Learning Chinese through audio books

Image credit: Jeff Daly
Image credit: Jeff Daly

I have learnt English to my current level without ever having lived in an English-speaking country. I attribute this mostly to very large amounts of input, mostly in the form of books. When I was around 20, I figured that I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read, so I started listening to audio books as a complement to reading normally.

It took a while to get used to it, but once I had established the proper habits, I consumed a few novels a week, adding up to as much as 100 books per year.

In order to listen to enough Chinese, you need long-form content

In last week’s article, I talked about the importance of using long-form over bite-sized content when it comes to building volume. To summarise, it’s very hard to listen to enough audio if you only listen to snippets, you need longer programs or audio books to increase the amount of listening at an advanced level.

This is actually easier than it sounds, since by keeping to the same resource, many factors remain constant (such as speaker and style) or at least similar (e.g. content). Variety is good, but it also requires more effort to cope with. You can read the entire article here.

As promised, I will now talk about using audio books to learn in particular.

Listening to audio books in Chinese

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I found it much more difficult to apply this kind of massive input method to learning Chinese. There are many reasons for this. To start with, I don’t feel that there is a big difference between reading and listening to a novel in English, whereas in Chinese, the difference is huge.

This isn’t because my listening ability is bad, but because written Chinese is much more distant from colloquial Chinese than written English is from spoken English. There are many words that are only used in writing, abbreviations or contractions that make more sense if you see the characters and a very large number of near-homonyms. This makes listening to an audio book considerably harder than reading it, given roughly equal listening and reading competence.

Another factor is that in English, there are many authors who write in a very simple style. In other words, you can be a world-famous author while still writing in plain English, indeed some authors are famous at least partly because they do this (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene come to mind).

I have not found this to be true in Chinese literature. Instead, it seems that highly held works of literature are linguistically more complicated, referential and “fancy”. Also, many Chinese novels have strong dialectal streaks, which can make it even harder. This is true for some English novels as well, but I’ve rarely found this to be a problem.

Listening to a Chinese novel written with an unfamiliar regional flavour is a bit like giving the audio version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to an intermediate learner of English. Good luck!

The reason I’m saying all this is because you shouldn’t be disappointed if you’re an intermediate learner and find audio books difficult. They will be, probably for a long time. I suggest proceeding with audio books only if you can already understand most of the Chinese you hear around you in an everyday setting.

Selecting the audio book that is right for you

There are a number of factors you should keep in mind when selecting an audio book. Since many of these vary a lot, you might need to try several before you choose one to actually stick with. This essential, do not just choose one randomly and dive in, because it might be many times harder than it needs to be.

Here are some important factors to consider:

  • The book is of course the most important factor. Try to find a book that interests you and which isn’t too literary or contains too much dialect you don’t understand. I suggest modern fiction in a modern setting.  Ask Chinese friends for recommendations. I have written about how to ease yourself into reading novels in Chinese, and the same principles apply to listening to novels as well.
  • The narrator is also extremely important. The most common “problem” is that the narration is too dramatic, which means the narrator changes volume, tempo and style according to the requirements of the story. This can be very hard to listen to! I recommend narrators that are as close to normal relaxed reading as possible. This might be less interesting for native speakers, but it’s easier for non-native speakers to listen to.
  • The setting is sometimes important. It will be much harder to understand something set in an unfamiliar time or place, so choose something which is as familiar as possible. This probably means a modern setting, which also increases the likelihood that the language is suitable.

I haven’t listened to enough books to be able to suggest a good book which is also relatively easy to follow, but the most suitable book I’ve listened to so far is 病毒 by 蔡駿. It’s a thriller/horror story (not very scary though) in a modern setting. There are also two sequels if you want more.

How to find audio books in Chinese

There are many ways to find audio books in Chinese. You can of course buy and/or download them from a number of websites (just search for the book title plus 有声书/有聲書, but the best way is to use one of the many apps and sites that stream audio, usually for free. This allows you to try many books before you settle on one you actually want to listen to.

Here are some apps/sites I’ve used:

Note that you can usually save streamed audio pretty easily, but that’s not something I will describe in detail here, but check this article in Wired:

Download MP3s from Streaming Music Sites

There are also many browser plugins that allow you to download streamed media.

How to listen to your first audio book

Now that you have selected an audio book, it’s time to start listening. But how? Here are my suggestions:

  • Combine text and audio – When you first start out, it helps a lot to have access to the text version of the book. This can make it easier to get used to the book. This is of course provided that your reading is up to par, but I think reading a book is still easier than listening to it for most students.
  • Listen more than once – There’s nothing wrong with listening to the first chapter a couple of times. You probably need less re-listening after that, but feel free to do it as much as you feel necessary to understand the gist of each chapter. This is the easiest way of increasing understanding, but if you find it too boring, don’t do overdo it.
  • Don’t give up – Listening to a novel in Chinese is not easy. It takes practice both getting used to the book, the narrator, the story and even audio books in general if you’re not used to it already from listening to books in English. As usual, the more you practise, the easier it becomes.

Conclusion

Audio books are a great way of learning and the best kind of long-form content I know. Have you listened to any books in Chinese? Please post a comment and share your experience. If you liked the book, please give some more information so that other readers can listen to the book too!

Bite-sized learning isn’t enough to learn Chinese

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This is what I read when I want to read something familiar that never ends. I’ve read about 4000 pages so far, still twice that to go. It’s the traditional translation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

I’m a big fan of bite-sized learning, because it’s easier to fit short periods of studying into your daily schedule. It’s also much less daunting to face a few sentences than it is to face something that takes at least an hour to get through. It’s hard to get started and you might end up not doing much at all. If the learning material is chopped up into smaller pieces, though, it’s easier to get started. Smaller pieces decrease the risk of choking. This is true for text as well as audio, which is the focus of this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese:

Chinese listening challenge, June 10th to June 30th

Why bite-sized learning isn’t enough

At some point, however, you have to learn to chew longer sections of text and audio. There are two main reasons:

  1. It’s part of what you might want to do with your Chinese or part of what other people require of you.
  2. It’s the only way to build enough volume.

Let’s look at number two more closely. To reach a good level of listening and reading, you’ll need to spend thousands of hours listening and reading Chinese, and that is very difficult if your studying consists only of five-minute dialogues and short social media messages. Getting through a year’s worth of food takes a while if you’re only allowed to nibble.

Bite-sized learning is good, but it’s sometimes harder than the alternative

Staying with the same material for a long time comes with some advantages apart from the fact that it’s easier to build volume. For instance, you get used to the way the content is written or spoken, and you get used to the topic(s) discussed.

Compare reading a novel spanning 250 pages with reading 25 short stories of ten pages each. I would argue that reading the novel is considerably easier, especially if the short stories are written by different authors and not collected in an anthology with a common theme.  The same is true for audio content, so it’s easier to understand and follow a two-hour interview than 24 five-minute interviews. You get to know the interviewed and the interviewer.

