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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Confusing Mandarin pronunciation, part 1: The final "-ing"

Learning to distinguish and pronounce the sounds in Mandarin can be difficult, even more so if you rely too much on transcription system or don't learn them properly. In some cases, there are also variations among native speakers that confuse second language learners.

In this article I will first share my thoughts on variations in pronunciation and then discuss an example, the Pinyin final "-ing". These observations are gleaned from teaching experience as well as error reports here on Skritter. I call this "part 1" because I intend to write more about this later! If you have a specific sound you find confusing, please leave a comment and I will consider talking about that sound in future posts.

The importance of mental categories

Before we start talking about specific sounds, let's talk about mental categories. Our brains sort language sounds into different categories formed by earlier exposure to languages, both native and otherwise. If our categories aren't aligned with those of native speakers', we will make mistakes. Similarly, if we're not aware of natural variations in the language, we might mistakenly separate two sounds that for a native speaker are actually the same.

Thus, we can either fail to separate two sounds that ought to be distinct or fail to merge two sounds that to us are distinct, but mean the same thing for native speakers. In this article, I'm going to give two examples of the latter case: the final "-ing".

The final "-ing"

When I teach pronunciation, I always stress the importance of thinking in terms of initials and finals rather than looking at the Pinyin spelling, which is full of traps and pitfalls most learners aren't aware of.

The most common mistake is to think that by adding a letter in Pinyin, you just change that particular sound. For instance, the "-in" in "pin" is not the same sound as the "-in-" in "ping"! Thus, "-in" and "-ing" should be treated as two different sounds, not as the same sound with an added "g".

I'm going to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) here, but don't worry if you're not familiar with it, I will explain. There are slight variations for how "-in" and "-ing" are transcribed by different scholars, but these are from Duanmu (2007) The Phonology of Standard Chinese. 
  •  "-in" is simply written as [in], which should be self-explanatory. It's a normal "i" as in Pinyin "pi" and a normal "n". No surprises here. You can listen to the recording we have here on Skritter by looking at a character such as 贫 in the scratchpad.
  • "-ing" is written as [iəŋ], which requires some explanation. The first sound, [i] is the same as above (one sound, one symbol). The second sound [ə] is the central vowel also found in English "the". The third sound [ŋ] is a merge of "n" and "g", a back nasal similar but not identical to "ng" in English (it's farther back). Check for instance the recording for 平 via the scratchpad.
If you listen to the two recordings one after the other, can you hear that the difference between them extends beyond just "n" and "ng"? The first sound, "pin" doesn't have the [ə], but the second sound "ping" does.

The problem is that since "in" and "ing" are spelt almost the same way, many students assume that the sounds must be similar as well, but this isn't really the case. If we take the two example syllables "pin" and "ping", the first is pronounced as most students would expect, but the second is not.

If I had to write that sound closer to how it is pronounced, I would write "-ieng", so "ping" would be spelt "pieng". This is not a valid Pinyin syllable, so never write this, I just show you how it's actually pronounced.

Local variations

As I mentioned in the introduction, there are local variations. I haven't done enough research into this particular final so I can't tell you for sure where it's pronounced in what way, but there seems to be a difference between southern and northern China, or at least Beijing and Taiwan standard.

In Taiwan, it's not uncommon to actually pronounce "pin" and "ping" almost the same way, some people even merge these finals completely so they are pronounced exactly the same way.

This typically does not happen in northern China, where the central [ə] is clearly audible. This means that the difference between "pin" and "ping" isn't just about "n" or "ng", but about the vowel sound(s) as well.

This can lead to the error I brought up earlier, of thinking that the same sound (phoneme) is actually two different ones, whereas that wouldn't be the case for native speakers. For instance, a student might mishear "ying" for "yong" or simply failing to understand that a sound that contains an obvious [ə] can still be "-ing".

Learning the sounds of a foreign language

Hopefully, you won't make those mistaken in the future! The way towards understanding sounds in foreign languages is mostly about listening very closely and paying attention to detail, mixed up with a small amount of theory, such as reading articles like this. Listen to the "-in" and "-ing" around you and see if knowing about the difference makes it easier to understand and/or pronounce them!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Understanding the neutral tone in Mandarin

The neutral tone causes great confusion for most learners of Mandarin. What does "neutral" mean? How do you pronounce something "unstressed"? How high/low should the tone be? What about neutral tones in words, different dictionaries give different answers?

In this post, I'm going to answer these questions (and some more) about the neutral tone. This is the kind of information which should be in any good textbook, but typically isn't.

Some basic information

In case you've just started learning Chinese, the neutral tone can be written in several ways:
  1. No tone mark over the vowel: "dōngxi"
  2. Using the number 5: "dong1xi5"
  3. Using the number 0: "dong1xi0"
These all mean the same thing, they are just different ways of spelling.

The neutral tone usually occurs in the second syllable of a two-syllable word or between two stressed syllables or in phrases. It never appears at the beginning of a word.

What does "neutral" mean?

The neutral tone is called 轻声/輕聲 (qīngshēng) in Chinese, which literally means "light tone" rather than "neutral tone". The most important thing to know about a syllable with a neutral tone is that it doesn't keep the tone of the original syllable. Instead, the tone comes from somewhere else. The syllable of a neutral tone is unstressed, but more about this later, let's look at the tone first.

First, there is a default height of the neutral tone used when reading words, which is what you should always use unless you have a good reason not to. The general rule is that the neutral tone is lower than the preceding tone, except if the preceding tone is a third tone, in which case the neutral tone is higher. There are specific pitch heights here, but let's not bother with that now, just remember that it should be lower than the preceding tone, except after a third tone.

Second, the neutral tone is often influenced by intonation. This means that the same neutral tone can be read in many different ways depending on the context and the mode of speech. Intonation in general doesn't change the pitch contour (the shape of the tone) in Mandarin, but it does shift the entire tone range up or down, more or less in the same way as in English (i.e. up for questions, down for statements). The neutral tone is much less constrained and has no definite shape.

What does "unstressed" mean?

This should be relatively easy for native speakers of English. If we take a word like "English", the stress is on the first syllable, the second is unstressed. The same is true for many Chinese words and the neutral tone appears on these unstressed syllables.

What does this mean? It means that the neutral tone is usually shorter and lighter. Compare these two words:
  1. dōngxī means "east west"
  2. dōngxi means "thing, stuff"
The difference in pronunciation is that a) the syllables are roughly equally long in the first case, but not in the second ("dōng" is longer than "xi") and b) the tone height of the second syllable is lower on the second syllable.

Unstressed syllables are also reduced, which means that the pronunciation often changes. This is fairly complicated and I won't go into detail here, just be aware of it. This happens in English as well, so when we say a word like "control", we don't pronounce the first syllable like we do in "continent", instead, the syllable is reduced and the vowel sounds more like "e" in "the".

Default tone height of the neutral tones

As mentioned above, I don't think the exact numbers matter much, but since I know someone will ask about it if I don't write them, here we go (the scale used is 1-5 where 1 is low and 5 high):
  1. After a first tone: 2 (mid-low)
  2. After a second tone: 3 (mid)
  3. After a third tone: 4 (mid-high)
  4. After a fourth tone: 1 (low)
Variations in vocabulary

Recently, I've started helping out with Chinese support and a lot of questions/issues are about neutral tones. The problem is that there is a large number of words that can be pronounced in more than one way, or written in more than one way. Should父亲/父親 and 母亲/母親 be "mǔqin" and "fùqin" or "mǔqīn" and "fùqīn"?

You have two options here. Either you spend ten minutes trying to figure out which one is the "correct" way of saying it, or you realise that a language such as Mandarin is huge, diverse and organic and that there might be more than one way of pronouncing the word.

In other words, don't worry too much, it's easy to understand regardless of which version you choose and it's not hard to adapt your pronunciation later if you want to. In general, the Beijing dialect contains many neutral tones and reductions compared with e.g. Taiwanese Mandarin.

On Skritter, we try to use the most standard version of the pronunciation, but this doesn't mean that everything else is wrong. As I said, in many cases, both are perfectly acceptable. If you find a problem with a neutral tone on Skritter, please report it so we can improve!


The neutral tone is hard, but if you make the syllable unstressed and remember that the neutral tone after a third tone should rise, you'll be okay in most cases.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gaijin speaking Japanese

I'm probably not the only one who finds it interesting to see other non-natives speaking foreign languages, in this case Japanese. Here is a list of videos I've compiled of mostly celebrities speaking Japanese:

  • Steven Seagal 
Steven Seagal's Japanese is good, in fact the audience laughs with him from time to time in surprise when he uses natural sounding Japanese. He moved to Japan around 20 to study Aikido and teach English, where he eventually opened a dojo teaching Aikido, and has spent about 10-15 years living in Japan on and off.

  • Edward Norton 
Edward Norton's Japanese is impressive considering he studied it over 10 years ago and likely hasn't spent much time since then. He studied Japanese at Yale before moving to Osaka to consult for his grandfather's company.


  • Jon Heder
Jon Heder served briefly at a Mormon mission in Japan, where he picked up a little of the language. It's pretty fun seeing Napolean Dynamite speak Japanese!


  • Mike Shinoda
 Mike Shinoda doesn't speak the language, though is half Japanese himself. He did take the time out to practice and read a speech in Japanese at a show in Tokyo, which I think is cool.


  • A bird 
Okay, so this isn't exactly a gaijin or a non-native speaker, but it is a bird. And cute. And speaking Japanese.

  • David Ury
David Ury is an Andy Kaufman-esq actor and comedian who has appeared in a number of different roles, most notably AMC's "Breaking Bad". He's fluent in Japanese and makes YouTube videos where he pretends to be "Ken Tanaka", a long lost brother of David Ury who was adopted by Japanese parents and raised in Japan. He also works as a Japanese-English translation specialist for various manga.

  • Bill Murray
In addition to a number of other awesome films, Bill Murray starred in "Lost in translation", where he played an actor filming a commercial for a Japanese company. Here is a behind the scenes video of him on set, though the Japanese he uses in this video doesn't come from what he recently learned, and instead from a book he bought a long time ago called "making out in Japanese", which he doesn't know why he bought.

  • David Lee Roth
Van Halen's ex lead singer David Lee Roth decided to buy an apartment in Tokyo in 2012 and takes private Japanese lessons. He does have a thick accent in his pronunciation, but that's probably partially due to how he's trying to speak as fast as he can, and that he hasn't studied that long.


Do you think someone is missing from the list? Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When small changes make a big difference, part 3

This is the last and final post about confusingly similar Chinese characters. In the first article, there was a quiz where you could check how many of these characters you know, so if you haven't taken the quiz yet, I suggest you do that before you continue reading this post.

Last week, I explained the answers to the first half of the confusingly similar character pairs and triplets, this week it's time for the remaining seven characters.

土 (tǔ) "earth, soil", 士 (shì) "warrior, scholar"

As was the case with 未 and 末, the only difference between these two characters is the length of the horizontal strokes. The first character, 土 (tǔ) "earth, soil", has a short stroke on top and a longer stroke at the bottom. It's a common character (624th), both used on its own and in compounds such as 土地 (tǔdì) "land, territory" and 土豆 (tǔdòu) "(Mainland) potato, (Taiwan) peanut". It's also one of the five elements.

The second character is 士 (shì) "warrior, scholar" and has the opposite strokes, i.e. a long one at the top and a short one at the bottom. This character is also common (368th) and means "warrior“ in some common words, such as 士兵 (shìbīng) "soldier", but is more related to studying in other words, such as 博士 (bóshì) "doctor, Ph.D.".

Since these characters mean completely different things, there are no real communication issues if you get them wrong (the reader will be able to guess what you meant), but if you want to write correct characters, do pay attention to the length of the strokes. This of course includes when these characters are found as component parts in other characters!

 夭 (yāo) "young", 天 (tiān) "sky"

This example is similar to 千 and 干 in that the difference is the slope and direction of the first stroke. In 夭 (yāo) "young", the first stroke should be written from right to left and slope gently down, whereas in 天 (tiān) "sky" the first stroke is a normal horizontal stroke from left to right.

夭 (yāo) "young" is not a common character in itself, but it is contained in some common characters, such as 笑 (xiào) "laugh, smile". Thus, if you write the bottom part of that character like you write 天 (tiān) "sky", you're not doing it right.

天 (tiān) "sky" is of course a very common character (55th) and appears early in many textbooks. It can also mean "day" and is most commonly seen in words like 今天 (jīntiān) "today", 明天 (míngtiān) "tomorrow" and 昨天 (zuótiān) "yesterday".
入 (rù) "enter", 八 (bā) "eight", 人 (rén) "person"

The last group of confusingly similar characters is perhaps the most confusing one. All three characters are common both as individual characters and as character components, making it hard to remember which one is which. Knowing their basic form and meaning makes it a lot easier to remember which of them should go in a specific compound! Rather than trying to remember details of the strokes, it's better to remember the meaning of that component.

入 (rù) "enter" is the 193rd most common character and is written first with a down-left stroke and then the down-right stroke, obviously longer and leaning over the first stroke. It also has a slight hook at the beginning. This character is most commonly seen in words like 加入 (jiārù) "to join" and 进入 (jìnrù) "to enter".

八 (bā) "eight" should be familiar to anyone who has studied for more than a few weeks and is the 282nd most common character. It is written with the same stroke order as 入 (rù) "enter", so the only difference is that the two strokes shouldn't touch each other. Also, the second stroke doesn't have the characteristic hook that make 入  easy to recognise. Sometimes, "eight" is also written with more vertical strokes of almost equal height There is also a fraud-proof version of 八 which is harder to confuse (and change): 捌.

Finally, 人 (rén) "person" is also a very common character (6th) and it's usually one of the first characters students learn. Note the difference between this and the other two characters, though! 人 (rén) "person" is written with the same stroke order as the others, but the first stroke should be longer and leaning over the second stroke that supports it. In a way, it's the opposite of 入. Apart from being a very common character in words, 人 is also common as a character component, but pay attention, because it might change shape!

What characters do you find confusingly similar?

I have now covered seven groups of confusingly similar characters and I hope this will help you write better characters and confuse similar ones less. There are more similar characters out there, though. Do you have a set of two, three or even four characters that you find annoyingly similar? Leave a comment and share!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

When small changes make a big difference, part 2

Last week, I wrote a post about how small changes could make a big difference in the meaning of some Chinese characters. I also wrote about how difficult it is as a beginner to figure out exactly which stroke lengths, placements and angles are crucial for determining meaning and not just if the character looks good or not.

In that article, I also included a quiz with fourteen characters that are easy to confuse with one or two other characters that differ only slightly. Here are the characters I used, but I encourage you to go to the previous article and do the quiz before you continue reading this one!

己/已/巳, 未/末, 千/干
土/士, 夭/天, 入/八人

Below, I'm going to explain the differences between the characters in the first three groups, the rest will be covered in a similar article next week:

己 (jǐ) "self", 已 (yǐ) "already",  巳 (sì) "the sixth heavenly branch"

The difference between these three characters is where the third stroke starts

In the first case, 己 (jǐ) "self", it shouldn't go beyond the horizontal second stroke (it still does sometimes, but it's just the beginning of the stroke that protrudes above the second stroke). 己 is a common character (131st) and appears most commonly in the word 自己 (zìjǐ) "self, oneself". This character is also common as a component in other characters, such as 记 (jì) "register, record".

In the second case, 已 (yǐ) "already", the third stroke clearly starts above the end of the second stroke, but it doesn't touch the first stroke. This is also a very common character (95th) and most commonly appears in the word 已经 (yǐjīng) "already". Think of it as the stroke as "already" gone past the horizontal stroke.

In the third case, 巳 (sì) "the sixth heavenly branch", the third stroke goes all the way up and joins with the first stroke. This character is not so common on its own (it's not even among the most common 3000 characters). However, it is common as a component in other characters, such as 包 (bāo) "wrap".
 末 (mò) "tip, end", 未 (wèi) "not yet, have not"

Both these characters are based on the character 木, which is a pictograph of a tree. By adding a vertical line marking the top of the tree, the writer could represent the tip or end of the tree (or of something else by extension). This character is fairly common (1272nd) and is taught in most beginner courses in the word 周末 (zhōumò) "weekend", i.e. the end of the week.

The second character, 未 (wèi), is much more common (399th), especially in written Chinese. It means "not yet" or "have not" and the first example students learn is typically 未来 (wèilái) "future", i.e. something that has not yer arrived. This character is very common as a negation in written Chinese and there are many, many uses of it, but here are two examples: 未知 (wèizhī) "unknown", 未必 (wèibì) "not necessarily".

The only difference between the two characters is the length of the horizontal strokes. I remember these two by thinking of the origin of 末; the longest stroke marks the important part (i.e. the tip of the tree).

千 (qiān, thousand), 干 (gān/gàn)

These two characters are very similar and can be easy to confuse, especially when reading. Writing is not so bad, because they are written with different strokes.

The first character, 千, is written with the first stroke sloping down and left, whereas the second character 干 has a normal, horizontal, left-right stroke. This is a good example when stroke order matters! If you use handwriting input, you're much more likely to get the right character if you get the stroke direction right. In other words, the characters are visually similar, but written differently.

千 (qiān), "thousand" is a common character (410th) and usually appears in numbers. There is  also a fraud-proof variant of this character, which has an added person radical: 仟.

干 is more complicated, because it's the simplification of several different traditional characters (four, actually, 乾, 幹, 干, 榦, but the last two aren't very common).
  • 乾 "gān" means "dry" and is first encountered in the word 乾淨/干净 (gānjìng) "clean".
  • 幹 "gàn" means "do" (and also means the f-word) and is most commonly heard in phrases like 幹嘛/干嘛 (gànma), meaning "what are you doing".
 Thus, in simplified Chinese, the character 干 has several completely different usages with difference pronunciations! The confusion between 干 and 千 seldom occurs in traditional Chinese because 干 isn't very common.

The remaining three groups will be the subject of a similar article next week. By way of rounding this one off, though, I'd like to address a key question. Does it matter? If you write 己经, 周未  or 两干块, most people will understand what you mean, they might not even notice the incorrect characters if they don't pay attention. So why bother?

There are several reasons. First, some of the differences are crucial when dealing with handwriting input. If the strokes are in different directions, such as for 千 and 干, the input method won't recognise the character if you get it wrong (for instance, you can't write these characters using Google's handwriting recognition with the wrong stroke direction).

Second, writing things correctly gives a neat and thorough impression. You can certainly understand what I want to say in English if I write "They have recieved teh pakcage", but I think most of us share the idea that following a common standard is good and generally improves communication.

That said, the only place someone is going to really care what you write is probably in a classroom or when you sit an exam. This doesn't mean that it's unimportant, but it means that you need to decide for yourself how thorough you want to be!

Friday, December 5, 2014

When small changes make a big difference, part 1

Some strokes that make up Chinese characters are very important, drawing them just a bit too long or with the wrong angle will change the meaning of a character completely. Other strokes are not so sensitive and writing them incorrectly will just make the resulting character ugly.

Below, I have created a quiz with 14 similarly looking characters that differ only in the length or slope of one stroke. See how many you know! If you have any suggestions of more pairs or triplets, please leave a comment!

Part 1:

1. 已
a. yǐ, already
b. sì, the sixth heavenly branch
c. jǐ, self

2. 己
a. yǐ, already
b. sì, the sixth heavenly branch
c. jǐ, self

3. 巳
a. yǐ, already
b. sì, the sixth heavenly branch
c. jǐ, self

Part 2:

4. 未
a. mò, tip; end
b. běn, root
c. wèi, not
5. 末
a. mò, tip; end
b. běn, root
c. wèi, not

Part 3:

6. 千
a. yú, at; in
b. qiān, thousand
c. gān, dry

7. 干
a. yú, at; in
b. qiān, thousand
c. gān, dry

Part 4:

8. 土
a. tǔ, earth
b. shì, scholar; warrior
c. gōng, work

9. 士
a. tǔ, earth
b. shì, scholar; warrior
c. gōng, work

Part 5:

10. 夭
a. yáo, young
b. tiān, sky
c. tài, excessive

11. 天
a. yáo, young
b. tiān, sky
c. tài, excessive

Part 6:

12. 入
a. rù, enter
b. rén, person
c. bā, eight

13. 八
a. rù, enter
b. rén, person
c. bā, eight

14. 人
a. rù, enter
b. rén, person
c. bā, eight

Here are the answers, but do make an effort before you peek!

 Key: 1a, 2c, 3b, 4c, 5a, 6b, 7c, 8a, 9b, 10a, 11b, 12a, 13c, 14b

How did it go? If you're a beginner, don't be too discouraged by this, these really are some of the trickiest cases. If you're an intermediate learner, you should know at least half. Advanced learners should get all or almost all of them!

 When small changes make a big difference

Learning to separate characters like these requires what I call horizontal vocabulary learning, which means that you can't just drill down (look at character components) or go higher up in the hierarchy (looking at what characters and words a character appears in), you have to look at similar characters at the same level as well. This requires focused studying, even if it can of course be accomplished by a very large amount of exposure as well.

Here are two follow-up articles to this one, covering the answers to the quiz in detail:
Before I round this article off, though, I want to share with you a game I usually play with the students when I teach beginner courses in Chinese.

Chinese whispers - with characters

The idea of this game is to show the students how quickly they go from viewing Chinese characters as pretty pictures to regarding them as symbols with a structure that is part of a larger writing system. The game is based on a well-known game, which is rather suitably called Chinese whispers.

The original idea is that one person starts with phrase, then whispers it to the next person, who then whispers it to the third and so on until the message reaches the last person, who says the words aloud. The message is usually hilariously corrupted by this time, which is the point of the game.

In this Chinese character variant, the first student doesn't whisper words, he or she writes characters on paper and sends them to the next, who then copies the character on a new piece of paper and sends the copy on. After passing ten students or so, most of the original characters are completely unreadable for the teacher. The reason is simple. They don't know what matters. They think they're copying accurately, but they focus on the wrong things. They think a certain feature is important, but in fact it isn't. They underestimate the spacing of the components and the length of strokes.

The interesting thing is that when I play the same game with them a week later, after teaching the basics of Chinese characters, all teams can easily copy the characters ten times without corrupting them beyond recognition. It also takes about half the time it takes the first time around.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tending your vocabulary garden

Image source:

If I could go back in time and change the way I learnt languages in general and Chinese in particular, there are many things I would do differently. In fact, a lot of the things I write about language learning these days are based on what I remember myself doing or have observed other people doing while trying to learn a language, then relating that to what I know about the subject today.

One of the areas I think I did worst in when I started learning Chinese was vocabulary. I don't mean that I didn't learn enough words or that I used a horribly inefficient method, I think I did okay. The problem was that I learnt the wrong words and I was stubborn enough not to fix that for years. This is what I want to discuss in this post.

Your vocabulary is like a garden - it needs tending

I think it helps viewing your vocabulary as a living thing; a garden seems like the best analogy. Plants in a garden take time to grow and the overall results benefit from planning ahead. A garden can also have different functions and will require different plans depending on what that function is.

Most importantly, you need to keep an active relationship with the plants in your garden, identifying which plants to keep, which to prune and which to get rid of altogether. If you let everything grow without control, your garden will turn into wilderness. Vocabulary should be regarded in this way, too.

Some common problems and how to avoid them

The most common mistake I see with ambitious students (including myself years ago) is that they tend to think only in terms of quantity: the more the merrier.  While it might be true that knowing many words is good in general, this isn't always the case, especially not in the short run. At least, it's not that simple.

The problem is that you only have limited time available to learn and maintain vocabulary, so it matters greatly which words you choose to learn. Of course, it's hard to know which words are important before you know them. A native speaker or an advanced second language learner can tell you which words are essential to know and which aren't, and sometimes frequency data can give you useful clues, but on your own, knowing which words are worth adding remains a problem.

The best way of dealing with this problem is either to add words from trusted sources or to prune and manage your deck actively. Doing both is also an option.

Adding vocabulary from trusted sources

The first solution involves mostly reading material that has been designed for you or someone at your proficiency level. This includes textbook, graded readers or other learning materials aimed at second language learners. In these texts, you're unlikely to find extremely rare characters or words, so you can be relatively confident that what you're learning is useful.

Image source: http://atomiclemon.
Tending your vocabulary garden

The second solution, actively managing your vocabulary, is a must as soon as you start approaching authentic texts. They will contain a very large number of words you haven't seen before and adding everything to Skritter isn't going to work. Even if you spend the time necessary to accomplish that, it still wouldn't be a good way of learning because you would waste time learning words that aren't actually improving your overall language proficiency that much.

Actively tending your vocabulary garden is important. Delete words you don't like, that seem less important than when you added them or you think are slowing you down in general. Edit any character or word that you don't like or that isn't clear enough. Save other types of information you pick up about characters and words (the easiest way to save these is by editing the custom definition).

Ready-made gardens and vocabulary lists

This is why I don't really like importing lists created by other people. If I wanted a garden that suits my preferences and needs, I wouldn't go online and just download a ready-made one. Similarly, unless you're a true beginner, other people's lists comes with problems attached.

I do sometimes use lists created by others, but mainly to find a certain kind of vocabulary (based on a textbook for instance). In these cases, I always spend a lot of time making the list my own. I edit the definitions, delete things I don't need and add things I think are missing. I don't just add the list and expect it to merge with the vocabulary I already know. Naturally, editing a list takes time and I don't do everything at once; everything is done on a need-to basis.

Growing your vocabulary

Following the advice in this article would have saved me a lot of time and accelerated my learning quite a bit, all the way from the beginner level up to advanced. It's a grave mistake to think you have to catch them all or try to learn every single new character/word in a text you're reading. Your time is limited, don't waste it learning words you don't really need!