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How to Memorize Chinese Characters

If not for the characters, Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world. Yet, I would be the last to suggest for characters to be abolished – they are what drew me to the language. As a teenager, I read this popular science book on linguistics and it had these lines from a Tang poem by Han Yu, describing the characters:

年深岂免有缺画? Time has not yet vanquished the beauty of these letters
快剑砍断生蛟鼍。 Looking like sharp daggers that pierce live crocodiles,
鸾翔凤翥众仙下, Like phoenix-mates dancing, like angels hovering down,
珊瑚碧树交枝柯。 Like trees of jade and coral with interlocking branches,
金绳铁索锁钮壮, Like golden cord and iron chain tied together tight,
古鼎跃水龙腾梭。 Like incense-tripods flung in the sea, like dragons mounting heaven.

As beautiful as they are, that doesn’t make them easier to learn, it just gives you the motivation to keep going. I wasted a lot of time trying to learn characters the Asian way, by writing them over and over and over again. Writing them like that commits them to muscle memory – your hands can trace them, like your PIN at the ATM, even if your brain cannot remember their shape. However, muscle memory only works with very regular re-inforcement and I don’t intend to hand-write Chinese often enough for that to be viable, at least not beyond the most common 600 or so characters (it explains why this method works for Asians though, or used to work, getting weaker with the advent of computers and cellphones). What’s left is trying to commit the characters to your real memory, so that your brain can recall how to write them when your hands cannot. That’s where it helps to have a photographic memory, or even any kind of memory that’s good with pictures – I don’t have either, I think in abstract terms only, and yet I really wanted to learn Chinese characters!

The Solution

First, stop seeing the characters as a series of almost-random strokes. Familiarize yourself with the basic elements and their inate meaning. This will also help you distinguish 王 (king) 壬 (ancient burden) and 玉 (jade) or 土 (ground) and 士 (knight). You will notice that the vast majority of Chinese characters are not new, they consist of two or more of the basic elements. If you know the basic elements, you can then construct a mnemonic to link the elements to their meaning, a little story to help you remember or even a downright explanation. For example, the character 明 meaning “bright” consists of sun and moon – not difficult to remember, is it? The character 休 meaning “to rest” consists of a person and a tree – mentally fix the idea of an exhausted hiker resting against a tree and you’ll never forget this character again. This works for complex characters as well, and for each character you can choose into how many parts you split it, e. g. if you want to think of 偷 meaning “thief” as (person + making a canoo) or as (person + Chinese roof + moon + knife) – I went for the latter, with a story involving a thief on the roof of a house in moonlight, knife in hand, in order to climb into one of the windows and steal stuff. Stories can be colourful, absurd, racy, nonsensical even, as long as you personally find them memorable.

For the purpose of learning a large amount of characters this way (I memorized almost 2500 in one non-intensive year), it makes sense to go from basic characters to more complex ones, also so that you don’t have to memorize all possible basic elements at once. Unfortunately quite a lot of frequent words involve characters that are complex combinations of 4 or more elements. So character study has to be somewhat separate from regular textbook study at first, until you have a foundation. It is possible to go this path alone; Zhongwen.com gives you an analysis of each character’s components. But I don’t recommend it, because then you’ll encounter the issue of having one peg word corresponding to several characters, or inadvertently learning out-of-use characters, or learning complex characters before learning the parts that they’re made of.

I recommend getting a book to guide you. Depending on your background, there are three books I can recommend for learning characters:

1) Alison and Laurence Matthews’ Learning Chinese Characters proposes pictures and stories to go along with every character and the stories will even help you remember the pronunciation and the tone if you choose. On the down side, this book only covers about 1000 characters. They are sorted roughly in order of appearance in textbooks (!); it’s really great as a textbook companion for a beginner with little prior knowledge of characters and methods.

2) William McNaughton’s “Reading and Writing Chinese” (simplified characters or traditional) is a better choice if you have already learned more than 200 characters and taught yourself how to make mnemonics based on the character parts. This book is also guided by frequency and teaches you more than 2200 characters but doesn’t feed you the stories.

