A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

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

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting

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

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

The goal: Legible, not beautiful

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

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

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

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

The strategy: Four components

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Focus on initials and finals, not Pinyin spelling

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!

Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin

If you want to get things done in life, there seems to be one general truth that is applicable in almost all situations, learning Chinese included. That principle is to break things down into manageable chunks.

There are numerous ways of describing this principle, but I think that the most useful one is this: without breaking a major goal like learning Chinese into several smaller parts, it will feel overwhelming, but if you break it down to bite-sized pieces, it suddenly doesn’t look all that scary. To use the analogy of a journey, it sounds hard to walk a thousand miles, but each step is actually quite easy, so focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you will get to your destination sooner or later.

Another reason for breaking things down is that you can’t really do something like “become fluent in Chinese”. You reach a goal by doing things, but you can’t do a goal. Therefore, specifying what it is you actually need to do to become fluent takes you much closer to real action. Do you know what your next step to learn Chinese is?

Two ways of breaking things down: time boxing and micro goals

So, if we want to accomplish something in the long term, we should break it down. But how? I think there are two major approaches to this, either you split a major goal into smaller parts (short-term goals, then micro goals) or you split the work you have to do into predefined time units (time boxing).

In my experience, both methods are very powerful, but they work quite differently for learning Chinese, so in this article I want to discuss some pros and cons with the different methods. As we shall see, they work well in different situations, so it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other.

Time boxing

Time boxing means that you set a timer and do something for a certain amount of time, 10-15 minutes is normal, but you can use longer or shorter times depending on what you’re doing. I have written a separate article about time boxing that you can read here. If you have never tried this, you’re likely to be surprised at how much you can get done in just 10 minutes if you have a clear deadline and a well-defined task.

The major advantage with time boxing is that the scope of each session is very well defined. This means that it’s easier to motivate oneself to get started, because you know when you start that it only takes ten minutes. Can you really persuade yourself to not spend just ten minutes learning characters today? Compare this with learning a fixed number of characters, which might take 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and is also of unknown difficulty (you might actually fail). Spending ten minutes on something is easy, it only requires you to do your best, not to actually succeed.

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu

Time boxing works best for tasks that are continuous, such as learning a large number of words or translate sentences to practise your Chinese on Lang-8. The journey is a good metaphor for this kind of studying and step number one is very similar to step number one thousand. It’s also a good when you find it hard to get going, because really, spending ten minutes doing something isn’t hard and you will at least achieve something in that time.

Micro goals

Micro goals are goals that can be accomplished in one study session (I have written an article about micro goals as well), and just like time boxing, the actual scope of such a session varies depending on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. The point is that the goal has to be well-defined and have a very high chance of success. Some people also talk about winnable games, meaning that you shouldn’t set up a situation where the chance of failure is high. Instead, break things down until each step is almost certain to be a victory.

Micro goals are more useful for tasks that are complex and can be separated into stages with clearly different characteristics. If you want to improve your pronunciation in Chinese, there are numerous steps that you need to take, such as identifying your problems, selecting a few priority areas and focusing on them one by one. If some of these steps are long and complicated in themselves, you can use time boxing, but in most cases, it makes more sense to specify something you need to achieve, such as “record one paragraph of x”, “compare my recording x with the native speaker model”, “discuss my pronunciation of x with a native speaker”, “design a plan for practising problem y” and so on.

The major advantage with micro goals over time boxing is that they are synonymous with progress. You can’t reach a micro goal without having made progress, but you can spend ten minutes trying to do something and not achieving anything. If you feel that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing, time boxing also invites procrastination in a way that micro goals don’t. Micro goals aren’t sensible to your spending time doing something else, this will just mean that it takes longer.

Use both methods

As I said at the outset, I think both methods are very useful and I use them both daily. I tend to use micro goals more, especially when I know what I’m doing and have a good grasp of how long something takes to achieve. However, when it comes to reviewing characters or doing anything that feels even slightly menial, time boxing is king. It is also the default solution when I can’t or don’t want to break something down further or when the process is unknown (time boxing works very well for brainstorming, for instance).

So, in short, try them both in different situations, see what works and what doesn’t. I know people who hate time boxing and others who say that it has revolutionised the way they do things. I also know people who say that micro goals are a big waste of time, as well as people who break things down to the point where it can’t really be broken down any more.

I do all these things on a need-to basis, I don’t time box just because I can, and I don’t create long lists of micro goals if it seems like I’m getting things done anyway. I do these things when I feel I need to. This guarantees gaining maximum benefits from the two methods without spending too much time on things other than achieving my goal.

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 reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days

I have been inspired by many people in my life and in many different areas. When it comes to learning things, Scott H. Young runs one of the most interesting blogs I know I have kept an eye on his various projects and thoughts about how to get more out of life for at least five years, so when he said that he would now turn to learning languages, I was eager to see what would happen. When I saw that Chinese was one of the languages he had chosen to learn, I was thrilled!


In this guest article, Scott shares some of his learning experience in a practical and easily applicable way. He reached a very decent level of Chinese in little more than three months, including passing HSK4 (yes, including reading and writing). If you want to evaluate his speaking skills, there are several videos in this post, one of them with Scott, his friend Vat and me speaking Chinese here in Taipei a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

In this post I’m going to try to dissect the specific methods I found most successful for reaching a strong conversational level of Chinese, after just a little over three months of private study.

First though, if you haven’t seen it, check out the mini-documentary Vat and I shot about the experience of living in China/Taiwan and learning Chinese. I owe a debt of gratitude to Vat for painting an excellent picture of what life was like and the Chinese we managed to reach.

Beyond that video, however, I want to go into more detail and give you the strategies I found worked best so you can use them yourself if you plan to learn Chinese or any other language.

Side note: I’m indebted to the many people who helped inspire and encourage this project. Benny Lewis, who first wrote about going up against Chinese in only three months. Chinese-Forums member Tamu, who wrote about challenging the HSK 5 after just 4 months in Taiwan. Additionally long-time Chinese learners John Pasden and Hacking Chinese’s very own, Olle Linge, offered a lot of advice in designing this project, and I appreciate the time they took for interviews, which I’ve included below.

What Level Did I Reach, Exactly?

In May, just a little shy of three months in China, I wrote the HSK 4 and passed with a 74% (Listening: 82%, Reading: 77% and Writing: 62%). For those unfamiliar with the HSK, it is the largest official exam for Chinese as a second language. It is divided into six levels with HSK 1 being the most basic elements of the language and HSK 6 as the highest level.

According to the organization that conducts the HSK, an HSK 4 is equivalent to the CEFR’s B2 designation. However, personally, I believe this is an inflation and it is probably more like a B1.

The HSK does not test speaking ability, but both Olle and John Pasden of Sinosplice.com were kind enough to sit down with me for an unstructured interview. I believe these clips are representative of my Chinese. I’m by no means perfectly fluent, but we were able to carry on a decent conversation in both cases with minimal friction.

Interview with Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

Interview with John Pasden (Sinosplice.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

John’s interview was filmed in Shanghai, just before I wrote the HSK 4 and Olle’s was filmed three weeks later in Taipei.

Speaking more generally, I believe my level of Chinese is sufficient to deal with most basic necessities of living, travel, make new friends and have interesting conversations entirely in Chinese. I can also read most of simple emails, menus and signs, although my reading still lags behind my speaking ability.

I’m still not at a level where I could easily understand group conversations, movies, television or read books or newspapers.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving native-level functionality with the language, but I feel the level I did reach has enormous practical benefits.

How Much Time Did I Invest, Exactly?

Before arriving in China, my studying time was exactly 105 hours. I’ve included this as an hourly amount, rather than a specific time period, because it was spread over a few months and I was also concurrently studying Spanish and Korean while working full-time.

In China, I studied fairly aggressively from February 16th when we arrived, until around May 10th, when I wrote the HSK 4. Although I went on to spend another three weeks in Taiwan, I did no formal study at that time and spoke in English with Vat (taking a break to finish the video before starting Korean).

My studying routine in China was to study six days per week with roughly the following activities:

  1. Private tutoring 1-3 hours per day.
  2. Anki (MCC Deck + my own deck for HSK vocabulary) 80 minutes per day.
  3. ChinesePod listening practice (last two months) 2 hours per day.
  4. Textbook study (first month) 2 hours per day. (Textbooks used: New Practical Chinese Reader, Complete Mandarin Chinese, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar)
  5. Skritter handwriting (last two months) 30 minutes per day.
  6. Miscellaneous drills 0-2 hours per day.

Once you include breaks, I’d say this amounts to a solid full-time schedule. Although, there are undoubtedly people who could have studied much more than I did.

Aside from minimal work to maintain my website, which is my full-time job, I was entirely focused on learning Chinese.

Beyond my studying, I also had a few good friends and many acquaintances in China with whom I only spoke in Chinese. Movies and television shows I also omitted from the tally of total time spent. I watched a number of Chinese movies, a few seasons of 爱情公寓 (English title iPartment), and some Chinese music.

If I had to do an estimate of total time invested, I would estimate around 350-400 hours of study in China (plus 105 hours prior to arrival), another 150 hours of actual Chinese usage outside of my full-time studying and perhaps another 100 hours of Chinese media of some kind (television shows, movies, etc.). However the hours of immersion are much easier than the hours of studying, once you’re past the hump of making friends in the language.

I believe the methods and schedule I outline is something anyone could implement, provided they are living in China and studying Chinese full-time (either in classes or privately). Obviously, if you need to work in English while in China, you may have to adapt these methods to suit your schedule.

Exact Methods I Used to Learn Chinese Efficiently

Chinese was a far harder and more interesting challenge than previous languages I’ve learned, such as Spanish. With Spanish, aside from some time with a tutor and light grammar study from an exercise book, I learned everything from immersion. Chinese, on the other hand, erected many barriers that made immersion in the beginning stages often frustratingly difficult.

My philosophy towards learning anything difficult is, if at first you don’t succeed, break it down into smaller pieces and try again. When I frequently hit frustrations in trying to learn Chinese quickly, I reverted to that motto and broke my sources of frustration into smaller units which I could set up drills for and improve in isolation.

Early in the challenge, when I found myself unable to correctly recognize and pronounce the 4 tones of Chinese, I turned to pronunciation specific drills. Later, when I found that my listening ability was hindering my Chinese much more than speaking, I spent a bulk of studying time doing targeted listening drills.

It’s important to note that these drills and exercises had immersion as a background. I don’t think I would have been successful if I had used them in isolation—that is without spending hundreds of hours having real conversations with Chinese people, listening to real Chinese media and living my life mostly in Chinese.

I won’t labor the point about immersion, because I’ve written about it before, but if you’re struggling with this half of the language learning process, see this article I wrote for John Pasden’s Sinosplice.com for specific steps you can follow.

Methods I Found Most Useful

I tried dozens of different methods for learning Chinese, from textbook study to pronunciation drills, vocabulary lists and grammar exercises. Ultimately, I narrowed down my studying to just a handful of methods I thought were the most broadly useful. They were:

1. Full-sentence, audio-included Anki decks

I opted for a set of Anki decks organized around learning characters. Although character-learning isn’t a necessity for reaching a conversational level, I felt the fact that these decks harmonized listening, vocabulary, sentence patterns and character recognition, made them the most useful resource I used.

I mostly didn’t create my own Anki decks, aside for a specific one to master HSK vocabulary prior to my exam. I also mostly ignored any decks that lacked audio or full sentences.

I also adjusted the studying parameters for the Anki decks. Normally a first-time card has a one-day “good” review and a three-day “excellent” review time. I adjusted these to three and ten days, respectively. I also reduced the leech threshold to three failures before a card was pulled from my deck. (Side note: I also increased the spacing between cards in Anki’s settings, but discussing it with Olle we’re not sure whether that’s good advice. In general, don’t change settings unless you have a good reason to do so. Nonetheless, I had 84.1% correct on mature cards which isn’t substantially different from Anki’s default goal of 90%)

The result of these tweaks meant that I was spending less time memorizing the cards and more time exposed to new ones. This exploits the 80/20 rule, by quickly eliminating too-difficult cards that waste your time and pushing too-easy cards far ahead.

Taking these decks allowed me to, using only 116 hours in China and 70 hours in Canada, learn roughly 1800 characters and see them used in a few thousand example sentences. Because the decks also separate listening/reading/production as well as single-character/sentence, I was also quizzed on each element separately.

My one regret with how I handled this part of the learning phase, is that I didn’t learn the radicals early enough. Probably my first 500 or so characters, I had only learned a handful of radicals. Once I learned the radicals, my mental model for chunking characters had changed and it became harder to recognize ones learned using previous mnemonics. My advice: if you’re serious about learning Chinese, learn the top 100 radicals as soon as possible, since it is the best foundation for recognizing them correctly down the road.

2. Listening drills

For listening drills, I started by just listening to ChinesePod episodes. My feeling was that these are nice passive resources, but they are too long to be easily used for improving your listening ability until you get to the upper intermediate level where both hosts speak almost entirely in Chinese.

Instead, what I did was download the dialog-only files for hundreds of episodes. These usually run around a minute or so, and I would listen to each one a few times, then go through the Chinese-character only text and try to read it, and finally go through the English translation. Then, any characters, words or sentence patterns I didn’t recognize, I would jot down in a notebook.

It typically took about 5-10 minutes to do each file, and I did around 250 in this way. The ChinesePod files are quite good because they use very natural sounding, conversational Chinese. Most other learner resources try to be overly clear and well-spoken, so when you listen to actual native speakers, you struggle to make a match.

This was my second most productive drill I used in China, and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels their listening ability isn’t top notch, and isn’t at a level to really get much benefit from native media yet.

3. Pronunciation drills

Pronunciation wasn’t the main focus of my time in China. Despite wanting to make it a large focus from the beginning, it wasn’t important enough relative to vocabulary and listening to make it a large amount of my daily time usage.

Despite that, I did find a small amount of pronunciation drills to be invaluable. I truly believe that getting even an adequate pronunciation in Chinese is quite hard, especially if you train poor habits from the beginning.

The first thing I did was look up anatomical charts which note tongue position for various sounds in Chinese that we do not have in English. These were very helpful because I got into the habit of moving my tongue into a different position for the q/x/j sounds than the ch/sh/zh sounds which mostly sound the same in English. It also helped me learn how to do the Chinese “r” differently from the English “r” which can be a problem for anglophones.

Next I worked on tone-pair drills. I made the mistake of doing these on my own in the beginning, which inadvertently had me pronouncing my second tone too much like a third tone. I worked with Olle to go through a specific pronunciation test to see if I could pronounce the sounds right, at least in deliberate isolation. The first time I had some tonal errors, mostly related to this 2nd-as-3rd-tone problem, as well as a couple isolated problems with the phonetics themselves.

After a few weeks with drills with tutors, I redid the test and got a good score. This hardly means my pronunciation is perfect. First, the test was mostly designed to see if I was making errors that would be large enough to cause confusion with native speakers, not accent reduction. Second, the test focused only on individual words in isolation, a much easier feat than getting all the tones right with unfamiliar vocabulary in a long sentence.

Pronunciation is probably one of the few areas with language learning that fixing mistakes as an intermediate or advanced learner is extremely hard. So even though Chinese can feel completely overwhelming and tones feel like a side concern, I completely agree with Olle that getting them right (even if just in limited isolation) is something beginners should allocate time for.

4. Conversational tutoring sessions

Tutoring was also very important, but not in the way most people think of tutoring. In China I ended up having three different tutors, two in-person, and a third via Skype using iTalki. My goal with tutors was to spend as much time as possible having real conversations with them, and a minimum of drills, exercises and the things tutors normally emphasize.

I bring this point up because many language teachers actively avoid using this method. Chinese teachers go through years of training teaching mostly passive students. As such, they’re used to guiding the student through exercises, grammar points and vocabulary. Many of the tutors I’ve encountered actually feel having conversations is a waste of time, and I’ve been interrupted in sessions where a tutor insists that we now “get back to work” after a conversational segue.

Therefore, if you’re an active student who is doing independent study for grammar, vocabulary, wasting tutoring time on such activities is going to hurt your progress, even if your teacher pushes you towards it. I suggest being upfront with your tutor from the start about what kind of class you want to have and don’t be afraid to get a new one if your tutor stymies your attempts at having conversational classes.

Other Methods

I emphasized the above four because I felt that they comprised (a) the most important studying I did in China and (b) they are activities many students do not do. I did use a textbook in the first month as well as a portion of my tutoring time in typical classroom activities, but my guess is that the average student spends too much time on these rather than too little.

What Can a Reasonably Dedicated Learner Achieve in Three Months?

Overall, I do believe that reaching a decent conversational level in a three months is possible for a reasonably dedicated learner, provided they follow the strategy I outlined.

Vat wasn’t at the same level of Chinese as myself after three months, but he could still have conversations about day-to-day topics without strain and deal with most issues related to living and travel in China. Vat’s approach was considerably less strenuous than my own, and he worked on other non-language learning projects at the same time (including the videography for our mini-documentary).

For learners who aren’t able to devote themselves fully, I think stretching the same strategy over a longer period of time could have a similar impact. If you’re teaching English in China, for example, and need to speak English for 8 hours a day, I imagine you could apply my approach to 2 hours per day in your spare time and probably see the same results in 6-8 months (given you also pursue immersion in your spare time as well).

Similarly, I believe someone learning in a classroom environment, but outside of China, could still arrange conversational exchanges via iTalki.com and the slowdown from not being within the country would be modest. The only challenge would be maintaining the motivation, since you have less pressure to learn Chinese.

Going Forward with Chinese

At the end of my stay in China, I was left with an impression that I really didn’t have enough time there. Not because my level was inadequate, but because the vastness of Chinese language and culture really deserves years of study, not a few short months.

Switching from a high-intensity period of study to a low-intensity, habitual, type of studying can be tricky. Now, my goal is to set up regular interaction with Chinese. Even if I have to return to real life and can’t devote myself full-time to learning Chinese, I feel I’ve established enough of a base that continuing progress can be done largely through real interactions with Chinese people and Chinese media, making it more enjoyable to keep learning.

A big thanks to Scott for this guest article! He is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you join his newsletter, he’ll send you a free copy of his ebook detailing the general strategy he uses to learn more efficiently. This includes language learning, but certainly isn’t limited to it!

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf
Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.


5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner

Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

I’ve been responsible for teaching the introduction part of the Chinese course at Linköping university for several years now and one of the most frequent questions asked by absolute beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them. If you need to learn X number of characters by tomorrow, how do you do it?

Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarise my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!

From drawing to writing

Before I go through the advice I have to offer one by one, I want to say a few words of encouragement. Learning Chinese characters is really hard in the beginning, simply because you have nothing to link the new information to.

After a while, your web of Chinese knowledge will expand and adding further to it will become easier and easier. Thus, if you feel that it’s difficult and frustrating at the moment, don’t worry, it will become easier soon. It might feel like you’re drawing pictures, but as your understanding of Chinese characters increases, you will be writing soon enough.

Learning Chinese characters as a beginner

Here are eight crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters, gained both through learning to write Chinese myself and through teaching beginners:

  • Study the character closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, study the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? If your textbook or teacher didn’t provide you with information about stroke order,  you can check this website. If you haven’t installed Chinese input on your computer yet, you can write the character here, but it will be hard if you have no idea about how to write it.
  • Write it until you get the feel for the character – Once you know(in theory) how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This is just to familiarise yourself with the hand motions involved and will help  improve your handwriting in general. This is very good for beginners, but not strictly speaking necessary for intermediate students. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
  • Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke – Whenever you write characters, don’t copy them stroke by stroke. If you can remember the whole character at once, that’s very good, but if you can’t, break it down into its component parts and peek at the stroke order only between writing each component. Copying stroke by stroke is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. Also, write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimetres). You can generate your own practice sheets with Hanzi Grids.
  • Once you know the character, don’t mass your repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over. There are programs called spaced repetition software that help you space the reviews optimally and you can read more about them here. You don’t need to use a computer program, though, simply avoiding massing your repetitions is a good first step.
  • Practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time – If you’re writing characters, you might as well throw pronunciation and meaning in there as well. Write the pronunciation and meaning of the character next to it. If you’re sure how it’s supposed to be read, say it aloud. Otherwise, mimic the pronunciation here. Do not guess the pronunciation based on the letters used to spell it. Pinyin has several traps and pitfalls you need to be aware of as a beginner!
  • If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up – It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. You can use HanziCraft to break down characters for you. If you don’t know which components are important to learn, you can check this article: Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals. A general rule of thumb is that if you see a component three times in different contexts, you should probably learn what it means.
  • Diversify your character learning – You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters. Read more here: Diversified learning is smart learning.
  • Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here.

Further advice

The above advice should get you pretty far. If you want more resources for looking up characters (or anything else related to Chinese), I suggest that you read my article about suggested dictionaries (most of them online and free). However, don’t obsess about details and don’t try to look everything up. You will enter into a maze with no exit except the one you came in through. Realise that perfectionism can be an obstacle to progress.

Learning to write and read in Chinese takes quite a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will make the journey a bit easier. Good luck!

Phonetic components, part 2: Hacking Chinese characters

Last week, we looked at how understanding phonetic components can help us learn to read and write Chinese characters. That’s usually something learners pick up more or less automatically, provided that the phonetic component is also a common character in itself. It’s kind of hard not to notice that most characters containing 青 are pronounced qing, albeit with different tones. This week, we’re going to look at some less obvious applications of phonetic components and how they can help us solve a truly tricky problem.

lianggenSome Chinese characters are confusingly similar

In the beginning, you can easily create mnemonics for each individual character and since you have so few visually similar characters, it’s not that hard to keep them separate. As the number of character increases, though, you will soon run into a very tricky problem: series of characters that look almost the same and only differs in one or two strokes.

If you try to learn these simply by writing them a lot, you will probably fail, or at least waste  a lot of time. Instead of doing that, there is a trick you can use to solve many of these problems. Often, the reason you keep confusing characters  is because it’s hard to remember meaningless things (the absence of a dot, the addition of a stroke). It’s much easier to remember pronunciation and/or concrete objects.

Confusing characters can be easily hacked by paying attention to the phonetic component

Naturally, not all confusing characters can be solved this way, but I’m going to show you some that are very easy to deal with so that you can keep your eyes peeled for these in the future. In short, the characters are really easy to confuse, but you can deduce which one is which based only on the phonetic component.

Let me give you a basic example first (adapted from this article). 良 (liang) and 艮 (gen) – When you write characters with these two components, it’s extremely hard to remember if there should be a dot or not. Considering that I know at least 25 characters with these components, it can become very confusing indeed. Until you notice that all characters containing 良 (with the dot) end with -iang and all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -in or -en. Like this:

With dot (view all here): 娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉
Without dot (view all here): 艰, 限, 垦, 很, 恨, 狠, 退, 垠, 哏, 恳, 根, 痕, 眼, 银, 裉, 跟

This means that you can know if there should be a dot or not simply by knowing the pronunciation of the character! You never need to worry about remembering this, you just need to know the pronunciation of the phonetic components. Conversely, you can sometimes guess the pronunciation of a new character if you know the phonetic component. Any character containing 良 (liang) are likely to be pronounced either liang or niang, and characters with 艮 (gen) tend to be pronounced hen or gen.

More examples (please add your own in the comments)

To show you how powerful this is, here are a few more examples of characters that might be trolling you. Some of these are not relevant for simplified characters, but rather than caring too much about that, focus more on the principles. Even though simplified characters sometimes avoid the problem, more and trickier problems are created by merging character components. That’s beyond the scope of this article, though.

延 (yan) and 廷 (ting)

Characters based on 延 (yan) are always pronounced -an…

  • 诞 dàn
  • 蜒 yán
  • 涎 xián
  • 筵 yán
  • 埏 yán shān
  • 綖 yán
  • 蜑 dàn
  • 莚 yán
  • 駳 dàn
  • 鋋 yán
  • 硟 chàn

…and those with 廷 (ting) are pronounced ting:

  • 庭 tíng
  • 艇 tǐng
  • 挺 tǐng
  • 霆 tíng
  • 蜓 tíng
  • 铤 tǐng
  • 梃 tǐng
  • 閮 tíng
  • 莛 tíng
  • 綎 tīng
  • 鼮 tíng

易 (yi) and 昜 (yang)

Characters based on 易 (yi) are always pronounced -i…

  • 锡 xí
  • 赐 cì
  • 踢 tī
  • 惕 tì
  • 剔 tī
  • 蜴 yì
  • 裼 xí
  • 埸 yì
  • 逷 tì

…and those with 昜 (yang) end with -ang:

  • 諹 yáng
  • 逿 dàng táng
  • 輰 yáng
  • 颺 yáng
  • 鍚 yáng

令 (ling) and 今 (jin)

Characters based on 令 (ling) all start with l-:

  • 领 lǐng
  • 冷 lěng
  • 零 líng
  • 龄 líng
  • 怜 lián
  • 邻 lín
  • 玲 líng
  • 铃 líng
  • 岭 lǐng
  • 伶 lín
  • 拎 līng
  • 翎 líng
  • 聆 líng
  • 羚 líng

…and those with 今 (jin) don’t start with l-:

  • 念 niàn
  • 含 hán
  • 琴 qín
  • 贪 tān
  • 吟 yín
  • 岑 cén
  • 矜 jīn
  • 黔 qián
  • 芩 qín

I think this is enough to show you what I mean. If you have more examples of your own, please leave a comment! And if you want to check out more like this, I suggest you head over to the list of phonetic sets at HanziCraft. I also recommend using Zhongwen.com. Of course, not all sets are easy to confuse, but I hope that this article and the previous one will make you pay more attention to the phonetic components of Chinese characters.

Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters

When introducing characters for the first time, most teachers explain that there are six different kinds of ways that characters are composed in Chinese (六书/六書 in Chinese, read more here if you don’t know what I’m talking about). The first category brought up is usually pictographs, which are (or at least were) pictures of objects in the real world.

Sometimes, teachers spend a lot of time explaining how these work, showing how a picture of the sun turned into 日, how the moon turned into 月 and a tree into 木. Then, to show that Chinese characters aren’t that scary, some teachers demonstrate that character can be combined to form new characters, so that if 木 means tree, 林 means forest and 森 means luxuriant growth.

yangRegardless of what the teacher does next, this is what sticks in students minds. There might be other explanations of the other ways of character formation, but since they are less direct and requires you to already understand a bit about characters before you fully understand what it’s all about, they are either glossed over or not remembered by the students.

This is serious, because while pictographs are pretty and easy to explain, they only make up around 5% of all characters. Phonetic-semantic components, on the other hand, make up almost 80% of all characters. Funny that most material online and in textbooks tend to focus on the former and not the latter. Indeed, most textbooks I’ve seen don’t do more than give a few lines defining what phonetic-semantic compounds are.

A typical phonetic-semantic compound is shown in the picture to the right. It consists of one semantic part that relates to the meaning of the character (white, water in this case) and one phonetic part that indicates the pronunciation of the characters (red, sheep in this case).

A huge majority of characters belong to one category: phonetic-semantic compounds

After the introduction course, teachers will assume that the students already learnt about phonetic-semantic compounds the first week, so no-one will really make up for it later. This means that there are myriads of intermediate and even advanced learners who haven’t actually understood why phonetic components are crucial.

This article is the first of two about phonetic components of Chinese characters. Apart from introducing phonetic components, this article will show you how knowing about them can help you tremendously with your character learning and your ability to read out loud (and even guess the pronunciation of characters even if you’ve never seen them). This is something native speakers do all the time and most second language learners pick up sooner or later. I’d like to make it sooner rather than later for you.

The second article deals with something much less widely discussed: How you use phonetic components to hack Chinese characters. This is a variant of horizontal character learning, where you focus on a common phonetic component in order to distinguish between visually similar characters that would otherwise be very hard to learn and would keep on trolling you for years. This is avoidable if you understand phonetic components.

What does a phonetic-semantic character look like

In order to understand these characters, it helps being aware of how they were created. Spoken language of course predates written language, so when people in ancient China started to write, they already had a developed spoken language they wanted to express using characters. The most obvious pictographs probably weren’t that hard since they are just slightly stylised versions of real-world objects, but it should be obvious for everyone that you can’t have a picture of every single word you want to say. How do you draw an ocean? What about love? Yesterday? An hour?

Of course, these concepts already existed in the spoken language, so what people started doing was combining one character that represented meaning (the semantic component) and one that represented the sound in the spoken language (the phonetic component). Thus, such a character consists of two completely different parts that have no relationship to each other, but which still make up a new character.

To show what I mean, let’s look at an examples. 洋 (ocean) – this character consists of water 氵 and sheep 羊. Now, it should be obvious that this is not simply a combination of two related characters to form a third related character (such as 木, 林 and 森). Instead, the semantic component 氵 tells us that the character is related to water and 羊 tells us that the character is pronounced the same way as sheep is, i.e. yáng.

The power of phonetic components

As mentioned above, this kind of construction makes up around 80% of all characters in Chinese. That’s a considerable majority and if you want to learn many characters, you need to understand how they work. Most importantly, knowing about phonetic-semantic compounds gives you clues about the pronunciation of characters. Thus, it’s not true that written and spoken Chinese are completely separate, because in most cases, there is a phonetic component to the character. Still, it might have mutated, sometimes beyond recognition, through the ages, but most are still clearly discernible.

Here are some examples of phonetic components and characters they appear in, along with their pronunciations in Mandarin, as well as their meanings (which are usually unrelated to the pronunciation, of course). I have only included common sample characters, there are many more, of course.

Phonetic component: 羊, yáng (sheep)

  • 洋, yáng (ocean)
  • 樣, yàng (manner, appearance)
  • 養, yǎng (to support, to raise)
  • 氧, yǎng (oxygen)

Phonetic component: 青, qīng (green/blue)

  • 請, qǐng (please, to ask)
  • 清, qīng (clear)
  • 情, qíng (emotion)
  • 晴, qíng (clear, fine)

As you can see, sometimes the pronunciation isn’t identical. For instance, the characters might have different tones (氧/洋, yǎng/yáng), initial (湯/傷, tāng/shāng) or final (踉/浪, liàng/làng) or any combination of these, but these are still incredibly valuable clues. Some phonetic components are extremely regular. Have a look at these characters: 碟, 諜, 喋, 牒, 堞, 蝶, 蹀, 鰈. They are all pronounced dié!

Towards a better understanding of Chinese characters

This is just the beginning. When you understand what phonetic components are, you will see them all over the place. Chinese characters look very confusing at first, but phonetic components make up the most important piece in the puzzle. Read the second article about how to hack Chinese characters with our newly-acquired knowledge of phonetic components!

Update: Regarding phonetic components, I just thought of another pair: 唐 and 庸. This is actually a perfect case, since all common characters with 唐 are pronounced exactly like 唐 (táng): 糖塘搪瑭醣溏螗磄, and all common characters with 庸 are pronounced like 庸 (yōng): 慵镛墉鳙鄘. So, in essence, you just need to create one mnemonic for 唐 and one for 庸 and you’ll never confuse these characters again! I don’t know if this particular pair has cause you any problems, but since this seems to be a perfect case, I thought I’d share it with you.

Learning how to learn Chinese through self-experimentation

Language research is notoriously difficult to perform properly simply because variables in a real classroom are hard to keep constant. Let’s say that we want to examine the effectiveness of a new learning strategy. In order to be able to say anything with certainty, we need a fairly large sample and we need to find a way of testing the new strategy that isn’t biased in any direction.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ninci
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ninci

One problem is that in order for random factors to balance each other out, we need large, random samples. If the study becomes too large to conduct by one single teacher, suddenly different teachers are involved, too. This quickly escalates into the realm of meaninglessness. The problem is that the variation between countries, schools, teachers and individual students is bound to be large, perhaps large enough to render the results meaningless for any given individual.

If we could prove that the learning strategy was 5% more efficient than another, that doesn’t really help you, does it? Other factors will influence you more than the actual strategy you use. For instance, if you like the method or not might make much more of a difference than the effectiveness of the method itself.

Self-experimentation and n=1

How can an experiment with only one participant (n=1) be of any value? Most scientific journals will (rightfully) say “no”, because they don’t really care about you as an individual. But you care about your own learning, don’t you? Therefore, self experimentation can be of tremendous help if that single student is yourself.

If you conduct the experiment to learn more about yourself and the way you learn, no-one requires you to follow any rules, but it does make sense to follow the scientific method in general, because otherwise your results won’t be reliable even for the single student.

In case you haven’t done much research recently, here is a crash course in the scientific method:

  1. Ask a question – This can be anything related to how you learn Chinese. For instance, you might want to know if it matters at what time of the day you review words, if it helps retention to read the words aloud or if colouring tones helps you remember them. Since you only have one person to experiment on, you won’t be able to test things you can only do once, so you’re not likely to be able to test things like “which is the best method to prepare for HSK 3″.
  2. Formulate an hypothesis – In essence, this is a guess at what the answer to the question might be. According to what you know, make an educated guess. For instance, my hypothesis is that I review best in the morning and that reading aloud does help increase retention rates. I also think that colouring the tones should be useful.
  3. Predict consequences – If your hypothesis is correct, what kind of observable results should you be able to observe? In some cases this is very obvious. Looking at our examples, we would expect to remember more cards in the morning than at other times during the day. We would also expect higher retention rates for cards read aloud as well as better tone recall when tones are coloured.
  4. Test the hypothesis – This is the experiment itself by far the hardest part to get right, both in practice and in theory. We need to come up with a way of testing the hypothesis that only gives a positive result if the hypothesis is correct. The key here is to keep variables as constant as possible. For instance, we could separate our flashcards into two decks and then review one deck in the morning and the other in the afternoon, but we would have to sort the cards randomly, because otherwise one group of cards might contain easier cards on average, which will lead us to the wrong conclusion. We could also add a tag to half of our flashcards and read all those cards aloud and then check if there was any difference between the two groups. However, we need to make sure that we don’t spend more time reading those cards, because more time spent obviously means higher retention.
  5. Analysis – Based on the testing above, we might be able to prove the hypothesis true or false. Depending on the experiment, we might need to formulate a new hypothesis and keep on experimenting. We might also find that our result is inconclusive, perhaps because we made some mistake or didn’t design the test well enough. The goal with the analysis is to interpret the outcome of the test and determine what to do next.

How to conduct these kinds of experiments in Anki

I’ve had many debates with people who think there are better flashcard software than Anki and one of the reason I maintain Anki is superior is because of it’s flexibility. In Anki (especially in Anki 2), you can manage and edit your flashcards in bulk in almost any way you wish. Split, merge, tag, anything you want.

You want to add a tag to half the cards and add a star after the final character for all those cards (so you know which characters to read aloud)? Easy. Do you want to temporarily split all your cards into two decks, track statistics for these two decks separately and then merge them again when the experiment in done? Sure. In fact, Anki already has statistics for hourly performance.

This is what my graph looks like:


There are some 113063 reviews behind those bars, so whatever differences we can see here are statistically very significant. It seems my hypothesis was wrong (obviously, I knew the answer when I wrote the article, my hypothesis was the one I had before I saw this graph). It seems I remember best when reviewing around lunch. Interesting. Not surprisingly, I have the lowest retention rate late at night.

This case happened to be rather easy because Anki already has a built-in function to check hourly retention rates, but what if you want to check something else, like if reading aloud is helpful or not? As I mentioned above, the best thing you can do is create a new deck with all words you intend to read aloud. As far as I know, you can’t sort randomly (that’s not sorting, technically), but you can sort on an arbitrary value, such as the initial letter of the English or some other factor which should be random for practical purposes, albeit not technically. Then grab half the words and change them to a new deck. Conduct the experiment and see if the groups differ. Of course, you don’t need to do this with all cards if you don’t want to, testing with a few hundred might be enough.

The two other examples I brought up yielded fairly unexpected results, actually. It turned out that both reading words aloud and colouring the tones had an effect, but that it was very small indeed; I expected the effect to be much bigger. However, remember that even though that might be the case for me, we shouldn’t extrapolate that result to you, because you might be different.

This isn’t “real” science (you probably won’t get your results published)

This isn’t” real” science, but that doesn’t mean that scientific thinking isn’t necessary. In fact, this kind of thinking is always good to adopt, even if you’re not conducting any experiments at all.

For instance, I said above that you can’t really experiment on different ways of preparing for the HSK simply because if you succeed, you can’t try again. However, you can still apply the same kind of thinking.

  • What did you try to achieve?
  • What happened?
  • Why did that happen?
  • What can you do to make it work better next time?

The results might not be reliable either, because there are many things going on that are beyond your control. Perhaps you will learn better because you know that you want one method to be better and therefore try a little harder. Perhaps you unconsciously make a hundred other small adjustments. Therefore, I wouldn’t care too much about small differences achieved over a short time with few words. If you have results like my hourly retention rates above, though, that were produced based on over 100,000 reviews, the results are probably not based on other random factors.

More than words

I’ve spent most of this article talking about vocabulary and how to pronounce characters and words, but that just happens to be a convenient example. You can conduct similar experiments in many other areas. Identify the problem, formulate an hypothesis as to how the problem can be solved, try your solution, evaluate. Repeat. Doing this will help you understand both yourself and Chinese. It will bring benefits well beyond the realm of language learning as well.

Further reading

For anyone who is interested in reading more about self-experimentation, I want to recommend Seth Robert’s blog, “Personal Science, Self-Experimentation, Scientific Method”. Apart from reading his articles, you can find many interesting links and suggestions for further reading. I also suggest Scott Young’s blog, which is about much more than self-experimentation and offers clear thinking on many different topics.