The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

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

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

LearnchineseCSL @learnchineseCSL

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


Hello HSK_EN @HS201202

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


Liz Carter @withoutdoing

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



All about Chinese @allaboutchinese

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



Learn Mandarin 中文故事 @ZhongWenGuShi

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

LearnChineseWords @VocabChinese

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



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



Chinese Language @learnchinesehl

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



Speak Up Chinese @speakupchinese

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


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

Learning Chinese by playing Mahjong 麻將 (májiàng)

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

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

Playing 麻将/將 (májiàng) to learn Chinese numbers

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

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

The rules of the game

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

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

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

The vocabulary you need to play

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


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


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


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

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

Playing the game with Chinese people

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

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?

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

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

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

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

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

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

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

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

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

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

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

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

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

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

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

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

My best advice on learning Chinese characters

handwritingThis month’s challenge is about learning characters. In fact, my desire to launch Hacking Chinese Challenges came partly from wanting to arrange challenges more smoothly and with more participants without collapsing under the load of manually dealing with everything. Last week, I published an article with a brief summary of the challenge as well as some useful tips for how to improve character learning.

In this article, I’m going to go into more detail. I have already written about many of these topics before, though, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components – This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters – I wrote this article for, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters – This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components – This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner – If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use it – Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter – Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters. Don’t forget that there is an extra week’s free trial and a 6-month discount if you sign up with the coupon code for the challenge (SENSIBLE2015, has to be used on sign-up on the website).
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters – Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication – After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:


This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.

Sensible character challenge, January 11th to 31st

bulbThe first challenge I ran on Hacking Chinese was the sensible character challenge that started more than two years ago (Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese). It became much more popular than I thought with more than 100 participants. Last year, I ran another challenge, this time for 100 days, which also went well.

Since then, I have launched Hacking Chinese Challenges to better handle many participants and challenges in general. After running a few other challenges focused on listening, reading and translation, it’s now time for a character challenge again!

If you have participated before, you know roughly what to expect. If you haven’t, don’t worry, I’ll explain both how the challenge works and what sensible character learning is.

Prizes on offer for this challenge

This is what I have to offer at the moment (it’s likely to increase later):

  1. 5 months of free Skritter, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  2. A two-week trial and a 33%discount for six-month  on Skritter for new users (create an account, select “alternative payment methods” and then enter the coupon code SENSIBLE2015)
  3. Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  4. Books from Tuttle Publishing (this one and this one)

For new Skrtiter users, If you want to offer prizes that are suitable for this challenge or if you know someone who might, please contact me! My definitions of “finish the challenge” is to have reported progress throughout the challenge and posted about it either here, your own blog or social media.

The challenge

Is your vocabulary lagging behind? Can’t you write all those basic characters you really ought to know? Is your limited vocabulary holding you back? I think most of us would answer “yes” to at least one of these questions and that’s why I think character challenges are so useful. The procedure is easy:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the sensible character challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

In previous character challenges, we haves set goals in terms of absolute numbers, such as “learning X new characters”. However, this doesn’t always work out very well, especially for beginner and intermediate students who aren’t familiar enough with vocabulary learning to know what a reasonable goal is. Moreover, vocabulary learning tend to accumulate, so it’s very hard to set reasonable goals.

Therefore, we’re going to measure time in this challenge rather than characters or words. It’s easier to estimate how much time you can or want to spend on an activity such as vocabulary learning. The challenge engine can actually handle other units than time, but we’ll explore than in future challenges!

What is a reasonable goal?

I would say that 20 minutes per day (including weekends, words don’t care about which day of the week it is) is a reasonable goal for people who are not studying full-time. You can find 20 minutes per day just by reviewing and/or learning vocabulary on your phone while commuting, waiting in a queue or in the bathroom, it needn’t influence your other activities too much. If you study full-time, an hour isn’t unreasonable!

I’m going to go for ten hours, which is roughly half an hour per day. My main goal is to battle down my enormous review queue in Skritter. I’ve been to busy to actually study much vocabulary recently, so I have around 2000 reviews due. I probably won’t be able to kill the entire queue in 10 hours (that would mean slightly more than 20 seconds per review, which isn’t enough if we include some editing of definitions, example sentences and so on).

