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My plan for learning Chinese


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I'm hoping on getting some information on the best ways to learn a language. The different tools and techniques that the people here have come across, so that I can give them a shot. I have a system I use right now, though I'm always looking for ways of improving it. My goal is for long term retention, and in a one year period I'm aiming for over 5,000 characters (Hanzi). It's closer to 7,000 characters (20 a day), though I overestimated in case I couldn't study some days or I just wasn't feeling up to it. Right now, the learning process has been a lot easier then I thought it would. Though one thing to keep in mind, I do have a very, very good memory. I can remember strings of numbers past 30 digits and recall them hours later (without the aid of a memory tool). Anyway, here is the system I'm using below.


Phase 1 - 214 Radicals

Phase 2 - Level 1 HSK - LVL 6


That is the basis of what I'm studying and plan on studying for a year, at least vocabulary wise. I'm learning the Hanzi, along with the Pinyin. This isn't the only way I'm studying ether, which will be listed through out here. This is just the vocabulary I'm using. I use Anki as my main source of study. I add the words from the net (double checking sources to make sure they are valid). I add the character, then on the back I add the Pinyin, and the English meaning; along with some other details. I don't pay too much attention when adding them other then glancing at them once or twice. From here once they're added (I only add 20 at a time) I stare at the character of the card I'm studying first for a few moments before reading the meaning of it. Then I try to make it a pictograph in my head; something to do with the meaning. I try my hardest not to associate English with it. I've found that remembering isn't the problem, I can remember the meaning of the images easily. Remembering the terms in Chinese is a bit more difficult. I will say that to go through 20 new cards takes me less then an hour; and this is having rather good recall of them. I do this at night, a few hours before bed. I think the biggest thing that helps me is that knowing I'm a visual learner. If someone does something I'm pretty good at duplicating it and I've always learned best this way. So, seeing the characters as pictures works really well for me. If I can reference anything in my past with it, such as the Radical for "dog", I think of my favorite pet dog that I've had. My goal is to tie as many different things to that word and character in my head; to make it more difficult to forget. I do this before bed because for me, it helps me remember better.

I'm not sure why, but sleeping after learning makes me retain it a lot more (not cramming though, I never go for more then an hour at a time, some of the time less if I feel myself getting tired). The next day I generally review the cards again, all the cards that I've added. I do this mainly to keep them fresh. I've read from blogs and on reddit that a lot of people who study characters end up forgetting the ones they started learning; this seemed common. Right now I'm a stay at home father who works part time from the house teaching martial arts and I take care of my son outside of that. So this gives me some time through out the day to devote to this. Earlier today I went through 80 cards, in under an hour. I don't rush the process. If I mess up on the card I stare at the character and repeat the Chinese word 5 to 25 times; while visualizing an image to link it to something if possible, and creating a picture out of the character. I do this to all of the words, and I do it after getting a word wrong each time. Even if I do get a word right, if it wasn't "good", then I'll redo it. I got through all 80 of the cards in under an hour. Later today I added 20 more (about 3 hours ago) and went through them all. Tomorrow I'll do the same thing I did earlier today, I'll review them all again. I can say that this has definitely helped me with retention of these characters. One of the most interesting things is actually thinking in a different language.

Outside of studying like this, I watch 1 TV show in Chinese per day, usually 45 minutes to 1 hours per day. This helps me with listening quite a bit. I have the PA for Mandarin, and I use this for spoken. Though I'm not focusing on this right now; it is something I will add in at a later time. I also have a friend that is in China, me and her Skype and she helps me with pronunciation to make sure I sound correct and I'm not learning wrong. Grammar wise, I'm using Modern Chinese. It's pretty nice so far. I'm taking notes in a notepad on my laptop, and I will be turning these into flash cards in the future. Though not right now, I don't want to add too much. I'm using a book called "Reading and Writing Chinese - 3rd edition" as well. Though writing isn't as important to me with computers and all. My goal to help keep these characters is consistent use of Anki and reviewing often enough, though reading is something I think is going to help a lot. Use it or lose it. After I get done with HSK 3 I think, is when I'm going to start trying to read small books. Like child stories or something; something at that level. I would think at that level I should be capable of reading to some degree.


Anyway, thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have anything else that you think will help, please do share!

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Hi there

Your approach sounds reasonable. However, I do have some suggestions. My HSK level is 5 and I do (did) study Chinese at university.

I get that you are a visual learner. Still, I think it would be a good idea to actually do some writing as well. Why? Well, it's simple. Writing will help you to remember the characters better. So I would advise you to also write down every character that you are learning on flashcards. Of course you will have to write them down in the right stroke order. If you do not know the stroke order of a certain character, the easiest way to get it right is to look it up in PLECO. You haven't heard of PLECO yet? If that is right, you should definitely get it as soon as possible. It is a very handy and very popular app for learning Chinese. It is basically a dictionary, however there are many different modules that make it a complete package for learning Chinese. The basic package is free and the modules, such as Flashcard module, OCR module, additional dictionaries cost a few bucks each but are all very well worth the money.

One more thing about your approach: It sounds like your approach is linked to Mnemonics. You might be interested in the Heisig Method then. It is pretty similar to your approach. 


I worked with that book for some time and it was nice in the beginning. I liked it in the beginning but after some time I felt like it is better/easier for me to study differently. I can tell you more about the reasons if you want....just let me know.

As far as Grammar goes, studying Chinese is pretty simple. I've got an amazing Grammar book. It is called 'Chinese Grammatik für Deutsche'. Maybe this book is available in English as well. If it is available, I would advise you to get it. The link is here:


I have a lot more to say about studying Chinese, so if there is anything particular that you are interested in, just let me know.




