Language education in British Columbia, Canada


There’s been some controversy in British Columbia lately, about the new proposed curriculum changes for teaching languages in public schools (available here in PDF: Additional Languages draft). The vast majority of the fuss revolves around the political ideology of nationalism, proponents of which believe that the country of Canada can only remain whole if everyone in the country has some education in both of the official languages, English and French. This ignores the reality of most peoples’ lives in BC, in which French is nonexistent, but languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi are everywhere, spoken by their neighbours and many other people in their cities.
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Extensive reading: what convinced me


Some time in the spring of 2009 I was considering getting back into learning German after a long hiatus. I had taken German in high school, but learned very little. I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t understand TV, and I couldn’t have even a basic conversation.

Nine years before this, I had gone on a couple of business trips to Germany, and at some point I picked up a German copy of Tad William’s “The Stone of Farewell”, a high fantasy novel that I had read already in English. My idea was that when I got home from the business trip I’d sit down and try to read it in German, since I had an intuitive idea that reading should be a good way to improve my language skills.

I got back to Vancouver and sat down with this fantasy novel and a German-English dictionary, and started working on it. It seemed impossibly hard, and most of the words were unknown to me. I tried to look up every single unknown word in the dictionary in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t getting any sense of the story, and after a long time I was still stuck on the 2nd page. I eventually gave up, thinking that it was a horrible idea.

Fast-forward 9 years to 2009, and I was once again starting to work on German again. I had been reading AJATT and Steve Kaufmann, who were both saying “just read”. I then heard about Japanese students who were trying to read 1 million words of English without using a dictionary, which sounded sort of absurd.

So, I decided to give this crazy idea a shot. I would pick up this book that had caused me so many problems before, and I would just move my eyeballs over all the words. Whenever I encountered a word that I didn’t know, I’d just skip right over it and keep on moving. I would try my best to imagine whatever parts of the story I could figure out, piecing it together from my past knowledge of the English version of the book and the understandable words in German in front of me.

What happened was an epiphany for me. By ignoring the hard words and continuing to move my eyes, I started to get a sense for the story. It was only a vague sense, because there were lots of words I didn’t know, but it still seemed like what it really was: a story. I could pick out the main characters, and I knew when they were doing something with someone else, and a few basic words like Drachen (= dragon), and Wald (= forest), etc.

I kept going until I had read 50 pages without using a dictionary, and I had felt it getting better and better, so I decided to go back to the start and see if I had learned anything. Miraculously, I understood a lot more! The beginning of the story made a lot more sense now. Although it was hard to point to any particular things that I had learned beyond a couple words I knew I had figured out, I just knew that something had changed and I was understanding much more.

This catapulted me forward, and I began pursuing German wholeheartedly. It set me on the path to reading dozens of books in German, and eventually moving here to Berlin. Now I can go out for a beer with some Germans in a noisy bar and talk about feminism or geohashing or whatever I want, and it all started with learning to move my eyeballs over some foreign looking words.

Some further points I should mention one more time:

  • Bootstrapping yourself by learning some basic vocab is helpful, but don’t use vocab as an excuse not to read. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.
  • The further the language is from your native language, the longer it will take to absorb the meanings…but don’t give up, it still works. (I’ve done it in Chinese too)
  • Audiobooks are phenomenally helpful. I highly recommend using them whenever possible while you read.
  • Another way to go about it is to keep the English version of the book beside you so that you can look at it as a reference when you get really stuck. Reading 2 paragraphs of English every few pages will resynchronize you…just don’t get too distracted with the English when your main task should be the new language. (for something like Chinese, it’s definitely handy to have a parallel text…I didn’t find it necessary for Swedish and German)

Anyone who hasn’t tried this should go pick up the nearest book in your target language and move your eyeballs over the first 50 pages, and then I dare you to tell me that you haven’t learned anything and that reading isn’t easier!

