Launching Hacking Chinese Resources

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where you could find Chinese learning resources, blogs, tools and apps, all suitable to your level and preferences? I think that sounds great, so I today I’m proud to announce the launch of a new section of the site, simply called Hacking Chinese Resources.


The idea is very straightforward: You select what kind of resources you’re interested in and the site will generate a list of most popular resources that match your criteria. Below, I have provided a brief demo:

Chinese learning resources at your fingertips

Here are the ways in which you define what type of resource you’re looking for (you don’t have to care about all of them):

  1. What’s your proficiency level? (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advance)
  2. What topic are you interested in? (e.g. listening, speaking, vocabulary)
  3. What type of resource do you want to find? (see below)

The site is very broad in scope and includes five main types of resources:

  1. Information and advice (Hacking Chinese would show up here)
  2. Resource collections (where you can find collections of videos, articles, etc.)
  3. Resource highlights (particular videos, articles, etc. that are very good)
  4. Tools and apps (games, dictionaries and other apps and tools)
  5. Social learning (forums, language exchange, chatting and similar)

Here are some examples of how Hacking Chinese Resources can be used:

  1. You are a beginner who wants to learn vocabulary and want to find tools and apps that can help you achieve this. There are currently 15 resources matching your request.
  2. You are an intermediate learner who wants to find listening material suitable for you level. You can check either resource collections or resource highlights. The first tag is for sites that collect lots of material and the second is for individual files, clips, videos and so on.
  3. You are an advanced learner who wants to improve your speaking ability (pronunciation, perhaps), but you’re not sure how to go about it. The information and advice category is for you!
  4. You want to find Pinyin-related resources. You simply search forPinyin and find 16 resources that matches your query.

If you want to get updates on Twitter, I have set up a new account that posts new update regularly: @ChineseLinks.

Think this sounds cool? Want to participate?

Hacking Chinese Resources is run on an invite-only basis at the moment, so even if everybody can use the site like I have described above, you need to be invited if you want to post resources, discuss or vote. The reason is that I want to expand this section gradually and deal with potential problems as they appear. If you want to join the fun, please leave a comment to this post and tell me why you want to be invited (don’t forget to fill in your e-mail address).

hcrWhy Hacking Chinese Resources?

The motivation to create this section of Hacking Chinese sprung from a genuine need. Even though there are many sites where you can share learning resources, they are all mostly focused on the short term, usually in the form of discussion forums, social news sites or feed aggregators. I will continue using these sites myself and my aim is not to supplant them. Indeed, you can find all of them listed as resources already.

Even though Hacking Chinese Resources have similar functions, that’s not the main point. Instead, a carefully thought-out tag structure, filters and a search function are intended to create a permanent archive of useful resources that are easy to find whenever they are needed.

Still under development

Hacking Chinese Resources is still under development, but most things should work relatively well. If you have comments or feedback of any kind, you can just leave a comment here or contact me in any other way.Also, I don’t know about all cool resources out there, I need your help! If you want to participate in this project, contact me in some way and tell me why you want to join. I also need your e-mail address. If you want to read more about the tag structure, please check this document.

The future

Hacking Chinese Resources is still under development. There are lots of problems we know about that we want to fix in the near future, but please report any bugs or other things you would like to see on the site. When I say “we”, I mean myself and Stefan Wienert, who has helped me with the coding and is also hosting the new section (read more about the design process on his blog). I’m also grateful to Julien Leyre, who offered invaluable feedback on the tag structure, as well as to all the people on the Hacking Chinese feedback list who helped me with the site before today’s release.

I hope Hacking Chinese Resources can be a valuable asset to students and teachers of Chinese all over the world. In order to make that come true, I need your help. If you don’t want to participate yourself, then at least help me spread the word by sharing this article or Hacking Chinese Resources on social media or telling your friends about it!

Remembering is a skill you can learn

The most common mistake people make when it comes to memory is to treat it as being something fixed; either you’re born with a brilliant memory or you’re not. Of course there are differences between individuals, but practice and the correct technique matter much more than talent. There are some really simple techniques you can use to remember things very efficiently.

Last week’s sensible character learning challenge is in full swing, but to really make the most of it, you need to know how to use the full capacity of your memory. If you’ve missed the challenge, you can still check it out and join the fun. This article is meant to explain the background to the challenge. Here are all the articles related to the challenge:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn (this article)
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

First and foremost, I’d like to watch the following TED talk by Joshua Foer. I wish I could make every student watch this video and I’m going to start with you. It’s 20 minutes long, but those are 20 very well spent minutes. It is as informative as it is inspiring. In fact, this entire article can be viewed as an attempt to make you watch this video. Here’s the introduction on TED (my emphasis added):

There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique — called the memory palace — and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.

Now, let’s look at the video:

Here are some key points in his talk that you more or less have to understand if you want to boost your Chinese learning. Your only legitimate reason for skipping the above video is if you’re already very familiar with all of the below concepts:

  • Good memory is the result of practice
  • The history of human memory
  • Most people could become memory champions
  • Elaborate encoding (which is what the character challenge is about)
  • Remembering meaningless things is very hard
  • Introduction to the memory palace
  • A small note on holistic learning
  • Great memories are learnt
  • You should hire a poet instead of a DJ to your  next party

If you want to read more about Joshua Foer and his experience, check his article in the New York Times.

Mnemonics-related experiments

I have conducted a number of experiments with mnemonics in Swedish high-school, just to prove to students that their minds are actually quite powerful and that they’re just using the wrong methods. The memory technique I used is very similar to the one Joshua Foer used in the video above. It’s not the perfect method for anything in particular, but it works well to show how much better you can become at remembering things without practising that much. This technique will enable to you to complete almost any challenge involving “look at these objects for one minute and remember as many as you can”.

(By the way, did you actually watch the video? I’m serious, if you’re new to this, it will probably be the most important video you watch this year. Scroll up and watch it if you skipped it, keep reading if you’re already done.)

Step 1 – Benchmarking

First, I have students spend around one minute trying to memorise fifteen objects I’ve come up with more or less randomly. Try it out if you like! How many can you remember?

  1. balloon
  2. cannon
  3. sun
  4. child
  5. king
  6. tree
  7. rabbit
  8. sword
  9. bottle
  10. rain
  11. ship
  12. book
  13. mountain
  14. shovel
  15. water

Step 2 – Understanding the result

Most students who do this without any specific method can remember between 5 and 9 objects, because that’s roughly how much you can keep in your working memory (this topic is actually very complicated, but the seven plus minus two rule is good enough). This knowledge will go out the window the second you need to focus on something else, though. Some people already use memory technique of some kind, such as linking together all the initial letters of all the words, which might enable them to remember a dozen objects or so.

