Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections

Two weeks have now passed since I announced the sensible character learning challenge. Since I wanted to try the rules of the challenge myself before telling everybody else to use them, I actually started a few weeks earlier than the rest of you. In this article, I’m going to share with you some really useful things I’ve learnt during the past month. This is also a good opportunity for you to share how things have been going so far. Here’s what have been published about this challenge so far:

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

Challenge progress report

Before we do that, let’s look at what we have actually achieved:

skritterprogressThis is great! However, we all know that it’s fairly easy to start something and be enthusiastic about it for a week or two, but then it becomes much harder. Actually, looking at the stats on Skritter I can see that collectively, we’ve learnt more characters during the first week of the challenge than during the second, even though the numbers of students kept increasing! This is in fact part of the reason why I’m posting this article now. That’s also why I set up the accountability system where you’re supposed to connect with the people directly above or below you on the list.

  • If you haven’t connected with your neighbours, you should do so as soon as possible
  • If you’ve tried to connect but received no reply, let me know
  • Starting tomorrow, I will remove people who aren’t following the rules
  • If I remove someone next to you, make contact with your new peer student

When you do connect, make a plan! When are you going to check on each other? I suggest at least once a week. I’ve been in contact with both Nick and Jacob and we send occasional e-mail more often than once a week, but it’s up to you how you want to arrange this. If you encounter problems or think something is difficult, ask each other. If you need support or encouragement, ask your fellow students.

Commit publicly if you haven’t already

If you want extra accountability, write a blog post about the challenge and ask readers to check how it’s going later. If you want me to, I will tweet the post to 4600+ followers on Twitter. Here are people who have already committed publicly (most have been tweeted, others will appear later this week; if you’re not on the list but have written a blog post, let me know):

Some advice on using Skritter

I’ve been using Skritter for this challenge and overall, things have been working out well. If you haven’t tried Skritter yet, I suggest you sign up and try it out (the coupon code SENSIBLE is still valid and will give you both an extended trial and a substantial discount). I will write more about Skritter itself in another post, but the fact that I’ve spent around 30 minutes per day on average during the past month and actually enjoyed it says quite a lot.

The only  problem I know some students have encountered is that they can’t view banned cards on their phones and tablets. There are two ways of handling this problem. First, you can ban the cards and deal with them later using your computer (or at least accessing the banned cards via the web interface rather than the app). Second, you can deal with cards you fail immediately so you don’t need to ban them. Either of these work and which one you use is up to you, I can see merits with both methods.

Another thing to note is that you shouldn’t be too quick to ban a cards. If you hit ban before you fail the card, perhaps because you can’t even recall how to start writing it and decide you have failed anyway, Skritter will not treat this as a failed card. If you then study the banned card and unban it, it will have the same interval as before. If you repeat this, the spaced repetition algorithm won’t work, because the interval will never decrease. This is easy to get around, though, just make sure the card turns red before you ban it. Most people do this when trying to write the character, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem. As far as I know, hitting the question mark to reveal the character also counts as a failed review.

Furthermore, if you are reasonably familiar with characters, I also suggest you turn on the “raw squigs” function (just tick the box in your settings). This will allow you to finish writing all the strokes in the character before Skritter shows you the right strokes. This means that it becomes harder to cheat, because without this function enabled, Skritter will sometimes give you clues (you thought the character started with a dot, but in fact it doesn’t, but since the dot was roughly in the right place, Skritter rewrites the stroke as it should have been written, thus helping you). Lastly, Skritter also offers reminders sent to your e-mail at intervals you decide yourself. If you want to be really accountable, you can, thus allowing everybody to see how it’s going for you.

Some advice on using Anki

Anki has a really neat function for handling leeches. If you want to stick to the rules of the challenge 100% of the time, you could set the leech threshold to 1, which means it will be automatically suspended if you forget the card just a single time. You can access the settings via options > lapses > leech threshold.

Note that this might be overdoing it a bit, because you will end up suspending cards automatically even if you accidentally hit the wrong button or similar. Still, setting the leech threshold really low is a good idea. The default is 16, which is ridiculously high. This just encourages you to use brute force to learn words you actually don’t know. If you fail a card 16 times, something is seriously wrong with your method.

