italki.com, in partnership with Skritter, would like to help you learn a language by getting more speaking practice. Believe it or not, we think that it will help you learn more characters.
Learning a language is tough, and especially if it’s Chinese or Japanese
As a student of Chinese or Japanese, you already know that writing system alone makes these some of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.
Spending hours practicing writing characters or drilling flash-cards has been the traditional requirement to master these languages. However, I think doing this obsessively can actually slow down your progress. Besides just killing motivation, and taking the fun out of learning, this practice gives you an unbalanced view of the language and culture. Many of us started on learning Chinese or Japanese because of our appreciation of the culture, and the desire to connect to the people and the place. However, the characters and the enormous effort needed to learn them, can easily turn this initial love into a brutal chore.
I think there is a “trick”, however, to make learning characters easier, and even a bit entertaining. The key is to integrate learning of characters with speaking and listening practice.
In my experiences with online learning, I’ve found that my teacher is often typing out words in chat. I originally thought that online lessons were just about speaking practice, but I’ve actually found that many of my lessons have a necessary written (well, typed) component. New words, sentence structures, grammar corrections all happen in the chat window. After the lesson, I copy them out into my dictionary and favorite apps like Skritter, Anki, and Pleco, for future review.
The difference between theory and practice
In 2008, I had completed a year of Chinese in university, and I was ready to put my Chinese to use in a summer internship. Though I had learned plenty of words, I found myself distraught at the difficulty I felt in communication. Without conversational practice, my study of characters didn’t help me as much as it could. What’s worse, without access to modern carriers of the language, I was speaking like a walking anachronism. Words like 同志，单位，小姐, all rife with cultural connotations I haven’t learned created at best bemusement on the part of my conversation partners. Had I only tried to have a few conversations with native speakers my age (via a service like italki, for example), I would have been able to avoid embarrassment.
I’ve noticed something strange about my character learning after my trip, as well. After getting some practice in the use of the language, studying characters became easier. I became more sensitive to context and was able to direct my learning towards actively using the language. In a sense, the characters have become real and immediate to me, not just an abstraction to be learned in an academic setting. The reason for this improvement is easily explained with how our memory actually works.
It’s best to learn using as many senses as possible. Apps like Skritter help make learning characters a tactile experience. The more senses are involved, the better. Touch, hearing, speaking, and seeing, when integrated, provide best results.
Masters of memory use lots of methods to memorize information. Spaced repetition is a key aspect of keeping things in memory. It’s common practice among educational apps to present the words to be memorized at progressively longer intervals, making sure that the brain reinforces the concept as solidifies it in long-term memory.
The “strength” of the memory will also depend on how vivid the experience of the word is made at each encounter. Spending extra mental effort on making a vivid image of the concept (trying to involve vision, touch, hearing, speaking, and smell) will significantly shorten the time needed to memorize a concept.
Engaging with native speakers also gives immediacy to the experience of the word, character, or concept, which helps with the process, as well as provides a cultural frame of reference for the material.
A friend of mine went to a shop and found his wallet had been stolen. He started shouting, “I’ve lost my baopi (包皮).” The correct word for wallet is pibao (皮包). Rather than looking alarmed, the Chinese people around him started laughing hysterically. If you looked the word up, I am sure you’ll understand why he’ll never forget the meaning of baopi.
A story or a conversation can really help to reinforce a character in your memory by giving it context. Learning a new word, and using a new word will reinforce the familiarity with the word and the character representing it. Because Chinese has such a large number of homophones, many meanings in conversation have to be inferred through context, and, if all else fails – through the written form of the character.
The audio-visual connection between pronunciation and characters helps students learn language faster. Reliance on characters to help navigate spoken conversation is not a crutch, but a legitimate and useful tactic even the native speakers use. A common example of this “integrated” use of language in Chinese shows tight interdependence between written and spoken processing of language. Oftentimes, when a word is ambiguous in conversation, the speaker will reference a two-character compound word (a compound that may have nothing to do with the actual context of the conversation), in which the originally ambiguous expression is clarified. This process relies heavily on both speaker and listener visualising the characters, rather thinking of them in an auditory sense.
In fact, sometimes it is impossible to distinguish a spoken concept except by giving it a written context even in a simple word as “zì”:
字 zì letter; symbol; character; word;
自 zì from; self; oneself; since
剚 zì erect; stab
恣 zì abandon restraint; do as one pleases; comfortable
扻 zì to strike; to run against; to throw, as a stone
渍 zì to soak; to be stained; stain; floodwater
牸 zì female of domestic animals
眦 zì corner of the eye; canthus; eye socket
㰷 zì resurrection; to come to life again, sick
The characters are living concepts, whether in comic-books, ever-present subtitles on TV, or gestures scribbled in the air by friends. Thinking about learning writing as separate from speech greatly disadvantages practice (that’s why the Skritter app has voice recordings of words and tone practice exercises – they let you remember better and faster by evoking multiple sensory memories for each concept). This is akin to exercising only one arm, or trying to learn how to drive practicing only left-hand turns.
Skritter, italki, and other highly effective learning methods integrate multisensory information by design. This approach achieves reinforcing your encounter with a concept through visual, motor, auditory, and interpersonal modes of perception.
Applying an integrated approach to your study will give you a much deeper, well-rounded, and ultimately more effective learning experience. Complementing your writing practice with real conversations, and vice-versa is the best way to improve faster, feel motivated and encouraged in your studies, and stick with your study to actually achieve your learning goals.
– – – – – – – –
Special gift from italki to start speaking NOW!
itaki.com is giving everyone on Skritter their first 2+ trial lessons with a Chinese or Japanese teacher on italki for free (equal to 10 USD in italki credits). To take advantage of this offer, register on italki by clicking here!
*italki will send an email including a 10 USD italki credit voucher within 72 hours after registering; this voucher can be used to purchase your first 2 classes on italki! This offer is only available for new registered users on italki and will expire on September 30, 2014.