top of page

8/10 The secret to learning Chinese vocabulary - Go from forgetting to remembering in 1 easy step

Who doesn't like to go to the beach?

The sun, the sand, the sound of the birds, the smell of the sea?

Relaxing, isn't it?

I'd like to know though, have you ever been to one of those beaches with sea sponges scattered over the sands?

I remember going to Greece one summer and being terribly excited to find this sea sponge washed up on the beach.

I decided, rather naïvely for those of you who know a thing or two about sea sponges, to take it home and use it in the shower that very evening.

Besides the fact the sponge had a distinctly pungent odour of the sea, I will always remember taking it into the bathroom, filling the sink with water and dropping the sponge in.

And what happened next was totally not what I was expecting.

You see, in learning, we often liken the brain to a sponge. Particularly a child's brain. And this is because of it's ability to soak up knowledge. Whatever you throw at it, it just soaks it in.

But somehow things don't happen quite like that when we are older.

It's annoying, isn't it?

Because, you see, that summer day standing over the bathroom sink in Greece, my sea sponge did nothing but float.

And when I pushed it under, it bobbed straight back up.

So I held it under the water for a bit.

And it still bobbed straight back up.

I started scratching my head.

What is going on?

Aren't sponges supposed to soak up water?

Isn't that their thing?

I mean, had I inadvertently picked up the world's first water repellent sponge?

But think about it a moment, isn't that how your brain feels most days when you are trying to learn and remember something new?

Almost knowledge-repellent!

And so I then found myself, for at least the next hour, standing over that bathroom sink, gently massaging that sponge under the water until slowly it released its hardness and finally reached that point where it could absorb water 'en masse'!

Once I had reached that point, all I had to do was squeeze and the sponge did the rest.

Which leads to the question: what if we could get our brains to such a point?

To a point where we would literally soak in knowledge.

What I'm about to reveal to you will make it possible for you to do just that.

The way we program our brain can directly influence how we remember in the long term

You see, when it comes to the brain itself, it is constantly on the go, and to maintain that it needs a lot of energy. This also means that the brain can take an economical approach towards what it takes in. After all, if it can save itself time and energy, it will.

A classic way it does this is when it comes to learning.

How we learn can directly influence how we remember and how we use the knowledge we take in both in the short term and the long term.

Take for example the concept of cramming for exams.

It happens all around the world.

Exams are an integral part of education and learning.

And students everywhere are paying top dollar to cram for them and pass them.

But think about this.

What percentage of all that information you spent all those hours cramming for do you still remember days, weeks, even months after the exam?

Now why is that?

The answer is quite obvious but one few of us even see.

Just go back to when you were cramming for the exam and forcing yourself to keep studying even when you were ready to collapse or way past your bedtime.

What were you constantly telling yourself?

Hang in there! You just need to pass the exam.

And therein lies the secret.

Think about it like this.

You go to the store. You have lots of things to buy and then you need to carry all that shopping home.

Ever tried carrying about ten bags of shopping down the street?

I certainly have!

And all the way home, as the bags cut into your fingers, your shoulders are crying in pain, what are you telling yourself?

You just need to get to the front door!

And the second you get there, what do you do?

Walk in and continue carrying those ten bags all around the house and up and down the stairs a few times for good measure?


You get the point.

Just the idea is ludicrous.

Those bags are all dropped exactly at the front door!

And exactly the same happens with all that information you crammed.

It all got left in the exam room.

Because in effect, in repeatedly telling yourself, 'I need this for the exam', you are basically programming your brain to hold onto that information through to the exam but not beyond.

After which most of it gets dumped, just like those bags of shopping left at the front door.

So just be aware of this next time you are cramming for exams.

How do we make our brains knowledge-absorbent?

However the initial question remains: how do we turn our brain into the knowledge-absorbent sponge we always wished it would be?

Let me share with you another core technique I used when I challenged myself to learn Chinese in just one year.

And it has everything to do with vocabulary!

How many of you have difficulty learning vocabulary?

Let me know in the comments!

When I started out learning Chinese in a year, the number one thing I wanted to avoid was having to memorize vocabulary lists.

I also wasn't too taken with the notion of labeling everything and having post-it notes flying round my house like fluorescent butterflies.

I felt there had to be a better way, but I wasn't immediately sure what it was so I got on with the other elements of learning a language which I was already clear on how I wanted to proceed, namely focusing on my ears.

In focusing on listening and opening up my ears to actually hear the language, I also stumbled on one of the best ways of learning vocabulary out there. And the fact it was combined into something I was already doing made it even better!

And so my number one way for learning vocabulary actually came through sound.

How do I mean?

Let's go back to the original technique.

Namely to condition your ears and open them up to hearing the Chinese language.

On a practical level I would recommend any language learner to be exposing themselves to at least five or six hours of the spoken language every single day.

Many would call that passive listening, and to an extent it is, however 'passive' doesn't give it its full justification.

Because in listening five to six hours a day, while primarily it will be in the background, you also need to be aware of it, because from time to time you need that sensation of your ears picking up, your ears noticing something which sounds interesting and you allowing yourself a minute or two to focus in and actually listen to what is being said.

A key benefit to this type of exercise, in addition to what I already discussed in article 2 and article 3, is the fact it takes the focus off understanding and in doing so removes that fear and blockage many people experience each time they hear a word they do not understand.

This element alone can increase your comprehension levels considerably, because when we get blocked we actually stop listening and miss half of what is being said. In learning to override those blockades we actually open up our ears to hearing everything and the percentage of how much we understand also increases.

And all that without learning a single word of vocabulary!

This stage is exactly that process of submerging the sun-hardened sea sponge under the water and gently massaging it to gradually remove the hardness and make it ready for absorption.