Personal reflections and lessons learnt

Part of the reason I came up with this challenge in the first place was so that I could get my own character learning under control. Can you imagine a better way of making yourself accountable than being the guy who started the whole thing? I can’t. It’s worked very well so far. My goal is to work through the 5000 most common traditional characters on Skritter. Since I’ve already learnt most of these passively, my stats are somewhat skewed.

Lessons in mnemonics and Chinese characters

The best thing with this challenge for me personally is that I’ve spent some extra time dealing with some long-time leeches. It feels great to finally kill the beasts! My policy is to do some research, create a mnemonic and then, provided it isn’t very personal or refers to things few people know, share the mnemonic online. This puts some extra pressure on me to create good mnemonics. I sharesSome on Skritter, some on Facebook, some on Twitter (#mnemonicmonth and #sensiblehanzi). Here are a couple I’ve shared so far (don’t forget to read the discussion of each mnemonic):

Mnemonic for 纏 (wind up, wrap around): The people living in the house on the cliff (广) use eight miles (里 + 八) of silk (糹) WOUND UP to cover their dirt (土) floor.Discussion: This looks simple enough, but I want to point out one very important thing. Don’t simply read “the house on the cliff”. The words aren’t important, the picture in your head is.  [Read more…]

Mnemonic for 犧 in 犧牲 (to sacrifice). The simplified form is 牺, so this shouldn’t be a problem for those of you who learn only simplified. However, this might still give you some inspiration for how to work with mnemonics. To start with, this character is really mean, because the bottom right part isn’t common at all (does it even exist in other characters, except in 羲?). Thus it’s not a good idea to create specific mnemonic for this part and use that, but rather I would… [Read more…]

Reading questions from fellow participants in the challenge, I’ve also become more aware of what kind of problems students have when using mnemonics to learn characters. Thus, I have two articles planned for the coming weeks. The first will deal with mnemonics for abstract character parts (mentioned in the quote above). The second will deal with some problems related to overuse of mnemonics (in essence, if you don’t need a mnemonic, don’t create one).

In short, I’m very happy with how the challenge has been helping me to focus more on the meaning of characters. I feel that I’m actually learning something when I fail a review, it’s not just a monotonous cycle of repetition. I also think mnemonics are quite fun!

How about you?

Now I’d like to hear how you have been doing! Leave a comment and tell me about your experience. If you don’t know what to write, here are some suggestions:

  • What’s the most positive thing with participating in the challenge?
  • What problems have you encountered?
  • What goals have you set for yourself and how’s your progress so far?
  • How many characters have you learnt since the start of the challenge?
  • Do you have any advice for me or other participants?

(this article)

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  1. Jeff says:

    So far my biggest problem has been with how to assign meaning to characters as part of kanji compounds (I’m studying Japanese). For example, the word 履歴 (history; personal history). The first character means “footgear; shoes; boots; put on (the feet)” and the second means “curriculum; continuation; passage of time.”

    I haven’t been able to decide if I should try coming up with a mnemonic to tie the two characters together. In my case I have mostly just been relying on visual memory from reading the word many times to remember which character goes where (and I’m only studying words I already know the meaning of), but this has led to me question how I would do this if I didn’t have the visual memory as an aid (or if the best option to learn how to write the words really is just to read a lot first to become familiar with them).

    Overall it has been going well though and I’m really enjoying Skritter. I wish it had been around when I started learning kanji. Good luck to everyone! 🙂

    1. Warp2243 says:

      I don’t really have a solution to offer you for the kanji ordering problem. I can just tell you that after some months of SRSing and several thousands sentences you’ll be just fine when reading. What will really help you remember which kanji of 履歴 reads リ and which reads レキ, will be to add more words with these 音読み in Anki. For 履 it’s quite hard to find other words with 音読み, I can only think of 草履, so yeah, not that obvious. For 歴 you have 歴史、学歴、歴然、、病歴 that are quite common words (also 陰暦, but now that’s a little obscure :P).