Kanji without Heisig


A bit of a tangent from the usual german content here. I was just reading a post over at Japanese From Zero where akanpanda asks “does anyone know a *non Heisig* way to learn Kanji? Heisig bores me even when I turn it into a game.” For those who are unfamiliar, the Heisig method of learning kanji is to build up from basic characters to complex ones, so that every complex one consists of pieces that are recognizable characters. You have to follow a certain order so that you always get those basic ones before the advanced ones. Here’s my response:

You probably want to find some way to go hardcore on an SRS because that’s the fastest way to fill your brain with reams of data, but it doesn’t have to be through Heisig. The problem i had with Heisig was learning a bunch of boring characters before the ones that i wanted. Instead of that, you could try adding chars as you encounter them in real life. You may not know the parts of them in an awesome way like in the Heisig method, but it’ll be ok. This way each character will mean something to you, and have value, instead of being force-fed.

What i did was go to the library and get an awesome book that i really wanted to read. A good one for me was a book of short sci-fi stories by famous authors like Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin, except translated into chinese (which is what i was learning). Then i’d go through one page, and just write down all the chars that i didn’t know. I’d look up each one, and make up an Anki card for it. Then i’d try to read the page, hopefully remembering some of the chars that i just looked up.

Every day i’d do my Anki reps, and add a new page full of the characters i didn’t know. As each day went on, I’d be able to read more and more of the stories, at least by guessing new words according to the Hanzi (aka Kanji) that i encountered. The benefit of this method was that all the characters i added were really valuable to me. They were helping me read more and more pages of the awesome book, instead of just being random boring characters from some predefined method. This way, i kept my motivation up because i wanted to get through more pages of the book, and each progressive page was getting easier and easier.

An important part of motivation is self-direction. The fastest way to hate something is to have someone else force you to do it, or to be spoon-fed. Pick your own direction, and you’ll be able to do it for longer. Also, mix things up a bunch. Never just use one method, or one book. Every time you sit down to work on your project, have a variety of materials in front of you and choose whichever one catches your eye first. When you start to get bored of it, just drop it and look around. Pick up the next one that catches your eye. If you have enough interesting materials in front of you, you can go all day. I did this by getting real books from the library. Sci-fi, or translated novels like “the godfather” (which was funny to try to read in chinese). It’s also good to get something that’s familiar, maybe like Harry Potter if you’re into that.

Good luck!

how to start learning a new language


This was a post on my old blog from 2008, and i thought i’d repost it here because it’s more relevant here.

I had a question the other day from someone who wants to start learning mandarin chinese, and wants to continue studying french. It really got me thinking, because all of my learning strategies lately have been focused on moving myself from “advanced beginner” to “intermediate” stages, but it’s been a long time since i’ve thought about what to do from the absolute total beginner level. I learned a lot last year about classroom learning by doing the chinese immersion program both here in canada and in china, and this year i’ve learned a lot about self-directed learning, so in this post i’m gonna try to put those together and come up with something useful. This should help me too, since i hope to restart on spanish in january or so, alongside my chinese study.

I think the most general principle i can suggest is that you just need to keep yourself consistently moving forward bit by bit. 语言学习好比走路,是一步一步前进的 (“studying languages is like walking; you improve one step at a time”). The big challenge in language-learning is not the particulars of whatever concept you happen to be learning in any given moment, it’s the problem of keeping yourself on-track toward your future goals which may be many months away.

Language study is a motivation game. I think just about everybody will experience a moment when they think “fuck, this takes a long time, i’m never going to get fluent”, or “dammit, why can’t i just READ this book! i want to read a page in like 5 seconds like i do in english instead of 10 minutes in this language”. These moments are all opportunities to fail by giving up. You have to be prepared for them so you can bust through to the other side on your way to awesome. Remember that you CAN become fluent in other languages. If you’re dedicated and you keep having fun with it, you could be fluent in 10 languages some day. So if that’s what’s possible, then why let this one little language get you down? Don’t worry, you’ll get there.

If you write a todo list, just having “Learn Chinese” on the list is not helpful. That’s not really a task that you can just sit and do in an afternoon or something. What you need is a mental conception of what “becoming fluent” looks like on a day-to-day basis. You need to figure out what you’re going to do each and every day that is related to your language of interest. You may only spend 20 minutes on it if you’re really busy, and other days you may get all keen and spend several hours before you look up at the clock and see how late it is. But what you need to know is that “becoming fluent” looks like “i think i’m gonna sit down and read a bit of this book” or “i think i’ll flip through this dictionary and pick out some crazy new words that i don’t know” or “i’m gonna go have coffee with some people who speak chinese”. Those little short-term things are the stuff of magic. Added all together, they are what will make you fluent. That’s it. If every day you add something to your knowledge, you will get there.

To keep yourself on track, you need to find stuff that’s fun. As Khatsumoto says, There is no such thing as something being “boring but effective”. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because you’ll just kill your desire. Usually i try to find at least 4 or 5 different ways to work on the language. Then, when i have some time set aside to do something, i can lay out a bunch of books on the table, load up a few websites, and then just jump into whichever one strikes my fancy. Maybe i’ll switch after 20 minutes if i get bored, or maybe i’ll do it for hooouurrrs without noticing. It differs daily, but i can tell you with certainty that if you only have 1 book that you’re using, you’ll get bored of it at some point and then you won’t have anything to fall back on.

In a practical sense, there are a few things that i always want when studying a new language. number 1 is beginner audio lessons. Check out Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Some people like them, some people think they have too much english instruction in them and not enough native speaking, but you should at least give them a try because they exist for many languages and they usually have some good content, especially for beginners or those who haven’t spent a lot of time learning any other languages before.

Another thing i like to have is a simple book. Maybe a kid’s book, maybe some sort of graded reader for beginners, anything you can find that’s on the easy side of things. If you’re an absolute beginner, even “easy” stuff will be hard to comprehend, but just about anything will do. What you want is a nice source of content in that language. It’ll also serve as a goal, since you know that at some point in your studies you’ll be able to read the whole thing easily, which will be quite satisfying.

Without expecting to understand everything, take a browse through it. Try to understand a few sentences, using dictionaries or websites or whatever. If you come upon something interesting, write it down. If you have one of those “aha” moments when you figure out something, write it down. I like just picking away at something and trying to pull out anything that i can. Pretend that you’re an archaeologist studying agent egyptian in a dusty pyramid somewhere and you’re decoding a language that no one else knows. It’s a puzzle, and it’s way more addictive than Sudoku. Piece by piece you’re going to pull tidbits out of it that you start to understand.

Next is getting an SRS – Spaced Repetition System (my favourite is Anki). This is a vital learning tool that has been mostly neglected by educators everywhere. I’ve already ranted about SRSes elsewhere, so i’ll spare you most of it this time. Simply put, an SRS is a piece of computer software that is made to program your brain to remember things. It makes you familiar with something over time by repeating it to you at the right time. In science fiction, people of the future program computers in their brains to remember stuff for them, but right now we already know the truth is the other way around: computers can program US to remember anything, and the way to do this is with an SRS.

It goes like this. I pick up a book, like the chinese translation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which i got from the local library 2 weeks ago), and i struggle through a few sentences in it. I’m curious about how one of those sentences is phrased, so i write it down on my notepad. I pick some portion of that sentence and look it up online, maybe on or and find a bunch more example sentences that have similar words in them. If any of these are interesting, i write them down.

At the end of my little exploration session, i put down my book and flip open my laptop, loading up Anki. I create flashcards from the stuff that i wrote down. This is the crucial step, because if all i ever did was write shit down, i’d forget it all by the next day, or even 2 hours from then. This is what i mistakenly did when i was in China…i’d sit down for like 2 or 3 hours every afternoon and crawl through all sorts of interesting books and dictionaries, write a bunch of neat stuff down, and then forget like 90% of it by that evening. I was spinning my wheels because i wasn’t actually retaining much of what i was figuring out. If you’re not reviewing the old material, it’s like you’re that famous archaeologist in the dusty pyramid and every day you take your notes and chuck them in the trash. NO, you want to retain all that stuff (hopefully with the least amount of effort possible), so you need your SRS.

So, with an SRS like Anki i can spend a few minutes every morning and evening reviewing older stuff and keeping it fresh in my mind. By getting reminded after a few hours, then after a day, then after 3 days, after a week, etc, i can turn that short term stuff into long term familiarity. This is true advancement in a language. You can be confident that whatever interesting tidbits you write down on your notepad will not be thrown down the memory hole…you can just assume that you’ll be able to remember those, because Anki is going to program them into your long term memory for you. You’re going to be intimately familiar with them. In a few weeks, you’ll look at all the really complicated stuff you were writing down a month previous, and it’ll appear stupidly simple to you. It won’t even seem worth keeping because it’ll be so obvious. This is familiarity. When you’re fluent in a language, you’re just really really familiar with it.

Ok, i notice that this post is starting to ramble on forever, which i tend to do when i’m excited about something, so let me try to sum things up. Like any long-term project, learning a language involves doing something every day consistently for a long period of time. If you keep it up, you’ll be surprised at your progress. I believe that by working enthusiastically on it and having some good people to consult, you can make much more progress much faster than if you took a course and just passively did what the teacher said.

Don’t worry about leaving some other stuff behind if you have to move in a different direction to find the fun stuff. You can always come back to the other things you were working on. It’ll still be there later, just keep pursuing the fun things. Keep searching for ways to get comprehensible input. You want lots and lots of interesting input. Saturate your brain with input, and things will fall into place. This is what brains are good at.

the grammar debate…a red herring?


I was just reading Language Geek‘s discussion of the “no-grammar” method compared to the “grammar” method, and how sometimes it’s nice to have a blend of the two. Lately I’ve been thinking about this debate and wondering whether it’s sort of irrelevant.

What i feel with chinese (and i think this applies to other languages too) is that there are two levels to it…there are sentences that are technically “grammatically correct” according to someone’s made up grammar rules that seem to fit all situations, and then there are sentences that actual people say and that actual native speakers consider to be correct. What i mean by this is that we can all surely think of examples we have heard where someone says something in our native language but it doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s technically correct, but nobody really says it that way.

Quite commonly, there are many “grammatically correct” ways to express ideas, but only a few of them are the ones that native speakers actually use. This is really what it means to speak a language…you say what other people say, because you’re used to how it works. In other words, the set of grammar rules overspecifies the language.

This comes up for me quite often with chinese. I can think of several ways to say something, but then when a native speaker tells me what they would say, i quite often think “wow, i never would have guessed that that was the correct way to say it”. Now that i think about it, this really points towards the necessity of hearing lots and lots of correct input. Along the way, you’ll notice common patterns that we call “grammar”, but going the other way by learning the grammar rules first will mean that you may end up producing things that seem correct according to these rules, but are actually not correct in the language overall.

That said, I agree with what Language Geek wrote, that grammar rules are sometimes quite handy when decoding what someone else has said. I think this can still be overcome just by exposure though, so that you (eventually) intuitively know what is being said. I have no experience that would let me say how long it takes to get to that point though, since my language learning has always seemed to start off with a big grammar component (usually through classes).

Since my next short-term project is revival of my meager german skills, i’ll have to wait a while before i can try a purely no-grammar method, but for now i’m trying to change all of my materials and methods over to mono-lingual and input-based. I’m already seeing a change in perception now that i’ve removed the english answers from my chinese anki cards. I can’t believe i’ve left them in for so long already. We’ll see how german goes when i restart that later this week, in preparation for my trip to Berlin in June.

number of characters for reading?


I was just browsing the forum on and i saw this reference to another article.

Chinese learners are not used to studying Chinese characters. Now some linguists and language teachers have started to focus their studies on how to enable learners to learn Chinese characters faster. They have discovered that there are aspects that make Chinese characters easy to learn. Firstly, the number of commonly-used characters is limited. According to statistics, one can read non-technical publications without much difficulty, if s/he has a command of about 3,000 characters. Secondly, characters are made of components which, in their part, are composed of strokes. Out of the 400-600 components, only 100 are commonly used, and a considerable part of those are characters by themselves.

I think there’s a difference between “able to read” and “able to read without much difficulty”. In my experience, i learned about 1000 characters through a series of intensive classes, but it wasn’t enough to muddle through any books with any sort of satisfaction. Then last summer i discovered SRS and mnemonics, and i learned an extra thousand characters in july and august, and cemented my knowledge of the old ones that i thought i knew.

I found that around the 1500 character mark (i went through them mostly in frequency order, so this is mostly the most popular 1500 characters), i was able to read books finally. It was hard, since there were still many i didn’t know, but at least the story was finally understandable and i was making good progress on the other characters just by reading.

Now with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000-2500 characters, i’m able to easily read stories by Lu Xun and other real content. I learn lots of new words and characters by doing so. I can really see how knowing 3000 characters would make things so much easier, but i’m just enjoying actually reading things right now so i don’t really have the motivation to study single characters too much.

Overall, i’d say the barrier to reading is much lower than people think. You may hear numbers like “3000” and “4000” and think it’ll take forever, but really i think the minimum you need to work hard to hit is 1500. Once you hit 1500, you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction from actually recognizing so many characters in real books. This will motivate you to do more, and your reading level will go up from there. As someone once said, you get good at reading by reading. Even if you know 3000 characters, you aren’t necessarily good at reading yet either. But don’t place the bar too high. It’s doable sooner than you think.

going monolingual?


For a while i’ve heard people talking about using monolingual dictionaries in their target language, but I haven’t yet adopted that practice for some reason. I guess that since i started my chinese studies in a classroom setting, i’m really used to using lots of english all the time.

Lately some things have started to really change my mind. One is reading chinese without looking things up in the dictionary, and the other is reading Keith’s last few blog entries about learning chinese by watching chinese tv dramas. Keith makes many excellent points, especially about the way that drilling yourself with english translations will teach your brain to associate english with everything.

There are some situations in which i can speak and listen to chinese without translating…these are mostly limited to the situations i was forced into while i was in china. Most discussion that would occur in a class or in a chinese restaurant is totally fine, but for a lot of other situations i get lost easily.

It’s interesting for me now to seriously consider the effect of doing all of my chinese study in relation to english. All my anki flashcards have english in the answer, and most of the books i read have 1 page of chinese paired with 1 page of english. Have i been training myself into a corner?

From here on, i think i’m going to change things slightly. I’m still working on the 1 million words of reading, but i’d also like to introduce some tv dramas if i can find any. I’m also changing my Anki cards so that the answers are just in chinese. I still need to find a monolingual chinese dictionary, and perhaps avoid using my digital dictionaries since they are all chinese/english. I guess it’s time for me to really start my own version of “all chinese all the time”. Listening to radio shows has always felt too difficult for me, so maybe i’ll just switch to movies where i get some context more easily….and chinese subtitles so i know what they just said.

how i learn chinese characters (hanzi / 汉字)


This is a post from my other blog that i wrote last September. I thought i’d reprint it here because it’s more relevant to the topic at hand

I thought it’d be helpful for some people if i wrote out more details of my methods, so here we go. Firstly, there are many different ways to learn 汉字­, and there isn’t just 1 single way to do it. I actually like to use a combination of methods, and i hop between them just to give some variety. What i’d like to do here is demonstrate some things for people to try, but keep an eye out for other people’s methods too.

Just a bit of history first; I previously took some immersion courses at university, where we did about 20 hours of class time per week. Overall this was really helpful in many ways, but i think i currently learn more per hour of my time using my new methods. In those courses, we generally just wrote the character out on paper 20 times. This all happened at once over the span of an hour of homework time after class, and then we thought that we’d remember it (but typically didn’t). I’ll explain later why this doesn’t work that well.

The biggest single change has been my use of an SRS (spaced repetition system). My favourite is Anki, but other people like mnemosyne, supermemo, or others. Basically, this software is like flashcards, but the flashcards are strategically shown to you at the proper time in order to build your memory. It’s based on some psychological principles about memory that are well known amongst psychologists, but almost completely unknown to educators (in my experience, anyway).

Flashcards are blank until you fill them (obviously), so what should you put on them? This gets discussed a lot on language web sites, but here’s what i’m currently doing. In anki, i make two “cards” for every “fact” that i enter. A “fact” consists of a single chinese character, possible meanings for the character, pronunciations for the character, and any extra trivia that i want to throw in, like example words or proverbs. The “cards” that are generated from this are “production” and “recognition” cards. In a production card, i get the pronunciation and meaning (in english) and i have to think up the character (and practice writing it down). “Recognition” cards have just the character showing, and i have to come up with the correct pronunciation and the meaning. If i get either pronunciation (including proper tone) or the meaning wrong, then i fail the card.

For each card, i rank how hard it was (and whether i passed or failed), and Anki will reschedule my next viewing of it. Easy cards get a bigger gap between viewings, which saves me a lot of time. The way this works is that each thing in your memory has an exponentially dropping curve of how well you remember it, your “forgetting curve” as it has been refered to. For new things, the curve is steep, which means that after only a short time you’ve almost certainly forgotten it…after perhaps an hour or two you’ve forgotten he majority of the new things you just saw. For things that you are really familiar with, you could go for months or years without seeing it and you’d still have a high chance of remembering it…the curve is shallow for these. The more times something is repeated to you, the more the curve levels off (meaning you can remember it for longer periods between reviews).

Using the information you give it about difficulty, Anki is trying to schedule the cards so they show up when you have about a 90% chance of remembering it. Once you’ve been reminded, that memory jumps back up to 100% and starts ticking down again, but a bit slower than last time. (see the graph in the Wired article if this sounds confusing). This is why the gap increases between viewings….it takes longer and longer to get down to the 90% level because you’re getting more familiar with the card. At the end, you’ll continue to have all of your thousands of cards recognized with about a 90% success rate.

But the trick here is that there’s more to memory than just raw repetition. The other big component to memory besides repetition, is what i’d call “storage”. Storage is how well you anchor that thing into your brain. You anchor it by connecting it to other ideas, feelings, stories, colors, smells, situations you experienced…any concept in your brain already, and the more the better. Reinforcement is just what i described Anki doing…showing you something over and over. These two concepts combine together; If you have better “storage” then the forgetting curve starts off less steep…and then each repetition has a much bigger effect, and you create long term memories much more easily. If you store the idea more elaborately, then you get more bang for your buck with repetitions.

If i just show you some random chinese character for a few seconds, and then ask you a day later to draw it, you’ll probably look at me like i’m nuts. But if i show you a character and tell you the meanings of all the little pieces that make it up, and then we make up a crazy story that includes all of those meanings, then it’s quite likely that you’ll remember it the next day just by going over that story in your mind.

Even things that are entirely unrelated will help. Sometimes when i have trouble with a character, i’ll leave the room and go do something different that i can associate with that character. the other day i wanted to remember 抖, which is pronounced “dou3”, which is similar to the chinese word for beans (“dou4” / 豆). So i went out into the garden and watered my bean plants and flicked off some aphids. “抖” means to shiver or tremble, so while i was pouring cold water on the bean plants i watched the leaves shake, and imagined them being cold.

All of these experiences and thoughts are going to help me anchor the meaning and pronunciation of this character. Every time i see it in Anki now, i try to recall all the things i did that day, and the thoughts i had. I want to tie the things together in my mind. It’s sorta like tying a rope to something so it doesn’t fall out of your head. 😉

There are other things that help me learn characters, such as context. I usually remember a character quite well when i come across it in a sentence from a book. After i make a new Anki card for that character, i’ll add that sentence to the “extras” portion so that it shows up on the answer side of the card every time i see it. Characters that i’ve seen in a book are always easier to remember than random characters i just pulled out of some list somewhere.

It also helps me to learn other characters with similar pieces. An example from today is 蹄 (ti2, meaning “hoof”). I already know the character 帝 (di4, meaning “emperor”). Notice that the right-hand side of 蹄 is 帝. The left-hand side is 足 (slightly altered, but meaning “foot”). Knowing that this character has a meaning similar to “foot” and sounds like “di” from emperor makes it really easy for me to remember “ti2” for “hoof”.

Sometimes the real meanings of all those sub-pieces don’t do it for me, though, but i have no hesitation about making up completely wacky meanings for some of them. One example is 降, which can mean both “falling” and “surrender” (examples: 降落伞 [jiang4 luo4 san3] = parachute, and 投降 [tou2 xiang2] = surrender). If you look at the piece in the top right of 降, you’ll see it’s the same as the right-hand side of 致, 效, 攻, and many others. That piece isn’t a separate character on its own, so i found it hard to remember for a while. But then i decided that it looked vaguely like a standing person with a ponytail. Since ridiculous things are easier to remember, i decided that the ponytail person would henceforth be called “Steven Seagal“, the well-known bad-ass from countless martial arts movies.

Next, i decided that the piece on the bottom right of 降 looked like a telephone pole. So this character for “falling” is now associated with a mental picture of steven seagal parachuting down above a telephone pole, and every time i picture it i hope that he doesn’t land on the telephone pole with his crotch, because that would probably hurt quite a bit. The utter ridiculousness of this mnemonic means that i’ll never forget this character as long as i live. It doesn’t matter that the character has no historical association with either action movie stars or telephone poles. All that matters is you find a way to make it stick in your head. The ridiculous story will fall away by itself later.

Ok, so to tie up loose ends, why doesn’t it work that well if you just sit down and write a character 30 times? The reason is the forgetting curve. If you just write that character 30 times and then you don’t read or write it for a week, you probably only have a 20% chance of remembering it now (you know, just to pick a random percentage out of my ass). To really make it stick you have to be reminded a few times, with gaps between the reminders.

Instead of writing it 30 times in one day, i suggest the following. 3 times the first day, once the second day, once the fourth day, once the 8th day, once the 16th day. After this, you’ve only written it 7 times instead of 30, but you’ll remember it much much longer because you’ve become more familiar with it over time. It’d be logistically hard to try to do this by hand for every character, but that’s what you have SRS software like Anki for. It’ll calculate those intervals for you and show you all the right cards at the right times, based on the individual difficulty for that particular card and how long it’s been since the last time you saw it.

This is how an SRS will allow you to do less work but also learn more. It works with the way your brain works, so you can write that character 7 times instead of 30. It also spreads things out so that you can have thousands of cards in your virtual deck, but you only do a comparatively small number of reviews each day. It’s not feasible to do 4000 reviews of characters each day, but you totally don’t need to do that anyway. I do about 50 – 100 reviews per day, but that’s because i’m always adding new cards. If i just kept practicing the ones i’ve got in there and didn’t add any new ones, it would quickly go down to about 10 reviews per day for my 4000 cards. That’d be enough to keep me at a 90% recall rate for all of them.

What really inspired me to start doing this method was that i’d heard that there were people who learned 2000 characters in only 3 months. During my immersion classes at the university, i learned maybe 800 characters to high accuracy, and 1200 total if you count the ones i only recognized but couldn’t remember how to write. And that was after a total of 1 year of hard study in immersion classes. Now, after using Anki for a couple months and starting over again to review all the easy characters too, i’m up to 1800 characters with 90% accuracy, and i’m getting faster at learning new characters all the time. I think my current rate is about 200 new characters per week, but that tends to go up and down depending on how busy i am with work. I feel much more familiar with all the characters overall. I really wish someone had told me right at the beginning that this was possible….would have made things so much easier.

Well, that’s it for now. I have to go get ready for cycling tomorrow with a friend. Stay tuned for a future article on learning to read chinese…learning the characters is only part of the story, just like learning the alphabet doesn’t let you read english.



My experience with listening to chinese has been a rather mixed one. Initially, i started learning chinese in a classroom at a university. At that time we didn’t have too many listening resources. The class would sporadically go to a special classroom equipped with headphones, and we’d listen to some very short dialogs, always with the pressure of a test on the content. In our regular class time, the teacher would explain things in english, and then mostly just make us practice contrived dialogs and act out situations. We spent very little time actually just listening to chinese speakers. That was the introductory course…we weren’t introduced to much actual chinese 😉

Then i started an “intensive immersion” course, which was 20 hours of class per week, but we didn’t actually listen that much in comparison to the grammar instruction we received. In each of our 4hr classes, we probably did 30mins of “listening” where we also had the stress of answering questions. The teacher did a lot of english instruction, although sometimes in very simplified chinese at a very slow speed. We never did any free listening just for the sake of listening.

After 3 months of that course, we went off to china to continue immersion courses. These courses were actually what i would call immersion, because they were entirely in chinese. I think this period helped me the most because i could just listen to real chinese all the time in class, and i understood most of it right away because it was related to the real context in front of me, and the language was a little bit simplified, but still authentic. At the same time, i was going out for dinner at chinese restaurants all the time, so i learned a lot of practical speaking skills doing that.

After the courses were over, i looked for ways to get more chinese exposure. My main method was to listen to Radio Canada International, which has several different radio shows for different languages, one of which is in mandarin, called Voice of the North. They have an mp3 podcast that i download. The problem with the show is that it has no written transcript. For a lot of the shows, they talk away really fast using lots of complicated words, so i get lost fairly easily. What i really need is something with either a chinese transcript or an english translation, or both.

There’s a related learning strategy called “Listening-Reading” or “L-R”, which i’ve heard about on forums such as In L-R, you get an audio book in your target language, as well as the text copy of the book and follow along with the audio book. When you start, you can also use the english version of the text, if it’s available, and then you know exactly what the speaker is supposed to be saying, before they say it. That way, you’re all set up for learning the new vocab in context as the story goes along. As you get better, you just switch to the target-language version of the text and continue listening, letting your brain just pick up everything naturally.

Unfortunately, i haven’t been able to find that many chinese audiobooks. There were some that i saw that were audio versions of some famous kung-fu adventure novels, but i haven’t been able to get a copy of them yet. I should look around to see if there’s an audiobook of chinese harry potter. Anyone have other suggestions?

The result of all of these experiences is that i don’t feel very confident in my listening and speaking skills beyond the basics. I have two strategies for improving right now. Part one is to work on increasing my vocabulary through reading. Reading is fun and interesting, and i don’t have any stress about being able to perform in front of others. Reading should also be great for my vocab, and with more vocab i should be able to understand more that i hear.

The next thing is just to do more listening. I need to find more fun videos to watch, but for now i just have the (quite difficult) RCI mp3 podcasts. I need more listening suggestions for this, if anyone has them.

Doing these things will obviously help me, but i just hope it’s enough.

“the economist” in chinese


Today i just found a neat blog, which is a collection of articles from The Economist that have been translated into chinese.  It’s called The Economist《经济学人》中文版. Each article is presented as a blog entry, and the paragraphs alternate between english and chinese.

This site looks great for learners of chinese. You get authentic chinese stuff to read, but interspersed with the english meaning, so you always know precisely what the chinese is supposed to mean as you try to figure it out. I really like reading books in this fashion, such as the ones that alternate chinese and english pages. I tend to read the english page first, and then go through the chinese one after i know the general idea of what’s supposed to happen. This way i can figure out a lot of grammar and vocabulary naturally rather than having to look it up in the dictionary or in a textbook.

Another site that’s sorta similar is Project Syndicate, which has various english-language news articles translated into several languages (usually spanish, german, french, czech, russian, and chinese). It’s a little bit inconvenient to read as a learner of the language in question, because it doesn’t have the content interspersed with my native language, but that’s totally understandable because they have so many different translations of each article, not just chinese.

If anyone knows of other sites like this, with interesting articles that have both an english version and another language (especially chinese), then please let me know. I’m always on the lookout for more content that has an english translation. I also really want to find some chinese audio content that has a chinese transcript of what was said.