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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  1. That's great! But how much do you understand? I mean, several hanzi make up single words, so how useful is it at this moment to understand the story and not just the characters?

  2. Ramses ... I think the point is that once you have a handle on the individual characters it is a lot easier to absorb, learn and retain actual vocabulary.

  3. Great post, Greg. I did something like that a while back, as well. There's a breakdown of the percentage of Chinese you can understand based on how many characters you know on my blog.

    The 500 most frequently used words are also available as flash cards from Chinese in a Flash. Very nice. :)

    What did you think of, btw?

  4. Dave, I know that (it's quite obvious), but I want to know how much you understand by just knowing the characters.

  5. Thanks all for your comments. There's something comforting knowing I'm not alone on this journey!

    Ramses, your question is difficult to answer because (1) I *do* know more hanzi than the 500 I've learned through Heisig, and (2) I've learned a couple of hundred compound words through self-study based on the hanzi I know. So I *am* able to start forming a sense of what's going on in the articles (XiaoWangZi was easier, though) - but I'm not limited to *500* *individual* hanzi, so I can't answer your question the way you intended. Hope that makes sense.

    Dave, I agree with your "easier to absorb" comment. Words that I've struggled to remember in the past, now that I know the underlying hanzi, are so easy to remember - and I'm more easily connecting words together now too.

    Ryan, thanks for your link about percentage comprehension. Quite timely, really, because I'm researching something similar at the moment - with mixed sources. Watch this space. isn't something I've tried yet. I really want to, but until I get through Heisig's first 1500, with 500+ compound words, I'm worried it'll be a distraction. Give me a couple of months ... :-)

  6. This is difficult for me, actually I have been reading 小王子, interesting that you picked that story, I came across a reference to it in a thread when searching about Hesig and was happy to find there was a Chinese translation as I don't know French and never read the English version. I have found I can read the text reasonably well and learn a lot more from it but it is not particularly easy and uses a lot of less common words like 正午 in place of more common ones like 中无 (this one I knew but some others are new to me) for noon and many more. In contrast a translation of Peter Pan allowed me to read the whole first two paragraphs without barely a dictionary reference, it appears to be easier, and 小王子 is considerably easier than the Harry Potter book I have which is easier than a Chinese novel I have which is much easier than the series of essays on Chinese Japanese relationships I have, 小王子 is about my level for usefulreading with lots of rapid learning at the moment.

    Based on your highlighting even a simple fragment like 给我画一只羊 is unreadable, assuming you had finished Heisig would the English only keywords allow you to understand this sentance? it should be easy it doesn't rely on compounds.

    That is a sentance I can read without thinking or translation in a glance, does Heisig alone give this. The crucial difference is that I could listen to and largely understand an audio reading of the same text.
    Even though I rate actual handwriting very low on my priorites I could handwrite this with ease.

    You are 'polluted' by actually already knowing a lot of Chinese already ;) to really be able to understand what Heisig brings to a complete beginner. in researching for my Heisig deconstructed post I came across some tragic examples for example one guy posting after completing book one that he couldn't understand simple sentances such as 他们的女儿很可爱。 His Heisig translation was a mangled mess even 他们 didn't make it to "their" and "can be loved" is not the same as cute. I think one of the responses went some thing like "duh what did you expect, now you have to learn Chinese".

    Crucially though I have found that even 'understanding' 90% is still insufficient, that remaining 10% or even 5% is often critical to understanding what is going on or even reversing the entire meaning of the sentance. Usually the remaining 90-95% by its very nature is common padding.

    This leaves the Heisig only reader stuck with very, very simple Chinese (in English) and some embarassing mis-translations even then.

    Some people who already have resonable Chinese seem to have used Heisig to advantage, John Pasden of Sinosplice fame comes to mind but he seems to have used it to help with the 'writing requirements' of the HSK test, hand writing seems to be common in these cases often for a test.

    Last point, Written Chinese uses a lot of phonetic transliterations for names and such like, characters that look like they have a meaning are being used just for their sound, learning how to pick up on these is important but they would be little Heisig landmines.

  7. Just read my last comment, don't want to appear negative, you know a good chunk of Chinese already and are a self-aware and analytical learner, although I wouldn't choose it I can clearly see where Heisig can be very useful to you. My reasons for posting so many Heisig related comments are simply that many people new to Chinese are being given a distorted idea of what Hesig offers (I am not including your experiment).

    The Heisig fanboys don't help because they just jump in with bits of Heisig help and encouragement and the new learner (however smart) is not yet in a position to see what exactly they will get from it.

    I don't believe in sugar coating, when I look for advice I like people to tell it like they see it, hopefully with reasoning. It is my responsibilty to decide whether I believe them or not. Personally I am never happy if I can't find conflicting views to help me decide, it makes my job of forming my opinion even harder :) Some people don't seem to like me dissing Heisig though.

  8. Chris, thanks for the compliment about being "polluted" by already knowing Chinese - I know exactly what you mean in this context :-)

    Let me state for the record (although I've already said it on Twitter and on comments to other blogs, and probably on my own blog) that I do NOT believe people should start learning with Heisig. I wrote a post a while back on how to learn chinese, based on my experiences of what did & didn't work over the last 2-3 years. And I have no intention of recommending Heisig until people are at least a good "Elementary" (on the ChinesePod scale).

    You asked about: 给我画一只羊
    I guess a pure-Heisig approach would be "give me painting one only sheep" - which would be close. Heisig makes no mention of measure words (or so far, anyway) - so a Heisig approach would lead readers to think "only" was an important aspect.

    People are always looking for a magic pill - something that would allow them to do something much easier than otherwise would be possible. Heisig *is* a magic pill - the problem is it's a magic pill for learning to read & understand Chinese. It is NOT (and I'll repeat that: NOT) a magic pill for learning Chinese.

    I appreciate your input - and am pleased to say I wasn't feeling defensive while reading it, so I guess that means you weren't as negative as you thought! :-)

    Thank again for your thoughts.

  9. glad to see I wasn't making you feel defensive :) your posts make for interesting reading, I wish there had been more blogs like this three years ago, because along with all the commentary they would have helped me make better choices.

    Unfortunately back then mostly it was people in full time education and/or actually living/lived in China dominating the blogs and forums. These people had valuable insights and information but some things are just not the same and have to be done differenty if you are a self-learner learning in your own country.

    The more of us that chip in in various ways the better.

  10. Hey Greg! I haven't had time to check out the whole BBC article yet but it's amazing how you can read so much just through Heisig! I'm totally buying the book with the Amazon link you posted :)

    As for the Tintin story, it surprised me that you didn't have all of the characters recognized :o I knew all of those, so I think it shows how Heisig works differently compared to in school teaching (the NiHao books).

    Does Heisig have more than one Simplified Chinese book? I'd gladly buy them all ASAP :D

    I'm impressed with your Chinese Greg! Keep going! :)


  11. Agreed Chris - I'm finding the blog/twitter network very useful, and I always appreciate your well-thought out input.

    Kara, so far there is ony one simplified book - for the first 1500 characters. Plenty of time to get book 2, once it's published and once we've mastered the first. Thanks for your encouragement - I'm off to read some more Tintin :-)

  12. I see a lot of negative comments about Heisig. Like that it's useless for beginners, you shouldn't learn hanzi right away, keyword based learning sucks, etc. Do you guys know Khatzumoto of He's fluent in Japanese, both spoken and written and he has proved it. He knows a shitload of kanji (and hanzi, as he's currently learning Cantonese) and he rocks at his languages.

    So I don't see the negative stuff people are writing about this method. It clearly works. Heisig isn't claiming you can read Mandarin after finishing his book; you recognize and can write them after it. There's still a long way to go.

