Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

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Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which offers a lot for Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and in different languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

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PRC turns 70: Xi Jinping’s top 10 most used words

Chinese flag

This blog doesn’t discuss politics of any kind and that’s not going to change, but on the first of October something strange happened on my WeChat feed. Without warning all the more or less harmless content turned red!

The East is Red

Instead of the usual bourgeois pictures of food, cats and traveling, an endless stream of Chinese national symbols and fervent “birthday wishes” dominated my WeChat moments: from kids dancing and waving the Chinese flag, to “Xi dada” inspecting the military parade and greeting the soldiers.

Not that it’s any of my business, but all of a sudden Xi Jinping and the party were allover the place! And people who normally don’t involve themselves in politics on any level, now wrote messages in the most patriotic tones, celebrating the 70th birthday of the PRC. I even saw people making selfies in front of their televisions, showing the world that they weren’t missing a single word of their benevolent leader’s speech.

学习强国: “Study Xi and strengthen the nation”

Which reminded me of this Chinese app “xuexi qiangguothat a Chinese friend showed to me not so long ago. It’s an app designed to study Xi Jinping’s thoughts and ideas by watching video’s and reading texts. Of course, you can earn points and are competing against other people. The higher your score, the higher your position in this online Xi JP study club.

Needless to say, all your activity on the app can be tracked and is (probably) linked to your ID, at least if you work for the Chinese government. It’s the updated version of Mao’s little red book which in the craziest days of the cultural revolution Chinese people had to carry around everywhere they went and cite from memory.

But here is the good news: resourceful people invented a cheat tool that does all this hard work for you. Simply install the app and the software will “read” and scroll through articles automatically which boosts your score and obviously saves a lot of time.

Running the speech through a text analyzer

But anyway, my main concern here is to answer the question which level of proficiency you need to reach to understand Xi Jinping’s PRC anniversary speech, held on Chinese National Day (01.10.2019), before he drove past the military in an open car, greeting and thanking the soldiers.

Listening to it myself, I understood more than I expected, not least because the Chinese president spoke slowly and clearly in Standard Mandarin.

Although I recognized many familiar words and phrases and could grasp the meaning of most that was said, when I ran Xi’s speech through a Chinese text analyzer, the statistics told a different story, even revealing an “advanced” difficulty rating. “Advanced” meaning that the text is way beyond intermediate level and not an easy read.

Taking a closer look at the vocabulary and the idioms used, the speech indeed is rather difficult and contains many subtleties of CPC political language that – I guess – only insiders and experts can fully apprehend. The main message though is clear: “China is back, we’re strong and we’re here to stay”.

Text statistics Xi Jinping speech (2019.10.01)

Top ten of most used words

In the top 10 of most used words, we only find common characters. In his 8-minute speech Xi used the word 人民 (people) twenty times and 中国 (China) fourteen times. This is followed by the adjective 伟大 (great, magnificent) which Xi mainly combines with 祖国 (motherland), but also with the following words:

  • 中华人民共和国 (People’s Republic of China)
  • 中国共产党 (Chinese Communist party)
  • 中国人民 (Chinese nation or Chinese people(s))
  • 复兴 (Renaissance (of the Chinese nation))

The Chinese president used the word 世界 (world) to point out China’s growing strength and global meaning and urged the Chinese people to stay on the path of steady and peaceful 发展 (development), telling them to 坚持 (persevere) and keep pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Here is the top 10 of his most used words:

  1. 人民 rénmín (20X)
  2. 中国 zhōngguó (14X)
  3. 伟大 wěidà (10X)
  4. 中华 zhōnghuá (9X)
  5. 我们 wǒmen (8X)
  6. 全国 quánguó (6X)
  7. 世界 shìjiè (5X)
  8. 发展 fāzhǎn (5X)
  9. 共和国 gònghéguó (5X)
  10. 坚持 jiānchí (5X)

There is still much to be said, but then again, this is not a political blog. This blog post just goes to show that sometimes politics in China is hard to ignore, even if you are “just trying to learn the language”. In particular on Chinese National Day.

Back in the days of Mao Zedong, one could hardly open a Chinese textbook that wasn’t full of revolutionary slogans and communist role models who sacrificed themselves for the socialist cause.

I think we all agree that political ideology should never be the main focus or even a major part of a language study, unless your interest in politics and state affairs is the reason you study Chinese (which is OK!). Please feel free to comment your thoughts about this topic down below.

The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

A reader asked me if there were any things I’d do differently today if I’d have to re-climb Hanyu mountain all the way from base camp number one. Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here’s my list.

