Study less, remember more

Building a vocabulary in Mandarin can be challenging. What takes so long to remember by rote is so easily forgotten. But there is help.

When learning Chinese characters, working with vocabulary lists a certain way can help you remember the words more quickly.

If you have ever tried cramming a list of words for an exam or tried remembering a list of grocery items, you might have noticed a peculiar pattern. Chances are the first and last items on the list are more easily remembered.

This is called the serial position effect as described on the website Simply Psychology – Articles for Students. It refers to the noticeably improved recall for items at the beginning and end of lists.

On a list, items at the top are rehearsed the most and is stored in the long-term memory (primacy effect), while those at the end immediately go to the short-term memory and gets recalled easily because these were the last items encountered (recency effect).


Tim Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Chef, suggests breaking down a list of 50 words into two lists of 25 words and adding a five- to 10-minute break between studying each list.

It also applies to the length of your study session: you can cut down a 90-minute study session into two sessions of 45 minutes each with a break in between.

This method multiplies the number of start and end points in your study; hence words in the middle of the list will enjoy better recall.

This lets you study the same items in virtually the same amount of time (with even more breaks in between) and get better results.

This does not take super discipline to implement. Instead, it leverages our quirks as humans and uses them to our advantage – simple, easy and doable.

There are other benefits to building your Mandarin vocabulary.

According to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, studies suggest that for those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, learning a second language may delay its onset by developing the brain’s cognitive reserve or mental capacity.

Before you walk away from learning Mandarin, give Ferriss’ method a try. This is not hard to do. So the next time you find yourself in a sea of words that you cannot seem to handle, just break up the list and take a break! — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 26, no. 3 (July 9-22, 2013): 6.