Chinese literacy for foreigners: are flashcards the miracle cure?
A former MBA student of mine was asking about my experience learning Chinese characters recently. He grew up overseas. His mother speaks Mandarin with him, but he doesn’t have any formal schooling in the language. I started to write him a long email reply, and realized as I wrote it up that it might be a good Sinoglot conversation. Our collective advice has to be better than mine alone.
So I’m going to start with my story. From 2001-2007, I developed basic conversational ability without knowing much about characters, mostly learning from my mother-in-law and pinyin-based self-study. I learned pinyin pretty quick like everyone else, of course, and in the early years I tried to write a few characters 500 times each, or whatever someone told me was necessary to remember them. But then I just kind of ignored characters — until 2007ish.
I think now that I could have learned characters much faster if I had followed the approach I use now. If I was doing it all over again, I’d also start with characters sooner than I did. Six years was too long to be illiterate and starting to work on literacy at, say, 2 years would have dramatically speeded up my vocabulary acquisition.
Vocabulary acquisition — and, to some extent, acquisition of characters — is still something I work on today. What I’m going to describe below is how I do it and why. It’s a lot of gritty detail and I don’t recommend it unless you really care about this stuff. But if you do and you’ve got thoughts, I’ll be happy to get even nittier and grittier.
Here’s the advice I wish I could have given myself in about 2003. It’s the approach I later developed and still use now.
- Use flashcards. Specifically, use electronic flashcards with spaced repetition. Anki is good. The software is free and there’s a free app for Android (called Ankidroid) [well, ok, there was no Android in 2003. whatever]
- Make your own flashcards. Never use someone else’s cards.
- Have two separate decks of flashcards: one for words, one for individual characters
My rules for word flashcards
- Use the cloze method, where the front of the card is a sentence that’s missing a word and the back of the card is the word it’s missing. Corollary: Don’t learn words in isolation and especially not by translation.
- Use sentences that you find anywhere, as long as the sentences are by native Chinese speakers: comic books are a good place to start, since they are all dialogue and often use pretty simple everyday spoken language. Novels are good too. I use sentences that people email or text me when I don’t understand a word. You can also use sentences that people say, if you can get them written down.
- Be choosy. Only put a word on a flashcared if you could see yourself wanting to use in the near future. For example, don’t bother learning 面首 because you saw it in a 王小波 novel and found it amusing
- But don’t be exclusive. I don’t worry about putting the same word on more than one flashcard, because it helps get a more rounded sense of the word’s meaning. For example I swear I have half a dozen cards with 进行. That’s okay with me because it’s a word that translates into different English words in different contexts. So every time I find it in a context where I wouldn’t think to use it myself, I just create a new card.
Here’s an example from my flashcards. Someone once sent me a text that had this sentence in it:
Yǒu ge wèntí wǒ děi qǐngjiào nǐ
At the time, because I knew the person and the context, I understood that this was a polite way of asking for my help. Something like, “I have a question I’d like your help with”. But I didn’t know the word 请教. So I put this sentence in my flashcards.
The great thing about this method for me has been
- I learn the context in which the word was used — how it’s used in real life. Often I remember much more than just the sentence. I remember the tone in which it was used, the setting — everything. And all that context gets tied to this usage of this word, just like it does for native speakers. At least that’s how it seems to me. It seems much easier to remember to use the word, then, in an appropriate context in the future, because of all those connections in the old neural network.
- I do a lot of reading practice. You might think reading the same sentences sentences over and over wouldn’t be much use. It sounds crazy, but it has actually made my reading much faster.
- As I sort of said in (1), I very quickly find that I can use the word myself, often in just the right situation.
In the beginning, if you don’t know many characters, you could even use pinyin
FRONT: Yǒu ge wèntí wǒ děi ________ nǐ
But you can quickly switch to partial characters, maybe like this
BACK: 请教 (qǐngjiào)
And I recommend using all characters as soon as you are able, because it will really improve your reading.
My rules for single character flashcards
- Don’t bother learning a character until you know a word that uses it. In other words, don’t learn characters just because they’re on the “top 3000” of some frequency list. Instead, just learn the characters that appear in words in your word deck
- Don’t consider that you “know” a character until you can look at it and tell both its pronunciation AND a word that it’s used in. For 多音字 (characters with more than one pronunciation), you don’t “know” the character until you know all its pronunciations and a word to go with those pronunciations. For example when you see the card for 行, you should say to yourself xíng as in 行人 and háng as in 银行. However, per rule 1, don’t bother learning multiple pronunciations of a character if you don’t know the words that go with the alternative pronunciations. For example, for a long time my 没 card had just one pronunciation, méi as in 没有. It wasn’t until I got my brain around 没收 that I added mò as a pronunciation.
I still add characters to my character deck occasionally, but not often. After 3000, the returns diminish rapidly. If I come across a new character in a word I feel like I should know, then I’ll put the word into my word deck, and the character into the character deck. But a lot of times the characters I don’t recognize are in place names or people’s names. With those, either I see them a lot and memorize the pronunciation without needing the formality of a flashcard, or I only see them once and guess at the pronunciation and never come across them again, in which case memorizing the character seems kind of pointless.
Roughly, that’s it. My path to literacy has been paved with Anki, and I’m grateful for it. At the same time I’ve wasted a lot of effort trying to find the right way to use Anki, because it can certainly become a time-waster too. I hope this story plus the comments will save some time for future learners.
PS: I rarely handwrite anything, for the record. I’ve learned how to write characters, stroke order and all that. But I haven’t written most of the characters I can recognize. And I never practice handwriting, so from memory, I have trouble writing even the simplest characters. All of my communications are 输入法 assisted, i.e. using pinyin input.
PPS: Really, really gritty detail, for those in Ankidroid. My word deck actually contains three fields. Field 1 is the cloze sentence. Field 2 is the answer (in hanzi). In Field 3 I will sometimes put the pronunciation or even (gasp) an English translation. However, the way Ankidroid presents the cards, it’s just Field 1 as front and Field 2 as the back. I only see Field 3 if I edit the card. This way, most of the time, I’m doing my flashcards in a pure native hanzi & mandarin environment: no English or pinyin. But if I worry that I’ve forgotten a pronunciation or meaning, I can edit the card and look at field 3 as a crutch.