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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, 138 people joined the challenge and listened to a total of 890 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 · 1 Comment · 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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Tagged with:

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 insect; 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):

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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extlistchalI’m so excited that the first official challenge on the brand new Hacking Chinese Challenges will start tomorrow! In this post, I will share some information about the challenge itself, but also give you some advice for how to set your goal and how to find suitable audio.

If you want to read more about Hacking Chinese Challenges in general, I suggest reading the launch article published earlier this week. In essence, this challenge is about building language skill through daily practice and friendly competition:

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

Extensive listening challenge, October 10th to 31st

First some basic information. The challenge starts on October 10th, which means you can start reporting progress tomorrow. However, you can join the challenge now by clicking here.

Extensive listening means that you should listen as much as you can. It’s the opposite of intensive listening where you try to understand everything, stop if you don’t understand something and listen for details. Extensive listening is about breadth, quantity and variety.


Setting a reasonable goal

The challenge lasts for 21 days. How many hours you can spend each day will of course depend on who you are, what you’re doing apart from learning Chinese and how used you are to listening to audio while doing other things. I would say that goals ranging from 30 minutes per day (i.e. about 10 hours total) to three hours per day (or 60 hours total) are reasonable depending on your situation.

Before you say that you can only fit 30 minutes of listening into your busy schedule, make sure you read what I have written earlier about finding time to learn Chinese (see below). If you’re ambitious, I’m sure 99% of all readers of this blog could find at least one hour to listen to Chinese everyday. The real answer is probably closer to two hours, but then you need to really make an effort.

Finding time for listening

I have written about finding time to study in several articles already, so I will just point to them:

  • Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem – Listening ability is mostly a matter of listening a lot, which is not as easily done as it sounds. There are many problems, but in this article I focus on the practical parts that play a bigger role than most people realise. In short, if you find yourself in a situation where you would be able to and want to listen, but can’t, you’ve made a mistake and need to change. This article is about how avoid practical obstacles to improving listening ability.
  • The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think – If we want to combine studying with a normal life or if we want to get the most out of pure language studying, we really need to check the time we have available and see if it’s possible to learn more without removing other important things. This article uses the metaphor of a barrel with rocks, pebbles, sand and water to show that most people have more time available than they think.
  • Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time – Time quality means that there is time with different levels of quality that can and should be used for different kinds of tasks. If you’re at home and have access to the internet, books and a reasonably peaceful studying environment, this is considered the highest quality time, because you can spend this time on almost anything you like. On the bus or waiting for a friend, however, your studying options are severely limited, or in other words, the time quality is lower. Read more to find out how to make better use of your studying time.
  • How to find more time to practise listening – When it comes to learning to understand spoken Chinese, there are few shortcuts. The more you listen, the more you will understand. But how can we fit more listening into our lives without cutting down too much on other things we do? In this article, I share some insights after spending thousands of hours listening to Chinese and other languages.

If you want to read more about listening ability in general, I have written an entire series of articles about the topic, starting here.

The importance of extensive listening

I have argued before that listening is mostly a matter of practice, much more so than any of the other skills. There are few hacks, you just need to do it an awful lot. Research also suggests that you need to diversify your listening, both at a sound level (i.e. you need to hear many different voices say the same tones and sounds to really learn them well) and at an accent level.

When you listen extensively, you should try to find audio that is at or below your current level. This is because that the more you understand, the more you learn (up to a point). If you hear words and phrases you have already learnt, you will increase your listening speed; if you hear new words and phrases, you might be able to pick them up if you understand enough of the other words and phrases used. Read more about comprehensible input here.

I feel that extensive listening and reading are what most students lack. They spend lots of time in their textbooks, with their vocabulary and speaking Chinese with their friends.

This is great, but it’s not enough, especially not at intermediate or advanced levels. If you want to really learn Chinese, you need a large amount of exposure to natural Chinese and it’s practically speaking very hard to get this just by talking with people.

Suggested listening material for the challenge

I’m working on a more complete article with resources for this challenge and I will publish it early next week. In the meantime, though, I will give some suggestions for how to find suitable listening material.

First, you should try to find two types of different materials:

  1. Listening material that is roughly around your current level that you would like to explore further. This could be podcasts, the audio to your textbook, songs or movies. This material is for when your energy levels are high and you feel like listening to something new.
  2. Listening material that is below your current level and that you can handle without too much trouble. You need this material to increase the total listening time. There will be times when you don’t feel like listening to something new or when you’re just tired. This is where you use easy audio or audio you have listened to before. An important goal is to increase listening speed.

Second, I have some suggestions for what to listen to, but as i said, I will be back next week with more suggested resources. If you have other suggestions, please share in the comments!

Don’t forget that there’s much more listening material collected over at Hacking Chinese Resources. Just select your proficiency level and then listening.




If you find video material, rip the audio so you can listen to it even when you’re unable to watch a screen. You can listen to a TV show while jogging, but it’s a bit dangerous to watch it.

My challenge

I have set a goal of 25 hours of listening. I’m only going to count passive listening, so conversing in Chinese doesn’t count. My primary sources of audio are going to be 锵锵三人行 and Skeptoid Chinese. The former has a new episode every weekday and there’s a huge archive, the latter will be reviewing because I have already listened to all the episodes. I will also watch some StarCraft in Chinese and might revisit an old lecture series about science fiction literature I like. What are you going to do?

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By On October 9, 2014 · 6 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Listening

challenge-screenToday I’m proud to launch a new section of the website:

Welcome to Hacking Chinese Challenges!

“Build your language skills through daily practice and friendly competition!”

The concept is simple. Each month, there will be a challenge focusing on one particular area of learning Chinese, where you strive to reach your goal and/or beat your friends. The challenges are very straightforward: set a goal, study as much as you can, log your activity and make sure you reach your goal before the end of the month.

To make sure we diversify our studying, I have worked out a schedule and will cycle different types of challenges. You can join all the challenges and get a lot of everything or just join those that happen to be aligned with your current plans, it’s up to you.

If you join all the challenges, I will make sure that the proportions make sense, so even if there will be some special/unique/interesting challenges, most will just be very useful.


Once you have registered, you can join challenges, set goals and report progress. Please note that this month’s challenge will start on Friday, so even if you can enrol now, you can’t start reporting progress before Friday. I will write more about this month’s challenge on Thursday and will also post some suggested resources early next week.

I have included more specific instructions on how to use Hacking Chinese Challenges below, but let’s look at the schedule first. I will update this as I come up with new challenges or if I decide to include reader suggestions. Leave a comment if you have ideas for challenges!

I have sorted the challenges into three different categories:

Essential: Areas that will recur 3-4 times each year

  • Extensive listening
  • Extensive reading

Important: Areas that will recur 1-2 times each year

  • Speaking and pronunciation
  • Writing and composition
  • Characters and vocabulary

Interesting: Challenges that will occur sporadically

  • Translation
  • Grammar and sentence patterns
  • Culture related
  • Music and lyrics
  • Films, TV series and programs

There will be one challenge each month that will last for roughly three weeks, always starting on a weekday and ending on the last day of the month. Three weeks is enough to stay focused and achieve a lot, but not so long that you tire and get distracted. You also get one week breathing space between each challenge.

Challenge schedule for 2014 (subject to change)

  1. Extensive listening (October 10th to October 31st)
  2. Extensive reading (November 10th to November 30th)
  3. Translation (December 10th to December 31st)

You can enrol in any available challenge in advance (just follow the links above) and it’s also perfectly fine to join late, just adjust your goals, because the end date is the same for everyone! The page “your statistics” will help you keep track of how much time there’s left, how you have performed so far and how that compares with your goal. This is a bigger version of the image above:

challenge-screenEach challenge will be preceded by a post on Hacking Chinese where I introduce the challenge and share some relevant articles and resources (you can always go to Hacking Chinese Resources). Let’s help each other out and share tips, information and resources for each challenge!

Why do we need challenges?

I like challenges a lot and I think it’s an excellent way to stay focused, especially for learners who aren’t taking courses but still want to improve. My hope is that if you commit to these challenges, you’ll get more done.

I have participated in several reading challenges (this project is inspired by Read More or Die) and I typically read more than twice as much when I’m in a challenge compared to when I’m not! I want to use this power not only for reading, but for all areas of language learning. And I want you to join me. I plan to enrol in all challenges myself and I came up with the idea partly because I need this badly myself.

How to use Hacking Chinese Challenges

Most of the functions should be self-explanatory, but here’s how it works for new users:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join either the current or an upcoming challenge
  4. Read the related article for tips, information and resources
  5. Study and learn as much Chinese as you can
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

This is a beta version

This is a beta version. It has been through some testing before this (I ran a listening challenge with volunteers from the e-mail list as well as a short vocabulary challenge with people from Facebook). However, there are likely still occasional quirks and bugs. This is a work in progress and if you have any feedback or comments, please let me know!

Just as for Hacking Chinese Resources, I’m not responsible for the coding on this project. Instead I have relied on the invaluable help of Stefan Wienert, thank you! I have also received a lot of help from Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project.

Get ready

I’m going to tell you more about the October challenge this Thursday, but if you want to start now, you could prepare yourself by enrolling in the challenge and finding as much listening material as you can. I’m going to talk much more about this later, but try to find audio that is at or below your level. See you again on Thursday!

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I divide my time between different projects, such as the next version of the pronunciation check, my upcoming book and writing articles about learning Chinese for other companies.

If you like Hacking Chinese and want me to be able to keep develop going, the best thing you can do is share posts and projects with your friends. Donations are of course also welcome! If people donate more, I will spend more time here and not somewhere else.

Please support Hacking Chinese!

If you want to read more about my different roles on Skritter and About.com, please read last month’s round-up. If you want to view all articles published elsewhere, check my bibliography page.

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

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

  1. Qixi Festival – Chinese Valentine’s Day – The story of the Weaver Maid and the Cowherd
  2. Improving your Chinese with podcasts – Three podcasts to increase your listening ability
  3. How to learn Chinese characters efficiently – Learning and remembering words
  4. How tone pairs can improve your Mandarin pronunciation – Mastering tones and tone changes in Chinese
  5. Improving reading ability in Chinese – Two reading strategies for language learners
  6. How to speak Mandarin fluently – Short-term and long-term strategies for increasing fluency
  7. English loanwords in Mandarin – Making sense of words borrowed into Chinese
  8. How to learn to understand spoken Chinese – Overcoming common problems with listening ability
  9. Learning to hear the different sounds in Mandarin – Distinguishing between Chinese sounds and tones

Using mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese, part 1
Using mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese, part 2
August, 2014 – Skritter
These articles are a basic introduction of why and how to use mnemonics to learn Chinese and Japanese. They are meant for students have little or now prior knowledge of memory techniques and want to know what all the fuzz is about and how to get in on it.

Learning with Native Mandarin Chinese Audio: A No-Nonsense Guide
August, 2014 – FluentU
It’s necessary to spend a bit of time listening to learner-oriented audio, but at some point you need to turn to real, native audio. In this article, I discuss this step in general as well as some steps you can take to make it easier and/or more enjoyable.

9 Bold Strategies to Improve Your Conversational Chinese
August, 2014 – FluentU
In this article, I go through nine strategies (which may or may not be bold) for how to improve your conversational Chinese, mostly while you’re in the conversation. In other words, these are things you should pay attention to while you practice speaking Chinese.

A Complete Guide to Learning Chinese with the News
August, 2014 – FluentU
In this article, I talk about learning Chinese through the news and I discuss various strategies to use when trying to understand news both in spoken and written form. I also bring up benefits of using news articles and broadcasts as learning material for advanced learners.

That’s it for now! I’m still a bit behind schedule, so I will publish one more article like this at the end of the month and then there will be one each month, provided I keep writing articles I want to share, but that looks very likely. Stay tuned!

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handwritingimeIn almost every modern textbook I’ve seen on teaching methodology, and not a few research papers, the importance of communication is emphasised. This is part of the core of both communicative learning and task-based learning, and has several benefits.

Communicating is the real goal of language learning, so it makes sense to practise in a way as close to the goal as possible.

However, as we saw in last week’s article (Focusing on communication to learn Chinese), focusing only on communication is an approach that might work well for children, but it’s definitely not the best way for adult learners.

Communicative handwriting

In this article, I want to talk about communicative learning and writing Chinese characters. This is an area where I’m convinced that everybody’s doing way too much studying and way too little communicating (i.e. the opposite of what I talked about last week). Proportionally speaking, how much of your character learning is communicative?

This isn’t communication

In most classrooms and courses, learning to write characters by hand is often far removed from any kind of communication. Here are a few examples of what doesn’t count as communicative:

  • Reviewing characters using flashcards of any kind
  • Writing characters during dictation in class
  • Copying a text already written in characters or Pinyin
  • Creating mnemonics for characters you want to be able to write
  • Practising calligraphy on paper

All these are useful activities in certain contexts, but they aren’t communicative! You’re writing characters only to write characters, there is no goal of conveying meaning or information to someone else in a meaningful way.

As I pointed out in last week’s article, studying has its role and you do need to study a lot to learn Chinese characters, but I also think you should include communication as much as possible in your character learning. This is more fun, makes learning meaningful and a natural part of your life, not a chore you have to get through.

Use handwriting input on your phone

This is the best advice I have to offer. Even though it’s definitely quicker, don’t use a phonetic input method on your phone, use handwriting instead. This means that when you write something in Chinese, you’ll review characters at the same time. You’ll get very good at common ones and you will occasionally need to think about how to write less common characters as well.

If you think this is too hard or takes too much time, you can set a limit of some kind. You don’t have to write all characters by hand, just do that for the first X minutes or Y characters. Then you can switch to some other input method. This ensures that you practice writing characters but avoids the problem where you stop writing altogether because it’s too annoying.

Communicating with your future self

Modern people typically don’t write that much by hand, but we still do sometimes. You should start doing this in Chinese as far as it’s possible. For instance, you can write shopping lists and to-do lists in Chinese. Take notes in Chinese when you can. Of course, you can always skip characters you don’t know and just write Pinyin (or even English) if you don’t know them. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The point is to communicate with your future self successfully and that should be the main goal.

What is communication anyway?

I plan to write an article about communication and language learning later, but I still want to include a brief discussion here. One might think that anything related to language learning is communication because that’s ultimately what languages are about.

This is not what the word means in a language learning context, though.

Instead, communication means genuine exchange of information in a meaningful way. Thus, if you read a dialogue in a textbook, it’s not communication because your partner learns nothing new from what you say (it’s already in the textbook).

In fact, many common classroom activities are not communicative! An example of a real communicative exercise in a beginner classroom might be to exchange phone numbers using the Chinese numbers you just learnt (if your partner doesn’t already know your phone number).

Communication should also be meaningful, although this is harder to achieve and, in my opinion, of secondary importance. For instance, it’s extremely hard to communicate something of genuine interest as a beginner. You only have one phone number and I might not ever be interested in writing it down!

Therefore, we sometimes opt for communication with simulated meaning, such as using a made-up phone number that could have been your own or answering questions about a made-up schedule to practice time words and school subjects. The point is that these exercises still have real-world relevance and could take place outside the classroom.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese

Using communicative handwriting is not only more natural, more effective and more fun, it’s also a cornerstone of my minimum-effort approach to learning to write Chinese characters. I will publish an article about this approach next month, but I’ll hint at the content now by saying that apart from communicative writing, spaced repetition, typing and reading also play important roles. Stay tuned!

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There are many people who advocate a very hands-on approach to language learning, urging us to simply use the language as much as possible and let learning (acquisition) take place along the way. They focus mostly on communication and very little on form.

This approach works, but it’s a lot harder for Chinese than for languages closely related to your native language (check what Scott Young said after his adventure in China after learning French, Spanish and Portuguese, for example). In order to be able to communicate in a language, you need certain basic knowledge, which takes somewhat longer to acquire in Chinese.

It’s all about efficiency

However, the main question I want to discuss in this article isn’t if it works or not, it’s how good the approach is and if there might be better ways of doing it. The reason I don’t really care about if something just works or not is that (almost) anything works if you spend enough time. Let’s look at vocabulary acquisition as an example:

You can learn characters and words without studying at all, but you’re going to forget most of what you learn unless you spend an awful lot of time using the language.

If it takes you ten minutes to learn a word, you’re not using a very good method. If you forget 50% of what you learn, it’s probably not a good method either. Just to give you an example, learning a character or a word might only take a minute or two if that time is spread out over time and spaced properly (the average time for learning an item in Skritter is just below one minute, for instance).

The point is that here on Hacking Chinese, I’m concerned with how well something works, how efficient it is. I’ve written more about this here: Learning efficiently vs. learning quickly. Now, let’s get back to learning Chinese through communication. As we shall see, the problem isn’t really that communication isn’t a good way of learning, it’s that it’s hard to do it enough for it to work properly!

Focusing on communication as a beginner

As a beginner, it’s very hard to spend enough time on communication with the limited amount of language you have learnt already. There are no endless sources of good listening and/or reading material for you (although you can find a lot here). If it’s extremely demanding for you to speak and write Chinese, you won’t be able to spend enough time to learn efficiently. You will burn yourself out or go crazy. This doesn’t really go away until you reach a level where you can understand Chinese written or spoken for a native audience, and speak Chinese for extended periods without tiring too much.

If you focus only on communication, you run the risk of neglecting some aspects of Chinese that are actually very important. Let’s look at tones as an example. You might argue that if tones are really important for communication, you would learn them by practising communication, but as I have argued in another article, this isn’t really the case.

This is because as a beginner, you don’t really need tones to make yourself understood, the listener can probably guess what you want to say anyway because the possible things you can say are very limited based on the context and the fact that you’re obviously a beginner. This does not mean that tones are not important for communication!

The same can be said about many other areas of Chinese, such as writing characters, pronunciation in general and perhaps also grammar and word choice.

A balanced approach

I think communication is the essence of languages and also of language learning. Way too many people, especially in foreign language classrooms around the world, spend too little time actually communicating in the language they’re learning, not too much! I don’t want anyone to interpret this article as a call for less communication in general.

Communication is great for a number of reasons:

  • It’s motivating and fun
  • It helps you find problems
  • It’s practical not just theoretical
  • It’s about skill not just knowledge

I want a lot of communication, but I want it mixed with actual studying. For most people, using some kind of spaced repetition is by far the best way of rapidly building and maintaining vocabulary. For most people, it’s necessary to focus explicitly on tones and pronunciation to get the basics right. For most people, drills help to expand our ways of expressing ourselves in Chinese, even at an advanced level.

Communicate as much as possible

The fact that it’s hard to communicate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t, you’ll never learn Chinese. Many schools have no-English policies and this is a good thing if not taken to extremes. Yes, it’s easier to switch to English if you can’t think of how to say something in Chinese, but if you do that every time you run into a problem, you will never learn how to express yourself in Chinese. It is hard. It will become easier with practice. I will discuss no-English rules more in an upcoming article.

Focusing on communication as an advanced learner

Most people I’ve spoken with seem to agree that once you reach an advanced level, focusing mainly on communication is the smoothest and most common method both of maintaining and expanding your ability. I mostly agree with this.

For instance, I don’t study English grammar or vocabulary much and haven’t done so for almost ten years. Sure, I have used a lot of English and I listen and read English for many hours each day, but I don’t study the language as such, I just use it. The same is true for Chinese. I speak and listen a lot, read and write some, but I don’t really study Chinese that much nowadays.

However, there are areas where I think most learners should study more Chinese, mostly in relation to the areas I have already mentioned above. For instance, even though you might pick up a few new words here and there by using Chinese, you probably won’t remember all of them and some of them might be rare enough that you have forgotten them next time you see or hear them. This is where spaced repetition software comes in.

When it comes to speaking ability, I can express anything I want in Chinese with relative ease and in a language that is mostly correct and idiomatic, but my passive vocabulary and knowledge of grammar is much broader than my active skill. If I want to learn to express myself in a more varied and nuanced way or learn to use expressions I find easy to understand but don’t use myself, I would need to study.

The same is true for pronunciation. My pronunciation is good enough to almost never cause any problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. If I want to improve my pronunciation from this point, I need focused practice to improve. This is the only way to avoid fossilisation.

If I focused only on communicating in Chinese, it’s likely that I would improve slowly over the years and that my Chinese would be better ten years from now, but I know that if I really want to improve, I need to stop just using Chinese and focus on the aspects I have mentioned here. I already do so to some extent, but I really should be doing more.


Communication is the essence of language and it’s also the goal of language learning, but as I have argued in this article, focusing only on communication isn’t the best approach. I think we should use the language as much as possible, but I also think we need to study hard to overcome our weaknesses and learn more efficiently, regardless if we are beginners or advanced learners.

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