November 11, 2017

Word sculpting

What is word sculpting?

Word sculpting is a way of learning words from top to bottom, slowly removing layers of difficulty on all levels. I started calling it like this for the lack of a better name, but it is pretty accurate actually. 

Imagine you're somewhere at a beginner - intermediate level in Mandarin Chinese and you'd like to learn the word 'situation'.

You ask your friend and they say the word situation in Mandarin is: qíng kuàng

You could either stress your brain and try to remember everything about the word perfectly on your first try - every sound, every aspiration, intonation, tones, word usage etc., or you could break the process down into steps:

Relax and just remember whatever you can in the first step. Lets say, you will only remember that there is an 'i' in the first word and an 'a' in the second:

Step 1: .i.. ..a..

The next time you have to say the word maybe you'll have an easy time recalling the 'i' and the 'a' and in addition you will think: Oh yeah, the first syllable was starting with an aspirated q sound:

Step 2: qi.. ..a..

and you slowly add the rest every time you have to use the word:

Step 3: qin. kuan.

Step 4: qing kuang

Step 5: qíng kuàng

It sounds very tedious, counterproductive and sounds like it takes a lot of time just to learn one word, but bare with me. The above example only explains the logic behind the system. I'm not using it exactly like this every time and not with every single word, usually only with words that are very difficult to remember. But come to think about it, I do use it with words that are easy to remember too, because there always is something to improve. 

For instance, I might've learned a word easily, because it sounded similar to a word I know from another language, but maybe I didn't notice that the open 'a' in that word was actually a closed one, maybe I didn't notice the stress in the word wasn't one the first, but on the second syllable etc. So, I improve these details the next time I get a chance, until there is nothing more to improve.

Also, you can start from anything you remember, not necessarily the vowel, or if you remember more than the vowel, or the first consonant it's ok too. The point is to gradually add on information about the word.

It's a very natural process which takes place in your mind very automatically and quickly and I don't think any textbook or anything else could be built on this. The point of the method is to give yourself the luxury to remember certain words bit by bit and not all at once as it is usually done.

The reason why I call this method sculpting is that it very much resembles the process of carving a statue out of stone. You start off with a huge lump of rock, you first remove the biggest blocks in your way and as you get closer to what you need you carve out smaller and smaller details until you are left with the perfect statue you want. 

I think I do the same thing with the entire language. First, the language is like a big lump of rock, just this cloud of sound which makes no sense. I start slowly removing layers, whether trying to understand grammar, build vocabulary, work on pronunciation, train my ears to understand the language etc. Bit by bit, layer by layer, observing the 'statue' taking form and then smoothing out the details until I get to what I need. 


  1. Interesting....but I don't understand. Under your 'steps' you mention 'saying' the word. Is this in studying or in real conversational speech? How can you "say" a word in a conversation that you only remember two vowels of?
    I have been living and working in Korea for over 10 years now. I have taken some classes, but have not retained more than a handful of survival phrases. Lately I'm working with Duolingo and some Memrise to build some vocab and grammar. I'm trying to do a bit of Duolingo everyday even though sometimes I barely understand what is going on. But none of this seems to translate into actual speaking, 'cause I never have the words I need when I need them. Nothing sticks. How do the ideas in your article help me? Seriously, I don't get it!

    1. Hello. I think in your case the main problem is motivation. If you've been in Korea for 10 years and all you've managed to learn are survival phrases, that's the only possible explanation. This article is not for you I'm afraid.

    2. I had similar problems during the two years I lived in Korea. Motivation is the main thing. Culture shock prevented me from learning much. Secondly, I tried to memorize a lot of vocabulary, and found that the words all sounded alike after a while. Duolingo will help you with the grammar a little (as can YouTube channels like "Learn Korean with Go Billy Korean"), but I found what works for me is to make a lot of my own sentences until the grammar sticks. You could try keeping a written daily journal of your thoughts and activities in Korean. At first, it'll be very difficult, but I've heard that in the long run, it can be very useful. Or you could try a reading-and-listening approach and worry about speaking only after your listening comprehension is strong.

  2. Great article Vladimir. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This reminds me a little bit of how I learn Russian words: I pick out the word root (which is usually the first or second syllable) and learn that. Later I learn the rest of the word, focusing sometimes on the prefix and sometimes on the ending. As for English spelling, if I struggle with a word, I try to memorize just the vowels (which for me is the hardest part). When learning Mandarin words, I focus heavily on the first letter and whether it's pronounced in the front or middle of the mouth (x vs. sh, for example). The vowel relies upon that consonant (xi vs. shi).

  4. Vlad,

    There is a system of mnemonics for Chinese words. it's called 汉字。
    Every few centuries the Chinese culture and society gets worried about its writing system, so it coughs up a bunch of geniuses and they work the whole thing over. What they come up with is the writing system for the next little while, made up of bits and piece to remind you of the meaning and pronunciation of the various sounds in your language.
    That's what the characters are. Each character is made up of several pieces, and they're a remarkably capable set of reminders. For pedagogical purposes about 170 of the most common bits and pieces are broken out and called radicals.
    It isn't perfect, but where it falls short we've had dictionaries in the past and computers now.
    That's about it, seems to me.