Don’t skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation

Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language pyramid. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. This does not mean perfection, but you have to cover the basics:

  • Write basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
  • Speak and recognize the four tones
  • Read Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)

You can practice on your own (which I did for an extensive period), but probably the best way to do it is to join a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu in our dreams. But is was worth the effort and far more effective than self-studying Pinyin without anyone correcting you.

Don’t ignore Hanzi

Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?

I won’t pretend to have the only valid answer.

You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin in the long run cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll stay “illiterate” not just in the direct sense but also in terms of Chinese culture. Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.

Here is an example:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.

Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way but making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.

Don’t forget to make Chinese friends

Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere withing Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.

Don’t worry if you “still don’t understand anything”

Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.

Don’t expect apps to solve all your problems

Apps will shape the future of language learning and have been a major step forward, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications in the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.

Don’t think children’s books are easy

When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.

It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.

Reading “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me, without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but is not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.

That’s my list. If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.

Pop-up dictionary: Surfing the Chinese web like a pro

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If you are learning Chinese and you haven’t installed this extension for your web browser yet, please pay close attention, because this will raise the quality of your life significantly.

For Chrome browsers follow this link (available for Mozilla Firefox as well). This is what the description says about the Zhongwen pop-up dictionary:

  • Look up more than 100,000 words an expressions while reading
  • Chinese web sites just by pointing at the words with your mouse
  • Includes links to grammar and usage notes for more than 400 keywords
  • Skritter users can add new words to their study list with a simple keystroke
  • Save words to a built-in word list
  • Create Anki flashcards by importing the text file exported from the built-in word list
  • Easily look up example sentences on tatoeba.org

For Mozilla users click here. This one may not have all the features of the Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary, but is still a great help.

Navigate the Chinese web with Perapera Chinese Pop-up Dictionary

I can only agree with what other users wrote to express their satisfaction:

I use this add on with my language studies to help quite a lot. It’s really helpful. Thanks a bunch for it!

Firefox-user

This add-on is quite handy for language learners trying to navigate the Internet in Chinese. I appreciate that there are options for both traditional and simplified characters, as well as different ways of rendering Mandarin pinyin. And it just got handier; I’m excited to see that support for Cantonese has been added in version 2.1!

Firefox-user
The definition will show up automatically (Perapera Chinese Pop-up Dictionary)

If you want to test your new tool on some of the most visited Chinese websites, check out this top 50 of popular Chinese websites and roam your way through the Chinese web like a modern-day Marco Polo. Sure makes booking a Chinese train ticket or online shopping on taobao a lot easier.

Upgrading your reading skills: online vs offline reading

I have a confession to make here: I’m an old-fashioned guy who likes to read the old-fashioned way and believes firmly in the paper brain and deep reading. When it comes to reading Chinese texts though, the advantages of online-reading are simply overwhelming. How to make the best out of both worlds?

Online reading

What makes online reading great?

  • Texts tend to be up to date! I mean who wants to read some Mao Zedong poem if you could be reading what is happening in China right now or for that matter any other content that is relevant to you.
  • Never ending supply of free online resources (Intermediate and advanced learners can check out the Mandarin version of the New York Times or read Chinese news from Deutsche Welle for example)
  • You can find topics that naturally interest you instead of reading the usual random stuff from your textbook.
  • Most important: You can use reader apps to track your progress, create your own system of flashcards and vocabulary lists. Reader apps can tell you the difficulty level of a given text.

But there are some risks as well…

  • The texts won’t always match your reading level. If they are too hard for you, you can loose interest easily. This is why people invented graded readers for Chinese.
  • Some people say you are more easily distracted reading online (pop-ups, other content appearing, chat messages and what have you). This depends on your situation, but I somewhat agree.
  • When I read online-texts or use an app like Pleco or DuShu, I have an urge to check every unknown character. This is not a good way to read texts, because the learning effect is very limited. I have forgotten most new characters the day after. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as clicking or tapping your way to fluency. Skill comes with practice. And practice in this case means daily brain gymnastics without (too much) cribbing.

Reading like the monkey king or Non-linear reading

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page. 

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing

Offline reading

Merits of reading the old-fashioned way

  • I personally like the focus of the physical object in front of me. In others words, I get out my book and will put any other stuff that will distract me away, so it’s just me and the text I’m reading. This is called deep reading or slow reading and involves a higher level of concentration.
  • I also have this nasty habit of making markings, notes and drawings when I’m studying a text. Of course, you can do that online as well and may even have more editing options available, but still! Old habits die hard. I cannot help preferring to “physically” work my way through a text.
  • If you are reading a Chinese textbook like the New Practical Chinese Reader, chapters follow a well thought out progression and cover a variety of general topics. Most of which even proofed quite useful in China, though I didn’t really like those texts much when studying, I have to admit. The point this kind of offline reading really helps you laying the foundation for basic proficiency.

Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Contrast with skimming or superficial reading. Also called slow reading.

