Blog Archive

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kaomoji and Emoji (顔文字・絵文字)

When did the word "emoji" start to be used in place of "smiley faces" in English? I was amazed to hear a non Japanese speaking friend use the word emoji when talking about the graphics while texting on their phone, I asked them if they knew what emoji meant to which their reply was "I don't know, that's just what they're called." They had no idea it was even a Japanese word! Emoji was originally only available in Japan, but now has been adopted into other countries and thus the term was coined.

Emoji or 絵文字 (えもじ) means "picture letters", early forms of this started out with text alone as 顔文字 (かおもじ) or "face letters" or Kaomoji. An example of popular American 顔文字 is :) while ^^ is typically used instead in Japan. English speakers are pretty bland when it comes to 顔文字, I would say there is only a short list of commonly used ones. Adding a dash for a nose doesn't count as an extra!

English kaomoji

Kaomoji Meaning
:) Happy
:( Sad
:/ "Meh" face
>< Annoyed, defeated, or laughing loudly
:O Disbelief
:D Very happy or proud
;( Defeated sadness
:'( Crying
O_O Shock
:O Disbelief
:P Sticking out tongue
>:P Sticking out tongue like a brat
:-$ Another "meh face / foot in the mouth
:-| "Lame" face

Beyond that list, I can't really think of many more that are used.

As you can see, English kaomoji uses mostly colons and slashes with little extra face features and focuses on the facial expression itself, but Japanese kaomoji takes it to another level and treats it more like ascii art, probably because they have so many more symbols and characters to work with. Here are some commonly used ones in Japan, some of these are even built into the Japanese iOS keyboard! (These facial expressions could be used by itself without the head enclosures)

Japanese kaomoji
Kaomoji Meaning
(>_<) Defeat; like the English version ><
(^_^;) Shy or embarrassed
(^_-) Wink
\(^o^)/ Excited or cheering
(@_@) Amazed
(●^o^●) Very happy
(*´▽`*) Infatuation
orz Kneeling in defeat/respect (o is a head; r torso/arms; z legs)
m(__)m Sign of respect (the m are fists)
┐('~`;)┌ "Don't know"
(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ Table flip

If you really want to go overboard on kaomoji, you can check out:, which has so many kaomoji I almost start to not care anymore.

Emoji are built in mobile keyboards as graphics, since they are unicode it is up to the device to render how it is displayed. Here are some emoji: (you can test loading this on different devices to see how it renders differently!)

😷 guy wearing a mask (if you suspect you're sick, it's very common to wear a mask in Japan to not spread germs)
🐱 black cat (there are many versions of these with different facials expressions)
🙇 person bowing deeply (to me it looks like he's trying to hand you a cheeseburger)
🙏 person with folded hands
👹 an oni (demon)
👺 a tengu (type of goblin)
🍙 onigiri
🍣 sushi

If you've used emoji before, you may notice a lot of them are Japanese specific since they were first created there. I have my device in Japanese, so it wasn't odd to me to see them, I assumed it was due to the language setting so it was interesting to see the same emoji on non-Japanese devices as well.

What other kaomoji or emoji have you seen? Leave them in the comments!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Want to learn more characters? Start speaking NOW!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -, in partnership with Skritter, would like to help you learn a language by getting more speaking practice.  Believe it or not, we think that it will help you learn more characters. 

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Learning a language is tough, and especially if it's Chinese or Japanese
As a student of Chinese or Japanese, you already know that writing system alone makes these some of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.

Spending hours practicing writing characters or drilling flash-cards has been the traditional requirement to master these languages.  However, I think doing this obsessively can actually slow down your progress. Besides just killing motivation, and taking the fun out of learning, this practice gives you an unbalanced view of the language and culture. Many of us started on learning Chinese or Japanese because of our appreciation of the culture, and the desire to connect to the people and the place.  However, the characters and the enormous effort needed to learn them, can easily turn this initial love into a brutal chore.

I think there is a "trick", however, to make learning characters easier, and even a bit entertaining.  The key is to integrate learning of characters with speaking and listening practice.

