Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The Big Finish

challenge14-4When I launched this year’s sensible character challenge, some people told me that I was over-ambitious, I would never be able to keep people engaged for such a long period of time, 101 days. To be honest, I was a bit pessimistic, too, but I figured that at least I would be learning a lot of characters.

Even though of course I can’t know for sure when I write this article, I still think that I was too pessimistic. The number of learners who have stayed in the challenge from the very beginning is high and there are also lots of people who have joined the challenge along the way. Now the challenge has come to an end!

In this article, I want to talk about several things, some of which are similar to the previous milestone articles, such as how things have gone for me and what I have learnt, as well as opening up for you to report your progress and discuss your own learning. There will be even more prizes this last time, so make sure to report your progress below!

Before we go into that, though, let’s provide some background in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. Even though the challenge is over, each post contains a lot of information that will help students focusing on learning characters.

Here are all the articles; I recommend reading the first article (Sensible Chinese character learning revisited) as well as the “what have I learnt” sections of the other articles.

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  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 (this article)

Prizes for the big finish of the challenge

The prizes are the same as before, but there will be more of them:

  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in May).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Three sets of posters worth roughly $50 each will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and three participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.

Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Sunday (July 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable.

My progress update

I have reached my goal, I now have more than 5800 individual characters in Skritter! Naturally, I spent some significant time learning the last few hundred this month and some of them haven’t really sunk in, but they have all been studied and learnt. his is what my challenge history looks like:

challengestats

How many characters do you need to know?

My goal for this challenge begs the question of how many characters one actually needs to know. The simple answer is that it depends on what you mean by “need”. If you mean to be able to read most modern Chinese texts without having to look up many characters, you need far less than the 5800 I’m close to here. In fact, you can get very far with around 3000 characters and 4000 will make you comfortably literate (I’m now ignoring the fact that literacy of course includes other things than knowing characters, such as knowing words, grammar and so on, but that’s not the point here).

So why did I think it was interesting to learn an additional 2000 characters if it isn’t very useful? I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel what it was like learning characters again. I haven’t spent significant time learning characters for many years and this challenge was interesting because it made me realise some things I hadn’t noticed before. I will write about these things later (some of them are already mentioned in the milestone reports).

Second, it’s a mental challenge and quite fun. Even though I haven counted the exact time I spent on learning 1800 characters, I’m pretty sure the average is no higher than half an hour per day. That means about 50 hours or about two characters per minute. This might sound extremely efficient, but then keep in mind that most of the time, learning a new character is a matter of associating two characters that I already know with a new meaning. If it’s a perfect phonetic-semantic combination, it becomes even easier (learning a character like 浬, nautical mile, takes just a few seconds to learn). Also, spaced repetition is very efficient.

Learning characters is not like learning random facts

When I started learning Chinese, I remember being a bit confused by people who said it was difficult to learn lots of characters. I mean, learning a few thousand isolated facts isn’t that hard. What I didn’t understand back then was that learning 5000 characters isn’t like learning 50 characters a hundred times. The main problem when learning new characters isn’t to learn how they are written and what they mean, but to keep them separate from the other characters you already know. Thus, even though character learning certainly becomes easier in some sense, it also becomes a lot harder, but for different reasons.

Future challenges on Hacking Chinese

I’m working on something called the Hacking Chinese language challenge engine, which will allow me to run monthly challenges on Hacking Chinese, all with a different focus. There probably won’t be another character challenge for some time, but there will be listening, reading, translation and pronunciation challenges! If you want to help me test this out (it’s already quite ready), please leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Stay tuned…

I will announce the winners on Sunday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

…and the winners are

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners:

  • Carla (both prizes for her wonderful graphics)
  • Doug Stetar (Glossika product of your choice)
  • Georges (Hanzi WallChart poster set)
  • Luke (Glossika product of your choice)
  • All active participants: Free Skritter extensions

I have sent e-mails to the winners. If you are an active participant and want your Skritter extension, please join this group on Skritter and tell me. Any prizes left over from this challenge will be handed out in future challenges, stay tuned!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3

One of the most powerful ways of staying motivated is doing things with others, preferably during a limited amount of time with a clear goal. That is exactly what the sensible character challenge 2014 is about. Even though the challenge has now reach its last phase, it’s still not too late to join, just set a character-learning goal that you feel is achievable before the end of June and you’ll not only boost your own learning, you’ll also have the chance of winning some great prizes, including character posters, language learning products and free time on Skritter!

challenge14-3If you want to know more, please check the post that launched the character challenge. If you want to sign up, all you need to do is set your goal for this month and include that in a comment. The rest of this article will be for people who are already in the challenge. I will write a little bit about my own experience and also encourage you to write about yours. Once everybody’s had a chance to post their progress reports, prize winners will be announced!

