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scorecard-smallAfter a successful first test run of my pronunciation course, it’s now time for a second round. I’ve learnt a and improved the course accordingly.

Today,I’m opening the course again! Since I’m doing most of the work manually on my own, the number of slots will be limited. Last time, the slots were sold out the first day, so if you want to sign up, don’t wait too long!

What is the purpose of the course?

I have studied, taught and researched Chinese pronunciation for some time, partly because I think that pronunciation is the weakest part of Chinese education in general, but mostly because I really enjoy it.

One of the most serious problems is that intermediate and advanced students typically don’t even know that they have pronunciation problems. If they do, they usually don’t know exactly what they are and how to fix them.

Filling that gap is the goal of this course. I will find, analyse and explain problems with your pronunciation, as well as provide you with the tools you need to improve your pronunciation in general. The analysis is done on the syllable, word and sentence level, plus a free speech sample where you talk about a topic of your choice without a script.

Note that this course doesn’t teach you pronunciation from scratch, it assumes you have been taught basic pronunciation and want to improve beyond that.

What do you get?

This is what you get:

  1. A listening check including initials, finals and tones
  2. A detailed analysis of your pronunciation (see below)
  3. A thorough benchmark of your pronunciation
  4. Audio feedback on your priority errors, recorded by me
  5. Detailed explanations of your priority errors (text, audio and graphics)
  6. An in-depth 35-page guide on how to improve pronunciation
  7. Early preview of my tone training course developed for my research

Here’s what the first two pages of the scoring protocol looks like (there are five pages in total). You can click the images for larger versions if you are curious. This is your benchmark and overview, there will also be detailed explanations of the priority errors listed on the first page.










How do you register?

If you think this sounds great and you want to try it out, all you need to do is to buy the course below. The price is $80, based on the fact that each student takes several hours of my time. This is not an automated assessment, I’m giving you direct, personal feedback!

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Payments are done through PayPal (which also accepts debit/credit cards). Once you have purchased the course, you will be able to download the course material, a guide on how to improve pronunciation as well as further instructions

Everything will be explained in more detail later, but this is a brief overview:

  1. Read the instructions (really)
  2. Complete the audio check
  3. Record the audio
  4. Send the audio to me for analysis
  5. Read the pronunciation guide while you wait
  6. Receive your personal feedback
  7. Go through and understand your feedback
  8. Start improving your pronunciation
  9. Try out my tone training course (contact me directly for this)

Naturally, taking this course doesn’t guarantee that your pronunciation will become perfect, but I have done my very best to provide the tools and the information you need to improve. You will of course still need to spend a lot of time on your own; improving pronunciation is certainly doable, but it’s not easy!

Sign up by purchasing the course here:

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What do people think of the course?

This version is a new and heavily upgraded version of the previous one. These testimonials below refer to the old version, but since I have only added to the course and the additions are partly based on what these people suggested, I’m confident they would be even more satisfied if they took the course again (which they are of course welcome to do).

I have been studying Mandarin on and off for more than 20 years, but this is the first time I’ve accessed such an in-depth, methodical critique of my pronunciation.   Olle’s course is incredibly helpful at isolating errors and suggesting areas to work on.  I just wish something like this had been available when I first started studying, as I fear my pronunciation errors might be too ingrained by now.  I don’t know of anything else like this available on the web, and the fact that it can be done by email using a simple recording device such as a smart phone makes it very accessible.

- Anne B.

Good pronunciation is essential to be understood, especially in Chinese, but often we don´t even know what we are doing wrong. To be aware of your own mistakes is the first step to correct them. This course has given me very accurate information, with examples, of what I pronounce incorrectly. This way is much easier to work to correct the problems. So I can focus on the real issues. It also gives you information on what you do well, which is always very encouraging to keep improving. I have found some mistakes I was not aware of and which are not difficult to correct.

- Ana Herranz Z.

Although many Chinese universities offer pronunciation courses, the level of them varies. Basically you can have a very good and helpful course or then a kind of course that doesn’t really help at all. In your case, I would feel confident to tell my friends you are taking the thing seriously and as a westerner you might be able to help westerners even better than Chinese teachers in some cases. Your course is also a very quick way to identify the most serious problems which gives the learner a good opportunity to start working on them right away.

- Janna L.

Still in development

Even though I have spent a lot of effort developing the contents of this course, it’s still an ongoing project. For instance, the included guide on how to change pronunciation hasn’t been read by many and isn’t perfect in any way. However, instead of being stuck on the tinkering stage for months, I prefer to get things out there and try them out with you. I hope that you’re willing to offer me feedback so I can improve the course!

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2014-11-13 20.17.10This month’s challenge is about reading Chinese, and that seems to be as good a reason as any to publish an article about habit formation and reading practice.

As is the case for listening, learning to read Chinese takes a lot of time and you need to form habits that allows you to read enough text. I have already written an article called Habit Hacking for Language Learners, but in this article, I’m going to focus explicitly on reading. Naturally, part of the answer is also challenges like the one that started this Monday (join here if you haven’t already).

Now let’s look at how to increase the time you spend reading Chinese.

