Sunday, November 29, 2009

Learn to Read & Write Chinese (done!)

On 26 November I finished Heisig's "Remembering the Simplified Hanzi, book 1". My last two dozen characters were done at 30,000 feet flying from London to Delhi.)

Just a few months ago, I had set myself the goal to learn to read & write Chinese, and I choose Heisig as the approach to follow. I did the first 94 characters in 5 days from their free PDF - so I started off feeling optimistic. However when the book arrived, it was thicker than I was expecting, which got me worried. This was going to take forever!

But it didn't take forever. Three and half months later, and it's done.

I've got plenty to share about where the journey has taken me (and where it has not taken me!), but I'm writing this post from Jaipur, India - so I'll take my time over a longer article when I get back.

First, some summary stats:
  • 1500 characters in 106 days
  • this is about 14 characters a day
  • if I allow for the fact that during October I studied no new characters because of work pressure, I could argue it only took about 2.5 months, at about 20 characters a day
  • on average I spent 20-30 minutes a day learning to read & write Chinese, so I might guess that the total time investment was a mere 40 hours, including revision along the way
  • I'm guessing that my recall is about 80%+ (going from hanzi to keyword) and 70% (going from keyword to hanzi)
  • and even when I get a character wrong in my revision, when I look at the answer, it's almost never a total surprise - it was at the tip of my tongue.
Secondly, I know that this can't really said to be "done" - because there's plenty more revision to be done. After all, there's really no reason to be much below 100% recall. And of course, there still book 2. And beyond.

I'm also spending lots of time using flashcards to learn compound words - because without those "reading" is still only guessing at the meaning.

Thanks for all your support along the way, including comments and encouragement. There's a long way still to go, so hang around for the rest of the journey ...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

They "ran" to the end of the word

I have been so focused on learning to read & write Chinese, that I lost track of some of the fun stuff I was doing in Mandarin beforehand.

However, although I haven't provided any Wordpacks in Mandarin Segments for a while, I have actually been using them more and more often as I work my way through the first 1500 characters in Heisig's Book 1.

There has been one character that has been popping up quite often of late, which I think is really useful to know. Especially if you're learning Chinese :-)

The header image of today's Wordpack shows the hanzi for: rán​.   Dictionary definitions include:  like this / thus / correct. 

Aside: In Heisig's book it is defined as "sort of thing" - and the three primitives are 'flesh' (月), 'chihuahua' (犬) & 'cooking fire' (灬).  The image I have created isn't exactly the same as his ... mine is centred around a hotdog - which can be thought of as the flesh of a small dog, on a cooking fire.  It's not exactly what hotdog means - but it's the same 'sort of thing'.

And although the individual character's definition is very confusing (well, it is to me), you do see the word rán appearing in a number of common Chinese words, and so the goal of grouping them together into a Wordpack is to make it easier to memorise them and to recall them again in future.

当然    dāng​rán​:    Of course!
虽然    suī​rán:​    although
自然    zì​rán:​    natural / naturally
突然    tū​rán:​    sudden / unexpected
果然    guǒ​rán:​    as expected
偶然    ǒu​rán:​    incidentally / randomly

These are the ones I'm seeing most often.  If you want to see a full list, check here for dozens more example where a word ends with rán.

If you're quite new to Mandarin, I would say that as a minimum you should learn dāng​rán​ & suī​rán.

Are there any others you think are common enough to be worth mentioning? Drop us a note to let us know, and even just to say hi.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Using Modern Art to Learn Chinese

So I was sitting in the Tate Modern Art Gallery, staring at an abstract work by Henri Matisse. And the longer I stared at his "Yellow Curtain", the better my Chinese was getting.  It's amazing - almost unbelievable, in fact.

Actually, it's totally unbelievable. It never happened that way.  (And if you believe that it would work, you might be interested in a previous article called Learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months.

But wait ...

Don't give up yet. In reality there is something about the way modern art is perceived by people that can improve how quickly you learn to read and write Chinese. In particular, I am referring to the Heisig method which allows you to use powerful visualisations that link the meaning of the word to the written components of the word which makes up the final character.