In my experiences with online learning, I've found that my teacher is often typing out words in chat.  I originally thought that online lessons were just about speaking practice, but I've actually found that many of my lessons have a necessary written (well, typed) component.  New words, sentence structures, grammar corrections all happen in the chat window.  After the lesson, I copy them out into my dictionary and favorite apps like Skritter, Anki, and Pleco, for future review.

The difference between theory and practice
In 2008, I had completed a year of Chinese in university, and I was ready to put my Chinese to use in a summer internship. Though I had learned plenty of words, I found myself distraught at the difficulty I felt in communication. Without conversational practice, my study of characters didn't help me as much as it could. What’s worse, without access to modern carriers of the language, I was speaking like a walking anachronism. Words like 同志,单位,小姐, all rife with cultural connotations I haven’t learned created at best bemusement on the part of my conversation partners. Had I only tried to have a few conversations with native speakers my age (via a service like italki, for example), I would have been able to avoid embarrassment.

I've noticed something strange about my character learning after my trip, as well. After getting some practice in the use of the language, studying characters became easier. I became more sensitive to context and was able to direct my learning towards actively using the language. In a sense, the characters have become real and immediate to me, not just an abstraction to be learned in an academic setting. The reason for this improvement is easily explained with how our memory actually works.

Multiple Senses
It’s best to learn using as many senses as possible. Apps like Skritter help make learning characters a tactile experience. The more senses are involved, the better. Touch, hearing, speaking, and seeing, when integrated, provide best results.

Masters of memory use lots of methods to memorize information.  Spaced repetition is a key aspect of keeping things in memory. It’s common practice among educational apps to present the words to be memorized at progressively longer intervals, making sure that the brain reinforces the concept as solidifies it in long-term memory.

The “strength” of the memory will also depend on how vivid the experience of the word is made at each encounter. Spending extra mental effort on making a vivid image of the concept (trying to involve vision, touch, hearing, speaking, and smell) will significantly shorten the time needed to memorize a concept.

Engaging with native speakers also gives immediacy to the experience of the word, character, or concept, which helps with the process, as well as provides a cultural frame of reference for the material.

A friend of mine went to a shop and found his wallet had been stolen.  He started shouting, “I've lost my baopi (包皮).”  The correct word for wallet is pibao (皮包).  Rather than looking alarmed, the Chinese people around him started laughing hysterically.  If you looked the word up, I am sure you'll understand why he'll never forget the meaning of baopi.

A story or a conversation can really help to reinforce a character in your memory by giving it context.  Learning a new word, and using a new word will reinforce the familiarity with the word and the character representing it. Because Chinese has such a large number of homophones, many meanings in conversation have to be inferred through context, and, if all else fails - through the written form of the character.

The audio-visual connection between pronunciation and characters helps students learn language faster. Reliance on characters to help navigate spoken conversation is not a crutch, but a legitimate and useful tactic even the native speakers use.  A common example of this “integrated” use of language in Chinese shows tight interdependence between written and spoken processing of language. Oftentimes, when a word is ambiguous in conversation, the speaker will reference a two-character compound word (a compound that may have nothing to do with the actual context of the conversation), in which the originally ambiguous expression is clarified. This process relies heavily on both speaker and listener visualising the characters, rather thinking of them in an auditory sense. 

In  fact, sometimes it is impossible to distinguish a spoken concept except by giving it a written context even in a simple word as “zì”:

                 letter; symbol; character; word;
                 from; self; oneself; since
                 erect; stab
                 abandon restraint; do as one pleases; comfortable
                 to strike; to run against; to throw, as a stone
                 to soak; to be stained; stain; floodwater
                 female of domestic animals
                 corner of the eye; canthus; eye socket
                 resurrection; to come to life again, sick

The characters are living concepts, whether in comic-books, ever-present subtitles on TV, or gestures scribbled in the air by friends. Thinking about learning writing as separate from speech greatly disadvantages practice (that's why the Skritter app has voice recordings of words and tone practice exercises - they let you remember better and faster by evoking multiple sensory memories for each concept). This is akin to exercising only one arm, or trying to learn how to drive practicing only left-hand turns.

Skritter, italki, and other highly effective learning methods integrate multisensory information by design. This approach achieves reinforcing your encounter with a concept through visual, motor, auditory, and interpersonal modes of perception.

