Learning Chinese by playing Mahjong 麻將 (májiàng)

Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz
Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz

One of the most important pieces of advice I give beginners is that they should, as much as possible, learn by doing. This can be difficult when you only know a few words, but there are lots of things in your life you can convert to Chinese after just one week of studying. The most obvious example is counting. Don’t just study the numbers and learn them for the exam, count in Chinese whenever you get the chance. Use 三 (san) eggs for your pancakes, do 十二 (shíèr)  pushups, count 三十六 (sānshíliù) steps up to your apartment.

Playing 麻将/將 (májiàng) to learn Chinese numbers

Once you have the basic numbers, down, you’re ready to play 麻将/將 (májiàng) or Mahjong as it’s often spelt in English, a game which is extremely popular in most Chinese speaking societies and beyond. It’s also fun and teaches you a bit about Chinese culture at the same time,Knowing how to play the game will also be much appreciated by native speakers. Although you can play for money, the games works equally well without doing so.

Apart from the numbers 1-9, you only need a handful of words and most of them are useful outside the game as well. I have played in Chinese with people who don’t even study Chinese, so it’s definitely doable. From a language point of view, playing mostly consists of naming the tiles you play and, sometimes calling an action based on what someone else just played. Naturally, Chinese people tend to talk a lot while playing the game, but most of this isn’t related to the game or isn’t strictly necessary.

The rules of the game

I’m not going to give a detailed description of how the game is played, but if you think of it as a card game (which it originally was), it becomes much easier. The game is played by drawing one new tile each round, then discarding one. Gradually, you upgrade the tiles you have on your hand until all tiles are part of different sets of three or four. The first person to combine all his or her tiles in this way wins.

I’m not going to go into scoring here, because there are so many different variants that it would make little sense. I have played the game many times with different native speakers, and even though the basic premise of the game stays mostly the same, the scoring system can be completely different. If you care about games in general (I do), this is frustrating, because changing the scoring system obviously changes the way the game ought to be played.

If you want a beginner-friendly introduction of how to play, check this video on YouTube.

The vocabulary you need to play

Below, I have included the basic vocabulary you need to play. There are of course more useful words than these, and there are also variants of some of them, but this is just meant to get you started, not teach you everything there is to know. There are also regional variants, so don’t be surprised if this list isn’t identical to what you have heard or what your Chinese friends teach you.

Numbers

  • 一 (yī) “one”
  • 二 (èr) “two”
  • 三 (sān) “three”
  • 四 (sì) “four”
  • 五 (wǔ) “five”
  • 六 (liù) “six”
  • 七 (qī) “seven”
  • 八 (bā) “eight”
  • 九 (jiǔ) “nine”

 General

  • 洗牌 (xǐpái) “shuffle tiles (or cards)”
  • 出牌 (chūpái) “play a tile”
  • 摸牌 (mōpái) “draw a tile”
  • 和了 (húle) “I’ve won!”
  • 吃 (chī) said when you take a tile to complete a straight
  • 碰 (pèng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of three
  • 槓 (gàng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of four

Tiles

  • 筒 (tǒng) “circle (suite)”
  • 条/條 (tiáo) “bamboo (suite)”
  • 万/萬 (wàn) “characters (suite)”
  • 东风/東風 (dōngfēng) “east wind”
  • 南风/南風 (nánfēng) “south wind”
  • 西风西風 (xīfēng) “west wind”
  • 北風 (běifēng) “north wind”
  • 红/紅中 (hóngzhōng) “red dragon” (lit. “red centre”)
  • 发财/發財 (fācái) “green dragon” (lit. “make a fortune”)
  • 白板 (báibǎn) “white dragon” (lit. “white board/slate”)

If I’ve missed anything important, please leave a comment!

Playing the game with Chinese people

I’ve played a fair amount 麻将/ games in Chinese and the only drawback is that if you’re not already quite good at the game, it’s hard to chat and play at the same time. Some people also play ridiculously fast, so if you’re new to the game, you might need to ask them to slow down. If you want to familiarise yourself with the game on your own, there are plenty of computer programs and smart phone apps out there. If you have any specific recommendations for good apps, please leave a comment!

