I'm Going to Learn 3,000 Chinese Characters in 120 Days

December 03, 2019

Last week I shared my plan for learning Chinese. It focused heavily on Duolingo with a couple of other programs and apps to supplement my learning (like Chineasy, for example).

One of my biggest frustrations while I was studying this last week was that I would be able to recognize characters sometimes, but only in the right contexts. If I knew my Duolingo lesson was about food, I would be able to remember the character for rice. But if I came across 饭 out in the wild, chances are I would not recognize it.

I thought that maybe I just needed some dedicated practice writing characters. I tried a few other apps that focused specifically on teaching me to write characters (Skritter, Scripts), but it turned out to be very difficult to actually remember characters consistently.

I was essentially trying to memorize a brand new picture for every single word. This is a terrible way to learn. In any learning environment, you want to let your knowledge compound (i.e., using previously learned characters to help understand new ones). I was taking an approach that would not scale and that involved a lot of rote memorization - and rote memorization that was very frustrating.

A New Way of Learning

Then I came across this video on Youtube. In it, language learner Pablo Roman explains how he was able to learn 2,000 Chinese characters in just 50 days. That’s ~40 characters per day! At that pace, it would be hard, if not impossible, to rely on rote memorization alone.

He was able to accomplish such a fast pace of learning by implementing mnemonics in his learning process. Pablo associated each character with a memorable story, then used that story to help jog his memory of the character whenever he needed to retrieve the definition.

As Pablo mentions, he uses James Heisig’s book, Remembering Simplified Hanzi, as a guide. Heisig lays everything out in a logical, structured manner that helps you build off your progress. He starts by introducing some building blocks, characters like mouth (口) and day (日).

I bought the Apple Books version of Remembering Simplified Hanzi (it’s cheaper and more convenient than buying the physical copies on Amazon). It was a complete paradigm shift. Characters went from looking like completely arbitrary lines and shapes to looking like little puzzles, each coming together to form a unique meaning.

To be considered literate, you need to know 2,000 characters. So I think learning what’s in the book will give me a really strong base that I can use to spring into pinyin and speaking.

Scaling this Method with Anki

The Heisig book gives a great framework for learning Chinese characters. But all that can be lost if you’re not using an efficient strategy of memorizing words.

If you just go through the book over and over again, you’ll repeat the words too much and won’t repeat the hard words enough. This is not an efficient use of your time and mental energy.

Instead, use a spaced repetition system (SRS) like Anki to practice flash cards on different intervals. I’ll do a full write up on how SRS works in the future, but for now all you basically need to know is that it shows you harder words more often and easier words less often.

Anki is the most common SRS program out there, plus it’s open source and you can do a ton of cool things with it.

Someone put together a deck with all the words from the books, which you can find here.

I’m not concerned with learning traditional characters (used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) at this point, so I’m just suspending any of the traditional cards that pop up in the Anki deck.

The Downfalls of this Method

This method is only for memorizing characters and their definitions, not their pronunciations or pinyin spelling. So basically, I’ll be able to read individual characters and know what they mean, but not be able to speak or know how to pronounce a word.

My (New) Plan

Rather than focusing exclusively on learning characters, I’m going to take a more balanced approach. I don’t want to ignore grammar, speaking, and pronunciation completely while I learn characters.

My goal is to average of 25 new characters per day, which means I can work through the 3,000 words in 120 days. During that time, I’m going to continue practicing on Duolingo and watching Youtube videos on pronunciation and grammar

Thus, a typical day for me will look something like this:

  • 25 new characters from the Heisig book per day
  • ~50 Duolingo points/day
  • Any grammar/pronunciation work that I feel is supplementary to my learning.

Keep Me Accountable

I started this goal on December 2, 2019. That means that by March 31, 2020, I should have finished learning 3,000 characters. I’m sharing my learning stats each week on my newsletter. Let’s do it!

I send updates on my progress every Saturday.