Learn Chinese Vocabulary Words

Chinese has thousands of characters and tens of thousands of vocabulary words. Reaching fluency requires you to learn a good portion of both of them.

HanziHero is a Chinese character learning application that leverages spaced repetition and mnemonics to make learning Chinese characters as easy and efficient as possible. We use those same methods to help you easily learn thousands of vocabulary words, too.

Let’s cover Chinese vocabulary words, how they can help you with learning Chinese characters, and how HanziHero can help you learn a couple thousand of them while preparing you to learn tens of thousands with ease.

What are Chinese vocabulary words?

If you are just starting out learning Chinese, the distinction between Chinese characters and vocabulary words may not be clear.

A vocabulary word is simply a combination of two or more characters to form a single meaning. The majority of vocabulary words are just two characters, but some can be up to four or five.

How do I know which characters form a word?

A common question for new students of Chinese is how to determine where “the spaces are” between characters, which form the words. This is because Chinese does not have any spaces between characters to form words.

為什麼中文是這樣!? Why is Chinese this way!?

Unfortunately, the only way to separate out the different words is by knowing them to begin with!

This may seem quite difficult, but if we do the same in English, we can see how it works in practice. You probably can tell what this sentence says, despite having no spaces between the words:


This is because you already know all the words contained within it. Reading Chinese is similar in nature.

How words help you learn Chinese characters

If one’s goal is to learn Chinese, they obviously must learn a good portion of words in the process! However, many try to learn thousands of characters first and only afterwards try to learn words. Having gone through the same mistake ourselves, we want to cover why you should learn words alongside the characters you learn, instead of before.

Words help you understand how characters are used

Chinese characters are rarely used by themselves, but instead combined with other characters to form words. Characters combine in somewhat predictable ways. In the same sense that a prefix in English always goes in front, some characters tend towards the front of a word, while others may not.

One could compare Chinese characters in this sense to the roots, suffixes, and prefixes that make up an English word. By seeing a bunch of words that use a given prefix such as un- or anti-, you can get a feeling for how they are used in practice. For example, the prefixes un- and anti- are somewhat similar in meaning, and only by seeing how they are used time and time again can one get a feeling as to why we say “antivirus” instead of “unvirus”.

By seeing how characters combine to form words in Chinese, you can get a similar intuitive feeling for how the characters are used within the language.

Words help you remember Chinese character meanings

When Chinese characters combine to form words, the word’s meaning often comes from the meaning of those characters. Because of this, if you know the meaning of a word, you can often use that to help you remember the meanings of the characters within it.

For example, imagine you come across the character 好 hǎo but forgot it’s meaning. You have some Chinese friends who always say 好吃 hǎochī when they eat something tasty, so you know it means “tasty”. If you already know that 吃 chī means “eat”, you can work backwards to find the meaning of . In this case, something that is “tasty” is something that is “good eating”. Since we already know “eat” comes from , we know that the “good” part must come from , which is its actual meaning.

Words help you remember Chinese character pronunciation

Similarly, knowing the pronunciation word can help you recall the pronunciation of the Chinese characters within.

For example, if one knows the pronunciation of 手機 shǒujī which means “phone”, then they can then easily recall the pronunciation of 手 shǒu “hand” or 機 jī “machine”. This is because the pronunciation of a character rarely changes when it is combined with other characters to form a word.

Best way to learn vocabulary words

Now that we know the benefits of learning vocabulary words alongside Chinese characters, let’s cover some great principles to follow for learning vocabulary words. We’ll also go over how HanziHero is in accordance with those same principles.

Learn after the characters it contains

The meaning and pronunciation of a vocabulary word are directly tied to the characters that compose it. As such, it is more efficient to learn the characters within a word first, as it makes remembering the meaning and pronunciation afterwards quite easy.

At HanziHero, we’ve developed our own optimal curriculum order that ensures each vocabulary word you learn through our platform are those whose characters you already previously learned!

Prioritize learning the more common ones

One common mistake students make is learning all words that a character is in after learning the character. Or, if not all, a very large amount of those words! They usually do this by looking up all words with that character in their dictionary app.

Unfortunately, Chinese is such a large language with such history that this approach is not very beneficial. You will end up learning words that nobody uses in spoken Mandarin, and maybe have fallen out of use centuries ago.

Instead, one should try to learn the most common words, as those are the ones you will encounter in Chinese media. This will give you a better grasp of the language as it is used today.

At HanziHero, the words we teach are sourced mostly from HSK Chinese Proficiency Test guidelines which list out thousands of words in order of how common or essential they are.

Create mnemonics for each

The beautiful thing about Chinese is that most of the time the meaning of a word is immediately obvious from the meanings of the characters that compose it. However, sometimes that does not necessarily hold, requiring you to use a mnemonic or some other technique to remember the meaning of the word.

For example, America in Chinese is 美國 měiguó which consists of 美 měi “beautiful” and 國 guó “country” to have a literal translation of “beautiful country”. An easy mnemonic to remember the meaning of the word is to picture the first Chinese person to ever travel to America, and him finally landing on the Pacific coast and being so overawed by the beauty that he named it the “beautiful country”.

At HanziHero, we have mnemonics for each of the thousands of words and characters we teach, making them easy to remember long after you’ve learned them.

Review regularly

It is of course important to regularly review each of the words you learn, lest you forget its meaning or pronunciation. Typically this is done by making flashcards, or using some sort of flashcard review application to streamline the process.

HanziHero has a built in spaced repetition review system that ensures you regularly review each of the words you learn. It takes into account your past review history to make sure you only review the words you need to review, instead of overloading you with hundreds of reviews a day.

Start learning vocabulary words with HanziHero today

Learning vocabulary words alongside Chinese characters is an essential part of learning Chinese, and HanziHero has all of the tools and methods to make learning them as easy and efficient as possible.

Best of all, HanziHero has a comprehensive free tier, allowing you to try it out and evaluate it at your own pace, no credit card required.

Ready to start learning Chinese vocabulary words? Create a free account and give it a try!