Applying an integrated approach to your study will give you a much deeper, well-rounded, and ultimately more effective learning experience. Complementing your writing practice with real conversations, and vice-versa is the best way to improve faster, feel motivated and encouraged in your studies, and stick with your study to actually achieve your learning goals.

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Special gift from italki to start speaking NOW! is giving everyone on Skritter their first 2+ trial lessons with a Chinese or Japanese teacher on italki for free (equal to 10 USD in italki credits). To take advantage of this offer, register on italki by clicking here!

*italki will send an email including a 10 USD italki credit voucher within 72 hours after registering; this voucher can be used to purchase your first 2 classes on italki! This offer is only available for new registered users on italki and will expire on September 30, 2014.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Using mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese, part 2

Mnemonics are a powerful way of learning things in general and Chinese and Japanese characters in particular. In the article published here on the Skritter blog last week, we looked at the basics of how to use mnemonics and memory techniques to help us learn Chinese and Japanese more efficiently. This week, it's time to go beyond the basics and discuss some questions regarding how to use mnemonics with Skritter. If you aren't already familiar with mnemonics, I suggest that you read last week's article before continuing.

Should I use other people's mnemonics?

One interesting feature in Skritter is that you can see a list of mnemonics shared by other users (this is currently only true for the web version, on iOS, you can only see the top mnemonic and on Android we haven't had time to implement mnemonics yet). This raises a question: Should you use mnemonics created by others or should you create your own?

The answer is fairly straightforward. If you can come up with a good mnemonic on your own, that's probably better that using a mnemonic created by someone else. Research suggests that the process of creating the mnemonic is in itself helpful, which isn't hard to understand. Creating your own mnemonic means that you work actively with the character or word, which leaves a deeper impression than just copying someone else. Furthermore, what makes a mnemonic work can be different from person to person, so something that works really good for me might not work as well for you.

That being said, being able to see other people's mnemonics is great. I have spent lots of time dealing with mnemonics for different purposes and I still come up blank sometimes. Rather than trying to force out a mnemonic I probably won't like, I simply check what other mnemonics other users have already produced. I choose one I like, then modify it to make it more personal. I suggest you do this too if you get stuck.

Other people's mnemonics are great sources of inspiration, but try to make them your own as much as you can! Don't think you're home and dry just because you have superficially read a mnemonic created by someone else and selected it as your own. The basic rules given in last week's article still apply, you need to make it memorable, concrete and vivid. This is true regardless of who created the mnemonic in the first place.

Should I create mnemonics for everything?

There's lots of information stored in a character or word. For instance, you could include how it is pronounced (perhaps more than one different reading), different character components, meanings and so on. You could also break these parts down into smaller parts, such as splitting pronunciation into e.g. initial, final and tone for a Chinese character. If you included all this information, it would result in a very complex mnemonic that could include more than a dozen pieces of information.

Even though it's certainly possible to create such mnemonics, it usually isn't the best approach. My general advice is to create mnemonics only when you need them. If you can remember a character just by looking at it (think of simple characters like 一), that's cool, you don't need a mnemonic. If you can remember the pronunciation, but not the meaning, then create a mnemonic for the meaning of the character. If you can remember the initial and the final but not the tone, then include information about the tone in the mnemonic you create. Add to the mnemonic on a nee-to basis, the default option should never be to add everything since that would be a huge waste of time.

The infrastructure of memory

In order to use mnemonics to learn something, it has to be meaningful. This means that if you want to use mnemonics to learn abstract things like pronunciation, you need to create infrastructure that links the abstract to the concrete. I'll show you an example with tones in Chinese, but this is equally applicable to anything (I use a similar system to memorise numbers of different kinds, for instance).

