Using mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese, part 2

In Chinese by Olle Linge


Mnemonics are a powerful way of learning things in general and Chinese and Japanese characters in particular. In the article published here on the Skritter blog last week, we looked at the basics of how to use mnemonics and memory techniques to help us learn Chinese and Japanese more efficiently. This week, it’s time to go beyond the basics and discuss some questions regarding how to use mnemonics with Skritter. If you aren’t already familiar with mnemonics, I suggest that you read last week’s article before continuing.

Should I use other people’s mnemonics?

One interesting feature in Skritter is that you can see a list of mnemonics shared by other users (this is currently only true for the web version, on iOS, you can only see the top mnemonic and on Android we haven’t had time to implement mnemonics yet). This raises a question: Should you use mnemonics created by others or should you create your own?

The answer is fairly straightforward. If you can come up with a good mnemonic on your own, that’s probably better that using a mnemonic created by someone else. Research suggests that the process of creating the mnemonic is in itself helpful, which isn’t hard to understand. Creating your own mnemonic means that you work actively with the character or word, which leaves a deeper impression than just copying someone else. Furthermore, what makes a mnemonic work can be different from person to person, so something that works really good for me might not work as well for you.

That being said, being able to see other people’s mnemonics is great. I have spent lots of time dealing with mnemonics for different purposes and I still come up blank sometimes. Rather than trying to force out a mnemonic I probably won’t like, I simply check what other mnemonics other users have already produced. I choose one I like, then modify it to make it more personal. I suggest you do this too if you get stuck.

Other people’s mnemonics are great sources of inspiration, but try to make them your own as much as you can! Don’t think you’re home and dry just because you have superficially read a mnemonic created by someone else and selected it as your own. The basic rules given in last week’s article still apply, you need to make it memorable, concrete and vivid. This is true regardless of who created the mnemonic in the first place.

Should I create mnemonics for everything?

There’s lots of information stored in a character or word. For instance, you could include how it is pronounced (perhaps more than one different reading), different character components, meanings and so on. You could also break these parts down into smaller parts, such as splitting pronunciation into e.g. initial, final and tone for a Chinese character. If you included all this information, it would result in a very complex mnemonic that could include more than a dozen pieces of information.

Even though it’s certainly possible to create such mnemonics, it usually isn’t the best approach. My general advice is to create mnemonics only when you need them. If you can remember a character just by looking at it (think of simple characters like 一), that’s cool, you don’t need a mnemonic. If you can remember the pronunciation, but not the meaning, then create a mnemonic for the meaning of the character. If you can remember the initial and the final but not the tone, then include information about the tone in the mnemonic you create. Add to the mnemonic on a nee-to basis, the default option should never be to add everything since that would be a huge waste of time.

The infrastructure of memory

In order to use mnemonics to learn something, it has to be meaningful. This means that if you want to use mnemonics to learn abstract things like pronunciation, you need to create infrastructure that links the abstract to the concrete. I’ll show you an example with tones in Chinese, but this is equally applicable to anything (I use a similar system to memorise numbers of different kinds, for instance).

There are four tones in Mandarin (or five if you include the neutral tone). If you want to remember which tone a character is, you can link each tone to a concrete element you can then build into your mnemonics. Including something as abstract as a “high flat tone” is very hard, but including “fire” is pretty easy. Since there are already colours for the tones, I simply extended these to become more concrete:

  1. First tone – Red – Fire (things in the mnemonic are burning)
  2. Second tone – Yellow – Gold (everything shines and glimmers like gold)
  3. Third tone – Green – Plants (vegetation everywhere)
  4. Fourth tone – Blue – Water (everything happens under water)

If you’re going to use this to remember the tones of tricky characters, you need to first memorise this list. You need to build the relevant infrastructure, then it’s just a matter of starting to burn things up or immerse them in water when you create mnemonics.

I like the above elements because they can easily be made part of the setting or background of the mnemonic. The colours make the links easy to remember provided that you are used to the colour scheme already. If not, it’s just a list of four facts, so it should only take a minute to learn and some practice to master.

An example with tones

Let’s look at an example. If the normal mnemonic includes a child and a woman (好, “good”) and you want to remember that it’s a third tone in Chinese, you need to introduce plants into the mnemonic. Perhaps you could think of a kneeling woman with a child in her arms, trying to protect it from the surrounding forest that does its best to snatch the child away. Or you can paint a more positive picture with a woman hold her child and the trees around them trying to see who can make the child laugh by tickling it.

Note that 好 can also be pronounce with a fourth tone, in which case it means “to be fond of”. How would you incorporate this meaning into the same mnemonic? The fourth tone is blue/water. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out a good mnemonic that involves the woman and the child again (same basic mnemonic), but puts them in another environment.

What should I do if I forget a mnemonic?

There might be several reasons for forgetting a mnemonic. First, it’s important to realise that mnemonics aren’t magic; they make it easier to remember, but they don’t fix everything in your mind forever. Thus, reviewing the mnemonic along with the character or word is necessary, but if it’s a good mnemonic, it should be a lot easier.

If you forget a mnemonic several times or find it hard in some other way, it probably isn’t a very good mnemonic. This is important to realise, because it means you have to tweak it. Gradually, you will learn how to create great mnemonics that work for you. Without this fine-tuning process, you can never learn how mnemonics really work.

That being said, you will still forget things even if you use mnemonics properly. Combining mnemonics with spaced repetition (built into Skritter) is a pretty good way of making sure that you will remember most of the characters you learn.

Share your favourite mnemonic and win a week of free Skritter

In order to promote the use of mnemonics, we have will arrange a small competition. Please submit your favourite mnemonic as a comment to this article, including the following information:

  • The item in question (Chinese or Japanese character or word)
  • Your mnemonic (brief description)
  • What it signifies (explain your mnemonic)
  • Nomination (why should this mnemonic win)
  • Your Skritter user name

We will look through the contributions and select five great mnemonics and give a free week of Skritter to the users who submitted them. Please post your mnemonic before August 31st (next Sunday) if you want to participate (only one mnemonic per user). May the best mnemonic win!

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