Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Challenge!

Firstly, I'd like to thank all the readers of Mandarin Segments for their support during the year. Blogging is fun, but really connecting with you all has been fantastic! I appreciate the time you take to read my posts, but I especially appreciate the time you take to leave comments, to disagree, and to engage me. 非常感谢!

And on the basis of your input, I'd like to pose a challenge to all of you ...

Although I spend a lot of time planning my articles, it's really the comments from readers that enhance the message that I'm trying to share, and that give other readers a wider perspective on the topic.

If you subscribe to Mandarin Segments through an RSS reader or through email, you might have the original post delivered to you, but you might not know about the comments that have subsequently been added. The same applies if you just link here from my Twitter account, without seeing any later input.

So I'd like to challenge you to go back an re-read some older posts, and catch up on the debate. Here are some suggestions as to what you might be interested to read (although feel free to read more widely than this) ...

Heisig - the experiment
Back in August I decided to learn to read and write Chinese. A few short months later I had learned 1500 characters from Heisig's "Remember the Simplified Hanzi, Book 1" (affiliated link) and I am now able to read basic texts quite well. Here are some of the key posts along the way:
Some Controversial Posts
WordPacks - making it easier to learn Chinese 

And some fun ...

So check out the posts, read the comments, and please feel free to leave more comments. I'd love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I wish you all the best for the holiday season - and a fantastic new year.

London, England
24 December 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Daily Dragons

Do you believe in dragons?

You might not know it, but you deal with dragons everyday. At least, you do if you speak Chinese.

This  is another in my WordPack series, with this topic having been inspired by a post at the "Those crazy Chinese" blog. The goal of WordPacks is that, by linking these words together by a single theme, it makes it much easier to learn words. And if you're learning Chinese, let's face it, the more help you can get, the better.

The theme today is: dragons.  (If you couldn't work that out from the title of the blog post then you really shouldn't be learning Chinese! :-)

The Simplified character for dragon is (and it is in traditional Chinese writing). Even if you're only learning Simplified, this is a good example of a character which you should also learn to recognise in Traditional - because it appears so often in the name of Chinese restaurants.

Daily Dragons

龙 :   lóng​:    dragon (also a common surname)
水龙头 :   shuǐ​lóng​tóu:​    tap (water dragon head)
尼龙 :   ní​lóng​:    nylon (nun dragon!)
龙船 :   lóng​chuán:​    Dragon boat
龙卷风 :   lóng​juǎn​fēng​:    tornado, cyclone (dragon curl wind)
变色龙 :   biàn​sè​lóng​:    chameleon (change colour dragon)

Dangerous Dragons

龙 :   lóng:​    dragon
恐龙 :   kǒng​lóng:​    dinosaur (fear dragon)
霸王龙 :   bà​wáng​lóng:​    Tyrannosaurus Rex (mighty king dragon)
翼龙 :   yì​lóng​:    Pterodactyl (winged dragon)

Delicious Dragons

龙眼 :   lóng​yǎn​:    dragon fruit (dragon eye)
龙虾 :   lóng​xiā​:    lobster (dragon shrimp)
乌龙茶 :   wū​lóng​chá:​    Oolong tea (dark dragon tea)
小龙虾 :   xiǎo​lóng​xiā:​    crayfish, langoustine (small dragon shrimp)

Dragons of Distinction

李小龙 :    Lǐ​ Xiǎo​lóng​:    Bruce Lee's chinese names (Li small dragon)
成龙 :    Chéng​ Lóng​:    (one of) Jackie Chan's chinese names (accomplish dragon)
九龙 :    Jiǔ​lóng​:    Kowloon district of Hong Kong (nine dragons)

If you're a newbie, you should make sure that you can at least recognise 龙, and that you also remember the word: shuǐ​lóng​tóu.   At elementary, at least know the above, plus all food references. At intermediate you probably know all of them.

Off you go ... go slay another dragon!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Do not scream!

I only just noticed that a recent MandMx cartoon was sourced from a Mandarin Segments blogpost ...

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 :-)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

(Not) learning to read Chinese - 'Black October'

If you have been paying attention, you would have noticed no updates from me on how many characters I learned lately. And there is a reason for this ...

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.

October has been crazy work-wise. This included separate business trips to both India & Singapore. Leading up the trips there was a lot of preparation to do, and then after the trips there was, uhm, a lot of follow-up work to do. So I spent pretty much no time learning new hanzi - and my official total is still at 1000.

October hasn't be a total waste though ... I've been revising the first 1000 characters through flashcards (although only about 5-10 minutes a day). 

And I suppose there is a lesson here - that if something is 'available' and 'easy', then you'll do it. Anki flaschards are always loaded in the background, and if I need a quick break, or I dial into a dull conference call, then I can flash through a few quick cards.

But enough is enough! I'm missing the excitement of when I was learning 25+ new characters a day. I'm missing the urge to reach for my well-thumbed Heisig when I pop out for a quick lunch. And I want to get through the 1500 well before year-end.

So this weekend, I'm back on the wagon. I promise.  

(And if you're still thinking about trying Heisig, you can download - yes, legally - the first 108 characters here, and by Monday morning you could be 108 characters closer to fluency. If you're up for the challenge, drop us a note below, and then leave another comment when you've got through those 108. Go for it!)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pinyin proves that Heisig is right

Before reading this post, just consider for a moment whether you're a supporter of the Heisig method of learning to read Chinese, or not. Then read on ...

There has been some criticism levied at the Heisig method - because it teaches you the character and the English keyword, but it doesn't teach you the pinyin pronunciation of the word.

So imagine the irony ...

This morning I was working through some Anki flashcards, and the word for 'pinyin' came up. The characters are: 拼音 - both of which I have learned through Heisig, where the corresponding keywords are 'piece together' & 'sound'.

I had not previously learned that 拼=pīn and 音=yīn, but it didn't take much effort to remember that pinyin is a collection of tones. In other words: 'piecing together sounds'. So, because I knew the word pinyin (pīnyīn, actually) and through Heisig I learned 拼 & 音, I didn't have to memorise the pinyin at the time - it just came naturally at a later stage.

I'm finding that more and more, as I'm learning more words, the two methods of studying are merging like this - very efficiently. Of course, this works because I'm studying Mandarin words in addition to the Hanzi. Learning Heisig-style by itself is not the solution.

As an aside, there is a great site about pinyin called The webmaster also keeps an enjoyable blog, so check it out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

With thanks to Timothy W Richardson ...

The books "Remembering the [Simplified][Traditional] Hanzi" were co-written by James Heisig & Timothy W Richardson.

I know I've personally spent a lot of time in my blog referring to the "Heisig method", or saying things like "What Heisig teaches us is that ...". 

And although it was Heisig who originally developed this concept in his series of books called "Remembering the Kanji", it was Richardson who - as part of his doctoral thesis - extended this idea to apply to the Chinese hanzi in the 1990s. Apparently the results were sufficiently encouraging that he approached Heisig, who agreed that they should collaberate to produce these books.

Finally, in 2009, the above two books were published. Without Richardson, I would still be struggling with my 13th and 14th individual hanzi - as opposed to learning (with high retention) over 1000 characters in about 6 weeks.

So I'd like to thank Richardson, who has received no credit in my blog so far, for the role he played in bringing these books to the public


(UPDATE: Five years after I wrote the above note, I got the opportunity to interview Timothy Richardson - which was a fascinating experience. You can read the interview teaser here ("Did you know ..." style) and the full interview here)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Strangers on a train

What a crazy little world is this?!

I was catching the London underground this evening with two Chinese friends, heading out to dinner - we were speaking a mix of English & Chinese. Sarah & Jessica were telling a funny story about a time soon after they arrived in London,  when they were gossiping in Chinese about someone on the train.

To their embarrassment, that person actually could speak Chinese!

And the funniest thing happened tonight.  While they were telling the story to me, a Westerner turned to us and spoke in really good Chinese, "Can you speak a little louder, I can't hear everything you say."

Turns out he lives near me, and is married to a Chinese woman from Yunnan Province.

It really is a small world!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations

What do peeling bananas and reading Chinese have in common?   (and no, it's NOT a bad joke about slipping on banana skins)

How do you peel banana? Until a couple of months ago I did it like 99% of people - grab the top end, struggle for 20 seconds to snap & peel, struggle more, eventually bite it and get a horrible taste, and then finally peel it open. But now - after having a video emailed to me by a friend - I actually just pinch the other end: the banana tip splits easily,and I peel it open. Just 2 seconds, without any nasty taste.

(By now I would have lost some of you, as you rush off to the kitchen to find a banana to experiment on. For those of you who are still reading, you're going to enjoy this ...)

To make this more relevant to reading and writing Chinese, I need to ask you: how do you visualise Chinese characters while you're learning new ones?  Have you been using a method of visualisation that takes too long, and leaves you with a horrible taste in your mouth? Well, the focus of this post is to teach you to pinch on the other end. No mess no fuss.

(If I had a lawyer, she'd want me to write this stuff)

Just to be clear I am using the Heisig method to learn the Chinese character system, so this post is specifically filled with tips & tricks to enhance the visualisation you use when learning characters through the Heisig system. You can of course apply these elsewhere.

Also, what you're learning here is the learning to read and write Chinese. Once you're fluent, you won't need this anymore. Unless, for example, you see a character that you've forgotten, and you have to 'reconstruct' it in your mind.

These are my techniques, and you might have different preferences. That's OK - I'm just giving you ideas of what allowed me to get through 1000 characters in about 6 weeks. If you have different (or similar) ideas, please leave some comments to help all the people that I'm otherwise leading astray. Also, I use the Simplified character set, so if my numbering isn't the same as yours on the Traditional road, don't stress.

Depending your level of progress, I've made some comments at the end about next steps for you - but just get through the article in the meantime!

Finally, putting images into words might make things look messy. But it's not, so try not to get bogged down with the details. The more experience you have with Heisig, the easier this post will be to follow.

What is Heisig?

Many years ago, James Heisig wrote a series of books entitled "Remembering the Kanji", which developed an excellent method of learning to read and write Japanese. The method is very effective, and it developed a bit of a cult following. (As much as you can get cult followings if you teach people to read & write Japanese.) It took until 2009 before this same method was developed into a complete system for Chinese characters.

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I'm a big fan of the system, and continue to work through it. Here are affiliated links to his books for the Simplified character set and the Traditional character set.
  • Basically, the writing system is developed by starting with the simplest of characters - each of which are allocated an 'image'. Usually the image matches the meaning of the word, but for abstract words, a 'better' image is used. For more advanced characters, these images are combined into stories.
  • When you see a character, you mentally assemble the component images, which gives you the story - and thus the meaning of the word. 
  • Similarly, when you want to write a character, you think of the English word, the story pops into your mind, and you thereby assemble the images to produce the correct written character.
  • (It's quicker & easier than it may appear :-)

This is my original post when I began applying the Heisig method.
This is my most recent post, when I crossed 1000 characters.
And here is a link to all related posts I've written.

Tips & Tricks   (this is the stuff you'll actually use, so start paying attention)

With all these clarification done, here are some of the things I've realised in learning over 1000 characters through the Heisig approach so far. Application of these should greatly speed up you learning time and improve your recall.

Now it's time to let your imagination run wild: 胡思乱想

* Keep it simple
Try not to get carried away with additional components in your visualisations.

Let's start with an example, #100 乱 (chaos) is "tongue ... hook". If you've been paying attention, it's in the Chinese Proverb above. To make this easy to remember you could imagine the following "someone grabbing & holding a person by the tongue, taking a fish-hook, embedding it, and seeing the person go wild as they break glasses and bump into people around the room, causing chaos". However, a simple alternative would be "someone causes chaos using their barbed tongue as it lashes out at people around them". (Heisig's recommendation is close to this.)

The problem with the first image is that in addition to the chaos, the tongue and the hook, you also have: hands, holding, people, glasses & breaking. So later, when you're trying to remember the character for 'chaos' - you might remember something about hands & glasses, and get confused about what the story is.

Another example is #114 尖 (tip) - where the image is something that goes from 小 small to 大 large. I have limited myself to the story 'a tip is something that starts small and gets big'. To be fair, though, after reading this character a few times, you don't need the story anymore - you automatically know it as 'tip'. The problem is if you try too hard to visualise the tip of a pen, or arrow, or pagoda - then you might find yourself thinking that 尖 means pen (or arrow or pagoda or ...). So keep it simple.

By having complex stories, you risk (a) forgetting parts of the story when trying to recall it, and (b) creating associations with items that aren't really part of the story. So use the minimum number of components you need to make it work.

As Einstein once said:  "Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

* Pick just one meaning for primitives
More options means more confusion.

Heisig has a bad habit (in my opinion). For example, for #60 页 (page), he says "As a primitive, this character will often take the unrelated meaning of a head."

The problem I found is that it slowed me down when trying to read a character which contained the 页 primitive. For example, consider  #61 顽  and  #82 项. Because I was predominantly using the 'head' meaning (as in 顽 which is "beginning head") - but I couldn't work out, when reading 项, what the associated keyword was with "I-beam ... head". Until I realised they used the image of a 'page' in this case - at which point the story came flooding back. If I had always used 'head', then this confusion would not have arisen.

I accept that for the first couple of hundred words it's not a big deal. But as the words continue to mount up in their hundreds, it certainly can get confusing. Just the other day I couldn't recall the meaning of 历 - because I was trying to imagine a 'factory' which is the keyword of 厂, rather than a 'cliff' which is the primitive image. Sigh.

With #12 日, the possible meanings given in the book are: sun, day, tongue wagging in the mouth. Trust me - just pick one (I recommend 'sun') and stick with it.  (And yes, I know there is a difference between 曰 and 日, but for visualisation purposes, it really doesn't matter.)

The benefit is that when I am reading, I don't look at 音 and think "standing ... tongue wagging" - and end up spending two minutes trying to remember that story. Then it turns out that not only did I use the 'sun' meaning (and not the 'wagging tongue'), I also used 'vase' (and not 'standing'). Arghhhhh!

Sure, I accept that sometimes the meaning isn't quite right. For example, it makes more sense to have a "wagging tongue" in the hanzi for 'sound', but let's face it - many of the visualisations are somewhat contrived, so at least choose contrivances that speed things up for you.

So 日 is always 'sun'. And 立 is always 'vase' (not standing up). 王 is always 'ball', etc. Always.

Pick just one image. Choose it by thinking (a) which will be easier to visualise, or (b) which is closer to the primitive's actual meaning, or (c) which one is used most in the words which follow in the next few pages.

I find this eliminates the uncertainty - which makes it quicker to memorise words, and much quicker to read words.

* Careful of primitves & keywords which are similar
This continues to bite me.

#513 蛇 has the keyword 'serpent'. #515 己 has the primitive image of a snake.  Problem arises when I know that the keyword for 'begin' has a story of "walk ... snake" (I picture people about to begin a walk/race, and the start line is actually a snake) - but how on earth should I know whether it's snake that I'm visualising, or serpent? I don't care what the dictionary says, how does my mind work?

Make sure that you have a way of differentiating between snake & serpent that works for you. Perhaps a snake is white and a serpent is brown? Perhaps a snake is lying down, and a serpent has lifted its head to attack? BUT be careful that you don't add too much to the image, and thereby breach the "keep it simple" rule. If your 'snake' (nor 'serpent') is going to be white, for example, make sure you don't let it interfere with the character 白 for white.

In a previous post, I pointed out how confusing it gets to have various 'hands' in your images - here is my exact wording: "If you allow me 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!!"

In this case, it's essential that you take the time to work out exactly what each of the above should look like, so you don't confuse them.

Similarly, I already mentioned above that the keyword for 'factory' has a primitive meaning of 'cliff' - and Heisig's stories use both. I find that confusing, and prefer to limit myself to just one meaning.

So make sure when your creating images, that you are clear on what you mean - it will make the process much simpler to take in, and will dramatically increase your recall.

* For similar characters, use similar stories
If your mind thinks that way, then you should think that way too.

Look at characters #506-8:  她 she (woman ... scorpion),  地 ground (soil ... scorpion),  池 pond (water ... scorpion).  Unfortunately, the stories that Heisig recommends aren't consistent, so when I tried to recall what the word was by looking at the character, I was failing. So I reworked the images to have the same framework. Let me explain ...

I picture XYZ (where XYZ is either a woman, soil, or water) totally covered by lots of little scorpions. And these then move and scuttle away to reveal something underneath ... perhaps 'she' is revealed, or the 'ground' becomes visible, or I see they are on the surface of a 'pond'. Because I use consistent images, I find my recall really quick, because I don't have to 'test' several images until one of them triggers the keyword.

For example, BadImage1 = 'scorpions are covered in soil, which then move off to reveal the ground underneath them', and BadImage2 = 'scorpions cover the water and you see they are on a pond'. In the first case the scorpions are doing the covering, in the second they are being covered. If you're not consistent, you're not going to come to the right image quickly enough  - which is a waste of time.

Perhaps another example will add to your understanding.

In #479-81 we have 资 'assets',  姿 'looks',  咨 'consult with'.  But the recommended stories are again not consistent, and are a bit of a jumble. I struggled to remember them. So I reworked the stories into the form "next ... XYZ".  I could then easily remember that "next ... shell" was a guy collecting shells as assets, going 'next next next'.  Similarly, "next ... woman" was a guy who was seeking the perfect-looking woman going 'next next next' on the basis of her looks.  Finally, "next mouth" is someone going from person to person (mouth to mouth), looking for opinions, going through people 'next next next'.

With this consistency, the images are clear and need almost no interpretation - the keyword is obvious in each case.

Similarly, 赔 has a "clam used as a muzzle", while the next character is a "muzzle on the earth". I'm not saying you can't manage to cope with these differences - thousands have already. I'm just saying you can be more efficient. So why not!

* Abstract words
Some words are just difficult to visualise.

Heisig is aware of this, so often a word's keyword is changed for the purpose of making visualisation easier. So 白 means 'white', but he suggests you picture a 'dove'. 己 means 'self', but he suggests you use a 'snake'.

But there are many other words which are difficult to remember - and it's worth trying to find a consistent way which works.

For example, 安 means 'peace', but that's hard for me to image 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).

Another one I had difficulty with was 忄 ('state of mind') - and I dealt with this by trying to construct images which suggested what the person's 'state of mind' might be in that case. With the word for 'slow' (慢) it was easy: "state of mind ... mandala". The latter reminds me (in the I-wasn't-born-yet kinda way) of the drugged-up bright-lights 1960s, and I can imagine someone in a chill room, with time really slooooowed down. Get what I mean?

* Touching primitives
If they're touching, then know they're touching (or avoid them touching).

I mentioned in previous post about how the primitives are pieced together to make the character for 音. If you take those primitives literally, there is a line that goes missing. This works find when you're reading - you'll work it out. But when you're writing, you might get confused.

One example is: #677 会 which is "meeting ... rising cloud".  This is made up of the triangle shape (including the horizonal base) plus 云. But you'll note that this results in a line-overlap, which is fine if you're reading, but if you following the instructions closely when writing you'll get an extra line. I've reconstructed 'meeting' as the 'umbrella' primitive and 'rising cloud'. Not only is the visualisation easier, but it works with no extra lines.

This doesn't happen often (so far), but it helped me to make sure my visualisations worked. And this might seem that it's overly complex, but I assure you ... it isn't. It's only because writing it out. If you were thinking this, it would only take a few seconds.

* Order your primitives
If you're smart with your story, it'll work much better.

What do you notice about the following pairs: 古/叶, 叮/可, 杏/呆, 未/末, 玉/主?  Yup, they're almost the same, but not quite. For the early characters, it's not really a big deal - you should be able to remember the positioning of the primitives, and little confusion should result. But as you progress, and the characters become increasingly complex, you might correctly be able to remember the components, but be unable to piece them together in the right order.

For example, #661 派 is "water ... drag ... bandana",   and #723 曼 is "sun ... net ... crotch", and   德 is "ten ... net ... one ... heart". My recommendation is that you create the story so that the order of how the pieces are put together is preserved. Over time this won't be necessary, but for fastest progress in the beginning, it really helps.

So in the example of 曼 (drawn out), I picture the sun shining - from above - through a small net onto the crotch, and the net is being 'drawn out' as wide as possible to cover as much area as possible. The story implies the correct order. Try to get in that habit.

Similarly, for 蛇 ('insect ... it'), try to use the words in that order, and not the other way around. Don't worry - this very quickly becomes a habit.

Here are some other quick examples:
  • 爱: somehow picture the 'birdhouse' on the 'friend' (not next to, not under) --> you'll be glad you did
  • 香: try ensure that the sun is under the wild rice in the image (perhaps a reflection)
  • 售: picture the turkey falling from above, and popping out the mouth at the bottom of the vending machine
  • 设: can you see the words written on the side of the missile? the side? good

* Static vs Dynamic
Know how your own mind works.

In 设, as mentioned above, I see 'words' on the side of the 'missile'. This is a static image - just a snapshot.

But sometimes it helps me to have movement in the image. Take #763 (journey) for example - "wild rice ... submit". I had difficult doing this as a still image, but instead my mind showed someone walking down the road (on his journey), offering wild rice to peasants along the way, who are so grateful that they fall to their knees and submit to him, head bowed. It's a video that last a fraction of a second in my mind, but it tells me what I need. The movement helps convey the sense of 'journey'.

So experiment with your own mind. Do images work best? Or video? Decide for yourself. And use it.

* Make it Sexual
You know you want to.

For school children, I would say "make the images clear, colourful, vibrant, rich ...". But I'm going to say it as I see it - sexual images are more memorable, whether you're a fan or an opponent of sex. You'll remember the image - and that's the goal.

Heisig gives a clue about this in his definition of #633 又 ('again'), which uses the primitive image of 'crotch'. He says, "... by assigning it the meaning of crotch, as in the crotch of an arm or a tree. Or whatever."

"Or whatever", indeed.

So when 戏 (frolic) is "crotch ... fiesta", make it easy on yourself and create something that is memorable.

And the story for #838 ("use" - a verb, 使) is "person ... 100 Chinese inches ... mouth".  If you have an image that words for you, fine. But I have an image I won't forget, and I'm sticking with it.

* Font curses
It's not you, it's the font. Honest.

There are a  number of characters which appear sufficiently different in some computer fonts - that it's difficult to recognise the character. If you stick to Heisig's book, you're fine. But when you use flashcard software, or internet-base dictionaries, or online text - you might get confused.

查 - the bottom line is sometimes separate, sometimes connected
拐 - sometimes it appears as 'dao' below the mouth, sometimes it like like 'li'
直 - sometimes the line at the bottom also runs up the side
条 - sometimes it's a tree at the bottom, sometimes it's poles
派 - the inner bits sometimes touch, and sometimes not
房 - sometimes it's a line across the top, sometimes a little 'drop'

Over time, it won't make a difference, you'll still recognise them. But you may as well know they're coming.

Bringing it all together

I thought I would give one closing example which brings together a number of these components, and I've chosen #497 激 (excite).
  • the primitives appear in this order: "water ... dove ... compass ... taskmaster"
  • yet Heisig's story begins with the taskmaster, which I think makes it more difficult to remember
  • I have very specific image for 'taskmaster' which I use in all related images
  • he talks about 'white' foam, but I always use the 'dove' image so I don't get slowed down
  • in the character, the 'dove' is on the 'compass', and in my imagination it is too
  • I picture the water washing the dove-on-a compass towards the taskmaster, so the order is right and thus easy to write
  • the closer it comes the more excited the taskmaster gets

Your image may work better for you, and if so then definitely stick to it. But I found this type of thinking (consistent images, useful ordering, etc.) has allowed me to remember images quicker & more easily, with better recall. This includes going from character to keyword, or keyword to character.

So now what?

You can do whatever you want, from ignoring this post, leaving rude comments below - or using it, integrating it into your studies, and improving it. But here are some suggestions ....

  • If you're just beginning, keep these things in mind as you set off on your studies. Maybe come back to it every now and then, and see if you're "on track", and leave some comments each time you spot an improvement. Heisig suggest stories for you in the beginning, and it's probably best not to deviate too far from that until you've got some momentum and some experience.
  • If you're a few hundred characters in, you should be able to immediately start putting these ideas into practice as you move forwards. There are still lots of characters to play with, and get right the first time!
  • I'm not suggesting that you go back and change your existing stories. If they're working for you, then stick with them. However, if there are certain characters, or groups of characters, which you keep forgetting, then see whether these techniques will help you 'tighten up your game", and get them right from now on.
And read some of my previous posts on the Heisig method. I've made observations of things that go well and things that go badly - you' definitely get some more clues from there. All such posts use the RTH-hesig keyword.

To make sure you get updates and new tips & tricks, don't forget to subscribe to Mandarin Segments, using RSS/XML, email, or other. You can also follow me on Twitter.

And of course, leave some comments to help me and other readers with your insight.  Are there characters that you always get wrong? Are there other tricks I've forgotten to mention? Do you think I'm talking a load of shit? All views are welcome.

And now we've come full circle. If you're still still peeling bananas the old way, there is a much better alternative. And if you're still learning to read & write Chinese (or Japanese) for that matter, this is definitely a better way.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Learning Mandarin - Start Off Lazy, Build From There (guest post)

I was very pleased to be invited to do a guest post for Charlie at the Discovering Mandarin blog. In it I talk about how I started learning Mandarin (really really slowly at first), and what I'm learning at the moment.

You can find the post here.  And once you've read it, and left a comment, take a look at the rest of Charlie's blog. It has daily Chinese proverbs, Chinese recipes, news & culture posts, and more. Definitely worth becoming a follower.


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.
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