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Anki

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This is the fifth of the posts in which I explain and motivate the items on my 101-in-1001 list. The list itself can be viewed here, where you can also find a list of all posts related to the list. If you want to follow my progress in more detail, you should check my profile page at the Day Zero Project.

Have a total of at least 120 academic credits in Chinese

This goal is mostly a question of bureaucracy; I need to convert the Chinese I know to the Swedish university system. 120 credits equals two years of pure Chinese, which is enough to start a master’s degree course if I want to. I plan to do this during the spring of 2011. I might have to learn some simplified characters, but I should do that anyway (see below).

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 100 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Write 100 000 characters worth of blog entries in Chinese

I need to practice writing. Quantity is king here, even though I want to be corrected as much as possible as well. I need to get into the habit of writing more Chinese. 100 000 characters is a lot, around 100 major entries.

Perceived difficulty: 7/10
Estimated time needed: 200 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Launch HackingChinese.com and publish at least 50 articles

This is my major project to demystify learning Chinese. I think there is a lot to talk about and I think there are lots of people who are willing to listen. The project is not official yet, but as you can see if you care enough to enter the URL, the website is up and running. Comments are appreciated! At the moment, I have 16 articles, but the official launch date is still quite far away.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 40 hours
Progress so far: 15%

Have one month with over 5000 unique visitors to HackingChinese.com

Since I plan to write a book and to at least try to sell it, I want to build a substantial community. 5000 unique visitors is a very arbitrary number, I know, and I have no way of assessing how difficult it will be. The point is that I want to make a conscious effort to reach many people and force myself to read and understand how website communities and traffic works.

Perceived difficulty: ?/10
Estimated time needed: ? hours
Progress so far: 0%

Write a book about learning Chinese

A book is not the end result of the above-mentioned project, but it is a significant milestone. I want to summarise and present everything I’ve come to understand about learning Chinese over the past few years and present it as a book. Currently, there is a huge list of things I want to include, but when Hacknig Chinese is up and running properly, I will start working on the book.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 200 hours
Progress so far: 5%

Read ten university level textbooks in Chinese

My goal is to bring my Chinese to a level where I can take a master’s degree in Taiwan and survive the courses. This means I will have to get used to reading academic material, so reading ten textbooks will be an important step. I haven’t read a single book at this level before, so I expect the first one will take a lot of time.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 400 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Read a total of 10000 pages of Chinese (any text at any level)

This task overlaps the previous one since the both focus on reading, but 10 000 is a number which easily exceeds the pages in ten course books. In other words, I plan to read more Chinese in general, of any kind. This includes children’s books, novels and anything else I can lay my hands on.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 300 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Be able to listen to news broadcasts in Chinese with close to full comprehension

Listening is the area in which I need the most practice. I can understand the gist of news broadcasts now, but I need to listen a lot to increase this to the goal “close to full comprehension”. I plan to listen at home, on my way to class, when I walk, when I… well, most of the time, to be honest, although I don’t think listening when I sleep will do much good.

Perceived difficulty: 9/10
Estimated time needed: 500 hours
Progress so far: 5%

Learn the lyrics of 50 songs in Chinese

Listening to music is an interesting way of approaching a language. Not only does it involve listening to the language in question, but learning the lyrics also requires learning the words and the grammar. If the song is a good one, these grammar patterns and words will be reviewed often and with pleasure! Music is also an example of how language is used, even though it isn’t formally correct all the time.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 4%

Correct all the listed pronunciation mistakes in Chinese, at least when reading

It’s of course a lot harder to improve pronunciation when I live in Sweden compared to when I lived in Taiwan, but since I have a list which I think covers most of the problems I have, I think it’s still possible. Those people who are willing to help me can have a look at the list and evaluate my progress. Achieving all this for relaxed speech is of course very difficult, but the goal here is to be able to do it when reading.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Record one hour of Chinese to study my pronunciation

This is in line with the previous task, but the approach is somewhat different. Analysing my own speech has proved to be useful before and I don’t see why it shouldn’t again. I will try to do this both for reading and for speaking, but as is the case above, I strive towards attaining perfection for reading first. Then, that pronunciation can be transferred to spontaneous speech.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 3 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Learn at least 5000 new words and/or characters

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: vocabulary is king. I currently have 11 669 words in my database, so I plan to have around 17 000 towards the end of this period (hopefully more). I feel that the need for quantity is decreasing all the time, otherwise this goal would be more ambitious.

