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Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?

For those of us from the English speaking world, Chinese characters themselves are often a big piece of what makes Chinese an interesting language to learn. My own experiences are a bit different, since I started with Japanese, but I too have been bitten by that bug. There’s something really neat about how much semantic information is packed in a character! In some cases there are literally a dozen characters with the exact same Mandarin pronunciation, but to the character literate, it’s easy to disambiguate them. That’s cool.

One neat thing about working at an international tech company in China is seeing how new coworkers go about learning English, or if they’re westerners, how they go about learning Chinese. Our CTO has been more interesting to watch in this respect than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s all about the characters.

Vacuuming up every character in sight

In a few months, he’s learned to recognize well over a thousand characters during his limited free time. He’s recently started to pick up stroke order from using his iPad to input them, but his focus has been at least 90% on recognition. With this sort of knowledge, he can read ingredients on food labels to ensure that they’re vegetarian, he can operate remote controls, read shop signs and generally navigate around Beijing.

Crippled without comic book bubbles

Obviously there are limits, though. My co-worker is a really smart guy with a PHD in physics and has successfully built and sold 2 start-ups, but he’s still human. There are limits to how much a guy with a family and more than a full-time job can learn in his off hours. He’s learning to recognize so many characters by not spending time on other parts of the language.

Most notably, he’s not learning how to pronounce the characters he can recognize! E.g. he might know that means porridge, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce the character. He would associate directly with the English word “run” and not with its Mandarin pronunciation. It’s kind of amusing to me because he often asks me “what’s the Chinese for (some or another English word)”, and I unthinkingly say the Chinese word to him instead of describing it character by character! Telling him how to pronounce the Chinese word for broccoli during his 3rd month in the country was useless. What he was looking for was “west-orchid-flower”… if only speaking produced bubbles in the air with characters in them as in comic books!

As strange as this method of learning Chinese seems, it’s quite a bit like Heisig’s famous Remembering the Kanji, which helped me quite a bit a few years ago. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually use these methods from the beginning instead of starting with a traditional approach and later trying RTK.

Looking ahead

My co-worker’s current plan is to continue upon his current path until he can mostly “read” newspapers or magazines. If he’s successful, he’ll basically be like my Japanese classmates in my Chinese class– poor speaking skills but some understanding of what most written Chinese he comes across.

There are obviously downsides to going character-crazy. For one, multi-character compounds present a problem. Secondly, speaking is a more useful skill than reading for people actually in China. On the other hand, his speaking is improving from interactions with Chinese people at work, and for the most part he has mental hooks on which to hang the new spoken vocabulary he learns. He speaks more Chinese than any of the last batch of American interns last summer did, and they were half his age and spending each morning in Chinese classes. I’m really interested to see where this endeavor goes.

I’ve recently found the Wikipedia Commons Stroke Order Project, via Sinosplice.

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:


from the site:

Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

Like John, I’m very impressed with the general look of the project, and very happy to see a free alternative to the various proprietary systems we’ve had to choose from before. I am curious how they’ll handle characters with variable stroke order, but I think most students will be happy being able to see an acceptable stroke order for whatever character they happen to be looking up.

There is one thing about this project that’s a bit depressing, though. That’s the near total neglect of traditional characters. According to the Wikimedia page, only three traditional characters have been added!

BlackWhiteRedGradientAnimation
Bopomofo37/40 Done0
Hiragana Done Done0
Katakana Done Done0
Hangeul1/3500
Kangxi radicalsThese aren’t categorised separately. See the progress pages.
Traditional Chinese305
Simplified Chinese1,010181379
Kanji4889

I’m used to traditional characters getting back of the bus treatment in textbooks and online resources for Chinese learners, but this is just sad. Who’s up for adding some Traditional characters to balance this out a bit?

Over the past month as made my way through the phenomenal guide Remembering the Kanji, I’ve learned some interesting things. Not only am I writing all the Joyo kanji with an accuracy I could only have dreamt of before RTK, but I’m starting to recognize some of the systematic aspects behind the post WWII Kanji simplifications. Some are fairly mundane, but one is a more abstract sort of simplification than I had realized existed.

Simplifications of radicals and other components

The PRC simplified a large number of radicals and other character components components after the second world war. Very few Japanese radicals were simplified, though some of the less manageable ones such as “turtle” (龜) were. In complex components of radicals that are not radicals, the Japanese and Chinese simplifications were often the same.

TraditionalJapaneseChinese

Nothing in the above table was anything very new or interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to be able to remember those kinds of systematic relationships between the different writing systems. But they’re not the kind of thing to make me say wow.

Simplification via the “tripler” component

This was, though:

TraditionalJapaneseChinese
or

I love that. Any time you see something tedious to write repeated three times, there’s a good chance that it can be written once with four sparkles under it, instead. It saves time, and unlike Chinese simplifications, it preserves all the original information. It’s like writing a function.

Notes: 渋 is a bit problematic.