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 ...


  1. Fantastic work. Congratulations!

  2. Great job Greg! I'll be following you soon ;) Have you learned the Pinyin for these words yet or no? You should so you can read those signs completely!

    I'm happy for you! :D


  3. Good work ! I've decided to start using Heisig after reading your blog a week ago. I'm already at 250 characters, at so far the method is working great.

  4. Adam, Kara & Wilco - thanks for your kind words. And Wilco, you're only 250 now, but when you get to 1500 you'll feel just as thrilled as me! :-)

  5. 太棒了,恭喜你如期完成任务!

    Congratulations on your accomplishment in Chinese learning. I recall that last time we talked you indicated that you wanted to finished the rest of book 1 before the end of the year, and now here you are, mission completed.

    I would like to point out a few things that you probably are too shy to include in your how-I-memorized-1500-Chinese-Character analysis.

    You are clever in learning new things. I had a little glimpse of how logical you are, and I witnessed how you used your logic in comprehending characters in a reasonable and meaningful way, be it Heisig method or others. It is no easy job for a person to figure out what compound words mean with the mere knowledge of the separate characters, but you surprised me many times by your logical guessing.

    You made good learning plan and held on to it. I remember you told me that when you work you work hard, and when you play you play hard. I think I have witnessed that you did what you said. On average, you learned 20 simplified Chinese characters per day (I am quoting from your calculation method through which October got deducted), which is not non-difficult as it sounds. It might be even more difficult for a person who has as diversified interests as yours!

    You are always aware of where you are and you have kept your pace. From my observation, you are not in a hurry to swallow all the characters, but you take time to absorb/revise them to make sure you've really had a steady grasp on them.

    In a nutshell, I am really happy for your steady progress, Greg. Looking forward to your long article when you return to UK!

    Enjoy India and take care:-)


  6. Hey Qing, how's Beijing treating you?

    I know what you mean about the compound words. In the beginning, I couldn't make sense of them, and my guesses were way off. But the more words I saw, the more a got a *feel* for how they were put together.

    For example, 'upstairs' is 楼上 (lóu ​shàng), ​whereas 'to go up[stairs]' is 上楼 (shàng ​lóu). Similarly for 'surfing the net' as 上网 (shàng ​wǎng), and ​网上. Note which is the verb, and which is a 'place'.

    Practise. Practise. Practise.

  7. Congratulations Greg! What a huge achievement, kudos to you!

    Keep up the good work! :)

  8. Thanks Luke - I continue to be pleased, even a week later! I think tonight I'll reward myself with some simple Chinese comic reading before bedtime.

  9. Hey Greg,
    Congrats on a wonderful achievement!!
    I just have one request...a while ago, you posted a page with highlighted hanzi that you knew (I think that, at the time, you knew 500 hanzi). Do you think you can do that again now that you know all the 1500 from Book 1? I just started with Heisig's Remembering Trad. Hanzi and I think it would be very encouraging to know where I can be in terms of literacy after only having learnt the 1500 words from Book 1. Thanks you and congrats again!!

  10. Hi "First"

    Actually, the post about those 500 hanzi was so popular than I intended to do it at 1000 and then again at 1500. But I was having so much fun with my progress I totally forgot at 1000. I do however, have it as my challenge for this holiday break to do the same.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Even without the new highlighted page, I can assure you that you have a lot to look forward to. My suggestion is that - if you aren't doing this already - make sure you are learning compound words too! (For example, you will learn in Heisig that 明=bright and 天=day/heaven, but you have to separately learn that 明天=tomorrow.)

    Good luck - and drop in every now and then and let me know how you're going.

  11. Greg,
    I wanted to congratulate you on this. I wrote you back in Nov. but for various reasons I was not able to start my learning. However, I started on Jan. 1st. I've got the book and a skritter account. I sit on the sofa and read through a few of the stories/characters and then go in a practice them on the computer.

    I've finally found a system that works for me. Thank you Greg!


  12. Hi Greg!

    I too finished Heisig's RSH last week.

    I also bought Remembering Traditional Hanzi and compiled an Excel spreadsheet comparing traditional vs simplified.

    If you would like to take a look you may download the zipped file here:

    Traditional characters different from the simplified form are highlighted. The file also contains a ANKI database with the about 500 traditional characters different from the simplified form.

    Hope it may be useful to someone. Please let me know if you have any suggestion.

    Greetings from Italy,


  13. James: Thanks for letting me know. It's great that you've found something that works.

    I know exactly what you mean - at once stage I thought I was impressive for trying to learn 1-3 new characters a day (but only managing one every 3 days :-) Then I find Heisig and I was easily doing 20+ a day, and I was looking forward to each new set!

    Let us know as you progress. When you've hit 500, drop me a comment on the article where I wrote about me reaching 500. Good luck!

    Gilberto: Well done on finishing Heisig - and I'm glad you had the energy to create spreadsheets of the characters.

    Thanks for letting us know about the attachment. I have downloaded it, and look forward to working through it this coming weekend.