Starting today, I will be embarking on an intense journey to learn Chinese. This initial plan is probably too ambitious and vague. Certainly, it is a bit hazy beyond the first month. But plans can change. Let this document guide me as I begin my impossible journey.
Becoming literate is important to me for two reasons. First, I enjoy reading. Second, I believe reading assists language development, particularly at the later stages. Therefore, I will learn to read and (maybe) write Chinese.
If I were to learn Russian, I would first learn the cryllic alphabet. If I were to learn Arabic, I would first learn the abjad. Since I intend to learn Chinese, I will learn the Chinese characters. As I understand it, in Classical Chinese each Chinese character corresponded to a word. Nowadays, at least in Mandarin Chinese, that is not the case; most words are bi- or tri-syllabic, composed of multiple characters. Thus, I will treat the Chinese characters, or Hanzi as they are commonly called and shall be called henceforth in this article, as an alphabet.
In my preparation for studying, I have read claims that if one knows, say, 2000 of the most commonly used Hanzi, one will be able to recognize 90% of all characters in a typical Chinese passage. That percentage increases to 95% or 98% once one knows 3000 of the most common characters. Consequently, I think it will be important to learn these characters as soon as possible. Imagine trying to learn English words if you only knew half of the alphabet! Knowing the Hanzi is fundamental to learning words and therefore reading itself.
If you let out a gasp when reading those numbers in the previous paragraph, you understand the enormity of the task, and one of the reasons why Chinese Is So Damn Hard 1. I am treating the Hanzi as an alphabet, but my goodness it is a motherfucking huge-ass alphabet. 2
There are several schools of thought on how to approach the Hanzi. Some give up on learing to read and write Chinese altogether 3 — understandable if your focus is on speaking and you aren’t worried about reaching an advanced level 4. Some suggest you learn words and let the characters sink in via osmosis. Some learn characters on their own, using a system of mneumonics or etymologies to store them in their long term memory. Others suggest you learn characters as you learn words and only learn characters you come across in your textbooks. I think the latter approach is probably the wisest, but I will be foregoing it.
Instead of learning Hanzi as they appear in my textbooks, I will be using a blended approach, studying the characters in isolation with the assistance of mneuomonics but also learning characters associated with new words I learn. I will be following Heisig’s Hanzi list for Remembering the Traditional Hanzi 5. Heisig created a mnemonic system for deconstructing and combining Hanzi to make them easier to understand. He teaches the 3,000 most commonly used Hanzi in an order that is easy to learn. Unfortunately, the choice to place Hanzi in an order easily learned is a sacrifice that results in many commonly used Hanzi being placed later in the book. For example, the character/word for “I” 我 is the 551st character you learn! As a result, I will follow Heisig’s list, but whenever I encounter a word in one of my other texts that uses characters I do not know, I will jump ahead in Heisig and learn those characters out of sequence.
In Heisig’s preamble, he and his co-author make strong suggestions on how to use his method. For the most part, I will be ignoring those suggestions. First, I will be using Anki, a spaced repetition system (SRS), to learn the characters (Heisig thinks SRS is unnecessary if you create strong enough mneuomnics). Second, I have downloaded a plugin 6 that will add sound to each of my flashcards (Heisig warns against learning pronouncation when initially learning the characters). Finally, I will be learning the Hanzi English-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-English (Heisig suggests only going from English keyword to Chinese character).
I aim to learn 50 characters per day, which results in around 1400 characters learned in a month. At around 1500 characters, I will start learning 25 characters per day to reduce the load until I have finished all 3,000 of the characters in Heisig. At that point, I will maintain my flashcard deck and only sparingly add cards to it.
Daily Goal: 50 characters
Monthly Goal: 1400 characters
Three Month Goal: 3000 characters
John Pasden’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki will be my bible. Claudia Ross’ widely recommended Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar will be my backup. I will do 5 grammar points from the Chinese Grammar Wiki per day up to A2.
Daily Goal: 5 grammar points
Monthly Goal: Finish all grammar points up to A2 in the Chinese Grammar Wiki
Three Month Goal: Finish all 424 grammar points (but focus on the ones relevant to graded readers first!)
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I purchased many Chinese language textbooks for dirt cheap when a language school nearby was getting rid of inventory. These texts include John DeFrancis’ Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced Chinese Reader Series (2nd edition), Parts 1 and 2 of Integrated Chinese (2nd edition), and a few Chinese Breeze graded readers.
I plan to do 1 chapter of DeFrancis per day, and 1 chapter of Integrated Chinese every 2 days.
Daily Goal: 1 chapter of DeFrancis per day and maybe 1 chapter of Integrated Chinese every 2 days
Monthly Goal: Complete Beginning Chinese Reader Part 1, finish Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 1 & 2
3 Month Goal: Finish Intermediate Chinese Reader, finish Intermediate Chinese Level 2 Part 1 & 2, read several graded readers (will likely focus on the Chinese Breeze and Mandarin Companion ones).
Listening, Speaking, and Accent Formation
Mike Campbell’s Glossika program has received a lot of attention, some positive, some negative. I will try to learn 50 sentences using the GMS method, which should result in strong pronouncation and speech production abilities. For listening, I have signed up to Chinesepod and will listen to 2 of their podcasts each day. When I encounter particularly difficult sentences, I will create audio flashcards in Anki. I expect I will be listening to newbie lessons for several weeks followed by elementary for a couple of months before I can progress to intermediate.
Daily Goal: 50 Glossika Sentences, 2 Chinesepod lessons
Monthly Goal: Finish Glossika Part 1
3 Month Goal: Finish Glossika Part 2 – 3
- http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html – Notice how ↩
- There are 50,000 – 100,000 Hanzi in total. 20,000 are used regularly in modern Chinese. An educated person will know between 5,000 – 8,000. 3,000 Hanzi are used most regularly. The Chinese government officially considers you literate if you know ~2,000, but most sources suggest one must know around 4,000 to truly be literate. ↩
- http://www.fluentin3months.com/chinese/ ↩
- I know of very few people who have reached an advanced level in foreign languages without being able to read. I am sure it is possible, but I think it ultimately takes longer ↩
- http://www.amazon.ca/Remembering-Traditional-Hanzi-Book-Characters/dp/0824833244 ↩
- https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3448800906 ↩