Knowledge doesn’t exist in isolation, and this is especially true for language learning. To get good at Chinese, it’s important to build 语感: a natural sense for the language.

The thirteenth rule in 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge reflects this: “refer to other memories”.

As you progress with learning Chinese, you get the benefit of this rule naturally. It’s easier to add more to existing knowledge than to start from scratch. You can also take advantage of this by actively seeking out new material that can be related to what you already know, and looking for opportunities to build useful associations in what you’re acquiring.

As an example, if you’re learning the word 建造, it’s good to link it with 建立 and 建设 in your mind if you know those words already. They’re a group of related words, so making the association is beneficial. Further, learning example sentences for each will do a lot to strenghten your knowledge of the whole set as well as their component parts.

Quick tip: this book is brilliant for helping you find or think of these associations.

You can also incorporate seemingly unrelated knowledge to help you learn the language. Your personal associations with the material you’re learning will lodge in your mind immediately. Incorporating these into your mnemonics and thoughts around the language can accelerate your learning.

For example, you may have some strong personal associations with the city of 台北. Using those memories to remember words involving 台 or 北 is a great technique. The fact that it’s not “official” or “correct” doesn’t mean you can’t use it to help you remember things.

Why memorising lists doesn’t work

A language is a living system built on a web of interconnected knowledge, so rote-memorising lists of things won’t let you speak Chinese. There is a temptation to believe that if you just know enough words or enough characters, then your work will be done.

Sometimes people make observations along the lines of “when you learn one thing, you’ve actually learnt a hundred, because you can combine it with everything you already know”. This may be technically true, but there’s far more to understanding or producing real Chinese sentences than simply slotting words in. There is a much deeper level of information in any utterance, and grasping that needs work from the learner as well.

This is not to say that learning vocabulary lists is a waste of time. On the contrary, it can be a pragmatic way to quickly stack up more building blocks in your Chinese learning. The point is that you need a great deal of other knowledge to go along with it.

Complementary memory

“Complementary memory” is another term for the idea of referring to other memories. Again, it works by using your mind’s natural ability to build webs of related knowledge, rather than trying to force dead information into your memory.

The post on complementary memory covers this in more detail.