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Chinese characters

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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.


Update: This article was written a long time ago, so even if most of what I say here is still relevant, I have developed my revision strategy a lot. Check this post for some ideas.

This article is the third part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – Revision
Having read the first two posts in the this small series of articles, one might draw the conclusion that learning what a character means and how to write it is the most difficult and time-consuming part of studying Chinese. This is wrong in every repgard. The really difficult bit of studying Chinese is to have the discipline and time to revise what one has already learnt; in other words, not to forget what the first two parts of this series focused on. Since this is a problem that increases with one’s knowledge of the language, it is also something I personally feel is very important to discuss. Remembering how to write a character is a real problem for native Chinese as well, especially for those who do not write by hand as a part of their daily lives. Writing using a computer merely requires one to know how a character is pronounced and what it look like, which is not the same as being able to write it by hand.

That being said, I have used trial and error to find a suitable revision method (admittedly, after studying languages for many years, I had a good idea of what I wanted before). My original intention was to publish this article in close succession to the previous two parts, but I began altering my revision strategy at the same time, so I decided to wait until that change was fully implemented. What I present here is by no means based on any serious research, but it is founded on my rudimentary knowledge of psychology and a lot of consistent blood, sweat and tears.

Committing characters to long-term memory
If the disposable time was unlimited, it would probably be best to keep track of sets of characters (such as from a chapter in a book) separately and make sure that any given set of characters was revised occasionally. However, time is painfully limited and for reasons I will explain in the next section, I have come to the conclusion that two separate systems are needed for revising characters. What I will say about the initial phase, committing characters to long-term memory, is based on my own revision schedule, which looks like this:


Click for higher resolution image.

It is difficult to analyse this kind of data without proper software or knowledge, but basing my writing on feeling, reflection and studying of the chart above will probably get me somewhere. The blue boxes are checks from pinyin to characters using ZDT. This is by no means anything fancy, it just means that I go through all the characters in a random order and make sure I know how to write them. If I do not remember how to write them or write them incorrectly, I count that as an error and continue with the rest. After one round, the incorrectly answered characters appear again, and normally I have no problem the second time. Later, I repeat this procedure for the same chapter, noting the number of correct answers (the figures in the blue boxes). The most important question here is of course how often to do this in order to optimise retention.

If working with simple repetition (which is a fairly poor sort of revision anyway), the human mind works in a rather predictable pattern. The most important thing is to find out what that pattern is like for a given learning situation. I have found out a couple of truths about how my brain works when it comes to revising characters, and I am pretty sure than most of them are applicable to other people in other situations as well. Here is what I have found out about revision intervals:

As I have already stated, I do the initial learning in the evening, and the first revision session is directly afterwards. Once I have studied each and every character carefully (as described in the second article), I simply read through the list of characters, refreshing my mnemonics and making sure I know what the various parts mean. This is often done very quickly.Then I go to sleep. Immediately upon waking (or very soon thereafter), I carefully go through the list again, using a pinyin to character test again. This is not done in a hurry, but I actually make sure that I can write all the characters. Usually, I am able to remember between 80 and 85 percent of the characters from the evening before.

Then I do not touch the characters for the remainder of the day, or if I do, I just quickly skim through the list on my mobile phone waiting for the bus and suchlike. The next revision session is the next day (the third day since, counting the initial learning as the first day). It does not seem to matter when during the day I do this, but it has to be done the third day. After than, I should revise again on the fifth and eighth day, which usually leaves me with a score seldom below 95 % and often close to 100 %. Even if i do not revise further, I can usually remember how to write more than 95 % of the characters several weeks after the initial learning (see the first article for a discussion about how good is good enough). If I realise that I have a problem with specific characters even after this time, I put them in a separate category so as to be able to practice them without having to go through the entire chapter that contains them. This is obviously saves a lot of time.