Some modern art is really abstract - in the picture above you can see a patch of yellow, and Matisse insists it's a yellow curtain. OK. I can live with that. And in fact, from now one, when I look at it ... I will think of a yellow curtain.

And other times you'll see just lines and blocks, which Leger has chosen to call "Railway Crossing". But this one is slightly different, because you might see little clues - like the sign with the arrow, and the concentric rings sign on the very left. For some people, especially people in France, this might be enough to trigger thoughts of a railway crossing.

And for people like me, I still don't get it. But I'll never forget the link again.

So if we take what we know about how artists can take an abstract image and allow it to create a special association; and if we use tricks like they do (for example, adding little Easter Eggs to the scene), we can greatly improve the way we memorise Chinese characters.

Seriously, but work with me on this ... 

I've blogged lots about Heisig already, but there is enough of a base of people using this method that I'd like to share some other tricks I use to speed up my learning, and improve my retention.

You might want to fill in the gaps (if any) by starting off reading my first Heisig post, then my three month update, then all the articles in between.

In memorising nearly 1500 characters in under 4 months, my ability to visualise images or stories has improved. Some approaches have worked, other techniques have failed. And with so many characters, you get pretty fast feedback. After all, if you can't remember a word the next morning, something failed!

Clear & Distrinct

Nouns are easy to memorise - especially nouns whose primitives are nouns too. You put together a series of objects to create another object.

For example, 汤 (tāng​) means 'soup'. It's made up of the primitives for 'water' and 'piglets'. Just picture a pot of boiling water where soup is being prepared, with screaming piglets trying to get out, and you have an image that you will not easily forget. Even if you want to!  (Sorry.)


But other words are much more difficult to visualise, and therefore I seem to forget them more easily. Over the last few months, I've found some tricks that seem to have worked really well.

Below you will find some examples of the imagery I have used. You don't need to use the same images, but you might find the approach I've developed for myself useful to you.


  • Peace (安)
"I wrote about this one in a previous Tips & Tricks article , but it's a good example for getting the ball rolling.  'Peace' is hard for me to imagine without putting flowers into the image - which would then interfere with images that use a 艹 radical. So I thought of "Peaceful Sleep" which is a mosquito repellant I used plenty as a child, which plugs into the wall. I tried not to break the first rule of keeping things simple, but so that it was still useful. So with 按 (finger ... peace) I picture a finger pressing on the Peaceful Sleep device. (I don't imagine it's hot to touch, or that it's being switched on - or anything else which might confuse the image)."

  • Great (伟)

The primitives which make up this word are 'person' and 'briar patch'. (As an aside, because you typically have 'people' in so many of your images, Heisig cleverly suggests that you imagine someone specific, someone who doesn't appear in previous images.)

It's very difficult (... for me) to visualise a person walking through a briar patch, and at the same time create the image of 'great'. What does 'great' look like? So instead I have included in my image that this person finds a 'grate' between the briars - and is excited. I know this represents 'great' and not 'grate' - and I've never forgotten the word.

Additionally, it prevents me getting confused with the word for 'grand' ...

  • Grand (雄)

We piece together 'by your side', 'elbow' & 'turkey'. My image is of someone standing on a GRANDstand, watching a game for example. This person is holding a 'turkey' (I always visualise roast turkey, but a live one is fine :-), and suddenly someone 'elbows' them in their 'side', and they drop the turkey, watching it bounce down the stairs of the GRANDstand.

Again, in my mind, it's clear that the word is 'grand' and not 'grandstand'.

  • Appearance (样)

Creating an image that means 'appearance' isn't easy for me - maybe you have a great approach? The way I pieced together the two primitives (tree & sheep), is to see a sheep in front of a tree, improving it's 'appearance'. It is looking in a mirror, putting on lipstick, and straightening out it's wool. This works for me to associate with a word as "woolly" as 'appearance'.

  • Endure (忍)

This is another word which might be a little hard to visualise - even though the primitives (blade & heart) are easy to picture. In my case, I picture someone tied in a chair. They are being tortured, with a blade threatening to plunge into their heart. But they are 'enduring' - and not revealing their secret.

If you had a different image, please drop us a note - yours might be better than mine.

  • Deliberately (故)

I mentioned in my general article about improving your visualisation skills, that naughty themes can really help. Here's a less graphic example.

The primitives are 'ancient' & 'taskmaster' ('taskmistress', actually). The image I have created for 'taskmistress' is a woman in S&M leather gear - and this is an easy-to-remember image that is used consistently throughout, because it appears often.

So for this word, I can see a young attractive taskmistress, and a very old woman in the same clothing. (Naturally both of them are holding whips, but don't read between the lines - and don't assume you know anything about me and my tastes :-)  When the visitor chooses the older of the two, it's not just because the lighting is bad. The difference between these two women is too obvious - he must be choosing the ancient one 'deliberately'.

  • Border (边)

Again, this is a word which doesn't have definite form, and so is difficult to visualise - even though the primitives ('power' & 'road') are clear. My image is that on the 'road' ahead, there are a group of 'powerful' looking soldiers on duty - they are guarding the 'border' to stop the wrong people getting through. Can you see how tight those uniforms are? Awful.

  • Glory (荣)

There is a 'tree' which is so big it has grown through the roof of the 'greenhouse' - and the guy has won a prize for this work. He is getting all the 'glory' - ribbons, applause, and Gloria Estefan (yes, I can see it is her) is singing a congratulations song to him. As with 'great' (above) this is an addition I created to make sure I know it's 'glory' and not, for example, 'achievement'.

  • Achievement (功)

By picturing a 'powerful' person holding a very heavy 'I-beam' above his head, I am witnessing his 'achievement'. It's personal for him - no glory from an audience, and Gloria Estefan is not there to sing for his glory either. Achievement.

  • Temporary (暂)

The primitives are 'hew' (chop) and 'sun' (I don't use 'days', as you would have read previously). Of course no-one can chop an axe into the sun, but if they did - it would only be 'temporary' because very quickly the flames would close over the cut again. I can see the cut closing - can you?

  • Gradually (渐)

Similarly for 'water' and 'hew', I see someone chopping very gently & 'gradually' on the rocks, but the scene is set in the Great Canyon - which was formed slowly by millions of years of 'gradual' water erosion. That image is enough for me to link chopping, water & gradual.

  • Relatively (较)

I picture people 'mingling' amongst 'cars' in the parking lot. But oddly, the cars are lined up in size order from smallest to biggest, and the people are similarly mingling in size order. This scene allows me to see the 'relative' size of the cars & people, which is sufficient to make me remember 'relatively'.

As an added extra, in case I forget the keyword, it's also clear to me that the people are my relatives - which further helps remember the word 'RELATIVEly'. Note that I am careful that I don't let this addition confuse me with the word 亲 (relatives).

Go 'abstract' to get 'concrete'

These are some examples of imagery I have created. I can't guarantee they will work for you, and in fact you might have better ideas than me. I hope so!

So let me know what you've done. In particular, I'd like to see what scenes you used on the words above - I'm always looking for more 'concrete' ways of doing this. I'm only a few dozen from finishing the first 1500 characters, and Book 2 brings in another 1500 - so please comment generously.

Also, is there anyone else who hides little Eater Eggs, carefully selected additions, in their images to make recall easier? Let us have some examples ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking Chinese (and not talking about talking)

Last night, I joined a group of people from the recently-formed London Mandarin Learners meetup group at their first meeting.

It was a really good evening, with about a dozen Mandarin students and four native Chinese speakers. The skill ranged from beginners who only knew the basics through to advanced people who had lived for a few years in China.

I was slightly nervous - not knowing how the evening would work out. But it was fantastic. I would say I spoke Mandarin over 80% of the time, covering topics such as:
  • what is the Chinese word for "gherkin"?
  • does "ying guo" mean England, or the whole of Great Britain?
  • why people learn faster when they want to learn, rather than when they have to
  • (and of course the usual stuff like what's your name, where are you from, what do you do, how much do you earn, and who is that masked man?)
In summary - we arrived, we drank & spoke, and then left.

Only in the movies ...
For those of you who have listened to more than a few Chinese podcasts will have heard a dialogue exactly like this many times ...
   A: ni shi na li de ren? (where are you from?)
   B: wo shi ri ben ren (I'm Japanese)

Well, last night it happened. That was exactly the one dialogue I participated in, when a Scottish 'Don' was speaking with Japanese 'Tea'.  Classic.

Common Structures
I really don't want to take a fun evening and make it dry by over-analysing, but I know there will be others like me that wonder how they will cope, will their vocab be good enough, etc.

Observing the conversations during the evening, I note there are several sentence structures that came up really often. So if you're not already fully comfortable with these, I recommend you learn them, and use them, soon.

xiangji de xiang / suoyou de suo / gualian de gua / etc.
  • There were many occasions when someone used a word, and you wanted to check that you heard them correctly.
  • So I recall hearing someone using the word "xiang" and I wanted to check if it was the same "xiang" as in "xiangji" (i.e. camera)
  • So I asked "xiangji de xiang?" - and they confirmed.
ruguo X suoyi Y
  • if ... then ...
  • and because Chinese can get really simple, sometimes (usually?) it's good enough to say "X, Y" - and people will get what you're saying
X ranhou Y
  • X and thereafter Y
yingwei ... suoyi ...
  • because ... thus ...
And many variations thereof. Basically, with this kind of basic sentence knowledge, and a chunk of vocab, you can talk for hours. (And we did.)

Your turn
If you haven't been to one of these meetups, I can recommend it. Try find one in your city - you can start searching the above link for groups near you. And if there isn't one, try create one.

And for those who regularly meet up in groups like this, I'd love to hear from you about what "format" you find works for such meetings.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Delusions - when roadsigns become Chinese characters!

Learning Chinese will re-wire your brain. 

OK, this isn't a scientific study I'm referring to - it's only my own experience. But check whether you would pass or fail ...

I was walking through London's St Katherine Docks recently, and there was a little pedestrian bridge near Dicken's Inn. I saw this little sign at the one end ... which basically means that mothers should look after their kids. I guess.

But that's not what I read. Nope.  What did you think when you saw the sign (pictured to the right)?

Yeah, me too.  I immediately thought about the character for "good" in Mandarin - 好 (hǎo​). This is made up of 女 (woman) and 子 (child).

So I was chuckling at myself, taking this picture ... and all the people walking past looked at me really strangely!

(Now would probably be the right time to read a previous post on How to end with 'hǎo'.)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

OK, let's now have some fun ... what other signs make you think of Chinese characters?

  • For example, this character would probably be "train". Below I see "fire" and "car". The Chinese word for train is: 火车 (huǒ​chē​,  i.e. fire car)

  • What could the following signs be? Leave your ideas as a comment below ...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Learning to Read Chinese (3 months!) [pant pant]

Nearly there. Finished off today at 1278 characters - which is over 85% of book 1 completed!

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 must admit, though, it's going slower than I would like. On paper it looks quite good - having learned 278 characters in just 9 days - which is over 30 a day for about a week. But it feels like I'm wading through treacle.

The stretch from 1000-1100 was relatively easy - the words felt concrete, lots of nouns, easy to create images. And while 1100-1278 wasn't that bad, now that I'm this far advanced I'm having to spend a solid chunk of time revising, and coming across more & more words which have similar keywords to previous characters I've learned. So it's taking quite a bit more effort, but I'm getting there.

And I'm still enjoying it!

As I've previously observed, although Heisig doesn't teach the pinyin, I already know quite a lot of words from podcasts & flashcards. And so, with little effort, I'm learning the pinyin along the way. By accident.

For example, I've [verbally] known the word "yǒu​ xiàn" for ages, but couldn't write it, and only sometimes could remember how to read it. When I discovered (Heisig #1151) that 限 means "limit" - all the pieces just fell into place.  有限 --> "has limit" --> finite.  And I now also know the pinyin for 限.

This kind of thing has been happening plenty along the way.

So, I'm into my last stretch. Just more than 200 to go ... maybe I'll try get it done by the end of next weekend?

Please do me a favour ... start putting the champagne on ice.  (You can do this 'virtually' by leaving me a comment below ... thanks :-)