Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind

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

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

Improving listening ability in the long run

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

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

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

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

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

Category #1: Hard

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

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

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

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

Category #2: Easy

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

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

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

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

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

Moving audio from “hard” to “easy”

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

Are you listening enough?

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

Is Chinese difficult to learn?

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

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

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

Two kinds of difficulty

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

Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

Varying the slope

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

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

The difficulty of language learning

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

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

Chinese learning tasks with vertical difficulty

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

Chinese learning tasks with horizontal difficulty

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

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

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

Language learning is mostly horizontal

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

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

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

The method matters

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

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

Study quality, comfort zones and the difficulty slope

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

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

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

Vertical and horizontal difficulty

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

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

Launching Hacking Chinese Challenges

challenge-screenToday I’m proud to launch a new section of the website:

Welcome to Hacking Chinese Challenges!

“Build your language skills through daily practice and friendly competition!”

The concept is simple. Each month, there will be a challenge focusing on one particular area of learning Chinese, where you strive to reach your goal and/or beat your friends. The challenges are very straightforward: set a goal, study as much as you can, log your activity and make sure you reach your goal before the end of the month.

To make sure we diversify our studying, I have worked out a schedule and will cycle different types of challenges. You can join all the challenges and get a lot of everything or just join those that happen to be aligned with your current plans, it’s up to you.

If you join all the challenges, I will make sure that the proportions make sense, so even if there will be some special/unique/interesting challenges, most will just be very useful.

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Once you have registered, you can join challenges, set goals and report progress. Please note that this month’s challenge will start on Friday, so even if you can enrol now, you can’t start reporting progress before Friday. I will write more about this month’s challenge on Thursday and will also post some suggested resources early next week.

I have included more specific instructions on how to use Hacking Chinese Challenges below, but let’s look at the schedule first. I will update this as I come up with new challenges or if I decide to include reader suggestions. Leave a comment if you have ideas for challenges!

I have sorted the challenges into three different categories:

Essential: Areas that will recur 3-4 times each year

  • Extensive listening
  • Extensive reading

Important: Areas that will recur 1-2 times each year

  • Speaking and pronunciation
  • Writing and composition
  • Characters and vocabulary

Interesting: Challenges that will occur sporadically

  • Translation
  • Grammar and sentence patterns
  • Culture related
  • Music and lyrics
  • Films, TV series and programs

There will be one challenge each month that will last for roughly three weeks, always starting on a weekday and ending on the last day of the month. Three weeks is enough to stay focused and achieve a lot, but not so long that you tire and get distracted. You also get one week breathing space between each challenge.

Challenge schedule for 2014 (subject to change)

  1. Extensive listening (October 10th to October 31st)
  2. Extensive reading (November 10th to November 30th)
  3. Translation (December 10th to December 31st)

You can enrol in any available challenge in advance (just follow the links above) and it’s also perfectly fine to join late, just adjust your goals, because the end date is the same for everyone! The page “your statistics” will help you keep track of how much time there’s left, how you have performed so far and how that compares with your goal. This is a bigger version of the image above:

challenge-screenEach challenge will be preceded by a post on Hacking Chinese where I introduce the challenge and share some relevant articles and resources (you can always go to Hacking Chinese Resources). Let’s help each other out and share tips, information and resources for each challenge!

Why do we need challenges?

I like challenges a lot and I think it’s an excellent way to stay focused, especially for learners who aren’t taking courses but still want to improve. My hope is that if you commit to these challenges, you’ll get more done.

I have participated in several reading challenges (this project is inspired by Read More or Die) and I typically read more than twice as much when I’m in a challenge compared to when I’m not! I want to use this power not only for reading, but for all areas of language learning. And I want you to join me. I plan to enrol in all challenges myself and I came up with the idea partly because I need this badly myself.

How to use Hacking Chinese Challenges

Most of the functions should be self-explanatory, but here’s how it works for new users:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join either the current or an upcoming challenge
  4. Read the related article for tips, information and resources
  5. Study and learn as much Chinese as you can
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

This is a beta version

This is a beta version. It has been through some testing before this (I ran a listening challenge with volunteers from the e-mail list as well as a short vocabulary challenge with people from Facebook). However, there are likely still occasional quirks and bugs. This is a work in progress and if you have any feedback or comments, please let me know!

Just as for Hacking Chinese Resources, I’m not responsible for the coding on this project. Instead I have relied on the invaluable help of Stefan Wienert, thank you! I have also received a lot of help from Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project.

Get ready

I’m going to tell you more about the October challenge this Thursday, but if you want to start now, you could prepare yourself by enrolling in the challenge and finding as much listening material as you can. I’m going to talk much more about this later, but try to find audio that is at or below your level. See you again on Thursday!

