Blog Archive

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Learning 10,000 characters with Skritter

I recently saw Skritter user Emil Persson mention that he had learnt 10,000 characters. This is certainly out of the ordinary, so I contacted him and asked him a few questions about his journey to 10,000 characters. Below, you can find his answers and the story of how he learnt 10,000 characters through Skritter.

First and foremost, please introduce yourself! Who are you?
Emil Persson. I live just outside of Stockholm with my wife and two sons. My wife is Chinese and my older son (4 years) is bilingual. I expect my younger son to also become bilingual, but so far he's not really speaking much at all as he's only 1.5years.

I'm a game developer. That's my short work description. A slightly longer version is that I'm a graphics programmer, and for those that really care I'm Head of Research at Avalanche Studios and I research rendering techniques that are relevant for games and frequently show up as a speaker on industry conferences talking about the same. I may be more known by my nickname Humus, which is also my Skritter name.

I am NOT a language nerd, as one might rightfully suspect, nor do I think I'm talented beyond the average. However, I can be very determined and focused. Which is something I think helps an awful lot with learning Chinese as it's a quite steep uphill battle in the beginning.
My name is

When and why did you start learning Chinese? Was your interest in characters there from the beginning or was it something that came later?
I began studying Chinese in the fall of 2012. This wasn't my own idea, my wife had to push me to get started. After all, she's Chinese and had learned Swedish, so it was only fair that I try to learn her native language as well. So eventually I somewhat reluctantly accepted to take a beginner's course at Stockholm University. It was a night time course at 50% speed, and I stuck through it to the end, so after that year I had basically the equivalent of half a year of full-time studies. And that's actually still the only formal education I have in Chinese.

When did you start using Skritter and what role has it played in your learning?
Skritter was really the thing that made Chinese interesting for me. As I set out on that beginners' course, I never really expected it to amount to much beyond learning to say hello and a handful of basic phrases. At best I hoped to be able to navigate the most basic social situations without embarrassing myself too much. After all, the goals for the course was also set fairly low.

After a year we were supposed to know 300 characters and 600 words. I knew that in order to read a newspaper, I would need to know over 3,000 characters, so at that speed it would take me a decade to reach that level. So my expectations were set accordingly, i.e. I didn't expect to ever reach the point where I could meaningfully communicate in Chinese beyond the absolute basics.

So I was actually a fairly mediocre student to begin with. I did find it a bit interesting, but wasn't spending too much time on it beyond the lectures, and was quite frankly lagging behind on the homework. I stuck with pinyin for quite a bit longer than I should have, even as we started to get deeper into characters during lectures.

Eventually as I tried to catch up on homework I encountered some practical problems. Our textbooks weren't of the best quality, and the glossary list was lacking some characters that occurred in the text. That eventually led me to google up a way to search characters by hand-drawing them. After some searching I found nciku, and from there I soon got directed to practice strokes on Skritter, and shortly after I had the app on my phone.

This was a game-changer for me. At that point I was three months into the course, and I only really knew perhaps 20 characters. Then within a week I knew over 100, and after less than three weeks I knew 300, the number I was supposed to know at the end of the course.

When I realized I was learning characters and words an order of magnitude quicker than I had before, learning Chinese suddenly became something that was realistic and feasible, and therefore also much more interesting and fun. At the time I took the final test, I knew 2,700 characters, and I was making my first attempts at reading an actual book in Chinese.

Reading at the speed and accuracy of a 6-year old of course, constantly referring to the dictionary, and in absolute need of the parallel English on the opposite side to not lose context and to make sure I really understood the text somewhat correctly, which of course in many cases I didn't. But still, I was reading Chinese, which I never thought I would be able to.

When did  you get the idea to aim for 10,000 characters?
When I passed 9,000 characters. :)

Seriously though, it's been a moving target. The first goal I set was to get through the course glossary, so I made a custom list for that. And that was quickly done, so I set of new goal of 1,000 characters. Once at that point, it was clear that it was realistic to shoot for the 3,000 characters, where I was supposed to be able to read a newspaper.

