How to study for Chinese dictation quizzes

academics chinese High School language learning
By Baoqing

听写 (dictations) have been used to evaluate how much effort students put into learning Chinese. Dictation often tests vocabulary memorization. How do you study/prepare for 听写 effectively? Do you spend hours of writing characters? Have you experienced cramming with flashcards, only found that you forget everything on the day of the quiz? 

Firstly, you need to realize that Chinese is a character based language. Each character has its own meaning. A few hundreds of single characters are recycled to form infinite numbers of words and expressions. Using flashcards might help you memorize a few words in a short period of time, but it won’t help you master characters and train your ability to learn/ guess new vocabulary in a long run. You’d better analyze your vocabulary list and find out what words share the same characters and why, so that you can memorize them more quickly. They will be more likely stuck in your head. For example, you have 动物,运动,and 感动 sharing 动. 动 on its own means “to move”. Now the three words make more sense to you, 动物(moving things, thus animal, 运动(moving ;moving, thus exercise, 感动 (emotionally moved, thus touched). 

Another way to help you analyze vocabulary and remember them is by understanding their parts of speech. Group your list of vocabulary into group of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc. This action will not only help you find patterns of word forming (see example 1 and 2), but also help you compare the differences regarding translation to English (see example 3). 

  1. 学生 (student) and 医生 (doctor); 生: a person
  2. 发展(to develop) and 发生 (to occur);发: to grow
  3. 打车 (to take a taxi), 打人 (to hit a person) and 打球 (to play balls);打 collocates with different nouns, as a result it can be translated as “to take”, “to hit”, or “to play”


So far, we have talked about the benefits of analyzing words. Now, we will continue to break Chinese down and analyze Chinese characters. Chinese characters have radicals and components that can be understood as building blocks. Radicals may represent the meaning of the character, components the sounds. The most basic radical you probably learned when you just started learning characters is 人字旁(person radical),“”or “人”. Its meaning as “a person” constitutes to 你(you),他 (he),从 (to follow). However, the naming of the radical can also be misleading. For example, the top part of 伞 (umbrella) represents the shape of the umbrella and it is not a person radical.

As you start to pay attention to the building blocks of Chinese characters, I assure you will be more successful with your Chinese learning.

Baoqing was born and raised in Beijing, where she graduated from Beijing Language and Culture University with a BA in English, before moving to the US in 2014. In the US, Baoqing taught at the Western Michigan University before getting her MA in teaching Chinese at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Baoqing is currently a lecturer of Chinese at Boston University.

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