In summary
Day 1, initial learning in the evening
Day 2, revision in the morning
Day 3, revision
Day 5, revision
Day 8, revision

Future revision and retention of characters
Even if the aforementioned procedure leaves me with a satisfactory 95 % knowledge of the characters in any give chapter, even weeks after the initial learning, this does not mean that the understanding is permanent. If characters were left unused and unrevised, I have no idea what the curve showing loss of writing ability to time would look like, but I am pretty sure it would be an unpleasant affair, so let us instead make sure that they are not left unrevised.

As I mentioned in the first article, it should also be noted that the goal is very important. Is it necessary to have 95 % retention or is 90 % or even 85 % satisfactory? The relationship between percentage of correct answers and time spent on revising is exponential, so think carefully about this one.

Before I go on to explain why I think a computer is an essential and powerful tool to study Chinese, I will discuss the problem that faces all those who study foreign languages, namely that of effective revision (so far I have only dealt with intervals, not how one goes about the actual revision). Simply using a text book to revise is abysmally ineffective, because it means that too much time is spent on revising vocabulary that does not need revision. Imagine, for instance, a chapter where I know 95 % of the characters and need to revise 5 %. Studying the entire chapter is a waste of time, time that could be spent on revising other characters or learning new ones.

This is where the computer comes in handy. As I have already said, I use ZDT for this, but I do not doubt that there is a plethora of programs out there on the web capable of doing the same thing. I will use ZDT as an example simply to explain what I mean. The key feature is what is called an interval filter. Running any of the various flashcard checks in the program, this filter adds X points to a flashcard each time the user gives a correct answer, and deducts Y points every time an incorrect answer is given. X and Y are of course parameters set by the user. Furthermore, there are parameters for every given value of the sum X and Y, in other words, the current score for a certain flashcard (a high value meaning that correct answers are frequent). These parameters govern how often a flashcard is shown if the interval filter is enabled.

Why is this so marvellous? Because, provided that the interval filter is set up correctly, it means that it is possible to only focus on the characters that really need revision. If a character seems to be easy (many correct answers), it will appear less and less frequently, until at last almost never. If the character is difficult, it will keep appearing very often until the number of correct answers increases. Likewise, if an old character is forgotten, its score will tumble and it will appear more frequently until it is mastered once again. This is impossible, or at least extremely impractical, to do without a computer. It will save a lot of time, even including the fact that it takes time to key in the characters in the first place (please note that wordlists from many text books are provided by users, including myself, on the ZDT page).

That being said, simple repetition is a poor revision method. It will work for many characters, but if I feel that some character is refusing to lodge itself in my long-term memory, I will change method for that character. Here are some ways of learning difficult characters:

– Create a sentence of your own
– Find a better mnemonic
– Draw a picture
– Count the number of strokes
– Check the various parts again
– Check etymology
– Look at other words including the character
– Read the source text

The only thing that is required apart from a system like this is diligence over time, which of course is extremely difficult, but which is something I will not even try to approach in this article (even though I have written about related topics here and here).

Revision in context
Perhaps this ought to be the topic for an entirely new article, but I feel that my writing about learning Chinese is beginning to spin out of control, so I will try to keep it short. In essence, the best (and perhaps only) way to learn a language is to follow up studying by revision in context. By this, I mean that it is necessary to encounter the characters or words in context a couple of times before being able to use them properly. Simply studying a text book and grammar will never instill the feeling for the language which is necessary for a high proficiency. Obtaining this feel is only achievable through reading and listening a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. I am sorry, but there are no shortcuts, no smart strategies or other ways to help; spending perhaps thousands of hours immersed in the language is the only way.

Conclusion
By way of conclusion, I would like to invite everybody to some sort of discussion. Have you thought about the topics for these three articles and have you related them to your own situation? Have you some experience you feel is relevant for what I have said or do you just want to voice your opinion? Perhaps you even have pertinent scientific material or references to share? Whatever it might be, please, go ahead and post a reply.

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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.


