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The best way of handling most things you don’t agree with on the internet is to simply ignore them, an approach that is much healthier than giving in and trying to correct every wrong and straighten every question mark you see. Considering how much dubious material there is on the internet (and elsewhere) about learning Chinese, I would surely die without this strategy.
Learn to read Chinese… with ease!
This is what I tried to do with ShaoLan’s Learn to read Chinese… with ease? and similar discussions about learning Chinese characters, but since I still receive recommendations to watch her TED talk (mostly from people who don’t study Chinese) and questions about the content (mostly from people who do study Chinese), I think it’s time to write a little bit about learning to read Chinese.
I’m not going to bash either ShaoLan’s TED talk or her product (which I haven’t seen); this has already been done by others. Instead, I’m going to address some questions related to the content of her talk. I’m also going to expand on my answers and discuss how some of the difficulties with learning to read Chinese can be overcome. Please note that even though I use ShaoLan as an example here, what i say ought to apply to a lot of other people and products as well.
First, let’s have a look at her TED talk, which is only six minutes long:
Learn to read Chinese… with ease?
In general, I think being encouraging and optimistic about language learning is good, even if some difficult and depressing facts are ignored or brushed over. This is especially true for Chinese, which has earned a reputation for being impossible to learn, which is evidently not true. Even though I think the claim that learning to read Chinese is easy while learning to speak is hard, is exactly opposite to most people’s experience, I’m not going to dwell on speaking Chinese now.
Instead, I want to address an issue which is common in lots of product introductions and advertisements (not just the above TED talk), namely that of numbers relating to reading ability in Chinese. The claims are different in different sources, but these are from ShaoLan’s talk:
- A Chinese scholar knows 20000 characters
- 1000 characters will make you literate
- 200 characters to read menus, basic web pages and newspaper headlines
- Chinese characters are pictures
I’ll address these one by one. In some cases, there are no exact answers, but I’ll try to provide different points of view here, as well as my own opinion.
Chinese has a bazillion characters
For some reason, it’s quite popular to first scare students and say that there are 20000 or 50000 characters, making Chinese sound impossible. Most Chinese scholars certainly don’t know 20000 characters. That’s a ridiculously high number and the only ones who will stand a chance of reaching that are people who spends serious time focusing only on learning as many characters as possible. Divide the number by three and you get closer to the number of characters educated Chinese people actually know.
You don’t need that many characters to read Chinese
The next step is to make the amount of character you actually need to learn sound really low. It sounds much better to go from 20000 to 1000 than from 6000 to 3000, doesn’t it?. There are different numbers, but I think 2000 is the most common one, but ShaoLan chose 1000. Whatever the number is, it’s usually followed by a percentage telling you how much you can understand of Chinese text knowing that many characters. In the case of 1000 characters, it’s 40% in the video.
The problem is that any such comparison is completely meaningless. In Chinese, meaning is conveyed using words and most words consist of two characters. Thus, knowing a certain amount of characters isn’t directly related to reading ability at all. For instance, if you know that 明 means “bright” and 天 means “sky” you will have no idea that 明天 means “tomorrow”. This is not apparent from the constituent parts of the word.
Furthermore, even if you did know all words that could be created with all the characters you know, it still wouldn’t tell us much about your reading comprehension. The problem is that if you know the most common 1000 characters, you’re bound to know a lot of common pronouns, nouns, verbs and particles. However, these are rarely the key vocabulary in a sentence. Knowing 50% of the words in a sentence does not give you 50% reading ability. It might actually get you 0% reading ability in some cases and perhaps even more than 50% in others. Unless you’re reading fiction where there’s a lot of fancy adjectives and adverbs, I think not knowing key components in a sentence tends to reduce reading comprehension a lot more than the percentage of characters you know implies.
Apart from this, there’s also grammar, word order and a lot of other things to learn which aren’t related to the number of characters you know either. To sum things up, learning a certain amount of characters will have little direct effect on reading ability (although the indirect effects can be substantial).
200 characters to read newspaper headlines?
This claim is somewhat unique for ShaoLan, I think, and I have no idea where she got this from. In my experience, headlines are often the trickiest part of a newspaper article. When I took a course in newspaper reading in 2009, we usually saved the title until after we read the article because it only made sense for us when we already knew the story. 200 characters won’t take you close to understanding newspaper headlines, 2000 probably won’t either.
The same is true for menus, but in a different way. The problem (at least for me) with menus in Chinese is that there are so many characters that are only used for food. I don’t really care that much and haven’t bothered to learn all these characters, so I find menus confusing even though I can write about 5000 characters. Approaching a menu with the 200 most common characters will probably only give you hints for a small part of the menu and will most likely only tell you if it’s rice, noodles or soup. If you’re lucky, you might be able to deduce what animal has died to provide your meal.
It would be interesting to take a few menus and see how many of the characters on them fall within the 1000 most common characters. If you have a menu and some spare time, feel free to contribute! Let’s use this list for frequency data. If you want to know more about roughly what you need, you can start with this article over at Sinosplice.
Chinese characters aren’t pictures
I’m sorry to say this, but Chinese characters aren’t pictures. Yes, there is a (very) small percentage of characters that originally directly represented objects in the physical world, such as 日 “sun” and 月 “moon”, but these characters make up a small fraction of characters in use today. I have a several books that teach Chinese characters through pictures and the problem with all of them is that they are mostly cherry-picking easy characters that make good pictures.
You can probably learn a few hundred characters this way, but the problem is that the characters you learn this way are not going to be the most frequently used characters. For instance, while it’s true that 囚 means “prisoner”, this character doesn’t appear in the most commonly used 2500 characters and will help little to increase your reading ability. The same is true for 姦, which is actually a traditional character (simplified as 奸).
This reminds me of something else. If you’re learning Chinese, you should choose to learn either traditional or simplified characters and stick to one set until you know it relatively well (it doesn’t really matter which you choose). You can learn both sets later and it’s not very hard, but choosing one or the other on a character-by-character basis because one might be easier to recognise than the other is not a good idea (for instance, ShaoLan uses traditional 姦 but simplified 从).
Learning to read Chinese is not easy
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has learnt to read Chinese. Still, the point with this article isn’t to discourage you and say that Chinese is impossible to learn either, but I do think a that a measure of realism is needed. Learning a hundred pictographs and combinations of such isn’t all that hard and there’s nothing really new with that method.
But what about the rest? What about the remaining 3000 characters you need to approach actually literacy? Here are a few things you can do to boost your character learning and make learning Chinese possible, although it will still take a lot of time:
- Most Chinese characters (around 80%) are combinations of meaning and sound. Learn how these characters work and you will save yourself a lot of time and trouble. I have written two articles about this:
Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters
Phonetic components, part 2: Hacking Chinese characters
- Use clever memory techniques (mnemonics) to learn characters. This is not something new, it’s been practised basically forever, but our understanding of why and how mnemonics work has improved immensely. I have written about this many times:
Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning
Remembering is a skill you can learn
Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components
- Don’t rely on rote learning if you can avoid it. There are some thing you will have to rely on brute force to learn and that’s okay, but whenever you can, try to make learning meaningful. If you want pictures like those used in the TED talk above, Memrise is a good place to start (it’s also free). In any case, avoid rote learning. It might work, but it’s horribly inefficient.
