About cheating, spaced repetition and learning Chinese

cheatingCheating is an interesting phenomenon, especially when it concerns motivated students who cheat even though this can only have negative effects on their long-term learning. In the case of language learning, cheating is (almost) always bad for you.  It’s not only morally questionable on exams, it’s stupid as well.

Of course, if we’re talking about a language in school people take only to receive a grade, it’s understandable that some will consider cheating, because they aren’t really interested in learning. This is not what I want to talk about today. My guess is that most readers of Hacking Chinese are learning Chinese for more than just a grade (if you do care a lot about your grades you should read this: Studying Chinese when your grades matter).

…and still we cheat

I can honestly say that I have never cheated on an exam in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in different classrooms, but I do cheat sometimes in an environment where it appears odd to cheat because there’s nothing to gain from doing so. My guess is that if I sometimes take shortcuts, the likelihood is that there are lots of other learners who cheat too. This is what I want to talk about.

Spaced repetition software and cheating

The cheating is related to spaced repetition software or any kind of program that checks your knowledge of Chinese through some kind of self-grading. In general, asking yourself (or having the program ask) you is a very good way of retaining knowledge. However, even if you get it wrong, all programs I know of allow you to go back and change the answer (and rightly so, you don’t want to reset the interval of a card just because you accidentally hit the wrong button). In some cases, you’re meant to just think or say the answer and then compare that with the correct answer.

I don’t do this very often, but sometimes I catch myself choosing a higher grade than I actually deserve. This isn’t a mistake or sloppy thinking, I think it’s more akin to actual cheating, albeit not in the sense of violating the rules of an institution. I didn’t know that character, but I think I ought to and once I see the answer, I knew that I should have chosen answer A even though I actually chose B. If the answer isn’t written down, it’s tempting to just think that I actually meant to choose alternative A from the very start…

We are only cheating ourselves

From a rational standpoint, however, this is completely ridiculous. The only reason we use spaced repetition software is because we want to learn Chinese, and pretending to know words better than we do is not going to take us closer to that goal. In fact, cheating increases the risks that we forget words and it will thus impede learning.

The weird things is that there’s nothing to gain from cheating in this case, no-one sees your retention rate or your score for your reviews today. Even if someone did, they most likely wouldn’t care at all. You don’t earn a degree or a good grade.

Why do we cheat?

So, why is it so tempting to cheat, then? I don’t know, really, but I have two theories; perhaps you can come up with better explanations than I. If so, leave a comment!

Before I do that, I just want to say that when I say cheating here, I don’t mean the deliberate kind of cheating that some students use to get better grades than they deserve, I mean an almost subconscious process that biases your self-grading in a positive direction, even though if you stopped and thought about it, you would know that it was wrong. Let’s get to my theories about why it’s tempting to cheat even if we will lose in the long run.

First, it is painful to admit defeat. Forgetting a character or word that we really ought to know means that we have failed and that’s bad for normal people (but it really shouldn’t be). If we’re trying out a certain learning method that we really want to work, failing might also mean that the method is less effective than we thought. In this situation, it’s tempting to just change the answer.

It's tempting to cheat in this situation!
It’s tempting to cheat in this situation!

Second, humans are lazy, which is another word for focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring long-term goals and commitments. In this case, if we have a backlog of reviews or a certain number we have to go through before we can do something else, it’s tempting to cheat because it means that the session will end sooner. Of course, this might mean that the next session will be longer or that we slow down our learning in general, but this is a long-term effect that we’re not well-equipped to deal with, at least not intuitively.

No cheating!

I said above that I catch myself cheating now and then, but what actually matters is what happens then. Nowadays, when I find myself doing this (which isn’t very often), I just go back and judge myself harshly, sometimes even more harshly than I should.

When doing this, I think to myself that this is for my own good, I will learn more Chinese in the long run by admitting that I didn’t know this word or by realising that I might need to review this again, even though I have 500 cards in the queue and I want it over and done with. Another mantra I have is that it’s much better to realise that I don’t know this word now compared with a situation where I actually need it, such as when teaching or using Chinese in an important context.

This is actually very similar to my requirement for last year’s character challenge, where participants were supposed to ban or suspend any character or word that they had forgotten so that they could deal with it later. This was presented as a method to avoid rote learning and going on tilt, but it could also be a shield against cheating. By establishing a proper system for dealing with failure, we can take the next step and realise that mistakes aren’t all that scary, they are a natural part of the learning process.


