Learning vocabulary by building blocks

So, every book or class I’ve ever had on any foreign language has emphasized rote learning of vocabulary. Surely there’s a better way?

I’m thinking, every language builds up many of its complex words by stringing together simpler words or word parts. In Chinese, this is particularly obvious, because each word part has its own character. Why not capitalize on this tendency?

I’m refining my vocabulary drill computer program, and I’ve started to stick in syllables that I encounter a lot, even if they aren’t often used as words in their own right. I give each prefix a higher priority than the derived words, so it gets drilled on more, and thus learned first.

For example:

3 kǎo verify
3.3 kǎo lǜ think over
3.2 kǎo qǔ pass entrance exam education
3.1 kǎo shì take test education

I figure this will help me learn, and also help me to guess at words I hear, or to make up words that might make sense to a native listener.

I’m thinking now I should give all my single-character words extra high priority automatically.

Am I on the right track? Thoughts?

No.

You should focus on the spoken language and forget about characters for a while. The building blocks in Chinese are actually mostly two syllable words.

You should consider studying Chinese formally in a class. If you don’t, you are unlikely to learn much Chinese because very soon you will always have other things to do. The classic story is the person who comes here, put off learning Chinese ‘until I get settled’, discovers that one can get by with survival taxi Chinese and English, never takes a chinese class, and ten years later is sheepishly saying how little Chinese he knows. It will almost certainly happen to you if you do not start studying Chinese in your first three months here.

Short answer: No.

Yes, there’s reading level-appropriate material, or learning the vocabulary and reviewing some sample sentences which contain that vocabulary as translated so that one can also learn the language’s syntax without having to drill a grammatical metalanguage into someone’s head. But this stuff already exists (here, here, here, and here, and other places, most of which suck).

Really, this is only an effective method when you have reliable cognate mapping. That is, if I keep my Latin and Greek roots in mind, I could speed-read through a French dictionary, pick up the morphology, and build up a massive vocabulary. I’m prepping to do just that for German now. Chinese has very little reliable overlap in this regard (無、可、水、丁基), but not enough to really learn the terms that matter to life in general.

While you may be right that the history of the language has evolved as you describe it evolving, my personal belief is that you’re much, much better off going about it backwards. Learn complex terms first, and then parse them into simpler terms, and check to see if they also match up to complex terms: What Chinese strings do the terms train station (火車站), metro station (捷運站), and bus station (公車站) have in common?

You’ll probably never infer the meanings of words like 吹牛, or 拍馬屁, terms that are conversational in Mandarin, by analyzing the characters individually.

If you’re really intent on trying this for Mandarin, then the only text that I could recommend is the print equivalent to this website.

It’s incorrect to call the first character in a word a “prefix.” The language isn’t built that way.

I also don’t know where 考 ever means “verify.” I didn’t see an entry for that meaning in the biggest monolingual archive of Chinese words in the world, so I wouldn’t start going around saying “考” to people whenever you meant “verify,” especially if your tones aren’t pristine.

You’ll have to PM me the details of this program if you want any further input from me about this stuff, but it sounds like you’re making a lot of the same mistakes that I made in my first five or six months of dabbling with this stuff on a computer. The computer is only helpful when you have a clear direction and project.

Talk. To real people. About topics that interest you, which contain vocabulary you need to learn.
Read. Actual prose. About topics that interest you, which contain rich language and the actual syntax of the language.

That’s how you acquire. Massive comprehensible input. Interesting input a bonus.

At the risk of distracting and confusing the OP, the classical glosses for 考 include 問(ask) and 稽 (check, examine, investigate). This is the sense of 考 in 考證, which refers to the methodology of philological inquiry based on (textual) evidence. See Benjamin Elman’s books on this. Also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_learning.

I think this is where the gloss of ‘verify’ for kao is coming from.

But this kind of historical approach is not just absolutely useless for the beginning learner of modern Mandarin, but also harmful. It will mislead you, waste your time, and distract you from the real work of doing what Ironlady suggests.

Forget you ever read this post!

I agree. I don’t see how analyzing the character ‘德’ is going to conceptually clarify the meaning of 德國. Even when the morphemes align, one major defect of focusing on the first character like this is that it ignores all of those words (a) that are more common and valuable to know as a beginner, and (b) where the character in question isn’t the first one.

Some of them are on the HSK list: 參考 (cānkǎo) (reference, to reference), 思考 (sī​kǎo) (to think, to reflect)

Plus, I’m often doing more un-abbreviation than I’m doing actual translation. Nothing about ‘高’ and ‘考’ would lead me to think that it abbreviates 高等學校招收新生的考試.

The problem is some characters, like for example 可, have an almost infinite number of collocations. You’d exhaust yourself with this method and get tired of learning Chinese before you got anywhere.

‘可’ has some morphological alignments that we could align with the suffixes ‘~ible’ and ‘~able’ in English, so that could bolster a certain understanding of many terms in Chinese. But I don’t believe that adjectives are a universal word class, so I find it much more helpful to treat most instances as abbreviations of 可以, 可能, etc., especially in relative clauses.

But if you know what 依靠 means, 可靠 is not a big stretch. Even the definition submits that much: “可以信賴依靠。” That would be helpful, for me, at least.

