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Ideas wanted: How would you improve this study process for new vocab&syntax acquisition?


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My process for learning new words has really helped me improve my vocabulary and style of Chinese, but it's phenomenally time-consuming and I'd like to improve it.

For most new words I come across, I learn not just the word, but also several sentences in which it's used. I find this has massively helped me to internalize the correct usage patterns and syntax for each word, and I'm then able to quickly and accurately use it with little conscious thought when I'm creating my own sentences. (I'm living in and only speak Chinese in my daily life.)

So I'm happy with the result... but the time I spend on the process is brutal. I want to reduce the time I spend on the manual steps, but still keep the same great results from the learning.

I've spent lots of time looking through different tools and apps, went through lots of online forums and reviews and guides to find others' ideas, but nothing I've found seems to fit, so I'd like to ask for any suggestions.

Here are the details of how I'm learning the words and why it's so time-consuming:

- New words come from conversation, printed material, or electronic text.

- I note down the word and somehow get it into electronic form if it's not already. In conversations, either I scribble the pinyin onto a paper, or I ask the other person to write down the character either onto paper or on my phone (handwriting recognition). For printed material, I usually take a picture or write it down on paper and later handwrite it onto my phone to get it into usable form (I find handwriting it onto the phone to just be faster and easier than current technology of OCR systems I've tried).

- I look up the word (electronic dictionary).

- I find example sentences with English translations [i prefer to have an English translation as a starting point for understanding the word, but if I can't find any, I use Chinese-only sources]. I use lots of sources: dictionaries, learning resources, sites for Chinese students learning English, original Chinese-language texts (books, online articles, etc) which have reliable human-translations. I'd guess I've ended up using 50+ sources for sentences in the last month.

- I look up any characters in the word which I don't already know. For those characters, I also look up example sentences.  

- For those characters which I didn't know, I also look up other words in which these characters are found. I check usage stats for these words and use cut-off thresholds so I don't add every possible word/character combo but instead focus on ones that are frequent enough. For words which make the cut-off, I look up example sentences for those additional words.

- I make flashcards on Anki for everything I've looked up. I also include several example sentences on the flashcard for each word. Each flashcard has English, simplified characters, traditional, and pinyin (QuickPinyin is very handy) for all words and sentences.

When I review the flashcards, I test myself on English-->Chinese: I look at the English word and sentences, then say and write the Chinese.

I've seen apps that automate fairly well the process of auto-generating a flashcard from a dictionary-look-up. But they're limited to creating flashcards of the word itself and don't help auto-generate flashcards with example sentences. Since the example usages are the most important part for me, that kills the deal and I'm stuck with this manual process.


There's a very small learning benefit to manually looking up all these things (words, characters, new words and example sentences), but it's so small that I don't think it's worth it. It feels like a major part of the time I spend learning Chinese is wasted doing all this manual work rather than learning the language.

There has to be a better way. In an ideal word, I'd love to be able to just push a few buttons and be done with the whole process in under a minute. I realize that in the real-world, there have to be some manual steps involved... but still, I've gotta be missing something. I can't imagine my style of vocab acquisition is so unique that better processes haven't been developed for it.

What tools could make this easier? What "rig" or combination of tools do you use?




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Pleco has single click flashcard creation from dictionary lookup with all of the things you mention.  If you have the paid dictionaries, then the flashcards can include the full definition, including example sentences.  I particularly like the Chinese-Chinese Guifan dictionary they have.  The ABC Chinese-English is also good.


Doing this will be less flexible than creating example sentences yourself in Anki, but it will save you a significant amount of time and effort.

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I do a very very similar technique.  


Looking up definitions and adding words to Anki is the time consuming process.

I used some techniques to try to avoid doing this work myself.


1. I used subs2srs to turn the entire Avengers movie, dubbed into Chinese, into thousands of Anki cards with Chinese, English, a screenshot, pinyin and audio.  

2. I searched Chinesepod for words that I wanted to learn and saved entire dialogs (mp3 and dialog transcript).  When I had about 40-50 dialogs I hired someone on oDesk.com to enter them all into a Anki, cutting up the sentences and etc.  This made hundreds of cards, although it wasn't free.