How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!

studytimeA few weeks ago, I posted an article about study time and why it should be counted in hours and not the more commonly used unit: years. I received over 100 answers to the survey and in this article I’m going to share some insights from the gathered data.

In general, the survey confirmed what I suspected, namely that:

  1. Years is a meaningless unit
  2. People overestimate how much they study

This is not a scientific report, but I do want to say a few words about the data. I have only included replies that answered all three questions, i.e. number of years studied, a wild guess and a guided guess. I deleted several responses that fit this category but were obviously not honest, such as guessing 3000 hours study time but arriving at only 30 hours after the guided estimate in the article. That left about 55 samples that I have used for the analysis here. I also excluded myself.

Years is a meaningless unit to count study time

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but number of years is almost no indication of how much someone has studied. The range is incredible! We have several respondents who study seriously and clock around 1000 hours per year, but we also have a large group who study less than 100 hours per year. Thus, someone who has studied for one year can easily have studied more Chinese than someone who’s been doing it for ten years. Clearly, number of years is a very bad indicator of how much we have actually studied.

In total, the 55 respondents have studied Chinese for 290 years (5.3 years on average) and guessed that they had studied Chinese for 82196 hours (1500 hours on average), but reduced this to 58 992 hours in the guided estimate (1100 hours on average).

Here are some other random stats that you might find interesting:

  • Longest time in years: 35
  • Longest time in guessed hours: 10 000
  • Longest time after guided estimate: 4500

Note that all these are different people!

People overestimate how much they study

The second point I want to bring up is much more interesting and also has more consequences for learning and teaching Chinese. In general, respondents overestimated their study time by 40% on average (comparing wild guesses with guided guesses). That’s a lot! To give you an intuitive (but meaningless) year-based example, it would be the difference between saying casually that you have studied for seven years while you have in fact only studied five.

Furthermore, it seems people don’t study that much. Perhaps it’s because all the really serious people who are immersed in studying didn’t have time to read the post and take the survey, but I doubt it. As I said, we have a relatively large group of people who average around 1000 hours per year, but that only averages out to about 3 hours per day (including weekends, holidays and so on).

That’s not very much and very far indeed from full-time studying, which I would consider to be at least twice as much. For brief period of time, I have spent closer to ten hours per day, but I don’t think many people can maintain that for very long. I average about 1700 hours per year so far, which is clearly much more than even the most serious readers. I’ve heard many people simply say that I learn quickly because I have a talent for languages. That might be true, but if I’m learning faster than you do, it’s much more likely because I spend, on average, seven times more hours per year.

Conclusion: You learn Chinese by… studying Chinese

I think the ultimate conclusion is related to the one about where you study Chinese. We know that it’s possible to learn Chinese from home without living in China, but we also know it’s possible to live in China without learning Chinese. Where you live isn’t the point.

The same is tor study time. It doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, when you started learning Chinese. What matters is how much time you’ve spent with the language since then, and, to some extent, what you have done with that time.

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.

How long have you studied Chinese?

freeimages.com/profile/ambrozjo
freeimages.com/profile/ambrozjo

The question of how long I have studied Chinese has followed me almost from day one (which was in 2007). It have been asked this question a lot, I have asked others the same question and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about both the question and the answer.

In this article, I’m going to discuss it from numerous angles and my goal is to start a discussion, so I would very much appreciate any comments, thoughts or questions you might have yourself!

f you don’t have time to read the entire article, please answer the first two questions below, it shouldn’t take too long. If you plan to hear me out, please don’t submit the survey now, wait until you have done the guided estimate below and then submit the results.

Note that I discuss the question of how long time we have spent learning Chinese for a number of purposes, the goal isn’t to be able give an accurate answer to random stranger.

The standard/expected answer and why it’s meaningless

When a random person asks another person how long she has studied Chinese, we can be reasonably assured that the expected answer is a number of years. I don’t know about you, but I feel very uneasy giving such an answer because it’s terribly inaccurate. Let’s look at my study background and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. 2007-2008: Foreign language education in Sweden
  2. 2008-2010: Reasonably serious studying in Taiwan
  3. 2010-2012: Self-studying part time in Sweden
  4. 2014-2014: Master’s degree programme taught in Chinese
  5. Now: Using Chinese quite a bit, but not actually studying

So what should I answer? Seven years? What about the summers when I didn’t study much at all? What about the part-time studying on my own between 2010 and 2012, should that count the same as the incredible intense few months in early 2010 or the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in?