Of course, I also had all these intermediate goals at every 500 characters. A short-term goal, and a more far looking one. Once at 3,000 characters, which I reached within a year, I set a new goal at 4,000, because that's the upper number typically quoted for the "able to read a newspaper" range.

Just to be clear, most of the time I wasn't primarily studying characters per se, I was mostly studying words, but I still paid the most attention to my character stats. That's because I had some sort of long-term target number there to shoot for, whereas it wasn't clear just how many words I would need to know before I could read Chinese. So while I was primarily studying words, the number of characters still kept increasing in a fairly linear fashion for a long while.

Now, I was only studying simplified at that point. I really had no intent on anything else to be honest. My wife is from mainland China, and I wasn't expecting to go to Taiwan any time soon. But it was during a trip to China I came to realize that learning traditional characters was meaningful too. Even if simplified is what you'll see in most bodies of text, the traditional forms are definitively still around on the mainland too. They are very popular on business names and signs, art, decoration, and especially calligraphy.

So I changed my Skritter configuration from "simplified" to "both" and began crunching through the traditional forms. If you already know the simplified, it's easy to learn the traditional variants too, so this period is when I learned characters the quickest.  At that point I was at around 5,000, but rushed to 7,400 within two months.

After that I didn't really learn many new characters for a long while. At that point I felt like I had reached what was the meaningful set of characters to learn, already knowing both simplified and traditional, and having already studied a bunch of rare and obscure characters.

At some point I made another push and reached 9,000. Why? I can't remember actually. Guess I just had too much commute time to fill. :) Quite frankly, at times I was running out of material to study, and occasionally I have studied pure character lists. The words I accumulate from whatever I have happened to look up in Pleco only goes so far. And random Skritter lists from other people eventually gets to the point where there are actually not that many new words in any given list. I found Jun Da's enormous character frequency lists and ended up studying the list of classical Chinese characters. I guess that was the natural progression after learning traditional. And I guess part of the motivation also was to fill any gaps I might have.

Now the big question: Why learn 10,000 characters? :)
Once I was beyond 9,000, well, it was close enough that it would be unreasonable to not shoot for 10,000. :) Of course, at that point, I wasn't learning new characters because I expected to really have a great use of them, it was increasingly just becoming a meta-game, just grabbing the next hi-score.

As it turned out, it wasn't as easy to reach 10,000 as I had originally thought. It turned out that at this range of the character frequency, the number of characters that are actually in Skritter's database drastically dropped off. I plateaued at 9,400, despite studying lists that themselves contained well over 10,000 unique characters.

I found a character list with all characters in the BIG5 character encoding standard. It had over 13,000 characters in it, and was happy to once again gain characters at great speed. Confident I would reach 10,000 soon I was extremely frustrated to finally exhaust the list and only reach 9,940.

 So I did the most completionist thing I have ever done. I found a complete directory of all the characters that exist in Unicode, i.e. essentially all characters you can represent on a computer without resorting to image files.  That turned out to be a bit over 20,000 characters, and I made one huge Skritter list of that. Should anyone else be crazy enough to try to repeat this, it is available here. That allowed me to finally pass 10,000 characters, but actually not by a whole lot. Having finished that list, I'm now at just 10,150 on my writing stats.

I (that's Olle) have learned roughly 6,000 characters in Skritter (traditional only), but felt that few beyond 5,000 were actually useful. Do you agree? What's your take on this?

I agree generally speaking. There's of course a point where the time spent learning new characters becomes greater than the total amount of time you'll ever spend looking up characters at that frequency range, so one can easily argue that should you ever encountered a super rare character, you might as well just look it up that one time.

It's obviously the case that I've passed the break-even point a long time ago. I would say that if you only study one or the other, the break-even point is probably around 5,000 characters. If you study both and count both as separate, as Skritter does, then add another 2,000 to that for the variants of the other set.

When I was at 5,000 and still only studying simplified, I felt most characters were still useful. After learning all traditional and reaching 7,400, well, that's probably the point where I would say the rest was more for bragging right than for practical utility.

