Posts Tagged ‘Learning Mandarin’

How to sentence mine and SRS for Mandarin? That is the question

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , ,

Sentence Mining and SRC overload
Part of my goal with this blog was to share my experiences in learning Mandarin, my frustrations, my mistakes, my ambitions, my joys and my failures. I am writing from the perspective of a student who has very little time to study Mandarin and who has only ever studied Mandarin by herself.

This leads me to sharing some of the frustrations I’ve had with doing sentence mining. I know there is a huge number of articles on the subject out there and I’ve read a few of them (at least the ones that perform well in Google search) but somehow none of it really sinks in unless you try it yourself.

For some background on how I am building my own personal deck using Anki:

  • I pick sentences from materials (my grammar book if I feel like typing – least preferred option), podcasts materials, online dictionaries or Twitter (e.g. @chinesesentence or @allaboutchinese) and add them to my Anki deck.
  • I save them somewhere (Notes on iPhone) or email them to myself and enter them in the desktop version once a week or when I get to it.

I’ve been feeling rather frustrated at times with this whole exercise, at which point I stopped for a week and then resumed. It sounds like a pretty normal thing to do, doesn’t it? Just like anything else in life, when you feel you get sick of something and you need a break, you stop and resume when your batteries have been recharged. However this time around, I vented my frustration to a friend and fellow learner (Greg from who is a great student of sentence mining and an Anki user himself) and he told me to “STOP” for a while else I’d poison this aspect of learning Chinese for myself.

Well the time-out gave me an opportunity to assess what I have been doing and why I was getting so frustrated. I share some of my findings with you:

Using a deck with mistakes

I downloaded a deck called ’20000 Mandarin HSK sentences v2′ but had to double check the tones for so many of the sentences and even worse than that, had to check up on the correct English meaning for those sentences.

For example: The deck told me this sentence ‘他喜欢吹牛’ (tā xǐ huan chuī niú) means ‘he likes to throw the bull’ which really means ‘he likes to brag’. Without trying and even initially realising that it was wrong, I’ve kind of memorised both these sentences cause I had to find out what the correct translation was.

Awesome – I took valuable study time and learned another (incorrect) English sentence I shouldn’t have learned – one which I’ll never use. (No one I know (except Superman) is strong enough to throw a bull anyway…). Learning Mandarin is tricky enough. I don’t have time to sift through errors. I don’t have the patience to do so either. I’ve since quit this deck.

Using two or three or four decks of cards

I think having four decks is rather crazy but it is what I was doing for a while. I had one deck for Heisig revision going from English keyword to hanzi, another for hanzi to English keyword, a 20 000 sentences HSK deck I downloaded and my own sentence mining deck. I focused mainly on recognizing the chars I learned with Heisig and then the two other sentence mining decks (my own and the 20 000 HSK sentences one.)

Honestly in trying to keep the numbers down I ended up with so little time to do anything else, e.g. listening to podcasts. I now just run my own deck, and still do occasional revision on my two Heisig decks when I get time. I am not allowing pressure there anymore.

(Yes I have forgotten a few hanzi but funny enough I am actually better recalling characters going from English key word to hanzi than I am the other way around. Even though I have not been doing revision from English key word to hanzi. I think it has to do with guessing. I feel more pressured to recognise the hanzi quickly thus more easily make mistakes. But when presented with the English keyword I allow myself the time to come up with the hanzi.)

It felt like ARATT (all repetition all the time)

Yes, I underestimate myself in the beginning when I see a new card. And choose to show a card again in a day or three days or soon and basically then end up feeling that I’m endlessly repeating the same things. I really almost want to say to you: from the start choose the middle time option. You’ll see that same card soon enough. You’ll reduce the number of repetitions you do and you’ll get to use some of your precious time on other streams of learning Mandarin Chinese.

Besides you’ll see so many similar looking sentences where about 80% of the characters in a sentence is similar that you could even be more daring and choose the last option presented in your deck to show it as far away in the future as possible. This is even more true if you do some basic reading in addition to your sentence mining decks.

Questioning Sentence Mining and flashcards???

During this frustrated time, I did a bit of googling and found this website – with an article titled ‘Why I don’t use flashcards’. Wow what a discussion this post started. In a sense I totally totally agree with this guy. Really his whole point is that you should be aiming to use the language – not rely on a deck of cards to “teach” you the language.

That’s a good argument and I will be heeding (some of) his advice. I agree and believe that learning a language and using it is not the same. That’s why I find my mind so SLOW retrieving the correct words when I find myself in a situation where I need to speak Mandarin. HOWEVER – not all immersion opportunities are the same, and therefore not all “usage opportunities” are the same. Secondly, not everyone has plenty of time to learn Mandarin.

Having a phone with a deck ready to “teach” you a few characters or new vocab a day and helping you memorise phrases or giving limited reading practice is great – whichever way you look at it. It is also a very personal thing. Having and doing a few cards surrounded by noise with limited time available is fine to do but doing some proper reading with a dictionary would require a quiet place, coffee and my Pleco dictionary. (Everything has its time and place.) Well – the same Yearlyglot author wrote this post: “8 ways to learn a language without using flashcards”


I’m not giving up flash cards no – at least not yet – I want to substitute this entirely with books in the future you know. Now that I know MY mistakes, I’m simply going to keep things in perspective and not get carried away with it like I used to. I’d rather like to view this article as “8 ways to learn a language supplementing your flashcards habit.” At least for now… (and now’s definition is a little vague.).

Well that’ just me for today, I have no authority nor expertise in this thing but I have been able share with you my initial discoveries in how to “manage” a sentence mining and SRS habit.