This article is the second part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – New characters
Studying Chinese characters require a lot of time, but is also interesting and sometimes even exciting. Since it requires much more time to learn new characters in Chinese than to learn new words in, say, French, it is more important to choose the right characters to study. If the right characters are chosen, knowing a thousand will probably grant some basic reading comprehension. However, if those thousand characters are not the most common ones, they will not be of much use. I think text books are excellent for this purpose, because they tend to use high-frequency vocabulary that makes up the core of the language. I suggest studying more than one text book. If the course focuses on one, buying another book from another series, but at the same level as the course literature, will allow picking up additional vocabulary without making it too troublesome. If possible, the complementary text book should be slightly easier than the current level of the course. Apart from providing extra vocabulary, an additional text book is a great source to study characters and words in context. This can be done by using children’s literature, but so far I have found text books to be more useful..So, what do I do when I first encounter a character I for some reason desire to know how to read and write? The answer tot hat question is fairly complex, but I am going to try to explain the method I have arrived at after some experimenting and more than one years study of Chinese. I have a steady pace of roughly a hundred new words a week (not a hundred new characters, mind you), and I feel that the method I will describe below works very well for me.

The very first thing I do is to write the character a few times, just to make sure I get the stroke-order correctly and get the feeling of the character. I think it is a mistake to write the character more than a few times. The mechanical motion itself is not enough to memorise the character and after a few times, at least I stop focusing on the actual meaning of the character and simply copy what I wrote the previous time.

After writing the character the first few times, I break it down its various components and study them separately. I use the online dictionary at zhongwen.com for this. Most Chinese characters have a rational and logical story behind them, although it is sometimes archaic or refer to meanings that are lost in modern Chinese. The first option is to use these built-in mnemonics to help to remember the character. Of course, this means that it is necessary to learn the individual characters in multi-character words, but I think that goes without saying. These mnemonic techniques is also applicable between words, but this ought to be obvious after reading the method I use for individual characters. Here is an example with fairly simple logic behind it:

沙漠 (desert)

The first character 沙 (sand) consists of two parts: that which becomes visible when 水 (water, altered to radical form) is 少 (few, scarce), i.e. sand. This character is very easy to remember if one knows what the various components mean. The second character is not as obvious, so I have added slightly to the historical explanation: 漠 consists of two parts: 莫 (not, without) 水 (water), i.e. desert. 莫 in its turn consist of three parts: 艸 (plants), 日 (sun) and 大 (big). The mnemonic of this composition is that 日 (sun) hiding behind 大 (big) 艸 (plants), in other words, it is not there.

The important thing here is not to use the true, historical explanation, but rather to find or devise a suitable one. However, it is essential that the explanation is based on the real components of the character. It is a serious mistake to create parts or meanings that have no broader meaning; try instead to learn the building blocks of the Chinese language. Sometimes, parts have been altered beyond recognition or to resemble other parts (for instance, 大 is not truly a part of the aforementioned character for desert, but it is written that way, which makes it useful). What I am trying to say here is that the actual etymology and meaning of the character is irrelevant as long as real building blocks are used for the mnemonics.

But, hey, that means that it will take many hours to study just a few dozen characters! Yes, that is correct. The first time. In the long run, however, I am convinced that such a process will save time. In fact, I am convinced that it is the only way of doing it if learn several thousand characters is the goal, so one might as well start using this method straight away. Now, I seldom need to look up the various parts, because I already know them (there actually are not that many), and can go straight to the explanation part. It is not difficult to learn or understand a new character if it consists of just a couple of meaningful building blocks compared to dozens of seemingly unrelated strokes.

Mnemonics
Employing this method of learning, there will be many characters which do not lend themselves so easily to logical explanations like the one I showed above for 沙漠. Also, sometimes the real explanation is archaic or just not helpful. In these cases I use my imagination and make up my own. Sometimes, it might even be preferable to use a description of my own instead of the true, historical version. Before I go deeper into how to devise new explanations, I need to say a few words about mnemonics.

