Sensible character challenge, January 11th to 31st

bulbThe first challenge I ran on Hacking Chinese was the sensible character challenge that started more than two years ago (Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese). It became much more popular than I thought with more than 100 participants. Last year, I ran another challenge, this time for 100 days, which also went well.

Since then, I have launched Hacking Chinese Challenges to better handle many participants and challenges in general. After running a few other challenges focused on listening, reading and translation, it’s now time for a character challenge again!

If you have participated before, you know roughly what to expect. If you haven’t, don’t worry, I’ll explain both how the challenge works and what sensible character learning is.

Prizes on offer for this challenge

This is what I have to offer at the moment (it’s likely to increase later):

  1. 5 months of free Skritter, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  2. A two-week trial and a 33%discount for six-month  on Skritter for new users (create an account, select “alternative payment methods” and then enter the coupon code SENSIBLE2015)
  3. Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  4. Books from Tuttle Publishing (this one and this one)

For new Skrtiter users, If you want to offer prizes that are suitable for this challenge or if you know someone who might, please contact me! My definitions of “finish the challenge” is to have reported progress throughout the challenge and posted about it either here, your own blog or social media.

The challenge

Is your vocabulary lagging behind? Can’t you write all those basic characters you really ought to know? Is your limited vocabulary holding you back? I think most of us would answer “yes” to at least one of these questions and that’s why I think character challenges are so useful. The procedure is easy:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the sensible character challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

In previous character challenges, we haves set goals in terms of absolute numbers, such as “learning X new characters”. However, this doesn’t always work out very well, especially for beginner and intermediate students who aren’t familiar enough with vocabulary learning to know what a reasonable goal is. Moreover, vocabulary learning tend to accumulate, so it’s very hard to set reasonable goals.

Therefore, we’re going to measure time in this challenge rather than characters or words. It’s easier to estimate how much time you can or want to spend on an activity such as vocabulary learning. The challenge engine can actually handle other units than time, but we’ll explore than in future challenges!

What is a reasonable goal?

I would say that 20 minutes per day (including weekends, words don’t care about which day of the week it is) is a reasonable goal for people who are not studying full-time. You can find 20 minutes per day just by reviewing and/or learning vocabulary on your phone while commuting, waiting in a queue or in the bathroom, it needn’t influence your other activities too much. If you study full-time, an hour isn’t unreasonable!

I’m going to go for ten hours, which is roughly half an hour per day. My main goal is to battle down my enormous review queue in Skritter. I’ve been to busy to actually study much vocabulary recently, so I have around 2000 reviews due. I probably won’t be able to kill the entire queue in 10 hours (that would mean slightly more than 20 seconds per review, which isn’t enough if we include some editing of definitions, example sentences and so on).

Sensible character learning

So what’s “sensible character learning”? I started using this term a few years ago because I felt that most character learning done by students (native and non-native speakers alike), isn’t very sensible. It often involves horribly inefficient methods that require much more effort than more sensible methods. I’m going to do a recap of sensible character learning and vocabulary acquisition in general next week, so let’s focus on some key points here:

  1. Reviewing and learning are two different processes – When you learn a character or word, try to understand it as much as possible. Learn it in context (use sentences or common collocations). Approach the character or word from different angles. Study carefully. Reviewing is much quicker and should actively probe if you remember the character or word (see below).
  2. Active learning is better than passive learning – Reviewing by just looking at the characters is almost useless, you need to actively ask questions and recall the information before you see the answer. This is why flashcards are so good. You can use fill-in-the gap phrases or sentences, or translation.
  3. Diversified learning is smart learning – Don’t do all your reviewing in one go or in one place, spread it out. Using a smart phone to learn is really important because it moves studying away from your desk, the library or wherever you normally study. Do small bursts of a few minutes when you have time to spare throughout the day.
  4. Spaced repetition is better than massed repetition – Reviewing the same character or word several times in a row is not efficient, it’s better to wait between reviews. Exactly how long to wait can be hard to know, but fortunately, there are lot’s of programs that do this for you (see below).
  5. Rote learning isn’t good, understanding is essential – Rote learning Chinese characters works only for a comparatively small number of characters or if you spend a very long time writing characters (the compulsory education of native speakers). It typically doesn’t work very well for second language learners. Rote learning works well for basic characters in the beginning, but its usefulness dwindles as you learn more characters.
  6. What vocabulary you learn matters a lot – I subscribe to a “the more the merrier” attitude towards learning characters and words, but it matters greatly which character or words you learn. Make sure you learn common and useful words first. Keep an active attitude towards your vocabulary: delete and edit more than you think you should.
  7. Don’t go on tilt – When using spaced repetition software, don’t go on tilt when you encounter words you ought to know but actually don’t. Some words you learn automatically, but others refuse to stick. The worst thing you can do is to try to hammer these words into your head. Ban/mark/suspend these cards and deal with them separately instead! Add context, study the character, create mnemonics.

I will write more about learning characters in a proper overview article next week. For now, just join the challenge!

What program or app should I use to learn characters and words

Even though there are many programs and apps (perhaps too many) out there for learning Chinese characters and words, it doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as it has proper spaced repetition and fulfils your requirements in other areas. I usually suggest three programs, so if you have no idea, see which one of these suits you best:

  • Skritter is the ideal app for learning to write characters. It’s the only app that allows you to write characters on the screen and offers you feedback for each stroke, such as if you put it in the wrong place or write it in the wrong direction. If you register with the code SENSIBLE2015, you’ll get an extra week of free trial and then a six-month discount if you want to continue using it. I should mention that I work for Skrttter, even though I started using it well before that.
  • Pleco is one of the best apps for learning Chinese in general and it also has a flashcard module that integrates well with the dictionary. The basic dictionary is free, but the flashcard module isn’t. If you just want one single app for your Chinese learning, Pleco is your best bet.
  • Anki is much more versatile than any of the above apps and you can do almost anything you want, including cloze test, very advanced card editing, picture/video/audio flashcards and detailed control of how the cards are displayed. It’s somewhat harder to use than the above, but still one of my favourites. Anki only costs money on iOS, it’s completely free elsewhere. Do make sure to get Chinese support (a plug-in).

That’s it for now, I will publish more about character learning next week!

Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.

So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.

1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days

I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.

Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.

My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.

Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal

In my case, then:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)

Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.

3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here

There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.

I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!

Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)

4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)

Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.

Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!

6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters

As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.

I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.

I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.

7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

skritterIf we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).