There are four tones in Mandarin (or five if you include the neutral tone). If you want to remember which tone a character is, you can link each tone to a concrete element you can then build into your mnemonics. Including something as abstract as a “high flat tone” is very hard, but including “fire” is pretty easy. Since there are already colours for the tones, I simply extended these to become more concrete:
  1. First tone – Red – Fire (things in the mnemonic are burning)
  2. Second tone – Yellow – Gold (everything shines and glimmers like gold)
  3. Third tone – Green – Plants (vegetation everywhere)
  4. Fourth tone – Blue – Water (everything happens under water)
If you're going to use this to remember the tones of tricky characters, you need to first memorise this list. You need to build the relevant infrastructure, then it's just a matter of starting to burn things up or immerse them in water when you create mnemonics.

I like the above elements because they can easily be made part of the setting or background of the mnemonic. The colours make the links easy to remember provided that you are used to the colour scheme already. If not, it's just a list of four facts, so it should only take a minute to learn and some practice to master.

An example with tones

Let's look at an example. If the normal mnemonic includes a child and a woman (好, "good") and you want to remember that it's a third tone in Chinese, you need to introduce plants into the mnemonic. Perhaps you could think of a kneeling woman with a child in her arms, trying to protect it from the surrounding forest that does its best to snatch the child away. Or you can paint a more positive picture with a woman hold her child and the trees around them trying to see who can make the child laugh by tickling it.

Note that 好 can also be pronounce with a fourth tone, in which case it means "to be fond of". How would you incorporate this meaning into the same mnemonic? The fourth tone is blue/water. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out a good mnemonic that involves the woman and the child again (same basic mnemonic), but puts them in another environment.

What should I do if I forget a mnemonic?

There might be several reasons for forgetting a mnemonic. First, it's important to realise that mnemonics aren't magic; they make it easier to remember, but they don't fix everything in your mind forever. Thus, reviewing the mnemonic along with the character or word is necessary, but if it's a good mnemonic, it should be a lot easier.

If you forget a mnemonic several times or find it hard in some other way, it probably isn't a very good mnemonic. This is important to realise, because it means you have to tweak it. Gradually, you will learn how to create great mnemonics that work for you. Without this fine-tuning process, you can never learn how mnemonics really work.

That being said, you will still forget things even if you use mnemonics properly. Combining mnemonics with spaced repetition (built into Skritter) is a pretty good way of making sure that you will remember most of the characters you learn.

Share your favourite mnemonic and win a week of free Skritter

In order to promote the use of mnemonics, we have will arrange a small competition. Please submit your favourite mnemonic as a comment to this article, including the following information:
  • The item in question (Chinese or Japanese character or word)
  • Your mnemonic (brief description)
  • What it signifies (explain your mnemonic)
  • Nomination (why should this mnemonic win)
  • Your Skritter user name
We will look through the contributions and select five great mnemonics and give a free week of Skritter to the users who submitted them. Please post your mnemonic before August 31st (next Sunday) if you want to participate (only one mnemonic per user). May the best mnemonic win!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Using mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese, part 1

Mnemonic is a fancy word from ancient Greek used to refer to a learning technique that helps us remember things. It's common to believe that a good memory is something we're either born with or not, but the truth is that there are a lot of things you can do improve your memory. This isn't limited to learning languages of course, but that's what we're going to talk about in this article.

Before we do that, though, let's look at this TED talk by Joshua Foer. It's an excellent introduction to what memory techniques are about and it's also a good presentation in general. If you aren't already familiar with the topic, the twenty minutes it will take you to watch his talk will probably be one of the best investments you've ever made. After listening, you can also read an article I've written earlier where I dwell more on the details of the TED talk and related concepts. Now, however, let's listen to what Mr. Foer has to tell us about remembering things.

Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do

Why are mnemonics helpful?

Mnemonics are good because they turn information into a format that is easier to store and later retrieve. Learning something meaningless and devoid of context is very hard, and even if you can reach a certain degree of success by simply repeating something often enough, this is not very efficient. Therefore, try to stay away from rote learning as much as you can. If you want to learn something, don't just hammer it in until it sticks, try to be smart about it and package the information in a way that your brain likes. In other words, use mnemonics.

In general, learning new things is about connecting what you want to learn to what you already know. You have a rich experience of the world and a lot of information already stored in your brain. Learning then becomes the process of combining these things together in new ways. Mnemonics are about creating links that stick easily and are also easy to retrieve later when you need them. You have probably encountered many mnemonics in school already, typically to memorise lists that are otherwise hard to remember (also have a look at this xkcd strip about how to improve those). You can use similar principles to make it easier to learn Chinese and Japanese characters.