Step 3 – Explaining the method

If presented with a list like this, the easiest way to remember the objects is to mentally store them in a location you’re very familiar with and then follow a logical path in that location and add the items you want to remember (just like Foer did in the TED talk). You need to create strong associations between the objects you want to remember and objects in the memory palace, otherwise you will forget them.

It takes some practice to be able to create these links quickly and effectively, but there are some basic principles you should follow. First and foremost, the objects have to interact with each other. This is so obvious that I sometimes forget to teach it. Linking is about combining two concepts. The combination can be done in many ways, but it has to be extreme in some sense. It can be absurd, shameful, disgusting, scary or funny, it doesn’t really matter, but it has to be memorable. The links you create must also be vivid, actually see what’s going on in your mind, feel it, hear it, smell it. I’ve written much more about this here.

Let’s look at the above list to give you some examples. I’m using my room as reference, walking around it clockwise.

  1. balloon – I imagine opening the door to my room and hundreds of balloons fill the entire space, I have to force my way through with a kitchen knife.
  2. cannon – On my desk, miniature artillery is lined up, firing on my computer screen, which breaks. Shards everywhere.
  3. sun – Something is smouldering under the blanket on my bed. I can feel the smell of burnt cloth. A sphere of fire is eating it’s way through the mattress.
  4. child – A small child is trying to escape from my room through the window, but he’s very fat and got stuck in the window, now wailing away, crying for his parents to come to the rescue.
  5. king – I picture king Arthur sitting on top of my second desk. The space is very small, so his crown keep getting tangled in the wire connecting the AC unit to the power supply.

And so on. Using this method, I could easily remember all 15 words in order and it took me little more than 30 seconds, providing that I already had a reasonably well-defined memory palace. You could use any space, actually, like levels of first-person shooters (I use Quake levels sometimes) or the way you drive to work everyday. Six days have passed since I created the above list for this post and I checked how many I could remember now. I actually forgot the last one, water, probably because I a bit too eager to finish quickly, but I remembered the rest easily.

Practice makes perfect

Creating good associations isn’t easy, so practising is essential. If these objects aren’t enough, you can get more from this random noun generator. You could also practice directly on Chinese characters, but that means you have to either know the components or look them up. Also, I suggest you start with objects, because they are much easier to remember than abstract things. You can also check out how this can be applied to numbers or more abstract things such as pronunciation.

I have conducted this experiment in several Swedish high-school English classes and in general, people improve quite a lot between the first and second try; I’ve seen many go from 50% to close to 100% with only 10-15 minutes of practice after the principles have been explained. If you’re not used to coming up with crazy ideas out of the blue, it will take more time than that. If you find it boring, you should probably try something else, but if you just find it hard, practise more! I personally find it quite fun to come up with cool associations, making my studying much more enjoyable. Still, no method is worthwhile if you find it boring. This month is #mnemonicmonth on Twitter and we’re discussing more mnemonics than usual on Facebook, join us!

A similar method more suitable for character learning

Although the principles remain the same, simply associating the objects to each other might be quicker. That’s also what I do for character learning most of the time (i.e. I don’t associate them with familiar places as such, but I create combinations of the components that make up a characters that are so special I don’t forget them). Here’s what the first five words of the list above might be associated:

  1. balloon – cannon (I picture an air battle between cannons lifted up by festive balloons)
  2. cannon – sun (the fight takes place on the sun, so cannons fall into a sea of fire and melt)
  3. sun – child (on the fiery surface of the sun, I can see a small child swimming in the flames)
  4. child – king (king Arthur is standing on top of the swimming child’s face, pushing him deeper into the fire)

Characters usually contain only a few parts, so it’s often possible to combine them into one single picture. For instance, I imagine the balloon-powered cannons locked in battle above the surface of the sun, but instead of making it a long story, I simply picture a child (my niece, perhaps) being the admiral controlling the guns on one side and king Arthur being her adversary on the other. This is a complete picture involving five elements, which is much more than the typical Chinese character.

My previous articles about using mnemonics to learn Chinese

This is all very cool, but how do we apply it to learning Chinese? Have a look at these articles:

How I got into mnemonics and what I learnt from it

I became interested in memory and mnemonics for a somewhat unusual reason: Rubik’s cube. I had been able to solve the cube for quite some time (this is not as hard as you think if you get help with the last layer), but then I learnt that some people could solve the cube blindfolded. That blew my mind. I could not imagine how that was possible. I drew the following conclusion.

People who can memorise and solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded must be freaks of nature with inhuman memories and visualisation ability

After looking around for a bit, I found Shotaro Makisumi’s guide to 3-cycle blindfolded 3x3x3 cubing. In the introduction, he says that someone who is reasonable familiar with the cube (can solve it about a minute, which doesn’t take that much practice once you know tho basics), it takes roughly a week to learn how to solve it blindfolded using his method.

Something I thought inhuman could actually be accomplished in a week

At that time, I happened to be roughly at the level he described and decided to give it a try. I to took me eight days, spending perhaps three or four hours a day before I did my first successful blindfolded solve. It felt unreal. Other people still seem to think it’s done by magic (it’s called 魔术方块/魔術方塊, “magic cube”, in Chinese after all).

Of course, there are two components to blindfolded cubing. First, you need to know how to manipulate the cube. Second, you need to memorise the state of the cube. For Chinese learners, only the second is relevant. The desire to know how people could solve ten, twenty or even fifty cubes blindfolded propelled me into the larger world of mnemonics and memory techniques. I was especially intrigued by this thread on a cubing forum, discussing memory techniques.

There is a whole world out there

If you’re interested, the resources about memory and mnemonics on the internet are almost limitless. If you have no idea where to start, here are a few sites you can check out:

Don’t forget to share anything cool you happen to stumble upon! We’re all students and should learn from each other.

Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese

Note: There is now a new character challenge! It will run from March 22nd to June 30th, 2014. Click here to read more about the challenge!

Learning to write thousands of Chinese characters is a daunting task, but fortunately, character writing is also one of the most hackable parts of the Chinese language. This means that if you use the wrong method, it will take forever and be quite boring (see last week’s post), but if you use the right method, it’s neither impossible nor boring.

This article is a challenge which is meant to make students use more sensible strategies to learn characters and take you out of the boring, monotonous loop that helps you pass your tests, but isn’t very good in the long run. Before we go into details about the challenge itself, let’s look at the contents of this article to make it easier for you to find what you want.