      One super important advice : whenever you find a kanji whose reading you just can’t seem to remember, add 2/3 other words to Anki using that kanji with the same reading. It will both make the reading stick a lot better and make you learn new, semantically related words, so it’s many birds with one stone. This approach unfortunately works rather for ON-reading than for Kun-reading, because there are hardly many REALLY different words with same Kun-reading… Some are a bitch to learn : 償う、蓄える、蔑む、承る、司る、頷く、促す,耕す、弁える、遮る、 and special mention for 欺く、怠る who are the two worst leeches of my deck with 35 fails each (lol). Interestingly those are all my worst leeches, and all of them are 訓読み, which goes to show how frequent repetition of 音読み in different words will help you remember them much easier with above-mentioned technique (and why Chinese is substantially easier to learn than Japanese, but that would be another looong and surely very interesting discussion).

      For writing the problem is a huge one, personally I nearly can’t write Japanese because I’d be too slow, and mainly because I can’t really recall which kanji are used in words. The only way I can manage to do this a little is to have the word phonetically in my head and try to retrieve the right kanjis with their phonetic components. With time this technique becomes more and more reliable, and of course it takes care of the problem of the kanji ordering. Visual memory plain sucks, even after reading LOADS, I still can’t write basic words that I’ve seen hundreds of times…

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Excellent reply! I would like to add one thing, though. You said:

        One super important advice : whenever you find a kanji whose reading you just can’t seem to remember, add 2/3 other words to Anki using that kanji with the same reading.

        I do this a lot, but be careful with how you choose the words you add. If you use a source which isn’t based on frequency, you might end up adding loads of extremely rare words, which is essentially a waste of time. So, go ahead and add, but add useful words. I haven’t studied Japanese, so I have no concrete suggestions, but finding a concise dictionary is good enough. If the word is in the dictionary, it’s probably in use today. The problem when learning Chinese is extreme, because most C-E dictionaries completely lack any kind of indication of how, when and if the word is used in modern Chinese.

      2. Jeff says:

        Thanks for the great explanation! I’m actually already at an advanced reading level so I know how to read all of these characters, it is just a matter of getting which character goes where straight when writing. But I think just continuing to read and reviewing the characters in Skritter will be enough to associate the proper character with its reading.

        Thanks for the great tip to just add more words with the same characters though. I’ll definitely do that. I’m actually finding that, now that I know the words so well from reading, a few reviews in Skritter has been enough to let me write the words from memory.

        Also, I can completely relate to the pesky 訓読み situations. The only thing I have found to help zap the worst offenders (欺く for me too!) is to find a non-reading based approach. For example, get an audio recording that contains the word and listen to it repeatedly until it gets stuck in your head. Oftentimes I find I rely on the little mental sound byte when I’m searching for character readings that have tripped me up in the past.

  2. Jaki says:

    My goal was to complete the first 9 chapters of New Practical Chinese Reader 1, we have gone through these in class, prior to classes starting again in early February. Well I don’t think I am going to get there, I’ll get close. I think I seriously underestimated the time that I needed to work out the components of each character and then link them together in my brain.

    Learning Chinese is time consuming and headache inducing it is also addictive and interesting :-), I am having fun with it which is the most important thing.


  3. Catherine Pacey says:

    The thing I’ve found most useful is that I’ve finally stopped to take time to think about similar characters which confuse me. And I’ve stopped, put the characters side by side, and really focussed on the differences, and tried to work out a way to remember which is which. And it’s working.

    It’s also been fun to connect with other people. Both the people next to me on the list replied to my email, and actually I also got an email from the next person down, who just hit reply when my neighbour wrote to them and me. I’m not sure if this is typical, but I’ve been struck by the diversity, of location, of age, of aims…. but we’re all doing this which is just brilliant!

  4. Marc says:

    I disagree strongly about the ‘get to know your neighbour part’ being compulsory. I just like to study on my own. I would regret being kicked out of this challenge just for being a loner.