But with that said, I have also encountered a number of these rare characters in actual text and it's very satisfying to realize that this character that I just was able to read is super rare. In the summer of 2014 I visited the China Town in Vancouver and brought home a novel collection by a selection of Chinese-Canadian authors. It was written with traditional characters, and the by far hardest reading I have done so far, but it also gave me plenty of opportunities to put rare characters to use. It was as if on every other page there was another instance of a really rare character. Maybe it's a China-Town thing, where they may still use old language that has fallen out of fashion in China? But it did at least confirm to me that I wasn't entirely wasting my time and characters in this range do after all occur in real text.

Of course, some characters at that point are just weird, like for instance 聝 (guó, to cut the left ears of the slain). Others are rare not because they are weird, but only because they are kind of specific, like 铹 (láo, lawrencium) which you may still encounter while reading something chemistry related, but sits in the 8,500 range in Jun Da's frequency list of modern Chinese, and is actually slightly more rare than 聝.

I recently encountered another chemistry-related character 硫 (liú, sulfur) on-board a Chinese military ship that was visiting Sweden and open for the public to see, and was able to outshine my native Chinese friends who didn't recognize it, to my great satisfaction. :) My wife, however, knew the character, and I'm still waiting for a real-world situation where I can beat her. ;) Of course, this isn't nearly as rare, sitting in the 2,700 range.

And then of course you have all these characters for names of places. I visited 峨嵋山 (Éméi shān) with my wife in early 2014, and there you have 嵋 which I believe only ever occurs in the name of that mountain, sitting in the 3,800 range. It's a famous mountain though, which probably explains why it's not even further down the list. Btw, you should go definitively there if you ever get the chance, it's really beautiful. :)

What was the biggest challenge with learning so many characters?
As I mentioned, the biggest challenge in the end was simply finding enough characters that actually exist in Skritters database and has stroke data such that I could study their writing. This is a not a problem the average Skritterer will run into. I might just be the only one to ever have that problem.

As for actually learning characters, that's not so hard, at least if you use Skritter. And the more characters you know, the easier it is to learn more. Most of the rare ones are actually very standard fusions of a semantic and a pronunciation part, with very few surprises. In fact, I think you'll find the most odd exceptions and weirdness among the really common characters. Like the most common character of all, 的, its components helps neither with meaning or pronunciation in modern Chinese.

Have you learnt any valuable lessons about learning characters that other students would benefit from, even if they didn't aim for 10,000 characters?
Well, if you're starting fresh, my recommendation is that once you've warmed up a bit and perhaps is past the first 100 characters or so, you may want to study a radicals list before continuing with more directly useful characters.

This will help speed up learning characters in the long run, and you learn to subdivide characters into their components instead of thinking about individual strokes. It really pays off in the long run.

Other than that, while it's probably a good idea to stick to either simplified or traditional to begin with, I would also recommend that you eventually learn the other character set too. It's actually a surprisingly quick and effortless thing to do. It takes a few weeks for the entire set.

Where do you go from here? Do you have any other crazy challenges in store?
Well, this may make you sad, but I actually just recently unsubscribed from Skritter. But then again, it's perhaps also a great message to all the newbies out there that are just getting started, that there is an endpoint to this. Eventually you'll reach the point where you accomplish what you set out to do.

It may look like a lot, but Skritter is an awesome tool for learning that much. It has served me really well. Three years ago I knew essentially no Chinese at all. Now I can read Chinese. I know more characters than I'll ever need, and more than most native Chinese people. Vocabulary is certainly not a weak spot either.

My weak spot is the spoken language. Listening comprehension is OK. I can sit with Chinese people in a conversational setting and understand most of it. But I have trouble keeping up while watching TV, especially the news, and movies can be tricky too, depending on the dialog, dialects of the actors and what not. So that's my next step where I want to improve. I will of course keep reviewing my due items in Skritter, to make sure I retain what I've learned, and eventually I'll probably return to boost my vocabulary again, but for now it'll be listening comprehension.

Finally, my spoken Chinese truly sucks. But that's the aspect of the language that will always trail for me, because I'm a quiet guy and I feel uncomfortable speaking a language I don't know very well, which in itself becomes an impediment for learning.