3) T.K. Ann’s “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” is for the pros, sinologists and the like, covering almost 6000 characters, basically all that you’ll ever need, even when reading literature. The book doesn’t give stories so much as etymology – etymology with a bit of fantasy filling in the gaps – usually making characters very memorable. On the down side, you will find frequent characters mixed with infrequent ones, so getting this book only makes sense if you’re planning to learn all characters anyway, and if you have time to wait e. g. till the end of the first volume to learn some characters that will come up in the first few lessons of your Chinese textbook. T.K. Ann also provides lists of words using the characters, but again you have to be careful – some of these words are clearly literary or outdated, without being marked as such.

4) I guess I should mention James Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi” (with traditional or simplified characters) for completeness’ sake, but I would not recommend it except possibly if you already used Heisig to study Japanese Kanji. His book has several drawbacks. The biggest is that he doesn’t provide Pinyin (pronunciation) with the characters, even though in Chinese it makes sense to learn pronunciation at the same time (characters with the same elements usually have a very similar pronunciation and characters usually only have one possible pronunciation). Also, Heisig made the mistake of largely copying his Japanese Kanji book for this, giving little thought to how frequent/useful these characters are in Chinese, or whether a different order of introduction might make sense for Chinese.

Note that you probably won’t need to graduate e. g. from “Learning the Chinese Characters” to “Reading and Writing Chinese Characters” to “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” when you’re ready to learn more – once you’ve learned 800+ characters this way, the method and the meaning of basic elements should be so ingrained that you can learn all future characters on your own as you encounter them. The main advantage there would be if you’re making a push to learn lots of characters BEFORE you encounter them.

Good luck with your studies!

How I Shall Tackle a 15min Vietnamese Conversation in 90 Days


I have decided on my next goal: I want to be able to have a 15 minutes conversation in Vietnamese in roughly 90 days from now. Right now I know zero Vietnamese: not even the pronunciation, not even “hello”. However, I have experience succeeding in language challenges. This is my action plan:

  1. Sign up for the Add1Challenge, which I have successfully used to achieve the same goal in Hebrew in 2015.
  2. Familiarize myself with the basics of Vietnamese pronunciation. As Vietnamese pronunciation is very difficult for Westerners (it’s a tonal language and has unusual sounds), I will also keep working on my pronunciation throughout the challenge, and ensure that all my materials include audio.
  3. Study Assimil’s “Le Vietnamien de Poche” as a quick introduction to the grammar and useful phrases.
  4. I haven’t yet studied a language with Glossika, but I will try it this time, since 15 days of Glossika are included in the price of the Add1Challenge. Afterwards I will decide whether to continue with Glossika or one of my more typical choices (Teach Yourself or Colloquial).
  5. Start using Vietnamese every time I eat at a Vietnamese restaurant. At the beginning I might just use the greetings and “I would like “, from there I will graduate to being able to understand numbers (for paying) and being able to have a bit of small talk. Schedule a restaurant visit for day 3 and regularly from then on. (Oh the hardship of learning a language… must have more Vietnamese food, oh no!)
  6. Within one week of the start, I will start taking italki lessons. I will aim to overlearn one conversational topic per lesson in order to quickly develop a number of topics I can have conversations on. All topics must be things I find interesting and practical for my current situation (e. g. talking about language-learning rather than practicing booking a hotel room).
  7. Use Anki in order to retain the vocabulary I gain from the lessons, since vocabulary retention tends to be a problem for non-European languages. I will use chunking and flashcards enhanced with sentences and audio in order to make the most of this software. I will resolutely refuse to learn all words that are too advanced to be useful for my Day 90 conversation. A key factor in success is knowing what to chop.

Wish me luck!

My introductory video for this challenge:

Feel free to adapt the above plan for your own Add1Challenge!

14 Tips for Learning Languages (+ 14 language video)


Which language should you pick? How to stay motivated? Is it bad to learn more than one language at once? How to memorize vocabulary? How to keep improving when you’re already at a high level? … I get a lot of questions about learning languages. Here are my top 14 tips in a handy list. Watch the video below in order to hear me expand on each idea. To make it more interesting, I have recorded each section in a different language, 14 languages in total.