Long-form content is crucial for immersion

This is great, indeed necessary, if you want to immerse yourself in Chinese (especially if you create your own immersion environment). Constantly skipping between different topics, speakers and narratives is exhausting and can’t be maintained for very long. Thus, if you want to listen and read a lot, you need to find material that is both suitable for slicing up into small pieces, but also content that you can stick with longer.

Finding the right balance can be tricky, because as I have written elsewhere, you need diversity, too (Listening strategies: Diversify your listening practice). I think this is similar to studying content at different difficulty levels. You should study difficult things, but you have to realise that you can’t do that for very long, so you need easier material for when you’re not at 100%. Diversity works the same way, so you want as much diversity as possible, but not so much that you burn yourself out.

Low intensity and low diversity vs. high intensity and high diversity

For example, when I listen to or read Chinese these days, I have a high-intensity mode and a low-intensity one. The high-intensity mode means that I listen to wide variety of content, usually selected more or less randomly on 凤凰FM. The speakers are unfamiliar, the content is often new and I have very little idea of what it’s about before I start listening. The same principles can be applied to reading.

The low-intensity mode means that I listen to and read things I’m already familiar with. The extreme case is of course to listen or read something I’ve already been through before, that’s for when I don’t want to study actively at all and just want something to listen to. More commonly, though, I want something more interesting than that, and then I aim for longer content that I can stay with for a long time. For reading, this means novels or series of novels; for listening it means audio books, something I will write more about in an upcoming article.

Preparing for rainy days

What’s worth noticing here is that it requires an effort to build up your library of low-intensity, long-form listening and reading material. Reading a novel or a series of novels isn’t easy and relaxing when you start, but it might be when you’ve done it for a while. If you don’t listen and read enough, you won’t have old material to revisit. This means that you need to make an effort to get these projects going and you need to prepare in advance. I’ve written much more about this here: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps.

Finding suitable material

So, where do you get this kind of material? For beginners, it’s almost impossible. Extensive reading and listening, which is what we’re talking about here, is only possible if you can already understand most of the content and it’s very difficult to create such material for beginners in large quantities. You need a certain number of words and basic grammar to be able to say or write something interesting.The only thing I can recommend is what I usually recommend if you want more reading and listening at a beginner level: get more textbooks slightly below your current one.

Once you reach an intermediate stage, though, there are more resources available:

Even if you can’t find material which suits you perfectly (you probably won’t), you can still follow the principles I discussed above and reap some of the benefits. One way of doing this would be sticking to the same topic, although by different writers/speakers. Find news reports about the same event from many different channels, gather and read material about a historical event from different sources, find interviews with the same person done by different reporters.

If you can’t keep all the factors constant and find material at a suitable level, try to keep at least some of them constant. If you want to activate the language you learn passively, you can also summarise the material you have read or listened to; this is one of the best ways I know of improving writing ability in particular.

For advanced learners, it’s easier since you can start using audio and text meant for native speakers. It still requires effort to find the books you want to read and the programs you like listening to, but it’s easier than for beginners and intermediate learners. If you think it’s hard to find anything, ask native speakers for help, preferably someone who knows you a bit or has similar tastes. See also:

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

Conclusion

Learning a language is a complex task and you need practice of many different kinds. In general, spend as much time you can with diverse and challenging content, but realise that you will not be able to do that for very long before tiring.

Using long-form content is an excellent way of reducing the energy you need to learn Chinese. You save that energy by not having to familiarise yourself with the speaker/writer, style and content every time you start learning. This should make it easier to spend more time exposed to Chinese, which should be the main goal!

Review: FluentU Chinese

04-23-15-11-58-39_250-250I remember what it was like starting to learn Chinese and I have since seen the same thing in students. When first starting out, everybody’s very enthusiastic and even though some parts of the language feel difficult, these challenges are there to be overcome and even repeated setbacks can’t really dent our ambition to learn more.

But it’s with language as it is with everything else in life, the sheen wears off, the dust settles and studying stops being the most exciting part of the day and turns into a part of normal life instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes boring, but it means that for most of us, we have to make an effort to make it interesting.

The obvious way of making learning interesting is to make sure that the content in interesting, but as anyone who has tried knows, immersion in Chinese isn’t as easy as it sounds. Reaching a level where you can read and listen to interesting content takes a long time.

This week’s article is an in-depth review of FluentU in general, with an obvious focus on Chinese. I think this new service can help you solve both the problem of finding interesting material and the problem of making it accessible.

FluentU Chinese

In a nutshell, FluentU is a service that uses video and audio to teach you Chinese. While doing so, you have access to a lot of scaffolding, such as subtitles, translations, pop-up definitions, useful player features such as looping and pausing. Added to this, there is a learning and review section if you want to actually learn the content of the media you watch and listen to. Overall, I think FluentU has come a long way towards solving the problems of boredom and inaccessibility of Chinese learning materials.

If you’ve never hard of FluentU before, I suggest you check out my brief video review below. I will discuss the service in more detail below in both text and images, but since this service is mostly about video content, I feel that a video review is in place:

Let’s dig deeper and see what FluentU has to offer learners of Chinese.

Using video to learn Chinese

The videos are the core of FluentU and what sets it apart from many other services, including most podcasts. Using video to learn has obvious advantages, such as being more interesting, engaging more senses and offering more information in general. The problem is of course that video is harder and more expensive to produce, so what FluentU has done is very clever: Turn existing videos into Chinese learning material. They also offer a growing library of videos created by the FluentU team, but more about that later.

At the moment, there are 2441 video and audio clips distributed over six difficulty levels, eight types of content and nine formats. Something to note here is that for each video, you can see how many words it contains, and, more importantly, how many of these words you already know. That means that the more you use the service, the better it will be at showing you clips where you know most of the content already.

You can also view or download a transcript of the dialogue and the vocabulary found in it.

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This is what the main interface looks like. You can play the entire clip, loop selected sections or pause the video simply by hovering over the subtitles. The video interface works well and allows you to drill-down into any part of the content you didn’t understand. There are also some extra features that increase the usefulness a lot:

  • Screenshot from 2015-05-27 18:44:49Coloured time panel based on the subtitle content so you can easily find what you’re looking for
  • A loop function that allows you to play the same section over and over
  • The option to toggle Pinyin and translations on and off
  • Choose between simplified and traditional characters

Another great feature is the pop-up dictionary. This is not your average browser pop-up dictionary that simply gives you the CDICT definition and pronunciation of the character or word you hover over, it gives you much more than that. As the screenshot on the right shows, you also get a picture and the part of speech. The pictures are surprisingly well chosen to illustrate the specific words, although not always perfect. Still, this is as far as I know the largest dictionary that includes images

While we’re at it, let’s look closer at the vocabulary, because this is one of the areas where I think FluentU is outstanding. If you click the character or word, it brings up more information about it, like so:

screenshot45There are a couple of really cool things here. First, there are numerous example sentences with translation and audio. Second, some of these sentences have video, which is surely unprecedented in other Chinese learning materials. This means that you can actually watch how that specific word is used in other videos on FluentU! The only drawback here is that if there is no specifically recorded audio, a TTS (text-to-speech) function takes over, but more about this later.

