How do you learn new vocabulary?

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the tongue master

New Member
I took a Chinese course in college a few years ago and I'd like to begin studying the language again. From what I understand of the language is that the characters give you no clue on how to pronounce the words. If this is true:

1) How does one studying Chinese learn new vocabulary? It seems to me they'd be able to look it up and be able to write the character but have no idea how it sounds.

2) Is the only way to learn how to pronounce words is to hear how they're spoken first?

Thanks :)
  • Dragonseed

    Senior Member
    France - French
    I think your main question is "how does one write / read Chinese pronounciation?".

    There are several systems that have been invented to help non-speakers to learn the language, the most frequently used being the Roma Pinyin that is "the official transliteration of Chinese" for China. It uses the roman alphabet, and additional sign for the tones (these can also be written with numbers, as in 你好= ni2hao3). This is probably the most frequently used on this forum.

    You will need to learn the basic rules of pronounciation of this system, as not everything is obvious and "guessable", so at that stage, the help of someone who can speak Chinese will help to get the sounds right, but once it is acquired, it is a very convenient way to read and write Chinese phonetics. Many dictionaries use this system, as do all books of Chinese as a foreign language printed in China.

    The main problem I see for foreign students with this phonetic system is that, being written in a set of characters that are very familiar to us ("English letters"), it is very easy to memorise, much more than the new Chinese characters you are trying to learn, and you may end up thinking of Chinese as being written in roman alphabet!
    For this reason, I much prefer the phonetic system used in Taiwan, that uses a set of characters that are not latin (see These characters being as "alien" to you as the Chinese character, but the Chinese character having a form that is actually easier to recognise, you end up only memorising the actual Chinese.

    But this is just my opinion. You'll probably find it easier to find learning material in Roma Pinyin anyway.

    Good luck! :)


    Senior Member
    NZ - English, Chinese
    Actually, the simplified Chinese has been simplified following the basic rules of pronunciations. However, you do need to listen to other people pronounce the words first or find the pinyin because a lot of words are pronounced differently based on the context. It's like the English word "record" is pronounced differently when it's used as a noun rather than a verb.


    Hello TTM

    there's one fact that pronounce Chinese words could be easier.
    though there may be about tens of thousands character in a Chinese dictionary. one saying is only 7000 make of the words we use most commonly.

    if you saw a unfamiliar character in a word. without referring to a dictionary
    that's a thick you can guess what it would be pronounce.

    see the character 貼 and 帖 The 偏旁 (righter part in this case)of them are the same . and they pronounced the same, just different in tongue.
    it's useful but also with a lot of expectoration.
    so the only way to make sure is to look it up in a dictionary or luckily you
    happen to hear that word you want(with subtitle) on TV.

    ooops! as i happen saw this in a dictionary 'it's well know difficult to master the Chinese writing system. '
    once heard they 're discussing on turning Chinese into Latin. as i see it probably not coming true for a really long
    time, maybe centuries .
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    France - French
    (..) they 're discussing on turning Chinese into Latin. as i see it probably not coming true for a really long
    time, maybe centuries .
    I believe this was the intention a few decades ago when the Pinyin was introduced (late 60's or 70's?), but the project was never completed. I personally think it would be a horrible loss to change the Chinese writing to purely phonetic. And I don't really see the point now that modern technology (computers) have evolved enough for the Chinese characters not to be a problem any more.


    Senior Member
    English - Southeastern USA
    Word, Dragonseed! 'Twould be a travesty.

    Tongue Master, you are correct in your assertion that a student encountering a new character has no *definite* indication of how the character is pronounced, though it must be pointed out that there are indeed patterns which you will no doubt pick up on the more characters you learn. Often when a character is two-sided, for example, the right half will give you an idea how it's pronounced:

    etcetera, etcetera.

    Many times similarly constructed characters won't have the exact same pronunciation, but will be close enough that they're still mnemonically viable.

    In response to your question, if you have access to any decent dictionary (such as WR,, or then you'll find the transliteration into English - or bopomofo as Dragonseed mentioned - easily accessible, so that you can effortlessly learn the pronunciation with each new character you learn. I've found that occasionally the dictionary doesn't match up perfectly with how the word is pronounced in real life, such as with the word "誼", which I understand is pronounced in the second tone but is listed in the fourth. Usually, though, the dictionary's a good guide. Some dictionaries have the option to listen to the sound of each word, but it would still be advisable to have a native speaker teach you first to make the sounds, but once you've mastered them - which won't take long for any half-interested student - you'll be adequately equipped to learn independently. You'll be 如虎添翼!


    New Member
    British English
    To answer a more general point from the OP:

    How do you learn vocabulary?

    I use lots of different methods, depending on when/where I am. Since I spend time with Chinese speakers, I try and pick up vocab conversationally. But for learners not in China this is not exactly practical.

    Apart from that I have two pieces of advice:

    Firstly: Flashcards - there are various flashcard programmes you can find online (they show you the character, you see if you can remember the meaning, then press a button to reveal the pinyin & meaning), that certainly help. These work best when you do a little every day. Do too many words and you'll stop remembering them, don't do them often enough and they won't stick. So: little & often. However the simple translations given are not always completely accurate. Translations are almost never simple in a way that "I can use [translation of X] whenever I would use [X] in English". So you need to back up these flashcard memorizations with practising using the characters, or asking people when exactly you can use them.

    : Enable the Chinese IME to allow you to type Chinese. Typing Chinese using a pinyin input is incredibly useful practice. It mentally ties together characters and pinyin, as well as allowing you to actually use Chinese without having to be able to handwrite characters or rely purely on pinyin (communicating purely in pinyin is much less accurate than communicating with actual characters).

    Chatting in Chinese is a great way to bring your language practice into use. If you download the chat programme QQ (the English version is called QQ International) you can join groups and find people looking to learn / practice languages, it should be easy to find people to talk to.

    I won't talk about point 2) as I think that has already been pretty well answered :)

    Hope this helps.
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