14 Tips:

  1. Choose a language or accent you enjoy.
  2. Know your reasons and purpose, so that you can eliminate detours.
  3. For a huge boost (once you know some basics), live the language 24/7 for a week or two.
  4. Have a plan for how to use the language, otherwise you’ll forget it as fast as you learned it.
  5. Get involved in the community and you’ll never have to worry about maintaining the language.
  6. Use any excuse in order to speak the language. Don’t wait until you have to. Be proactive.
  7. Find things that are only available in your target language.
  8. If you’re still a beginner and struggling to find the discipline to study every day, set up goals and challenges. There are existing challenges you can join, like the Add1Challenge, the Tadoku challenge, the 6 Week Challenge, the italki Challenge.
  9. Stick with a language until you have a decent level. It’s much easier to forget a language if you never knew it well.
  10. Don’t learn similar languages at the same time. Wait until you reach a good level first.
  11. When you do have a good level in one language, do invest a bit of time in similar languages, at least enough to understand.
  12. Take advantage of word families when studying vocabulary, especially if you’re studying a non-European language.
  13. To keep improving when you’re at a high level, find challenging activities that take you out of your comfort zone.
  14. Stay up-to-date on new methods and tools.

Longer explanation of each tip in this video:

Time stamps for languages:
0:21 German
1:10 Latin
1:33 French
3:02 Swahili
3:39 Esperanto
5:05 Italian
6:07 Modern Greek
7:13 Modern Hebrew
8:15 Arabic
9:02 Spanish
9:49 Dutch
10:58 Indonesian
11:58 Mandarin Chinese
13:12 English

Language Plans for the Summer

The Polyglot Gathering was a huge success. It’s inspiring to be among so many people who love languages. I never took that for granted, because in my hometown near Düsseldorf I often felt like a freak for wanting to learn a lot of languages. Well, if I’m a freak, there are hundreds of them and we’re getting stronger. 😉

What I found particularly motivating was to see people who are way better than me. Sometimes I get discouraged: at 13 languages (admittedly some of them quite weak), is it really possible to go much further? Can I hope to bring more of them to fluency? Can I add more languages? Or is it a swap at this point: gain some in exchange for losing others? So my best memory of this year’s Polyglot Gathering was to witness Tim Keeley and Daniel Krasa have a conversation in 22 languages – and not just European ones but languages from 9 language families, including Nepali, Thai, Croatian, Chinese, Hebrew and so on. They actually both speak more languages, but have “only” 22 languages in common. It’s insane. And they’re still learning new languages. So for me that was tangible proof I’m nowhere near the limit and I won’t let those doubts get me now. I am burning to go further!

My latest addition was Hebrew, which I studied in a 90-day challenge from mid-January. I made a lot of progress – more progress than I ever made on similar adventures before. I also studied much more regularly than normally I would have. It’s because of the Add1Challenge, which brought structure and accountability to my wild self-study. Sadly I didn’t manage to keep up my studies since April because of the effort required to organize the Polyglot Gathering. I barely did any paid work either.

My Plan

This summer, I’m turning over a new leaf. I have enrolled in both the June italki challenge and the next Add1Challenge. Both start on June 1.

My plan is to mainly improve my Hebrew, since I committed myself to reaching B1 in Hebrew before the end of the year.

I will also keep working on my Italian, as I need a solid C1 in it before I can tackle Spanish again.

I may do a bit of Norwegian if I have time. I’m meeting a friend from Norway in July and it would be nice to speak some Norwegian, but Norwegian has never been on my todo list until now.

Finally, I will keep up the once-a-week Modern Greek lessons that I’m already enrolled in.

My Chinese debating class is over now and I cannot enroll for Chinese next semester due to my trip to the states (German immersion course and Polyglot Conference), so I think I’ll just revise what I learned and read a couple of the books that my friend left me.

And yours?

What are your language plans for the next few months? Let’s hear them!

If you want to make a lot of progress or develop a consistent language-learning routine, I can recommend the Add1Challenge. Watch what I (and others) have to say about it in this video:

Sign up for the Add1Challenge and let’s learn a language together this summer!

* Full disclosure: the links to the Add1Challenge are affiliate links, but obviously if you’ve seen the video or read my enthusiastic post about my Hebrew results, you know that I am a fan of this challenge and would recommend it anyway.

Did You Fully Experience the Polyglot Gathering?

