Learning Chinese characters for an ABC
September 10, 2019 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I recently renewed one of my perennial resolutions to get better at Chinese. My problem is that for diaspora reasons my proficiency is at a weird level that means I don't really fit with most language-learning courses. Are there any apps for people who can speak and understand Chinese but can't read?

My reading is at like a third-grade level and my speaking/understanding is at high-school proficiency. I don't know anything about chengyu or metaphors but I can usually muddle through most conversations with the help of a pinyin browser extension.

Mostly I want an app that has me match characters with their pinyin, and no messing around with grammar rules or sentences (I already know the grammar, thanks). Does this exist? Is it free? Should I give up and just slog my way through web novels?
posted by storytam to Education (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sorry if I've misunderstood but it sounds like you need a good spaced repetition flashcard app. There are things like Anki which I haven't used in ages. Quizlet pretty much does the job for many people. Here is one example flashcard set (apologies if these characters are too low level for you.)
posted by Gotanda at 6:46 PM on September 10


I wonder if resources aimed at Chinese-speaking children would be useful for you. Could you ask a more fluent family member or friend to look for things along those lines?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:14 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


Anki has some shared flash card decks that have only characters or only words. For example,
https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/39888802
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:46 PM on September 10


Have you tried searching for 'heritage language' learning resources?
posted by eyeball at 8:00 PM on September 10


Which apps have you already tried? Aside from Anki, some free apps I've been playing around with (as an HSK1 level): HelloChinese, ChineseSkill. If those are too basic for you, try Drops. My SO is a native Chinese speaker and there are some words on there that are new to him too.

Pleco has a paid add-on module for flashcards, which allows you to make your own deck, similar to Anki. You can also do this on Memrise (which also has an app), but it's a bit tedious. There are many higher-level sets available though, from other users. If you want to give HSK Level 5 or HSK Level 6 a try, for example, most of which you probably already know, but just to fill in the gaps.
posted by pimli at 9:20 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


This isn't an app, but I've just had a fun time refreshing my memory over at the HSK Check website, which brings up the pinyin and definition per character/word you click on at the various levels. For example, I recognized pretty much all of the words at HSK Level 3 but quickly realized I was stumped by a bunch of the words at HSK Level 4. I haven't registered for the site at all, so you can check out the various features (minus individual progress-tracking) without needing to make a log-in.

(I got up to HSK 4/5 in college, I think, but have regressed quite a bit due to lack of practice. Following this thread with interest!)
posted by rather be jorting at 11:17 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


I understand you are asking for a hanzi to/from pinyin app, but maybe it's worth mentioning that there is a two volume coursebook designed for learners in your situation called A Primer for Advanced Beginners of Chinese. I cannot exactly recommend it, since I haven't used it myself, but looking at a copy I happen to have I see a lot of vocabulary, reading hanzi practice and pinyin to hanzi and back exercises.

The blurb on the back cover starts: This first-of-its-kind, two-volume primer is addressed to meet the needs of the rapidly growing number of Chinese language students who were raised in the United States in Chinese-speaking homes and can speak the language but who cannot read or write it. The book's lessons and exercises build upon the cultural knowledge of these "advanced beginners" in order to facilitate full language acquisition.

You might also get a lot out of a character handbook like Tuttle Press's Reading and Writing Chinese, which gives stoke order, meaning and use in compounds, etymological analysis, and a pinyin index for the few-thousand foundational hanzi.
posted by bertran at 11:53 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


I used Skritter for this. There are chinese or japanese versions, and it’s all focused on learning characters. You can set the options to only drill you on matching characters to pinyin, but the writing drills are fun too. There are lots of different character lists to choose from, or you can customize your own.
posted by umber vowel at 12:07 AM on September 11


I am not an ABC. But I have gotten pretty literate in Mandarin, and can currently recognize about 6000 characters (and am working on being able to recognize every character in the 4 great novels).

I always have known many ABCs who did exactly what you did, to varying amounts of success. I say the above not to brag or whatever, just to qualify my advice. I'd say it's informed, but I haven't been in your shoes.

From everything I've seen, being fluent in the language to start is a big boost, but it's not that big of a boost. I just say that to sort of brace yourself. When non-heritage learners learn the characters, they are also building the vocabulary network at the same time...you already have that network, so it's much easier to learn new characters because you're not creating the underlying meaning at the same time. That said, depending on your goals, you will potentially get to a point where your network will not be able to prop up your character learning. Still, it is definitely a huge advantage...I just want to calibrate expectations. Attrition among people learning the characters as adults is very high.

