Best Way to Memorize Characters (for reading, but not writing)

Lots of professors have been condemning the teaching of writing Chinese to foreign learners, arguing that it’s not necessary in today’s world and triples the amount of time before the language is “mastered”. They say foreigners should use anecdotes and pneumatic devices, not repetition, to remember most characters. To foreigners that have learned Chinese for a long time, how have you gone about memorizing characters? I find that rote memorization, that is, repetitive writing, simply doesn’t work for me. I have to be focusing entirely on what I’m doing, and even then, I need to write more than 100 times before I can be guaranteed that I’ll remember a character for tomorrow. Even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll still be able to write it a week later, even if I practice a little every day. Well, once I get to a thousand, would I even have time to practice each character a little every day? I don’t think so.
I’m trying to find a way to increase the number of characters that I can read. Right now I’m stuck around 500. Suggestions for a time-efficient and smarter-not-harder sort of way to learn? Anybody?

Thanks in advance. Helpful comments will be recommended by me.

Get yourself a spaced repetition flashcard program on a smartphone or computer. Which devices do you possess? I use Pleco for the iPhone (free, but the flashcard module costs around NT$450, if I remember rightly). On the Mac I used to use ProVoc, but the iPhone is so handy it’s replaced that now.

Like you, I have no interest in learning to write - but for reading practice only, Pleco’s flashcard system is working wonders (400 new words down pat in two weeks for me, though I already have a decent grounding in characters).

I use studydroid on my HTC phone. It’s good enough because it’s free but the Chinese characters look a little small so in the end I pay a lot more attention to pinyin. Sigh. I’m waiting for an app that has the 3000 most common characters in either simplified or traditional, separated into clusters of 20, 50, or 100, with a few sample sentences or paragraphs you should be able to read (if not understand entirely) when you finish a cluster.
I think there’s money to be made in that, and if it isn’t out later this year, I’m paying someone to make it for me. I think it’s possible to learn a few hundred new characters a week or at least a month with a setup like that.

Pneumatic. ? That was funny. Mnemonic?

[quote=“Taffy”]Get yourself a spaced repetition flashcard program on a smartphone or computer. Which devices do you possess? I use Pleco for the iPhone (free, but the flashcard module costs around NT$450, if I remember rightly). On the Mac I used to use ProVoc, but the iPhone is so handy it’s replaced that now.

Like you, I have no interest in learning to write - but for reading practice only, Pleco’s flashcard system is working wonders (400 new words down pat in two weeks for me, though I already have a decent grounding in characters).[/quote]

Taffy, how is the Pleco system for importing premade lists. I’ve got lists of about 4000 words that are on my old Palm using SuperMemo. Wouldn’t want to redo them all but I love the idea of being able to have the functions of my Palm (character recognition pad, flashcards, dictionary), combined with the ability to have optical recognition and store Chinese podcasts, and my phone. Would save me carrying extra gear when travelling.

You can do this with Pleco. There are pre-made lists of the 3,000 or 5,000 or 12,000 (eek) most common characters, in both traditional and simplified, and it will automatically grab dictionary definitions, along with examples (in many cases). Pleco is coming soon to Android, so grab it as soon as it does. But I would suggest a better approach than learning individual characters is to learn words - it’s more natural. For example, after a while, you’ll pick up that 中間, 房間, and 空間 all share an element, which is to do with space. I find this preferable to knowing a couple of thousand characters but having no clue as to what two or three character words mean - do it the “words” way, and you’ll naturally pick up the characters while you learn words. There are many word lists available to help you do this, including most major textbook series, plus the HSK and TOCFL exams (separated into chapters or levels as appropriate).

An example showing the first item on my Pleco flashcard test list today:

Another way is to make lists of the words in the lessons you are studying. It’s not that difficult with the pinyin input as your lessons should also have the pinyin. Plus you are then learning words you can actually practice reading.

Premade list of all the vocab in the 5 PAVC books from Shida for Pleco:
plecoforums.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=2403

Sorry, missed this earlier.

With my premade lists I had to do some adjustment in Excel, but the import was smooth and trouble-free. As long as you can export from Supermemo into CSV, Excel, or tabbed text format, it should work.

Sorry, missed this earlier.

With my premade lists I had to do some adjustment in Excel, but the import was smooth and trouble-free. As long as you can export from Supermemo into CSV, Excel, or tabbed text format, it should work.[/quote]

Thanks. Do you know where I can find instructions for doing this?

+1 for Pleco Flashcards on iPhone. There are good flashcard sets for PAVC, CLO etc. out there. Feels (and probably looks) like playing a video game and is a good way to spend downtime.

As for how to do this, Pleco has several complete, free, downloadable libraries of characters and translations, so all you have to do is specify what characters you want in a text file by category and import it. The format looks like this where the first is simplified and the second is traditional. You can specify multi-character words as well, the dictionary will have them.

//ListName/CategoryName/SubCategoryName
我[我]
你[你]
...

//ListName/CategoryName/SubCategoryName
...

Then import them here while your iPhone is one the same WiFi as your computer. It will give you a step by step instructions on how to do it from here:

IMO, yes I also believe learning how to handwrite, in any language, is a total waste of time. This is the age of computers everywhere. We only ever handwrite these days when we fill out forms, so there is no point. My Chinese learning has gone up a bunch since I stopped the madness of writing each character a hundred times in those little children’s books.