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Thank you very much for your response!

I actually plan on taking the HSK test (my goal being level 6 ready or close to it by the end of a year). When I first started I started with writing them down too, though it seemed pointless with writing because of the use of computers and smartphones. Even my friends in China said they don't normally write it; they just put Pinyin into the computer and chose the character that comes up. Though, I can see how it would be beneficial. I think I'll add writing to it, how many times would you suggest? 5 times per character? The one book that I have, "Reading and Writing Chinese", has the stroke order. Though I will download that software you are talking about, it sounds like a valuable resource.

That method you said that is close to what I'm using, what made you stop using it? Did you find a better way of learning or did it just become less useful? Also, how long did it take you to get to level 5 HSK?

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For me to give you a reasonably good evaluation I'd have to ask quite a few more questions, but I'll just jump to the main issue I have with it: too much out of context learning. Even with a fantastic memory, the way you've chosen is at the very least less efficient than a method where you learn more in context. For Chinese, the disadvantages of learning all the characters up front far outweigh the advantages imo. For Japanese you can make somewhat of a case, but not Chinese. I encourage learners to learn some vocabulary in context, then use mnemonics and SRS's to learn and review all the new characters/vocab/sentences(as needed). It works so much better when you have all that context to remember stuff with. Having a huge anki deck of isolated characters, even assuming you can stay on top of it really well, is of surprisingly little help when you actually get around to learning the language in context. So it's better not to do that huge out of context exercise in the first place. And considering how much time you'd save by instead only loading the characters you've already encountered, you'd progress much faster.

And the second red flag for me is the lack of writing, as already pointed out by linguaholic.

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Thanks for the replies everyone!

I will say that I did try writing them and I do understand the proper method for making the strokes (and I have a book that shows how to as well). I will say that I haven't noticed any better improvement from writing them as compared to what I was doing normally. It felt as if I was taking a lot more time with writing and just not getting as much out of it. I'm up to 150 characters (I'm doing the Radicals first, tonight I add another 20 or 30). I test myself pretty often on it, and so far it's working pretty well. I kind of treat it like when I went through school and we would have a vocab list to read, review, and write. I never did do the writing outside of what I had to. did write down each one 5 times, and I'm keeping to it. I just don't think it has made much of a difference but I'm still working with it. I do write the Hanzi in the air with my finger, I catch myself doing this a lot when trying to recall something.

I use a lot of Mnemonics to help in the beginning, but they eventually fall off when I remember it. This has worked so far. I'm not sure if I'm going to stick with this methodology when things get more complex. I have a friend in China who quizzes me and helps me with pronunciation a lot; she's amazing. I've learned a lot of phrases and basic conversational things from her. Originally when I started learning Chinese is was because I wanted to go to China and learn from a Xingyi teacher. I thought I could just get away with not reading or writing it. I read about a guy who wrote a book on fluency, he's pretty well known. I forget his name but he's on youtube also. He said in one of his videos that he can't even read more then 100 characters, but he speaks very well. He said he uses Pinyin when typing, and has anything he reads translated into Pinyin (sense everything he reads is online). Though this seemed counterproductive to me.  

I do think memory is probably the most significant aspect of learning anything. My little brother has trouble with memory, he just can't remember facts very well. He has to drill it and drill it a lot before he can catch on. We were both in the same math class in college (I think it was something to do with Matrices in Math, Linear Alg. or something). I studied 1 or 2 hours a week outside of class, and he studied 10 or so hours outside of class. We studied roughly the same, but he had to study a lot more then I did. We got similar grades, both passed the class. I've read different ideas memory when it comes to learning a language. I've read a fair amount of information that says context when it comes to learning a language is actually bad. A lot of high school classes do this. You learn the names for the body parts, all the colors, etc. I'm not sure if this is exactly what you mean.

Could you give an example of what you mean when learning vocabulary?

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You're on the right path by learning the radicals first. But after that, I recommend learning characters in context. the following is my recommendation of the SRS/anki side of vocabulary study, but keep in mind that it's just one piece of the puzzle. Context is crucial for learning vocabulary, so reinforce by practicing all skills regularly, and this will work well. In your situation, I'd recommend doing a very basic audio based beginners course that has a transcript. I highly recommend Pimsleur (you will have to obtain the transcript elsewhere) and/or Michel Thomas. The program you choose is going to be your first source of vocabulary and characters. You do a lesson as prescribed, repeat as necessary, and when you feel pretty comfortable with it, it's time to learn the script. I recommend loading all the characters, words and sentences into anki as follows:

Card 1
Front = character
Back = pinyin, meaning
(if you don't know either the pinyin or the meaning it's a fail)

Front = 你
Back = ni3, you

Card 2
Front = compound (target character in pinyin, other characters in hanzi), meaning
Back = character 
(If you can't write the character it's a fail. This card is where I recommend using the Heisig mnemonic if you get stuck.)

Front = ni3好, you
Back = 你

Card 3

Front = word in hanzi
Back = pinyin, meaning
(if you don't know either the pinyin or the meaning it's a fail)

Front = 你好
Back = ni3hao3, hello

Card 4
Front = word in english
Back = word in hanzi, pinyin 
(if you don't know the pinyin it's a fail; to save time, I don't write these out. But if you aren't getting enough writing practice in the beginning, writing these is a good option.)

Front = you
Back = 你好, ni3hao3

For sentences, use cards 3 and 4.

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