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!


  1. By a weird irony 胡 is a character in my Chinese name originally chosen for its phonetic component because it is used as a Chinese surname and because it sounds a little like my English name. I became 胡成 short but both characters used in Chinese names. At some point I discovered that 胡 was the hu in 胡说 (to talk nonsense) but more significantly the hu in 胡子 (beard, facial hair ...).

    Having a beard and also having dicovered I was a 电脑程序员(computer programmer) I took the same sounding cheng2 and changed my name to 胡程 (guaranteeing that Chinese people will easily remember my Chinese name after I tell them the characters).

    My previous associations lead me to "scrape beard knife" although I only had a hazy knowledge of scrape by sound. However I believe that 剃刀 a more common form for razor.

    I know that I will increasingly discover words this way also as I read, but my preferred way to learn to read the word would be after already knowing gua1hu2dao1 as a spoken word.

    That said I don't want to be the party pooper, I have had this debate in a number of forums and it inevitably ends up with me stomped by a gang of traditional approach character learners, I appear to be getting by though.

    You are obviously a smart, motivated learner and assuming you continue to enjoy it you are bound to be successful. 胡程 (bearded programmer or reckless procedure???) signing off.

  2. Chris, I note your preference of knowing the word verbally before learning to read it. I'm currently working from both sides ... RTH learning to read and seeing how often the hanzi appear elsewhere, and the flashcards/podcasts to learn words which I only later work out to read. Over time I might settle on one or the other, but certainly at this stage I'm finding the overlap uncanny.

    Kinda like buying a red car, and suddenly noticing all the red cars on the road!

  3. Greg, that sounds very sensible, you are making choices and trying out what works for you. The mix may be just what you need.

    I personally find it impossible to put any serious effort into "studying" characters but don't see this as a barrier to gain reading fluency in Chinese at all.

    Self-study these days gives us access to a huge toolkit of tools and resources and we can pick and choose as appropriate, sometimes I can be a little dogmatic but that is as a result of often trying to fight my corner against the wisdom of crowds telling me I couldn't learn Chinese except in a certain way and that it was going to take years and years etc. etc.

    Attitudes seem to be changing though, and the more people that document their sucesses and methods etc. the more oppotunites for new learners to plot their own path. 加油

  4. Chris, you also get people telling you that you couldn't learn Chinese? Ha - me too. Often, although it's becoming less frequent :-)

    And I agree about the tools - it gives me a chance to jump between them. Not because I can't commit, but because it prevents boredom setting in.

    And with RTH I'm learning about 20 hanzi a day with 95% recall after 48 hours, so I'll play with this a bit longer ...

  5. All those people saying it's impossible to learn Chinese. What do they know? Have they tried? It's all about finding out what works, and patiently staying at it...