The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed)  will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):

List of participants in the challenge

If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Gerrityong
  3. Maggie
  4. Xiaokaka
  5. Elizabeth Braun
  6. 胡安马林
  7. Xiaomai
  8. Jacob Gill
  9. Brian Emord
  10. Teresa
  11. Rossi
  12. Magnus
  13. Ivan
  14. Jacob Job
  15. 勇氣
  16. Dan Poole
  17. Li
  18. Carmeljune
  19. Hugh Grigg
  20. Frederico Ferro Schuh
  21. Rob Flye
  22. Lucía 学习吧
  23. Oaht
  24. Fandez
  25. Leslie
  26. Kelby Barker
  27. Tai
  28. Nommoc
  29. LorenzoCC
  30. Georges
  31. Daniel
  32. Lagoyidice
  33. Ana H. Zentarski
  34. Joaquin Matek
  35. Kyle Balmer 凯尔
  36. Daniela Rodríguez
  37. Dean James
  38. 陳凱
  39. Luke
  40. Rachel
  41. Nicole
  42. Mariano
  43. Linitachinese
  44. Aaron
  45. Lechuan
  46. Hans
  47. Doug Stetar
  48. Aivlys
  49. 戴睿
  50. Julia
  51. Emily
  52. Matt
  53. Trey
  54. Carla
  55. Nathan Fields
  56. Leigh
  57. Lili
  58. Núria
  59. Kiwi
  60. 杨明晨
  61. 狄小可
  62. Georg
  63. Jeremy
  64. 9thcrane
  65. Jeb Topper
  66. 爱美
  67. Kevin
  68. 戴睿
  69. Jason
  70. Stefan
  71. Bailee
  72. Rebecca
  73. Evelyn
  74. Sammy
  75. Jack
  76. Clare
  77. Audrey
  78. Nancy
  79. Federico
  80. Jason
  81. Pnh
  82. Napo
  83. Nik
  84. Julia
  85. Renee Bovee
  86. Haris
  87. Jacob
  88. Javi
  89. Ann
  90. Kate
  91. Faiz
  92. William
  93. KarynL
  94. Jamison Watson
  95. Martin W 龍馬丁
  96. 爱美
  97. hitesh agrawal
  98. Jocy
  99. Ryan T
  100. Baroni Fabio
  101. Will
  102. Reixue90
  103. Jeremy89
  104. Nikki
  105. Steve L
  106. David Brett
  107. Julia
  108. You?

That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014 (this article)
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source:
Image source:

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.


5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions

One of the most common questions I receive is what my flashcard deck looks like and how I think one should organise a deck of flashcards for optimum learning. The reason I seldom give straight answers to these questions is that the true answer is usually “it depends”. However, I can still say quite a lot about what it depends on and I will try to do so in this article.

overflowNote that what I say here is generally applicable for flashcard programs in general (including paper flashcards, actually), but the specific software you’re using might limit what you can do. Anki is the only program I know that allows you to do everything I talk about here and more (although it is certainly harder to use). Other programs might be really good for other reasons, such as Skritter being excellent for handwriting, but this is not something I plan to discuss in this article. Instead, I will keep to major principles and leave different software for later.

Flashcard overflow, part 1: Review direction

One of the most immediate problems that faces people who use spaced repetition software is that they need to decide how they want their flashcards to work. In its most basic form, this question is a matter of direction. The most basic kind of flashcards have two sides, front and back, and you need to decide what goes on the front and what goes on the back.

Sounds easy? It’s not. Even if your particular program only allows you to enter three elements on each flashcard, such as Chinese character(s), pronunciation and definition, you still face the problem of directionality. Given three elements, you can set up three different kinds of cards. Actually, if we mix in audio recordings or pictures, you can have more combinations than this, but let’s not make it more complicated than it already is:

  1. Chinese characters on the front, pronunciation and definition on the back
  2. Pronunciation on the front, Chinese characters and definition on the back
  3. Definition on the front, Chinese characters and pronunciation on the back

This means that if we want to learn 500 words from the textbook we’re currently using, we could end up with 500 words, but 1500 flashcards, three for each word. This might be manageable, but if your vocabulary swells to thousands of words, your flashcard deck will become unusable very quickly. This is what I mean when I say flashcard overflow and it’s a very real problem. Before we start talking about solutions, let’s look at a second problem that is the nail in the coffin for the idea that you can create flashcards for everything.

Flashcard overflow, part 2: Review level

As if it wasn’t enough that we tripled the number of flashcards above, we also have to take into account what linguistic level we’re aiming for and therefore what we write on each side of the flashcard. Here’s a breakdown of the possible levels, starting with the smallest:

  1. Character components (phonemes for sound)
  2. Individual characters (monosyllables for sound)
  3. Single words
  4. Short phrases and collocations
  5. Sentences

Let’s say we encounter the sentence 今天太阳很大 and we want to learn it. Should we put the entire sentence on one card? Should we add 太阳很大 to focus our attention on the fact that we can say “the sun is big” in Chinese to indicate that it’s sunny? Should we add 今天, 太阳 and 大 as three separate words? Should we also add 阳 as a separate character that means “sun”? Or perhaps break it down even further and add 阝 which isn’t a character in itself, but is a common component that means “hill”, and 日 which is a character that also means “sun”?

Clearly, we can’t do all of this at the same time, especially not consider that each question can be answered in three ways depending on what you put on the front of the flashcard, the number of cards will spin out of control very fast. The question, then, in what should we add?

What cards should I add? It depends on what you want to learn!

Let’s return to the “it depends” answer I usually give to people who ask about flashcard models and review directions. First, the review direction (i.e. what you put on the front of the card) is mostly determined by what you use your flashcards for and what you cover through other means of studying (remember, spaced repetition software isn’t a panacea).

Here’s my personal philosophy:

  • For basic words, add both characters to pronunciation/definition and definition to pronunciation/characters. You need to understand these words and you need to be able to produce them as well. If the words are really basic and if you practise Chinese often, you can probably do away with the second type of cards because you will learn that by using the words.
  • When you encounter new sentence patterns or grammar, use sentences. This should be quite obvious, but don’t treat sentence patterns such as 因为… 所以… like single words, instead add sentences. If you find new instances of the same pattern that don’t fit your previous understanding, you can consider adding these as well. I don’t think that adding an example sentence is enough, though, you need the sentence to be part of the question.
  • For anything beyond the basics (synonyms of words you already know, for instance), just add characters to pronunciation/definition. Your goal here is to boost your understanding of Chinese, you will learn how to use these words through exposure, but you need to understand Chinese in order to get exposed to it a lot. I’m a firm believer in that we need to learn things passively before we learn them actively. Exactly how to do this will be the focus of at least one future article.
  • Whenever you encounter problems with words you have already learnt (such as something that goes against your understanding of the word or shows a new, cool ways of using it), focus on the problem and add a card that targets that problem. For collocation problems and problems with function words, use cloze test (a test where you remove the keyword from a sentence; fill in the gap); for characters you forget how to write, add single radicals and use mnemonics. Don’t go on tilt, be sensible.

The level you choose (component, character, word, etc.) depends mainly on these factors:

  • The reason for wanting to learning the item – When you consider adding a flashcard, you presumably have a reason for doing so (if you don’t, you really shouldn’t add the card). Why do you want to add it? The obvious answer is that you want to add it because you don’t know something, but try to think one step further. What is it that you don’t know? If you see the sentence 今天太阳很大 you probably know at least some parts of the sentence. If you found the collocation 太陽-很大 new, focus on this (gap text or translation). If you didn’t know the word for sun, then adding the word 太陽 is a bitter idea. If you weren’t familiar with the word order in the sentence, you might want to add the entire sentence.
  • The predictability of how the item is used – Some parts of a language have very strictly defined functions, tend to be more or less the same across languages and are therefore quite predictable. For instance, “table” is very similar to 桌子 and if you always translate “whale” into 鲸鱼 you will be right most of the time. In these cases, context plays a minor role, so adding entire sentences isn’t necessary; going for a single word is fine. Of course, you should try to add as few things as possible, we’re trying to deal with flashcard overflow after all!
  • The productivity of the item – Productivity here refers to the number of expressions a particular item can generate or be part of. So, the most common radicals are ridiculously productive, whereas some chengyu (idioms) are not, which is one of the reasons I think learning chengyu is mostly a waste of time. The more productive an item is, the more you should consider adding it as a separate flashcard. You can use the common rule of three to determine this if you’re new to Chinese, so if you see something appear three times in different characters/words/sentences, you should consider learning it as a separate item.

