Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reasonable beavers co-operate

The meeting

I was in a meeting in Taipei recently which was being run in Mandarin. Although I was able to follow the general flow of the discussion, the extensive use of technical terms meant I was really missing the meaty bits.

There was one word which, during part of the debate, kept coming up: "hé li" (although I couldn't quite get the tone on the second character, given the pace of debate).

Back at the office, I looked it up in my usual MDBG dictionary, and saw a few words that matched 'heli', being:

   合理    hé​lǐ​    rational / reasonable / fair
   河狸    hé​lí​    beaver
   合力    hé​lì​    cooperate

These words

These are all good words, I decided, and I didn't want to forget them. So I copied them into my flashcard pack. However, rather than copying them as separate words, I thought their similarity made them easier to learn as a pack (in the usual WordPack logic), like this:

   合理 / 河狸 / 合力
   hé​lǐ / hé​lí / hé​lì​
   reasonable / beaver / co-operate

(And amusingly, each time one of these words come up, I immediately hear the sentence "reasonable beavers co-operate" in my head. Now I'll never forget!)

This article

I wrote this short article, not specifically to teach you these three words (although it would be a pity if you didn't take the time to learn them quickly now), but to challenge your thinking ...

When you come across a new word, what thoughts go through your mind?
  • [no thoughts]
  • Oh, that's a new word (... now what's for lunch?)
  • I will come back and memorise it later
  • I'll quickly memorise it now
  • Do I know any synonyms for that word?
  • What other words sound the same?
  • Let me try make a sentence with that word
  • I will use that word at least once today (and also once tomorrow (and also once next week (and also ...)))
Just to be clear, I don't have the time to do this with every new word I discover, but I do it often enough that I definitely have a materially larger vocab than I would otherwise if I didn't practise active learning.

The Truth

How active a learner are you?


  1. Right now a very active learner. But this waxes and wanes, depending on my mood (I also study Spanish and French). So to answer your questions. First thing I think is "Is this a word I want to bother learning?" If not, I try to make a mental note to at least be able to understand it if I bump into it again. Most words go into the 'want to learn' category and in that case I immediately stick them into my Skritter stack. I date my stacks and when they get to 45 I create a new one. Then I go back and memorize the words when I can (like while watching TV even). Right now I am trying to memorize 45 a week. Some words I get from lessons I am doing on Chinesepod, others from news articles I read on PopupChinese newsfeed, and some I just bump into, like just now 'beaver', which I didn't know.

    So what flashcard system do you use?

  2. How come I cannot comment on your site using my wordpress account? I had to use my outdated Blogger account. Anybody else having this problem on this site? Says something like Open ID not valid.

  3. Greg, I'm going to use this post in my Spanish classes next week. My students are training themselves to become experts in non-active listening. When I ask them why they can't remember words I use with them ALL THE TIME they look at me like I'm high.

  4. Firstly, I'm going to try *again* to comment on my own blog. I've been unable to for a while, I'm now trying a different browser and a non-HK IP address ...

  5. OK, it looks like I can now comment on my own blog again. Sorry if I look like I've been unresponsive. Anyway ...

    Hi Chit-Chat Rachel. Actually you make a good point about deciding whether the word is likely to be useful. I wrote about that nearly 2 years ago in an article Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother.

    I use the Anki flashcards system, adding words & sentences along the way. I don't use any redefined packs of cards.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. JP, how come your students know what you look like when you're high??? :-)

  7. See also 河里 (hé ​lǐ ) - in the river,贺礼 (hè lǐ )- gifts,鹤立(hè lì) -[as in 鹤立鸡群 - outstanding]. Hope this is useful =)

  8. Hi 'Yes', great additions. I was confused by 贺礼 because I was pretty sure that didn't appear when I looked it up on MDBG. (I did find it in the queue of submitted words, though, still waiting.) But it did appear on Nciku, so I've added it to that one flashcard. Thanks!