Bottom line(s):

  • Maintain a reasonable number of decks (one – at most two).
  • Don’t devote all your studying time to flashcards. Choose a time to spend on this aspect (daily), specify that in your decks settings and try to stick to it for the most part. If you skip a day or two I truly believe it isn’t the end of the world. Your memory might surprise you for the better. Between ten and twenty minutes a day works well for me done in sessions of 10 minutes.
  • Limit the number of new cards shown every day per deck. If you feel it’s too much, lower the number until you feel you can handle more. Adjust it as you see fit. (I do about 15 new ones a day.)
  • Don’t underestimate yourself. Don’t be afraid to choose the last button when Anki asks you when next you should be shown the same card. Again – your memory might surprise you (for the better).
  • Keep your sentences short where possible. Break longer sentences into shorter ones where possible or change it into useful ones if you feel they are not. For example some of the sentences in my previous post was a bit too long.
  • Try and get immediate usage out of your deck – add phrases that you can start using.
  • If you get frustrated like me – “STOP” and think about what you’re doing. Do not go about it like a bat blindly. :)

Obsessive Compulsive Hijacking of Heisig Primitives?

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , ,

Hijacking primitives – what’s that?

As I’m working my way through Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters – I find that I am STILL changing the meanings assigned to primitives in the Heisig book. This happens rather naturally and I can’t really help it. I am not doing this on purpose! I’m just doing it because I’m doing it and probably because I find it easier to do it rather than not.

If you’ve found your way over here because you’re interested in learning Hanzi then welcome :) and excuse me for getting straight into it. You can read more about my experiences with Heisig here. I can also point you in the direction of a free PDF that will let you try out the Heisig method on the first 100 characters listed in the above mentioned book.

This method allows you to memorize hanzi with visual or rather imaginative mnemonics. It’s a good method for learning hanzi – in fact it’s great – great fun at the best of times, but may have you scratching your head at the worst. It’s a method that requires creative stories, imagination and commitment, but the experience overall is one I regard as a very rewarding one and I am so glad that I came across this method first on

Now – when, how and why am I changing primitives?

Well – this normally happens right after I’ve learned a character and then learn the primitive meaning for that character or if I have a glance at the next two characters that follow in the book that would be using that very same primitive.

As mentioned before in some previous posts about Heisig – sometimes (maybe most of the times) I just feel that my visuals need to work for me – that I can relate to it – so if something else pops into my head that feels more natural - I just go with it.

Yes and I do realise that I have to adjust primitives for every character going forward. (And if you anticipate doing Heisig I don’t necessarily advocate doing this.) I’ve been doing it so frequently however that I thought I could share a bit more about this in one more post.

Simplifying what Heisig presents:

1210 青 qīng – Blue or Green
This is the character that describe “nature’s colours” and can refer to blue or green. (In fact as an aside, this character makes me think of an interesting post on Niel’s blog / about the usages of this character).

Heisig assigns this character, the primitive meaning of a telescope which is all grown up or rather ‘stretched out as far as it can go’ (top part of the character) and then incorporates some gazing at the moon bits with some references to cheese etc. It is a great creative idea but to me it was simply easier to give it a primitive meaning of blue cheese or rather blue (green) cheese. Whether you love or detest blue cheese, you have to admit that even though it’s called blue cheese, it’s really rather greenish. So that sorts me for a primitive.

To remember it as a character – I think of blue or green (cheese) as being someting enjoyed by grown up (mature) flesh (adults or a mature palate) or or you can go with the concept that blue / green cheese is a mature (grown up) edible food best enjoyed by moonlight. (With red wine off course.) (FYI, 月 yuè is sometimes given the primitive meaning of ‘flesh’ in Heisig and would be the bottom part of the character 青).

So how does it work out for the characters I’ve been using it in. Well let’s see:
1211 精 Refined
For this char you have rice and blue (green) cheese: Think of a society as becoming “refined” when it’s moved from basic staples such as rice to the more refined delicacies offered in the “modern” culinary world e.g. blue cheese.
1212 请 Invite
I think of the wordy request I receive to attend a fancy la-di-da blue (green) cheese evening. (Hopefully I get some wine too.) If it helps – imagine some blue cheese smudges on the invitation card you’ve received. Nice ;)

1213 情 Feelings
I love this one. A bit too abstract to get across really but ‘ll try and hope that you can see my thinking here (it makes total sense to me). Feelings overcomplicate things in life. Feelings = that state of mind (radical on left) where things become like blue (green) cheese – all complicated and messy and refined and sensitive and emotional. Sometimes feelings = the stuff you just don’t want to deal with. It helps if you imagine really bad, completely rotten blue (green) cheese – the stuff you don’t want to touch or deal with then draw the analogy to feelings that hurt! Have I lost you?

Personal images work well:

1153 良 High-quality
This character has the key-word ‘high-quality’ assigned to it and is assigned the primitive meaning of a saint’s halo by Heisig. I changed this primitive meaning to a silver teapot – one that is made of some high-quality material like silver or silver-like material e.g. pewter. (It helps that my mom actually has such a lovely peculiar teapot in her kitchen cupboards and that the shape of the character reminds me of my mom’s teapot).

1154 浪 Breakers (as in waves that crest or break into foam)
Sometimes my visuals require me to do dream up some Salvador Dali-like abstract concepts in my head. This image would be one of those. I imagine a larger version of my mom’s teapot hovering mid-air on a beach – it pours tea into the ocean – but with breakers as is suggested in the keyword. It’s not the first time I’ve had to use such very abstract visuals and inspiration for these ones – I often draw from Salvador Dali’s paintings. I can’t say that I’m a fan of his work but his paintings’ concepts certainly do come in handy for Heisig visualisations. Interestingly, I’m not the only person who draws images from art for Heisig studies. See Using Modern Art to Learn Chinese by Greg from Mandarin Segments.

