Monday, August 31, 2009

Reading (day 18) - 500 characters!

OK, its time to celebrate!  I have just crossed 500 hanzi in my "Learning to Read Chinese" experiment - in less than 3 weeks. 

This is an update on my experiment to learn to read Chinese. You can also read my original post on this topic, or check out all other posts on my experiment. After a bit of research I settled on Heisig's "Remembering the Simplified Hanzi" method - which is progressing really well.

Here are some of my thoughts on the Heisig method of learning to read & write Chinese:
  • If you'd ask me when I began, I didn't think I would get through 500 with 90%+ recall in just 3 weeks. But I have.
  • I'm not delusional - I'm pretty sure the next 500 will take longer. Especially because of the fact that as you learn more, you need more time to revise.
  • I'm enjoying this a helluva lot more than I thought I would. Although I was looking forward to this experiment, I thought it would feel a bit like school - but I am actually eager to get some quiet time to learn more.
  • The more you do this, the better you get at creating and remembering images.
  • I know there is nothing magical about 500. But I'm goal-orientated, and since Book 1 has 1500 characters, 500, 1000 and 1500 were always going to be important milestones.
And you know, at only 500 hundred, I'm neverthless seeing so much more meaning in Chinese texts. I can read sentences using words I've learned. And often, even when I don't know the word, I know enough characters that I can work out the general meaning.

And here's a really important point ... Heisig's goal is not to teach the pinyin pronunciation of words. But that's OK - I've got podcasts & flashcards to do that. All I'm trying to do here is to read words and know what they mean.

On a more technical level, here are some observations based on the characters I've learned since the last update:
  • In Lesson 17 I was getting confused between footprint, footprints, and footstep. I didn't realise at first that the images were going to be slightly different, so I used them inter-changeably. Fortunately, only a few stories down, I realised I had to be more clear, and was able to go back and clarify the images. 
  • I'm learning English words too! I never knew the word "ford" was a verb wrt crossing rivers, but found that out with 涉 (#381).
  • Again I found myself getting a little confused between the word's meaning, and what its image is when used as a primitive. (Heisig does this because some words are difficult to use when creating images.) 
  • For example, although 竟 (#487) means "unexpectedly", but this is difficult to use in images - so at such times you should use the visual of a "mirror". (This isn't as silly as it sounds - just look at the actual word for mirror:  镜).
  • I had a really sad moment ... 乞 means "beg", and I used a clear image of a prostrate begger with a hook instead of a hand (look at the image and see why). But the very next character is 吃 (to eat) - and the image naturally took the "beg" scenario and extended it to this crippled starving guy wanting to put food in his mouth. Such a depressing image!  (I hope I don't create an eating-disorder for myself as a result :-)
  • Characters #479-81 are 资, 姿 & 咨 - which are made up of 次 ('next') at the top and another primitive at the bottom. Heisig's suggested stories were not consistent in the sense that sometimes the top part came first in the story, sometimes second. I simplified this as "next shell", "next woman", "next mouth" - and had images which generated the words 'assets', 'looks' & 'consult'. (If you're not actually creating Heisig images yourself, this last point might not make a lot of sense.)
Revision is becoming increasingly important, so here are some thoughts:
  • I find it makes a big difference if I review my most recent lesson after about 12 hours (i.e. the next morning or the next evening).
  • The first time I revise a lesson, I work through the hanzi and - by recalling the story - remember the meaning. The second time I revise (a day later) I make a point of looking at the English word and - by turning the image into a story - create the hanzi. Both are important.
  • As I progress, I make a point of mentally re-creating the stories for primitives that are being used now, although they were taught much earlier.  This keeps up my recall.
  • I am aware that sometimes, especially when a character is built on the previous character, I know what word is coming next even before I see it. So I've been trying to revise in later sessions by bouncing around from chapter to chapter, page to page - to avoid this familiarity. But it's reached the point where I've got to start using flashcards. Anki ... here I come.
  • Over the next few days I'm simply going to review these 504 characters. It will give me a chance to confirm my recall, and make sure my foundations are strong because the connections are becoming more advanced.
This habit of decomposting hanzi into their components is becoming automatic - and powerful:
  • For example, this morning I saw (for the first time) this character: 做.  
  • I knew that 故 (#342) means 'deliberate' (you don't want to know the image I use for this one!), and that 亻 means person. 
  • A 'person being deliberate'? I guessed it might mean either 'do' or 'make' or something like that - and it turned out the definition is indeed 'make'.
  • So I was able to follow the sentence using a word I'd never seen before - and now I'll never again forget how to read/write the word for 'make'.
  • (Have I mentioned before that I'm liking the Heisig approach?)

