As a software engineer, I have to admit tools like Word Lens (now Google Translate) and Pleco’s Live OCR check all of my technology and language geek boxes. It wasn’t that long ago that entering Chinese characters into a computer was a significant hurdle, and now I can just point a camera at a sign and get a decent translation. As technologies like Google Glass, Microsoft’s just announced Hololens, and Skype live translation continue to advance, we may soon be in a world where translations of text and speech are completely automatic if we want them to be.
Using currently available software, I can take out a book, point my phone at it, and get back a word-by-word definition or possibly a full translation of Chinese character along with their pronunciation. With Pleco, I can take it a step further and build a word list as I am scanning through a book or document. Within a matter of minutes, I can build a large deck of flashcards with very little effort or attention on my part.
There’s just one problem. I’ve tried this approach, and I don’t retain much of what I learn. In fact, I would argue that the time I can save by using live translation is wasted later on time spent reviewing flashcards. The problem is context. Learning without context is difficult.
So how do I approach learning Chinese characters in context without a way to look them up in a dictionary? Simple. I look them up in a dictionary.
The way I like to look up characters is to use a Chinese Handwriting keyboard on an iPhone or iPad with DianHua Dictionary. In the past, this has been a serious challenge because the handwriting keyboards were extremely sensitive to the number and order of strokes used to draw the characters. Since iOS 7, though, the handwriting keyboards have become much more flexible. If you know the basic rules of stroke order, you should be able to look up characters very quickly.
Think about the contextual learning opportunities experienced:
- I saw a new word or character on a sign or in an article.
- I wrote the character.
- I picked the (hopefully) correct character out of a list.
- I read the definition and possibly added the word to a study list.
Compare that to the live translation approach:
- Read the definition and possibly add the word to a study list.
So do you want to build your word list faster, or do you want to kickstart the learning process and build your word list a little slower?