Solve all practical problems first

A requirement for reading a lot in Chinese is to always have something to read. If you feel that you want to read, but don’t have anything at hand, you have failed to do the basic preparations. To make sure you always have something to read, you should keep reading material with you at all times, plus put reading material in places where you’re likely to have some spare time.

The easiest way to do this is to have text stored on your phone. This can be in the form of a simple text file, a real e-book or some other format, it doesn’t really matter. I find Pleco’s reader add-on very useful (direct link here), because it gives me a pop-up dictionary integrated with the text I’m reading. I’ve read several novels in this way. I don’t think a small screen is a problem, in fact it might be a good thing because it avoids overwhelming me with too much text at once.

Controlling your environment

Apart from this, you should also put reading material where you typically feel like reading. I have an e-reader and I keep that next to my bed so I can read before falling asleep. I usually also put something to read in the bathroom.

Finally, you should remove distracting elements from these same locations. Remove your e-books in English from your phone, don’t have a novel in English on your bedside table. It should require no effort to start reading Chinese, considerably more if you want to do it in your native language.

Find interesting material to read

One of the trickiest parts when learning to read Chinese is the dearth of interesting reading material. I suggested some resource collections both in the challenge article and in a separate post about reading material earlier this week, but we all like different things and there’s no guarantee you will like the same texts as I do.

Don’t hesitate to give up on a text because it doesn’t interest you, spend some time trying to find something as interesting as you can. It’s usually preferably to read a text which is too hard or too easy rather than reading a text you really don’t like.

wotUnless you’re an avid reader, I also suggest reading short pieces of text. A novel might feel overwhelming and take you 50 hours to finish, but a short article or story doesn’t take that long. Bite-sized learning is usually a good idea. One way of doing this is by reading comics, which of course has many merits apart from this.

On the other hand, sometimes reading a long text can be more relaxing, but this is probably only for advanced learners. I’m still reading a translation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time in Chinese and it’s not that hard to read because I’m so used to it. Not changing to new texts all the time makes reading relaxing for me.

Finally, if you have any suggestions to other learners for what to read, especially beginners and intermediate learners, please share in the comments!

Don’t check every single word if you don’t want to

Reading is fun, flipping through a dictionary isn’t (even if it’s electronic). If you don’t already have a large vocabulary, it’s likely you will encounter many new words when reading authentic Chinese texts. If you want to, you can look up all these words, but I think this kills motivation like nothing else. Instead, I usually only look up words that are crucial for understanding the plot or words that recur several times.

This is why a pop-up dictionary is so useful: you can look up words in a second, which is fast enough to not really interrupt reading. Note that learning the word is a different decision and one you can usually postpone. Only learn words you think are important and common. Every rare word you learn means you have less time to learn a common one.

Naturally, if you really want to, feel free to look up as much as you want, I’m just saying that you don’t need to if you don’t want to.


I think the key to forming habits is to control the environment rather than to control yourself. Make sure you have the necessary reading material in the places you’re most likely to need it, remove English reading material from these same locations. This is easier than trying to avoid the temptation to make things easier and revert to English. Combine this with a challenge and you’re ready to go!

When it comes to motivation, the reading material itself is really important, but it also matters how you approach it. You don’t have to learn everything, reading in Chinese needn’t be a chore. Skipping things you don’t understand is perfectly okay if you get the gist anyway. Keep in touch with other learners, see what they like and exchange ideas for what to read!

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Reading is one of the most important activities when learning a second language. It’s an important source of vocabulary, and compared with listening, it offers you much more control over your learning.

You can read at your own pace and looking up things is considerably easier than when listening. There’s also a lot more written material available for learners.

Extensive reading challenge, November 10th to 30th

This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about extensive reading. That means that you should read as much as you can, preferably about different topics and in different genres, rather than spending too much time trying to understand everything in a short text. Quantity is king.

If you want to know more about the challenge, click here, or if you want to know more about Hacking Chinese Challenges, check this. You can also sign up for the reading challenge directly here.

What should you read?

Just like I did for the listening challenge (The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese), I’m going to try to offer some free resource collections you can use. I have now collected almost 290 resources for learning Chinese, all sorted and tagged for your convenience. 79 of them are about reading.

Below, I will introduce the best free resource collections available. Here, “resource collection” means a site that offers a large number of texts, so each of these potentially offer hundreds or even thousands of hours of reading! Note that some great resources such as graded readers have been excluded because they are not free. Check out the complete list here.

This is what I did to generate this list (you can generate similar lists tailored to your needs by heading over to Hacking Chinese Resources):

The 10 best free reading resource collections

Below, I have listed the best ranked resource collections, along with a direct link to the collection, a short introduction written by the person who submitted it and a link to the resource so you can vote/comment on it if you want to. If you have other resource collections, please share them! If you need an invite to Hacking Chinese Resources, let me know!