  1. About the challenge
  2. The problem
  3. The solution
  4. What sensible character learning looks like
  5. Everybody can participate
  6. What tools you need to participate
  7. Skritter extended trial and discount
  8. The rules of the challenge
  9. How to join the challenge
  10. List of brave participants
  11. Possible problems and how to cope with them
  12. Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook
  13. Spread the word

Articles published about sensible character learning

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

The problem

The problem with how most students approach character learning has already been addressed; the following is a summary for those who haven’t read that article, but I still recommend that you read the full article here. There are many problems of course, but the most serious one is undoubtedly that many rely on rote learning, i.e. repeating a character until it sticks without actually understanding what they’re learning or deepening their knowledge of the language. This is almost useless if you lack a systematic approach, but if you use spaced repetition programs, it actually works to a certain point.

This is problematic, because when you reach that point, you’ll find that you need something more than mere repetition. Native speakers can rely on repetition because they spend more than ten years in school mastering their own language. They write characters every day for many, many years. Thinking that this will work for you is naive. Most native speakers also combine a fairly well-developed knowledge of components with massive repetition.

Symptoms of bad character learning:

  • When you’ve forgotten a word, you just keep repeating it until it sticks
  • You tend to forget the difference between similar characters
  • You’re reading ability is okay even though your handwriting sucks
  • You need to rely heavily on context to understand characters
  • You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)

 The solution

Even though I think SRS is part of the problem (people tend to misuse it), I also think it’s part of the solution. The problem is that when we review something mechanically (i.e. just looking at something without really processing the information actively), we’re not really learning anything new, we’re not expanding our knowledge of Chinese. Apart from this, it’s also quite boring and leads to poor results in the long run.

Still, using SRS, especially if the program is geared specifically towards character learning (see my introduction to Skritter below) is the most efficient way of learning, you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is the point of this challenge.

The alternative to rote learning is to work actively with the characters we forget and make sure that we’re learning something instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes over and over. It’s notoriously difficult to learn things that don’t mean anything to us, so the first thing we should do is really understand the characters we’re learning. If it takes more time, then so be it, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Most native speakers have pretty good grasp of character components, but many foreigners don’t.

These things you can learn from a competent teacher. The next key to more sensible character learning is something I have never heard mentioned in a classroom, probably because it requires that the teacher has actually used the method to be able to teach it. Everybody will tell you to create stories (mnemonics) to remember characters, but few are able to or can be bothered to explain what kind of mnemonics work and why. I can and I have. See this article about learning character components (and the following articles in the same series).

What sensible character learning looks like

  1. Understand what you/re learning (learn the components)
  2. Combine the meaningful parts in a clever way (mnemonics)
  3. Use SRS to reinforce your knowledge and identify weak links
  4. Avoid rote learning at all costs (and make learning fun again)

Who can participate in the challenge

Students at any level can participate and it doesn’t matter if you study Chinese two hours or week or twenty hours a day. The challenge will remain open as long as I feel it’s relevant, which is likely to be indefinitely. The Skritter discounts mentioned below will only be valid for a limited amount of time, however.

What you need to participate

The following challenge is for anyone with an interest in learning characters (that should be most visitors to Hacking Chinese, I think), regardless if you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner. I’m going to join the challenge as well and follow the same rules as everybody else. A list of participants is included below.

Before you join, you need to choose software. I’m going to use Skritter and I recommend that you do too, mostly because it’s specifically geared towards handwriting and that it has excellent resources attached if you need to expand your knowledge about characters and components).

Participants receive an extended free trial of Skritter and 33% off subscriptions

If you register and join the challenge, use the coupon code SENSIBLE, which will double the length of the free trial as well as give you 33% off the price if you like the software and keep using it. If you register and later go for a paid subscription, I will receive a small commission, so please use the links included here if you want to help me out a bit, too. You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.

If you don’t know what Skritter is, you can check this brief demonstration on YouTube:

However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.

The rules of the challenge

  • If you fail a review, you’re not allowed to review that card again until you’ve dealt with it actively. You have two options: either you stop reviewing and deal with the failed card immediately or you remove the card from the review card and deal with it later (ban the card in Skritter, suspend in Anki.
  • If you ban or suspend cards you fail, you have to go through the list of banned or suspended cards often. You don’t know these characters and you need to relearn them before you enter them into the review queue again. Do not allow the number of banned cards to accumulate.
  • Characters you already know well and don’t fail aren’t part of the challenge. In other words, you don’t need to relearn characters you already know, regardless how you learnt to write those characters. However, if you fail any card, you still have to follow the rules of the challenge.
  • If you have an important exam coming up, you’re allowed to sidestep the above rules, but not using your normal review software. You have to rely on conventional non-digital study methods to cram for an exam, you’re not allowed to break the above rules when using SRS under any condition whatsoever.
  • Share your progress with me and your friends (Skritter has a function for this). If you join the challenge I will also check on you by sending you an e-mail later this months. I’m serious about this and shall be disappointed if you commit but fail to follow these rules!

This is what Skritter’s look-up interface looks like.

When you fail a card, here are some suggestions of what you can do. Don’t feel limited by these, though, there are more ways to learn characters. The important thing is that you deepen you knowledge and understanding of the character rather than just repeating it.

  1. Do you know the component parts? If not, look them up. Skritter has a built-in feature that allows you to check a character and its components in a number of online dictionaries (see picture). Regardless of how you access the dictionaries, I like HanziCraft and (better for traditional, but works for both).
  2. If you know the parts already, create a mnemonic or use someone else’s. Part of the goal with this challenge is to make students more aware of mnemonics and to make those already aware of it apply them more often and master how to create them. If you’re not already good at this, you should check my article about it here, including the other articles it links to in the beginning. If you can’t come up with anything, Skritter has a neat function where you can see other people’s mnemonics. I suggest that you adapt them to your own needs, but they serve as excellent inspiration.
  3. If you have a mnemonic (but still fail), make it better or start over. It isn’t easy to figure out how to create good mnemonics and I fail now and then, too. I think this is highly individual and thus hard to write about in general, but reviewing the principles mentioned above is a good first step.
  4. Next time you review a failed character, review whatever information you added to the card. If you created a mnemonic with a story, quickly review the story and see how it makes the components fit together.
  5. To each his own. The goal here isn’t to dictate exactly what you should do, but rather that you should do something other than simply repeating the characters many times over without really understanding what you’re doing. Try different approaches, if it works, it’s good.