In order for the above approach (my philosophy) to work, you need to spend a fair amount of time reading and listening, as well as actually practising using the language. In other words, this is not a method that works well if SRS takes up a large part of your study time. If it does, I would lean more towards using sentences since this is closer to the way the language is actually used.

This is too complicated! Is there a shortcut?

This might look very complicated when written down, but the process actually becomes natural quickly. First ask yourself what you want to be able to do with a certain word. If it seems likely that being able to know what it means is enough, go with Chinese on the front of the card and the rest on the back. If you want to add the card because you really want to be able to learn how to say this now rather than later, put the definition on the front of the card and/or use a cloze test.

You and your flashcard deck: A dynamic relationship

The most important thing to understand is that you should have an active relationship to your flashcard deck. It’s not like you have to decide exactly how to do things now and then stick to that for the rest of your life. For instance, learning the meaning of lots of characters can be very useful at a certain stage when learning Chinese, just as learning radicals can, but at some point, this stops being meaningful. Don’t hesitate to delete, change or add flashcards or flashcard models as you go a long (please read this article for a more thorough discussion of editing/deleting flashcards).  Spaced repetition software should be a tool you use to maintain certain aspects of the Chinese language, not a chain that binds you to ways of studying you neither like nor find useful.

If you want to read more about flashcards and SRS, there’s plenty more to read here on Hacking Chinese:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese (newest first)

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Why manually adding and editing flashcards is good for you

One of my earliest contributions to the Chinese language learning community was to share my flashcard decks, first with my fellow classmates and then with the rest of the world. I have almost a dozen decks shared in Anki now that have been downloaded thousands of times. However, I think downloading other people’s decks is a double-edged sword. I don’t create my own flashcards only for altruistic reasons. Do you know why?

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Creating your own flashcards is good for you

Actually, if it weren’t for the fact that if I didn’t share, someone else would, I feel that offering ready-made decks might be doing a disfavour to ambitious language learners. Sure, if you’re leaning towards the more casual style of learning, being able to download a deck in five seconds rather than enter a whole textbook manually is awesome, but it comes with a cost. Here’s why I create my own flashcards.

  • There’s a lot of crap out there. Many decks you can find online are really bad, with incorrect definitions, pronunciation or erroneous characters. They might miss important vocabulary or be automatically generated rather than manually created (this is actually true for my earlier decks as well, because I created them retroactively). If you enter everything manually on your own, you know what you get. This also avoids the problem that arises when you’re wrong on an exam because the definition in your deck and in your textbook are different.
  • You get to know your deck. Perhaps your deck doesn’t need to be you best friend, but getting to know it is quite important. If you’ve built your deck on your own, you care a lot more about it and it’s also much more rewarding to work with it. You know where the definitions come from, you know what abbreviations and notes on the flashcards actually mean.
  • Your Chinese will improve during the process. Entering the words from a chapter in your book manually takes quite a lot of time, but it’s not wasted time like some people seem to think. This is a very good opportunity to learn! Check the characters in dictionaries, look up the radicals and learn the words! Remember that it’s spaced repetition, not spaced learning.

Obviously, you can gain some of these benefits simply by using decks from people you trust or that has been recommended to you, but the last item in the list above is really important. If you download lists of new words, you need to study them before you can review! If it’s your textbook, then fine, but downloading huge lists from the internet and hacking away at them isn’t a good idea. You need to process what you learn actively.

How to create flashcards manually

I don’t know what flashcard program you use (I suggest Anki or Skritter), but there are some things that are universal and applies to all programs. First, even though this might sound counter-intuitive, I suggest that you disregard the auto-completion or dictionary look-up function if there is one. You can look at the answers, but it’s much better to write your own, even if it’s a verbatim copy from a textbook or dictionary.

This is extra important when you copy from a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. It’s so easy to skim through the definition, copy-paste it and be done with it. If you type it manually, you have to process the sentence much more actively, which aids learning tremendously. It turns menial copy-pasting into a learning opportunity.

Second, spread it out. Regard flashcard creation as learning rather than a mechanical task you perform using your computer. You probably wouldn’t sit down and try to learn all those words in one go, so since we have now merged learning and flashcard creation, we should apply the same principles. Add the words in small batches of perhaps 3-5 words. Add example sentences (read and type them), add definitions, add other useful information you find in your textbook or online.

Editing flashcards

Likewise, if you need to change or update your flashcards, this shouldn’t be viewed as menial task that just needs getting over with, it’s part of your studying. This is where you adjust the cards to your current needs, often adding more information where you’ve found it lacking, but also removing cards you don’t need. I spend quite a lot of time adding information about synonyms, new example sentences and details about character composition. Again, make this a learning opportunity and not just a chore!

Not a waste of time

This article should have explained why I think it’s weird to think that I’m wasting my time creating flashcards. It’s not as if I have to grow the trees, cut them down, turn them into paper and write the information on them. That would indeed be a waste of time if my goal was to learn Chinese. In this day and age, though, the actual creation of a flashcard takes a second. Filling in the information takes much more, but as I have explained before, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

  1. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it
  2. Anki, the best of spaced repetition software
  3. Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning
  4. Vocabulary in your pocket
  5. Diversified learning is smart learning
  6. Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches
  7. Answer buttons and how to use SRS
  8. Measurable progress is a double-edged sword
  9. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  10.  Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  11. Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?
  12. If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea, you are wrong

If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong

After having talked about spaced repetition software (SRS) with a large number of students (but very few teachers) both online and offline, I’ve gradually come to realise that many people neither understand what SRS is for nor how to use it. Some people seem to believe that SRS is a comprehensive learning method and that if you just spend enough time with the program of your choice, you will become fluent in Chinese.

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I am myself an avid proponent of SRS, but that doesn’t mean I think that it’s a panacea that can solve all challenges facing a language learner. In this article, I’m going to talk about some misconceptions I have encountered regarding SRS. In short, like any other tool, SRS is very good at what it does, but thinking that it’s the Swiss army knife of language learning that will help you in every situation is just wrong.

It’s spaced repetition, not spaced learning

Put as briefly as possible, SRS is about reviewing something the moment before you forget it, thus reinforcing your knowledge without wasting time reviewing things you actually would remember without reviewing. This basic principle is well researched and works very well. I think most people who has tried using SRS know about this.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should just import 1000 words from the internet into your SRS and start hacking away (and I don’t mean “hacking” as in “language hacking” here). That isn’t repetition, that’s learning, and a very detached, artificial learning at that. In my opinion, learning something means that you first acquire basic knowledge and understanding about something. Reviewing is about retaining that knowledge over time.

In the case of characters, this might mean looking up radicals and creating mnemonics, for words it might mean to understand the individual characters and link them together in a meaningful way. In this way, SRS becomes a method of reinforcing what you already know. As such, it is very efficient indeed. See my character learning challenge for more about this.

This is why I think it’s usually a good idea to create your own flashcard rather than simply import them from somewhere else, even if you end up with a list containing the same words (such as if you download a list for the textbook you’re currently using). If you create the deck on your own, you learn the words as you go along and you’re more or less forced to have an active attitude towards the cards in the deck. Creating cards on your own isn’t a waste of time, it’s a way of learning. It also makes sure that the quality of the cards remain high.

Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning

Even though SRS is efficient, it doesn’t mean that it never fails. In fact, it’s usually designed to fail 5-15% of the time because that’s generally more efficient than aiming for 100% (please refer to When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress).

