Monthly Archives: August 2012


Aug 2012

Graham’s SRS Method

Sinosplice commenter Graham Bond recently left a lengthy and interesting comment on my Misgivings about SRS post. (“SRS” refers to spaced repetition system like Anki; I explain how SRS works in an earlier post.)

I quote Graham’s comment here, almost in its entirety, adding in a few links and just a little emphasis:

I have become a hopelessly-addicted SRS user in recent months. This decision came at something of an impasse in my (nine year-long) Chinese language-learning journey, and was made largely on the back of blog I came across, the author of which was positively evangelical about the possibilities of the technology.

By now – nine months in – I recognise all of the problems and limitations cited above. I was mistaken to think, as many others have, that SRS was a cure to all language-acquisition ills. It is bound to unnaturally skew one’s priorities and lead to the kind of imbalanced result you allude to in your post (ie. I have bulging vocabularly pecs, and puny grammatical legs). That said, it has proved useful in certain respects, not least in introducing a competitive element to language-learning (albeit one in which I compete with myself) and imposing quite a hard-edged discipline (ie. I gotta get through my character sets every day, regardless of how I feel, otherwise the ‘overdue cards’ count mounts very quickly….this can verge on the pathological).

My current set up attempts to address some of the deficiencies mentioned above. Though it’s probably very, very boring, I’ll set out my current arrangements, as briefly as possible, in the hope of explaining how they work for me (and occasionally, how they do not).

I have four decks of cards which, in total, I spend around an hour trawling through daily.

Only one of these, the HSK deck, was downloaded and, as such, contains many words and (at Level 6) idioms which are completely devoid of context for me. Because of the sheer size of the contemporary Level 6 HSK category (1,400+ words), I have had to introduce new cards slowly – I try for 10-20 new words per day – in the hope that by the end of this year, 2012, I will be juggling all cards (about 2,500 for Levels 1-6), while never having to face a single daily session of more than, say, 150 words at one time.

I download daily audio from YouTube clips of 美国之音 TV news broadcasts and listen to them as MP3 files whilst commuting, or taking a stroll. I attempt to listen to at least 20-minutes worth of broadcast material daily. Additionally, I force myself to read at least one Chinese news article (I occasionally substitute this with a page or two of a novel) per day, regardless of subject. These two activities have allowed me to locate the usage of a lot of the fairly formal words or obscures idioms that I have come across in my HSK drills (especially when I read Chinese newspapers, as these are the most likely to feature the more obscure, Mao-era, political terms often used in the HSK). I don’t always have time to dwell on their exact usage – and there are many words/phrases I have not yet heard in any real-world context – but I do get a little thrill when I hear a word or phrase which I have previously only known in the HSK context, being used out there in the real world.

In short, I try to undertake the (largely written) daily SRS drills in tandem with attempts to exercise my listening and reading skills.

My second and third flashcard decks are drawn manually from I listen to lessons at the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (keep up the good work, btw!:)) and, after each lesson, draw down new words/phrases into files which I transfer to my SRS system (Pleco, for what it’s worth). Thus I have an ‘Intermediate’ set, and an ‘Upper Intermediate’ set which are both increasing in size on a weekly basis, as new lessons are made.

My fourth flashcard set – and the most recent, and possible useful, addition – is a list of complete sentences which locates some of the most common/useful/interesting words/phrases in real-world context. I tend to take these sentences from the dialogues at, thereby ensuring that they are reliable in terms of how people really speak. This is an attempt to address the most obvious failing with SRS that it allows you to expand your vocabulary without requiring any understanding of how words are actually used in context. In this test, I look at the English translation and read out the correct Chinese sentence. The act of verbalising, if only to myself, seems to make certain patterns stick.

In terms of the specific tests that I undertake, I oscillate fairly systematically between, on the one hand, viewing the English translation and responding with the written Chinese translation (input using hanzi), while simultaneously verbalising the word in the (hopefully) correct tones; and, on the other, reading the Chinese word and verbalising the correct English translation out loud to myself. Regardless of the exact test I undertake, I try to be disciplined and have a rule for myself that if I could not, on request, write the hanzi that appear in the word, or if I get the tone of a character wrong (even if I knew how to write it), I mark the card as wrong. In some ways this is a vanity project – I want to be able to say (as I have been known to in the past) that “I am able to write everything that I am able to say”. On the other hand, as some other commenters have noted, writing a character over and over again does tend to make it stick in one’s memory banks.

As I mentioned, all of this takes me between 60 minutes and 75 minutes per day.

Despite all of my labours, I have concluded that while daily SRS work has enlarged my vocabulary and improved my reading skills (and to a lesser extent, listening skills), it has done absolutely nothing for my general conversational fluency. If anything, this is in a worse place now than it was nine months ago. I lived in China for several years in the Noughties (apologies:)) and, thus, feel confident in terms of my basic pronunciation and tones. But, here I am, nine years in, still finding myself jumping through all kinds of mental hoops and using torturous (and probably way overly complication and clunky) sentence constructions when it comes time to actually have a conversation at anything over a basic elementary level. Similarly, I have little confidence in composing a Chinese sentence in writing. I may be able to write the individual characters accurately, with the correct stroke order etc.etc, but I cannot necessarily link them fluently in a proper sentence, let alone a paragraph.

In summary, SRS is rubbish for improving fluency, but is great for developing vocabulary and thus (depending on precisely how it is used), improving one’s reading and listening comprehension. Luckily for me, right now I am most concerned with improving my Chinese reading skills, so this works for me. And I am (semi)confident that this is great foundational work for when I do, eventually, get back to China and find myself speaking with real people again (you currently find me residing in a sleepy English village – which, over and beyond everything I have said, is my biggest problem of all – the general ambient sounds in my everyday life are not those of Mandarin Chinese!)

Thanks for the detailed comment, Graham! At the time you didn’t know you were writing a guest post, so… surprise! I appreciate you going to the trouble of writing such a detailed account. Other learners will benefit from your ideas.

I like the way you diversified your SRS review, and your confirmation on the shortcomings of SRS as a study tool is helpful. There’s no silver bullet for mastery of any language…


Aug 2012

Learn Chinese in 3D takes Chinese learning to the third dimension!

What does it mean to take Chinese learning to the third dimension? Well, it means a cool 3D interface for exploring Chinese characters and words, but beyond that, it’s not totally clear. But that’s OK! The way I view this new app, 3D Chinese, is a sort of experiment, a Chinese learning app that was created because it was possible. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s fun, for one (unless you’re a luddite). I’d like to see more of this kind of thing.

Check out the video and some screenshots:

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

I was a tester for this app, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I gave the developer a few suggestions, and he was quite responsive to feedback. The style of the app still feels a little too Japanese to me, but it’s still a very polished experience.

So what is the app? Basically, it’s an alternative to a character dictionary or character book, where you have a bunch of common characters laid out in lists by radical. Instead, characters are grouped spatially by radical. You can explore the characters in the 3D environment, learn words containing those characters, etc. It’s a very visual, exploratory way to experience Chinese, and I know that appeals to a lot of people.

The app also has its own built-in SRS functionality. I didn’t test this functionality much, as the app seemed much more suited to a visual tour than the old “doing reps” SRS chore, but this feature might appeal to some.

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

3D Chinese is currently priced at $2.99. This is a reasonable price for its beautiful 3D visual experience, but this app is not for either (1) the super hardcore learner who wants extreme depth (that user really just wants a dictionary, not something visual-oriented), or (2) a super casual learner who just wants to be entertained by visuals and doesn’t really want to learn (the 3D effects of the app will lose their charm pretty quickly if the learner isn’t actually into the characters at all). If you don’t fall into either of those categories, and don’t find a price of $2.99 exorbitant, I recommend you give this little experiment in visual learning a whirl.


Aug 2012

East Asian Bookshelf

There’s a new website out there designed to showcase study materials for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. It’s called East Asian Bookshelf, and is introduced below by Dr. Li Minru:

East Asian Bookshelf

> The National East Asian Languages Resource Center (NEALRC) at the Ohio State University would like to invite you to visit the website “East Asian Bookshelf” (, which aims to promote teaching and learning materials in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean and to assist teachers to find quality language teaching materials available to purchase.

> This project is a collaborative effort of NEALRC, CLASS (Chinese Language Association of Secondary-elementary Schools), CLTA (Chinese Language Teachers Association), AATJ (Alliance Associations of Teachers of Japanese) and AATK (American Association of Teachers of Korean), with financial support from a Department of Education Title VI grant.

There’s a pretty advanced filter in the lefthand sidebar to help you find the types of textbooks or other materials you’re looking for. It looks to me like the filter isn’t totally working yet, but I’m sure they’ll fix it. This is looking like a pretty useful resource.


Aug 2012

CHONG: an ad for a flashcard

Every now and then I see something around Shanghai that feels like it were almost designed for Chinese learners, to put on a flashcard or something. Here’s the latest one (photographed near the Xintiandi Metro station):


The character is (CHONG), and it means “to spoil” or “to pamper.” You know, that’s the whole reason people get pets (宠物): they’re animals (动物) that they can totally love, dote on, and spoil ().

fad dog

Obviously, this particular example is a bit over the top, and if it were a bit more up with the times, it would be an apricot toy poodle, clearly the current “fad dog” in Shanghai. You see these little dogs on the arms of girls all over the city, as well as in the photos of various types of social media.

(I think this city is due for a new fad dog, actually.)


Aug 2012

Letter of Apology from the Shanghai Metro

We were at the office today during Typhoon Day (hey, the last one was a total false alarm!), and one of my employees was late because the subway was running extra slow during the typhoon. She handed me this 致歉信 (letter of apology):

Shanghai Metro letter of apology

This was interesting to me, because I’d never seen something like this before. It’s pretty standard at many Chinese companies to require an official doctor’s note if you ever call in sick. But I wasn’t aware that there was a way to make the old “subway breakdown” excuse official. (Note that there is a serial number, a date stamp, and a hotline to call for verification. Super official!)

From a pragmatics standpoint, it’s interesting to me that it’s called a “Letter of Apology” when it’s clearly meant as an official form of “work tardiness excuse validation.” Now, if there were only a “my bus was late” letter of apology, we’d really be in business…


Aug 2012

Better Chinese, Worse iPad Skills

I’ve heard some good things about a program for school kids called Better Chinese. Like many modern Chinese learning programs, Better Chinese is also on the iPad learning bandwagon. This screenshot from the website features the app:

Better Chinese, Worse iPad Skills

Yikes! How’d they get a kid from the late 70’s to pose with that iPad, and why didn’t they tell him not to use a pen with that touchscreen?

I’m sure we’ll all figure out how to learn Chinese using these touchscreen tablets sooner or later…