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Picture from the scoring protocol in my pronunciation course.

I have taught a brief introduction course in Chinese at my university now for five years running and every time, I try to give the students as much guidance as I can within the allotted time. Since the course contains everything from basic character writing and vocabulary to pronunciation and conversation practice, I really need to think about what I should say and what I shouldn’t. One of the things I receive the most questions about and that has sailed up my priority list is pronunciation and Pinyin. My usual reply nowadays is that the students should focus on the initials and finals, not the Pinyn spelling.

Before I explain this in more detail, let’s just go through some basic definitions here in case you’re new to learning Chinese. Pinyin is the most commonly used transcription system used for learning Chinese, so it’s a way of writing Chinese syllables with the Latin alphabet (Pinyin means “spell sound”). When it comes to initials and finals, a Chines syllable can traditionally be divided into initial, final and tone. Some syllables don’t have initials (or they have a so called zero initial), such as “wu” and “ying”. All syllables have finals. Most syllables have both. I’m not including tones at all in this discussion.

Finding the right level of detail for pronunciation

Mandarin consists of around 1000 common syllables (including tone), which is a very small number compared to English. In theory, you could learn those syllables one by one and make sure your pronunciation is correct for each one. This is impractical, however. If you remove the tones, there are still some 400 syllables that you need to learn, which isn’t impossible, but still a lot.

The next step would be to break the syllables into initials and finals. There are only slightly more than 20 and slightly less than 40 initials and finals respectively, so that makes a total of 60, which is definitely doable. It’s even doable in a week-long crash course! Some students go further than this and try to understand what sound each letter in Pinyin actually represents. This is not a good idea, you shouldn’t spend your first week of learning Chinese trying to map letters to various sounds in Pinyin, there is a better way.

One of the most well-read articles on this website is my discussion of some of the more common problems students encounter when learning Pinyin (see A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls). These are mostly cases where one letter is used to represent several different sounds. Students who focus on Pinyn too much will want to know how “i” is pronounced in all cases and what rules are involved, how “e” is really pronounced and so on. I can of course give the answers to these questions, they are not hard, but it takes a lot of time and I think there is a better way that leads to less confusion and better pronunciation.

Focus on initials and finals instead of Pinyin spelling

The solution to the above problem is to ignore the details of the spelling of each letter and look at the initials and finals as whole, unbreakable units. The spelling will of course be used as a reminder of the pronunciation, but you should study the pronunciation of each initial and final individually. If you know them well, you will be able to produce all the basic sounds in Mandarin. As I said above, there are only around 60 of them, so this is definitely doable.

Here are two benefits with this approach:

  • You don’t get confused by some non-obvious spelling rules as much
  • It brings the focus on actual pronunciation and not artificial spelling

If you do this, you’re likely to learn the spelling rules fairly quickly anyway, I just think it’s a better idea to learn initials and finals first and then gradually figure out the rule, rather than to view pronunciation as a kind of complicated equation where the pronunciation of each letter is conditioned by its surroundings. If it takes you ten second to calculate how something should be pronounced, you’re not doing it right.

This approach will solve some problems completely, such as the multiple ways of pronouncing “e”, which is different in the finals “-ie”, “-ei”, “-e” and “-eng”. You should learn these as different finals! Don’t worry that they are all spelt with “e”, they aren’t pronounced the same way. If you don’t focus all that much on the spelling, this will be easier.

Some traps and pitfalls will remain

Even with the above approach, Pinyin will cause some problems. This is because the spellings of some distinct finals are identical. For instance, “-ün” and “-un” are normally spelt the same way, as are “-üan” and “-uan” and some others. This includes the notorious “-i”, which is pronounced differently after “zh/ch/sh/r”, “z/c/s” and “j/q/x” etc. If you’re not sure which finals hide behind these, check the original Pinyin traps and pitfalls article. These irregularities are very hard to overcome and it’s simply something you have to learn.

What about alternative transcription systems?

One alternative to the above approach and one I’m sure many readers have been thinking about all though this article is to use another transcription system that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Zhuyin Fuhao (also known as Bopomofo). This system uses unique symbols for initials and finals (and medials, but that goes beyond the scope of this article). Still, Zhuyin has it’s own peculiarities (such as not writing anything after “zh/ch/sh/r” and “z/c/s”) and it’s also highly impractical for most people who use textbooks that exclusively relies on Pinyin and courses/teachers that use it.

That being said, I think it’s useful to learn more than one transcription system, but if you have already learnt basic pronunciation, I think you would benefit more from learning all initials and finals in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) instead of either Zhuyin or Pinyin. Unlike the others, this is a real phonetic alphabet that represents sounds in writing much more accurately than any of the other systems mentioned here. I will likely be back with another article about this later, stay tuned!

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handwritingThis month’s challenge is about learning characters. In fact, my desire to launch Hacking Chinese Challenges came partly from wanting to arrange challenges more smoothly and with more participants without collapsing under the load of manually dealing with everything. Last week, I published an article with a brief summary of the challenge as well as some useful tips for how to improve character learning.

In this article, I’m going to go into more detail. I have already written about many of these topics before, though, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components – This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters – I wrote this article for About.com, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters – This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components – This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner - If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use it – Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter – Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters. Don’t forget that there is an extra week’s free trial and a 6-month discount if you sign up with the coupon code for the challenge (SENSIBLE2015, has to be used on sign-up on the website).
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters – Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication – After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:


This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.

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bulbThe first challenge I ran on Hacking Chinese was the sensible character challenge that started more than two years ago (Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese). It became much more popular than I thought with more than 100 participants. Last year, I ran another challenge, this time for 100 days, which also went well.

Since then, I have launched Hacking Chinese Challenges to better handle many participants and challenges in general. After running a few other challenges focused on listening, reading and translation, it’s now time for a character challenge again!

If you have participated before, you know roughly what to expect. If you haven’t, don’t worry, I’ll explain both how the challenge works and what sensible character learning is.

Prizes on offer for this challenge

This is what I have to offer at the moment (it’s likely to increase later):

  1. 5 months of free Skritter, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  2. A two-week trial and a 33%discount for six-month  on Skritter for new users (create an account, select “alternative payment methods” and then enter the coupon code SENSIBLE2015)
  3. Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  4. Books from Tuttle Publishing (this one and this one)

For new Skrtiter users, If you want to offer prizes that are suitable for this challenge or if you know someone who might, please contact me! My definitions of “finish the challenge” is to have reported progress throughout the challenge and posted about it either here, your own blog or social media.

The challenge

Is your vocabulary lagging behind? Can’t you write all those basic characters you really ought to know? Is your limited vocabulary holding you back? I think most of us would answer “yes” to at least one of these questions and that’s why I think character challenges are so useful. The procedure is easy:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the sensible character 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

In previous character challenges, we haves set goals in terms of absolute numbers, such as “learning X new characters”. However, this doesn’t always work out very well, especially for beginner and intermediate students who aren’t familiar enough with vocabulary learning to know what a reasonable goal is. Moreover, vocabulary learning tend to accumulate, so it’s very hard to set reasonable goals.

Therefore, we’re going to measure time in this challenge rather than characters or words. It’s easier to estimate how much time you can or want to spend on an activity such as vocabulary learning. The challenge engine can actually handle other units than time, but we’ll explore than in future challenges!

What is a reasonable goal?

I would say that 20 minutes per day (including weekends, words don’t care about which day of the week it is) is a reasonable goal for people who are not studying full-time. You can find 20 minutes per day just by reviewing and/or learning vocabulary on your phone while commuting, waiting in a queue or in the bathroom, it needn’t influence your other activities too much. If you study full-time, an hour isn’t unreasonable!

I’m going to go for ten hours, which is roughly half an hour per day. My main goal is to battle down my enormous review queue in Skritter. I’ve been to busy to actually study much vocabulary recently, so I have around 2000 reviews due. I probably won’t be able to kill the entire queue in 10 hours (that would mean slightly more than 20 seconds per review, which isn’t enough if we include some editing of definitions, example sentences and so on).

Sensible character learning

So what’s “sensible character learning”? I started using this term a few years ago because I felt that most character learning done by students (native and non-native speakers alike), isn’t very sensible. It often involves horribly inefficient methods that require much more effort than more sensible methods. I’m going to do a recap of sensible character learning and vocabulary acquisition in general next week, so let’s focus on some key points here:

  1. Reviewing and learning are two different processes – When you learn a character or word, try to understand it as much as possible. Learn it in context (use sentences or common collocations). Approach the character or word from different angles. Study carefully. Reviewing is much quicker and should actively probe if you remember the character or word (see below).
  2. Active learning is better than passive learning – Reviewing by just looking at the characters is almost useless, you need to actively ask questions and recall the information before you see the answer. This is why flashcards are so good. You can use fill-in-the gap phrases or sentences, or translation.
  3. Diversified learning is smart learning – Don’t do all your reviewing in one go or in one place, spread it out. Using a smart phone to learn is really important because it moves studying away from your desk, the library or wherever you normally study. Do small bursts of a few minutes when you have time to spare throughout the day.
  4. Spaced repetition is better than massed repetition - Reviewing the same character or word several times in a row is not efficient, it’s better to wait between reviews. Exactly how long to wait can be hard to know, but fortunately, there are lot’s of programs that do this for you (see below).
  5. Rote learning isn’t good, understanding is essential – Rote learning Chinese characters works only for a comparatively small number of characters or if you spend a very long time writing characters (the compulsory education of native speakers). It typically doesn’t work very well for second language learners. Rote learning works well for basic characters in the beginning, but its usefulness dwindles as you learn more characters.
  6. What vocabulary you learn matters a lot – I subscribe to a “the more the merrier” attitude towards learning characters and words, but it matters greatly which character or words you learn. Make sure you learn common and useful words first. Keep an active attitude towards your vocabulary: delete and edit more than you think you should.
  7. Don’t go on tilt – When using spaced repetition software, don’t go on tilt when you encounter words you ought to know but actually don’t. Some words you learn automatically, but others refuse to stick. The worst thing you can do is to try to hammer these words into your head. Ban/mark/suspend these cards and deal with them separately instead! Add context, study the character, create mnemonics.

I will write more about learning characters in a proper overview article next week. For now, just join the challenge!