When you forget something, you have a choice. Either you just keep going, reviewing what you forgot regularly until it sticks, or you consider what you forgot as lost and learn it from scratch. The choice depends on the nature of your incorrect answer. If you’re really sure you understand the word and have a “of course, I really knew that and just had a momentary lapse” feeling, then you might not need to do anything.

If you truly have forgotten the word, though, you shouldn’t just rely on more and more repetitions. What I do when I really forget words I should know is that I treat them as new words (here is an entire article about this). I go online and find better examples, new mnemonics or other things that can help me really understand the word.

Then I review the word as I normally would. I very seldom forget words twice using this method and most of the failures I have in my deck comes from being too lazy and not following my own advice. If you want to read more about this, please check Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning.

Finally, never forget that deleting troublesome cards is a valid option. If the character or word is important, it will turn up again later and you can have another go. If it isn’t, well, then you’ve saved yourself some time and will feel less frustrated.

Just because it’s efficient doesn’t mean you should learn everything with it

There seems to be a gluttonous tendency in some language learners (including myself at times, I admit, but then again, my goals with learning Chinese are probably not the same as the average student’s). The idea seems to be that the more words you learn, the better, regardless of which words you learn.

Adding every single word you encounter is a very serious mistake. As a personal example, I can mention a book I read after having studied Chinese for roughly 15 months. I looked up every word in that book I didn’t already know. Looking through that list of words today, almost four years later, I realise that there are many words in there I still haven’t seen anywhere else. As a beginner or intermediate learner, that represents a serious waste of time.

If you really want to just boost your vocabulary, I suggest you read more and listen more to material at your current level. When you encounter words more than once, add them. If you really, really want to use online word lists for the HSK or similar, only add lists that are below your current level. In other words, use these lists to learn common words you actually should already know, do not just add a complete set of words you’ve never seen.

Perhaps I have contributed to this tendency a bit by writing posts such as The importance of knowing many words, but please don’t get me wrong. I do think that knowing many words is very, very important. However, which words you learn is still important. The best way to learn new words is still through absorbing them through your reading and listening material, adding recurring new words to you SRS as you go along. For beginner and intermediate learners, textbooks are also really good.

SRS is a tool, not a comprehensive learning method

If you spend a major fraction of your total study time using SRS, you’re doing something wrong. I spend around 20-30 minutes using Anki every day, which is perhaps 1/20 of my total study time. Sure, I did spend more than that as a beginner, but I dare say that the SRS time has rarely exceed 1/10 of the total time spent studying. SRS works best in combination with as much exposure to the language as possible, along with real communicative practice to teach you how to use the words you’ve learnt.

SRS can make sure you remember what you learn, but it will never deepen your knowledge about the language or teach you things you didn’t know before. Furthermore, most SRS use is fairly passive, meaning that it’s an excellent tool to boost comprehension, but a very poor one for increasing fluency. A hammer is very good for nailing something to a wall, but you wouldn’t use it to repaint the kitchen.

I’ve seen some people criticising SRS for not increasing actual language competence and so on, but I think this is a critique of SRS users rather than SRS itself. If you think that you can learn a language simply by using SRS, you’re wrong. If you think that SRS is a very efficient way of reviewing what you have already learnt, then you’re much closer to the truth.

SRS is a flexible tool, use it wisely

The way you use SRS will determine what kind of results you get from it. For instance, you can practice character recognition/writing, listening comprehension, translation (Chinese-English or English-Chinese). You can also do various kinds of cloze tests or freer forms of recall. The thing is, you can’t do all of these. You need to choose. How you choose to use SRS will determine what you get from it.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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Learning how to learn Chinese through self-experimentation

Language research is notoriously difficult to perform properly simply because variables in a real classroom are hard to keep constant. Let’s say that we want to examine the effectiveness of a new learning strategy. In order to be able to say anything with certainty, we need a fairly large sample and we need to find a way of testing the new strategy that isn’t biased in any direction.

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One problem is that in order for random factors to balance each other out, we need large, random samples. If the study becomes too large to conduct by one single teacher, suddenly different teachers are involved, too. This quickly escalates into the realm of meaninglessness. The problem is that the variation between countries, schools, teachers and individual students is bound to be large, perhaps large enough to render the results meaningless for any given individual.

If we could prove that the learning strategy was 5% more efficient than another, that doesn’t really help you, does it? Other factors will influence you more than the actual strategy you use. For instance, if you like the method or not might make much more of a difference than the effectiveness of the method itself.

Self-experimentation and n=1

How can an experiment with only one participant (n=1) be of any value? Most scientific journals will (rightfully) say “no”, because they don’t really care about you as an individual. But you care about your own learning, don’t you? Therefore, self experimentation can be of tremendous help if that single student is yourself.

If you conduct the experiment to learn more about yourself and the way you learn, no-one requires you to follow any rules, but it does make sense to follow the scientific method in general, because otherwise your results won’t be reliable even for the single student.

In case you haven’t done much research recently, here is a crash course in the scientific method:

  1. Ask a question – This can be anything related to how you learn Chinese. For instance, you might want to know if it matters at what time of the day you review words, if it helps retention to read the words aloud or if colouring tones helps you remember them. Since you only have one person to experiment on, you won’t be able to test things you can only do once, so you’re not likely to be able to test things like “which is the best method to prepare for HSK 3″.
  2. Formulate an hypothesis – In essence, this is a guess at what the answer to the question might be. According to what you know, make an educated guess. For instance, my hypothesis is that I review best in the morning and that reading aloud does help increase retention rates. I also think that colouring the tones should be useful.
  3. Predict consequences – If your hypothesis is correct, what kind of observable results should you be able to observe? In some cases this is very obvious. Looking at our examples, we would expect to remember more cards in the morning than at other times during the day. We would also expect higher retention rates for cards read aloud as well as better tone recall when tones are coloured.
  4. Test the hypothesis – This is the experiment itself by far the hardest part to get right, both in practice and in theory. We need to come up with a way of testing the hypothesis that only gives a positive result if the hypothesis is correct. The key here is to keep variables as constant as possible. For instance, we could separate our flashcards into two decks and then review one deck in the morning and the other in the afternoon, but we would have to sort the cards randomly, because otherwise one group of cards might contain easier cards on average, which will lead us to the wrong conclusion. We could also add a tag to half of our flashcards and read all those cards aloud and then check if there was any difference between the two groups. However, we need to make sure that we don’t spend more time reading those cards, because more time spent obviously means higher retention.
  5. Analysis – Based on the testing above, we might be able to prove the hypothesis true or false. Depending on the experiment, we might need to formulate a new hypothesis and keep on experimenting. We might also find that our result is inconclusive, perhaps because we made some mistake or didn’t design the test well enough. The goal with the analysis is to interpret the outcome of the test and determine what to do next.

How to conduct these kinds of experiments in Anki

I’ve had many debates with people who think there are better flashcard software than Anki and one of the reason I maintain Anki is superior is because of it’s flexibility. In Anki (especially in Anki 2), you can manage and edit your flashcards in bulk in almost any way you wish. Split, merge, tag, anything you want.

You want to add a tag to half the cards and add a star after the final character for all those cards (so you know which characters to read aloud)? Easy. Do you want to temporarily split all your cards into two decks, track statistics for these two decks separately and then merge them again when the experiment in done? Sure. In fact, Anki already has statistics for hourly performance.

This is what my graph looks like:


There are some 113063 reviews behind those bars, so whatever differences we can see here are statistically very significant. It seems my hypothesis was wrong (obviously, I knew the answer when I wrote the article, my hypothesis was the one I had before I saw this graph). It seems I remember best when reviewing around lunch. Interesting. Not surprisingly, I have the lowest retention rate late at night.