So if you're sitting on the fence about whether you should use this approach, I have a strong yes recommendation.

Here's an affiliated link to the books page at Amazon:
Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

So here's to the next 500!  And I would appreciate your thoughts too - whether you're a fan or opponent of Heisig, and especially if you have observations or suggestions to share, please leave a comment ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mom bothers the horse by scolding - what ???

When I started learning Mandarin, playing with tones was like playing with a new toy. I found it fascinating that so much could rest on the 'sound' of the word, and not just the spelling.

I would explain it to people who, without realising what they were getting into, asked me why learning Chinese was so difficult. So I would explain. And I realised really early on that I needed examples to show how powerful tones were.

Like so many people, I started off using the "mā má mǎ mà ma" , although I've dabbled a little in "zhū​ zhú​ zhǔ​ zhù​" too.

I'd like to recommend that you pick a set - and learn it. You'll use it often - I use it again last night over dinner with a friend I hadn't seen in a couple of years. And since you only have to learn one word (just four different tones), it fits nicely into the WordPack concept - which is all about efficiency in the words you choose to learn.

With 'ma', you might use:
  • 妈 mā mother
  • 麻 má bother
  • 马 mǎ horse
  • 骂 mà scold
  • 吗 ma (question tag)
If it helps, try a sentence like: "Mom is bothered by the horse's scolding - yes?" Not an entirely sensible sentence, but it at least catches all the five tones (including neutral) and in the right order.

(And I note that most sites seem to use má (麻) in the 'hemp' context, but since this is the same má as in "má fan" (麻烦, which is quite a common word), I prefer the "bother" definition.)

And for those of you who aim for the most distant limits of human endurance, there is always "ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma?" (Does Mother scold horses or do horses scold Mother"?)

I'll leave it up to you to fill in the missing tones.

So what wordset do you normally use when trying to explain to people how the tones work? Leave a comment and let us know.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day 11) - great progress

This is an update on my experiment to learn to read Chinese. You can also read my original post on this topic, or check out all other posts on my experiment. After a bit of research I settled on Heisig's "Remembering the Simplified Hanzi" method - which is progressing really well.

As of last night, 11 days into the experiment, I have finished lesson 14 - taking me to a total of 336 characters. My recall is around 90% - although I'm going to do a full review session later today, so I'll get a better idea of whether I'm lying to myself.

On average I'm doing about 20 minutes a day, learning about 15 new characters every day.

Some of my technical observations from the last week are:
  • Normally the best time for me is last thing before I go to sleep - because recall the next morning seems strongest.
  • I found lesson 11 a bit 'abstract' so I was trying to be as visual as I could. Unfortunately, this was just before bed-time, and I spent the night dreaming about Chinese! In my dreams I was trying to memorise, trying to recall - and getting stressed. I woke up very tired!
  • I'm finding the Heisig-method visualisations very powerful in differentiating between some hanzi which look very similar - like 犬 and 尤
  • I'm learning not to deviate from the method! For example, this is the character for cry: 哭. I didn't bother constructing a "story" for this because I could see this looked like someone crying. Simple. Unfortunately, when I tried to recall it during a revision session, I was trying to remember the story that links the 'primitives' of the word - not remembering that I'd bypassed that part. OK, always use the story from now on!
  • I already knew the character 高 (tall) - so I was a bit lazy in constructing the story. A couple of days later I realised I could not write it - even though I would easily be able to read it. Again, I'm learning that I shouldn't deviate from the formula.
  • I twittered this a few days ago: "Going to try clarify in my mind difference between 'same', 'uniform' and 'equal' - so I don't confuse 同 匀 & 均 with my Heisig visualisations"
But what about my actually ability to read? Well, I'm surprised at how much just 300+ characters can make a difference. For example:
  • I jogged past my local Chinese restaurant the other day, which I simply know as "Royal China". I had previously (a year ago?) tried to memorised the Chinese name (皇朝) - but I had zero recall. This time I immediately recognised the characters, the story, the meaning. Flawless.
  • I went to MandMx where they have great cartoons in English & Chinese, and looked through the collection of food cartoons. From not being able to read much of anything a few weeks ago, to generally being able to follow the meaning (obviously there were holes in my comprehension) is a huge success. Feels great.
  • Was looking through some old notes written in pinyin - and suddenly they looked so plain! Where were the Chinese characters ... tsk tsk. I guess this means there is no going back.
So at this point I'm still really pleased at my progress. I know that the more I learn, the more time I'll have to spend revising. But at least I'm not having to write characters 100 times - that never worked for me.

Don't forget to subscribe to Mandarin Segments, to keep an eye on my progress. And I look forward to some comments & suggestions from you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Now on Twitter ...

I'm now on Twitter - you can follow me here.

This will include to get notified when there are new posts, and to follow my learn-to-read-Chinese experiment with more regular updates.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day 6)

Just a quick update on how my learn-to-read-Chinese experiment is progressing, using Heisig's original methodology. You can read my opening post for this with day 0.

In the previous 5 days I've learned another 142 characters, taking me to 236 in total (including the 94 I learned while still choosing which system to use). Last night I went through chapters 6-10 (characters 95 to 235) to test my recall, and I got 97% accuracy. That was very pleasing.

That might be enough detail for you - and if so, you're welcome to read one of the other posts on Mandarin Segments. But if you'd like more details, please continue ...

In terms of how I spent my time:
  • day 0: chapters 6 & 7 (about 40 characters)
  • day 1: chapter 8.1 (only 15 characters)
  • day 2: chapter 8.2 (about 15 characters)
  • day 3: chapter 8.3 (about 15 characters)
  • day 4: chapters 9 & 10 (60 characters)
  • day 5: revision - as mentioned above
In summary, this means:
  • 15 minutes a day of learning (except for day 4 where it was an hour)
  • 5 minutes a day revising the previous day's work (usually getting 14 out of 15 correct)
  • overall, this is about one character a minute - although I can see that if I don't take enough time to create a vivid image in my head, then it's more difficult to remember.
Here are some of my observations from the last week:
  • I sometimes got confused between the word's definition and the 'image' I apply when using at as a primitive, like 寸 (#166) which actually means 'Chinese inch' but where you use the concept of 'glue' when it's part of other characters - for example, a village is 村 - which uses the image of trees (木) glued (寸) together
  • sometimes the definition just doesn't make sense, like #142 (原) which is defined as "flatlands" (what the hell???), when the dictionary says "original"
  • because of the way the characters are 'constructed' in the Heisig method, for the first ever I'm finding it easy to differentiate between 句 (#67) and 可 (#92)
  • I don't write the characters 100 times over to remember them - just once or twice in the air, because the way the system is constructed it's really logical - not just brute force
  • sometimes characters contain the same primitive and have similar meanings - like 砂 (gravel), 沙 (sand) & 尘 (dust) - which I found a little confusing, but I'm pretty sure it was easier than if I was just rote-learning
In terms of the 4 mistakes/can't-remember characters that emerged in my review:
  • I just couldn't remember what 够 meant (#117) - my image just wasn't clear enough
  • I thought 厉 (#123) meant 'obey', but it actually means 'stern' - my image for this character wasn't clear enough for an abstract character like this
  • for 漠 (#233) I thought it meant 'mirage' but it actually meant 'desert' - I got confused between the components of the image and the meaning of the character
For the 6 'deviant' occasions where I got a similar meaning (but not quite right):
  • 乱 (#100) means 'chaos' not 'mess' - but I've forgiven myself
  • 求 (#140) means 'request' not 'invite' - and again I'm trying not to beat myself up over this one
  • when reading, especially with most words being two-character sets, these small deviations shouldn't interfere too much with my understanding
  • (but I'll try harder next time, I promise)
It's now 00:30 and I'd better get some sleep. First, though, I'd like to make a dent in chapter 11. Good night.

