Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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!

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  1. Sara K. says:

    Yikes, that is one hell of an Anki queue. I don’t think I’ve ever let it get higher than 450, and even 450 is low enough that it’s generally not hard to get back down to zero within a week or less.

  2. enid charles says:

    What is an Anki que? I found out what Anki is at this very site, so i will try using it.

    I already am very adept at writing characters. I find it quite easy.

    My problem is hearing the language, recognizing characters when I see them, and reading (which is complicated by my limited knowledge of Chinese grammar and syntax.)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I refer to the number of flashcards I should have reviewed but haven’t. I have a backlog of almost 4000 flashcards in other words. If your problem is reading and syntax, I’m not sure flashcards is what you need, though, just reading more combined with some focused practice on grammar you don’t know but want to know how to use should be better.

  3. Georges says:

    Goal: Boost characters knowledge. They should be up to the 1000 most common. Then to the next 1000.

    Deadline: 1st of September.

    Strategy: Since they are in different sets of about 24 each. We should try for at least 2 sets a week. We’ll use flash cards, Menomics, The flash cards system of Pleco on the phone.

    So the challenge has started, may we boldly go where no character has gone before….

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Welcome to the challenge! Looking forward to any progress reports and/or final reports as the challenge draws to a close!

  4. Tyson says:

    Goal: Add 700 new Anki cards to my active studying deck (currently at approx 500) – total 1200 Mature + Learning + Young cards.
    Deadline: August 30th, 2013
    Strategy: All cards are bilingual MCD cards (Massive Context Cloze Deletion – in other words Chinese paragraphs/sentences/songs/etc with English translations on front, but missing characters/words that you need to write the character for and give the correct reading).
    I will add 20 a day (although I only need 100 a week to reach my goal) as well as completing Anki reviews. Some base cards have multiple cards generated from them – I’m just counting the generated cards as they represent characters/words.
    This is done using morning and evening reviews, plus some scattered mobile use while on the road (Ankiweb).
    I also need to set aside time on weekends and some weeknights in order to create new cards based on various sources (websites, movies, songs, chinesepod lessons, etc) athough I have 600 already created but not yet used. Focus is on filling gaps in HSK 3/4 vocabulary if possible.
    I will also use beeminder to track progress pretty much daily – already setup with a $5 forefit if I get off track (yeah not a lot).
    Milestone #1, July 28: 700 cards (+200)
    Milestone #2, August 11: 900 cards (+400)
    Milestone #3, August 25: 1100 cards (+600)
    Milestone #4, September 1: 1200 cards (+700)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great! I don’t think I will write separate posts about the various milestone, but let’s keep each other updated. The first milestone is next week, so let’s keep track of each other and see if we’re doing what we should!

      1. Tyson says:

        Got to 900 already, few days to go. Setting Anki’s default add rate to 30 works pretty well for me – sometimes I get them all done and it moves along rapidly, otherwise i tend to get about as many new ones as I have time for.

        Having a good impact on my vocabulary already, very noticeable in conversation and reading that I have more words at my disposal. Have of course had Chinese people tell me my Chinese was good in a non-specific way but they never said I used rich and colorful words. Obviously they are overstating the case though – I still working on a lot of HSK 4 vocab.

        I got someone to create flashcards for me which has freed up a lot of time for studying the conversations instead.

    2. Tyson says:

      I reached 705 cards today – ahead of schedule and happy about it. Setup Anki to give 30 new a day which is generally manageable so far. A few new cards are grammar (e.g. 了,呢,着,etc as appropriate), but most are new vocab. More vocab is really useful and I’ve been using it a lot already.

      I am also trying to hire someone to create flashcards for me – I like doing it but it gives me RSI. Have 580 still left so enough for this challenge provided i don’t suspend too many.

      1. Thomas says:

        Amazing Tyson!

        May I ask what source you want to use to create flashcards? Do you want words, sentences, … ?

        You may not need to hire anyone and do it directly through http://nulinu.li and the “Review” feature.

        1. Tyson says:

          Thanks Thomas – My flashcards are sentences (or longer). I use MCD format (search for AJATT and MCD and real all about it). They look like this:
          Waiting for 15 minutes is usually enough.

