Trace your errors to the source

In Chinese by Olle Linge

16491939584_699a5acb16_oI often write about the evils of rote learning, the importance of understanding what you’re doing and actively working with the characters and words.

This is not because you can’t learn characters just by writing them enough times (you can), but because it’s very inefficient. It might actually work better in the short run, but if you’ve studied for a few years and learnt thousands of characters, it simply takes too much time to rely on mechanical repetition to keep things fresh. If you love writing characters and have the extra time to spend, fine, but I’m assuming that most students fail either of those criteria.

A better way of learning characters and words

The follow-up question is what you should do instead. In short, just doing something that involves deeper processing of the failed item (character or word) is a good start.

Don’t just tap “next” and think that the problem will go away. It might if you actually knew that character and had a temporary brain freeze, but otherwise it’s more likely that the character will cause more trouble further down the road.

Trace your errors to the source

In this article, I want to talk about a specific technique I use to actively work with failed vocabulary reviews. It’s mostly relevant for intermediate or advanced students who have learnt enough characters to realise that keeping characters separate is actually the main challenge when it comes to learning to read and write in Chinese.

The problem is that it’s seldom immediately obvious that you are confusing characters. For example, I had studied Chinese for eight years before I realised that I kept mixing up 嗤  and  哧 (they have the same pronunciation and overlapping meanings).

The only way of finding that out if you don’t realize it spontaneously is to actively go and look for these errors. This was in fact how I found out the above-mentioned case and many others too. I call this tracing errors to the source. It works as follows:

  1. First and foremost, before you start writing a character in Skritter, make sure you visualize it first. This avoids unintentional cheating and is a must for serious learners.
  2. If you don’t follow this first piece of advice, then at least turn raw squigs on. If you follow neither advice, you risk thinking that you know how to write characters you don’t actually know.
  3. If you find that you have written the wrong character, but you think that the character you have written might exist, look it up! Do this in a normal dictionary by writing the character you just wrote.
  4. Fairly often, you will find that the character you wrote actually means something. If you have studied this other character too, you have now found a pair of characters you mix up but weren’t aware of that you mixed up.
  5. Other times, you will find that the character exists, but that you haven’t learnt it yet or that it’s an archaic or variant form. Then ignore it and just treat it as wrong for now.
  6. Sometimes it turns out that the character you wrote doesn’t exist. If this is the case, then obviously you’re not confusing anything, you’re just wrong. Then the method I describe here won’t work.
  7. When you have identified pairs (or sometimes even triplets) of easily confused characters, take decisive action! Study them carefully. Look up how they are used in numerous words, sentences and so on. Create mnemonics. Write them down o a post-it note and put it somewhere you will see it often.

The longer I study Chinese and the more characters I learn, the more I think that this is the real problem with long-term learning. Committing a few thousand characters to memory is, to be honest, not that difficult, but remembering them for years and not mixing them up is..

I don’t mean to be condescending to people who think that committing characters to memory is difficult in the first place, but I can tell you that that part becomes easier and easier the more you learn. You will think it’s relatively easy after a while too. The problem of mixing characters up doesn’t become easier, though, it becomes harder the more you learn.


Tracing your errors is one way of actively probing and looking for errors in your knowledge web. I use it all the time when I study characters in Skritter. Try it out and see if it can help you sort out some confusing cases!


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