Learning Chinese in the shower with me

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting you into my shower and show you some neat ways of improving your Chinese. I promise I will keep my clothes on, because even if the tone in the title is playful, what I have to say is important. I’ve used my shower to learn more Chinese and in this article I will share my experience with you.

Learning Chinese in the shower might sound exaggerated, but if we lead busy lives (or simply want to learn as much Chinese as possible), I’ve found that whet showering I usually spend minutes just staring into a wall. Now that might be useful in itself for meditative or recreational purposes, but if you want to diversify your learning even more and find time when you really think there isn’t any, using the shower is actually very good. Why not put something on that wall and stare into that instead? The basic concept is simple: Write whatever you want to learn on the walls of your shower (cabin).

Spaced repetition and some practical comments

Daily seeing the characters you have written is quite useful in itself and is a kind of spaced repetition. Of course, you don’t have to actually shower to look at them, it might as well be when you brush your teeth. The process of writing the characters is of course effective in itself, but it also requires time of a much higher quality, so it’s not necessarily suitable for everyone.

Writing on the walls in your shower works very well in most apartments and shower cabins, but do make sure that you can remove what you’ve written before you get serious. Make a mark in a hidden corner and leave it there for a few days, then try to wipe it away. If you fail, use another pen and try again. Just make sure that you can wipe away what you’ve written, I don’t want you to blame me if your landlord wants to kill you! I’ve found that most whiteboard markers work very well on both plastic and ceramic tiles.

Three examples

Even though you could use your shower to learn many things, I think handwriting, vocabulary and text learning are the most suitable areas. I’m going to give you three examples:

  • Killing leeches (i.e. characters or words you find very hard and refuse to stick in your mind)
  • Memorising texts (I’m currently trying to learn 道德經)
  • Intensive spaced repetition (let’s say you want to learn 大写(大寫); numbers used in formal or financial situations)

Killing leeches in the shower

We all have our nemeses among Chinese characters (called leeches in Anki). The best way of dealing with these is becoming friends with them. Inviting them to shower with you is a good first step (although I don’t recommend you doing that the first time you invite your normal friends). Whenever you encounter a word that refuses to stick or that you fail over and over again when reviewing, write it on the wall in your shower (with a non-permanent marker, see the above guidelines). Write it big, so that you can see all the strokes clearly. Small characters might look nicer because you can’t see your own mistakes as clearly, but when learning to write, write large characters ( see Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small). Also, add any extra information, translate, draw pictures.

Avoid writing small characters (left). Instead, Write them big and nice so that you can see all the strokes clearly.

Memorising texts

I haven’t memorised many texts in my life, but I have tried learning 道德經 (commonly known as Tao Te Ching in the West). I might talk about this project more later, but I will share the shower part right now.

Here’s the procedure I’ve used:

  1. Write a verse on the shower wall, far to the right
  2. The next day, rewrite the same verse, now one tile to the left
  3. Repeat until the verse has moved a few steps and you feel that you know it

This approach worked really well for me. You will need to do more than this to memorise classical Chinese, but it is a good tool to use once you feel that you have understood what you’re reading (memorising things you don’t understand is very hard and a waste of time).

This is a real example from my shower. I don’t care about handwriting here at all, so don’t complain about the sloppy characters. I used squares to highlight difficult passages and circles to mark characters I forgot often.

Intensive spaced repetition

Just because Anki happens to be awesome, it doesn’t mean that there is no other way of using the spacing effect. In fact, most systems where analogue up until recently. What I describe above with 道德經 is a kind of spaced repetition. If find this particularly useful for learning sets of characters which belong together, where it’s not very useful to see them one at a time. For instance, you could use this method to learn the following:

  • Fraud-proof numerals
  • The heavenly stems
  • The earthly branches
  • The Chinese zodiac

Follow the same procedure as above, move the characters around the shower. This is what it looked like when I reviewed the fraud-proof numbers:

I kept these slightly to one side so as not to disturb the other things I was writing on the walls. You probably don’t need to rewrite these often, simply looking at them now and them takes you a long way.

Beyond the shower

Of course, using the shower like this is just an example. You can do the same close to the toilet, in your kitchen or next to your bed. Placing things you need to study where you tend to have a few spare minutes is a very good way of getting more things done. Use the environment around you to make learning natural and easy!

