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Those who learn Chinese as non-native speakers know that it takes time to figure out how to remember Chinese characters well. There’s a lot to cover when you learn Chinese vocabulary, meaning there’s also a lot to potentially forget. What characters make up the word? How do you pronounce it? What does it mean in different contexts?
There’s a lot to keep track of, but once you’ve learned some Chinese words, you should be able to answer these basic questions about them. But how do you keep yourself from eventually forgetting the word and its characteristics?
This question has to do with vocabulary retention, or how much of your vocabulary you’re able to remember over time. Your goal with your vocabulary retention should be to make quick, efficient progress by holding onto the words you’ve already learned while steadily learning new ones.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to remember Chinese characters by actively using your vocabulary. With active practice, they’ll be ready for action whenever you decide to read, write, listen to, or speak Mandarin.
One great way to work on your vocabulary retention is the use of comprehensible input.
The term “comprehensible input” refers to a method of language acquisition that uses learning materials at optimal difficulty levels for language learners.
Learners using comprehensible input interact with learning materials in which they understand most—but not all—of the vocabulary and grammar structures they encounter, hence it is “input” that is “comprehensible.”
The general idea is that learners using comprehensible input are able to unconsciously acquire new vocabulary and grammar structures through exposure while practicing the skills they’ve already acquired.
As for how comprehensible input addresses the question of how to remember Chinese characters: when you’re learning through comprehensible input, you’re constantly putting your old skills to active use.
Let’s say you’re using comprehensible input to learn English as a second language and you come across this sentence: “I speak two yerpids: English and Chinese.” You don’t know what “yerpids” means, but you can probably guess from context that it means something close to “languages.” This is because you already know the words “I,” “speak,” “two,” “English,” etc., and understand the basic structure of the sentence. Deciphering the unknown word “yerpids” from its context helps you simultaneously practice using what you already know and acquire new knowledge.
To put comprehensible input to work in your Chinese studies, you need to find the appropriate materials. If you are at a low-intermediate level, try exposing yourself to reading and listening materials at the high-intermediate level. If you’re at a high-intermediate level, use materials from the low-advanced level.
As a rough guide, you should be able to understand about 90–98% of the material (you should adjust within this range to find the difficulty level that works best for you). If you find that most of the Chinese articles and blogs on the internet are too difficult for you right now, graded readers are a great resource, and there are many fantastic Chinese graded readers on the market right now.
Finally, the more comprehensible input you absorb through your reading and listening, the better. To help keep you engaged, find articles, podcasts, and videos that genuinely interest you. Since you should understand most of what you’re reading or listening to, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find material that you truly enjoy.
Comprehensible input is great for gradually acquiring new knowledge while accumulating valuable practice with what you’ve already learned. However, comprehensible input isn’t enough for targeting specific words and grammar structures that you need to practice or review.
This is where spaced repetition software can come in to dramatically up your vocabulary retention.
As your vocabulary grows and the words you learn become more specialized, you might run into two issues when you think about how to remember Chinese characters:
Spaced repetition software handles both of these issues particularly well.
Spaced repetition software, when integrated into a platform like Hack Chinese, offers learners something like a personal coach for their vocabulary. It monitors the words that are hard for them to remember, and it suggests that learners review these critical words with Chinese flashcards at exactly the moment they're most at risk of forgetting them. Essentially, it identifies weak spots in your vocabulary and helps you strengthen them.
Spaced repetition software also ensures you have a stable ground of vocabulary from which to draw when practicing comprehensible input. Comprehensible input requires a good base of active vocabulary whose characters you can easily recognize when you see them. Spaced repetition software trains you to recognize characters faster and more accurately.
All of these qualities make spaced repetition software a great companion for comprehensible input in Chinese study plans. Spaced repetition techniques can be scaled up to any number of words, and they furthermore target the material you need to review no matter how frequently or infrequently they appear in your other learning materials.
Hopefully, this article has been able to teach you more about how to remember Chinese characters with comprehensible input and spaced repetition software. Together, comprehensible input and spaced repetition software provide you with a sturdy structure to support your vocabulary retention goals. Their individual strengths cover the other’s weaknesses and allow you to study Chinese as efficiently as possible, make steady progress, and hold onto the ground you’ve already gained.
Integrate comprehensible input and spaced repetition software like Hack Chinese into your Mandarin study plan to ensure you remember your Chinese vocabulary months and even years into the future.