Learning Chinese characters the most common first

With thousands of Chinese characters to master, it can be daunting to get going and plough through them.

To help you out a bit, we would like to introduce WordSwing's frequency-ordered spaced repetition gadget:

SRS activity screenshot

This gadget will introduce the most frequent 870 Chinese characters in descending frequency order, that is, the most common ones first.

Learning characters in frequency order allows you to benefit from the very steep cumulative frequency curve intrinsic to the Chinese language. I'll illustrate with a plot from WordSwing's Character Knowledge Estimator:

SRS activity screenshot

This plot illustrates how the number of characters you know (horizontal axis) relates to the fraction of typical text that is comprised of those characters (vertical axis). This curve is drawn assuming that the probability you know a character is proportional to the frequency of the character. So in the plot above, if you know 870 characters then you can recognize the characters comprising 79% of typical text.

Now, if you learn the characters in strict frequency order then the curve is even slightly steeper. Thus, if you go through all 870 characters that are part of our new Frequency-ordered SRS gadget then you will actually know characters corresponding to 86% of typical text. In contrast, if you were to just pick 870 characters completely at random from the ~5000 or so most common characters, on average these would comprise only 9% of typical text. So it's really worth focusing on the common ones first.

By learning the 870 most common characters, you get 86% of typical text, with a random batch of 870 characters you would only get 9%!

Why yet another SRS tool?

Spaced repetition is one of the most powerful tools in the vocabulary learning toolbox. If you're not familiar with it, check out Hacking Chinese's introduction to SRS.

WordSwing's version of spaced repetition works much like the popular Anki spaced repetition program, although our version is not designed as a general purpose tool.

Instead, it's optimized to the task of learning Chinese characters. There are a number of features that make it particularly well-suited to character learning:

  1. As characters are introduced, common words that are comprised solely of already-introduced characters will be added to the mix. Adding words along the way allows you to practice the characters in the context of the words in which they are used, giving your brain more fodder for building associations.
  2. When you review a composite word, like 学生, if you indicate that you still remember it, then this also affects the review intervals for 学 and 生. In this way we leverage the intrinsic structure of the language to reduce the number of card views to get all vocabulary items to the highest review stage. However, if you indicate you don't remember 学生 then this doesn't affect the review intervals for 学 or 生 because it's not clear which part you forgot or whether you simply forgot that those two characters form this word.
  3. At each iteration, you explicitly choose whether you want to introduce a new character, review an item, or introduce a new word. This gives you full control over the balance of new material and keeping your review queue manageable.
  4. The gadget is wired up to the rest of WordSwing, so you have immediate access to related words, character decompositions, example sentences etc. By taking a moment to drill down and explore a word, you're giving your brain a chance to make additional associations that will help embed the new vocabulary item in your long-term memory.

We hope you enjoy our new gadget and, as always, welcome any and all feedback you have.

Have fun learning!

Help direct our development

One of the fun challenges at WordSwing is that we have a mile-long development to-do list. But rather than let our (perhaps misguided whim) dictate what gets done when, we want to involve our students in the process.

Now you can help direct our development priorities by voting on cards on the WordSwing Development Board. You can also participate in a discussion surrounding each card in the comments.

WordSwing development board

And if you have ideas for cards you'd like to see added, please email us.

You'll find several lists of cards, each with a different purpose. There's a list for bite-size ideas, one for massive projects, and then there are several lists that allow you to follow your favorite feature through the development process from active development, to testing, to release.

You can also subscribe to cards, lists, or the whole board, which will send you email updates about changes. This will let you get notified when a new feature lands so you can go check it out. A good place to start is the card explaining how the board works.

We hope this will enable us to better serve your learning goals by developing the parts you most need earliest.

Hope to see you on the WS Dev Board!

How do I get started practicing with WordSwing?

You've just signed up to WordSwing, now what?

The fastest way to get started practicing Chinese is to dive in and try and an activity.