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 500 hours
Progress so far: 8%

Learn to recognise all simplified Chinese characters

There are roughly 2000 simplified characters, but a huge majority of them (around 1750) are based on a systematic simplification of parts of characters which are generalised to other characters as well. I don’t know how difficult this will be, but my working hypothesis is that it won’t be too hard. I want to learn this because this is what I’m going to teach in the future. Note that I mean recognition here, I don’t plan to be able to write all these characters yet, that will have to come gradually.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Keep review queues in Anki at zero

Time-wise, this task overlaps the vocabulary task above, because I use Anki to learn new words. However, this item includes other languages, not only Chinese, even I think it unlikely that I will learn more than a few thousand words in any other language during this time. Also, in the time estimate here, entering the words isn’t included. On the other hand, I have around 15 000 words in Anki already! I spend roughly 30 minutes per day reviewing vocabulary, so the total time might exceed 600 hours.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 600 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Offer my help to all arriving Taiwanese exchange students

During my stay in Taiwan, I’ve had so many people who’ve helped me with thing that would have crushed me if I’d been forced to handle them on my own. Therefore, at the start of each academic year, I want to offer my help to all arriving Taiwanese exchange students. I’ve already done so this year, but so far, few people have actually used the help I’m offering. I plan to be more available in the future and be clearer about my ambition to help them as much as I can.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 20 hours
Progress so far: 20%

Record one issue of the Economist to study English pronunciation

My pronunciation in English is quite good at the moment, but there is always room for improvement. There are several people who record the audio edition of the Economist who speak what I deem to be perfect English. I intend to record articles equalling one issue of the magazine and analyse my own pronunciation as compared with that of the professional readers.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 25 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Study one solid English grammar book

Obviously, I know how to use English grammar, but that doesn’t mean I can explain to other people how to improve or why a certain sentence is better than what they’ve written. Studying grammar to learn how to teach English is of course a natural part of becoming a teacher, but I want to focus more on it. Studying (and learning) the contents of one solid grammar book should be a big step in that direction.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 25 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Learn all the words in the TOEFL words in my electronic dictionary

Improving my formal English is always a priority, so going through the suggested vocabulary for the TOEFL test on my electronic dictionary is a good idea. It’s also convenient because I have the words already prepared for me. I estimate that there are around 2500 words in this list that I need to study, either because I don’t know what they mean or because I’m not sure how to use them.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 100 hours
Progress so far: 10%

Learn full IPA for standardised Chinese, English and Swedish

The more languages I study and the more advanced my level becomes in these languages, I realise that learning phonetics properly is really important. I do think it’s a waste of time for beginner or intermediate students, but I don’t consider myself to be at that lever for any of the three languages I’m currently using or studying (Chinese, English, Swedish). This goal is as much about learning phonetics in general as learning the phonetic symbols, but since they go hand in hand, I think a wording like this works well.

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 60 hours
Progress so far: 0%

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Link: Anki website

Let’s say you want to learn a large volume of information (such as vocabulary when learning a foreign language) and you want to make sure that you remember most of what you learn not only next week, but also five years from now. Normal people need some kind of reviewing system to accomplish this, but most of these are not really systems at all, but more or less educated guesses at when something needs to be reviewed. In addition, the data is often reviewed in sections organised the way the material was arranged in the original source (such as a text book), meaning that most of what you review is data you already know and don’t really need to repeat.

