Dec 10 2009

Chinese Lego Language – Learn X Words Get Y Free

In my other posts I have discussed how easy Mandarin Chinese is to learn because of its amazingly simple verb conjugations and also how easy it is to express all of their verbs in the past tense and future tense

Now I want to demonstrate how easy Mandarin Chinese is when it comes to learning new vocabulary and why it can be called “The Lego Language”.

How many stores have you been to where they have the sign “Buy 2 get 1 free”? We all love to get a bargain and discounts.   Well, when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese I kind of think us language learners are getting a HUGE bargain when it comes to “brainspace” and challenges to our memory.

Let me illustrate.   Imagine someone learning English.   Here are 3 words that a foreigner would have to learn:


Those 3 words are entirely different and have no relation to one another.   Someone learning English would have to learn all 3 words by memorization.   But in Mandarin Chinese you only need to learn 2 and you get the 3rd one free! Because of this building block characteristic I often call it the “Lego Language” and I also have found others coining the same phrase too.

Do you remember those Lego sets ?  There were only so many “types” of blocks right ?  Big ones, small ones, flat ones.  I’m not sure how many different types of blocks there were, but there weren’t 100s of them.  Those finite number of blocks could be used to build almost anything.  Just by changing the order in which they were stacked up on top of each other could build you a car, plane, train or house all with the same Lego set.

Chinese Mandarin is just like that!  You just need to learn the basic words of the language and then you combine those words you already know in order to make new words.   So in the above example you only need to learn :


And your “free” word “volcano” is simply expressed by saying “fire mountain”

This phenomenon is something you see very regularly in Mandarin Chinese. Here are some more examples :


Good eat = delicious



Look at / See

Difficult Look at = Ugly


Light (as in weight, ie not heavy)
Years light = young


Hand machine = mobile phone


Electric / Electricity
Word (Spoken)
Look at
Electric word (spoken) = telephone
Electric look at = television
Electric image = movie/film
Electric stairs = elevator
Electric Brain = Computer


With the example above involving “electric” it’s actually a learn 6 and get 5 free! Therefore, in my opinion, this is an easy language to learn ALSO because you don’t need to learn every single individual word in the language.   You can just learn the basic words and get more complex words for free by just remembering how to combine the basic words to form new complex logical meanings.   The combinations of these words are not strange at all as you can see above, they are very logical and therefore very easy to remember.   I think this is just yet another reason why Mandarin Chinese is one of the easiest languages to learn to speak (I’m not at all referring to reading or writing in these series of articles).

3 Responses to “Chinese Lego Language – Learn X Words Get Y Free”

  1. Kevin says:

    This is an interesting way to look at learning characters. If you include the idea of learning radicals and using them to help decode more complicated characters you get an even greater bonus. However, learners must remember that using radicals isn’t failsafe.

  2. admin says:

    I agree that learning the radicals can be useful but as you say not failsafe. For example I know that the word for “rest” is a pictogram of a person near a tree depicting that being near a tree perhaps for the shade conveys the meaning of “rest” or in chinese the word for “good” is a character depicting a daughter and a son so having both a daughter and a son is “good” in chinese culture. Radicals are very interesting too and I will address that in another article for sure. However they don’t always have logical meaning in every character

  3. Sam Song says:

    “Chinese Lego Language” is a very clever description.

    Japanese adopts a lot of Chinese characters, so, some Japanese know the advantages of the Chinese language. A learned Japanese states that Chinese language is very systematic and logic. He looks at Mandarin from a different angle.

    Some Americans say the sound of Mandarin is poetic.

    I’d say the writing of Chinese characters can be very beautiful.

    I viewed your wonderful web pages and think you are a talented person.

    I am a published author of 5 books online

    Would you be interested to join Amazon as an associates and sell my books here? (I can do my best to help you with pictures or information from my books.)

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