As of yesterday, I have the entire 漢語大詞典 and two other huge Chinese dictionaries on my computer now, and I extracted all of their entries. There are 2099 entries (out of 593217 at this point) that start with ‘可.’ A good chunk have got to be 成語 (I didn’t check.), so there are probably fewer. If he took the time to just extract the word-length entries and learn their definitions, and to pick out the full verbs that adjoin it, like I showed in the example above, that could contribute a lot to his base vocabulary. He’d still need some sample sentences to clear up fuzzy contexts, but that is still very doable in small chunks (like twenty per day for 105 days).

I remember being seventeen and cruising through my Spanish dictionary, surfing through the portions with prefixes and suffixes, only studying the false cognates and unrelated terms in them, and resting on my morphological knowledge of English (or Latin and Greek roots, rather) to cover the rest. If there’s any chance of doing that for Mandarin, ‘無’ and ‘可’ are two of only a few places where that would be possible.

The trick would be disambiguating a bit, like ‘可口’ (delectible, to force the morpheme alignment) in the terribly clever 可口可樂.

Then again, I’m a little burnt out describing how he could do it, so maybe you’re right.

There are plenty of suffixes. 度, 化, and 性, just to name a few.

You realize this is precisely the approach most Taiwanese take to “learning English”. How much good does all that memorized vocabulary do for their fluency? How attractive do you find their language, as a native speaker?

On its own, or with supplemental reading? I used it pretty effectively as a prop to read through lots of foreign-language material without constantly looking up terms for clarification, back when I learned Spanish on my own, and now as I learn German on my own, but results may vary, as may effectiveness by language pair.

I don’t think anyone is explicitly endorsing a “背單字” approach. I’m retraining one now out of the psychology that having read a lot of individual words once for a week, then never again, amounts to a strong, usable vocabulary.

Edit: Hokwongwei, a few others that might be immensely useful at first are common endings like 學, 論, 者, 工, and 學家/家.

[quote=“ehophi”]I agree. I don’t see how analyzing the character ‘德’ is going to conceptually clarify the meaning of 德國.
[/quote]

Well, I think some of the names for foreign countries are quite good translations. De2guo2 for example is pretty clearly derived from the sound of ‘Deutschland’ and also means something the ‘Powerful/Virtuous Country’, which makes sense since it was a model for Japan and China. Mei3guo2 sounds like ‘America’ and means the ‘Beautiful Country’. France (Faguo) means the ‘Lawful/Ordered Country’ and sounds like ‘France’. etc.

Still, I think this is not a good approach.

[quote]
Plus, I’m often doing more un-abbreviation than I’m doing actual translation. Nothing about ‘高’ and ‘考’ would lead me to think that it abbreviates 高等學校招收新生的考試.[/quote]

Good example.

Am I the only one who thinks that the Taiwanese English level is relatively good for a country whose people do not speak any European language and without a history of western colonialization?

I have found many people in Taiwan who can speak fairly good English. Shop keepers etc. would not speak English in any other country, neither.

What kind of English level do you expect? That of Scandinavian countries?

Am I the only one who thinks that the Taiwanese English level is relatively good for a country whose people do not speak any European language and without a history of western colonialization?

I have found many people in Taiwan who can speak fairly good English. Shop keepers etc. would not speak English in any other country, neither.

What kind of English level do you expect? That of Scandinavian countries?[/quote]

This depends on two things: Who are you talking to, and who are you comparing them with? If you’re talking about conversational English, I think Taiwan is actually pretty good, especially compared to Japan, Korea, and most of China. If you’re talking about being able to write a formal business document with few enough grammar mistakes for someone to take it seriously… Or the English level of government agencies… :-/

[quote=“Hokwongwei”]
This depends on two things: Who are you talking to, and who are you comparing them with? If you’re talking about conversational English, I think Taiwan is actually pretty good, especially compared to Japan, Korea, and most of China. If you’re talking about being able to write a formal business document with few enough grammar mistakes for someone to take it seriously… Or the English level of government agencies… :-/[/quote]

Just my examples: I could speak in English in the hospital, in the immigration agency, to my professors at university, to fellow students and also to some random people on the street.

I am currently in Japan, and nobody, and I really mean nobody can speak any English here. Even in Germany, where I come from, few people would speak English (but there the situation is a bit different: Most (young) people can speak English but don’t want to).

Which non-english natives can write natural sounding formal business documents? If I were in a company, I would hire a native for that every time. I can spot a formal German document written by a non-native after two sentences, even if that person lived in Germany for 20 years.
Actually, even natives do not write at a level which I see required for that kind of documents. Most natives have no idea about correct grammar and make spelling mistakes all the time.

Unfortunately, most Taiwanese companies think “chabuduo” is good enough. Seriously, check out the defense ministry website in English and tell me it’s not an embarrassment on the nation. It means that the collective cognition of the English language is so poor that people don’t realize how absurd such a website is. A defense is only as good as its weakest point.

(PS, they’re now two ministers behind the times. Updates, guys!)

That “Year Month Day” at the end is a nice touch!

The short of the above issue is that they refuse to pay English proofreaders any amount of money. You should see the offers that people send me.

They ask: “Will you proofread a ton of pages at about NT$20 per page.”
I say: “Uh, no. Maybe you should offer that to a broke college student, or you could pay an English speaker to write your English textbook correctly the first time.”