Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Three ways to improve the way you review Chinese characters

xiao1Since the character challenge is in full swing (the first milestone was reached earlier this week, but it’s not too late to join now), I’m going to take this opportunity and discuss character reviewing in more detail. This isn’t really meant to be a comprehensive overview or anything like that, I think I already provided that in the article I published just before the challenge was launched: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. Instead, I’m going to give three practical, hands-on tips for how to improve the way you’re reviewing characters.

1) Do not resort to rote learning and do not go on tilt

When using flashcard software, it’s very easy to cheat and take shortcuts. If you have really forgotten a character, it might be fine to just try to relearn it once by simply resetting the interval and starting from scratch. It might even be okay several times, but the more you do this, the more time you’re wasting. If you have a large enough deck and have learnt Chinese for some time, your worst flashcards will start taking up a significant amount of your time. These cards are called “leeches” in Anki, a very suitable name, because they completely drain your time and energy. I’ve written an article about this (Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches), but here’s the essential advice:

  1. Remove them from the review queue (“ban”, “suspend” or whatever)
  2. Deal with them actively (meaning mnemonics, learning character components and so on)
  3. Look at similar characters or characters that share components (horizontal vocabulary learning)

To summarise, just hitting “next” when you fail might make you feel like you’re saving time, but dealing properly with these leeches from the very start will save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run. Learning characters by rote is not a good idea.

2) Spread out your learning, but be aware of time quality

This is probably the most important advice I have to give. Reviewing characters in front of your computer is generally not a good idea, because you’re using high quality time to achieve something that you could easily achieve with lower quality time, thus violating the time quality rule.

Vocabulary reviewing can be divided into two separate parts and it should be obvious that they require time of different quality:

  1. Reviewing characters you remember (low time quality requirement)
  2. Dealing with characters you have forgotten (high time quality requirement)

This is one of the reasons it makes sense to suspend or ban cards you have forgotten, especially if you encounter these in the queue to the bus, in the line in the grocery store or while waiting for a bowl of noodles somewhere. That’s not the best time to look up character parts, study related vocabulary or create mnemonics. Suspend or ban and save for later.

I wrote more about what I call capacity management in an article on the FluentU blog.

3) Be aware of the validity of your current study method

In essence, this can be formulated in one single, simple question:

Is your current study method preparing you for what you want to use your character writing for?

I’m going to give you one concrete example, but there ought to be many more that will differ slightly between different programs and study situations. If you learn characters mostly because you want to increase your understanding of characters and your general reading ability, it doesn’t matter much if your study method leaves you unable to write Chinese by hand, but if your goal is to be able to use written Chinese in a professional or academic situation, you need to make sure you’re practising in a way that is actually preparing you for this (I talk about this more in the video below).

I created this little video to show you a fairly serious problem in Skritter. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to overcome. In programs that offer no feedback, the possibilities of cheating or being too relaxed are of course much, much greater. This is in fact part of the reason I think Skritter is so good; it does work quite well in a majority of cases.

With default settings in Skritter, you write a stroke and if the algorithm decides that your stroke is correct, it helps you draw a pretty version of that stroke. This might be good because it gives you feedback on what the stroke was supposed to look like if you screwed it up a bit, but I’m certain this is mostly bad.

Why? Because Skritter will help you too much. When you write a character on paper, you don’t get confirmation for each stroke that what you’re doing is right and paper doesn’t accidentally turn incorrect characters into correct ones.

If you have any hand-on advice for me or other learners, please share in the comments!

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  1. What should I do when I can’t retain a character even after trying to address it mnemonically etc., the way you describe to do in this article?

    My main trouble is actually retaining the word in Chinese rather than retaining the Chinese character.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What do you mean by “My main trouble is actually retaining the word in Chinese rather than retaining the Chinese character”? Do you have context? Sentences? Words? Single characters are really hard to learn sometimes and not very useful.

      1. Lili Woodlight says:

        I’m just learning single characters. So for example I can remember and know how to write “山” is mountain, but I can’t remember “shān” is mountain.

        I had been working on your top 100 radicals list, but have moved into a text book I have that starts similar to your list but then expands into compounds(?). Should I be incorporating sentences into the single words I’m learning? I’m at ultra basic level, so I thought I needed to learn some vocab first…

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Do you mean that you can associate meaning with a character, but not sound to a character? Or do you mean than when you the Pinyin, you can’t recall the character? If you’re at a basic level and going through the radical list, it will take some brute force to learn the basic components. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when it comes to the sounds.