3. I translated some of the dialogs from my textbook into English myself.   I sent them to my oDesk helper who processed them into cards and added Chinese audio.

4. For adding definitions, I use MDBG windows application to process the entire sentence and give a list of definitions and HSK levels of words, which I paste into the back of the cards (or my oDesk helper does it).  Words that are HSK 4-6, or no level but useful looking are my main target.


These cards go into passive decks as storage, not my main learning deck.  It's a few thousands sentences.  


Now when I want to add words, I usually search Anki first, find a sentence with that word, cloze the words I want to learn, and put it into my active deck.  If it's not in there, I usually search Chinese pod and find an interesting dialog, then save the dialog for later processing.

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Thanks for the responses. Some interesting ideas which can hopefully be helpful to others as well.

To answer your question about the time waste, here's what happens:

I encounter a new word/phrase in conversation or reading. I put it into Anki along with several example sentences as a guide to syntax and usage. I also add any related words or important words/phrases which contain the characters and I don't already know. Then, I study everything I have in Anki and learn to use it well.

Studying it in Anki is time very well-spent.

But I'd say that 95% of the time I spend between encountering the word and getting it into Anki seems to be a total waste of time. Looking it up, adding the example sentences(s) in which I found the word, finding and adding other example sentences, finding frequently used phrases/words and adding them in... it's slightly beneficial to the learning process, but not much. Most of it is just manual work which seems to be a total waste.

I hate to say it, but at least for the level of detail I want, one new word or phrase ends up taking a minimum of 5-10 minutes from when I encounter it until it's in Anki... and a lot of the time takes 15-20 minutes.

I'm thorough, and the results are great, but that just adds up to way too much time spent on manual steps that I could spend learning instead.

As I wrote in my first post, in an ideal world this whole process would just be a push of a button. I realize that in the real world, a system can't completely automate the whole thing. I also realize that what I'm talking about here is vocab acquisition from random encounters, which is inherently less efficient than structured learning from pre-made sources.

But still, I just think that it really shouldn't take as long as it does. I have to be doing something wrong, there must be better ways that others have found, and I posted in order to see what strategies other people follow.


Imron, re Pleco:


I've tried doing Pleco dictionary-->flashcards. I agree with you that the convenience is huge. But the lack of flexibility has been a problem. Here's the issues I've found, I'd love to know what you think or how you deal with it:


- Using Pleco, I'm limited to the example sentences they have. Some of their sentences are ok, but the example sentences don't really seem to be the focus and aren't comprehensive.


- Also, I might be using it wrong, but I've found Pleco sometimes has very few or no example sentences for things I'm looking for.


- I definitely might be missing a setting or option somewhere in the program, but I haven't found any way to configure it to show me an English example sentence and test me to produce the Chinese. I'd really want each example sentence as a separate card to test me on that one phrase, rather than all together.


- Pleco's focus is dictionary. So it's pretty limited to words or very short phrases. Some of the vocab I'm learning is set phrases that consist of several words or longer phrases.


- I don't want to start a huge off-topic discussion, but at least imho and for my use, Anki SRS is significantly better than Pleco. Imho, Pleco is a very useful dictionary system, but Anki's superiority really does directly translate to tangibly better learning results. Throw on top of that the flexibility to add my own sentences, and the advantage of Anki is massive.




Your overall set-up is really impressive. If I understand what you said, you've essentially pre-prepared thousands of Anki cards with examples from multiple sources which you like... so any time you come across a new word or phrase you want to learn, odds are that you probably already have several cards ready that you can throw into your main Anki learning deck. Really clever strategy :)

It's a different approach than what I'm doing. I like having the flexibility to add in example sentences which reflect the context in which I encountered the word. It helps me remember, plus it's also how I might be wanting to use it in my daily life, since it's how I encountered the word/phrase in the first place, after all. But I really like your strategy of having a massive collection of pre-made cards ready and think that maybe I could try something similar to serve as a base set of example sentences. So when I come across a new word/phrase, I can quickly add to my Anki a bunch of pre-made cards based on the movies/podcasts/whatever, then additionally add by hand whatever sentences that reflect the exact context in which I learned the word. I really can see lots of directions to expand this idea.