1.Thumb snapshot Chinese Text Sampler: Readings in Chinese Literature, History, and Popular Culture
(beginner, intermediate, advanced, submitted by Mike Love, vote/comment)

A carefully chosen selection of 80 significant Chinese texts for students wishing to develop their reading skills while improving their cultural literacy. Includes classical and modern Chinese literature, historical documents, song lyrics, children’s stories, and lists of commonly used characters, idioms, and proverbs

2.Thumb snapshot Marco Polo Project – read and translate new writing from China
(advanced, submitted by Julien Leyre, vote/comment)

The Marco Polo Project is a digital community reading and translating new writing from China. The website proposes a diverse and original selection of new Chinese writing by independent journalists and intellectuals, with bilingual titles and tagging. Users can contribute to the translation of these articles, read a bilingual versions of those already translated, or use the website for Chinese reading practice.

(intermediate, advanced, submitted by, vote/comment)
This is a great repository of short stories for beginner and intermediate learners. Some of them also have audio and all have translations to English and word lists! I would be a little bit careful with trusting their difficulty ratings, though, I checked some stories that were meant to be beginner-intermediate that were definitely too hard form most students in this range. Still very good resource, though.

4.Thumb snapshot 纽约时报中文网 国际纵览 (New York Times, Chinese)
(advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This is the Chinese website of the New York Times. It obviously contains large amounts of reading material about current issues as well as other things. The articles are available in both Chinese and English, and there is even an option to turn on parallel reading (Chinese on one side, English on the other). I can think of few better ways of easing yourself into reading Chinese news! Try using a pop-up dictionary like Pera pera as well.

5. Thumb snapshot Chinese Text Project (classical Chinese)
(advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

The Chinese Text Project is a web-based e-text system designed to present ancient Chinese texts, particularly those relating to Chinese philosophy, in a well-structured and properly cross-referenced manner, making the most of the electronic medium to aid in the study and understanding of these texts. Note: I realise that this might not be the best resource for an extensive reading challenge, but it’s still a great reading resource!

6.Thumb snapshot Chengyu stories, chinese idioms – Chinese-Tools.com
(beginner, intermediate, submitted by me, vote/comment)

Chinese Idioms or Chengyu are short sayings usually consisting of four characters. Unless you know the story and its common usage, a Chengyu will sound like random nonsense. Here are some Chengyu stories, as taught to chinese students, with pinyin and chinese annotation.

7.Thumb snapshot 好讀 (E-books in traditional Chinese)
(advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This site contains a huge amount of e-books in traditional Chinese. My guess is that downloading and reading them without having the original text might be illegal, but even so, it’s often great to have an electronic version of a book you’re reading in print. This allows you to find passages by searching, copying words and sentences into your SRS and so on. There are also some audio books here (recorded by amateurs, mostly).

 8.Thumb snapshot ChineseLevel – Test your Chinese level, improve your reading, measure your progress
(beginner, intermediate, advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This is a really cool website that assesses your reading ability and then offers reading suggestions based on your estimated vocabulary knowledge. I haven’t used this enough to figure out how accurate it is, so if anyone has used this more than a few times, it would be great to hear what you think about it!

9.Thumb snapshot 煎蛋:地球上没有新鲜事
(intermediate, advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This website contains a lot of short and easy-to-access articles about science and technology related articles (although they are usually very lightweight, you don’t need to actually be a professional to understand this). There are lots of sections on this site and I want to point to one in particular (apart from the front page). 小学堂 explains different science-related questions, such as how do scientists deduce the age of planets, where does the water on Earth come from and why is spicy food spicy?

10.Thumb snapshot 中文阅读天地 (University of Iowa)
(beginner, intermediate, advanced, submitted by me)

This site contains a huge number of lessons, complete with texts, vocabulary, audio, exercises and much more. And it’s all free. Note that if you want to get the intermediate and advanced material, you need to click the appropriate link in the top navigation (it wasn’t possible to link to a main page or portal of some kind, doesn’t seem to be one there).


There’s a lot of great reading material out there, all free. As I mentioned, though, some of the greatest reading material, especially for beginners, isn’t free (textbooks and grader readers). For suggestions, check the article from last week.

If you have suggestions for other reading resources, please share in the comments! Please include whom the resource is for and a brief introduction so I can share it on Hacking Chinese Resources. Later this week, I’ll post an article about how to increase the time you have available for reading, stay tuned!

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Last month, 139 learners spent a total of 924 hours improving their listening ability in the October extensive listening challenge. The reason I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges roughly a month ago was of course that challenges help me get more things done, and it’s great to see that many of you seem to agree!

As I said in the launch post, I’m going to run one challenge every month, starting around the 10th and ending on the last day of the month. In November, the focus of the challenge was listening, so now it’s time to turn to the other major passive skill: reading.

Just like last month, the idea is to set a reasonable goal and read as much Chinese as you can before the end of November. You can compete against yourself or against others, it’s completely up to you!

Join the extensive reading challenge

Joining is easy:

  1. Sign up or log in (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the extensive reading challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  8. Share progress and resources in the comments

The challenge starts on Monday (November 10th) and lasts until the last day of the month (Sunday, November 30th). That means that you have three weeks to read as much Chinese as you can. Even though the challenge title is “extensive reading”, you can read anything you want. I like quantity when it comes to improving reading ability, but don’t let that stop you from focusing on quality if that’s what you want.


Setting a reasonable goal

Reading requires time of a higher quality than listening so you shouldn’t expect to be able to read as much as you listened last month if you participated in that challenge. I think ambitious learners with lots of time on their hands should go for at least an hour per day.

