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:
- Find an internet resource that provides a steady supply of reliable sentences.
- Select simple sentences that still convey the word’s meaning.
- 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:
- Sentence Mining – Xamuel.com
- Sentence Mining: An Essential Tool for Language Learning – BeyondBounds.org
- Strategies for Sentence Mining – MyAnimeList.net
- 10,000 Sentences: Why – AJATT.com
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.