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 ...


  1. Hi Greg, can you please share your story for "deliberate"?

    1. Hi Anna - more than happy to share.

      故=古+攵 (deliberate = ancient + taskmaster)

      In my visualisations, the 'taskmaster' is a woman wearing all-leather, with thigh-high boots, stiletto heels, chains, whips, etc. She's a dominatrix - which is how I visualise the 'taskmaster'.

      Naturally therefore an 'ancient taskmaster' is not a particularly sexy dominatrix, it's a woman in her 90s, who does not look good in that outfit! She should have given up being a dominatrix/taskmaster decades ago!

      So if someone decides to 'go' with such an ancient taskmaster, it's probably not pure lust or attraction. No, it's not an emotional decision at all - it's a DELIBERATE choice to go with a taskmaster like this, instead of someone more ... uhm ... desireable :-)

      Anna, does that help? I've given a longer answer here to help you visualise, but of course when I picture it, it happens in the briefest of moments.