PS. If anyone understands what "flatlands" means, or why it was used instead of a meaningful dictionary definition, please let me know in the comments below. Guesses are also welcome.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tones -vs- Facials

I came across this article, entitled Facial Expressions Show Language Barriers, Too, which makes for very interesting reading.

Credit: iStockphoto/Joan Vicent Cantó Roig

One of the conclusions is that East Asian people appear to be less skilled in interpreting whole-face expressions. This made me feel a little better, because Westerners struggle with tones, so here's something where we appear to have the upper-hand.

Also interesting is how they explain the difference between the emoticons used in the West compared with the East.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day 2)

I've been thinking a little more about Chris' comment on my previous post, and I thought that an example might help explain why I'm still excited about this.

Today, using the Anki flashcard system, the word for razor came up: 刮胡刀 (guā hú dāo).

Normally the odds of remember that word would have been low. Very low. I guess in future I would have looked out for a three character word which ends in 刀 (dāo=sword) and thought of 'razor'.

But immediately I noticed that the middle hanzi (胡) was one I'd already learned a couple of weeks ago (RTH #17) - which means "reckless".

The book had taught me that the first primitive looks like gravestone - and means 'ancient' (create your own image here), and that the second means 'moon' (ditto). In my mind, "ancient moon" makes me think of the ancient werewolf curse - thus "reckless" (I'm sure you can picture a werewolf going all wild & reckless, right?).

So now I have a three-hanzi word where the middle is 'reckless' and the last is 'blade'.

I haven't learned the first hanzi (刮) yet, but I looked a little closer ...

I can see it's made of primitives for 'tongue' (RTH #40 - which I already learned), and 'sword' (RTH #83). Since the dictionary tells me the overall word means 'scrape' - it's easy to remember a sword being used to scrape the tongue. Ouch!

So, although it looks like a complicated process, it took less than a minute to associate those three hanzi with 'razor' - and I doubt I'll forget them.

And if you know some of the 'primitives' I've used in this comment, there is probably a very good chance you're not going to forget either ...

... scraping the reckless growth with a sword ...

Razor. (Simple, yes?)

I hope that helps you understand my thoughts. (It certainly helped me solidify them by writing this out!) I can easily recall characters, and remember characters, and now even remember more multi-character words.

I'm looking forward to day 100!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

(apologies for the garbled post)

Sorry to all those subscribers who received an (unattractive) draft version of this post when I pressed [enter] instead of [backspace]. Sigh.

You can see a neat & complete version of the article here:

Learning to read Chinese (day zero of a personal experiment)


Learning to read Chinese (day zero of a personal experiment)

I'm going to do an experiment, and I'm going to document it here.

Until now my focus on learning Chinese has been conversational Mandarin. Since my last trip to China in May, I realised that my next challenge was going to be learning to read Chinese. Properly. Sure, I had picked up, say, 100 characters by then without even trying, but I wanted to be able to read signs, newspapers, etc.

So I've spent a bit of time reading up on various methods of learning to read, and eventually I've chosen one to focus on. In future I will log my efforts and my results.


I don't live in China, so I don't need to be able to read Chinese. This is a personal goal - and I know that life is likely to get in the way, often. If it comes to limited time availability to learn, I'm going to choose conversational Mandarin over reading.

I work really long hours, so I have limited time to learn Chinese. If I progress slower than you think I ought to be progressing, don't let that stress you. If you spend more time than me, and that's your goal, then you'll progress faster than me.

Is this really day zero?

