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realmayo

Flashcards -- single characters?

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realmayo

This isn't a question about whether it's best to study single characters or multi-character words. But: for people using flashcard programmes (I use Anki) to learn how to recognise and write Chinese characters: do you run into problems when testing yourself on single characters?

In addition to a similar number of multi-character "words", I now have about 1,000 single characters in my flashcard setup. Obviously some single characters cause no problems: if I am asked to write [yǒu] to have then I can realise it's 有 quite easily.

But there are lots of characters which occur only or mostly in "bound form" with another character, to make a word, and on their own the pinyin + English definition of the single character is pretty abstract.

Does anyone test themselves this way on *all* the single-characters, even those which you don't see on their own? Or have you decided there isn't much point doing it like this? Thanks!

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renzhe

Yes, I have a Mnemosyne deck covering all the characters I've learnt, and I keep reviewing all of them.

You are right, sometimes, a character's meaning depends on the other characters in the word, or has very abstract meaning and is never used alone.

In these cases, I try to remember a couple of words where this character shows up. If I can remember "this 然 is the rán from 然后, 自然, 当然, 虽然, etc...", then that's absolutely fine, and I don't really have to know the meaning of the character alone, in fact, I didn't until I looked it up :)

There's also the case with characters that basically only ever come in one particular word, like 咖啡, 蜘蛛 or 蝙蝠, but these are usually easy, at least for me.

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Scoobyqueen

I continue to be impressed by the way Renzhe studies the characters (cf. above). If you review some of his previous posts on this topic there may be some useful tips to be had.

I am probably more lazy or not enough of a wiz to use those software programmes.

I only learnt the first 600 as single characters using the usual book for that (Peng). After that I just record the words and if they happen to have two characters they will be registered on a flashcard. And it does seem that most my flash cards have two or more characters. I record the context of the word too, adding a sentence in which the word is being used.

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sthubbar

After about 2000 characters, I found trying to study single characters unproductive. I have since switched to only studying sentences.

If I had to start from the beginning I would not study any single characters and only study sentences.

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renzhe

This is a controversial topic with different opinions.

Personally, if I had to start over again, the first thing I would do is rote memorisation of the most common 3000 characters, as I've found that this was the single biggest obstacle I've had to learning Chinese.

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trevelyan
Personally, if I had to start over again, the first thing I would do is rote memorisation of the most common 3000 characters, as I've found that this was the single biggest obstacle I've had to learning Chinese.

Wow.

This is totally counter to my own experience, so it's a useful reminder that different approaches really do work for different people. I personally only started to benefit from aggressive reading after getting good at conversational Chinese. The characters took care of themselves once I began seeing them in context.

In isolation, my mind would just shut off. One of the consequences was that recalling radicals for writing was more difficult than when I was studying at university and we focused heavily on characters - could see the flashcard approach being an advantage here. Be curious to hear why it worked so well for you renzhe.

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renzhe

I guess it worked so well because it allows me to concentrate on one specific aspect and accurately measure my progress. I find it extremely difficult to remember words where I don't know the characters, because it's many different things to remember, all at once. If I see characters that are familiar, it's much easier to memorise words consisting of them.

For me, the great breakthrough came when I didn't have to worry about every sentence having characters I had to look up in a dictionary, and every word I don't know being composed of strange characters I didn't know. This is when I was able to do massive amounts of reading, watching TV shows (with subtitles), and other things.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that I'm not in China, so developing conversational Chinese first is not an option. I rely on books, textbooks and TV shows for my exposure. In short, I spent 5 years expecting for characters to "fall into place", and they didn't, and it was holding me back. Then, I brute forced them, and it opened up so many new resources for me, that I really improved rapidly. The "learning characters with new vocabulary" approach simply didn't work for me.

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rob07
Personally, if I had to start over again, the first thing I would do is rote memorisation of the most common 3000 characters, as I've found that this was the single biggest obstacle I've had to learning Chinese.

After getting to about 800-1000 characters using a textbook I gave up on textbooks because they all drove me bananas (all that foreign friend stuff) and rote memorised up to something over 2000. After that I knew a lot of characters but couldn't read. So I went back to the textbooks, concentrating specifically on the example sentences given for grammatical constructions, and this time because I knew all the characters I was able to whizz through four levels of textbook in a couple of months. I was then able to read pretty well.

As far as words vs characters goes, while focussing on words appears popular on this board, there are also benefits to focussing on the characters. Sure, focussing on words alone may be the quickest way to get to a functional level in speaking and listening, but characters almost always have their own individual meaning even when they are not used individually and focussing on understanding that individual meaning as one learns should give a greater depth of understanding of the language.

In making flashcards, I focussed on trying to learn the individual meaning of every individual character, but always included it in a word to give additional context where a word was available. I didn't bother making a new flashcard for new words where I already knew all of the constituent characters as I generally was able to remember these new words without extra help.

After I knew 2000 characters I gave up formal study and making flashcards. I just read a lot and absorbed by osmosis.

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renzhe

I agree with rob07.

People respond to learning differently, so I'm not prescribing how Chinese should be learned. Learning words is clearly extremely important, as is listening, etc. All I'm saying is that characters are a very special part of the Chinese language (something quite unique too) and they require special attention, regardless on what your learning strategy is. Sooner or later, you will have to do some character-specific studying if you want to read, at least that's my experience. And I found that, in my case, not doing this sooner hampered the learning of all other aspects of Chinese.

Also, keep in mind that there are many commonly used characters which are not easily learned through words:

- Surnames: 邓, 杨, 朱, 郑, 吴, etc.

- Characters used in names: 琳, 惠, 鹏, 鸿, etc.

- Phonetic characters: 斯, 尼, 耶, 啦, 莎, 呵, 伽, 哒, etc.

- Onomatopoeic characters: 咪, 喵, 呜, 咯, 呼, etc.

- Particles: 乎, 呀, 矣, 咯, etc.

So, while context is really important, and vocabulary is crucial, as is listening comprehension, there will come a time where you'll have to sit down and learn the characters you're missing, or you'll never get through a modern newspaper that transliterates foreign names, or mentions Chinese names.

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realmayo

Interesting. I agree it's nice to see people have different ways to learn this stuff -- gives me more confidence if I'm not alone.... I used to agree that "words" should take priority over single characters, but now I'm not so sure (for me): a recent handful of characters I learned included the following: 番 习 羽 翻 译 which gives me the word 翻译 but also gives me "ownership", as it were, of 翻.

I can see how some people prefer to learn "words" first and then later, if necessary, work out what the respective stand-alone characters mean (in, eg, other words).

The alternative preference is to learn the stand-alone characters first, then later learn the words.

Sure, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. And by "later" in the two examples, I could mean no longer than, say, half an hour.

At the risk of sounding daft, I think of two footballers* running up the pitch, passing the ball between them repeatedly as they slip past their opponents. One footballer is "words", one is "single-characters". The interplay between them brings success. Some might prefer that the first guy is always ahead by a few metres, others that the second guy takes the lead, or that they swap, or that they're level, or that it changes. But as long as they're not too far apart to exchange passes the whole time (and if one gets too far ahead, he's prepared to let his teammate catch up a bit), there shouldn't be a problem.

okay, that is daft! :oops:

*this may not work if you're from the US...

Edited by realmayo
Cultural differences

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Sarevok

Personally, I think that learning single chracters (either using a textbook or flashcards... flashcards only speed things up) makes a lot of sense. As Renzhe said, if you focus solely on compound words, its just too much information and it's difficult to grasp both the meaning of that particular word and the characters at the same time...

I learned single characters until I reached number 1500 or so, then I started to feel it was not very productive anymore and switched to learning whole words. But those 1500 characters was a solid foundation and I wouldn't get very far without that. I continued like this for some 2 years and expanded my vocabulary to about 7000-8000 words, picking up additional 1500 characters during the process - I estimate the total number of characters I know to be slightly above 3000 (when learning the first 1500 single characters it was easy to make keep some statistics written down as it corresponded with the number of my flashcards, but I stopped doing that). There are many characters I know only in as a compound in a particular word(s), but don't know the meaning of a particular character if it stands isolated. I learned all those 然 words like 然后, 自然, 当然, 虽然 etc. long ago, but only figured out what 然 means this summer when I started to learn classical Chinese...

Now I am considering starting to learn single characters again and increasing their number to about 4000 or so (including "re-learning" characters previously learned only in compound words). I guess it could help me on my never-ending journey to master Chinese vocabulary as it would definitely make learning new words easier. I'm just not sure if it's worth the effort at this stage... and if it wouldn't be better to stick to learning whole words and picking up the characters along the way...

