My role: Designer
Space: Toronto
Time: Aug 2018

Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards 2018 Longlist

As a second generation Chinese-Canadian, I have always wanted to develop my ability to read and write in Chinese. Having grown up speaking Mandarin with my family, it was something that I have wanted to cultivate. My Chinese is probably at primary school level at its best. I recently developed a method of building my vocabulary through music. My process can be summed up in 3 steps:

  1. After I select a song to learn, I look up all the characters I do not recognize. Through this process, I focus on comprehension.
  2. Once I have a better sense of the story, I practice writing the new characters several times by hand.
  3. I listen to a section of the song and write it on paper by hand. I review what I got wrong and practice that. I repeat this until I can hand write the entire song by memory.

By using this approach, I give each new character context and a home. When I try to recall a character, I can reference it to a song. Sometimes, I have caught myself singing a song to get to the character I was trying to recall. I find music to work well since it carries rhythm and I find songs to be hard to forget. Heck, they sometimes get stuck in my head.

The overall process of learning Chinese characters can be both delightful and frustrating. There are times of surprises when I figure out why a character is written a certain way. There are also times when I throw my hands in the air and don’t understand how I can’t recall a character I learned two seconds ago. I wanted to capture these feelings through a data viz and this is what I came up with.

Please note that the characters I am learning are simplified. Chinese is generally separated into Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese is more widely used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Simplified Chinese is widely used in Mainland China.

The song I selected to learn is called 慢慢喜欢你 by Karen Mok. This song translates to ‘Slowly Loving You’. I folded sheets of paper into cubes and represented each unique character as one cube. I identified 139 unique characters. In this photo you will see that I created two groups:
1) characters new to me
2) characters I already knew

I was able to recognize 80% of the characters in this song! I’ve come a very long way since I started learning Chinese a couple of years ago.  This was a pleasant surprise and I often take my progress for granted.

Chinese characters are often identified by the number of strokes it has. Before digital dictionaries, it was important to know the strokes of a character to find it in the dictionary.

For example, 人 means person/human and requires two strokes to write it. 张 is my surname and has 7 strokes in simplified Chinese.

It’s easy to be intimidated by the number of strokes certain characters have. However, characters with many strokes are a result of it being a combination of many characters. Such as 餐, it has 16 strokes in total. This character means meal or cuisine. At the bottom of 餐, it has the character for 食, which means food.

Not only do I have a hard time with new characters, I also struggle with ones I have already learned. I would often get them wrong even after many, many tries. For example, I had a really hard time getting the character 孩 right when I was recalling it. 孩 is a character I previously learned and yet I still struggled with it. When I was reciting to write this character, I would get it wrong, then right, then wrong, then right, then wrong, then finally, get it right.

Surprisingly, I found out much later that I was writing this character 衫 wrong. I kept on forgetting one stroke and never realized it was wrong until much later. It just goes to show how much attention and detail is required to learn the characters.

With many Chinese characters being a sum of other characters, it is one of the more delightful things about learning the language. It’s a form of discovery. When I learn a new character, I try to really understand it by examining its parts.

For example, 烫 means hot/to heat up/to iron. Its two components are 汤 (soup) and 火 (fire). By learning the character for 烫, I also learn the character 汤. These characters also share similar sounds.
烫 = 汤 + 火
烫 = hot/to heat up/ to iron; 汤 = soup; 火 = fire
烫 = tàng,  汤 = tāng; 火 = huǒ

As I learn more and more characters, it presents opportunities for me to become confused. A lot of characters look and sound similar and this makes it especially challenging for me to learn new ones.

The character 怎 looks very similar to 急. They have different sounds and different meanings, but only look similar.

怎 = zěn = how/why
急 = jí = anxious/urgent

只 and 直 sound very similar, but have different meanings.

只 = zhǐ = only/just
直 = zhí = straight/direct

Learning Chinese characters is truly a roller coaster ride. It’s exhilarating to have the experience of learning, in which I am aware that I can read more than before. However, the learning curve is quite high, despite that I already know how to speak in Mandarin. I think language is often viewed as nothing more than a means of communication. But I truly believe that understanding language is the way to understand culture. In fact, the word for language in Chinese is 文, which is the same character for culture.

Behind the Scenes

I drew inspiration for cubes from exercise books for practicing Chinese characters. The proportion of Chinese characters are often learned by writing them in the squares. With the idea that each unique character would have several variables attached to it, I decided to make the square from the exercise books multi-dimensional.

Each cube consists of two sheets of 3″ x 3″ paper. In total, it takes about 3 minutes to complete each cube with the data on it. Over 200 sheets were used to create this project.

All data was collected manually through all the times I recited the song to learn the characters.