How I Memorize Chinese Characters

release time:October 13th,2017

  Phil Crimmins was born in Philadelphia, PA, USA. His Chinese name "Cong Yun(从云)," is inspired by the Cloud Cult song "Everybody Here is a Cloud". The lyrics are: "Everybody here is a cloud, and everybody here will evaporate." After studying at Sichuan University for three years, Cong Yun passed the HSK6 injust 2 years of study. In July 2017, he was granted the first Entrepreneurship Visa in Chengdu. Now, he is the co-founder of Mandarin Blueprint and a part-time drummer.


  At dusk, wearing earth toned shirt and shorts and standing on the street corner, Cong Yun seemed to fit nicely with the warm light piercing through alleys. He looked delighted as he just had a  gathering with a few friends in a hot pot restaurant. Also, this good mood was improved by the award his company received the day before this interview. On that day, the joint entrepreneurship project started by he and his partner won second place in the "Entrepreneurship and Capital Investment" group in the preliminary of the First Sichuan Provincial "Tianfu Cup" Entrepreneurship Competition, gaining a prize of 10,000 RMB. 


  Luke Neale, Cong Yun's partner, is from Britain, with the Chinese name "Ning Haotian". They first met in Chengdu. The two friends both speak fluent Chinese, passing the HSK6 in 2 years, half the study time deemed necessary by the Hanban Office of Chinese Learning International. They re-ordered Chinese characters according to four aspects including pronunciation, character components and meaning, creating a systemized learning system which "aims at Westerners who are studying Chinese". Their entrepreneurial goal is to develop an APP and a website based on this learning method.


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  Chinese character, where the charm of Chinese lies


  In recent years, English learners have been putting more emphasis on speaking skills. As for Chinese learners, would it be enough if they could understand and speak Chinese? Cong Yun throws the question to me: "Do you think that only relying on spoken Chinese can make one's Mandarin excellent?" 


  "There are only about 412 syllables in Chinese, and even after adding tones, only 1,200 syllables. Whereas written Chinese does not represent any intonation, and there are plenty of homophonic words and terms existing. If Chinese learners study by listening courses only, they will inevitably encounter confusion. For instance, when I say: 'jīròu,' do you understand whether I mean '鸡肉' or '肌肉'? Chinese learners must first comprehend the principles of Mandarin pronunciation, but soon after they must study characters. Otherwise, their illiteracy will serve as a barrier to further progress. Moreover, Chinese characters embody the charm of Chinese, a language that demands more than any other a strong visual representation of meaning." 


  "Reading is the most rapid way of acquiring a language and is more effective than listening. If someone uses a method to learn Chinese characters quickly, he/she will lower the barrier to entry for Chinese learning." Nowadays, Cong Yun has formed the habit of reading Chinese daily, from which he expresses: "Standing on the firm ground of Chinese characters, you will find that Chinese is incredibly logical and has simple grammar. If I encounter unfamiliar words, I don't need to guess because I'm able to deduce the meaning from the characters in the word."


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  Inject individual memorizing to visualized Chinese characters 


  The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve gives a clear description of how quickly our brains forget disparate facts. With a rich imagination, the human brain can use visualization to turn abstract concepts into concrete information that is easy to remember. Using these visualization methods, memory champions can even remember 300 digits after π in just 300 seconds. 


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  The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve


  "We adopt this visualization memory theory into our Chinese learning system." Numerous evolutions in Chinese come from the vivid Oracle bone scripts and Bronze inscriptions. Nevertheless, the mnemonic system at Mandarin Blueprint emphasizes connecting characters with individual personal experience. "Imagining various scenes to represent the different tones, Chinese learners can combine their memory with the character components and meanings, and hence to visualize Chinese through mnemonic association." 


  Take "抱" as an example. Imagining the four tones of "-ao" represent the your home, your school, the local library and a restaurant (learners can choose their own personal locations) and then in that location visualizing your mother handing you a new schoolbag on your first day of school while giving you a big hug. The component "扌" and "包" (bag) are visualized in the scene as "props", withthe final meaning of "hug" ("抱")being expressed through the visual actions of the scene. The individual visualizing engages with the emotion of the scene, and applies that emotion to the Chinese character being learned. While acquiring the language, Chinese can be applied to real life memories, either specific or simply emotional, to remember the new facts much more quickly. At present, this method has been practiced by more than 200 foreign students with an age span of 20 - 60 years old. Also, the APP and website will have numerous Spaced-Repetition tests for all Chinese characters learned. According to the forgetting cycle, the tests will retrieve the previously studied fact from your unconscious and remind you the least amount of time necessary while still helping the learner remember, thus saving them countless hours of time.


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  Acquire a second language to create an inclusive mind  


  During the process of learning Chinese, Cong Yun gradually began to comprehend the importance of language for effective communication. He reckons: "if there is sufficient communication between the Westerners and Chinese, there would be a better understanding and fewer conflicts between us." Over his 6 years residing in Chengdu, Cong Yun finds that "Chengdu locals have an excellent understanding of humility," he stressed, "this 'humility' is not the kind of politeness like 'that's alright', or you're welcome.'" 


  So, what is that "humility"? "When you consider the amount of things you know compared to the amount of things you don't know, which would you consider to be greater?", Cong Yun answers this question, "the humble Chengdu locals would say the latter, and so they really listen to other people. This kind of mentality promotes inclusiveness and peaceful relationships amongst people from different background."


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