    I try to follow the rules of the challenge, but with a little twist. I take reviewing the banned words very seriously, spending sometimes as much as 10 minutes on a word or character. Every day I try to unban about 5 words or characters. If I fail a word, but I feel that I should really know it, or if I have just forgotten the mnemonic I use for it, I will not ban it straight away but I wait until it comes up the next time. If I fail it again, I will ban it. On the other hand there are some words or characters that I can remember, but when I feel that I should get a better understanding about them, I ban them anyway.

    After a few weeks in the challenge, I am pleased about my progress. Over the last 7 days, for instance, I have added 39 characters and 33 words. If I compare this to the last week of december (-7 and -8), the change is remarkable.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      If you want to study on your own you can… study on your own? I’m not sure I understand what the problem is. If you don’t care about interacting with other people, does it matter if you’re on the list or not? You can follow the same rules (with or without twists), the only difference is that you’re not on the list. In fact, the purpose of the list is to make people accountable, because I know most people would otherwise just sign up and then forget about it a week later. This way, more people stand a chance of actually changing behaviour in the long term. Also, you don’t need to become best friends with the other students and write daily reports spanning several pages. Simply stating your goals is enough. Most people cc me when they write their e-mails and I can tell you that some people write very short e-mails, just a few sentences. The point is not to force everybody to waste time on this, the point is to force you to pay attention to your goals and become accountable. I hope you can understand the way I’m thinking!

      1. Marc says:

        Just sharing my experiences since joining the challenge.
        I have tried to follow your rules for 5-6 weeks now. I must say my progress has been great. I can’t past in the progress graphs here but if you bear with me I would like to give you a few figures.
        nov 26 to dec 24:
        char writing : -36
        char definition: -58
        char tone: – 65
        word writing: +5
        word definition: +17
        word tone: -12.
        In other words: I was losing it.
        dec 31 to Jan 28
        char writing : +72
        char definition: +99
        char tone: +67
        word writing: +77
        word definition: +81
        word tone: +87.

        In the first period I spend 13+ hours studying; in the second period almost 14 hours, so it is not as if I spent more time on my studies.

        And success is also very motivating. Before starting with the challenge I often didn’t have the energy to spend more time on new (chinesepod for me) lessons, because I felt I should spend more time on memorizing the vocabulary I had already (sort of) acquired. But now, I feel I can go on, so I have been taking up more lessons this last month.


        1. Olle Linge says:

          Great! It’s of course particularly interesting because you didn’t spend more time. Sure, if a method means it’s easier to spend more time and thus learn more, that’s great, but if you can spend the same amount of time and learn more, that’s even better. 🙂

  5. Gareth says:

    Do you have any advice on integrating tone (and sometimes pronunciation) into character mnemonics? I know phonetic elements can help with pronunciation, but I find remembering tones more difficult.

    1. Gareth says:

      Sorry, by “pronunciation” I mean initial+final. Tone is part of the pronunciation, obviously.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        You’re using the words as they are normally used in Chinese. When people say 發音 they usually mean what you just meant with “pronunciation”, so you can hear people say “你的發音很標準,但你的聲調不穩定“. I realise this is off-topic. 🙂

        I have discussed mnemonics for tones in this article, hope that helps!

  6. Gareth says:

    Interesting, and useful. Thanks!

  7. AlastairB says:

    If you want to share mnemonics, you could look at the Wordbuddy website.

    For my part, I learn the characters in the SRS flashcard system of the Pleco dictionary on my Android phone. This just got even better since they added speech output for phrases not just single words. When I am having difficulty with a character, I go to the character decomposition part of Pleco and see the meaning and pronunciation of the subcomponents. I can also see which bits appear in characters I already know. When the character does not fit the usual radical + borrowed pronunciation schema, I look it up in the Chinese etymology Android app.

    When I keep mixing up two characters, I type them both into one Pleco dictionary lookup. Then I get the pronunciations and meanings for both characters side by side and try to think up some distinguishing mnemonic.

