Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Anki’

Vida de Pi

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I did it!  I completed my New Year’s resolution of reading Vida de Pi (Life of Pi, in Spanish) in 2013.  In fact, I finished a month early.  This is the second year in a row that I’ve read a book in a foreign language, and I think it’s been so helpful to me in maintaining and even improving my languages.

Last year, I read the first Harry Potter book in Chinese, but that was a little bit different as I had already read part of it in 2011.  Even so, I found myself scrambling at the end, and I think I read the last third in the two weeks I was home on break :(  This year, I did the whole thing, start to finish, in 2013, and I made a couple improvements that I think really added to the experience.

First of all, after I realized that reading Harry Potter in a year would have meant reading ½ a page every day if I had been disciplined, I decided to be more consistent in the task throughout the year.  To that end, I started using an online service called Beeminder.  They describe themselves as “goal-minding with teeth” – essentially, you commit to a goal and if you fail to make it, they charge you. (There are several caveats; you can change your goal anytime but the change takes effect a week from now, and you don’t get charged for the first “derailment”.)  It’s a cool service and I highly recommend it for anything that you’re looking to track but also commit to.

I set a goal to reach page 400 by Dec 31, 2013 (the bullseye at the end) – and, as the graph shows, I made it (without derailing!):

beeminder I think there are a couple of interesting things to notice from this.  First of all, I started the year by reading almost every day, but by June or so I was in a pretty solid pattern of reading 7-8 pages on the weekends.  This ended up being more efficient and, to be frank, realistic.  Also, look at the outlier right around the beginning of October – I had a friend coming to visit me and I knew I didn’t want to have to read while he was here, so I got well ahead in my reading before he came.  This is totally due to Beeminder; without it I would have fallen behind and had to catch up, but this commitment made me be proactive!

The second thing I did also involved data tracking.  Throughout the book, I kept track of the words I underlined (the ones I didn’t know and had to look up) as well as the words that I added to Anki (my flashcard program).  I started using Anki with Spanish at the beginning of the year, so it was a very clean slate to start with.


A few interesting things about this graph:

The red line and dots are the new cards that I added to my flashcard deck.  At the beginning, I added a lot of easy words that I already knew in Spanish, just so my deck wouldn’t be overwhelmingly hard and discouraging.  (Also because I think it’s an interesting concept to quantify the number of words you know in a language.)  This tapered out quickly, and had been reduced to almost nothing around halfway through the book, when it joined the torquoise line.

The torquoise line and dots are the words that I underlined and had to look up.  Around halfway through, the torquoise line and the red line joined, meaning the only cards I was adding to Anki were words that I had had to look up.  At the beginning of the book, this was almost 15 words per page!  By the end of the book, I was reading much faster, and part of that was because there were only a few (<5) words on each page that I didn’t know.

It’s also interesting to note the outlying data points . . . that red dot around page 240 is when Pi started fishing, and I learned a lot of words for fish and fishing equipment.  The turquoise points around 150 are when Pi first got into the lifeboat and I encountered a lot of terms for parts of the boat and the supplies that he had with him.

I thought all of this was really interesting, and definitely worth the extra effort in tracking the information.  Sadly, this is not even close to the nerdiest Excel spreadsheet on my computer.  Not. Even. Close.

So, with 2014 a month away, I am starting to think about next year’s goal.  I want to continue in this vein somehow, but I’m torn between languages, books, and even mediums.  I feel ready to read something originally in Spanish that I haven’t read yet, but in Chinese I would stick with something I’ve read before (probably Kite Runner, because I already own that).  I’m also considering a telenovela, to really work on my listening in Spanish more . . . We’ll see!

I Finished a Book in Chinese!

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I am extremely proud to say that I completed all of my New Year’s Resolutions.  Three of the four were not that difficult (I resolved to try 50 pumpkin recipes and tried 66), but one was a significant accomplishment.  

On the 31st of December, in a plane from Milwaukee (I know, right?) to San Francisco, with only a few hours left in 2012, I read the last page of 哈利泼特与魔法石.  I started reading in Cambodia (around New Year’s 2011) and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable.  I picked it up again last Christmas and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable in 2012.