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

When learning to write Chinese characters, we need to remember that what we have in mind and what we actually write aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, what we intend to write isn’t always what comes out. The difference is important. The goal of learning to write is mostly concerned with intent; you want to create a mental model of the language that resembles that of a native speaker. You might not be able to write a character perfectly every time, but that matters little if your intent is correct. With enough practice, you’ll be fine.

Posted ImageThis idea of focusing on intent has been mentioned on Hacking Chinese earlier, in a guest article by Harvey Dam (Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements). He adds another valuable observation that shows how important intent is. If you want to write the character 月, it will come out slightly different every time, even with a perfect mental image of the character. Some strokes will be too long, others too short and so on. This is natural. However, if you have the correct mental representation, you will never write the character shown on the right.

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

The difference between intent and result can cause problems, though, because other people can’t look into your head and know what you intended to write, they can only inspect the final result. This includes teachers. If they see the incorrect 月 above, they can be pretty sure you don’t know how to write the character, but if you accidentally forget to hook the last stroke, that’s not necessarily because you didn’t know it was supposed to be hooked. To be on the safe side, teachers will treat all mistakes as errors and correct them the same way.

What’s the difference between a mistake and an error?

I have discussed mistakes and errors before (Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis), but let’s look at the basic difference again:

  • A mistakes is an unintentional slip. You know the right way of saying or writing something, but for some reason  you failed to get it right this time. You would very likely be able to correct yourself if you got the opportunity, such as if you listen to yourself or read something you have written. Typos and slips of the tongue are typical mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. For some reason, second language learners feel much worse about slips than native speakers do.
  • An error is caused by a problem in the mental model of the language you’re speaking. You think something is correct, you intend to say or write it that way, but it turns out that you’re wrong. This is much more serious, because it means you will keep on getting this wrong every time until you correct your mental model. Native speakers have very few errors. Improving your speaking and writing for second language learners is mostly about finding and correcting errors.

thoughtHow does this relate to intent? It’s very straightforward: intent is directly related to your mental model (that’s what it’s based on). If your intent is correct, you might still make a mistake, but there will be no errors in your output.With practice, the number of mistakes will drop. If your intent in incorrect, you will only be able to get it right in cases where your faulty model overlaps the real one. The larger the overlap, the harder the error is to spot.

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

One of the most obvious areas of application is character writing. The first lesson and most important lesson is that you have to know what you intend to write before you write. Here are a couple of very common ways of practising characters that don’t allow you to monitor your intent properly:

  • Copying characters on paper stroke by stroke – This is very bad. If you don’t have a mental model, it will take ages for it to form because you never actively rely on it to write, you just copy mechanically. You never check if you actually know the character or not, the representation of the character blocks your mental model. This method is also bad because it’s been shown that actively probing memory is much more effective than just exposing yourself to the information. Flashcards are good, in other words.
  • Typing characters rather than writing them by hand – Most input methods are phonetic, meaning that you type the pronunciation of the character or word you want to write. This means that you don’t even need to think about what the character looks like and how it’s structured before it pops up as an alternative on your screen. Typing is therefore a poor way of learning to write characters (but still very practical, of course). Since most input methods help you choose not only characters but entire words or phrases, you need to know even less about small but significant differences between characters.
  • Receiving too much help – Any program or method that offers hints to the user also makes it harder to monitor your intent. If you use a program like Skritter, make sure you have raw squigs turned on, which allows you to write the entire character before you get any corrective feedback. In other programs, turn off any character tracing functions and only check your result once you have finished writing the entire character.

Below, I’m going to provide a solution to the problem, but in case you want to read more about different ways of learning to write characters, I have written two articles you will find interesting:

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

The main goal of this article is to highlight the importance of what you intend to write before you receive any kind of feedback. Since this problem is purely in the mental domain and not directly related to what tools you use, you can take care of the problem literally without lifting a finger.

Simply visualise the whole character, component by component (or stroke by stroke) before you start writing it. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t know the character. If you tried to write it down on a piece of paper, you’ll probably get stuck. Naturally, you should be aware of the risk of cheating (intentionally or otherwise). If you want to make really sure you know a character, you have to actually write it down on a blank paper with no corrective feedback at all. You don’t need to do this all the time, but occasionally writing by hand is a good reality-check, regardless of what other tools you’re using.