Do you find yourself cheating sometimes? Do you agree with the arguments I have presented? I could of course be completely wrong and be the only one who behaves like this, but I really don’t think so. My guess is that most people will spontaneously think that they cheat less than they do. So my suggestion is this: Pay attention to your behaviour when you use spaced repetition software over the next few days and report here. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say!

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!

Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions

One of the most common questions I receive is what my flashcard deck looks like and how I think one should organise a deck of flashcards for optimum learning. The reason I seldom give straight answers to these questions is that the true answer is usually “it depends”. However, I can still say quite a lot about what it depends on and I will try to do so in this article.

overflowNote that what I say here is generally applicable for flashcard programs in general (including paper flashcards, actually), but the specific software you’re using might limit what you can do. Anki is the only program I know that allows you to do everything I talk about here and more (although it is certainly harder to use). Other programs might be really good for other reasons, such as Skritter being excellent for handwriting, but this is not something I plan to discuss in this article. Instead, I will keep to major principles and leave different software for later.

Flashcard overflow, part 1: Review direction

One of the most immediate problems that faces people who use spaced repetition software is that they need to decide how they want their flashcards to work. In its most basic form, this question is a matter of direction. The most basic kind of flashcards have two sides, front and back, and you need to decide what goes on the front and what goes on the back.

Sounds easy? It’s not. Even if your particular program only allows you to enter three elements on each flashcard, such as Chinese character(s), pronunciation and definition, you still face the problem of directionality. Given three elements, you can set up three different kinds of cards. Actually, if we mix in audio recordings or pictures, you can have more combinations than this, but let’s not make it more complicated than it already is:

  1. Chinese characters on the front, pronunciation and definition on the back
  2. Pronunciation on the front, Chinese characters and definition on the back
  3. Definition on the front, Chinese characters and pronunciation on the back

This means that if we want to learn 500 words from the textbook we’re currently using, we could end up with 500 words, but 1500 flashcards, three for each word. This might be manageable, but if your vocabulary swells to thousands of words, your flashcard deck will become unusable very quickly. This is what I mean when I say flashcard overflow and it’s a very real problem. Before we start talking about solutions, let’s look at a second problem that is the nail in the coffin for the idea that you can create flashcards for everything.

Flashcard overflow, part 2: Review level

As if it wasn’t enough that we tripled the number of flashcards above, we also have to take into account what linguistic level we’re aiming for and therefore what we write on each side of the flashcard. Here’s a breakdown of the possible levels, starting with the smallest:

  1. Character components (phonemes for sound)
  2. Individual characters (monosyllables for sound)
  3. Single words
  4. Short phrases and collocations
  5. Sentences

Let’s say we encounter the sentence 今天太阳很大 and we want to learn it. Should we put the entire sentence on one card? Should we add 太阳很大 to focus our attention on the fact that we can say “the sun is big” in Chinese to indicate that it’s sunny? Should we add 今天, 太阳 and 大 as three separate words? Should we also add 阳 as a separate character that means “sun”? Or perhaps break it down even further and add 阝 which isn’t a character in itself, but is a common component that means “hill”, and 日 which is a character that also means “sun”?

Clearly, we can’t do all of this at the same time, especially not consider that each question can be answered in three ways depending on what you put on the front of the flashcard, the number of cards will spin out of control very fast. The question, then, in what should we add?

What cards should I add? It depends on what you want to learn!

Let’s return to the “it depends” answer I usually give to people who ask about flashcard models and review directions. First, the review direction (i.e. what you put on the front of the card) is mostly determined by what you use your flashcards for and what you cover through other means of studying (remember, spaced repetition software isn’t a panacea).

Here’s my personal philosophy:

  • For basic words, add both characters to pronunciation/definition and definition to pronunciation/characters. You need to understand these words and you need to be able to produce them as well. If the words are really basic and if you practise Chinese often, you can probably do away with the second type of cards because you will learn that by using the words.
  • When you encounter new sentence patterns or grammar, use sentences. This should be quite obvious, but don’t treat sentence patterns such as 因为… 所以… like single words, instead add sentences. If you find new instances of the same pattern that don’t fit your previous understanding, you can consider adding these as well. I don’t think that adding an example sentence is enough, though, you need the sentence to be part of the question.
  • For anything beyond the basics (synonyms of words you already know, for instance), just add characters to pronunciation/definition. Your goal here is to boost your understanding of Chinese, you will learn how to use these words through exposure, but you need to understand Chinese in order to get exposed to it a lot. I’m a firm believer in that we need to learn things passively before we learn them actively. Exactly how to do this will be the focus of at least one future article.
  • Whenever you encounter problems with words you have already learnt (such as something that goes against your understanding of the word or shows a new, cool ways of using it), focus on the problem and add a card that targets that problem. For collocation problems and problems with function words, use cloze test (a test where you remove the keyword from a sentence; fill in the gap); for characters you forget how to write, add single radicals and use mnemonics. Don’t go on tilt, be sensible.