Unfortunately, I don't think would help much for the massive time-suck I have in creating cards... but it's a really clever idea to gain even better context and usage examples to learn better.

About your sources:

- subs2srs: subs2srs has lots of Japanese materials. Have you found any good Mandarin decks? (Btw, Avengers, nice job! :) )


- hiring someone to create Anki decks from material you gather: wow, that never occurred to me. I imagine the cost puts it out of reach for most students, but that's really a creative idea. It still involves a lot of work from you to prepare the material for your helper, but having an assistant slice it into Anki for you must have saved you huge amounts of time on that step.


- MDGB: I like the site and use it for example sentences. I'd love to have an Anki deck with one card for every example sentence they have. Any idea if something like that exists?


- In fact, fwiw, it'd be really great to have all of Jukuu, fasttrackchinese.org, and all the other sites with example sentences Anki'd up somehow and made into shared decks. Some are lower level, some advanced, but all together would be great for everyone. Anyone have any ideas how to do it?? I'd be willing to chip in with time or money, if it's possible somehow.


Thanks again for the ideas so far!


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- Also, I might be using it wrong, but I've found Pleco sometimes has very few or no example sentences for things I'm looking for.

A lot depends on the dictionary that you are using.  I've found the Guifan dictionary and the ABC dictionary have example sentences for most things.


But you are right about not being able to easily have an English example sentence requiring you to produce the Chinese (though I believe you can create custom flashcards somehow).


Personally though, I'd question the utility of producing Chinese from an English example sentence.  Much better to produce Chinese from a Chinese example sentence.

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- Using Pleco, I'm limited to the example sentences they have. Some of their sentences are ok, but the example sentences don't really seem to be the focus and aren't comprehensive.

Under "Organize Cards", you can convert a flashcard into a "custom card", which would allow you add your own example sentence to the standard definition:

See here: http://www.pleco.com/ipmanual/flash.html#cardinfo

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For subs2srs - I did Avengers myself.  There doesn't seem to be anybody uploading Chinese subs2srs decks, just Japanese and mostly anime.


The key is to find a movie that's got subtitles that match the dialog (dubbed movies rarely match) and then get hold of the .srt files for English and Chinese, and an avi or other video file without the subtitles hardcoded (I own the original DVD so I ripped it myself). Then, may need to adjust for the NTSC/PAL timing differences (movie running time is not the same as the subtitles you download in some cases.


This is so much trouble, I only did Avengers.  But it does yield a lot of sentences.  

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I just do what I can to try to make sure it's a professionally translated version.


I use a legal DVD not a bit-torrented or pirate copy. It's a big budget movie, so the studio have actually dubbed the entire movie in Chinese for cinema release, so I expect the translation to be pretty decent, maybe a bit weird or different to the English (in details but not overall intent) to fit the lip syncing and struggling with idiomatic expressions, but good enough to learn vocabulary and sentence structures.  Otherwise they'd be laughed at by cinema-goers, the voice actors would be embarrassed and so on.


I'd prefer to use Chinese language films or TV with good (or even crappy) English subtitles but finding the subtitles in .srt format is tricky for Chinese films and TV.

Actually I'd really like to do A Bite of China next.

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There has to be a better way. In an ideal word, I'd love to be able to just push a few buttons and be done with the whole process in under a minute. I realize that in the real-world, there have to be some manual steps involved... but still, I've gotta be missing something. I can't imagine my style of vocab acquisition is so unique that better processes haven't been developed for it.


Have you looked at this list of Chinese and English sentences and the CC-CEDICT Chinese-English dictionary? With these files for sentences and definitions, you should be able to write a simple program to take a Chinese word and write out a set of definitions with example sentences. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would cut down on what you say is the time-consuming part of your process. It would be more programming work, but you could also have a program search the web for Chinese sentences with the word to gather examples.