Some of the activities will work well right off the bat, without providing the learning machine any information about your knowledge of Chinese. These activities include:

Preamble / Follow-up: You're given a sentence in English that provides some situational context for what you're about to read. This is the preamble. Then you can read the follow-up in Chinese. This is a sentence that you might expect to hear in that situation. The idea is the preamble will prime your expectation of what you might hear, and because you need to work to figure out what the sentence means, and make some educated guesses, you will be more likely to learn from the process, rather simply reading a provided translation. You can also learn more about any given character or word by [Drilling down](https://wordswing.com/help/drill_down). Many of the follow-ups have audio recordings, so you can also practice your listening comprehension.
Asking Directions: Ever felt like you needed to ask for directions but had trouble understanding the reply? This activity will give you ample practice parsing and interpreting responses. Each step along your route, you will hear one set of instructions and need to make a choice about which way to turn. Think you can reach your destination? You can either listen to the audio or try reading each directional step.
Fill in the Missing Tones: The tone of a syllable is an essential distinguishing characteristics of a syllable. Need more practice challenging your ability to recognize spoken tones? In this activity you listen to sentences and fill in the missing tones. You can tune the difficulty of the sentence to however challenging you want to make it.

Other activities work best once the learning machine has had a chance to get a sense of which words you know and don't know. The learning machine will learn this in the ordinary course of using WordSwing. But you can effectively jump-start the process by using the rating tool to quickly rate a bunch of words, giving WordSwing an early glimpse of you language knowledge.

Once you have rated a bunch of words (maybe 30-40), you'll be ready to try out the activities for which exercise proposals are more closely based on your precise knowledge of Chinese. These include:

Character Combinations: Think you know characters well? Try recognizing, out of context, which two characters out of four can form a valid word. This activity forces you to reach back into your head and dig around for whether you've seen certain characters in combination.
Pronunciation Recall: A good test of whether you really recognize a word is whether you can write the pinyin given just the written Chinese. Practice this to your heart's content.
Character Similarity: Think you really know that character? It's one thing to recognize a character with a bunch of context. It's another thing entirely to see two visually similar characters and see if you can tell which is which. This activity will not only build your character knowledge, but it will help you build general pattern recognition skills that will improve your overall ability to quickly identify and remember characters.

Want step by step instructions?

You can select which activities you want to study by clicking on Select on the navigation menu:

Navigation bar screenshot

You will get a bunch of activity choices:

Select an activity screenshot

Here you can toggle which activities will show up in your learn stream. A mixture of all the selected activities will be included. In the above screen shot, three activities highlighted in blue are enabled. To practice just one activity, double tap on that one and only it will be selected.

When you're ready to practice, hit the play button (or on the navigation bar):

Go practice screenshot

In addition to the small activities that can be combined into your learn stream, there are also dedicated study activities:

Focus study activities screenshot

These fit less well into the learn stream and so are available as independent activities.

Have fun practicing Chinese!

What does knowing 575 characters mean?

A while back we announced a gadget to estimate how many characters you know.

Well, that gadget simply gave you a number, like 575 characters. But what does 575 characters mean?

In an attempt to provide some context for what some level of character knowledge means, we have produced some visualizations to follow up the estimate.

Here's an example:

Plot of relationship between known characters and fraction of typical text comprised by these characters

The curve illustrates the relationship between the number of characters one might know and the fraction of typical text that is comprised of those characters. Because a small number of common characters make up much of every-day Chinese, the curve is quite steep. The blue point gives the location of the estimate for a student who knows 575 characters.

Try it out

How does it work?

In each case, the summary is based purely on our estimate of your overall character knowledge and not the exact characters you know. If you have tried out our knowledge estimator, you will have noticed that we only ask you whether you know a few characters. Then based on your responses we estimate your overall character knowledge.

We don't know exactly which characters you know, just about how many overall. Nonetheless, by sampling sets of characters that someone who knows 575 characters plausibly knows, we can figure out overall what fraction of text is comprised of such characters.

What are other implications of knowing 575 characters?

But why is knowing those characters useful? Well, Even with not very many characters, you can form an awful lot of words. With 575 characters one can form over 10,000 words. That's quite a good size vocabulary. Now you just need to learn those words!

Plot of relationship between known characters and number of words that can be formed using these characters

This plot (above) illustrates the relationship between the number of characters one might know and the how many words can be formed with just those characters. The idea is to give you some sense of how many words you could learn with just the characters you know. Many of these words are probably ones you already know!

But what sort of words do I likely know?

We also provide a breakdown by HSK level:

Pie graphs indicating fraction of words in each HSK level that can be formed with known characters

Here we show a pie graph for each HSK level. The shaded portion indicates what fraction of words at that HSK level could be formed by characters you probably know.

Go see how many words you know

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