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How Spaced Repetition Helps You Learn Chinese Vocabulary

Chinese calligraphy

If you’ve studied Chinese, then you probably know how taxing it can be to learn Chinese vocabulary. It takes a lot of time and effort to memorize the characters in a word, what they sound like, how to write them, and what they mean. It’s then frustrating and discouraging when we can’t remember these words when we need them. You might have found yourself wondering if there was any way to make this all easier.

Luckily for us, there’s something called spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is a method for optimizing your memory retention of new information. Basically, it helps you remember things, and this will come in handy for your Chinese studies.

Keep reading for a quick summary of what spaced repetition is and how to use it to make your Chinese studies more effective and efficient.

Learn Chinese Vocabulary with Spaced Repetition

For a closer look at how spaced repetition works, let’s first look at something called the “forgetting curve.”

When we learn something new, we inevitably begin to forget it. Let’s say I meet someone new, and now I know their name when I see their face. If I see them again a day later, I could tell you their name. If I instead see them a week later, I might be unsure. Wait a month, and I might not remember at all.

This is the forgetting curve, and it can apply to all information we learn, not just names and faces. It’s like our memories have batteries that gradually lose power over time. Spaced repetition takes advantage of this insight.

Now let’s say that when I meet someone new, the next day, you show me a picture of their face and remind me of their name. You do the same thing a week later. If I see that person another month later, I probably will remember their name this time. Refreshing my memory has actually increased the length of time I can remember the person’s name and face.

Like the refreshers in the example, spaced repetition systems schedule reviews for you that refresh your memories before you forget them. This strengthens your memories and increases the duration you can remember them. Following the battery analogy, spaced repetition techniques charge up your “memory battery” before it runs out of juice and actually make its charge last longer.

The Challenges of Memorizing and Retaining Chinese Words

It can feel like the forgetting curve takes a relentless toll on vocabulary when learning Chinese words. When you put in so much effort memorizing them, it’s beyond frustrating when it comes time to recall them, and one or more of their pieces is missing.

Let’s say that through your study plan, you manage to get through a whole textbook. You feel pretty good about your coverage of the material. You then flip back to the beginning chapters of the textbook and realize that you don’t remember much of the vocabulary there. You feel like you’ve lost the time and effort you’ve invested in those chapters.

Clearly, this isn’t what we want, but it’s not an uncommon experience. One reason for this issue is the fact that retention often isn’t emphasized in study plans to learn Chinese vocabulary. Thankfully, spaced repetition techniques make it easy to keep our retention rates high and recall what we’ve already learned.

Using Spaced Repetition for Mandarin Vocabulary

Because spaced repetition is generally used with information that can be represented as flashcards, it’s a great method for studying Chinese vocabulary.

Let’s return to the textbook example. If we imagine that each vocabulary word you study in the book has an associated “memory battery” in your head, then we can strategically refresh your memories of specific words when their charges run low.

Of course, we don’t have interface panels in our minds that allow us to actually see how much “charge” is left in each memory, but we do have spaced repetition techniques based upon scientific studies that allow us to estimate these charges.

In addition to ensuring that these words are available for recall in the present, refreshing your memories will now make them last longer than they did previously. You now need to review them less frequently in the future. This will help you remember the vocabulary from chapter three even when you’re in chapter twelve.

This solves another common challenge for Chinese learners, the sheer amount of words and characters they need to memorize. If you have a stack of 2,000 or more Chinese characters flashcards, how are you supposed to review them without spending an exorbitant amount of time?

Spaced repetition systems optimize your studies by prioritizing reviews that target your weakest memories. Strong memories—words that you’ve reviewed recently or that you’ve reviewed many times—don’t need to be reviewed. Maybe 1,900 of your flashcards represent “strong memories,” and only 100 are “weak memories.” Since you don’t need to review your strong memories, you can spend all your study time on your weak memories. 100 flashcards are much more manageable than 2,000.

Hack Chinese

If you use an app that harnesses spaced repetition software (SRS), technology takes care of this whole triage process for you.

You might have heard of SRS apps for Chinese like Anki and Memrise. While Anki and Memrise can be helpful tools, they will not accelerate your Chinese studies as effectively as an SRS app like Hack Chinese.

Hack Chinese is specifically designed for Mandarin vocabulary acquisition and retention. Both Anki and Memrise are general study apps that can be used for Chinese, but Chinese isn’t their primary focus. For Chinese learners, Hack Chinese offers a sharply tailored study platform.

For example, Hack Chinese has vocabulary lists from HSK exams, major textbooks, and graded readers already available for you, saving you the time of inputting a Chinese vocabulary list on your own. With apps like Anki and Memrise, you need to either create all the flashcards yourself or rely upon shared decks, which can be prone to errors.

Hack Chinese is also just easy to use. Unlike Anki, Hack Chinese requires little to no setup. Instead of spending hours getting intimate with the Anki manual trying to design your cards with HTML and CSS, why not just plug into Hack Chinese and actually just study Chinese with its slick and intuitive interface?

Take Your Chinese Vocabulary to the Next Level

As an app that takes full advantage of SRS and harnesses its power for learning Chinese, Hack Chinese is for all Chinese learners who want to supercharge the way they learn Chinese vocabulary. If you want to optimize your studies, try out Hack Chinese to learn Mandarin fast and ensure that you remember what you learn.


Author’s Bio: Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.


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