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In almost every modern textbook I’ve seen on teaching methodology, and not a few research papers, the importance of communication is emphasised. This is part of the core of both communicative learning and task-based learning, and has several benefits.
Communicating is the real goal of language learning, so it makes sense to practise in a way as close to the goal as possible.
However, as we saw in last week’s article (Focusing on communication to learn Chinese), focusing only on communication is an approach that might work well for children, but it’s definitely not the best way for adult learners.
In this article, I want to talk about communicative learning and writing Chinese characters. This is an area where I’m convinced that everybody’s doing way too much studying and way too little communicating (i.e. the opposite of what I talked about last week). Proportionally speaking, how much of your character learning is communicative?
This isn’t communication
In most classrooms and courses, learning to write characters by hand is often far removed from any kind of communication. Here are a few examples of what doesn’t count as communicative:
- Reviewing characters using flashcards of any kind
- Writing characters during dictation in class
- Copying a text already written in characters or Pinyin
- Creating mnemonics for characters you want to be able to write
- Practising calligraphy on paper
All these are useful activities in certain contexts, but they aren’t communicative! You’re writing characters only to write characters, there is no goal of conveying meaning or information to someone else in a meaningful way.
As I pointed out in last week’s article, studying has its role and you do need to study a lot to learn Chinese characters, but I also think you should include communication as much as possible in your character learning. This is more fun, makes learning meaningful and a natural part of your life, not a chore you have to get through.
Use handwriting input on your phone
This is the best advice I have to offer. Even though it’s definitely quicker, don’t use a phonetic input method on your phone, use handwriting instead. This means that when you write something in Chinese, you’ll review characters at the same time. You’ll get very good at common ones and you will occasionally need to think about how to write less common characters as well.
If you think this is too hard or takes too much time, you can set a limit of some kind. You don’t have to write all characters by hand, just do that for the first X minutes or Y characters. Then you can switch to some other input method. This ensures that you practice writing characters but avoids the problem where you stop writing altogether because it’s too annoying.
Communicating with your future self
Modern people typically don’t write that much by hand, but we still do sometimes. You should start doing this in Chinese as far as it’s possible. For instance, you can write shopping lists and to-do lists in Chinese. Take notes in Chinese when you can. Of course, you can always skip characters you don’t know and just write Pinyin (or even English) if you don’t know them. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The point is to communicate with your future self successfully and that should be the main goal.
What is communication anyway?
I plan to write an article about communication and language learning later, but I still want to include a brief discussion here. One might think that anything related to language learning is communication because that’s ultimately what languages are about.
This is not what the word means in a language learning context, though.
Instead, communication means genuine exchange of information in a meaningful way. Thus, if you read a dialogue in a textbook, it’s not communication because your partner learns nothing new from what you say (it’s already in the textbook).
In fact, many common classroom activities are not communicative! An example of a real communicative exercise in a beginner classroom might be to exchange phone numbers using the Chinese numbers you just learnt (if your partner doesn’t already know your phone number).
Communication should also be meaningful, although this is harder to achieve and, in my opinion, of secondary importance. For instance, it’s extremely hard to communicate something of genuine interest as a beginner. You only have one phone number and I might not ever be interested in writing it down!
Therefore, we sometimes opt for communication with simulated meaning, such as using a made-up phone number that could have been your own or answering questions about a made-up schedule to practice time words and school subjects. The point is that these exercises still have real-world relevance and could take place outside the classroom.
A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese
Using communicative handwriting is not only more natural, more effective and more fun, it’s also a cornerstone of my minimum-effort approach to learning to write Chinese characters. I will publish an article about this approach next month, but I’ll hint at the content now by saying that apart from communicative writing, spaced repetition, typing and reading also play important roles. Stay tuned!
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There are many people who advocate a very hands-on approach to language learning, urging us to simply use the language as much as possible and let learning (acquisition) take place along the way. They focus mostly on communication and very little on form.