How to apply mnemonics to learning characters

As we have seen, most mnemonics deal with linking together facts in memorable ways, but that assumes that there are parts of a whole that can be linked together. If you look at characters as whole pictures, this is clearly impossible. In order to use mnemonics properly to learn Chinese or Japanese, you need to be able to break down what you want to learn into smaller bits.

There is a relatively small number of pieces compared to the number of characters, so learning all the common pieces isn't very hard. Mnemonics can then help you combine these pieces into complete characters or combine the characters into words.

In order for this to work, you need to break down the characters properly, otherwise you will end up with pieces that aren't useful for remembering other characters than the one at hand. If you're new to Chinese and Japanese, you need to pay attention and see which components make up a specific character, you should never invent your character breakdowns. If you're using Skritter on the web or iOS (we're working on this for Android too), you can see how characters are broken down into smaller components and what these components mean. This ensures that you're doing it right. If you're dealing with words, it's of course much easier to see the components of the word.

To give you an example, the character 想 (to think) consists of two parts, one at the top 相 (mutually, each other) and one at the bottom 心 (heart). The top part can be further divided into 木 (tree) and 目 (eye). You should never break this down in any other way.

How to create good mnemonics

There's more to write about how to create good mnemonics than can be fitted into this article, but we will still go over the basics. The idea is to link the parts you have together in a memorable way. Memorable usually means that the connection between the parts stands out in some way. They can be exaggerated, bizarre, disgusting, funny or scary; anything that helps your mind pay attention will work.

Simply link the components directly to each other and form a picture. If we continue using 想 as an example, you can associate the three parts directly with each other. It's pretty hard to forget the mental picture of a tree which has branches hung with eyes and hearts. Naturally, since 相 is also a character, you can also associate the meaning of that character and the meaning of 心, perhaps portraying thinking as the process where people mutually hold each other in each other's hearts.

Many words have built in mnemonics that are hard to forget. The Chinese word for "train" is 火车 (火車), which translated character by character means "fire vehicle". This is already a mnemonic itself. A train is a vehicle propelled by the fire in early steam locomotives. Of course, not all words are so simple, but making up such stories/pictures on your own is very helpful.

Don't be abstract, be concrete

This brings us to the last piece of advice in this article, the rest we'll keep for later. When you associate components with each other, don't be abstract. Don't think of a tree, a heart and an eye, think of a specific tree. See it. Smell it. Don't just describe the picture verbally, feel it. That way, you are much more likely to remember the connections later.

Creating good mnemonics is a skill that you need to learn. It will be hard at first and some of the mnemonics you create won't be very good (create new ones), but as all other skills, practice makes perfect. Using mnemonics to learn also helps you understand how your memory works in general, which is a fascinating adventure in itself. In future articles, we will look more closely at mnemonics for learning Chinese and Japanese, stay tuned!

Friday, July 25, 2014

A brief history of the Japanese writing system

Unless you're studying Japanese (I assume most of you are!), you may not realize that Japan uses three unique writing systems, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. If you count English which is a mandatory class in school, this brings the total count to four writing systems used.

An example of a sentence using all four writing systems could be:
"I went to Pizza Hut but there was unbelievably no Tabasco or red pepper."  
(Most would likely use ピッザハット for Pizza Hut, but this is just an example.)

Here I'll explain briefly how this came to be and how Japanese adopted it's writing systems.

A well respected writer and authority on Japanese once said: "Only one predominant language of one major nation remains today without clarification of its origins — Japanese".  While Japan uses kanji which originated from China, the full origin of the spoken language itself is unknown. Infact, Japan didn't have a writing system until it was introduced by Chinese around 50 AD, however most Japanese people remained illiterate until about the 5th century AD, (Japan's literacy rate today is nearly 100%)! With the import of Chinese characters, kanji started to be used to write Japanese words, and around 650 CE a writing system called man'yōgana was invented that used Chinese characters for their sounds opposed to their meaning to represent Japanese. It was through man'yōgana that kana developed, which at the time was most often used by women who were denied higher education.

