Studying Chinese with Pleco

Posted on January 16, 2015

Pleco is app with high quality Chinese dictionaries; it is an absolute must-have for any serious Chinese student. It also features a flashcard system, but although it is highly configurable I could never quite make it do what I wanted so I never used it. However, the integration between the flash card system and the dictionary finally tempted me to try again and I’m very glad I did because it works great; I only use Pleco now for study. On this page I will describe how I’ve set things up.

Overview of Pleco’s flashcard system

Pleco’s manual has a chapter on Flashcards with all the details; however, it is long and detailed. Here I want to give you the most important concepts. The basic idea is the same as in any other flashcard system: the app presents you with a word (either spoken, or as a character, pinyin, or in English), and asks you to answer; you then ask Pleco to give you the expected answer and you tell it whether you got it right or not. You create cards by looking up a word in the dictionary and tapping the “⊞” button (you can also create cards manually or import lists; the HSK lists are available by default). Cards can be assigned to one or more categories, which you can use to select which cards you want to study.

 Card selection system

The most important problem any flashcard system has to solve is how to decide which cards to study. After all, once you have studied hundreds or even thousands of words you don’t want to revise each and every one of them every time. Pleco offers two basic modes of operation, both of which can be tuned in many ways: in Random mode it just picks cards at random, while in Repetition-spaced mode the more often you answer a card correctly the longer the app will wait before asking again.

Statistics

For each card Pleco records when the card was created and when you last studied it. It also maintains a score; every time you answer a card correctly the score is increased; every time you answer it incorrectly the score is reset (this, as almost everything else, can also be tuned). In repetition-spaced mode the score is used to compute when a card is up for revision again: the date of the last time you revised it + the score of the card divided by a certain number of points per day (by default, 100).

In addition, it maintains a record and a history; for example, suppose that you revised a card five times so far, and the first time you got it wrong, the next three times you got it right, and the last time you got it wrong again. Then your record is 3-2 (3 correct, 2 wrong), and your history would be 26662 (wrong, correct, correct, correct, wrong). Finally, it records an easiness which tries to summarize how easy this card is for you (not sure how this is computed; I don’t use it so far).

All these statistics are recorded independently of the card in a scorefile; this means that any card can have lots of scores in multiple scorefiles; for instance, this makes it possible to have a low score on English to Chinese but a high score on Chinese to English.

Finally, the score is unaffected by the category. For example, suppose you have a list of words with words that you’ve come across and didn’t want to forget (if you don’t have such a personal list, I can highly recommend you start building one). Suppose a word occurs both in your personal list and in the HSK list; if you have studied this word when you were studying your personal list you won’t be asked it again when you are studying the HSK list.

Learning versus revision

Repetition-spaced learning is great for revising words you have learned before, but it doesn’t work so well for new words (at least, not in Pleco’s version of it). When you are starting a new list, all words are up for revision, but you certainly don’t want to study all of them at once; moreover, studying them just once is not sufficient either. There are some threads about this on the Pleco forums (1, 2, and one that I myself started 3); however, I have come to the conclusion that spaced repetition simply isn’t the right approach for learning new words.

Instead, I have created two profiles (a profile is a collection of settings): one for learning new words, and one for revision.

Learning new words

An old piano teacher of mine used to tell me that if I could play a piece three times in a row I mastered it. So I do the same in Pleco. I consider a word “new” until I have gotten it right three times in a row. Moreover, I study new words in batches of 20 so that I am not overwhelmed by too many new words at once, and after each batch I get asked again about the words I got wrong in that batch. I find this method very effective. To set this up in Pleco do the following.

  1. Create a new test profile called “New Words” (actually, I called mine “Listening (New Words)”; more on that below).
  2. In Card selection make sure System is set to Random (this is the default).
  3. In Basic Settings set Max number of cards to 20.
  4. In Card filters enable the History filter, set Include card if to not correct in a row, and Is >= to 3. This means that a card will be included as long as you haven’t gotten it right three times in a row.
  5. In Commands enable Repeat incorrect cards.

You can also pick some categories that you are interested in testing yourself on, and configure what you want Pleco to show when it first shows you the card (see below). All the other settings you can leave at their default.

Revision

For revision we want to use Pleco’s spaced repetition system.

  1. Create a profile called “Review” (or “Listening (Review)”).
  2. In Card selection set System to Repetition-spaced.
  3. In Card filters enable the Record filter, set Include card if to # reviewed, Is to >, and Than to 0. This means only cards that you have reviewed before (using the other profile) will be included here.

