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]

Anki, the best of spaced repetition software

Of all the various websites and programs out there to help you learning Chinese, Anki is probably the most important one. There are numerous programs to handle vocabulary learning, but in my experience, none of them are as versatile and dynamic as Anki. This article is not about why you should use spaced repetition software in the first place (you really should, read about it here), but about Anki itself. Anki, a friendly, intelligent spaced learning system (official website)

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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

Anki Here’s a short summary of what you can do with the program (it’s all free and open source):

  • Review all words with less effort
  • Synchronise your words with any other device
  • Study your words online on any public computer
  • Download decks created by other learners
  • Customise with extra plugins and features
  • Customise flashcards, including pictures, sound, etc.

In essence, this is what most programs will allow you to do, with the exception of synchronising and studying online. The online feature is one of the major strengths in Anki, because it doesn’t matter where you are, you can still review for five minutes if you have the time to spare. However, there are two things that make Anki better than any other program I’ve tried. It is more versatile than any other program I’ve tried Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customise anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require. Anki is under constant development and has an active community Since there are so many other people using Anki, there is plenty of material shared for free. This includes decks for your favourite textbooks, plugins that provide extra functions and so on. Bugs (which are very rare indeed) are fixed quickly and new versions keep coming out, making the program slightly better for each version. Anki compared to other programs I’m not going to do a proper comparison with other programs, simply because it would take too much time. The important thing is that you’re using spaced repetition software (see the article about why). I’ve introduced Anki and spaced repetition software to so many people I’ve lost count and I intend to keep on doing so. Which particular program you choose to use it up to you.

Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

Spaced repetition means that you review words you want to learn at certain intervals to maximise learning efficiency. It is a well known psychological phenomenon that repetition is much more efficient when spread out instead of massed together. Since this involves keeping track of much data, a computer program is needed to handle it properly. In this article, I’m going to argue that spaced repetition software is the best thing since sliced bread and that it’s a must in the long run for any serious learner.

At the moment, I’ve studied >20 000 Chinese words and if you gave me a test on all of them, I would score 90-95%

More amazing still, I only spend about 30 minutes a day maintaining vocabulary. I don’t say this to boast, I say this because I know for a fact that you can, too, if you just use the proper tools. I say this because it illustrates how powerful spaced repetition can be. Please follow¬† along and see why you should start using spaced repetition software today if you aren’t already doing it!

Learning languages is different from learning many other subjects in that almost everything we learn are built on something we already know. At beginner and intermediate levels, we can never study an area and, when we’re done, just leave it. We need to learn and we need to remember what we learn even after the exam. This is perhaps true for all subjects, but it’s crucial when learning languages. Is it possible to remember every word you’ve ever studied? Of course it is! It isn’t even hard.

The problem: Reviewing everything takes too much time

With a traditional approach, it would probably be impossible for us to remember almost every word we’ve studied. To do that, you would constantly have to go back and review chapters you’ve studied before, but as the number of chapters grows larger and larger, this would become a hopeless task. Then think of all the words you’ve learnt, but that aren’t in ordinary textbooks.

Reviewing old chapters and vocabulary lists, you waste a lot of time studying words you already know and don’t need to review, just to find those few words you actually needed to revise. This is what makes the traditional approach useless when you move beyond the beginner level.

The solution: Spaced repetition software

Spaced repetition software takes care of this. Each word is assigned an interval, starting at zero. This means that the time remaining until you should review this word is zero, i.e. you should do it now. The program will then give you the word as a flashcard question and if you can answer it correctly, the interval will be increased. The more times you answer correctly, the longer the interval until next time you have to review the word. Thus, words you know well and don’t forget will quickly be assigned very long intervals (months, years), so you won’t be bothered by them and can instead focus on words you find hard.

These intervals aren’t random! In most programs (see below), they are based on research done on vocabulary acquisition, so this will make learning even more efficient.

The point is of course that words you don’t know, i.e. flashcards you answer incorrectly, will have their intervals shortened, probably down to zero again. In effect, this means that you’ve forgotten the word and need to learn it again. You will see the words you’re having problems with all the time, which allows you to learn them properly.

For a simulation of the difference between traditional and spaced review, check this animation:

Spaced repetition software allows you to study the words you really need to study and stop wasting time reviewing what you already know

This saves a huge amount of time. In fact, it saves so much time that something that would otherwise be impossible (such as reviewing everything you’ve ever studied) becomes possible. As I said above, I have more than 20 000 characters and words altogether. Yet, looking at the statistics from the program I’m using, I spend on average only 30-40 minutes every day reviewing vocabulary! For a student with average mental faculties, this would be utterly impossible to achieve without the help of spaced repetition software. With this tool at your disposal and some determination and staying power, it’s not difficult to achieve.

Of course, if you’re a beginner or intermediate students, your deck will be much, much smaller. You will still need to practise more for each word, but at least you will make sure you’re not forgetting what you’ve learnt so far.

What to do next

If you’ve followed the above argument, you should be eager to install some kind of spaced repetition software. There are many of these and I’m not going to start a detailed discussion about their merits and flaws, but in my opinion, a program called Anki is the best choice and it’s also free. It allows you to do everything I’ve said here and much, much more. You can also use it for other subjects (other languages, geography, law, whatever). It also provides a web version you can use to synchronise your flashcard on different computers or smart phones.

Anki, the best of spaced repetition software (my article about the program)
Anki, friendly, intelligent flashcards
(official website)

In addition, there are a variety of other programs out there and I’m simply going to list them so you can try them out if you want to:

Mnemosyne (free)
Pleco (commercial, but partly free)
SuperMemo
(commercial, but has free sections)
Skritter (commercial, but with free trial)

A word of warning

Even though spaced repetition software is very useful, it’s not a panacea. You won’t reach a high level of proficiency by focusing only on relatively isolated parts of a language. Reading and listening is important to learn how words are used, and writing and speaking are necessary if you hope to use these words yourself!

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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