The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think

The time barrel was first mentioned in an article I wrote about background listening a while back. I needed a metaphor to explain how it was possible to listen to Chinese a lot without actually spending that much extra time. Most people have jobs, some study other things and only a few of us study Chinese full-time. Now, it’s only natural that someone who studies full time can learn more, but it’s very likely that you have more room for Chinese than you think.

The basic formula is very simple:

  1. Examine your daily activities and see what kind of time you have available
  2. Find ways of studying which fit the time you have available

Important: Time management is about doing what you want to do with your time,  it’s not only about getting rid of things that aren’t “useful” and which don’t take you towards your goal of learning Chinese. Managing your time is useful whatever your goal is. If you lead a busy life and want to learn Chinese too, that’s fine. If you have all the free time in the world, but want to play computer games as much as possible, time management is still useful. In other words, in the following discussion, I don’t really care about what the tasks are, as long as they are tasks you want to complete, for whatever reason.

The time barrel

To show how I think about time management and studying, allow me to introduce the time barrel. It doesn’t look like much right now, it’s just a container. However, before we talk about what we can fill the container with, we need to talk about the container itself.

The barrel represents all 24 hours in one day

The barrel represents all time you could theoretically use, i.e. all 24 hours in one day. Naturally, you can’t use all this time for studying, but I want to make it clear that the barrel still represents all 24 hours, including the time you usually sleep, work, eat and so on. Regardless of how much you try, you can never change the length of one day and neither can you change the size of the barrel. We can change what we put in it though.

The rocks represent major tasks that can’t be interfered with

Most of us have things in life which we either must do to survive or that we consider so important that we have to do them. The first and most important one is sleeping, because no matter what we do, we need to sleep. If you’re close to the average of 8 hours sleep per day, your barrel will be contain one big rock representing those eight hours. If you have weird sleeping patterns, like sleeping less during the night and making up the deficit with power naps, you’ll have smaller rocks that are more flexible.

Apart from sleeping, there might be other things we have to do, like working, eating and maintaining contact with friends and family. Rather than regarding these as big lumps of rock, I think most of them can be considered to be pebbles (see below), so instead of regarding eating as a block two hours long, we can regard it as many smaller pebbles. Depending on what kind of job you have, the same will be true there. A teacher has lessons and meetings he has to attend to, but that hardly fills up eight hours per day. The total work time might still exceed eight hours, but it’s not one big lump for teachers.

Going to class is of course also represented by rocks, regardless of what you’re studying (Chinese or something else). I have simplified the situation a bit and just drawn a few rocks, but as we can see, the barrel is already getting full!

We still have room for pebbles

Now, this is where most people stop and say “I sleep for eight hours, I work for eight hours, it takes two hours to cook and eat, I have to maintain contact with friends and exercise, so there is no time left for language learning!” This is obviously not the case, there is still room for pebbles.

If rocks represented big, bulky tasks, pebbles represent smaller tasks we can move about more freely. Of course, there’s no fixed definition of what  a pebble is and what a rock is, but let’s say a rock is something which takes several hours to complete whereas a pebble only takes ten minutes. Now, even though our day looked full, we can see that it’s still possible to fill it with a whole lot of pebbles. Here are some tasks that can be considered to be pebbles:

  • Reading a Chinese book before going to bed
  • Looking up a few characters that’s been troubling you recently
  • Finding new audio to listen to
  • Moving audio to your mobile phone
  • Posting a question on a language forum
  • Writing a few sentences on Lang-8

Now it’s really starting to look full…

…and yet there is still room for sand that trickles down between the pebbles and fills the spaces you didn’t know where there. This is the kind of studying you only do for a few seconds up to several minutes each time, but that accumulates over time to become a significant factor. There aren’t many tasks that are suitably represented by sand, but there are a few that are possible because of modern technology:

  • Reviewing vocabulary using spaced repetition software on your smart phone
  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Review tricky characters you have written on your hands
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese

The barrel is full!

Or is it? If you have a barrel full of rocks, pebbles and sand, it certainly looks very full. Not a single grain of sand can be added, let alone pebbles or rocks. Still, it’s possible to add several litres of water to such a barrel without it overflowing. Water fills the spaced we didn’t know existed, it superimposes itself over the other things in the barrel. This means that there are very few things indeed that can be represented by that water, but here are a few examples:

No metaphor is perfect

This is just one way of looking at time management and because it is a metaphor, it is also flawed. It will highlight some things I find important (the fact that we have more time than we think and that we need to find ways to study that fit in our time barrels), but it will also miss some things. For instance, this metaphor isn’t good to explain the fact that you can do many things at the same time. Listening to Chinese while doing the laundry would have to be water superimposed on rock, which isn’t neat at all. Still, I hope I have been able to show that you don’t need one three-hour block of free time per day to study three hours.