Sensible character learning

So what’s “sensible character learning”? I started using this term a few years ago because I felt that most character learning done by students (native and non-native speakers alike), isn’t very sensible. It often involves horribly inefficient methods that require much more effort than more sensible methods. I’m going to do a recap of sensible character learning and vocabulary acquisition in general next week, so let’s focus on some key points here:

  1. Reviewing and learning are two different processes – When you learn a character or word, try to understand it as much as possible. Learn it in context (use sentences or common collocations). Approach the character or word from different angles. Study carefully. Reviewing is much quicker and should actively probe if you remember the character or word (see below).
  2. Active learning is better than passive learning – Reviewing by just looking at the characters is almost useless, you need to actively ask questions and recall the information before you see the answer. This is why flashcards are so good. You can use fill-in-the gap phrases or sentences, or translation.
  3. Diversified learning is smart learning – Don’t do all your reviewing in one go or in one place, spread it out. Using a smart phone to learn is really important because it moves studying away from your desk, the library or wherever you normally study. Do small bursts of a few minutes when you have time to spare throughout the day.
  4. Spaced repetition is better than massed repetition – Reviewing the same character or word several times in a row is not efficient, it’s better to wait between reviews. Exactly how long to wait can be hard to know, but fortunately, there are lot’s of programs that do this for you (see below).
  5. Rote learning isn’t good, understanding is essential – Rote learning Chinese characters works only for a comparatively small number of characters or if you spend a very long time writing characters (the compulsory education of native speakers). It typically doesn’t work very well for second language learners. Rote learning works well for basic characters in the beginning, but its usefulness dwindles as you learn more characters.
  6. What vocabulary you learn matters a lot – I subscribe to a “the more the merrier” attitude towards learning characters and words, but it matters greatly which character or words you learn. Make sure you learn common and useful words first. Keep an active attitude towards your vocabulary: delete and edit more than you think you should.
  7. Don’t go on tilt – When using spaced repetition software, don’t go on tilt when you encounter words you ought to know but actually don’t. Some words you learn automatically, but others refuse to stick. The worst thing you can do is to try to hammer these words into your head. Ban/mark/suspend these cards and deal with them separately instead! Add context, study the character, create mnemonics.

I will write more about learning characters in a proper overview article next week. For now, just join the challenge!

What program or app should I use to learn characters and words

Even though there are many programs and apps (perhaps too many) out there for learning Chinese characters and words, it doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as it has proper spaced repetition and fulfils your requirements in other areas. I usually suggest three programs, so if you have no idea, see which one of these suits you best:

  • Skritter is the ideal app for learning to write characters. It’s the only app that allows you to write characters on the screen and offers you feedback for each stroke, such as if you put it in the wrong place or write it in the wrong direction. If you register with the code SENSIBLE2015, you’ll get an extra week of free trial and then a six-month discount if you want to continue using it. I should mention that I work for Skrttter, even though I started using it well before that.
  • Pleco is one of the best apps for learning Chinese in general and it also has a flashcard module that integrates well with the dictionary. The basic dictionary is free, but the flashcard module isn’t. If you just want one single app for your Chinese learning, Pleco is your best bet.
  • Anki is much more versatile than any of the above apps and you can do almost anything you want, including cloze test, very advanced card editing, picture/video/audio flashcards and detailed control of how the cards are displayed. It’s somewhat harder to use than the above, but still one of my favourites. Anki only costs money on iOS, it’s completely free elsewhere. Do make sure to get Chinese support (a plug-in).

That’s it for now, I will publish more about character learning next week!

Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are radicals, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s a better way

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

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

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

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

There are three primary functions:

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

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

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

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

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


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

尖: 小
美: 羊
吳: 口
达/達: 辶
莫: 艹


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to write Chinese characters through communication

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

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

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

Communicative handwriting

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

This isn’t communication

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

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

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

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

Use handwriting input on your phone

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

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

Communicating with your future self

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

What is communication anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese

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

Focusing on communication to learn Chinese

Image source:
Image source:

There are many people who advocate a very hands-on approach to language learning, urging us to simply use the language as much as possible and let learning (acquisition) take place along the way. They focus mostly on communication and very little on form.

