Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How Homonyms Can Help You Remember Multiple Chinese Words At Once - Many Homomnems

- Original Art, Howard T. Chiam, 2014 -

- Chinese homonyms*, mnemonics**, and anemones*** -

A positive way to learn Chinese words that are easily confused because they sound the same (homonyms):  put together homonyms to make a memorable story (mnemonics).  Paint a picture with their available tones.  Don't be scared of homonyms, let them help you remember multiple root words at the same time.

***not really

Scared of Chinese tones?  Do you dare to tackle tones head on?  Maybe instead of even tackling them, you should make friends with them.  Maybe you should stop ignoring them, and instead get to know them, listen to them, even make use of them and let them help you.  Maybe you should read this post.


Just so we're on the same page, here are a few explanations for those long words under the title of this post:

Homonyms are (loosely speaking) words that sound the same but can have very different meanings.  For example, in English:  "rays" and "raise".  Another example pair, "allowed" and "a loud", also sound alike.  In modern Chinese, there are also many homophones, especially if you ignore tones as distinguishing features of words.  I'll be making use of the fact that Chinese words can sound like or at least can remind one of English words one already knows (example:  "bao" sounds like "bow", as in when you bow to someone).  It just takes a little practiced creativity to get the feel for it.  I find this to be one of a few useful tricks in my toolbox for making mnemonics.

Mnemonics are ways that help you remember something or a group of things; they're "memory aids".  There are many techniques (which can vary in their effectiveness and level), and I personally try to find the more efficient ones that fit my current purposes.  I like to think of mnemonics as "transformations", ways to convert unfamiliar elements into familiar objects, making connections with what you already know (albeit in far-fetched but hence memorable ways).

"Homomnems" in the title is my play on the sound of the word "homonym" and mashing it with the word "mnemonics" (shortened to "mnems").  I guess it would be sort of a semi-homonymic portmanteau neologism then.

Anemones are animals.  Try saying "a homonym, a mnemonic, and an anemone" very fast.  It's hard.


Anyways, I've focused my efforts on words/vocabulary most likely to be useful, by limiting myself to HSK lists.  I've experimented with a few different memory techniques.  And now, for the next chunk of time, I'll be focusing on working with tones, building on the very first idea presented in the book "Chinese Vocab Mnemonics Storybook": 

"Imagine you're talking with a British-Japanese friend after a full meal.  He just happens to be a sumo wrestler, and he brought you to his dojo.  'So, what do you do first?' you ask.  'You bow,' he says with a British accent, promptly bowing.  You then see him in front of you, doing some training by balancing some bun or bundle on his head, keeping it still and high in the air up there.  Suddenly, your sumo wrestler friend decides to come over to you and give you a hug, (un)intentionally taking you down with both arms, your poor face going into his belly.  You then note that he is very full from the meal you both had earlier, as his belly jiggles...down...and up...

...Uh...anyways, if you didn't think of it already, this is actually a mnemonic that helps me remember three Chinese words that all sound like 'bow', but have different tones*:

bāo      (high tone)                 = bun, bundle, wrap
bào      (falling tone)              = hug, hold
băo      (dip-and-rise tone)     = full
- Original Art, Howard T. Chiam -
If you read that introduction, you'll notice there's three words:

Those are the representatives for 1st, 4th, and 3rd tones in Mandarin Chinese, respectively.
And if you're really savvy, you'll notice there's something missing:


That's the 2nd tone.  Bao/ 薄 "thin".

1, 4, 3, 2

So now we have four words neatly packaged into one mental image or "visceralization":
- Original Art, Howard T. Chiam, 2014 -

Et voilà !
One mental construct for four Chinese homonyms!  Just so you know, there are other homonyms, but for now, these four words can give me a lot of mileage in the long run, for a few reasons:
  1. One:  I personally feel I come across these four words more often than other homonyms I might find in an alphabetical pinyin dictionary (like bao\ for leopard--sorry, I don't usually talk about or read about leopards).
  2. Two:  any new words that are homonyms with these four can be integrated into my existing mental construct (maybe include a leopard somehow into my mental construct of a bowing sumo wrestler--you can imagine it--maybe leopard paws or something).
  3. Three:  for any new word that is a few syllables long (i.e. words combined to make up a new word), I can make use of my existing mental constructs (example:  bao\gao\ for report is made up of syllables bao\ and gao\.  Combine constructs for bao\ and gao\, and get a new memorable image.).  And if you're just focusing on pronunciation and remembering, it doesn't matter how accurate the meaning is as long as you get the pronunciation right!  The part can feel a little "advanced" at times, but can happen naturally like when you notice how words you learn in English sound like other words you know in English.  Think about root words (Latin, science, etc.)--but here, we're using a thing like "folk etymology" but in a way to make things last in memory.
Note that using homonyms like this is just one method out of a few possible methods, and is a little bit of a more "advanced" method.  If you want some methods that are simpler and more examples, check out the links below.

Section B

- Original Art, Howard T. Chiam, 2014 -
P.S. Side note:  tones
I have a convention for writing tones that is more visually-oriented.  I personally find my system more straightforward and intuitive than numbers, while at the same time easier to type than using those vowels with lines over them (āàă...).  You might run into the number system in other resources, so for your reference: 
  1. =  --    (flat tone, like the number one)
  2. =  /     (rising tone, visually like the middle part of the number two)
  3. =  \/    (bendy/bouncing tone, like the middle of the number three)
  4. =  \     (falling tone, like the direction of the arrowhead formed by the number four)