Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stoned Horses

When students learn to read & write Chinese characters, there are broadly two ways of doing it. The first is 'brute force' where you practise the strokes over & over again until you have internalised them, and the second is to use some method of visualisation which allows you to decompose the characters into parts - and piece them together again using imagary (which is much easier to remember that just pure strokes).

Although I used the Heisig method to learn 3000 characters (and I've blogged extensively on this - you can find the full collection here), note that what I'm writing below is about visualisation in general, and is not specific to the Heisig approach.

Take for example the character for 'numeral' - which is 码 (mǎ, also written 嗎 in the traditional system). You can see it's made up of 石 (stone) and 马 (horse). When I learned this character, I naturally had to create an image of why stone+horse=numeral. In this case, a flood of images came to mind, and I realised there were so many options.

So many examples!

It got me thinking of times I've spoken to people about visualisation methods, and they say it's so hard to create images. So in addition to the very popular article Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations, I decided to share here a range of images that I could use for this character.
  • I picture the Terracotta Army, but instead of rows and rows of soldiers, I picture rows and rows of stone horses. And of course, since this is a very valuable collection, I imagine each horse is numbered - as you often see in museums. I suppose you can use this & this to help you create the image yourself. Ultimately this is my preferred image for remembering that stone+horse=numeral. Your preferred image may be different, and that's OK.
  • Or I can see a horse doing maths. You know, with numerals. But horses can't write in books, so this horse has a few stones laid out on the ground before him, and he is moving them around, a little like someone might use an abacus, to do the calculations. 
  • I can also visualise a ten-pin bowling alley, but you won't find pins at this place - instead you will find 10 stone horses at the bottom of the bowling lane. Can you see as your ball hits them, they break from the impact - and your score (such a high number!) appears on the board above you.
  • Maybe there are horses running a race, but the track has lots of loose stones on the track, and each time a horse stumbles on the stone and falls, someone keeping score of 'lost' horses chalks up a higher numeral on the board.
  • How about a large piece of cardboard which is part of a colour-by-numbers approach. But with this one you don't paint according to the number, you place a stone of different colour on that number. And when it's done and you step back, you can see it's a horse!
  • Another possibility is to imagine cave paintings of horses scratched into the stone walls, but when you look more closely you notice that between the pictures of horses there are numbers - almost like the person was doing maths with horses as numerals
  • Alternatively, I can see a gateway with a stone horse head mounted on top (it looks a little like this) - there is someone sitting astride that head, and as people pass through the gateway, she updates the numerals in her notepad, since she's counting people who use this entrance. 

Choosing the best one

Let's be clear, the one that is best for me may not be the best for you - so don't simply choose the one that I have chosen, but recognise which one best matches the way your own thinking works.

(It is possible to come up with really bad images, which I've written about here, but none of the above ones fails the tests in that article.)

After having done 3000 characters this way, I know instinctively how my brain works. And if you repeatedly hypnotised me to forget this character, and kept asking me to (re)create an image, it would probably be the first one, again & again. This is important, because in future when you're facing the character in The Real World © you will indeed need to see 码 then think stone+horse, and if your mind comes up with a different image, then you're never going to be able to work out what character you're looking at!)


Did this help? Is it useful to be reminded that there really are so many (good) ways of creating images, that we shouldn't feel helpless, and we shouldn't forgive ourselves for feeling we can only come up with poor images?

So while you're in a visualisation mood, challenge yourself … Pick one or two of the characters below and create a few images that actually work. For fun.

  • 敌: tongue+taskmaster = enemy
  • 妄: perish+woman = absurd
  • 坏: earth+NO = bad
  • 如: woman+mouth = if

Leave a comment if you have any clever thoughts. Or if you have any dumb thoughts, that's OK too.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Heisig Book 2 - now finished! (this is how)

Today I completed the 1500 characters of Heisig & Richardson's Book 2. (Actually there are 1519 characters in this book, including the bonus ones.) This takes me to a total of 3019, which is about as far as I plan to go.

I finished Book 1 about four years ago, and was happy for quite some time not to bother with Book 2. Then about 1.5 years ago, I tried starting Book 2, but failed. By the start of 2013, I had decided I would begin again - but the difference that time was that although I managed Book 1 in just over 100 days, my decision in January was that I would take my time, and focus on finishing the book by the end of the year.

And that's what I did - I stuck with the slow-and-steady approach, and completed the book in 11.5 months. And it feels great! (you should try it one day)

Although there is something to be said for throwing yourself at it - like I did with Book 1 - it does take a bigger time commitment and certainly more focus. My first attempt to begin Book 2 was too intense, and that's why I failed. The second time I was ready to focus on just 5 new characters a day - and that succeeded perfectly.

There is no Book 3 - and to be fair, even if there were, I think I would be focusing on actually reading books now, rather than memorising new characters. So for 2014 my focus will be books and not textbooks.

It's not even noon here in HK right now, so perhaps a little early to go out and drink champagne. But I will do that this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ridiculously flexible words

When you start learning Chinese, you figure out relatively quickly how the language puts characters together to make words.

Since 好 (hǎo) means 'good', it makes sense that 友 is a 'close friend', 看 is 'good looking', 处 is an 'advantage', 心 is 'kind hearted', and so on.

Deep down, I want Chinese to be like this all the time: consistent, and easy to learn. Unfortunately, life isn't fair. And Chinese isn't like this.

The one character, more than any others I have found, that seems to represent so many different things, is the character 节 / 節 (usually pronounced jié). The MDBG dictionary provides this selection of possible meanings: "festival / holiday / node / joint / section / segment / part / to economize / to save / to abridge / moral integrity / classifier for segments, e.g. lessons, train wagons, biblical verses".

I was seeing this character appearing in so many (very different) words, which is what got me thinking,  including: 节目 (jié​mù) = program;  春节 (Chūn​jié) = Spring Festival (but it also applies to most festivals including Christmas & Valentines Day);  章节 (zhāng​jié) = chapter;  细节 (xì​jié) = details;  空气调节 (kōng​qì​tiáo​jié) = aircon;  etc.

Not sure about you, but I find this confusing!

In an attempt to gain control of this character, with Judy's help, I came up with the following sentence to put in my flashcard pack.

     On Thanksgiving, frugal people might buy energy-saving lightbulbs in order to save money
     zài Gǎn'ēnjié, jiéjiǎn de rén kěnéng mǎi jiénéng de dēngpào lái jiéshěng jīnqián

(And if you remember, it really does help to create 'special' sentences for you flashcard pack, as I've written about here: The clever butcher uses a cleaver)

What about you? Do you have a character in mind that has many meanings? If so, please leave a comment below (anonymous notes are welcome too!).