Boosting your character learning with Skritter

As the number of people interested in learning a certain increases, so do does the demand for tools and resources related to that language. A quick search on online offers a plethora of different websites, computer programs, apps and other services that all promise to radically improve your Chinese. However, over the years, I’ve found very few products that I actually find worthwhile enough to recommend to others.

skritterMy review policy here on Hacking Chinese is that I only write about products I like (which is why I call it recommendations instead of reviews). I usually accept offers to review products, but I always require the right to simply not write anything at all about the product if I don’t think it’s good enough. If I think it provides genuine help with learning Chinese, preferably in an area where there is little help to find elsewhere, I’m more than happy to write a recommendation

Enter: Skritter

Skritter is just such an example. I started using Skritter roughly eight months ago and I have been using it regularly ever since, with only occasional periods of laziness when exams and major reports are due.

To put it very briefly, Skritter is a software (for your phone or computer) that allows you to practise writing Chinese characters by hand and offers you feedback on your writing. Skritter is a spaced repetition software, which means that it will give you the words you need with carefully calculated intervals to maximise your learning efficiency. Unlike any other software I know, Skritter is (mostly) able to tell you if you’re correct or not and will guide you through the standard stroke order and character composition if you forget how to write a character.

The main reason I recommend Skritter

I will go into slightly more detail below, but before I do that, I’d like to state briefly the main reason I’m recommending Skritter. I’m a fairly advanced student myself, but even if I’m enrolled in a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese for native speakers, I still use a computer to write Chinese 99% of the time. This is very bad if you have in-class exams that require you to write long answers by hand. I’m also a teacher of Chinese and as such, I need to remember how to write characters by hand. I also think that knowing how to write characters is an integral part of knowing Chinese, but that’s my personal opinion and not something I’m going to force either on you or my students.

The reason I want to recommend Skritter is that it’s part of the most efficient solution to build and maintain the ability to write Chinese by hand. Most foreign adult learners can’t walk the long road to written proficiency and mimic the learning process of native speakers. That requires more than twelve years of language heavy education (grades 1-12) and most of us simply can’t do that. I believe that Skritter, mnemonics and sensible character learning is the way to go.

Another important point is that Skritter is fun and not a little addictive. It’s probably bad to be addicted to StarCraft 2 (even if you play only in Chinese) if you have tons of other things you ought to do instead, but if the addictive activity helps you overcome a major problem when learning Chinese, slight addiction is a huge benefit. Learning should be fun and Skritter is definitely more fun than writing lots of characters on a blank sheet of paper. Part of the fun is that Skritter offers direct feedback and measurable progress. It’s not a game, but it feels like one at times. How many characters can you learn this week? Can you you get the number of correct answers higher than last week?

Who is Skritter for?

If you look at the official material, Skritter seems to be for everyone because that’s the way it’s marketed. That is mostly true, but I would like to add that you should have access to one of the following to make Skritter worthwhile:

  • A writing tablet for your computer
  • An iOs device with a touch screen

Of course, you can write character with your mouse or a trackpad or whatever, but I feel that that defeats the purpose of handwriting a bit. If you plan to use your computer, buy a writing tablet (it’s not that expensive); if you have an iPhone or iPad, use that. I’ve heard people say that you can use your phone to control the mouse on your computer, which might work for Skritter, but I haven’t tried that myself (if you have, please leave a comment to let us know what you did).

I would say that Skritter is equally useful for beginner, intermediate and advanced students, or at least I find it very useful now (I know around 5000 characters) and I would be very happy if I could send Skritter back in time to when I started learning Chinese.

However, if you are at the beginner or intermediate level and study traditional characters, I don’t recommend using Skritter. The program is mostly geared towards the mainland and simplified Chinese. Of course, it has a traditional version, but there are several problems. For instance, the pronunciation is always Mainland Chinese and you can’t change that, not even manually. This will be very confusing for beginners in Taiwan, but as soon as you reach a more advanced level, you probably want to learn both anyway.

Furthermore, some stroke orders (and sometimes components of characters) don’t match the standards in Taiwan or Hong Kong. I study traditional characters myself, but I have a fairly good grasp of what I’m doing and I don’t feel that this is problem for me. If you don’t have a good understanding of characters in general, I would advice against using Skritter for learning traditional characters. The rest of you will be fine!

Minor problems and inconveniences

Naturally, no product is perfect and Skritter is no exception. Apart from the problem with traditional characters mentioned above, I have two complaints about Skritter:

  • Coming from Anki (another spaced repetition software), I must say that the vocabulary browser and editing functions are very weak indeed. In Anki, you can do almost anything you want, but in Skritter you’re limited to using a fairly awkward interface.
  • There is no Android version. This has been requested a number of times, but the developers seem to think that it’s not worthwhile. I can’t really comment on the reasons for it, but not having an Android version when the smart phone market is dominated by Android isn’t good.

How does Skritter work?

Note: For the duration of the current (2014) character challenge, you will get a 21-day trial period and a 33% discount if you sign up before June 30th. The new code is SENSIBLE2014. Click here to sign up and here to read more about the challenge!

The goal with this article isn’t to reproduce either the programs feature list or the manual, so rather than talking about how the program works, here are a few videos that show you how it works much more effectively. Also, if you want to know how it works, it’s much better to try it out on your own. If you use the coupon code (SENSIBLE) from the sensible character challenge, you get an extended 15-day free tutorial if you register before June 30th, which should tell you much more than any video. Still, here are some videos.

First, an official video just to show you what it looks like:

And another official one for the app:

And finally a demo of the web interface I use most of the time (I have no iPhone):

Are there any extra features worth mentioning?

Apart from the core functionality of Skritter, there are a number of useful features, including user-created vocabulary lists, mnemonics you can share with others, detailed statistics of your own studying (key for the game-like feel), example sentences and an excellent blog about learning Chinese.

How do I use Skritter?

I only use Skritter for handwriting. I think Anki is a far superior program when it comes to SRS in general and the only reason I would recommend people to use Skritter for anything but handwriting is if you want to keep everything in one place. At the moment, I only do single character writings in Skritter; any cloze tests, recognition or other types of reviewing are still done in Anki. These don’t overlap often, so it’s not a big problem. So, in essence, I do single characters in Skritter and everything else in Anki.

How should you use Skritter?

The obvious way of using Skritter is to supplement your normal studying. You can probably find the vocabulary to your textbook online (it’s probably already available in Skritter) and that’s a logical place to start. What you want to do next is up to you. If you want to do only single character writing like I do, fine, if you want to include listening, character recognition and so on, do that. Whatever you do, though, remember the limits of SRS and my call for more sensible character learning!

How do I get it?

You can download Skritter from the official website and use it for free for a week. If you use the coupon code from the sensible character challenge (the new one is valid until June 30th, 2014), you will get an extra week to be able to make up your mind. If you decide to go keep using the program after than, you will also get a substantial discount, but you need to use the code upon registration for it to work (this also gives me a small bonus if you want to support Hacking Chinese). A two-week trial should be more than enough to give you an idea of what the program is like.

Conclusion

Skritter is a genuinely useful program. It’s part of the most efficient way of learning characters that I know of and I wish that I’d started using it earlier. It’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants to boost their character knowledge, including the full range from complete beginners up to Mandarin teachers.  Skritter is a program I use daily and I think it’s likely to remain so for a very long time.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese:

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

Don’t use mnemonics for everything

I have written a fair number of articles praising the usefulness of mnemonics, but now it’s time to look at some misuses and limitations. Before we look at that, however, I’d like to mention that this article is part of a series of articles related to the sensible character learning challenged (it’s still open, join if you haven’t already!):

  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 (this article)

Even if we only include things actually present in the modern day form, to really learn a Chinese character, we need to store large amounts of information:

  • What the character means
  • Any additional meanings
  • What the components mean
  • How the components are written
  • How they are positioned in relation to each other
  • How it’s pronounced: Initial
  • How it’s pronounced: Final
  • How it’s pronounced: Tone
  • Other pronunciations (initial, final, tone)

Yes, you could design a system to handle all the sounds and tones of Chinese and encode them in a smart way and use mnemonics to learn pronunciation of every character. Yes, you can include every brush stroke into your mnemonics (I don’t actually know how this would be done, but I’m sure it could). Yes, you can include common meanings and usage in the mnemonic, too.

Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit: flickr.com/photos/blueforce4116/
Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit: flickr.com/photos/blueforce4116/

But you’d be wasting your time. This mnemonic would need a memory palace of its own (it’s not going to be just a single picture/concept). Considering what a monster it would be, it would probably occupy the entire dungeon of that palace. In short, it’s not worth it. It’s too hard and takes too much time. It’s also completely unnecessary.

So, what’s the alternative?

The obvious solution is to use mnemonics on a need-to basis:

  • If you forget the tone, use mnemonics to remember the tone
  • If you forget the components, use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you forget the meaning, use mnemonics to figure that out

I’ve written about how to do this earlier, so I won’t repeat that again. The important thing here is to realise this:

  • If you don’t forget the tone, don’t create a mnemonic for it
  • If you don’t forget the components, don’t use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you don’t forget the meaning, don’t create a mnemonic to take care of that

When a mnemonic for pronunciation is overkill

For instance, when it comes to pronunciation, three are lots of clues hidden in the character and if you know where to look, you don’t really need mnemonics in many cases. This requires you to be familiar with some common phonetic components but since they are… well… common, this isn’t a problem. I’m planning a separate article about this, but for now, consider these characters: 碟,諜,喋,牒,堞,蝶,蹀,鰈. They all mean completely different things, but they are all pronounced “dié”. All of them. This is because they share the same phonetic component.

Of course, this is a convenient example, but the truth is that more than 80% of all Chinese characters are created this way. Sure, it’s not necessarily exactly the same, it might have a different tone (氧/洋, yǎng/yáng), initial (湯/傷, tāng/shāng) or final (踉/浪, liàng/làng) or any combination of these, but these are still incredibly valuable clues.

When a mnemonic for character components is overkill

Regarding character components, there are many cases where we don’t actually need to be very specific, because our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters rules out most possible combinations. If you’re creating a mnemonic for 洋, you don’t need a mnemonic to know that water goes on the left and the sheep on the right. Three drops of water almost always goes on the left and most phonetic components go on the right. In these cases, mnemonics are just there to help you get started, the rest you can easily figure out.

For instance, my mnemonic for 昏 is based on the real etymology (sun 日 setting into the ground 氐 becomes “dusk”), but note that the modern form lacks the bottom stroke in 氐 , which turns it into 氏. I don’t need a mnemonic for this, because there’s no way I would add that extra stroke by accident. I need the mnemonic to remember the components, not every single stroke and where it should go.

To each his own

All these things are highly individual and depend on individual strengths and weaknesses, our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters and many other factors. What I don’t need a mnemonic for, you might; what you don’t need a mnemonic for, I do. And so on. The point is that you don’t do more than is necessary. If you want to kill a chicken, don’t nuke it. It’s unnecessary and you might run out of nukes for when you really need them.

How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components

As anyone who has tried using mnemonics to learn something knows, some concepts are easier to link together than others. In general, the more abstract a concept is, the harder it is to associate to something else, most likely because it’s hard to form vivid pictures of abstract concepts. Thus, concrete nouns and action verbs are fairly easy, while abstract nouns, adjectives and adverbs might be really hard. Since we have no control over what Chinese character actually mean, we need to be able to handle this kind of characters or character components if we want to use mnemonics successfully.

Here are the other articles published in connection with the sensible character learning challenge:

  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 (this article)
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

Turn general concepts into specific ones

The first thing we need to pay attention to is the danger of being too general. This is especially true if you rely on other people’s mnemonics (including those I mention on Hacking Chinese). For instance, when you encounter characters with very common components such as 石, 木 or 山, don’t simply say “stone”, “tree” or “mountain”, because these are all general concepts. Instead, think of a specific (imaginary or real) stone, tree or mountain. If you can’t come up with anything, search for a picture on Google. In short, make concepts as concrete as you can.

This is in fact related to a famous experiment in memory research (mentioned in Remembering is a skill you can learn). If you tell a group of people to remember than someone is a “baker” (the profession), and another group that they should remember that the person’s name is “Baker”, it turns out that the first group is more likely to remember the word, even though the word is the same! This is because “baker” is something concrete you can visualise, whereas “Baker” is an abstract concept. Thus, we should try to be as specific and concrete as possible.

Image credit: flickr.com/people/decafinata/
Image credit: flickr.com/people/decafinata/

Turn the general into something concrete

This is extremely important when you deal with characters that are similar to each other. If you use concrete representations for these, it might suddenly become very easy to remember which character is which. For instance, there are at least three common components which depict some kind of ancient Chinese weapon (the definitions are from Zhongwen.com):

  • 戈 (halberd, lance)
  • 矛 (lance, spear)
  • 殳 (halberd)

This is a clear case where you obviously need a specific picture. You can’t just say “ancient weapon” and be done with it. In fact, you can’t even say “halberd” or “lance”, because then you will have a hard time remembering which of those three characters it is you’re looking for. Instead, just decide on one single, specific picture and use that.

After some googling, it seems that 戈 is closest to the English word “halberd”, because it has a perpendicular extra blade blade. I know very well what such a weapon looks like and I now associate 戈 with that kind of weapon. For 矛, I’m using a spear, which doesn’t have a perpendicular blade at all. They are used differently and look different, so I’m not likely to confuse them. 殳 lacks a cutting blade altogether and even though I’m not sure what to call this in English, I do have a clear picture of this weapon. Perhaps “cudgel” is okay, at least for mnemonic purposes.