Chinese Harry Potter makes a great travel companion; the type and format are not nearly as child-friendly as the English publications, and my paperback copy is only 191 pages.  Plus, because I read so slow, I can only make a little progress in a long transoceanic flight!  For these reasons it accompanied me to Cambodia, and for those reasons I also brought it to Europe this summer (although scant progress was made).  

Grad school is busy and reading in Chinese is a relatively slow, laborious, demanding task, so when Christmas break 2012 came around, I found myself with about 70 pages left and two weeks in which to read them.  Even that didn’t arouse my sense of urgency; it wasn’t until I calculated that I had 35 pages left and 5 days – which meant a daily requirement of 7 pages! – that I really got my butt in gear.

By the end of this intense sprint to the finish, my reading speed had increased noticeably.  Without looking words up (only underlining them to look them up later), I was reading about 7 pages an hour.  Abysmally slow for me, used to reading in English, but lightning speed compared to when I first started reading in Chinese.  So that helped, as did the climax of the book and the exciting finish!

I’m really proud of myself for finishing my first full-length book in another language.  I had tried to read books in Spanish before, even Harry Potter, and never made it very far.  Why did I succeed this time?  I don’t think it was simply a matter of language skills.  Here are the three main reasons to which I attribute my success:


A balance between reading and learning

If you look at my copy of Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, you’ll find maybe 50 pages of intensely underlined text, while the rest of the book is in mint condition – because I gave up.  I guess I viewed it as a textbook and insisted on looking up every single word that I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of.  This slowed my reading pace to a crawl (especially because I was using a paper dictionary and keeping paper lists!) and reduced my enjoyment to exactly zero.  This is why I gave up.  

On my second try reading Harry Potter, this time in Chinese, I relaxed more.  I allowed myself some leeway.  Some words I figured out from context, and figured that they weren’t important enough to look up or learn.  Some words I looked up – some while I was reading, some later.  (I added over 600 new cards to my Chinese Anki deck throughout the book, so it’s not like I was slacking off! ) The truth is, you only learn from books as long as you keep reading them, and if the process is decidedly not fun, you’ll stop reading and won’t learn anything at all!

I also know that, depending on my mood and schedule, my attitude towards this balance shifted.  Some days I was very curious and looked up (or underlined) lots of words; some days I went a few pages without marking anything.  That would have freaked perfectionist me out when I was reading La piedra filosofal, but I’ve finally been able to embrace this flexibility.  


Mimic “the reading experience”

I love to read books.  I love curling up on my bed with my body pillow and reading some evenings.  I love reading on our couch by the glow of the Christmas lights (that we leave up year round . . . ).  I read in cars, trains, planes, buses, boats, subways, and occasionally while walking.  

Therefore, if I am going to attempt to learn or study a language by reading, I have to emulate those things that I love about reading as I’ve always done it.  Another mistake I made when trying to read in Spanish was to require an elaborate setup for my “reading”.  I would have the Spanish book, the English book (for comparison), a dictionary, a notebook (for new words), and at least one writing utensil.  This pretty much confined me to a desk or other such uncomfortable place. 

At times while reading 哈利泼特 I accompanied it with my electronic dictionary or (eventually) smartphone with Pleco installed, and I always had a pencil tucked into the book, serving dual purposes as writing utensil and bookmark.  Especially near the end of the year, when I was trying to get through a lot of pages every day, I merely marked new words to look up later, dispensing with all of the electronics.  Then, at its most barebones, I was able to lay on the couch next the gas fireplace at home and power through an hour of reading in comfort and with great pleasure.

Of course, this required me to go back a separate time to look up words and add them to Anki, but I rather liked the separation between “reading” and “studying” times, as it made the former more enjoyable and the latter shorter :)


Good book choice

Depending on your language ability, it may seem impossible to read in a foreign language without aid of a dictionary or the English-language version for reference.  Of course, I don’t think reading this way is appropriate for a beginner, but more someone at or above the intermediate level.  But even then, I think it’s a good idea to have your first book be something that you’ve read before in your native language.  