A mnemonic is simply something (such as sentence) which allows one to remember something else (the meaning of a Chinese character in this case). The human brain tends to notice salient features, so a good mnemonic should stick out in some way. It can do this in many different ways, such as being revealing, beautiful, bizarre or embarrassing. Humdrum mnemonics seldom work. So, what I try to do for every character is to find a suitable mnemonic. Let me take a couple of examples to show what I mean:

Revealing – 政府 (government)

政 (government, politics) is explained by 正 (correction) by攵 (striking, hitting). 府 (government office) consists of 广 (building) where one 付 (pay). The image of a government that bullies its citizens into obedience and requires them to pay into the bargain, presents itself and is easily remembered.

Beautiful – 愁 (sorrow)

This is one of my favourite characters in the Chinese language. It consists of two parts, 秋 (autumn) and 心 (heart), and of course, autumn of the heart is sorrow. I find the composition of this character indescribably beautiful and will never forget it. Autumn itself consists of 禾 (grain) on 火 (fire) and is a picture of the burning colours of the leaves of plants in the autumn.

Bizarre – 聯 (connect, join)

This character consists of 耳 (ear) and 絲 (threads, silk). I picture two persons whose ears are closely sewn together using a strong and flexible thread of silk. The thread runs all the way around the ears and it looks like it hurts a lot. Also, the two persons are having great trouble continuing their normal lives because of their sewn-together ears.

I will not take an embarrassing example, because it would be… embarrassing. Instead, I will continue discussing the general nature of these various explanations. The key word is exaggeration; make the mnemonics bombastic, use extremes of any kind and try not to repeat old patterns. Usually, it is not necessary to this for every single character, but it will soon be apparent which characters are tricky to remember how to write. If an old character is forgotten, perhaps it needs a better mnemonic (or needs one at all if it did not have one before).

I would like to round off by stressing the importance of knowing the various components of a Chinese character. Not only is it useful for studying at home, but this is also the only possible way to talk about Chinese characters in Chinese! If I ask somebody what a character looks like, he or she will invariably tell me the various components (it is 木 beside a 目 and underneath that a 心). Since I know the parts fairly well, I am normally able to figure out which character it is, without having someone write it down; this is more useful than it sounds. For studying at home, it will mean that it takes more time in the beginning, but in the long run one will be much better off.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolote. 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.


This article is the first part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – Attitude
Learning to read and write Chinese takes exceptionally long time compared to other languages, the reason being that there is little or no relationship between how a character is written and how it is pronounced (see this article for further details about this). Learning English or French, it is possible to guess how a word is spelt, and even though the guess is perhaps not perfectly accurate, most of the time communication is possible nevertheless. Not so with Chinese. One has to learn to write every character separately and there are few shortcuts. Still, there are different methods to learn the characters, and some work better than others. I feel that I have developed a fairly good way of learning large amounts of Chinese characters, and this way of studying I intend to share with the world in these three relatively short articles. In this first one, the focus will be on the importance of attitude when studying Chinese (or any language, really).

If one wants to study Chinese characters, the first thing one has to consider is why. This is not a simple question, because it requires one to think about the future, in what situations one will use Chinese and why it is important to learn it. For instance, is it enough to only be able to read Chinese, but not write it by hand? This might be the case, because in the modern world of computers, it is not strictly necessary to be able to write by hand (in fact, many young people’s handwriting skill deteriorates today because they use the computer rather than write by hand). Still, living in a Chinese-speaking environment will be very difficult if one cannot write, especially if one intend to use Chinese for study or work. Taking some time to ponder questions like this is important; the student should make sure to have a clear idea of goals and motivations for studying Chinese. Without determination failure is the most likely outcome.

Studying languages is very different from studying most other subjects, especially at beginner levels. The main problem here is that every new section is based on all those that go before. If one fails to understand the first section, the second will be even harder, and so forth. This is a vicious circle that can kill anyone who is not careful. The only real solution is not to start spinning in the first place. Hang in there, never let go. Being left behind not only means that one does not know what one in supposed to know, it also means that it will be much more difficult to learn new things. If I for some reason fall behind, I will try to catch up as soon as possible, because the longer I wait, the less chance I will be able to pull myself up. Try not to live in an imaginary world where it is easy to catch up if one is left behind, because it never is. Not only will there be the old chapters to study properly, there will also be new chapters coming at a steady pace.

