This will be an obvious point to some, but a useful revelation to others: the most effective way to learn Chinese measure words is with example sentences and SRS. I would go further and say that example sentences + SRS is pretty much the best way to learn any language in general. But this is just about measure words (aka classifiers).
Measure words are one of the more famous features of Chinese, and one that people get their knickers in a twist about when learning the language. They’re actually quite a minor point in my view. It’s nice if you get them ‘right’, but ultimately it’s very rare that they become an obstacle to communication (and hopefully you’re learning Chinese to communicate with people).
I’ve seen and tried a lot of different methods for getting measure words fixed in your mind, and I have no doubt that good old example sentences + SRS (the emperor of language learning methods) easily wins at this. First let’s have a look at some other approaches.
Method 1: Learn the categories that go with each measure word
If you look up a measure word in a dictionary you usually get a little run-down of the types of objects it’s used with. So for 条 you might get something like: “measure word for long, bendy things such as rivers, dragons and government policies”. Thus equipped, you can go out and use measure words correctly because you know what kind of thing goes with what measure word.
Except you usually can’t, firstly because you don’t have time to decide in the middle of forming a sentence, and secondly because it’s often pretty hard to guess even when time is on your side. 条 is the measure word for long thin things, but so is 根, and 支 covers a lot of objects that fit that description as well.
Method 2: Brute memorise measure words with every noun you learn
This one seems to get promoted by Chinese teachers. Every time you learn a new noun, ask for or look up the measure word that goes with it and learn them both. This method seems plausible at the early stages when you might learn a dozen nouns in a lesson, and have time to look them all up.
But at later stages you really want to be wolfing down nouns like a nounivore, and you need to be getting your daily allowance of collocations, synonyms and other vitamins too. There’s not enough time to be looking up measure words for every single one.
Even if there were, you’d have to have a comprehensive dictionary that offers measure words for everything. As far as I know this doesn’t really exist apart from in specialised measure word dictionaries, and they don’t tend to organise the information in that way (see why below).
Besides all that, there are actually several measure words that could be used with most nouns, and you need to know what the difference is between them. Plus verbs use their own set of measure words. You’ll never complete this brute memorisation task.
Method 3: Example sentences + SRS
This is the method that I think offers the best mix of effectiveness and manageability. The best way to learn new vocabulary is to study it in example sentences. This is because you’re getting all of that juicy context to go with the vocabulary. Context not only helps you to remember vocabulary for longer, it also equips you to use it more accurately, as you’ve got some idea of the kind of situation it goes with.
The same applies to measure words. Just search around for example sentences containing measure words as you come across them (Tatoeba, Jukuu and nciku are all good sources), then add them into your SRS.
I don’t think you need to be too concerned with how you set up the SRS to show you the sentences. You just need to be reading and trying to produce them regularly, and you’ll get massive benefit from it.
This approach solves the problems described above. You know which measure word fits which context because you’re seeing them in context all the time in your SRS. When you trying to talk about a situation, the right measure word just goes with it in your imagination, because the situation seems similar to the ones in your example sentences.
And it’s worth searching for and adding the example sentences, because you get extra grammar and vocabulary with every sentence you add. You’re building up an inter-linked web of semantic content, which is exactly what you want for language learning.
If anyone is wondering why the featured image for this post is a picture of two men in the bath, this video may be enlightening.