Nowadays I'm reading opinion pieces and news articles in Chinese. I'm at a late-HSK5 level. I stumble upon many new words, too many to study them all, so I need prioritize some words and postpone others for later studies.

Only, I don't know how to do this...

Question: After stumbling upon a word in Chinese, how can I determine if it's worth studying?

E.g. the article I'm reading has words like 伎俩 = trick, 陌生 = unfamiliar, 例行 = routine, 秩序 = order (sequence). But I already know things like 手段 = trick, 不熟悉 = unfamiliar, 跟往常一样 = as usual, 顺序 = order, so I can already express such concepts. I also don't know if these are rare or formal words.

  • 1
    I live in China, so I intend to use it for basically everything. Commented May 8, 2020 at 9:46
  • How can anyone decide this but you??
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 20:57

5 Answers 5


The way I go about learning languages is that I go through whatever material, learning or otherwise, be it a text or a TV show and then decide which pieces of vocabulary, or sometimes grammar points, that come up will make it into my flashcard app. I'm guessing that by "words to study", you mean something similar to flashcards, where you will revisit the words regularly to help you remember them.

First of all, past a certain point, studying organically, by just ingesting material in your target language, will often become more efficient and fun than doing any kind of formal practice. While I am not more than passingly familiar with Chinese, it seems like you are quite advanced and maybe you should just continue with your reading. Want to make sure those new words you encounter get burned into your mind? Well just read more texts about similar topics. Coming over the same words time and time again, if you can make out the gist of the text and hence infer some of those words, will be a way to fixate those words in your memory.

If you still prefer to do a formal study of some words, then my go-to question for adding words to my flashcards is "Will I encounter this word again?". If the word is related to a topic I am interested in, such as food perhaps, then the answer is "yes", because it is a topic I will read about again. Often times, the answer is "yes" because I've seen the word before, I forgot it's meaning, but I know that I knew it at some point. Sometimes it's "yes" because the word is just plain interesting to me: it could be that the characters that form it form an interesting idea to me or just because I would like to use that word in sentences I compose. When in doubt, add the word anyways. If you came upon it once, then that means it is likely to come up again later.

If that method is too abstract for you, you could try looking the words up in a frequency list and decide upon a cut-off point. Maybe anything beyond the 10,000 most frequent words is not worth adding to your repertoire. A very quick Google search gave me these lists for Mandarin, but there are others: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Mandarin_Frequency_lists

You mention that you come upon a lot of words you don't know when read. Don't stop your reading half-way through to look up words you don't immediately know if you can grasp the sentences, just carry on. Once you're done with the text, however, quickly scan it with your eyes for any words that did cause you trouble, you'll even know if they came up multiple times, and note them down. Later on, you can look those words up in a dictionary for their exact meaning or your frequency lists for the relevance.


With so many words to learn, SRS can become overwhelming no matter how efficiently it is set up. I would suggest waiting until you've seen a word at least 2-3 times before committing to spending the time memorizing it. That said, looking it up the first time doesn't hurt, and helps you recognize, the second time around, that you've seen it before.


Those words are all formal words and there are some defferences between 陌生 and 不熟悉,顺序 and 秩序. We use all of them in normal life. We usually use 陌生 when we have never seen or known something or somebody before. For example, 陌生人(陌生的人)=stranger, which means i have never seen the man before, he is a totally stranger to me. 不熟悉=unfamiliar, means i know a little, not that much. For example, i have seen you once but i know nothing about you. So when someone ask me if i know you, i may say 不熟悉. Sometimes 不熟悉=陌生

顺序=sequnence, for example, you count from 1 to 10, 1,2,3.....10, that is a sequence, or from 10 to 1, that is another 顺序. 秩序 means the rules or customs that society or world arranged. I hope that could help. We use these two both in oral speaking.

  • Hi and welcome to Language Learning Stack Exchange. This is a site about learning or teaching languages, not about explaining language features or vocabulary for a specific language. This means that to answer the question, you would need to suggest a solution to the general problem (deciding which words to study and which to ignore) instead of discussing the meaning of the specific examples. Could you please rewrite your answer to address the general issue?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 13:36
  • OK. But how could you learn a languege without knowing the defferences between two words? I dont understand. How can you decide which word to study and which to ignore when you dont know the right way to use the words? One word have different means in different circumstances. If i say "both of those words are used in normal life", is that helpful?
    – 邹小德
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 0:26
  • 1
    The question is not about the differences between 陌生 and 不熟悉 or 顺序 and 秩序; these are just examples. Explaining the differences between these examples does not solve the more general problem that the question asks about.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 10:02
  • Maybe you pointed in an interesting direction by mentioning formality, though this could also be a case of a term incorrectly translating. How would you define "formal words" here? Would you suggest that one learn formal words over informal or the other way around? Why? Commented May 21, 2020 at 21:34

Answering my own question a few years later... my advice is to not bother learning a word until you've encountered in multiple times (something like 3 times). This is because:

For large corpora, typically about 40% to 60% of all word types appear only once and another 10% to 15% only twice.
Mathematical Linguistics, Kornai

Words that occur exactly once are referred to as hapax legomenon, and there is a large number of them in natural text, as per Zipf's Law. Generally, a student needs multiple exposures to a word before they will remember it (see this answer; 8 exposures is a low-end estimate), so studying hapax legomenon is negligibly beneficial.

If you study new words you encounter after e.g. three exposures, you don't waste time studying hapax legomenon. The words worth studying are precisely those that reappear, so you can effortfully study them the next time they are encountered.


Dictionary may helps. Those words that are highly used or important are more likely to have longer definition.

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