How to Remember Chinese Characters like a Memory Athlete
12.54 seconds. It takes only a couple of breaths for the memory athlete Bat-Enk to remember a deck of 52 playing cards. He set this world record at the 2nd Korean OPEN Champs 2018. At the same event Enkhtuya remembered 1251 numbers within five minutes. Another world record. These brilliant performances left me puzzled: how can memory athletes look at a sheet of numbers and almost instantly remember every digit, while I may need a whole sheet of paper to practice one Chinese character? Considering how many numbers Enkhtuya memorized in such a short amount of time, he apparently did not learn by repetition. This begs the question: Is there a way to learn and retain Chinese characters without constant repetition? Not really, no. However, borrowing the techniques of memory athletes you can reduce repetition to a minimum. The key is transforming complicated pieces of information into pictures and weird stories. I will show how this works in practice by guiding you through my personal learning story.
Before we start, I want to point out that I am not a memory expert. The recommendations I will give are based on my personal experience. The point of telling my story is not to provide a detailed learning guide but to give you the idea of an alternative approach. That being said, let us start with language lessons in the 5th grade.
Learning as repeating
In school, learning was all about repetition and practice. Going through the German education system, I received teaching in English, French and later also Spanish. I memorized vocabulary by repeating new words over and over again, in my head and on paper. Practising in written exercises and speaking during exchanges allowed me to use the words more and more fluently. The end result was good. At least for a short period after leaving school I was more or less fluent in three foreign languages. However, it took me a lot of time and effort.
From repeating to inventing
I needed a new method because studying Chinese was different for me. First of all, I lacked the time and practice opportunities I had back at school. Furthermore, learning Chinese characters is different from learning new words in French or Spanish. Just to clarify: I am not a lazy person. If learning Chinese would include writing the characters over and over again, I was prepared to somehow take the time to do it. Nonetheless, I kept asking myself if there really was not another way.
At that time, I was randomly borrowing different books on Chinese characters from the library. One day, I came across “Remembering Simplified Hanzi” by James Heisig and Timothy Richardson. I found the outline very appealing. The authors negate repetition as the most effective learning method and call upon our inventive memory to master Chinese characters. Their method consists of splitting Chinese characters into smaller pieces, as there is a limited number of components every character can be built with. If you apply a meaning to these little pieces and memorize them, then memorizing a new character is not learning something new. You are just putting the pieces you already know together in a new way. According to the authors, the best way to do this is inventing a weird story of how the pieces relate to one another and creating a mental image of this story for each new character. I liked the approach but found it too ridiculous.
Learning Chinese characters should be an inventive process.
Image Attribution: Dmitry Ratushny, https://unsplash.com/photos/O33IVNPb0RI
Memory Athletes and their weird stories
Memory sports changed my mind. After listening to a podcast with memory athlete Nelson Dellis, I realized that inventing weird stories to memorize something is not ridiculous. It works. At least, you can win memory championships with mental storytelling, as Dellis is a four-time USA memory champion. According to him, memory athletes all use a similar method to remember large amounts of data in a short period of time. Let me explain to you how they do it with numbers.
Transforming complicated information into a mental image
The first step is to code complicated pieces of information into mental pictures which have a meaning to you. Let us take the number 7 as an example. What you see on paper is just a line with an edge. Now let us try to transform the number to something that is more meaningful to you. Some of you might think of James Bond or sipping a martini like the agent 007. Sports fans might prefer to think about Christiano Ronaldo, the famous football player with the number 7. It really does not matter what you pick, as long as you have a specific person or action in mind if you see the number 7. Of course, you do not need this technique if you need to memorize one number. However, if you want to memorize a sheet full of numbers, it is very helpful. By attaching meanings to every number, you can cluster a certain amount of numbers together and create the mental image of a story. Let the number 3 be the three musketeers. Now you could imagine the number 37 as a mental image of Cristiano Ronaldo shooting a penalty with the three musketeers being the goalkeeper. It is unlikely you will forget this picture as it is very weird. Memory athletes would cluster even more numbers together and memorize a sheet full of numbers as many small stories.
The number 7 is a complicated piece of information. You might transform it into a mental picture of James Bond or sipping a Martini.
The second step is structuring the pictures you make in order to be able to retrieve and decode them in the third step. To memorize a whole sheet of numbers, you need to get the order right. However, although step two and three might be of importance for winning a memory championship, inventing stories is the key to memorize Chinese characters.
How is this helpful to learn Chinese characters?
Motivated by memory sports, I came back to the book of Heisig and Richardson. I realized that their method is very similar to the practice of memory athletes. If you look at a character, it does not mean anything besides the shape you are looking at. It is easier if you start thinking about it in emotive ways via picturing small stories. However, only when I saw people winning memory championships by inventing weird stories the method became credible enough for me to give it a try.
Mental storytelling in practice
Now let us see how it works in practice. I picked a complicated example on purpose to demonstrate how you could invent a story for the following character: 喝. It means “to drink”. In the figure below, you see how I separated the character into five pieces. Each of the pieces has a personal meaning to me. How you define these meanings does not matter, but it should be something weird or uncomfortable, something you really like or hate. You can remember a story better if it is abnormal. So the five pieces I identified for this character are mouth, sun, leaning back, man and hook. The story you may come up with is picturing is the following:
A man leans back against a huge hook that grows out of the ground. The sun is so hot that he gets a dry mouth. He desperately needs to drink water.
An example of how you could separate the Chinese character for the word “to drink” into five pieces.
It is unlikely that I will forget this image, as I personally created the story and carefully imagined the picture in my mind with great detail. I just wrote down the character once when I created the story. If I need to rewrite it later, I just have to decode my story back into the pieces of the character. As I re-engage with the character while reading or practising, the story becomes even more present, until I do not need the story anymore to remember the character. Naturally, there are stories of characters that I forget, but mostly I remember them if I see the character they describe. This method is a way to replace repeating with inventing.
Lessons learned from Memory Athletes
To sum up, learning Chinese characters does not have to be dull repetition. If you transform the strokes to a mental image that tells a story, remembering becomes an inventive game. Of course, repetition cannot be completely erased. You have to remember the pieces of which you compose the characters and the meanings you give them. Eventually, you will also forget some of the stories you created. However, weird storytelling is the opposite of ridiculous. Remember, memory athletes use the method to win championships. And it is already applied to learning Chinese characters by Heisig and Richardson. Now it's your turn to invent weird stories and learn faster. Good luck!