I think going in it's good to have at least a general idea of what your goals are. A newspaper? Books? Texting? HSK exam? This will help frame your studies, though won't define them. Wanting your characters to "catch up" to the spoken language is imo too vague, because again, learning the characters is hard and tedious and quite different. The human brain is wired intrinsically for spoken language -- but not written language. The truth of the matter is that it is hard for Chinese people to! Chinese children put an ungodly amount of time into their reading and writing, it's just that in the environment they are in, they get a ton of reinforcement.

In light of the above, I would be weary of the "learn like a chinese student!" approach, because that approach only really works if, well, you spend 16 years in the Chinese education system getting an ungodly amount of repetition. Chinese elementary schools are often punished at school and at home with character writing drills...

The upside is that there are now lots of great tools to make it so that you don't have to put yourself through that! In about 4 years I got to a higher reading level than my chinese gf. Ok, that has to be qualified...her knowledge of what she knows is very deeply engrained, but I can read more historical stuff...she's not much of a reader, her friends that are readers blow me out of the water, but still, my point is that the tools to do this are out there, but again, you just gotta make a plan, stick to it, and use the tools that are out there.

Another thing to know: written Chinese and spoken Chinese diverge quite a bit. This is especially true for literary Chinese, even contemporary literature will use a lot of words not commonly used. It might be worth trying some different types of media to get a sense of that...listen to a chinese audiobook, watch a chinese college lecture. I only bring this up because, again, depending on your goals, you may hit a vocabulary barrier sooner than you think and you should be prepared for that emotionally. This is much less true if your goal is just to text...literary Chinese is very, very big. Texting Chinese is quite manageable. I might add that, sadly, the HSK exams are, well, rather easy, compared to native speakers. After HSK6 you will absolutely not be able to read a book comfortably. Again, just to set expectations.

Ok, tools!

People have mentioned pleco -- it is great. The best dictionary of any dictionary I have used.

I used skritter for a long time, and then moved to anki. Anki has a bit of a learning curve, but is cheaper and much more configurable. A lot of people have put out tutorials etc so I'd try to not give up if you're confused at first. there are lots of decks curated for both.

Something people haven't really mentioned is content...as I said above, on the whole I think content for chinese children isn't great for language learners. It's not terrible, but it will be very easy in some ways and very hard in others. They just won't track the way that a mature adult tackles learning the characters.

One super important keyword: graded readers. These are for adults learning the characters and track the common character progressions. This is great because it allows for extensive reading long before you can read anything in chinese, which is both motivating, but also helps in memorizing characters and vocabulary. The best series is Mandarin Companion. Mandarin Breeze also has a bunch. There are also some others. Again: graded readers. Super critical for character based languages (I'm learning Japanese at the moment and they're also A Thing).

Oh I can't recommend this course highly enough: https://www.outlier-linguistics.com/products/how-to-learn-chinese-characters
Even many Chinese people do not know the things contained here, and many teachers get details wrong (specifically what a radical actually is and what it is used for). but more importantly, the details within will help you make better sense of the way characters are structure, and give you tools to memorize the characters more effectively. I love the team at outlier.

The Chairman's Bao has HSK leveled content from HSK1 to HSK6, with the bulk being in the middle. The articles are short, but this is a really excellent tool. It has audio which is less relevant for a heritage speaker, but still nice.

Hope that's not overwhelming. I guess my approach when advising people about the characters is to be honest, but also sort of help construct a plan. It's hard. It's also doable. But it's hard. Or I should say...it's not hard, it's tedious. Anki (or SRS in general) at least helps you get the most bang for your buck, tedium wise. The graded readers help you practice in a more exciting way. And then eventually you can use Pleco's reader to read things with easy dictionary access, and the ability to easily create flashcards (which can also be exported easily to anki). (this is also doable with a kindle just takes a bit more technical work)

Hope that isn't overwhelming. You can do it!

PS I can't talk about chinese literacy without plugging the wuxia genre. It's awesome. You should check it out, if you haven't already. There are some very well adaptations of a couple of jinyong's work -- perfect for someone once they are starting to gear up for real literacy. That'll be a while, but still, want to plant the seed.

PPS I forgot to talk about this above but you didn't mention if you want to be able to write. Writing adds a whole 'nother level of effort for little reward, in my opinion. But to each their own. SRS can be used to work with writing as well, but I would have a writing deck and then the reading based decks (or just use skritter, which will ensure you use proper stroker order). I would say it's definitely work learning to write to say, an HSK3 level and understand stroke order and the information contained in the outlier course. Beyond that you just have to decide whether or not it is relevant to you. Essentially unless you want to study in Chinese in university in China or Taiwan, you will write very very little. You can do calligraphy without learning how to write like a native can (and even they have an epidemic of character amnesia these days). All that said, Chinese cursive is cool as hell and I'm sad I'm not an expert at it. Ah well.
posted by wooh at 8:19 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


A couple other thoughts (I probably care about this too much, but well, I've poured an ungodly amount of time into thinking about this topic...)

