New Year’s Resolutions…I make them, I break them. But this year will be different! I’m going to get more exercise and I’m going to focus on my own Chinese learning. I promise.
Ok, let’s be honest.
I’ll go to the gym in January and then get busy with schoolwork and…sigh. As for Chinese though, I’m making myself accountable to all of you. I’m joining Olle Linge’s ‘Sensible Hanzi Challenge’. If you haven’t heard of Olle, go and check out his fantastic blog Hacking Chinese. Olle is a blogging guru, he (unlike myself, sorry!) blogs very regularly about everything you should know about learning Chinese. His latest post is about how to remember how to write characters effectively. Before reading on, I recommend checking out the full article here.
A few things in his article piqued my interest and I thought I’d share them with you.
1. Rote learning is neither cool, nor does it really work (but your kids would have already told you that),
2. Spaced Repetition (SRS) is a lot better, but still not perfect,
3. Being honest to yourself about what you know and keeping up your study regime is the best, and of course the hardest, thing to do.
Rote learning is the way I learnt Chinese. I was encouraged to remember the characters for a weekly quiz by writing and rewriting them over and over and over again. BORING! It was also supremely frustrating when I (often) came across a character that just wouldn’t stick! Although my teachers had pointed out that Chinese had these things called ‘radicals’ (we learnt 人，日，月 etc), we were never taught them in a systematic way and as such, I never truly understood the concept. It wasn’t really until my study at university that I ‘discovered’ radicals and how to break characters down into their parts to better understand them. After 5+ years of studying Chinese, it blew my mind
Once at university, I had a lot more vocab to learn and even more to remember. I was finding it difficult to recall how to write even simple characters like 自己 and 地方. Things I’d learnt years earlier and used quite often in spoken language. As many people have also done, I tried to devise a way to practise these words. I kept all of my flashcards (all written down on little pieces of paper and organised into my textbook chapters) and went back through them weekly or monthly. But, I was still trying to memorise them. If I forgot a character or a tone, I simply repeated it until I ‘got it’. Again, I didn’t have much luck and I began to get slack with my revising. I wasn’t seeing the results and, well I was at Uni…there were coffees to be drunk and parties to attend!
This brings me to the third point and it’s this third point that really stands out for me, for two reasons. First of all, I know I learnt the wrong way when I began learning Chinese. I was always trying to memorise vocab by repetition and cramming for exams. Secondly, as I mentioned in the beginning, I am no good at keeping resolutions and developing good habits!!
Once I started thinking about how I learnt rather than how I wasn’t learning, I came across SRS software. Spaced repetition, while still repetition, brings those flashcards that you don’t know to the front and keeps testing you until you remember it. This certainly streamlined my flashcards (I started using Anki and threw all of my paper ones away), but it was still just a fancier way of rote learning. If I didn’t ‘get’ something, it just kept coming back. This brings me to Olle’s point of using SRS software effectively. If you fail a card, deal with it!
Dealing with Tricky Characters
If you fail a card, follow these steps (not necessarily in this order):
1. Look it up in a dictionary and using it in a sentence (Putting it in context is always going to help you remember how and when to use it. This is particularly helpful with characters that are very similar.)
2. Break it down into its parts and create a mnemonic (Mnemonics are very effective in engaging our visual memory. The more colourful, creative and visceral the story, the easier it is to remember. If you’ve already done this and it hasn’t worked, create a new mnemonic.)
3. Do a google image search of the word (again, associating images with difficult words also engages our visual memory and can be very powerful)
Coming back to my resolution, I am going to be employing these strategies to achieve my 2013 goals. In the short term, I plan to revise the 214 most common radicals. My longer term goal is to work on the 2000 most common characters. There, I’ve done it. I’ve made myself accountable – now you have to check back with me to make sure I’m keeping up with it! I plan to nail the 214 radicals by the end of January.
Go on, do it!