Three ways to improve the way you review Chinese characters

Since the character challenge is in full swing (the first milestone was reached earlier this week, but it’s not too late to join now), I’m going to take this opportunity and discuss character reviewing in more detail. This isn’t really meant to be a comprehensive overview or anything like that, I think I already provided that in the article I published just before the challenge was launched: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. Instead, I’m going to give three practical, hands-on tips for how to improve the way you’re reviewing characters.

xiao11) Do not resort to rote learning and do not go on tilt

When using flashcard software, it’s very easy to cheat and take shortcuts. If you have really forgotten a character, it might be fine to just try to relearn it once by simply resetting the interval and starting from scratch. It might even be okay several times, but the more you do this, the more time you’re wasting. If you have a large enough deck and have learnt Chinese for some time, your worst flashcards will start taking up a significant amount of your time. These cards are called “leeches” in Anki, a very suitable name, because they completely drain your time and energy. I’ve written an article about this (Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches), but here’s the essential advice:

  1. Remove them from the review queue (“ban”, “suspend” or whatever)
  2. Deal with them actively (meaning mnemonics, learning character components and so on)
  3. Look at similar characters or characters that share components (horizontal vocabulary learning)

To summarise, just hitting “next” when you fail might make you feel like you’re saving time, but dealing properly with these leeches from the very start will save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run. Learning characters by rote is not a good idea.

2) Spread out your learning, but be aware of time quality

This is probably the most important advice I have to give. Reviewing characters in front of your computer is generally not a good idea, because you’re using high quality time to achieve something that you could easily achieve with lower quality time, thus violating the time quality rule.

Vocabulary reviewing can be divided into two separate parts and it should be obvious that they require time of different quality:

  1. Reviewing characters you remember (low time quality requirement)
  2. Dealing with characters you have forgotten (high time quality requirement)

This is one of the reasons it makes sense to suspend or ban cards you have forgotten, especially if you encounter these in the queue to the bus, in the line in the grocery store or while waiting for a bowl of noodles somewhere. That’s not the best time to look up character parts, study related vocabulary or create mnemonics. Suspend or ban and save for later.

I wrote more about what I call capacity management in an article on the FluentU blog.

3) Be aware of the validity of your current study method

In essence, this can be formulated in one single, simple question:

Is your current study method preparing you for what you want to use your character writing for?

I’m going to give you one concrete example, but there ought to be many more that will differ slightly between different programs and study situations. If you learn characters mostly because you want to increase your understanding of characters and your general reading ability, it doesn’t matter much if your study method leaves you unable to write Chinese by hand, but if your goal is to be able to use written Chinese in a professional or academic situation, you need to make sure you’re practising in a way that is actually preparing you for this (I talk about this more in the video below).

I created this little video to show you a fairly serious problem in Skritter. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to overcome. In programs that offer no feedback, the possibilities of cheating or being too relaxed are of course much, much greater. This is in fact part of the reason I think Skritter is so good; it does work quite well in a majority of cases.

With default settings in Skritter, you write a stroke and if the algorithm decides that your stroke is correct, it helps you draw a pretty version of that stroke. This might be good because it gives you feedback on what the stroke was supposed to look like if you screwed it up a bit, but I’m certain this is mostly bad.

Why? Because Skritter will help you too much. When you write a character on paper, you don’t get confirmation for each stroke that what you’re doing is right and paper doesn’t accidentally turn incorrect characters into correct ones.

If you have any hand-on advice for me or other learners, please share in the comments!