Another problem I have encountered is that my goals and the requirements for my courses do not match perfectly. Most of the time, they agree on some points, but there are essential discrepancies. When I say “the requirements for my courses”, I do not mean the official goals or what is theoretically implied there, I mean what the teachers actually require of the students. Be aware that these are seldom the same. For instance, the teacher might say that the students have to know all characters they have studied, but then fails to enforce this by means of examinations. A good teacher will be able to design exams so that there is no difference between the actual requirements and the stated goals of the course, but no teacher is perfect.

Knowing my own agenda as well as what is required of me, it is time to compare these two and find the key differences. It is important to realise that one studies Chinese for one’s own gain, not to complete a specific course, although the latter might of course be a short-term goal that is important in its own right. Let me give an example of a major difference I have found between my own goals and the two courses I have taken so far (one in Sweden, one in Taiwan). The tests on these two courses only require the students to know how to write the new words from a chapter once. This means that it is not a requirement of these courses to be able to write Chinese characters, because writing them once is almost the same as not at all. If the goal is to learn to write Chinese characters, one has to set up a system of one’s own devising that will allow truly learning the characters. Diligent revising is necessary even if it is not a requirement of the current language course!

It is time to say something about the goal for studying characters. The relationship between time spent studying and the percentage of characters known is not linear, but rather exponential. It means that increasing from 85 % to 90 % requires much, much less time than adding the five percent required to reach 95 %. Aiming for 100 % seems not only wasteful, but possibly also stupid. I have considered this goal carefully and decided that I think 95 % is necessary for the characters that are covered in my class (because I need to be able to write them on exams), but for other characters I decide to learn for some reason, 90 % is good enough for now. By no means does this mean that similar number are suitable for other students in other situations; perhaps much lower percentages are suitable for writing, although I believe that fairly high results should be the aim for reading and pronunciation.

Bear in mind that the requirements may change. To illustrate my point, I will give an example. If one studies Chinese full-time for one year, one might perhaps learn around 1500 characters if one studies diligently. Let us assume that after each chapter, there is a small test for writing the characters. On the more important exams, the students can use some phonetic system or handwriting is simply not on the menu (the focus might be on reading, translation, multiple-choice questions and so forth). This means that one will be able to read 1500 characters after one year.

However, provided students not endowed with an exceptional memory, studying in this manner also means that one can only write a couple of hundred of these (admittedly, some characters are fairly simple and very common, so one will be able to write them even though without revision). This will be a great shock if the requirements for next semester changes, and one is suddenly required to write characters by hand (this is bound to happen sooner or later). Basically, it means that one has to learn to write more than a thousand characters really quickly, because the students are assumed to know them already. Of course, it will be easier because the characters have been learn once already, but learning to write them again will not be a walk in the park. I am going to stress the key point here again; knowing to read Chinese is not the same as knowing to write.

This is of course only one example; there are probably many more that might be relevant to a specific situation. It is essential not to focus simply on the minimum requirements of the course, but instead aim for the goals one has set. Hopefully, each student studies Chinese for his or her own good. This also means that planning has to reach much further into the future than the specific courses currently running. The primary goal is to learn Chinese, not to pass the exams (hopefully, though, these will mean the same thing). I think it is of paramount importance to have at least a rough idea of what one’s goals are and how to achieve them. Sometimes, it will be tempting to go for the minimum requirements, but such complacency will bite back and cause great trouble in the future.

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I thought that it would be a good idea to write about my progress with the Chinese language now and then. It must be difficult for you to know how good (or bad) my knowledge of the language is and thus of course even harder to understand what kind of challenges I am up against. So, therefore, let me begin this report by trying to explain how well I know Chinese.

