Personal Experience with the Other Particle “ma”

I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle . I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle , but not this new , which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this was all about.

So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up . Here’s what I found:

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.

I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.

But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?

Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:

How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?

For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the entry did just that, right when I needed it.

Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.

Related Grammar Links:

Yes/No Questions with 吗 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)
Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


John Pasden

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


  1. John, fully agree with you that words need to be “experienced” to be learned. I read a book called Moonwalking with Einstein (not written by me 🙂 ) that convinced me that memorization is actually an act of creativity and imagination. I guess that what I’m trying to get at is that even while using SRS, the goal would be to try to engage them in a way that makes it more than just a series of superficial exposures to a word.

  2. I’m a big believer in mnemonic systems (I recently invented one for memorizing Mandarin syllables, which helps me a lot). I have noticed something similar with such systems. Although the purpose of such a system is to help you remember facts, and the systems do work for this purpose, many times I find that once I go to the trouble of constructing a story or image or whatever to help me recall a character or word, etc., I find the effort of doing so has engraved it on my mind to the extent that I no longer need the help of the image or story.

  3. Most of my most memorable moments learning Chinese haven’t been from using SRS or a dictionary, rather, they have been from learning a new word after hearing it in similar situations over several different times until I finally realized its meaning and usage. It wasn’t the listening part that got me excited it was when I was searching for a word in my mind I hadn’t studied or bothered to look up before when speaking Chinese, then suddenly using the correct word.

    I end up pausing, thinking about how I’d never spoken the word before but knowing for sure that it was correct because I had heard it so many times before in the same context. Of course, this process is much slower but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel a thousand times more rewarding.

  4. This is of course only my own personal experience, but I have learnt thousands of words like this. I don’t think using dictionaries or SRS is bad in any way, provided you know what they do and, more precisely, what they don’t do.

    If you think that you will learn to produce/understand a language only through the use of dictionaries and SRS, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, no-one (as far as I know) is suggesting that you should do only dictionaries and SRS.

    I use SRS to remember what I’ve learnt so I can understand the word more easily when it appears in context. I’ve found that learning a new word for the first time and then remembering it is quite difficult, whereas if I’m at least vaguely familiar with the word before, it’s quite easy.

    Another problem is noticing, something I’m sure most learners are familiar with. There are words that are spoken all the time, but that we for some reason don’t hear. It’s as if our brain edits them out. Then, one day, we suddenly here the word and it’s all around us. This problem is partly alleviated if we learn words from dictionaries.

    This comment is getting quite long, but before I round it off, I want to point out that I’m not suggesting that people should learn Chinese primarily at home using their dictionaries and computers. I am saying that these are powerful tools that shouldn’t be overlooked, though.

  5. “* How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
    * How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?”

    I used to haul around a copy of Oxford Pocket Chinese in my earliest days of language learning. I do not, however, recall many 嘛-moments.  I do, however, remember a few times when I learned something wrong / comically out-of-context from the dictionary–this was often due to me seeking an equivalent to an English word, rather than looking up Chinese words discovered in context.

    @楼主 Based on your earlier article on SRS (linked in the post), I agree with your main point: (attempts at) learning from downloaded word lists is bad, whereas handmade decks to reinforce newly acquired knowledge are good. Based on this approach, I didn’t really “learn” new things from my anki deck. I did have some experiences, however, where I came across a new word, made a card with a few different example sentences I found online, and a month later found myself using it naturally in conversation. In this sense, I think SRS-repetition of the right sort of cards can be very useful at providing additional, targeted input.

    I exposed myself to a large amount of Chinese input in my learning (initially inadvertently, and later, deliberately). Because of this, some of my most memorable 嘛-moments arose from coming across a word in a dictionary or textbook, sounding it out, and having a sudden “click” as it resonated that I had heard the word dozens if not hundreds of times before without understanding it.

  6. It all depends on how you use the SRS program, doesn’t it? I’ll often add a new word I come across when reading the newspaper. A month later, when the word comes up for review again, I’ll think: “彩排, hmm. Oh,this was that thing in the story about Chinese students in North Korea. They saw people always doing 彩排s——ah, dress rehearsals.”

    As John points out, language is all about context. If your context is strong, the word will be more memorable–regardless of whether you review it with Anki or just come across it regularly in day-to-day life. The problem with most students of foreign languages (and this includes me, for years) is that they don’t do enough extensive reading and listening, and thus don’t encounter the vocabulary they know in enough interesting and varied contexts.

    I absolutely understand John’s suspicions about SRS. Most people do probably use it wrong. I’ve used it wrong some of the time. But you shouldn’t underestimate its ability to motivate: it can give some students a daily sense of progress. Motivation is everything. If a student finds doing SRS motivating, and it doesn’t make their Chinese worse, then let them do it! There are other things they need to do too, of course–but why rain on their parade? If they remain motivated, they’ll get to the other stuff sooner or later.

  7. It was a good read:) Thank you.
    Personally I don’t say 嘛much, but there are some people habitually use certain particles, and this is one of them. For example,
    How come?
    Who did this?

    Also, besides those two functions you mentioned about, 嘛 can be used to show expectation:

    嘛 is a fun particle:) Have a great Dragon Year!!

  8. I’m with Julian on this one.

    I did my fair amount of learning with dictionaries (damned Latin…especially when I found out afterwards that all those other advantages of learning it (learn how to learn, better analytical skills, etc.) were scientifically disproved) but I don’t feel any special connection to the words or the dictionary when I look them up physically rather than electronically. I do remember my Latin teacher saying at the time that they were never forced to memorize words at uni. The thing was just that if you didn’t memorize them, you would end up looking up the same words several times. And that’s a feeling I do associate with the dictionnary.

    Seeing the words again will, after finding out what they mean, help reinforce the knowledge. The dictionary and SRS also seem to be two different parts of learning and acquiring. The dictionnary will let you find out what the meaning is while SRS will help you reinforce it by using repetition systems.

    In your blog you ask whether there are clear memories of how one learned words with SRS….looking back at the period I have been using SRS (skritter) I don’t so much have a single character that I really associate with SRS….I rather associate with the nice feeling that after using SRS for a while I experienced a drastic increase in reading comprehension. Most of the characters I knew I learned from there….
    For me SRS is defintely the way to go.

  9. Timely! I just learned this word last week!

  10. It seems to me that the first meaning (stating the obvious) could be loosely translated as “ain’t that the truth?”, thereby keeping the sense of a question.

  11. […] Sinosplice – John talks about his personal experience with the particle 嘛. […]

  12. […] recently wrote about my personal experience with the particle 嘛 (not 吗), and how a dictionary entry helped me get a feel for how the […]

  13. If you take the view that SRS is not a way to learn words but a way to stop forgetting them, then I think these concerns evaporate. Dumping word lists into SRS and learning them that way might word at a beginner level, because the words you’ll be learning via SRS are also words you’ll be seeing every day, so you’re getting the real-life context assistance that way. But word lists for words that are less frequent seems silly. If you’re reading enough you should come across enough new words that way. Once you’re learned them, add them to the SRS (I often include a couple of example sentences in the answer-field, ideally these include the sentence where I first came across the word), and then trust to the SRS algorithm to stop you forgetting the word in the future.

  14. The only words I’ve learned successfully from dictionaries are those that I’ve heard so many times that they are very familiar but that, for whatever reason, I haven’t fully understood yet. Then I look it up and the pieces suddenly seem to fit together. I suppose your post is about a similar experience.

Leave a Reply