The level you choose (component, character, word, etc.) depends mainly on these factors:

  • The reason for wanting to learning the item – When you consider adding a flashcard, you presumably have a reason for doing so (if you don’t, you really shouldn’t add the card). Why do you want to add it? The obvious answer is that you want to add it because you don’t know something, but try to think one step further. What is it that you don’t know? If you see the sentence 今天太阳很大 you probably know at least some parts of the sentence. If you found the collocation 太陽-很大 new, focus on this (gap text or translation). If you didn’t know the word for sun, then adding the word 太陽 is a bitter idea. If you weren’t familiar with the word order in the sentence, you might want to add the entire sentence.
  • The predictability of how the item is used – Some parts of a language have very strictly defined functions, tend to be more or less the same across languages and are therefore quite predictable. For instance, “table” is very similar to 桌子 and if you always translate “whale” into 鲸鱼 you will be right most of the time. In these cases, context plays a minor role, so adding entire sentences isn’t necessary; going for a single word is fine. Of course, you should try to add as few things as possible, we’re trying to deal with flashcard overflow after all!
  • The productivity of the item – Productivity here refers to the number of expressions a particular item can generate or be part of. So, the most common radicals are ridiculously productive, whereas some chengyu (idioms) are not, which is one of the reasons I think learning chengyu is mostly a waste of time. The more productive an item is, the more you should consider adding it as a separate flashcard. You can use the common rule of three to determine this if you’re new to Chinese, so if you see something appear three times in different characters/words/sentences, you should consider learning it as a separate item.

In order for the above approach (my philosophy) to work, you need to spend a fair amount of time reading and listening, as well as actually practising using the language. In other words, this is not a method that works well if SRS takes up a large part of your study time. If it does, I would lean more towards using sentences since this is closer to the way the language is actually used.

This is too complicated! Is there a shortcut?

This might look very complicated when written down, but the process actually becomes natural quickly. First ask yourself what you want to be able to do with a certain word. If it seems likely that being able to know what it means is enough, go with Chinese on the front of the card and the rest on the back. If you want to add the card because you really want to be able to learn how to say this now rather than later, put the definition on the front of the card and/or use a cloze test.

You and your flashcard deck: A dynamic relationship

The most important thing to understand is that you should have an active relationship to your flashcard deck. It’s not like you have to decide exactly how to do things now and then stick to that for the rest of your life. For instance, learning the meaning of lots of characters can be very useful at a certain stage when learning Chinese, just as learning radicals can, but at some point, this stops being meaningful. Don’t hesitate to delete, change or add flashcards or flashcard models as you go a long (please read this article for a more thorough discussion of editing/deleting flashcards).  Spaced repetition software should be a tool you use to maintain certain aspects of the Chinese language, not a chain that binds you to ways of studying you neither like nor find useful.

If you want to read more about flashcards and SRS, there’s plenty more to read here on Hacking Chinese:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese (newest first)

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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.


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:

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If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong

After having talked about spaced repetition software (SRS) with a large number of students (but very few teachers) both online and offline, I’ve gradually come to realise that many people neither understand what SRS is for nor how to use it. Some people seem to believe that SRS is a comprehensive learning method and that if you just spend enough time with the program of your choice, you will become fluent in Chinese.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/CDWaldi
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/CDWaldi

I am myself an avid proponent of SRS, but that doesn’t mean I think that it’s a panacea that can solve all challenges facing a language learner. In this article, I’m going to talk about some misconceptions I have encountered regarding SRS. In short, like any other tool, SRS is very good at what it does, but thinking that it’s the Swiss army knife of language learning that will help you in every situation is just wrong.

It’s spaced repetition, not spaced learning

Put as briefly as possible, SRS is about reviewing something the moment before you forget it, thus reinforcing your knowledge without wasting time reviewing things you actually would remember without reviewing. This basic principle is well researched and works very well. I think most people who has tried using SRS know about this.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should just import 1000 words from the internet into your SRS and start hacking away (and I don’t mean “hacking” as in “language hacking” here). That isn’t repetition, that’s learning, and a very detached, artificial learning at that. In my opinion, learning something means that you first acquire basic knowledge and understanding about something. Reviewing is about retaining that knowledge over time.

In the case of characters, this might mean looking up radicals and creating mnemonics, for words it might mean to understand the individual characters and link them together in a meaningful way. In this way, SRS becomes a method of reinforcing what you already know. As such, it is very efficient indeed. See my character learning challenge for more about this.

This is why I think it’s usually a good idea to create your own flashcard rather than simply import them from somewhere else, even if you end up with a list containing the same words (such as if you download a list for the textbook you’re currently using). If you create the deck on your own, you learn the words as you go along and you’re more or less forced to have an active attitude towards the cards in the deck. Creating cards on your own isn’t a waste of time, it’s a way of learning. It also makes sure that the quality of the cards remain high.

Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning

Even though SRS is efficient, it doesn’t mean that it never fails. In fact, it’s usually designed to fail 5-15% of the time because that’s generally more efficient than aiming for 100% (please refer to When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress).

When you forget something, you have a choice. Either you just keep going, reviewing what you forgot regularly until it sticks, or you consider what you forgot as lost and learn it from scratch. The choice depends on the nature of your incorrect answer. If you’re really sure you understand the word and have a “of course, I really knew that and just had a momentary lapse” feeling, then you might not need to do anything.

If you truly have forgotten the word, though, you shouldn’t just rely on more and more repetitions. What I do when I really forget words I should know is that I treat them as new words (here is an entire article about this). I go online and find better examples, new mnemonics or other things that can help me really understand the word.

Then I review the word as I normally would. I very seldom forget words twice using this method and most of the failures I have in my deck comes from being too lazy and not following my own advice. If you want to read more about this, please check Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning.

Finally, never forget that deleting troublesome cards is a valid option. If the character or word is important, it will turn up again later and you can have another go. If it isn’t, well, then you’ve saved yourself some time and will feel less frustrated.

Just because it’s efficient doesn’t mean you should learn everything with it

There seems to be a gluttonous tendency in some language learners (including myself at times, I admit, but then again, my goals with learning Chinese are probably not the same as the average student’s). The idea seems to be that the more words you learn, the better, regardless of which words you learn.

Adding every single word you encounter is a very serious mistake. As a personal example, I can mention a book I read after having studied Chinese for roughly 15 months. I looked up every word in that book I didn’t already know. Looking through that list of words today, almost four years later, I realise that there are many words in there I still haven’t seen anywhere else. As a beginner or intermediate learner, that represents a serious waste of time.

If you really want to just boost your vocabulary, I suggest you read more and listen more to material at your current level. When you encounter words more than once, add them. If you really, really want to use online word lists for the HSK or similar, only add lists that are below your current level. In other words, use these lists to learn common words you actually should already know, do not just add a complete set of words you’ve never seen.

Perhaps I have contributed to this tendency a bit by writing posts such as The importance of knowing many words, but please don’t get me wrong. I do think that knowing many words is very, very important. However, which words you learn is still important. The best way to learn new words is still through absorbing them through your reading and listening material, adding recurring new words to you SRS as you go along. For beginner and intermediate learners, textbooks are also really good.

SRS is a tool, not a comprehensive learning method

If you spend a major fraction of your total study time using SRS, you’re doing something wrong. I spend around 20-30 minutes using Anki every day, which is perhaps 1/20 of my total study time. Sure, I did spend more than that as a beginner, but I dare say that the SRS time has rarely exceed 1/10 of the total time spent studying. SRS works best in combination with as much exposure to the language as possible, along with real communicative practice to teach you how to use the words you’ve learnt.

SRS can make sure you remember what you learn, but it will never deepen your knowledge about the language or teach you things you didn’t know before. Furthermore, most SRS use is fairly passive, meaning that it’s an excellent tool to boost comprehension, but a very poor one for increasing fluency. A hammer is very good for nailing something to a wall, but you wouldn’t use it to repaint the kitchen.

I’ve seen some people criticising SRS for not increasing actual language competence and so on, but I think this is a critique of SRS users rather than SRS itself. If you think that you can learn a language simply by using SRS, you’re wrong. If you think that SRS is a very efficient way of reviewing what you have already learnt, then you’re much closer to the truth.

SRS is a flexible tool, use it wisely

The way you use SRS will determine what kind of results you get from it. For instance, you can practice character recognition/writing, listening comprehension, translation (Chinese-English or English-Chinese). You can also do various kinds of cloze tests or freer forms of recall. The thing is, you can’t do all of these. You need to choose. How you choose to use SRS will determine what you get from it.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?

I didn’t use spaced repetition software for my first year of learning Chinese (I didn’t know what it was back then). During my second year, I sort of developed my own spaced repetition system. This is crazy when I think back, but I actually kept stats for vocabulary manually and tried to figure out how long I could wait with the next review while still not forgetting too much. Then I found out that there are programs that do that for all words individually, which was a relief. Reinventing the wheel (at least a good wheel) is both difficult and time consuming. If you want to read about what spaced repetition is and why you should use it, check this article.

Building my personal dictionary

Image credit: Patrick Correia
Image credit: Patrick Correia

Since then, I have recorded most of my learning in my deck of flashcards. At an early stage, I started recording other things than just vocabulary. For instance, if someone told me about the difference between two near-synonyms, I would record the difference on both their cards. If I found relationships to other characters that weren’t obvious, I added that bit of information as well. Later, when I started using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, I added definitions in Chinese along with more etymology and other information I picked up along the way. My deck now consists of roughly 21,000 cards, some of them have small essays written on them.

Now, one of the basics of flashcard learning is that you shouldn’t add more information than necessary. Information that can be broken down should be broken down. However, the purpose with recording information about grammar, usage and cultural aspects isn’t necessarily to memorise this information, but to record it. This way, I can search through my deck and look up things I’ve looked up before. This is an invaluable resource I use all the time, especially when writing.

Big flashcard decks mutate and start living a life of their own

Then I read about people who nuked their decks, wiped everything and started from scratch. I was horrified; sacrilege! Some time passed and the discussion about deleting flashcard decks and starting over kept nudging me. At first, I thought: What if I lose any important words? What if I encounter a word I have learnt, but forgotten again because I deleted my deck? Then I rrealised that there is quite a bit of sense in the argument to start over again as well.

This article is the result of my own analysis of the situation.

In essence, this is why you might want to consider nuking your decks and start over:

  • You have lots of cards you don’t really need
  • You spend too much time with the deck (it has become a burden)
  • You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

The first point isn’t relevant for everybody, but it is for me. I have (or had, I will come to that later) hundreds of cards which were very rare (i.e. not in common use at all). These came from various word lists and from my own attempt to add more words to learn specific characters. Getting rid of all these words that just drained time and energy without actually giving anything back is one good reason to delete your deck and start over, especially if these cards are draining both time and energy.

The second point is only relevant for people who spend too much time with computer programs instead of actually being exposed to the real language (reading or listening) or using it (speaking and writing). This topic is really too big for this article, but even though I think spaced repetition software is great, it’s a tool that you use to accomplish certain goals, it’s not a comprehensive method of language learning. Thus, this kind of studying should take up only a small part of your learning time.

The third point is very interesting and should be relevant for most people. In essence, we need different kinds of knowledge for different stages in our language learning. I deliberately focused a lot on recognition in the beginning simply because I believe that understanding is the most important aspect to enable me to learn more and interact with Chinese people. However, the goals I had five years ago don’t really match my current goals, so something needs to be done.

Reasons why you shouldn’t start again from scratch

However, there are compelling arguments against starting over. If you haven’t reached a level where you can read and listen to Chinese produced for native speakers, you run the risk of severely hampering your vocabulary acquisition. We use spaced repetition software in the first place because it’s such an efficient way of increasing vocabulary quickly. If you can read novels and listen to the radio, you don’t need spaced repetition to maintain common words and characters, that will come automatically. The same is true if you use Chinese to a large extent in your everyday life.

However, if you rely on textbooks and graded readers (which there are all too few of), deleting your deck means that you risk forgetting a lot of words you don’t see and hear naturally in your textbooks or in class. The fact that you don’t see or hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary or common, it just means that you don’t see or hear enough words. In this situation, I strongly advise you against nuking your decks and starting over again. If you feel that your exposure to Chinese is enough to allow this, you can consider starting over.

The second reason you shouldn’t start over is if you have built up a personal dictionary. I keep my cards not only because I want to remember them, but because I want to be able to look things up. Rather than keeping notes about grammar and so on in a separate file or on paper, I keep it in my flashcard deck. Destroying the deck would destroy the dictionary. In theory, of course, it would be possible to keep the old deck as a dictionary only, but in practice, keeping two major decks for learning Chinese is bound to create problems.

The alternative to deleting is to actively trim and modify the deck

In the end, after long and serious consideration, I decided to keep my deck. This means that I have to handle all the problems listed above, including the one I haven’t discussed yet (the one about changing needs). Your situation isn’t likely to be the same as mine, so your conclusion might be different. If you decide to keep your deck, here are some ways you can deal with the problems I mentioned above.

You have lots of cards you don’t really need

This might be a major problem, depending on how many of these cards you have and if you keep forgetting them or not (it’s more likely since they by definition aren’t commonly used and therefore harder). I solved this by paying a native speaker do go through cards with an interval less than one year and highlight any cards that didn’t meet my requirements.

I then checked this list with a few other people and decided which to delete. I ended up deleting about 300 cards, which was much less than I thought. On the other hand, my requirements to delete a word was basically that it wasn’t in use in modern Chinese and that most educated native speakers wouldn’t use it in either speaking or writing. Still, 300 cards is still a lot considering that I kept forgetting them. Time adds up.

You spend too much time with the deck

This of course depends on how much time you actually spend. I spend around 20-30 minutes per day reviewing vocabulary and considering that I’m spending several times that amount on reading and listening. According to the time log I made last week, I spent roughly 67 hours with Chinese in some way or another, which means that I spend only about 1/20 of my time on vocabulary. I don’t think that’s too much.

Also, all the easy cards in your deck don’t take up as much time as you think. A rough calculation tells me that I spend around two minutes a day reviewing the 10,000 easiest card in my deck. Two minutes! It’s definitely worth that to refresh my memory and catch words I have forgotten.

You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

This is perhaps the most important reason for starting over. In the beginning, I focused heavily on recognition, because I believe that being able to understand spoken and written Chinese is by far more important than being able to use it. Usage comes gradually, but massive exposure is a prerequisite for any kind of advanced level. My goal was to be able to handle native material as quickly as possible. However, once that goal is reached, it no longer makes much sense to focus heavily on recognition.

Instead, I wanted to put the emphasis on output, on correct usage and on expanding my active vocabulary. For this, cloze tests or recall is much more effective. Of course, when I see a new word, I determine whether or not it’s enough to understand it or if I want to be able to use it as well. If the former is the case, I still do recognition only, if the second is the case, I usually use cloze tests.

The reason nuking your deck isn’t helpful here is that you might as well do the same thing with your old deck. What I do now (and will probably keep on doing for many years) is to simply switch cards from recognition to cloze. When I review, I mark all cards I come across that I realise that I really should be able to use, but actually can’t. I then reset their intervals and change the card to cloze.

It’s not the size that matters

As we have seen, the size of the deck itself isn’t very important, but the time you spend working with vocabulary is. If you add up to tens of thousands of words over many years, you’re not likely to feel that a large deck is a burden, because most of the cards in it will be very easy. The reason you still want to keep them is that you will forget some easy words sometimes and it’s not worth the effort figure out which. If a card appears once every seven years, you wast more time thinking about whether you should delete it or not than you would reviewing it if you kept it in the deck.

However, I do think there are times when you should start over. If your deck is a mess, takes too much time and is boring to play with, you risk burning yourself out anyway and restarting might be a good idea. Similarly, if you have thousands of flashcards of a type you no longer need, deleting them is a good idea (a kind of selective reset). Furthermore, if you think flashcards are very useful but not fun, you should only use it for things that really matter, so keeping the deck small is important.

In the end, it boils down to what you use your deck for, how you use it and what you think about the way you’re currently studying. I didn’t delete my deck because I figured I could achieve the positive effects simply by being more trigger-happy with the delete button and finding other ways of removing unnecessary words. The key point isn’t exactly how you do it, but if you want to maintain a healthy attitude towards spaced repetition software, you need to have an active attitude to your deck. It’s a tool. If it doesn’t work, change it.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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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 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

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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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Measurable progress is a double-edged sword

It seems to me that most people like to feel that they gradually improve and become better at what they’re doing. This is partly why learning is fun in the beginning when every step forward is noticeable, but it’s also why intermediate learners often feel frustrated and complain that it feels that their learning has plateaued.

Actually, they’re still learning, it’s just that the new things they learn don’t make a difference big enough to notice. If a drop of water falls in a dry bucket, you can see the effects. If it falls in a bucket that is half-full, there’s no noticeable difference. Just a drop in the bucket.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/zeathiel

Measurable progress is awesome…

Before we turn to Chinese in particular, I’d like to share with you my personal theory of measurable progress. It started with this question: Why is it that so many people like going to the gym these days? I like body-weight exercises myself (I practice gymnastics) and these can be done for free at home, so why pay money and spend extra time going to the gym?

I realise that the answer to this question is complex and involves many factors, but I think that measurable progress is a key component. In a gym, each movement can be measured very exactly. We repeat more or less the same routines every time and therefore we can see that, yes, I have added so and so many reps or so and so many kilograms since last month. This makes us motivated to keep going, even though we might not feel or see the difference in our everyday lives. The fact that the progress is measurable makes us move forward.

…but it has some serious drawbacks

The gym of language learning is spaced repetition software and other fairly mechanical ways of practising that give us detailed feedback on what we do. Why is it that some people use SRS more than they actually read or listen to Chinese directly? Why is it that some regard SRS as a comprehensive language learning strategy, when in fact it’s just a tool among many?

I think it’s because it offers us proof of progress. We can prove to ourselves that we are learning, we can show others what we have accomplished, even if we ourselves don’t really feel that much of a difference. I have at least learnt 20 new words today. I know 100 more characters than last month.

The problem is that these programs were never meant to supplant reading and listening. They are useful tools that can help us boost vocabulary and reinforce certain other areas, but they are not substitutes for actually using the language, either in written or spoken form.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/mrsmas

Using only spaced repetition software would be like doing a few exercises in the gym and then expect to win a multi-sport event in the Olympics.

Still, most professional athletes use a gym and I think SRS has a lot to offer to language learners of all kinds, so don’t read this article as recommendation to stop using SRS. However, if SRS is your main (or perhaps only) window to the language you’re learning, you’re doing something seriously wrong.

How to measure progress without being trapped in the gym

As I have written in another article, I think than benchmarking is the way out of the dire straits. Benchmarking offers you a way to measure progress while exposing yourself to the language in a healthy way. In case you’re not familiar with benchmarking in the sense that I use the word here, it simply means using various methods to record progress and compare with similar measurements in the future to highlight the fact that you are actually learning something, even if it doesn’t feel like that (or, in case you actually don’t improve, it’s a good way of telling you that you need to change your method).

There are many ways of benchmarking and which one you use depends on what you want to benchmark (see the above article for more specific guidelines). I’d also like to recommend this article about approaches to reading in Chinese, especially the part about benchmarking.

Turn a potential enemy into a powerful ally

Finally, if you feel guilty of exaggerated SRS use, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Perhaps the reason you use SRS so much is that you really care about being able to feel that you’re truly learning something. This need can be turned to your advantage. Measurable progress might be your enemy if you allow yourself to be trapped, but it can also prove to be a powerful ally if you use it wisely.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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Answer buttons and how to use SRS

Spaced repetition is very powerful compared to massed repetition, which is why software utilising the spacing effect is growing ever more popular. I sometimes feel like an SRS missionary, writing articles about why everybody should start using SRS and which program I prefer myself (if you don’t know what SRS is, please read these articles before reading this one). This is all very good, but it leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, how should spaced repetition software be used?

In this article, I will discuss how to review vocabulary using SRS, including how to use the various answer buttons and some other functions commonly available. I will use Anki for all examples, but other good programs will of course have similar or indeed identical features. The algorithms used to calculate the spacing between repetitions might not be identical for all programs, but they are similar. What I discuss in this article is useful beyond specific programs, so don’t put too much emphasis on the exact details.

This article isn’t meant to be a guide to what is correct, it’s rather meant to be a discussion with some personal examples and motivations to why I’m doing what I do. If you have other ideas or don’t agree, please leave a comment!

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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Answer buttons

Most programs make use of four buttons, typically labelled:

  1. “again”
  2. “hard”
  3. “easy”
  4. “very easy”

Without any kind of definition, these answers are completely arbitrary. Do you hit “again” even if you fail a minor point in an otherwise complex and completely correct answer? Do you hit “easy” or “very easy” when you encounter a word you feel that you know quite well? What’s the difference between “hard” and “easy”? Of course, there are no entirely correct answers here, but I will give you my own ideas. Before that, though, let’s discuss briefly why this matters at all.

The short answer is that the choice matters greatly in the long run. Even if the algorithms will more or less automatically adjust the difficulty and the intervals for you, make sure you’re not being too harsh. A quick calculation shows that if you could use “very easy” for 10% of the cards instead of “easy”, you will save many hours over a year of reviewing (how much you save depends on how much time you spend reviewing of course). This time could have been spent doing something more useful. However, the opposite is true as well. If you select “very easy” for cards you don’t know that well, you will end up failing them, thus wasting more time than you would have saved, so don’t be too lenient either.