Discover the ultimate method for learning vocabulary in Chinese

Another benefit in opening up your ears to fully hear the language you are learning also lies in the fact it makes it much easier to learn vocabulary.

But there is a twist to this.

And the real secret lies in sitting back and being rather chill about everything.

You see, it is human nature to want to understand everything. We don't want to be kept in the dark. It's not nice!

This is particularly true when we are learning a new language.

So what I decided when I started out learning Chinese actually went against the grain of all of this.

I actually refused to let myself go look up every word I didn't understand.

Now why would I do that?

And it all came down to one word: NEED

Exploring the concept of NEED in language learning as a way to optimize memory

What does need possibly have to do with learning vocabulary in Chinese or learning vocabulary in any language for that matter?

For a first level of insight, go back and listen to the pilot episode of my podcast: Learning and the Fat Issue: Are we becoming intellectually obese?

Too often in learning, and too often in language learning, particularly when it comes to learning vocabulary, our intake is significantly higher than our output.

The balance is constantly off.

Ridiculously so.

And if likened to a food scenario, we would be looking at the majority of that excess knowledge being metaphorically stored as fat, pretty much just sitting there, pretty much just doing nothing.

This in itself is a key reason why so much of what we learn is either forgotten or just plain irretrievable.

And it is also why, from the very beginning of challenging myself to learn Chinese in just one year, I didn't want any of what I was learning converting itself to metaphorical fat.

I wanted to create a lean mean learning machine!

Now if any of you know anything about fitness and training, you will know that the key to fitness is our diet.

And what we eat can directly influence what we crave.

We eat junk, we crave junk.

And no matter how hard we work out, if we don't feed our body properly, it will not work in our favour.

So to optimize fitness we need to pretty much programme our bodies to crave what it really needs, something altogether possible through optimal nutrition and healthy eating.

And once in that cycle of good nutrition and balanced fitness, we can fully absorb, process and use everything we put into it.

But none of that works unless we first put in place that healthy cycle of need.

Learning actually functions on a very similar level.

You remember what I told you about cramming for exams and the tendency for our brain to dump everything once the exam has passed?

If we want learning to be long term and go beyond the immediate need to pass an exam, we need to create a cycle of need directly in our learning program.

How to create a cycle of NEED directly into your learning program

How did I create a cycle of NEED when it came to learning Chinese vocabulary?

First, I systematically refused to look up all the words I didn't know. I just let myself hear them without worrying about whether or not I understood them.

And then something really interesting started to happen.

The more I listened and the more I listened in to things, the more I started hearing the same words.

I didn't understand them, but somehow knew they were the same words.

And still I did not open my big Chinese dictionary.

No, I decided to let things start to smolder.

And as I listened even more smoke would start to appear.

Still I didn't touch my dictionary.

And then there would be a crackling and a spark of fire.

You see, this is where that concept of need comes in.

In holding back on that urge I started to create a sense of need.

And in creating a sensation of NEED, you are essentially telling your brain you need this, this is something of value, this is something which will help you function better.

Once I had heard the word (and wanted to look it up) about ten times, then, and only then would I finally go and look it up.

And you know what I found each time?

It was always a word I had been missing in my day-to-day conversations.

Every single time!

How was that even possible?

If you've ever done any research or reading into word frequencies, you will know, for example that up to 80% of any language is made up of around 600 words.

By looking up only the words I had repeatedly heard and were really starting to annoy my curiosity, not only was I creating that need, I was also invariably learning the most frequent and hence the most used words.

This is extremely important, because if you think about your own language, we often have several different words to denote the same things.

And while they may mean the same thing, their use may be very different depending on where you are, who you are talking to and similar issues. Some of them may also be relatively infrequent, or highly literary.

The difficulty is though, when you are starting out in a language and trying to make conversation, frequently you are faced with things you want to say but for which you don't have the vocabulary.

And here again, I would resist the urge to look up the missing word.

Because in looking up a word, you are faced with all that list of possibilities, but being a total newbie in the language, we have no way of knowing which word is the most useful to learn or use.

This is why both in language production and language listening I avoided looking words up left right and center.

And in doing so, along with prioritising the listening, things came full circle and I actually built a core group of basic vocabulary which native speakers used on a day-to-day basis.

Some may say this method would take a lot longer, I would reply that would depend entirely on how much you are listening to. Obviously the more you listen to the quicker you will repeatedly hear the same words and the sooner you will come to looking them up.

Believe me, that list will quickly grow, and in using this technique to learn Chinese vocabulary or the vocabulary for any other language, you will be learning fast but not doing a single ounce of memorisation!

But what is absolutely essential to this learning technique is that element of NEED.

In creating that need, that thirst, that hunger, that craving for that word, the moment you look it up, the moment you see it is exactly the word you have been looking for for the past six days, you have in effect programmed your brain to need that word, to the point when you finally find it, that need will be filled on every level.

And your brain will latch onto it and never let it go.


Yes, in effect, learning in this way there is no need for memorisation, no need for copying word lists, no need for many forms of traditional vocabulary building.

It will almost feel as if the learning part isn't even there, because the instant you find that word, it will be absorbed, assimilated and completely ready to use.

You may be thinking, though, why not just learn frequency lists?

After all, you can find great ones for various languages here, here, and here? Or use the well-known HSK lists for Chinese.

It's simple.

If you want to study to forget, learn from a list.

If you want to learn to remember and fully submerge yourself in a language, let yourself create that cycle of need, and in no time at all you will have learnt, remembered and be using every single word on any frequency list!

I guarantee, there will be no forgetting - you will even wonder how you managed to learn before!

How many different ways have you tried to learn vocabulary?

Let me know in the comments!


bottom of page