24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert
Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about pronunciation. As promised last week, this post will contain my favourite resources for learning and teaching pronunciation. All of them are already listed on Hacking Chinese Resources, but I still think that highlighting the most useful resources for this month’s challenge will be useful. There are still 10 days left in the challenge, by the way, so it’s not too late to join if you haven’t already!

The best resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation

I usually limit my best-resource articles to ten, but since pronunciation is my favourite topic, I’m not going to stop there. I’m not going to give you everything I have (you wouldn’t want that), but I am going to give you more than you need. Probably a lot more. To make the recommendations more navigable, I have sorted them into four categories; feel free to skip those you don’t think you need.

  1. Basic sound references
  2. Pronunciation explained
  3. Advice on learning pronunciation
  4. Useful software and applications

If you have any other resources you think ought to be on this list or on Hacking Chinese Resources, please leave a comment or contact me.

1. Basic sound references

When you start learning Chinese, it’s essential that you have proper models to mimic. It’s also important that you look up how to pronounce syllables you’re not familiar with. There are several freely available resources that include all syllables read with all tones. I have included more than one here because as I have explained, listening to more than one voice is helpful.

  • Yabla Pinyin Chart With Audio – A web-based Pinyin chart with audio for all syllables with all tones. Also includes possible combinations that actually don’t exist as real words, which might be good for practice.
  • Pinyin audio and video on YouTube – This clip introduces all the initials and finals in Pinyin (using the first tone). It adds value to the rest of the resources here because the camera is pointed to the speaker’s mouth, showing clearly how the lips move.
  • Lost Theory Mandarin Phonetics – Another web-based resource with recorded audio for all syllables with all tones. You can also get the “spelling” of the syllable read to you, ie. Initial, final and then the whole syllable.
  • New Concept Mandarin introduction to Pinyin – Yet another web-based Pinyin chart with a different voice. It’s slightly more annoying to navigate, but only contains real syllables, which might be good as a reality check.
  • ChinesePod Introduction to Pinyin – This app is available for free for both Android and iOS and contains the full Pinyin chart with audio. It also explains the sounds, although not always accurately (there is no “nasal U” in Mandarin).
  • Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills – As the name implied, this is tone pair drilling with audio. You should really know how to pronounce all combinations and here you have them with audio references.
  • AllSet Learning Pinyin – This resource is only available for iPhone and iPad, but it’s free to download. It contains audio for all syllables in Mandarin (including tones) as well as some other useful features.
  • Pinyin Chart in IPA – In case you know the International Phonetica Alphabet (IPA) this chart provides you with a transcription of all syllables in Mandarin. It also highlight some potential issues with spelling in Pinyin.

2. Pronunciation explained

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics – This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice – This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia – This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls – My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) – This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a little bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

3. Advice on learning pronunciation

  • Tones are more important than you think – This is an article about the importance of tones. I don’t think anyone who reads this guide thinks tones aren’t important, but it might be good to have some arguments to convince your friends.
  • Learning the third tone in Chinese – I have spent a fair amount of time researching the third tone in Mandarin. In this article, I share some of the results and discuss what they mean for you as a learner.
  • A smart method to discover problems with tones – I have referred to this article already, but I want to mention it again. It introduces a really neat way of testing pronunciation without having a teacher. Everybody should try this at least once.
  • Recording yourself to improve speaking ability – This is a closer look at how you can use recording as a tool to improve pronunciation. Most of what I cover here has appeared in different parts of this guide.
  • John Pasden’s tips on Chines pronunciation – I have referred to specific parts of this site earlier, but this is the main page for everything about pronunciation. John has many good things to say about pronunciation, listen to him!
  • Extending Mnemonics to Tones and Pronunciation – This is isn’t specifically about how to learn to pronounce Chinese, but instead about how to remember the sounds (this is surprisingly often the problem; you have to remember how a word is pronounced if you want to be able to pronounce it correctly).
  • Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation – This is an interview done with me over at Language is Culture. I talk with David Mansaray about learning to pronounce Chinese (and other languages). It isn’t directly useful as a guide for how to change pronunciation, but might be interesting to some readers. The audio interview is about 70 minutes long.