I’m going to be busy with real-life events this month and will opt for half an hour per day, or 10 hours for the entire challenge. That’s still five times more than I’ve read recently, so I expect a boost to my Chinese reading time.

Set a goal you feel comfortable with. It should be within realistic reach, but not so easy you would have achieved it without really trying.

Choosing reading material

I’m going to publish an article with suggested reading resources early next week (just like I did for the listening challenge, see The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese), but I’ll offer a few quick suggestions here to get you started (you can also head over to Hacking Chinese Resources and select reading resources for your particular level):




There are of course more resources out there, but if you have any particularly suitable for beginners, please let me know! If you want an invite to share on Hacking Chinese Resources, just leave a comment.

Learning how to read in Chinese

Becoming literate in Chinese is along and sometimes difficult journey, but there are many things that can make it easier and more enjoyable. I have written a lot about this already and here are some of the most important articles that might help you in this challenge (and in general, of course). If you want more, just check the reading category.

  1. The importance of knowing many words – Any teacher, student or researcher will agree that vocabulary is very important, but few of them will go as far as I will in this direction. I don’t simply believe that vocabulary is king, I believe it’s god emperor as well. Learning many words enables you to communicate and it also makes you learn other areas of the language faster.
  2. Benchmarking progress to stay motivated – When we set out to learn Chinese, everything we learn is new and we can feel that we improve for each day that goes by, for each time we are exposed to the language. We know this because, in relative terms, we’re learning so much. As we progress, this feeling weakens. In this article, we look at benchmarking and how it can help us stay motivated.
  3. Reading manga for more than just pleasure – This article is about reading manga (comics) in order to improve your Chinese. Manga serves two important functions apart from being enjoyable in itself. Firstly, it gives us access to language we would otherwise hardly ever see in written form. Secondly, it lowers the threshold for reading books in Chinese. Reading manga just for fun is fine, but if you think about it, you’ll see that it can be very useful as well!
  4. Reading speed: Learning how to read ten lines at a glance - Reading quickly is useful when taking tests and in any situation where you want consume large volumes of test. However, simply reading a lot is not the most efficient way to reach high speeds, you actually need to focus on reading speed to do that. In this article I discus various methods, tips and tricks, along with some thoughts on goals and problem analysis.
  5. Learning simplified and traditional Chinese – Learning traditional characters if you know simplified or vice versa is a lot easier than beginners tend to think. Generally, you don’t need to worry, because at an advanced level, learning both is quite easy. This article is about simplified/traditional and how to learn both.
  6. A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese – This article is a guide to reading comics in Chinese, suitable for beginners as well as those who already have some experience. Reading comics is an excellent way of attacking the Great Wall of Chinese (the daunting effect of seeing a whole page of text and not knowing what to do). It’s also fun, which is arguably the most important thing.

That’s it for now, see you in the challenge!

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By On November 6, 2014 · 19 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Reading

directionsLearning to ask for and receive directions is a very useful skill that is usually associated with beginner language learning. It shouldn’t be, it’s much harder than that!

I remember when I started learning Chinese and we had one chapter the first semester about navigating a small town drawn in our textbook, complete with a post office, a bank, a school and a library. I remember that the listening exercises were really hard, but that didn’t matter much, because we soon moved on to other chapters.

Language isn’t just knowledge of words and phrases

In a way, I think asking for directions is a bit like counting in Chinese, i.e. it’s something you think you’re good at, except that you aren’t. This is because a language isn’t just knowledge, it’s not enough to be able to recall the words in Chinese, you need to be able to do so immediately without thinking. This can only be the result of practising.

The problem is that most people don’t practise much, unless they have a terrible sense of direction and get lost all the time in Chinese cities. When I first arrived in Taiwan after one year of studying in Sweden, I was really bad at both asking for and receiving directions! I don’t think I’m the only one who has been in this situation.

How to practise

Since asking for and receiving directions is important for all learners (including tourists), I’m going to offer some ways of practising this skill which go beyond your textbook:

  1.  Put away your smart phone – This is really important and applies to more than just asking directions. If you don’t use your brain to figure out how to do things in Chinese, you will never learn the language. Don’t use your GPS and interactive maps to find the way to your destination. This is a wasted learning opportunity! Turn off your phone and ask people around you. Using a smart phone is cheating and the only one who will suffer is you. Yes, it will take longer, but you will also learn more.
  2. Pretend you’re lost – Pick a place you know well, then walk a few blocks in one direction and ask someone how to get to the place you just left (or give them a landmark nearby). Listen to their replies carefully. Then ask another stranger the same question. Since you presumably remember the way you just walked, you already know how to get there, your mission now is to learn how to do that in Chinese. Ask as many people you want! Then walk in another direction and repeat the process.
  3. Practise with WordSwingAs a preparation for the above or as a substitute if you don’t want to or can’t do it for real, you can check out this activity over at WordSwing. It’s developed by Kevin and me, and is easy to use: you will hear directions in Chinese and you’re supposed to match the instructions to a figure describing how to walk. You need to answer several such questions to get to your final destination. You can also get the sentences written out, look up vocabulary, slow the speech down and much more. Try it out! Also, if you have suggestion for how to improve, just let me know.
  4. Navigating street view – If you want to simulate the feeling of walking through a Chinese city without actually being there, you can use the street view on a map service like Google (only Taiwan?), I Show China, City8 or Baidu. Naturally, you still need someone to ask or give directions, such as a language exchange partner or tutor. I’ve tried this myself and it works well. Once you’ve followed directions given to you, try to write your own and see if your friend ends up where you intended him or her to be!


In summary, don’t think you know how to ask directions in Chinese just because you have covered that chapter in your textbook. There is no substitute for large amounts of practice, and if you don’t get lost often, you can create these situations in the manners described above. If you have any other good ideas for improving, leave a comment!

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This is the last day of the extensive listening challenge that was started three weeks ago. It was the first official challenge on the new section of this site: Hacking Chinese Challenges. In total, 139 people joined the challenge and listened to a total of 924 hours of audio. That’s amazing!

In this post, I want to to look at several things:

  1. How did the challenge go for you?
  2. What do you think about Hacking Chinese Challenges?
  3. What interesting listening resources have you found?

Let’s look at these questions one by one, but I want to mention now that there will be prizes offered for the third question!

How did the challenge go for you?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I have read many comments where participants say that they have increased the amount of Chinese they listened to this month enormously because of the challenge. That’s great!

extensivefinaloctI set the goal of listening for 25 hours, and as you can see in the graph to the right, I was losing momentum after the initial stages of the challenge (which I also mentioned in my progress report). It took a while to sort things out, but by moving more audio to my phone, I manage to listen a lot this week.

What does your progress look like? Did you reach your goal? If not, what would you change to make it possible next time? Not reaching your goal isn’t necessarily bad, you might just have set an unrealistic target. As long as you have listened to a lot of Chinese this month, you have reason to feel good about it!

What do you think about Hacking Chinese Challenges?

As I have mentioned several times, this is a work in progress. What can we do to make Hacking Chinese Challenges better? Here are some things that have come in so far, please add by posting a comment:

  • Possibility to view other participants’ statistics and activities
  • Leader board stats shouldn’t be rounded to whole hours
  • Leader board could (also) be sorted by % of goal accomplished

What interesting listening resources have you found?

Now over to the most important part of this article. I published an article with listening resources earlier (The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese), but I’m sure that you have some really cool resources that aren’t listed on Hacking Chinese Resources. Therefore, I’d like you to do the following:

  1. Write the name of a listening resource you like
  2. Write who it is for (beginner, intermediate and/or advanced)
  3. Write a short introduction (at least a few sentences)
  4. Post this as a comment to this article
  5. Two participants will win great posters from Hanzi Wallchart

To be eligible, I need your contribution before November 9th and you need to post a resource that hasn’t already been shared either here or on Hacking Chinese Resources. I’m looking forward to hearing about your listening challenge and what material you used!

Upcoming: Extensive reading challenge, November 2014

The next challenge will start in early November and will be about extensive reading. I will of course write more about this later, but if you want to sign up now, you can do so here.

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By On October 31, 2014 · 19 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Listening

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

I write a lot about Chinese these days and not everything ends up here on Hacking Chinese. Some things will be available later, such as the book I’m working on and some upcoming articles, but much is written for other websites.

If you want to read more about my different roles on Skritter and About.com, please read the first monthly round-up. If you want to view all articles written by me but published elsewhere, check my bibliography page.

Here’s what I wrote up to the beginning of October:

Various articles about Mandarin on About.com
September, 2014 – About.com
These articles were all published on About.com through my role as Mandarin expert writer there:

  1. Learning Mandarin through music and lyrics: Why music should be part of your study plan
  2. Music Mandarin: Cui Jian – “I have nothing”: Learn Mandarin by listening to music and studying the lyrics
  3. Music Mandarin: Matzka – “Tears for my Love”: Learn Mandarin by listening to music and studying the lyrics
  4. Fraud-proof Chinese numerals: The banker’s way of writing Chinese numbers
  5. Chengyu – Chinese idiomatic expressions: What chengyu are and how to learn them
  6. Classical Chinese: What it is and how it relates to modern Mandarin
  7. Chinese festivals: An introduction to the festivals you should know about
  8. Shang – “up” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character Shang (“up”), its meanings and usages
  9. Xia – “down” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character Xia; (“down”), its meanings and usages

Shapeshifting characters: Alternate forms of radicals
September, 2014 – Skritter
Some Chinese characters change their appearance depending on which character it appears in. A few of the characters have very different forms as radicals and when they appear as individual characters. This is confusing for beginners and this article is meant to address that problem. Did you know that 心, 忄 and ⺗ are actually different versions of the same character?

How to tackle a large review queue
September, 2014 – SkritterI usually advice students to use some kind of spaced repetition program, but since Chinese isn’t the only thing in our lives, we all accumulate review queues sometimes. In this article, I talk about how to tackle these without giving up or burning oneself out. I have fought down queues of several thousand characters more than once, I know what I’m talking about.

That’s it for now! This also means that I’m now up-to-date with these summaries and will post one every month from now on, collecting the articles from the previous months. If you like Hacking Chinese or what I’m writing in general, the best thing you can do is to share! Donations are also more than welcome!

