If you’re new to Chinese and don’t know where to start, this might sound like a daunting task. Well, we’re here to give you tips to show you the easiest way to do it. With some planning, you can easily learn over 150 basic Chinese words in about two weeks using flashcards and a learning method called spaced repetition.
Learn Basic Chinese Vocabulary for a Strong Foundation
Memorizing 150 of the most basic Chinese words is a realistic, achievable goal to work towards as you start your Chinese learning journey.
If you have no experience with the Mandarin language and Chinese characters, prepare to learn a lot as you take your first steps.
To start with, in written Chinese, there’s no alphabet but individual characters you must memorize. As you’ll also learn through your studies, you will have to learn how these individual characters come together with pronunciations (including the different tones!) and different meanings.
This can all be a lot to take in at once. It takes some time to get good at recognizing Chinese characters by sight and associating them with their correct pronunciations and meanings, so it’s a good idea to spend time concentrating on the basics and getting used to working with them.
This is why, when you’re just getting started with your Chinese studies, learning basic Chinese words should be the right choice. Learning simple Chinese words introduces you to Chinese characters without confusing you with extra nuances and grammatical concepts that you don’t have to worry about for the time being.
Why 150 Basic Chinese Words?
We recommend focusing on 150 words for several reasons. One reason is that 150 words is the number of words you’re required to know for the first level of the current version of the HSK exam. For the full list of 150 words, you can check out Hack Chinese’s list of HSK Level 1 vocabulary.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the exam, the HSK exam (汉语水平考试; pinyin: Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is an international standardized Mandarin proficiency exam administered by the Chinese government for non-native speakers. It is currently divided into six levels according to skill.
Basically, it’s a great official way to prove your level of proficiency in Mandarin, so passing the first level of the HSK exam is a great goal for beginners. Passing the first level would also put you on the right track for continuing your Chinese studies and passing the other HSK exams!
As a side note, you may or may not have heard about an “old HSK exam” and a “new HSK exam.” If you have, and you’re wondering whether these 150 words are still good to learn — yes, they are!
The level 1 HSK exam still tests for this 150-word list, and the 150 words on the list represent some of the most common words you would learn anyway. The new HSK level 1 covering 503 words probably won’t go into effect until 2024 at the earliest.
Use Spaced Repetition
To memorize these 150 basic Chinese words as efficiently as possible, use Chinese flashcards enhanced with the spaced repetition algorithm.
If you learn Chinese words using spaced repetition, you will build a solid foundation for your studies. As you provide yourself with a working bank of characters and words to draw from, spaced repetition techniques will help you best remember them long term.
How Does Spaced Repetition Work?
Spaced repetition is a tool that makes the most of flashcard study by helping you schedule your flashcard reviews. This scheduling helps learners efficiently retain the words they’ve learned by helping learners target their “weak” memories.
If you use spaced repetition in your study sessions, you will be regularly reviewing the words you’ve already learned. In this way, spaced repetition techniques aim to help you move information into your long-term memory.
However, you won’t be reviewing your flashcards at random. Spaced repetition techniques ensure you’re reviewing the words you need to see just before you forget them. This means that spaced repetition helps learners concentrate on the material they need to work on.
So if a flashcard is new or difficult, you’ll see it more often. If a flashcard is old or easy, you’ll see it less often. An algorithm can take care of this for you.
As a result, spaced repetition also saves time, since you don’t have to review the words that are easy for you.
Fortunately, using Chinese flashcards with spaced repetition is a great way to learn Chinese vocabulary, so definitely use spaced repetition as you’re trying to learn your 150 basic words.
Benefit from Spaced Repetition Software
Don’t try to manage a spaced repetition system on your own. Use an app.
To learn Chinese vocabulary, in particular, use a platform like Hack Chinese that is dedicated to learning Chinese. Hack Chinese offers resources that are specific to Chinese learners, like a built-in dictionary and pre-built vocabulary lists. With Hack Chinese’s HSK Level 1 vocabulary list, you can jump into studying your 150 words without having to build a deck of flashcards on your own.
The simple format of the flashcard allows you to test yourself for correct knowledge of characters, pronunciations, and meanings.
Keep Study Sessions Short and Consistent
In fact, we actually recommend limiting your daily study sessions to 20 minutes a day.
When many Chinese learners first start their learning journey, they naturally feel excited and enthusiastic. Their vocabulary study sessions might last an hour long.
In this case, however, more is less. Keep in mind that during your study sessions you’ll also be actively reviewing the vocabulary you’ve already learned. Your study load won’t be limited to just ten new words a day, but also your reviews!
If you take on learning too many words, you won’t be able to effectively process and retain the words in your active vocabulary in the long run. This can lead to disappointing experiences where you end up not remembering most of the words you tried to learn in the short span of time you felt excited.
There’s no need to make your review workload too heavy or risk burning yourself out. If you stick to a pace of just 20 minutes a day, you’ll learn around your goal of ten words a day and easily be able to learn 150 words in 15 days.
With flashcards, consistency is key, so ideally you need to add flashcard practice to your daily routine. Habits are easy to put into place when they feel like easy and natural components of your daily routine. This is another reason why we recommend starting with small study sessions so you can ease into making flashcard study a daily habit.
Give Yourself a Head Start on Chinese Fluency
So now you have your list of 150 basic Chinese words, you know how to use a spaced repetition app, and you’re going to study consistently in short sessions over 15 days. If you learn how to keep up these habits in the long run, you’ll be able to take yourself all the way to Chinese fluency!