If I could only recommend one technique for learning Chinese more effectively, it would be sentence mining.

Sentence mining is such a great method for improving and maintaing your Chinese because:

It’s easy to implement.
It works in the short term and long term.
It can match the level of your Chinese as you progress.
It can improve your reading, listening and speaking.
It’s free.
It’s entirely customisable.
Hopefully that has piqued your interest in sentence mining and how you can take advantage of it to learn Chinese as effectively as possible.

What is sentence mining?

As the name suggests, sentence mining is about gathering up example sentences and studying them. More specifically, the idea of sentence mining encourages you to focus on sentences as your primary learning material instead of words, lessons or other units of learning.

Traditionally, people learning languages are encouraged to memorise lists of vocabulary (often with ridiculous one-to-one “definitions” in their native language), and to separately study grammar points.

With sentence mining, you cover both of these at once and do a better job of both of them by using sentences all the time.

When studying vocabulary, you use full sentences that contain that vocabulary. Ideally you use several different sentences that all cover the same vocabulary to build a better mental model of how those words behave in the language.

When studying grammar, you also use full sentences that exemplify the grammar you’re trying to internalise. Again, you should learn from a variety of different sentences that all cover the same grammar structures.

Using sentence mining builds a better working knowledge of Chinese, and it lets you do it faster and more effectively.

Why is sentence mining so effective?

Sentence mining is such an effective technique because it recognises the holistic nature of languages as a form of knowledge.

That sounds a bit fluffy, so here’s the same thing again in franker terms. You don’t know and speak a language by memorising it in discrete pieces. You know and speak a language by having a highly interconnected model of the language as a whole.

When you learn with discrete items (which is sometimes necessary and useful, by the way), you limit the opportunities to build those essential links between all the different aspects of the language.

When you learn with sentences, you’re getting a series of complete learning packages. Sentences demonstrate the associations between the words they contain (collocation), they show how the words relate to the grammar and structure of the sentence, and they dramatically increase your opportunities to link your language knowledge together.

Focusing on sentences lets you get the benefit of synergy. That is, studying a whole sentence brings more benefit that studying its parts alone.

Sentence mining is the most direct and effective way to maximise the use of sentences in your Chinese studies. It’s free or cheap and easy to put into practice.

How to be a sentence miner

To sentence mine, you’ve got to accumulate, maintain and study a bank of high- quality Chinese sentences. As often as you can, find new sentences to add to your deck (this will become quite addictive). More importantly, study your deck for a good chunk of time at least once a day.

An important point to remember when studying with whole sentences is that it’s not about translation. You are absolutely not trying to memorise one-to-one translations in either direction. Apart from the fact that there are no perfectly corresponding sentences, the goal of sentence mining is to develop 语感 (feel for the language) and not to memorise anything.

When studying the sentences you’ve mined, you should at least be studying them Chinese → meaning. Note that it’s Chinese → meaning and not Chinese → English. As I said above, this is about understanding and not memorisation or translation. You could also describe these cards as Chinese → understanding, as that’s what you’re aiming for.

You can also incorporate meaning → Chinese cards into your system, but these are secondary to the Chinese source cards. You’ll need some sort of prompt to instruct you to produce the Chinese sentence, and inevitably this will be an English rendering of the sentence. That’s not ideal, but it’s the best compromise and lets you practice your Chinese production every day in a consitent way.

As well as adding and studying sentences, it’s also important to maintain the deck. This is done primarily by deleting cards. Seriously, if there’s anything you slightly dislike about a sentence, just delete it. There are plenty more fish in the sea, and you don’t want anything in the deck that damages your Chinese or puts you off studying. Delete almost as much as you add, and you’ll end up with an effective deck that your look forward to studying.

Finally, don’t forget that you can use audio as well as text, and / or use your sentences to practice reading, listening, speaking and writing. Mix it up!

Useful resources for Chinese sentence mining

This has been a brief introduction to get you up to speed with sentence mining. The next step is to learn more (see the links at the end) and, more importantly, to start doing it.

Here are some routes to get started:

Anki (the best learning deck system there is)
句酷 (Chinese example sentences)
A Chinese dictionary (e.g. OBCD or 现代汉语词典)
Music (try 酷我 for lyrics)
Videos (Tudou and Youku!)
Chinese fiction
News in Chinese
Just search for random things on Google and Baidu
That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s a whole world of Chinese sentences out there for you to mine.

Sentence mining around the web

Series: Sentence mining

Sentence mining (this article)
Delete your flashcards
Sentence branching