Now this might not be historically accurate, it might even be partly wrong, but it’s good enough for our purposes, we are language learners, not historians (if you are, you probably don’t need mnemonics for these characters). As long as you have three different concepts for these character components, you’ll be fine.

Striding farther from real etymology

There is no shame in deviating from the real meaning of the character if that helps you to remember it. Of course, it’s always better to stick to real meaning if you can, but in some cases that’s very hard. Let’s say you aren’t really into medieval weaponry and find my distinction above too vague. You might picture 戈 as a lance with two pink sticks taped across it, 矛 as an infant penetrated by a spear, 殳 as someone standing on a table. This will probably work, but try to stick to real meaning and real characters as much as possible. Therefore, the first and second mnemonic above is much better than the third.

The reason is that if you’re making things up, you’re actually learning things that aren’t Chinese. The person standing on the table might allow you to remember the character, but you don’t learn any Chinese in the process and further combinations including that component might not be so obvious. There are three degrees of deviation:

  1. The real etymology of the character (no deviation)
  2. Using correct components, but combining them in a creative way
  3. Making everything up (in various degrees)

I try to do 1) whenever I can, but sometimes the real etymology isn’t fully known or it’s not helpful. I’m not very interested in linguistic history so I abandon this solution the moment I feel that the real etymology isn’t helping me.

I do 2) for the remaining cases. This means that I might combine existing parts and their original meaning into new pictures and use those pictures, even though the pictures are the product of my own creativity. I almost never do 3), simply because I think learning about real character components is important.

Tricky cases: One meaning, multiple characters

Some characters are extremely hard to deal with because their meanings overlap. The worst case is probably characters that mean “I” or “myself” in some way. There are at least four: 我, 余, 予, 吾. Here’s how I deal with them using the second method mentioned above:

  • 我 – This is the normal “I” used in modern Chinese. I simply think of a picture of myself, but I try to be as specific as possible, not merely thinking of myself, but actually a picture of myself.
  • 余 – “I” in classical Chinese. The character also means “in excess of”, so I think of a very old version of myself in an old people’s home. I lack teeth, which is a bit scary, but I have everything else in excess (including years of age). I write this as “old me”if I write mnemonics down.
  • 予 –  “I” in classical Chinese. Since this character is similar to 子, I think of myself as I appear in photos from when I was two or three years old. This is “young me” in writing.
  • 吾 – “I” in classical Chinese. I think of myself as a mutated monster with five mouths, devouring everything in sight. This is “monster me”.

I haven’t really studied classical Chinese grammar, so I can’t tell you what the difference is between these four characters (as far as I know, they are all used). That’s not the point. What I’m getting at here is that you can’t look these up in a dictionary and simply think “I”, because you will end up with four characters having the same meaning. If you want to preserve that meaning, you need to modify the picture to make it memorable somehow. In other words, be concrete, but stick to things that are actually related to the character (like five 五 mouths 口).

Are you tired of confusing 即 and 既?

You’re not the only one. They appear in similar characters, are pronounced the same (but with different tones), share one common component and are just generally really bad-ass leeches for many students (including myself). Therefore, I took some time to come up with a pair of good mnemonics to get rid of the problem once and for all, all in the spirit of the sensible character learning challenge.

  • 即: The two components mean “meal” (abbreviated form of 食, so if you really want to, think of this as a normal meal cut in half) and “kneeling person” (or “seal”, but I’m going to stick to the kneeling person because I like its better). The character can mean many things, but “even though” and “immediately, soon” are the most important ones.
    Mnemonic for 即: I just crammed all the components (c) and meanings (m) into one sentence and created a picture in my head: Even though (m) you’re kneeling (c) by the table, you’re not allowed to eat the meal (c) any time soon (m). If you need this character in other mnemonics, picture this kneeling person who, even though he’s pleading, isn’t allowed to eat the food immediately.
  • 既: The component to the left still means “meal” (abbreviated), the right part means “swallow” (I think of someone choking on an iron swastika to remember this, but you can of course use whatever you want). The character has three commonly used meanings: “since”, “already” and “both”.
    Mnemonic for 既: Again, I put all the pieces together in one picture, which is related to the picture for 即 but yet different: Since (m) you’ve already (m) swallowed (c) both (m) meals (c), I’ll lock you up in your room for a week. I create a picture of a fat person who has just swallowed two meals at once, some of the food not quite making it into his mouth.

Now, to solidify the difference between 即 and 既, let’s look at some examples. I’m not going to go through the process of creating mnemonics for all these, but going through the list is really helpful (I will write an article about this later). If you encounter characters you don’t know, skip them. If you already have other mnemonics, keep them if they work, but switch if you don’t already have a clear picture in your mind.

These are all just examples. I’m not saying this is the best or only way of doing it, I’m simply showing you what I’m doing and what seems to work fairly well.

Conclusion

Creating good mnemonics isn’t easy, especially since most problems become apparent only with hindsight. This means that using mnemonics is an ongoing process. The basic rule still holds: whatever floats your boat. However, if you want your boat to float farther down the stream, it might be a good idea to follow some of the advice offered in this article.

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)

Remembering is a skill you can learn

The most common mistake people make when it comes to memory is to treat it as being something fixed; either you’re born with a brilliant memory or you’re not. Of course there are differences between individuals, but practice and the correct technique matter much more than talent. There are some really simple techniques you can use to remember things very efficiently.

Last week’s sensible character learning challenge is in full swing, but to really make the most of it, you need to know how to use the full capacity of your memory. If you’ve missed the challenge, you can still check it out and join the fun. This article is meant to explain the background to the challenge. Here are all the articles related to the challenge:

  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 (this article)
  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

First and foremost, I’d like to watch the following TED talk by Joshua Foer. I wish I could make every student watch this video and I’m going to start with you. It’s 20 minutes long, but those are 20 very well spent minutes. It is as informative as it is inspiring. In fact, this entire article can be viewed as an attempt to make you watch this video. Here’s the introduction on TED (my emphasis added):

There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique — called the memory palace — and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.

Now, let’s look at the video:

Here are some key points in his talk that you more or less have to understand if you want to boost your Chinese learning. Your only legitimate reason for skipping the above video is if you’re already very familiar with all of the below concepts:

  • Good memory is the result of practice
  • The history of human memory
  • Most people could become memory champions
  • Elaborate encoding (which is what the character challenge is about)
  • Remembering meaningless things is very hard
  • Introduction to the memory palace
  • A small note on holistic learning
  • Great memories are learnt
  • You should hire a poet instead of a DJ to your  next party

If you want to read more about Joshua Foer and his experience, check his article in the New York Times.

