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Understand before you learn | Chinese Boost

Understand before you learn

Here’s some advice about learning that sounds like it doesn’t make sense:
understand before you learn.

But how can you understand if you haven’t started learning?

The key is in the meanings of “understand” and “learn”. This point is about
not trying to memorise or study material that you haven’t first tried to
understand. In this context, “learn” means memorise or actively study. The idea
is that comprehension comes first and reinforcement follows.

If the first thing you do is memorise 1000 common Chinese characters, you’ve
certainly created a nice foundation, but you will struggle to read anything
useful in Chinese. If you instead focus on comprehending whole sentences with a
smaller set of characters, your learning and ability will progress much faster.

Similarly, memorising a list of vocabulary will certainly help with your Chinese
listening, but you will struggle to get beyond the basics if that is your only
approach. A wider-reaching understanding and knowledge is required to
intuitively understand real Chinese.

Depending on your outlook, this may seem obvious, but many people and courses do
try to make it happen the other way round. We are encouraged to start studying a
foreign language by memorising vocabulary lists, instead of first trying to get
a general feel for the language. It’s often more effective to learn practical
sentences and develop an ear for a language, but this in some cases this is not
the focus of beginner courses and textbooks.

As you move past the beginner stages, the importance of this idea grows.
Memorising sentences and vocabulary is useful and quite effective, but it can
never come before the goal of trying to gain some understanding of how words and
phrases work in a more general scope. You should try to gain some level of wider
comprehension first, then use the more focused study methods to reinforce it
over the long term.

The idea here is that “learning” is a tool to strengthen comprehension, not one
to establish it. The initial understanding comes from a bigger-picture process
(which might also be described as learning). In other words, you start with
holistic learning and build on it with granular methods.

This point has come from the [twenty rules for formulating knowledge](http://www
.supermemo.com/articles/20rules.htm#Do%20not%20learn%20if%20you%20do
not%20understand), and I think it has some truth when it comes to learning
Chinese. The original article is referring to other types of knowledge than
language learning, but it can certainly be applied.

What do you think?

This content was originally published here.

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