1155 娘 Mom:
A woman that has a high-quality teapot – for me this doesn’t need any more explanation now does it? (Since this is very personal to me, I am less likely to forget the images that use my mom’s teapot.)

Do you always need the primitives? (Sometimes the keyword for the character is enough).

1162 平 Even
When this character appears as a primitive Heisig suggests a water lily. I did think of using this primitive – kind of imagining a painting Renoir or Van Gogh style with lillies but actually found the chars that follow so easy if you just use the keyword that I ended up dropping the water lilly primitive completely.
Examples would be 1163 评 Evaluate (words that give an even / balanced perspective on something) and 1164 坪 Level ground (dirt that is evenly distributed so that the surface is flat). For these I use the concept or logic presented by the characters rather than bothering with imagination and creative concepts.

Why create more brain work?

1177 脑 Brain
The primitive used on the right is someone called Fagan. It’s been years since I read any Charles Dickens’ novels. So my reaction was – Fagan who? Complete amnesia in this instance and I couldn’t be bothered to think too hard about Fagan – so Fagan became a pimp instead. Easy.

I don’t really want to explain too much about this one cause my images are likely to offend someone – most likely all the pimps out there that may be learning Mandarin. :) Let’s just say that watching CSI has been useful and that the part of the human anatomy (flesh) Fagan the pimp is least interested in is definitely the brain. So I’d rather just stop here. I promise though that my pimp (image) is working well for me. (My penguin is still working well too. )

Not paying attention, am I?

1062 荫 and 1060 Shady 阳 that uses the pinnacle primitive: I’d be interested to know what visual or concept you used for pinnacle?

Heisig makes a suggestion of using the Athenian acropolis – which is a nice good solid image. Unfortunately I discovered this image too late – actually I only did so today when I opened my Heisig book again and looked at this primitive again. Dammit!

To be honest I didn’t really *read* Heisig’s description or suggestion cause I got so focused on getting a visual for ‘pinnacle’ when I first encountered the word ‘pinnacle’ that I skipped the paragraph that Heisig provided. I thus ended up using Great Pyramids of Giza – so plenty of pharaoh and Egyptian images for all characters that use this primitive. (Most of my visuals involve a Pharaoh who looks like the main singer from Right Said Fred which is kind of amusing.) If I had read Heisig’s description I might have gone with the Athenian acropolis instead – on second thought this may have been easier than my image. Apologies Heisig – short attention span me. That opportunity is now lost to me and it’s my loss.

Now again – what image did you use for ‘pinnacle’?

Some head scratching

On another note entirely. I can identify the chapter that has been most difficult for me (thus far). Lesson 36 stands out for me – it’s the lesson with lots of seals and stamps images. I had to revisit / restudy this chapter as my images were not clearly defined the first time around.

I ended up changing the postage stamp primitive to a red ink ‘APPROVED’ stamp. Chop remained an Oriental stamp. Sealing wax remained as per Heisig and the same for staples. Even so this chapter has been a bit challenging for me. In the end it was just a matter of getting to grips with all of these related images that involved lots of ‘stamping’ and ‘sealing’ actions.

Some final thoughts

It’s not that Heisig’s primitives meanings aren’t good – most of them are great but my thinking is that this whole process of studying hanzi with Heisig is a very personal approach – it involves using your own mind, drawing from your own experiences and life, from the library of images you have inside YOUR head. So normally I just go with the flow – as in whatever flows into my head as I’m working my way through the book. That way I enjoy it more rather than trying to force myself to come up with images that I think won’t work for me.

What are your thoughts?

Have you changed much, any or all of the primitive meanings yourself? If you changed any or some of them which ones were they?

If you think about it changing primitive concepts is actually quite an eventful decision considering it impacts many hanzi you’ve yet to study down the line.

So if you have done similar things in your studies – please please share with me :D – I would actually LOVE to know !!!

Heisig: It’s going to get worse before it gets better…

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , , , ,
I'm coining the term 'Heisig Dip' ok?

It’s been a while since I said anything about my progress working through Heisig’s & Richardson’s book trying to get a 1500 characters stored in my memory.

I’m not one for inspirational, motivational books but of course one can always make an exception right? So around September of last year when someone talked me into reading ‘The Dip’ a short book by Seth Godin – I agreed – probably because the book is about the size of a lady’s purse and guaranteed to be a quick read.

There are some key messages this book gives, and you can take from it what applies to your life or like me may not have taken that much from it at all. To be honest I felt quite confused after I had read it. :)

The last few days however, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Seth’s little book. What you can take from the book is this – that “Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point-really hard, and not much fun at all. “ And so meet “the Dip”.

How does this apply to Heisig? Well – once upon a time, Heisig was a new adventure too and quite unexpectedly, I did experience “the dip”, something I only thought of or realised a few days ago. The dip for me was a low point in January of this year and I basically had to put Heisig aside for a bit. I must have been over the 1000 mark then. As much as I didn’t want to “cool things with Heisig”, I focused on listening instead for that month. I did this even though I knewthere would be a great likelihood I would not be speaking much Mandarin in Singapore.

I quote some more bits from The Dip: “Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt-until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons. In fact, winners seek out the Dip. They realize that the bigger the barrier, the bigger the reward for getting past it.” I did say the book could leave you confused.

Well. I didn’t quit (not that it was ever an option) and I can safely say, I am past the dip. I am currently at 1293 characters and have just 207 to go.

I’m basically writing this post to say to you – if you have started Heisig or another book that uses a similar technique you will likely start off and find yourself enthralled in a Heisig “love affair” after a 100 characters. 真的.

You’ll be ambitious and that’s great – you should be! The first 500 characters will or may be a breeze. However – you might find the experience a bit lacklustre after a while when you’re a good few hundred in – and if it’s Heisig you’re doing then maybe you’ll also feel challenged around the 750 mark or so. ( I suspect this may be quite normal. Either that or I need to face the fact that I’m just a bad Heisig student.)

