Monday, December 28, 2009

A study tip for my Chinese readers

In a spirit of seasonal magnanimity....

Here is the number one piece of advice that I have given to (and had ignored by) my Chinese students over and over again in my years of teaching here.

Learn how to use a dictionary properly when 'learning' new words.

The Chinese education system stresses rote-memorization (I suppose it's the only way to learn the character writing system), and many Chinese do indeed have impressively well-developed memories.

Unfortunately, rote memorization is not a good way to learn vocabulary in another language. Many of my students have bragged to me about how they can "learn" 10, 20, or even 50 new words at a sitting. They are sadly deluded. No, you can't.

The problem, as I touched on in my last War on Chinglish post (further highlighted in the comments) is that errors so easily creep into dictionaries and word lists, and such errors are then quickly hardwired irrevocably into usage if students rely on parrot-like repetition of lists of definitions as their only means of assimilating new vocabulary. Often the definitions they learn are not outright wrong (though often they are), just incomplete or misleading. But most Chinese students will never become aware of these shortcomings because they don't refer to English dictionaries very much, or pay attention to how the words are actually used in the authentic listening and reading passages they encounter. For rote learning, students want to have a simple Chinese equivalent for each English word - and, much of the time, no such equivalent exists. And so, for example, we find Chinese students unable to distinguish between give, send, bring, take, carry, and see off because they are all identified with the single Mandarin word song, .

Trying to learn long strings of words is a waste of time. However good your memory is, new words won't 'stick' if you try to absorb too many at one time. Focus your efforts on a more manageable number. I usually recommend 5 or 6 at one time as a sensible maximum to attempt.

Learning one-word Chinese 'equivalents' of English words is a waste of time, and will lead you into numerous Chinglish errors. By all means, try to relate new English words to your native vocabulary (especially when you are a beginner), but be wary in doing so; always try to refer to an English-only dictionary as well. In order to truly 'know' a word and be able to use it appropriately you need to know not only its basic meaning but its range of meanings and the circumstances in which it most commonly appears; rules of use, common collocations, its synonyms and how it is distinguished from them. You can only get that from an English dictionary, not from an English-Chinese dictionary.

I usually also recommend my students to try the following exercises every time they're learning a new word:

a) Copy out the English dictionary definition of the word.

b) Try to write a definition or an explanation of the word in your own words in English.

c) Following example sentences in your dictionary and/or textbook, write a few sentences of your own which clearly illustrate the meaning of the word.

d) Try to write further sentences in which you can imagine you might actually use the word yourself.

e) Read these sentences aloud, to practice saying the word (and begin assimilating it into your listening & speaking vocabulary).

Do try this, please. It really helps.

Just memorizing lists of Chinese definitions of new English words does you more harm than good.


JES said...

...and I'd imagine an implied (albeit probably impractical) step f): submit your work to the scrutiny of a native English speaker at several points along the way.

About a year ago, I did a blog post of my own about getting tripped up using even a GOOD English-French/French-English dictionary while wooing the lady who, in 1991, was merely The Missus-to-Be. If you don't know the underlying rules of the language you're really exposing yourself to ridicule, even if you never learn of the ridicule; that alone may be enough reason for Chinese speakers to spend as little time as possible actually verifying "correct" usage.

Froog said...

Funny story, John. Obviously it didn't do any lasting harm to the burgeoning relationship.

In one of my favourite Patrice Leconte films, La Veuve de Ste Pierre, two drunken sailors stab a ship owner to death because they, in their advanced intoxication, they have become obsessively fascinated with the question of whether his ample girth is the result of a large frame or just FAT. They're chanting and sniggering their insane mantra 'Gros ou gras? Gros ou gras' even as the poor man lies dying.

The Nag said...

And, of course, you always learnt Latin vocab according to your rules!

Froog said...


Latin is rather different, a special, perhaps unique case - much easier to 'learn' for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's not a 'spoken' language.

Also, since many of the word roots are familiar in English already, you can recognise their meaning intuitively a lot of the time.

I think it also helps that the 'language gradient' is from simple to complex. English has a much bigger vocabulary (and a more intricate grammar) than Latin, so one-word equivalents usually are adequate.

John said...

You do have to admit one thing about their awful learning by rote system- they're all bloody good spellers! Here I am, a native user and I feel like I'm missing a limb without dictionaries, spell-checkers and inline spelling features of modern computer software!

Froog said...

No, I haven't noticed that they're good spellers at all, John.

Quite the reverse, in the majority of cases.

Perhaps it's a problem of the digital era - that everyone is coming to rely on 'autocomplete' and 'spellcheck' functions, and becoming slovely in attending to spelling.

I'm always astounded, in fact, by how astonishingly inattentive to detail Chinese people are in their writing. It's almost as if that part of the brain that deals with such things is completely maxed out by the huge burden of having to remember and recognise so many thousands of characters in the Chinese script.

99% of the Chinese I know have a complete blindspot about... consistent spelling, consistent use of capital letters, consistent (or any) use of punctuation, consistent formating (line spacing, indentation, etc.).

I am currently trying to teach a group of young lawyers how to write 'legal English', and I am finding it a very uphill struggle to get across to them that, for example, "an administrative department" and "the Administrative Department" mean completely different things.

Froog said...

Or indeed 'slovenly'.

'Slovely', I feel, ought to be a word. Perhaps an adverb meaning 'in the manner of a sloth' in a positive sense (whereas - I assume - 'slovenly' means that too, but invariably with pejorative connotations).

John said...

oh sure theirlayout Makes no sense at all to us.I am always surprised though when they use I word (spelt perfectly) that I've never even heard Stephen Fry say!

Froog said...

That's e-dictionaries for you. They're stuffed full of archaic (or non-existent) words.

One of my favourite examples is dirk - which a lot of young Chinese seem to think is a common word for 'knife'. It even found its way into airport security notices around the country for a while: "No prohibited dirks

I once had a student who wanted to call herself Gules. "Jules?" I queried, baffled.

"No, Gules!" she retorted huffily. "It means 'red'."

Well, yes, it does - if you're f***ing Ivanhoe. It's a heraldic term. Has probably NEVER been common usage; and certainly not for the past 400 or 500 years.

I think she went with Vermillion instead...