If you don't know a programming language, there are a lot of tutorials online for Python: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-websites-learn-python-programming/

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I had a look at the 20,000 Chinese sentence deck in Anki a while back and found weird English translations for sentences so I lost confidence in whether the Chinese would be correct or not.


This morning I converted 2 episodes of A Bite of China into SRS cards, audio and all.  The narration is nearly continuous throughout each episode, so there are nearly 1200 sentences (or partial sentences at least), 95%+ match up well, content that is quite interesting.  Not bad for about 2 hours of messing around.


With some Anki plugins to create pinyin and lookup definitions, this would be the fastest route to semi-automatic cards creation.  Attached is a sample of what you get.



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Thanks for the different ideas. Here's what I've tried:


- Pleco's inflexibility really just kills it for me. I tried the ideas here, I played with other ways, but just couldn't get it to do enough. It's a pity, because it really has so many of the parts already in place that it could be perfect... but the focus is on dictionary and it just isn't the right study tool.


- I combined @tysond's idea of building a mega database in advance, together with the list of sentences which @character pointed out. That list turned out to be great: a massive xml file of English and simplified characters. The format isn't great, but with some data manipulation and cleaning, I turned it all into an Anki deck of 20,000+ example sentences, with each card showing simplified, traditional, pinyin and English.


Now my process is a bit improved. When I encounter a new word/phrase, I go to the pre-built mega database I have and move any cards containing the word/phrase from the database into my active Anki study deck.  So I instantly get a few sample sentences for most short words or phrases, which saves me lots of time.

The quality of the translations isn't always the best. I asked a native speaker to read through some of the Chinese, and the conclusion was that it's usually pretty good, the grammar is fine, but it's kind of stilted and the translations are often a bit off. But that's the personal opinion of one person who skimmed through a few dozen of the 20,000+ sentences, so I'd be interested if anyone else has really gone through it in much detail.  But for a massive pre-built library which I can instantly throw into Anki, I'm not complaining.


@tysond -

I really like your idea about this. Two questions:

1) How did you do the Bite of China, get the files, get it all synched and organized, etc? 

2) How's the translation quality? I haven't seen that one (or Avengers Chinese!), but in general I've found that subtitling has to cut down the original language to its core meaning. There just isn't space to translate it accurately, and that's not really their aim anyway; they're trying to get the gist across, rather than create a perfect high-quality literary translation.


I still have my initial problem of how to efficiently get into Anki sentences which I find containing the new words/phrases. I definitely want the sentence in which I come across the phrase in the first place, plus any additional sentences I come across. But for gathering lots of random example sentences with English translations, this new process based on all the suggestions from this forum has really helped speed things up.


Hopefully this might help spark some ideas in anyone else seeking help for this specific problem...


Thanks to all :)

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Thank you very much for the detailed explanation and the subtitle help for how to put together an Anki database from Bite of China.


I managed to get it all working. I added some fields to the Anki database, so for every line of the Bite of China episodes I now have: simplified, traditional, audio, picture, English translation (from the official subtitles), literal word-for-word English translation, pinyin.  I added the pinyin and the literal translation fields because I found it saves me time when I don't know - or can't remember - a character (since I'm going to look some of them up anyway, it's easier to have them already pre-made for every line).


It's a really useful source of words in action which I can reference whenever I find new words.


I also found that in addition to the original idea of serving as a pre-made database of words used in a natural way, it's also been kind of fun to study it directly on its own, going through card by card to see if I can reproduce the Chinese sentence from the English translation.


I've heard a few of the phrases so much at this point that I've kind of adopted the narrator 李立宏's voice tone for some of them. When I was setting the deck up, I probably listened a hundred times the recording of him saying the opening phrase "中国", so I can now end up mimicking it exactly lol.


