Memorisation of material is a big part of many people’s approach to learning Chinese. Some aspects of memorisation are essential: seeking out ways to enforce and retain what you’re learning in the long term is important. If you don’t do that, learning Chinese will be like trying to hold a growing quantity of sand in your hands. In other ways, though, memorisation can be a bad approach.

This article is about the ways in which memorisation is not helpful for learning Chinese, and is inspired by Rule #2 from the Twenty Rules for Formulating Knowledge.

Memorisation alone

Used alone, memorisation will let you build up a large but loosely-connected knowledge of Chinese. You’d probably be very good at vocabulary quizzes, writing Chinese characters in isolation and possibly performing rigid dialogues as well. But that would be about it. If all you do is memorisation, you’ll struggle to develop any of the following:

Natural fluency
The all-important 语感
Ability to engage in real conversations
Comprehensive reading ability
Ability to produce original text in written Chinese
…and many other important aspects of knowing Chinese. You may notice that the above are things that many Chinese students of English struggle with. This is because education methods in China often do focus on memorisation over other aspects of the learning process.

Whilst memorisation alone will limit your Chinese learning potential, it is an essential part of a wider approach. This is like eating a balanced diet; you need various macronutrients to live, but if you exclusively eat one group, you’re not going feel too great.

One-to-one conversion

Memorisation is often paired with a one-to-one conversion approach between a student’s native language and the target language. For example, many people learn vocabulary using a list of words with Chinese on one side and an English translation on the other. This is not a great approach , even when you are specifically aiming to memorise things.

Human languages do not map one-to-one with each other, and the sooner your learning methods reflect that, the better. Realistically you will need some direct conversions in the early stages to get started, but the bigger goal is to build a working knowledge of Chinese that is independent from your native language.

Memorisation can help you do that by letting you retain information long term and by prompting you to actively use your knowledge. When memorisation plays a part in this kind of learning model, it is very helpful. But it is a means to an end, which is to gain natural fluency in Chinese over time.

Learn before you memorise

The above leads to this conclusion: you should learn before you memorise. That means that memorisation comes in after a primary learning task to ensure that you can keep the benefit of the learning in the long term.

For example, reading through a Chinese text and aiming to understand it can then be capitalised on by adding SRS flashcards that cover what you’ve learnt. That way, the flashcards relate to meaningful, organic knowledge that you have and will help you to reinforce that in the long term. If you’d gone straight to the flashcards without that initial learning, you’d lack the benefit of the contextual knowledge.

As your knowledge of Chinese grows, you’ll have more and more contextual knowledge that can be improved via memorisation. The context and wider learning are what makes memorisation an effective tool, not the other way round.