(This graphic shows how kanji evolved into hiragana by means of man'yōgana. Kanji is in black on top, cursive style man'yōgana in red, and hiragana in black at the bottom.)

Katakana also evolved from parts of the man'yōgana by buddhist monks who wanted to simplify it even further:

Today hiragana is used to write Japanese words that have no kanji and words that kanji cannot be remembered for or haven't yet been learned, while katakana is used for foreign words, loan words, often used for onomatopoeia, used to show the difference between a 訓読み (Japanese reading) and 音読み (Chinese reading), to show emphasis, some company names, etc. Kanji is mostly used to write nouns, adjective stems and verb stems, and hiragana is used for particles, verb endings, and the phonetic readings for words written in kanji.

There are some kanji that were created in Japan and thus won't be known in China, called "国字", translating to "national characters", and other more obscure kanji used in names alone (人名用漢字), that might not be known unless it is in your name or someone's name that you know. To graduate from high school,  students are required to learn the "常用漢字", or every day use kanji which consists of 2,136 characters. 1,006 of those are taught in primary school (known as 教育漢字), and the other 1,130 are taught in secondary school. There's no definitive number for how many kanji there are, however the "大漢和辞典", a comprehensive dictionary written in 1917 contains about 50,000 characters. A similar Chinese dictionary contains 85,000 characters, however many are not common use in any country and are obscure variants or archaic forms. Today there are about 2,000 to 3,000 common use kanji in Japan, with more scattered here and there which are used occasionally.


When Japan first adopted hiragana, there weren't the same diacritical marks which are the symbols used to "voice" a kana into another sound. There's the 濁点 meaning "muddy mark" (the circle voicing used to change は (ha) into ぱ (pa) as an example), and the 半濁点, or "half dakuten", which is the voicing mark which looks much like quotes and can be used to change a kana like か (ka) into が (ga).  Colloquially the handakuten is known as a "点々", or "dot dot", and the 濁点 is known as 丸 or "circle". The introduction of the handakuten actually came from Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century who were baffled at how Japanese people just "knew" when a word was to be voiced and when a word would not. For instance, before the handakuten and dakuten were implemented, there was the "不濁点" -- a modern spelling of a word like "いがた", which used a handakuten to voice the か into が, would be spelled "いかた゜", using the 不濁点 at the end showing the reader the word has a voicing, except it would be up to the reader to know which part of the word to voice, in this case the ka to ga. Back then there was no difference between ハ行 and パ行, (the ha he fu hi ho and pa pe pu pi po sounds), and so it was the the introduction of the handakuten and dakuten that differentiated them.

Here is a clip from 日本人の知らない日本語 (Japanese the Japanese don't know) talking about this:

As a note, only the ハ行 kana can use both dakuten or handakuten, making a ha into either a ba or pa, though when used on ka, ki, ku, ke, or ko, it represents the sound of "ng" singing, which is a sound used in many Japanese dialects. In katakana only, the dakuten can be added to ウ creating a "v" sound which is used in modern loanwords, like "ヴィスタ" (vista).

Hiragana and katakana used to have two extra kana each, which are now near obsolete, ゐ (hiragana "wi"), ヰ (katakana "wi"), ゑ (hiragana "we"), and ヱ (katakana "we"). It's thought that ゐ (wi) and い (i) indicated different pronunciations until around the Kamakura/Taisho period where they both came to be pronounced "i", likewise for ゑ (we) and え (e).
These kana are still rarely used today, for instance Nikka Whiskey uses ヰ in it's name, "ニッカウヰスキー". They are also used in Okinawan and Ainu languages (two other languages related to and spoken in Japan).


A katakana "を" (wo) also exists though rarely used, which looks like: ヲ.  Often if an alien、 robot, foreigner, or something along those lines is talking in a book/manga, their speech is converted to all katakana to convey the alienness/accent, so this could be a case where ヲ would be modernly used.

