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Zeppa

Learning characters *without* stories

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Zeppa

A friend of mine has the Tutle book by Matthews on learning Chinese characters. I don't like the use of invented stories, but now I've looked at it, I do like the information on radicals and phonetic elements. I know about 1400 characters but I think I would get on better if I made myself more aware of the components. But I don't like the fake mnemonics so many people use e.g. on Skritter.

I am wondering if there is a book that would help me. I could use the Matthews, ignoring the stories but including the compounds, but it seems the stories are the main interest. I have McNaughton and Li, Reading & Writibng Chinese, but it doesn't always say much. I also have a book on 'genealogy' by Rick Harbaugh which I can't get on with. I gather that Heisig and Hoenig are also about stories and Heisig doesn't even have pronunciation. I'd be grateful for tips on how to mprove my awareness of the elements of the characters I'm learning. I think possibly the McNaughton book is the best for me at the moment.

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realmayo

I was going to suggest the Rick Harbaugh book and website but you can't get on with that? Is the website any better for you (zhongwen.com)?

The programme Wenlin would probably suit you best. It's pricey, but you can get a refund after 30 days if you don't like it. Not only does it tell you what the radical of a given character is, and what the phonetic parts are, and provide some etymology, but it also allows you to click through to a list of all characters with shared parts, e.g. 桥 it tells you:

桥[橋] ¹qiáo* {A} n. bridge

From 木 (mù) 'wood' and 乔(喬) qiáo 'tall and curved'.

Etymologically the same word as 乔 (as in 乔木 qiáomù 'arbor').

If you click on the 乔 it takes you to details for that character, and from there you can click to see all characters with 乔 as a component.

1073 桥(F橋) [qiáo] bridge

1943 骄(F驕) [jiāo] 骄傲 jiāo'ào arrogant, proud

1993 侨(F僑) [qiáo] 华侨 Huáqiáo overseas Chinese; 侨胞 compatriots abroad

2110 轿(F轎) [jiào] sedan chair; 轿车 jiàochē car

2345 娇(F嬌) [jiāo] graceful, delicate; 娇嫩 jiāonèn tender and lovely

2726 矫(F矯) [jiǎo] feign, force [jiáo]

etc etc

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muirm

You should check out Cracking the Chinese Puzzles. Characters are introduced systematically in groups along with the author's commentary. The author admits his explications may not be 100% "real" (i.e. based on the character's actual etymology), but they are better in this respect than Heisig or what you find on Skritter.

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navaburo

@Zeppa:

When it comes down to it, you should decide what it is you want to do. Do you want to learn to write thousands of hanzi from memory? Or are you interested in developing a scholarly understanding of (real) character etymology? Or do you want something else entirely?

If you want to learn to handwrite from memory, give the imaginative memory method a try: These silly stories have worked great for many people, and will probably work for you if you give it a chance. (I particularly recommend that you read the preface to volume 1 of any of the Heisig series! He makes a convincing argument for the method.)

If you want to know the real etymologies, more power to you, but this is definitely not an effective way to learn to write the modern language.

There is a middle road though. You can learn about real etymologies and the meaning of the components (using a book like Wieger's Chinese Characters), and then use stories or mnemonics to attack the thousands of characters you will need to cram. In fact, it is probably best to have an understanding of the real etymologies behind the common components.

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sleepy eyes of death

I think you might be missing the point here, somewhat.

It's never about a story, standard memory techniques actually don't stem from that at all.

Imo, Heisig's somewhat hackneyed grounding in mnemotechniques seems to have led to the majority of the hardnosed naysayer's opinions, even if they are not aware of it. He makes frequent use of very, very bad, mnemonic form, for the beginning part of the books where he is giving you the memes. Plus, the advice and methodological explanations he gives for the mnemonic part of his method (the other part is the structure, and here he struck gold) are not sound enough. And that can be said for the books that follow his approach. Ideally, he should leave the reader to develop his own images sooner, and to teach his readers better form in mnemotechnics. Plus, that thing he says about only using flashcards with keyword showing, and never the character, is complete nonsense. I know you didn't even mention the book, I digress. But Matthews suffers from the same problems, plus more.