- It's great that you're interested in webnovels, for example. That's a great guiding star. I know a lot of ABCs who sort of feel guilty for not being able to read, and started to learn out of a sort of guilt, and none of them really were able to stick with it because that's not terribly motivating. I'd try to find positive reasons to study, rather than those borne of some cultural obligation....you got this far in life, you don't need to read the characters, so you need to figure out what will help motivate you to spend the many years it will take to be able to comfortably read a webnovel.

- the zhongwen chinese popup dictionary is a nice chrome plugin that can also feed into skritter, which can export into anki. I'm sure there are others and maybe some that can export directly to anki (or just give you a spreadsheet)

- I know many chinese teachers (I've had a lot of teachers, I like variety) and 99% (literally) of the ones living outside of china failed to teacher their children the characters, except for one. Why? Because they took the approach Chinese education takes but that only works if you're willing to be extremely hardcore. The exception? Well, to her credit, she was extremely hardcore. Thankfully the aforementioned tools exist. I guess I just bring this up to say...Chinese teachers, on the whole, don't really know how to teach the characters efficiently. I've had over 10 teachers (maybe 15 or so), I also am good friends with a number, and it's not that they're bad or dumb but...well, the pedagogy just hasn't kept up with the digital tools that are available. This can throw people for a loop because they sort of assume that chinese people know best when it comes to this stuff, but like anybody, we tend to take our native languages and the related tools for granted
posted by wooh at 8:37 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Also not an app, but just wanted to point out: There are so many ABCs with y/our exact combination of proficiency and illiteracy that many universities offer dedicated classes for "heritage speakers". I took Chinese 101 for ABCs as an undergrad in Chicago, my sister did something similar during grad school in California. Classes were conducted entirely in Chinese from Day 1 and focused on learning to read and write (we used the same primer that bertran mentioned), filling in the random gaps in vocabulary, and polishing up our crappy homegrown grammar.

Obviously you might not want to commit to a full-on college course, but your local university might be able to give you good pointers. If your MeFi location is still current, I'm sure you can find a ton of other in-person language-learning opportunities that cater specifically to ABCs too.
posted by yeahlikethat at 4:05 PM on September 11


My reading is at like a third-grade level and my speaking/understanding is at high-school proficiency.

Sir! There are books written specifically for you! By adults, for adults, with the aim of quickly teaching semi-literate and largely uneducated peasants the precepts of the Great Helmsman's theories. Collectively, they are known as Little Red Books.

Ya think I'm kidding? It's how, after a lot of failed attempts at classes, I finally learned to read Chinese. A key difference from classes is that I was genuinely interested. "Ok, so what exactly did this Mao guy say that was so captivating to a generation? What is this foundational text of the modern Chinese state?" I was delighted to discover that it was just challenging enough to read through while learning heaps of new vocabulary and sentence patterns. This isn't hardcore Marxist theory - this is Mao speaking to the people in the vernacular about the everyday duties of PRC citizenship. It's was a required text in middle schools and up back in the day. It was designed for a nation that had barely achieved basic literacy. It was edited to be as close to standard Mandarin as Mao's Hunan-tinged mumbling could be. It's still the thing that taught me to be comfortable reading in Mandarin.

Copy out the entire text if you have to, I did, the books fit in the palm of your hand and can be had for $5 (maybe mine wasn't a genuine antique but it suited my purposes). I'm sure you can find annotated versions, but I bought it on a lark and then moved on to reading actual adult novels like 丁庄梦/Dream of Meng Village, which seemed to come naturally after swimming through Mao-speak, and other "village life/modern rural" stuff, until I finally graduated to fantasy & historical & wuxia & non-fiction stuff. The Little Red Book took me 3 months of swimming and hand-copying and looking things up, but then! My first grown-up novel took a month, and the next a week, and now I read at fully literate adult speed. I only read things I'm interested in, but it's China, so there's always some hot shit new author to keep up with. Tens of thousands of new books a year. These people write.

Do it!

BTW, not an ABC at all. Just a pedagogy-resistant random who moved to China back in the day, got sick of teaching English, and decided to learn the language and be a translator so I never had to leave the house. It worked.
posted by saysthis at 12:42 PM on September 12


Also to say (Sino-nerds stop me if I'm wrong but this is how I remember it), the text is simple enough that has barely diverged from modern Mandarin. Maybe 2% of it is archaic. The book is also key to catching tons of references in modern Mandarin political discourse. The CCP ain't going anywhere soon, so you'll either have to learn through osmosis or straight from the source if you plan to have much to do with China. It's much easier from the source, and it's your level. Can't recommend it enough.
posted by saysthis at 12:45 PM on September 12


Thanks, everyone, for the detailed recommendations! HSK Level 5 and Skritter are doing the trick.
posted by storytam at 2:27 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]


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