 Prizes for milestone #3

Here are the prizes available for the third milestone:

  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in May).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and one participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.

Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Friday (June 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible. Also note that people who join the challenge now will have to wait until the end of the challenge (June 30th) before becoming eligible.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable.

My progress update

Again, I seem to have overshot my goal, but this time it wasn’t because of a bad goal, but because I spent a lot more time using Skritter than I thought I would. This is partly because I’ve been using the alpha test version of the Android app (which is working well enough to use instead of the online version for my own learning). It’s also because I went to 雲林 in southern Taiwan for a gymnastics competition and spent lots of time on buses and trains. Can you think of a better way to while away the time than learn lots of characters? I certainly can’t! As a result, I cleared my goal for May with relative ease:

  • Milestone #3 (goal): 5340
  • Current status (May 31st):5409
  • End of challenge (June 30th): +366 (5775 total)

I will also share some important insight into learning characters.

Lesson #1:Spread it out

One of the major benefits of using your phone to review characters and words is that you can learn Chinese or Japanese wherever you are, whenever you have a few minutes to spare. It only takes a few seconds to start and you can easily interrupt your learning with no ill effects if something more interesting happens around you. This is much harder to do with any of the major skills listening, speaking, reading and writing. For instance, if you just have two minutes to study, it doesn’t make sense to start reading a new chapter in a book or listen to a new podcast, but you can certainly clear a dozen reviews in that time!

Therefore, whenever you can, spread your reviews out through out the day. Don’t review tones if you can speak with a friend instead. Don’t write characters if you can read a book instead. Don’t practise definitions of words if you can listen to a podcast instead. If you want to learn a lot of characters, such as if you are in this challenge, this is even more important! This is about time quality, something I’ve written more about here in case anyone wants to know more. If you pay attention to your daily schedule, you will find that there are lots of slots to review characters that you probably weren’t aware of!

Lesson #2: Add context

Jake has written an awesome article on the Skritter blog about something he calls “list overdose“. He describes it as follows:

 List overdose (or simply LOD) describes the ingesting or constant studying of vocabulary lists in quantities greater than are recommended or generally practiced. LOD may result in very little actual linguistic improvement (emphasis added).

I personally have a somewhat ambiguous relationship to this, because I think that you can use word lists quite effectively, provided that you are combining it with real-world usage and large volumes of input. So, when I say that I’m adding so and so many characters from a list, that’s not the only thing I’m doing! I’m also reading tons of Chinese and listening to even more.

If you still want to add characters or words directly from a list instead of gathering them in the wild, I think it’s very important to put them in context. This is relatively easy:

  • If it’s a character component, add a few of the most common characters
  • If it’s a character, add a few common words it appears in
  • If it’s a word, add an example sentence that fits well with the word

This will make sure that you don’t end up with a brick yard instead of a house. Sure, knowing just one way of using a word doesn’t mean you know that word perfectly, but it is a lot better than not having any clue at all of how it’s used!

Stay tuned…

I will announce the winners on Friday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

…and the winners are…

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Lili Woodlight and Jeremy (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, join this group on Skritter and tell me
  • Glossika learning Chinese product: 愛美 (I have forwarded your info to Glossika)

Good luck everybody for the final stretch of the challenge!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2

This post marks the second milestone in the sensible character learning challenge 2014, which means that we are roughly halfway! Just like last time, the way you read this article depends on if you’re in the challenge or not:

  • If you’re in the challenge, it’s time to post your milestone #2 progress update (see below)
  • If you’re not in the challenge, this is an excellent opportunity to join (there are still two months left)

I would also like to say that I’m impressed by anyone who is still in the challenge. It’s easy to commit to something for a few weeks, but it’s much harder to stay committed for more than a month. If you’ve fallen seriously behind, don’t hesitate to revise your goals, making them realistic again!

challenge14-2Brief information about the challenge

The challenge was launched in this article, which contains all the information you need if you want to join. In short, the goal is to both improve the way we learn characters and learn to write a lot of characters together in the process. There will be prizes for active participants for each milestone (see below).

