Characters. They’re a pain. You just gotta memorize em. Lots of em. Over and over. Cuz you forget em. Again and again.

What’s a desperate, nearly brain-dead student of Chinese, being pummeled with over 200 new words a week, to do?

Use Pimsleur’s graduated interval recall system, of course!

I’m glad I came across this Wikipedia article on the subject early in my life as a student. I was able to use the very powerful flashcard system in the Pleco dictionary (at that time on Palm OS, not yet available on iOS) to effectively prepare for class.

Pleco has some powerful tools for automating your spaced repetition, but I didn’t use them. The nature of my classes required me to have precise control over which words I would have ready on which days.

Here’s what I did.

First, I made a conscious choice not to learn all the new words. My most important class had a book with around 80 new words a lesson (one lesson per week). I’d focus on that, and not even attempt the rest.

Second, I broke each lesson’s vocabulary down into four 20-word sections. That way, I could learn 20 new words a day, Monday through Thursday.

Third, I would start learning those words one month before we were scheduled to begin that lesson. I found that if I hadn’t prepared a full month in advance, I would get completely obliterated in class. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the box.

Fourth, following the Review Outline below, I would schedule carefully and follow exactly a review plan I wrote in a leather day planner.

Every day, school ended at noon. Then I’d often go to the school’s cafeteria, or head across the street to McDonald’s, and attack the next set of 20 words. After doing that initial routine, I’d open my day planner and follow my review schedule—pretty much for the rest of the afternoon.

(Yeah, I think McDonald’s got pretty sick of me. One day a new girl took my order. When she asked, “For here or to go?” I could hear snickering in the back.)

Review Outline: I began by learning the words first by character recognition, followed by Pinyin recognition, then by audio, and finally by seeing only the English definition. That would take at least thirty minutes, after which I would prepare my review plan: Schedule out when I’m going to go through the flashcards again, looking only at the English definition in order to say the Chinese word out loud, then write the character(s):

  1. After an hour.
  2. After 5 hours.
  3. After 1 day.
  4. After 5 days.
  5. After 25 days. (Then, and only then, was I equipped to encounter the word in class.)
  6. After 4 months.
  7. After 2 years.

As you can imagine, most of my study time each day was taken up with reviewing words from hours, days and even months or years earlier. Without this system, I have no idea how I could have made it through school.

I still use this system. I’m now working in a Chinese company where I’m bombarded with highly specialized vocabulary. I’ll bet none of your language school textbooks had 网纹传墨辊 either!

I’ve added hundreds of custom definitions to my Pleco dictionary, and use this system to learn them. For me, there’s no other way.

Featured Image: My study kit (including a trusty iPod Classic for ChinesePod) spread out at a Carl’s Junior restaurant in California during Christmas break.