Yes. Well no, not really. These are the reasons why not:
  • I already knew about 100 hanzi before I began
  • in experimenting with different systems, I learned 94 new hanzi - just to check that I liked the approach
These are the reasons why it is day zero:
  • I will not judge myself by whether I simply know what the word means (for example, 中 is easy), but by whether I know the "story" associated with that character, so that the past doesn't matter
  • the approximately 100 characters I knew before I began this experiment are not the first 100 in my book, so it's not really a 'chunk' of advantage
"Remembering the Hanzi"

After trying a few methods (I'll write about this in a later post) I decided to learn to read using the approach taught in the book called "Remembering the Hanzi" ("Remembering the Simplified Hanzi 1", actually).

You can see the books' homepage here, and you can download for free the first 61 pages of the (simplified) book here. In summary, though, the key points are as follows:
  • it was originally a system for learning Japanese Kanji developed 30 years ago, but was only adapted for Chinese hanzi in 2007
  • book 1 covers 1500 hanzi, with another 1500 covered in book 2
  • the system does not teach the pinyin of the hanzi (and so you won't know how to pronounce it), it rather teaches a method of association for seeing characters and immediately identifying the meaning
  • it starts off creating a 'story' or 'visual image' for basic characters, and then builds these 'pieces' (what the book calls 'primitives') into more complex characters
  • when you see a character, your mind splits it into the 'primitives' which make it up, which in turn creates mental images, allowing you to remember the meaning of the character based on the image that pops up
  • it is easier than it sounds, and much more effective than it sounds.
I recommend that you read the PDF link above - where you'll learn the history of the method, explanations of how it works, and even a very detailed example.

Here are affiliated links to the two books on Amazon:

Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

Remembering Traditional Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

The next few posts ...

I'll let you digest the content of this post - while I pour myself a glass from a great bottle of South African red wine I opened earlier.

In the next few posts I will talk about the first 5 days where I learned 94 hanzi (with near-perfect recall a week later, with no revision during that follow-up week), I'll mention the other methods I considered before embarking on this, and I'll talk about the little epiphanies I've had since beginning this experiment.

And you?

You can take anything you want from this series of posts - just make sure you're subscribed to Mandarin Segments (go to the top-right corner of this page) to watch my struggle.

If you've tried this approach, drop me a comment and let me know how it's gone for you. If you previously decided not to use this method, let me know why.

And if you have some words of encouragement, don't be shy either.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It takes two (or more) to tango

One of the great things about learning Chinese is that you get to speak with Chinese people - who are usually very flattered that you're learning their language. On many occasions I've said 'nǐ hǎo' (hello - 你好) to someone, and they've replied (in English): "Oh my God ... your Chinese ... it's excellent."

It's nice to be appreciated.

Then you learn a few more phrases - and you can even manage a short conversation about 'hello' and 'where is the toilet?'. And (other than stumbling a little with your tones) they can understand you - and you run towards the little door at the back of the restaurant where they point you.

It's nice to be understood.

But you'd like to speak Chinese better than that. Right? You'd like to be able to have actual conversations with people. And although you can make yourself understood with the basics, when they talk back to you, you're immediately lost.

You blame it (internally) on the speed of their talking, and your lack of skill with tones. But that's not it. It's your vocabulary - you just don't know enough words.

You know how to say 'nǐ hǎo' (你好), but you have no idea when they say 'zěn me yàng' (怎么样) - which (although it literally means 'how is it going?') is close enough to 'hello' in general conversation. It quickly reaches the point where it's no longer good enough to know just one word for things - you have to learn more, especially if those variants are in common usage.

It's very nice to understand.

So build some synonym-based WordPacks for yourself ...
  • How many ways do you have for saying toilet (or bathroom, or lavatory, or ...)?
  • How many ways can you agree with someone (yes, or correct, or good, or ...)?
  • How many words do you know which mean restaurant? Or hotel? Or a meal?
In the beginning, it doesn't make a difference. But - as I realise all too often - if you want to get past that, you need more than one word for everything.

After all, it does take two to tango.

Goodbye. (zài jiàn) 再见
See you next time. (xià cì jiàn) 下次见
Until we meet again. (zài huì) 再会
Take care. (màn zǒu) 慢走