The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese

This type of flash card looks very nice. It is colourful and the arrangement is appealing.

There is a big Chinese character that grabs your attention. You know that this is the targeted character you need to learn. Pinyin is printed on top of this character, so that you know how to pronounce it. To the right of pinyin, there is an English word, presumably the translation of the big Chinese character. There is a cute picture placed on the right of the Chinese character, supposedly to illustrate the meaning of the character.  Underneath, four combinations with pinyin are listed. Everyone of them includes the targeted Chinese character. You intuitively recognise that this is an expansion, teaching you how to use a Chinese character into words. At the bottom, there is a sentence. You understand this is the second expansion of the character, making it part of a sentence. If you can’t read it yet because there is no pinyin provided, it is only a minor problem. The logic is clear, teaching you a Chinese character, then words, and finishing it with a sentence. 

What is the problem? 

Everything is a problem.

A Chinese character, its translation and its picture illustration

Let’s continue to use this flash card as our example. The character 明 is translated into “tomorrow”. The picture is a light bulb shining in the darkness. If this is the first time you see this character, and the only thing you understand is the English word “tomorrow” and the picture, you’ll find the whole thing strange. In a Chinese person’s mind, “tomorrow” is associated with a light bulb?

But I know Chinese, and I understand exactly why a bright light bulb is used to illustrate the Chinese character 明, and I also know why “tomorrow” is used as the translation. Let me explain. 

明 belongs to a small portion of Chinese characters — associative characters (会意字), which can be explained by the arrangement of its components. There are about 9% Chinese characters are associative characters.

The left part is 日, “the sun”, and the right part is 月, “the moon”. Put “the sun” and “the moon” together, we have 明, “brightness”, the original meaning of 明 as when it was created thousands of years ago.

Once you understand the original meaning of 明, you will understand why a shining light bulb is used to illustrate this character. And it must be a light bulb shining in the darkness. A light bulb that does not have electricity running through it can not represent “brightness”. And a light bulb shining under the sun can not represent “brightness” either, as the sun is much brighter. 

You’ll probably also understand the reason that ancient Chinese did not draw a picture to represent “brightness”. Because it is hard. I can imagine that they tried many different versions of pictures, but eventually settled for an “associative” method to create this character. 

However, many modern Chinese people believe that they can do better than their ancient ancestors, and some of them decided to use a shining light bulb to illustrate 明. Granted, ancient people did not have light bulbs. 

Why is 明 translated into “tomorrow” in this flash card? 明 can definitely be understood as “tomorrow”, one of its predominate meanings in modern Chinese, when it is paired with other Chinese characters, such as in 明天, 眀早. 

That leads us to the next point, the expansion of a character to words.

Expand a Chinese character into words

明 has many meanings. The original meaning is “brightness”, and there are many derivative meanings, such as “sight”, “justice”, “understand”, “reveal”, and “clear”. This is the potentialities of this Chinese character. To realise these meanings, 明 must be combined with other characters. 

Having said that, we can take a look at the four words listed underneath, 明天,明日,明晚,明白, which mean “tomorrow”, “tomorrow”, “tomorrow evening”, and “understand” respectively. You’ll understand why “tomorrow” is chosen as the translation. Three out of four words listed here refer to tomorrow. 

This expansion only makes sense if you have learned four other Chinese characters, 天, 日, 晚, and 白. Learning a new character 明 can increase your knowledge exponentially! 

But if you have not learned these characters beforehand, you’ll have to learn all these characters as well. Pinyin does not help much here. Perhaps make it faster for you to look up in a dictionary? Whichever way you choose to learn these four characters, your time and energy are dispersed, and your learning outcome is diminished tremendously. 

Expand a Chinese character into sentences

At the bottom of the flash card, a sentence is given to show you how to use this Chinese character in a sentence: 明天是星期二。Pinyin is not printed. 

Besides 天, four other characters show up, 是, 星, 期, 二. If you have learned these characters before, great. Without pinyin it increases your ability of character recognition and of how to deconstruct a sentence. This is a good exercise, “Tomorrow is Tuesday”. 

If you have not, this sentence is useless. It does not matter whether it has pinyin or not.

The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese

Suppose you bought a deck of flash cards, promising you the knowledge of 500 frequently used Chinese characters. But once you get started, you’ll realise that, to fully understand one targeted character in one flash card, you must learn eight other characters at the same time. But to learn these eight characters, you’ll have to learn a handful of other characters for each of them. It turned out to be that, if you don’t already know 3000 Chinese characters, you can’t learn these 500 characters!

Also, to fully understand a Chinese character in a flash card, you actually need a teacher, in this case it’s me, to explain all the details, or you have to try to figure out all by yourself. 

Of course, not all flash cards are as colourful as the example we used. But they all promise to teach you a Chinese character, expand it to words, and further expand it to sentences. When learning reading and writing Chinese, this is an impeccable logic. However, to make this logic as the principle of learning materials, content must be controlled. Flash cards failed to do so.

From Chinese characters to words to sentences

The Chinese Reading and Writing series follows the same logic, learning some characters first, then expand them to words, and finally to sentences and paragraphs. 

Comparing to some beautiful flash cards, you will find the series contains neither pictures nor translations. Just pages and pages of Chinese in black and white. The reason is simple. I don’t want to mislead people. without adequate explanations, all pictures and all translations can be misleading.

The only commendable feature of the series is the content. Gradually and step by step, students can witness an exponential growth of their knowledge, and build solid reading and writing skills through a carefully designed learning path. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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