Mnemonics-related experiments

I have conducted a number of experiments with mnemonics in Swedish high-school, just to prove to students that their minds are actually quite powerful and that they’re just using the wrong methods. The memory technique I used is very similar to the one Joshua Foer used in the video above. It’s not the perfect method for anything in particular, but it works well to show how much better you can become at remembering things without practising that much. This technique will enable to you to complete almost any challenge involving “look at these objects for one minute and remember as many as you can”.

(By the way, did you actually watch the video? I’m serious, if you’re new to this, it will probably be the most important video you watch this year. Scroll up and watch it if you skipped it, keep reading if you’re already done.)

Step 1 – Benchmarking

First, I have students spend around one minute trying to memorise fifteen objects I’ve come up with more or less randomly. Try it out if you like! How many can you remember?

  1. balloon
  2. cannon
  3. sun
  4. child
  5. king
  6. tree
  7. rabbit
  8. sword
  9. bottle
  10. rain
  11. ship
  12. book
  13. mountain
  14. shovel
  15. water

Step 2 – Understanding the result

Most students who do this without any specific method can remember between 5 and 9 objects, because that’s roughly how much you can keep in your working memory (this topic is actually very complicated, but the seven plus minus two rule is good enough). This knowledge will go out the window the second you need to focus on something else, though. Some people already use memory technique of some kind, such as linking together all the initial letters of all the words, which might enable them to remember a dozen objects or so.

Step 3 – Explaining the method

If presented with a list like this, the easiest way to remember the objects is to mentally store them in a location you’re very familiar with and then follow a logical path in that location and add the items you want to remember (just like Foer did in the TED talk). You need to create strong associations between the objects you want to remember and objects in the memory palace, otherwise you will forget them.

It takes some practice to be able to create these links quickly and effectively, but there are some basic principles you should follow. First and foremost, the objects have to interact with each other. This is so obvious that I sometimes forget to teach it. Linking is about combining two concepts. The combination can be done in many ways, but it has to be extreme in some sense. It can be absurd, shameful, disgusting, scary or funny, it doesn’t really matter, but it has to be memorable. The links you create must also be vivid, actually see what’s going on in your mind, feel it, hear it, smell it. I’ve written much more about this here.

Let’s look at the above list to give you some examples. I’m using my room as reference, walking around it clockwise.

  1. balloon – I imagine opening the door to my room and hundreds of balloons fill the entire space, I have to force my way through with a kitchen knife.
  2. cannon – On my desk, miniature artillery is lined up, firing on my computer screen, which breaks. Shards everywhere.
  3. sun – Something is smouldering under the blanket on my bed. I can feel the smell of burnt cloth. A sphere of fire is eating it’s way through the mattress.
  4. child – A small child is trying to escape from my room through the window, but he’s very fat and got stuck in the window, now wailing away, crying for his parents to come to the rescue.
  5. king – I picture king Arthur sitting on top of my second desk. The space is very small, so his crown keep getting tangled in the wire connecting the AC unit to the power supply.

And so on. Using this method, I could easily remember all 15 words in order and it took me little more than 30 seconds, providing that I already had a reasonably well-defined memory palace. You could use any space, actually, like levels of first-person shooters (I use Quake levels sometimes) or the way you drive to work everyday. Six days have passed since I created the above list for this post and I checked how many I could remember now. I actually forgot the last one, water, probably because I a bit too eager to finish quickly, but I remembered the rest easily.

Practice makes perfect

Creating good associations isn’t easy, so practising is essential. If these objects aren’t enough, you can get more from this random noun generator. You could also practice directly on Chinese characters, but that means you have to either know the components or look them up. Also, I suggest you start with objects, because they are much easier to remember than abstract things. You can also check out how this can be applied to numbers or more abstract things such as pronunciation.

I have conducted this experiment in several Swedish high-school English classes and in general, people improve quite a lot between the first and second try; I’ve seen many go from 50% to close to 100% with only 10-15 minutes of practice after the principles have been explained. If you’re not used to coming up with crazy ideas out of the blue, it will take more time than that. If you find it boring, you should probably try something else, but if you just find it hard, practise more! I personally find it quite fun to come up with cool associations, making my studying much more enjoyable. Still, no method is worthwhile if you find it boring. This month is #mnemonicmonth on Twitter and we’re discussing more mnemonics than usual on Facebook, join us!

A similar method more suitable for character learning

Although the principles remain the same, simply associating the objects to each other might be quicker. That’s also what I do for character learning most of the time (i.e. I don’t associate them with familiar places as such, but I create combinations of the components that make up a characters that are so special I don’t forget them). Here’s what the first five words of the list above might be associated:

  1. balloon – cannon (I picture an air battle between cannons lifted up by festive balloons)
  2. cannon – sun (the fight takes place on the sun, so cannons fall into a sea of fire and melt)
  3. sun – child (on the fiery surface of the sun, I can see a small child swimming in the flames)
  4. child – king (king Arthur is standing on top of the swimming child’s face, pushing him deeper into the fire)

Characters usually contain only a few parts, so it’s often possible to combine them into one single picture. For instance, I imagine the balloon-powered cannons locked in battle above the surface of the sun, but instead of making it a long story, I simply picture a child (my niece, perhaps) being the admiral controlling the guns on one side and king Arthur being her adversary on the other. This is a complete picture involving five elements, which is much more than the typical Chinese character.

My previous articles about using mnemonics to learn Chinese

This is all very cool, but how do we apply it to learning Chinese? Have a look at these articles:

How I got into mnemonics and what I learnt from it

I became interested in memory and mnemonics for a somewhat unusual reason: Rubik’s cube. I had been able to solve the cube for quite some time (this is not as hard as you think if you get help with the last layer), but then I learnt that some people could solve the cube blindfolded. That blew my mind. I could not imagine how that was possible. I drew the following conclusion.

People who can memorise and solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded must be freaks of nature with inhuman memories and visualisation ability

After looking around for a bit, I found Shotaro Makisumi’s guide to 3-cycle blindfolded 3x3x3 cubing. In the introduction, he says that someone who is reasonable familiar with the cube (can solve it about a minute, which doesn’t take that much practice once you know tho basics), it takes roughly a week to learn how to solve it blindfolded using his method.

Something I thought inhuman could actually be accomplished in a week

At that time, I happened to be roughly at the level he described and decided to give it a try. I to took me eight days, spending perhaps three or four hours a day before I did my first successful blindfolded solve. It felt unreal. Other people still seem to think it’s done by magic (it’s called 魔术方块/魔術方塊, “magic cube”, in Chinese after all).

Of course, there are two components to blindfolded cubing. First, you need to know how to manipulate the cube. Second, you need to memorise the state of the cube. For Chinese learners, only the second is relevant. The desire to know how people could solve ten, twenty or even fifty cubes blindfolded propelled me into the larger world of mnemonics and memory techniques. I was especially intrigued by this thread on a cubing forum, discussing memory techniques.