As you said, 2 episodes already provides a goldmine of phrases. But I'm adding more source videos; Bite of China is very grammatically correct and really easy to understand pronunciation, which is great. But I'm also adding source material which has fairly normal day-to-day conversations and dialogue: film, TV show, celeb interviews. I think it broadens out the types of words and usage quite a lot for a big pre-built database, and also serves on its own as a good study tool for dialogue. Have you found any specific ones you like which are good for Anki database'ing?


Thanks again for the idea of doing this and the specific pointers, subtitles, and tips. It's a wonderful idea and looks to be a great help in learning :)

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Sounds like it's working out well  :-)


I notice that same effect as you with the audio - after you hear lines a twenty times they burn into your brain.  I find myself reading a sentence then the entire sentence, in audio, exactly as it is performed, pops into my head.   Or I am speaking and I suddenly use exactly the same phrase as I've heard in my SRS.  I consider this a Good Thing, and why I like to have audio in my flashcards.


There are lots of other resources around with slower audio and text- Slow Chinese, Just Learn Chinese, Chinese Pod. I want to use native TV for a lot of this stuff, but it's hard to get soft-subs (.SRT files for example).  So a sentence here or there is OK - but mostly I just try to watch some TV - it's really the same thing you already know, just faster and with bits dropped and slang.  I do find PopupChinese dialogs to be much more native-like (in delivery if not topic), and am considering buying a subscription.


I do plan to try 锵锵三人行 as there are full transcripts for it.  But I expect to do that when I am moving more to monolingual cards, probably in a few months.


I don't want to race too far ahead of what I can consume, however.  It's easy to fall into the trap of hoarding content, processing content, but not learning any Chinese.  I'm a sucker for it.

I feel like the SRS process is a stepping stone, a means to an end.  I don't want to feed it so much it becomes a monster.

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"The Incredibles" works quite well here. I have the DVD version which I bought in Mainland China. The Chinese subtitles displayed in the movie itself do not match to the audio. I had the srt files downloaded from somewhere. As an experiment, I listened to some of the audio, noted the timings and realised the .srt files text match the audio word for word and the timings were very similar.

I ran the files through subs2srs and generated ~1200 sentences (some of course are too simple). The drawback is that the srt file I found is in traditional Chinese. I don't find that too much of a problem because you can convert it to simplified once loaded up into Anki. YMMV.

Now, for the English srt file, the timings don't match to the Chinese which is a bit of a pain. Also, the English may have two sentences whereas the Chinese has one sentence and vice versa.

In order to put the English translation in, I could only work out a very tedious method (or perhaps it is useful in practicing reading the characters):

1 - make a copy of the chinese srt file. I just do a copy and paste of the original. The file name will be the same but with the word copy at the end of it.

2 - open both srt files in notepad.

3 - manually copy and paste the translation from the English to the appropriate time in the Chinese within notepad. Now you will have an English version with the exact same timing as the Chinese version.

4 - This document must be saved as an srt file to work in subs2srs. If you simply save the notepad file as a .txt file, subs2srs will not recognise it.

5 - In notepad, click on "save as"

6 - In the encoding box at the bottom of the window, it will show ANSI. Click on this to change to UTF-8.

7 - "Save as type" click and change to "All files". A list of the srt files will show up

8 - Click on the srt file copy created in step 1. This will save your English translation with the Chinese version timings in notepad as an srt file.

9 - now your copy has a English version srt version that can paste into the 2nd subtitle box in subs2srs.

It's a very time consuming method to transpose the English across to the Chinese and requires some care. So only do it for films that you really like or very useful. If you don't need the English, even better! I haven't tried it yet but I guess you can divide the notepad files into half to be more manageable.

My next phase will be to identify shorter videos, let's say interviews or microfilms. Frequently, they do not have an srt file. What you have to do is create some text and srt file. My plan would be to hire a student to manually type out the Chinese as it is heard. Then use the Workaudio book app to match the subtitles to the audio sentence which can then export the text as an srt file with the timings included.

(In contrast, Kungfu Panda 3's Chinese srt files don't match the audio at all. I bought the DVD in HK so I am wondering if the version sold in HK is different to the one in the mainland. Yeah, you can tell the type of films I like :) )

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