This case happened to be rather easy because Anki already has a built-in function to check hourly retention rates, but what if you want to check something else, like if reading aloud is helpful or not? As I mentioned above, the best thing you can do is create a new deck with all words you intend to read aloud. As far as I know, you can’t sort randomly (that’s not sorting, technically), but you can sort on an arbitrary value, such as the initial letter of the English or some other factor which should be random for practical purposes, albeit not technically. Then grab half the words and change them to a new deck. Conduct the experiment and see if the groups differ. Of course, you don’t need to do this with all cards if you don’t want to, testing with a few hundred might be enough.

The two other examples I brought up yielded fairly unexpected results, actually. It turned out that both reading words aloud and colouring the tones had an effect, but that it was very small indeed; I expected the effect to be much bigger. However, remember that even though that might be the case for me, we shouldn’t extrapolate that result to you, because you might be different.

This isn’t “real” science (you probably won’t get your results published)

This isn’t” real” science, but that doesn’t mean that scientific thinking isn’t necessary. In fact, this kind of thinking is always good to adopt, even if you’re not conducting any experiments at all.

For instance, I said above that you can’t really experiment on different ways of preparing for the HSK simply because if you succeed, you can’t try again. However, you can still apply the same kind of thinking.

  • What did you try to achieve?
  • What happened?
  • Why did that happen?
  • What can you do to make it work better next time?

The results might not be reliable either, because there are many things going on that are beyond your control. Perhaps you will learn better because you know that you want one method to be better and therefore try a little harder. Perhaps you unconsciously make a hundred other small adjustments. Therefore, I wouldn’t care too much about small differences achieved over a short time with few words. If you have results like my hourly retention rates above, though, that were produced based on over 100,000 reviews, the results are probably not based on other random factors.

More than words

I’ve spent most of this article talking about vocabulary and how to pronounce characters and words, but that just happens to be a convenient example. You can conduct similar experiments in many other areas. Identify the problem, formulate an hypothesis as to how the problem can be solved, try your solution, evaluate. Repeat. Doing this will help you understand both yourself and Chinese. It will bring benefits well beyond the realm of language learning as well.

Further reading

For anyone who is interested in reading more about self-experimentation, I want to recommend Seth Robert’s blog, “Personal Science, Self-Experimentation, Scientific Method”. Apart from reading his articles, you can find many interesting links and suggestions for further reading. I also suggest Scott Young’s blog, which is about much more than self-experimentation and offers clear thinking on many different topics.

Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?

I didn’t use spaced repetition software for my first year of learning Chinese (I didn’t know what it was back then). During my second year, I sort of developed my own spaced repetition system. This is crazy when I think back, but I actually kept stats for vocabulary manually and tried to figure out how long I could wait with the next review while still not forgetting too much. Then I found out that there are programs that do that for all words individually, which was a relief. Reinventing the wheel (at least a good wheel) is both difficult and time consuming. If you want to read about what spaced repetition is and why you should use it, check this article.

Building my personal dictionary

Image credit: Patrick Correia
Image credit: Patrick Correia

Since then, I have recorded most of my learning in my deck of flashcards. At an early stage, I started recording other things than just vocabulary. For instance, if someone told me about the difference between two near-synonyms, I would record the difference on both their cards. If I found relationships to other characters that weren’t obvious, I added that bit of information as well. Later, when I started using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, I added definitions in Chinese along with more etymology and other information I picked up along the way. My deck now consists of roughly 21,000 cards, some of them have small essays written on them.

Now, one of the basics of flashcard learning is that you shouldn’t add more information than necessary. Information that can be broken down should be broken down. However, the purpose with recording information about grammar, usage and cultural aspects isn’t necessarily to memorise this information, but to record it. This way, I can search through my deck and look up things I’ve looked up before. This is an invaluable resource I use all the time, especially when writing.

Big flashcard decks mutate and start living a life of their own

Then I read about people who nuked their decks, wiped everything and started from scratch. I was horrified; sacrilege! Some time passed and the discussion about deleting flashcard decks and starting over kept nudging me. At first, I thought: What if I lose any important words? What if I encounter a word I have learnt, but forgotten again because I deleted my deck? Then I rrealised that there is quite a bit of sense in the argument to start over again as well.

This article is the result of my own analysis of the situation.

In essence, this is why you might want to consider nuking your decks and start over:

  • You have lots of cards you don’t really need
  • You spend too much time with the deck (it has become a burden)
  • You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

The first point isn’t relevant for everybody, but it is for me. I have (or had, I will come to that later) hundreds of cards which were very rare (i.e. not in common use at all). These came from various word lists and from my own attempt to add more words to learn specific characters. Getting rid of all these words that just drained time and energy without actually giving anything back is one good reason to delete your deck and start over, especially if these cards are draining both time and energy.

The second point is only relevant for people who spend too much time with computer programs instead of actually being exposed to the real language (reading or listening) or using it (speaking and writing). This topic is really too big for this article, but even though I think spaced repetition software is great, it’s a tool that you use to accomplish certain goals, it’s not a comprehensive method of language learning. Thus, this kind of studying should take up only a small part of your learning time.

The third point is very interesting and should be relevant for most people. In essence, we need different kinds of knowledge for different stages in our language learning. I deliberately focused a lot on recognition in the beginning simply because I believe that understanding is the most important aspect to enable me to learn more and interact with Chinese people. However, the goals I had five years ago don’t really match my current goals, so something needs to be done.

Reasons why you shouldn’t start again from scratch

However, there are compelling arguments against starting over. If you haven’t reached a level where you can read and listen to Chinese produced for native speakers, you run the risk of severely hampering your vocabulary acquisition. We use spaced repetition software in the first place because it’s such an efficient way of increasing vocabulary quickly. If you can read novels and listen to the radio, you don’t need spaced repetition to maintain common words and characters, that will come automatically. The same is true if you use Chinese to a large extent in your everyday life.

However, if you rely on textbooks and graded readers (which there are all too few of), deleting your deck means that you risk forgetting a lot of words you don’t see and hear naturally in your textbooks or in class. The fact that you don’t see or hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary or common, it just means that you don’t see or hear enough words. In this situation, I strongly advise you against nuking your decks and starting over again. If you feel that your exposure to Chinese is enough to allow this, you can consider starting over.

The second reason you shouldn’t start over is if you have built up a personal dictionary. I keep my cards not only because I want to remember them, but because I want to be able to look things up. Rather than keeping notes about grammar and so on in a separate file or on paper, I keep it in my flashcard deck. Destroying the deck would destroy the dictionary. In theory, of course, it would be possible to keep the old deck as a dictionary only, but in practice, keeping two major decks for learning Chinese is bound to create problems.

The alternative to deleting is to actively trim and modify the deck

In the end, after long and serious consideration, I decided to keep my deck. This means that I have to handle all the problems listed above, including the one I haven’t discussed yet (the one about changing needs). Your situation isn’t likely to be the same as mine, so your conclusion might be different. If you decide to keep your deck, here are some ways you can deal with the problems I mentioned above.

You have lots of cards you don’t really need

This might be a major problem, depending on how many of these cards you have and if you keep forgetting them or not (it’s more likely since they by definition aren’t commonly used and therefore harder). I solved this by paying a native speaker do go through cards with an interval less than one year and highlight any cards that didn’t meet my requirements.

