Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day 6)

Just a quick update on how my learn-to-read-Chinese experiment is progressing, using Heisig's original methodology. You can read my opening post for this with day 0.

In the previous 5 days I've learned another 142 characters, taking me to 236 in total (including the 94 I learned while still choosing which system to use). Last night I went through chapters 6-10 (characters 95 to 235) to test my recall, and I got 97% accuracy. That was very pleasing.

That might be enough detail for you - and if so, you're welcome to read one of the other posts on Mandarin Segments. But if you'd like more details, please continue ...

In terms of how I spent my time:
  • day 0: chapters 6 & 7 (about 40 characters)
  • day 1: chapter 8.1 (only 15 characters)
  • day 2: chapter 8.2 (about 15 characters)
  • day 3: chapter 8.3 (about 15 characters)
  • day 4: chapters 9 & 10 (60 characters)
  • day 5: revision - as mentioned above
In summary, this means:
  • 15 minutes a day of learning (except for day 4 where it was an hour)
  • 5 minutes a day revising the previous day's work (usually getting 14 out of 15 correct)
  • overall, this is about one character a minute - although I can see that if I don't take enough time to create a vivid image in my head, then it's more difficult to remember.
Here are some of my observations from the last week:
  • I sometimes got confused between the word's definition and the 'image' I apply when using at as a primitive, like 寸 (#166) which actually means 'Chinese inch' but where you use the concept of 'glue' when it's part of other characters - for example, a village is 村 - which uses the image of trees (木) glued (寸) together
  • sometimes the definition just doesn't make sense, like #142 (原) which is defined as "flatlands" (what the hell???), when the dictionary says "original"
  • because of the way the characters are 'constructed' in the Heisig method, for the first ever I'm finding it easy to differentiate between 句 (#67) and 可 (#92)
  • I don't write the characters 100 times over to remember them - just once or twice in the air, because the way the system is constructed it's really logical - not just brute force
  • sometimes characters contain the same primitive and have similar meanings - like 砂 (gravel), 沙 (sand) & 尘 (dust) - which I found a little confusing, but I'm pretty sure it was easier than if I was just rote-learning
In terms of the 4 mistakes/can't-remember characters that emerged in my review:
  • I just couldn't remember what 够 meant (#117) - my image just wasn't clear enough
  • I thought 厉 (#123) meant 'obey', but it actually means 'stern' - my image for this character wasn't clear enough for an abstract character like this
  • for 漠 (#233) I thought it meant 'mirage' but it actually meant 'desert' - I got confused between the components of the image and the meaning of the character
For the 6 'deviant' occasions where I got a similar meaning (but not quite right):
  • 乱 (#100) means 'chaos' not 'mess' - but I've forgiven myself
  • 求 (#140) means 'request' not 'invite' - and again I'm trying not to beat myself up over this one
  • when reading, especially with most words being two-character sets, these small deviations shouldn't interfere too much with my understanding
  • (but I'll try harder next time, I promise)
It's now 00:30 and I'd better get some sleep. First, though, I'd like to make a dent in chapter 11. Good night.

PS. If anyone understands what "flatlands" means, or why it was used instead of a meaningful dictionary definition, please let me know in the comments below. Guesses are also welcome.


  1. Hey,

    I also find "flatlands" to be a strange keyword for 原, so I changed it to "original". Actually, I have changed several of Heisig's keywords to ones I have encountered more often when seeing said character (or checking the dictionary). No reason to stick religiously to his definitions:)

    Also, I would like to mention that I am learning each character's pronunciation as well (using the reference in the back of the book). I find that by doing this, I quickly understand what characters are part of what compound words. This is because I also started by learning conversation and not reading. So I may know a word like peng2you and when I learn the character 朋 - "companion" and also learn the pronunciation, I quickly realize what compound word it is a part of. That helps solidify the characters you learn as well.

    Good luck with your studies!

  2. Thanks 'The Taipan'. I'm still a little nervous to devaite from his definitions or images, because I don't know whether it will have implications down the road - and maybe start to confuse some of the more advanced images. How far are you into the book?

    I'm also trying to link the words I learn here to words I know already. For example, using your 'original' example, a word I previously struggled with was 原谅 (yuán​liàng​)(to forgive), but now that I know 原, it's really easy!

  3. I'm about half way through. I have had no troubles with the ones I've changed. You can always check the keyword index in the back to make sure there isn't a same keyword you are changing to.

    Most of the few changes I have made aren't as drastic as 原. For example, 告 - "declare", I changed the keyword to "inform". This is whats in the dictionary and makes more sense in the compound I see it used the most: 告诉 gao4su.

  4. Good point about the keyword index - I haven't spent much time looking at the material at the back. Will take some time this weekend to see what exists back there.

  5. Greg, I'm just curious: You are able to read the characters now. Would you also be able to write them? I actually don't find writing characters by hand very important as I mostly use the computer for writing (which is much easier). However, as I'm studying in China in a classroom setting, we are required to learn how to write them. At least, once one knows how to write a character, one can also read it without any problems. But it is hard work...

  6. Hey Phil. Good question - it's something that I was weighing up when choosing a method. The reality is I won't have to write much - typing is going to be much more my thing.

    That said, I've noticed that - because of the way the system breaks Hanzi up into 'primitives' - I can write the more complicated characters I've learned with very little effort.

    Just to test myself, I thought of the more complicated ones I've learned so far, and tried to draw them on paper before typing them here. And I was almost flawless in all 5 cases: 潮 染 渣 特 墨. In 3 out of 5 cases, I'd never written them on paper before, just a couple of times in the air.

    So yes, the writing is working really well. (Of course, ask me again once I've crossed 1500 and I'll see if it's still so easy!)

  7. 原 in bound form can definitely mean flatlands:

    平原 literally means plains/flatlands
    草原 grasslands/prairie
    中原 the Central Plains area of china
    高原 plateau/tableland
    原野 open country, fields
    荒原 wasteland, wilderness
    雪原 snowfield
    冰原 icefield

    'original' can be a good gloss for many of the common uses of 原. 源 can be literally thought of as 'origin', but don't get ahead of yourself.

    I started learning chinese and learning to read characters long before I knew about spaced repetition, let alone mnemonics. It was also before RTH came out. Very interested in the results of your efforts. Keep it up!

  8. Kevin, thanks for this comment - and the others you've added. I've found your input really useful - appreciate your experience.

    I'm so fired up about learning to read. At 15-20 a day (plus revision for less than 5 minutes a day to keep retention at over 90%) it's amazing how a page of once just mish-mashed characters is turning into words which means something.

    And thanks to your clarification on "flatlands" above, that's a lot more meaning I'm going to get with that type of word in future.

  9. I think 乱 means both chaos and mess.
    For example:
    你的房间很乱。 Your room is so messy.
    这个酒吧很乱,什么人都有。This bar is of chaos,with all kinds of people in it.
    我的思路很乱,暂时无法解出这道题。My mind is a bit tangly and I cannot solve this problem for now.
    Hope this helps!
    PS.Correct my English if I were wrong, please.

  10. I'm thrilled you told me that 乱, now I don't feel so guilty about my mistakes anymore :-)

    But you've certainly added context for me, which is going to make it much easier as I progress from individual character memorisation to understanding full sentences.

    Given that it's nearly midnight, I can confirm that my mind is indeed "tangly", and I have no intention of solving *any* problems now! Good night.