【Case Study】”The Best Part About MB is That It’s Fun” -Faraz

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Phil Crimmins:
Welcome back to the Mandarin Blueprint Podcast. I’m here with Faraz. Am I pronouncing that correct correctly? Is it Faraz?

Faraz Abidi:
Yeah. Faraz. Yeah.

Phil Crimmins:
Awesome. I’m here with Faraz and Faraz has kindly agreed to do a case study with us about his experiences with Mandarin Blueprint. But before we get into anything specific to Mandarin Blueprint, what made you want to start learning Chinese in the first place, Faraz?

Faraz Abidi:
Well, there’s kind of a long story to this. So I have been interested in memory athletics, memory techniques for a long time, like since freshman year of college. I read the book Moonwalking With Einstein and I got really into memorizing decks of cards, memorizing long digit numbers, all that stuff. And at the time, I was a pre-med major, so I tried to find something practical to apply this to and I applied it to learning mitosis, meiosis, Krebs cycle, all that.

Faraz Abidi:
But it turned out that pre-med and me do not get along. I did not find it very interesting. I did not find it very fulfilling. So I switched to engineering and I really did not find any applications for these sort of memory techniques beyond sort of parlor tricks once I had gone the engineering route. So I always had them in my back pocket and I always thought they were pretty cool, but I didn’t do much with them.

Faraz Abidi:
So fast forward, I think it’s been like six, seven years since then, three or four years out of college now. And a couple of things happened at the same time. So one of them was, so I work for a company that makes 3D printers, I’m the head of software. And we have engineering teams throughout the world. And we’ve got a lot of engineering talent in China. So we’ve been making a big effort to integrate the software engineers from China into our software team. And it wasn’t easy in the beginning. We would have conversations and just conveying very technical topics, like how do you write high quality code? This code is not clean, this part of the section is not architected properly. This doesn’t have enough unit tests. That kind of thing. Getting really into it was very difficult.

Faraz Abidi:
But one of the engineers on my team is a native Chinese speaker. And so we would have conversations where we would be just trying to explain some topic for about five minutes and then this guy would just… We wouldn’t be making any headway and this guy would just pop in, speak for like 15, 20 seconds in Chinese and then the other engineers in China are like, “好的” They’d understand completely. Like, “Okay, cool.”

Faraz Abidi:
Night and day difference, they were just cutting through the ambiguity because he could speak the language. And there was other things, too, that he was able to bring up just culturally. Like, this is how you should approach it. So there’s just a huge difference having someone who’s a native Chinese speaker being able to talk to the China team.

Faraz Abidi:
So we began sort of the process of integration. And at the same time, I walked into Barnes and Noble and I found this book called Memory Craft by Lynne Swan. Or, sorry, Lynne Kelly. And the book, it was written by a memory champion and she just talked about how she applied using memory techniques to a lot of stuff. And she really focused on practical things like learning the periodic table, learning the order of the planets. And the one thing she mentioned was learning Mandarin. So she didn’t really get too in depth about the techniques that she used, but I just thought it’d be a very interesting kind of intellectual challenge to see how can I apply memory techniques to learning Mandarin?

Faraz Abidi:
So that’s what I did. I downloaded a couple of different apps. I think first I started with Memorise and then I went through their words and they had this sort of SRS system. And so what I would do was when I would see a word, before I would move on, I would try to think of some pneumonic for this word. And I tried to incorporate the tone in it as well. So one example was an earlier word that I had to learn was the word ‘谁 shéi’ and that means who. So I have a friend named Shane and I just imagined seeing Shane standing there and someone goes like, “谁 shéi?” And then he’d be like, “Who?” And that’s how I remembered Shane.

Faraz Abidi:
So I did that for some time, and using that, I got some good progress early on. I think I memorized like 20, 30 words by the end of that first weekend. Now granted, I had put in like 10 hours. I had put in a lot of time. So now looking back on it, I don’t think that was a very good haul, but I was super impressed with myself at the time. Then the next day, I went to the office and I was like, “Guys, I learned 30 words over the weekend. At this rate, I will be conversational in Chinese in a month.” I just told everybody that so I could not back out. I could not back out at that point.

Faraz Abidi:
So I kept on doing that. But then I found that there were some words where I was trying to figure out just these like basic mnemonics. So my technique at the time was to find some language, some English word that kind of sounded like that, and then think of some physical object that I could place in my memory palace. And I’d just take a trip down and that’s how I’d review stuff.