Here's a screenshot from 塊魂 (Katamari Damashii) where katakana is used to convey this:  
 「カンタンデショ?コレナラ 小サイ王子ニモ デキルデショ?」
 "Isn't this easy? Even a little prince can do it with this."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Improve your character writing by enabling raw squigs

One of the main goals with Skritter is to help you learn to write characters. We believe that using Skritter's unique combination of real handwriting, corrective feedback and spaced repetition is far superior to using just paper and pencil. Not to mention that it's more fun!

As is the case with any review system, there is a distance between what we practise and what we want to use it for. Practising writing characters with Skritter on the web, iOS or the recently launched Android app is similar to writing characters on paper, but it's not exactly the same. In this article, we're going to start looking at some of the differences and how they affect your studying. Examples used here will be in Chinese, but the general principles are of course the same for Japanese; this article is for all Skritter users!

Using Skritter vs. writing on paper

Before we get started, however, it should be noted that most of the differences between using Skritter and writing on paper are quite small and a majority of them are to your advantage, such as alerting you to incorrect stroke order or telling you that a stroke is written in the wrong direction. Paper doesn't care about any of these things and even teachers need to pay attention to notice. Skritter does this automatically!

When deciding how Skritter interprets the strokes you write, we have to make a decision how strict the interpretation should be. It's obvious that we can't require you to write exactly like the model character, but neither can we allow strokes that differ too much. The current state is a compromise between the two and we constantly update character models and interpretations to enhance the learning experience.

Don't let Skritter help you too much! 

Still, if your goal is to write clear, correct characters, there are situations where Skritter will help you too much. This is fine if you pay attention, which is one of the main reasons for writing this article: we want more users to pay attention. One of the problems can be easily overcome by activating a function in Skritter called raw squigs, but let's look at the problem itself before we solve it.

Skritter attempts to determine whether the strokes you write matches the model or not, but a computer program can't know what you intended to write. Since there needs to be some margin for error built into the program, strokes will be interpreted as correct even if they are somewhat out of place or slightly wrong in some other way. In most cases, this is okay.

The problem is that sometimes Skritter interprets a stroke in an entirely different way than you intended, thus helping you a lot. Let's look at two examples:

Example 1: Stroke position: 嚣

In this example, Skritter moves an incorrectly placed stroke to another position than the one we intended, while still treating it as a correct stroke. This gives us a very important hint how to write the character, a hint that wouldn't be available to us if we wrote on paper. We thought there was a 口 to the left, but in fact there isn't and Skritter shows us that by moving the stroke as shown above. If we use this hint and get the character right, we are effectively cheating ourselves. We wouldn't have been able to write this character on paper.

 Example 2: Stroke orientation: 写

In the second case, we intended to write a right-sloping dot as in the first sttroke in 穴, but Skritter interprets this as as the first stroke in 冖, which is sloping in the other direction (and is slightly off-centre as well). Thus, we indented to write one radical, but it turns out it's not the right one. Skritter tells us that we were wrong and shows us the correct stroke by moving and rotating the stroke. If we would have written this on paper, we might have ended up up with an incorrect character (one with a dot above 冖), so we should treat this character as forgotten (incidentally, the traditional character for 写 does have a dot: 寫).

Improve your character writing by enabling raw squigs

Apart from being vigilant and paying attention to these and similar cases, you can also turn on a function called "raw squigs". This is a function that show you what you actually write rather than snapping your strokes to the model character. This means that you won't receive any hints about position or stroke direction, thus taking your reviewing one step closer to the way characters are written without feedback on paper or elsewhere. You can see what Skritter looks like with raw squigs turned on in the picture to the left. Note that our strokes (light blue) are still visible. The model character is only shown once we finish the entire character. If you want to know more about this and see some animated examples, I have produced a video on YouTube about raw squigs.

If we look at our example with 写 above, we would run into problems very quickly and it would be easy to spot them. Just look at the picture to the right. If we try to continue writing the character as indicated (left-sloping dot where the cursor is), Skritter won't accept it and will eventually show us the correct stroke (light blue). Since that stroke is very different from the one we intended, it's obvious that we are wrong here and we should treat the character as forgotten.

How to enable raw squigs

Enabling raw squigs is easy. In the web application, simply open the settings page by clicking the cogwheel in the top right corner and then check the raw squigs box in the bottom left corner (see screenshot below).