I say this for two reasons: First of all, the general story will be familiar enough to you that more words will become apparent through context, further saving time with the dictionary.  But secondly (and perhaps more importantly),  you know you like the book already.  Given how slow I read in Chinese, I would be devastated if I got a third of the way into a book only to become bored and give up for pure aesthetic reasons.  Think of the wasted time!  

Instead, I knew that Harry Potter would keep my attention, even the nth time around.  In fact, I enjoyed this time through more than I expected.  Reading in a foreign language is a different experience – namely, it’s slower – and I got different things out of the book.  


These were important things to learn, and I’m glad after a few tries that I finally figured out some tactics that work for me!

Harry Potter (哈利·波特, hālì·bōtè)

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

It’s been a year and a half since I returned from China, and I have spent nearly every day of those 18 months worrying about losing my hard-earned Chinese.  I’ve tried various techniques at various times with various degrees of success – classes, flashcards, activities, movies, books – but the truth is, it’s harder when you’re not immersed in the language effortless every day. 

But this quarter, I’ve been doing a lot better.  Stanford offers a program called PALM (Program for Advanced Language Maintenance), which meets twice weekly for informal but structured conversation.  I went last week, and we (a Chinese woman, a Polish man, and I) watched some controversial excerpts from a popular reality show and discussed them.  I’m hoping to go to that about once a week, which is great for listening input and speaking opportunities.  I think one of my greatest strengths in Chinese is the willingness to speak, and that’s certainly something I don’t want to lose!

I’ve also been really diligent about my flashcard reviews.  Three things have been helping me with this:

First of all, as if I haven’t made this clear enough, my flashcard program (Anki) is awesome in general.  The spaced-repetition system means I spend 5-10 minutes every day keeping up with my 9,000+ flashcards. 

Also, I started using the website Joe’s Goals to track several things I want to do daily – get up by 9, write in my journal, do my flashcard reviews, etc.  You create the list of goals, then check them off every day you complete them.  It helps you along in these goals by keeping track of (and quantifying!) your diligence.  Create a long chain of check marks is a powerful incentive, and looking at the webapp is a great daily reminder of what you haven’t done yet.  All in all, it’s a simple but very effective tool! 

Finally, having new material in my flashcard deck has made studying more fun.  This goes hand-in-hand with another technique I’ve been using – reading!  I bought a few Chinese books during my year there, but had enough input when I was living in China that I never even started them.  I picked up 哈利波特与魔法石 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) for my trip to Cambodia last December and made it about 20% of the way through it, but didn’t touch it again for nearly a year.  I resumed reading over Christmas break, and have made it a goal for 2012 to finish an entire book in Chinese.

I’m currently halfway through the book, and would wholeheartedly recommend a similar exercise for anyone trying to maintain a reasonably-advanced language skill.  The biggest disadvantage of not living in a country where the language is spoken is the relative dearth of input, but if you have reading material (or at least the internet), then you have access to input!

Harry Potter was a great choice of book, too.  It’s engaging and I already know that I enjoy it.  (I’ve read it several times in English, and about halfway through in Spanish as well.)  This means I have a pretty good ability to learn words and phrases from context, and I also have the ability to know which words are not worth learning (which is possibly just as important).

So I’ve been learning lots of words and adding them to my flashcards, which means new material to study!  The words I’m adding are an odd mix of generally useful (applaud, a match, wig, spinach, steam, tin, telescope, frog, yawn, ceiling, mildew, rib, remote-controlled, feather, tin, safety pin, slug, scar, spider, bacon, fireplace, to blow one’s nose, dolphin, eardrum, steering wheel, rearview mirror, heavy) and extremely specialized Harry Potter words.  Examples of the second category include magical things,

