Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning to Read (day 46) - 1000 characters!

Today I reached 1000 characters. I think Heisig & Richardson are very sneaky in the way the wrote "Remembering Simplified Hanzi" - because Lesson 31 ends with just 999 characters. They made me start the next lesson just to make it to 1000. But I digress ...

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.

I celebrated this on Twitter early today, even mentioning how I rewarded myself.

Some quick statistics:
  • it has taken me 46 days to reach 1000 hanzi
  • that's close enough to 1.5 months
  • 22 characters a day (although some days were as little as 0)
  • I have been spending roughly 30 minutes a day do this, sometimes more sometimes less
  • my retention, according to flashcard testing, is around 90%
  • the first 500 took me 18 days, this second 500 took 28 days
When I got started, I had no idea how long it would take me. After a couple of weeks I determined that it would take me until the end of the year to get through Book 1 (1500 characters), but now it's looking like it's going to happen looooong before that.

Although I try to regularly revise, covering recent chapters as well as older material, I know that there are sections I'll definitely have to work more on. For example, I find characters which use the 忄radical difficult to create images for, so I need to spend more time with those.

I could continue past 1000 - even if I'm focusing on revision - but I need to keep myself in check. But I think it's about keeping a balance. When I stopped to revise at 500, I really missed that sense of progress. I missed the excitement of new words - and I lost a bit of momentum. But I do want to solidify these 1000 before I climb into the last bunch. And this time, I mean it.

As you saw above, the first 500 took 18 days, while the second 500 took 28 days. No idea how long the last 500 of this book will take, but I'm pretty sure it will be more than 28 days. I know I keep talking about having to go back and revise, but without these increasingly frequent pauses, I found myself forgetting almost entire lessons at one stage.

Keep an eye out for my next article where I take the same texts as last time (The Little Prince & BBC news) and highlight how many characters I now know. Then compare this with how 'yellow' the pages looked when I only knew 500 characters.

(By the way, I'm not trying to light a fire under your bum, or anything like that, but if you think about it ... even if you haven't started the book, you could finish all 1500 characters by the end of the year, starting now.)

干杯 !!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months

I've got good news and bad news for you.
  • The good news is you are about to discover something really interesting about yourself and your attitude to learning Mandarin.
  • The bad news is that people simply cannot learn Mandarin in 6 months.
I'm guessing that when you clicked on the article, probably based on the title of this posting, you had one of three things in mind.

Three Types of Reader

1. Already fluent in Chinese (or at least on the way there)

You probably surfed over here to give me a piece of your mind! You were going to tell me that it's impossible, that I was misleading people, and that you were going to be unsubscribing from my blog.

Don't worry, I agree with you. I already commented on someone else's blog to this effect, and they were only promising native-level speaking in a year. On 10 minutes a day!

2. Still learning, probably still struggling

You're making progress, but not as fast as you'd like. You probably came here to learn something - just in case you were missing a trick. You know it's hard to learn Chinese, but if maybe there was something you could do to speed things ...

3. Not yet started (or only just begun)

Perhaps you're still a bit naive about how much effort it will take to learn Chinese. That's not a bad thing - I think we all have misconceptions about the challenges your journey will offer. You came here because you're keen to learn Chinese, and a 6 month time investment is about what you're prepared to put in.

The Truth about learning Chinese

The reality is you can't learn to be fluent in Chinese as quickly as six months. You can make good progress though, and have basic conversations, but you won't be fluent. And of course there's reading & writing, which is another challenge altogether!

(I'm ignoring the statistical anomalies of a person who moves to China, and spends 6 months, morning until night, learning Chinese. If you are that person, then this post isn't for you :-)

There were two things that got me thinking about this:
  • I was listening to music using the Spotify app, and randomly typed 'mandarin' into the search bar. One of the items which came up was a track which claimed to feed you subliminal messages which would allow you learn Chinese. Honestly.
  • Also, there has been lots said about the Heisig method of learning to read & write Chinese. This is an impressive method, and I've learned (with 90%+ recall) about 850 characters in the last 40 days. Heisig's book certainly offers a short-cut, but lots of work is still involved ... it's no miracle
I think people should know what they're facing when they set out to learn Chinese. It's not easy - but it's one of the most rewarding things I've done.  

Ultimately, it's about learning a skill that you will use forever. So does it really make a difference if it takes 6 months, or 6 years? You will be progressing all the time - it's not even clear to me what I mean by "take x years" ... after all, how will I know when I get there?  And will I really be much worse 3 months before I get to there.

Efficiency in your efforts

Of course, you can waste time while you're on the way to fluency. I've done a bit of a brain dump of things that are "smart" - but would love to get your comments below on what you have found.
  • Don't waste time. Listen to podcasts while travelling to & from work or school. And while getting dressed in the morning. 
  • Don't waste space. Maybe you could label your furniture around your house in Chinese. Even if you don't try, it's going to go into your brain.
  • Wordpacks. I've made some suggestions how I learn vocab which gives you more bang for your buck. You can see all related posts here.
  • If you're learning to read or write Chinese, the Heisig approach listed above is a great time-saver. Here was my latest post on the topic when I wrote this.
  • Change direction. If you're tired of listening to podcasts, then learn to read some more characters. If your head is full from that, read a blog or two about learning Chinese.
  • Listen to Mandarin music - traditional or pop. I am currently listening to Wong Faye.
OK, so it's going to take more than 6 months.  But it would be a pity to wake up in 6 months time, re-read this post, and realise that you're no closer to fluency than you are right now.

So do something. How far can you get in the next 6 months?

I'd love to hear from you - leave a comment below. Please.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reading (day 32) - bad week & bad mistakes

This morning I reached 702 hanzi. The last week hasn't been good for my progress, but as I revise - I'm starting to get a sense of ways of speeding up the visualisation/memorisation/recall process. I'll talk about that in my next post.

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.

A bad week

I had to go to Zurich for business for 4 days - and I knew I was going to be working long hours, so I didn't take Heisig with me. I thought I would mentally revise characters when I had the chance, but somehow my mind was always occupied with other stuff.

What made this worse was that last weekend I learned quite a lot of new characters, and I didn't get time to revise. This meant, 4 days without revising dozens of new hanzi, my recall was shocking. It felt like I had a re-learn a lot of stuff when I got back.

Some characters have quite clear imagery, and learning it once is enough. Forever.  But I guess I had done a chapter which was sufficiently abstract that revision was really important.

Don't underestimate the value of regular revision!

Mixing stuff up

The more I learn, the more there is to confuse me.  In case you find these detail points helpful to you as go work through the Heisig system, I'd like to suggest that you read through them, and "mentally innoculate" yourself so you don't fall into the same traps.

I think these points are important enough to bother documenting, if that tells you anything about whether I think they're important enough for you to read. :-)

  • If you look at 谁, you will see it has two primitives: 讠 and (the other part I can't work out how to type). The second part has the image of a "turkey" ascribed to it, to make visualisations easier. My mistake was to think that's how you write turkey - which is actually 火鸡 (fire chicken!). The problem was I confused the actual word with the image associated with a primitive.
  • But I'm not too concerned - practice can solve that.
  • The hanzi for 'sound' (音) is made up of primitives which have the images of 'vase' and 'sun' - and the bottom line of vase does not overlap with the top line of sun. On the other hand, 'side' (旁) is made up of vase, crown & compass. In this case, however, the bottom line of vase is the top line of crown. This is no problem when I'm reading the characters, but when I try to write them, I don't always get the correct overlap/non-overlap thing.
  • No problem, if I practice more, it won't be a problem.
  • I got confused between 匀 and 习 for a while, until I mentally made a point of revising their respective images & compositions.
  • If I practise lots, then this will become automatic.
  • 安 (peaceful) is easy to remember as a character (it's fairly common) - but it's difficult to incorporate the concept of "peaceful" into an images sometimes. 
  • But as long as I continue to practise these visualisations, I'll get better.
  • The word for punishment (刑) is made up of 'holding hands' and 'sabre'. I was trying to remember the image associated with 'two hands holding a sabre' but was drawing blanks. It was only when I remembered that my image was of two hands being cut by a sabre that the word 'punishment' popped into my mind.
  • So I guess, if I practise reading these hanzi often, this issue will not arise. Or not as often, anyway.
  • If you allow be to mix up word meanings ('W') and primitive images ('P') for a moment, then note the following: 手 (W:hand), 扌 (P:finger), 开 (P:two hands), 乃 (P:fist), 及 (P:outstretched hands) .... arghhhhh!!  I think it would have helped if Heisig had pointed out that these similarities were coming, so that I could have been more careful when setting up the images in the first place.
  • But by ongoing practice of being careful of how I construct these images, and lots of repetition, this won't bother me at all.
And please don't use my shortfalls as an excuse to criticise Heisig - stuff like this is bound to happen whatever method you use. I just have to pay more attention. And practise. Lots.

My goals of writing these notes in this much detail are twofold: (1) to put my thoughts in clear terms so I can learn from my mistakes, and (2) to help others using the Heisig approach so they can be more efficient at this than me.

As always, it's your comments to these posts that add the value - my notes are just a starting point. So let me know your thoughts. For those using Heisig, what kind of mistakes do you make?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

500 - 'Little step' or 'Giant leap'?

If you're following my reading experiment, you're probably wondering how useful it is to know just 500 characters. And if you weren't already wondering that, then take a guess - is it a lot or a little?

They say (yes, yes - whoever "they" is) that you need 1500-2000 hanzi to be able to read a newspaper, and that children leave school knowing 3000-4000. So in that light, 500 doesn't sound like much, does it?

And yet, reading my new "Adventures of Tin Tin" in Chinese, I'm aware that I can actually follow quite a lot - so I thought I'd do a visual experiment to see how much 500 really was.

Because fiction & non-fiction are so different, I separately printed out one page from the book 小王子 (The Little Prince), and a page from the BBC's Chinese website. Then I highlighted all the characters which I had learned in the first 500 from Heisig's Remembering the Simplified Hanzi - and this is the result. (You will have to click on the image to get the full size version ...)

Even without looking at the larger image, you can see that a large proportion of the page has been highlighted. This shows you that even at only 500, you're able to understand a large proportion of the characters.
(And don't get too detailed, pleeeeease. I might have highlighted words that were after the first 500, or missed out words that should have been highlighted. Overall, the highlighting is very close to reality.)
Note however that Heisig introduces characters by building up patterns - and doesn't necessarily include the most common characters first. (That's OK - if you only want to learn the most common 200, for example, then Heisig isn't for you.)
So I then used my green highlighter to include words that, if you're learning with an open mind, you can't not learn these characters. This includes ‘I’ (我), ‘you’ (你), ‘not’ (不), ‘person’ (人), etc. As you can see from the image below, this adds quite a chunk to the proportion of the text you can read.
So if you haven't worked out the conclusion for yourself, at 500 characters (which only took me about 3 weeks to learn) - you can follow a massive proportion of the characters on the page.
But don't be mislead!  This is not to say that you can understand at least half the article - because you won't be able to. Chinese uses lots of compound words - so that even if you know the two characters which make up the word, you still won't get the word.
For example, on the second line of the Xiao Wang Zi text, you will see the word 地方 (dì ​fang). You will know from Heisig that 地=ground and 方=direction - "ground direction"? What?  Actually, ​​'dì ​fang' means 'place' - but you wouldn't know that if you had only learned individual hanzi from Heisig.
Actions for you ...


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pleasure while Practising

If you're learning Chinese, are you scared to get out there and practise?

Today I did just that - but no fear, just pleasure. I took the day off work today (legitimately - I didn't take a sickie!) and "tricked" myself into having a great time around London, and this is what I did ...

  • I found a foreign language bookstore near Oxford Street, and spent ages browsing the Chinese book section. Bought a Chinese version of the cartoon book "The Adventures of Tintin" (in Chinese it's called '丁丁' - dīng​ dīng​).
  • Strolled towards Chinatown, pausing to read various signs as I got closer, practising as many hanzi as I could - and pleased that even knowing only 500 characters I could get lots of them.
  • We ate at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, making sure that I had a Mandarin-speaking waitress - who was more than happy to chat at my level and my speed.
  • Also in Chinatown, we went for a 20 minute massage, where I got to speak Mandarin. Sara the masseur was flattered that a foreigner would self-study Chinese, and was more than happy to follow my speed, and teach me new words along the way. (£16 for a massage and Chinese lesson - 还不错)
  • Decided to finish the day with a Pearl Bubble Milk Tea (珍珠奶茶 - zhēn ​zhū ​nǎi ​chá​). Tried about five places before I found one which sold it, so I got to practise my Chinese several times over - much to the amusement of the staff on duty at the door of each restaurant).
Overall, it was a great day - speaking Chinese with lots of people along the way. Add to that a great Chinese meal, a massage and a Pearl Bubble Tea - a very pleasurable practice indeed!

Have you done anything similar? Are you planning to? Leave a comment below to share ...