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listeningprogressoctThis month’s extensive listening challenge has been going on for about two weeks now, but there are still nine days left. I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about my own challenge and ask you for suggestions, ideas and general feedback. I’d also like to hear about your challenge!

If you haven’t joined the challenge yet, you can do so here. You can get a lot of listening done in nine days! So far, 133 people have signed up.

My progress so far

My progress so far is shown in the graph. As you can see, I started out strongly, but have slacked off a bit recently. I guess I’m not the only one? I can still reach my goal of listening to 25 hours of Chinese before the end of the month without killing myself, but as the graph shows, my current listening amount won’t cut it.

Practical problems with extensive listening

I feel that practical problems often stop me from listening. I have written an article about this (Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem), but I still fail to take proper action sometimes. I still listen, but not to as diverse material as I should.

For instance, my plan was to listen to 锵锵三人行, a linguistics lecture on YouTube and Skeptoid, but the result is that since I have all the episodes of Skeptoid available on my phone already, that’s where I’ve spent most of my listening time.

The other two are easily available online, but the little extra effort required is enough to steer me away to more easily available sources, mostly things I have already downloaded to my phone. As a result, I have only listened to a handful of 锵锵三人行 episodes and the first lecture in the series about linguistics..

Control the environment, not yourself

The effort required to start doing something is important. As I have argued before (Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps), it’s essential that we lower the effort for an activity while our energy levels are high. In other words, when you feel the most motivated to learn, you should prepare the listening material you know you’re going to need when you just want to listen to something later.

As soon as I have finished writing this post, I’m going to go to Listen to YouTube and download all the lectures as mp3-files and then transfer them to my phone. I’m also going to put 锵锵三人行 to open every time I open my browser. If you don’t listen enough, have you made sure to take the practical steps necessary to get started?

Hacking Chinese Challenges

This is the first official challenge we offer on Hacking Chinese Challenges and it would be great to hear what you think!

  • Have you encountered any problems?
  • Are there any bugs or glitches?
  • Have you thought of any features you think we should implement?

This is a work in progress and even if the challenge engine seems to be working for most people most of the time, there’s definitely room for improvement!

Your challenge

How’s your challenge been so far? Are you struggling with the same problems as I or do you have something else you want to discuss? Have you found any cool resources you want to share? Please leave a comment!

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By On October 23, 2014 · 4 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Listening

da2This is a guest article written by John Renfroe over at Outlier Linguistics. They’re working on a dictionary meant to teach us about functional components of Chinese characters and in this article, John describes why we should think about functional components instead of obsessing over radicals.

I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this: radicals are of little use for learning how characters work. Their purpose is indexing characters in a dictionary.

There’s a huge misconception about how characters work. You see this sort of advice all the time: Characters are made up of radicals, so you should learn the radicals first, or Make sure you learn the radicals, they’re the building blocks of characters

This is not true. People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the Chinese writing system. The word radical is best understood as a character component that sometimes plays the role of radical and NOT a character component that has the nature of being a radical.

For example, 大 dà “big” is a component that is on the list of radicals, but it is not the case that 大 always plays the role of radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single radical, no matter how many character components it has. And which of its components plays the role of radical may be different in different dictionaries.

And yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in Chinese characters and therefore should be learned, but they should be learned as being part of a system of functional components – components which express sound and meaning.

The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字], at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years, and the vast majority of characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén. Read that again and let it sink in. If that’s the case, then there’s no way that radicals were what people had in mind when they were creating characters. There must be something else going on.

So what are radicals, really?

That’s an interesting question. The word radical is really a poor translation of 部首 bùshǒu in the first place. 部首 literally means section head. Following the model of the 說文, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components.

These sections are called 部 bù in Chinese. The first character in that section is the 部首, the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one 部首. Note that I didn’t say the character has one 部首. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部, or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters.

Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the 部首 gives a hint about meaning and the sound component (聲符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. That’s not always the case.

Sometimes, the 部首 is the sound component. For example 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到, but it is not the meaning component – 至 zhì is (it means to arrive, just like 到).

Intuitively, one would think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be very haphazard, even for characters that share the same structure:

彎 wān “curve”弓 gōng “bow for shooting arrows”
戀 liàn “love”心 xīn “heart”
蠻 mán “barbaric”虫 huǐ “type of poisonous snake; early form of 虺 huǐ”
變 biàn “change”言 yán “speech”

For the first three characters, the radical and meaning components are same. 變 is inconsistent with the others in that it’s filed under 言 (part of luán, the sound component which the other characters all share #1).

So again, characters are filed into a given section. This is a choice made by a human being, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters, and it’s a flawed but workable system.

So hopefully, you can see that radicals (remember: section headings, not necessarily meaning components!) are useful for organising and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.

But there’s a better way

You should look at characters in terms of their functional components. Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions rather than lump them all under one category called radicals.

da1There are three attributes that all characters have (using 大 as an example):

  • Form: What is it a picture of? 大 is a picture of a person (specifically, an adult).
  • Meaning: What does it mean? 大 means big, because adults are big in
    comparison to children.
  • Sound: What is its pronunciation? (Or, if it’s a sound component, what is the range of sounds it can represent?) 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin.

