looking at it didn’t do much for me. There were just too many words per page and it became increasingly difficult for me to really focus on learning new vocabulary using this tool. Flashcards worked much better for me.

2 // Varying my routine too much while preparing for an exam in a short period of time. I found that there is such thing as too much variation. When I used a ton of different study methods, I struggled to get far enough into the list with any one method and since I was aiming to learn a high number of new words, I found myself cutting back on the number of methods I was using and focusing on a select few so that I could work with them more completely.

1 // Listening to the audio recording that I made of the unfamiliar vocabulary. This tool could likely be a great asset for those who learn best by hearing new vocabulary, but for me, it just didn’t do much. I found that I spaced out and started to think about other things within a few minutes of starting up the recording. I was never really able to focus on it enough to find it useful. If I had the time to develop an audio resource that was more interactive (like Pimsleur or Michel Thomas), it might have worked better for me, but hearing the new vocabulary along with their meanings did nothing for me.

What worked the best for me

3 // Practice tests. The practice tests gave everything I was learning a context, and context really is everything. Plus, I quickly realized how well I had learnt the new vocabulary based on whether or not I was able to recognize it as a part of an exam question.

2 // Memrise flashcards. I love that Memrise decides how often you need to see a word based on the number of times you get it wrong. This immediately made it easier for me to focus on the vocabulary terms I struggled with the most because they were what popped up the most during my time spend on Memrise. Plus, Memrise sets are nice and short (10 words max for new words and 50 words max for review), so I could quickly do a study session at any time.

See Also

1 // Eliminating anything and everything unrelated to my exam and really focusing in on the task at hand. As many of you following my blog for some time might have realized, I am a bit of a dabbler. While I am better at some languages than others, I tend to enjoy learning the basics of several languages over really focusing on just one. I also like to work with a ton of resources at once, which isn’t always the best way to go about things.

Why this was difficult (but not impossible) for me

In an effort to make a big change – especially since I never got as far as I would have liked with Italian and German – I decided to spend 2015 focused on learning Chinese. While I did give in and take a few Russian lessons towards the end of the year, I succeeded in giving most of my attention to the Chinese language (which was really quite a feat for me). I have to say that I would very likely do this again for another language as it did a lot for my ability in Chinese – it’s now my strongest foreign language aside from French. At the same time, however, I have to admit that it was also quite difficult for me. I definitely came close to burnout on several occasions and I even found myself a bit bored every so often (which led to me taking longer breaks than I considered ideal).

When preparing for the exam, I had to even take this up a notch, eliminating all of my “fun” and “conversational” Chinese resources in order to focus on my test-based and more “academic” tools. It was certainly a test for me in more than one way.

But, I did it. I survived it. And while it was hard, it was neither impossible nor as terrible as I thought it might be. Especially when I see the difference it made for my ability to use and understand the language (and pass my test).

As a side note, I plan on going back to dabbling again (for the moment at least), as I’ve alluded to in my 2016 goal post. I really want to learn both Korean and Russian, so until I decide which I’d like to focus on, I’m working on the two simultaneously.

And now back to Chinese.

When the time came for the exam, I was a bit nervous. Even though I had done what I could to prepare, I worried that it wasn’t enough. And, of course, as I sat in the test room taking the exam, I doubted myself. I felt like I was answering everything incorrectly (for the first portion, at least). When I finished the exam, I was sure that I had either failed or passed by a small margin. I really didn’t feel strongly about my how I had done either way.

And then of course, the waiting came. Results for the HSK exam are posting between 30 to 45 days after the exam is completed. That means that I had more than a month to think way too much about how I did. I found myself cringing each time I’d click on the “test results” link, quickly navigating away to a new tab so that I wouldn’t see the results right away if they were posted.

But it turns out, all that doubt was just in my head. I should have had more confidence in the preparation that I had done.

In fact, I not only passed the HSK4 exam, but I even scored almost 60 points higher than what I was aiming for.

It made all the work I put in feel that much more rewarding.

In Conclusion

Before I close out this post, I’d like to mention something really important. Because I studied a large number of words in a short period of time, I was worried that I’d have to relearn them again at some point. I thought that my experience would be akin to my experiences of cramming in high school – the information stays in my head long enough to pass the exam than immediately departs the moment the exam is finished.

But that wasn’t my experience.

Because of the focus and multiple context approach I gave my study, I actually still remember a really significant percentage of the 600 words I learnt in those two weeks. There are, of course, some words that need a bit more reminding than others, but overall, a significant portion of what I learnt stuck with me.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend this method of study for the long term. It is extremely exhausting and time consuming, and while it works, I don’t see it as a good model for an extended period of time. In fact, I can see it quickly becoming quite counterproductive.

Plus, memorizing a ton of vocabulary doesn’t help you learn a language. There is so much more to learning a language than rote memorization of words (like how to use those words in a sentence, which are appropriate for which contexts, and how to communicate with other speakers naturally).

[Tweet “There is so much more to learning a language than rote memorization of words.”]

So would I suggest this method of study? Perhaps, but only if absolutely necessary. I think that there are an infinite number of ways to study a language that are far more effective (and useful), but if you ever find yourself needing to learn a lot of words in a short period of time, it is good to know that it’s possible.

Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste

What about you? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you needed to quickly learn a language? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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