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Memorising dictionaries to aid reading ability

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

I’ve heard many stories about people in East Asia who try to learn English by committing complete dictionaries to their memories Even if it’s true that some people actually do that, I think this somewhat puzzling technique is in the decline. Hearing such stories, it’s easy to shake one’s head and wonder why all rational thinking has deserted (at least this part of) the world.

Then perhaps it comes to you as a surprise that I spent roughly one hundred hours spread out over six weeks learning all the characters in the Far East 3000 Chinese Characters Dictionary (you can use any dictionary as long as it only contains commonly used characters). Of course, I knew a lot of them from before, but I still ended up with 2404 new words (including one extra word for every new character, so the number of characters I didn’t know were actually half that number, i.e. around 1200).

In this post, I’ll explain why I think going through this dictionary was an excellent idea, and I will also share some thoughts on how to do this without running into some of the problems I did. I used the book mentioned above, but if you don’t have it, a similar dictionary or this online list will work equally well.

I never expected this, but the day has come when I actually recommend other people to memorise a dictionary!


First things first, why would memorising a dictionary be a good idea? I’ve argued before that Chinese is a language consisting of many building blocks and rather than learning a character, it’s fruitful to learn its composition instead. The same goes for words in Chinese (words consisting of more than one character). Making sure that I know the 3000 most common characters, I thus gain access to a huge number of new words. By access I mean:

  • I can sometimes guess a compound word because I know the characters in it
  • I can learn new words more easily, because I know the component characters

Let’s look closer at these two benefits. The first one might be either useless or invaluable depending on the word. Chinese consists of lots synonym compounds (i.e. words that consist of two characters which mean the same thing, such as 快捷 or 饋贈) and if you know both the characters, you can be pretty sure about what the word means, whereas if you only know one, the meaning might be anything.

There are also numerous examples where there are more than one similar way of saying something (compare 時限, 期限 and 年限, which are really easy to distinguish if you know what the individual characters mean, but might cause trouble if you don’t).

The picture is from Patrick Zein’s excellent introduction to Chinese (in Swedish). On the X-axis is number of characters one knows and on the Y-axis is the expected ability to understand written Chinese, assuming that grammar and character combinations are not a problem (which they of course are, but that’s not the issue here).

Even though being able to guess words is important, I think the second point, that it’ll become easier to learn new words, is more important. The problem that faces most students of Chinese is that when they encounter a new word, they sometimes also need to learn new characters, which takes considerably more time than just combining characters one already knew.

Thus, having gone through all these characters, I feel that I can learn new words at a much higher speed. In combination with the first point, this means that sometimes words can be guessed at and learnt even without using a dictionary.

Suggestions and tips

After having completed this project, I have some suggestions to make:

  • Be careful, sometimes you just think you know what a character means because it’s so common, but in fact it means something completely different when it’s on its own.
  • Learn at least one example word where a given character appears, also make a note of this word in connection with the single character so that when you revise it, you can easily see at least one example.
  • If you use the same dictionary as I did, don’t use the example words in the book. Some of those are extremely rare and some native speakers have never seen them. Find words in a normal dictionary or a corpus instead.
  • Don’t learn the words in alphabetical order, starting from page one and going through the book, because it will be extremely hard to distinguish between one hundred different “shi”. A better way would be to first learn the first character on every page, then the next time learn the second character on every page.
  • Spread it out! Even if you’ve studied for a while, 3000 characters will take a while to get through (100 hours in my case). I managed this by portioning it out, going through a dozen characters now and then.

Some final words

Conclusively, memorising dictionaries is not a very good idea in general, but in this case I found that making sure I knew these 3000 characters meant that my reading ability made a quantum leap up. This will not take care of reading speed, complex grammar or other problems associated with reading ability, but it will enable you to understand many texts you would otherwise have been completely unable to decipher. More importantly, it will make it a lot easier for you to learn more later, given that you now have more building blocks and tools to deconstruct the language around you!

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