          1. Lili Woodlight says:

            Yes, I can associate meaning with a character, but not sound to a character. Ok, brute force. Good to know, I just need to plow through…

            1. Olle Linge says:

              The thing is that there are only 400+ syllables in Chinese and you will become familiar with them very soon. It’s not like learning the sounds of, say, English, where you can study for ten years and still encounter syllables or combinations of them you’ve never heard before. When you have studied Chinese for a while, you will have seen 99% of the common syllables and it’s merely a matter of choosing tone and combination of syllables. Personally, I think using mnemonics to learn pronunciation takes too much time and is too complicated. Sure, if you forget a tone, create mnemonic for that, but don’t create mnemonics for everything. I wrote more about that here.

              1. Lili Woodlight says:

                That’s so interesting, and helpful. Thank you, I’ll keep that all in mind as I learn.

  2. Timo says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, it’s something that I already noticed a long time ago but never quite knew how to deal with. I feel that Skritter should perhaps include an option in regards to changing the algorithm’s stroke strictness, instead of just having an overly easy variant as well as a “no feedback at all” variant.

    If my goal doesn’t include handwriting at all though, would you still suggest using the raw squigs option? So far I’ve had it turned off and been using Skritter only to reinforce character recognition. I feel that writing with the assisted variant helps me learn characters in terms of recognition while I perhaps don’t have to spend as much time with them as if I wanted to get them ingrained for handwriting. But I have no idea if this approach might be damaging in the long-term after all.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think character recognition and writing are too separate but obviously related skills. You can be very good at reading without being very good at handwriting, but the opposite should be very rare indeed. I don’t think turning on raw squigs make much sense if handwriting isn’t your goal!

  3. jake m says:

    Actually, it is a mistake for those promoting the learning of Chinese to make blank statements such as “Don’t use rote learning.” Think about what your are saying. You are saying that a proven method of “learning” should be discarded and replaced by over hyped, pop, in vogue Western tricks of memory retention. You are talking “process” vs “learning.” The methods, if you can call them that, in question are mnemonic tricks (devices) that are not efficient for learning and remembering the characters.They are useful in some other areas for memory retention purpose but not in learning and remembering complex structures such as Chinese characters. Some of these methods are so elaborate that they are simply processes for imbibing information without bringing its significance along. That is why you don’t hear anyone claiming that he/she has “learned” and “memorized” thousands of Chinese characters using these tricks and if they do claim this, they are simply lying. Those that use them to learn Chinese characters are always on the train of constant reviewing and revisions. You can get an idea of what I am referring to if you’ve ever studied James W. Heisig’s method.There, he claims that you will for ever remember the meaning and writing of the characters. Even he admits that his method does not capture the essence of what a Chinese character is. He introduces instead a one-dimensional interpretation of them, but after that, everything else he introduces is not intrinsic to them. What is the reason for the above? The reason for that is that a loci, or a transplanted image, or a sound, or a story line alone or in combination cannot capture the essence of the multifaceted, embedded meanings in Chinese characters. That is why the Chinese use the popularly maligned, so called “rote learning” tradition. Characters are not simply logo-graphic elements. They are a repository of the Chinese experience that cannot be brushed aside.

    Over elaborate artificial machinations don’t capture the history, culture, and the evolution of Chinese thought embedded in these characters. The Chinese don’t have the luxury of using these types of over-elaborations to record their experience. They know their own language better than anybody else, including those Western linguists that have dismissed the etymologia of Chinese characters.

    Here, hoping that you will know the difference between a native Chinese and a non-native person forgetting his/her characters:
    And that my friend, is why you keep forgetting what a Chinese character really is.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you misunderstand the problem most students face when learning Chinese characters. Have you any experience teaching Chinese at beginner or intermediate levels? Most people neither can nor want to spend several hours a day for a decade learning how to write characters, so the native route is completely closed for very large majority of students. The goal is not to “capture the history, culture, and the evolution of Chinese thought embedded in these characters”, the goal is to be able to read and write for practical purposes. Nothing stops students from delving deeper into characters if they so wish. I would be interested in hearing what your proposed solution is for the average student of Chinese? You have maybe 5-10 hours a week and you have to cover both the spoken and written language.

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