I then checked this list with a few other people and decided which to delete. I ended up deleting about 300 cards, which was much less than I thought. On the other hand, my requirements to delete a word was basically that it wasn’t in use in modern Chinese and that most educated native speakers wouldn’t use it in either speaking or writing. Still, 300 cards is still a lot considering that I kept forgetting them. Time adds up.

You spend too much time with the deck

This of course depends on how much time you actually spend. I spend around 20-30 minutes per day reviewing vocabulary and considering that I’m spending several times that amount on reading and listening. According to the time log I made last week, I spent roughly 67 hours with Chinese in some way or another, which means that I spend only about 1/20 of my time on vocabulary. I don’t think that’s too much.

Also, all the easy cards in your deck don’t take up as much time as you think. A rough calculation tells me that I spend around two minutes a day reviewing the 10,000 easiest card in my deck. Two minutes! It’s definitely worth that to refresh my memory and catch words I have forgotten.

You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

This is perhaps the most important reason for starting over. In the beginning, I focused heavily on recognition, because I believe that being able to understand spoken and written Chinese is by far more important than being able to use it. Usage comes gradually, but massive exposure is a prerequisite for any kind of advanced level. My goal was to be able to handle native material as quickly as possible. However, once that goal is reached, it no longer makes much sense to focus heavily on recognition.

Instead, I wanted to put the emphasis on output, on correct usage and on expanding my active vocabulary. For this, cloze tests or recall is much more effective. Of course, when I see a new word, I determine whether or not it’s enough to understand it or if I want to be able to use it as well. If the former is the case, I still do recognition only, if the second is the case, I usually use cloze tests.

The reason nuking your deck isn’t helpful here is that you might as well do the same thing with your old deck. What I do now (and will probably keep on doing for many years) is to simply switch cards from recognition to cloze. When I review, I mark all cards I come across that I realise that I really should be able to use, but actually can’t. I then reset their intervals and change the card to cloze.

It’s not the size that matters

As we have seen, the size of the deck itself isn’t very important, but the time you spend working with vocabulary is. If you add up to tens of thousands of words over many years, you’re not likely to feel that a large deck is a burden, because most of the cards in it will be very easy. The reason you still want to keep them is that you will forget some easy words sometimes and it’s not worth the effort figure out which. If a card appears once every seven years, you wast more time thinking about whether you should delete it or not than you would reviewing it if you kept it in the deck.

However, I do think there are times when you should start over. If your deck is a mess, takes too much time and is boring to play with, you risk burning yourself out anyway and restarting might be a good idea. Similarly, if you have thousands of flashcards of a type you no longer need, deleting them is a good idea (a kind of selective reset). Furthermore, if you think flashcards are very useful but not fun, you should only use it for things that really matter, so keeping the deck small is important.

In the end, it boils down to what you use your deck for, how you use it and what you think about the way you’re currently studying. I didn’t delete my deck because I figured I could achieve the positive effects simply by being more trigger-happy with the delete button and finding other ways of removing unnecessary words. The key point isn’t exactly how you do it, but if you want to maintain a healthy attitude towards spaced repetition software, you need to have an active attitude to your deck. It’s a tool. If it doesn’t work, change it.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections

Two weeks have now passed since I announced the sensible character learning challenge. Since I wanted to try the rules of the challenge myself before telling everybody else to use them, I actually started a few weeks earlier than the rest of you. In this article, I’m going to share with you some really useful things I’ve learnt during the past month. This is also a good opportunity for you to share how things have been going so far. Here’s what have been published about this challenge so far:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections (this article)
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

Challenge progress report

Before we do that, let’s look at what we have actually achieved:

skritterprogressThis is great! However, we all know that it’s fairly easy to start something and be enthusiastic about it for a week or two, but then it becomes much harder. Actually, looking at the stats on Skritter I can see that collectively, we’ve learnt more characters during the first week of the challenge than during the second, even though the numbers of students kept increasing! This is in fact part of the reason why I’m posting this article now. That’s also why I set up the accountability system where you’re supposed to connect with the people directly above or below you on the list.

  • If you haven’t connected with your neighbours, you should do so as soon as possible
  • If you’ve tried to connect but received no reply, let me know
  • Starting tomorrow, I will remove people who aren’t following the rules
  • If I remove someone next to you, make contact with your new peer student

When you do connect, make a plan! When are you going to check on each other? I suggest at least once a week. I’ve been in contact with both Nick and Jacob and we send occasional e-mail more often than once a week, but it’s up to you how you want to arrange this. If you encounter problems or think something is difficult, ask each other. If you need support or encouragement, ask your fellow students.

Commit publicly if you haven’t already

If you want extra accountability, write a blog post about the challenge and ask readers to check how it’s going later. If you want me to, I will tweet the post to 4600+ followers on Twitter. Here are people who have already committed publicly (most have been tweeted, others will appear later this week; if you’re not on the list but have written a blog post, let me know):

Some advice on using Skritter

I’ve been using Skritter for this challenge and overall, things have been working out well. If you haven’t tried Skritter yet, I suggest you sign up and try it out (the coupon code SENSIBLE is still valid and will give you both an extended trial and a substantial discount). I will write more about Skritter itself in another post, but the fact that I’ve spent around 30 minutes per day on average during the past month and actually enjoyed it says quite a lot.

The only  problem I know some students have encountered is that they can’t view banned cards on their phones and tablets. There are two ways of handling this problem. First, you can ban the cards and deal with them later using your computer (or at least accessing the banned cards via the web interface rather than the app). Second, you can deal with cards you fail immediately so you don’t need to ban them. Either of these work and which one you use is up to you, I can see merits with both methods.

Another thing to note is that you shouldn’t be too quick to ban a cards. If you hit ban before you fail the card, perhaps because you can’t even recall how to start writing it and decide you have failed anyway, Skritter will not treat this as a failed card. If you then study the banned card and unban it, it will have the same interval as before. If you repeat this, the spaced repetition algorithm won’t work, because the interval will never decrease. This is easy to get around, though, just make sure the card turns red before you ban it. Most people do this when trying to write the character, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem. As far as I know, hitting the question mark to reveal the character also counts as a failed review.

Furthermore, if you are reasonably familiar with characters, I also suggest you turn on the “raw squigs” function (just tick the box in your settings). This will allow you to finish writing all the strokes in the character before Skritter shows you the right strokes. This means that it becomes harder to cheat, because without this function enabled, Skritter will sometimes give you clues (you thought the character started with a dot, but in fact it doesn’t, but since the dot was roughly in the right place, Skritter rewrites the stroke as it should have been written, thus helping you). Lastly, Skritter also offers reminders sent to your e-mail at intervals you decide yourself. If you want to be really accountable, you can link Skritter to your Twitter account, thus allowing everybody to see how it’s going for you.

Some advice on using Anki

Anki has a really neat function for handling leeches. If you want to stick to the rules of the challenge 100% of the time, you could set the leech threshold to 1, which means it will be automatically suspended if you forget the card just a single time. You can access the settings via options > lapses > leech threshold.

Note that this might be overdoing it a bit, because you will end up suspending cards automatically even if you accidentally hit the wrong button or similar. Still, setting the leech threshold really low is a good idea. The default is 16, which is ridiculously high. This just encourages you to use brute force to learn words you actually don’t know. If you fail a card 16 times, something is seriously wrong with your method.

Personal reflections and lessons learnt

Part of the reason I came up with this challenge in the first place was so that I could get my own character learning under control. Can you imagine a better way of making yourself accountable than being the guy who started the whole thing? I can’t. It’s worked very well so far. My goal is to work through the 5000 most common traditional characters on Skritter. Since I’ve already learnt most of these passively, my stats are somewhat skewed.