The point shouldn't be "a story". It should be a mnemonic linking unit, generally an image, that has strong ties to each and every component* in a character. The more synaesthesic information, the less ordinary the image, and the more meaningful links it has to all that has to be remembered, the better. If you feel uncomfortable or skeptical of mnemonics, there are two wonderful books I could recommend, "Perfect Memory Training" and "Mnemonics for Study" by Fiona Mcpherson, a cognitive psychologist and researcher who especializes in memory training. Plus Joshua Foer's überawesome "Moonwalkig With Einstein". And Dominic O'Brien's books if you want a sort of textbook for training the standard techniques. (Mcpherson covers that too, but it's broader.)

Getting a "fake story" will do no harm to you whatsoever, unless you are really crazy about accurate etimology. And if you are that crazy about it, it might be wiser to worry about getting literate first and then moving on to higher-brow sinological studies such as etimologyzing.

I hope this doesn't sound confrontational; just my two cents.

*Their breakdown is something his book does wonderfully well in its groupings and progression of characters introduced.

P.s. There is a book that might be just for you, but it focuses on Japanese kanji, the 2000 standard ones. However, it's supposed to give you the chinese reading for each character as well.

http://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Japanese-Characters-language-library/dp/0804820384/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1357116690&sr=8-3&keywords=learn+to+remember+japanese+kanji

which is the sister-book to this one here - http://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Japanese-Characters-language-library/dp/0804820384/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1357116690&sr=8-3&keywords=learn+to+remember+japanese+kanji (which happens to have a famous Chinese version by Mcnaughton)

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liuzhou

Sorry, this is definitely off topic, but a genuine question.

What do the asterisks on either side of 'without' in the title signify?

I've seen this usage more and more on the interweb and I am baffled. Do they actually signify anything that wasn't covered before or is just like meaninglessly starting every post with "So,"?

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realmayo

Typically used for emphasis where bold/italic/underline is unavailable.

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Zeppa

liuzhou: if you write asterisks, it comes out as bold in some programs - but not in this one, so sorry for my mistake!

realmayo: thanks, I must say I have Wenlin but haven't explored it fully. That's because I read texts on iPod/iPad with Pleco so I neglect Wenlin. That sounds like the best way to go. I will have another look at the etymology website too.

navaburo: I think your method is good for those who believe in it! I want to know the real 'etymology' of the characters (not sure that etymology is the right word, but I know everyone uses it) and I want to read. I do other things apart from drilling characters and words. But I find it easier to remember characters the more I recognize the radical and phonetic parts. This is probably not the place to make fun of those stories - I just think they don't suit me.

muirm and navaburo: thanks for refs to further books, I will investigate.

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sleepy eyes of death

Victor Mair, amazing scholar that he is, betrays an immense (and rather self-satisfied) ignorance of how memory works and what has been established by both modern neurophisiology and cognitive studies. That blog post is lamentable and silly to the point of being something worse than silly. Those books might make people go crazy because they have mnemonics stuck to their heads? No, really, wtf? Adding strangeness and uniqueness to the image is one of the very principles behind their effectiveness. You need that so that the image won't drown in one of the common chains of associations you already have in your head.

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roddy

He sounds right to me.

I hope this doesn't sound confrontational

It does a bit. Calm down a little and remember you've just walked in, unannounced, to an established community. Welcome.

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OneEye

You're not going to find the real etymology in any English-language resource that I know of (show me one that explains 美 as a person with a headdress instead of a "big sheep" and I might take it back). It takes serious sinological research to find that stuff. You can, however, find good traditional/folk etymologies (usually based on the 說文解字) in the Wieger and Harbaugh books mentioned above, as well as McNaughton if I remember right. Any of them will do the trick well enough to get you literate before you start the real research, as sleepy eyes says above, but I'm personally partial to Harbaugh, for which there is a decent Anki deck available.

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sleepy eyes of death

I am very calm, but I'll keep it in mind.

What are your reasons for believing he is right, Roddy?

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Zeppa

OneEye,

I do realize that - that there is a lot more to it than I can possibly expect to gather from Chinese/English books now. However, I think there are varying degrees of fake. Harbaugh is surely somewhat fake, or am I being too negative (must admit I haven't looked at him for a long time now, though I do have the book).