Other things you can do that will help

  • Teach the character to an (imaginary) friend
  • Do a search on Google for related pictures (giving you visual input)
  • Look up similar characters that are confusing you and sort out differences
  • Anything else that forces you to actively process the character components

How to join the challenge

  1. Post a comment and say you’re in (please use a valid e-mail address so I can reach you). By doing this, you also agree to me sending you an occasional e-mail about the challenge and that I will give your e-mail address to the other participants for mutual help and support.
  2. Commit to the challenge publicly on Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media or in real life to friends or family. Make yourself accountable, ask people to check up on you a week from now and see how you’re doing. Once I have confirmed that you want to join, I will put you in the list below.
  3. Define a goal and share it with fellow participants (see list below). This challenge is about the method, the goal itself isn’t specified. Personally, I’m going to make sure I can write the 5000 most common characters by hand. This is of course a long term goal and I will spend 20-30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I suggest you set a goal which is reachable in a month or two. but this is really up to you.
  4. Send a brief introduction about yourself and your goals to the participants directly above and directly below you on the list of participants below. I will provide you with the e-mail addresses manually.
  5. Learn some Chinese, for real this time, with the intent of actually understanding the characters and putting the fun back into character learning. Be creative, be crazy, stay committed!

List of students who have accepted the challenge

These people have join the challenge so far. To get on the list, you need to give me your e-mail address so I can connect you with the participants next to you on the list for support and accountability. Thus, I’m accountable to Jake, Jake is accountable to me and Nick, Nick is accountable to Jake and whoever becomes the fourth participant. And so on. If you want a link to your own blog, website or whatever, include that as well, but I will only accept personal websites or Chinese-related sites.

Click here to skip the list and go to the next part (the list is getting fairly long).

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Jacob Gill
  3. Nick Winter
  4. Claudia
  5. Niel de la Rouviere
  6. Kevin Tynan
  7. Russel Sancto
  8. Gary Saville
  9. Matthew Ho
  10. Dianne Rennack
  11. Bill Glover
  12. Bob Clark
  13. Joy
  14. Douglas Drumond
  15. Lechuan
  16. Caitlin Goldston
  17. Alex
  18. Samanta
  19. Michel
  20. Robert Vose
  21. Gareth
  22. Sonja
  23. Jeff
  24. Jake
  25. Maikeximu
  26. Sascha
  27. Jaki
  28. Jeff Lau
  29. Mathias
  30. Christian
  31. Marcus
  32. Rachel M.
  33. Mark Jarvis
  34. Michael
  35. Dave
  36. Matt Raleigh
  37. Eddie
  38. Kevin Sciarillo
  39. Marc
  40. Victoria
  41. Martin
  42. Michael Knight
  43. Leon White
  44. Maozhou
  45. Ted Reed
  46. Catherine Pacey
  47. Jim Long
  48. Christopher Burroughs
  49. Ruben
  50. Scott
  51. Mai Laoshi
  52. Erik
  53. Jeriko Jak
  54. Georges
  55. Lei Laoshi
  56. Jan
  57. Liz Valachovic
  58. Matt Sikora
  59. Cooper Nagengast
  60. Matt Lawrence
  61. GBoomer
  62. Matt Arkell
  63. Matthew A
  64. Stoney
  65. Tom
  66. Wendy Purdie
  67. Rich O
  68. Kai Carver
  69. Ian Sinnot
  70. Brad Wright
  71. Muhammed Zubair
  72. Bjørn Schwartz
  73. Antonella
  74. Stumoke
  75. Vito
  76. Petar
  77. Liven
  78. James Carman
  79. Victor
  80. Shannon
  81. Teng Fang Yih
  82. Vito FJ
  83. Steph FS
  84. Charlie Southwell
  85. Julien Leyre
  86. Furio
  87. Gwilym James
  88. Manu
  89. Jakub
  90. Will Taylor
  91. Pia N-H
  92. Ashia
  93. Gisèle
  94. Michael
  95. Meg
  96. Milon
  97. Adam Dawkins
  98. Jan Willem Stil
  99. Gerlinde
  100. Amanda Viljoen
  101. Trung Hieu
  102. Wendy MC
  103. Daniel
  104. Chris P
  105. Anthony Pantekoek
  106. Nathan
  107. John Highan
  108. You?

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

Different people will encounter different problems with this challenge. If you’re an avid SRS user already, you will notice that it takes much more time to review, mostly because you stop cheating and actually study the things you forget. This means that you won’t forget them very easily, so that it takes more time is both natural and necessary.

Students who aren’t used to mnemonics will find that it takes a while before you find a style or method that suits you. Remembering things is a skill that you have to learn, so don’t feed disappointed if you forget things even with mnemonics or if you find them difficult to come up with in the first place. You will learn.

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

To help you with mnemonics memory tricks, I hereby declare January to be #mnemonicmonth on Twitter. I intend to share all sorts of links, tips and tricks, starting today. I encourage you to do the same! Tweet your best mnemonics or inspiring videos/stories/links. I also intend to spend more time on Facebook this month, discussing mnemonics and Chinese, helping students out in case you run into problems. Join the discussion here. I hope more advanced learners will help me with this so that we can create a good discussion environment. Share your thoughts, ideas and questions with the rest of us, we’re in this challenge together.

Spread the word about this challenge

The goal with this challenge is to change the way people learn characters. The principles are easy to understand, but still many people, including me sometimes, fail to follow them. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, but it’s not easy to quit. Rote learning is equally bad, let’s quit together. In order to start this revolution, we need more people. Spread the word, agree with one friend to check on each other, make yourself accountable.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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Have fun learning Chinese or else…

In numerous articles, I’ve stressed the importance of finding ways of studying Chinese that you actually enjoy. This is not some hippie-kind of encouragement or well-wishing. In fact, it’s not encouragement or well-wishing at all. It’s dead serious and it’s a warning. If you want to reach a high level in Chinese, you have to like what you’re doing. You have to enjoy the process in some way, otherwise you will never win through.

In order to learn Chinese, you will need to spend an awful lot of time. In order to persevere and study for a long time, you need to like what you are doing. You need to have fun, otherwise you will never be able to bring yourself to spending the necessary amount of time.

This argument is connected to what I’ve written previously about talent versus effort: learning Chinese is much more about the time you send than anything else. This is a recurring theme on Hacking Chinese, because I strongly believe that the amount of time spent studying Chinese in some way is by far the most important factor that will determine your level of proficiency. The reason why most people who start studying a language don’t succeed is because they don’t spend enough time. Why?

Because spending thousand of hours doing something you hate is very hard

People are usually able to do boring things if required for their survival and comfort, but for the majority of people reading this article, studying Chinese doesn’t qualify as such an activity. It might work for immigrants needing Chinese for work or people who have family members who only speak Chinese, but those situations are exceptions rather than the norm. Some people might be able to force themselves through an education they don’t like, because they know something good awaits them at the end. Mastering Chinese takes a lot more effort than that, though, and if someone succeeds with that while thinking it’s boring, I think he ought to have his head examined, because something must be seriously wrong.

