More Effort Means More Learning

This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.

Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?

A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”


Q: What? Why?

A: I’m glad you asked…

  1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
  2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
  3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
  4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.

Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.

HSK hundreds

But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.


John Pasden

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


  1. What do you think about downloading a big deck of “worthless” vocabulary, but then taking the time and effort to make physical flashcards of those same words? Or instead of just mindlessly drilling words, actually writing out a sentence or two using each word as you review it?

    • More effort means more learning, so that’s definitely an improvement! Would also be a good idea to prioritize words based on usefulness; no need to try to tackle the whole deck all at once. The “weeding” process also means more effort and better results.

  2. If you don’t have vocabulary, you don’t have anything. That’s something I think advanced and fluent speakers forget. If you don’t know the word for something, you can’t communicate at all. The HSK list is a curated list of what is considered important to learn – why else is it there? Oh, you’ve taken the HSK and think it’s B.S.? Well the rest of us haven’t, how are we supposed to figure it out?

    I “learned” by writing down every time I wanted to say a word, and then later translating it and studying it. My vocabulary was all over the place, and half the time the dictionary flat-out lied about the translation (I’d get blank looks when I tried the newly acquired word).

    This whole post smacks of Republican “personal responsibility” talk that is so popular on right-wing hate radio. The whole tone of the post is greatly similar victim-blaming.

  3. Ryan Smith Says: August 26, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    You definitely have a great point about just downloading a pre-made flashcard deck of HSK vocab and then going through it without alteration isn’t going to help you much in the end. If you take time to add pictures, vocab, and edit the card types to cater to your learning type though, it can be quite useful.

    As to the usefulness of learning the HSK vocab itself, it might be kind of silly in general, but since so many beginning Chinese resources rate themselves based off of HSK (such as the Mandarin Companion Graded Readers, or The Chariman’s Bao), it can be rather useful to make sure you’ve at least learned the first 3 levels of the HSK vocab. Past that I think you might get diminishing returns in focusing on their vocab list, but before? Definitely not time wasted if done intelligently.

    • Don’t get me wrong… the HSK isn’t totally worthless. If it’s all you’ve got, it’s certainly better than nothing.

      As the editor-in-chief of the Mandarin Companion graded reader series, I can tell you that the HSK is definitely not the standard we use, but HSK vocabulary was referenced in the creation of the standard. It didn’t have a huge influence. The Chairman’s Bao uses the HSK as a standard, but it’s applied rather loosely (which I think is a good thing).

  4. Björn Wollschläger Says: August 30, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    As a beginner one should at least have some form of guidance (in form of a teacher or a text-book etc.). From that point learning the HSK vocab up to HSK4 or so won’t hurt so much as there should not be that many unkown words. A typical learner might also want to do an HSK test at that point.

    I believe your article mostly applies to learner who are above HSK4 or HSK5 level. Especially learning the HSK6 list (around 2500+ vocab) seems like a pretty silly idea.

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