Illustrations by Esther Birts
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Many Mandarin learners are obsessed with building a large vocabulary. Often this can seem like a competition where students compare how many characters or words they’ve each memorised and the person who quotes the highest figure wins. In the past I used to engage in this sport too, feeling very proud of myself when I’d learned all the vocabulary in HSK6. But I now believe too much emphasis on individual word growth can be misleading and, in the long run, damaging.
Sure, knowing many words is essential for building good comprehension skills. But having a large passive vocabulary doesn’t mean you can use those words effectively. The fact is many people who boast of having an extremely large passive vocabulary are not particularly fluent. Conversely some of the elite Mandarin orators report they had already reached high levels of fluency within a relatively small range of vocabulary.
When studying Chinese a good rule of thumb is that if you’re not sure whether the sentence you’re about to utter is authentic (地道) then it probably isn’t. That’s why I recently switched my focus from drilling vocabulary flashcards to collecting whole sentences using a technique known as sentence mining. By collecting hundreds of native sentences you can stop awkwardly cobbling together phrases using isolated vocabulary and instead improve your ability to say things the way Chinese people do.
In this blog I will run through how I use sentence mining to improve my Chinese and offer a step by step guide so you can do the same.
Step 1: Look for goldmines
The first step is to identify good sources from which sentences can be collected. I call these: goldmines. The most obvious goldmines are Chinese content you’re consuming, such as podcasts or videos. But I prefer to mine from conversations with native Chinese speakers as these sentences are more likely to revolve around topics I want to discuss. Corrections are another valuable source of treasure because collecting and revising these allows me to prioritise learning to express my own ideas correctly. I also mine example sentences from websites explaining commonly used structures and grammar points, such as the Chinese Grammar Wiki explaining the various uses of the 了 particle.
Step 2: Mine for gold
Once you’ve identified your goldmines you can start writing down or recording useful sentences as and when you hear them. Here it’s best to prioritise sentences you would like to use. For example, I was recently driving to a BBQ with some Chinese friends. Each time I said a sentence in awkward or incorrect Chinese I asked them to write down how they would express the same idea and send it to me on WeChat. One correction I mined was: 我希望我们到了的时候，烧烤已经准备好了 to express the idea that I hoped the BBQ would be ready by the time we arrived. When I returned home that evening I had a list of useful, authentic sentences mined from my interactions with native speakers and corrections I recieved throughout the day.
Step 3: Storing treasure
Next you will need a systematic way of storing the treasure. Here there are various options. One option is to use a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) like Anki and create decks of whole sentence flashcards. For more ideas on how to use Anki to organise and revise sentences check out this Refold guide. My preferred option is to store the sentences in a pages document and use them to write up short stories about my life. I get my Chinese tutor to check they are written correctly, record herself reading them and send me the audio files. My tutor also reads out lists of useful sentences which didn’t make their way into the stories. I then store these files in a playlist on i-tunes.
Step 4: Repetition
Having collected and stored the sentences you will need to review them regularly. Ideally you will set out a certain amount of time each day to do so. I listen to my audio files on repeat when I get up in the morning and when I drive to work. Doing this enables me to expose myself to the same sentence structures over and over again. Once I have listened to an audio file a certain number of times the sentences start to feel very familiar and I will begin shadowing along – repeating them out loud a split second after I’ve heard them spoken. Doing this not only helps me internalise the correct grammar but also works wonders for improving my pronunciation and fluency.
Step 5: Activation
The goal of sentence mining should be to ensure these golden sentences form part of your active vocabulary. That means you should aim to get to a point where they just roll off the tongue. The final step is thus to practice using mined sentences and grammatical structures as often as possible when speaking. It’s worth making a conscious effort to do so when the opportunity arises, though this tends to happen naturally. The more I revise my sentences and listen to my audio files the more confidence I have that I can express myself correctly across a growing range of topics. After a while you start to develop 语感, a natural sense of the language which enables you to form your own authentic sentences flexibly using structures you’ve internalised.
How about you? Do you think sentence mining could work for you? Have you tried similar techniques before? If so please share your approach in the comments below!
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