Have fun or else…

One of your main goals should be finding ways to study that you enjoy, not because they are effective or efficient, but because you feel that you can spend lots of time learning Chinese that way. This is the main reason why you should try different methods. Here are some concrete examples. If you love…

There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:

  • Finding friends who share your interest
  • Reading blogs about the topic in question
  • Writing about what you like on a blog
  • Talking with friends about what you like
  • Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes

The point is that you should try to integrate what you like with what you want to do, thus making them one and the same. Imagine what it would be like staying up really late studying, not because you have to because of an exam, but because you really want to know how the next episode of a series ends, or you just have to understand the lyrics of that song that has been echoing in your head the past week. Achieving such a mental state is the ultimate goal. If you can do it, you will master Chinese.


I’ve used these three words more or less interchangeably in this article. I want to clarify that the name of the game is “whatever floats your boat”. You might find things I like utterly boring and I might not be interested in your hobbies, but we don’t need to care about that. You’re studying the language, as long as you like it it’s okay.

It can’t be fun all the time, but always try to make the best out of the situation

Before I round this off, I want to point out that I don’t mean to say you have to giggle your way through every second of studying. However, I am saying that how much you enjoy doing something is one of the most important factors for how successful you will be.

For instance, I think spaced repetition software is really good, but if you hate reviewing vocabulary this way, you should do your best to find a way of reviewing which suits you better (a viable alternative is to read and listen a lot). If you dislike something which is essential or forced on you by someone else (your teacher, most likely), make the best of the situation, try to find way that make the task suck just a little bit.

Having fun is about more than just having fun

The point is, if you start hating Chinese, you’re doomed. It’s okay to think some parts are boring, but do everything you can to nurture a positive attitude. This is not about having fun all the time, instead it’s about having as much fun as possible. How fun you actually have depends mostly on your attitude, but also on your current situation and what external factors influence your studying. Don’t forget that having fun is not only fun (duh), it’s also more efficient!

The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think

The time barrel was first mentioned in an article I wrote about background listening a while back. I needed a metaphor to explain how it was possible to listen to Chinese a lot without actually spending that much extra time. Most people have jobs, some study other things and only a few of us study Chinese full-time. Now, it’s only natural that someone who studies full time can learn more, but it’s very likely that you have more room for Chinese than you think.

The basic formula is very simple:

  1. Examine your daily activities and see what kind of time you have available
  2. Find ways of studying which fit the time you have available

Important: Time management is about doing what you want to do with your time,  it’s not only about getting rid of things that aren’t “useful” and which don’t take you towards your goal of learning Chinese. Managing your time is useful whatever your goal is. If you lead a busy life and want to learn Chinese too, that’s fine. If you have all the free time in the world, but want to play computer games as much as possible, time management is still useful. In other words, in the following discussion, I don’t really care about what the tasks are, as long as they are tasks you want to complete, for whatever reason.

The time barrel

To show how I think about time management and studying, allow me to introduce the time barrel. It doesn’t look like much right now, it’s just a container. However, before we talk about what we can fill the container with, we need to talk about the container itself.

The barrel represents all 24 hours in one day

The barrel represents all time you could theoretically use, i.e. all 24 hours in one day. Naturally, you can’t use all this time for studying, but I want to make it clear that the barrel still represents all 24 hours, including the time you usually sleep, work, eat and so on. Regardless of how much you try, you can never change the length of one day and neither can you change the size of the barrel. We can change what we put in it though.

The rocks represent major tasks that can’t be interfered with

Most of us have things in life which we either must do to survive or that we consider so important that we have to do them. The first and most important one is sleeping, because no matter what we do, we need to sleep. If you’re close to the average of 8 hours sleep per day, your barrel will be contain one big rock representing those eight hours. If you have weird sleeping patterns, like sleeping less during the night and making up the deficit with power naps, you’ll have smaller rocks that are more flexible.

Apart from sleeping, there might be other things we have to do, like working, eating and maintaining contact with friends and family. Rather than regarding these as big lumps of rock, I think most of them can be considered to be pebbles (see below), so instead of regarding eating as a block two hours long, we can regard it as many smaller pebbles. Depending on what kind of job you have, the same will be true there. A teacher has lessons and meetings he has to attend to, but that hardly fills up eight hours per day. The total work time might still exceed eight hours, but it’s not one big lump for teachers.

Going to class is of course also represented by rocks, regardless of what you’re studying (Chinese or something else). I have simplified the situation a bit and just drawn a few rocks, but as we can see, the barrel is already getting full!

We still have room for pebbles

Now, this is where most people stop and say “I sleep for eight hours, I work for eight hours, it takes two hours to cook and eat, I have to maintain contact with friends and exercise, so there is no time left for language learning!” This is obviously not the case, there is still room for pebbles.

If rocks represented big, bulky tasks, pebbles represent smaller tasks we can move about more freely. Of course, there’s no fixed definition of what  a pebble is and what a rock is, but let’s say a rock is something which takes several hours to complete whereas a pebble only takes ten minutes. Now, even though our day looked full, we can see that it’s still possible to fill it with a whole lot of pebbles. Here are some tasks that can be considered to be pebbles:

  • Reading a Chinese book before going to bed
  • Looking up a few characters that’s been troubling you recently
  • Finding new audio to listen to
  • Moving audio to your mobile phone
  • Posting a question on a language forum
  • Writing a few sentences on Lang-8

Now it’s really starting to look full…

…and yet there is still room for sand that trickles down between the pebbles and fills the spaces you didn’t know where there. This is the kind of studying you only do for a few seconds up to several minutes each time, but that accumulates over time to become a significant factor. There aren’t many tasks that are suitably represented by sand, but there are a few that are possible because of modern technology:

  • Reviewing vocabulary using spaced repetition software on your smart phone
  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Review tricky characters you have written on your hands
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese

The barrel is full!

Or is it? If you have a barrel full of rocks, pebbles and sand, it certainly looks very full. Not a single grain of sand can be added, let alone pebbles or rocks. Still, it’s possible to add several litres of water to such a barrel without it overflowing. Water fills the spaced we didn’t know existed, it superimposes itself over the other things in the barrel. This means that there are very few things indeed that can be represented by that water, but here are a few examples:

No metaphor is perfect

This is just one way of looking at time management and because it is a metaphor, it is also flawed. It will highlight some things I find important (the fact that we have more time than we think and that we need to find ways to study that fit in our time barrels), but it will also miss some things. For instance, this metaphor isn’t good to explain the fact that you can do many things at the same time. Listening to Chinese while doing the laundry would have to be water superimposed on rock, which isn’t neat at all. Still, I hope I have been able to show that you don’t need one three-hour block of free time per day to study three hours.