This approach works, but it’s a lot harder for Chinese than for languages closely related to your native language (check what Scott Young said after his adventure in China after learning French, Spanish and Portuguese, for example). In order to be able to communicate in a language, you need certain basic knowledge, which takes somewhat longer to acquire in Chinese.
It’s all about efficiency
However, the main question I want to discuss in this article isn’t if it works or not, it’s how good the approach is and if there might be better ways of doing it. The reason I don’t really care about if something just works or not is that (almost) anything works if you spend enough time. Let’s look at vocabulary acquisition as an example:
You can learn characters and words without studying at all, but you’re going to forget most of what you learn unless you spend an awful lot of time using the language.
If it takes you ten minutes to learn a word, you’re not using a very good method. If you forget 50% of what you learn, it’s probably not a good method either. Just to give you an example, learning a character or a word might only take a minute or two if that time is spread out over time and spaced properly (the average time for learning an item in Skritter is just below one minute, for instance).
The point is that here on Hacking Chinese, I’m concerned with how well something works, how efficient it is. I’ve written more about this here: Learning efficiently vs. learning quickly. Now, let’s get back to learning Chinese through communication. As we shall see, the problem isn’t really that communication isn’t a good way of learning, it’s that it’s hard to do it enough for it to work properly!
Focusing on communication as a beginner
As a beginner, it’s very hard to spend enough time on communication with the limited amount of language you have learnt already. There are no endless sources of good listening and/or reading material for you (although you can find a lot here). If it’s extremely demanding for you to speak and write Chinese, you won’t be able to spend enough time to learn efficiently. You will burn yourself out or go crazy. This doesn’t really go away until you reach a level where you can understand Chinese written or spoken for a native audience, and speak Chinese for extended periods without tiring too much.
If you focus only on communication, you run the risk of neglecting some aspects of Chinese that are actually very important. Let’s look at tones as an example. You might argue that if tones are really important for communication, you would learn them by practising communication, but as I have argued in another article, this isn’t really the case.
This is because as a beginner, you don’t really need tones to make yourself understood, the listener can probably guess what you want to say anyway because the possible things you can say are very limited based on the context and the fact that you’re obviously a beginner. This does not mean that tones are not important for communication!
The same can be said about many other areas of Chinese, such as writing characters, pronunciation in general and perhaps also grammar and word choice.
A balanced approach
I think communication is the essence of languages and also of language learning. Way too many people, especially in foreign language classrooms around the world, spend too little time actually communicating in the language they’re learning, not too much! I don’t want anyone to interpret this article as a call for less communication in general.
Communication is great for a number of reasons:
- It’s motivating and fun
- It helps you find problems
- It’s practical not just theoretical
- It’s about skill not just knowledge
I want a lot of communication, but I want it mixed with actual studying. For most people, using some kind of spaced repetition is by far the best way of rapidly building and maintaining vocabulary. For most people, it’s necessary to focus explicitly on tones and pronunciation to get the basics right. For most people, drills help to expand our ways of expressing ourselves in Chinese, even at an advanced level.
Communicate as much as possible
The fact that it’s hard to communicate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t, you’ll never learn Chinese. Many schools have no-English policies and this is a good thing if not taken to extremes. Yes, it’s easier to switch to English if you can’t think of how to say something in Chinese, but if you do that every time you run into a problem, you will never learn how to express yourself in Chinese. It is hard. It will become easier with practice. I will discuss no-English rules more in an upcoming article.
Focusing on communication as an advanced learner
Most people I’ve spoken with seem to agree that once you reach an advanced level, focusing mainly on communication is the smoothest and most common method both of maintaining and expanding your ability. I mostly agree with this.
For instance, I don’t study English grammar or vocabulary much and haven’t done so for almost ten years. Sure, I have used a lot of English and I listen and read English for many hours each day, but I don’t study the language as such, I just use it. The same is true for Chinese. I speak and listen a lot, read and write some, but I don’t really study Chinese that much nowadays.
However, there are areas where I think most learners should study more Chinese, mostly in relation to the areas I have already mentioned above. For instance, even though you might pick up a few new words here and there by using Chinese, you probably won’t remember all of them and some of them might be rare enough that you have forgotten them next time you see or hear them. This is where spaced repetition software comes in.
When it comes to speaking ability, I can express anything I want in Chinese with relative ease and in a language that is mostly correct and idiomatic, but my passive vocabulary and knowledge of grammar is much broader than my active skill. If I want to learn to express myself in a more varied and nuanced way or learn to use expressions I find easy to understand but don’t use myself, I would need to study.
The same is true for pronunciation. My pronunciation is good enough to almost never cause any problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. If I want to improve my pronunciation from this point, I need focused practice to improve. This is the only way to avoid fossilisation.
If I focused only on communicating in Chinese, it’s likely that I would improve slowly over the years and that my Chinese would be better ten years from now, but I know that if I really want to improve, I need to stop just using Chinese and focus on the aspects I have mentioned here. I already do so to some extent, but I really should be doing more.
Communication is the essence of language and it’s also the goal of language learning, but as I have argued in this article, focusing only on communication isn’t the best approach. I think we should use the language as much as possible, but I also think we need to study hard to overcome our weaknesses and learn more efficiently, regardless if we are beginners or advanced learners.
Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content. Please also visit the site sponsors for high-quality Chinese products and services.
Since returning to Sweden this summer, I have started writing a lot more than I used to, but as you might have noticed, this hasn’t yet affected Hacking Chinese much.
I did publish two articles last week (How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours! and 250+ resources for learning Chinese) and the article you’re reading now is the second this week (check Change your attitude to enjoy life and learn more Chinese if you haven’t already). but two more articles in several months isn’t really a big increase. So where has all the text gone?
Upcoming Hacking Chinese book
I have spent my writing time in two different areas. First, I have started writing my book again. It’s going to be an introduction to language hacking and studying Chinese, and it’s meant for long-term readers and new visitors alike. In the book I will offer all the essential information and advice I have to offer about learning Chinese, but it will be a lot more accessible. If you want to read all the articles, they’re all here for free, but if you want to read a structured introduction, this book is for you. There will also be a lot of topics that I haven’t discussed on the website at all.
The book will probably span around 150 pages when completed, and will be sold as an e-book and perhaps through print on demand as well. Think of it as a summary of Hacking Chinese; it’s great if you’re new to the site, but it’s also useful if you’ve been here for a while but want the bigger picture. If you want to be notified when the book is out, you can sign up here. It’s not binding or anything, it just means that I might send you some e-mails about the book later. If you want to help me with the book or offer feedback, you’re always welcome to sign up to my feedback mailing list (completely separate from the newsletter).
Articles by me published elsewhere
Apart from writing the book, I’ve been writing articles for other websites and this is the real reason I post this article (being a round-up of articles published elsewhere). Since most of what I write should be relevant for you, it would be a pity if you missed these articles simply because they weren’t published here on Hacking Chinese.
Therefore, I thought that each month, I’ll do a round-up of articles I have published elsewhere during the previous month. Since I’m lagging a bit behind, this article ought to have been published in August and collects everything up to the end of July, but hey, better late than never?
I now write for About.com and Skritter, but I have also written several articles for FluentU. If you like these articles, please help me spread the word; sharing is caring! Apart from providing links to the articles, I will also summarise them briefly. Some of the content will be familiar from other articles here on Hacking Chinese, but since the target audience is different and I might have developed my thinking in a certain area, I still think you’ll find these articles interesting.
Enough talking, let’s look at what I’ve written elsewhere up to the start of August. If you want a complete list, you can always check my new bibliography page. Again, if you like what I write, the best way you can show that is by sharing the articles. If you really like them, donations are of course more than welcome!