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Zeppa

sleepy eyes of death: sorry, I overlooked your message to me.

I am not sure whether the Japanese book you mention is not the equivalent of the McNaughton which you mention and which I told you I have. Perhaps you didn't read all my message but just got angry at the beginning?

>>Getting a "fake story" will do no harm to you whatsoever, unless you are really crazy about accurate etimology. And if you are that crazy about it, it might be wiser to worry about getting literate first and then moving on to higher-brow sinological studies such as etimologyzing.

I hope this doesn't sound confrontational; just my two cents.<<

It isn't a question of me thinking that stories would 'harm' me, as I am sure you realize despite your tendentious tone. I am not interested in them, and nor do I want to read up on memorization techniques. But there's no point arguing about that here. And of course you want it to sound confrontational, don't you? But I think each to his or her own.

Why do these discussions have to get so aggressive? It's your privilege to think I'm stupid, but what's the point of banging on about it?

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realmayo

I'm sure I should know more about Victor Mair, his name pops up all the time, but ever since I saw that Language Log article I can't help feeling that while he's probably very clever and impressive he's also stupid (which he may have earned the right to be). Having got a basic grounding with characters but struggled to remember them, I took a chance on that Matthews book and quickly and easily learned a couple of thousand characters using their mnemonic ideas. I've long since forgotten all the stories, but remember the characters. Like magic.

Victor Mair says in that post:

In fact, this character goes back to the period of the oracle bones (earliest stage of the writing system, circa 1200 BC), at which time it depicted a ladle with a drop of liquid in it. At the time of its creation, the character had absolutely nothing to do with "wrapping"; the idea of "wrapping" is an artifact of a later stage of evolution when the ladle was transformed into what became Kangxi radical 20 勹.

Well that's easy to remember!! :roll:

Zeppa, if you don't want to go down the mnemonics route that's of course your choice. Maybe your use of the word "fake" accidentally gave the impression that you were being critical of this approach, and may have sparked off the other poster's heated reply. If after a year you're still struggling to remember them you could at least give it a go?

If I was teaching characters I would start with a couple of hundred basic and common characters and components (e.g. in this book http://www.amazon.co...duct/0300109458 ), then teach two memory techniques: SRS and mnemonics, & then let people make their own choices about whether to use either/both/neither of them.

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liuzhou
liuzhou: if you write asterisks, it comes out as bold in some programs - but not in this one, so sorry for my mistake!

I didn't say it was a mistake. I really didn't know the reason.

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Zeppa

realmayo: I started learning Chinese in 1969, after which I did it for six years, doing A Level and courses in modern and classical at German universities (where I happened to be working, I'm not German). At that time I used a record-card (flashcard) system, physically organizing a kind of SLR. I still use SLR, but whereas at that time I concentrated on characters - because characters are what you don't practise when you speak - I think more about words and sentences now. It may be that the re-beginning plus only one class a week mean that I hurry too much when learning the characters and now I want to imrove my recognition of phonetic elements (and radicals, but I am better on those). Anyway, I won't deny that I was critical of the approach. I know mnemonics and memory systems work and when I attended classes on consecutive interpreting I heard something about them. But I don't believe that introducing into my learning an element that I don't like will benefit me. I aim to reach the point where I can read more easily and use reading as part of my character-revising practice. To date, I read a novel but had to look up more characters than I recognized.

Look at more of Victor Mair's posts on Language Log - he really knows his stuff, although I understand why people are disagreeing with what he says here. He did the pinyin index volume for the biggest Chinese-Chinese dictionary.

I have noted what people say here that they forget the stories later, which I find a positive point.

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Zeppa

liuzhou,

no, you didn't say it was a mistake - I did!

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OneEye

Harbaugh is surely somewhat fake, or am I being too negative (must admit I haven't looked at him for a long time now, though I do have the book).

Please define what you mean by "fake." Harbaugh, as far as I remember, sticks to the 說文 explanations fairly well, though I haven't gone through and compared every character. His explanations are often wrong, but that comes with the territory. You base your system on 2000-year old research, and you're bound to have some errors. If by "fake" you mean you think he pulled the explanations from nowhere (or elsewhere), then I don't think that's often the case.

As a side note, doing a pinyin index is not what Mair is best known for.

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