You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge
Learning to read Chinese is not impossible, but it’s not easy either. Exactly how difficult it is depends on a lot of factors, some of which are beyond your control, but ShaoLan definitely has a point when she argues that learning Chinese needn’t be as hard as people think. Personally, I don’t like the way she does it, it looks way too much like someone trying to sell a product regardless of the truthfulness of the sales pitch.
Moreover, cherry-picking examples to prove your point isn’t very good, although I have made myself guilty of that as well. Still, if this makes people just a little bit more optimistic about learning Chinese, making them start learning the language or keep on studying even if it feels impossible at times, I’m not really complaining.
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Over the years, I’ve built up a simple but yet powerful cycle of listening activities that provides most of what I need. This series of exercises contains everything from test-like listening comprehension to very active (and demanding) listening for details, as well as long-term retention, vocabulary building and sentence mining.
Enter: The Grand Listening Cycle
Let’s go through the steps quickly to give you the general idea:
- Benchmarking – Find something interesting to listen to (this is of course highly individual, but exactly what to listen to is beyond the scope of this article). If it’s longer than a few minutes, break it down into several parts (you can do this on the fly). Pretend that you’re taking an exam and listen through the audio material once and note the results. This works as a kind of benchmark. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, but if you understand nothing, you should choose something easier. If possible, choose something that comes with a transcript.
- Grinding – Put the audio on your preferred audio device and listen to it as much as you can. Put it in a folder called “new” or similar. I usually don’t stress it and sometimes leave the audio file on my phone for weeks before I do anything else with it, listening to it perhaps a dozen times. Gradually, you will start understanding the recording in detail, even though there will of course be gaps.
- Transcribing - Now that you are familiar with the audio. Do your best to produce a transcript. The best way to do this is using Audacity, because you can pause, easily find where you were last time and loop the same section of the audio file over and over (hold shift and then click play). You can also reduce the rate of speech, which is awesome. If you encounter a new word you really don’t know, write Pinyin. Check your transcript against the official version (or ask a native speaker to help you if you don’t have a transcript). Checking a complete transcript for errors is relatively easy for native speakers.
- Studying - Go through the transcript you have produced just as if it were a normal textbook. Look up key vocabulary, extract cool sentences and learn useful sentence patterns. Do not try to learn everything you don’t know. Use SRS for anything interesting you find.
- Reviewing - Move the audio file to a new folder (“review” or something else that contrasts with “new” above). Depending on your energy level at any particular time, you can now choose to 1) listen to something in the “new” folder (demanding) or something in the “review” folder (much easier). The more you listen, the better, but since you should have a pretty good grasp of the audio already, you don’t need to listen all that often. When you do, it functions as review of everything you’ve learnt from that clip.
If you’re not really clear about what background, passive and active listening are and why they are all essential, you might want to read these articles, describing each concept in detail:
Applying the grand listening cycle
You can use this cycle for any kind of audio material, including songs, news broadcasts, films, TV shows, lecture recordings, interviews or anything else you can think of. Naturally, you can and should have many cycles going at the same time. A while ago, I focused a lot on news broadcasts, typically only a few minutes long. I usually downloaded around four of them and took them all to the grinding phase at the same time, transcribing them one at a time whenever I felt ready.
Learning to understand spoken Chinese is mostly a matter of practice and I’ve found that having fixed and regular routines helps a lot. You could set a quota for each week or commit to a certain number of minutes of completed material, but you should be aware that this cycle takes a lot of time to complete for any audio above your current comfort level. The reason that it takes time and is demanding is that you’re constantly pushing yourself, the best way to improve quickly!
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Since the character challenge is in full swing (the first milestone was reached earlier this week, but it’s not too late to join now), I’m going to take this opportunity and discuss character reviewing in more detail. This isn’t really meant to be a comprehensive overview or anything like that, I think I already provided that in the article I published just before the challenge was launched: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. Instead, I’m going to give three practical, hands-on tips for how to improve the way you’re reviewing characters.
When using flashcard software, it’s very easy to cheat and take shortcuts. If you have really forgotten a character, it might be fine to just try to relearn it once by simply resetting the interval and starting from scratch. It might even be okay several times, but the more you do this, the more time you’re wasting. If you have a large enough deck and have learnt Chinese for some time, your worst flashcards will start taking up a significant amount of your time. These cards are called “leeches” in Anki, a very suitable name, because they completely drain your time and energy. I’ve written an article about this (Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches), but here’s the essential advice:
- Remove them from the review queue (“ban”, “suspend” or whatever)
- Deal with them actively (meaning mnemonics, learning character components and so on)
- Look at similar characters or characters that share components (horizontal vocabulary learning)
To summarise, just hitting “next” when you fail might make you feel like you’re saving time, but dealing properly with these leeches from the very start will save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run. Learning characters by rote is not a good idea.
2) Spread out your learning, but be aware of time quality
This is probably the most important advice I have to give. Reviewing characters in front of your computer is generally not a good idea, because you’re using high quality time to achieve something that you could easily achieve with lower quality time, thus violating the time quality rule.
Vocabulary reviewing can be divided into two separate parts and it should be obvious that they require time of different quality:
- Reviewing characters you remember (low time quality requirement)
- Dealing with characters you have forgotten (high time quality requirement)
This is one of the reasons it makes sense to suspend or ban cards you have forgotten, especially if you encounter these in the queue to the bus, in the line in the grocery store or while waiting for a bowl of noodles somewhere. That’s not the best time to look up character parts, study related vocabulary or create mnemonics. Suspend or ban and save for later.
I wrote more about what I call capacity management in an article on the FluentU blog.
3) Be aware of the validity of your current study method
In essence, this can be formulated in one single, simple question:
Is your current study method preparing you for what you want to use your character writing for?
I’m going to give you one concrete example, but there ought to be many more that will differ slightly between different programs and study situations. If you learn characters mostly because you want to increase your understanding of characters and your general reading ability, it doesn’t matter much if your study method leaves you unable to write Chinese by hand, but if your goal is to be able to use written Chinese in a professional or academic situation, you need to make sure you’re practising in a way that is actually preparing you for this (I talk about this more in the video below).
I created this little video to show you a fairly serious problem in Skritter. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to overcome. In programs that offer no feedback, the possibilities of cheating or being too relaxed are of course much, much greater. This is in fact part of the reason I think Skritter is so good; it does work quite well in a majority of cases.
With default settings in Skritter, you write a stroke and if the algorithm decides that your stroke is correct, it helps you draw a pretty version of that stroke. This might be good because it gives you feedback on what the stroke was supposed to look like if you screwed it up a bit, but I’m certain this is mostly bad.
Why? Because Skritter will help you too much. When you write a character on paper, you don’t get confirmation for each stroke that what you’re doing is right and paper doesn’t accidentally turn incorrect characters into correct ones.
If you have any hand-on advice for me or other learners, please share in the comments!
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We have now reached the first milestone in the sensible character learning challenge 2014! What does this mean? That depends on whether or not you’re already in the challenge:
- If you’re in the challenge, read on and follow the instructions!
- If you’re not in the challenge, this is an excellent opportunity to join!
The challenge was launched in this article, which contains all the information you need if you want to join. In short, the goal is to both improve the way we learn characters and learn to write a lot of characters together in the process. There will be prizes for active participants for each milestone, including character posters from Hanzi WallChart, free extensions to Skritter and free promo codes for Nommoc. Note that thee tripled extension period and six month discount is still available for new Skritter users (follow the instructions in the launch article linked to above).
There are currently 94 participants in the challenge, which means we haven’t beat the record from last year, but we probably will soon if you help me spreading the word!
If you want to join, go to the launch article and post your milestones and goals according to the instructions (you can also check my example, which is the first comment to the article). Naturally, since milestone #1 is now reached, new participants start with milestone #2.
Active participants will receive prizes
What counts as active depends a little bit on what the purpose of counting is, but joining the challenge, talking about it here, on your own blog and on social media all count, as do posting a progress report for this milestone (see below). I will give you until Sunday (my time) to update your progress, then the activity status will be reset, so everybody starts equal from scratch again!
The prizes will be given as follows:
- Hanzi WallChart posters - Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. I will announce the winners on Sunday in this article and will also contact you directly through the e-mail you used to sign up for the challenge with.
- Skritter extension - One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants, If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is contact me in some way and i will make sure you get your extension. Note that the guys at Skritter can easily check if you have been active in the challenge!
- Nommoc promo codes - Two free promo codes will be given to the first two participants who request a promo code, just leave a comment to this post. These codes will be given on a first come first serve basis and there are only two, so hurry up!
Your progress report
So, how’s it going? To set a good example and initiate a discussion, I will share my own progress below; I encourage you to share yours in the comments! There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but focusing on these things seems reasonable:
- Have you reached your goal for the first milestone?
- What (if anything) are you going to change?
- What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?
Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you gave succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly normal. The opposite is also cool; this is what happened to me. Share your experience, help others if you can (providing input, encouragement and so on) and see how you can improve yourself for the next stretch of the challenge.
My progress report
This is what my commitment to the challenge looked like:
Starting point (March 22nd): 4000
Milestone #1 (April 8th): +300 (4300 total)
Milestone #2 (April 30th): +250 (4550 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +250 (4800 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +200 (5000 total)
How have I been doing, then? Pretty well, actually. I spent a lot more time learning characters than I thought. I might also have slightly underestimated how many of the due characters I had forgotten. In any case, I currently have 4733 unique characters in Skritter. However, we have to subtract the 150 banned cards I have (Skritter includes these in your total character count for some reason). My actual number is therefore 4583! This means that I have actually not only reached milestone #1, I have already achieved the goal for milestone #2! This is a clear indicator that I set a goal which was way too easy, even though I didn’t think it would be easy when I set it.
What am I going to change? I will be bold and add the rest of the “common” character list I’m using (total 5568 characters). Since I have a number of characters not on that list, the grand total will be 5775 unique characters. My update milestones look like this:
Current status (April 8th): 4583
Milestone #2 (April 30th): +300 (4883 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +400 (5283 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +492 (5775 total)
What have I learnt? Well, the most obvious thing is that being really good at character components helps quite a lot. I often learn new characters simply by looking at the parts and associating them with the meaning of the character. Naturally, it takes some reading and reviewing to associate the character with a few words it occurs in, but I generally try to focus on meaning and writing as much as possible.
The routine I outlined in the first article seems to work pretty well. I study the characters for the first time (read more about how to do this here) using Pleco and once I have a passive understanding of them, I transfer them to Skritter and write the by hand there. The only thing that takes a lot of time is making sure I don’t mix up character with similar meaning and/or pronunciation!
There will be two updates this week. First, I will post an article related to character learning (probably on Thursday or Friday) and then I will update this article with the character poster winners on Sunday. Stay tuned, keep focus and 加油！
…and the winners are…
It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners. To make it clear and to the point, I will just list the prizes and the names of the participants who have won, along with instructions for what to do next (if any):
- Hanzi WallChart posters: Teresa and 戴睿 (I have forwarded your info to the company)
- Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, but you need to tell me that you want a code
- Nommoc promo codes: Gerrityong and Xiaokaka (I have forwarded your info to the company)
There will be more prizes for the next milestone! I know people don’t participate mainly for the prizes, but I still hope it’s a small encouragement along the road. If you know someone who wants to give something away for the next milestone, let me know and perhaps we can even more prizes next time. Today, I also reset any data regarding activity, so everybody has an equal chance of doing well up to milestone #2!
Feedback is an integral part of learning a foreign language and there is no doubt that we need it to improve. While it’s certainly possible to learn a lot with simply a lot of exposure to the language, both when it comes to spoken and written language, it’s very hard to increase accuracy in speaking and writing without feedback.
As adult learners of Chinese, we have experience with at least one other language and that means that we constantly make assumptions about how Chinese works which might be incorrect. We need feedback from other people to correct these problems. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to pronunciation (it might sound good to you, but not to a native ear), but it’s also true for speaking in general as well as writing.
However, giving good feedback is not easy and it’s perhaps even harder to receive feedback it well. I have already written about the art of being corrected, so now it’s time to write about the other end of the exchange and discuss how to give feedback. This article isn’t meant for teachers only, though, because as a learner you can use these ideas to increase the quality of feedback you receive from your language exchanges, class teachers or private tutors. The quality of the feedback can be improved tremendously by following a few easy principles, but let’s look a little bit closer at the problem first.
What bad feedback looks like
When I was an upper-intermediate learner, I took a course in written Chinese that was awful in many regards, but the worst part of the entire course was the feedback we received from our teacher. I usually spent more time trying to understand what I had done wrong than I spent writing the essay in the first place.
Now, if this time was well spent trying to figure out good ways of expressing myself in Chinese, fine, but I actually didn’t understand what I was doing wrong at all or why the teacher wanted me to change something, so I ended up giving the essay to other native speakers for feedback. They sometimes didn’t understand either, but they still managed to help me improve the essay.
The reason the feedback was so bad was that the teacher didn’t use a sensible notation system. If something was wrong, she underlined it with a red pen and that was it. That meant that the only thing you knew when you saw that read line was that something in that sentence was wrong. Syntax? Vocabulary? Collocations? Logic? Something else? Does the sentence just sound a little bit strange or was it completely wrong? I didn’t even know where to start.
