Learn Words At The Right Time

When starting to learn Chinese, it’s essential to build a solid foundation of the most common characters and words, at least a few hundred of each. Covering the most common (and therefore most useful) words first will get you a lot more bang for your buck, which will keep you motivated. So it is crucial to learn the right words at the right time.

A foundation of several hundred characters and one thousand words should bring you into what we call the “acquisition cycle.” At this point, you will be able to learn words and acquire grammar through comprehensible (and increasingly engaging) input.

Let’s look at which words to learn and when. The two most common sources of words are:

1. Textbooks

Textbooks tend to vary wildly in the relevance of the words they contain. For the absolute beginner level, the vocabulary is usually pretty appropriate, but they tend to get less relevant as advance. 

You’ll learn vocabulary related to making dumplings, the wonders of ping-pong, or the efficacy of Chinese medicine. 

My first textbook even tried to teach me a Tang dynasty poem. The reason this happens is a combination of a lack of empathy for the learner and the desire to educate (somewhat prematurely) on Chinese culture. 

Completely understandable, considering the limitations for the authors, but that doesn’t make using their books any easier.

2. Frequency Lists to learn the right words at the right time

Learn words at the right time, Learn Words At The Right Time

Frequency lists are a better option, but first a word of warning: Lists like these have flaws, and must be applied in the appropriate way to be useful. Here are some of my main gripes with any frequency list:

The corpuses used to create frequency lists that are flawed

The usefulness of these lists depends mostly on the texts that are analyzed to develop them, which are often suboptimal. 

Most lists are created from analysis of newspapers, books, and articles because these media are easy to access. Combine this with a lack of human decision making, and you end up with a lot of out-dated and overly-formal terms. 

On the other hand, you do eventually need to learn more formal words to help you to read native material, later on, so using a list just from TV and movie subtitles or social media might not give you what you need either.

Characters and words are treated separately

No frequency list I’ve come across takes into account both characters and words together. It’s always either one or the other. This means that you will need to learn characters and words using a separate frequency list for each, and they will not sync up. This is too bottom-up.

Frequency lists rarely supply context and make it difficult to learn the right words at the right time

Nor does their name suggest they should, so I’m not mad at them for that. The problem is that most people aren’t aware of how vital context is. They learn characters or words from a list using flashcards, thinking they have ‘cracked the code’ of Mandarin…but in reality they are just filling their head with disparate pieces of Mandarin with no way to use them. 

Creating the Perfect Vocabulary List to learn the Right Words at the Right Time

If you wanted to create the perfect list, then it wouldn’t be a list at all. It would be more of an integrated, multi-layered order of character components, characters, and compound words, with a central focus on characters. 

This magical list would also supply you with context you can understand so you can see every character and word in action as you progress. 

To create the optimal order for all of these layers, you would have to analyze characters from a variety of resources, including newspapers, Chinese social media, movies, and TV shows to get an order of frequency that would be more applicable to modern day-to-day life.  

Phase 1: Components Unlocking Characters

You would also need to analyze a lot of characters to get more accurate data. Let’s go for a billion, just to be sure.  

After that, connect with someone who knows Mandarin to make sure that the first one thousand words on the list lean more towards spoken vocabulary, saving the more formal words for a little later. This will get you to spoken fluency faster. 

Then, make sure to start with common character components that are simple and easy to memorize. As you build up your components, chunk them together into common characters. As your database of components develops, you will be able to ‘unlock’ more and more characters. 

Arrange these components and characters so that you learn the most common ones first, and they also unlock the most common compound words. 

As a final cherry on top, you could also add in example sentences for every usage of every word, all of which are made up of characters and words you already know, making them comprehensible. 

After completing all of these steps, you would create a vocabulary list as close to perfect as humanly possible. So perfect, in fact, that it simply couldn’t be done. 


….I mean, it might be possible if you had two people with advanced knowledge of Mandarin working full-time six days a week for four years straight…but who on earth would be crazy enough to do that?!… 


Presenting: OCLO

Phase 2: Characters Unlocking Words

Yes, that’s right; we have already created an Optimal Character Learning Order (OCLO) that does everything I just described. So now it is easier than ever to learn the right words at the right time.

Currently, OCLO (patent-pending) extends to all known character components, unlocking 1530 common characters, which in turn unlock over 4,000 common words. 

We provide carefully written, comprehensible sentences (over 7000 of them) for each (relevant) usage of every word, and around many longer-form pieces of content such as dialogues and short stories.

All you have to do is follow the step-by-step instructions from the 4200 lessons within the Mandarin Blueprint curriculum, and it is possible to acquire around 94% of the Chinese language in just a few months. 

Sign Up To Truly Acquire Mandarin Today