Speaking Chinese is the best way to grow your Chinese vocabulary

It is hard to speak Mandarin Chinese. Very often students want to say something in Chinese, but can not find the right words and thus become tongue tight. They blame themselves for not learning more Chinese vocabulary, or not memorising all the vocabulary taught in their Chinese textbooks. Their thinking is, the size of their Chinese vocabulary is too small, as a result, they do not speak Mandarin Chinese well. Only if they can memorise all the new words taught in each lesson! However, this is a misperception. The logic should be reversed. 

If you memorised all the words in your textbooks, can you speak fluent Mandarin?

The answer is no. Even if you memorise all the news words listed in the book, you still can’t speak Mandarin Chinese well.

Let me use my own experience of learning English to explain.  

Many years ago, I firmly believed that the reason that I couldn't speak English well was because I did not have enough vocabulary. And the best way to increase the size of my vocabulary rapidly is to memorise large amount of new words in a short time. (My listening was also a problem. But that is another story.)

After browsing through book stores, one book stood out, English Vocabulary 10,000.  

“Wow, how wonderful! This book is the solution to my biggest problem!” I thought. I truly believed that, once I finished memorising all the words presented in this book, I would speak fluent English. Vocabulary would never be my obstacle any more. I could speak anything I wanted and I would always find the right words. 

I was a diligent student. I studied that book day and night, and had all the words in flash cards which I read silently to myself constantly. It took me four or five months to get through the book from cover to cover. I also asked my roommates to test me occasionally. And I could get everything right. I was so glad that I had achieved substantial amount of English vocabulary, and the next thing was simple, just started speaking good English. 

But, you guess it, I still couldn't speak English well. After saying “hello, how are you? I am fine. Thank you. My name is ..., and I am from ...” I still got tongue tight and my brain still could not find the words which could express what my thought was,  despite the effort I made to memorise all these words.

That taught me a lesson that memorising tons of new words did not help me become a better speaker. For those 10,000 words I tried so hard to memorise in such a short time, I forgot most of them just as quickly. But this was not the end of the story. 

I joined a class and started to practice speaking. Gradually, after some time, I could tell that I was speaking better English. And my active vocabulary bank got richer as well. Moreover, participating in a class was a lot more fun than memorising a vocabulary book by myself! 

Lesson learned here is that, even if you memorise all the vocabulary in your textbook, you still won’t be able to speak Chinese well if you don’t actively use them. 

Put your effort in speaking Chinese, and the size of your vocabulary will grow

Indeed, nobody is able to memorise all the vocabulary listed in their Chinese textbooks if they don’t use them often enough. We are humans, not machines. As splendid as our brain is, we are prone to forgetting the stuff we don’t use. 

Therefore, the focus should be on how to increase the opportunities and time for students to speak Chinese, and speak more Chinese. If students do not speak enough Chinese, do not genuinely communicate with people in Chinese, that will hinder the growth of their vocabulary.

Students should go beyond the narrow realm of daily greetings and self introduction. They should practice requesting information in Chinese, narrating an experience in Chinese, presenting an idea in Chinese, criticising a social ill in Chinese, or negotiating a solution in Chinese. When they practice expressing themselves in Chinese, they will be able to grow the size of their Chinese vocabulary. And they will have more fun doing so than simply memorising every word on their own.

Speaking Chinese is only part of the puzzle. Students will enjoy a bigger success when speaking activities are placed within the whole communication spectrum. 

This learning process is definitely slower than memorising tons of vocabulary mechanically. But it is more effective, enjoyable and long lasting. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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