To be precise – these are some of the things that left me frustrated with myself after I reached the 750 mark.

  • I became much more aware of my own shortcomings – e.g. my creative ability to come up with creative, fun stories to help remember characters. I of course felt very frustrated with myself as I’ve always prided myself on having a good vivid imagination. I have that yes but you need that and a whole lot creative little stories and then some more. My advice: just keep at it – try a story – if it doesn’t work then go back and tweak it again till it works for you. Don’t force it too much and don’t be to much of a perfectionist. Move on if you want to progress and go back later to those chars that are giving you headaches.
  • My lack of a routine in studying – (I’m still struggling with this one… oh well…).
  • Skipping (near) daily Anki revisions – not that much of a hassle anymore. (I have had to balance this with time for studying new characters. Don’t add too many new chapters if you can’t handle it. Sometimes, you’ll just have to though. Unless you’re a better student than me and can study a little bit every day rather than a lot here and there.)
  • My natural instinct is always to value accuracy over speed. I still wanted to progress faster in order to be able to focus more time on other activities e.g. listening skills. So I experienced yet more frustrated feelings at times… I decided to focus on my own advice in bullet point 1.

You may or may not share my experiences and I’d be interested to know if you too had a little dip, a huge dip or nothing at all in your experiences of attempting a similar “project”.

I think the characters 700 – 1100 was probably the most difficult stretch of the book for me. I anticipate the next 200 to be a breeze again. It’s probably the thought of looking back and seeing how far I’ve come that leaves me happy with this achievement. I realize that completing the Heisig book is such a small achievement in the bigger scheme of Mandarin things…

Even so, I so look forward to the next 207!

Eat. Drink. Mandarin. in Singapore

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

At the beginning of February I spent a few days in Singapore and then moved on to South Africa. As I spent almost the entire month of February abroad, visiting family and friends, I didn’t really study much at all. I couldn’t exactly prioritise my Mandarin over spending time with family and friends I hadn’t seen for ages. (I progressed only with about a 100 characters in Heisig but maintained my Anki revision habit nearly every day during that month.)

At the end of the holiday I reflected that I felt like Julia Roberts’ character in Eat, Pray, Love but with the emphasis on Eat.

I had one or two expectations about my time in Singapore: I knew I was going to enjoy eating in Singapore. In my opinion – there is one place in the world where can you answer with “I’m going to eat!” if people ask you what you’re going to do. If Singapore is the place in question, you DO NOT have to feel like a glutton when you respond with an answer like that!

I knew I’d get limited opportunities too for speaking Mandarin in Singapore – most people have excellent English in 新加坡 (Xin1jia1po1). So to be honest, I spoke very little Mandarin during my trip. Then again – Singapore is very dear to me – so dear that I really just wanted to enjoy the place rather than get frustrated with the fact that I didn’t get enough opportunity to speak Mandarin. Could it be that I love Singapore more than I love Mandarin?

If you’re interested – please keep reading – I’m sharing with you some of my (few) Mandarin highlights:

Zoo directions:
One occasion required me to ask ask a couple for directions to get the 118 bus from Ang Mo Kio MRT to the zoo. They told me they couldn’t speak English and I proceeded to ask them for directions in Mandarin. It really was a very short conversation but believe me – I felt very happy that I was able to ask that in another language – in Mandarin.

Inpromptu dinner conversation:
I was having dinner at Food Republic and had a pretty decent but short Mandarin conversation with two other diners. (One of these diners were actually from mainland China’s Fujian province.)

Sourcing Mandarin materials:
No speaking for this one but I visited a huge Japanese book shop Kinokuniya at the Takashimaya shopping centre in Orchard Road (they’ve got a huge Mandarin selection).

I only bought one book – ‘Making out in Chinese’ by Ray Daniels and I have to say that this has got to be one of the coolest books I’ve ever bought. I’m referring to the content not the cover. When I read the book on the plane or took it out at coffee shops, I imagine I got a few funny looks – but oh well anything in the name of Mandarin fluency right? :) At least now I know how to say:

  • I’m mad as hell! (我火大了/ wo3 huo3 da4 le) and
  • You’ve gone too far (太过分了 / tai4 guo4 fen1 le!

Useful right?

There’s a lot more packed into this little book but out of politeness I’ve left out some of those learnings and leave it to you to discover if you’re keen. Very useful little book in my opinion and should be a quick read as it’s just 96 pages in total.

Asking directions
I had a discussion in the MRT with a Singaporean about learning Chinese and she also stopped me from getting off at the wrong MRT station. (I was on my way to Raffles Mall at City Hall but nearly got off at Raffles Place instead. I did get off at Raffles Place the next day when I had to go to Lau Pa Sat for another eating adventure.) The conversation with her was about 40% in Mandarin and 60% in English. She told me that Chinese students found Mandarin really hard and that it was one of the most difficult subjects they had to study in school. My answer was ‘Great – then there is hope for us laowai!’. (The way I see it you can either you can feel intimidated by conversations like that or look at it optimistically and tell yourself you can do it too.)

Conversations with hotel staff
I had a discussion with one Chinese lady at the hotel – it turned out that I was able to read more Mandarin than her – and I don’t read much at all! I guess this means – whichever way I want to look at it – the bits I do get to study helps and it does pay off.

Like I said I knew I could have done more – I could have seeked out conversations by listening to people, checking their name badges or used riskier tactics like guessing :) etc. but as I’ve hinted before – this time around, Mandarin was just one of the things on my agenda – Not at all my soul purpose for visiting Singapore.