Other people might have complete breaks in their study history: weeks, months or years when they haven’t studied at all. Counting from when you first started learning is obviously a bad idea in this case, but depending on how detailed your counting is, you might end up with very different results.

The smaller the unit, the more accurate the measurement

Answering in years is obviously a bad idea if accuracy is what we’re after, so choosing a smaller unit is a good idea. I think the ideal unit should be hours, which is small enough to give accurate measurements, but not so small that it becomes impossible to estimate.

Of course, if you’re a real stats freak who log every minute of studying, you could go with smaller units, but that should be extremely rare in the real world. In fact, hours are quite hard to estimate as well. Do you know how many hours you have studied Chinese?

This is an interesting exercise and I think you should take a few minutes to think this through and make a rough calculation. You can also enter this as your “wild guess” in the survey above.

Since this question is also important for almost any experimental research into language learning (we want to know how experienced the students are), it’s also a question that appears a lot in research. You have surely answered such questions before, perhaps in connection with official exams.

Guided recall and better estimates

Research generally suggests that humans are very good at remembering events and specific episodes, but bad at weighting them for duration. We remember what we have done and what happened to us, but we typically don’t have a number attached to that indicating how long that episode lasted. This makes it very, very hard to estimate how many hours we have studied Chinese unless we’ve actually kept a record since we started learning.

A guided approach might help here. It takes a bit longer, but the results are far more accurate. Do the following:

  1. Divide your Chinese learning into distinct episodes, perhaps based on semesters and/or where you were studying.
  2. Try to think back at what your life was like for each of these episodes. How often did you go to class? Did you have lots of homework? Did you speak much with Chinese people? Did you read much? If you have any time logs from this period, that would of course be of great help.
  3. Multiply the number of hours for an average week with the duration of the episode you have chosen (hint: one month is roughly 4.3 weeks). If you have significant periods deviating from the norm (such as a summer vacation), these should be counted as separate episodes.
  4. Add the numbers for all the episodes and you should arrive at a number which is still a very rough guess, but it should be much more accurate than than the guesstimate you made above.
  5. Go back to the survey above, fill in your guided estimate number and submit the survey. Thanks!

I’m not going to list my own calculations in detail here (but I do plan to share them later when I start writing a series about my own learning). Adding all the hours from all my episodes (17 in total) gave me roughly twelve thousand hours. This means that I should have mastered Chinese by now, which o course isn’t the case, so there goes the 10,000 hour rule.

If I had studied as intensely as I did for short periods of time (~70 hours/week), it would take three years and a few months to accumulate those hours. That’s about half the time it actually took. If I had studied at the pace I did when I wasn’t in Taiwan and wasn’t actually studying Chinese (around ~15 hours/week), it would have taken almost sixteen years.

Clearly, counting in years means almost nothing.

Does it matter how long you have studied Chinese?

If you answer in years, I would say no, but if you count in hours, I think it’s interesting. Studying for a few hours a week for years without becoming fluent is natural, studying full-time for two years without achieving conversational fluency is a clear indication that something is wrong.

You can’t compare yourself with people who have studied the same number of years as you but have spent twice as much time (and vice versa). You can’t compare yourself with a younger you that spent more time either, for that matter.

Finally, there is another reason I think counting in hours is important. It highlights the fact that you can live in China for two weeks without spending a single hour learning the language. It doesn’t matter when you started doing something or how long you’ve been doing it, what matters is the actual time you spend. Counting in hours helps us understand that it’s the daily studying that counts, not the date we started learning Chinese.

Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Language learning can be divided into two major “directions”: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up learning means that you focus on the parts, then learn to combine these parts to access larger units. Top-down is the opposite, where you look at the whole first and then break it down into smaller pieces in order to understand it.

Bottom-up vs. top-down learning

If we adopt the first approach, we learn each component of a character or each part of a sentence before we combine these into larger, meaningful wholes. If we adopt the second approach, we go for the meaning of the sentence or the character first and only try to see how the different parts contribute to this meaning later.

I’m a big fan of top-down learning because it’s very hard to learn things that have no context, so by focusing on the bigger picture first, we create a framework that we can then use to fix new information in our minds.

At some point, though, you need to understand the smaller units as well. You can just learn chunks when you’re a beginner, but in order to really understand grammar, tone changes and learn thousands of characters, you have to start looking at building blocks.

In other words, we need a mix of top-down and bottom-up learning. The question is how to mix the two.

Is it good to learn character components from a list?

What I said above might sound contradictory to what I have published here on Hacking Chinese before, such as a list with the 100 most common radicals, but I think there is no contradiction, it’s all a matter of proportion. Learning the 100 most common radicals is never a bad idea because they are so common that you will see them everywhere.

Also, the amount is limited, I’m not asking you to learn 1000 building blocks before you can do anything useful, I’m asking you to learn 100 simple characters that you have probably already seen numerous times if you’ve made it through a few chapters in a beginner textbook. However,  you should never feel that you have to learn more components to learn characters or more words to read or create sentences in Chinese.

Not seeing the building for all the building blocks

If you’re an ambitious student who want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, there is definitely a real risk of focusing too much on building blocks. The problem with this is that you risk losing site of the real goal: Learning Chinese.

Learning 3000 characters will not make you literate in Chinese. Knowing all character components won’t enable you to read 3000 characters either, for that matter. Sure, knowing that many characters will mean that it’s a lot easier to become literate and knowing components will make it smoother to learn characters, but making a process easier is not the same thing as completing it.

The most important carriers of information in Chinese are words and these typically contain two characters, combined in a way that is seldom obvious. If we return to the house metaphor again, you want to live in a house, not a brick yard. If you want to build a house, you need lots of bricks, but the bricks themselves aren’t the point, they only become useful when you incorporate them into a larger structure.

Advantages with focusing on building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

The most obvious advantage with focusing on building blocks is that it gives you access to meaning later. It means that with some important building blocks, you stand a better chance of being able to make sense of larger units of Chinese without being told what they mean by your textbook or teacher. Learning a bunch of random strokes is very hard, but once they acquire meaning in the shape of character components, it isn’t all that bad.

Furthermore, learning the building blocks helps you understand the way Chinese is structured. The most obvious example of this would be phonetic components. If you have no clue what the parts of a character mean and how they are pronounced, the hidden information about how the character is pronounced would be completely lost on you.

Which building blocks do you need?

It seems obvious from the above reasoning that you should avoid the extremes of either neglecting building blocks at all or breaking everything down to the smallest component. The first means that you’re just copying without understanding, the second means that you’re not really learning anything useful. Something in between works well.

This generates the next question: How do you know which building blocks you should focus on?

Here are two suggestions:

  • The rule of three: Whenever you see a building block you don’t know appear in three different situations (a character component in three different characters, a character in three different words), it’s high time to look it up and study that building block. It’s likely to be quite important and there will surely be many, many other cases where it will come in handy.

  • Trust your teacher: When you have reached an advanced level, you will have a good intuitive grasp of which building blocks are necessary to focus on and which can be safely ignored. The problem is that you don’t have that intuition as a beginner, so one reasonable way of doing it is simply to trust your teacher. In the case of the 100 common radicals list, you can trust me when I say that you need to learn those radicals. If your textbook highlight important components of some kind, you probably need to learn them.

Conclusion

In essence, my way of learning Chinese is mainly top-down, meaning that almost everything I learn is based on an attempt to understand something bigger. The words and characters I learn typically come from a specific context and I have added them because the seem to be important in that context.

Naturally, I also do bottom-up learning, such as focusing on learning individual characters because I think this helps me in the long run, making it easier to learn words or guess the meaning of words I have never seen. However, I’m fully aware that learning individual characters will do little to improve my Chinese in the short run.

Exactly where you choose to place yourself on the spectrum depends on how long-term your learning is. If you want to be able to use what you know quickly, focus less on building blocks and more on larger chunks. If you want to accelerate your learning in the long run, focus more on building blocks and make long-term investments that will pay off eventually.

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!

scottvatandme

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!

The Grand Listening Cycle: Improve your Chinese listening ability

Over the years, I’ve built up a simple but yet powerful cycle of listening activities that provides most of what I need. This series of exercises contains everything from test-like listening comprehension to very active (and demanding) listening for details, as well as long-term retention, vocabulary building and sentence mining.

Enter: The Grand Listening Cycle

Let’s go through the steps quickly to give you the general idea:

  1. radioBenchmarking – Find something interesting to listen to (this is of course highly individual, but exactly what to listen to is beyond the scope of this article). If it’s longer than a few minutes, break it down into several parts (you can do this on the fly). Pretend that you’re taking an exam and listen through the audio material once and note the results. This works as a kind of benchmark. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, but if you understand nothing, you should choose something easier. If possible, choose something that comes with a transcript.
  2. Grinding – Put the audio on your preferred audio device and listen to it as much as you can. Put it in a folder called “new” or similar. I usually don’t stress it and sometimes leave the audio file on my phone for weeks before I do anything else with it, listening to it perhaps a dozen times. Gradually, you will start understanding the recording in detail, even though there will of course be gaps.
  3. Transcribing – Now that you are familiar with the audio. Do your best to produce a transcript. The best way to do this is using Audacity, because you can pause, easily find where you were last time and loop the same section of the audio file over and over (hold shift and then click play). You can also reduce the rate of speech, which is awesome. If you encounter a new word you really don’t know, write Pinyin. Check your transcript against the official version (or ask a native speaker to help you if you don’t have a transcript). Checking a complete transcript for errors is relatively easy for native speakers.
  4. Studying – Go through the transcript you have produced just as if it were a normal textbook. Look up key vocabulary, extract cool sentences and learn useful sentence patterns. Do not try to learn everything you don’t knowUse SRS for anything interesting you find.
  5. Reviewing – Move the audio file to a new folder (“review” or something else that contrasts with “new” above). Depending on your energy level at any particular time, you can now choose to 1) listen to something in the “new” folder (demanding) or something in the “review” folder (much easier). The more  you listen, the better, but since you should have a pretty good grasp of the audio already, you don’t need to listen all that often. When you do, it functions as review of everything you’ve learnt from that clip.

If you’re not really clear about what background, passive and active listening are and why they are all essential, you might want to read these articles, describing each concept in detail:

Applying the grand listening cycle

You can use this cycle for any kind of audio material, including songs, news broadcasts, films, TV shows, lecture recordings, interviews or anything else you can think of. Naturally, you can and should have many cycles going at the same time. A while ago, I focused a lot on news broadcasts, typically only a few minutes long. I usually downloaded around four of them and took them all to the grinding phase at the same time, transcribing them one at a time whenever I felt ready.

Learning to understand spoken Chinese is mostly a matter of practice and I’ve found that having fixed and regular routines helps a lot. You could set a quota for each week or commit to a certain number of minutes of completed material, but you should be aware that this cycle takes a lot of time to complete for any audio above your current comfort level. The reason that it takes time and is demanding is that you’re constantly pushing yourself, the best way to improve quickly!

Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.

So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:

  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 by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.

1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days

I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.

Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.

My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.

Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal

In my case, then:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)

Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.

3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here

There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.

I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!

Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)

4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)

Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.

Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!

6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters

As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.

I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.

I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.

7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

skritterIf we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).

The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed)  will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):


List of participants in the challenge

If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Gerrityong
  3. Maggie
  4. Xiaokaka
  5. Elizabeth Braun
  6. 胡安马林
  7. Xiaomai
  8. Jacob Gill
  9. Brian Emord
  10. Teresa
  11. Rossi
  12. Magnus
  13. Ivan
  14. Jacob Job
  15. 勇氣
  16. Dan Poole
  17. Li
  18. Carmeljune
  19. Hugh Grigg
  20. Frederico Ferro Schuh
  21. Rob Flye
  22. Lucía 学习吧
  23. Oaht
  24. Fandez
  25. Leslie
  26. Kelby Barker
  27. Tai
  28. Nommoc
  29. LorenzoCC
  30. Georges
  31. Daniel
  32. Lagoyidice
  33. Ana H. Zentarski
  34. Joaquin Matek
  35. Kyle Balmer 凯尔
  36. Daniela Rodríguez
  37. Dean James
  38. 陳凱
  39. Luke
  40. Rachel
  41. Nicole
  42. Mariano
  43. Linitachinese
  44. Aaron
  45. Lechuan
  46. Hans
  47. Doug Stetar
  48. Aivlys
  49. 戴睿
  50. Julia
  51. Emily
  52. Matt
  53. Trey
  54. Carla
  55. Nathan Fields
  56. Leigh
  57. Lili
  58. Núria
  59. Kiwi
  60. 杨明晨
  61. 狄小可
  62. Georg
  63. Jeremy
  64. 9thcrane
  65. Jeb Topper
  66. 爱美
  67. Kevin
  68. 戴睿
  69. Jason
  70. Stefan
  71. Bailee
  72. Rebecca
  73. Evelyn
  74. Sammy
  75. Jack
  76. Clare
  77. Audrey
  78. Nancy
  79. Federico
  80. Jason
  81. Pnh
  82. Napo
  83. Nik
  84. Julia
  85. Renee Bovee
  86. Haris
  87. Jacob
  88. Javi
  89. Ann
  90. Kate
  91. Faiz
  92. William
  93. KarynL
  94. Jamison Watson
  95. Martin W 龍馬丁
  96. 爱美
  97. hitesh agrawal
  98. Jocy
  99. Ryan T
  100. Baroni Fabio
  101. Will
  102. Reixue90
  103. Jeremy89
  104. Nikki
  105. Steve L
  106. David Brett
  107. Julia
  108. You?

That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014 (this article)
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish