Sunday, August 23, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day 11) - great progress

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.

As of last night, 11 days into the experiment, I have finished lesson 14 - taking me to a total of 336 characters. My recall is around 90% - although I'm going to do a full review session later today, so I'll get a better idea of whether I'm lying to myself.

On average I'm doing about 20 minutes a day, learning about 15 new characters every day.

Some of my technical observations from the last week are:
  • Normally the best time for me is last thing before I go to sleep - because recall the next morning seems strongest.
  • I found lesson 11 a bit 'abstract' so I was trying to be as visual as I could. Unfortunately, this was just before bed-time, and I spent the night dreaming about Chinese! In my dreams I was trying to memorise, trying to recall - and getting stressed. I woke up very tired!
  • I'm finding the Heisig-method visualisations very powerful in differentiating between some hanzi which look very similar - like 犬 and 尤
  • I'm learning not to deviate from the method! For example, this is the character for cry: 哭. I didn't bother constructing a "story" for this because I could see this looked like someone crying. Simple. Unfortunately, when I tried to recall it during a revision session, I was trying to remember the story that links the 'primitives' of the word - not remembering that I'd bypassed that part. OK, always use the story from now on!
  • I already knew the character 高 (tall) - so I was a bit lazy in constructing the story. A couple of days later I realised I could not write it - even though I would easily be able to read it. Again, I'm learning that I shouldn't deviate from the formula.
  • I twittered this a few days ago: "Going to try clarify in my mind difference between 'same', 'uniform' and 'equal' - so I don't confuse 同 匀 & 均 with my Heisig visualisations"
But what about my actually ability to read? Well, I'm surprised at how much just 300+ characters can make a difference. For example:
  • I jogged past my local Chinese restaurant the other day, which I simply know as "Royal China". I had previously (a year ago?) tried to memorised the Chinese name (皇朝) - but I had zero recall. This time I immediately recognised the characters, the story, the meaning. Flawless.
  • I went to MandMx where they have great cartoons in English & Chinese, and looked through the collection of food cartoons. From not being able to read much of anything a few weeks ago, to generally being able to follow the meaning (obviously there were holes in my comprehension) is a huge success. Feels great.
  • Was looking through some old notes written in pinyin - and suddenly they looked so plain! Where were the Chinese characters ... tsk tsk. I guess this means there is no going back.
So at this point I'm still really pleased at my progress. I know that the more I learn, the more time I'll have to spend revising. But at least I'm not having to write characters 100 times - that never worked for me.

Don't forget to subscribe to Mandarin Segments, to keep an eye on my progress. And I look forward to some comments & suggestions from you.


  1. Hey Greg! Just wanted to finally post (I've been subscribed for awhile now, so I think you might know me)

    I've been taking Chinese for 3 years and I get the award every year for Chinese as a 2nd language at my high school (just giving you an idea)

    I have two teachers (one who is also American, but moved to China for many years and came back, and the other, who is Taiwanese) that both use the 'write-it-over-9000-times' method and, well, it's not always helpful.

    Another method I use is playing the online game 'Zon', but the game doesn't actually help you remember the characters. It DOES however teach you ALOT of useful characters for when you go to China.

    I want to continue learning Chinese for the rest of my life. I want to be absolutely fluent because I love the language so much :) That's part of why I subscribe to your blog, since I know you're learning as well (and you've taught me some new words! :D)

    So I ask you . . . Do you think the Heisig method would help me? :)

  2. Hey Kara, great to hear from you. I'm pleased to share my ideas with an experienced student like you - well done on those awards!

    Zon ... wow, I tried that once but got bored quickly. Maybe now that I've progressed I'll actually find it more interesting. Thanks for the reminder!

    And in my opinion, yes - Heisig is great. But I don't know your personal circumstances, so it's difficult to know for you specifically. But I am enjoying the learning, and noticing more & more hanzi that I can immediately identify. And in general, I recommend it highly. (Surely *anything* has got to be better than writing it 9000 times :-)

    Regards, Greg