Learning by not looking everything up

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.

Thanks to Mark on ChinesePod for starting the thread [free ChinesePod account required to access the original post].


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. that last method we were encouraged to follow when i was in the mideast studying arabic. it may be a little more useful there based on the arabic system of roots and a consistent system of affixes (so you can basically figure out a word within 90% of its meaning even if you’ve never seen it before in your life), but i’m certainly going to be trying it out on chinese in the near future.

  2. I haven’t studied Chinese formally yet and for that reason nearly all of my improvement has been from this kind of exposure. (The only ‘real’ studying I’ve done has pretty much consisted of going back and learning the characters for the words I’ve learned)
    One of the reasons that I think it works is that all new vocabulary is learned in context. I always find myself using that kind of vocabulary nearly verbatim for a while until I learn how to use it in other ways.

    I do think this method needs to come with a lot of mental engagement in order to actually be effective though. I know plenty of people who have been in China for quite awhile and haven’t learned much. Afterall, it doesn’t ACTUALLY just absorb into your brain. It takes a strong element of intention.

    But you can’t rely on this kind of exposure/engagement learning to teach you book-grammar and literery/academic vocabulary. For that reason I’ve started trying to read simple books.
    And yeah, it pretty much consists of looking up craploads of characters. Wee!

  3. This is the method i was just looking for. One of the biggest problem in studying chinese is finding a way to learn it easily, avoiding an useless extra-work, writing and re-writing hanzi’s thousands of times

  4. 維特利 Says: April 9, 2008 at 2:27 am

    Now, when I read a Chinese novel, most words I don’t know can be easily inferred by context.

    After living in China for 7 years you still meet quite a few unknown words in novels? And Chinese people know all those words? Hm… After living in North America for 5 years if I meet unknown words in English novels, native speakers are not likely to know them either.

  5. 維特利,

    If I don’t know a word, I can’t tell you how common it is in spoken Chinese, or how many native Chinese speakers don’t know it. Chances are, a lot of them are more literary in nature, or perhaps more common in other regions of China.

  6. I’ve been teaching English in Tianjin, China for the past year and it always frustrates me when my students ask for the meaning of every single word. So I agree that language learners should be more comprehension-focused.

    Yet, when I am learning Chinese I do fall into the habit of checking every word and needing to understand every piece of grammar. I am not happy unless every single “了” can justify its existence. Definitely hypocritical, yet I think that Chinese education encourages this sort of rote learning, which is why my Chinese teacher is happy for me to learn this way. Any thoughts?

  7. I’ve gotta say…I don’t agree with this just absord it attitude. I think it boils down to how good do you want to be…for example, now I am reading a translation of Harry Potter…it is in pdf form so I just read it online and put in all the words I dont know into Anki, an online SRS system. Ive learned a crapload of words the last month or so Ive been doing this…Im sure a ton of these words are probably never spoken….but I want to master modern Chinese…yes I can infer most things, but I want to be legit…I want to be the real deal…I dont think anyone learns through osmosis…I think one needs to look up a word and have a clear understanding of it and its functions in order to grasp it…if anything, seeing a word a billion times without knowing what it means but having an idea will make it much easier to stick in one’s mind when one finally looks the badboy up…but still the darn thing needs to be looked up…or am I smoking crack? Im all about setting goals…I sit at a computer and desk all day so I have lots of time to use anki when things are quiet…but if one learns 10-20 new words a day, a few months down the road you will see some serious progress!!!

    now…since Im reading Harry Potter philosophers stone in chinese…does there exist an audio book in chinese for it???? that would be awesome!!!

  8. 长舟丫 Says: April 9, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Yes! I agree with you (John). It’s all about practical, non-pedantic exposure: it’s the best and, I’d say, the only sustainable way to persevere with a modern language, especially past a certain level. Confused moments of trying to work out what your interlocutor is blathering about, and that feeling of “well, I get what the article was generally about…” are what makes language-learning natural. Languages are systems of relative meaning, after all – with enough exposure, you start to find you can check words in dictionaries for the first time and discover you’ve been understanding them fine all along. (Er… ideally.)

    If anything, characters make mystery Chinese words easier to skim in context, since they so often come with little visual labels telling you they’re an emotion, a plant, made of water, related to insects, etc…

  9. RK: actually, I think learning through osmosis, as you put it, is the “real deal”. Reading a dictionary definition, no matter how detailed it is, will help you understand what the word means, but is no guarantee that you can actually use the word properly. Only through repeated exposure to the word in context can you begin to grasp the nuances of its connotations and usage.

    James: good learners vary their methods depending on the situation, and a lot of language courses will also distinguish between “intensive reading” and “extensive reading” (or something similar). If your students are reading a short passage with the aim of learning new grammatical structures and vocabulary, then it’s acceptable for them to ask about all the words they don’t know (although of course it’s best for them to check their dictionary or ask their classmates, and only ask the teacher as a last resort). If your students are reading a newspaper or talking conversationally, then they only need to be aiming for an “adequate” level of comprehension.

  10. […] Sinosplice: Learning by not looking everything up – Good advice on how to improve Chinese-language reading abilities. Only look things up when it’s cognitively painful not to! | china language mandarin […]

  11. Sorry for joining the party late…
    I am obviously on the look-everything up side (看辞典极端分子), as long I can conviently use electronic dictionaries.

    I do that in English as well. I learned a lot that way.

    I opened a second CPod thread on this subject on the 5th where I posted some thoughts – I admit that it was deliberatly designed to incite discussion…

  12. I have to say I’m a bit skeptical about the idea of not actively studying at all, especially when it comes to reading and writing. I’m not even sure that most native speakers could become literate without some kind of active study.

    The ask mom/teacher/wife/whoever approach sure is better than a dictionary, though.

  13. I do not believe this

  14. David Lloyd-Jones Says: January 8, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    One small point: if the book is borrowed from a public library, please don’t circle words with a pencil. Or a pen. Or a yellow magic marker.

    If you deface library books you annoy and slow down subsequent users; you of course commit a civil crime, that of damaging public property. On top of those, there’s some danger of your revealing yourself as a half-wit.

    Everybody: please spread the message: damaging library books is juvenile juvenile delinquency.


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