Can you learn new words through labels on your stuff?

There are many places to spend your money if you want to learn a second (or third!) language. There are classes, tutors, paid apps, Rosetta Stone, etc. You can even buy stickers to label all the stuff in your house in the target language. If you would like to learn a language such as Mandarin Chinese, should you buy stickers and spend the time and money to put them all over your house?

The short answer is no. Sticking labels on your fridge, coffee pot, and television won’t help you learn those words. There are two reasons for this. The first reason has to do with how we actually learn new words. The second reason has to do with how our minds work in general.

photo of television labelled in Chinese
Will this label help you learn the word for television in Chinese? Probably not!

How we acquire new words

We learn new works when we encounter them in a meaningful context. Say that you are a highly motivated adult student or a parent who wants to help her child learn Chinese. You look up the words for sofa, lamp, table, computer, etc and then print out the words and paste them around the house. You’ve got the words, but you are missing the meaningful context. You don’t look at a sofa and think “yep, that is a sofa.”

We can’t even learn a new word in our native languages without a meaningful context. Say I told you that the word “puce” means a purplish brown color. If I asked you one year from now what the word “puce” means, then maybe you would remember, but more likely you wouldn’t. Say instead that your Aunt Mavis knits you a sweater for your birthday. You open up the gifts and see the lumpy bundle of yarn and she tells you, “the color is puce.” Your birthday is a memorable context. You’ve got the color right in front of you. Add to that the emotional resonance of the awkward birthday present. I promise you’ll remember that the color puce is a purplish brown.

photo of dishwasher labelled in Chinese
Is labelling your dishwasher a good use of your time? Not really!

Looking without seeing (or reading)

There is another reason that putting stickers with vocabulary words around your house does not work. Our brains are very good at ignoring what is in our visual environments. We just do not “see” what is there. Very quickly, those stickers will fade into  the background and you or your child won’t even notice that it says 洗碗机 on your dishwasher. This psychological phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Maybe a highly diligent student will look at the sticker and say 冰箱 every time she opens the fridge, but most of us won’t.

Save your time and money. Labelling stuff around your house won’t help you learn new words in Mandarin Chinese (or any other language). You are better off seeking out compelling input (through listening and reading) to build your vocabulary in Chinese. The impulse to label stuff around your house is understandable. Learning a second language is a big undertaking and students want to feel like they are doing something. It is not worth the effort.

More on how we learn new words:

Can You Learn a Language from an App?

Leave a Reply