  8. Rachel M. says:

    I don’t really agree with setting the leech threshold to 1. Especially when it’s a kanji I just learned, sometimes I need a few reviews to take in the mnemonic I made for it. After a day or two of that, I don’t need the high threshold anymore.

    But, I think I basically “deal” with 1the kanji I had to press “1” for actively right away anyways, by reviewing mnemonics, creating a new mnemomic if needed, looking up the parts, etc. So maybe I’m not doing anything wrong. Just being stubborn about setting the leech threshold so low because it’s so annoying to get the cards out of the failed category. (It’s only happened twice to me with prior decks, and I was so confused because I didn’t know what had happened.) I actually wish there wasn’t a leech threshold. I can deal with my cards right away, I don’t want to see my cards disappearing. But, overall, if I do have cards failing all over the place (which I don’t) with a high threshold like 16, then I probably should be re-working my method anyhow. I’ll set it to 6. Seems like a fair number to me. I think what I need to remind myself of is that it’s not that I’ll never see the card again. It’s just stored in a group of cards that I need to work on getting to know again before sending them out to be reviewed daily.

    I never received an email telling me who my other partner is. I’ve only been in contact with Mark Javais, so could you send me the other partners email?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Well, it’s spaced repetition software, I don’t think you should just import loads of characters or words you don’t know about and just start hacking away at them. I think you should study the things you add to your lists before you start reviewing. If you’re studying something for the first time, you aren’t reviewing.

      Still, I know there is a learning mode in the new Anki, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on that for this challenge. Anki offers few or no ways for you to look things up, analyse character components and so on, so learning characters with a learning mode that simply lowers intervals isn’t in line with the spirit of the challenge.

      Of course, I realise than one is an extreme number and I would only apply it to writing characters, but that means that you have to have separate setting for writing versus other forms of reviewing. I also have my normal leech threshold at 5, because it’s faster and I value quantity over quality when it comes to word recognition, for instance.

      1. Rachel M. says:

        I only use the old Anki. I haven’t upgraded it yet.

        Two thoughts. One is, aren’t we studying characters we don’t know? I thought the rule was to not study characters we already have a firm grasp on. I’ve been skipping over the RTK characters I already know how to read when I see them.

        Second, I do study them before I input them into Anki. I take them apart, search for a Japanese keyword and definition and build the cards. I don’t know of any other way to learn characters before beginning the reviewing. And then after I’ve entered them into Anki, I may not remember it at first, so I may take a few reviews to recall each component of the character (this is meaning -> character formatting). So, I don’t really understand what you mean, and it may just be because I don’t know of any other way.

        I don’t do character -> meaning cards, because generally if I learned from meaning -> character, I never forget how to read it (even if I forgot how to write it). I would think that writing would have a larger leech threshold than reading, and writing is the harder task. Generally, my end goal isn’t really writing, but I believe that learning to write the character leaves a bigger impression than reading, as you really learn each component of the character that way. My goal is being literate.

        I would love to one day be able to write Japanese like any native speaker, but it just isn’t practical. Not that I won’t try. There’s just not as much application and no current need. When I do move to Japan, that need may arise, but because of technology it isn’t as high as a need as it used to be. A lot of my Japanese friends are forgetting kanji while in America (and there parents are mad at them for that), because they just haven’t really needed to use it via handwriting. They can read it just fine.

        I’ve seen others get through RTK in a quick amount of time (over months worth of time), and what makes the kanji stick is the extensive reading environment. I’m not very partial to SRS and have never been, and I don’t think I will rely on it much after I finish with RTK. But I’m giving it a shot right now. So, I’m not really giving the SRS any credit for helping me learn characters, it’s just one of the tools to get me there. I imagine with Chinese it may be even more so important. So, I don’t like being told that I’m relying on an SRS to learn characters, because that’s just not the case at all. Out of most of this, I’ve been mostly learning characters, and using the SRS has been 10% of the challenge because I finish my reviews quickly and don’t have anymore for another day.