Published on About.com
- How and why you should switch your computer to Chinese – Switching your computer to Chinese is an effective way for learners to immerse themselves in Chinese and improve reading ability in a natural and meaningful way.
- Vocabulary for using a computer in Chinese – Vocabulary for using a computer in Chinese.
- Learn how to pronounce Chinese names – Dealing with strange letters, tones and the problem of forgetting
- Situational Mandarin: At the airport – Words and phrases useful when going to the airport.
- How to pronounce “thank you” in Chinese – How to pronounce 谢谢 (謝謝) ”xièxie” in Chinese without sounding like a tourist.
- How to pronounce Xi Jinping, president of China – Some quick and dirty tips and an in-depth explanation.
- Essential classroom Mandarin Chinese -Learning Chinese in Chinese.
- The third tone in Mandarin Chinese – Avoiding common problems and getting it right.
- The three DE particles in Mandarin: 的, 地 and 得 – How to tell them apart and use them correctly
Published on Skritter
Improve your character writing by enabling raw squigs
Raw squigs is a function in Skritter which gives less support while writing characters and therefore closes the distance between writing characters in Skritter and in the real world. In this article I discuss why you should use raw squigs in Skritter and how the function works in general.
How Skritter Helped Me Stop Worrying and Love Writing Characters
I have tried various methods of learning Chinese characters and this article provides an overview with the ultimate goal of explaining why I think a program like Skritter is by far the most efficient way of learning Chinese characters. I also write about an experiment I conducted where I only used Skritter to maintain handwriting ability.
Skritter’s New Team Member: Olle Linge
I joined the Skritter team around this time and this is the first official post where I introduce myself and what I do (including Hacking Chinese). It’s a basic introduction with information about study background, current projects and what I’ve been up to until this point in general.
Published on FluentU
An Easier Way to Learn Chinese: Comprehensible Input
My third freelance article written for the FluentU Chinese language learning blog. This time I talk about comprehensible input, scaffolding and offer some concrete guidelines for how to make immersion in Chinese a lot easier by making incomprehensible input more comprehensible.
How to Learn Chinese Faster: Capacity Management
This is the second article I’ve written for FluentU and it’s focused on the topic of capacity management. The main ideas here are not limited to language learning, actually, but is part of the much bigger approach I have to doing almost anything. The key concept discussed here is your current capacity for learning and how you should structure your learning around this, neither overextending nor under performing.
Interview with Olle Linge, Hacking Chinese’s founder
Sapore di Cina
This is an in-depth interview with me where I don’t talk a lot about language learning, but rather about Hacking Chinese, teaching Chinese as a second language and life in Taipei. The interview has also been translated into Spanish and Italian, take your pick!
How to Keep Learning a Language when You No Longer Have to
Smart Language Learner
An expert panel article about motivation after you reach your initial goal of being able to communicate in the language. I think the answer is heavily dependent on why you started learning the language in the first place. If your goal is to reach a near-native ability, you should be able to keep yourself busy for decades.
How Should I Learn Foreign Grammar? 20 Experts Show You How
Smart Language Learner
This is an expert panel article with twenty different takes on how to learn grammar. My reply is somewhat lengthy, making me think that I should probably expand it to a proper article here on Hacking Chinese. If you’re curious about my general approach to grammar, this is a good place to start. There are of course also other interesting replies here as well.
Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation: Audio interview on Language is Culture
Language is Culture
This is a 70-minute interview with me done by David Mansaray of Language is Culture. In the interview, we talk mainly about learning how to pronounce a foreign language as an adult. I share some of my own knowledge, thoughts and opinions and there’s probably something for everyone in this interview. Listen to it directly or download it to your phone for later listening! You can read my thoughts about the interview here.
Olle Linge on learning Chinese (radio interview)
In this radio interview that was aired on the Taiwanese radio station ICRT I talk a little bit about Hacking Chinese and learning Chinese. The interview is relatively short, but this is the first time I appear in mainstream media talking about learning Chinese. The interview can be listened to on ICRT’s website.
That’s it for now! I will be back in a week or two with the article that ought to have been published in September. Sorry for the delay!
Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content. Please also visit the site sponsors for high-quality Chinese products and services.
With the right attitude, learning Chinese in China can make your life a lot more interesting. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense that you can communicate with people around you, which is great, but that focusing on the language can turn things that would otherwise be boring into interesting learning opportunities.
Attitude is the key
As is the case with so many other things in life, attitude is the key. Although we can influence what happens to us to a certain extent, life is chaotic and largely beyond our control.
However, we can influence the way we react to things that happen to us, and this matters greatly. .This is why I have written several articles about attitude and mentality in relation to learning Chinese.
To show you what I mean, I will list a number of scenarios and how different attitudes will make these situations completely different. The difference isn’t only in how much Chinese you’ll learn (which is important), it’s also about mental health. Focusing on negative things burdens your mind, focusing on positive things makes everything easier
I have argued before that you should try to regard the Chinese language as being fascinating and exciting rather than weird and stupid. The same goes for everyday life abroad (you could argue the same for your home country, although I want to stay closer to language learning here).
Scenario #1: Quarrelling neighbours
You’re living in a house where you can hear most of what your neighbours are saying. They seem to be a quarrelsome lot and there’s plenty of fierce arguments and quite a bit of bad language being used.
With the wrong attitude, this would be very annoying. You could complain for hours to your friends how inconsiderate your neighbours are and wonder why they got married if they fight every day. Whenever you’re at home, they would disturb your life and is this really the kind of thing you want to listen to as you fall asleep at night?
With the right attitude, this can be quite an opportunity. You can learn a lot of interesting words from people who quarrel (the above scenario isn’t made up, by the way), even if you perhaps should think twice before using that language yourself. These guys are giving you free language lessons at home, you ought to thank them! Don’t do that, however, I don’t think they would understand. Now, if your neighbours were doing something other than quarrelling very noisily, well, let’s just say you will learn different words.
Scenario #2: Boring lectures and speeches
Scenario: You find yourself in a situation where you have to listen to someone droning on about something you really don’t care about. You have better things to do. This could be a particularly boring lesson or lecture, or perhaps a public speech of some kind, it all depends on what kind of life you lead in general.
With the wrong attitude, this is a waste of time. With some luck, you can get away with reviewing flashcards on your mobile phone without anyone catching you, but if it’s a lecture or lesson, this might be risky (I know most of you would probably play games instead, but I advocate a 先苦后甘 philosophy).
With the right attitude, it doesn’t matter what the guy is talking about, just as long as it is in Chinese. Analyse his dialect, choice of words and sentence structure. This is of course easier if you happen to like pronunciation in general like I do, but paying close attention to how native speakers speak is never a bad idea. And don’t give me the “he doesn’t speak proper Chinese” if it’s not perfect Mandarin. China is a big country and people won’t adapt their language to our preferences, so deal with it. If you don’t understand what he says, focus on the bits you do understand.
Scenario #3: Transport delays
Scenario: You’re going by train somewhere and you learn that the train is delayed by two hours.You’re now stuck in an unwelcoming train station much longer than you intended. It might even be cold and start raining.
With the wrong attitude, this is a catastrophe because now you’ll waste two hours on the train station or on the bus.You can feel how time is slipping away and you need to cancel the activities you had planned for the evening.
With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from a train station. To start with, there are probably hundreds of people around, so even if you aren’t the outgoing type who can just start chatting with random stranger, there are plenty of listening opportunities. Train stations also contain a lot of information in written form, so you can also practise reading.
Scenario #4: Long flights, bus or train rides
Scenario: Once you actually get on the train ride described it the previous scenario, you still have a five hour journey to your destination.The train is full of people and there is no internet. If you’re really unlucky, your batteries are running low too.
With the wrong attitude, this is just being on your way to somewhere. You might have brought a paperback in English with you or you might play games on your phone to kill time (murderer).
With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from the people around you. The difference between a train station and a train is that people sitting next to you typically will stay next to you for some time. This both makes it easier to speak with them if you want to do that, but it also gives you more context in case you just want to listen in on what they’re saying to each other. If you don’t look Chinese, they might even talk about you!
The point is that you have a choice. You probably can’t get your neighbours evicted or make them stop quarrelling, but you can change your attitude. You might find it difficult to avoid boring lectures or speech entirely, so you should do your best to enjoy them. It’s all in your mind. Sometimes, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can change the way you think about it. This is good for your mental health as well as your Chinese learning! If you’ve turned any other “negative” scenarios into learning opportunities, please share them in the comments below!
Three months have passed since I launched Hacking Chinese Resources, a new section on the website collecting resources for learning Chinese, sorted and tagged for easy access (click here to read the post that officially launched the section). With the help of some volunteers and continue help on the development side by Stefan Wienert, the number of resources has kept increasing and we now have over 250 resources.
I need your help both expanding the collection as well as rating and commenting on the current resources!
I think some readers might not be aware that Hacking Chinese Resources exists, so I want to highlight some reasons why you should check it out. Even if you have been there before, the large number of new resources make it well worth visiting again; I can promise you there are useful things you don’t know about. The easiest way to keep track of new updates is to subscribe to the dedicated Twitter feed (@ChineseLinks) or the RSS feed.
Hacking Chinese Resources
Before I talk a little bit about why I think a resource site like this is really needed and how to use it, I want to give you a quick overview of what has been uploaded since the site was launched. Of course, the numbers below add up to more than 250, but that’s because some resources are tagged with more than one tag.
Tagged according to proficiency level
Tagged according to topic
- Listening (64 resources)
- Speaking (26 resources)
- Reading (67 resources)
- Writing (19 resources)
- Vocabulary (91 resources)
- Grammar (10 resources)
- Chinese in context* (4 resources)
- Living in Chinese (6 resources)
- Language learning (10 resources)
- General** (27 resources)
* Pragmatics, how to use Chinese in context
** Used for resources that should be tagged with more than three tags
Tagged according to type
- Information and advice (63 resources)
- Resource collections (60 resources)
- Resource highlights (51 resources)
- Tools and apps (77 resources)
- Social learning (16 resources)
- Courses (7 resources)
What is Hacking Chinese Resources for?
The motivation to create this section of Hacking Chinese sprung from a genuine need. Even though there are many sites where you can share learning resources, they are all mostly focused on the short term, usually in the form of discussion forums, social news sites or feed aggregators. I will continue using such sites myself and my aim is not to supplant them.
Hacking Chinese Resources has similar functions, but that’s not the main point. Instead, a carefully thought-out tag structure, filters and a search function are intended to create a permanent archive of useful resources that are easy to find whenever they are needed. This is the real goal of the new section.
How do I use Hacking Chinese Resources?
It’s very easy. Check this video (it will automatically skip the introduction, feel free to start from the beginning if you want to hear my preamble):
If you have a specific goal for visiting the site, such as wanting to find listening material suitable to your level, a tool that creates stroke-order exercise sheets or apps to help you learn characters, you simply select which tags to display. In essence, you’re answering these questions (but feel free to skip some if you don’t think it’s relevant):
- What’s your proficiency level? (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advance)
- What topic are you interested in? (e.g. listening, speaking, vocabulary)
- What type of resource do you want to find? (e.g. advice, collections, tools)
This should allow you to find whatever resource you’re looking for! If not, searching might work.
I need your help!
I need your help with three things. For the first two, you need an account, which you can get by requesting one here.
- Post your own favourite resources for learning Chinese
- Vote for or comment on already existing resources
- Spread the word to your classmates, friends and teacher
I think Hacking Chinese Resources has come off to a great start, but I need your help to keep it moving forward!
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about study time and why it should be counted in hours and not the more commonly used unit: years. I received over 100 answers to the survey and in this article I’m going to share some insights from the gathered data.
In general, the survey confirmed what I suspected, namely that:
- Years is a meaningless unit
- People overestimate how much they study
This is not a scientific report, but I do want to say a few words about the data. I have only included replies that answered all three questions, i.e. number of years studied, a wild guess and a guided guess. I deleted several responses that fit this category but were obviously not honest, such as guessing 3000 hours study time but arriving at only 30 hours after the guided estimate in the article. That left about 55 samples that I have used for the analysis here. I also excluded myself.
Years is a meaningless unit to count study time
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but number of years is almost no indication of how much someone has studied. The range is incredible! We have several respondents who study seriously and clock around 1000 hours per year, but we also have a large group who study less than 100 hours per year. Thus, someone who has studied for one year can easily have studied more Chinese than someone who’s been doing it for ten years. Clearly, number of years is a very bad indicator of how much we have actually studied.
In total, the 55 respondents have studied Chinese for 290 years (5.3 years on average) and guessed that they had studied Chinese for 82196 hours (1500 hours on average), but reduced this to 58 992 hours in the guided estimate (1100 hours on average).
Here are some other random stats that you might find interesting:
- Longest time in years: 35
- Longest time in guessed hours: 10 000
- Longest time after guided estimate: 4500
Note that all these are different people!
People overestimate how much they study
The second point I want to bring up is much more interesting and also has more consequences for learning and teaching Chinese. In general, respondents overestimated their study time by 40% on average (comparing wild guesses with guided guesses). That’s a lot! To give you an intuitive (but meaningless) year-based example, it would be the difference between saying casually that you have studied for seven years while you have in fact only studied five.
Furthermore, it seems people don’t study that much. Perhaps it’s because all the really serious people who are immersed in studying didn’t have time to read the post and take the survey, but I doubt it. As I said, we have a relatively large group of people who average around 1000 hours per year, but that only averages out to about 3 hours per day (including weekends, holidays and so on).
That’s not very much and very far indeed from full-time studying, which I would consider to be at least twice as much. For brief period of time, I have spent closer to ten hours per day, but I don’t think many people can maintain that for very long. I average about 1700 hours per year so far, which is clearly much more than even the most serious readers. I’ve heard many people simply say that I learn quickly because I have a talent for languages. That might be true, but if I’m learning faster than you do, it’s much more likely because I spend, on average, seven times more hours per year.
Conclusion: You learn Chinese by… studying Chinese
I think the ultimate conclusion is related to the one about where you study Chinese. We know that it’s possible to learn Chinese from home without living in China, but we also know it’s possible to live in China without learning Chinese. Where you live isn’t the point.
The same is tor study time. It doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, when you started learning Chinese. What matters is how much time you’ve spent with the language since then, and, to some extent, what you have done with that time.
Cheating is an interesting phenomenon, especially when it concerns motivated students who cheat even though this can only have negative effects on their long-term learning. In the case of language learning, cheating is (almost) always bad for you. It’s not only morally questionable on exams, it’s stupid as well.
Of course, if we’re talking about a language in school people take only to receive a grade, it’s understandable that some will consider cheating, because they aren’t really interested in learning. This is not what I want to talk about today. My guess is that most readers of Hacking Chinese are learning Chinese for more than just a grade (if you do care a lot about your grades you should read this: Studying Chinese when your grades matter).
…and still we cheat
I can honestly say that I have never cheated on an exam in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in different classrooms, but I do cheat sometimes in an environment where it appears odd to cheat because there’s nothing to gain from doing so. My guess is that if I sometimes take shortcuts, the likelihood is that there are lots of other learners who cheat too. This is what I want to talk about.
Spaced repetition software and cheating
The cheating is related to spaced repetition software or any kind of program that checks your knowledge of Chinese through some kind of self-grading. In general, asking yourself (or having the program ask) you is a very good way of retaining knowledge. However, even if you get it wrong, all programs I know of allow you to go back and change the answer (and rightly so, you don’t want to reset the interval of a card just because you accidentally hit the wrong button). In some cases, you’re meant to just think or say the answer and then compare that with the correct answer.
I don’t do this very often, but sometimes I catch myself choosing a higher grade than I actually deserve. This isn’t a mistake or sloppy thinking, I think it’s more akin to actual cheating, albeit not in the sense of violating the rules of an institution. I didn’t know that character, but I think I ought to and once I see the answer, I knew that I should have chosen answer A even though I actually chose B. If the answer isn’t written down, it’s tempting to just think that I actually meant to choose alternative A from the very start…
We are only cheating ourselves
From a rational standpoint, however, this is completely ridiculous. The only reason we use spaced repetition software is because we want to learn Chinese, and pretending to know words better than we do is not going to take us closer to that goal. In fact, cheating increases the risks that we forget words and it will thus impede learning.
The weird things is that there’s nothing to gain from cheating in this case, no-one sees your retention rate or your score for your reviews today. Even if someone did, they most likely wouldn’t care at all. You don’t earn a degree or a good grade.
Why do we cheat?
So, why is it so tempting to cheat, then? I don’t know, really, but I have two theories; perhaps you can come up with better explanations than I. If so, leave a comment!
Before I do that, I just want to say that when I say cheating here, I don’t mean the deliberate kind of cheating that some students use to get better grades than they deserve, I mean an almost subconscious process that biases your self-grading in a positive direction, even though if you stopped and thought about it, you would know that it was wrong. Let’s get to my theories about why it’s tempting to cheat even if we will lose in the long run.
First, it is painful to admit defeat. Forgetting a character or word that we really ought to know means that we have failed and that’s bad for normal people (but it really shouldn’t be). If we’re trying out a certain learning method that we really want to work, failing might also mean that the method is less effective than we thought. In this situation, it’s tempting to just change the answer.
Second, humans are lazy, which is another word for focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring long-term goals and commitments. In this case, if we have a backlog of reviews or a certain number we have to go through before we can do something else, it’s tempting to cheat because it means that the session will end sooner. Of course, this might mean that the next session will be longer or that we slow down our learning in general, but this is a long-term effect that we’re not well-equipped to deal with, at least not intuitively.
I said above that I catch myself cheating now and then, but what actually matters is what happens then. Nowadays, when I find myself doing this (which isn’t very often), I just go back and judge myself harshly, sometimes even more harshly than I should.
When doing this, I think to myself that this is for my own good, I will learn more Chinese in the long run by admitting that I didn’t know this word or by realising that I might need to review this again, even though I have 500 cards in the queue and I want it over and done with. Another mantra I have is that it’s much better to realise that I don’t know this word now compared with a situation where I actually need it, such as when teaching or using Chinese in an important context.
This is actually very similar to my requirement for last year’s character challenge, where participants were supposed to ban or suspend any character or word that they had forgotten so that they could deal with it later. This was presented as a method to avoid rote learning and going on tilt, but it could also be a shield against cheating. By establishing a proper system for dealing with failure, we can take the next step and realise that mistakes aren’t all that scary, they are a natural part of the learning process.
Do you find yourself cheating sometimes? Do you agree with the arguments I have presented? I could of course be completely wrong and be the only one who behaves like this, but I really don’t think so. My guess is that most people will spontaneously think that they cheat less than they do. So my suggestion is this: Pay attention to your behaviour when you use spaced repetition software over the next few days and report here. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say!
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 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.
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 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.
I 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:
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.
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.
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. 禾, 火 makes 秋, add 心 and you get 愁. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- 2007-2008: Foreign language education in Sweden
- 2008-2010: Reasonably serious studying in Taiwan
- 2010-2012: Self-studying part time in Sweden
- 2014-2014: Master’s degree programme taught in Chinese
- 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:
- Divide your Chinese learning into distinct episodes, perhaps based on semesters and/or where you were studying.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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