Faraz Abidi:
But there were some words where I would just think about it for like hour, just trying to find one pneumonic for it. Because Chinese and English just do not sound similar enough. And I also had a system for encoding tones. So my system was, if it’s second tone then they’re jumping up. If it’s third tone, they’re lying on the ground. If it’s fourth tone, they’re doing something violent. If it’s for first tone, they’re chilling out. But I often had trouble forgetting that as well.

Faraz Abidi:
So, anyway, that was one thing that I did. And then I read James Heisig’s books, the book about learning Chinese characters by using all these memory techniques. So I read that. So that was one other thing that I read and I found it useful for memorizing characters, but I didn’t really feel like there was a syllabus to it. And the same thing with the apps, too.

Faraz Abidi:
I was learning these random words, but it didn’t feel like the syllabus really made sense. I didn’t really feel like I was making progress in a direction that was more than just these very, very set areas that I could speak in. But then I was like, “Hey, let’s go get lunch.” And they’d be like, “Okay, what do you want?” And I’d be like, “I have no idea how to say any type of cuisine. I have no idea how to say anything other than apples or mangoes,” which is not something I eat for lunch. You know?

Phil Crimmins:
Right, right.

Faraz Abidi:
So those were two things that I found interesting. And then I did some more research into… I looked at Art of Memory and I looked if anyone had any advice on learning Mandarin. And one thing that came up was this thing called the Marilyn Method, which was encoding the first and the last sound using memory techniques. So I read the Marilyn Method, but it didn’t feel like a super well-constructed system. It felt like it was a very interesting… I shouldn’t say well-constructed. It was a really good idea, but it didn’t feel like it had met its endpoint. It felt like a work in progress.

Faraz Abidi:
So I Googled the Marilyn Method to see if anyone else had taken it further. And that’s how I found you guys. Along the same time, I also looked on Google Scholar and I did some research into optimal character learning and I found optimal character orders. There was a research paper, I don’t remember who the author was, but he also said there’s an optimal order to learn characters, which is both based on frequency as well as how characters have dependencies.

Faraz Abidi:
So all of that is a long way of saying all of this independent research I had done for a month before I found you guys, you guys had compiled it into this one thing, and actually a lot of the kinks that I had not found solutions to, you guys already worked out. So I thought that was really, really cool. And over the past month I’ve been using your system and it’s fantastic. You guys have really ironed out all of these little things that I was finding stumbling blocks on.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. Wow. I got to tell you listening to that was so interesting because I was like, “I wonder what the next step is going to be.” Because it was like you were describing my story and Luke and I’s story from a few years ago because we were… The types of questions you were asking where the types of questions we were asking each other. We would go like, “This Heisig thing. I like what he’s doing but how are we going to do the pronunciation with this?” Because doesn’t it drive you crazy that he doesn’t do the pronunciation?

Phil Crimmins:
And then Luke was like, “Oh, I found this blog post called the Marilyn Method.” This is like six or seven years ago at this point. And then we were like, “Yeah, this is really great.” And so we started applying it, but then we were like, “But this”… What it made me realize was there’s a weakness in the Heisig method, which is that the character learning order is not optimal because he didn’t consider pronunciation because he was like, “Well, you can’t learn pronunciation.” It was his theory at the time. And so he was like, “Since you can’t learn pronunciation, let’s focus only on common components between characters and less on frequency.”

Phil Crimmins:
And so we were like, “Well, that’s no good if you want to make a beginner course because if you want to make a beginner course you need to focus more on frequency.” And our favorite example of that is the character ‘那 nà’ which is one of the most frequent characters, is taught at 1,430 something in the Heisig book. And so we’re like, “That’s too late to learn such a common character.” For us, it’s in the 200s hundreds or maybe 300 or something. It is a kind of weird character, which is why he waited to do it until late, but it means ‘that’, so it’s a very important character and you should learn it early.

Phil Crimmins:
The other point I wanted to comment on is that you were saying you had trouble communicating to the Chinese coworkers about certain coding things or whatever, and one of the things I think that a lot of Westerners will do is they’ll say, “Oh, this is just a cultural difference.” And sometimes that can be the case. I’m not saying that’s what you did, but sometimes they’ll go, “Oh, they’re not getting it. And it must be a cultural thing.” And I’m like, “Sometimes. But sometimes it’s just a language thing.” Sometimes it’s just the way they’re interpreting the English is not the… It’s like if you just learned the proper Mandarin for it, they would get it really quickly. So I was glad to hear that you had that experience because many of those problems can be solved just through language acquisition.

