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Kelby

How does one do frequency 'right?'

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Kelby

Hey all,

So in my goals for this year, I have the old stereotype of learning the most common 3000 Chinese characters. It's about time I got this checked off the ol' Chinese learning chores list. While I know many, myself included, feel like this is an exercise only for its own sake (or frankly for the sake of bragging about how many characters one knows), hear me out.

A while back I used the web app remembr.it to really focus on my character learning. Their shmear is that they take the most common characters and organize them by 'confusability' instead of frequency ranking. This presumably puts characters that are the same but for a different compnent or two together so you can learn to dfferentiate them. I got 1000 characters deep into the roughly 3000 that they have on there and saw some interesting results from it. While there are pros and cons to learning characters in isolation (I'm reminding myself of this thread as I write this; http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/41648-benefits-of-memorising-individual-characters/#comment-320464) I'd like to mention the pros I've seen and ask some advice concerning what's not working for me now that I dive back into frequency learning.

When I went through individual, common character learning last time I certainly didn't get a big boost in vocabulary. I couldn't really even deploy the individual character meanings I learned to learn vocabulary words more quickly although that's one of the supposed benefits. While I dreamed that learning these individual characters would allow me to magically feel out the meaning of new words without needing to look them up, alas Chinese is a crueler mistress than that. The upshot, however, was that I knew the pronunciation of far more characters than I used to and was able to feel out the pronunciation of similar ones far better than I used to.

This is pretty rad for two reasons. The first, is that the obnoxious feeling where you get completely hung up while reading because you have no idea how to say a character and thus your inner diaologe piles up like a bad traffic accident happened less to me. The second is that when I went to look things up I could at least ballpark the pinyin on words I encountered but wasn't sure about the meaning. That made the whole reading with a dictionary thing less tedious.

Chinese reading and I have taken a long, years long, break from our previously serious engagement, but due to how much more smoothly my reading got last time around, I'm making individual, character frequency learning a vital part of my bigger goal to start devouring novels and other books by year's end.

Now, my approach goes like this. I separate the cards from the big deck into characters I have never seen/don't know how to pronounce and characters I can't link to bigger vocabulary words already. Once I learn how to pronounce a character reliably it gets passed to the deck that requires me to associate it to a broader term. This means the character is being drilled so that it can be pronouncable when encountered at random and is being linked to my greater vocabulary (hoping for a big vocabualry boost out of this exercise too ;)).

The problem is that everything just feels so disassociated. Perhaps it's because the characters aren't organized by common components this time, but it seems like every session I find myself staring bleary-eyed at a pack of unfamiliar characters and having huge trouble associating them to what I've already learned.

So, if you've done the whole frequency thing before how have you gone about tying the characters back to what you already know as characters get more and more esoteric? Is there a way to make this process seem less tedious? Did you even find it worthwhile to do this exercise wen all was said and done?

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roddy

I'd start from vocab and learn the characters as you meet them, rather than vice versa. Take the old HSK lists and plug through them, you'll have 2,800 characters by the time you're done, roughly in frequency order, plus you'll have learned or reinforced almost 9,000 useful vocab items. And the word for hand grenade.

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realmayo

What I did was to go through a list of the top 2500: I used Wenlin to break a new character down to its components and get a list of all the characters that use the main (usually phonetic) component. I'd learn all the common characters that had a shared phonetic component at the same time. I'd also learn at least one word using a character at the same time as learning that character, selecting the word or words from the HSK list. I've forgotten the word for hand grenade.

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imron

For me personally, I've never found going through generated lists to be an effective way to study because it divorces the material from context.

 

I agree with Roddy to learn characters as you meet them in words.  Do it consistently over a long enough period of time and you'll get to the point where you know everything on those frequency lists.

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anonymoose

If you specifically wish to cover the 3000 most frequently used characters or even learn more characters beyond that, I'd suggest rather than learn the characters individually, that you pick a frequently used word for each character, and then learn that word. That way you get to learn the characters, but you also learn them in an applicable format. As the characters become more exotic, you often find that there are only one or two words or chengyu in which they can be used anyway (although often they are not very useful words or chengyu).

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c_redman

I have found some value in learning characters, but mainly to round out gaps in character knowledge from learning words. In theory, you learn new characters when learning the words that contain them. But there are certain kinds of words where one of the characters is more common and well known, and I rely on that when understanding the word while neglecting the more infrequent character. For example, I might learn 卸妆, and later remember it's about clothing but get confused about whether it's putting things on or taking them off. So it's useful as a kind of "cross-training", to learn information in a different way and possibly make different brain connections.

By studying less frequent characters, I did find a quite clear benefit when reading place names or personal names. There are rare characters not found much outside of names, and I was able to increase the chance of being able to read a name by studying characters.

As others have mentioned, it's useful to also be familiar with the words they are associated with. In some cases it's even necessary, because there are a number of character pairs with almost the same pinyin and almost the same definition. For my flashcards, I used a list of character clozes I generated from the Lancaster Corpus of Mandarin Chinese.

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Kelby

I've always been a fan of the natural approach over the packing approach, , and I want to test through all the HSK tests (starting with 4), so I guess I have my answer on how to proceed ;P

Roddy, would you mind pointing me through to the HSK lists you're talking about?

Imron, since I'm trying to build my competency to start reading more complicated things in Chinese, what would you recommend for 'softballing' my way into more reading?

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imron

Graded readers. The newly released series by mandarin companion has good reviews, as does Chinese breeze. A search of the forums will turn up relevant threads.

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Silent

 

I've always been a fan of the natural approach over the packing approach, , and I want to test through all the HSK tests (starting with 4), so I guess I have my answer on how to proceed ;P

The natural way is much better any way. Frequency lists may be of value for the really most common words/characters. The more you learn they have less value unless personalised as the vocabulary encountered strongly depends on profession/interests. The vocabulary mostly used/encountered by a chemist, an artist and a banker are quite different. The same is true for the computer nerd, stamp collector and sports fanatic. So pick vocabulary as you encounter it or if you want it more structured analyse the material you use and create your own personalised frequency lists.

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roddy

I don't have the old HSK lists handy, but could probably rummage around and find them. However I'd imagine they're available via Anki, Pleco and Skritter. Let me know if you can't track them down. There's also the newer set of lists, but I don't know the numbers for those and they won't get you so near to your 3,000 mark. 

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li3wei1

I think of flashcarding as similar to lifting weights. While it's part of a good training program for most sports, it isn't sufficient on its own, and you wouldn't want to get into a boxing ring/swimming pool/etc on a diet of pure weightlifting, but you don't want to do it without any at all either.

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Kelby

I smell a workout DVD infomercial brewing. "Tired of your Chinese always sounding wimpy? Spending hours at your desk sweating over flashcards? Do you want EXPLOSIVE GROWTH? Well we've got the secret for BIG GAINS and it doesn't involve doesn't involve frequency lists alone," blah blah blah... And by the end you have the Chinese language version of a sexy beach body.

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