Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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)

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  1. haton says:

    I had not heard about the notion. It sounds very interesting. And above all very realistic. There are those words that simply seem not to get in.

    But then it is also a matter of time. For instance, 警察 (jing3cha2) was such a toughie 1 year ago but now it has gotten down to the rank of “normal” word for me…

    I guess that as you progress generally, you assimilate complexity, so that difficult words become less and less ominous over time (not only because you see them a lot but because your overall awareness level improves).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, I agree that it’s sometimes only a matter of time. It’s especially true for words that are commonly used (such as the word you mentioned). Basically, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to try to learn these difficult words by pure rote, because it simply is terrible inefficient. Check this article about why I think spaced repetition shouldn’t be rote learning.

  2. Luke says:

    My biggest leech is 拱.

    My mnemonic for it is:
    a giant puts his fingers together to create an ARCH that the people can cross on

    This one is particularly infuriating because I always seem to remember it for a month or so, then forget it (this has happened 18 times over now – and my leech threshold is 6, so it’s already gone through 3 leech suspensions!). Clearly my mnemonic doesn’t have enough emotion in it. Also, I find this character doesn’t come up very often when reading (and I read a lot), so that might have something to do with it.

    And with that, I’m now sufficiently energized to go kill this leech once and for all!

  3. Nathan says:

    My “leeches” are in fact the distractions. I find something in the course of a lesson that interests me…I look it up, see the origin and construction, see another word that is interesting, etc and then go down a “curious trivia” exploration of CHinese…almost none of which will stick and be more useful than sticking with what I am studying. And, as an old Scoutmaster, I know that the worst place to add leeches is wandering around in the swamp!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure we have the same definition of the term “leech” here? I’m talking about vocabulary that drain energy and/or time and that you have to deal with if you plan on learning large volumes of words. Of course, if you have a program that identifies leeches for you, one solution is to ignore them and learn those words when they appear again or when you really need them.

  4. Rob says:

    In the case of really bad leeches, I use a weakness of mine (feeling the need to vindicate myself after criticism) to my advantage: when I study I am usually around some Chinese friends and I will say the word aloud and say how I keep forgetting it. One of the recent ones in my memory is 浮, and they will look at the card and say something like “Seriously? You mean like in 浮動?” Even if I did not know the word they suggested, I just learned an example and got my pride taken down a notch, haha. I rarely forget it again.

    These articles are very helpful, by the way. I had been on a plateau for a while and I feel like I am finally progressing. I have a shaky foundation and have been relearning some things that were never firmly in my mind.

  5. Daws says:

    Wait, so you have difficulty with a certain word and the answer is to give up and essentially throw the card away? That’s ridiculous. If anything that means you need to spend more time on it, or/and get a prompt to change whatever you have on the card to make it more memorable. Maybe the accompanying image just doesn’t do it for you. But at no point should a program just stop trying to teach you it. This aspect has been annoying the heck out of me on anki and I wish they would just stop it. I should decide, not their algorithm.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean. The whole point of the article is that you should take decisive action against vocabulary that you keep forgetting, instead of just hammering away at them to no avail. That’s not giving up on them; I would say it’s the exact opposite! At the end, I do say that sometimes giving up is an option, but only if the vocabulary item in question is very rare or not useful, in which case you probably shouldn’t have added it in the first place. I think either you misread the article or I don’t understand your comment!

      The reason an algorithm should alert you to the fact that you have failed something X times is because it can be hard to notice in very large decks used over months and years, or at least it is for me. If you really don’t like the function in Anki, it’s just a preference setting anyway.

    2. asd says:

      Ok boomer

  6. Lew Proudfoot says:

    My Anki leach count is set at five. Every Sunday (well, almost every Sunday), I get all the leaches together and write flash cards for them. For characters I keep missing, I write the character AND the story down again, and study the etymology again. Then I go through the flash cards, using a variant of the Leitner system, but
    I go through today’s cards several times during the day, not just once.
    For similar characters, I write all the characters on a single index card, usually the bigger ones, and post them where I will see them.

    At 67, I don’t remember as well as I did at 27, so I use everything I can. And I agree, being lazy is more work. If a former leech comes up again, I make another card, and often hold the card up and say, “you again!” Putting more emotion into it helps.

    One weakness I have is that I continue to add in new cards even when I am having trouble with a lot of leeches. I find it is better for me to not add cards for a week, or two, or three, and deal with the things I need to learn first.

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