          My job is to supply the missing character – which is 基. Actually this sentence can also be used for the 本,上,等 etc.. whatever you don’t know. Anki lets you just mark them as clozes, and it will make a card for each one. I also include full sentence audio and pinyin and definitions of key words on the back

          I use multiple sources:
          1. ChinesePod podcasts (native speaker audio is great). Good for conversations.
          2. 3800 useful Chinese sentences from mandarinchineseschool.com. They also have audio. Good for basic daily phrases.
          3. About.com and Nciku – good for grabbing examples of words I need, but need to add audio most of the time.
          4. Email and stuff I get in my own life – if it’s bilingual I get someone to record the Chinese audio, break it into sentences and use it.
          There’s a lot of recording, cut and paste, chopping up mp3 files and so on that I am not super keen to do, which is why I’m happy to pay for the work to get done.

          I tried nuli just now. I like the learning interface a lot it’s a good way to go through lists of vocab. I really like the live feed it’s great to read actual posts. My goals for reviewing are different from what Nuli does right now – but I think it’s a very nice interface for reading.

      2. Olle Linge says:

        Great! This reminds me that I probably should add some oil. I did pretty well the first week, but haven’t done much this week. Still a few days left, so i should be fine. Keep us posted!

        1. Thomas says:

          Hey Tyson, we got rid of our MCD feature during the private beta, and are working on reintegrating it in another -improved- way in the coming weeks.

          BTW, do you want to review YOUR sentences or any of your level is fine?

          1. Tyson says:

            At least some of the time I want to review sentences that I’ve selected myself.

            I find learning stuff that is slightly below my level is fine with “generic” sentences, this is kind of filling the gap of stuff that’s easy to understand and I kind of know, but I haven’t got around to memorizing properly yet (or it’s useful to see more examples).

            With content that is more advanced tends to be more important to be picky – I don’t want to drown in it. I like to choose dialogs/media that I’ve already studied, and add them to Anki as soon as possible.

            I like dialogs because it’s a connected topic so you learn 4-5 words which can be used together (e.g. contract, expire, renew, salary, number) which opens a whole topic up for exploration and (importantly) use.

            Olle wrote some good ideas on this:

    3. Tyson says:

      I am posting to say I am finished, already at 1300 cards. Slowed down a bit in the last week but still happy.

      This was quite a good way to drive progress so think I will set a monthly goal from now on.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Great! I actually didn’t finish my goal this time, but that was mostly because of the fact that I couldn’t use my writing tablet for the entire week. I simply won’t kill off a few hundred characters in Skritter with a mouse! I have Anki down to zero, though, so that’s according to plan at least.

  5. Thomas says:

    Goal: Review the 25 first lessons of Heisig RSH1 with pronounciation and words example. (That’s ~800 characters)
    Deadline: August 30th, 2013

    Strategy: Use the RSH1 book and http://nulinu.li only. The web-app lists the characters I know, will suggest me words using characters I have to learn, preferably ones that I want to learn first (because there are in the HSK5 list).

    I’ll get the pinyin and pronounciation from the app too (through wanted by Heisig, I had hard times remembering them without knowing how to pronounce them)

    With related words and exemples sentences, I expect to re-learn at least these 800 characters + words, that’s maybe 1500 words to learn or review.

    The “Review” feature on Nuli!努力! will enable me to test me in context, far better than character-based or word-based flashcards. Also the opportunity to beta-test our next feature our goal monitoring and achievements!

    Milestone #1, July 28: Down to Lesson 7 (133 characters). I know I need to improve the writing of 47 of them.

    Milestone #2, August 11: Down to Lesson 14 (203 additional characters). I know I need to improve the writing of 83 of them.

    Milestone #3, August 25: Down to Lesson 20 (200 additional characters). I know I need to improve the writing of 84 of them)

    Milestone #4, September 1: Down to Lesson 25 (248 additional characters). I know I need to improve the writing of 75 of them)

  6. Olle Linge says:

    We have now reached the first milestone! I know Tyson is doing great, how about the rest of you? I’m doing okay, but my progress was very uneven. I basically did all the work just after the challenge started and just before the milestone. I still got it done, so I’m not complaining, but it could have been a smoother process.

    Milestone #1, July 28:
    Anki queue down to 2500: Check! Currently at 2342.
    Skritter queue down to 600: Check! Currently at 600.

  7. Olle Linge says:

    I just post to write that I’m still on schedule! My Anki queue is around 900 and my Skritter queue is down to 350 something. It will take time to kill leeches, but I’ll deal with that later.

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