ChineseLearnOnline and Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi: The advantages of scaffolding-based methods to learn Mandarin

ChineseLearnOnline and Heisig's RTH, the bestest of friends

The 200-hour listening mark has now been surpassed and another 2 weeks have gone by since my last post, during which I hit both a low and a high point in my Mandarin studies.

I hit a low point because I’ve been doing at least an hour of Mandarin listening every day for the past few months and all of the sudden I had the feeling that all of my ChinesePOD Elementary podcasts were too easy and the Intermediate ones were too hard and that overall nothing was actually ‘sticking’ in my head despite all the listening I had been doing.

I realized that this was due to the fact that, although the lessons and dialogues on ChinesePOD are high quality in terms of being well-thought out and explained, not to mention the wealth of learning resources for each lesson on the website (and the high quality audio of the lessons, which is the one major bummer about CSLPod), there is no natural progression or repetition as far as the teaching of vocabulary and structures is concerned, and therefore no instructional scaffolding (or base) is provided on which to improve and eventually become autonomous (in this case that means divorcing yourself from English-language explanations).

Although the autonomous learner in me loves the fact that you can just jump into the ChinesePOD library and graze the content that most strikes your fancy, with ChinesePOD there such a wealth of lessons that you can very quickly get overloaded if you don’t have some method of organizing your learning in order to get the necessary repetition required for words and phrases to ‘stick’.

And that is the beauty of the ChineseLearnOnline teaching method – it’s a progressive Mandarin course, meaning that each lesson builds on the vocabulary structures (scaffolding) taught in previous lessons. This is achieved by starting out teaching entirely in English while introducing a few new words of Mandarin vocabulary in each lesson. Additionally, new expressions, especially multi-character ones, are broken down and decoded to facilitate understanding. As the lessons progress, gradually more Mandarin and less English is spoken (where the Mandarin spoken always consists of words and expressions learned in previous lessons), eventually leading to lessons conducted entirely in Mandarin (around level 3), where you’re learning Mandarin through Mandarin, with only occasional clarifications in English, if any.

Coming from having extensive listening experience, I was able to jump in at the beginning of level 3 (lesson 121), where they are just starting to teach you the words they will use throughout the rest of the course to teach you Mandarin through Mandarin, but there are still a lot of explanations in English. After two weeks I am well into level 4, as I wanted to get to the primarily-Mandarin episodes as quickly as possible. As a result I am having to go back to occasionally review vocabulary that didn’t stick the first time through, but I prefer that to spending too much time with the same vocabulary/at the same level, or to put it another way, I’d rather my input be extensive (covering a wide range of contexts) rather than intensive to maximize vocabulary exposure. If you want to try out CLO, the first few premium lessons of every level are free on the webpage and on iTunes.

The method for learning Chinese characters that most closely approximates ChineseLearnOnline’s scaffolding-based progressive learning is Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi series, in which both Remembering the Simplified Hanzi and Remembering the Traditional Hanzi are available. Here the description from the publisher’s website:

Based on the best-selling series of books on the Japanese characters, Remembering the Kanji, Jim Heisig and Tim Richardson have combined forces to produce comparable courses for Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters. Book 1 of each course covers 1,500 characters, organized around the 1,000 most frequently used characters (for details on the process of selection, read pages 8-9 of the download). Book 2 adds another 1,500 characters for a total of 3,000 frequently-used characters and a solid foundation for the serious student of Chinese. To facilitate the memorizing of the characters as quickly and efficiently as possible, the course introduces a unique order for learning and makes use of “imaginative memory” to combine the basic building blocks—or “primitive elements” of which all characters are composed—into memorable images and patterns.” (The introduction and a sample of both the Simplified and Traditional editions can be downloaded from the website using the links underneath the description.)

As revolutionary as this method is, I’ve found that the simple act of reading through the stories is not enough for the characters and their meanings to really ‘stick’, which is why I started learning the characters utilizing this method in conjunction with the spaced repetition writing/stroke order practice employing the already existing vocabulary list for the entire book on Skritter, allowing me to learn characters at a much faster rate, especially because new characters studied are made up of elements already learned, which means that new learning and review take place simultaneously and naturally. An additional plus to using Heisig’s books is that the site Reviewing the Hanzi was specifically designed to support individuals learning the Chinese characters with this method, and provides a forum where individuals can augment the stories provided in Heisig with their own mnemonic devices and study the characters using spaced repetition.

I wish you all happy learning, and…

祝我生日快樂! 🙂