Phil Crimmins:
So, that was a really comprehensive answer. So in that answer that you gave, answered the first three questions I would’ve asked you so let’s just get right into your experience of the course. As you’ve been going through, since obviously you knew already about the memory techniques and you knew about how to kind of do some of this stuff, it must’ve been not as difficult to kind of get onto what we were saying. Now that you’ve done it, how long do you think it takes you to learn a character? And I’m talking everything about it, like the right stroke order and the meaning and all of that stuff.

Faraz Abidi:
Yeah. So this is still something which maybe my answer will be different in about a month as I get further along the course-

Phil Crimmins:
You will get better.

Faraz Abidi:
Yeah, I think so. So right now, there’s of course constructing the scene. So that’s not too difficult for me. I think if I need to construct a scene, for hard ones, maybe it takes like two, three minutes, for easier ones I can do it like a minute, minute and a half. But then I was also making an effort to make sure that I’ll be able to remember these characters.

Faraz Abidi:
I would say over the past month I’ve been spending like two hours a day on this. So, that’s a lot of characters. I wanted to make sure that I remembered every single one of them. So what I would do was after I finished learning a series of characters, I would store them in my memory palace and as I was sleeping or eating dinner or whatever, I would just run through all of the characters that I learned in my memory palace and just try to visualize drawing it as well as the sound.

Faraz Abidi:
And that actually took a while. That really did take a while. So I think I just finished chapter 13, so now that I’m seeing the top down stuff as well and seeing them in sentences, it’s just so much easier for me. I’m remembering the sounds. I’m remembering them in context. I immediately…

Faraz Abidi:
I guess there’s a couple of things which I was really making an effort for because I think learning the characters was helpful. But I was also trying to get my recall speech faster. Because I would see cards on Anki and sometimes it would take me a second, sometimes it would take me five seconds, and I wanted that every card at instantly I know what it is. Just to have that bridge formed.

Faraz Abidi:
Yeah. So factoring that in, I think maybe it was like five or six minutes per character. But again, now that I’m kind of getting into the top down stuff and the grammatical sentences and all of them together, it might be redundant for me to do that. So, yeah. So probably like two, three minutes per character.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah, I can definitely recommend the… I totally get that feeling of like, “I want to have a faster recall.” The thing is, there’s sort of two games you’re playing. You’re playing the small game, which is, “Can I recall this character?” But because you’re doing this every day, you’re also building up your skills on a larger scale. And while you’re at level 13 now, but I guarantee you by the time you’re at level 20 or something, especially with characters, you’re going to have done it long enough that you’ve gotten faster at the meta game and so you’ll end up moving through it much more quickly, which you can’t really experience until you’ve done it long enough, but you will get there for sure.

Phil Crimmins:
Okay, cool. So let’s see here. So now that you’ve… You kind of touched on this a little bit, but as you’ve gone into phase three and you added a little more context, that has had an impact. So if you could maybe boil it down to two or three points in the Mandarin Blueprint Method that you feel have had the biggest impact so far in your Chinese learning, what would you say? Obviously there’s the general stuff you’ve been talking about with the character learning, but what would you say are kind of the biggest points about it that make it effective for you?

Faraz Abidi:
Well, the number one thing is that it’s fun. The other stuff was, I would have to make a game of it for myself. I would have to say like, “Okay, today if I’m using this app, if I’m using Memorize, I can just get through this number.” And I would use that to motivate myself. But inherently, I didn’t really find it that enjoyable. Whereas constructing these scenes, constructing these stories is… Sometimes I come up with stories which make laugh and I get to see these very interesting characters. So, it’s fun. It’s really enjoyable. It’s much more of a creative exercise than when I was sitting in high school Spanish and just kind of grinding out these rote memorizations. So that absolutely is the number one thing.

Faraz Abidi:
The other thing is kind of this… Well it’s the combination of all these little memory techniques and the other stuff I’ve been researching, but the number one, the best memory technique I would say, would be the construction of initials and finals. I think that that solves the biggest challenge I had, which was coming up with some representation of sounds that really do not exist in English.

Faraz Abidi:
And then the third thing… Let me see. Well, the third thing is kind of the character order. Character order is… Let me think about that actually. No, actually I would say the props. I would say the character technique. Memorizing the characters by using props and kind of combining them within the story. I almost never forget characters, or if I see a character and I’m not sure what it means, I’ll break it down into its constituent props and I’ll be like, “Okay, where have I seen a magic wand before?” Where have I seen Woody from Toy story? Oh, okay. That’s what this is.”