Spaced repetition software is a highly effective way to avoid this problem and increase efficiency astronomically. I realised the importance of this when I started learning Chinese seriously, but it’s only recently I’ve tried to maximise the benefits of using spaced repetitions software to learn more and faster with less effort. I’ve used a program called ZDT almost from the start, but only a few weeks ago, I decided to change to Anki, another program more heavily focused on spaced repetition. I also want to refer to a previous article focusing on spaced repetition in ZDT, not because I suggest you use that programme anymore, but because most of what I said there still holds true for any programme.

Anki has a few advantages over ZDT, which isn’t to say that the latter is not a good program (in fact, it’s better than most). Still, I decided to change for a number of reasons and that’s what I’m going to talk about now. Even if you’re using some other program, I think many of the points I bring up below will be relevant. If you’re not using a computer to help your studying, I think you should seriously consider doing so because of the fantastic increase in efficiency that will lead to; I can’t possible overstate the importance of this. Here are a few selected advantages in Anki, sometimes with remarks about ZDT:

Heavier focus on spaced repetition – This is the core of Anki, meaning that a lot more effort has been invested into this area. These advantages are the main reason that I decided to change software, but they are too many to discuss in detail here, but they include intervals based on scientific studies, more control over intervals and more detailed options when reviewing, such as being able not only to say if the answer was correct or not, but also if it was hard, medium or easy to recall, thus speeding up the process of separating the difficult cards from the easy ones.

Flexibility and versatility – Anki is a lot more versatile than ZDT. It can handle lots of more different kinds of data, and is built to be expanded with plugins. The user can use the program to study anything than can be broken down into smaller pieces. In Anki any kind of data can be entered (in ZDT it’s impossible to add non-Chinese in the Chinese field, for instance, making it impossible to add words in Chinese using Latin letters).

A large community – Anki seems to enjoy a sizeable supporting community with lots of people writing plugins and a lot of things going on development-wise. This is not a prerequisite for me, but it is reassuring to know that people are constantly working to improve the software.

Online version – I didn’t really think about how good it would be to have online features until I tried it with Anki. I can now review my lists from any computer and keep the cards as well as the attached statistics synchronised on more than one computer. This means that moving around, travelling and so on will be a lot easier with no need to suspend reviewing for a long period of time. It’s also a safety precaution to have all cards online.

Superior card management – Cards can be sorted and viewed in almost any way imaginable, which makes it very convenient to make adjustments (which was a pain in ZDT). It’s also possible to search for cards, prevent duplicates from being added and much, much more. These features contitute an extreme improvement from any other program I’ve tried.

Practical and smooth reviewing – While reviewing, corrections of cards can be made on the fly as they are discovered without having to interrupt the session. It’s also possible to undo answers to cards, removing the annoying problem with easy cards being reviewed too often only because of typing mistakes or a wrong click with the mouse.

So, having said all this, is Anki the perfect solution? I would hesitate to say perfect, but it’s a lot closer to that than ZDT is. I see no reason whatsoever to continue using the latter and I recommend both new and old learners to consider your choice of software again. Please take into account that I used ZDT for literally thousands of hours over more than two years, so I think I know what I’m talking about. It remains to be seen if there are even better programs out there, but I feel like I’ve taken a major step in the right direction and that any other gains that might be found elsewhere are merely adjustments or smaller improvements rather than something qualitatively different.

By way of conclusion, if you are the students mentioned in the beginning who use pen and paper to review your vocabulary, please think again. It’s of course difficult to say how much efficiency can be increased by using the proper tools, but I’m prepared to say that the change is in the order of several magnitudes. If you are already using a program, it’s always healthy to question what you’re doing. This is not an attempt to convert people to Anki in particular, but rather a call for people to think more about what they are doing and urge you to look around you and see what options there are. After all, you don’t want to spend your life trying to build a mountain by carrying stones in your pockets only to later find out that you could have hired a truck for free.

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