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I'm a Chinese student and I'm planning to study in the United State when I graduate from my high school.

Recently, my friend asked me an interesting question which ultimately become the title of this post. That is, is it a better way to memorize the definition of an English word by English or Chinese?

I already heard some perspectives such as "English definition can sometimes provide you more detailed and accurate definition compared to Chinese one" and "Chinese definition is in a sense comparatively easy for Chinese native speaker to remember." Also, I saw a number of guys who is learning Chinese and writing their Chinese diaries on lang-8, which is a online community consisted of language learner from different countries. Therefore, I make use of their own experience of learning a foreign language which is very distinct from their own language (for example, an English speaker to learn Japanese) to try to solve this question. Unfortunately, I failed because of the insufficiency and deficiency that is unrelated to this given topic. In addition, I was once inspired by my another English teacher, who is an English native speaker. He was learning Chinese at that time, and he said he feel more confident memorizing Chinese vocabularies in Chinese since it would be make him a native Chinese.

I consulted both my English teacher and my English literature teacher about this confusing question. As a result, My English literature teacher suggested me to use Chinese to remember English words while my Chinese English teacher advice me to remember them in English.

In short, since I got two different responses from my English literature teacher (who is a native speaker) and my Chinese English teacher (who is completely a Chinese), I want to re-post that guy's question here.

Could you please tell me your personal and critical point of view? Besides, it would be great if you could also unveil the misery of efficient language learning here for everyone.

Thanks in advance.

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    Both, of course. You should have an English dictionary (with example sentences) and an English-Chinese dictionary (with good English pronunciation in IPA). One will give you clues to the other. And read! Read everything you can and listen to as much native English as you can. – John Lawler Jul 25 '15 at 14:40
  • This is confusing. You have two teachers, one is a native English speaker (grew up ispeaking English) and one is a native Chinese speaker (grew up speaking CHinese), one teches literature and one teaches language but I'm not sure which person teaches which subject. Also your statements make it sound like they both advise you to use the Chinese language to remember the definitions of English words. But then you say you got two different responses'. Can you reword some details of your question to make the truth clearer? – Mitch Jul 25 '15 at 14:40
  • @Mitch The lit teacher is the native speaker, but who said what is indeed mixed up. I suspect probably the native speaker suggested English, but who knows? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '15 at 14:55
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    You should find out for yourself what the best way is for you and not ask what people think. – rogermue Jul 26 '15 at 6:25
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    @rogermue Um... I'm currently trying a pile of ways in turn... – Yummy Sushi Jul 27 '15 at 15:59
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You should be learning the words in both English and Chinese. This way you can tell how we talk about the words, and also see how Chinese handles the definitions (which is often not accurate.) I'm an ESL teacher in Taiwan (strictly adults in companies) and I constantly have to correct students who learned the words in Chinese. I explain the word in English and then ask them for the Chinese translation...often, they cannot give me the Chinese but are able to use the English word in a sentence. So it's necessary to switch back and forth.

To make this clear, students in my class use the words "chance" and "opportunity" interchangeably because in Chinese the word is the same (jihui). If they looked up the definitions in an English dictionary they would see the words are different. Also, they would see example sentences written by native speakers.

I often see student textbooks on vocabulary and am shocked at all of the incorrect and downright bad sentences given in the books to "help" the students learn the words. I can tell that the people writing the books are using the words in the Chinese way, and not the English way. For example, "I received a stunning job chance." which is not correct usage (should be "I received a great job opportunity.")

I would also suggest using pictures to help you learn words. When encountering a new word, find a picture that helps you remember it. Google is good for this, although not always accurate. For example, students have trouble understanding "cake," "pastry" and "bread," so we look up the pictures on Google so they understand that they cannot use "cookie" when in fact they are talking about a cake. I would also suggest learning the words based on context. In the dictionary a word can mean something but this meaning cannot be applied to all situations. So ask your native English instructor about the situations in which words can and should be used.

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To add to the helpful answer by @michael_timeofeev:

Some memorization is necessary, but from your question, I get the feeling you may be overemphasizing that part of language study. The goal should be to be functional in the second language -- to communicate your ideas successfully, and understand the responses. The best way to do this is to speak and write VERY SIMPLY in the beginning. Try to find a way to get your idea across using vocabulary that you know well, and structures that you know well. It is not much fun to read things that seem like they were cranked through Google Translate!

Think of it as a game. Hopefully you have a set of words and structures that you are very comfortable using correctly. When you are sitting down to write about your topic, ask yourself, are there any additional words you absolutely need in order to express your idea? You may look those up in a dictionary, but it shouldn't be more than half a dozen. For each of those words, make sure to read some authentic example sentences in a reliable all-English dictionary, such as http://www.collinsdictionary.com/. Now you're ready to put the puzzle pieces together.

I hope you are working with a textbook, that has plenty of exercises, and that you have someone who will check your exercises carefully.

Forgive me for that prologue.... Now, to answer your question:

For simple rote memorization, for example table, airplane, breakfast, translate, it is fine to drill yourself with one-word flashcards that have Chinese on one side and English on the other.

You can also use this method for idiomatic expressions, such as beat around the bush.

An alternative to flashcards is to write the items in lists (two columns) on a normal sheet of paper, with the Chinese in one column and the English in the other.

Michael's picture idea is fantastic. Previously, this was hard for someone with lousy drawing skills to do through self-study. But with modern computer tools, this has become much more feasible.

Now let's say you want to learn the fine distinction between opportunity and chance, to take the example Michael gave, or you want to learn some common constructions for comparisons (such as Is it better to drink water before or after eating?). Here's where reading a really good all-English dictionary can come in.

After reading the dictionary entries, the usage notes and the example sentences, you may want to make two or more flash cards about the key things you learned from your reading, that you would like to be able to remember a month from now.


I think the contradictory advice you received from your two teachers may come from their differing approaches to teaching. Which is not the same as an approach to learning.

When you are teaching a second language, it is often tempting to introduce a word or expression by simply giving the closest equivalent in the student's first language. It is easy to fall into this when teaching in another country where all the students speak the same language.

But imagine that you are teaching Chinese to an American, a Mexican, a Russian, and an Egyptian. You'll be forced to find universal ways of getting an idea across! You'll have to use pictures and explanations in Chinese.

Some language teachers (myself included) believe that this is the best way to teach, no matter where you are. Some language teachers don't know how to do this. So my guess is that this difference of teaching philosophy is the reason for the different answers you got.

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