When learning a language for the first time, mistakes in your methods seem inevitable, after all you don’t know where to start, and even when you follow good advice from people who have become fluent, it’s still possible to make mistakes and mess things up. So that’s why I’d like to talk about my mistakes so that other people don’t repeat them.
1. Memrise Flashcard Format
Memrise is the online SRS I use to learn vocabulary, however for Chinese learners, it can often be quite frustrating and there are so many bad courses out there. I’ll rank a brief selection of courses from worst to best.
- Decks where you answer in English instead of Chinese (obviously)
- Decks where instead of correct pinyin, they use numbers next to the pinyin (this is the one most courses fall into) – They tend to not care about synonyms and not put alternative answers in the response so say for 不用谢, an answer of “Bùyòng xiè” would be accepted however “Bù yòng xiè” would be rejected.
- My old courses for nine months – Where you would be given the English and need to type in the pinyin. After learning the pinyin you would change to learning hanzi, where you typed in the pinyin to learn the hanzi.
- The type of deck I’m converting to – you have the English on the front and then need to type the full hanzi. This means that you learn the pinyin, but also the hanzi as well. So your effectively doing what number 3 is doing, but in half the time. It’s 50% better.
Obviously number 4 is the best and number 1 the worst. Learning both hanzi and pinyin at the same time is obviously faster than learning one after another, not to mention the fact that for most of the words I learned the pinyin for, I would never get around to learning the hanzi as I would forget to duplicate the course and swap the readings round.
So now I’m working on converting all of my decks to this new format, however even then it’s still not optimal. Because I have learned the pinyin already, I am only learning the hanzi rather than both at the same time. So even though I’m aware of the problem, it will still take me a long time before I am able to move past it and recover from it’s side effects.
2. Creating Too Many Memrise Courses
The next mistake is more of a management problem. Instead of putting all the words I wanted to learn into one deck, I would instead split them between many decks. This is so I could learn with different Chinese friends and then recap the words before the lesson, however in the long run it was unsustainable. There was just too many courses and it got out of hand having to go through an incredibly long list everyday, many of which only contained one or two words I needed to review. It would have been much faster and saved me more time to have everything in large decks even if reviews were crazy.
There is no easy way to merge decks in memrise, there is no copy and paste for courses. The method I found was that I needed to install a plug in for anki to import my memrise course, then export it from anki to a text file, then copy and paste that text file to bulk add words from other courses.
The problem with course number three as mentioned above is that you need to let all combination of words be accepted. So say for the word 不用谢, you would need to type all combinations “Bùyòng xiè”, “Bù yòng xiè”, “Bùyòngxiè” and “Bù yòngxiè” – which if you have 2000 words is a time consuming nightmare. Switching to the 4th type of deck minimises so much time needed for writing too. Also when deleting and combining decks together, this process for every word would have to be done many times as well.
3. Not Realising How To Use Anki
I had tried anki many times before, but for me, it just didn’t work well. I always found that it was much harder to learn words on, and I think for most people this is the case.
But that doesn’t mean that anki isn’t a valuable tool. Essentially I learned what the problem is: The anki algorithm. To put it simply, it’s really bad and has crazy infinitely long time frames for consequences of the buttons you press. However that doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed and fixed – anki is incredibly customisable!
Anki has so many plugins that you can make the entire learning process so much better and optimal. I sort of wish that I learned it sooner when making my choice of which SRS to use. Words on anki were always a nightmare, words on memrise were comparatively much easier. However it didn’t have to be that way.
If you are using anki to learn a language, it’s seriously worth learning about how it’s algorithms work (considering you’ll be spending so much time on it) and if you like I did, found out how wrong it was, you can always change it for the better.
Something like having a much better algorithm for learning is huge, and in the long run, can seriously benefit you.
4. Not Understanding Why Remembering the Simplified Hanzi Was Useful/How to Use It
Any person who has done even ten minutes of research into how to learn a language has learned about the amazing thing which is Heisig’s remembering the kanji. However when I tried to do it, both when I tried learning Japanese and Chinese I really didn’t understand.
I simply went though an anki deck for RTK1/RSH1 and didn’t consult the book at all.
However upon reading the book itself (if you go onto amazon it contains a lengthy introduction as well as many sample lessons so you can try and test before you buy) and actually testing it out for myself, my attitudes towards it had completely changed.
Previously all I had was the keyword, which was always strange and weird – however it’s clear that that’s for a reason – every hanzi needs one keyword that has to be unique, so of course some are going to be strange to eliminate words that mean the same thing.
As well as that, when you have the explanation of the hanzi and what it means (as well as an interesting Heisig story) it makes a hell of a lot of sense, and the meanings just come to you naturally, even if they’re really strange or weird. You eventually get them.
It doesn’t quite make as much sense to me to learn them now, as I already know many hanzi already. However it’s really good for the new hanzi that I don’t know.
I still don’t think remembering the Hanzi is amazing, but with the help of the book the process is really quite impressive. I don’t believe that you necessarily need it in it’s current form though. I’m just using it to go through roughly 1000 of the more useful ones in order to give me a head start in reading, and then as the rest are less common I’m planning to use the same in context approach as I’m doing already.
This is combined with learning the hanzi for the words I’ve studied already on memrise, so altogether it should combine to make my reading pretty good overall – hopefully.
5. Nature of Flash Cards
It seems clear to me now that if you take the base products of all the courses and algorithms on memrise and anki that memrise is better. But anki is so much more customisable that I’m coming to think that you can improve it to be better than memrise overall.
That doesn’t mean anki is better than memrise, just that you can put the effort in to make anki better than memrise. Think of it like skyrim, although I really love the vanilla game, it’s dlc content can improve it so much more.
Something that I’ve missed and not really taken advantage of at all is likely the best kind flash card – the sentence card. Specifically a sentence card which contains entirely words that you know already, except for the word your trying to learn.
The advantage of this seems quite clear to me. It’s much easier to learn a word in the context of a sentence and it also gives you information on how to use the word your trying to learn.
I’ve found many times that I’ve learned a word, only to realise that I’ve been using it wrong/ thinking of it in the wrong way. An example of this is 凉爽 (Liángshuǎng) which means “cool” I remember once saying to my friend 你很凉爽 only to be met with confusion, because it turned out that it only meant cool as in temperature and didn’t take the double meaning. Obviously having this in a sentence and only using it in the relevant context would have prevented this mistake.
The difficulty with cards like this is that they’re much harder to make, as you need to find sentences which only contain one new thing for you to learn. I’ve looked into tutorials for this, and honestly it seems hugely complicated, and not something that I’d like to do. Particularly I’d like to make flashcards from netflix shows that I watch, but the entire process for this actually looks crazy.
Luckily I’ve found a deck online with about 10,000 sentence cards, arranged in an order which will only add one word to the previous. As I obviously know a lot already, I’m getting my way through all of the ones so far whilst knowing everything, and only learning new expressions. But I’d be very interested to find out how well this process works once I get further. I’m really interested to see how this deck turns out, and honestly I consider it’s creator a godsend.
The course can be found here if you want to try it, though I do recommend changing it and making it your own (as I plan to do) as well as deleting half the cards as it tests both directions (English to Chinese and Chinese to English) and honestly it just feels too repetitive. I also don’t want to learn these sentences, just understanding them is enough, so for me I dropped the English to Chinese test and just chose to continue with being tested on Chinese to English.
If you ask most fluent people who learned English how they learned it, they will pretty much always say something along the lines of just watching a lot of tv programs. Honestly they were likely taught it as well, but honestly, if you want to learn a language, you need to practice listening a lot.
You can learn sentences and words and grammar but honestly it won’t help you if you don’t listen to fluent people, as people in real life sound pretty much exactly the same as they do on TV.
I’ve started watching Chinese drama’s without English subtitles and honestly it’s not been as bad as I thought. Its shows I watched already (so I already knew what was happening) and even if it’s all a mess you always understand more than you think you will.
Let’s say you don’t understand a single word – that shouldn’t really be the case. Even if your just starting off you should know some of the most common words and be able to recognise them. But why can’t you?
It’s because you don’t have the experience of listing to fluent speech to pick out those words. If you go back and look at the subtitles you will often find that so many times they said words that you knew already, but you’re just not used to the language so you didn’t recognise them.
This is what immersion helps you do. It helps you put theory into practice.
Currently I’m mainly just re-watching the Chinese shows that I’ve seen already. Because of this, it’s quite an enjoyable process as I know everything that is going on (more or less) and I really do feel like I’m learning. Having a visual element as well is also very helpful, some shows anybody could understand without any subtitles at all.
You do pick up words and phrases, consciously or subconsciously and it’s always an amazing feeling when you understand a complicated sentence you didn’t understand previously or find a new word that you learned appear in speech.
In the space of a fluent adult TV show, for the ones I watch, I find that I can understand maybe 20% of the content. Which is a low estimate. The reason why I call it low, is that you will always find that you understand a lot of words, or can recognise the grammar but not the overall meaning. So when I say 20%, I mean stuff that I can understand completely, not including stuff where I know most of the content of the sentence but not the overall meaning or can just infer through context.
However once you start watching you realise that it seems strange to say this as it honestly varies so much. For example for a show like ‘Take My Brother Away’ (on Netflix) the characters speak so fast that it’s much harder to understand. However I just watched an episode of “Accidentally in Love” and “Meteor Garden” and understood at least 40% of it. “Metor Garden” episode one just seemed incredibly simple, and for “Accidently in Love” it had a lot of easy scenarios and a whole ten minutes of a drunk guy shouting really easy Chinese so it was naturally increased. It makes you realise just how interesting the path to fluency is, and just how much fluent language can change. However I think if I were to take the overall picture it would be at a maximum of 20%.
Having even a number this low can still make shows entertaining to watch, I find that in a long TV show theirs a lot of really complicated sentences you can still understand, and many things you understand without realising as they’re just easy basic expressions to you. You will also occasionally find the odd scene where you understand every single word completely and entirely – 100% – now that has to feel pretty good, as you progress these odd moments and scenes can get longer and longer too! Having a period of time where in a 20% show you suddenly understand 70% of it for a couple of minutes is really quite cool too.
Words learned through immersion tend to stick quite well. I’m still sort of bridging the gap between identifying all the sounds and separating words of a language with seriously trying to learn from the drama’s. So right now I’m looking up words much less. However the more exposure you get, the more you hear words, and start to recognise them, the better the meaning sticks.
I would say that immersion is by far the most difficult thing to do, and it’s likely the main reason why there are so many learners who never got fluent. It’s sort of necessary, and at the end of the day, what’s the point of learning a language if you don’t even want to consume content in that language?
Mistakes are to be expected. Everyone does them, especially at the start. And I’m not necessarily convinced that they’re a total waste of time.
For example let’s say that you hate immersion, and want to reach a level where you can understand at least 50% of it before you start doing it. Well getting to that point would take you much longer without immersion, however I see it being quite possible to get there eventually.
You could call this a waste of time. However, if watching dramas where understanding less than 50% is really unpleasant and horrible for you, so horrible that you decide to quit learning, then isn’t following what people would consider as the mistake better?
Theirs of course a limit and a balance to strike between what methods are the best and what methods are the most fun. Of course the worst tragedy would be when you miss out on learning with a more effective method that is indeed more fun.
So now that I’ve documented my mistakes, I hope that they might help you and other people learn not to fall for the same traps that I did.
We are all at different levels trying to find our way to fluency, wherever you are at, it’d be really interesting to talk about how it’s going, and let me know what you thought of my mistakes, and maybe talk about your mistakes as well to help more people too.