Why good feedback matters
Misunderstanding feedback is catastrophic, because it might lead to the unlearning something which is actually right, while ignoring the actual problem. For instance, I might think that the teacher don’t approve of the verb-noun choice in the sentence, and then make a mental note not to write that again, whereas it is in fact the word order of the sentence that is wrong, which I might fail to notice entirely.
One very common problem is not indicating if the sentence in question is just plain wrong or of it just isn’t very idiomatic in Chinese. This matters because if you (incorrectly) think that what you wrote is totally wrong, this might screw up your mental representations of Chinese grammar and syntax. If it were clear from the feedback that you sentence is actually quite good, albeit rarely used by native speakers, your confidence for grammar and syntax might actually be reinforced by the correction.
Some guidelines to use for more useful feedback
Instead of complaining about bad teachers I’ve had, I’m going to share with you some easy steps to take to improve the feedback you give (if you’re a teacher) or that you can try to persuade your teacher to use (if you’re a student):
- Different shades of wrong - There are numerous different ways of being wrong and knowing which one it is helps quite a lot. Let’s look at three of them, in decreasing order of seriousness. First, your teacher might not understand what you’re trying to express at all. This is typically marked with a question mark and usually requires a discussion. Second, the sentence might be understandable, but obviously wrong in some way. This needs to be clearly shown, preferably using a special colour like red. Third, a sentence might be technically correct (i.e. follow syntactic rules and be sound in general), but simply not part of what Chinese people say. Use another colour to mark this, perhaps blue.
- Writing too much or too little – The theory of how context and language interact to form meaning is called pragmatics. Among other things, pragmatics cover how people try to hit the sweet spot between saying too much and too little when communicating with others. If you say too much, you will come across as verbose or boring: if you say too little, people won’t understand what you say. The tricky thing is that this is different in different languages. You might think your paragraph is perfect, yet your teacher thinks it lacks certain things and contain too much of something else. The language might be correct and idiomatic, but you’ve missed the third level of communication: pragmatics (the first tow being semantics and syntax). Use another colour to indicate this kind of problem, like green.
- Don’t correct everything - If you’re a teacher and are dealing with average students, don’t correct too much, because nothing is more depressing than receiving a paper where the red ink used exceeds the black ink used to write the essay. Instead, focus on systematic and serious errors. Leave the fine-tuning for later. For some students, it might be okay to correct more, but I doubt that it’s beneficial even if the student is mentally strong and won’t feel depressed. There’s a limit to how much we can take in anyway.
- Don’t always give the right answer - The teacher shouldn’t always give the right answer, at least not immediately. If the student makes a mistake the teacher know that he can actually correct himself, there’s no need to spell it out. Thinking about a problem and solving it leaves a much deeper impression than just being fed the correct answer. However, it should still be clear what the problem is, we don’t want to end up in the situation I described in the introduction to this article.
- Be aware that there are different kinds of mistakes – This requires that the teacher knows the student fairly well, but knowing what kind of mistake the student has just made is crucial. The main distinction between mistake (the student actually knows the right answer, but failed this time anyway) and error (a systematic problem that will occur in all such situation because the student doesn’t know what is correct). I’ve written more about this here: Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis.
- Give positive feedback and praise now and then - If you encounter a sentence which is really good compared with the average level of the text, the teacher should let the student know. Personally, I’m very keen on learning what I do wrong and don’t mind heavy criticism on things I say or write as long as I’m given a reasonable chance to know what I should have said or written instead, but even I think that receiving praise now and then feels great. Don’t overdo it, though, and never praise erroneous sentences. Use a pretty colour like pink and add a short, personal comment.
Naturally, I have only given examples here. It doesn’t really matter exactly what method the teacher uses to let the student understand where the mistakes are and what to do about them, as long as the student can understand without spending hours and needing to consult other native speakers. Colours are perhaps most suitable for digital correction, but special symbols or coloured pens should do the trick on paper.
Feedback is precious
When reading your essay, the teacher might understand very well what you have done wrong and might know how to help you. It’s a pity if that potential help got lost on the way because of bad standards for giving feedback. If you follow the guidelines in this article, the quality of the feedback will increase, and, as a result, the amount of Chinese being taught or learnt will increase as well!
A few weeks ago, David Mansaray over at Language is Culture asked me if I was interested in appearing in his new interview series focusing on different aspects of language learning. Since the content he had produced earlier looked really interesting and he seemed to be cool guy in general, I didn’t hesitate. After having discussed briefly, we settled on pronunciation as the topic of the interview. You can listen to the interview here:
Naturally, we didn’t talk about everything related to learning pronunciation (just like Hacking Chinese doesn’t actually tell you everything you need to know about learning Chinese), but we did cover a lot of interesting topics, such as:
- How to train your ears to distinguish similar sounds in a foreign language
- How to learn the pronunciation of words at the start of your language learning journey
- The path to sounding like a native (and the reason why most people fail)
- The best ways to get honest feedback on your pronunciation
- How to manipulate the production of sound coming out of your mouth
- How to constantly improve your pronunciation
The interview is about 70 minutes long and you can listen to it directly or download it from Language is Culture.
Some thoughts and reflections
I just listened through the interview myself and I’d like to share a few thoughts:
- It’s great talking to other people who are also interested in pronunciation
- It’s very hard to explain complicated topics in a limited amount of time for an imagined audience
- I want to spend more time improving my own pronunciation, both in English and Chinese
- I really do believe that the system is heavily stacked against people who don’t learn quickly
- I have almost no photos of myself available (that was the only one I could find)
- Pronunciation really is the most interesting part of learning a new language!
What did you think?
If you listen to the interview, it would be great hearing what you think. Remember, I have (virtually) unlimited amount of space on this website to write more about any of the topics mentioned in the interview, so if you want me to expand on something, let me know! I also think I have a lot to learn when it comes to interviews and creating/contributing audio content in general, so feedback in that area would also be much appreciated!
Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.
In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.
So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:
- Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
- Set three milestones for reaching your goal
- Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
- I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
- Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
- People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
- Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter
Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.
1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.
Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.
My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.
2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.
Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:
- Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
- Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
- Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
- End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal
In my case, then:
- Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
- Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
- Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
- End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)
Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.
3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.
I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!
Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)
4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.
Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.
These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!
6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.
I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.
I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.
7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter
If we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).
The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed) will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.
Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?
That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):
If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!
- Olle Linge
- Elizabeth Braun
- Jacob Gill
- Brian Emord
- Jacob Job
- Dan Poole
- Hugh Grigg
- Frederico Ferro Schuh
- Rob Flye
- Lucía 学习吧
- Kelby Barker
- Ana H. Zentarski
- Joaquin Matek
- Kyle Balmer 凯尔
- Daniela Rodríguez
- Dean James
- Doug Stetar
- Nathan Fields
- Jeb Topper
- Renee Bovee
- Jamison Watson
- Martin W 龍馬丁
- hitesh agrawal
- Ryan T
That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!
Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
- Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
- Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014 (this article)
- Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!
Since that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.
The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.
The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning
The goal with this challenge is two-fold:
- We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
- We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters
The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?
Sensible character learning
Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.
What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:
The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.
If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.
Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.
What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.
This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.
Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.
Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!
The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:
- Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
- Set three milestones for reaching your goal
- Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
- I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
- Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
- People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
- Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter
More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!
The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
- Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
- Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
- Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
It’s been way too long since the previous meet-up and it’s time to get together again to talk about Chinese, life, the universe and whatever else you want to talk about. About a dozen people usually turn up and this is an excellent occasion to get to know some other serious learners and talk about Chinese for a few hours. The main language is English (i.e. you don’t have to be good at Chinese to join), but Chinese is of course also great.
If you want to join, please sign up via Facebook below or leave a comment to this post. If you’re going to bring your friend, partner or whatever, please let me know as well so I can book the appropriate number of tables.
Exact location will be announced later, but it will be within easy reach from the main station. The meet-up itself is of course free, but most restaurants and cafés have a minimum charge. See you there!
Grammar is something central to learning any language, including Chinese. If someone says otherwise, it’s probably because they don’t know what grammar means, so let’s start with a basic definition (from Wikipedia):
grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language
Thus, while it’s true that Chinese grammar is different from English grammar or the grammar of other European languages you might have encountered, Chinese certainly has a complex grammar itself and mastering how make words, construct phrases and string together sentences is an essential part of learning Chinese. There’s little do disagree about here, so the big question is as usual not what, but how:
There are many, many different ways of approaching grammar, both from a theoretical point of view and from a practical, student perspective.
Even though the question above is very short, it covers a number of topics. For instance:
- Is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages?
- What should students who are studying on their own focus on?
- What resources are available for learning grammar?
- Is it important to focus on grammar when learning Chinese or should it be done implicitly?
- Is theoretical knowledge useful, and if so, how should we acquire it?
There are of course many more things to talk about than these, but this serves as an introduction to the complexity of the question of how to learn grammar. Because this is such an interesting topic and there are so many different approaches, I decided to ask the expert panel and see what other language learners and teachers out there had to say about learning Chinese grammar. They have all answered the question in their own way, so rather than viewing this as a competition between different views on how to learn grammar, regard it as a tour through different available options.
Expert panel articles on Hacking Chinese
- Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese (immersion)
- Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar (this article)
As you can see, this is the second expert panel article here and these articles are still very much an experiment. If you have suggestions or thoughts about the format or how to improve it, let me know! If you know someone who you think should participate next time or if you have ideas for different topics to ask, leave a comment!
Here are the participant in this expert panel on grammar. In order to scramble the order a bit compared with last time, I have sorted the answers based on the authors’ surnames (or family names) rather than their first/personal names:
- Imron Alston
- Greg Bell
- Yangyang Cheng
- Steven Daniels
- Ding Yi
- Carl Gene Fordham
- John Fotheringham
- Jacob Gill
- Hugh Grigg
- Ash Henson
- David Moser
- Alan Park
- John Pasden (upcoming separate article)
- Albert Wolfe
- Chinese Forums
Imron Alston has been learning Chinese since 2001, and in that time has spent a total of six years living, working and studying in China, mostly in Hebei and Beijing. He is an admin on the Chinese learning site Chinese-Forums.com, and is also the developer of a number of tools designed for Chinese learners, including Hanzi Grids – a tool for generating custom Chinese character worksheets, and Pinyinput – an IME for typing pinyin with tone marks.
For me, most of my learning was done through exposure to native speakers and native content, and while this also included following different parts of different text books at different times, I never really had a methodical approach to learning grammar. At times I also read various grammar books, and while it was nice reading them and having various structures explained, it’s never been something that has captured my interest.
Unfortunately what this meant is that as I got better at Chinese, I found myself at a stage I think of as ‘advanced with gaps’. The gaps continue to reduce the more advanced I get, but even now there are times when I find myself having a degree of uncertainty with whether what I’m saying is correct or not. It also means that except for basic things, I’m pretty useless at explaining grammar beyond ‘just because’. It’s quite possible that I would still be in this position if I had paid more attention to things like grammar, but in general I attribute these shortcoming to my lackadaisical study approach early on. For me, I was always more interested in being able to use the language, rather than in the study of the language itself, and looking back I think this hampered my learning to some degree.
If I were going about things again I’d certainly try to be more rigorous in this regard. I probably still wouldn’t dive deep in to grammar in the beginning, but I’d make sure to choose a good text-book series and make sure to work my way through it from start to finish. As a self-learner, the younger me was too concerned about becoming ‘advanced’ and saw using ‘advanced’ level text books and materials as evidence that I’d reached that position. What that meant was skipping past things that probably would have been quite helpful in solidifying my language skills.
I like to think my Chinese has turned out all right despite all of that, but it’s meant the journey has likely been longer than it otherwise might have been. My advice to new learners would be don’t try to rush things, and don’t get so caught up in just trying to use the language that you neglect skills that will help you improve. Keep working at things slowly and methodically, and you’ll set yourself up with a good base from which to continue your learning.
Greg Bell – I’ve currently got two blogs going on the matter, my language learning journey one at zhongruige.wordpress.
To me, the best way to learn Chinese grammar starts in the classroom or with a decent textbook that establishes a firm foundation in grammar. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but should at least set you right on the basics. Later on, though, I feel it’s best to switch over to material for native readers and just start reading. In my own experience, I’ve found the best way to learn grammar was not through complicated grammar guides, but instead just by reading as much as possible and across a variety of sources (novels, comics, nonfiction, etc.). After a while, I began to internalize the grammar, and started to gain a feeling for the language.
I don’t believe there is any real difference between learning Chinese grammar versus learning grammar for other languages. Although the lack of verb conjugation does make things easier, each language has its own nuances. Through either careful study or full immersion, I believe it’s possible to learn the grammar of any language.
If you’re studying on your own, I believe in the beginning something like AllSet’s Grammar Wiki is a fantastic place to start. When you’re comfortable with that grammar, you can move on to news articles, short stories, or even graded readers if they’re available. In the end, grammar doesn’t have to be too theoretical (sorry linguists!) and can naturally be picked up. As you advance though, it may be good to flip through some grammar books, ideally written for native speakers, and refine your understanding of the grammar of the language.
Yangyang Cheng is the founder and host of YoyoChinese.com, an online Chinese language education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with tens of millions of video views.
Why is learning Chinese grammar important?
I often tell my students that learning a language is like building a house. Vocabulary words are like the bricks for your house and grammar is like the architectural blueprint that tells you how to put the bricks together and in what order. Learning grammar is important because it can give you the freedom to build correct sentences on your own. For example in Chinese, once you know the Golden Rule regarding Chinese word order, you’ll instantly know where to put time and location words and be able to speak with confidence.
When should I start learning Chinese grammar?
The best time to learn grammar is after you already have some basics down. For example, if you already have some decent vocabulary and some experience talking to a native speaker, your next step is going to be grammar.
Where and How should learn Chinese grammar?
We have 12 free gframmar videos on Youtube that you can watch. I also have a program on my Chinese learning site www.yoyochinese.com called “Yoyo Chinese Grammar”. Basically, you can think of this course as the video version of a comprehensive Chinese grammar book, but with lots of pictures/cartoons and clear and easy to follow explanations. The course is organized around different grammatical topics, such as “Chinese word order”, “Chinese negation words”, “how to form a Chinese question” and “how to use the notorious (ba3- 把)” etc. Each topic contains a series of mini lessons that build upon each other. You can either watch all the lessons in order to get a complete picture or skip around and only learn the things that you need.
Hi! I’m Steven Daniels, I’ve studied Chinese for years and lived in China even longer. My interests–learning Chinese, Chinese dictionaries, and programming–led me to create Lingomi and 3000 Hanzi.2 Tips for learning Chinese grammar on your own:1. Buy some material: most textbooks do a pretty good job of introducing grammar in each lesson. For-pay podcasts sites do a good job of this too. Don’t skip the grammar sections and examples, no matter how much you’d like to.
2. Add repetition: copy the grammatical patterns and examples out of your textbooks and put them onto flashcards. Review them like you’d review words or sentences.
Chinese Grammar is taught pretty well.
I’m often critical of standard practices for teaching Chinese, but grammar is one area where I’m not very critical. For those studying on their own, this is a quick rundown of how grammar is taught.
Currently, teachers provide beginners with a light introduction to basic grammar. You mostly learn simple sentence structures. At this stage, Chinese grammar feels pretty easy: in some ways it feels like Chinese barely has any grammar at all (especially compared to most other languages). At this stage, beginners, being confronted with tones and character, don’t have the time or the background to try and fully understand Chinese grammar.
Once a student gets to an intermediate level, they are introduced and re-introduced to Chinese grammar. At this point, Chinese grammar starts getting more difficult (e.g. the many ways to use 了 ). An intermediate student can learn most of the grammatical structures that Chinese uses, but these will still take a while to master.
When you look at advanced Chinese textbooks, there really isn’t a lot of grammar in the traditional sense. Advanced students spend time passively (or actively) reviewing grammar they learned at earlier stages. In addition, advanced students spend a lot of time learning collocations and trying to master when to use one of a variety of synonyms.
There are many different approaches that could be taken with teaching grammar, but they all have drawbacks. Using linguistics to introduce grammar could make learning it easier, but most Chinese learners don’t have a linguistics background. Trying to shoehorn more grammar in at earlier stages would require spending less time on pronunciation or characters — not a good tradeoff. Overall, I feel Chinese grammar is taught rather effectively. Of course, I do have a couple of issues.
- One possible complaint is textbooks tend to teach grammar once and expect you to master it. Luckily, most teachers will make sure you review it constantly. Like learning Characters, repetition is key.
- Finally, there aren’t any guides to reaching fluency. Going beyond advanced, students should learn how to go about writing different types of essays–how to structure their argument, how to use 连词 properly, etc. The old HSK’s writing section awarded students who knew how to structure essays in a way that native Chinese learners were accustomed to reading. If writing isn’t your thing, you can still learn these important structures and patterns by looking at Chinese debates online or joining a Chinese debate team.
Ding Yi is the Events Coordinator and full time teacher at Hutong School, the leading foreign owned Chinese language school in China founded in 2005. With an enthusiasm for teaching Chinese language and culture to students from all around the world, Ding Yi loves exchanging fresh ideas and making new friends along the way. He loves the airport, yuxiang rousi, and hiking.
Learning Chinese grammar is a step by step process. What I mean by this is that you must establish the foundations first and then build further on this. I therefore believe that absolute beginners must have a teacher.
Why? Since Chinese history and culture is immensely vast, evolution over time has meant that one character can hold a plethora of meanings – both literally and symbolically. Although Chinese sentences are more flexible in its word order compared to other languages, it is also very important, and so a difference in sentence structure or subtle addition of particles to the untrained ear is likely to cause confusion.
Another important aspect of Chinese is that it is an economical language; only a small number of words are used in order to express maximum power. An example of this is in the use of chengyu, which can be compared somewhat to idioms. Whilst they are often incomprehensible without explanation and seem to lack grammatical structure, these typically four character phrases give an insight into the complexity of the Chinese language.
To learn effectively and thus remember well, practicing speaking with a native speaker beside you is the best tool you can have, more so than learning the technicalities of the theory via a text book. A tried and tested method that I teach my students is to make long sentences when you first start learning the basic concepts of Chinese grammar. This will encourage you to keep to the correct order when attempting your own sentences in real life. All in all, in order to have a deep understanding of how grammar works, you must apply the practical usage in daily life, because actual application is the most important thing. In short, go out and practice speaking Chinese now.
Carl Gene Fordham is a NAATI-accredited Chinese-English translator with a Master’s degree in Translating and Interpreting Studies from RMIT University and a HSK 6 Certificate (the highest level Chinese proficiency certification). Carl currently runs a translating, interpreting and IELTS training school in Melbourne, Australia. He also writes a popular blog about translating and interpreting Chinese called 一步一个脚印.
In my opinion the best way to learn Chinese grammar is through a combination of reading textbooks and conversing with native speakers. Nowadays there are plenty of decent grammar textbooks on the market which can be very helpful, but the focus should always be on how to take what you learn in the book and apply it in real life. This is where the advice of a good teacher or tutor is essential, as the average native speaker friend will not be able to explain the finer points of grammar. But the learner should also take the initiative to put the grammar into practice too. As you start to do this, the grammar will become your own.
Personally I’ve found Chinese grammar to be, on the whole, a straight-forward system, much more logical than English grammar. It is, of course, also highly complex – that is, complex, but not necessarily complicated. The beginning and intermediate grammatical structures you pick up are powerful enough to be used in most situations – this is unlike other languages which require you to memorise large numbers of cases, tenses, genders, etc.
John Fotheringham is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery | Tips, Tools & Tech to Learn Languages the Fun Way.
First of all, I would like to put to rest the ridiculous myth that “Chinese has no grammar”. Chinese may lack the verb conjugations so prevalent in Romance languages like Spanish and French, but that does not mean that the language lacks “grammar”. Like all languages, Chinese contains a finite (though gradually evolving) set of patterns, conventions, and syntactic rules that allow us to understand—and be understood by—others. Without grammar, languages would just be a chaotic slew of words and society as we know it could not exist.
However, just because grammar is essential for communication, it does not follow that one must spend heaps of time formally studying grammar rules to properly understand and form a language. As Barry Farber puts it:
“You do not have to know grammar to obey grammar.”
One’s ability to understand and form grammatical sentences is based on what’s called “procedural memory”, the brain’s way of storing and retrieving implicit knowledge. Without it, we would not be able to drive a car, throw a ball, or speak a language without consciously thinking through each and every tiny step, each and every time we do perform a complex action.
Many language learners fail to reach functional fluency in foreign languages because they approach language study as an academic subject, trying to force feed grammar rules into “declarative memory” (the kind of memory used to store explicit facts) instead of getting the input and output practice they need to truly internalize the language’s underlying structures. Procedural memories are only formed when you get tons of listening and speaking practice.
I will concede that a little bit of formal study can help prime the brain for the grammatical patterns it will encounter when listening and speaking a language, but this should augment—not replace—the active input and output activities that do most of the heavy neurological lifting. So take a peak at your textbook from time to time if you like, but make sure to spend the majority of your study time listening to Chinese podcasts, watching Chinese videos on FluentU.com, speaking with tutors on Skype, and chatting up native Chinese speakers at your favorite tea shop.
Jacob Gill is a graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Co-Founder of Chinese Guild (add link), Chinese Teacher, Translator, Academic Advisor for Skritter, Summer Coordinator at Academic Explorers and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.
How should we learn Chinese grammar?
Chinese isn’t English, and it isn’t like many European languages, which means that a lot of the things we usually associate with grammar — tenses, conjugation, etc. don’t apply. If the rules we usually use have changed, we have to take the time to understand how the new rules work or interact with what we know, and how to build new connections where necessary. I like taking a more top-down approach to learning Chinese grammar, meaning paying attention to different word order patterns and how/ when they’re used, for example: simple Subject, Verb, Object, sentences, or the more complicated types: ex. subject, when, where, how, action. Ask yourself, how are these patterns similar to my native language, and how are they different?
By understanding the framework of Chinese grammar, patterns will begin to emerge and fall into place leading to quicker comprehension, and also the ability to produce your own sentences fast. Add context to various grammar patters, and when reading or listening in Chinese, try and pay attention to pre-set patterns, and how they’re used in conjunction with each other. In my eyes, people often learn best by doing something, so a key part of “learning” Chinese grammar is actually using the language to be understood. So start producing as quickly as possible, regardless of error!
Focus energy on how words work within, not independent of, grammatical chunks, ex. 因 為…所以…. I don’t think it hurts to spend a good deal of time memorizing these chucks, and basic Chinese Sentence Pattern books can be a great resource. One of the most successful programs I’ve ever studied in spent two hours a day drilling Chinese sentence patterns, and the results payed off in quicker overall comprehension and production all around. But, I think it’s always important to be thinking about ways to connect these new patterns to things you already know and understand. Relate them to conversations you’ve had, certain moods, or various situations, and then go out and use them. Grammar patterns will emerge naturally in conversation, and you’ll pick it up just as naturally if you force yourself to communicate and attempt to be understood. Challenge yourself to use new patterns, and to make mistakes. Ask for feedback, and if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask for help. Be creative, be fearless, and above all, use the language.
Hugh Grigg studied East Asian Studies at university, and is trying to keep up the learning habit long term. He writes about what he learns at eastasiastudent.net , to keep track of his progress and to try and help out other people where he can.
Despite running a website entirely devoted to Chinese grammar, I’m actually in the camp that says you shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly studying grammar. I think it’s important to have a reference available, to be able to ask questions, and most of all to be able to preview grammar points with explanation before you encounter them in the wild. Just as immunisation lets your body prepare to fight off an infection before it does the actual fighting, studying some grammar lets makes you more effective at doing the actual work of getting input and practicing (please forgive my love of terrible analogies). That’s the real work you need to do to learn a language: getting as much input as possible (reading and listening), and getting as much practice as possible (actually trying to speak and write as much as you can). Olle does a fine job of both writing about this and putting it into practice himself.
Our goal with our Chinese grammar site is to help out as much as we can with the process I describe here. We work as a pair (a native English speaker studying Chinese and a native Chinese speaker studying English) and try to explain grammar points as intuitively and simply as possible, but really focusing on giving plenty of natural example sentences. I use these sentences (and others) in the Anki SRS software and rehearse them that way, until the words, patterns and syntactic glue all become very familiar to me and are at my disposal in future. That’s how I study Chinese grammar and it’s the way I’d recommend (although I’m very much looking forward to reading the other responses here!).
I’ll also direct everyone who hasn’t seen it to the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which I worked on in its early stages. It’s an amazing project, and is a little different to our site. Rather than being half-blog, half-FAQ like ours, it’s a full and comprehensive encyclopaedia of Chinese grammar with a super-clear structure and design – take a look!
Ash Henson – Avid language learner, after working as an engineer for 8+ years, left to pursue a language-related career. Currently working on a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. Research interests include Old Chinese phonology, Chinese paleography, the Chinese Classics and excavated texts.
In modern language learning, far too much time is spent on learning to read and write, while speaking and listening are often given the back seat. Reading and writing are important (very important, actually), but should come only after the sound system of the target language has been acquired.
So what does this have to do with grammar? We all learn the grammar of our native language by listening to our parents and those around us talk. Everyone generally agrees that native speakers of a language outperform non-native speakers. Part of this may be due to biological factors (though this may not be as important as you might think, people can and do learn other languages to native or native-like levels all the time), but part of it has to do with the way languages are learned. Sound plays a huge role in properly acquiring a language. Because they can put a barrier between the learner and the actual sounds of the target language, reading and writing too early in the learning process can actually hinder proper acquisition. For example, thinking of tones as numbers if you haven’t yet mastered the actual tone contours puts an unneeded level of abstraction between you and the actual sounds of the tones. Always try to understand the actual sounds rather than the symbols used to represent them (which are useful only AFTER the actual sounds have been acquired).
When we hear non-native speakers make grammar mistakes in our native language, we know a mistake has been made because it “sounds wrong.” What that really means is, faulty sentences (i.e., a pattern or collection of sounds) go against the vast internal database we have of what our language sounds like. How we should learn grammar, then, is the answer to the question, “How do we develop the ability to know that something “sounds wrong” in the target language?”
Obviously, building up an internal database that could match a native speaker would take quite some time, but I think the old 80-20 rule can be applied here. For each grammar structure that you want to master, memorize five sentences that incorporate that structure by listening, repeating and mimicking a native speaker saying those sentences. For tonal languages such as Chinese, you might want to spend some time (perhaps a significant amount) practicing tones and tone combinations before you do entire sentences. When doing these things, you want to be thinking ONLY about the sounds and how to mimic them. You should avoid thinking about things like spelling, meaning, and grammar. Once you have the sentences memorized, go back and look at the grammar rule that they incorporate and you should be able to understand it on a more intuitive level.
We are most vulnerable to influence from our native language when we don’t know how to phrase something in the target language. Spending a lot of time mimicking native speakers in their pronunciation, rhythm, phrasing, word usage, etc. will minimize the influence our native language has the new language and help us to speak the target language in a much more natural way
David Moser holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. David is currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, an overseas study program for U.S. college students, where he teaches courses in Chinese history and politics.
Grammar is first learned intuitively, absorbing rules subconsciously, by example. Therefore, the absolute best way – really the only way – to learn Chinese grammar is to speak Chinese with Chinese people. Only when you’ve reached a certain level of mastery will grammar rules even make sense to you. So by all means read the grammar books; they are useful stepping stones. But the most reliable Chinese grammar is not in books, it’s in the heads of Chinese speakers. Seek out or create, by hook or crook, an environment where you are constantly interacting with Chinese speakers. If you’re not in China, don’t worry, there are Chinese people everywhere in the world. Find them, befriend them, and talk with them. You can also find them online, on Weibo, or Facebook, or on WeChat, it doesn’t matter. Set up a situation, no matter how artificial, in which you are communicating constantly in Chinese.
Here are some hints on how to make the best use of your Chinese friends to improve your grammar:
(1) Enlist your Chinese friends to actively correct your mistakes. This is not as easy as you might think. Most people are reluctant to correct your grammatical errors, thinking it to be impolite or distracting. In addition, it’s natural for people to care more about content than form — grammar won’t even be on their radar. You may have to keep reminding them – or even beg them – to point out your mistakes.
(2) Work on very specific linguistic goals. “Chinese grammar” is an impossibly broad domain; narrow your goals down to specific tasks. The grammar will come naturally, as different discourse types demand different structures; for example, teaching a Chinese friend how to play guitar (the ba把construction); recounting the plot of “Game of Thrones” (time and aspect); or simply explaining why in the world you’ve decided to learn Chinese (resultative suffixes, the grammar of hopefulness). Whatever it is, begin by collecting crucial patterns and sentences, and worry about the grammar later.
(3) Be attentive to “unconscious corrections” from your friends. When you make a grammatical error, you will often find that the person you are speaking with will, in their reply, take your imperfect utterance and automatically revise it to be in accord with their internal grammar. These “unconscious corrections” are linguistic gold – hoard them!
(4) “Cheat” by Googling. If you’re wondering if a certain grammatical structure you’re using is idiomatic, you can always Google it. If a native speaker produced a similar utterance in writing somewhere on the Internet, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s at least grammatically legal. For example, if you’re wondering how to say “Allow me to introduce myself” in Chinese, you can simply take a few guesses (“让我介绍我自己”, “请让我自我介绍一下”, “我把自己介绍给你”, etc.), and then search to see the range of grammatical possibilities.
Alan Park has been studying Chinese for 13 years and previously worked in China with Chinese clients as a management consultant. Currently, he is the founder of FluentU, a site that brings language learning to life with real-world video content.”
The conventional wisdom on Chinese grammar is that it’s easy. That the hard parts are tones, pinyin, characters – basically anything except grammar. But I think it’s totally wrong. Chinese is more different from English than romance languages, and that’s what makes it hard.
Some of the tricky issues are: unusual word order, new concepts that have no real counterpart in English (eg. 了), and grammar patterns which seem to be deceivingly similar (eg. the de particles 的, 得, and 地, which all sound the same). I would not recommend that Chinese learners gloss over these tricky grammar, and assume that they will figure it out through osmosis.
What learners really need is a targeted approach. First, they should try to understand the underlying concepts with a quality grammar book or Chinese learning website like Hacking Chinese. Then, they should try to collect examples of those grammar points. Then they should be as aggressive as possible in actually practicing them and getting feedback from a teacher. Learning grammar, like learning Chinese, isn’t something that can be done by just passively reading a book. It has to be done through the creation of muscle memory, which comes from falling on your face over and over again.
Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t supplement it with quality examples and explanations of the concepts. Beginners or intermediate learners might find this blog post helpful: 13 Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures We Love to Hate. We identified some of the most challenging grammar points (eg. the de particles, 会 vs 能, 想 vs. 觉得), and tried to provide concise explanations that would really make the light bulb go off in learners’ heads.
Roddy, who runs Chinese-forums.com, which celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. The site covers discussions on many topics related to China and Chinese – textbook choices, recommended authentic materials, studying at Chinese universities, and plenty more.
I think if at any point you’re sitting down to “study grammar” then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re following some kind of progressive course (which I’d recommend, even if you’re also getting tonnes of real exposure) that should introduce, explain and apply new structures at a reasonable pace. If you hit something that seems problematic, or you happen to hear something three times in a day and can’t resist looking it up, fair enough, open the grammar book. But otherwise make it a part of all your other learning, not something you do separately.
But each to their own. I’ve probably told this story before, but when I went back to the UK after my first year in China I signed up for an evening course in Chinese at the local university. One of the other students was an elderly professor of history who was, to be fair, awful at Chinese.
Chatting with him during the break one day I asked if he had any plans to go to China. No, he said, can’t imagine ever doing that. Chinese family or friends? Oh no, not that I can think of. Research interest in China? No, no. So why Chinese, in that case? Oh, he said, leaning in to divulge the big secret… I just love the grammar.
Albert Wolfe started learning Chinese on his own when he came to China in 2005. He is the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin and a novel faceless and the blog LaowaiChinese.net.
How to learn grammar is both scary and controversial. It’s scary because many adult learners have grammar phobia. (I think it’s one of the top three scholastic fears along with math and tests.) If you don’t feel that way, that’s a huge advantage. If you do, just relax: you’ve already learned at least some grammar!
One of the most important controversies is inductive vs. deductive approaches. But personally I think both are great! So I highly recommend trying to figure out grammar rules from a bunch of sentence examples (inductive) and also reading resources like John’s Pasden’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki (deductive) to fill in the gaps.
One more little tip: learning your native language as a kid and learning a foreign language as an adult are two very different processes. So don’t fall into the trap of over-comparing those two experiences.
Chinese Forums – This is the only answer not delivered by an individual, but is instead the collected wisdom of Chinese Forums. The thread can be seen here and contains many interesting ideas and useful insights. I have selected a few to include in this article, mostly dealing with areas not covered by the above answers.
Li3wei1 on the difference between learning grammar in Chinese and many other languages:
I’d say in most other languages, there’s a lot of memorising that you have to do up front even to produce basic sentences: verb declensions, genders, irregular verbs. That is not necessary in Chinese, but in Chinese, when you get to the advanced level, there are hundreds of structures and patterns that need to be memorised. So the memorisation load comes later in Chinese than in other languages, at least as far as grammar is concerned.
Adam about the learning sequence:
In my case, I learned “street Chinese” for the first few years. I used characters like 就 and 才 in my speech without knowing why they were there or what their purpose was, just because that’s how I had “heard” it. It was only later, when I enrolled in formal classes that the grammar rules were explained to me. It made a lot more sense to me to see then because I had already observed all the use cases.
And finally, a recommendation from lakers4sho:
For each grammar point that I learn or revise, I write my own 例子 using the structure, not trying to make it as complicated, but actually trying to make it as simple as I can, just so that I can apply the structure correctly. I show the sentences to my teacher (this is important, make sure you ask someone who knows their grammar) and she can tell whether they are correct or not.
That’s all from the expert panel for now. If you have any questions, comments, opinions or experiences related to learning Chinese grammar, just leave a comment! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wants to ask that question and if you share what works for you, it’s quite likely it might work for someone else too!
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