My hopes is that an improved listening comprehension will lower that threshold for me to the point I'll feel a bit more comfortable actually practicing talking Chinese. So my shorter term goal (next 6 month to a year) is to be able to follow TV and fast movie dialogues, and the long-term goal (1-2 years) is to become moderately fluent in speaking.

A big thanks to Emil Persson for sharing the story of his journey to 10,000 characters in Skritter! This is not really something we recommend you try at home, but it's still a great accomplishment. Let it inspire you, regardless of what character-learning goals you have!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Chairman's Bao, now with Skritter integration

Understanding is important when learning a second language. If you don’t understand what you listen to or read, you’re less likely to benefit from it. Naturally, if the things you listen to are too easy, you’re not challenging yourself and won’t learn as quickly as you could have, but this is rarely a problem when learning Chinese.

The problem of finding suitable learning materials

Instead, the main problem for beginner and intermediate learners is that there isn’t enough breadth in their learning. The only resources available are textbooks, which are usually okay, but far from enough, and real-world Chinese, which is way too difficult.

If you as a student follow the carefully marked path set by your textbook or course and do nothing else, you will soon be reading fairly advanced texts. But your foundation will be shaky and you will find that material outside your textbook is very difficult. You would benefit from more listening and reading at a lower level rather than keep learning words and constructions that are unlikely to help you much.

Enter: The Chairman’s Bao

One of the most exciting developments in recent years is the emergence of services that help you broaden your Chinese by providing content at a specific level. That means you can keep studying as much as you want on your specific level, without making everything more difficult all the time.

TheChairman’s Bao is a very good example of this. In essence, it’s a site that provides news in Mandarin, written for specific levels of proficiency. The current span is from HSK3 to HSK6 and above. This means that the articles are limited in terms of difficult characters and words and that you can read about interesting and/or current events in Chinese at your own level.

This is amazingly useful. While there are graded readers that accomplish something similar, the Chairman’s Bao is provided for free online. With audio. Each article is of limited length, which makes it easier to incorporate into your daily routine. Another benefit is that the topics are interesting and help you keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the Chinese-speaking world. If you’re going to read news anyway, why not do it in Chinese, adapted to your specific level?

I think resources like these are very good for learners at all levels. Students in general spend too much time fighting their way through difficult texts, while they would in fact benefit more from reading easier texts instead, enabling them to cover many times as much material in the same amount of time. If you haven't checked out the Chairman’s Bao yet, you should. It costs you nothing, but adds great value to any study routine.

Skritter integration

The Chairman’s Bao has been available and awesome for some time now, but the reason I write about it now is that the service just became even more useful for Skritter users. You can now add words you encounter in the Chairman’s Bao directly to your Skritter lists, thus combining two very powerful ways of learning the language.

Interview with Sean McGibney about the Chairman's Bao

I also took the opportunity to ask the people over at the Chairman’s Bao some questions about the site, how it came about and where it might go in the future. Enjoy!


What was the initial goal when starting TCB? What about today?

Our initial goal was to create the kind of language learning platform that we ourselves craved when we first started learning Chinese. To provide interesting, current, engaging content at varying levels of the Chinese proficiency test, HSK, whilst also introducing varying aspects of Chinese culture and loads of interactive features.

What do you consider TCB’s greatest success to date?

For me, our greatest success so far has to be the fact we have attracted a user base of over 10,000 in a little over nine months. It’s more than we ever could have expected when we started out on this project! Being invited to speak at the IOE Confucius Institute Annual Mandarin Teacher’s Conference at University College London to show how we can be used to complement the new A Level syllabus in the UK was also a pretty special moment.

What’s been the greatest challenge for TCB so far?

Our greatest challenge to date has been training our writers to hit the desired HSK level for articles. It’s something we are always improving and we have developed an article grading tool that allows us to ensure our articles are good fit for the desired level. All of our writers have experience of teaching Chinese as a foreign language, so that also gives them a unique perspective when it comes to writing articles.

Tell us a secret about TCB that almost no-one knows!

Our team is currently split between three countries, so when you read an article it is likely that the article has already made its journey between China, the UK and Singapore – that’s a lot of air miles!

Tell us a little bit about what’s new on TCB, apart from Skritter integration!

