The Chinese ABCs are not as easy as one, two, three

It is time for a progress report, and since I am long-winded, I will restrict this post to discussing my Hanzi learning journey.

In the lead-up to writing this blog, I scoured Chinese-Forums for a couple of weeks in my spare time trying to pick up the best advice and wisdom it had to offer. In one memorable thread, kongli declared he would attempt to learn 1500 words in a mere 30 days (that’s 50 words as day for those of you who aren’t mathemagicians). It was a fun thread. He admitted what he was doing was the linguistic equivalent of The Great Leap Forward to which BertR agreed, writing: “Learning 1500 words in 30 days won’t be your biggest challenge. That will be not to forget 1300 words in 90 days…”

My decision to rapidly learn Hanzi is similar to kongli’s 1500 word challenge: audacious, unwise, and perhaps counterproductive in the long run. Another user pointed out that he once learned 1500 characters in a couple of months… and then spent another 9 – 10 continuuing to go over them in his Anki deck. I now know that is my fate.

It’s been around 25 days since I started learned Chinese again, and I have fallen short of my original plan to learn 50 characters each day from Heisig’s list of the 3000 most common characters. If I had adhered to that schedule, I would currently “know” 11250 characters. Instead, I only know around 1115. While I have continued learning 50 new characters per day, not all of those characters are a part of Heisig’s 3000 most common ones. For instance, 佛 is one of the 3000 most common characters, but it is composed of 亻and 弗. 弗 does not occur on its own in modern Chinese (as far as I know), but it does have a meaning and a pronunciation. The question is, do I learn it on its own and then use it to help me learn 佛, or do I just learn 佛? My answer to this problem has been to learn it on its own and count it as one of the 50 I learn each day (I could also learn it on its own and not count it towards the 50, but I think that would be too difficult). As a result, I am not going to get through all 1500 characters in 30 days. It will take more like 35. Or 38. Or 40.

Another goal was to learn the 1500 and then continue learning characters for another two months until I had acquired all 3000. That likely is not going to happen now for several reasons.

Remembering the Tradiational Hanzi, Anki stats
This is my Remembering the Traditional Hanzi Deck. I started 19 days ago on it because I began with Remembering the Simplified Hanzi, another deck of mine.

First, my flashcards are taking too much time. While I still believe it’s useful to learn a lot of characters, I don’t think this task should distract too heavily from reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Unfortunately, it is beginning to:

My intro stats class taught me that interpolation is fraught with danger... but if this linear trend continues, it appears that I will be spending 96 hours a day doing flashcards within a year at the rate I am going.
My intro stats class taught me that interpolation is fraught with danger… but if this linear trend continues, it appears that I will be spending 96 hours a day doing flashcards within a year at the rate I am going.

 

But at least I am getting a lot of right answers.
But at least I am getting a lot of right answers.

Second, my efficiency in learning the characters is dropping. Many of Heisig’s chosen definitions are quite similar (to do, to make; to protect, to safeguard; to inspect, to examine; etc). Sometimes a new mnemonic I create interferes with an old one. And some of the characters I am learning I do not see regularly “in the wild,” so I have no context with respect to where and how they occur.

Third, DeFrancis’ Beginning Chinese Reader, which only uses 400 characters to create some 1200 – 1500 words, is teaching me what I already knew but did not really understand: it is not the number of characters you know but how you use them. As I struggle through some of BCR’s passages, I realize it is the grammar, set phrases, and lack of character knowledge depth that is holding me back rather than breadth of character knowledge.

Finally, flashcards for characters are a trap. They’re too easy. Learning new ones and making new mnemonics is too fun. They’re too quantifiable. There are too many surges of dopamine involved. I will allow myself to listen to and even gaze at the beauty of the sirens, but never for too long or with too much intensity lest I am destroyed.

I will finish the first 1500 characters and then evaluate where I am at. I found that I was happy reviewing up to 250 a day and learning 100 on top of that, but anything over is too much. Perhaps I will reduce the number of new characters per day to 5 or 10 at that point. We shall see.

Notes:

  1. I am only learning: 1. One or two broad meanings associated with them (for example, I only associate 佛 with Buddah/Buddishm), 2. Their pronunciations (fo2), and 3. How to write them. More details here

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