A secret technique for Chinese fluency: Sentence Mining

The hardest part of Chinese is that it feels arbitrary.

It has its own logic, but it takes trial and error to figure it out.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a shortcut?

A way that you could almost learn from your mistakes before even making them?

The good news is that you can. Have you heard of sentence mining?

What is sentence mining?

Google “sentence mining” and you’ll find a community of hardcore sentence miners who engage in passionate debates on the subject.

Sentence mining is studying a language by collecting, saving, and reviewing sentences. This is in contrast to a more typical approach of memorizing words individually.

If you’re a regular reader of our Chinese idiom posts, this probably all sounds familiar.

How will it improve my Chinese fluency?

Sentence mining is a shortcut to fluency in Mandarin Chinese, because definitions are rarely sufficient for you to really understand what a word means and how it’s used.

For example, take the Chinese idiom 轰轰烈烈 (hōng hōng liè liè). Online Chinese Nciku’s definition is “vigorously, dynamic.” Bing’s definition is better: “on a grand and spectacular scale.” But in neither case do you feel equipped to use 轰轰烈烈 with your Chinese friends. If you do use it, I bet you’ll brace yourself as soon as 轰轰烈烈 leaves your lips. Based on your friend’s reaction, you’ll figure out whether you used it correctly or not. This is, of course, just trial and error.

By contrast, if you sentence mined, you’d have a much better sense of what 轰轰烈烈 means and how it’s used. You’d realize it’s really used for grand undertakings that are public and usually awe-inspiring. You’d also know that “那部电影,轰轰烈烈!” is not something people say – it sounds awkward at best and is totally incorrect at worst.

Here’s a metaphor. Chinese words are people, and English definitions are their names. You don’t know someone because you know their name, and you don’t know a word because you know its definition. By seeing a person in different contexts, you know them better. And by seeing words in different sentences, you know them better too.

How to do sentence mining?

This part is rather straightforward:

  1. Find an internet resource that provides a steady supply of reliable sentences.
  2. Select simple sentences that still convey the word’s meaning.
  3. Incorporate the sentences into your own study routine (notebook / flashcards / spaced repetition learning etc. ).

If this sounds like a lot of work, then it is – and that’s why I created FluentU. FluentU brings together the web’s best videos for learning Mandarin Chinese in one convenient place. It also provides interactive transcripts and a video player designed for learning Chinese. It tops this off with a review system which takes full advantage of the massive video library. And FluentU remembers your vocab progress and uses it to recommend future content from the rest of the FluentU library, which includes real-world content like movie trailers, commercials, news, and inspiring talks.

Other resources on sentence mining

If you want to explore the subtleties of sentence mining more deeply, we recommend these articles:

Over to you! What do you think of sentence mining? What other kinds of Chinese learning strategies do you use? 

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

17 Responses to A secret technique for Chinese fluency: Sentence Mining

  1. Allan Ngo December 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm #


    This is so logical and simple that people really miss this out. I have recently started watching videos and am taking note of new words and finding definition over at

    What I do, I usually put the word and definition on the subject line of an email and put the sample sentences on the body then send it to my own email address and compile them afterwards.

    I found this true when looking for the Chinese word for a flat tire and got two definitions 泄气 and 爆胎. It was only through the sentence examples did I learn that 爆胎 is the right word to use in this particular context.

    Thanks for the great insight.

    • Alan December 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

      Hi Allan,

      Thanks a lot for the helpful comment!

      That sounds like a great system for collecting sentences. Of course the more important part of any study system is that it’s simply and easy enough for you to stick to.

      Funny that you mention flat tire – I had one the other day. Hope that’s not why you ended up learning that word.

      Thanks again!

  2. Aaron Tang December 11, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    This is pretty neat, I have always been trying to find websites with example sentences. I am going to try this out, thank for very much for the advice!

    • Alan December 11, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words Aaron! Hope you find it helpful!

  3. Zealous December 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    And here I thought nobody ever read that post. ^^

    Thanks for linking to the Japanese Language and Culture Club @

    Reading over that post that I made forever ago, I feel like I want to revise it a lot because I wonder if it’s really that helpful. Perhaps I can amend it instead.

    • Alan December 16, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

      That was a great post! I think we Chinese learners can also gain a lot by seeing how Japanese learners approach language learning. Thanks a lot!

  4. Joy February 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Thanks for this simple explanation! I’m starting this way of studying now. Makes so much sense. I’ve been missing out! :-)

    • Alan March 1, 2013 at 2:04 am #

      You’re welcome Joy! I’m glad we could help!

  5. Oriol April 2, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    Thank you very much for the post, and its information and links. For me sentence mining is the first step, the second being sentence processing. Perhaps the best way to “mine sentences” (but not the easiest) is using a corpus together with a concordancer. I wish there was a corpus specifically for learners of Chinese as a foreign language (and a dictionary of collocations, too!)

    • Alan April 3, 2013 at 2:04 am #

      Thank you for the comment. I didn’t even know there was something called “sentence processing” or “concordancer” — I will definitely check those things out. :)

      But I know what you mean about a corpus for learners of Chinese as a foreign language. I think we’ve all been there — learning a word from a dictionary, only to find that no one uses it! Language learning is hard enough as it is and that can be extremely discouraging.

      I do of know one site that has what you might call a corpus. ;) It is FluentU of course. We use languages from native videos by Chinese people, so you never have to worry about it being tainted by artifical language — only organic stuff here. :) We also introduced a new feature called decks which let you study words in a more organic way ( Anyway, thanks!

  6. Jana July 16, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    :-) I have been doing sentence mining from very first beginning as chinese had totally different structure for me and without seeing words in context it was nearly impossible to create my own sentence even I knew teoreticaly order of words in chinese sentence.

    It’s because my own language has complicated structure and grammar and contain planty of suffixes and extra words, more than english. I had to learn to stop think complicated and I had to kill half of words in sentence I would usually use in czech language. Uf! I still fight with that. But learning from sentences is greatest way how to overcome this and slowly transform mind into chinese way of thinking.

    So everytime I write new word into my notebook I also add two or 3 easy samples how it should be used. That’s also thing I love here as I see on one click not only word itself but examples of use.

    p.s. I am not so active on site now, I have busy season, but I keep learning. :-)

    • Alan August 7, 2013 at 8:35 am #

      Hi Jana,

      Thanks for the comment – yes I also did sentence mining on my own before knowing it was a widely used technique. :)

      I would also love to learn Czech someday. :)


  1. Hao Hao Report - December 10, 2011

    Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  2. East Asia Blog Round-Up : 11/12/2011 | Eye on East Asia - December 11, 2011

    […] Fluent Flix – Alan talks about the benefits of using “sentence mining” as a language learning technique. […]

  3. Boost your Chinese vocabulary through Themed Word Lists - December 24, 2011

    […] Think of themed Chinese vocab word lists as a supplemental strategy to sentence mining. […]

  4. FluentU Chinese Learning Blog: Best posts of 2011 - January 1, 2012

    […] 2. A secret technique for Chinese fluency: Sentence Mining […]

  5. No Nonsense Newbie Tips: What the Heck is up with 了? - August 13, 2012

    […] do! While it will always be most effective to engage with authentic Chinese content, sentence mining, or getting out in the wild and practice with living humans, a simple English explanation of basic […]

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe