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Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin

If you want to get things done in life, there seems to be one general truth that is applicable in almost all situations, learning Chinese included. That principle is to break things down into manageable chunks.

There are numerous ways of describing this principle, but I think that the most useful one is this: without breaking a major goal like learning Chinese into several smaller parts, it will feel overwhelming, but if you break it down to bite-sized pieces, it suddenly doesn’t look all that scary. To use the analogy of a journey, it sounds hard to walk a thousand miles, but each step is actually quite easy, so focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you will get to your destination sooner or later.

Another reason for breaking things down is that you can’t really do something like “become fluent in Chinese”. You reach a goal by doing things, but you can’t do a goal. Therefore, specifying what it is you actually need to do to become fluent takes you much closer to real action. Do you know what your next step to learn Chinese is?

Two ways of breaking things down: time boxing and micro goals

So, if we want to accomplish something in the long term, we should break it down. But how? I think there are two major approaches to this, either you split a major goal into smaller parts (short-term goals, then micro goals) or you split the work you have to do into predefined time units (time boxing).

In my experience, both methods are very powerful, but they work quite differently for learning Chinese, so in this article I want to discuss some pros and cons with the different methods. As we shall see, they work well in different situations, so it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other.

Time boxing

Time boxing means that you set a timer and do something for a certain amount of time, 10-15 minutes is normal, but you can use longer or shorter times depending on what you’re doing. I have written a separate article about time boxing that you can read here. If you have never tried this, you’re likely to be surprised at how much you can get done in just 10 minutes if you have a clear deadline and a well-defined task.

The major advantage with time boxing is that the scope of each session is very well defined. This means that it’s easier to motivate oneself to get started, because you know when you start that it only takes ten minutes. Can you really persuade yourself to not spend just ten minutes learning characters today? Compare this with learning a fixed number of characters, which might take 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and is also of unknown difficulty (you might actually fail). Spending ten minutes on something is easy, it only requires you to do your best, not to actually succeed.

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu

Time boxing works best for tasks that are continuous, such as learning a large number of words or translate sentences to practise your Chinese on Lang-8. The journey is a good metaphor for this kind of studying and step number one is very similar to step number one thousand. It’s also a good when you find it hard to get going, because really, spending ten minutes doing something isn’t hard and you will at least achieve something in that time.

Micro goals

Micro goals are goals that can be accomplished in one study session (I have written an article about micro goals as well), and just like time boxing, the actual scope of such a session varies depending on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. The point is that the goal has to be well-defined and have a very high chance of success. Some people also talk about winnable games, meaning that you shouldn’t set up a situation where the chance of failure is high. Instead, break things down until each step is almost certain to be a victory.

Micro goals are more useful for tasks that are complex and can be separated into stages with clearly different characteristics. If you want to improve your pronunciation in Chinese, there are numerous steps that you need to take, such as identifying your problems, selecting a few priority areas and focusing on them one by one. If some of these steps are long and complicated in themselves, you can use time boxing, but in most cases, it makes more sense to specify something you need to achieve, such as “record one paragraph of x”, “compare my recording x with the native speaker model”, “discuss my pronunciation of x with a native speaker”, “design a plan for practising problem y” and so on.

The major advantage with micro goals over time boxing is that they are synonymous with progress. You can’t reach a micro goal without having made progress, but you can spend ten minutes trying to do something and not achieving anything. If you feel that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing, time boxing also invites procrastination in a way that micro goals don’t. Micro goals aren’t sensible to your spending time doing something else, this will just mean that it takes longer.

Use both methods

As I said at the outset, I think both methods are very useful and I use them both daily. I tend to use micro goals more, especially when I know what I’m doing and have a good grasp of how long something takes to achieve. However, when it comes to reviewing characters or doing anything that feels even slightly menial, time boxing is king. It is also the default solution when I can’t or don’t want to break something down further or when the process is unknown (time boxing works very well for brainstorming, for instance).

So, in short, try them both in different situations, see what works and what doesn’t. I know people who hate time boxing and others who say that it has revolutionised the way they do things. I also know people who say that micro goals are a big waste of time, as well as people who break things down to the point where it can’t really be broken down any more.

I do all these things on a need-to basis, I don’t time box just because I can, and I don’t create long lists of micro goals if it seems like I’m getting things done anyway. I do these things when I feel I need to. This guarantees gaining maximum benefits from the two methods without spending too much time on things other than achieving my goal.


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waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?


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freeimages.com/profile/ambrozjo

freeimages.com/profile/ambrozjo

The question of how long I have studied Chinese has followed me almost from day one (which was in 2007). It have been asked this question a lot, I have asked others the same question and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about both the question and the answer.

In this article, I’m going to discuss it from numerous angles and my goal is to start a discussion, so I would very much appreciate any comments, thoughts or questions you might have yourself!

f you don’t have time to read the entire article, please answer the first two questions below, it shouldn’t take too long. If you plan to hear me out, please don’t submit the survey now, wait until you have done the guided estimate below and then submit the results.

Note that I discuss the question of how long time we have spent learning Chinese for a number of purposes, the goal isn’t to be able give an accurate answer to random stranger.

The standard/expected answer and why it’s meaningless

When a random person asks another person how long she has studied Chinese, we can be reasonably assured that the expected answer is a number of years. I don’t know about you, but I feel very uneasy giving such an answer because it’s terribly inaccurate. Let’s look at my study background and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. 2007-2008: Foreign language education in Sweden
  2. 2008-2010: Reasonably serious studying in Taiwan
  3. 2010-2012: Self-studying part time in Sweden
  4. 2014-2014: Master’s degree programme taught in Chinese
  5. Now: Using Chinese quite a bit, but not actually studying

So what should I answer? Seven years? What about the summers when I didn’t study much at all? What about the part-time studying on my own between 2010 and 2012, should that count the same as the incredible intense few months in early 2010 or the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in?

Other people might have complete breaks in their study history: weeks, months or years when they haven’t studied at all. Counting from when you first started learning is obviously a bad idea in this case, but depending on how detailed your counting is, you might end up with very different results.

The smaller the unit, the more accurate the measurement

Answering in years is obviously a bad idea if accuracy is what we’re after, so choosing a smaller unit is a good idea. I think the ideal unit should be hours, which is small enough to give accurate measurements, but not so small that it becomes impossible to estimate.

Of course, if you’re a real stats freak who log every minute of studying, you could go with smaller units, but that should be extremely rare in the real world. In fact, hours are quite hard to estimate as well. Do you know how many hours you have studied Chinese?

This is an interesting exercise and I think you should take a few minutes to think this through and make a rough calculation. You can also enter this as your “wild guess” in the survey above.

Since this question is also important for almost any experimental research into language learning (we want to know how experienced the students are), it’s also a question that appears a lot in research. You have surely answered such questions before, perhaps in connection with official exams.

Guided recall and better estimates

Research generally suggests that humans are very good at remembering events and specific episodes, but bad at weighting them for duration. We remember what we have done and what happened to us, but we typically don’t have a number attached to that indicating how long that episode lasted. This makes it very, very hard to estimate how many hours we have studied Chinese unless we’ve actually kept a record since we started learning.

A guided approach might help here. It takes a bit longer, but the results are far more accurate. Do the following:

  1. Divide your Chinese learning into distinct episodes, perhaps based on semesters and/or where you were studying.
  2. Try to think back at what your life was like for each of these episodes. How often did you go to class? Did you have lots of homework? Did you speak much with Chinese people? Did you read much? If you have any time logs from this period, that would of course be of great help.
  3. Multiply the number of hours for an average week with the duration of the episode you have chosen (hint: one month is roughly 4.3 weeks). If you have significant periods deviating from the norm (such as a summer vacation), these should be counted as separate episodes.
  4. Add the numbers for all the episodes and you should arrive at a number which is still a very rough guess, but it should be much more accurate than than the guesstimate you made above.
  5. Go back to the survey above, fill in your guided estimate number and submit the survey. Thanks!

I’m not going to list my own calculations in detail here (but I do plan to share them later when I start writing a series about my own learning). Adding all the hours from all my episodes (17 in total) gave me roughly twelve thousand hours. This means that I should have mastered Chinese by now, which o course isn’t the case, so there goes the 10,000 hour rule.

If I had studied as intensely as I did for short periods of time (~70 hours/week), it would take three years and a few months to accumulate those hours. That’s about half the time it actually took. If I had studied at the pace I did when I wasn’t in Taiwan and wasn’t actually studying Chinese (around ~15 hours/week), it would have taken almost sixteen years.

Clearly, counting in years means almost nothing.

Does it matter how long you have studied Chinese?

If you answer in years, I would say no, but if you count in hours, I think it’s interesting. Studying for a few hours a week for years without becoming fluent is natural, studying full-time for two years without achieving conversational fluency is a clear indication that something is wrong.

You can’t compare yourself with people who have studied the same number of years as you but have spent twice as much time (and vice versa). You can’t compare yourself with a younger you that spent more time either, for that matter.

Finally, there is another reason I think counting in hours is important. It highlights the fact that you can live in China for two weeks without spending a single hour learning the language. It doesn’t matter when you started doing something or how long you’ve been doing it, what matters is the actual time you spend. Counting in hours helps us understand that it’s the daily studying that counts, not the date we started learning Chinese.


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speaking

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What languages do you speak? Do you speak Chinese? These questions are common and they both involve the word “speak”, even though they typically imply listening ability as well. We normally don’t ask about someone’s listening ability in specific languages, probably because it’s assumed that someone who can speak a language well can also understand it to a similar degree.

Assessing passive and active skills

I think this is true, but only up to a point. There are certain cases where people spend too much time on speaking and as a result neglect listening. The reason is probably that speaking ability is more highly valued and more obvious than listening ability, and it’s also easier to measure intuitively.

To assess someone’s listening ability, you almost need to design a structured test or at least be very active and ask control questions to verify that the listener understands what you’re saying and isn’t just pretending.

Speaking ability is hard to assess as well, but we can form an intuitive opinion about someone’s speaking ability very quickly, perhaps after just a few minutes conversation. However, as we shall see, it’s a lot easier to speak than it is to listen, because when you listen, you can’t control the language content to the same extent as when you speak.

Listening is hard

There are many reasons why listening is harder than speaking, but I’m going to focus on two major points here, one which is specific for Chinese and one which isn’t.

First, Chinese has a very small sound inventory (around 1000 common syllables) and the large number of homophones or near-homophones (words that sound the same or almost the same) in spoken Chinese makes it quite hard to understand. If you haven’t completely mastered tones, the number of perceived homophones sky-rockets.

Second, as I mentioned above, if you’re the one speaking, you can control the conversation, staying clear of areas you don’t know and steering the conversation towards areas you know. With just a few hundred words and some set phrases, you could probably have a conversation with someone and make it appear like it’s two-way communication, but in fact you don’t understand much of what the other person is saying except for the occasional keyword that you trigger on, use a few set phrases to express your opinion, improvise something using the words you know and then ask the other person a question in return.

This will work fine and you’re very unlikely to be found out except if someone is actively and competently probing your speaking ability. This mean that a video about how well you speak a language is pretty pointless, so if Scott Young just sent me a video of his proficiency in Chinese after 100 days, it wouldn’t have interested me much. However, after meeting him in person and talking with him in Chinese, as well as knowing that he also passed a formal exam (HSK4), I was quite impressed. A short video can give you a glimpse of what someone has achieved, but never more than that.

Listening ability is much more important than speaking ability

The problem with all this isn’t that I think a lot of people actively try to fake speaking ability or present themselves as being more proficient than they are, it is that it’s possible and you might even be doing it without realising that that’s the case. After all, impressing a teacher will give you a higher grade. This focus on speaking might make you skimp on your listening practise.

Don’t do it.

Speaking ability is important, but listening ability is essential. Speaking ability is mostly about using things you have already learnt, combining them together to communicate with others. This of course requires skill and practising speaking will help you do this more quickly and with less effort.

The problem is that you don’t learn many new things by speaking, you learn new things through listening, reading and/or studying. Of course, a conversation consists of both speaking and listening, but I’m convinced the listening part is actually much more important. Hearing mostly your own voice doesn’t teach you much.

Improving your listening ability accelerates your learning

The reason listening ability is so important is that it accelerates your learning in a way that improving your speaking ability does not. The more you understand of what’s said to you or what people say around you, the more you learn. This is very similar to the argument I’ve made earlier about knowing many words, which is indeed an important ingredient in listening ability.

Apart from this, I personally think that understanding what’s going on is more important for social integration than being able to express yourself. If you’re in a group of native speakers, it’s very hard to fit in or have fun if you don’t understand what people are saying; it doesn’t help much that your speaking ability is good, because what you say will be mostly monologues about topics you’re familiar with.

If your listening ability is very good, on the other hand, you can follow what’s going on and be a part of the group. Sure, your contributions to discussions might be limited in the beginning, but that will change gradually. In the meantime, you will learn a ton of Chinese just by understanding what the others are saying.

Writing and reading

Even though this article is about speaking and listening, most of the concepts here can be applied to writing and reading as well. In general, active abilities like speaking and writing are much more obvious to the listener/reader, whereas passive skills like listening and reading are more indirect. Still, a good reading/listening ability is the foundation of a good writing/speaking ability.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

No. It’s tempting to focus mostly on speaking when learning a foreign language. I know many beginners who spend a lot of time trying to say the words in the textbook, but very limited time trying to understand those words.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking from day one, I definitely think that’s a great idea, especially not if you have an immediate need of being able to speak with people where you live, but you shouldn’t allow that to overshadow your listening practice too much.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only knowledge which you can express counts. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, investing a lot of time in listening ability will give you better returns in the long run.

More about listening ability on Hacking Chinese

Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice


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Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Language learning can be divided into two major “directions”: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up learning means that you focus on the parts, then learn to combine these parts to access larger units. Top-down is the opposite, where you look at the whole first and then break it down into smaller pieces in order to understand it.

Bottom-up vs. top-down learning

If we adopt the first approach, we learn each component of a character or each part of a sentence before we combine these into larger, meaningful wholes. If we adopt the second approach, we go for the meaning of the sentence or the character first and only try to see how the different parts contribute to this meaning later.

I’m a big fan of top-down learning because it’s very hard to learn things that have no context, so by focusing on the bigger picture first, we create a framework that we can then use to fix new information in our minds.

At some point, though, you need to understand the smaller units as well. You can just learn chunks when you’re a beginner, but in order to really understand grammar, tone changes and learn thousands of characters, you have to start looking at building blocks.

In other words, we need a mix of top-down and bottom-up learning. The question is how to mix the two.

Is it good to learn character components from a list?

What I said above might sound contradictory to what I have published here on Hacking Chinese before, such as a list with the 100 most common radicals, but I think there is no contradiction, it’s all a matter of proportion. Learning the 100 most common radicals is never a bad idea because they are so common that you will see them everywhere.

Also, the amount is limited, I’m not asking you to learn 1000 building blocks before you can do anything useful, I’m asking you to learn 100 simple characters that you have probably already seen numerous times if you’ve made it through a few chapters in a beginner textbook. However,  you should never feel that you have to learn more components to learn characters or more words to read or create sentences in Chinese.

Not seeing the building for all the building blocks

If you’re an ambitious student who want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, there is definitely a real risk of focusing too much on building blocks. The problem with this is that you risk losing site of the real goal: Learning Chinese.

Learning 3000 characters will not make you literate in Chinese. Knowing all character components won’t enable you to read 3000 characters either, for that matter. Sure, knowing that many characters will mean that it’s a lot easier to become literate and knowing components will make it smoother to learn characters, but making a process easier is not the same thing as completing it.

The most important carriers of information in Chinese are words and these typically contain two characters, combined in a way that is seldom obvious. If we return to the house metaphor again, you want to live in a house, not a brick yard. If you want to build a house, you need lots of bricks, but the bricks themselves aren’t the point, they only become useful when you incorporate them into a larger structure.

Advantages with focusing on building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

The most obvious advantage with focusing on building blocks is that it gives you access to meaning later. It means that with some important building blocks, you stand a better chance of being able to make sense of larger units of Chinese without being told what they mean by your textbook or teacher. Learning a bunch of random strokes is very hard, but once they acquire meaning in the shape of character components, it isn’t all that bad.

Furthermore, learning the building blocks helps you understand the way Chinese is structured. The most obvious example of this would be phonetic components. If you have no clue what the parts of a character mean and how they are pronounced, the hidden information about how the character is pronounced would be completely lost on you.

Which building blocks do you need?

It seems obvious from the above reasoning that you should avoid the extremes of either neglecting building blocks at all or breaking everything down to the smallest component. The first means that you’re just copying without understanding, the second means that you’re not really learning anything useful. Something in between works well.

This generates the next question: How do you know which building blocks you should focus on?

Here are two suggestions:

  • The rule of three: Whenever you see a building block you don’t know appear in three different situations (a character component in three different characters, a character in three different words), it’s high time to look it up and study that building block. It’s likely to be quite important and there will surely be many, many other cases where it will come in handy.

  • Trust your teacher: When you have reached an advanced level, you will have a good intuitive grasp of which building blocks are necessary to focus on and which can be safely ignored. The problem is that you don’t have that intuition as a beginner, so one reasonable way of doing it is simply to trust your teacher. In the case of the 100 common radicals list, you can trust me when I say that you need to learn those radicals. If your textbook highlight important components of some kind, you probably need to learn them.

Conclusion

In essence, my way of learning Chinese is mainly top-down, meaning that almost everything I learn is based on an attempt to understand something bigger. The words and characters I learn typically come from a specific context and I have added them because the seem to be important in that context.

Naturally, I also do bottom-up learning, such as focusing on learning individual characters because I think this helps me in the long run, making it easier to learn words or guess the meaning of words I have never seen. However, I’m fully aware that learning individual characters will do little to improve my Chinese in the short run.

Exactly where you choose to place yourself on the spectrum depends on how long-term your learning is. If you want to be able to use what you know quickly, focus less on building blocks and more on larger chunks. If you want to accelerate your learning in the long run, focus more on building blocks and make long-term investments that will pay off eventually.


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scorecard-smallI’ve found that pronunciation is one of the most neglected areas in Chinese language teaching. Teachers don’t have the time or don’t know how to teach it properly. This means that students are left with bad pronunciation, often without knowing it. The course I’m about to offer in this post is meant to address this.

I have written quite a lot about pronunciation on Hacking Chinese, but here are some highlights:

Of all the students that have hired me over the years, about half have done so to improve pronunciation. Based on the experience I have gained through this and through related research I’ve done and courses I’ve taken, I have created a small pronunciation course. It consists of four parts:

  1.  Identifying sounds and tones
  2.  Producing sounds and tones
  3.  Detailed and accurate feedback
  4.  Live practice and corrections

The course covers the syllable, word and sentence levels and also includes a short talk. After doing the listening and speaking parts, you send your data to me for analysis. You will then receive a score card (see pictures above and below) with detailed information about your pronunciation. The course does currently not involve actual tutoring, but if you’re interested in that as well, we can perhaps arrange something.

Only a handful of students have been through the course in its current form. For instance, this is what I used to help Scott Young improve his pronunciation. The first page of the scorecard looks like this (there are five pages in all):

ss-sample

Why you should take the course

Almost every learner of Chinese I have met have had some basic pronunciation problem. This is true even for intermediate and advanced learners.

The reason I think this course is useful is that it will tell you what you’re doing wrong, what you should be doing instead and highlight the difference between the two. Very few teachers have the ability or the time to do this for you. The first step in solving a problem is identifying it.

I have taken at least four master’s degree courses in Chinese phonetics and pronunciation pedagogy, I also do my own research in the area of tone production and perception. I know what I’m talking about and I can explain it to you. I can also apply a systematic and scientific approach to pronunciation.

To make sure I don’t miss anything, I also enlist the help of native speakers. Together, we are more than capable of identifying your pronunciation problems and help you to sound

Register in advance

I will offer this course to the first 20 students who sign up. It will take you about an hour to do the listening and speaking parts, and then it takes me about two hours to analyse your data. Remember, this is done by real people, not by a computer program. All 20 slots have now been filled, if you are interested, you can still contact me and I will get back to you later when it’s time for the next incarnation of the course, probably later this autumn. Sign up by sending me an e-mail!

I will identify problems with perception and production of sounds in Mandarin. The feedback will be systematic, accurate and explained in English with examples. Since this is a preview and the course isn’t perfect yet, the course costs only $45. In return for the low price, I only ask for feedback about the course so I can improve it.

If you don’t get a chance this time around, the course will most likely be available again later, but I can’t promise when. It all depends on how much time I have and what kind of response I receive in general. If you want my help to improve your pronunciation, send me an e-mail and I will contact you next time the course is open.


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Without going into too much personal details, I’ve had my fair share of language learning with a Chinese-speaking partner. Since this is a topic that comes up fairly often and I have a few words to say about it, this is precisely what I’m going to do. I think that many people, both native speakers and other learners, misunderstand what it means to learn Chinese from/with a loved one.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/Cieleke

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/Cieleke

So that’s why your Chinese is so good!

One of the most frustrating statements I’ve heard (and keep hearing quite often) is that after someone learns that I have a Chinese girlfriend, they exclaim something like: “Oh, so that’s why your Chinese is so good!”

There are many ways of responding, but since most people don’t really care, I mostly just smile and nod. Yes, sure, that’s the main reason.

Of course, the real reason my Chinese is reasonably good is because I’ve studied like a maniac, lived in Taiwan for four years and taken academic courses entirely in Chinese half that time. In fact, the cause/effect relationship in my case is reversed, I would never have been together with my girlfriend now if I didn’t already speak Chinese when I met her!

The problem is that people somehow think that having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend means that you’ll learn the language by magic. This is just wrong. There are some real advantages, especially for daily conversation, increased fluency and (hopefully) a good model for pronunciation, but you improve mostly because  you practise a lot, not because of the nationality of your better half. In a sense, this is the same as immersion: you don’t learn Chinese simply by living in China.

Another potential problem is language choice. I think people in general tend to choose to communicate in whatever language is most convenient, which very likely isn’t Chinese if you’re a beginner. I know many mixed-nationality couples in Taiwan who speak almost exclusively English. This doesn’t make sense from a language-learning perspective (or at least not from your point of view), but it makes sense from a human one: Most people don’t fall in love because they want to learn a language, so they tend to use whatever language works best, not the language they are trying to learn.

Practice makes perfect

The main benefit of having a Chinese partner is that it’s a very fun way of exploring the language. We naturally feel a stronger desire to communicate with people we love and that means that we can keep at it for much longer and with stronger incentives to learn. A partner is usually (but far from always) more supportive of our language learning and might therefore be superior to random stranger or language exchange partner when it comes to helping you with your Chinese.

I often argue that learning Chinese needs to be fun and finding a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend is definitely an awesome way to do it. I would personally never dream of finding one for this very reason, however, but I might be old and conservative. As long as everybody’s informed and is on the same page, I suppose it’s okay.

Another benefit with having a Chinese partner is that it increases your minimum daily study time. Just by managing daily conversations and discussions in Chinese is bound to teach you something, even if you’re an advanced learner. You gradually build up the feel for the language. Even if you’re too lazy to study, you still learn. This is harder without a partner, but can be managed in other ways, such as using games, sports or other everyday activities you don’t necessarily count as studying.

Some suggestions for how to learn with a partner

Don’t forget that your partner is a person, too. Just like friends, you can’t take them for granted and if you start treating them as your personal teacher or dictionary, you will run into problems very soon. I’ve found that the best way to equalise this relationship is by offering something in return. I do ask my girlfriend quite a lot of question about Chinese, but I also receive a fair number of questions in return regarding English or Swedish. This feels okay.

If both of you are very interested in languages, you could probably talk about that all day without feeling bored. If that’s not the case (I know, there are some strange people out there), I suggest limiting language learning to specific times. Don’t focus on your pronunciation 24/7, instead choose a time when the two of you try to fix your tones or whatever. If your partner is willing, s/he can then later correct you, but don’t push it.

What you won’t learn

Obviously, there are huge areas of the Chinese language that you won’t learn at all just because your special one happens to be Chinese. This includes character writing, reading speed, proper pronunciation (if s/he doesn’t speak Mandarin clearly), culture (unless you talk about it in particular) and writing in general. You will probably improve your ability to converse about everyday life and your fluency should increase quite a lot, but to reach an advanced level of Chinese, you need much more than that.

What if  I don’t have a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend?

Even though there seems to be some advantages with trying to communicate with people you love (as opposed to trying to communicate with a stranger or a language exchange partner), I’m convinced that the main advantaged with having a Chinese-speaking partner is that it makes studying more practical and enjoyable. As I said above, it’s a little bit like living in China versus staying in your home country. Going to China will make a lot of things more convenient, you won’t need to try as hard as if you stay at home. Still, there’s nothing that stops you from creating an immersion environment at home!

Similarly, there’s nothing that says you can’t learn Chinese very well without having a partner who speaks Chinese, but it means you need to be more active and involve Chinese in your daily life as much as possible in other ways. This is not impossible, it’s just slightly more inconvenient. Try to find other things that motivate you to learn and that makes learning Chinese a joy, then make them parts of your everyday life to as high a degree as possible. In my article about the three roads to Chinese mastery, “having your social life in Chinese” is indeed one of the alternatives, but you can achieve that without a partner who speaks Chinese and there are two entirely different options available as well.

Conclusion

In short, learning Chinese with a partner is indeed very good, but it’s not a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. You will still need to study, you will still need to practice, it’s just that some of the things you need to learn will be more enjoyable and you will hopefully be more motivated to learn. That’s worth a lot, but you can find other fun ways to learn and other things to drive you forwards.


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Earlier, we looked at how and why to learn Chinese through television and we have also looked at a learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese. In this article, Luke Howard will continue introducing several different genres of TV programs and explain why and how they can be used to learn Chinese. There will also be many suggestions for actual shows. If your favourite programme in a particular genre isn’t mentioned, leave a comment and recommend it! In part 1 and 2 in this little series, most programmes are Taiwanese, but I’m looking for someone to write follow-ups about Mainland shows as well!

cookLevel recommendations are just a guide

In the guide below, I provide a level recommendation for each genre. I’d like to emphasise that these are only a guide.

If you enjoy material that’s been recommended for a higher level of Chinese than you currently have, then you should absolutely keep watching it.

Likewise, if you’re still enjoying genres recommended for a lower level than you currently are, there’s no need to stop watching them. Keep it fun at all times!

Food and cooking shows

Level Recommendation: Intermediate – Upper Intermediate

Chinese language cooking shows can be really entertaining. Unlike many English language cooking shows that just feature a chef explaining his cooking as he goes, in Chinese versions there are usually several master chefs competing against each other.

fooodMany of the shows also bring amateurs onto the show for the master chefs to teach (with all sorts of constraints to keep things interesting). It’s a lot of fun watching the amateurs fumble around and makes me feel better when I try and cook new dishes and inevitably realise it’s not as easy as the chefs on TV made it out to be!

There are also Chinese language equivalents of popular English language cooking game shows like Master Chef, although I haven’t personally watched any of them.

A show to get you started: 型男大主廚

Homemade YouTube videos

Level Recommendation: Upper Intermediate – Advanced

In some respects, homemade YouTube videos should be the holy grail of television style media because they provide real language as it’s spoken on the streets. Unfortunately, that introduces some other difficulties, such as the fact the language will often be a mix of Mandarin Chinese and whatever the local dialect is, and they rarely have subtitles.

Of course not all homemade videos suffer from these issues, but it can be a mixed bag. Overall, the main reason to watch is that you get to be a fly on the wall and listen to very local language, which often differs from how Chinese is spoken on television, and is difficult to get exposure to if you’re living outside a Chinese speaking country where you can regularly interact with locals.

A show to get you started: “YouTube 熱門影片- 台灣” Channel (Has new content every day, usually at least some of it is interesting).

Quiz and game shows

Level Recommendation: Upper Intermediate – Advanced

Quiz and game shows are very popular in both the mainland and Taiwan. Many of the shows will be accessible for intermediate learners, but some of the shows have questions about Chinese history and the Chinese language itself (questions that are hard for even native speakers), and these shows are more suited for advanced learners.

A show to get you started: 歡樂智多星

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Anime and cartoons

Recommended Level: Beginner – Intermediate

Most cartoons in Taiwan are dubbed/subtitled versions of English language cartoons. Anime is mostly dubbed/subtitled versions of Japanese anime. Most cartoons and anime does get dubbed and aired on Chinese speaking television, so there’s never a shortage of material.

I’m not sure about mainland China, but in Taiwan the translation and voice acting of many cartoons into Chinese is done to a very, very high standard. For many shows, jokes are often not translated directly unless it would also make sense and be funny in Chinese. Often, the original script and meaning of an entire scene or episode will be altered to make it relevant and interesting to the local population.

Possibly the best example of this is the current instalment of The Simpsons been aired in Taiwan at the moment. Every episode I’m constantly amazed at the content, including statements about things like the controversial 22k minimum wage (an important issue in Taiwan at the moment), poking fun at president Ma (the current president of Taiwan) and many other locally adapted scripting.

In short, if you enjoy cartoons and anime in English, you’ll enjoy them in Chinese as well. The animation makes them enjoyable even for beginner students that can’t grasp all the language yet.

A show to get you started: 海綿寶寶/ Spongebob Squrepants (the version dubbed for Taiwanese audiences is well scripted and has very clear voice acting, making it very accessible for beginners)

Comedy

Recommended Level:Advanced

Comedy usually has many cultural elements to it. Understanding these requires a strong knowledge of both the language and the culture. It’s very different in style to Western comedy, and whether you find it funny or not (even when you understand it) is something you’ll need to explore for yourself. I don’t personally enjoy Chinese comedy that much, but it’s a highly subjective thing.

These comments only apply to pure comedy shows. Many dramas and other shows incorporate humorous script that is funny, even for cross cultural viewers.

Recommended Material:超級模王大道(this show is not strictly comedy, but rather about impersonating famous people, which is often very funny and more accessible than other comedies after you’ve been watching TV for a while and know many of the famous actors).

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 Conclusion

Take it slow, remember the FUN

Learning Chinese is a long journey. Remember to always keep it fun and enjoy each moment along the way. Taking it slow doesn’t mean to reduce the amount of exposure you get, but rather to not stress yourself with trying to understand everything at once.

Just go with the flow, enjoy the material in any way that’s fun for you in the present moment. Trust that your brain is processing all that information and that you are improving!

That’s all for now! Please recommend your favourite shows in the comments. If you feel you’re the right person to write a follow-up about Mainland genres and programs, let me know!


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challenge14-4When I launched this year’s sensible character challenge, some people told me that I was over-ambitious, I would never be able to keep people engaged for such a long period of time, 101 days. To be honest, I was a bit pessimistic, too, but I figured that at least I would be learning a lot of characters.

Even though of course I can’t know for sure when I write this article, I still think that I was too pessimistic. The number of learners who have stayed in the challenge from the very beginning is high and there are also lots of people who have joined the challenge along the way. Now the challenge has come to an end!

In this article, I want to talk about several things, some of which are similar to the previous milestone articles, such as how things have gone for me and what I have learnt, as well as opening up for you to report your progress and discuss your own learning. There will be even more prizes this last time, so make sure to report your progress below!

Before we go into that, though, let’s provide some background in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. Even though the challenge is over, each post contains a lot of information that will help students focusing on learning characters.

Here are all the articles; I recommend reading the first article (Sensible Chinese character learning revisited) as well as the “what have I learnt” sections of the other articles.

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish (this article)

Prizes for the big finish of the challenge

The prizes are the same as before, but there will be more of them:

  • Skritter extension - One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in May).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters - Three sets of posters worth roughly $50 each will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and three participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.

Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Sunday (July 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable.

My progress update

I have reached my goal, I now have more than 5800 individual characters in Skritter! Naturally, I spent some significant time learning the last few hundred this month and some of them haven’t really sunk in, but they have all been studied and learnt. his is what my challenge history looks like:

challengestats

How many characters do you need to know?

My goal for this challenge begs the question of how many characters one actually needs to know. The simple answer is that it depends on what you mean by “need”. If you mean to be able to read most modern Chinese texts without having to look up many characters, you need far less than the 5800 I’m close to here. In fact, you can get very far with around 3000 characters and 4000 will make you comfortably literate (I’m now ignoring the fact that literacy of course includes other things than knowing characters, such as knowing words, grammar and so on, but that’s not the point here).

So why did I think it was interesting to learn an additional 2000 characters if it isn’t very useful? I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel what it was like learning characters again. I haven’t spent significant time learning characters for many years and this challenge was interesting because it made me realise some things I hadn’t noticed before. I will write about these things later (some of them are already mentioned in the milestone reports).

Second, it’s a mental challenge and quite fun. Even though I haven counted the exact time I spent on learning 1800 characters, I’m pretty sure the average is no higher than half an hour per day. That means about 50 hours or about two characters per minute. This might sound extremely efficient, but then keep in mind that most of the time, learning a new character is a matter of associating two characters that I already know with a new meaning. If it’s a perfect phonetic-semantic combination, it becomes even easier (learning a character like 浬, nautical mile, takes just a few seconds to learn). Also, spaced repetition is very efficient.

Learning characters is not like learning random facts

When I started learning Chinese, I remember being a bit confused by people who said it was difficult to learn lots of characters. I mean, learning a few thousand isolated facts isn’t that hard. What I didn’t understand back then was that learning 5000 characters isn’t like learning 50 characters a hundred times. The main problem when learning new characters isn’t to learn how they are written and what they mean, but to keep them separate from the other characters you already know. Thus, even though character learning certainly becomes easier in some sense, it also becomes a lot harder, but for different reasons.

Future challenges on Hacking Chinese

I’m working on something called the Hacking Chinese language challenge engine, which will allow me to run monthly challenges on Hacking Chinese, all with a different focus. There probably won’t be another character challenge for some time, but there will be listening, reading, translation and pronunciation challenges! If you want to help me test this out (it’s already quite ready), please leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Stay tuned…

I will announce the winners on Sunday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

…and the winners are

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners:

  • Carla (both prizes for her wonderful graphics)
  • Doug Stetar (Glossika product of your choice)
  • Georges (Hanzi WallChart poster set)
  • Luke (Glossika product of your choice)
  • All active participants: Free Skritter extensions

I have sent e-mails to the winners. If you are an active participant and want your Skritter extension, please join this group on Skritter and tell me. Any prizes left over from this challenge will be handed out in future challenges, stay tuned!


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I have been inspired by many people in my life and in many different areas. When it comes to learning things, Scott H. Young runs one of the most interesting blogs I know I have kept an eye on his various projects and thoughts about how to get more out of life for at least five years, so when he said that he would now turn to learning languages, I was eager to see what would happen. When I saw that Chinese was one of the languages he had chosen to learn, I was thrilled!

scottvatandme

In this guest article, Scott shares some of his learning experience in a practical and easily applicable way. He reached a very decent level of Chinese in little more than three months, including passing HSK4 (yes, including reading and writing). If you want to evaluate his speaking skills, there are several videos in this post, one of them with Scott, his friend Vat and me speaking Chinese here in Taipei a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

In this post I’m going to try to dissect the specific methods I found most successful for reaching a strong conversational level of Chinese, after just a little over three months of private study.

First though, if you haven’t seen it, check out the mini-documentary Vat and I shot about the experience of living in China/Taiwan and learning Chinese. I owe a debt of gratitude to Vat for painting an excellent picture of what life was like and the Chinese we managed to reach.

Beyond that video, however, I want to go into more detail and give you the strategies I found worked best so you can use them yourself if you plan to learn Chinese or any other language.

Side note: I’m indebted to the many people who helped inspire and encourage this project. Benny Lewis, who first wrote about going up against Chinese in only three months. Chinese-Forums member Tamu, who wrote about challenging the HSK 5 after just 4 months in Taiwan. Additionally long-time Chinese learners John Pasden and Hacking Chinese’s very own, Olle Linge, offered a lot of advice in designing this project, and I appreciate the time they took for interviews, which I’ve included below.

What Level Did I Reach, Exactly?

In May, just a little shy of three months in China, I wrote the HSK 4 and passed with a 74% (Listening: 82%, Reading: 77% and Writing: 62%). For those unfamiliar with the HSK, it is the largest official exam for Chinese as a second language. It is divided into six levels with HSK 1 being the most basic elements of the language and HSK 6 as the highest level.

According to the organization that conducts the HSK, an HSK 4 is equivalent to the CEFR’s B2 designation. However, personally, I believe this is an inflation and it is probably more like a B1.

The HSK does not test speaking ability, but both Olle and John Pasden of Sinosplice.com were kind enough to sit down with me for an unstructured interview. I believe these clips are representative of my Chinese. I’m by no means perfectly fluent, but we were able to carry on a decent conversation in both cases with minimal friction.

Interview with Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

Interview with John Pasden (Sinosplice.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

John’s interview was filmed in Shanghai, just before I wrote the HSK 4 and Olle’s was filmed three weeks later in Taipei.

Speaking more generally, I believe my level of Chinese is sufficient to deal with most basic necessities of living, travel, make new friends and have interesting conversations entirely in Chinese. I can also read most of simple emails, menus and signs, although my reading still lags behind my speaking ability.

I’m still not at a level where I could easily understand group conversations, movies, television or read books or newspapers.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving native-level functionality with the language, but I feel the level I did reach has enormous practical benefits.

How Much Time Did I Invest, Exactly?

Before arriving in China, my studying time was exactly 105 hours. I’ve included this as an hourly amount, rather than a specific time period, because it was spread over a few months and I was also concurrently studying Spanish and Korean while working full-time.

In China, I studied fairly aggressively from February 16th when we arrived, until around May 10th, when I wrote the HSK 4. Although I went on to spend another three weeks in Taiwan, I did no formal study at that time and spoke in English with Vat (taking a break to finish the video before starting Korean).

My studying routine in China was to study six days per week with roughly the following activities:

  1. Private tutoring 1-3 hours per day.
  2. Anki (MCC Deck + my own deck for HSK vocabulary) 80 minutes per day.
  3. ChinesePod listening practice (last two months) 2 hours per day.
  4. Textbook study (first month) 2 hours per day. (Textbooks used: New Practical Chinese Reader, Complete Mandarin Chinese, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar)
  5. Skritter handwriting (last two months) 30 minutes per day.
  6. Miscellaneous drills 0-2 hours per day.

Once you include breaks, I’d say this amounts to a solid full-time schedule. Although, there are undoubtedly people who could have studied much more than I did.

Aside from minimal work to maintain my website, which is my full-time job, I was entirely focused on learning Chinese.

Beyond my studying, I also had a few good friends and many acquaintances in China with whom I only spoke in Chinese. Movies and television shows I also omitted from the tally of total time spent. I watched a number of Chinese movies, a few seasons of 爱情公寓 (English title iPartment), and some Chinese music.

If I had to do an estimate of total time invested, I would estimate around 350-400 hours of study in China (plus 105 hours prior to arrival), another 150 hours of actual Chinese usage outside of my full-time studying and perhaps another 100 hours of Chinese media of some kind (television shows, movies, etc.). However the hours of immersion are much easier than the hours of studying, once you’re past the hump of making friends in the language.

I believe the methods and schedule I outline is something anyone could implement, provided they are living in China and studying Chinese full-time (either in classes or privately). Obviously, if you need to work in English while in China, you may have to adapt these methods to suit your schedule.

Exact Methods I Used to Learn Chinese Efficiently

Chinese was a far harder and more interesting challenge than previous languages I’ve learned, such as Spanish. With Spanish, aside from some time with a tutor and light grammar study from an exercise book, I learned everything from immersion. Chinese, on the other hand, erected many barriers that made immersion in the beginning stages often frustratingly difficult.

My philosophy towards learning anything difficult is, if at first you don’t succeed, break it down into smaller pieces and try again. When I frequently hit frustrations in trying to learn Chinese quickly, I reverted to that motto and broke my sources of frustration into smaller units which I could set up drills for and improve in isolation.

Early in the challenge, when I found myself unable to correctly recognize and pronounce the 4 tones of Chinese, I turned to pronunciation specific drills. Later, when I found that my listening ability was hindering my Chinese much more than speaking, I spent a bulk of studying time doing targeted listening drills.

It’s important to note that these drills and exercises had immersion as a background. I don’t think I would have been successful if I had used them in isolation—that is without spending hundreds of hours having real conversations with Chinese people, listening to real Chinese media and living my life mostly in Chinese.

I won’t labor the point about immersion, because I’ve written about it before, but if you’re struggling with this half of the language learning process, see this article I wrote for John Pasden’s Sinosplice.com for specific steps you can follow.

Methods I Found Most Useful

I tried dozens of different methods for learning Chinese, from textbook study to pronunciation drills, vocabulary lists and grammar exercises. Ultimately, I narrowed down my studying to just a handful of methods I thought were the most broadly useful. They were:

1. Full-sentence, audio-included Anki decks

I opted for a set of Anki decks organized around learning characters. Although character-learning isn’t a necessity for reaching a conversational level, I felt the fact that these decks harmonized listening, vocabulary, sentence patterns and character recognition, made them the most useful resource I used.

I mostly didn’t create my own Anki decks, aside for a specific one to master HSK vocabulary prior to my exam. I also mostly ignored any decks that lacked audio or full sentences.

I also adjusted the studying parameters for the Anki decks. Normally a first-time card has a one-day “good” review and a three-day “excellent” review time. I adjusted these to three and ten days, respectively. I also reduced the leech threshold to three failures before a card was pulled from my deck. (Side note: I also increased the spacing between cards in Anki’s settings, but discussing it with Olle we’re not sure whether that’s good advice. In general, don’t change settings unless you have a good reason to do so. Nonetheless, I had 84.1% correct on mature cards which isn’t substantially different from Anki’s default goal of 90%)

The result of these tweaks meant that I was spending less time memorizing the cards and more time exposed to new ones. This exploits the 80/20 rule, by quickly eliminating too-difficult cards that waste your time and pushing too-easy cards far ahead.

Taking these decks allowed me to, using only 116 hours in China and 70 hours in Canada, learn roughly 1800 characters and see them used in a few thousand example sentences. Because the decks also separate listening/reading/production as well as single-character/sentence, I was also quizzed on each element separately.

My one regret with how I handled this part of the learning phase, is that I didn’t learn the radicals early enough. Probably my first 500 or so characters, I had only learned a handful of radicals. Once I learned the radicals, my mental model for chunking characters had changed and it became harder to recognize ones learned using previous mnemonics. My advice: if you’re serious about learning Chinese, learn the top 100 radicals as soon as possible, since it is the best foundation for recognizing them correctly down the road.

2. Listening drills

For listening drills, I started by just listening to ChinesePod episodes. My feeling was that these are nice passive resources, but they are too long to be easily used for improving your listening ability until you get to the upper intermediate level where both hosts speak almost entirely in Chinese.

Instead, what I did was download the dialog-only files for hundreds of episodes. These usually run around a minute or so, and I would listen to each one a few times, then go through the Chinese-character only text and try to read it, and finally go through the English translation. Then, any characters, words or sentence patterns I didn’t recognize, I would jot down in a notebook.

It typically took about 5-10 minutes to do each file, and I did around 250 in this way. The ChinesePod files are quite good because they use very natural sounding, conversational Chinese. Most other learner resources try to be overly clear and well-spoken, so when you listen to actual native speakers, you struggle to make a match.

This was my second most productive drill I used in China, and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels their listening ability isn’t top notch, and isn’t at a level to really get much benefit from native media yet.

3. Pronunciation drills

Pronunciation wasn’t the main focus of my time in China. Despite wanting to make it a large focus from the beginning, it wasn’t important enough relative to vocabulary and listening to make it a large amount of my daily time usage.

Despite that, I did find a small amount of pronunciation drills to be invaluable. I truly believe that getting even an adequate pronunciation in Chinese is quite hard, especially if you train poor habits from the beginning.

The first thing I did was look up anatomical charts which note tongue position for various sounds in Chinese that we do not have in English. These were very helpful because I got into the habit of moving my tongue into a different position for the q/x/j sounds than the ch/sh/zh sounds which mostly sound the same in English. It also helped me learn how to do the Chinese “r” differently from the English “r” which can be a problem for anglophones.

Next I worked on tone-pair drills. I made the mistake of doing these on my own in the beginning, which inadvertently had me pronouncing my second tone too much like a third tone. I worked with Olle to go through a specific pronunciation test to see if I could pronounce the sounds right, at least in deliberate isolation. The first time I had some tonal errors, mostly related to this 2nd-as-3rd-tone problem, as well as a couple isolated problems with the phonetics themselves.

After a few weeks with drills with tutors, I redid the test and got a good score. This hardly means my pronunciation is perfect. First, the test was mostly designed to see if I was making errors that would be large enough to cause confusion with native speakers, not accent reduction. Second, the test focused only on individual words in isolation, a much easier feat than getting all the tones right with unfamiliar vocabulary in a long sentence.

Pronunciation is probably one of the few areas with language learning that fixing mistakes as an intermediate or advanced learner is extremely hard. So even though Chinese can feel completely overwhelming and tones feel like a side concern, I completely agree with Olle that getting them right (even if just in limited isolation) is something beginners should allocate time for.

4. Conversational tutoring sessions

Tutoring was also very important, but not in the way most people think of tutoring. In China I ended up having three different tutors, two in-person, and a third via Skype using iTalki. My goal with tutors was to spend as much time as possible having real conversations with them, and a minimum of drills, exercises and the things tutors normally emphasize.

I bring this point up because many language teachers actively avoid using this method. Chinese teachers go through years of training teaching mostly passive students. As such, they’re used to guiding the student through exercises, grammar points and vocabulary. Many of the tutors I’ve encountered actually feel having conversations is a waste of time, and I’ve been interrupted in sessions where a tutor insists that we now “get back to work” after a conversational segue.

Therefore, if you’re an active student who is doing independent study for grammar, vocabulary, wasting tutoring time on such activities is going to hurt your progress, even if your teacher pushes you towards it. I suggest being upfront with your tutor from the start about what kind of class you want to have and don’t be afraid to get a new one if your tutor stymies your attempts at having conversational classes.

Other Methods

I emphasized the above four because I felt that they comprised (a) the most important studying I did in China and (b) they are activities many students do not do. I did use a textbook in the first month as well as a portion of my tutoring time in typical classroom activities, but my guess is that the average student spends too much time on these rather than too little.

What Can a Reasonably Dedicated Learner Achieve in Three Months?

Overall, I do believe that reaching a decent conversational level in a three months is possible for a reasonably dedicated learner, provided they follow the strategy I outlined.

Vat wasn’t at the same level of Chinese as myself after three months, but he could still have conversations about day-to-day topics without strain and deal with most issues related to living and travel in China. Vat’s approach was considerably less strenuous than my own, and he worked on other non-language learning projects at the same time (including the videography for our mini-documentary).

For learners who aren’t able to devote themselves fully, I think stretching the same strategy over a longer period of time could have a similar impact. If you’re teaching English in China, for example, and need to speak English for 8 hours a day, I imagine you could apply my approach to 2 hours per day in your spare time and probably see the same results in 6-8 months (given you also pursue immersion in your spare time as well).

Similarly, I believe someone learning in a classroom environment, but outside of China, could still arrange conversational exchanges via iTalki.com and the slowdown from not being within the country would be modest. The only challenge would be maintaining the motivation, since you have less pressure to learn Chinese.

Going Forward with Chinese

At the end of my stay in China, I was left with an impression that I really didn’t have enough time there. Not because my level was inadequate, but because the vastness of Chinese language and culture really deserves years of study, not a few short months.

Switching from a high-intensity period of study to a low-intensity, habitual, type of studying can be tricky. Now, my goal is to set up regular interaction with Chinese. Even if I have to return to real life and can’t devote myself full-time to learning Chinese, I feel I’ve established enough of a base that continuing progress can be done largely through real interactions with Chinese people and Chinese media, making it more enjoyable to keep learning.

A big thanks to Scott for this guest article! He is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you join his newsletter, he’ll send you a free copy of his ebook detailing the general strategy he uses to learn more efficiently. This includes language learning, but certainly isn’t limited to it!


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