I know you don’t like writing characters, but I think doing so helps a lot, and may be vital if you want to use Chinese professionally. Giving up on it now might close doors later. So, how should you learn how to write so that it sticks? This method worked very well for me. Sit down with a pen/pencil, paper, and audio material. Listen to the first sentence. Identify the elements you don’t know and learn them. Go back and listen again but this time write the sentence. Keep at it until you got it down. Then, go to the next sentence and do the same. After you finish the second sentence, go back to the first and repeat. One study session should include about 2-3 sentences early on, more as you progress. Every session should start with a review of the lesson from the beginning. By the time you’re done with the lesson – which takes several days at least – you should not only have the characters down, but also have the text memorized, which will do wonders for your test scores. I recommend throwing pronunciation practice into the mix, too. Hope this helps :slight_smile:

That’s madness even if you want to learn how to write.

For me, the best way to learn how to write characters is this: use them. Oh, surprise, it’s the same method as learning how to use words in everyday speech.

For characters, I do the exact same thing as when I am learning the vocabulary itself:

I have a vocabulary list, and then go by seeing the German word, and then trying to remember the Chinese word (=pronounciation). If it is correct, ok. Also, I do it the other way round, look at the pronounciation and try to guess the German translation. This I do roughly 3 times, until I learned it all.
For characters: Look at the German word and write down the character. Check if it is correct. If not, write it again. Also, just look at the characters and check myself if I know the reading and the meaning. If not, repeat until I’ve learned it.

And now the actual useful part: Just use the stuff in everyday speech. If you talk to someone, try to use some words which you have learned. They will stick better in your brain and you learn how to use them (this is the actual useful part in a language: not learning how to recite vocabulary, but knowing how to use it). If you don’t know how to say a word, you can sometimes take a peek at the electronic dictionary (as long as it is not too often)

For characters: just write some letters, stories or whatever. Try to use the vocabulary which you have learned (compare with actual speech in the example above), and try to write the characters by hand. If you don’t know how to write a character: It’s no disaster, just either check in the electronic dictionary or just type it in the computer with Pinyin or Zhuyin, and then write it by hand in your letter or story or whatever. Continue to write the rest by hand.
If you write a letter to your girlfriend or whomever, you can also sometimes just resort to Zhuyin, if you really do not know how to write a character and don’t want to take a look at the dictionary. This may not be correct Chinese writing, but it is no problem, if you have enough other characters correct.

By doing this, I can remember about 95% of Chinese characters in a text which I write. Being able to write 100% of all characters by heart is a useless goal, because devices to look up characters are readily available. The important part is to be able to write relatively fast, so that you don’t have to look up every character.

For me, this method is the best and the most useful. If I used this brute force learning method like you guys seem to do, I would also hate Chinese characters. But by just using them naturally, I actually like them :wink:

Funny, it hasn’t for me.

May I ask what doors would close upon somebody who can speak/read/type chinese fluently but not write it?

May I ask what doors would close upon somebody who can speak/read/type chinese fluently but not write it?[/quote]

I know I’ve had to write in every job I’ve ever had, including low paying ones, like selling lumber at Home Depot. But really it depends on your goals. If you are an entrepreneur and will just be using Chinese to get stuff for your restaurant or whatever and communicate with customers, then writing probably won’t be that important. If you’re aiming at getting a job in a Chinese company, using Chinese in the field at a high level, teaching Chinese, or getting into Sinology, then writing will be an invaluable skill. Another thing to think about is reading hand writing. Taiwanese/Chinese people don’t generally write like computer font. Many of them use a cursive-like form. You will naturally develop a sense for these forms if you write a lot, which will be a great help in being able to make out what native speakers write. (I still have problems sometimes.) Personally, I know that If I couldn’t write, I wouldn’t have a chance at what I am doing now/want to do. But I have some pretty ambitious, serious, unique goals.

So as a newbie, like the OP, giving up on writing so early on might be a problem later. If the OP already knows that he/she won’t need to write, then why learn to? But if the OP does not know yet, I would just spend a bit of time every day working on it. It will get easier over the years and eventually become frustration-free and even enjoyable.

Funny, it hasn’t for me.[/quote]

Although you said you needed to write characters to be able to teach Chinese in the States. I was thinking about that when I wrote the post :slight_smile:

[quote=“ironlady”]Teaching Chinese is an interesting thing. You will need to be able to write (often by hand, from memory) to pass the teacher’s examinations (at least in the US) for certification. [/quote]http://www.forumosa.com/taiwan/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=92689

Sure, for one exam. That’s why God invented cramming.

Learning to write by hand from memory because “what if I need it someday for a single examination” is not the best use of time for a beginner IMO. Learning to read makes sense for most – but not all – people. Learning to write competently using modern methods makes sense for fewer people. Learning handwriting really makes sense for very few from the viewpoint of necessity. Fortunately, the things that the most people need to do take commensurately less time than the things that the fewest people really need to do.

If you are unique and have unique goals, then that’s great, and you can pursue them by preparing yourself as you feel necessary. But for the majority, it is far more important to get them fluent within a reasonable pool of vocabulary than to have all four skills including handwriting but never have them get anywhere with the language.