Have you ever visited Singapore or any other Asian country or city where they speak great English? Any place where Mandarin takes the back seat? If so where and were you seeking out Mandarin conversations at all? Or like me – were you there because of your love for that place and what it has to offer and did it supersede seeking out speaking opportunities in Mandarin? :)

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sums up how I feel about Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore this language and I love every waking moment I can dedicate to it.

However – former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd one of my greatest Australian heroes – sums up – so perfectly – how I (often) feel about learning Chinese. Recently a video was leaked onto YouTube that shows him preparing a speech in Mandarin while he was still in government. (The video shows his reactions as he listens to several recording attempts of his speech). Excuse the profanities please. He’s clearly very frustrated with himself – no need to analyse this one too intensely. It’s kind of obvious.

As one could expect, Kevin Rudd was heavily criticized by the media but in my opinion what I see is a pretty mild (and very normal) frustrated reaction – that of a person actually required to use the language for diplomatic impact and influence. A bit of swearing yes… fair enough – but he’s just human after all and gets frustrated just like the rest of us. No one is perfect. Have a look and share your thoughts if you wish.

(PS: This is old news by now but in the last month there’s been ongoing tit-for-tat in the Australian labour party particularly involving the video below, so for more information to see how this video clip relates, read this article ‘Australia Power Struggle Erupts Onto YouTube‘. As I mentioned a pretty mild reaction in my mind but the media somehow always has a way of making things appear worse than they are.)

As you were perhaps not able to get a taste of Kevin Rudd’s humor nor Mandarin skills from the video above, I suggest you have a look at this second video if you’re interested:

Heaven and hell with Heisig – 800 hanzi update

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , ,

Just because I’ve been quiet doesn’t mean I have lost interest. And just because my title indicates such extreme opposites does not mean this post is going to discredit any previous opinions I had about Heisig – but I had to make you wonder, didn’t I? How else would I get you to read this post? ;)

I’m still going at it – slowly, chipping away at every hanzi in my Heisig & Richardson book until I *think* I’ve got it stored in my memory.

As I incrementally add more and more chapters to my deck and test myself on yet more hanzi, I find there’s increased opportunity to forget what I’ve learned as well as get terribly confused. It’s all very exciting. :D With 1500 characters in the book I’m just over half-way through…

I am still loving it or rather nearly as much as I did when I wrote my first post – Small Victories: my progress in learning simplified characters with Heisig…. Frankly speaking though – it is a bit more challenging now. I’ll admit that there’s perhaps been a tinge of boredom – but then again, I get bored with stuff easily. I need variety – it’s the spice of life.

I’ve mentioned too in a previous post that the characters I struggle with would justify a post of their own – so I present – for your pleasure – a list of the little buggers (at least just some of them) that make me depressed, angry or just slightly peeved depending on how rough my day’s been ;D

#502: Formerly /

Heisig’s story is simply no good for me and mine sucks even more – in fact I did not even dream up a story of my own. I kind of remember this one just because I remember it – there is absolutely no story aiding my memory. When I’m presented with the keyword ‘formerly’ this is what goes through my head “oh this character has that politician story that doesn’t work for me – it’s the character that looks like a little robot or insect” and then I just write it cause it’s in my visual memory anyway. Sorry Heisig no offense intended – I absolutely adore some of your other stories or visuals – in fact I love the pond one – brilliant… (508 / Water and scorpion primitives = a scorpion dripping venom drop by drop till there is a whole pond of the stuff. ) I love visuals like that – those are heavenly.

#511 Alone / and Lonely /

So easy to confuse these two, isn’t it? As I was writing this post I figured out what I needed to do to remember these two different characters.

Alone /
I kept Heisig’s story which is about a pack of wild dogs, starved, surrounding a poor insect – a sad image portraying what it feels like for the bug to be alone. I kind of think of one of those bug-eyed bugs in ‘A Bugs Life’ and the hyenas in ‘Lion King’ drooling over the bug (thanks Pixar and Disney), and then imagine how the little bug wishes that he wasn’t alone and that he had some help from another insect bug so that he could escape and see the light of another day.

Lonely /
So you’ve got your uncle and the house / roof primitive above him. Well I imagine an imaginary uncle (he’s sort odd looking and unattractive) and he’s sitting at his dinner table feeling really sorry for himself singing that annoying song ‘Lonely I’m so lonely’.
I imagine that by bringing this annoying song into the story I’ll now be able to distinguish between these two characters.

#379 Stop [zhǐ]

I have difficulty remembering the meaning of this character – but am sort of ok with remembering its primitive meaning of ‘footprint’ (even though I think this footprint looks like it should belong to E.T.) As I’m sitting here writing this post I’m actually thinking of a school patrol where one older (taller) kid is holding up the stop sign barrier while the smaller kid is waiting patiently behind the older kid before she is able to cross the street. So I guess I might go with this image because the character kind of suits this image. Not sure why I didn’t think of it before but it popped into my head again as I was writing about this. I think I should blog more about difficult hanzi… Am happy to hear your thoughts or ideas please though…

#384 Look forward to /

This one might not be much of a surprise really if you know I’ve had difficulties with #379 (stop). No real bright moments here from me on this one though – maybe I’ll get this one in future if I sort out 379 stop. Personally I can’t see myself looking forward to sitting under an umbrella and stopping everything I’m doing. I’d probably enjoy that kind of thing for 5 mins and then feel like I need to be doing something. Perhaps I’m too literal about it but seriously this character won’t stick in my mind.