The Polyglot Gathering 2015 just ended and I again had a lot of fun organizing it. If you attended the event, here’s a fun non-authoritative checklist I created in order to figure out whether you fully experienced the event 😉 Check off what you did.

Meet someone you only knew online
Imitate some weird sounds
Learn about an unusual language
Quietly add another language to your wishlist
Listen as some polyglots rapidly switch languages
Practise a language you thought “not ready”
Add a bunch of new friends on Facebook
Kiss someone at the Bamba (during jOmO concert)
Dance to a language you don’t recognize
Understand more Esperanto than you thought you would
Pick up so many language materials you have to worry about suitcase size or baggage limit
Find renewed enthusiasm to study more languages
Promise yourself that next year you’ll be better
Re-evaluate whether you can attend the Polyglot Conference in New York (if you aren’t registered yet)
Wonder when registration will start for the next Gathering

Thank you for coming! The participants are what makes this conference awesome. See you next year! <3

Did You Fully Experience the Polyglot Gathering?


The Polyglot Gathering 2015 just ended and I again had a lot of fun organizing it. If you attended the event, here’s a fun non-authoritative checklist I created in order to figure out whether you fully experienced the event 😉 Check off what you did.

Meet someone you only knew online
Imitate some weird sounds
Learn about an unusual language
Quietly add another language to your wishlist
Listen as some polyglots rapidly switch languages
Practise a language you thought “not ready”
Add a bunch of new friends on Facebook
Kiss someone at the Bamba (during jOmO concert)
Dance to a language you don’t recognize
Understand more Esperanto than you thought you would
Pick up so many language materials you have to worry about suitcase size or baggage limit
Find renewed enthusiasm to study more languages
Promise yourself that next year you’ll be better
Re-evaluate whether you can attend the Polyglot Conference in New York (if you aren’t registered yet)
Wonder when registration will start for the next Gathering

 

Thank you for coming! The participants are what makes this conference awesome. See you next year! <3


Take-Aways & Results of my 90-Day Hebrew Challenge

I just completed the Hebrew Add1Challenge – I have now studied Hebrew for 90 days (plus a few days non-intensively outside the challenge) and 85 hours total. I think my results are quite good, for having started from scratch. Be sure to turn on the subtitles. I added English subtitles to all my Hebrew Challenge videos:

I actually recorded one video at least every 30 days, because that’s part of the Add1Challenge idea. If you want to watch my progress through these videos, I included them at the bottom of this post. But first I’ll write about my biggest take-aways of this challenge. By the way, if you’re now motivated to do an Add1Challenge yourself, there’s a new one starting in a few days I believe: the Add1ChallengeFull disclosure: the links to Add1Challenge are affiliate links, but as you can see in the videos, I’m a fan of this challenge and would recommend it anyway. If you prefer a non-affiliate link, go straight to www.add1challenge.com.

What I learned

I like challenges because they are concentrated language learning. Being concentrated, they make it more obvious where the problems lie. In my case, one problem that I already knew about was my lack of a language-learning routine. This was one of the reasons I signed up for the Add1Challenge in the first place, to have social pressure help me form a language learning routine. I’m not 100% there yet, but I’ve been learning Hebrew much more regularly than I otherwise would.

Another problem that I encountered: learning vocabulary that sounds different than any other word I know. One of the advantages of being a polyglot is that you can draw on so many different languages for mnemonics. I did take advantage of that, but due to the different phonology and the root consonant system, there were still Hebrew words for which I couldn’t find a good mnemonic. My solution, which I implemented quite late: rather than cramming too many strange new words, also look at word families within the target language and learn those. For example: ‘inyan (interest), la’inyan (to the point), yesh li inyan be… (I am interested in…), me’anyen (interesting), me’unyan (interested). Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a root-based dictionary of Hebrew, that would have been really helpful. If you know one, please let me know!

At the beginning of the challenge, I focused a lot on Anki, simply learning lots of words and also quite a bit of grammar. Later, I found that all these words weren’t really doing much for me, because I had trouble recognizing words in regular-speed speech and I needed too much time to come up with words myself when building phrases. I then remembered Anthony Lauder’s excellent talk from the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, where he told us that the human brain actually cannot process language at the speed as it is used, if it were to rely on a vocabulary list. The only way we can speak as fast as we do is because our brain chunks phrases. To say “I’m hungry, let’s go have falafel”, your brain does not look for the words for “I”, “am”, “hungry” and the like, it probably has a stored memory of “I’m hungry”, and also “let’s go”, and then maybe looks up “have” and “falafel”. So it only does 4 dictionary look-ups rather than 8. And language learners do 8 look-ups for this kind of phrase, that’s why they can’t speak or understand faster.

There is no way around it, you have to allow your brain the time to see & store chunks. You can speed up the process though. Here are some ways:

  • Put chunks of words on your flashcards (rather than each card being one word)
  • Challenge yourself to write X sentences using the same chunk
  • Have tons of conversations or self-talk exercises, so that the most common phrases become chunks that you can recall without effort
  • Select a few chunks beforehand and try to use each of them several times in your next conversation.
  • (Possibly) if you’re a fast reader or have a lot of time on your hands, blast through a target-language book in a few days. You’ll pick up a lot of the author’s favourite chunks. It won’t work if you need more days though, because you’ll forget chunks before you see them again.

I will definitely use these insights in my next challenge! At this point, I haven’t yet reached my ultimate goal with Hebrew though, so I feel that I should continue studying it for a while longer, even though the motivation isn’t as high. I’m also drawn to improve my other languishing languages. On the other hand, there’s another Add1Challenge soon and Swedish or Vietnamese are looking shiny…

Day 0: Start of the Challenge

Day 20

Day 30

Day 60

Day 90

Your Native Language is Esperanto??


I produced a short film! It’s an interview with 6 native Esperanto speakers from different countries and they talk about how they wound up speaking this artificial language as their mother tongue and how this affects their lives. Fascinating!


(Be sure to turn on subtitles; the button is at the bottom right)

If you have more questions for them, they will be doing an AMA on Reddit later today, or you can ask on Quora.

My Add1Challenge & Hebrew after 21 Days


When I was at the first ever Polyglot Conference in Budapest, there was an amazing lecture by Anthony Lauder. He revealed the mathematician’s approach to becoming a polyglot who speaks 9 languages:

Speak 8 languages, then add 1

In true mathematician’s fashion, he would then analyse the harder one of these two steps and try to simplify it. So: instead of “speak 8 languages”, we get “speak 7 languages, and add 1”. This can be further simplified: “speak 6 languages, then add 1”. And so on and so on, until you wind up with “speak 0 languages and add 1”. The audience was laughing. Anthony’s advice is as simple as it is effective: to become a mythical polyglot, all you need to do is Add 1 language – repeatedly, if necessary – until you reach your target. Don’t worry about learning 9 languages, just learn one more language than you know right now.

This home truth led Brian Kwong to create the Add1Challenge – a community effort to help everyone learn just one more language than they know right now. The challenge is open to everyone, no matter if they are learning their 5th language or their first, no matter if they’re starting from scratch or already know some. The key is to encourage each other, learn from each other and hold each other accountable, for 90 days. There is even a prize: the best participant will win a flight to the country where his target language is spoken. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what does. (Read more about the Add1Challenge)

Even as a veteran language learner, I personally found the Add1Challenge very useful. You see, I decided to learn Modern Hebrew and even made the mistake of promising Alex Rawlings that I’d speak Hebrew with him when he next visits Berlin – which will be on March 21/22, for the Polyglot Workshops. So I need to learn Hebrew quickly, and the Add1Challenge is helping me go further than I could without that community by my side.

This is me just yesterday, on day 21 of the challenge, speaking without notes (you can switch on English subtitles):

On Day 1, I only knew the alphabet and the two phrases “I am Judith” and “I am German”. I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned and looking forward to how much more I’ll learn before the end of the challenge!

If you want to try the Add1Challenge as well, you’re in luck, because the next batch is about to start. However, it is by application only, in order to ensure that everyone is serious about learning and speaking their target language. So go to http://www.add1challenge.com and click on “Apply” or “Notify Me” in order to get the chance to sign up for the next Add1Challenge.

Full disclosure: the above is an affiliate link, but I’m a fan of this challenge and would recommend it anyway. If you prefer a non-affiliate link, go straight to www.add1challenge.com.