“It’s a MEMORY PROBLEM!!”
What a revelation! The key to learning Chinese faster and better is through a memory solution, not a language learning solution. This revelation was the beginning of the Encoding Chinese method.
This revelation story began at the end of 2012, when a very frustrated person (the author of Encoding Chinese, R.L. Johnson) started trying in earnest to learn Chinese characters. The best methods on the market at the time used techniques that involved various forms of associations. Some were pretty good, others were pretty rotten. Most of them had one big problem, they were incomplete. The main problem was that they told you what to learn, but not how to learn it. The better ones even told you how, but left out too much or were still too difficult.
As a perfectionist, R.L. was not satisfied with this. Living in China and having a situation that demanded knowledge of all aspects of Chinese, he began to search for something better. Then one day it happened. While reading a book by 8-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien, lightning struck. Dominic’s book chronicles his road to memory fame, the methods used, and the events at the competitions. Many of the things being memorized (in unbelievable quantities) by these memory champs were exactly like the things being learned by students of Chinese, particularly the ink-blots.
If a person can remember 100 absolutely random ink blots in 30 minutes, (which have much less standard structure than Chinese characters), why is it taking people years, YEARS to learn 500 or 1000 Chinese characters?!! “They’re learning 100 inkblots in 30 minutes! Why can’t people learn 100 Chinese characters in 30 days?” The solution was clear: learning Chinese was not a language problem, but a memory problem. A memory problem needs a memory solution.
From that moment on a search was made to find out everything about what the professional memorizers did and apply it directly to Chinese. Finding out what they do is easy. Their techniques are simple to learn, and there are only 3: 1) making associations or encoding, 2) the memory palace or method of loci, and 3) various systems of review. The hard part of this project was trying to figure out how to make all of this work with ALL aspects of the Chinese language. The end result is an application of memory techniques to learning Chinese characters at a level never before done.
The way the memory pros do it is simple: they convert the abstract things they want to remember into things familiar, assemble those familiar things into images that tell the story of the meaning, and then hang those images around various locations they are familiar with in their minds, like their apartment, office, etc.
These same basic principles have all been formulated for Chinese. The abstract parts of each word (written characters, pronunciation, tone) are converted to things familiar, like objects, people, and colors. These are combined into one image that tells a story of the meaning of the word. Then this image is hung in some memory location (memory palace) of the learners choice. It’s exactly what the professionals are doing, and it works just as well. And because ALL parts of each word are included in the simple images, the learner isn’t left to figure out how to remember some part of the word on their own.
Why does this work so well? It all has to do with the association or encoding link. Old or long remembered things (like the face of your mother or a famous actor, objects like barrels, basketball goals and beehives) are already stuck in your mind like a giant iron anchor. By linking new and unfamiliar things to these solidly locked memories, it’s like tying boats to those anchors. The boats aren’t stuck there as solidly as the anchors, but the attachment is stronger than just trying to remember without this link. Adding a good system of review is like tying on extra ropes. Finally, putting this linked ‘boat’ into a place or location that is also already familiar to the mind, it’s like adding another anchor. Anything attached to two heavy anchors by multiple ropes is unlikely going to be lost to the storms of forgetfulness.
The proof is in the puddin’, as they say. What are users of this encoding method doing? The average user is learning 100 or more characters and words each month, an average of 5 new per day (with weekends off). When you consider that this includes the ability to read and write, this is a surprisingly large amount. It also means that their practical language skills are immediately noticeable! In just 6 months they are able to read 80% of common content written Chinese material. Most people who have studied Chinese in the past can only read a little bit at best, and very few can write more than a handful of characters.
Now that the method has been around for a little while, some of the early users are into the hundreds and even thousands of characters learned. But that is only the half. While a lot of emphasis is put on characters, what about speaking? Because the encoding method helps you remember the tones, users are able not only to remember the words they need when they need them, but they are able to speak them properly. Anyone who’s studied Chinese for any length of time knows that remembering the tones is one of the most difficult parts of becoming skilled in Chinese. Those days are over. It’s time for a new era of learning Chinese faster and better.