Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Sorry this post took so long. I wanted to make sure that this method worked (It does) before posting. To test this, I put Chinese vocabulary words into Supermemo. Usually it takes a week or two for new information to be truly "remembered" with Supermemo, as you need to review them two or three times (Successfully) before you can say to yourself "OK, I know this word now."

KanjiTown was a mnemonic system that made Japanese vocabulary acquisition a piece of cake. When I began to study Chinese, I thought "A slightly modified version of this would have to work just as effectively for Chinese, right?"

The goal was simple:
1. Group together Chinese characters based on their pronunciation
2. Somehow link all of those characters together
3. Learn vocabulary at an absurd rate (Just like Japanese)

For the past year I have struggled to complete step two in this process. I attempted many different ways of linking the characters together, but none of them worked as well as KanjiTown did. I now realize that the main error was this: I tried to remember both the pronunciation and tone of a character with the same story at the same time. This resulted in too much mental clutter, too many images moving around in the mind. Rather than try to remember both the pronunciation and tone, I should simply focus on the pronunciation first. Should I want to design a system for remembering the tones of characters, that can be done later.

But honestly, I don't think there will be a need for a tone mnemonic system. Why? Japanese does not have a tone system, but stress is placed on certain syllables, and not on others (For example, you do not say "konNIchiwa," it is "KONnichiwa"); when I was studying Japanese, never was it necessary to create a mnemonic system to remember them, as proper placement of emphasis came naturally with time and exposure to the language through downloaded TV shows, radio, etc. Although Chinese tones do not sound as natural as sense stress does in English or Japanese, I have a feeling I will learn them like I learned Japanese sense stress.

When you have a hammer, sometimes everything seems like a nail. In this case, I was mnemonically trigger-happy, and was trying to use mnemonics to do a job they weren't cut out to do.

Now that I've learned my lesson, here is my present method for Chinese character memorization:

Once you have grouped the Chinese characters together, the next step is to assign a specific INDIVIDUAL to each group. This individual could be a real person or a fictitious character. After you have assigned an individual to one group, each character in the group somehow becomes an attribute of that individual.

Let's take an example: JIA. JIA sounds a lot like JACK, so let's assign Jack Nickelson to the JIA group. After we find a list of characters all pronounced JIA, we somehow link them to Jack Nickelson. For example, the character for "armor" is pronounced "Jia," so imagine Jack Nickelson in knight's armor. He will wear the armor for the whole duration of the story (Like the Japanese KanjiTown, these stories should somehow connect with one another when possible to ensure memory stability). JIA can also mean "to support, frame, rack." So imagine our knight Jack Nickelson trying to stabilize someone on a big ladder, so that they don't fall, perhaps fighting off a dragon at the same time (He is wearing the armor, after all).
Also, it is good for each story to have a primary objective that the character works towards. Rescuing a girl, climbing a mountain, fighting a dragon, etc.

(This is merely an example, I am not actually using the above story.)

So where KanjiTown focused on location, "ChinaTown" focuses on people. I imagine it would be preferred that the people used for "ChinaTown" be those that have not appeared in KanjiTown (I'm assuming this would not work; I could be wrong, but I don't want to test this for fear that it could disrupt my memory).

I have assigned a few individuals to a few groups of characters, and I can recall words that include those characters with great speed compared to my previous attempts at retaining Chinese vocabulary. Now that I know the process, it's simply a matter of time before Chinese is conquered, one little group at a time!

("Jack Nickelson" is a song by "Bloodthirsty Butchers," a Japanese band. I enjoy their music.)

Edit: I changed the posting date to reflect the fact that I finished the post recently. I started the post about a month ago.


  1. Littlefish,

    Thanks for sharing, once again, your techniques for using Supermemo. Congratulations on finding a method that seems to work for Chinese!

    I came across an adjunct learning strategy to use with Supermemo. It's called the "Pomodoro" technique (nice name, eh?). I'm not aware of any studies that back it up, but it makes sense and has helped me even more productive, and it's "cost free" both in terms of implementation and effectiveness.

    Essentially, you study in 25 minute sessions, with 5 minute breaks between the first 3 sessions, then 15 minutes after the 3rd session. (I'm not sure what it says after that, as I rarely have more than 1.5 hours of continuous time.)

    Have you ever heard of such a technique? Do you have any thoughts on attention span and how to time Supermemo sessions?

  2. I'm always interested in ways to efficiently use my time. I've seen the Pomodoro method before. I've never used it, but for a couple of months I did something kind of similar with a music playlist (Listen to study music for 15 minutes, upbeat music for 3 minutes. Repeat.). Right now I use looping sound samples similar to Brian Eno music, but I might change that soon.

    This is an interesting subject, so I'll make a post about it. Thanks :D

  3. Whatever you do, you cannot neglect the tones. Chinese most definitely does not work the same way as Japanese so the comparison doesn't stand here. No one will stress if you misplace the pitch on 'konnichiwa" but you will see blank faces if your tones are wrong in Chinese. Completely blank. They will not even make an attempt to guess correct tones in their heads.

    It's not impossible to learn the right tones by just listening to a lot of audio material but the difficulty is that when you move well past the Ni Hao stage, most words are not frequent enough to be remembered with the correct pitch just through exposure.

    I did a similar exercise to what you are doing in the past and discovered that associating emotions with tones and linking them to keywords worked for me. Other things may work for you but just do not ignore them.

  4. Thank you for pointing that out; Yes, I agree with you, and I do not mean to say that tones are insignificant.

    I probably should have included how I plan on remembering tones for the immediate future:

    Until now I have been reviewing Chinese vocabulary words that include the characters learned with the above method. When reviewing, if I get the pronunciation correct but the tones incorrect, I mark the flashcard as "fail" until I correctly guess both the pronunciation and tones correctly. This might mean that vocabulary words "tumble around" in Supermemo a number of times (Perhaps even being reset due to becoming leeches, meaning I was incorrect at least 5 times at guessing the answer).

    It has required a bit of time to see the results, but I have been able to remember enough words to realize that it is working. Perhaps a mnemonic shortcut system will be emerge that helps me to remember the tones for each character, but until now tone mnemonics seem thing that has hindered my being able to learn Chinese characters.

    Now I'm curious, what emotions do you use for each tone?

  5. I guess that's a method that might work for you.

    I had no well defined emotions, rather a whole range of them. The second tone was anything questionable, uncertain. The third tone was anything arcane, mysterious, secretive. The first tone was automatic, optimistic or fast. The fourth tone was a command, an order or anything definitive, harsh, etc. It's very individual, though, and different things may work for different people.

    Good luck with your project!

  6. That is a good idea, I might give it a try. I've never tried linking emotions with tones.

  7. Another idea that I haven't tested as much as I should have (because I learnt tones for individual characters) is to link images or emotions to tone pairs. E.g., 2+4 is something peaking, etc. 1+4 is a mad dash and a fall... etc. Once again, it's very individual and the image (or the emotion) can be linked to the actual words that use a given tone pair.

  8. Good follow up to the method for memorizing Japanese character pronunciations; reckon I'll give it a go to try and bulk up the number of characters I can read.

    I'd have to agree with you that it's okay to ignore the tones, at least initially. I was considering some convoluted mnemonic method to remember them, but found that actually they do come naturally through exposure.

    I don't have much experience of Mandarin, but certainly in Cantonese I don't have a problem absorbing the tones of new words quickly (after a fair amount of exposure to the language). Especially for two-character compounds, some tone-combinations recur a lot more than others, so it's not too hard to remember the correct pronunciation.