Prizes for milestone #2

I’m happy to announce that there is an extra prize available from Glossika for this milestone! Here are all the prizes along with information about how to get them:

  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and one participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too!
  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants, If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course). If this does not work, please contact me.

So, how are the winners determined? Randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts here, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates. I will announce the winners in this article on Sunday, so you have a few days to post your updates.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly normal.

My progress update

I overshot my goal by quite a lot last time, mostly because I misjudged the number of characters I had forgotten, so I upped the ante a bit this time and went for something much more ambitious (this is copied from my update for milestone #1):

Current status (April 8th): 4583
Milestone #2 (April 30th):
+300 (4883 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +400 (5283 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +492 (5775 total)

Let’s look at the numbers first. I was supposed to learn 300 new characters for a total of 4883. According to Skritter, I currently know 4933 characters, so I’m roughly 50 characters ahead of my goal. Also, since I have dealt with all my banned cards, this number actually reflects the number of characters I’m reviewing (banned cards count towards your total even if you don’t review them, for some reason). Since I’m slightly ahead now, rather than relax this months, I will shift some 50 new characters to the last stage of the challenge instead. Just to make things as clear as possible, this is what I have in front of me:

Current status (April 30th): 4933
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +407 (5340 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +435 (5775 total)

What have I learnt about learning and reviewing Chinese characters?

I’d like to highlight two things: the importance of not going on tilt and the necessity of horizontal vocabulary learning.

Don’t go on tilt

First, for whatever reason, we sometimes encounter characters that are very hard to learn for some reason. There are three things you can do:

  1. Ignore the character or word (delete it)
  2. Keep reviewing it even if it doesn’t work
  3. Take decisive action and actually learn the character or word

Of these, solution one and three are both good. Solution two is really, really bad. If you keep forgetting a word, you need to deal with it. Suspend it, ban it or whatever it’s called in the program you use. Then, next time you’re in front of a computer with access to dictionaries, sentence resources and so on, look up the character or word properly and actually learn it. If you don’t, the number of problematic cards (called leeches) will increase and slowly drain both energy and time. Read more here: Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches.

Horizontal vocabulary learning

Second, horizontal vocabulary learning is essential. When you suspect that there are several similar characters causing confusion problems, you have to look them up. It can be very hard to spot these problems, but being sensitive to your own review errors should be enough. If you find yourself making the same mistake several times, you probably make this mistake for a reason, perhaps because you’re confusing two characters. The problem is often painfully obvious once you see it, but might cause a lot of trouble before that.

For instance, for a long time, I found it really hard to remember the order of the two components on the right of 踏. Sometimes I put the 曰 on top of the 水, sometimes I got it right. This kept happening many, many times and I only figured out why once I realised that I were confusing two characters with (almost) identical meaning and exactly the same pronunciation: 踏 and 蹋 (both are read “tà”). No wonder I felt confused about the placement!

Another problem I figured out only recently is with 皺 and 縐. Again, both have the same pronunciation (“zhòu”) and the meanings are at least related. I kept mixing up the placement of the 芻 because of this, but this ceased to be a problem once I looked at both characters side by side.

What I want to say with all this is that when learning or reviewing characters, you have to realise that it’s not only a matter of dealing with one single character or word, it’s about integrating that knowledge in your larger web of knowledge about Chinese.

Stay tuned…

I will update this article with the character poster winners on Sunday. In the meantime, you can check the article about handwriting Chinese characters if you haven’t already (published on Monday this week). Stay tuned!

…and the winners are

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Oaht and Gerrityong (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, join this group on Skritter and tell me
  • Glossika learning Chinese product: Xiaokaka (I have forwarded your info to the company)

Join now to become eligible for prizes for the next milestone!