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rob07

Further, my understanding is that there is no Chinese expression that means "word", because as I understand it, "词" includes 成语, other set expressions and grammatical constructions (eg 只要...就...). (I'm basing this on the fact that both are included in 生词 in text books and the fact that my dictionary defines 词 as "word; term" rather than just "word").

I can see how something like, say "高兴" sounds like a word but it seems to me that 成语/set expressions and certainly grammatical constructions that have other characters interposed between them are definitely not words. And even "高兴", if you see the characters written down there is nothing to mark it out as a word (which I would argue is a key part of the meaning of word). The two characters do depend for meaning on each other but also on the rest of characters in the sentence.they are in.

It seems to me that whereas in English there is a very clear distinction between the concept of words and the concept of grammar and other non-word sources of meaning, in Chinese the boundaries are a lot fuzzier which makes me think that sthubbar may be on to something in studying only sentences.

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realmayo

Can I ask those who've studied single-characters on a standalone basis: for those characters outside the most common 1,000 or so, can it sometimes be impractical to comprehensively memorise a character's definition? I mean, can't plenty of them be too abstract or too varied (in their standalone form)?

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renzhe

Yes, it can.

What I do with such characters is look for the compound words (in the HSK vocabulary list, for example) and find the most common meaning and learn that. I never try to memorise all the possible meanings compulsively -- many times these meanings are derived from the compound words the character appears in.

I try to memorise the most common meaning (as far as I can figure out what that is) and the most common pronunciation. This creates a "hook" in my brain that I can refer to when learning new vocabulary later.

As I learn new vocabulary, my understanding of the meaning of the characters I know changes. When you "learn" (memorise, basically) a character of word from a flashcard, it is folly to expect to understand all nuances of the character. What you learn is the most crude, basic knowledge about the character, which then gets refined over the years as you learn vocabulary, read texts, hear the word in different contexts, etc.

So, IMHO, as long as you can roughly know what the character means and know how it's read, that's fine as far as flashcards go. The real understanding will happen later, after seeing the words/characters in context.

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calibre2001

I agree with renzhe. In my case, I learn better through examples(words) before gaining a firmer understanding through of a character's meaning. It's all about reading alot and noticing frequent and repetitive patterns in usage of words/characters which then sets off my curiousity of the basic meaning of characters.

While it's safe to say that learning words will get you through most newspaper articles, single characters (especially abridged words) are vital in linking the words together so that you can 'read' smoothly rather than encrypting hieroglyphics (which leaves traces of vagueness in understanding)

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realmayo
I learned single characters until I reached number 1500 or so, then I started to feel it was not very productive anymore and switched to learning whole words.

... if/when that happens to me, I'll now be ready to do the same.

as long as you can roughly know what the character means and know how it's read, that's fine as far as flashcards go. The real understanding will happen later, after seeing the words/characters in context.

... perfect, that's what I wanted to hear. I'll be less "strict" when flashcarding single characters.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that I'm not in China, so developing conversational Chinese first is not an option. I rely on books, textbooks and TV shows for my exposure. In short, I spent 5 years expecting for characters to "fall into place", and they didn't, and it was holding me back. Then, I brute forced them, and it opened up so many new resources for me, that I really improved rapidly.

... and this is my situation, exactly! After finally making a concerted effort to learn the first 800 or so characters -- thank you Wenlin and Learning Chinese Characters, Matthews & Matthews -- there's a whole world of materials I can now use to help me learn more. (Though, actually, I did spend a couple of years in China at the start of the decade where I got a grounding in the spoken language and concept of characters.)

So thanks guys. Always nice to get a bit of reassurance from people who've had success with similar methods. I'll continue with my moderate bias towards characters versus vocab for now & see what happens.

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gsaines

I'm a first year Chinese student at Oberlin College, and they start right off with single-character study and later add the vocabulary, for me the vocabulary helps give the characters context, but I have to agree with renzhe and everyone that has opted for the initial character cramming method. I don't think I'd be able to process words without knowing their components. That said, as was mentioned earlier, some of the single characters have pretty abstract definitions and that can hinder a learner's ability to absorb them. In those cases I try to remember a stub (oh, this character is part of this word) and wait until I can cement it contextually. And again, I'm so new to the language perhaps I will change my mind as I progress.

I'm envious of people living in China that have tons more exposure, I'm sure that I would learn much much faster if I were surrounded by the written language all the time.

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