How to Learn Chinese Words So They Stick

Dartboard with sticky note

If you’re finding trouble speaking in Chinese and sometimes having to fill in with English, then you know how it can be a frustrating feeling. You might even know the word, but can’t retrieve it when you need it. The picture you have in mind of a fluid conversation with a native speaker instead becomes filled with awkward pauses as you frantically search for the right word. Sometimes you find it, but other times you might say the wrong word and get a confused look.

Or perhaps, you might have been in situations where you wish you could express yourself as well as you can in your native language, but didn’t because of your limited language ability.

It’s clear that in these situations, you can solve the problem by expanding your vocabulary. However, this can be easier said than done. Are you learning new words only to find that you forget them right away? Do you have trouble knowing the correct word to use? Or, do you feel as though you’re not learning words fast enough?

To overcome these issues, you need to have an effective system for learning new words. In this post, I’d like to share six simple steps to help you learn new words so you can expand your vocabulary and feel more confident when conversing with native speakers.

Follow these six steps to expand your vocabulary

First, let me provide a quick overview of the six steps that will help you learn more words and recall them when needed.

  1. Look it up—When you find a word you don’t know, look up its definition and save it for review later. Most dictionary apps allow you to bookmark or save a word you’ve searched. I write more about how to decide which words to learn below.
  2. Make a flashcard—Create a flashcard for all the words you’ve searched using your favorite flashcard app so you can study them later. Whichever flashcard app you use, be sure it employs a spaced repetition system.
  3. Find examples—Look at example sentences with the word to understand how it’s used.
  4. Search for visuals—To help with recall, find an image that best represents the word and add it to your flashcard entry along with the word and its definition. Every time you study your flashcards, the images will help trigger your memory.
  5. Use the word—Write sentences using the word you’ve learned and have native speakers review them to  be sure you’ve used it correctly. You can post your sentences to Lang-8, HiNative, or send them to your language buddy for review.
  6. Review and study—Make sure to review your flashcards and test your recall of the word. Consistent review and study will help you remember a word when you need it.

This is just a quick description of the steps, keep reading if you want more information on how to implement this system. But, before diving deeper, have you thought about which words to learn?

What words should I learn?

The number of words you need to learn can sometimes feel overwhelming, but consider this—do you know all the words in your native language? Likely not, but you know enough to communicate fluently. The other thought to keep in mind is that you probably didn’t look up every word in the dictionary to learn its meaning when learning your native language. At a certain point when you learned enough words, you could guess the meaning of unknown words through context. You should consider this as you decide which words to actively learn in Chinese.

Unless you work in a very specialized field and want to learn the relevant technical terms to speak about it, you should consider learning more common words first to build fluency. Even if you need to learn technical terms, commonly used words are also necessary to communicate in your specialized field. Learning common words first will allow you to speak on a much broader range of topics with a greater number of people.

You may wonder what are common words in the Chinese language. The HSK vocabulary lists are a good source to start with if you’re not sure which words to learn. But, besides these vocabulary lists, you shouldn’t limit yourself. You will expand your vocabulary much more rapidly if you learn words anytime you encounter a word you don’t know.

Step 1: Look up the word

When you run into a word you don’t know, look it up. Since you likely carry your smartphone with you everywhere you go, it’s easy to look up a word using a dictionary app. You don’t need to look up every word, but only when it’s necessary to understand the meaning of what’s been communicated. Words you come across a few times are a good sign they are worth learning. Even if a word sparks your curiosity, it’s a good enough reason to look up its meaning. When you let your curiosity guide you, you’ll gain fluency more quickly and enjoy the learning process.

Some of the online dictionaries I like to use on my desktop are MDBG, Line, Arch, Ichacha, Zdic, and iCIBA. Each dictionary has its pluses and minuses, which is why it’s good to have several sources for reference. Another helpful dictionary for reading Chinese text online is the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary browser plugin (for Chrome and Firefox). This dictionary plugin provides pop-up definitions when you hover over any Chinese text on the screen. On my smartphone, the two dictionary apps I use are Pleco and Hanping Lite.

Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary

Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary plugin works by hovering over Chinese text in a browser.

Whenever you look up a word in Pleco or Hanping Lite, save the word for later retrieval. You can do the same in the Zhongwen Chinese Popup plugin. For Pleco users, saving a word requires tapping on the plus icon at the top of the screen, while in Hanping Lite, it’s tapping the star at the bottom of the screen. If you’re using the Zhongwen Chinese Popup plugin in your browser, then press “R” on your keyboard to save it to a word list.

Hanping Pleco screens

Left: Hanping Lite app—tap the star to save a word for easier reference later. Right: Pleco app—tap the plus icon to save a word.

Step 2: Create flashcards

Once you have saved words you’ve looked up, you can create digital flashcards for studying. I recommend scheduling time to do this routinely and deciding whether to spend half an hour each time or set a minimum number of flashcards to create. This way you can ensure you’re always adding new words to your collection for review and study.

There are several flashcard apps available. My favourite is Anki because it’s highly customizable, although it may be less intuitive for first-time users. Whichever flashcard app you use, make sure it employs a spaced repetition system (SRS). This is important if you want to learn quickly and efficiently. SRS is programmed to take advantage of the way we learn—and forget—so it’s easier to recall items.

Anki flashcard

Left: Anki flashcard in review mode. Right: Anki flashcard entry. The fields highlighted in red are automatically filled in with the Chinese Support Add-on. To download this flashcard template, click here.

Although there are flashcards you can download and use right away, I prefer to create my own because they’re more customized. Also, the process of creating them helps with learning and remembering the word. Creating your own flashcards can be quick and easy once you have a system in place.

If you use Anki, you can download my flashcard template to help you get started. I recommend adding the Chinese Support Add-On to Anki which automatically adds the pinyin, tone colouring, and audio pronunciation when you type in the characters.

Step 3: Find examples of the word in use

Next, you need to find example sentences for the word you’re learning. Examples of how the word is used will help give you a sense of its meaning and usage. Choose an example sentence to add to the flashcard, so you can review this every time you study the word.

Some sources you can use include Jukuu, Line, iChacha, and Arch. Jukuu’s sentences can sometimes be too technical to serve as good examples. That’s why it’s good to have other sources for reference.

Line Dictionary

Line Dictionary entry with pinyin, stroke order, definition, and example sentences.

Choose simple sentences which you can read and understand most of the words. However, you may find a few words you haven’t learned yet. Don’t worry too much about this as long as you’re able to understand most of the sentence. The focus is learning the word you’ve chosen and seeing how it’s used. You can always include the pinyin for the sentence in your flashcard to help you read it during reviews. (Use Google Translate to get the pinyin.) And, you can create flashcards for the other unknown words in the sentence if you find them worthwhile to learn.

Step 4: Search for a visual

One way to help with recall of a word is to find an image that best represents it and adding it to your flashcard. Visuals are easier to remember than a string of words put together. This is why it helps to create your own flashcards so you can pick images memorable to you.

It will be easier to find images for some words compared to others. But, even for words with abstract meanings, searching for an image will get you thinking about the context of when or where it’s used. It’s another way to imprint the word into your memory for long-term use.

The best place to search for images is Google. You can search in Google Images by entering the Chinese characters of the word. Search results can vary. Sometimes you may not get any good results. In this case, try entering a phrase or searching in English if you have a specific image in mind.

Step 5: Use the word in a sentence

The fifth step is to use the word in a sentence. If you want to be sure you understand a word’s meaning and how to use it, then don’t neglect this important step.

Write a few sentences using the word and ask native speakers to check them. If you have a language buddy, you can review these sentences during your one-on-one sessions. Otherwise, if you don’t have one, then you can post them to Lang-8 or HiNative for corrections.


HiNative provides pre-formatted question templates to make asking questions easier.

When posting the sentences online, it’s a good idea to include a note about the words you’re trying to learn and ask if you are using them correctly. This will help people checking your sentences to provide more helpful corrections and suggestions. Otherwise, without providing this information, they may make corrections to your sentences leaving out the word you intend to learn.

Step 6: Review your flashcards often

The final step is to review your flashcards. All of your efforts to learn words and create flashcards would be wasted if you skip this step. So, schedule time to review your flashcards routinely. The more often, the better. You should also schedule time to add words to your flashcard program so you’re always expanding your vocabulary.

Also, take advantage of times when you’re commuting by public transit or waiting in lines. Make it a habit to pull out your phone and review your flashcards during these times. The time spent commuting or waiting will be more worthwhile when you use it for studying your words.

To summarize

If you’ve been having trouble recalling words when you need them or using them correctly, then give these six steps a try. They may seem simple, but they are effective. Again, the six steps are:

  1. Look up the word’s definition
  2. Make a flashcard for it
  3. Find example sentences
  4. Search for an image that best represents the word
  5. Use the word in a sentence
  6. Review and study your flashcards often

It’s my hope that these tips provide you much success in your language learning journey. Are there other strategies or additional resources you use to learn new words? Please share in the comments. I’m always interested in reading about methods for learning Chinese, and I’m sure others would be too!


Many resources were referenced in this post. To make it easier to find, I’ve grouped and linked them below.

HSK Vocabulary Lists

Flashcard App and Add-ons

  • Anki app (Download both the desktop and phone versions. Use the desktop version to create the flashcards.)
  • Anki flashcard template (In the desktop version of Anki, go to the File menu and select Import. Click on the template file and then Open.)
  • Chinese Support Add-On (In the desktop version of Anki, go to the Tools menu and select Add-ons, then Browse & Install. Paste the code for the Add-on into the field and click OK. The code is provided on the Chinese Support Add-On page.)

Online Dictionaries

Dictionary Apps

Sources for Sentence Examples

Language Exchange Websites and Apps

Liked this post? Get more. Subscribe for free!

Trackbacks & Pings

Leave a Reply