A closer look at the content

As mentioned above, the content is partly from YouTube and partly created by FluentU. The former is very diverse and everybody should be able to find something. Most of the videos are very short, many of them less than a minute. This is good for bite-sized learning, but can also be quite annoying if you want something longer and more coherent. To address this problem, videos are also organised into courses, which focus on a specific topic.

The videos created by the FluentU team are of decent quality, both in terms of scripts, acting and recording quality. Of course, lower-level videos are a bit awkward at times, partly because the speed is reduced and partly because there’s only so much you can say with a limited vocabulary. Considering that it’s almost impossible to create natural-sounding material for beginners, I’m perfectly fine with this.

There is also an audio section, which works very much like the video section, except there is no video. The interface works the same way, you can look up words and toggle subtitles the same way. I do think the audio is useful, but it still feels much less unique than the video content.

Learning vs. just watching

If FluentU was just a service which added subtitles to YouTube clips in a neat way, I think it would have been very useful, but it would be very far from a comprehensive solution for learning Chinese. One step in that direction is the learning mode, where you can study the content of a video rather than just watch it. You can do it in any order, but I would strongly suggest you do the following:

  1. Select a video where you already understand a lot
  2. Watch it without subtitles a few times
  3. Watch it with subtitles in Pinyin or characters
  4. Turn on translations and check your understanding
  5. Study the vocabulary you find interesting or useful

If you’re a big fan of bottom-up learning, you can of course but the last step first, but I strongly advice against it since that is far removed from real-world listening. You learn to understand spoken Chinese by really trying to understand spoken Chinese.

screenshot42The learning mode consists of a series of questions where you’re supposed to pick the right translation, fill in the gap, type characters (with a built-in input method) and so on. You can also view the word in different contexts, just as you could with the pop-up dictionary in the video player. In general, this section of the site makes sure you’re actively processing the content, rather than just watching it. If you want that depends on your reasons for using FluentU, of course.

Flashcards, reviewing and spaced repetition

If you want to learn something, you have review it. FluentU has a built-in flashcard system based on a spaced repetition algorithm. They don’t disclose much about it, except that it’s based on Supermemo. In any case, it’s all integrated into the system so you can review words from the videos you have watched and so on.

screenshot49What I like most about the flashcard system is that it keeps everything in context. I have mentioned this several times already, but it’s truly awesome to be able to see the word used in different sentences and the videos in which they appear.

I haven’t used FluentU for long enough to be able to say how well the flashcard system works. If you have used the service for a longer period of time and have anything to say about it, please leave a comment! I’m a big fan of SRS in general, though, and it’s something I use daily myself, although not in this form.

The FluentU iPhone app was launched earlier today, so that should take care of the mobility issues, at least for iOS users.

Pricing

Considering that FluentU creates their own learning materials and really adds value to other people’s videos, it’s definitely something you should expect to pay for. A lot of manual work has also been done with the dictionary (pictures, for instance) and the overall experience is completely different from just watching videos with subtitles on YouTube. So what does it cost? There are three tiers (click here for actual details):

  1. Free ($0/month): You have full access to all functions, but for a limited amount of content. I see no reason not to try this if you’ve come this far in my review.
  2. Basic ($8/month): You now have unlimited access to the content, but some functions are not available, such as learning mode and flashcards.
  3. Plus ($18/month): You have full access to all content and all functions.

Is it worth it? Which plan should you go for? Only you can answer the first question, preferably by first checking it out and then choosing which plan to go for. The basic plan works well if you want this as a source of extra listening and reading material, the plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, so it depends on what you’re after.

Room for improvement

No review would be complete without bringing up a few points of concern. It should be clear from the above discussion that I think FluentU is great, so the following list is not meant to discourage you from trying it out, but if you think something I mention here is extremely important for you, you should take that into consideration:

  • Text-to-speech inadequate – The single biggest issue I have with FluentU is the text-to-speech (TTS). It doesn’t work. TTS is far from good enough to teach Chinese, especially beginners. Pronunciation is sometimes completely off, clipped, garbled or just wrong. This is not a problem when you watch videos, of course, but it is when you learn vocabulary. For more advanced learners, this might be okay, but beginners should never have to hear this. Here are some examples: 就是 (jiùshì), 想不到 (xiǎngbùdào), also note the missing tone sandhi), 還 (hái).
  • Doesn’t work in China – This should be fairly obvious since the service is mainly based on YouTube videos. You should be able to get around this by using a VPN, but from what I gather, that creates delays that are so serious that it’s not worth it. If you know more about this, please leave a comment.
  • Difficult to integrate – Some learners don’t want or don’t need a complete solution, especially if it isn’t complete (and no solution ever is). That means that being able to integrate FluentU with other ways of studying is important, but it’s not easy. For example, there is no way to export vocabulary. I don’t want to be tied to a web interface to review vocabulary. The iOS app is launched today, but I don’t have an iPhone.
  • Lack of structure and guidance – This comment is only relevant if you want to use FluentU as your main source of learning. Where should you begin? Should you learn all the words? No, you most definitely shouldn’t, but how do you know which to learn? If FluentU wants to become a complete solution for learning Chinese, it needs to guide learners more. Yes, being able to choose interesting content is great, but too much choice has its own problems.

As I said, none of these issues are serious enough to stop me from recommending FluentU, but for now, I can only fully endorse the basic plan, since I think the learning mode still needs work, especially with the audio. If you want it to activate the language you learn, then go for the plus plan, but be aware that the audio is far from ideal.

Conclusion

I think FluentU is a unique and valuable addition to the different paths to Chinese fluency. It has come very far since the early days and I’m sure most of the issues I mentioned above will be addressed in due time. In the meantime, I think anyone who is interested in learning Chinese through video content should check it out. Exactly what you think about the service and if it’s worth the money will depend on your current situation and what you need, but I think the basic plan should be attractive for most students who takes immersion seriously.

Have you tried FluentU Chinese? What do you think? Please leave a comment!

The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

screenshot25Learning Chinese can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re faced with the infamous Great Wall of Chinese (text). One way of making it easier is to chop it up into many bite-sized pieces.

This makes Twitter an excellent place to learn a bit of Chinese without drowning. Each message is limited to 140 characters, so it can’t be that hard, can it? There’s an increasing number of people on Twitter who try to use these short messages to help you learn Chinese.