        1. Olle Linge says:


          Two fairly short answers. First, you can study whatever characters you like. I’m not trying to change what people are studying, I’m trying to change how you do it. I’m going through the 5000 most common characters myself, including characters I know (although these obviously don’t require much time). Second, I do believe SRS is extremely useful for certain things, but it can be replaced by large amounts of input. The problem is that most students don’t even get close the amount of input they need. Furthermore, SRS is an excellent way of maintaining vocabulary you want to know but which doesn’t appear in your everyday exposure to the language.

      2. Rachel M. says:

        I should mention, my reviews really have only been taking up 10 minutes at the most each day (I have less than 100 cards at the moment, so there’s not much to review). While inputting kanji (one lesson a day) has taken me an hour to two hours a day. I just feel perhaps you misunderstood my method and am assuming I just plop the kanji in and study right away. I don’t even review until later that night. It takes awhile to make the cards because I’m doing it J-J, not E-J, so I feel I’m benefiting from that. If I were just taking the English keyword and putting the kanji in there, I would agree, it would be hasty study and I haven’t gotten the chance to learn the kanji.

      3. Rachel M. says:

        Sorry! One last comment. The method is also really working for me. I’ve been noticing the kanji I’ve been learning/reviewing throughout my immersion method. I don’t want to totally discredit the SRS, as I said it’s a tool. I just don’t want you to think I rely on it as you said. Normally, kanji I don’t know is a blur to me and I automatically skim past it as I go throughout my immersion environment, but as I’ve been learning, I gradually no longer skim when I read. So, I’m seeing progress. I don’t see anything wrong with the method I’m using.

        As you have more experience with character learning and I respect that experience, if I’m doing anything wrong, please comment. I have a lot to learn from Chinese language learners, as they have to learn a lot more characters than I do.

        1. Sara K. says:

          We may have more characters to learn, but for the vast majority of the characters we only have to learn one reading, so when I encounter a character, I don’t have to wonder if it should be read with a kun or an on reading, you know what I mean. Also, since the writing system pure characters, we get a lot more character-recognition practice per minute of reading.

          1. Olle Linge says:

            I expect someone has already done studies on this, but one of the major problems when reading in Chinese is that there are no spaces between words. This makes reading in Chinese a lot harder than it would otherwise have been. As a consequence, it also affect reading speed. I haven’t studied Japanese, but since you can inflect words, I assume word boundaries are much clearer? Having to recognise at least twice as many symbols complicates things further. This topic is extremely complicated and just saying “A is more difficult than B because of X” is next to meaningless. We can compare, but weighing different arguments against each other to reach a conclusion is next to useless without empirical evidence, I think. If anyone knows of research done in this area, please let us know!

          2. Rachel M. says:

            I agree with Ollie. The kun and on yomi isn’t really an issue, because if you’ve learned the word already, then you can basically guess based on context of the supporting Japanese alphabet which one it is (actually, there’s even more than just the basic kun and on yomi). So, it makes reading a lot easier. There are no spaces in Japanese (unless it’s all in that alphabet, then natives do tend to space it), and the kanji (hanzi) in affect act as the spaces, dividing meaning.

            I can see getting the character-recognition practice per minute, however if you have more characters, then is that really getting it? For a Japanese learner, we’d probably see the majority of the kanji we have to learn by reviewing a handful of novels. But is that so for a Chinese learner?

            Another example is I was able to jump into Japanese 201 after self study, without knowing how to write hardly any kanji. For the kanji test, I studied really hard, and got an A on it and was all caught up. I did the same for Chinese 201, but had to drop out and take Chinese 101 because there were just too many hanzi to catch up on (which was so boring because it was below my level, but they weren’t offering Chinese 102 that semester).

            I don’t know how I feel about empirical evidence in the first place when it comes to saying something is more difficult than something. A lot of linguists claim Japanese is one of the hardest languages for a native speaker of English to learn, compared to a European language. However, I don’t agree with those linguists. And that’s because passion and motivation play a big role in whether learning a language becomes easy or hard. I never thought learning Japanese was hard, but could hardly get myself to pursue French outside of the classroom back in high school (and I really tried to turn it into a self study), and that’s because when I sought out materials to learn from, I realized that I just wasn’t passionate about French culture. So, in a sense, Japanese was easier for me to learn than French, because it’s culture geared more towards my interest. Plus, Japanese was way easier to pronounce than French. So, there are just too many variables to make any strong claims.

