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What’s your goal?

Your strategy will be very different depending on whether your primary goal is to understand the language (either in reading or listening) or to produce it (speaking or writing).

Learning to speak or write is of course much more difficult than simply learning to understand (which requires recognition rather than the harder recall).

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Approaches to learning vocabulary

Your approach to learning a language depends therefore on all these factors. Most particularly, how you learn a language depends on why you want to learn the language.

A large proportion of teach-yourself language courses assume your purpose is to travel in a country that speaks that language. Accordingly, the emphasis is on learning appropriate phrases for situations such as eating in a restaurant, buying a train ticket, etc. 

Another growing section is aimed at business travelers, with appropriate phrases for formal introductions, conversations in an office, etc. Both of these categories emphasize the conversational — learning to speak and listen.

However, if your desire is to be able to read the language, then you’ll need a different approach.

For example, there exist “Literary Chinese by the inductive method” – a 1948 book that teaches Chinese by presenting the text of the simplest classic Chinese text and providing notes on the meaning of each character, including notes on the derivation of those characters and their elements. 

This method probably would not appeal to many people, but if your primary reason for learning Chinese is to read the classic texts, it will suit your needs much better than a conventional language learning course.

A large part of the appeal is that you are learning, right from the beginning, something “real”. This is a text that people have been reading and studying for over 2000 years. That alone gives the words an intrinsic fascination. And looking at each character through its etymology gives each word a depth of meaning that immediately provides connections, and sometimes, emotional resonance.

All of this, of course, depends on your goals.

The point is that, regardless of how “good” a course/book/program is, what matters is how well it works for you. Which is why, even if you’re using a “canned” system, you still need to customize it to your own quirks and style. And to do that you need to have a wide variety of strategies to call on, and an understanding of the principles involved.

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