The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes.

There are three primary functions:

  • A component can express meaning by way of form. Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in characters like 美 měi beautiful (which is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a person wearing a headdress). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.mei1
    Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:
  • A component can express meaning by way of meaning. Example: 大 means big, and it expresses the meaning big in characters like 尖. This is how most people explain all meaning components, but in reality this function is very uncommon!sharp
  • A component can express sound. Example: 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin, and it serves as a sound component in the simplified character 达 (#2) dá “to arrive” (traditional: 達).

Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way Chinese characters evolved in form over time. A component can also:

  • Serve as a placeholder for an earlier form that has now been corrupted.

This one is difficult to ascertain without training in palaeography, but our dictionary will explain which components have been corrupted and how. Continuing with 大 as an example, there are 1) instances in which a component was originally 大 but has now changed to something else, and 2) instances in which a component started as something else but has corrupted to look like 大 today (post forthcoming on how you can t trust your eyes).

  1. The sound component in 達 is da3 (dá). The top part today looks like 土 tǔ earth, but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today (#3).da2
    The form above is written in small seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn]. This is what 大
    and 土 looked like in small seal, for comparison:tu1
  2. In the character 莫 mò (do not, but originally represented the word sunset, which is now written 暮 mù), what today looks like 大 on the bottom was originally 艸 cǎo “grass” (there was 艸 on both the top and bottom, and the character depicted the sun setting behind the grass), which then corrupted over time to look like 大.


So now you’ve seen how the same component can serve completely different functions in different characters, and how components can become corrupted over time, obscuring their original purpose. Here’s the interesting thing: out of the characters I’ve just discussed, 大 is only the radical in 天 and 夫. In the others, it’s not, no matter which function it’s serving. The radical in the other characters is:

尖: 小
美: 羊
吳: 口
达/達: 辶
莫: 艹


Again, all this is not to say that you should completely throw radicals out the window. They’re good to know, but you should keep in mind what they’re used for: looking up characters in traditionally-arranged dictionaries. That’s it. They’re not the building blocks of Chinese characters (that’s functional components!). They’re an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. The concept of 部首 didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created

But sound and meaning components did exist. Sound and meaning components are the building blocks of Chinese characters. Sound and meaning components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new Chinese character. When you’re learning a new character, thinking in terms of these functional components rather than radicals will clarify a lot of confusing things about Chinese characters. Anything that tells you otherwise is inaccurate and (unintentionally) leading you astray.

Thanks to John for sharing his insights in this article! I would like to point out that this is close to what I advocate myself, I avoid using the word radical and say character component instead. I have also written two articles about phonetic components (part 1, part 2). I like this article by John because it explains why we shouldn’t obsess about radicals. Naturally, some of the most commonly used character components will also be found in a radical list, but confusing radicals with functional components will lead to confusion.


1 - How can luán be the sound component for 變 biàn? This most certainly looks impossible judging from the Mandarin pronunciation, but what’s important is the phonology of the language when the characters were invented. If we look a reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology (i.e., a reconstruction of the sounds of the language that was in use when these Chinese characters were invented thousands of years ago), we can get a glimpse at what the language probably looked like.

In a future post, we’ll do an introduction to Old Chinese reconstruction and why it’s important for doing research in Chinese paleography, but for now we’ll just take a look at some reconstructions. Keep in mind, it’s not important that you understand what all of these symbols mean exactly. What is important, is noticing the similarities and differences (the symbol * just means that you are looking at a reconstruction):

䜌 *mə.rʕon (ballpark approximation “muh RON”)
變 *pron-s  (ballpark approximation “prons” or “prawns”)
蠻 *mʕron (ballpark approximation “mron” or “mrawn”)
戀 *ron-s (ballpark approximation “rons” or “Ron’s”)

The main thing to take away here, is that each of these words share the root *ron. Three of these words have prefixes: *məә, *p-, *m- and two have suffixes *-s. It is similar to how root words work in English. Take the root “get”: get, forget, beget, got, gotten. Imagine that Chinese characters had been used in Old English and the same sound component was used for each of these words.Even though the sounds aren’t exactly the same, they do share a root and the reader would have been able to figure out which was meant by context and by the addition of a meaning component.

Keep in mind, I’m merely trying to make an analogy between two languages with very different histories, so be kind. The reconstructions above are from Baxter-Sagart OC v1. Check out their new book here.

2 - 达 is not a recent invention. It’s a variant of 達 attested as early as the oracle bone script [甲骨文jiǎgǔwén].

3 - da3 is also a meaning component. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point a to b.

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I think listening ability is the most important skill. Good listening ability accelerates your learning and will have a positive effect on other areas in a way that isn’t true for any of any of the other skills.

This is why I’m currently running a listening challenge that will last until October 31st, read more here!

As I have argued elsewhere, improving listening ability is mostly a matter of practice; you need to listen a lot. In this article, I want to suggest some resources to make that easier.

What should you listen to? If you’re new to studying Chinese or don’t spend most of your time dealing with online learning resources, it might be hard to know where to look and you might just choose something at random.

What should you listen to?

I have now collected more than 260 resources for learning Chinese, all sorted and tagged for your convenience. In this article, I’m going to introduce the best free listening resource collections available. Here, “resource collection” means a site that offers a large number of episodes or shows, so each of these potentially offer hundreds or even thousands of hours of material!

This is what I did to generate this list (you can generate a similar list or get the full list by heading over to Hacking Chinese Resources yourself):

10 best free listening resource collections

Below, I have listed the best ranked resource collections, along with a direct link to the collection, a short introduction written by the person who submitted it and a link to the resource so you can vote/comment on it if you want to. If you have other resource collections, please submit them! If you need an invite, let me know!

Please note that some of these resources may have paid subscriptions, but I have made sure that a substantial and useful part of them is free. For instance, many of the podcasts have paid content, but they have to have free audio to be listed here. Also note that the ranking here only partly reflects my own opinion, most of the votes come from other members.

1. 锵锵三人行 (advanced, submitted by Zoe, vote/comment)

锵锵三人行 is my favourite TV program. It’s also one of the best ones for language learners, mostly because of its focus on talking, availability of transcripts and variety of both guests and topics. This should be a key component of any immersion effort, but you probably need to be upper intermediate or above to benefit. This show has been aired every weekday for decades! 我爱窦文涛!

2. Viooz (advanced, submitted by Julien Leyre, vote/comment)

What funner way to practice listening than watch a good movie? Ok, I can think of a few, but admit it’s right there towards the top of the list. This link has a wide range of movies, from Chinese classics to recent releases, available through free streaming, in Mandarin, and with subtitles. Enjoy!

3. 慢速中文 Slow Chinese (intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

A great resource collections with over 100 episodes, all with transcripts. The audio is, as the name implies, rather slow, which makes it more accessible than more rapid, native content. The episodes themselves are quite interesting since they deal with cultural topics and you will learn more than just language from listening to Slow Chinese. I haven’t used this podcast a lot myself, but what I have seen is pretty good.

4. Popup Chinese (beginner/intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

Popup Chinese has a huge library of lessons for different levels and most of it is available for free (although you need to sign up). There are also vocabulary notes and so on, but I consider the actual audio the main point. Overall a very good podcast!

5. CSLPOD (beginner/intermediate/advanced), submitted by me, vote/comment)

CSLPOD offers a large library of audio for all levels and the audio is available for free (you can subscribe for some other services, such as vocabulary explanations, sentence drilling and some exercises, but I consider the free audio the most important resource. One important feature is that when the audio is played, the appropriate portion of the text is highlighted, making it a lot easier to follow. There’s also a translation freely available for each podcast. Overall a good listening resource!

6. 悦读FM – 倾听文字的声音 (advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

I just found this site and it looks great. It offers a large collection of articles read aloud, with subtitles. They are all pretty short, meaning that they are suitable for intensive study as well as extensive learning (just keep a bunch on your phone).

7. PPS TV player (intermediate/advanced, submitted by kdgbalmer, vote/comment)

PPS.tv is an online source of Chinese TV episodes and films. Great for finding input content to improve comprehension and listening ability.

Nearly all of the Chinese shows have Chinese subs as standard. There are also a large number of Western shows/films so if you want to watch something you already know the story of but with Chinese subs/dubs this might be helpful.

On the front page there’s a link to download the PPS Player. This desktop application makes it much easier to navigate their huge library of content. Apps are also available for Android and iOS.

If looking for more basic content check out the animations in the 我的小儿卡通 section。喜羊羊与灰太狼 is one of the more accessible shows – it’s also one of the relatively few homegrown Chinese shows (rather than Japanese).

Important: PPS is region locked to China so if you are outside China you’ll need to VPN into China! There are also unlocking apps available on Android.

8. Melnyks Podcast/Audio Course (beginner/intermediate, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This website offers theme-based, progressive and easy online lessons. Audio course with full PDF transcripts, worksheets, mobile apps, videos and more. From what I can see, the first 100 lessons are for free, but you need a subscription after that. I tried two episodes (1 and 100) and they are pretty good. The major benefit with this podcast compared with others is that it’s progressive, meaning that each lesson build on the other, it’s not just random lessons put on the same page.

9. Skeptoid: 民间神话背后的科学根據 (advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This is the Chinese version of the popular Skeptoid.com podcast that deals with urban legends and myths from a scientific perspective. The Chinese version is well-produced and the content is translated and presented in a praiseworthy manner. The content is fairly difficult and will be too hard for anyone below an advanced level. Skeptoid Chinese combines interesting material with good language, a very rare combination indeed!

10. Chinese online short story collection (intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, comment/vote)

This is a great repository of short stories for beginner and intermediate learners. Some of them also have audio and all have translations to English and word lists! I would be a bit careful with trusting their difficulty ratings, though, I checked some stories that were meant to be beginner-intermediate that were definitely too hard form most students in this range. Still very good resource, though.

More resources

I intend to keep posting summaries like this one to highlight the great resources we have collected on Hacking Chinese Resources. Don’t forget that you can make more specific searches on your own! If you don’t want advanced resources, try checking listening resource collections suitable for beginners!

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