          3. Rachel M. says:

            Oh, sorry, I said Japanese 201, but I meant to say I jumped into Japanese 202. While I tried jumping into Chinese 201, and failed.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      Oh, I forgot to mention that I’ve sent you an e-mail as well.

  9. Matt Sikora says:

    Quick question on radicals: is there any reason I might need to know the tone of a radical? It seems to me that’s going a bit too far.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s generally not necessary to learn pronunciation or tones of radicals. Most native speakers don’t know them, so it isn’t necessary to know that to talk about characters in Chinese either. All radicals have colloquial names, though, and thees might be good to know. I included them in this article. In general, learn pronunciation of common phonetic components (that’s obvious), but not radicals. They typically carry meaning, not sound.

      1. Rachel M. says:

        I was told by my Chinese language professor (when I used to take Chinese) that radicals sometimes implied a similar pronunciation of the word. I’ve found that to be true sometimes, even in Japanese occasionally. Is this useless information or a nice little hint that could guide mnemonics?

        Chinese professors seem to be good about teaching radicals and all these little tips, as Japanese professors rarely ever talk about them.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Before we continue, I need to ask if you’re aware of the difference between a radical and just any other component of a character? I don’t ask to belittle your knowledge or anything, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. If we take characters such as 嗎,碼,媽,瑪,罵, the “horse” in these characters is the phonetic component, which is related to pronunciation. The radicals of these characters, i.e. 口,石,女,玉 and 罒 don’t influence the pronunciation and i would say this is generally the case. If you have any examples that show such a relationship, that would be very interesting indeed!

          1. Rachel M. says:

            Perhaps I am not talking about radicals, but instead components. I think my teacher said the right side of the character has influence sometimes. Her exact example was horse and the question marker, just as you said.

            1. Olle Linge says:

              No, you’re not talking about radicals, but rather the phonetic component of some 80% of Chinese characters that were created through the combination of a radical and a phonetic component. As the name implies, the other part (usually on the right, but not always) describes the sound. It’s extremely important to pay attention to this when learning. I have at least one article planned discussing this topic, but it will be a while before it goes online. In the meantime, you can check this.

          2. Rachel M. says:

            Thanks for explaining. I wouldn’t say it’s that important in Japanese, as it’s not always the case. But Japanese has a borrowed Chinese pronunciation for characters, so it may be important in that aspect.

            I’m afraid that Japanese and Chinese are just too different, so I’m having trouble relating. So sorry for the confusion I’ve caused.

          3. Rachel M. says:

            I just found an example in Japanese. 綺麗 and 奇. 奇 is pronounced “ki”, and coincidentally 綺 is pronounced “ki”.

            I think words that are influenced by Chinese in Japan often follow this rule. This is where learning some Chinese might come in handy for Japanese learners, to learn little things like this.

            However, Japanese learners get by fine without it. But they have a lot less characters to learn than Chinese learners, and context given by supporting Japanese characters (hiragana and katakana) used to make grammar gives context for the words.

  10. Matt Sikora says:

    While we are still on this topic, I have another radical question… I mean, a question about radicals, that is ; ) I’ve started to “ban” the radical tone cards on Skritter because I’ve decided that it’s just not that important for me to know. But does the ban get applied to all cards for that radical? (tone, pinyin, definition, writing) Also, I don’t even see where the banned cards go to on the iPhone app. Where do I find them?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      To get detailed feedback on this you’ll have to turn to the Skritter guys, I’m afraid. I’ve only used Skritter for about two months and I’m only using the web version. From what I’ve heard, though, you can’t view the banned cards from the app. If you check the article we’re discussing right now, I mentioned this problem and how to get around it!

      1. Matt Sikora says:

        Thanks Olle. I definitely still need to play around with Skritter more – haven’t even used it online yet. Thanks for the info.