For mobile devices (iOS and Android), go to "Settings" and then enable raw squigs.

Enabling raw squigs will make your characters look uglier and you will decrease your retention rate a bit, but since you are judging yourself more harshly, you will end up with better handwriting skills. Naturally, if you don't think correct handwriting is very important, you don't really need raw squigs.

You can learn a lot about characters, both writing and recognition by using the default settings, but if you want to be able to write characters without help, you should turn raw squigs on. In my opinion, decreasing retention rate and feel slightly worse about my character writing is a fair price to pay to improve my character writing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The Big Finish

challenge14-4After 101 days, the sensible character challenge 2014 has now come to an end. It's time to hand out the last prizes and wrap up the challenge. If you've participated, I hope you have learnt as much as I have, and if you haven't, I'll make sure to highlight the things you really should read.

I recommend reading the first article (Sensible Chinese character learning revisited) as well as the "what have I learnt" sections of the other articles. These articles were posted on Hacking Chinese, but I will write much more about character and vocabulary related issues here on the Skritter blog later.
  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish
Prizes for the big finish
Since this is the end of the challenge, there will be even more prizes!
  • Skritter extension - One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in June).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters - Three sets of posters worth roughly $50 each will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren't only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products - Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and three participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.
Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts here, on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Sunday (July 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible. 

Your progress update

There's no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:
  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?
Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable. 

My progress update

I have reached my goal, I now have more than 5800 individual characters in Skritter! Naturally, I spent some significant time learning the last few hundred this month and some of them haven't really sunk in, but they have all been studied and learnt. his is what my challenge history looks like:
And this is what my Skritter progress page looks like:

How many characters do you need to know?

My goal for this challenge begs the question of how many characters one actually needs to know. The simple answer is that it depends on what you mean by "need". If you mean to be able to read most modern Chinese texts without having to look up many characters, you need far less than the 5800 I'm close to here. In fact, you can get very far with around 3000 characters and 4000 will make you comfortably literate (I'm now ignoring the fact that literacy of course includes other things than knowing characters, such as knowing words, grammar and so on, but that's not the point here).

So why did I think it was interesting to learn an additional 2000 characters if it isn't very useful? I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel what it was like learning characters again. I haven't spent significant time learning characters for many years and this challenge was interesting because it made me realise some things I hadn't noticed before. I will write about these things later (some of them are already mentioned in the milestone reports).

Second, it's a mental challenge and quite fun. Even though I haven counted the exact time I spent on learning 1800 characters, I'm pretty sure the average is no higher than half an hour per day. That means about 50 hours or about two characters per minute. This might sound extremely efficient, but then keep in mind that most of the time, learning a new character is a matter of associating two characters that I already know with a new meaning. If it's a perfect phonetic-semantic combination, it becomes even easier (learning a character like 浬, nautical mile, takes just a few seconds to learn). Also, spaced repetition is very efficient.

Learning characters is not like learning random facts

When I started learning Chinese, I remember being a bit confused by people who said it was difficult to learn lots of characters. I mean, learning a few thousand isolated facts isn't that hard. What I didn't understand back then was that learning 5000 characters isn't like learning 50 characters a hundred times. The main problem when learning new characters isn't to learn how they are written and what they mean, but to keep them separate from the other characters you already know. Thus, even though character learning certainly becomes easier in some sense, it also becomes a lot harder, but for different reasons.

Future challenges
We are huge fans of challenges and you will definitely see more of them in the future. Some will be like this one, where we try to learn things together and share useful tips and insights, others will be very different, such as the character guessing challenges we have been running on Twitter for some time now (see a few examples in this forum post). If you have any cool ideas for challenges, let us know!

Stay tuned...

We will announce the winners on Sunday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

...and the winners are

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners:
  • Carla (both prizes for her wonderful graphics)
  • Doug Stetar (Glossika product of your choice)
  • Georges (Hanzi WallChart poster set)
  • Luke (Glossika product of your choice)
  • All active participants: Free Skritter extensions
I have sent e-mails to the winners. If you are an active participant and want your Skritter extension, please join this group and tell me. Any prizes left over from this challenge will be handed out in future challenges, stay tuned!