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. ).

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? 

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