    2. Tyson says:

      I think you can just turn off the tone cards. I only do writing and meaning cards.

      Look under settings -> vocab

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Yes. I do only writing in Skritter, the rest in Anki.

  11. Erik says:

    Has anybody tried using a Wacom tablet with Skritter, using the smaller canvas mode (250 pixels)? If I change from 350 to 250, the canvas will somehow move the drawing point more than I move the pen. Would like to figure out if this is just a problem with my setup in some way or a general problem. Writing on the big canvas is a bit unnatural and straining, I never write that big characters in daily life.

    About the challenge itself, I started off pretty well and have now gone through around 200 characters in Chinese, most of which I had previously seen. Will try to limit my Skrittering to characters I’ve learnt in context elsewhere (perhaps with an exception for certain radicals). I’ve done some Japanese too, and often practising either of them helps for the other. It might be a bit of a problem when characters in both languages are essentially the same but are written in a slightly different way, for example 与える (ja) and 与 (zh), but perhaps it will be clear after a while of practice. (By the way, the may appear the same without proper fonts installed.)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Regarding tablets, I think the Skritter guys know a lot about which tablets to use and how to configure Wacoms, try contacting them directly. I roughly do the same as you, i.e. only learn characters I’ve learnt elsewhere (in context). Thanks to example sentences and so on, it’s not that hard to include context when reviewing in Skritter.

  12. Tyson says:

    Coincidentally I have adopted a similar policy due to a big backlog that accumulated over the Xmas break. I realized that it would be more efficient to get everything right than to plough through the cards and use brute force repetition with fail after fail. So I got disciplined on fails and tried to avoid repeated fails by investing time upfront.

    So I ended up collecting the tough characters and specifically reviewing them – for example the different trees like elm, pine, paulownia are hard to differentiate if you do nt have really strong mnemonics. so I wrote them out side by side and made sure they were differentiated enough. I stop and strengthen stories for every fail using visualisation and adding details. I also find that using themes for certain common components helps – for example the tree radical becomes an Ent from LOTR, giving it personality and stories to draw upon. I added this after failing too many tree cards.

    Have not joined the list as I have a busy work schedule to juggle but I do support this effort and believe its a great approach. Brute forcing memorization is inefficient. The main reason it is inefficient is that if you fail, there is no fallback. Good mnemonics give you a fallback that will strengthen the memory each time they are used. Failure should be treated as failure of the mnemonic, not just the memorization.

    Great tip on the anki leech limit, I think 3-4 is a much better limit for active study.

    I wish you all good learning!

  13. George Herzog says:

    It is good fun to dissect elements of a character and trie to associate the pieces with the meaning. In fact, here in Tawian they play games of TV shows in Chinese are similar to charades by describing characters in parts.

    On the other hand, I learned rather quickly that when I gave my Chinese name verbally or on a telephone, I didn’t have the normal tool of spelling my name to verify it was correct. I have to explain which “Hwang” and which “He” I meant by saying in Chinese that my “Hwang” was the one that indicated the color yellow or was the same as the emperor Hwang Di, and that the He was the bird, not the river.

    What’s the advantage with this approach? We you are actual able to verbally confirm what you have said without writing out characters or reaching for a dictionary. Some people try writing characters in the air (often backwards to the viewer) or on the palm of their hand. But this is a real communicative skill – confirming what you have said. And I cannot seem to find any texts that teach it. But it does serve two purposes at the same time; [a] enhances your ability to communicate, [b] creates another associative scheme that is based on the phonology of the character, NOT the written image.

    I must say it sure helps when you want to tell a taxi driver a street name. You actually get where you want to go, not diverted to far afield.

    Try to remember that you need to acquire a phonological knowledge and expressiveness just as much as a visual knowledge and expressiveness.

  14. Maciej / Mathew / Maqi says:

    @George Herzog: You write
    > here in Taiwan they play games of TV shows in Chinese…

    Which TV shows do you mean? Which channel you mean (please give the name and the number, as I suppose in different cities the channel numbers might be different, I’m not sure) – and when (day, hour) are they broadcast? I am interested.

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