Be dynamic and flexible in your endeavour to learn Chinese, be on the lookout for ways to fit Chinese into your day that doesn’t interfere too much with the other important things you do in your life!

Diversified learning is smart learning

For most people, the majority of studying time is spent on things that require large chunks of time, such as going to class, reading books or talking with friends. These are usually not activities you perform for five minutes and then switch to something else. However, it’s possible to spend a significant amount of time on studying without actually letting it encroach on any other things you’re currently doing.

In a way, this is a way in which you can magically expand the time available, possibly by a great deal depending on how efficient you were before. Diversified learning is useful for everybody, but especially for those of you who aren’t studying full time (if you do, you tend to get enough of studying as it is). Currently living in Sweden and studying English, I personally find that diversified learning is essential if I want to continue improving my Chinese.

Diversified learning means that you learn more without spending more time

So what is diversified learning? It’s simply spreading out whatever can be spread out, chopping it up into so small chunks that they can be easily handled in between (or even at the same time as) other tasks. The old trick of writing things on your hands is a good example. It means that you might see a difficult character a hundred times over a few days, learning it without any focused effort being invested. This is just one example, and if you add up all the various strategies of diversified studying, it’s possible to learn significantly more. The rest of this post will be dedicated to explaining various ways of doing this, please contribute by commenting and adding your own tricks!

If you want to read about diversified learning from another angle, I suggest that you also read this article: The time barrel: You have more time than you think

Listen to recorded material – This is perhaps the most powerful method available. I listen to around ten hours of Chinese every week without even trying very hard. I listen when I walk to school, I listen when I cook food, when I wash the dishes, when I tidy my apartment and so on. Of course, I don’t listen very attentively all the time, but that’s not the point. I listen to anything: radio, news, textbooks, audio books. I have written a whole series of articles about improving listening ability, check the articles about background, passive and active listening.

Use spaced repetition software – I’m probably going to stress this point until people get bored, but using some kind of spaced repetition software is essential but there are other choices as well. I usually have Anki running in the background on my computer, so when I’m waiting for a few files to copy or a website to load, I can review a few flashcards without interrupting anything else.

Write difficult characters on your hands – We all have characters that just refuse to stick in our memories. Rather than spending precious time studying them at home or in class, write them on your hands! Using a normal pen, they’re usually gone within a few days and by then you should know them. You can also write Pinyin and English if you want to. This is one of many methods to kill leeches.

Tape/write difficult characters where you can see them – This is very similar to the above method, but a bit more versatile. Let’s say that you think it’s tricky to remember characters containing 莫 (like 模, 摸, 寞, 幕, 慕, 墓, 暮), well then, make a comparison of these characters using what you know about mnemonics (see the post about learning words and the article about individual characters). Put this comparison close to some place where you tend to have extra time, the obvious places being next to your bed, in the bathroom and in the kitchen, just above the sink.

Use a smart phone and appropriate software – There are of course many ways to use smart phones to study Chinese, so it’s rather a platform than a method in itself. Most importantly, it allows you to listen to more Chinese (see above) and it also allows you to study flashcards while waiting for the bus (Anki has a version for smart phones). This means that you can spend the time at home by your computer doing something else.

Changing languages – This trick is probably as old as they get, but changing the software language on your phone or computer is a nice way to become exposed to more Chinese. A warning is in place, however. Even though you will be able to use your phone in Chinese, you will need to be quite good at Chinese in order to learn how new functions work or to troubleshoot your computer. Make sure you can switch to English if you want to. I’m currently running my phone, computer (including Gmail, Facebook and so on) in Chinese.

Taking notes – To practice writing, try taking notes in Chinese. This is obviously not a good idea when you’re in a hurry, but let’s say your going grocery shopping. Why not write the list in Chinese? If you don’t know all the words, skip some or look them up. Even writing words you think are really easy will improve your overall writing ability.

Diversified learning is smart learning

These are just some examples of diversified learning, there should be innumerable ways to integrate Chinese into your life and make learning more efficient. This goal of this article was to get you thinking in this general direction rather than to point out every single possible variety. If you come up with something brilliant, why don’t share it in the comments?

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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