#392 Transcend / and #393 Surpass /

What a confusing mess these two have been. I’ve kept Heisig’s stories in both instances – and my visuals are right and they are very different but these two characters have been confusing for these two reasons:

  • Both have the character for walk on the left.
  • The meaning of these two characters both have the idea or connotation of “crossing” a certain point. So I’ve struggled with these and I’ve had them confused plenty of times and I’ll probably do it again.
    Perhaps blogging about it will make the difference…#WishfulThinking

#598 Bring Up and #395 Topic

As in ‘bring up an idea or topic for discussion’ with the primitive for fingers and the character for ‘be’. Easy enough as I think of a conference where you raise your finger to get the speaker’s attention thereby bringing up a topic for discussion. The problem though is that I confuse this character with #395 Topic . Both these stories have the word ‘topic’ in them – hence the common ground for confusion.

#568 Aspiration

When I think of a soldier’s heart I think of bravery – a very brave heart. Obviously everyone would aspire to have a brave heart but not everyone would aspire to be a soldier and so the meaning is a little out of whack with my natural line of thinking and every time I see this character I get it wrong. It’s not even like I can tell myself that I had aspirations to be a GI Jane when I was a kid cause I didn’t. I’m probably not making sense. Oh what to do :)

I hope you enjoyed my list of difficult hanzi – if you have any tips or advice – do share – it’s always great to hear other people’s thoughts :) There is some comfort in knowing that other Mandarin learners have experienced similar issues and it’s only natural and expected that people would have similar experiences – but it’s great to be able to read about their experiences and see exactly which characters had been problematic too for them. If you’re interested, take a look at these two articles as they have been helpful to me too:

Lastly, are you studying hanzi too? Do you have any posts I should read or would find interesting and what are your experiences? What tools do you use and what methods are you using? I’d be keen to hear so please leave a comment. Don’t be shy. I’m not…

The ups and downs of tīng bù dǒng moments

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , ,

‘Tīng bù dǒng’ or 听不懂 – the most comforting phrase I know in Mandarin Chinese – yet the one I despise the most. The phrase I always revert to when my listening skills have failed me – failed me completely with the most basic of sentences.

This “safe” phrase – is one that has the power to crush a Mandarin conversation right there and then – that is IF you let your confidence and emotions control you rather than you being in control of the situation.

Earlier this week I went to the corner shop and I bought a few things. The lǎobǎn (老板) of this particular shop, knows that I can speak a little Chinese and as I was paying for the things I bought he said something in Mandarin to me. I wasn’t quite prepared for what he had to say and I realized that what he had said had been too fast – I had caught NONE of it. My automatic response as you can gather from the title of this post had been ‘tīng bù dǒng’. I asked the him to repeat what he had said and the second time I at least caught the whole sentence and focused on some of the key words but I still had NO context – I actually had no idea what he had said to me. Also, I had not initiated the conversation on this occasion so I guess this didn’t help the situation either.

At this point I switched to English, and asked him to explain what he had said in English. He gave me a brief but helpful run-down. It turned out he was saying ‘wǒ yī yuè huí guó.’ (我 一月回国 / I’ll return to my country in January). I mean honestly – seriously – it’s a five word sentence and it’s all stuff that I know – something I reckon I know how to say in my sleep. I am so embarrassed that I still find myself in a ‘ting bu dong’ boat like this with Mandarin stuff that I ALREADY KNOW – have known for quite a while. I’ve passed (written) exams on this???

The only difference and real improvement I’ve shown is I guess how I handled the situation – in the past I would normally have used the ‘ting bu dong’ phrase to END the conversation as I’d normally feel overwhelmed (like an idiot) and I would have wanted to get away from the akward situation.

Now I still have my ‘听不懂’ moments but my aim is to try and stay CALM – ask questions to understand (even if it is in English), ask them to repeat and I try not to feel like an idiot (at least not too much).

I stick around too to practice some Mandarin afterwards and after all of this the person I’m speaking would normally be very surprised that I can actually string a few words together to form a beautiful Mandarin sentence. I’ll admit – it’s at moments like these when I see them slightly surprised – that I feel just a teensy bit satisfied with myself.

Sometimes studying Mandarin feels like a lost case and other times it is the most rewarding journey ever. I honestly hate the fact that I get flustered and have to say ‘ting bu dong’ when my listening skills and ability is poor. Other times I revel in the fact that I learned one crucial important word to use in the language or the fact that I am still progressing in Heisig.

Ah Mandarin – what a roller-coaster ride you give me…

Useful vocab?

Roller coaster: 过山车 / guòshānchē
听不懂 / ‘Tīng bù dǒng’ (literally listen not understand)
lǎobǎn (老板) = boss; shopkeeper; proprietor

The concept of “fluency” in Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in China, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

Like every other Mandarin learner I dream of becoming a “fluent” Mandarin Chinese speaker, but this goal can seem pretty unattainable and daunting if not broken down into smaller achievable milestones. You can also dream as much as you want about it but if you have no plan of action and no regularity in your schedule, you won’t get or go anywhere. So this is where I’m currently at – defining what I need to do (at least roughly in the next 6 months) to get me one step closer to becoming “fluent” in Mandarin. If I’m going to want to get anywhere with Mandarin in the near future – I have to put some stakes in the ground (a couple at least). I have to define what my goals are so that I know what I’m aiming for.

Fluency….? Have a laugh :)

“Fluency”. Yes there is a hint of skepticism – hence the use of quote marks. I’ve often wondered about becoming fluent in Mandarin and I have had so many questions about it:

Is it even possible? Do you need to live in China for a number of years to become fluent? At what point would I know that I am fluent? Is fluency relative, defined by what you want to achieve with the language? It seems such a vague concept at times. When I struggle with the basics I often ask myself whether I am crazy studying this language… If I didn’t have this burning desire / passion in my heart I probably would have given up ages ago. (Oh wait, sorry – forgot – was out of action for nearly 2.5 years – life got in the way…) Well at least I rekindled the flame, didn’t I?

Some conversations I’ve had with native speakers have left some doubt in my mind too – comments like “Not even Chinese people are fluent in Mandarin”. Another reply that also left me rather puzzled about the validity of the concept of “fluency” in Mandarin was when I asked a native speaker why they said “shenme” so much in a conversation and whether they ever had difficulty understanding one another. To this question, I was answered with, “Oh us Chinese don’t always understand what’s going on”. Baffled I was. If statements like these don’t leave a Mandarin learner confused, then I can only present another inspiring example (smell the sarcasm): “200 Kilometres (from here) and we won’t be able to understand one another if we speak Mandarin – no point for foreigners study Mandarin! Better if Chinese people learn English!”.

When you think it can’t possibly get any darker and gloomy though :) , along comes a Mandarin angel, who puts back the silver lining around the (damned) dark cloud: “Don’t worry so much about the pronunciation and tones, even though China is so big, if you put the words together in a sentence, people will be able to understand you. Your pronunciation and tones don’t have to be perfect – just close.” This last statement which I had heard from a native speaker very recently, is certainly very encouraging especially when compared to the statements I had mentioned before. It also however confirms the idea that standard Putonghua is not something everyone conforms or even aspires to – but I’m pointing out the obvious – none of this is news. I suspect it’s known already and not just by me. In this case though this last example is rather comforting. I’ll be an optimist and keep with the last person’s words in my mind as I continue on my path.

Getting back to my point though – all of these questions aside – I reckon one should simply decide that negative comments will not be allowed to discourage. When feeling overwhelmed – the only thing to do is to be realistic and break the end-goal down into several achievable milestones and as for me, I have to define what I’m aiming for and how I’m going to achieve it, with the time (and other resources), I have available to dedicate to this beast. :)

I also need to define what I think fluency means to me. I reckon if I can close a business deal in Mandarin I’d consider myself fluent. For now though, I have rather more rudimentary obstacles to conquer.

Patience is a virtue.

A virtue I (for the most part) do not possess.

Heisig 500: Why penguins rule and Lucy Liu ain’t my taskmaster

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , ,

If you stumbled upon this page and you had no prior context you’d probably be wondering just what the heck this post is about. And if you’ve visited this blog before you’d be excused if you were still baffled by the title – but be baffled no more – I’VE JUST REACHED MY 500th HANZI using the Heisig method!! (Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters)! This calls for a dramatic crazy headline, doesn’t it?

So I realise that simply studying characters using Heisig isn’t enough to get one to read Mandarin Chinese – I know how the language works. However – after just 500 characters – I’m now able to recognise characters that would have made my eyes glaze over before.

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before...

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before... Do you want to enlighten me?

As an example: I walk past this building (above) every day and have only ever been able to recognise 2 characters in total before I started my Heisig adventure (天 and 家) – that is up until today…

This morning as I was passing the same building – I glanced up and realised that there were more characters familiar to me. In addition to 天 and 家, I recognised the 2nd, 5th and 7th characters and recognised primitives too in the remaining ones.

I stood still for a moment to appreciate what had happened. I probably looked slightly odd to people who passed me by and I’m sure to them it looked like I had never seen such a poster before in my life :)

To me – this is progress. True that I don’t have the vocab to decipher it all combined – and the definitions I’ve learned in Heisig may not even apply in this context. The English that could / or should guide me in this instance seems rather cryptic too, but I thought I’d share this with you anyway as I feel happy about it. :D

If you want to enlighten me – to make sense of the vocab / characters used – please do!

I’d also like to share with you some of my further observations in my study of the first 500 characters. The findings below relate to my “random” title. There is – believe it or not – some method to my madness :)

Finding #1: It may (or may not) take me roughly three characters before I decide on a visual image for a series of characters that use the same primitive(s).

The first visual that pops into my head (or the one I may prefer to use) isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to work for the characters that follow.

As an example I’ll use the ‘taskmaster’ primitive – the second character used in this character 攻.

Ever seen Charlie’s Angels with Lucy Liu clad in a leather-tight suit with a whip beating the hell out of tables etc? I’m afraid I might lose some readers completely if you check the video out now – but go on – and remember to come back and read the rest of the post ok?

  • Now if I have your attention again- you might ask – do I have the concepts of a dominatrix and taskmaster confused? Which I’ll answer with a question – which do you think is think is more visual – a traditional taskmaster or the image of Lucy Liu one I’ve just described?
  • The more visual you can get the image in your head the better the character sinks in – don’t ask me why this is so, as I’m not studying the workings of the mind and I never have – just trust me that it does…

HOWEVER in looking at the first couple of characters that used this primitive I realised this image wasn’t suitable at all and I instead reverted to an image of a strict unpleasant taskmaster – who you can’t forget for perhaps rather unpleasant reasons … and Heisig simply suggests you think of a taskmaster or taskmistress from your past whom “you will never forget”. The result: I’m at least 10 characters wiser – all of them using the taskmaster primitive even though it’s done with a more unpleasant image in mind – not the more exciting first choice with Lucy Liu.

Example: 攻 / attack
My story: the work (primitive on the left) of a taskmaster is to attack you – easily remembered if your visual is right.

Finding #2: Once again I AM NOT suggesting you follow my example – however you might consider changing the story for a primitive or character.

NOTE: Do this only if you must and do so at your own risk… Know the implications of that action as you move forward – you’ll have to change EVERY story that use that primitive and you’ll perhaps have to get a bit more or a lot more creative with your own stories – or not. This one explains why I’m having so much fun with penguins. :)

I was very weary about changing a primitive meaning in my post regarding my initial findings on Heisig and I still am but am now finding I am taking some bigger risks. Thus far – (strangely enough) it’s been working out well enough for me. I’ll explain my example re penguins below.

