My best advice on learning Chinese characters

handwritingThis month’s challenge is about learning characters. In fact, my desire to launch Hacking Chinese Challenges came partly from wanting to arrange challenges more smoothly and with more participants without collapsing under the load of manually dealing with everything. Last week, I published an article with a brief summary of the challenge as well as some useful tips for how to improve character learning.

In this article, I’m going to go into more detail. I have already written about many of these topics before, though, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components – This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters – I wrote this article for, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters – This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components – This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner – If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use it – Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter – Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters. Don’t forget that there is an extra week’s free trial and a 6-month discount if you sign up with the coupon code for the challenge (SENSIBLE2015, has to be used on sign-up on the website).
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters – Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication – After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:


This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.

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.


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

Articles published about sensible character learning

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

The problem

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

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

Symptoms of bad character learning:

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

 The solution

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

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

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

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

What sensible character learning looks like

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

Who can participate in the challenge

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

What you need to participate

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rules of the challenge

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

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

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

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

Other things you can do that will help

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

How to join the challenge

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

List of students who have accepted the challenge

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

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

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

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

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

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

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

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

Spread the word about this challenge

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

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

My first semester at the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese a Second Language here at NTNU in Taipei, Taiwan is coming to a close. For the past two years, my long-term goal for learning Chinese has been to survive a program like this, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Entering the program, some question marks remained, and even though this post won’t be about my first semester here (I will write about that later), I will talk about one of those question marks: Writing Chinese characters (by hand).

Although this program is report and paper heavy, it still has several in-class exams which require handwriting skills good enough to put down in writing whatever I’ve learnt throughout the semester. This means that I’ve spent some serious time learning to write characters and that I have re-examined the entire process of learning to write by hand. The conclusion I present here is the result of around five years of learning characters:

You can’t learn to write Chinese characters by rote

Note: If you want to skip the background, click here to scroll down.

This needs some clarifications. First, when I say “you”, I mean an adult who is learning Chinese as a second language. I can already hear people say “but how do native speakers do it, they don’t use fancy mnemonics?” I’m going to reply to this with another question: Do you know how long it takes for native speakers to learn how to write Chinese? We’re talking about at least a dozen years, filled with more writing-heavy homework than most Westerners can imagine. It should also be mentioned that it’s not uncommon even for educated native speakers to forget how to write some characters they really should know how to write.

Therefore, looking at what native speakers do to learn Chinese characters is completely irrelevant for us. It’s simply not on the menu unless you want to spend the rest of your life acquiring what is actually possible to achieve in a few years if you do it correctly. So, in future, anytime you see a comparison between native speaking children and adult foreigners, you should be very, very cautious, because the upcoming conclusion is probably useless. We are neither children nor native speakers. Our study methods should reflect this fact.

Handwriting from the adult foreigners point of view

As some of you might know, I wrote an article about the importance of handwriting in November and concluded that it is important up to a point, but usually not a goal in itself. Regardless of why we want to be able to write by hand (everybody should learn at least the most common one thousand characters or so), it’s essential that we use methods that actually yield long-term results. What I see most students do is short-term oriented studying which might get you past the next exam, but it will not enable you to actually learn the characters. Some people aim for the medium term using SRS. This is good, but it’s not good enough. This is what this article is about.

Using SRS is essential, but it’s far from enough

I’m usually very positive about using spaced repetition software to learn languages, even though I did write an article earlier this month about the dangers of relying too much on SRS. Learning to write characters is perhaps one of the best examples of how good SRS is. Let me explain why before I move on to the really important bit, i.e. why this isn’t enough.

Spaced repetition software allows us to review things in a structured manner, making sure that we remember what we have learnt (or at least 90% of it). However, if we review these things in our daily lives, we don’t really need SRS to achieve that. For instance, if you live in China, you don’t need SRS to learn everyday words, because you hear them all the time. This is natural spaced repetition and it works very well. The same is true if you rely on very high volumes of listening and reading. In short, this is why massive input can mostly replace SRS.

Handwriting requires special attention

Handwriting is unique because even living in an immersion environment typically doesn’t require us to write anywhere near the amounts we need to acquire handwriting by rote. Since we aren’t actually required to write enough (your occasional tests and exams aren’t enough unless they are very broad indeed), SRS is the best way to solve this problem. It helps us space the reviews in an efficient manner and we keep the actual writing to a minimum while still retaining most characters. However…

Just relying on SRS to learn to write characters isn’t enough either

This is what I have fully realised this semester. I have seen the light. Using SRS to learn characters is very good in the medium term (let’s say a week up to a year), but it’s completely useless in the long term. Learning to recognise characters is one thing, but learning to produce them is another kettle of fish altogether. I’ve said before that SRS shouldn’t be rote learning, but I realise now that that article was naive.

This is how most  people use SRS (including myself sometimes):

  1. Use a program to review characters
  2. When failing a character, hit “again”, “next” or “didn’t know”
  3. Repeat the failed character until it sticks

This is what most people do.
This is rote learning.
This is madness in a long-term perspective.

Trying to brute force characters into your long-term memory this way is not going to work. When the intervals get longer than a year and you don’t write the character by hand in other situations (which you’re unlikely to do), you will forget it again. And again. And again.

It’s incredibly hard to learn something meaningless

The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful. We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak. In short, we need:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Combining the above three

Learning by rote is possible if we repeat things often enough. I have no mnemonic for 你 or 是, because I’ve written those characters more than a thousand times and I’m not likely to forget them. This is only true for the most common characters, though, the rest you will forget sooner or later if you don’t make learning active and meaningful. It’s a harsh lesson, but I think it’s true. Let me repeat that:

If you, when failing a review don’t spend time to actively study the card you just failed and instead merely rely on repetition to learn what you have forgotten, you will forget again. Actively processing characters and making them meaningful is not just a good method, it’s the only method.

Towards more sensible character writing

Next week, which is also next year, I’m going to launch a challenge. I’m going to try to start a revolution in character writing for adult students. It’s going to mean big changes for some people, but I really think this is essential and I hope people are willing to join.

In short, I will do everything in my power to convert as many of you as possible to a way of learning characters that actually makes sense, that will enable you to learn Chinese, not just for the test next month, but for life.

These articles have subsequently been 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 (this article)
  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

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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