  • Hogwarts (霍格沃茨, huògéwòcí)
  • sorceror’s stone (魔法石, mófǎshí)
  • transfiguration (变形术, biànxíngshù)
  • alchemy (炼金术, liànjīnshù)
  • Muggle (麻瓜, máguā)
  • goblin (妖精, yāojing)
  • Quidditch (魁地奇, kuídìqí)
  • flying broomstick (飞天扫帚, fēitiān sàozhou)
  • wand (魔杖, mózhàng)

names of main characters,

  • Harry Potter (哈利·波特, hālì·bōtè)
  • Ron Weasley (罗恩·韦斯莱, luó’ēn·wéisīlái)
  • Hermione (赫敏, hèmǐn)
  • Draco Malfoy (德拉科·马尔福, délākē·mǎ’ěrfú)
  • Voldemort (伏地魔, fúdìmó)
  • Dumbledore (邓不利多, dèngbúlìduō)
  • McGonagall (麦格, màigé)
  • Hagrid (海格, hǎigé)

and the names of the four houses of Hogwarts.

  • Gryffindor (格兰芬多, gélánfēnduō)
  • Ravenclaw (拉文克劳, lāwénkèláo)
  • Slytherin (斯莱特林, sīláitèlín)
  • Hufflepuff (赫奇帕奇, hèqípàqí)

So, I basically just can’t wait until these words come up in conversation.

Studying Hard or Hardly Studying?

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm

I may be enjoying the longest summer ever (four-and-a-half months!) but that does not mean my days have been completely void of intellectual value.  I have taken advantage of the down time to resume my Chinese studies (which had definitely taken a back seat to graduating for most of senior year). 

It took me 9 hours, but I did all of the reading flashcards that had piled up in that time, and am making slow [painful] progress on the writing reviews. 

One thing that enabled me to do all that reviewing (and that I’m hoping will help me maintain it when I get to graduate school) is my new phone.  I bought my brother’s old HTC Evo, a super slick Android phone, and immediately installed AnkiDroid on it.  It’s a mobile app of Anki, the Spaced Repetition flashcard program that I use on my computer (and that I wrote about here).  With my flashcards always on me (and no games installed on my phone, purposefully!), I made quick progress and have been able to keep it up.  The two programs sync almost effortlessly, and generally just make my life easier. 

I’ve spent more time on QQ talking to XuLei, and corresponding with other Chinese friends via email and letters.  (I still have a ton of Chinese postcards, by the way . . .) 

And I’ve been watching Chinese movies!  Based on recent experiences, I present the Top Five Reasons to Buy Sketchy Chinese Movies:

5. Value: You can’t beat the cost ($1-ish) – except for free, I suppose, but illegal downloads don’t come in disc form, and I like to have the option to watch things on TV.

4. Early Release: How awesome is it to be able to pick up a copy of the movie you just watched in theaters?  (Although the quality of those movies is usually inferior.)

3. Entertainment Density: 4 seasons of Psych on 4 DVDs?  Yes, please.  I carry all of my movies and TV shows around in a large CD organizer, and I don’t have room for 16-CD sets.  Go ahead and compress that data, make my day.

2. Region-free: A huge drawback of buying DVDs in other countries is that they may be locked to play only on DVD players of a certain region.  Some of the more expensive (possibly even legal?!) DVDs that I bought in China only play on my laptop, not on our TV.  Sketchy ones don’t have this problem. 

1. Chinese content: My copy of Hero is in the original Mandarin; my copy of Monk has Chinese subtitles available.  No better way to justify watching!

I’ve roped my parents into watching a few of the movies with me – Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Message – in Chinese with English subtitles.  I’ve watched some of them again, with Chinese subtitles, so that I could learn the new words.  I highly recommend The Message and Hero!!  They’re both very good movies, although the Chinese in Hero is very formal and difficult for me to understand (not that this is a problem for the subtitle-reading set). 

So yes, movies have been part of my studies.  If it seems too good to be true – watching TV instead of studying – that’s probably because it is.  It turns out to be kind of hard work . . . Frequent pausing, writing down unfamiliar words, looking up unknown characters, etc.  This sort of movie watching is to the normal entertainment variety as driving a car is to being a passenger. 