Be dynamic and flexible in your endeavour to learn Chinese, be on the lookout for ways to fit Chinese into your day that doesn’t interfere too much with the other important things you do in your life!

Listening strategies: An introduction

I’ve been quite interested in improving listening ability recently, which not only means that I’ve thought a lot about it, but also that I’ve been looking around to see what other people are suggesting to improve listening ability, and tried many different approaches. I have also received several requests for more articles regarding listening ability, so I have decided to do this properly. Behold, a series of articles about improving listening ability!

Listening ability is one of the cornerstones of language learning. Not only is it essential if we want to communicate with other people, it’s also necessary if we’re going to expose ourselves to natively produced language and learn from that. Immersion in itself, but the more we understand of what we’re immersed in, the more we will learn.

Since I have a great deal to say about this, this series will consist of quite a few articles. Apart from the introduction you’re currently reading, the first “real” article is now also available. The general idea is to first discuss what problems we might encounter regarding listening ability, and then look at different ways of solving these problems, followed by a discussion about background, passive and active listening. Then I will talk about related topics from various angles. My current plan looks like this:

Articles in this series

Introduction (this article)
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

Publication plan

Most of these articles are already written, but will be published at a steady pace over the coming moths. I typically post one article per week, but since I know that not everyone is interested in reading about listening ability, I will put at least one other article in between each of those in the list above. That means that it will take several months before all of them are published. I will do like this because I think a steady flow of material is much better than publishing a big lump of articles which are too long for people to read anyway. Please be patient!

In the meantime, you can start reading the first article or check  a number of articles I’ve already written about listening ability that might be of interest. These will be referred and linked to in this series, but I will try to avoid repeating myself too much.

Articles directly related to listening ability:
Listening ability, a matter of practice?
Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem
Listening to the listener
How to find more time to practise listening
Triggering quantum leaps in listening ability

Articles indirectly related to listening ability:
The importance of knowing many words
Pros and cons with travelling to learn a language

Diversified learning is smart learning
Benchmarking progress to stay motivated
Reading manga for more than just pleasure
Mapping the terra incognita of vocabulary
Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?
The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Stay tuned!

The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Is mastering a subject mainly about innate gifts or about hard work? If it is about hard work, how long does it take? The first of these questions has of course been attracting people’s attention for a long time, but it’s not the people who ask this question who are in trouble, but those who don’t even think it is question in the first place.

The traditional (or fraud-proof) character for 10,000.

Too many seem to assume that learning anything (especially languages) is about being talented and having a gift for learning (again, very common for language learning). Although it’s arguably true that some people seem to learn languages more easily than others, this is far from the whole truth.

In this article, I’m going to argue that learning Chinese is mainly about blood, sweat and tears, not talent. Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll find ways to bleed, sweat and cry that you actually enjoy or at least think is worthwhile, but hard work is still what will propel you forward, not some inner ability you were (or weren’t) born with. Similarly, saying that you can’t learn because you don’t have the gift is equally invalid. If other people can work hard to master Chinese, so can you.

The talent myth

I think what people usually call “talent” starts from early childhood, meaning that it’s something grown or learnt rather than something being genuinely innate  In school, pupils are very quickly sorted into categories: those who are smart and those who aren’t. If you’re the smart type, you’ll get lots of encouragement from your environment, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be placed in the other category, then you’ll have a more difficult time.

The problem is that people base their ability to learn something on what they did in school, perhaps ten or twenty years ago. I’ve read about and heard innumerable people state that they can’t learn a language and then follow it up with “I took French evening classes and it was really hard” or “I studied German for six years in school and I still can’t speak the language”.

This is nonsense. These people aren’t assessing their own ability to learn, they’re simply saying that under that kind of circumstances, they weren’t able to learn the languages to a satisfactory level. Then they go on and read about the polyglots who travel the world to learn many languages, usually very quickly. Even though I have argued that learning Chinese in just a few months is, depending on definitions, impossible, that’s not saying you can’t learn an awful lot. Let’s take French as an example, simply because I have studied French for more than six years in school and still can’t speak very well (in other words, I was once one of the people I criticise above).

Practice is counted in hours, not in years

If someone claims to have learnt French in just a few months, most people would either say that it’s a lie or that the person is extremely talented. Neither is necessarily true (although both might be, of course). The mistake people make is that they count practice in years and not in hours. Let me illustrate with a short dialogue:

A: Have you studied any foreign language?
B: Yes, I’ve studied French.
A: For how long?
B: Six years.
A: Wow! You must be very good then.
B: No, I can hardly communicate with natives.

This dialogue is weird only if you think that six years means six years of serious studying, because then you really should be very good at French. But if B in this dialogue only took one hour of evening classes every second week for six years and did no homework, I don’t think he’d be able to communicate very well, even after six years.

Don’t compare with your high-school French class

Let’s look at the numbers of a more realistic example. Let’s say that I study French in school for six years. That means roughly 40 weeks/year because of holidays and so on. Most people don’t have class everyday, let’s say we have three hours of French each week and do two hours of homework, then this adds up to 200 hours in one year or 1200 in six years.

Compare this with the serious language learner, immersed in the language and doing nothing but studying. Realistically, it’s very hard to maintain a lifestyle where you do nothing but learning languages, but for a short period of time, I know it’s possible to study non-stop, but let’s say 14 hours/day, which gives plenty of time to sleep, eat and so on. If you do that for three months, you’ll end up with 1260 hours.

As we can see, the avid language learner totals more hours in three months than an average high-school student does in six years.

The 10,000 hour rule

What can we learn from this? Mainly, we learn that what seems to be impossible feats of talent is in reality the result of hard work (counted in hours), although concentrated in a short duration of time (counted in years). We also learn that by erroneously comparing someone else’s learning process to our own experience, we draw incorrect conclusions about how others achieve success. We tend to dismiss expertise simply as the result of innate ability, which is wrong. Some subjects are more prone to this than others. For instance, would you attribute a surgeons skill to innate ability? What about a musician? Do you realise how many hours an Olympic gymnast has practised when you watch him or her on TV?

Let’s see what Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who is usually attributed with popularising the 10,000 hour rule) has to say about this:

Basically, the 10,000 hour rule states that if you want to get good at something, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practising. Gladwell claims that this figure is relevant for many fields, but I don’t really care about the exact number. The point is that it’s there and that it’s there without referring to talent. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours if they really want to.

