Learning by not looking everything up
08 Apr 2008
A recent conversation on ChinesePod brought up the question of how much input learners need, and how much “study work” needs to be done on that input. Here are some of my ideas:
> …You DO need more input. Don’t treat all input equally, though. Massive input is great, but you definitely don’t need to be looking up every word you don’t know. This is a trap I myself have fallen for many times in the past. It can turn a great source of input into a frustrating chore.
> So I think the best thing for you would be to expose yourself to as much Chinese as possible (that’s always great), but don’t actively STUDY it all… Just listen/watch/read and absorb what you can, and don’t worry about the rest. Concentrate your studies on using what you have already learned, with incremental advances. Meanwhile, all the extra input you are getting in between “official study times” will be quietly improving your Chinese in the background of your mind.
Then later in the thread:
>> Do you really think it is a trap? Didn’t the “looking up every word” phase leave any noticeable advances in your passive vocab base?
> Actually, I think this is partly a function of your current level, your personality, and your motivation.
> When I first started studying Chinese, I DID look up every word in the material I was studying. After three semesters of Chinese, I came to China with my Oxford English C-E / E-C dictionary, and I literally took it with me EVERYWHERE. I really did look everything up.
> There comes a point, though, when this becomes quite inefficient, and it’s much more practical to figure out words by context or to ask people, or to just make simple notes and look words up later at home.
> If you are still looking up every word and you don’t mind, then I say do it. But you will probably reach a point when this begins to become very laborious and it begins to hurt your motivation. It’s crucial that when you get to this point you realize that you don’t HAVE to look up every word, that it’s a rule you set for yourself and a habit you got into; it’s not the way you HAVE to learn the language. (It’s also not likely to be the way you learned your first language as a child… I have two librarian parents who used to always tell me “look it up,” but you better believe I only did that as a last resort.)
> Now, when I read a Chinese novel, most words I don’t know can be easily inferred by context. I don’t worry about them. I don’t add them to a vocabulary list or anything; that would hurt my enjoyment of the novel and thus my motivation. Of the words I don’t know on first glance, there are a small class of words I run into which I think are either (1) really worth learning, or (2) crucial to my understanding of the story. These words are usually not hard to recognize. I like to highlight them, but I don’t stop to go look them up right then. I keep going. Only when it becomes cognitively unbearable do I actually look up those words (or, more often, ask my wife). It turns out that the majority of the words I highlight I never go back and look up, because I actually understood the story just fine without looking them up.
> Sure, I CAN go back and look them up, but I just read a story in Chinese and enjoyed it. Do I really need to look them up?
> The answer to that question comes down to personality.
I also liked Clay’s method of reading:
> I also fell into the habit John warns about. It really limits your amount of input. You can get so meticulous in breaking down every single word, that you actually lose the meaning of the passage. I would sometimes get through an article, breaking down every word (and tones!), and two hours later, i don’t even really fully comprehend it.
> I finally had a teacher break me of this, with a pretty simple yet effective method of reading (newspaper articles and short stories in particular). She had me read the passage 3 times.
> 1st time: try and read the passage at a speed you would read in a similar speed in your native language. Therefore, FAST!
> 2nd time: read it at a slower pace, and circle the words you don’t know with a pencil.
> 3rd time: read it at the same pace, this time flip your pencil around and get ready to erase the ones you figured out on the last go round. There will almost always at least be one of those circled that you will erase.
> You can take a normal sized article and get through it three times using this method in 10-15 minutes. In that class, we were timed, and asked ten or so comprehension questions. It’s amazing how much more of the MEANING of the full passage you can decipher. I know it’s hard not looking up all those words, as you want to know EVERYTHING. I still have the urge to do it, but it really will limit your input.