#444 立 is an adjective and means ‘standing up’
As a primitive when you you use this character inside other characters Heisig suggests you use ‘vase’ or its character meaning e.g. standing up or think of something standing in an unusual way.

To me this character looks like a little penguin – a little penguin standing tall – chest pushed out and all. Can you see a penguin too? No? With a little imagination perhaps?
So shortly here’s an example of how I’m remembering some of the characters that use this character as a primitive.

#451 Salesman 商
Instead of using vase / standing up my penguin is the salesman (he looks rather dodgy) and is selling some creepy stuffs inside a glass container – body parts e.g – animals legs and mouths etc…. Trust me that I have no trouble remembering this one…

#482 赔 Compensate
Compensate someone with shells (primitive on the left) because your naughty pet penguin bit someone else’s pet… The penguin has a muzzle on as a result. (Background – in Heisig the penguin primitive and the mouth primitive below it together forms the primitive ‘muzzle’.)

I can go on and on and rather surprisingly I manage to create a nice story /visual in my head with a penguin for each character with this primitive and it’s done rather easily. So I guess you can see I am certainly having fun with penguins :)

If you’re interested to see how I’m using my “penguin primitive” in more characters, get in touch and I’ll share more of my stories with you.

Finding #3: To speed up the process – always use images / concepts that are already available to you.

For example – stories with American elements don’t always work for me e.g. character #345 mentions a song ‘America the Beautiful’. As I’m not always familiar with the cultural context or background of things mentioned in the story I don’t always have much of a choice but to change it to something else that is more familiar to me.

Me crazy?

Am I playing with fire and am I going to get burned taking such big risks changing my stories for primitives? Most likely. I’d like to view this risk as part of my exploration and adventure in using this method ;)

Your thoughts?

You might ask – what’ the point of buying a book if you’re going to have to change so many things to make the stories work for you?

  • Firstly, probably 85% of Heisig’s images do work for me. I’m still experimenting and am only changing things as I need to or perhaps in places where I want to.
  • Secondly the book is a great technique for studying characters and really effective – did I mention my retention rate is still about 90% for new and mature characters?
  • Did I also mention that studying characters this way – breaking the characters down into the different primitives or vice versa constructing them using the primitives and other characters you’ve learned gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on the Chinese written language? It’s like someone lifted a veil and I can see it all more clearly – it’s not just all lines anymore… I see little characters now – amazing…

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – I am certainly loving it. :)

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong…

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , , ,

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong...

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong...

Ok so this is where it’s at – I’ve studied 399 simplified Chinese characters using the Heisig & Richardson book – “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”..

(I had reached 225 characters by the end of late September – see this post if you’re interested on my initial findings: Small Victories: my progress in learning simplified characters with Heisig…)

Negative points regarding my progress:

  • I’ve not progressed as far as I would have liked to do nor as I intended to do. I was supposed to hit the 500 mark by middle October. I derailed completely because of work priorities which frankly – will always take priority.
  • The last few chapters I’ve studied – chapters 13 – 17 have presented some of the most trying characters I’ve studied.
  • I’ve certainly gotten more characters wrong when I tested myself at first which means that I needed to go back and revise those characters that gave me trouble.
  • I got lazy during my studies and I paid less attention to a good story / picture. The ones I’d get wrong are without a doubt the ones that I didn’t put enough effort into in the first place. If I don’t want to waste time going forward, I should really focus on the visual story in the future. (This double-touching thing / re-learning is time consuming.)
  • Chapter 17 has been the worst – no doubt. I needed to check back on more than half it about three times. Once again – no clear stories / visuals defined the first time around.
  • I’m assuming that if I’ve found the last couple of chapters trying that the rest that follows will probably be the same. I’m not going to let it deter me however. I’m AM GOING to finish the book – come hell or high water.

My self-testing methods:
I’m using 3 ways of testing myself after I’ve studied a chapter.

  • On paper – I normally write down all the English keywords out of their usual Heisig sequence on a piece of paper and see whether I can identify the character correctly. (Scribble it on paper…) If there are issues – I sort it out by restudying those characters, checking the story again or see if I need to change the story. Once I’m satisfied with a chapter, I move onto Anki for revision.

    The photo I’ve attached will give you an idea of what I’m doing – you’ll probably shudder at my hànzì and I will completely understand it if you do – however really it’s just about the concept and identifying / distinguishing one character from another – not about perfection – not at this stage :)

  • In Anki I’ve got one flashcard set that shows me the character first, and I need to provide the meaning in English only as the answer.
  • The second flashcard set shows me the keyword / meaning and I have to draw the characters – not perfectly – just roughly on paper will do or with my finger on the table to see whether I can “assemble” /remember the character.

Thus… a lot of testing going on…

Some good points (thus far):

  • I’ve made some progress at least…
  • My rigorous testing makes my Anki scores look good :)

    First Anki set (Question: shows character only. Answer: requires me to give the English keyword / meaning.)
    Correct Answers
    Mature cards: 100.0%
    Young cards: 88.8%
    First-seen cards: 91.2%

    Second Anki set (Question: English word is stated. Answer: requires me to “assemble” the character.)
    (I started this deck much later thus none of my cards are mature cards yet.)
    Mature cards: 0.0%
    Young cards: 88.8%
    First-seen cards: 90.5%

So how does it look for me going forward?

I seriously would love to have the book completed by end of December – this is my plan. However I’m only human and will probably be derailed again… so we’ll see.

My 500 mark needs to be reached though before end of October…

And if you’re wondering why I’m at 399 and not 400 characters right now – well, it’s not that I love odd numbers (although I am a bit of an odd one) nor that I’m superstitious. Lesson 18 starts with character number 400 instead of 401. Thanks a lot Heisig… ;)

Well that’s it from me (for this week).

Onwards with chapter 18 / #400….