    It's like learning Russian. You can learn the Cyrillic alphabet and its sounds, but can you read Russian after it? NO! You need massive input in the form of audio, reading (sentences, books), it's exactly the same with Mandarin and hanzi.

  13. Ramses, I typed a response and lost it all, so trying again. Sigh.

    I think the problem some people have with Heisig is that they see complete beginners doing a Heisig-only approach, which means that even after 6 months and 1500 hanzi later, these people would still not even be able to have a simple "hello how are you" conversation like:
    Ni hao
    Ni hao ma?
    Wo hen hao, ni ne?
    Wo ye hen hao.

    I've previously stated that people should choose a method which matches their goals and their learning preferences. If Heisig plus an AJATT approach works for you, that's fantastic - don't let anyone derail you.

    If I can make one suggestion though ... in my post on how to learn Mandarin, I give a link to a free 3 hour "Teach Yourself Series" audio program - which takes you to basic conversational level in 10 lessons.

    If you're studying hard, particularly if you're following AJATT, then at least by the time you have learned 1500 hanzi and listened to x hundred hours of TV & music, you will at least be able to hold a few basis conversations from this series. In my experience, this gives much more context to the characters I am learning through Heisig.

    Good luck - let's both keep providing feedback as we progress.


    PS. I can't seem to access blogger from here, so apologies if I confuse you by posting from another ID.

  14. @ramses I have been reading a lot of stuff at Khazumoto's site, I don't dispute his progress and abilities whatsoever, however he uses a lot of hype and marketing techniques (ask anyone trained in this area to look over what he writes if you don't believe me).

    Does your situation exactly match his? Do you have a simliar backround and abilities? Don't you think he may have made mistakes and succeeded in spite of this?

    We should take his experiances and adapt them to our own circumstances and experiances, either that or I should find out what colour underwear he wears and wear the same (it might help me master Chinese faster).

    Beware of people who are afraid of opposing views it usually indicates an inbalance somewhere. If the case is clear cut then the opposing views can be ignored (the earth is flat I tell you), if not that clear cut then it is healthy to have both sides. Personally I don't like it when I see marketing and hype overriding rational debate.

  15. 500 characters are a little step, but you can read now stories like the ones from the "Chinese Breeze Graded Reader series":

  16. Thanks for the tip CL. I've looked at the link and they certainly looked matched to to a Heisig500 level. Will take a slower look this weekend - although it's a pity the books aren't available as a PDF download, rather than having to be posted to me.


  17. I am really impressed with that Greg, but also highlights realise how far I have to go with this all. I just printed out the first 1500 (courtousey of Ramses post) and am a little overwhelmed.

    I have done a couple of Heisig lessons, but nothing too serious as I have been very busy. Great to see that level of progress though.

    I have been finding the twitter/blog networks very useful, and Rosetta Stone for basic vocab, mixed in with watching plenty of films and listening to lots of Mandarin Music just to get my ears familiar to hearing it regularly.

    Great to see your progress... How much did you already know previous to these 500?


  18. Charlie, I have been trying to work out what I knew before, but it's so difficult to work out. In terms of writing, probably a couple of dozen. In terms of reading, a few dozen more.

    Some hanzi are really common ... 你,我,中,是,的,要,etc. And if you only knew 10 or 20, then you'd still highlight a surprisingly large part of the page. (Doesn't mean you'd understand, though :-)

    This is where I get slightly philosophical ... from the beginning, I didn't have as a goal "I must be fluent in Chinese by xxx date". I just started learning, and carried on learning. I think with Chinese, we know it's a big task. And if I had looked too far ahead at what remained to be done, I might have found it intimidating. But I just focused on the next step each time, and this is where I have got to.

    The good news is that whether it takes you 3 months to get through those 1500 characters, or 3 years, you'll still be able to speak Chinese for most of your life!

    So just a suggestion, at 1 minute of 'visualisation' per character for the first 100, that's still less than two hours of concentrated work (plus a little bit of revision). Good luck.