There is a whole world out there

If you’re interested, the resources about memory and mnemonics on the internet are almost limitless. If you have no idea where to start, here are a few sites you can check out:

Don’t forget to share anything cool you happen to stumble upon! We’re all students and should learn from each other.

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.

Navigation

  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 Zhongwen.com (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

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

http://www.hackingchinese.com/sensible-chinese-character-learning-revisited/

Extending mnemonics: Tones and pronunciation

Memory is a skill that can be practised, learnt and mastered. In order to learn how to read and write thousands of Chinese characters you don’t have to have what’s commonly called “a good memory”. Instead, you need to learn how to remember things and you need to practise using various methods to achieve this. Rote learning is not an option.

This is something I think is absolutely essential when learning Chinese and I have written about in many articles, so if you feel that you aren’t really sure what I’m talking about, please click here and return once you’ve read that article about the basics of mnemonics.

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/marinm

Extending mnemonics

As I’m sure most people who have tried mnemonics have noted, some things are much easier to remember than others. To understand why, we need to look closer at the methods.

In essence, most methods boil down to associating a new fact A with something we already know B in a unique manner which is easy to remember. A might then consist of many different parts and B might be fairly complex, but in essence, this is what holistic learning is about. We connect what we want to know with what we already know.

The problem is of course that concrete things are much easier to remember than abstract concepts, because the former is easily to visualise whereas the second is sometimes not. Before we go into details about Chinese, I want to give you an example of how I use mnemonics to learn things that are very abstract indeed. This is to show you that mnemonics can be used for almost anything, you just need to figure out how.

A general example: Memorising numbers

I can look at a phone number just once and remember it for at least a few months without ever using it. The process takes a few seconds and is effortless most of the time. Now, if you’re not into mnemonics, this sounds fantastic, but if you know a thing or two about remembering things, you probably just nod and think that you can also do that if you want to.

However, let’s assume for a moment that you didn’t just nod your head when reading the above paragraph. How can we use mnemonics to memorise something as abstract as phone numbers? The answer is infrastructure. Memorising random numbers very, very hard without a system, so we need to create some infrastructure in order to help us.

Designing a system, putting infrastructure in place

This is what it looks like in principle:

  1. Identify what needs to be memorised – This could be anything. In this case, I will talk about numbers first, but I will return to tones and pronunciation in Chinese later. The important thing is to analyse what it is you need to memorise.
  2. Create concrete substitutes for what you want to memorise  – A very basic strategy for numbers would be associating each number with a person or an object. One is Neo from the Matrix, two Tupac, three musketeers and so on. Naturally, it’s better if there’s a natural connection between the numbers and the people, as you can see in my examples. This helps the initial learning, but isn’t strictly necessary.
  3. Use the substitutes when you memorise – Assuming you want to memorise a number, use the people from step two instead of the numbers. Thus, if you want to remember the number 312 for some reason, picture the three musketeers using rapiers to fight Neo, but that the scene suddenly shifts to a musical where Neo and Tupac sings a romantic ballad together. Of course, if you’re going to memorise large numbers, doing this with numbers 0-9 won’t be enough. I have the numbers 0-99, which allows me to memorise Taiwanese phone numbers with only four persons/objects, which only takes a few seconds. My own number is toffee, toffee, ruby, carpet, for instance. I’m not going to explain how I arrived at that, though, because this article is meant to be about learning Chinese.

The need for infrastructure

This example with numbers was just that, an example. A similar system can be designed for almost anything. However, you need to be sure that you’re going to use the system often, otherwise it might not be worth it. Numbers are good as examples, because it’s never a bad idea to be able to memorise phone numbers, pin codes, logins and serial numbers. The point is that in some cases, we need to add infrastructure before we can make full use of the power of mnemonics. I’m now going to give you two examples of how this can be applied to learning Chinese, first tones, then pronunciation.

Using mnemonics to learn tones

I have received this question many times and the only reason I haven’t written about it earlier is that I don’t use mnemonics to learn tones very often. It’s not very hard to do, though, so let’s have a look. As I see it, there are two steps.

  1. Create a concrete substitute for each tone
  2. Create a concrete substitute for each tone combination

The first step can be done in any number of ways. I prefer to use substitutes that aren’t active objects (such as people), but rather provide background information. For instance, you can use the colours used for tones in many programs. First tone -> red > fire, second tone -> yellow -> light, third tone -> green -> plants, fourth tone -> blue -> water. Whenever you want to remember the tone of a character, include the above backgrounds into the mnemonic. Everything in the story is burning when it’s the first tone, shining bright when it’s the second, taking place in the deep jungle when it’s the third and under water when it’s the fourth.

As I said, I don’t use this frequently. If I were to use such a system for tones for every word I learnt, I would add more infrastructure. For instance, I would create one substitute for each tone combination (at least for disyllabic words). I haven’t done this, but since the general principle should be understood by now, I think you’ll be fine on your own.

Using mnemonics to learn pronunciation

Even though it’s possible to devise a system to memorise all syllables in Mandarin (it’s actually quite easy, just create substitutes for all initials, medials and finals), I don’t think it’s worth it. Instead, I think it’s smarter to create mnemonics only for those syllables we have problems. Few people mix up the initials sh- and p-, but z- and zh- are trickier. Create infrastructure only when you need it!

Again, there are many ways of doing this. For instance, associate z- with a word you’re 100% sure starts with z-, such as 子 which means “son” or “child”. Then associate zh- with something else, like 蜘蛛, “spider”. Whenever you need to distinguish between these two, incorporate either a boy infant or a spider into the story.

Interference and how to handle it

Some readers might ask themselves if this won’t interfere with their ordinary mnemonics. If you have memorised 美 (beautiful) as a fifty-foot sheep, won’t it cause trouble if you also add djungle background to remember that it’s the third tone? If you have memorised 政 (politics) as beating people to correct their behaviour, won’t putting the entire scene under water make things confused? Perhaps you’ll invent a new characters which has a tree 木 beside 美 or water 氵 next to 政?

Not really. There are two ways to get around this. One is to always include the tone substitute in the same way. If fourth tone means that everything takes place under water, that is very different from using water of any other kind. If first tone means that everything is on fire, fire can still be included in other ways (candles, bonfires, torches). I usually include the tone substitute in the same way each time, usually modifying the scene itself. The other way is to make sure you have clear pictures of your substitutes. If you think of the third tone as a jungle, you won’t confuse this with 木 if you have picture of an oak for that character component.

Mnemonics are individual

Although you can get inspiration from other people, you can’t borrow their systems directly and expect them to work as well for you as they do for their original creators. You might not like the way I handle tones or my example for how to separate z- and zh-. This is not a problem. I know these methods work for me, only you know what works for you. It might require some practise before it gives results and perhaps some consolation can be found in the fact that it the more you practise, the better you will become. Remembering things really is a skill that you can practise and get good at!

Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

This is the third year I teach the introduction course in Chinese at Linköping University here in Sweden. Each time I’ve taught this course, I’ve felt the lack of a beginner-friendly radical list. I often tell students that learning character components is essential, that it’s a long-term investment that will pay off several times over the course of their Chinese studies. I then show them some of the most common radicals. But then what? Beginners often find it hard to distinguish which parts are common and which aren’t. Sure, you can use the “if you see it more than twice, learn it” rule, but that’s not terribly helpful.

Filling a gap

Curiously, I have been unable to find a good list of the most common radicals. Before you post a comment telling me that there are many, hear me out. If you don’t want to here me out and just want the list, click here to scroll down.

Most importantly, all lists sorted on frequency that I have seen (such as the article on the Kangxi radicals on Wikipedia) are based on data from a very large volume of characters. If you base such a list on the 50 000 characters in the Kangxi dictionary, you will end up believing that 鸟/鳥(bird) is one of the most common radicals. It’s not. If you only take the most commonly used 2000 characters into account, it only occurs nine times. That means it doesn’t even make the top 100. Thus, most of the 750 occurrences of this character in the Kangxi dictionary are not common characters. Other lists I’ve found are based on the 8000 most commonly used characters, which is much more useful, but still not suited for beginners.

The most common radicals among the most common characters

The list I have compiled is based on the frequency of the radicals among the 2000 most commonly used characters. This means that all these radicals are essential. Almost all occur in at least ten characters, most of them in much more than that. This means that as a beginner, you can learn all the radicals in this list without fearing that you’re learning things that actually aren’t that common. It’s meant to be a solid foundation on which to build. The alternative is to learn all the radicals, but some of them are very rare indeed.

The list and what it contains

The list I have compiled is available both as a tab-delimited text file and as a shared deck in Anki (available here), download whichever version suits your needs.

  • The 100 most common radicals in .anki format (this is the old Anki format, if you’re using a new version of Anki, you can just use this link, if you want better formatting of the cards, please refer to this text file, created by Gregory)
  • The 100 most common radicals in .txt format (for use in other programs or for easy editing or viewing, change character encoding if it doesn’t show properly; in Firefox, do View >> Character encoding, in Internet Explorer, right click and the Encoding, this should be set to Unicode)
  • The 100 most common radicals as a PDF (suitable for printing). There are two PDF versions available, so download both and see which one you like the most. The first was created by Markus Ackermann and can be downloaded here.  The second is created by Peter Lee and can be downloaded here.

These are the columns used in the list:

  1. Simplified – This shows the simplified version of the radical as it appears in most characters.
  2. Traditional – This shows the traditional character as it appears in most characters.
  3. Variants – This shows other common variants of the same radical or the original character.
  4. Meaning – This is the basic meaning(s) of the radical in English.
  5. Pronunciation -Pinyin. If written in parentheses, it is not among the most common 2000.
  6. Examples -Five examples chosen from the 2000 most common (simplified) characters.
  7. Comment – My notes for the radical with extra clarification and warnings about similar radicals.
  8. Colloquial name – The name Chinese people use to refer to the radical. Beginners can ignore this.

How to use the list

As a beginner, you can use the list to boost your understanding of Chinese characters. Learning these 100 fairly simple characters will enable you to recognise parts of almost any character you will encounter. Of course, you won’t recognise all parts of every character, but it is a good start.

Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.
Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.

If you want a good tool to learn characters in general, I suggest using Skritter. It’s the only tool that gives you instructive feedback and requires you to write correct characters. It also uses spaced repetition, making learning characters much more efficient. If you want to study the list on Skritter, go to user-made lists, search for “Hackingchinese.com” and choose simplified or traditional characters.

As a teacher, you can use this list (or a section of it) to introduce students to radicals. You can also provide as extra material for students who want to learn more than what is offered on the curriculum. Even if you don’t teach all the radicals yourself, you should at least make it easy for people who wish to do so.

Kickstarting your understanding of Chinese characters

Chinese is a wonderful language to learn, partly because it can be hacked very efficiently. Learning Chinese characters by pure rote takes huge amounts of time, but learning basic components (such as those in this list), you can make learning characters both meaningful and fun. Instead of simply writing a character over and over, take a close look at the parts and find creative ways of linking them together.

I have written more about how to use mnemonics to learn characters and words elsewhere, check these articles:

Future development

This list isn’t perfect. In essence, there are two things I would like to do, but don’t have the time to do right now. First, even though this list is weighted according to character frequency (I only looked at the 2000 most common), it’s not properly done. The best solution would be to look at each character among the 2000 most common and assign each character a frequency. This number would then be taken into consideration when determining how common a radical was. Thus, the 亻 in 他 should give a higher score than the 亻 in 伪 (僞).

Second, radicals aren’t necessarily the most important building blocks. A radical is really just the part of a character under which the character is sorted in dictionaries. This means that there are other character parts which are really common, but which aren’t radicals and that even if you learn a radical, it’s not necessarily the radical if it appears in another character. I used radicals for this list because it was easier to do and there is no commonly agreed on way of listing components in general.

There are many other components that normally carry information about how a character is pronounced. I have written about phonetic components already (Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters), but I haven’t been able to produce a list similar to this one for sound components. The ideal thing would be to have two lists, one for components that carry meaning and one for components that carry sound, but that’s a project still in progress.

Thus, this list is a compromise. It’s the best I can do with the time I have available. I do think it’s useful and learning all these radicals will be genuinely helpful when learning Chinese. If you have suggestions for how to make the list even better, let me know!

Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge

Looking back at all the things I’ve learnt in school throughout my life, what strikes me is that a very tiny fraction was focused on the most important aspect of all: how to learn. People seem to be of the opinion that learning is a talent that you either have or don’t have. This is patent nonsense. There are many ways of learning things, just as there are many ways of doing anything in life; some methods work better than others, and with time and practise, you can find what is suitable for you and you can improve your learning ability. In other words, you can learn how to learn.

Image credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/Egahen

The goal

The goal is to be able to learn whatever you encounter with as little effort as possible. Although it’s always possible to improve, I think I have managed to reach a level where I can learn new words really easy., mostly using the method I have detailed in my series about learning vocabulary (starting with this article about character components), I have been able to learn many hundreds of words per day for shorter intervals, peaking at 2000 words in five days in early 2011 (read more about this in this post about learning words quickly).

On average (including vacation, breaks, and so on), I have learnt around 12 words per day since I started studying Chinese four years ago.

The method

How is this possible? I don’t say this to boast, I seriously believe that anyone can do it, provided that they have made the correct preparations and have developed proper toolkits. I was able to do this because  my knowledge of Chinese isn’t a mishmash of separated facts, but more like a densely interconnected web. I have spent a significant amount of time to organise knowledge in a meaningful way and I know the basic building blocks that are necessary to create the infrastructure of learning Viewing learning in this way is called holistic learning, because rather than trying to learn isolated facts, you connect what you want to learn with a bigger, more meaningful whole.