In this article, I’m going to share with you my favourite Twitter feeds for Chinese content. I have used the following criteria to create this list. The feeds have to:

  • Be suitable for language learners – This means including translations, Pinyin or both. I have avoided including too many Chinese-only feeds and focused on those that are suitable for beginners and intermediate learners. Advanced learners will of course benefit too.
  • Contain mostly Chinese language content – Some feeds contain a lot of interesting language content, but mixed up with too many other things. I have only included those that almost exclusively focus on Chinese language content.
  • Not rely on links to be useful – Twitter is often used to share links to interesting content. For this article, I have focused on content that is meaningful and useful directly on Twitter, i.e. without having to go to an external site.

There is of course more to learning Chinese on Twitter than just language content. A few years ago, I wrote an article called 31 Twitter feeds to help you learn Chinese. That article is mostly obsolete now, too many users have gone inactive and many new have arrived on the scene.

In that article, I included people who tweeted about language learning and studying Chinese. If you want more of that, the easiest way is to follow me on Twitter, because I share most of the interesting stuff I stumble upon. You can also follow my other list on Twitter, which is more about learning Chinese in general.

The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

These are my favourites. If you want to recommend an account that follows the above criteria, but isn’t mentioned in this article, please contact me and I’ll add that account to my watch list. Please don’t suggest accounts that only post single words unless these are terribly interesting.

If you want to view all the accounts below on Twitter, click here to view my Chinese content list on Twitter!

LearnchineseCSL @learnchineseCSL

Focus: Unusual sentences with matching and fun pictures. Pinyin + translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great sentence source, doesn’t clutter tweets with other things.
Sample tweet:

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Hello HSK_EN @HS201202

Focus: Useful sentences with matching pictures. Pinyin + translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great content. Short and to the point, easy to use elsewhere.
Sample tweet:

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Liz Carter @withoutdoing

Focus: Interesting expressions, slang or idioms. Pinyin + translation. Occasional cats.
Comment: By far the most interesting content on this list.
Sample tweets:

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All about Chinese @allaboutchinese

Focus: Inspirational quotes. No Pinyin. Simplified.
Comment: Good sentences, sometimes a bit sentimental. Source seldom given.
Sample tweet:

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Learn Mandarin 中文故事 @ZhongWenGuShi

Focus: Useful sentences with interesting and matching pictures. Pinyin + translation. Traditional/simplified.
Comment: Tweets only pictures, so much harder to copy. Carefully matched content, though.
Sample tweet:

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LearnChineseWords @VocabChinese

Focus: Useful sentences with pinyin and translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great content. Short and to the point, easy to use elsewhere.
Sample tweet:

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Focus:  Interesting Chinese proverbs with translation. No Pinyin. Simplified.
Comment:  Doesn’t tweet often, but content is good, at least the proverb posts.
Sample tweets:

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Chinese Language @learnchinesehl

Focus: Basic, useful sentences with Pinyin and translation. Simplified.
Comment:  Words plus example sentence. A bit bland, but very useful.
Sample tweets:

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Speak Up Chinese @speakupchinese

Focus: Individual words with pictures. Pinyin + translation. Some language-learning related links. Simplified
Comment: Interesting word choice (intermediate and above) with helpful pictures.
Sample tweet:

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That’s it for now! Have I missed anything? What’s your favourite Twitter feeds for learning Chinese?

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

 summaryWhat should you do if you want to improve your writing ability in Chinese? The answer is two-fold. First, you should start reading more. Without a passive understanding of the language you’re going to use when you write, it’s almost impossible to use it accurately and writing will be reduced to a translation exercise that relies heavily on dictionaries. You will forget most of the words right after you copied them from the dictionary. Not good. Don’t expect to be able to write something you can’t read.

Second, you get good at what you practice, so if you want to get good at writing, no amount of reading will take you there if you don’t also combine it with writing practice. I think these are parallel processes, so I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write anything until you’re literate. This is not a good idea for the same reason that it’s not a good idea to delay speaking until you can understand spoken Chinese. It’s not bad because it wouldn’t work (it probably would, perhaps even very well), but because it would take an awful lot of time before you could do anything useful with the language.

If you want to be able to write Chinese, you have to write. But how should you practice?

Low and high intensity writing practice

As I have argued many times before, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need activities of both low and high intensity. For casual, low-intensity writing practice, please refer to the following articles:

In this article, though, I want to look at a high-intensity activity that combines reading and writing into one. It’s the best way of improving writing ability that I know of, and can be used at any level, but works best from intermediate and up when you can read and write sentences.

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

Writing summaries of Chinese texts is excellent practice. You might think that it doesn’t sound like too much fun, but this activity is so good that you have to check it out. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Intensive reading – The first thing you need to do if you want to write a summary is to completely understand the original text. This means going through it carefully and resolving any issues with a tutor. This kind of activity should be on your weekly schedule anyway, and so getting it integrated in a more comprehensive exercise is excellent.
  • Focused reading practice – In order to write a summary, you have to read very carefully and pay attention both to the content and the language. It’s probably a good idea to read it several times, focusing on different aspects every time. I have written more about focused reading here: How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading. Underline keywords, understand what words in the text give it its structure.
  • Natural exposure to important vocabulary – If you’re goal is to be able to write about your work, your hobby or something else, by reading texts in Chinese about these topics, you are exposed to the vocabulary native speakers use when writing about these topics. Collect the words, add them to the spaced repetition program of your choice. You also have good examples of how they are used, so don’t just add words, grab phrases or sentences.
  • Making the text your own –  Just reading a text with the aim of really understanding it is a good activity in general, but it doesn’t become your own text until you do something with it. Writing a summary is one of things you can do. Other things include commenting on the text, discussing it and so on, but these require much more support than writing a summary.
  • Activating vocabulary and grammar –  Knowing something passively is one thing, but in order to be able to write well, you need to be able to use the words as well. When you write your summary, you practice using the words you have learnt from your reading practice. If you do this with several articles with a similar topic, your command of the key vocabulary will increase rapidly.
  • Preparing for exams – Writing exams are often about reading some text and then transforming it into your own. Naturally, it might not be a straight-up summary they’re asking for, but restating something you have read in your own words is common. Being able to do this well shows both that you can read well and have a command of the language that allows you to do something useful with the things you read.
  • Avoiding translation –  I think translation is an excellent exercise (Translating to improve your Chinese), especially for advanced learners, but sometimes its good to avoid translation and just focus on the Chinese. Furthermore, if you write under the guidance of a tutor, summaries don’t require that much from him or her, but discussing the finer nuances of translation is really hard and demands a lot from your tutor.

Have I convinced you? If so, let’s turn to how to write summaries.

How to write summaries for language practice

The following procedure can be changed according to your needs, but works well as a starting point:

  1. Find one or more texts about a certain topic (you should be able to read these texts)
  2. Read the text and make sure you understand everything (ask someone if you don’t)
  3. Collect interesting words, phrases or patterns from the text (learn them, review)
  4. Write a draft of a summary (length can vary, see below)
  5. Ask for feedback from a tutor (Why good feedback matters and how to get it)
  6. Correct your summary (and make sure you understand what you’re changing and why)
  7. Save your summary for benchmarking purposes (Benchmarking progress to stay motivated)
  8. Publish your summary on your blog, social media site or whatever (I publish some stuff here)

Also, don’t forget that it’s the process that matters (how much you learn), not the actual text. If you need more than one round with a tutor, that’s perfectly okay! Focusing on the process is key: Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process.

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

It’s pretty easy to get quick feedback on Chinese writing for free. I have written an article about Lang-8, which is a service that allows you to upload your texts and receive feedback. In return, you’re expected to help other students learning your language (not necessarily the same people who help you, of course). These native speakers aren’t teachers, but they can still help you out a lot. Read my article here: Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese.

A brief note about length

The length of the text you read and the summary you write are variable. You can summaries a book, but you can also summarise a short newspaper article. Furthermore, the length of your review can also vary, which is perhaps more interesting. This  is actually something which can be very difficult, even in your native language, so it’s not purely related to the language itself. Try the following:

  1. Choose a text (let’s say 1000 characters)
  2. Write a summary using 250 characters
  3. Write a new summary using only 150 characters
  4. Write a third summary with no more than 50 characters
  5. Make sure each summary is still accurate!

These texts will have to be quite different to capture the gist of the article you read while meeting the length requirements. If you have never done this in any language, you will find that writing a short summary is usually much harder than writing a long one.

Will a Chinese-only rule improve your learning?

chineseonlyMany language schools have a “Chinese only” rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese on campus. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practise as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.

You can of course also create a “Chinese only” rule for yourself, regardless of what your school requires of you. This post is not about language schools in particular, but about enforcing 100% Chinese language use in general.

While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a “Chinese only” rule really as good an idea as it seems? In this article, I’m first going to look at some pros and cons, then present my conclusion.

Why having a Chinese-only rule is a good idea

The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do that if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything.

Furthermore, by committing to speaking only Chines,e you avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practising sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.

The benefits of binary choices

Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice, you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re much more likely to end up speaking English.

This is related to a psychological effect that I would like to explore further in future articles. In general, it seems like binary choices are easier to both to make and to later maintain, compared with choices that are more open. If you have a rule that says “100% Chinese, 0% English”, that’s that, there’s no discussion. You know what it means and everybody else does too.

If you instead create a rule that says “90% Chinese, 10% English”, things get more complicated. How do you count? How do you know if you actually spend 90% of the time using Chinese? Should you count per day? Per week? Can you “save” time for later periods? And so on. If you instead commit to only Chinese, you don’t have to deal with all these issues.

Advantages of using Chinese-only rules in classrooms

Before we move on to the disadvantages of Chinese-only rules, we need to briefly look at two classroom aspects, one related to teachers and one to students.

First, it’s easy to forget that having a conversation at a very basic level with a beginner is demanding not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Therefore, without a Chinese-only rule in place, it’s tempting for teachers to give up earlier and use English instead. This is sometimes warranted (see below), but not always.

Second, in classes where students come from a variety of language backgrounds, the only language everybody has in common is Chinese. What other language is the teacher supposed to use, English? What about the students whose English isn’t so good or who don’t like speaking English? Thus, in some situations, enforcing a Chinese-only rule is a practical considerations, not one related to what is best for an individual student. The rest of this article, therefore, assumes that there is a real choice to be made.

Why having a Chinese-only rule isn’t a good idea

This part of the article is slightly more controversial, because to be honest, I’m not a fan of Chinese-only rules. With all the advantages listed above, how can I support such an opinion? Let’s look at a few of the main disadvantages of adhering to a Chinese-only rule:

  • Weak explanations – Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard to do entirely in Chinese. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
  • Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand, you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is in fact not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what was going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
  • Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want you to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been much higher.
  • Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practising, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on.
  • Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to an extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good. If you enforce a Chinese-only rule, you need to make sure that you have safety valves that allow you to vent frustration. If you’re a brave soul with lots of time on your hands, kamikaze-style immersion is great, just make sure it isn’t an actual suicide mission!

Conclusion

I don’t like Chinese-only rules because they are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to much.

That being said, the psychological effect regarding binary choices mentioned above means that I think that imposing a Chinese-only rule is mostly a good thing, even if you don’t end up following it in all situations. Scott Young went to Chinese with about 100 hours of preparation and wrote this about his failure to use Chinese all the time with his friend and roommate:

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

 This hits the nail on its head and leads to the general solution: Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.

What do you think? Have you tried a Chinese-only approach? Did you decide to do so on your own or was it a requirement where you studied? How did it go?

The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading

This is a guest article by David Moser about the incredible changes the digital age has brought to learners of Chinese all over the world. David holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. He’s currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University. David has previously contributed to my ask-the-experts article about learning Chinese grammar. In this article, he provides both a background for those who started learning Chinese recently, as well as an in-depth discussion about what has changed and what it means for learners today.

The pre-digital days

Two decades ago, after I had studied Chinese for about four years, I suddenly realized that I had never read a novel in Chinese. In fact, I had not read any Chinese book in its entirety – the task was just too daunting. This would be a rather embarrassing admission for a fourth-year student of, say, Spanish, but back then this was a pretty common situation for us learners of Chinese.

I had fairly good spoken Mandarin and a fair sense for the written language. Yet reading Chinese literature was virtually impossible. There were so many unfamiliar characters on virtually every line of the text that there was no way I could look them all up. So usually I would give up in despair after a frustrating few paragraphs of: “Here, Second-Elder-Sister, quickly take this (something) that our father (something) to Old Chen when his (something) was so tragically (something, something) during the Japanese (something), and never speak of this (something) to a soul (something something), I beg you!” You know the feeling.

At that time Qian Zhongshu’s famous novel Weicheng《围城》was having a revival of popularity, partly due to a TV series adaptation of the novel. My friends at Peking University were all raving about it, so I decided to read the book myself – and I mean really read it. My goal was to understand every word, every idiom, and every unfamiliar character, getting as close to a full understanding of the text as I possibly could.

The task took me six months, and I can’t exactly describe it as “reading for pleasure.” I found I had to look up a couple dozen words per page, sometimes consulting three or four different dictionaries, in order to grasp all the subtlety and nuance of Qian’s satirical novel. Not wanting to waste my dictionary efforts, I pencilled in glosses to every new vocabulary item I encountered so that I could go back and reread passages without looking up the characters again. My battered copy of the book still rests on the bookcase like a war memento. Here’s a typical page:

bookpage

As you can see from this one page, the whole process was painfully tedious. In those dark pre-digital days, we Chinese learners had to look up unfamiliar characters using the old radical-and-stroke-count method. Just searching for one pesky character might take me as much as three minutes, at which point I would have forgotten the plot of the book.

At the time, a Chinese literature professor who I respected said to me, “This is not the right strategy for students to read Chinese literature. You don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist. Just keep reading forward through the text, and don’t get hung up on every unfamiliar character.”

This advice, which is still common today, seemed like pure horse pucky to me. Reading a great novel is not like skimming the Terms of Agreement before installing a piece of new software. You don’t read Chinese literature to “get the gist of it”. Quite the contrary; you want to fully understand each sentence, savor the flavor of every colorful adjective and juicy adverb. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of reading it at all? (The whole state of affairs reminds me of a Woody Allen joke: “I took a course in speed reading. The other day I read War and Peace in just 15 minutes. It’s about Russia.”)

I currently teach at an overseas Chinese study program for American undergraduates. One of the most common laments I hear from my students goes something like this: “I can fairly easily understand the material in my intermediate Chinese reader, but whenever I try to read an actual newspaper or magazine article, I can barely get through the first paragraph. And novels are almost impossible. When am I going to be able to actually read texts in the real world?”

Go digital, young man

The solution to my students’ problem is to go digital — that is, read your texts in e-format, whenever possible. The Chinese may have invented Chinese characters and paper, but it’s time to separate the two. Don’t get me wrong; I have a deep nostalgic love for ink on paper, but who has a leisurely hour to devote to one lousy page of text? There’s an amazing arsenal of new Chinese character processing technology out there, and it’s time we made full use it. The plethora of smart phone apps, web browser extensions, digital dictionaries and Chinese character processing devices that students are now using – or should be using – every day have totally revolutionized the previously Sisyphean task of reading in Chinese. By abandoning paper, the new digital technology finally makes it possible for the student to jump into the ocean of Chinese characters without the risk of drowning.

Apps such as Pleco or KTdict feature “document reader” or “web page reader” features that allow you to copy and paste entire articles or books into a window, create a TXT file, and read the text using the pop-up window definition features of these programs. (For those of you who have been using these dictionary apps to look up words, but have never investigated the document reader feature, try it immediately! It will change the way you read forever.) If you include features like Chrome’s automatic translation tool, plus built-in tools like Google Translate, and there’s a hardly any page of modern Mandarin out there that can’t be successfully decoded by a diligent intermediate student. For the intermediate student with three or four semesters of Chinese under their belt, there is now no reason not to escape the confines of the textbook and start navigating a wide range of real-world texts. The only question is where to find such texts.

Any text that is digitized can be a learning text

Unfortunately, the world of Chinese pedagogy has not quite caught up to the potential of the new technology, and so in some cases you will need a little creative Googling to find the materials you need. The good news is that any text that is in electronic form (Word, PDF, etc.) or on a web page can be converted to a format that is readable in one or another of the digital dictionary tools available. Thanks to the burgeoning array of Internet sites and digital resources (examples of which are helpfully available right here on the Hacking Chinese site) you can begin exploring – relatively painlessly – new textual territories that accord perfectly with your literary tastes, your research, your hobbies, and even your passions.

For those interested in Chinese literature, with a little clever searching you can find sites with online-accessible works such as Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West are out there somewhere (see for example, Chun wenxue wang 纯文学网站), and works by modern authors such as Mo Yan, Han Han and Yu Hua can be found with a little digging (see http://www.kanunu8.com). By cutting and pasting the texts into your Chinese app, students can finally begin reading such authors with relative ease.

If you want to try delving digitally into Daoism or the rest of the classical philosophy tradition, there are sites such as The Chinese Text Project. And there are an increasing number of sites that provide a wide range of public domain texts from all different areas, chosen with the Chinese learner in mind, such as “Chinese Text Sampler,” which can be found at this user-friendly University of Michigan website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dporter/sampler/sampler.html.

For current events, there are helpful news sites in both English and Chinese bilingual format, such as the New York Times’ new Chinese site: http://cn.nytimes.com/

And the VOA’s bilingual news site: http://www.voachinese.com/archive/bilingual-news/latest/1737/2404.html

By comparing the Chinese with the English, and by checking unfamiliar characters in the pop-up definition windows, a student at almost any level can read a newspaper article with nearly 100% comprehension.

Warning: Not all these files you discover on the Internet will be complete, correct, comprehensive, or even legal, strictly speaking. The Internet is like a gigantic digital garage sale, and one person’s trash is another’s treasure. But if you’re serious about building a small digital library of the kinds of Chinese material that you’d like to familiarize yourself with, some sites can be absolute gold mines.

At the outset, your primary goal for reading is to improve your speaking

Why is it so important that you begin to read more extensively? Adult learners of a foreign language don’t have the luxury of learning to speak the way babies do. To a great extent, we must absorb a foreign language via written texts. The linguist Ferdinand Saussure tells us that written language is merely the external representation of speech; the spoken language is the basis of the written language. Thus, for a student of a foreign language, who usually doesn’t have as much verbal linguistic input as a baby has, reading is a way of getting familiar with the nuts and bolts of the language, a shortcut to developing an intuitive “feeling for the language” (Sprachgefühl in German, or, in Chinese, yǔgǎn 语感). And this path is what has, up to now, been very difficult for Chinese learners.

Contrast Chinese with an “easy” language like French, where the skills of speaking and reading meld seamlessly into and strengthen one another, thanks to the phonetic nature of the script (which, among other things, makes dictionary lookup a cinch). Even lower-level French students are quickly able to read and process a vast amount of real-world texts, using the written language as a vehicle to gradually acquire mastery of the grammar and syntax.

This is no longer the case. Chinese is becoming more and more almost like a “normal language” from the point of view of reading. This means that learners of Chinese can now start using Chinese texts to directly bolster their speaking ability. With this in mind, it is a good idea to choose reading material that is essentially a record of natural speech, such as movie and TV scripts, transcripts of actual interviews, talk shows, lectures, and even posts on social media platforms like Weibo and Weixin.

Doubts?

There are those who will be sceptical of this approach to reading, considering it to be a lazy digital crutch, tantamount to cheating. Ignore such people. There is no such thing as “cheating.” But be prepared for some of the possible objections:

  • Do not worry that you might not retain all the new characters you are reading. By reading extensively and quickly, you are gaining a passive understanding of words and phrases, which will slowly become active additions to your vocabulary. The most common characters will soon be added to your long-term memory, and the rarer, low-frequency items can be thought of as temporary life vests, which can be discarded when you reach safer semantic waters.

  • Above all, do not worry that you are not learning to write by hand all these characters with which you are having a fleeting encounter. Even Chinese natives are losing the ability to write characters by hand. The crucial skill for the 21st century learner is recognizing characters, not writing them.

The digital revolution is not a dinner party

The approach I’m advocating here is clearly not for everyone. It still takes a student with a certain degree of dedication to get over the technological hump and create this kind of digitized reading environment. But for those willing to make the effort, the result is a new access to entire semantic worlds that were virtually inaccessible to previous generations of Chinese learners.

There are still a surprising number of struggling Chinese learners who have not seen the wisdom of this paperless path. But if you are already doing the bulk of your Chinese reading with digital tools, know that you are on the vanguard of a digital revolution that will eventually free all our Chinese-learning comrades from the tyranny of printed books, those mute and unhelpful “paper tigers” who have preyed on our precious hours and energies for far too long.

A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

waysofwritingI remember what it was like to write my first Chinese characters. It felt like writing runes with magical powers, they were exotic and beautiful, closer to art than language. I still like Chinese characters, so studying Chinese for years hasn’t destroyed that feeling completely. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find writing characters by hand very fun in and of itself. I prefer typing and reading.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting

If you love writing Chinese characters by hand, this article is not for you, but if you feel that you want to learn to write Chinese characters, but that you don’t want to spend more time than necessary, you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, I will discuss my minimum effort approach to handwritten Chinese. I have already talked a lot about how to learn characters elsewhere, so this is more about the bigger picture. If you want to read more about character learning in general, this article offers a good overview: My best advice on learning Chinese characters.

The goal: Legible, not beautiful

Before I go into any details about the strategy itself, there are a few words to be said about the goal. My goal is to be able to write most things by hand that I can already type on a computer. That means that vocabulary, grammar and so on isn’t part of what I’m talking about here. This is about the difference between being able to read, type and perhaps say something, and being able to write it down on a piece of paper by hand.

Why would you need to be able to do that? There are many reasons, but personally, I think that not being able to write the language you are learning is a serious deficit. How serious it is depends on why you’re learning. Your friends finding out that you can’t write is one thing, but it will be harder to convince native speakers that your Chinese is good if you struggle with filling in a simple form during a job interview. I have written more about the importance of handwriting here: Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

I also want to say a few words about what I don’t need:

  1. I don’t care about writing beautifully. That clearly doesn’t fit into a minimum effort approach.
  2. I don’t need to be able to write quickly. This is also a minimum effort consideration, I merely want to be able to write, even if it takes a little time.

The strategy: Four components

The four components in my strategy are reading, typing, spaced repetition software and communicative handwriting. I’ll discuss them one by one and explain how they help me reach the goal described above:

  • Reading ought to be the start of any endeavour to be able to write. Passive understanding of something is the foundation for active knowledge and without it, it’s hard to get a feel for how the language is used. Constantly looking at Chinese characters also teaches you what they look like and which characters belong together. You will not learn to write all characters by hand simply by looking at them, but reading is still the foundation of writing.

  • Typing keeps your vocabulary and grammar up to par. Typing basically includes everything that handwriting does, minus moving a pencil across paper by hand. This means that if you can type something, you generally only need character knowledge to be able to write it by hand as well. If you use phonetic input (such as Pinyin or Zhuyin), you also make sure that you know how to pronounce what you’re typing, which increases the chance that phonetic components will remind you of how to write the characters as well.

  • Spaced repetition software is crucial for any minimum effort approach because it’s by far the most efficient way of maintaining large amounts of knowledge. These programs will help you schedule each review, putting it off for as long as possible to save you time while not delaying it so long that you forget the information. It’s possible to build a large vocabulary this way with less effort than most other methods. I prefer Skritter because it gives me immediate feedback, but you can use any program.

  • Communicative writing refers to writing Chinese characters with real communication in mind. Most of the practice that takes place in classrooms is not communicative (such as translating sentences, doing exercises in the workbook or dictation). For writing to be communicative, communication needs to be the main purpose of writing. It can be with other people, such as leaving a note for a friend written in Chinese or chatting with someone online using the handwriting input on your phone, but it could also be with yourself, such as writing shopping lists, memos or blog posts in Chinese. The point with communicative writing is that it’s realistic and makes sure you constantly drill the high-frequency words you need to be able to write well. If you neglect this step, you will likely find that you forget even common characters when forced to write by hand, simply because you never write them and spaced repetition software isn’t very good at spotting weaknesses in knowledge you’re supposed to know really well.

By combining these four elements, its possible to reach the goal of being to write by hand most things I can already type on a computer. I haven’t found a way of removing any of these components, so this is why I call it a minimum-effort approach.

Conclusion

This strategy is the result of a lot of thinking about how to learn what I need without spending too much time. I have used a similar approach for a few years and it has served me well. I can write Chinese when required to and I seldom forget characters or words. I don’t spend much time focusing on only writing characters, it’s all integrated into other activities that are either communicative or meaningful in other ways.

Even if my typed Chinese is superior to my handwriting, that’s mostly because of differences between word processing and handwriting in general, such as speed, ease of editing and so on. This is at least partly applicable to any language, so I would find it harder to write this article by hand than typing it in a text editor. Thus, I still prefer typing Chinese, but I’m not really afraid of writing by hand. The only drawback is that when required to write something lengthy, the muscles in the hand aren’t really up to the task and get tired easy, but I can live with that.

What strategy do you use to learn to write by hand? Are you like me in that you want to learn it, but not more than necessary, or do you genuinely enjoy writing characters by hand?

Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind

listening-chart
If you listen a lot, most of it will have to be passive listening. The proportions here are somewhat arbitrary, but passive listening will take up much more time than active listening.

In last week’s article, I discussed three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice. In short, you need to find interesting audio you can understand, you need to make it easily available and, finally, you need to find a way of maintaining your listening habits for a long time. That last step merits a more detailed discussion!

Improving listening ability in the long run

I have learnt Chinese for seven years now, and I know how hard it is to keep up listening practice while being busy with other things. I mentioned the key to success in last week’s article, but there simply wasn’t room to explain it properly. This is what I wrote:

It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired.

Listening a lot is difficult, not because it’s hard to listen in itself, but because it’s not easy to find the amount of listening material you need and manage it properly. You should find audio that is comprehensible, but as we all know, what is comprehensible varies.

If I’m well rested, I can understand more difficult audio than when I’m tired. Therefore, you not only need audio suitable in general, you need to be able to adjust the audio to your current state. This is related to what I have written about studying according to your current productivity level.

I sort my audio into two categories, let’s call them “hard” and “easy”. I recommend that you create actual folders on your computer and/or phone. Feel free to use more than two categories if you want, but I’ll keep it simple here.

Category #1: Hard

Audio in this category is for active listening. It’s audio you need to focus on seriously to understand. If you listen more than ten or twenty minutes, you start feeling tired. Because of this, the bulk of the audio you listen to and therefore the audio you need to have available is not going to be in this category.

I currently  listen to 白鹿原 by 陈忠实 and it falls firmly in this category for me. I find this audio book very hard to follow and I need to focus 100%, otherwise my thoughts start flying all over the place and I lose track of the story. I typically listen 10-20 minutes each time, usually when talking a walk. I can’t do anything more complicated at the same time, I need all my concentration on the audio.

Naturally, what you think is hard depends on your proficiency level. Beginners will find it hard to listen to new chapters in their textbook, intermediate learners will struggle with learner podcasts mainly in Chinese. Advanced learners will struggle with anything they aren’t used to already.

If you don’t understand much even when you concentrate 100%, you should put the audio in a third folder called “too hard” and leave it there until your listening ability has improved.

Category #2: Easy

The audio in the “easy” category is for passive listening. It needn’t be extremely easy, but it should be the kind of audio you can keep up with for extended periods of time, preferably even while engaged in other tasks at the same time (nothing too complex, I mean things like cooking, driving or doing the laundry). Since you can listen for long periods of time in

many situations, you need much, much more audio in this category. The more the better.

I put two types of audio in the “easy” category:

  • Audio I have already listened to before and found interesting
  • Audio I can understand without concentrating too much

For the purpose of the listening challenge, I use the advanced lessons from ChinesePod and a few radio programs I’ve already listened to. Since boredom is a real problem here, focus on audio you find interesting. If you’re a beginner, it will be very hard to find audio to put in this category, it will have to be things you have already listened to. For intermediate learners, everything you have listened to already plus intermediate podcasts will work. For advanced learners, things are as usual much easier.

Moving audio from “hard” to “easy”

Part of the reason I use a system like this is that it’s easy to move audio around. If you have studied something in the “hard” category for some time, it won’t be feel difficult anymore. What most students do then is to forget about it and move on to the next challenge. Don’t do that. Instead, keep the audio, but move it to the “easy” category. This is essential for beginners and intermediate learners since this will be your main source of easy audio. It also means you get to review what you have learnt. If the “easy” folder becomes too crowded, remove things you find too easy, boring or both.

Are you listening enough?

The more you listen, the better. The more diverse your listening is, the better. As I have discussed here and in previous articles, passive listening will have to make up most of your listening practice. This isn’t because it’s better than active listening, it’s because it’s the only way you can listen enough while still living a normal life. Passive listening is for all that time when you can’t concentrate 100% on the audio. Make sure you have enough Chinese audio available!

Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice

Image credit: Tony Clough
Image credit: Tony Clough

If you look at what methods work well for learning Chinese (or any other language), you will see the word “immersion” over and over. The analogy is straightforward: Chinese is like water and learning the language is like learning to swim. You don’t learn to swim by reading about it, you learn by getting wet, by immersing yourself, as often and as much as possible, but not so much that you actually drown.

Many students mistakenly believe that going to China equals immersion, but it can be easily demonstrated that this isn’t true. You can create an immersion environment in your home country. It’s also perfectly possible to go to China and stay in an expat or tourist bubble, thus only coming into contact with slightly more Chinese than your friends at home. The only significant difference between immersion at home and abroad is that it takes more effort at home.

Improving listening ability through immersion

This month’s challenge is about improving listening ability, so in this article, I want to focus on the listening part of immersion. Listening ability is a tricky beast. While there are some things to say about how to improve, it’s much more about exposure than anything else. You learn to understand Chinese by listening to Chinese, preferably with varied input from different speakers and, once you reach an intermediate level, with different regional accents.

Now, humans are not machines, so most of us can’t just program ourselves to listen to Chinese for six hours a day for months or years. If we could, our listening skills would sky-rocket and all other skills except handwriting would be dragged up along with it. I’m not going to focus on why it’s hard to “just do it” for such an extended time. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to overcome the problem of enabling yours to listen to as much Chinese as you ought to.

Three steps to enable yourself to listen to more Chinese

  1. Finding suitable audio
  2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese
  3. Playing the long game

1. Finding suitable audio

I have already discussed the first step in several articles, so let’s look at an overview here before we move on to the more interesting second step. In essence, “suitable” means “comprehensible” and “interesting”. Here’s what I have to offer in terms of finding resources:

2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese

One thing I have learnt on my journey towards a better understanding of how to get things done is that controlling the environment is easier than controlling one’s own behaviour, and that it’s usually more effective. If you want to do something a lot, say an hour or two every day, the first step you need to take after finding audio is to make sure that it’s really easy to listen to it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always have audio available – This is super important. Wherever you are, you should have Chinese audio available to listen to. In the bathroom, when out on a walk, when you learn your friend will be 15 minutes late or when you miss the bus. If at any point you realise that you could have listened to Chinese, but can’t because of a practical problem, you make an angel cry.
  • Transfer audio in advance – If you don’t stream audio, you have to transfer audio to your smart phone in advance (even if you stream most of it, you should still have audio files just in case). Make a habit of managing your audio! Every Sunday (or whatever), check what audio you have available, and if it isn’t enough to last you at least two weeks, transfer some more. Additionally, keep a folder somewhere in the cloud where you store audio you can download to your phone if need be.
  • Remove distracting audio – I have already said that you should make it as easy as possible to listen to Chinese, but it also follows that you can do the reverse, i.e. making it harder to listen to audio in any other language. If you listen to a lot of audio in your native language, it might be tempting to listen to that instead. Make it harder to access! You might not want to make it impossible unless you want to go 100% Chinese, though.
  • Solve any technical issues – This involves bad audio players, faulty earphones or slow connections. If you’ve made an effort to find audio and make sure it’s available when you need it, it doesn’t make sense if fail because of technical issues. Have an extra pair of earphones available (they can be really cheap, you’re only going to use them if your primary pair breaks or if you forget them), buy a separate, cheap mp3-player just for Chinese.

3. Playing the long game

It you have succeeded with the first two steps, you’re still not home and dry. The real difficulty lies in keeping this up for weeks and months. Sure, you can vary the amount of Chinese you listen to, but if you study full-time, you have no excuse for allowing it to drop below an hour a day. That’s not easily achieved, especially if you have to create the immersion yourself by finding audio and then making it accessible.

I have two pieces of advice for making it easier:

  • Vary the difficulty level – It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired. Re-listening to old audio is a great way of lowering the difficulty. Read more about this here.
  • Make learning social – I like challenges, not because I like competing against others (I don’t), but because it gives me a clear and public goal. It makes me accountable and it’s easier to study when I’m doing it with others. This is why I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, so if you’re like me, you should definitely check it out. Other ways of making learning social is to find study partners, talk about your learning on social media and so on.

Conclusion

Listening to enough Chinese audio isn’t easy. It requires preparation and some discipline. However, the whole process can be made much easier by following the advice I have offered in this article. When I fail to listen as much as I want, it’s seldom because I don’t want to, it’s almost always because I have failed a seemingly trivial step such as transferring audio from my computer to my phone. that really shouldn’t happen! I hope that by discussing this issue, you will stand a batter chance at listening to as much Chinese audio as you should. Good luck!