As for learning new words, you may also want to configure categories, what Pleco should show when it shows you a new card, and a scorefile.

Note that if you come across a word during revision that you’ve forgotten and you get it wrong, it will then re-appear in your “Learning (New Words)” tests because you won’t have gotten it right three times in a row anymore.

Learning in different directions

When learning Chinese you are basically learning two independent languages. Spoken language:

and written language

Note that pinyin doesn’t really feature here. When working on your spoken skills, if you are practicing listening (Chinese to English) you should revise by listening to words, not by reading pinyin; similarly, when you are practicing speaking (English to Chinese) you should practice by pronouncing the words, not by writing them down. Recognizing a word from seeing it written down is different from recognizing it when spoken, and pronuncing a word is a different skill from being able to write it. Pinyin is merely a way to describe the sound (but see below on pinyin practice).

For the same reason, I recommend studying characters independently, and here there is an additional reason. Since nearly all Chinese words are homophones (does zuò mean 做? 坐? 作? something else?) if you only hear the sound and not see the character you have less information to work with; this is more difficult (you need to do more disambiguating in your head) but of course essential when actually having a conversation.

So, I suggest practicing each of these 4 directions separately, and thus set up 8 profiles: for each direction one for revision and one for learning new words. Note that you will want to use the same scorefile for learning new words and for revision, but a different scorefile for each direction (so you will have 8 profiles, but only 4 scorefiles).

Listening

  1. In Show select Audio so that Pleco will pronounce the word rather than giving you a written form.
  2. In Scoring select a new scorefile called Listening.

Speaking

  1. In Show select Definition so that Pleco will show the English definition for each card.
  2. In Test Settings enable Auto-play on reveal so that Pleco will pronounce the word every time you reveal the full card so that you can compare your pronunciation with Pleco’s.
  3. In Scoring select a new scorefile called Speaking.

Reading

  1. In Show leave Characters selected.
  2. When I practice reading I say the word to myself as well as its meaning, so I also enable Auto-play on reveal here to reinforce my pronunciation.
  3. In Scoring select a new scorefile called Reading.

Writing

  1. In Show select Definition
  2. In Scoring select a new scorefile called Writing.

Other kinds of practice

Have I mentioned how awesome Pleco is? There are some other ways in which it can help with practice.

Listening comprehension

When you start to learn a new language simply recognizing the word (never mind knowing what it means) is a difficult task all by itself, and it is useful to practice this independently. We can do this in two ways in Pleco.

Tone practice

We can set things up specifically for practicing recognizing tones.

  1. Create a new profile called “Tone Practice”.
  2. Set Max number of cards to Endless
  3. In Card categories I would select the HSK category (or possibly just a first few HSK levels); the point here is not to know what the words mean, but simply to recognize their tone.
  4. In Test type select Tone Practice
  5. In Show select Audio
  6. In Scoring select None as the Scoring system.

When you practice with this profile, Pleco will pronounce a word, show you the pinyin, and ask you for which tones you heard. Very very useful.

Pinyin practice

The idea of this profile is similar to the previous one, but now Pleco will pronounce the word and it will ask us for the full pinyin (not just the tone). Again, the idea is not to know that the word means but simply to recognize which word they are pronouncing.

  1. Create a new profile called “Pinyin Practice”.
  2. Set Max number of cards to Endless
  3. In Card categories again select a bunch of HSK levels.
  4. In Test type select Fill-in-the-blanks
  5. In Show select Audio
  6. In Scoring select None as the Scoring system.

When you practice with this profile, Pleco will pronounce a word and then ask you to write down the pinyin.

Stroke order practice

Finally, Pleco can help you with writing practice, verifying the stroke order.

  1. Create a new profile called “Stroke order practice”
  2. Set Max number of cards to Endless
  3. Pick some categories; you can either choose to pick only characters you have learned or, say, all HSK levels. The idea again is not that you know the character, but that you understand which stroke order to use.
  4. In Set type select Stroke Order
  5. Here I would pick a separate scorefile because some characters are trickier than others, so set Scorefile to a new scorefile (&ldquo;Stroke Order Practice&rdquo;) and under Card filters enable the Record filter, setting Include card if to # correct, Is to <, and Than to 1, so that characters won’t be included again once you’ve got them right once.

When you practice with this profile, Pleco will show you an outline of a character and ask you to write the strokes in the right order, and then show you which parts you got right and which parts you got wrong.