It is possible to learn new words at a pace of one per minute, including maintenance. Since this is Chinese we’re talking about, most words consist of two characters, most of which advanced learners will know already. Instead of seeing a new word, you simply see two nodes in the web structure and then use a creative way to connect the two, and associate the meaning with these nodes. This doesn’t mean that you will know how to use the word perfectly after just one minute, but it does mean you know what it means.

For characters, it’s the same, but just at a more detailed level with parts of characters and radicals instead of full characters. A minute is a lot of time to create a connection and if you can stay focused, it can be almost instantaneous. The only reason I can’t do it faster is that some connections are always trickier and I also review to make sure that everything sticks.

The web structure of holistic learning

I’m going to argue that the traditional way of learning languages (or learning anything, for that matter) is deeply flawed. I think most people have memories of rote learning of vocabulary, each handled as a separate unit without any connection to anything whatsoever. This is not only inefficient, it’s also boring (which is sometimes one and the same thing).

“Holistic” might sound like a fancy word for some people, but it’s actually quite simple. Rather than focusing on single, separate units of data or facts, an holistic approach regards everything as a part of something, as part of the whole. Everything you learn will be connected to everything else you know, perhaps not directly, but at least via other bits and pieces of knowledge you have stored in your brain. A multidimensional web is the most accurate metaphor for this kind of structure.

The main principle of holistic learning is quite simple. First, you need some kind of framework which you can use to roughly sort the information you want to learn. This might be a working model, hypothesis or concept that you form when you approach a subject. The structure is flexible and organic, so it will develop continuously as you learn. A good way to improve on the general infrastructure of your web is to learn about how Chinese works, trying to understand the wider perspective rather than the details. Blur your eyes, take a few steps back.

Now you can start adding threads and nodes in the web (actual characters, words and structures). Connect what you want to learn with something you already know. Try the following to make the connection:

  • Write it down
  • Draw it
  • Say it aloud
  • Sing it
  • Think about it

Only you know what’s best for you, but do make sure to try more than one method because they work differently for different people and also for different situations. Does it now become clear why it’s so important to know radicals and individual characters when learning Chinese? If you know them, you have building blocks that can be connected to each other and form strong bonds. I’ve chosen to write separately about how to create such bonds, so check the article on mnemonics for more about that!

The web is more than a metaphor

Above, I’ve used the web as a metaphor to describe how learning is supposed to be. It’s more than that though. What goes on in the brain when we learn something? Learning is the formation of new pathways through the brain, new connections between neurons, just like the threads in the web I’ve talked about above. There are two ways to make sure that you remember something:

  • Repetition, which will make a single connection stronger because you use repeatedly
  • Expansion, where you create many different connections to other nodes rather than just to one

The first one would be the traditional way of studying. If you’re faced with a list of fifty words to learn, most people sit down and go through the list, perhaps writing the words, covering the answer, until they know them. This creates an arbitrary an abstract bond between two nodes in the web. What you should do, however, is sit down and think how you can connect these words to things you already know. As I’ve talked about more in the mnemonics article, it doesn’t need to be logical connections!

Why is this a good idea, then? There are many reasons:

  1. It’s a lot safer, because even if some connections in your web break (let’s say at a test), you still have plenty of other ways to get to your destination. If you’ve just spent time repeating a word, there is no way to retrieve it if you forget it, but if you have it connected to many other nodes, it will be easy.
  2. It’s a lot more fun.Creating a dense web is a creative activity very different from rote learning.
  3. It’s a lot more efficient. If you have already built up a nice and heavily interconnected web and you’ve practised making new connections, you can learn new things without even trying. Of course, learning a new language, you still need basic building blocks, but once you have those, you can learn at an incredible pace.

Holistic learning and Chinese

Although this approach can be used to learn anything efficiently, a foreign language is in some ways a bit special and Chinese is also a special language in itself. Approaching a new area as a beginner, there are two things you need to start doing immediately, but preferably with this priority:

  1. Create basic infrastructure, the framework of your web
  2. Create the building blocks that will form the threads in your web

The first part involves learning about Chinese. You need to understand how characters are composed, how pronunciation works and basic grammar. Knowing about this will help you to sort what you learn into a structured web instead of a just heaping everything in a pile. The second part is covered in detail in the articles describing the toolkit (just another metaphor for the same thing), but briefly put it involves learning parts of characters and individual characters so that you have something meaningful to use when you create connections in your web.

Most articles on this website is in some way related to holistic learning, even though it might not be directly mentioned. Just like a network of roads in a country needs to be maintained, you also need to maintain your language web, which is mostly done when you speak yourself (making use of all the connections you have) or when you listen (tracing what someone says, also using the web). This reinforces the threads, making them stronger. It also adds new ones, alters those that were accidentally placed in the wrong position.

You can also use computer programs to reinforce connections, but spaced repetition is not the same thing as rote learning. If you’re just using Anki or any other program just to cram vocabulary, you’re doing something wrong. These programs should be used to reinforce what you remember; if you’ve forgotten something, you need to use different methods: Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning.

Once you’re used to holistic learning, it’s mostly an automatic process, even though sometimes concentrated effort is needed to clean things up, deal with specific problems, understand what hampers progress or just add to the basic framework and the toolkit.

And that’s what Hacking Chinese is all about.

Further reading

For some reason, I have used holistic learning most of my life without really knowing it. It was only when I read Scott H. Young’s articles about it that I realised that what I was doing was in some way different from what other people seem to be doing. If you want to know more about holistic learning, I suggest you head over to his website or check out his free e-book about holistic learning.

Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

In other articles on Hacking Chinese, I discuss how you can learn characters, words or grammar patterns more efficiently. Since all these articles rely on a common theme, it seems reasonable to give an introduction to that theme along with some more detailed information and help. The general theory is that disassociated learning, i.e. learning things that aren’t connected to something else, is bad, and that you should at all times try to associate what you learn with something you already know. This is the essence of holistic learning even though this post will deal more with details and memory aids in general.

Note that this post is not about the practical aspect of memory aids and mnemonics. There are two other articles of interest that describe how to apply these principles when learning characters and words:

What we’re going to talk about here is the principle behind these posts and mnemonics in general, so if you want hands-on information on how to improve your learning, checking those two articles is probably better than reading this one. If you want to know more about tricks to boost your memory, read on!

What is mnemonics?

If given a list of random numbers or words, how many could you remember after studying the list for just a short time? The usual answer is 5-9 items, because that’s what normal people can hold in the working memory at any given time. If you want to remember more than that, you have to use some kind of technique. With a very simple method, you can easily remember thirty items in order and without fault. It will take some practise getting good at it, but it’s not hard. In the case of words, simply connect the words with each other in a unique way. If there are numbers, you typically have to convert them to something else that’s easier to remember first (like letters). This requires preparation, but is worth it.

