Thursday, June 4, 2009

WordPacks: an introduction

This post is an introduction to what I call "WordPacks" - explaining what they are, and why I use them. Through use of WordPacks, your Mandarin study can be made more efficient and more focused.

There are different of types of WordPacks, and I have no interest in attempting to accurately categorise them. I mention a few types with the intention of creating frameworks in your mind that will allow you to start to see patterns yourself in what you're learning.

Same Endings
Why would you memorise the following words at the same time:
  • perfume, shampoo, tap water, saliva, glue, lemonade, sexual secretions, tears?
You wouldn't - not if you were starting with English. But if you knew that all the words took the form "X shuǐ" [X 水] (where shuǐ means 'water'), then you've already done most of the work.

Some of them are really obvious, like perfume which is "xiāng shuǐ" [香水] mearning "fragrant water". (It's the same "xiāng" as in the Mandarin word for Hong Kong, literally meaning "fragrant harbour".) Others you may have to just memorise, like salary being "xīn shuǐ" [薪水].

With a little extra effort, you can learn 5-10 words in the time it takes to learn 2-3 independent words, and with a higher retention.

Same Beginnings
We can do exactly the same by looking at words which start with the same character. In this case we consider 真 (zhēn, meaning 'true' or 'real').

* zhēn huà (truth) (真话 => true speech)
* zhēn xīn (sincere) (真心 => true heart)
* zhēn zhèng (genuine) (真正 = true principle)

Word Build-up
WordPacks needn't only be constructed on the basis of the characters which make up words - but can be based on parts which make up the character. This is of particular interest to people who are learning to read & write Chinese.

Consider the following:
  • : shàng: on/previous
  • : zhǐ: stop/prohibit
  • : zhèng: correct/principle
  • : zhèng: prove/proof
You're basically adding one stroke at a time (two, in the last case) - and if you know the build-up of the character, you'll sometimes find overlaps in meaning (as we see above), you'll be less likely to confuse two similar-looking characters, and again your learning will be more efficient because you're learning in "packs".

Another way of learning with WordPacks is based on a series of words which lead into each other. For example:
  • huǒ chē - chē zhàn - zhàn tái
  • train - station - platform
  • 火车 - 车站 - 站台
Again, three words with less effort than memorising three independent words.

A radical is where a character is embedded into another character, generally affecting the meaning of that character. You can find a radical index here.

So for example, whereas 女 (nǚ) stands alone to mean woman or female, it can be added to other characters as a 'radical' as we see in the following examples: 妊 (rèn, to conceive or be pregnant); 奶 (nǎi, meaning milk or breast). In both cases, you can see the link between the meaning of 女 and the meaning of the words which include the 女-radical.

Clearly, creating WordPacks on the basis of words which share the same radicals can make it much easier to remember.

The following characters are all pronounced exactly the same (including tones). It might be easier to learn these words together (you only have one pronunciation to learn!), but it might also be useful in avoiding confusion when you hear someone say shì.
  • 是, 市,示, 世, 式, 事, 视
This is the most common way that people seem to teach & learn, by grouping words by theme. Unfortunately, it's not the most efficient type of WordPack - as you can see if you were trying to learn the names of a few fruit, for example:
  • táo zi: 桃子: peach
  • níng méng: 柠檬: lemon
  • píng guǒ: 苹果: apple
  • xiāng jiāo: 香蕉: banana
  • jú zi: 橘子: orange
It's useful to group words like this, but obviously not as easy as using the other types of WordPacks.

So my recommendation is to try learn in "packs" - and in coming posts I'll be doing some of the work by offering you WordPacks, so make sure you're subscribed.


  1. Nice thought!
    Out of curiosity, how did you comprehend 好(Hao3)?


  2. The hanzi is made up of the characters for woman & child. And my understanding is that the concept of having a woman and a child is a "good" thing - perhaps representing a family unit.

  3. ==> By the way, you can see the full set of WordPacks published at any time, by clicking here:

    WordPack articles