Use imagery to learn Chinese
Many courses use images for teaching basic vocabulary in the early stages of
learning Chinese, but after that most learners do not make much use of imagery
in their studies. This is unfortunate, because imagery can be a powerful tool
for learning Chinese.
Images, both real and mental, can be used to create stronger memories more
rapidly, and to gain a more intuitive understanding of Chinese without resorting
to English translations. Because use of imagery is such a useful learning
Rule #6 in the 20 Rules for Learning.
One of the more common applications of imagery in learning Chinese is the
creation of mnemonics, especially for remembering Chinese characters. This is a
great approach to learning hanzi,
and thousands of learners have discovered how much of a performance boost it can
The idea is that an imagined illustration or tiny story is far more vivid in
your mind than a direct image of the character itself. By breaking the character
down into its components and using those to compose a creative image or story,
you can memorise any character with a hundredth of the effort required for other
methods such as rote repetition.
For example, the character 杯 is composed of 木 (“wood” or “tree”) and 不 (“not”).
An image of someone angrily throwing away a cup and saying “this cup is not
wooden!” is much easier to remember than the composition of the character
This mnemonic image approach gets easier and easier as you build a wider
knowledge of Chinese characters. At first it is more of a burden, but the
benefits start to arrive quickly and you’ll soon be racing ahead compared to
more traditional methods.
Note that it doesn’t really matter whether the component breakdown you use is
“correct” or not according to language historians. The main thing is that you
remember the character.
Some learners like to use their own bank of component mnemonics, and others like
to incorporate the dictionary definitions of the components. Each approach has
its benefits and drawbacks:
As an example, the component 罒 (wǎng) is defined as “net” in the dictionary
(it’s the radical form of 网). That would make a fine mnemonic image. When I
first started learning Chinese characters, though, I didn’t know about that
meaning and hadn’t looked it up, so for a while I imagined that component as
“ninja” because to me it looked like a stereotypical ninja’s eyes in a mask. It
was somewhat ridiculous and therefore memorable, and helped me to remember
characters involving 罒. When I had a few more characters under my belt, I
switched to thinking of 罒 as “net” in my mnemonic images.
The last point to add about mnemonic images is that you can take them a lot
further than basic breakdowns like “木 is wood”. Try to create more specific,
personalised and bizarre images to use in your mnemonics, and you’ll find that
they stick even more strongly.
Building intuitive language sense
Images don’t have to be part of a mnemonic to help you learn Chinese. General
use of images is a good way to build an intuitive sense for the language, and is
one way to reduce the amount of translation you use in your studies.
Translation is something of a necessary evil in language learning because it’s
efficient and easy to use your native language as a prompt and as a check during
your active learning. Images are often better, though, as they don’t rely on
another language: it’s just you, the image and the target language.
This can be used in both directions: images can act both as a prompt and as a
guide whilst learning Chinese.
You can use an image as a prompt to get you speaking Chinese without needing to
think in English first. This is something of a classic language practice
exercise, and it’s a good one. It sometimes appears as a language exam question
as well. In any case, it’s easy to implement and any image can make a good
prompt. You can also use videos to give yourself some mental imagery to try and
deal with directly in the target language.
Conversely, by finding images that native speakers would associate with certain
terms, sentences or concepts, you can build some direct understanding without
needing to involve your native language. One simple trick that works on this
basis is to use Google or Baidu image search to find images related to
vocabulary you’re learning.
Another nice approach is to pair up subtitles with appropriate stills from the
film or TV show they came from. The image is then a great prompt with a lot of
natural context for the sentences in the subtitles. This takes a lot of time
compared to text-only learning, but is a nice approach to mix in.
Wherever you might use English translation in your studies, remember that images
are a powerful alternative. The trade-off is that they are often more time-
consuming to integrate into your learning, and can be harder to assess or keep
This content was originally published here.