Why Frequently Used Words Are Important
The TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) approach to language teaching focuses on teaching the most commonly used words in a language. Although originally used in Spanish classes, TPRS works for teaching just about any language. TPRS focuses on the most commonly used words in a language. TPRS experts suggest using frequency dictionaries in language instruction. Frequency dictionaries can be a powerful tool for language learning. What about Mandarin Chinese? Do we have lists of the most frequently used words in Mandarin Chinese to use in classes? Yes we do!
A list of most frequently used words in Chinese is not a document that should be used to evaluate student learning. Teachers should also not give a list of words to students for them to memorize. Instead, teachers can use a frequency list to plan instruction and design assessments. For example, in my beginner lessons with both adults and kids I tend to focus on the most commonly used verbs. These include 有、是、and 喜欢 （to have, to be and to like, respectively). I would not for example, include the word 抽 （to take out from between two things) in a lesson at this level because it us just not common enough.
Where to Find a Frequency Dictionary
So for the curious, where can we find frequency lists? Teachers may be interested in this frequency dictionary from the Mandarin Institute. It might help adults determine whether a book is appropriate for a child. A parent who does not speak Chinese could also use the list with a bit of effort, as long as the book she is looking at has a glossary in the back. Most good books that are meant for L2 learners do have a glossary.
Physical frequency dictionaries are available on Amazon or other major bookselling websites. This frequency dictionary has an average of four stars from eight reviews as of writing. Older learners (middle school and up) might enjoy the poster of the 1000 most common characters from Mandarin Poster. I wouldn’t use the Mandarin poster as a teaching tool, but it could be a good motivational tool for a learner who is at least 12 years old. Tracking progress by checking off characters with a dry erase marker could be a great motivation for a student. It could also have the opposite effect. Be careful!
Should Students Only Focus on the Most Frequently Used Words?
Teachers should not focus on only frequently used words to the exclusion of all else. Learning the most frequently used words is a good use of student time. Class time is also very limited. That doesn’t mean that there is not time to talk about exotic animals or cooking techniques (lots of rare words for that topic in Chinese!). If students want to learn about those topics, then they should. As I have written about on this blog, I have seen preschool Mandarin classes which attempt to teach really complicated vocabulary to little kids. I am sure that there are preschoolers who can handle it, but is that really the best use of time in a language class?
Instead of that, how about a task in which students decide whether to get a fish for a class pet? Think about all the language they will hear and use for that discussion: we will need to feed the fish, what does the fish eat, what color fish do we like the best, where do we buy a fish, do we want a big fish or a small fish? The words such as 要、吃、大、小 （want to/need to, eat, big, small) are amongst the most commonly used words in Mandarin.
Be careful when looking at frequency dictionaries for Chinese or at a list online of the 100/200/1000 most common Chinese words. Mandarin Chinese is a heavily context dependent and words often have many, many meanings. If the definitions given in English are brief, a reader might not get the full picture of how a word is actually used in Chinese. In this list the definition for 后 is given as “queen” 王后 does mean queen. But 后 as in after, behind or rear is a much more common use. Check another dictionary if it seems suspicious that the word “queen” is used all day long in Mandarin!
Read more about learning vocabulary in Mandarin Chinese: