Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.

So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.

1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days

I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.

Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.

My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.

Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal

In my case, then:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)

Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.

3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here

There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.

I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!

Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)

4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)

Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.

Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!

6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters

As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.

I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.

I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.

7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

skritterIf we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).

The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed)  will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):


List of participants in the challenge

If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Gerrityong
  3. Maggie
  4. Xiaokaka
  5. Elizabeth Braun
  6. 胡安马林
  7. Xiaomai
  8. Jacob Gill
  9. Brian Emord
  10. Teresa
  11. Rossi
  12. Magnus
  13. Ivan
  14. Jacob Job
  15. 勇氣
  16. Dan Poole
  17. Li
  18. Carmeljune
  19. Hugh Grigg
  20. Frederico Ferro Schuh
  21. Rob Flye
  22. Lucía 学习吧
  23. Oaht
  24. Fandez
  25. Leslie
  26. Kelby Barker
  27. Tai
  28. Nommoc
  29. LorenzoCC
  30. Georges
  31. Daniel
  32. Lagoyidice
  33. Ana H. Zentarski
  34. Joaquin Matek
  35. Kyle Balmer 凯尔
  36. Daniela Rodríguez
  37. Dean James
  38. 陳凱
  39. Luke
  40. Rachel
  41. Nicole
  42. Mariano
  43. Linitachinese
  44. Aaron
  45. Lechuan
  46. Hans
  47. Doug Stetar
  48. Aivlys
  49. 戴睿
  50. Julia
  51. Emily
  52. Matt
  53. Trey
  54. Carla
  55. Nathan Fields
  56. Leigh
  57. Lili
  58. Núria
  59. Kiwi
  60. 杨明晨
  61. 狄小可
  62. Georg
  63. Jeremy
  64. 9thcrane
  65. Jeb Topper
  66. 爱美
  67. Kevin
  68. 戴睿
  69. Jason
  70. Stefan
  71. Bailee
  72. Rebecca
  73. Evelyn
  74. Sammy
  75. Jack
  76. Clare
  77. Audrey
  78. Nancy
  79. Federico
  80. Jason
  81. Pnh
  82. Napo
  83. Nik
  84. Julia
  85. Renee Bovee
  86. Haris
  87. Jacob
  88. Javi
  89. Ann
  90. Kate
  91. Faiz
  92. William
  93. KarynL
  94. Jamison Watson
  95. Martin W 龍馬丁
  96. 爱美
  97. hitesh agrawal
  98. Jocy
  99. Ryan T
  100. Baroni Fabio
  101. Will
  102. Reixue90
  103. Jeremy89
  104. Nikki
  105. Steve L
  106. David Brett
  107. Julia
  108. You?

That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014 (this article)
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf
Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.

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5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

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)

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

The get-back-up-to-speed summer challenge

I’ve been on vacation and haven’t thought too much about studying, which means that I have failed miserably to keep my vocabulary review queues at a manageable level. You might have other reasons for failing to do so or you might have other projects you really should finish before the end of the summer. I know I have. Rather than slogging away at this on my own, I thought I’d create a challenge that readers can participate in.

Summer 2013 get-back-up-to-speed challenge

  • Think through what you need to complete before the summer is over
  • Select one or several closely related projects
  • Define them as clearly as you can (define what the goal is)
  • The default deadline is September 1st, change it if you like
  • Use the template below and leave a comment to this article
  • Read my advice below on how to handle larger projects
  • Mush!

My challenge

Image source: http://ow.ly/mTAvL
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busy_desk.svg

I have actually a fair number of things I want to do before the summer is over, but as specified above, I’m going to choose one or perhaps two closely related projects and use them in this challenge. This is not merely an example, mind you, I’m in the challenge too.

My summer vacation doesn’t really end in August, but since I have lots of other things to do after that, I will set September 1st as my deadline. This should also be reasonably close to when other people’s summers end and therefore a good end-point for this challenge.

Template for participating in the challenge

Goal: Your overall goal for the challenge
Deadline: When you intend to reach your goal (I will use August 30)
Strategy: How  you intend to reach your goal before the deadline
Milestone #1, July 28: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #2, August 11: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #3, August 25: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #4, September 1: You should be finished with everything now

Here’s what my challenge would look like:

Goal: Reduce all my SRS queues to zero, including leeches and banned/suspended cards
Deadline: August 30th, 2013
Strategy: I plan to use most of the strategies listed below, but most importantly, I will use timeboxing as much as i can and get rid of the Anki queue through five-minute review sessions interspersed throughout the day. Skritter will require more concentrated effort and I need to be in front of my computer, so I plan to do this just after getting up every morning, provided I’m at home. The same goes for killing leeches in Anki.
Milestone #1, July 28: Anki queue down to 2500, Skritter queue down to 600 with no banned cards
Milestone #2, August 11: Anki queue down to 1000, Skritter queue down to 400 with no banned cards
Milestone #3, August 25: Anki queue down to 0, Skritter queue down to 200 with no banned cards
Milestone #4, September 1: Clear leeches and suspended cards in Anki, Skritter queue down to 0

Regarding the deadlines, they are merely examples. I will use them, but it doesn’t mean that you have to.

How to handle quantitatively large projects

Getting through thousands of due flashcards or killing hundreds of leeches takes some serious time. Also, the point is to do something intelligent with these flashcards, not just go through them as quickly as possible (that would defeat the purpose). As usual, I advocate an active attitude to flashcards, so reviewing involves editing, deleting and adding cards according to your needs. Simply going through the motions is meaningless.

There are a few things you can do to make this easier:

  • Break it down – This is essential. Any step is easy as long as it’s small enough. Break your project down into manageable chunks. Read more here about micro goals.
  • Timebox This is a very powerful method to get quite a lot done quickly. Rather than repeating many times in a row, I would spread this out throughout the day, especially if we’re talking about vocabulary reviewing.
  • Change environment – Feel bored? Change environment! I assume that most people use their phones or at least laptops to review vocabulary, so take it outside, to the library, to a coffee shop or wherever.
  • Study according to your current energy level – If you’re too tired to perform a certain task, change task rather than stop studying altogether.
  • Create habits – I find it particularly effective to do reviews at fixed points in my daily routine, so for instance, I plan to do 100 reviews when waking up in the morning and 100 reviews before going to bed. That’s not a promise, but habits like that increase your minimum output considerably.
  • Give yourself reminders – Tell friends, set alarms, use an online calendar or anything else that will remind you of your project. In my experience, the most dangerous period for habit creation is after a week or two when the novelty has worn off. Set several reminders a week or two from now!
  • Reward yourself – Do you have other cool things to do during the summer? Did you just buy a cool computer game? Set up a simple system where you always do X amount on your project before allowing  yourself to play that game. if you play turn-based or very short games, intersperse reviewing in between rounds.
  • Punish yourself – Give money to someone and tell them that they can keep it unless you achieve X before a certain time. Make sure that X is specific and make sure you actually give the money now. You will get it back only if you finish on time.
  • Make the tasks fun – Anything that makes the tasks involved more fun is worth considering.

Looks like I have quite a lot to do, time to start mushing!

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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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?

Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches

A leech is something that drains time from your studying and will keep doing so until you do something about it. The most essential example would be a piece of vocabulary, let’s say a character, that just refuses to stick in your mind. Even though it has appeared numerous times in your spaced repetition program, you just can’t recall the correct answer, perhaps because it’s very difficult, perhaps for no readily apparent reason whatsoever. What makes a particular word turn into a leech is very difficult to say, simply because it seems to be wildly different between different learners. Every learner I’ve talked to knows about leeches, although they might not use that word. This article is about how to deal with leeches.

Other articles on Hacking Chinese related to spaced repetition:

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Leeches are harmless on their own, but deadly in packs

Fortunately, we don’t need to know exactly why a leech appears, we simply need to know how to recognise it and how to do deal with it. The reason for wanting to kill leeches should be obvious: Not only do they drain time since they require much more reviewing than other flashcards, they also create a sense of frustration when you always fail a certain flashcard. Speaking of flashcards, I’m more or less assuming that you are using spaced repetition software (Anki, for instance), but you will be able to benefit from this article even if you’re old-school and still rely on pen and paper.

The problem with leeches is treacherous. One leech might perhaps drain a couple of minutes study time, which is insignificant. However, if you let the number grow, the time that get sucked in by these bastards will quickly accumulate and start becoming a real problem. This is completely unnecessary.

How to spot leeches

Spotting leeches is in one regard very easy, but in another quite difficult. It’s easy because you often get a feeling that you forget a word very often, which means that it’s probably a leech. If you’re using Anki, there is a specific function that will identify leeches for you, which means that you don’t really have to think too much about it yourself.

The default setting for the definition of a leech is that the card has been failed 16 times, which is ridiculously high in my opinion; I’ve lowered the number to 8, but possibly you could lower it even more, down to 5 or so. When this number is reached, the card is suspended and you will have to manually do something about it. This is precisely what we want.

However, noticing leeches might sometimes be more difficult than that. What if there are three characters you often confuse or you’re simply too lenient when you correct yourself, so you fool yourself into believing that it’s not a problem? Being aware of leeches and having an active strategy to combat them is essential and will probably solve most problems related to identification.

Kill the leeches!

So, you have identified a leech, but what do you do with it? It depends on what kind of leech it is. Characters that refuse to stick are usually the result of bad mnemonics. Go back and look at how the character is composed and see how you can create a new story or picture that will allow you to remember it. If it’s a multi-character word, the same is true: you need a new approach and a more vivid connection to allow you to remember the piece of vocabulary in question.

Confusing similar characters is a problem which might be a little bit harder to deal with and requires more effort. However, as I have argued elsewhere, knowing lots of individual characters is essential if you want to learn words really fast. If you have a series of characters you can’t distinguish, you have a flawed tool kit and your learning in general will also suffer. What I do in these situations is to compose a list of similar characters and then go through them systematically. Using a dictionary with a visual etymology tree is essential, because that way you can actually see similar characters right next to each other (see below).

Let’s take the characters 氐, 抵, 诋, 底 and 低 as examples. They are all pronounced more or less the same (only 低 differs in that it’s first tone). I found it very hard to remember which one of these was which, so I looked at this page over at Zhongwen.com. Look at the right and you will see all the different characters that contains 氐. Going through all these and writing them down (preferably by hand) is a good way of killing related. I usually gather these collections on a single sheet of paper and then put that somewhere where I usually have spare time, like next to my bed, close to the table or in the bathroom.

Being lazy means more work, not less

Dealing with leeches is quite easy most of the time. Laziness is usually a bigger problem than a lack of ideas about or insight into how to solve the problem. What I do is that I mark or label potential leeches in some way and then ignore them for a while until I feel like I have the time and energy to deal with them. Then I spend an hour or so looking at them and weeding out any problems that might be lurking there. That way, I kill lots of leeches at once. Finish what you started before you go leech hunting.

The reason I say it’s stupid to be lazy is that you don’t save time by ignoring leeches, rather the opposite is true. Lowering the threshold of leeches in Anki will mean that you spend more time looking at character parts and killing leeches. However, this is not a waste of time, because it means that you actually learn something instead of just failing over and over. Not only is it good for your Chinese, it’s good for your self-confidence as well.

Giving up is (sometimes) an option

Even though it’s necessary to learn most words at some point and there probably is a reason why you have entered a specific word into you vocabulary list, it’s important to realise that you don’t always have to fight. Let’s say you have a word you’ve tried to learn a number of times but which simply just refuses to stick, regardless of mnemonics or any other strategy you try. In such a case, I ask myself: Do I really need this word? Is it commonly used? Can I do without it? If the answer is yes, just delete the card and get rid of the leech that way. Spend the time thus saved learning something else.

In any case, keep your eyes peeled for leeches! When you feel that you have a couple, take decisive action to get rid of them, once and for all. A few leeches are irritating, but a throng of them will kill you. Don’t let them! Take control and make you studying even more effective.

Questions to the reader

  • Were you aware of the concept of leeches before reading this article?
  • How do you handle the problem with leeches?
  • What’s your worst leech ever (you can check most reps in Anki, for instance)?
  • Do you have tactics for leech hunting than presented here?

(PS my worst leech ever is 昆, which has 62 reps, proving that I don’t always follow my own advice)

Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning

Anyone who has spent some time thinking about and experimenting with how to best learn new words will realise that rote learning isn’t a great idea. I remember teachers in elementary school recommending me to use the word list in the book, cover one column with a piece of paper, look at the other and see if I remembered the words thus hidden by the paper. If not, peek and try again. This is horribly ineffective and any other way is likely to be better.

But isn’t that what spaced repetition is all about?

I have said that spaced repetition software is the best thing since sliced bread, but isn’t flashcards and spaced repetition just another form of the rote learning from elementary school described above? Sure, we use a fancy computer program now, but what makes this the best thing ever (at least since sliced bread was patented), while the scenario in the previous paragraph should be avoided at all costs? I think there are two major differences. Before that, though, I’d like to link to some more basic articles about spaced repetition here on Hacking Chinese:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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 Spaced repetition is about repetition, not learning

The main function of Anki or other similar programs is repetition. They allow you to maintain words that you have previously learnt and they allow you to do so without wasting too much time. I advice against using SRS to learn the words in the first place, so don’t just import a hundred new words and go through them until you know them, because that would indeed be repeating the same mistake as we’ve looked at above. Instead you should spend some extra time and use smart and carefully thought-out methods to learn the words as efficiently as you can. Looking at character components and individual characters to learn words very fast is a good way to do it. I have also written an article about how to learn Chinese characters as a beginner.

The point is that you use one method to memorise the words when you first encounter them, and then you use spaced repetition software to help you remember them afterwards. The program will remind you roughly when you are about to forget a word or a character; ideally you review the flashcard the second you would have forgotten it if it hadn’t popped up.

Don’t go on tilt when reviewing flashcards

If you’re serious about language learning, you will inadvertently end up with quite a number of flashcards, and sometimes you just don’t have time to keep the queue down. Cards pile up. When you finally sit down to tackle the problem, it’s easy to go on tilt and simply try to hack one’s way through the heap of cards, and when you realise that you’ve forgotten a certain card, you simply hit “again” and wait for it to turn up again. You’re on tilt. The likelihood is that you still won’t know the word, or that you will have forgotten it again a few minutes later. Don’t do this, this is falling into the same pit as we’ve talked about before.

When you answer a card incorrectly, try to be honest. Sometimes, you might miss a word because you simply made a mental blunder, misread the card or something. Do you honestly believe that you actually know the card in question? If yes, then by all means, hit “again” (or even “hard” if you really know the word and just misread something) and keep going, you should be fine. But if your answer is wavering or a bit uncertain, you should stop and examine the flashcard more carefully. If you don’t want to interrupt the flow of reviewing cards, simply suspend or mark the card and look at it after you’re done with the reviewing. Anki has a very useful system to detect leeches, use it! In fact, this kind of feature is a warning system. If the alarm goes off, it means that you’re doing something horribly wrong and you need to change strategy. You can read more about leeches and how to kill them in an upcoming article..

Conclusion

My conclusion is that spaced repetition, if done correctly, isn’t rote learning. Rote learning means that you associate A with B simply by repeatedly seeing or hearing the connection until you can remember it. Spaced repetition is about first learning something and then using software to review and enhance the connections you’ve already made. It’s simply a way to refresh what you already know, to enhance pathways and links between different parts of the web of Chinese in your brain. Spaced repetition software can be used to maintain and strengthen these links, but it shouldn’t be used either for building them in the first place or repairing them if they fall apart. Use your toolkit and mnemonics for those situations instead!