Thursday, July 26, 2012

Just stick to one image, OK?

This post is for people who are using Heisig to learn to read & write Chinese, or for anyone using another image-based system with similar structure.

This is an issue that I came across relatively early on with the first book, but now after reaching a certain page in the second book, I had to roll my eyes a little ...
  • If you look at the photo on the right (you can click on it for a larger version), you will see that all three of these consecutive characters use the '王' primitive.
BUT - and this is the crazy part - the first instance of 王 uses the 'ball' keyword, the second uses 'jewels' as the keyword, and the third uses 'king'.  Sure it's nice that the book gives us various options for what we might use to visualise a certain character, but I've found multiple images confusing. And if you happen to be working with the wrong one for that 'scene', the Heisig approach might fail

For example let's say that you're reading Chinese and see the character 汪. - and the image you constructed was based on "water ... jewels" as indicated in the photo. But later, when you try recall the meaning, you discover that "water ... king" doesn't ring any bells, and neither does "water ... ball". And so you fail.

Please try, when you're creating images, to have just one image for each keyword, and stick to it. I wrote an article entitled Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations back while studying Book 1, and even at that time I had a section devoted to "Pick just one meaning for primitives" - because experience showed quite early on that it's a recipe for failure.

Chinese is hard enough when you do it right, so try to avoid the alternative.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I have begun Heisig Book 2. Kinda.

If you've been following my posts, you'll know that I have been preparing for a while to study the second book in the Heisig & Richardson series about learning to read & write Chinese. And I've been re-discovering good things too!

I set myself a goal to begin on 1 July (after fully re-studying Book 1), and to finish by year-end. Although I did the first book in about 3 months, I decided not to get carried away this time.

The bad news: I'm already behind schedule.
I thought I would begin at about 10 characters a day, expecting to slow down as I needed more time to revise. As of last night (21 days in) I had learned just 170 characters. I have also done a lot less revision than I should have done by now. Damn.

The good news: I am 170 characters further than when I started 3 weeks ago. (Even slow progress is progress, right?)

Here are some of the things I've noticed along the way:
  • It is definitely going more slowly that Book 1 - but that isn't a surprise, right?
  • The average number of strokes in the first couple of hundred characters looks to be about 10, which is quite a bit more than the first book
  • My retention in the early weeks of the first book was nearly flawless - it was easy enough to remember the stories because the images were clear & obvious
  • I'm not suggesting that there is a massive step up from the first to the second book - it's all about progressing slowly from character 1 to character 3000
  • I'm mainly behind schedule because of work-based time constraints, and not because of a lack of interest in completing book 2
  • There are some really strange keywords (the preface even explains this was necessary in order to ensure each character has a unique keyword), like: "father's sister" (maybe it would be easier if my father had a sister :-), "smidgen" (OK, I can cope with this), "cinnabar red" (erm ...), "flouds" (you'll get there, don't worry), "paulownia" (uhm ...), "vermilion" (sheesh ...), "succor" (hello dictionary), "brick heated bed" (seriously?)
  • I got a little confused by 1559 ("widowed") until I realised that the 'head' primitive is actually written in traditional (not simplified) style
  • And I smiled when I saw their copy-and-paste screw-up in character 1663 ("sow" - verb)
  • It's so nice to finally get to know characters intimately that I have only come across in sentences in my flashcard pack
  • It's clear that the authors have learned from Book 1, and they are improving Book 2 with this. For example, certain sub-primitives are getting different images to what they were allocated in the first book - I like what they've done here with Eiffel Tower and Disneyland
  • And finally, I have created a Harry Potter themed image in all my Heisig work ("snitch" - I know it's not the way the authors intended it to be interpreted, but it made the story/character very clear for me)
So I'm really enjoying myself. Time constraints prevent me from doing any more time than I'm doing at the moment, but I'm enjoying the progress - and the fact that I'm already recognising characters from around, shows it's already adding value.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Write on!!" - reviewing Skritter for iOS

Before the official release of the app for iOS, I was approached by the Skritter team to test it, and perhaps write a review. I wasn't offered any freebies, and was given total freedom to write my own review, so I'm comfortable that this is a neutral perspective.

Also, while it was tempting to publish my review around the time of the official release when all those other reviews were being published, I was worried that I would write it more in light of my excitement of having a new novelty toy to play with. I was more keen to actually get a sense of the 'longevity' of Skritter for iOS ... how long before the excitement died down?? (Hint: It still hasn't)

For no particular reason, I'm going to write this review in the style of a FAQ. (By the way, if you are rushed for time, just read Q1, 4, 6, 7, 13. Oh heck, just read it all - this isn't a particularly long post :-)

1. Would you recommend Skritter iOS to others?

2. Will everyone benefit from using it?
In theory, yes.  But I think there are plenty of Chinese learners who should be focusing more on pinyin, vocab acquisition, tones, and listening skills - and Skritter should perhaps wait a little longer.

3. What about the iOS experience?
From an iOS point of view, the implementation of Skritter is fantastic. It's sleek, artistic, fast, powerful, flexible. It's a great example of using iOS to the full.

4. Did you use Skritter before testing the iOS app?
No. In fact, I had a completely wrong idea about Skritter, so I never bothered before!
I'm glad I took the time to play with it. For example, I had assumed it was just about learning to write characters, but actually it's much more than that. Yes it can be used for that, but it has an amazing selection of vocab, so that it goes way beyond individual characters, into compound-words, phrases and sentences.

5. Does Skritter iOS cater nicely to people who haven't used the website before?
In some ways, Skritter is intuitive to use. But I think the team could do a little more to help people who are totally new to Skritter. For example, there are many settings in the preferences pane that I'm not sure what they actually do - a clarification sentence would be nice for each. It talks about numbers of items added, number of items synchronised, etc. - but it wasn't obvious to me what the difference is. I remember having to add characters one at a time, up to a hundred at a time, although I really wasn't sure why I was having to do that when I had already selected a list - shouldn't it just add the whole list?

6. For actually learning characters, would you recommend Heisig or Skritter?
I still believe that the Heisig method is a better way to learn characters (either reading or writing) than practising writing (on paper, in the air, or with Skritter). I strongly recommend that Heisig should come first, and then Skritter should follow. And yes, definitely use Skritter once you can read & write characters.

7. If you already can read/write through Heisig, why bother with Skritter?
Ah, well this is where I'm finding Skritter to be particularly amazing.
I believe Heisig is the best way to learn to read & write - certainly the fastest with least effort. But it doesn't teach you the pronunciation (pinyin), nor does it show you the characters being used in compound words. I'm finding Skritter to be an excellent bridge between the Heisig world, and the practical world of reading and writing more significant texts. Highly recommended.

8. What's your biggest concern about Skritter iOS?
I think I'll say it's the cost. I don't doubt that a huge amount has been invested in developing this great app, but at just under $10 per month, that's a huge investment, even over a year. I think a lot of people will be excluded from signing up at this price (even the discounted prices), and I'm curious to know whether I'll still be happy to be paying this before a year is up. In a world where apps cost a few dollars, this is on the other end of the scale.
I will say that the Skritter team are not trying to trick you to paying them money, though! As my trial period was ending, they sent me quite a few emails warning me that I was going to start getting charged. No one could claim they were charged because they forgot to cancel, by mistake. Well done Skritter.

9. Any technical thoughts about the app?
There are some strokes that Skritter keeps saying I'm wrong, even though I find myself writing perfectly over the hint-line, mostly commonly 阝 and many near-vertical lines. Odd. I'm inclined to believe it's my handwriting and not Skritter, but when my lines appear to overlap perfectly with the underlying hints, it makes me wonder.

10. Do you like the font that underlies Skritter?
Actually yes, it's a beautiful font - lovely. I do wish however that we were given the option of a second font - something that was a little more computer-perfect. Most of the characters I see are of course on a computer, and Skritter's font is slightly more stylistic. This means I find myself positioning/angling some of my strokes in ways I would expect based on what I see most of the time. From memory, characters like 火, 垂, 民 all are slightly different as a computer font than the Skritter font. This means either Skritter thinks I'm wrong at times, or it ends up moving my stroke far away from where I placed it. I can learn to live with just one Skritter font, but a less stylised one might be a nice option. One day.

11. What about Skritter as a flashcard app?
Well, it is sold as an SRS (spaced repetition system), but so far it doesn't feel like that. Maybe there is a setting I haven't used yet, but very few characters have come up a second time, I still seem to be working my way through the list, one phrase at a time. And although it tests my pinyin & tones & definitions, it feels like only 1 in 25 cards is non-handwriting. I'm still waiting for the 'repetition' to begin, let alone the 'spaced repetition'.

12. What extras would you like to see?
Firstly, I've simply added words from two lists: "Integrated Chinese 2" and "Business". And Skritter seems to have thrown these into a pot, deciding for itself which characters to feed to me when. Sometimes (particularly on a plane, flying somewhere for a business meeting) I feel like I'm in "business mode", and I'd like to learn words only from the Business list, but I can't do that.
Secondly, it would be nice to have a search facility. As I mentioned above, the character 垂 was different, if I remember correctly, to how it appears on the computer. But I can't search for a single character within Skritter in order to show you how it looks. Also, sometimes I remember struggling with certain characters, and it would be nice to find them again to practise, but I don't seem to be able to do that on the iOS app.
Thirdly, when trying to decide which lists to use, it would have been nice for the list description to include the number of characters that I'd be getting by selecting that list.
Fourthly, the app is really feature-packed, and it would not surprise me to find out that all the things I think need to change are already a part of the app - maybe I just don't know how to do it! :-) (For example, at one stage I thought a nice option would be to retain my stokes, rather than replacing them with the right strokes - but then I discovered there's a setting for that!)

13. In the opening paragraph you spoke about concern about the excitement of using Skritter iOS dying down ...
Yes, that was a real possibility. I've used many tools and websites to improve my Chinese; I've started listening to many podcasts - but over time I find I get bored of them, and just realise one day that I don't use them anymore. But so far Skritter has been really good, and I continue to enjoy using it. It's a nice distraction when I have a couple of minutes to spare, it's a nice break from podcasts, or Heisig Book 2. And I have definitely got value from using it.

So I am still using Skritter iOS. And I am still benefitting from Skritter iOS. And I am still happy to continue to pay for the Skritter iOS app.

tl;dr: If you can afford it, then I think you probably should use it too.

Write on!!