What does all this mean, then? It means that you should assess your answers as accurately as you can. This is individual to a certain degree and requires a bit of practice. If you use a decent program, you should be able to get detailed graphs showing you how much you click the various alternatives. Here’s what my graph looks like:

Avoid perfectionism: 90% is good enough

Note that most algorithms are set to give a 10% failure rate, which is almost exactly what I have if we ignore new cards. This is because a higher rate would mean that you’re wasting time studying too many words you already know, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that a higher number is necessarily better. Perfectionism is a waste of time. If you fail 10% of the cards, you’re doing it right!

Now, most of this is self-adjusting. If you enter a bunch of difficult words, you will hit “hard” quite a lot (check my new cards, for instance). However, since the intervals of these cards will be shorter because of that, you will also learn them better, which means the interval will be adjusted so you think they are “easy” next time you see them. This is the whole point.

The answer buttons and how I use them

Here’s what I usually do (including approximate percentage for mature cards):

  1. “again” (~10%) – I really don’t know the word, or I have forgotten a crucial part of it (such as forgetting the pronunciation of a character or only having a vague idea of what it means). However, the nature of the mistake is important. If it’s something I think it’s likely I will remember next time, I might choose “hard” rather than “again” for relatively new cards (interval less than one month). The reasoning behind this is that it will just clog the review queue if I reset the interval by hitting “again”. If I make the same mistake next time, I will choose “again”. I’m convinced this saves quite a lot of time in the long run.
  2. “hard” (~20%)  – I select this answer if I can come up with the right answer, but only after considerable mental effort, such as retrieving old mnemonics or comparing with other words I know. Also, see the discussion above about using “hard” instead of “again” for mistakes that are unlikely to occur twice. I never use this for words that have longer intervals (months or years), because you simply won’t see them again for a long while even if you choose “hard”.
  3. “easy” (~65%) – This option is for cards that I recall almost instantly or feel very familiar with. These are words that wouldn’t stop me when I’m reading and don’t require much mental effort to recall. I estimate that I spend less than three seconds each on these cards; if more, they count as “hard” rather than “easy”.
  4. “very easy” (~5%) – I only use this answer when I’m completely sure that I won’t forget this word within the given interval. For new cards, it means that I have learnt it properly and really think that the current interval is much too short and is a bit wasteful. For old cards, I answer “very easy” for anything I’m sure I’d know years from now even without reviewing. Instant or intimate knowledge of the word is what generates “very easy” for me.

Look at the interval

I think it’s a mistake to be 100% consistent when reviewing vocabulary if you ignore the intervals and only look at the buttons themselves (“again”, “hard” and so on). There is a huge difference between “hard (4 days)” and “hard (4 years)”. The reason is that I can easily pick the first one if I make an easily correctable mistake on a new word because I know I will be checked again in a few days anyway. If I fail again because the correction wasn’t as easy as I imagined, I will know that and can hit “again” if I feel the interval has grown too large. If the interval is four years, however, I won’t see the card ever again (in practical terms) even if I choose “hard”, which means that I can’t be sure I’ve corrected the mistake. In this case, I would hit “again” and suck it up.

Other useful functions

There are many other features you should use to increase efficiency further:

  • Leeches are cards that drain time because you fail them over and over. Anki suspends these cards automatically after a given level. I suggest lowering this level (the default number is 16), because if you fail a card that many times, you really need to do something else. As I’ve argued elsewhere, spaced repetition is meant to reinforce what you already know, not force new knowledge through cramming. Please also refer to my article about killing leeches.
  • Suspending cards simply means that you manually remove them from the review queue and that they won’t appear until you activate them again. I do this for cards I suspect have serious problems or when I think that reviewing them is useless, perhaps because I’ve given too little information and might confuse the word with other words.
  • Marking is something I’ve started doing a lot recently, which basically means putting a tag on the word that you can easily find later. I separate active vocabulary learning from reviewing, both in time and space. I review using my phone, but I always use my computer to kill leeches, delve deeper into difficult words or sort out synonym issues. Therefore, while reviewing, I simply mark any card I might need to work more with and keep reviewing. Then, I go through these words later, using dictionaries, asking native speakers, correcting mistakes.

Some questions for the reader

  • Are your answering criteria different from mine?
  • What does your graphs look like for new/young/mature cards?
  • Do you use leeches, suspending and marking as I do?
  • Do you use any other cool tricks I haven’t mentioned?
  • Any other tips, tricks or ideas you’d like to share?