Lessons in mnemonics and Chinese characters

The best thing with this challenge for me personally is that I’ve spent some extra time dealing with some long-time leeches. It feels great to finally kill the beasts! My policy is to do some research, create a mnemonic and then, provided it isn’t very personal or refers to things few people know, share the mnemonic online. This puts some extra pressure on me to create good mnemonics. I sharesSome on Skritter, some on Facebook, some on Twitter (#mnemonicmonth and #sensiblehanzi). Here are a couple I’ve shared so far (don’t forget to read the discussion of each mnemonic):

Mnemonic for 纏 (wind up, wrap around): The people living in the house on the cliff (广) use eight miles (里 + 八) of silk (糹) WOUND UP to cover their dirt (土) floor.Discussion: This looks simple enough, but I want to point out one very important thing. Don’t simply read “the house on the cliff”. The words aren’t important, the picture in your head is.  [Read more…]

Mnemonic for 犧 in 犧牲 (to sacrifice). The simplified form is 牺, so this shouldn’t be a problem for those of you who learn only simplified. However, this might still give you some inspiration for how to work with mnemonics. To start with, this character is really mean, because the bottom right part isn’t common at all (does it even exist in other characters, except in 羲?). Thus it’s not a good idea to create specific mnemonic for this part and use that, but rather I would… [Read more…]

Reading questions from fellow participants in the challenge, I’ve also become more aware of what kind of problems students have when using mnemonics to learn characters. Thus, I have two articles planned for the coming weeks. The first will deal with mnemonics for abstract character parts (mentioned in the quote above). The second will deal with some problems related to overuse of mnemonics (in essence, if you don’t need a mnemonic, don’t create one).

In short, I’m very happy with how the challenge has been helping me to focus more on the meaning of characters. I feel that I’m actually learning something when I fail a review, it’s not just a monotonous cycle of repetition. I also think mnemonics are quite fun!

How about you?

Now I’d like to hear how you have been doing! Leave a comment and tell me about your experience. If you don’t know what to write, here are some suggestions:

  • What’s the most positive thing with participating in the challenge?
  • What problems have you encountered?
  • What goals have you set for yourself and how’s your progress so far?
  • How many characters have you learnt since the start of the challenge?
  • Do you have any advice for me or other participants?

(this article)

Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese

Note: There is now a new character challenge! It will run from March 22nd to June 30th, 2014. Click here to read more about the challenge!

Learning to write thousands of Chinese characters is a daunting task, but fortunately, character writing is also one of the most hackable parts of the Chinese language. This means that if you use the wrong method, it will take forever and be quite boring (see last week’s post), but if you use the right method, it’s neither impossible nor boring.

This article is a challenge which is meant to make students use more sensible strategies to learn characters and take you out of the boring, monotonous loop that helps you pass your tests, but isn’t very good in the long run. Before we go into details about the challenge itself, let’s look at the contents of this article to make it easier for you to find what you want.


  1. About the challenge
  2. The problem
  3. The solution
  4. What sensible character learning looks like
  5. Everybody can participate
  6. What tools you need to participate
  7. Skritter extended trial and discount
  8. The rules of the challenge
  9. How to join the challenge
  10. List of brave participants
  11. Possible problems and how to cope with them
  12. Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook
  13. Spread the word

Articles published about sensible character learning

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

The problem

The problem with how most students approach character learning has already been addressed; the following is a summary for those who haven’t read that article, but I still recommend that you read the full article here. There are many problems of course, but the most serious one is undoubtedly that many rely on rote learning, i.e. repeating a character until it sticks without actually understanding what they’re learning or deepening their knowledge of the language. This is almost useless if you lack a systematic approach, but if you use spaced repetition programs, it actually works to a certain point.

This is problematic, because when you reach that point, you’ll find that you need something more than mere repetition. Native speakers can rely on repetition because they spend more than ten years in school mastering their own language. They write characters every day for many, many years. Thinking that this will work for you is naive. Most native speakers also combine a fairly well-developed knowledge of components with massive repetition.

Symptoms of bad character learning:

  • When you’ve forgotten a word, you just keep repeating it until it sticks
  • You tend to forget the difference between similar characters
  • You’re reading ability is okay even though your handwriting sucks
  • You need to rely heavily on context to understand characters
  • You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)

 The solution

Even though I think SRS is part of the problem (people tend to misuse it), I also think it’s part of the solution. The problem is that when we review something mechanically (i.e. just looking at something without really processing the information actively), we’re not really learning anything new, we’re not expanding our knowledge of Chinese. Apart from this, it’s also quite boring and leads to poor results in the long run.

Still, using SRS, especially if the program is geared specifically towards character learning (see my introduction to Skritter below) is the most efficient way of learning, you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is the point of this challenge.

The alternative to rote learning is to work actively with the characters we forget and make sure that we’re learning something instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes over and over. It’s notoriously difficult to learn things that don’t mean anything to us, so the first thing we should do is really understand the characters we’re learning. If it takes more time, then so be it, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Most native speakers have pretty good grasp of character components, but many foreigners don’t.

These things you can learn from a competent teacher. The next key to more sensible character learning is something I have never heard mentioned in a classroom, probably because it requires that the teacher has actually used the method to be able to teach it. Everybody will tell you to create stories (mnemonics) to remember characters, but few are able to or can be bothered to explain what kind of mnemonics work and why. I can and I have. See this article about learning character components (and the following articles in the same series).

What sensible character learning looks like

  1. Understand what you/re learning (learn the components)
  2. Combine the meaningful parts in a clever way (mnemonics)
  3. Use SRS to reinforce your knowledge and identify weak links
  4. Avoid rote learning at all costs (and make learning fun again)

Who can participate in the challenge

Students at any level can participate and it doesn’t matter if you study Chinese two hours or week or twenty hours a day. The challenge will remain open as long as I feel it’s relevant, which is likely to be indefinitely. The Skritter discounts mentioned below will only be valid for a limited amount of time, however.

What you need to participate

The following challenge is for anyone with an interest in learning characters (that should be most visitors to Hacking Chinese, I think), regardless if you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner. I’m going to join the challenge as well and follow the same rules as everybody else. A list of participants is included below.

Before you join, you need to choose software. I’m going to use Skritter and I recommend that you do too, mostly because it’s specifically geared towards handwriting and that it has excellent resources attached if you need to expand your knowledge about characters and components).

Participants receive an extended free trial of Skritter and 33% off subscriptions

If you register and join the challenge, use the coupon code SENSIBLE, which will double the length of the free trial as well as give you 33% off the price if you like the software and keep using it. If you register and later go for a paid subscription, I will receive a small commission, so please use the links included here if you want to help me out a bit, too. You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.

If you don’t know what Skritter is, you can check this brief demonstration on YouTube:

However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.

The rules of the challenge

  • If you fail a review, you’re not allowed to review that card again until you’ve dealt with it actively. You have two options: either you stop reviewing and deal with the failed card immediately or you remove the card from the review card and deal with it later (ban the card in Skritter, suspend in Anki.
  • If you ban or suspend cards you fail, you have to go through the list of banned or suspended cards often. You don’t know these characters and you need to relearn them before you enter them into the review queue again. Do not allow the number of banned cards to accumulate.
  • Characters you already know well and don’t fail aren’t part of the challenge. In other words, you don’t need to relearn characters you already know, regardless how you learnt to write those characters. However, if you fail any card, you still have to follow the rules of the challenge.
  • If you have an important exam coming up, you’re allowed to sidestep the above rules, but not using your normal review software. You have to rely on conventional non-digital study methods to cram for an exam, you’re not allowed to break the above rules when using SRS under any condition whatsoever.
  • Share your progress with me and your friends (Skritter has a function for this). If you join the challenge I will also check on you by sending you an e-mail later this months. I’m serious about this and shall be disappointed if you commit but fail to follow these rules!