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m so glad that you have that type of perspective on it because while the Mandarin Blueprint Method, it’s still a work in progress, obviously. We have 1,530 characters at the moment. We want to get it to 3,000 and have everything there. But what’s nice is that by the time you get to the end of the intermediate course and you finish those 1,530 characters, you’ll know all the important props. There’ll be a few left for you to learn, but you’ll know them.

Phil Crimmins:
So even the remaining ones, you should be able to easily quickly put together, especially with somebody who you already had an attitude of like, “Let me figure this out for myself.” So somebody like you, you’re an ideal member of the course because you’ll already take the initiative to figure out the later stuff. Because we just want to…

Phil Crimmins:
What I always feel as a course creator is I want to kind of hurry up and finish the course for people so that they have what they need. But, obviously you got to do it right so it takes time. And so that’s good to see that you have that initiative there. I feel very confident that you’ll continue to have success with it even after you get to the end of our materials. So that’s awesome.

Phil Crimmins:
So normally we would ask what you were skeptical about with the course, but I imagine that since you were not… Usually what people are skeptical about is the memory techniques, but seeing as you were already sold on that having read books like Moonwalking with Einstein…

Faraz Abidi:
I’m already drinking to the Kool-Aid.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Right. Was there anything else, though, you were skeptical about? Or were you kind of like, “No, this looks like this is the right thing.”

Faraz Abidi:
No, I think this what I was looking for. It was literally a compilation of all the memory techniques. You guys spent a lot more time thinking about it than I have and I was like, “Finally, somebody is going along the same route, is traveling the same road, that to me is obvious is the best way to learn a language.”

Phil Crimmins:
Right, right. Okay, cool. That’s good to hear. Well, how about any suggestions for how we could improve the course? At any level of detail, even if it’s just like… I don’t know. Phil, improve your face, it’s too ugly or something like that. I don’t know. Anything we can improve for the course?

Faraz Abidi:
Well, I can tell you that one piece that I found kind of helpful for me was when I was learning numbers, that was one thing which I felt like was really, really important for me to have an instantaneous recall on. So what I would do is, in order to just get sure that my speed on that was just like literally I see a character, I know what the sound is, there’s no moment between my brain and back, was I would go to random.org and I would generate a list of numbers from one to 100 and I would just do that for 30 minutes. Just say every number on it. And so I got my speed up and that really helped me get my speed up.

Faraz Abidi:
So that’s what I was thinking about earlier before I got into the top down stuff was I think that everything is awesome, but I need to get my recall speed up. But now that I’m getting more to top down stuff and I looked ahead in the course a little bit to see that there’s stories and more sentences. My guess is that that might serve the same function in a more enjoyable way than literally just generating random numbers and just spending 30 minutes. That was a rough time when I was just spending 30 minutes or an hour after work every day just reading random numbers.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. I could see how maybe for some people they might not be too excited about that particular drill. Although that’s doubly good, though, because obviously it’s good to be able to quickly read numbers in Chinese, but also it’s good for practicing your different tone pairs and tone combinations because they all naturally come up if you learn the different numbers. So that’s not a bad idea. Maybe we could put together a little quick drill or some quick quizzes that are just like, “Hey, how would you say this?” Yeah, that’s a good idea. Okay, cool. Nice.

Phil Crimmins:
All right, well then the final question we have for you is just, would you recommend Mandarin Blueprint to somebody who has a not heard of us before?

Faraz Abidi:
I have already.

Phil Crimmins:
Oh, okay nice.

Faraz Abidi:
Yeah. I have recommended to a couple people actually.

Phil Crimmins:
Cool. Well this has been really interesting to hear your story, Faraz. I hope that more people who are interested in memory athletics… It’s always been my kind of high in the sky hope that sometime we’ll get some people to join the course that aren’t necessarily interested in Mandarin, but they’re interested in memory athletics. And I think if anybody’s like that, I might send them this video. Because obviously you’re in that realm.

Phil Crimmins:
Well this has been a pleasure, Faraz. Thank you so much for taking the time and let’s check in with you in a couple of months and see how you’re doing.

Faraz Abidi:
Awesome. That sounds great. Thanks a lot, Phil.

Phil Crimmins:
You got it.