4. Useful software and applications

  • Audacity – This program is excellent for mimicking purposes, but also for careful listening in general. It’s easy to use and available for free on most platforms. It’s a powerful audio editing and playback software that allows you to view and edit audio, as well as slow down,
    speed up, mute channels and much more. The link goes to my article about using Audacity and I introduce more tricks there.
  • Praat – This is one of the most widely used programs when it comes to scientific analysis of pronunciation. The program is not made for students specifically, but you can get pretty far just by using the material available on the website. Praat is free and works on most platforms. One of the most important features for students is to be able to see pitch contours and compare these to those of native speakers.
  • Pleco – This is my favourite Chinese dictionary (available for both Android and iOS), but that’s not why I mention it here. If you feel like spending some money, you can buy one or two voices that read most words in the dictionary. This is not synthesised sound, they actually
    record each word! Mimic your way to better pronunciation, don’t improvise or guess the right pronunciation.
  • WaiChinese – This app allows you to listen and record your own pronunciation, and to compare it with target audio. More importantly, it allows you to submit your recordings for corrections by a native teacher! This requires manual work and so costs money, but it’s a neat way to get quick feedback on your pronunciation.

Good luck!
Having the right resources is just part of successful language learning. Just as you won’t get strong simply be reading how to do push-ups, you won’t get good at pronouncing Chinese unless you practice. Without that, no theory in the world will help you. With the right theory, though, your practice becomes not only more effective, but usually also more enjoyable. Good luck!

How to find a suitable Chinese name

kalligrafiPeople who know nothing about Chinese sometimes ask me how to write their names in Chinese characters. The answer is that you can’t. The Chinese writing system isn’t phonetic. Of course, characters contain a lot of information about pronunciation, but they aren’t very suitable for accurately representing foreign sounds, such as those that make up your non-Chinese name. The best you can do is choose characters that are read in a way similar to the name you want to write.

Names in Chinese

Chinese has very few syllables (about 400), so choosing suitable sounds is sometimes impossible. Sometimes it is possible, but Chinese people prefer other choices for non-obvious reasons (sometimes related to complicated historical interactions between Chinese dialects).

When I teach beginner courses in Chinese, I usually play a small guessing game with the students where I say a few names of famous people in Chinese and they are supposed to guess whom they are referring to. This is easy for cases like 貝多芬 (Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven, but impossible for cases like 福爾摩斯 (Fúěrmósī) Sherlock Holmes.

Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus

Now, the meaning of the characters have nothing to do with the name. At best, auspicious or neutral characters are chosen over those with decidedly negative connotations, but only in rare cases are the meaning of the characters related to the name.

This leads to a lot of nonsense, so if you translate the meaning of some common English names written in Chinese, all you get is slightly amusing gibberish:

  • 喬納森 (Qiáonàsēn) Jonathan = tall admit forest
  • 伊麗莎白 (Yī​lì​shā​bái) Elizabeth = that beautiful kind of sedge grass white
  • 克利斯朵夫 (Kè​lì​sī​duǒ​fū) Christopher = gram advantage thus earlobe man

Or you can see what Stephen Fry makes of his and his fellows’ Chinese names on the BBC show Qi:

While this might be slightly inaccurate, it still illustrates the point: foreign names directly transcribed with Chinese characters don’t make much sense and don’t really work well as names in Chinese at all. Chinese personal names often have two characters, sometimes one, but it’s exceedingly rare to have more. Family names often have just one character, but sometimes two. The average length of English names is much longer.

Finding a suitable name for yourself

If you think all of this is just slightly amusing and you’re okay with being called That Beautiful Kind of Sedge Grass White, then that’s perfectly okay, that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t take action and allow someone to just find a name for you (perhaps a bored official when you apply for something in China or your overloaded, poor Chinese teacher).

I certainly wasn’t okay with this and if you feel the same, you need to find a suitable name for yourself. There are a couple of ways you can do this:

  1. Try to find a name yourself by selecting characters you like and/or sound like your name, sticking only to characters with good meaning. You might have to be quite flexible on the “sound like your name” part, but that’s okay.
  2. Steal the name or parts of it from a real Chinese person. If you’ve seen a name that you like for some reason (after checking what it means), combine this with your own family name. It might be a good idea to avoid very famous people though.
  3. Ask a Chinese person who knows you for help, finding a name that both sounds good and matches your personality. This isn’t easy, so if you ask someone who doesn’t know you well, you might get a half-hearted response.

Whatever you do, you have to check your name with several native speakers! This is especially true if you use the first two methods as it is very likely that you will pick names that don’t work very well or have unintended effects. If you’re okay with having a name that you think is cool but just sounds really weird for Chinese people, that’s fine, but you should at least know about it.

After you have listened to suggestions and opinions from a few native speakers, you should be okay. Also note that it’s absolutely crucial that you ask native speakers rather than advanced second language learners like myself! Names are about connotations and emotions, something which is very, very hard to grasp for us foreigners, regardless of how long we’ve studied Chinese.

My Chinese name

To make this article slightly more concrete and personal, I’d like to share with you the story behind my name, which I adopted before moving to Taiwan in 2008. My Chinese name is 凌雲龍/凌云龙 (Líng Yún-lóng). The personal name is taken from a movement, Cloud Dragon Playing in Water (雲龍戲水), in the sabre form in the style of Tai Chi Chuan I used to practise. I’ve always liked both the movement and the name, the contrast between a high-flying creature and the low-lying water.

The family name matches the personal name quite well since it means “soaring”. It also happens to sound like my surname in Swedish, but that’s mostly an accident. Finally, part of my name forms the part of some ambitious idioms, like 凌雲壯志, which means to have lofty aspirations.

I decided to get my own Chinese name when I received a scholarship to study Mandarin in Taiwan for a year. On the form, there was a separate field for the applicant’s Chinese name, and I figured that if I don’t get one myself, I will end up being called Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus. No thank you. Instead, I spent a couple of hours generating names I thought okay (I had studied Chinese for about 9 months at the time) and then asked my teacher about some of the ideas. Thus, I came up with my name myself, but I obviously received help along the way.

That was almost seven years ago. I have been called by my Chinese name more than my Swedish name during that time, and today both names are part of who I am. I like my Chinese name, although the three consecutive second tones are a bit annoying. Some native speakers think it sounds a bit like a wuxia character, but there are also real Chinese people with the same personal name. Thinking about my Chinese name, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have another name, just like it is for my Swedish name.

Your Chinese name

What’s your Chinese name and the story behind it? Are you happy with your Chinese name? Do you have any funny stories about other people’s Chinese names? Please leave a comment!

Focus on initials and finals, not Pinyin spelling

initials
Picture from the scoring protocol in my pronunciation course.

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

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

Finding the right level of detail for pronunciation

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

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

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

Focus on initials and finals instead of Pinyin spelling

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

Here are two benefits with this approach:

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

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

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

Some traps and pitfalls will remain

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

What about alternative transcription systems?

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

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

Is Chinese difficult to learn?

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

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

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

Two kinds of difficulty

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

Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

Varying the slope

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

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

The difficulty of language learning

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

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

Chinese learning tasks with vertical difficulty

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

Chinese learning tasks with horizontal difficulty

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

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

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

Language learning is mostly horizontal

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

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

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

The method matters

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

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

Study quality, comfort zones and the difficulty slope

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

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

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

Vertical and horizontal difficulty

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

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

Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are radicals, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s a better way

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

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

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

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

There are three primary functions:

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

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

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

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

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

mo1

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

尖: 小
美: 羊
吳: 口
达/達: 辶
莫: 艹

Summary

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to write Chinese characters through communication

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

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

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

Communicative handwriting

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

This isn’t communication

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

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

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

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

Use handwriting input on your phone

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

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

Communicating with your future self

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

What is communication anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese

Using communicative handwriting is not only more natural, more effective and more fun, it’s also a cornerstone of my minimum-effort approach to learning to write Chinese characters. You can read more about that here: A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?

How to Approach Chinese Grammar

Earlier this spring, I asked an expert panel a difficult question: How should we learn Chinese grammar? As I hoped, the answers were as insightful as they were diverse. There are many ways of learning grammar and all have different strengths we can add to our own study method. One of the experts I asked is John Pasden, well-known for his blog Sinosplice, which was one of my main inspirations when I started Hacking Chinese. As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy creating the Chinese Grammar Wiki, it’s only natural that John thought that the few hundred words available for the expert panel article weren’t enough. Therefore, he decided to write a standalone article about how to approach Chinese grammar. And here it is!

What to Expect When Learning Chinese Grammar

allset-deIt’s best to approach a new, unfamiliar topic without too many preconceptions, but there are two that I hear a lot in regards to Chinese grammar, so I think it’s better to briefly address them both:

  1. “Chinese doesn’t have grammar.” OK, this is just silly. If there are no rules for how to string Chinese words together, then you could never be wrong, right? Although that sounds nice, it’s just not possible.
  2. “Chinese word order is just like English word order.” While it’s true that there are some basic similarities, and you can easily find examples like “I love you” that match word for word, it’s not hard to disprove this. Even basic words like 也 (yě) will constantly trip you up if you don’t use them the Chinese way.

You’ve also probably heard that Chinese grammar doesn’t have verb conjugation, or plurals, or cases, and a bunch of other stuff that we language learners generally associate with “not fun.” What does all this add up to? It means that for someone who speaks English, Chinese grammar is not going to stress you out too much. But still keep your eyes out for interesting features and patterns different from English. You will find them.

The Learning Curve

I once compared learning Chinese grammar to learning Japanese grammar. My conclusion is that Chinese grammar starts out pretty easily and ramps up gradually. (Don’t get too smug, though; while you’re not getting flummoxed by Chinese grammar, Chinese tones and characters are ravaging your poor little brain.)

The great thing about this is that it means “get out there and talk” is a great strategy. If you’ve got the vocabulary and a few basic patterns down, grammar is not going to be your biggest obstacle. If you can’t find someone to talk to, then get reading as soon as possible.

I recommend the following learning strategy:

  1. Learn basic grammar patterns
  2. Extend your knowledge with experimentation and input
  3. Go back to grammar resources when you get confused or some grammatical issues just really starts bugging you

Let’s look at each in detail.

Learn Basic Grammar Patterns

You can find these in any grammar book. It’s stuff like:

要 + Verb = “Want to [Verb]”

or

Noun1 + 比 + Noun2 + Adj = “Noun1 is more [Adj] than Noun2”

Sure, if you dig, you can find all kinds of weird exceptions and advanced forms, but to delve into those right away is to waste the advantage provided by the gentle learning curve. Put another way, it’s kind of hard to communicate in a language that requires verbs to be conjugated if you haven’t learned to conjugate verbs at all. But here’s this language that doesn’t require conjugations and has all kinds of simple patterns. Why would you not want to just jump right in? Don’t make it more complicated than it is!

If you’re learning from textbooks or podcasts, they may or may not dwell on the finer points of grammar. As a learner, though, you can choose to take just what you need and get out there and start talking. “Pack light.” You don’t need to finish reading up on all the exceptions of each grammar point in order to have a conversation.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki was designed with this principle in mind. Rather than a “grammar course,” it’s a “resource.” In other words, reference it when you need it. If you don’t need it, great! One of the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s key design elements is to break grammar points down by levels. This can be tricky, because often there are finer points of a particular word’s usage which actually go beyond the basic usage of the word. Often, books will group these all together, a practice which confuses and discourages learners.

allset-activeThe solution we generally favor on the Chinese Grammar Wiki for cases like this is to keep the basic grammar point at the lower level, then create a “sequel” grammar point at a higher level. Obviously, the two will be linked, but the point is to provide a level-appropriate explanation for the lower-level learner so that he can “get in and get out” quickly. (Of course, if that learner wants to go clicking down the grammatical rabbit hole, Wikipedia-style, we won’t stop him.)

One example of this is Wanting to do something with “yao”, which is at the A1 (Beginner) level. Higher-level learners that take a look at this grammar point will be thinking, “hey, wait a minute, there’s a lot more that 要 can mean in Chinese!” Very true. We hold off until level A2 (Elementary) to introduce Auxiliary verb “yao” and its multiple meanings.

The point is to just take what you need and go use it.

Extend Your Knowledge with Experimentation and Input

Once you have your basic grammar patterns and vocabulary down, and you’re out there practicing your Chinese, there are a few other things you can do to get the most out of the experience.

  1. Focus on meaning when you speak. Use the grammar points that you think will get your point across. If they do, then great. That’s a good sign. If, however, you’re repeatedly using the same grammar point to express a certain idea, and no one seems to understand what the heck you’re talking about, you might want to try another approach, and eventually revisit that stupid grammar point that didn’t work for you.
  2. Listen for recasting. Very often, native speakers will give you subtle corrections while conversing with you. Many learners are blissfully unaware of these, but if you tune into them, they can be an excellent way to improve your speaking (and it’s a way more enjoyable way of getting corrective feedback than a pile of homework covered in red ink!).
  3. Go out there and try new patterns. Start conversations specifically to use a new grammar pattern. This kind of experimentation might sound silly and not terribly conducive to real conversation, but the results can be surprising. The way native speakers respond to your shaky, early uses of new grammar patterns will reinforce the meaning and usage of those patterns like nothing else. And you will have awesome conversations.
  4. When you don’t understand, don’t get hung up on it. A lot of times the grammar, though complex, isn’t actually important to the topic at hand. The 把 (bǎ) construction is a perfect example of this. If you really want to learn it properly, there’s a lot to take in. But you can also completely ignore it for quite a while and do just fine. If you’re having real conversations, ignore the pesky grammar patterns until you can’t!

Following these four pieces of advice will allow you to get more input sooner. This will help accelerate not only your acquisition of grammar, but also vocabulary, listening comprehension, and speaking proficiency. The thing about language acquisition, though, is that it is a largely unconscious process. So you won’t necessarily FEEL the effects of the input, but they will be at work in your brain.

As for the conscious part of the learning process, it’s crucial that you get out there and make contact with the real language. It will breathe life into the grammar explanations that you have already studied if you revisit them later. Furthermore, real communication will fuel your motivation to better express yourself and understand the precise meaning of what other people are saying to you. And let’s face it… that’s what grammar is for.

Go Back to Grammar Resources Later

ba-wikiOne of my favorite stories I like to tell is about a client of mine just starting on “Intermediate” material. She was studying ChinesePod lessons, and like many of us, she struggled a bit when she first encountered the 把 (bǎ) construction. The interesting thing, though, was her claim that, “none of the Chinese people I know use this.”

I knew, of course, that her claim couldn’t be true. The 把 construction is a super-common feature of spoken Mandarin, and there’s no way that native speakers aren’t using it on a regular basis. Sure, it’s possible to eliminate it in order to simplify one’s speech, but this client was claiming that the people around her weren’t using it at all. But her feedback actually highlighted an important truth: she wasn’t hearing the 把 construction at all.

And this is one of the things that most fascinates me about grammar: when you’re ready to learn a new grammar point, it will naturally come into focus. Little connector words that you didn’t even hear before will suddenly start to stand out. Although you were once happy to just get the basic gist, your brain will start to hunger for a more precise understanding of the grammar point in question.

When you start to get those “grammar pangs,” that’s when you need to go to your grammar resource, whether it’s Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar printed on a dead tree or the Chinese Grammar Wiki. They say of food that “hunger is the best sauce.” The same is true for grammar. To do otherwise is to invite indigestion.

Thanks, John! I’m sure my readers found this article as interesting as I did. Personally, I think the most important part of your article is the last two paragraphs. Learning grammar based on what you intuitively feel that you need to know has been a guiding principle for me as well. Naturally, this goes both for understanding grammar and for using it yourself. The most powerful way of learning anything is to have an actual need for it before you learn it! If you want to know more about John, head over to Sinosplice and bookmark/subscribe; if you want to learn more about grammar, head over to the Chinese Grammar Wiki!

Image credit: All images used in this article are from the Chinese Grammar Wiki and are reproduced with explicit permission.