We’re excited about the Skritter export function, as it will allow our users to benefit from Skritter’s excellent character writing tool. Aside from the recent website uplift, our developer is currently putting the final touches on our app, available on both iOS and Android, which will be hitting app stores soon!

How are topics selected and articles written?

All of our directors have lived, worked and studied in China (for a combined total of 25 years), so we choose articles based on our experience of what Chinese learners want to read. Content with a China-focus is preferred and users are also welcome to contribute topics for us to write about! A recent article on the European migrant crisis is an example of this.

How are the texts graded for difficulty?

Texts are graded using our HSK level analysis tool, which our writers and editing team all have access to. This allows them to work within the regulations we set for each level, such as the maximum number of unclassified words and the maximum number of words above the level. HSK is never going to be perfect, but we've found it an excellent place to start!

What plans do you have for the future? What’s the next step?

We have our sights set on other languages, so keep your eyes peeled for that! We also have some improvements in the pipeline to make our website and app more interactive for users and to take the workload off teachers in the classroom.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cultural Post: Japanese Monsters

Like Valentine's day and Christmas, Halloween has recently started gaining popularity in Japan, something which could be completely expected if thinking about some of monster folklore that's popular in Japanese culture.

When you take a look into Japan's traditional culture, it's completely natural that Halloween has taken hold in Japan.

Besides "yōkai", there are a quite a few words for "monster" or "ghost" in Japanese.  Here are some common ones:

・妖怪 (ようかい) meaning a monster or ghost.
・怪物 (かいぶつ) meaning  monster.
・物の怪 (もののけ) meaning vengeful ghost.
・怪獣 (かいじゅう) meaning monster, like Godzilla.
・化け物 (ばけもの) meaning monster or ghost.
 ・幽霊 (ゆうれい) meaning ghost.

Here is a Halloween inspired post, covering some common apparitions you might encounter while absorbing the culture.

Rokuro-kubi, translating to "pulley neck", is a type of female yōkai who's neck can expand and contract. In the original version, the head is instead detachable.

 These goblins, 天狗, meaning "heavenly dog" don't really look like dogs. The word originally comes from Chinese, but in Japan were depicted as demons taking the form of birds of prey. The long beaks that were initially drawn on them later transformed into their defining long noses.

They may be sort of cute, but 河童 (meaning "river child") are still yōkai and described as troublemakers, though obsessed with politeness. The empty spot on top of their head must remain filled with water or they lose their power and eventually die, and so it's said one method to escape a kappa is to bow to it-- they'll return the bow, spilling the water from their head rendering them powerless. Kappa's are quite popular, some locations in Japan have signs warning of water dangers showing an image of a Kappa. There's even a hairstyle named after them: the おかっぱ, which is a bowl cut, resembling the top of a Kappa's head. There's also an expression, 河童の川流れ, meaning "a Kappa swept away by a river", which translates to "even experts make mistakes".

Futokuchi-onna, or "two mouthed woman", is a type of female monster who has two mouths-- one being on the back of their head. In stories, their true nature is usually not revealed until the very last second. There are variations, but it's usually linked to a woman married to a miser and rarely eats, and becomes a yōkai. A mouth forms on the back of their head demanding food, which eventually splits open, with their hair acting like serpents grabbing food to stuff the mouth with.

Hitotsume-kozou (meaning "one-eyed young monk") is a rather harmless type of yōkai that take on the appearance of a young monk in training with a bald head and one eye, often described making sudden appearances to startle people.


These guys, the 垢嘗, meaning "filth licker", come out at night to lick the grime that builds up in an unclean bathroom, which is a good reason to make sure it's always sparkling clean! The word 垢 (aka) meaning filth, is a homophone with 赤 (aka), meaning red, and so they are often depicted as being red in color, though in the graphic is green.

 The kasa-obake is a type of possessed item, with one eye, one leg, and sometimes a tongue (or even arms). Like the hitotsume-kozou, not only do they have one eye but are also considered generally harmless. In some tales, as tools and items get older and older, they gain the ability to turn into an apparition, called a 付喪神 (つこもがみ). There are a lot of other common types of these besides umbrellas, like lanterns, jars, and paper screens.

If you like Japanese monster folklore, a site you can check out with great artwork and small bios for countless yōkai can be found at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Skritter 2.0: Building a better character teaching tool

Since its inception Skitter has been a fantastic tool for character review and retention. The blank canvas of each writing prompt is a wonderful execution of the active recall principle--stimulating memory recall during the character writing process. But what happens when something new appears on Skritter for the first time?

Using the "show" button presents the character in question, but it will disappear as soon as you start writing it. Holding down "show" reveals the stroke order, but the interaction isn't the most intuitive, and it still forces you to recall the character from memory. Not an easy task for something you might be encountering for the first time in a list.

Enter Teaching Mode

Ever since building the first Android beta, the Skritter team has been wanting to make character teaching a larger goal of our application, and that goal is quickly becoming a reality on "Skritter 2.0," the working name of Skritter's new html5 client. In addition to updating the look and feel of Skritter's website and mobile applications, we're also working on bring a better learning experience to Skritter, and we're kicking it off with our new teaching mode!

Teaching mode will be the default behavior for any new items that appear on the beta site. From now on, rather than being presented with a blank canvas, any new items that appear on Skritter provides a traceable character along with a full reveal of character reading, definition, example sentence and more. Rather than race through a new character, we hope this will force everyone to take a bit of extra time to study and reflect upon the new items in your list.

Third time's a charm

Teaching mode doesn't stop at new item behavior on the new site. We also want to help detect leeches (here a leech is defined as a character or characters that you're continuously getting wrong during a study session) and put a stop to them for good. Moving forward, the teaching mode prompt style will appear for any writing prompt you've gotten consecutively wrong twice during a given study session. Again, it's our way of reminding you that this prompt could use a bit more study time.  

Where you can try it out

Teaching mode is now live on the Skritter 2.0 beta site. Either log in from the link or click the "Study (Beta)" button from the main Skritter dashboard. We hope you enjoy the first step of Skritter becoming an even more powerful character teaching tool!

If you have any comments about this new feature, please be sure to let us know in the comments below or join the Discourse thread here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

すげぇ! Slang in Japanese

To master a language, slang eventually becomes part of the equation. It's important to be familiar with what's used, even if you don't plan on using it-- that way you aren't left in the dark when someone says something you aren't familiar with.

One common thing a lot of (mostly young and male) Japanese speakers do, which is a bit like an accent and can be considered slang, is pronouncing the end of certain words with an え sound.  It's sort of along the lines of using the word "coo" instead of "cool", which takes on a slightly different nuance.

Here are some higher frequency words that are often pronounced this way:

instead of すごい, meaning "incredible!" or "amazing!"
”す・・・すげえな この人は・・・!”
"That guy's incredible!"

instead of やばい, meaning "terrible", "risky", "crap!", "awful", or "cool!"
The change in meaning is similar to how "wicked!" or "sick!" can have a positive or negative nuance in English.

 instead of うるさい, meaning "shut up!"
 ”うるせぇ さっさと寝ろ!”
”うるせぇ さっさとねろ!”
"Shut up and go to bed immediately!"

instead of おまえ, meaning "you", and a bit derogatory. 
 Male friends may call each other "おまえ" without intending offense and as a way of showing buddy-buddyness, however it becomes more derogatory when pronounced as ”おめえ”. 
"I hated you, but you had the pride of a Saiyan."

instead of ない
For example 面白くねえ instead of 面白くない, or じゃねえ instead of じゃない.
 ”おまえじゃねえ すわってろ”
"Not you, sit down."

Funnily enough, the particle is often pronounced , for instance "いいな" instead of ”いいね”, or ”そうだな” instead of "そうだね”. Again this is mostly used by males. 

Along those same lines, sometimes words are shortened and the ending left off, again taking on a different nuance. Keep in mind the small つ at the end is to indicate the sound is cut off short, and isn't pronounced.

 Here are some examples:
 instead of うまい, meaning "delicious!"
More girls use the word うまい nowadays than before, however it's still thought of as a word used by men, where women usually use "おいしい”.
「”ヤバい” 激辛 うまっ! とうがらし」
「”ヤバい” げきから うまっ! とうがらし」
("Dang!" Extremely hot delicious! Chili pepper)

 instead of ヤバい, carrying the same meaning as mentioned earlier. 
"Damn, I deposited too much"

instead of でかい, meaning "huge!". 

 instead of 難しい (むずかしい), meaning "difficult".

Changing the pronunciation of a word isn't the only type of "slang" in Japanese, of course.

Here are a list of words commonly used which are considered slang, some have come to be from shortening a longer version of a word:

from 真面目(まじめ), meaning "serious".

meaning "super", or "ultra", and used a bit like "すごく".
As an example combining with a word from above, one could say "超でか!”
(Super huge)

from 目茶苦茶 (めちゃくちゃ), meaning "absurd" or "extreme".
It's used a lot like 超 above.
 (A book that will make you extremely good at arithmetic)

 from 不細工(ぶさいく), meaning "ugly".
”あんた ブスだぁ"
"You're ugly"

from 気持ち悪い (きもちわるい), meaning "gross" or "disgusting", or "creepy".
"No, sincerely creepy."

from うるさい, meaning "annoying" or "noisy".
(His manner of walking is annoying)

meaning "questionable" or "delicate (situation)".
It can also be used to explain that something sort of sucked.
Keep in mind maintaining 和(わ), or harmony is important, which is why Japanese at times can seem so vague, evasive, or cryptic, so if you describe something as questionable with "微妙", it's in other words "not-so-good".
「きび団子=き:_ び:_ 」
「きびだんご=き:_ び:_」
”嫌いじゃないけど / 微妙な味だよ” 
”きらいじゃないけど / びみょうなあじだよ”
(Kibi Dango = Ki:_ Bi:_)
"I don't hate it but, it doesn't taste that great".

(きび団子 is a a type of dumpling made with mochi flour, and is part of the famous 物語 (ものがたり, meaning Japanese fairy tale) 桃太郎 (ももたろう、meaning Peach Boy), as seen in the image above).

instead of うち, meaning "home".
For instance, "オレんち” which is short for ”オレのうち".
"There's another cat in my house!? And it goes by my name!?


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hacking the most difficult Chinese characters (7-9)

We all have some characters that just refuse to stick and that we keep forgetting over and over. The best way of learning tricky characters in Chinese is to deal with them decisively. For more about how to do that, check the first article in this series.

 The most difficult Chinese characters
In this article, I will go through some of the most difficult characters. This difficulty is not based on my opinion, it's based on statistics fetched from our database. We know which characters Skritter users get wrong most often.

For each character, I will explain:
  • Character frequency and basic definition
  • Pronunciation
  • Character composition and formation
  • The component parts and their functions
  • Common words and/or phrases for context
  • Why the character might be difficult
Previous articles: 

4.  抑 (yì) "restrain; press down" (frequency rank: ~2000)

Depending on whom you ask, this is either an associative compound (a hand 扌 pressing 印, altered to 卬 in the modern character) or a phonetic-semantic compound with the same components (卬 is read "áng" and 印 is read "yìn").
This character is the same in simplified and traditional Chinese.

Some very common words including this character are:
  • 压抑/壓抑 (yāyì) "to constrain; oppress"
  • 抑制 (yìzhì) "to inhibit; to restrain"
This character is hard for a number of reasons. The first is that regardless of how the character was formed, neither explanation is very transparent because one of the components have changed. This means that there are clues, but they are indirect. Second, the right part is similar to several other components, including 印, but also 卯 and 叩.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!

5.  (mào) "appearance; looks" (frequency rank: ~1400)

This is also a left-right compound. The left part, 豸, is one of the Kangxi radicals and has numerous definitions, including cat, badger, legless insect and mythical animal. This might contribute to making it harder to remember; I suggest sticking with one of these! The right part is 皃, which means "countenance", but which seldom appears in characters. Neither of these appear as characters on their own in modern Chinese.

貌 is part of at least two common words:
  • 礼貌/禮貌 (lǐmào) "courtesy; politeness"
  • 容貌 (róngmào) "looks; appearance"
It's also used to mean "aspect" in grammar, so 完成貌 is perfective aspect.

Both components are tricky but for different reasons. The left part is tricky because it can be confused with numerous other animal components, especially if you don't use one single and distinct image for each. For example: 犭, 豙 and 豕. The right part is very unusual and easily misrepresented as 見 or perhaps 竟.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!

6.  凌 (líng) "draw near; insult" (frequency rank: ~1500)

This character is actually my family name in Chinese (my Chinese name is 凌雲龍), so I won't forget it even if I don't write any Chinese for the next 50 years, but I understand that it can be difficult for other students. The character is an obvious phonetic-semantic compound (夌 is also read "líng" and means "to dawdle"). 氵 is one of the forms of water, 水.

Worth noting is that 淩 (with three drops of water) is also an existing character, which means the same thing but which is less common. You should almost never use this character instead of 凌. Personally, this created some problems when I lived in Taiwan, because my bank account was incorrectly registered with three drops of water instead of two.

Here are two common words that include this character:
  1. 冰欺凌 (bīngqīlíng) "ice cream"
  2. 凌晨 (língchén) "very early in the morning"
I remember having problems with this character when I first learnt to write my name in Chinese. I also sometimes mix up similar characters, especially because of similar components on the right, mainly 夋.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!


That's it for today! Do you find these characters difficult? Have you developed good mnemonics for than? Or do you have a question? Leave a comment!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Which stroke order is correct? Does it matter?

Stroke order shown in 现代汉语通用字笔顺规范.
In my previous article about stroke order, we looked at why learning correct stroke order is a good idea. In this follow-up article, we're going to discuss what "correct" stroke order means anyway.

Remember that the reasons for learning correct stroke order are related to practical things. This means that you shouldn’t learn it because I or someone else tells you to, you should do it because it will genuinely help you write better characters.

Different standards

That being said, in some cases, it’s not obvious what correct stroke order means. The variations are usually small, only differing in the order of a few strokes, often when two stroke-order rules are in conflict with each other.

Some of these differences are because of regional differences; one version is standard in Mainland China, one in Taiwan; the Japanese character uses a third version. In other cases, there’s no regional preference, it’s just that it makes sense to write the character both ways, so both orders are common.

Note that "makes sense" here doesn't mean from the perspective of a foreigner who has studied Chinese or Japanese for a few months, it means from the perspective of a literate native speaker. In other words, it doesn't mean that anything goes. Don’t invent your own stroke order!

Follow a standard; which one is of secondary importance

If you learn to write in a certain way from a reliable source such as a dictionary or a competent teacher,you can safely ignore other variants if you want. As long as you follow a standard, you should be okay.It doesn't matter that much which standard you follow.

For example, when you write the strokes in 忄 (the vertical radical version of 心, "heart"), you can write it in any of the various available ways. You have better things to remember than such subtle differences. If you really want to know, the Mainland standard is dots first, then vertical stroke; Taiwan standard is left to right.

Correct stroke order in Skritter

In Skritter, we use Mainland standard as described in 现代汉语通用字笔顺规范. This means that when Skritter shows you the stroke order for characters, this is what you will see. For characters that only appear in the traditional set, we use Taiwan’s Ministry of Education dictionary.

However, for the reasons discussed in the previous article, there’s no reason to exclude other standards, so even if we write 忄 with the dots first, then the vertical stroke, you can write this character component from left to right and still get it right. Skritter won’t complain. This is true for a large number of other character component too.

Still, if you do something strange like writing the character backwards or trying to write the vertical stroke from the bottom up, Skritter won’t accept that. Please also note that we update our character database continuously, so if you find a stroke order error or think we ought to accept something we currently don’t, just contact us and we’ll fix it!


Follow a standard, which one doesn't matter as long as it's being used by native speakers. Don't invent your own stroke order even if you think it feels better, at least not until you know how to write relatively well. Skritter will help you and show you the Mainland standard, but will also accept other variants.

This article is based on my experience of learning and teaching how to write Chinese characters. What’s your experience? Did or do you find stroke order to be a big problem? If not, what strategies did you use to make it easier?