What program or app should I use to learn characters and words

Even though there are many programs and apps (perhaps too many) out there for learning Chinese characters and words, it doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as it has proper spaced repetition and fulfils your requirements in other areas. I usually suggest three programs, so if you have no idea, see which one of these suits you best:

  • Skritter is the ideal app for learning to write characters. It’s the only app that allows you to write characters on the screen and offers you feedback for each stroke, such as if you put it in the wrong place or write it in the wrong direction. If you register with the code SENSIBLE2015, you’ll get an extra week of free trial and then a six-month discount if you want to continue using it. I should mention that I work for Skrttter, even though I started using it well before that.
  • Pleco is one of the best apps for learning Chinese in general and it also has a flashcard module that integrates well with the dictionary. The basic dictionary is free, but the flashcard module isn’t. If you just want one single app for your Chinese learning, Pleco is your best bet.
  • Anki is much more versatile than any of the above apps and you can do almost anything you want, including cloze test, very advanced card editing, picture/video/audio flashcards and detailed control of how the cards are displayed. It’s somewhat harder to use than the above, but still one of my favourites. Anki only costs money on iOS, it’s completely free elsewhere. Do make sure to get Chinese support (a plug-in).

That’s it for now, I will publish more about character learning next week!

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By On January 9, 2015 · 3 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Vocabulary

translationprogressLast month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese Challenges was about translation. I really like translation as a tool for learning, but since there already are two articles discussing this I won’t bring it up again (one about Chinese-English translation and one about English-Chinese translation). In this article, I will share some thought about the challenge and I also hope some of those who participated are willing to share their thoughts.

My translation challenge

I planned to spend 15 hours practising translation, but ended up spending about half that time. I don’t really blame having little time during the holidays (I actually had much more time than usual), but my planning was horrible. I had lots of time, but only for about a week and I simply wasn’t motivated enough to spend more than an hour a day or average. I should either have started earlier or set a more modest goal.

Below are some things I thought about during the challenge, but please note that I published a separate article about writing in Chinese, which contains much more than what I mention here (5 tips to help you improve your Chinese writing ability):

  1. Don’t aim for perfection too quickly - This is something I make myself guilty of sometimes and makes translation really tedious and boring. I spend a lot of time on each individual sentence, wanting to find the right way of phrasing it immediately. In my opinion, it’s better to get the gist first and then look for better translation the second time you go through the translation.
  2. Translate something really interesting – My goal for this challenge was to translate a short story I wrote in Swedish a few years ago, which is very motivating. I want to write this in Chinese! Compared with other translations I’ve done (professional and otherwise), this was much more fun. Once I got started, I really enjoyed translating and stopped only when I felt tired.
  3. Create the framework of a habit first – Before you have established a habit, you need to remind yourself what you’re supposed to do. I plain forgot about the challenge several days. It wasn’t that I thought about doing some translation and then found something more interesting to do, I just never thought about it at all. This is a sign of bad preparation. If you want to do something like this, set automatic reminders, make the document you’re working with open automatically when you log in, ally yourself with others who strive towards the same goal.

I think this challenge was interesting for me personally and I have continued translating the short story even after the challenge ended. This means that I have achieved part of my goal, which was to start writing in Chinese again. Give me a few weeks to finish the translation and polish it a bit and I might publish it somewhere.

Your translation challenge

How did it go for you? Looking at the leader board, five participants spent more than ten hours. Well done! Of course, this is not the same as the two passive challenges we’ve had before (listening and reading), because that requires a different kind of time altogether. What did you learn from the challenge? What did you translate and in what direction? If there was another translation challenge later, do you have any advice for new participants?

Upcoming challenge: Character challenge, January 2015

The next challenge will be announced later this week and it will be about character learning. It will be similar to the character challenges I’ve arranged for a few years now, i.e. focusing on how to learn characters in a more sensible way. If you want to read a bit in advance, I suggest that you check out these articles from previous challenges:

Sign up to this month’s character learning challenge by clicking here!

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By On January 6, 2015 · 2 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Not everything I write about learning Chinese ends up here on Hacking Chinese. Some things will be available later as Hacking Chinese articles or projects, but much is written for other websites.

Here’s what I wrote up to the beginning of December 2014 (I originally intended to publish this article before the new year, sorry for the delay!):

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

  1.  The neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese: How to pronounce the neutral tone in different contexts
  2. Four main types of Chinese characters: Learning characters by understanding them
  3. Pictographs – Chinese characters as pictures
  4. Chinese character type: Simple ideograms
  5. Chinese character type: Combined ideograms
  6. Chinese character type: Semantic-phonetic compounds
  7.  Zi – “child” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character Zi (“child”), its meanings and usages
  8.  How to pronounce Beijing, capital of China: Some quick and dirty tips and an in-depth explanation
  9.  How to choose the right Mandarin Chinese course: What to look for when choosing language courses

Tending your vocabulary garden
November, 2014 – Skritter
In this article, I use the analogy of tending a garden to explain what a healthy attitude towards vocabulary should look like. In short, it involves being active, regarding the words you learn and have learnt as an organism that keeps growing, but which also needs tending and trimming. More isn’t always merrier and what words you learn certainly matter more that how many you know sometimes.

That’s it for now! I will keep posting one article round-up every month, 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! 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.

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Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

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baogaoThis month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about translation, which means that at least half the challenge is focused on writing Chinese (if you translate from your native language to Chinese). In fact, for many learners, writing texts that aren’t about everyday life is mostly a translation exercise anyway; you know what you would write in your native language, now you have to translate that into Chinese.

In this article, I will share some tips and suggestions for how to translate and/or write better texts in Chinese and learn more from the process. Please note that I don’t talk about handwriting here, this is about composing text!

Tip #1: Never translate word by word, focus on the meaning

I have taken a couple of university courses focused on Swedish-English translation, and when we do that, we can mostly stick to the same word order as the original and then adjust sentences as needed. This might not produce great results every time, but it works well because Swedish and English are close linguistically. Overlapping language is in a clear majority.

This is not the case when you translate to Chinese and using the same strategy is a bad idea. You should never translate directly. The result will either be unreadable or very awkward-sounding. That is, even if you use the right words, your text will still be bad if you write English sentences with Chinese characters. What should you do instead? Split the translation into two steps.

Tip #2: Translate general meaning first, don’t get stuck on details

It’s very hard to write a text which is both a good translation and a well-written text in Chinese at the same time. Therefore, try splitting the writing process into two steps. First, make sure you translate the meaning of the original text, without caring too much if it sounds good in Chinese or not. It’s okay to use clumsy constructions and phrases you’re not sure how they are used at this stage.

Then, when you have a text that contains the meaning of the original text, forget the original text and work on the Chinese text you have, turning it into as correct and idiomatic Chinese as you can. Sometimes you will need to deviate from the original meaning to do this, but that’s usually okay. If you really care about the translation itself and not just the final text in Chinese, you should then double-check your text against the original to make sure you haven’t changed too much, but this is not necessary if you translate for practice only.

Tip #3: Use what you know, avoid what you don’t

Beginners can express much more than they think. When I started learning Chinese, I remember often thinking that I didn’t know how to express myself. It was very depressing. Then I stopped caring about getting it exactly right and just tried to get as close as possible with whatever I could come up with.This worked a lot better. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons is that saying or writing something from scratch is considerably easier than translating it from your native language!

Here is a basic example I encountered with a student last week. He has studied a few chapters in a beginner textbook, and wanted to say “rooms in China are small”. The problem was that he didn’t know how to say “in” and had forgotten how to say “small”. However, he knew the basic function of 的 and remembered how to say 房间 “room” and 中国 “China”.

With the wrong approach, a student in this situation could just say: “I don’t know how to say this in Chinese, there are several words here I don’t know” and give up. With the right approach, the student could try to express what he wants to say with the words he has available. How about: 中国的房间不大?

As it turns out, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t learnt to say “in” (which would probably have created a bad sentence if he had known it anyway) and not knowing how to say “small” didn’t matter either, because “not big” is close enough to the meaning of “small”.

Tip #4: Always check context when using a dictionary

When translating between two similar languages, you can often write a full sentence save one word you don’t know how to translate, look that word up in a dictionary later and then complete the sentence. This works almost all the time when translating between Swedish and English.

It almost never works for Chinese. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to learn Chinese. Mappings between words in different languages is seldom 1:1, but it’s pretty close between similar languages. If you use a dictionary with the belief that a word means the same thing and is used in the same way as the English keyword you entered, you’re mistaken. When using a dictionary, you need to pay attention to:

  • Meaning - Does the word mean what you think it does in this context?
  • Usage - How is the word commonly used in sentences?
  • Collocations - Can the word you looked up be used with the other words in your sentence?

I’m teaching a course this semester where the students are writing reports in Chinese. Their Chinese level is good overall and most of them have reached conversational fluency some time ago, but most of them haven’t written any major text before. My main complaint with the texts they produce is that when they use dictionaries, they fail to pay attention the three areas listed above.. This produces a huge number of weird sentences, sometimes only comprehensible because I can guess what English word they used.

What you should do is look at the example sentences and see if the word means what you think it does and how it’s used in context. If your dictionary doesn’t have example sentences, you should use another dictionary. This certainly takes longer than just selecting a word at random, but your text will be better and you will also learn more from seeing the word used in context. The quickest way to check collocations is by using a search engine.

Tip #5: Don’t make your text more complicated than necessary

Some students think that they can write better texts in Chinese by deliberately trying to use more difficult words, longer sentences and so on. This almost never works. If you aren’t already good at writing Chinese, I suggest that you start by writing the way you speak. That will at least be easier to understand and you can gradually make your language less colloquial. I’d rather read a somewhat colloquial text that works, compared with a jumble of difficult words that don’t make sense. Similarly, if you can’t handle long and complex sentences, break them up and gradually increase length as your proficiency increases.


This article contains tips that I wish I could have given myself when I started writing in Chinese. It’s also the tips I give students who want to improve their writing. However, I have also taught enough students to know that most people don’t follow the advice I’ve given here. I realise that this isn’t only because they don’t know how to write, it’s also because they are pressed for time or don’t have the proper resources.

After teaching the writing course this semester, however, I really felt that this was a topic I needed to discuss. Next time, I will have an article I can point to which contains some of the most useful tips. Do you have any other tips? What advice would you offer other people who have just started writing in Chinese?

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By On December 16, 2014 · 4 Comments · In Advanced, Beginner, Intermediate, Writing

mppThis is a guest article by Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project. The publication of this article coincides with the start of this month’s translation challenge, so if you aren’t convinced that translation is a great tool for learning a language, this article is for you! Julien also shares many hands-on tips for making translations easier.

How translation can help you learn Chinese

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

In preparation for the Hacking Chinese translation Challenge that starts today, this post will talk about translation as a way to learn Mandarin. Now, translating to and from your native language (or one you’re already expert at) is a very different exercise. In a previous post, Olle discussed the benefits translation Chinese. What I’ll talk about here is translating from Chinese into your native language.

Translation as active reading

At a very basic level, practicing translation (to your native language) will bring you the same benefits as reading: you will increase your vocabulary, reading speed, grammatical intuition, and overall comprehension. If the text is well chosen, you might even gain some cultural insights in the process.

OK – I get that. But why translate? Let’s put it this way: translation is a form of active reading. In one of his posts, Olle describes different ways to practice ‘listening’, from simple background listening to active engagement with the content. The same distinction applies to reading: you can be more or less active in your practice.

To see how this applies to translation, let’s go back to basics, and start with a definition. Translation consists of creating a piece of text in a target language (in our case, most probably English), which has the same meaning, structure and stylistic characteristics as a given piece in a source language (in our case, Chinese). To do that, not only do you have to read the source text, and make sure you understand all the words in it, but you must also look at difficult or ambiguous constructions, and make sure you clearly understand all of them.

Whether in the classroom or at home, we’re often satisfied with a superficial, rough, hazy understanding of what we read. Answering a teacher’s questions (or ticking the right HSK box), or even reading aloud, does not really test our deep understanding. We skim over sentences feeling that we got the gist. Translation provides a touchstone: once you’ve got to write an equivalent in your mother tongue, you can check whether you’re actually making sense of what you read – or not.

OK, sure – but I’m nowhere near that level yet, I’m still struggling with the basics. Should I just wait?

Any form of active learning takes energy, and I’m not saying you should spent all your learning time translating, especially if you’re still in early stages. But it doesn’t mean that translation is too hard for you now. In the rest of this post, I’d like to share a few tricks that will help you moderate the difficulty, and find ways of translating that are accessible to you right now.

Choosing the right text is certainly part of the question: how long it is, how intricate the language, whether it’s full of characters you don’t know, or whether it deals with a topic you’re familiar with – all these factors will impact your ability to translate. A word of warning though: I’ve seen many people go for ‘easy’ texts, because they seem more accessible. But there’s a big catch with practicing on ‘easy’ texts only, especially graded texts written explicitly for learners: it may quickly turn out to feel very pointless.

In 2011, I set up an organisation called Marco Polo Project, which proposes translation as a way to help people learn Chinese and understand China. The project was largely inspired by my own experience and frustrations as a language teacher and Mandarin learner. I started learning Chinese in 2008, and after three years, I got tired of the trite textbook. I wanted to discover fresh and authentic writing from China – but I didn’t know where to start.

Our website offers an original selection of new writing from China, and a simple interface to translate as you read. The idea was to bring great writing to learners – intermediate and advanced – encourage them to practice translation as they read, and share their translations with less advanced learners, so they could access these new voices from China in bilingual format.

This is what our translation interface looks like – with source text on the right, and a box to write your translation on the left. Check it out at www. marcopoloproject.org – registration is entirely free.

julien1And in case you’re wondering, Marco Polo Project runs as a non-profit organisation. I hope to grow the community – but it’s not the whole point of me writing this post – there’s other ways you can practice translation. If you don’t want to do that on our website, I still encourage you warmly to exercise on a word document.

Pace yourself – be quick – and skip

I’ve taught translation at various universities. The first thing we tell students is that they absolutely have to carefully read the full text, make sure they understand all the details and really soak in the style, before starting to write their translation. Arguably, that’s how professional translators should work. But I’ll share a dirty secrete with you: that’s not what I’m going to recommend here. Quite the opposite.

If your Chinese is not perfect yet, carefully reading can take a very long time, and it can be frustrating, so frustrating actually that – unless there’s a deadline, or it’s a marked assignment, you’re more likely to give up. If your goal is to practice and learn, and if you’re not getting paid or assessed, then you should make sure the process is fast-paced enough that you get a sense of achievement and progress. There’s a simple way to do that. In my own translation practice, I always translate sentence by sentence as I go, I skip all the difficult passages deliberately – whole sentences and even entire paragraphs, and I always use google translate.

Google translate has very bad reputation, but if your reading skills are just so-so, it can be an amazing tool! It’s easy to use, it’s free, and it allows you to get the meaning of a text and sentence significantly faster and with significantly less effort than a dictionary. But you need to use it carefully. It’s often surprisingly accurate, and sometimes completely off the ball.

Concretely, this is how I would recommend you to use it. Pick a paragraph you want to translate, and paste it into the google translate box. Then split up the sentence by jumping lines after each full stop, for clarity. Look at the suggested translation, comparing it to the Chinese original. If a sentence sounds about right, copy-paste it into Marco Polo Project or your word document, or change a few words here and there to make it sound more idiomatic. You should be able to do that for about half the sentences in your text.

Half the time, however, something will be weird. When that’s the case, break up the sentence into parts by jumping lines after the main verbs, particles or connecting words. When you do that, the software will treat each component separately, and start working like a kind of predictive dictionary. Just break down the parts until you grasp the meaning. When you get it, put the parts back together in the right order, and write down your translation.

If it’s still too hard, just leave it aside until later.

julien2Now, to be clear, I’m not saying this is how you should work if you want to be a professional or literary translator. This method will not give you the most thoughtful and elegant translation every time, but it’s quick, simple and satisfying. You don’t have to spend a lot of time searching for vocabulary or stretch your memory to remember what a character means. Half the time, the machine actually does an OK job for you the first time round. Getting that sense of satisfaction, and avoiding boredom or exhaustion, will be a serious advantage for long-term learning success!

Ready to go further? Try editing your translation

Fast-translation, following the method I described above, will help you go you through large quantities of text. But if you want take it a step further, editing your own translation (or someone else’s) is a great learning exercise.

This google-assisted ‘fast translation’ probably doesn’t read very well, it might be ambiguous, or even contain downright errors and inconsistencies. To start with, I’d suggest you review the translation line by line. Focus on word order, syntax and readability. Try to make your sentences simpler, more rhythmic – but always keeping an eye on the Chinese to check you’re not betraying the meaning. This exercise will double up as vocabulary review. It will teach you to better ‘skim’ over a Chinese text, and make you more familiar with connecting words or syntactic patterns.

As a second step, consider each paragraph as a whole (or even the full text if you’ve got the time), and focus on two particular areas:

  • Tense and person: Chinese does not mark tense in the same way as English, and often omits subject pronouns. A common issue with translations will be that tense ‘jumps’ from past to present, or from ‘I’ to ‘they’ or ‘we’ without much consistency. Make sure this does not happen to you.
  • Keywords: your text is likely to include a series of related words from a specific semantic field related to the topic. Check that they’re used consistently from paragraph to paragraph – but also, more importantly, check that the words in English actually mean the same as the Chinese words. To do this, you might check the keywords on a couple of online dictionaries, or even with a quick google search. It’s a great way to learn a few synonyms.

And if you want to take it even further, think of style and genre. Where does your source text come from? Is it standard language, or does it deviate from linguistic norms? When you’ve answered these questions, look for elegant, concise and apt equivalents that not only map the meaning of the source text, but also the style. This is a difficult and time-consuming pursuit, not always suitable for intermediate or even early advanced learners. But it’s also a fascinating and beautiful way to gain advanced understanding of the language. If you wish to really develop your reading skills, and appreciate subtle nuances of meaning and style in Chinese, this may be one of the best ways to go.

In conclusion: beyond target language communication, train your linguistic flexibility

There’s a final type of benefit that comes from practicing translation: it will make you more linguistically flexible.

Many language classes are held in the target language entirely, we think of ‘immersion’ as a great way to progress, and the capacity to ‘think in Mandarin’ is seen as a crucial step towards fluency. I’m not rejecting any of this upfront: creating a ‘Mandarin only’ mental environment does increase our capacity to interact with Mandarin speakers and Mandarin content at a reasonable speed.

However, our capacity to switch code from one language to another may suffer in the short term – and in certain contexts, this is a very precious skill. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a concept only came to you in Mandarin, and you started wondering – what’s the word for ‘ganga’, ‘guanxi’ or ‘haixiu’? Outside the context of bilingual classroom, this hesitation may come in the way of clear expression.

As learners of Mandarin, it’s also very likely that we will find ourselves in a mediating position. As beginners, when travelling with friends who don’t speak the language at all, we do all sorts of minor translation – signs, directions, or basic polite interactions. As we reach intermediate and advanced levels, we’ll often have an opportunity to do minor translation tasks – what does this email/sign/article say? More importantly, when we spend significant amounts of time in a Chinese-speaking environment, we’re expected to report on our experiences to friends back home, family, colleagues and partners who do not speak the language.

For this, we must train our capacity to describe the values and world-views of Mandarin speakers in our own native language, and be comfortable shifting code. Translation is probably the best preparation for this task. Beyond practical, professional and social benefits, it will help us integrate all the complex emotional experiences we’ve had in a Chinese environment to the web of long-term emotional journey – and ensure some continuity between our pre-Mandarin selves, and the bizarre animals we’ve become since getting hooked on the language.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, I’ve written elsewhere about the role that translation played in my own intellectual development – and how it nurtures critical thinking, cross-cultural tolerance, and humility. So go check out this piece.

Converted yet? Try it for yourself, and see if translation works for you! Don’t forget to join the translation challenge!

A note on my own background

I’m a French-Australian writer, educator and sinophile. I migrated from Paris to Melbourne in 2008, and I can probably count myself as perfectly fluent in both French and English today. I’ve taught languages and translation at various universities in France and Australia, studied many European languages, and reached various degrees of fluency among six of them – but Mandarin has been my biggest challenge by far.

I’d love to hear more about your experience of translation – don’t hesitate to send me a line at Julien@marcopoloproject.org

A big thanks to Julien for this article! I have mainly done translation in the other direction and hadn’t reflected too much about the importance of translating in the other direction, other than making sure that people understood texts read in class, so this article is most welcome to the collection here on Hacking Chinese.

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By On December 11, 2014 · 4 Comments · In Advanced, Intermediate, Reading

2014-12-08 19.55.35Two months have passed since the launch of Hacking Chinese Challenges and we have already completed both a listening and a reading challenge with 249 participants so far. I love these challenges myself because they help me spend more time learning Chinese.

Join this month’s translation challenge

Now it’s time to turn to a more active skill, namely translation. Historically speaking, language learning through translation has gone from being the point of language learning, through an era where target language communication only was the name of the game, to a more balanced view today. I love translation as a form of reading and writing practice, so that’s what this month’s challenge is about..

This challenge is presented in cooperation with the Marco Polo Project, a site that focuses on translating texts from Chinese to several other languages. The site is run by Julien Leyre, who also helped me developing Hacking Chinese Challenges. Julien has written an article about the benefits of Chinese-English translation, and it will be published here on Hacking Chinese on Thursday, so if you’re not convinced that this kind of practice is useful, you’ll have to wait until Thursday. You can also read my article, which is mostly about English-Chinese translation: Translating to improve your Chinese.

The challenge – December 11th to December 31st

The challenge is to learn as much Chinese as possible through translating in either direction (or both). I don’t want to decide for you if you should go for quantity or quality, or if you should go for English-Chinese or Chinese-English. It’s up to you. As was the case for previous challenges, the unit of measurement is time spent.

This is how you join:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the translation 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, tips and resources with fellow students

Two directions, multiple skills

Translation is useful in both directions. If you translate to Chinese, it become active writing practice in that you have to use the Chinese you know to express something you know about in English or another language. This forces you into new territories and helps you get away from the things you normally speak and write about. Read more about why this kind of translation is great in this post: Translating to improve your Chinese.

Translating in the other direction is also a good idea. It’s a form of very active reading and you have to understand the original text and think about what it really means. Then you have to use your native language to express these things in a manner true to the original. This is really hard, but in a different way than translating from your native language to Chinese. Read more in Julien’s article on Thursday!

Setting a reasonable goal

This challenge covers both reading practice (Chinese-English translation) and writing practice (English-Chinese translation). If you’re a serious student who studies full-time, you should aim for at least an hour a day (that’s 21 hours in total). People who are busy know their own schedules better than I do, but I think most people should be able to do half an hour five days a week, so that means roughly 7 hours (removing a day or two for any kind of holiday celebration you might have planned).

Personally, I haven’t written much coherent text in Chinese lately, but I really should, so I’m going to aim for 15 hours. This also stretches over the Christmas holiday when I should have more time to devote to a project like this. I started translating a short story I wrote in Swedish years ago, so my goal is to finish that project. I don’t know if 15 hours is enough or not, but it should take me much closer to the goal at least.

  • What’s your goal?
  • What are you going to translate?
  • What’s your experience of language learning through translation?

The challenge starts on December 11th, so you can’t start reporting progress before then. I will of course post notifications on Facebook and Twitter when the challenge starts. See you on the leader board!

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By On December 9, 2014 · 3 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Reading, Writing


This is a photo from when I had just learnt to unicycle roughly six years ago. And yes, it’s raining.

In one form or another, this is the most common question I receive. It’s asked by all kinds of people, including those who haven’t studied Chinese and assume that it must be impossible, those who are studying already and want to get a reality check of their future progression, and native speakers who want to know what it feels like learning their mother tongue.

I usually answer briefly, but I’ve done that enough times to feel that I should write something more in-depth. The result is this article. It won’t give you an estimate of how fast you can learn Chinese or compare it with other languages, but it will make the question of difficulty more nuanced than simply shouting “You can learn any language in a few months!” or “Learning a foreign language is impossible!”

Two kinds of difficulty

I think people who have learnt Chinese differ in their opinions of how hard it is because they mean different things when they say “hard”. I’ve read about this several times, but I’ve never seen a good terminology for it, so I’m going to call it “vertical difficulty” and “horizontal difficulty”.

Allow me to explain:

  • Vertical difficulty is what most people think of when they say that something is hard. It means that to advance, you need to improve your skill in a way which isn’t incremental and success isn’t necessarily guaranteed just because you try enough. For instance, I’ve tried indoor climbing a few times and even though I certainly meet the physical requirements, if I try a difficult route, I simply won’t succeed, even if I try a hundred times. This is where “vertical difficulty” comes from, you need to master new skills to advance and doing so is far from certain. It might depend on your method, instructor, ability in other areas, luck and much more. In any case, you need to change something you’re doing, not just doing more of the same.
  • Horizontal difficulty is very different. It’s still difficult, of course, but it requires you to do the same thing over and over – for a long time. This is the kind of activity where trying enough is guaranteed to give you success sooner or later. If your goal is to walk a thousand kilometres, you’re not going to fail the task because a certain (literal) step along the way is too hard, you’re going to fail because there are too many steps. You failed to put one foot in front of the other and didn’t reach your goal. This is where “horizontal difficulty” comes from, it needs no specific new skills, but you need to persist for a long time to succeed. You need to do more of the same, in other words.

Both these types of tasks are difficult, but they are difficult in completely different ways. I think most people would say that vertical difficulty is the scarier one, and they’d be right, psychologically, it’s harder to learn to unicycle than it is to walk a fifty kilometres. However, if the time it takes to accomplish something is what matters, I actually learnt to unicycle 100 metres several times faster than it would take to walk fifty kilometres.

Naturally, there are probably no tasks that are perfectly vertical and there are no tasks that are perfectly horizontal either, it’s a spectrum. Most activities are also complex and consist of many different tasks, so it’s problematic to sum them up in just one word.

For instance, walking a thousand kilometres isn’t something you can do just by putting one foot in front of the other, you need planning and you need to know what you’re doing. Similarly, all tasks with vertical difficulty also includes a lot of horizontal difficulty. Enough practice will get you very far, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like that.

Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Romary

Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Romary

Varying the slope

Many learning methods and strategies strive to help you learn faster by adjusting the slope. This means avoiding the extremes, decreasing the angle of the difficult tasks and increasing the angle for the easy ones. For instance, if you want to climb a difficult course, your best bet is to learn the basics first and try easier courses and then gradually build your skill. Then you can try the harder ones.

The opposite is less obvious, but still true in many cases. When I got past the beginner threshold for unicycling and could ride on normal roads until I got tired without falling, I found that I didn’t learn much by doing so. The difficulty was too horizontal. Then I tried riding forest tracks (which is really hard) and noticed incredible increases in my balance and control on ordinary roads as well. Increasing the slope helped me learn much faster.

The difficulty of language learning

This website is about learning languages in general and Chinese in particular, so you might feel that it’s high time to turn to learning Chinese. I agree.

What kind of activity is Chinese, then? Is it mostly vertical or mostly horizontal? Before I give my answer to that, let’s look at a few tasks associated with learning Chinese and see where they belong:

Chinese learning tasks with vertical difficulty

  • Learning basic pronunciation
  • Learning tones
  • Some grammar elements
  • Understanding characters
  • Handwriting (beginners)

Chinese learning tasks with horizontal difficulty

  • Learning thousands of characters
  • Learning thousands of collocations
  • Improving listening ability
  • Improving reading ability (especially reading speed)
  • Handwriting (advanced)

Note that handwriting appears twice. I could in fact have added more tasks that qualify for both lists at different stages of learning. I would say most things are vertically difficult for beginners since everything is completely new. The more advanced you become, the more the difficulty slope flattens out. At a very advanced level, learning mainly consists of using the language as much as possible, including all four skills. This isn’t as demanding as it is for a beginner to do practise the same skills.

Are there any other Chinese-learning tasks that are clearly horizontal or vertical? Do you agree with my classification?

Language learning is mostly horizontal

Except for the beginner stages, I think language learning is mostly horizontal. The amount of time you invest is by far the most important factor and any normal person who tries enough will likely succeed. However, remember that a task that is horizontal is still difficult! Most people fail learning a language because they don’t persist or don’t spend enough time, they don’t fail because the grammar is too hard to understand or pronunciation too hard to learn.

Naturally, there are many vertical elements as well. You can speak a foreign language for ten years and still have pronunciation errors, which is a clear sign that pronunciation has a vertical component. If you write a diary in Chinese by hand the rest of your life without anyone checking your writing, it will contain many errors even after a lifetime of practice.

Some things require high quality practice, others not so much.

The method matters

Which method you use is important both for vertical and horizontal tasks, but the results are different. When you’re engaged in a vertical task, the method is everything. Failing to apply the proper method means that you won’t succeed. This is why some have bad pronunciation even after ten years, it’s not that they haven’t practised enough, it’s that they haven’t practised with the right method.

Failing to apply the proper method for a horizontal task doesn’t mean that you will definitely fail, it just means that it will take longer to reach your goal. Vocabulary learning is a good example. Learning ten thousand words is definitely a horizontal task, but if you use the wrong methods to learn and remember vocabulary, it might take you several times longer than if you use the proper methods.

Study quality, comfort zones and the difficulty slope

The difficulty slope I have introduced in this article relates to many other concepts I’ve been talking about before. I often talk about quality and quantity, which are strongly related to vertical and horizontal respectively. If I tell you that you mostly need quantity to improve, it means you’re facing a horizontal task. If I say you should sit down and go through something carefully with a teacher, it’s probably vertical in nature; more practice won’t necessarily help.

I’ve also said that you should leave your comfort zone if you want to learn as much as possible. This is related to what I said about unicycling in the forest above, you won’t learn much by doing something you think is very, very easy. If you can, increase the difficulty and you will notice big differences, even for the tasks you already though were easy before.

Listening ability is a good example of this. By listening only to things you know (your teacher, your textbook), you won’t learn very fast, but if you spend enough time listening to things that are considerably more difficulty, you will have a harder time and spend more energy, but you will learn much faster.

Vertical and horizontal difficulty

They are both difficult. You need different tactics to meet different challenges. Hacking Chinese is about overcoming both these kinds of difficulties, but the more I study and teach languages, the more I realise that it’s really the horizontal tasks that are the most difficult for the average student. It’s hard to take the next step when you know you have a thousand kilometres to walk. I find it much easier to concentrate on the next handhold and try to negotiate my way up a wall.

Therefore, Chinese isn’t difficult in the way most people think, i.e. vertically difficult. The problem lies in spending enough time over many years to learn more characters, words and phrases. The difficulty lies in reading and listening enough, and in speaking and writing enough Chinese to hone active skills. In this sense, learning Chinese is much more like a thousand mile journey than scaling a steep wall.

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