A Guide to Deep Reading
Outdated Chinese reader from the Mao-Era

What’s less attractive…

  • This has always been a major issue: most textbooks take so much time to conceive, write and publish that by the time they are released, they are already outdated. When time goes by, they just grow increasingly odd and silly. To take an extreme example: I have a Chinese reader which is filled with stories about communist wartime heroes and speeches of Mao. Apart from being historically interesting (if you dig language didactics), this reader has lost its relevance.
  • Or to counter this effect, readers become just so timelessly boring, containing only classical texts or content-free reading material that fails to be relevant on any level.
  • Mostly you look in vain for any “hot topics” like new trends in Chinese social media or currently the Sino-US tradewar that you might want to be able to discuss with your Chinese friends.
  • Many textbooks come with audio, but certainly not all. This problem is easier to solve online.

So to come to a conclusion here: Offline reading still has got its merits. The key issue being FOCUS which allows us to comprehend and appreciate what we read on a deeper level. It shouldn’t be impossible to integrate that into our online reading routine though. The possibilities of online reading are just too good to ignore. For now, I stick with a healthy mix of both: online reading can definitely complement old-fashioned, offline reading in a powerful way.

Discover your learning style

Starting out learning a new language? If you are new to language learning or want to rethink the process, bear with me for some self-discovery. Knowing your personal learning style will make studying easier and more fun. Non of the four styles match you? I have some advise for you too.

Natural listeners

Do you prefer lectures over reading books and articles? You do a good job at following verbal directions? You don’t really need the visual backup to support your learning?

If you are a so-called auditory learner, you learn particularly well by listening. In essence, auditory learners retain information best when it is presented through sound and speech. If you identify with this type, consider listening to dialogues, vocabulary and music. Build your own playlist and put tracks on repeat. Speak or sing along and try to repeat the phrases. Stop when you feel the urge to destroy your playing device. For Chinese in particular, repetition really will help you to get the tones and the melody right.

“I see what you mean”

Sorry, what did you just say? Can you write that down please?

If you are more of a visual type of learner, you typically process new information by reading, writing and using other visual stimulus. I personally like to write summaries and vocabulary lists, because the visual backup not only helps me to memorize words and sentences I’d otherwise forget in the long run, but also helps my neurotic self to create order out of chaos. The drawing of symbols and pictures is essential in this as well.

Learn characters with pictures

Tactile and kinesthetic

Are you more the kind of hands-on learner who benefits from actively doing something? Then you might feel more comfortable with working with flashcards, tangible objects, and other creative means. As a kinesthetic learner you already know that standing up will improve your comprehension and retention. When you stand up, your body is more engaged and connected to the learning process. Investing in a book stand or standing desk may help you concentrate for longer periods of time and remember more of what you read. You may also consider to do some burpees or jumping jacks in between chapters. Combining activity keeps you energized and cements the language you’re studying in your brain.

The intellectual

Last but not least, there is the intellectual learner. As the name suggests as an intellectual learn you learn best the abstract way. You want to first understand the rules and are not afraid to read rather dreary grammar explanations like this:

Chinese, like English, is classified as an SVO (subject–verb–object) language. Transitive verbs precede their objects in typical simple clauses, while the subject precedes the verb. For example: 他 喝 酒。Literal: He drink alcohol. Translated: He drinks alcohol.

Not my style?

If you got the feeling that non of the above styles or types matches your particular profile? That’s completely fine, since they are only abstracts distinctions to help you orientate. Have you ever met a person who learned language purely by listening to spoken dialogues and other recordings? Would be unnatural, wouldn’t it? Speaking of natural and unnatural: Don’t forget that when we try to learn a foreign language as adults, we are actually kind of helplessly imitating the natural process of language learning that we all went through as children as we mastered our first language. How did that work out so well? Natural language acquisition involves all the senses. It’s both active and passive. All four areas of language skills, that is speaking, listening, reading and writing, develop overtime, but not necessarily in a guided manner.

So taking that into account, you should really try to create your personal mixture of the four learning styles. Know your strengths and keep it balanced: If you like to read, don’t forget to communicate with people. If you are the opposite and prefer learning by conversation and listening, try making notes. It will help you remember fresh vocabulary and keep track of your progress. Challenge yourself by trying some new things!

According to language learning expert Steve Kaufmann, most important of all is knowing what motivates you, what interests you. Note his opinion on different types of learners:

I have never believed that there are “auditory learners”, “visual learners” or other types of learners. I do believe that learners are motivated by different things. It is these different kinds of motivations that need to be researched and better understood.

Steve Kaufmann (lingosteve)

Get some inspiration from a polyglot expert

Language learning legend Steve Kaufmann discussing the question if there really are different types of language learners