At the end of last semester, I knew more than 1500 Chinese characters. As I have mentioned previously, these are simplified characters, which are different from the traditional characters used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas. The simplified characters are only used in mainland China and are, as the name implies, simplifications of traditional characters. Of course, not all characters have been simplified, but it still means that I have to spend many, many hours to convert my reading and writing skills to traditional mode. This is how I spend my days now. I have heard that once you know the language well, it is not a problem to read the other set of characters (although writing will still be hard). Here are three examples with simplified characters on the left and traditional on the right. They mean “machine”, “listen” and “doctor; medicine; cure” respectively.


The spoken language in Taiwan is very similar to what I have been taught in Sweden. There are differences, but not many. However, this does not mean that I understand what people say. I understand occasional words and phrases, and sometimes I can even piece together whole sentences. If I am lucky, I can understand how much things cost or what people ask me. However, it does mean that people can understand what I say.

There are two main problems with listening: habit and speed. Firstly, I am not used to hearing Chinese, so even if I know perfectly well what a word means, I am not used to hearing it in context. This is extremely annoying: “Say that again please?” “Okay.” “What does it mean?” “It means this.” “Ah, of course. How stupid of me.” Secondly, people here talk very fast, which makes it impossible to understand. Some people can speak slowly and clearly when asked to, and then I stand a fairly good chance to understand what is said. True, I do not understand all the words, but I usually get the general idea of what they want to say .

So, what is my brilliant plan to become a Chinese language ninja? I see three paths opening up ahead. First, I will try to find people to talk to. Today, I met Lu Pei-ying, a very nice girl I found by posting an ad about language exchange. I hope to be able to establish a couple of exchanges like this one. I do enjoy teaching English after all, and having someone to talk to with the explicit goal to practice conversation is excellent. One problem is that I have classes in the evening, so it might be difficult to find people who are free during the day.

Second, I will study like a maniac at home. Primarily, I will focus on revising what I already know (or what I ought to know if I had revised properly during the summer). This involves writing and reading traditional characters for hours on end. Still, I enjoy it. It is a kind of monomania, I suppose. The traditional characters feel much nicer than the simplified, even though they are extremely challenging at the moment. Also, I have some difficulties discerning their various components, which might be a problem. Generally, once you know what a character looks like, it is easy to recognise even if you cannot see the individual lines it consists of. Before learning to do this, a magnifying glass is sometimes required.

Third, my classes start on Monday. Each weekday I will be busy from six to nine in the evening, and probably some extra hours for preparation and homework. Why classes in the evening? The idea is that exchange students studying other subjects shall have the chance of taking Chinese classes as well. This probably means that the course will not be extremely demanding (I highly doubt that I will have problems if this is the only course I am taking and others are supposed to take other parallel courses). I have no idea what the level will be like, but I will definitely tell you more about that later. Having some sort of text book to work with would be very good, however, as soon as I have revised everything I knew last semester.

Language ability can be said to consist of four areas (at least for the purpose of my reports) and I will try to assess my proficiency for each of these areas. Since a scale would be meaningless, I will try to explain where I stand at the moment. Hopefully, I will be able to browse through these reports and see how I progress over time.

Speaking: People seem to be able to understand most of what I say, and though my vocabulary is poorer than it once was, I can convey basic concepts, ask questions and so forth. Speaking does not feel like a problem compared to the other areas.

Listening: I can hear an occasional word or phrase, or understand how much things cost, but most of the time when natives talk to me, I am completely clueless. Listening is the problem at the moment.Practice, practice, practice and perhaps in time I will get it.

Writing: Traditional characters are really difficult, but I have come some way towards learing to write the characters I knew before. I have revised 15 out of 60 chapters so that I can write some of the characters and recognise most.

Reading: Again, because of the traditional characters, I understand parts of signs or headlines, but seldom entire sentences. It is said that you need around 2500 characters, but right now, it feels like there are several hundreds of thousands widely used.

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