Kāfēi by Bridget Coila

Here’s a list of words I recently came across while flipping through the first few chapters of Teach Yourself Chinese and Chinese Made Easy:

  • pen 筆
  • Beijing University 北京大學
  • garage 車庫
  • curtains 窗簾
  • duck’s tongue 鴨舌
  • faucet 水龍頭
  • bloody nose 流鼻血
  • school bus 娃娃車

This is a common plague that affects many (if not most) textbooks: they’re full of impractical crap that you’ll never need. I suspect this is simply because they just want to amass enough volume to get their books published. But if you really want to speed up your progress as a learner of a foreign language, you need to identify what is truly worth learning and what is merely a waste of your time.

As you strive to go for well-rounded fluency you will, of course, have to increase your vocabulary with less practical things if only to better understand idiomatic expressions and metaphors. But learning the divine attributes of the Eight Taoist Immortals is not something that beginners or even intermediate learners should concern themselves with. Instead, focus on thoughts that you personally want to put into words.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” ~ 李振藩

Role-play a conversation in your head, simulating a real encounter you might have with a new exchange student in your class. In fact, let’s make it a person of the gender you are naturally attracted to. Now what is the likelihood of you two ending up talking about the type of curtains you want in your apartment, or the bloody nose you got for jamming with some jealous guy’s girlfriend? Did the editors of those textbooks have this in mind?

But don’t throw away your books yet. After all, there might be gems buried underneath all the dirt.

Evaluate all your materials as if you were swiping right for hot and left for not. Do it on the spot. Simply ignore what’s useless and learn what is necessary to keep a real conversation going. Handpick everything and record them in a journal. I filled up two notebooks from cover to cover with Chinese words and phrases while I was serving in the military. These are personal lists meant for the kinds of conversations I might have. You might find the notes irrelevant. That’s why it’s important to keep your notes personal.

A more impersonal approach would be to search for a precompiled list of one-thousand high-frequency words. The first 100 will probably consist of obvious terminology and grammatical cruft (like articles and prepositions), but studying the remaining 900 words should unlock something more practical.

For example, the jōyō-kanji form an official list of Chinese characters (2,136 in total) taught in Japanese schools. It has been compiled by the Japanese Ministry of Education to facilitate literacy. Since the Japanese language incorporates tens of thousands of Chinese characters, it would take a lifetime to master them all, but fortunately 90% of the characters are never used in ordinary situations.

Similarly, the PRC Ministry of Education has created tiered character lists for foreign learners who plan to take the HSK proficiency test.

Always focus on relevance, not the grand total.