Experience and deliberate practice

Note that “practice” in this case means deliberate practice, i.e. striving actively to become better by challenging yourself. Most people who practice simply do so in a passive manner, which doesn’t really count (or if it counts, it counts less than true deliberate practice). Anders Ericsson, a pioneer researcher in the field of deliberate practice,makes a clear difference between deliberate practice (top musicians) and ordinary experience (everyday activities). Since this is a major topic of its own, I’ll save this discussion for an upcoming article.


What I want to say in this post is very simple: Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Each persons road might be different, but it’s simply not the case that someone else’s road is half as long as yours, provided you have roughly the same background.

So, don’t use talent either as an excuse not to learn, either because you think you’re talented and therefore don’t need to study, or, perhaps more commonly, because you think you aren’t talented and therefore can’t learn. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

Reaching your goal might take more or less than 10,000 hours, but whatever the true number is, it’s still an indication that you can and need to study, regardless of talent.

When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress

For some people, completing a certain task is not enough, it has to be done perfectly.  Intuitively, I count myself to this group of perfectionists, but intellectually, I’ve gradually come to realise that this is a double-edged sword and that there are times (quite often, actually) when aiming for perfection is simply stupid. In this article, I will talk about some of the negative aspects of trying to get everything right too quickly. This article is not only for anyone who can at least partly recognise themselves in the xkcd strip below.

When perfectionism becomes an obstacle

I’m prepared to say that perfectionism is always bad if taken to extremes, with the possible exception of pronunciation. I really think that learning tones and sounds properly in the beginning is well worth the effort in a way that writing characters beautifully or perfectly is not. So why is perfectionism so bad? Because it is inefficient. Spending too much time on something might mean that you spend less time on widening your horizons and learning more, which would in the end lead to better results.

Image credit:

Let’s take an actual example. If I had a fairly big test next week, covering several chapters and many hundreds of new words, I’m tempted to aim for 100%. I did that all the time for the first year of Chinese, and sure, it paid off grade-wise, but I think that the price I paid was too high and today I would be much more careful.

Something is better than nothing

Another kind of negative perfectionism is the kind that stops you from doing anything at all (see the xkcd strip above). You don’t start reading because you haven’t found the perfect textbook, you don’t speak because you can’t pronounce all the sounds yet or perhaps you haven’t even started learning Chinese because you haven’t found the perfect system to use. Everything will be done in the future, but the truth is that you can’t do anything in the future, you can only do things in the present.

This is a sickness that can be found at all levels, from the very general and long-term to the fine details of daily language learning. Don’t do this. Studying something is always better than studying nothing. Or, put in another way, showing up is what really counts, not the imagined quality of practise you don’t get. Don’t aim to be perfect, start practising and you will see results after a while; you can worry about perfection later.

What’s the alternative to 100%?

The alternative would be to be satisfied with something like 85-95%, which indeed isn’t bad (this is the level most spaced repetition programs aim for, for instance, also with efficiency in mind). In my experience, reaching this level might require lots of work, but increasing the score further takes even more time per percentage point. To be sure to ace an exam, you really need to review a lot and you will end up reviewing things you really don’t need to review, just to make sure you know every single thing that might come on the exam. Making sure you have a good grasp of the material and then being a bit more relaxed and accepting the fact that you might forget minor parts on the exam takes significantly less time and energy.

Smart, not lazy

I think those of you who frequent this website know that I don’t advocate this approach because I’m lazy. The point here is that if the idea is to get really good at something (like Chinese) , focusing on knowing everything you learn until you know it perfectly is a waste of time. That time could be spent practising pronunciation, broadening vocabulary or reinforcing grammar. I’m sure this gives a lot more in return for the time invested. I don’t mean to say that a solid foundation isn’t important (see my comment about pronunciation above), but I’m saying that you won’t get very far if you spend years just laying the foundations. I’d much rather learn 100 words and remember 90%, than learn 50 words in the same time and remember every single one. I’d much rather be able to write 100 characters other people can understand than 10 people think are beautiful.

Naturally, scoring high on exams isn’t a bad thing. If you’re taking formal classes in Chinese, you might want to earn a good grade, in which case you have to partly ignore what I say here. A good result also gives a certain sense of achievement, which shouldn’t be neglected. However, I’m convinced that caring too much about grades is detrimental to learning, especially if we consider the fact that few courses are exactly matched to what you want to learn (especially if you study in East Asia, where ideas of what constitutes a good learning environment might differ greatly from your own preferences).

Some final words

I try to limit the areas I want to be perfect as much as I can; the only area I’m never satisfied with 90% is pronunciation. For other things I’m currently doing (like writing lots of articles in Chinese), I don’t want to understand 100% of all the mistakes I make, because that would take so much time I would never actually get down to writing the second, third and fourth article. I realise that not all learners will recognise this problem, but I hope those of you that do have found this article interesting.

Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small

Many years ago, I practised taichichuan/taijiquan (太極拳) daily, but even if I’ve since found other physical activities I enjoy more, it was still my martial arts practise that brought me into contact with Chinese language and philosophy in the first place. I’ve found that many of the concepts I encountered while practising also applies to learning Chinese.


My taichi instructor told me to make sure that movements are big and slow in the beginning, and then, as skill improves, they should become  quicker and more efficient. His rationale for saying this is clear: if you learn to do things with slow, big movements, it’s quite easy to make them quicker and more efficient once you’ve learnt the motions properly. If you do it the other way around, however (i.e. you do everything quickly and with small movements from the start), it’ very hard to learn things properly.

This is true for language learning as well.

The trap: Using shortcuts to mimic natives

I’ve heard this so many times my ears bleed and my soul cries every time I hear it. It’s something along the lines “Chinese people don’t care about tones anyway, I can sound native-like if I just speak quickly enough”. I have heard the same about handwriting, albeit not as often. These are misconceptions that will only lengthen the time it takes you to learn Chinese (this isn’t the topic of this article, though, but please read my article about the importance of tones for more about this). Going for speed from the very start is simply a really bad idea.

In this article, I want to talk about what we should do instead. I believe we should heed my instructor’s advice: we should make things bigger, slower and clearer. When we know how to do that, then we can shrink, speed up and relax.

Disclaimer: This article is about deliberate language practise. It should not be taken as an indication that you should always do this, even though I think there are advantages of doing that as well. Rather, I’m saying that this kind of practise is necessary if we hope to attain an advanced level. If you’re only after basic communication ability, this article is probably irrelevant.

Exaggerated speaking

The principle of exaggeration can be applied to pronunciation. When you start learning pronunciation of tones, try to exaggerate. Most teachers will do this anyway, but you should do the same. If we’re talking of tones, make sure you get them right and that you enunciate all of them clearly. Learn to pronounce them one and one, then two and two and then on the sentence level. Likewise, make sure you distinguish different sounds clearly. Speak more slowly than you are capable of: speaking Chinese is not a race and few people judge you proficiency by how quickly you speak.

Exaggerated writing

A similar case is writing. Before you really get the hang of writing Chinese characters (and that takes some serious practise), write slowly and make sure you get things like stroke order and individual strokes correctly (should it be 己, 已 or 巳; 末 or 未? See this page for many more!). Take care to make the characters roughly the same size and in the shape of squares. When you know how to write big characters, start writing them smaller. When you know how to write them slowly, start practising speed.

Fluency and speed

The reason I’m saying this is not because I’m a language fascist who believes that a missed tone is a catastrophe  or an erroneously written character is heresy (you should see my handwriting). No, I’m saying this because if you want to be able to speak Chinese quickly, fluently and accurately (like a native), you can’t aim for that immediately, because you will most certainly lose accuracy on the way. Similarly, if you want to be able to write characters like a native, you have to be able to write properly first. Most native speakers took many, many years to learn how to write like that, you can’t get there simply by mimicking what they’re doing.

The essence of all this is that it is easier by far to speed up slow, articulated speech compared to slowing down sloppy, quick speaking. Since there will always be situations where accuracy is more important than speed, being able to do this is quite important. In the same way, only being able to write sloppy, ugly characters isn’t a good idea, but if you know how to write properly in the first place, it’s very easy to write quickly if you want to.

But then everybody will know that my Chinese sucks!

In a sense, this is true. Indeed, it’s part of why it’s good. If you speak slowly, everybody will hear when you make the slightest mistake. If you write characters as large as your hand, the slightest mistake will be noticed immediately. That’s excellent, this is why this is such a good idea! I know, exposing yourself in this way might be scary (I think it’s scary too), but making mistakes is an essential part of learning! You won’t get very far without it.

Tones are more important than you think

How important are tones, really? They are an integral part of Chinese, we all know that, but do you actually need them all the time? In this article, I will talk about tones, why they are important and some problems students encounter and how to solve them. There are of course much, much more to say about tones, but this week’s article will focus on attitude rather than practical or theoretical matters directly related to tones.

Tone chart (with low T3)
Tone chart (with low T3)

Just how important are the tones anyway?

Occasionally, I hear people say something along the lines of “tones aren’t important in Chinese, if I just achieve some fluency and talk really fast everything will be okay, the natives don’t use tones in natural speech anyway”. This is not only wrong, it’s an extremely dangerous attitude to have as a beginner if you ever hope to learn Chinese properly.

It is true that you will be able to order a beer, say hello, I’m from America or apologise without worrying about tones, especially if you’re talking with native speakers who are used to foreigners. This is because it doesn’t really matter what you say, they see you, a foreigner, in a certain situation and they immediately know that the number of things you’re likely to say is limited and it’s only a matter of deciding which of the possible phrases you’re trying to say. It doesn’t matter how much you botch the tones, you’ll get your beer.

However, if the person you’re talking to can’t guess what you want to say, communication will rapidly break down if your tones are off. Next time you take a cab somewhere, try to get to the correct destination with the wrong tones (here is a hint: it doesn’t work very well). When you have left the beginner level you will also start expressing ideas which aren’t immediately obvious to the listener and you may use words they don’t expect. If you don’t get the tones right, it is likely that people won’t understand what you say.

Read more here: The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

That being said, it’s true that native speakers don’t enunciate every singe tone very clearly when they talk rapidly. Some tones are reduced and only stressed syllables retain their tones completely. However, this is not the same as saying that you can do the same thing. It means that it’s even more important to get those key tones right. See this article on for more about this.

Tones aren’t just marks added above a vowel

When we start learning Chinese, it’s easy to think of tones as something that is added to an otherwise independent syllable. It’s easier for us to remember and distinguish the between “mí” and “má” (same tone, different vowel) than between “mí” and “mì” (same vowel, different tone). This is natural because it’s likely that our native language doesn’t use tones in this way. We need to focus on this explicitly to understand that the tone is an integrated part of a word as much as the vowel is.

Research has shown that tones in Chinese are as important as vowels (i.e. they carry as much meaning as vowels do). This is easy to understand theoretically, but I personally still think it’s hard to feel intuitively.

Don’t cheat with tones

A lack of understanding leads to a situation where we tend to focus more on the sound of word (as opposed to the tone). It’s easy to remember that it should be “zhen”, but is it “zhén” or “zhèn”? If you’re using spaced repetition software (which you should), have you ever answered that you know a word even though perhaps one tone is off? Would you do the same if you replaced “zh” with “z”? Or if you thought it should be “i” instead of “e”? I’m not saying everybody is doing this, but I think lots of people are and it’s not good. If you don’t know the tone, you simply don’t know how to pronounce the word. Cheating with tones is easy, but the only loser in the long run is yourself.

How to learn tones

The main reason for not cheating with tones and focusing on them from the very start is that it’s very hard to change incorrect tones later. The earlier you start correcting your mistakes, the easier it becomes. Of course, if you want to improve your tones, you first need to know what problems you have. One way of doing it is using the method I have suggested in another article, which works very well even if you don’t have access to a qualified teacher (you just need any native speaker). If you’re having problems with the third tone, you might also be interested in reading this article about learning the third tone.

How to remember tones

If we want to remember tones, the first thing we need to do is start treating them like they are integrated parts of the words we’re learning, rather than something extra added on top. If you don’t know the tone, you don’t know the word and need to review it again; cheating here will only make it even harder next time. Here are some other things you can try:

  1. Always read words aloud when you review
  2. Always write tone marks (and read aloud)
  3. Pay attention to tones you hear (repeat in your head)
  4. Associate tones with other characters with the same tone (if you remember that 第二次世界大战 only consists of fourth tones, you can use this to remember that all individual characters are fourth tones; create new words or phrases for particularly tricky characters/words)
  5. Use colours (automatic in many programs, i.e. blue for fourth tone, red for first etc.) then try creating mnemonics based on the colours (think of an egg painted blue for or a red chicken for ); this approach will be tricky to use on thousands of words, but I use it for tones that just refuse to stick

Focusing on pronunciation as a beginner

I usually advocate not focusing too much on details in the beginning, simply because I think it’s not very helpful to learn the exact definitions of words or the difference between two very similar grammar patterns until a more advanced level. Pronunciation, however, is an exception. It’s fairly easy to adjust one’s vocabulary, but it’s a lot harder to change one’s tones. If we hope to reach a I high level, pronunciation is something we should always practise diligently, from day one. Paying attention to tones is a good start.