This is what Skritter’s look-up interface looks like.

When you fail a card, here are some suggestions of what you can do. Don’t feel limited by these, though, there are more ways to learn characters. The important thing is that you deepen you knowledge and understanding of the character rather than just repeating it.

  1. Do you know the component parts? If not, look them up. Skritter has a built-in feature that allows you to check a character and its components in a number of online dictionaries (see picture). Regardless of how you access the dictionaries, I like HanziCraft and (better for traditional, but works for both).
  2. If you know the parts already, create a mnemonic or use someone else’s. Part of the goal with this challenge is to make students more aware of mnemonics and to make those already aware of it apply them more often and master how to create them. If you’re not already good at this, you should check my article about it here, including the other articles it links to in the beginning. If you can’t come up with anything, Skritter has a neat function where you can see other people’s mnemonics. I suggest that you adapt them to your own needs, but they serve as excellent inspiration.
  3. If you have a mnemonic (but still fail), make it better or start over. It isn’t easy to figure out how to create good mnemonics and I fail now and then, too. I think this is highly individual and thus hard to write about in general, but reviewing the principles mentioned above is a good first step.
  4. Next time you review a failed character, review whatever information you added to the card. If you created a mnemonic with a story, quickly review the story and see how it makes the components fit together.
  5. To each his own. The goal here isn’t to dictate exactly what you should do, but rather that you should do something other than simply repeating the characters many times over without really understanding what you’re doing. Try different approaches, if it works, it’s good.

Other things you can do that will help

  • Teach the character to an (imaginary) friend
  • Do a search on Google for related pictures (giving you visual input)
  • Look up similar characters that are confusing you and sort out differences
  • Anything else that forces you to actively process the character components

How to join the challenge

  1. Post a comment and say you’re in (please use a valid e-mail address so I can reach you). By doing this, you also agree to me sending you an occasional e-mail about the challenge and that I will give your e-mail address to the other participants for mutual help and support.
  2. Commit to the challenge publicly on Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media or in real life to friends or family. Make yourself accountable, ask people to check up on you a week from now and see how you’re doing. Once I have confirmed that you want to join, I will put you in the list below.
  3. Define a goal and share it with fellow participants (see list below). This challenge is about the method, the goal itself isn’t specified. Personally, I’m going to make sure I can write the 5000 most common characters by hand. This is of course a long term goal and I will spend 20-30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I suggest you set a goal which is reachable in a month or two. but this is really up to you.
  4. Send a brief introduction about yourself and your goals to the participants directly above and directly below you on the list of participants below. I will provide you with the e-mail addresses manually.
  5. Learn some Chinese, for real this time, with the intent of actually understanding the characters and putting the fun back into character learning. Be creative, be crazy, stay committed!

List of students who have accepted the challenge

These people have join the challenge so far. To get on the list, you need to give me your e-mail address so I can connect you with the participants next to you on the list for support and accountability. Thus, I’m accountable to Jake, Jake is accountable to me and Nick, Nick is accountable to Jake and whoever becomes the fourth participant. And so on. If you want a link to your own blog, website or whatever, include that as well, but I will only accept personal websites or Chinese-related sites.

Click here to skip the list and go to the next part (the list is getting fairly long).

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Jacob Gill
  3. Nick Winter
  4. Claudia
  5. Niel de la Rouviere
  6. Kevin Tynan
  7. Russel Sancto
  8. Gary Saville
  9. Matthew Ho
  10. Dianne Rennack
  11. Bill Glover
  12. Bob Clark
  13. Joy
  14. Douglas Drumond
  15. Lechuan
  16. Caitlin Goldston
  17. Alex
  18. Samanta
  19. Michel
  20. Robert Vose
  21. Gareth
  22. Sonja
  23. Jeff
  24. Jake
  25. Maikeximu
  26. Sascha
  27. Jaki
  28. Jeff Lau
  29. Mathias
  30. Christian
  31. Marcus
  32. Rachel M.
  33. Mark Jarvis
  34. Michael
  35. Dave
  36. Matt Raleigh
  37. Eddie
  38. Kevin Sciarillo
  39. Marc
  40. Victoria
  41. Martin
  42. Michael Knight
  43. Leon White
  44. Maozhou
  45. Ted Reed
  46. Catherine Pacey
  47. Jim Long
  48. Christopher Burroughs
  49. Ruben
  50. Scott
  51. Mai Laoshi
  52. Erik
  53. Jeriko Jak
  54. Georges
  55. Lei Laoshi
  56. Jan
  57. Liz Valachovic
  58. Matt Sikora
  59. Cooper Nagengast
  60. Matt Lawrence
  61. GBoomer
  62. Matt Arkell
  63. Matthew A
  64. Stoney
  65. Tom
  66. Wendy Purdie
  67. Rich O
  68. Kai Carver
  69. Ian Sinnot
  70. Brad Wright
  71. Muhammed Zubair
  72. Bjørn Schwartz
  73. Antonella
  74. Stumoke
  75. Vito
  76. Petar
  77. Liven
  78. James Carman
  79. Victor
  80. Shannon
  81. Teng Fang Yih
  82. Vito FJ
  83. Steph FS
  84. Charlie Southwell
  85. Julien Leyre
  86. Furio
  87. Gwilym James
  88. Manu
  89. Jakub
  90. Will Taylor
  91. Pia N-H
  92. Ashia
  93. Gisèle
  94. Michael
  95. Meg
  96. Milon
  97. Adam Dawkins
  98. Jan Willem Stil
  99. Gerlinde
  100. Amanda Viljoen
  101. Trung Hieu
  102. Wendy MC
  103. Daniel
  104. Chris P
  105. Anthony Pantekoek
  106. Nathan
  107. John Highan
  108. You?

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

Different people will encounter different problems with this challenge. If you’re an avid SRS user already, you will notice that it takes much more time to review, mostly because you stop cheating and actually study the things you forget. This means that you won’t forget them very easily, so that it takes more time is both natural and necessary.

Students who aren’t used to mnemonics will find that it takes a while before you find a style or method that suits you. Remembering things is a skill that you have to learn, so don’t feed disappointed if you forget things even with mnemonics or if you find them difficult to come up with in the first place. You will learn.

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

To help you with mnemonics memory tricks, I hereby declare January to be #mnemonicmonth on Twitter. I intend to share all sorts of links, tips and tricks, starting today. I encourage you to do the same! Tweet your best mnemonics or inspiring videos/stories/links. I also intend to spend more time on Facebook this month, discussing mnemonics and Chinese, helping students out in case you run into problems. Join the discussion here. I hope more advanced learners will help me with this so that we can create a good discussion environment. Share your thoughts, ideas and questions with the rest of us, we’re in this challenge together.

Spread the word about this challenge

The goal with this challenge is to change the way people learn characters. The principles are easy to understand, but still many people, including me sometimes, fail to follow them. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, but it’s not easy to quit. Rote learning is equally bad, let’s quit together. In order to start this revolution, we need more people. Spread the word, agree with one friend to check on each other, make yourself accountable.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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