I think that this sort of activity could have been highly effective in a class.  In fact, it’s on my list of Chinese Classes That Should Be Offered, along with:

  1. TV/movie watching: In addition to vocabulary and listening practice, watching popular media would give students things to talk about with Chinese people!  Websites would also be good. 
  2. Getting mad: We only learned pleasant words in class; I’m not saying that we should have studied profanity or anything, but I wish I had been able to convince that woman at the Entry Exit office with my words instead of just by bursting into tears
  3. Reading handwriting: Chinese handwriting – not to mention calligraphy – adds another level of complexity on to reading, which isn’t exactly easy to start with.  I literally had to have XuLei help me read some of my birthday cards, and had no idea what we were doing in Shanghai because Mangu wrote our itinerary by hand.  I don’t even know how I caught the plane!
  4. Writing like a Chinese person: My nicest Chinese handwriting looks like a 2nd grader, but when I attempt to imitate their “sloppy-looking” handwriting, it just looks . . . well, sloppy.  I want to be able to write without everyone knowing I’m a foreigner!
  5. "Spelling" characters: Because of all those darn homonyms, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which character a speaker is using.  So there’s a way of “spelling” the characters by describing them.  I did this with friends before I knew that actual Chinese people do it, but it turns out that there’s a relatively standard way of doing it.  I know a few terms (which never fail to surprise and impress when I use them!) but I definitely once had to find a different hotel because I didn’t know how to “spell” the name of the street that it was on. 

Well, enough of this – back to studying!  The last half of The Message isn’t going to watch itself!

Spaced Repetition Systems

In Uncategorized on September 8, 2010 at 12:19 am

I’m planning to write sometime about the resources that have helped me most in my Chinese studies, but here’s a short bit about perhaps the most important.  Anki is a flashcard program that uses a Spaced Repetition System.  Basically, each time you answer a flashcard you rate how easy it was.  The program brings the hard ones up again soon until they become easy; the easy ones get longer and longer intervals. 

It’s great for learning Chinese because characters like ‘video recording’, which I can never remember is 录像 or 录象, come up every few days, while I won’t see the super easy ones like “you” for a year or two.

There are a lot of other reasons why it’s great.  The graphs that show how much time you’ve spent reviewing and how many characters you know from which levels of difficulty!  The ability to add pinyin hints when writing characters!  The online sync!

But right now I’m realizing that it’s great because it works.  I’ve been using it for over a year and have learned over 1,900 characters.  Yes, I also took classes and lived in China – but as far as being able to write characters, that is almost all from my diligence with Anki.  You’re not going to get fluent with flashcards, and you have to have sources of input for your flashcards, but you also don’t learn to write thousands of characters by hand just by riding buses and going shopping.

Also, it’s great because it works efficiently.  When I was in China and adding hundreds of cards each week, it was sometimes a lot to keep up with.  I spent at least a half-hour most days looking at new cards and reviewing ones whose intervals were up. 

But now that I’m back in the States, my sources of input have all but dried up and I’m not really adding anything new.  There’s just those same 8,807 cards that I’m stuck with for the foreseeable future until I either return to China or actually start reading on my own.  Because of the way SRS works, I have to spend less time each day to maintain this body of knowledge.  The words that are hard for me are getting easier and easier with each repetition – and their intervals are getting longer and longer.  This means less cards to review each day.

Since school started, I haven’t spent more than 20 minutes each day.  If I keep at it, in three months I’ll have about 20 cards coming up for review each day, which should take just a few minutes to go through.  Yeah, every now and then I forget an old one and it goes back into the pool of stuff I see frequently, but for the most part you see cards just when you need to see them – just before you might forget them. 

I’ve been pretty good with Anki since I started using it, but there have been some breaks.  The longest one was nearly a month and a half – and ended just over a month ago, which makes the low numbers listed above even more impressive since I had a pile of 3,000 cards to go through. 

Because I’ve been so pleased with Anki in my Chinese studies, I’m using it with other areas.  I have an Engineering deck now, too, which contains equations, concepts, constants, and code that I find myself forgetting and relearning in between each relevant class.  I’m adding to it as I review my notes from the first three years of college, and am hoping it will prove as useful in retaining this knowledge as I’ve just talked it up to be!