The most important thing that a good memory can be achieved through practice, it’s a skill that can be trained.

The story method

The first example is an easy method where you simply connect the words to each other directly. If the words are limousine, paper and elephant, war, Paris and green (this is just an example), you connect these words by by picturing a well-dressed elephant sitting in the spacious back seat of a limo, reading some papers, while the car is moving through war-struck Paris (perhaps with the Eiffel Tower broken) and enemy aircraft dropping green paint over the entire city. A story like this takes seconds to create and with practise you don’t even need to think. If I ask you tomorrow what the five words were, would you be able to recall them? I think you would. If not, the story was not good enough or didn’t suit you, but more about that later.

The journey method

The journey method relies on similar principles (everything does, really) but instead of a story with things going on, you picture yourself on a journey, preferably through an environment you are familiar with. Along the way, you encounter the words, people or whatever you want to memorise. This is nice because you don’t need any preparation and is thus easy to use on the fly. Using this method, you might picture yourself walking to school/work and along the way you will see lots of things happening, preferably interacting with the environment.

The loci method

The third and last example is perhaps very similar to the second one, but I want to bring it up anyway because it’s so useful. The above technique used spatial memory to associate something meaningless with a well-known structure (i.e. the road on which you make your journey). The loci method is simply a general term for techniques that make use of this ability of the human mind to remember things (it’s also called “memory palace”).

It’s important to realise that the environment doesn’t have to be real! You can prepare certain rooms beforehand, which only exist in your mind and then later use these to store information. This is for instance very common for multiple blindfolded cubing, i.e. where people look at several Rubik’s cubes and then solves them in succession without looking. It’s actually a lot easier to do that most people think, but it would be hopeless without some memory aids like the loci method.

How to associate A with B

All these methods and all holistic learning is based on the principle that you can connect more or less random pieces of information with each other. Sometimes the connection is logical and it comes naturally without having to think too much about it. This is true for any kind of association which fits perfectly into our overall framework for a certain subject. If you encounter a word you haven’t seen in Chinese, but which follows every single rule you know and just makes sense in general, you won’t forget the word easily. However, languages are naturally evolved and there will naturally be lots of situations where you have to create the link yourself, using your imagination and previous knowledge.

You can base your links on many different kinds of associations which will probably work differently for different people, here I will simply share my own experience. This list of how links can be formed just contains some examples, it’s not exhaustive and you will be able to add your own. I will use random words to associate here, simply because I talk specifically about Chinese everywhere else and because it will be a lot easier to find examples that anyone can follow, regardless of language ability.

Five characteristics of a good mnemonic

  • Absurd – Usually, the more exaggerated the picture you form for a certain connection is, the easier it will be to remember. Relying on logic is not very good here, so if you want to remember the word “Santa Claus” and “reindeer” it’s not a very good idea to picture Santa sitting in a sledge pulled by reindeer, because this is reasonable and easy to forget. Do it the other way around! Think of Santa pulling a sledge full of reindeer. Make big things small, few things many, overturn any kind of logic you can find.
  • Shameful – Any kind of embarrassing link is good, especially if it deals with taboos. Sex is awesome (from a pure language-learning perspective, of course). I’ve heard this from almost everybody who uses this kind of associations, that the shameful and embarrassing associations are those that stick the longest. What is embarrassing for you might be different from what is for me, but I think you get the idea.
  • Disgusting – Any association which is revolting and very unpleasant is also likely to be stronger. Again, it differs greatly what people think is disgusting, but you can probably come up with connections that involve all three points I’ve mentioned so far, even though I’m not going to give you an example of that here!
  • Scary – What are you afraid of? Using the answer to that question is also likely to enable you to form stronger connections between words. I’m not afraid of many concrete things (such as snakes or spiders), so I don’t really use this very often, but picturing scenes that are in some way scary is still possible.
  • Funny – Try to use humour as much as you can. Why? Because it’s fun, of course! On a more serious note, funny things are also easier to remember. Typically, funny associations are also absurd, but they don’t have to be. Note that it doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks it’s funny or not as long as you do.

The list can be made longer. Do you notice any common theme? Yeah, that’s right, strong emotions and things that are unique.

Make your connections vivid

If you follow the above-mentioned principle of using strong emotions, make sure that you also make your associations as vivid as possible. A connection is often a mental picture of how two things interact with each other. It’s very important that you don’t simply say the two words together in a sentence. Saying “Santa pulling reindeer” is a connection that will probably fade over time. What you need to do is use all your senses and try to make the scene as vivid as possible. Smell the sweat running down Santa’s back, hear the cracks as he’s being whipped by the reindeer, see the haughty looks on their faces.

If you feel that this is difficult, don’t worry! Most people require practise to become good at this, but fortunately it’s both quite easy and occasionally also entertaining. Simply imagine yourself noticing details in the scene, making the impression of it stronger.

Here are some excellent examples from xkcd:

Connections are your own

If you have strong emotions combined with vivid pictures, you will quickly realise that some associations aren’t suitable for publication. That is not a problem, because no one will force you to explain the associations you have made. Regardless of how taboo something is or how revolting or silly (or both) a specific connection is, it doesn’t matter because you are the only one who will ever know. The only two categories that are really suitable for sharing are the absurd and funny ones, and it can be truly entertaining to read what bizarre associations other people make!

Maintaining connections

Even if you’re an expert, there will be connections that fade quickly for some reason. Sometimes you can spot the problem and you understand why you can’t remember it. In cases the solution is obvious, just make the connection stronger by changing the association a bit. At other times, though, you just can’t remember something even though you think you should. Don’t hesitate to recreate the connection in these cases, abandoning principles that don’t work. After doing this for a while, you will know more about yourself, what works and what doesn’t.

Good connections can last a very long time. For instance, if given the start of a story I’ve used for blindfolded (Rubik’s) cubing, I can sometimes remember the complete story, even if I did the solve weeks or months ago, and I didn’t even want to remember it for longer than five minutes! However, if left completely alone, most images fade, if not in days, weeks or months, then years. Therefore, you need to go through your web in various ways. Since we’re talking about language learning on this website, it’s quite easy to do that, but it’s still important that you do it. Use the language a lot, listen and read as much as you can and use spaced repetition software to make sure you know what you need to know. These are all ways to use the words you have and after a while you don’t even need the connections any more. Maintaining connections is also a central of spaced repetition software, such as Anki.

Further reading

There is a plethora of information on the internet about memory techniques and using any search engine will give you more information than you can possibly read. Look at what other people have said; trying it is the only way to know if it works or not. By way of concluding this article, I’d like to share a few of my favourites:

Questions for the reader

  • What memory methods do you use?
  • Do you use these methods for other things than Chinese?
  • Do you have any other tips, tricks or suggestions?