This approach works, but it’s a lot harder for Chinese than for languages closely related to your native language (check what Scott Young said after his adventure in China after learning French, Spanish and Portuguese, for example). In order to be able to communicate in a language, you need certain basic knowledge, which takes somewhat longer to acquire in Chinese.

It’s all about efficiency

However, the main question I want to discuss in this article isn’t if it works or not, it’s how good the approach is and if there might be better ways of doing it. The reason I don’t really care about if something just works or not is that (almost) anything works if you spend enough time. Let’s look at vocabulary acquisition as an example:

You can learn characters and words without studying at all, but you’re going to forget most of what you learn unless you spend an awful lot of time using the language.

If it takes you ten minutes to learn a word, you’re not using a very good method. If you forget 50% of what you learn, it’s probably not a good method either. Just to give you an example, learning a character or a word might only take a minute or two if that time is spread out over time and spaced properly (the average time for learning an item in Skritter is just below one minute, for instance).

The point is that here on Hacking Chinese, I’m concerned with how well something works, how efficient it is. I’ve written more about this here: Learning efficiently vs. learning quickly. Now, let’s get back to learning Chinese through communication. As we shall see, the problem isn’t really that communication isn’t a good way of learning, it’s that it’s hard to do it enough for it to work properly!

Focusing on communication as a beginner

As a beginner, it’s very hard to spend enough time on communication with the limited amount of language you have learnt already. There are no endless sources of good listening and/or reading material for you (although you can find a lot here). If it’s extremely demanding for you to speak and write Chinese, you won’t be able to spend enough time to learn efficiently. You will burn yourself out or go crazy. This doesn’t really go away until you reach a level where you can understand Chinese written or spoken for a native audience, and speak Chinese for extended periods without tiring too much.

If you focus only on communication, you run the risk of neglecting some aspects of Chinese that are actually very important. Let’s look at tones as an example. You might argue that if tones are really important for communication, you would learn them by practising communication, but as I have argued in another article, this isn’t really the case.

This is because as a beginner, you don’t really need tones to make yourself understood, the listener can probably guess what you want to say anyway because the possible things you can say are very limited based on the context and the fact that you’re obviously a beginner. This does not mean that tones are not important for communication!

The same can be said about many other areas of Chinese, such as writing characters, pronunciation in general and perhaps also grammar and word choice.

A balanced approach

I think communication is the essence of languages and also of language learning. Way too many people, especially in foreign language classrooms around the world, spend too little time actually communicating in the language they’re learning, not too much! I don’t want anyone to interpret this article as a call for less communication in general.

Communication is great for a number of reasons:

  • It’s motivating and fun
  • It helps you find problems
  • It’s practical not just theoretical
  • It’s about skill not just knowledge

I want a lot of communication, but I want it mixed with actual studying. For most people, using some kind of spaced repetition is by far the best way of rapidly building and maintaining vocabulary. For most people, it’s necessary to focus explicitly on tones and pronunciation to get the basics right. For most people, drills help to expand our ways of expressing ourselves in Chinese, even at an advanced level.

Communicate as much as possible

The fact that it’s hard to communicate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t, you’ll never learn Chinese. Many schools have no-English policies and this is a good thing if not taken to extremes. Yes, it’s easier to switch to English if you can’t think of how to say something in Chinese, but if you do that every time you run into a problem, you will never learn how to express yourself in Chinese. It is hard. It will become easier with practice. I will discuss no-English rules more in an upcoming article.

Focusing on communication as an advanced learner

Most people I’ve spoken with seem to agree that once you reach an advanced level, focusing mainly on communication is the smoothest and most common method both of maintaining and expanding your ability. I mostly agree with this.

For instance, I don’t study English grammar or vocabulary much and haven’t done so for almost ten years. Sure, I have used a lot of English and I listen and read English for many hours each day, but I don’t study the language as such, I just use it. The same is true for Chinese. I speak and listen a lot, read and write some, but I don’t really study Chinese that much nowadays.

However, there are areas where I think most learners should study more Chinese, mostly in relation to the areas I have already mentioned above. For instance, even though you might pick up a few new words here and there by using Chinese, you probably won’t remember all of them and some of them might be rare enough that you have forgotten them next time you see or hear them. This is where spaced repetition software comes in.

When it comes to speaking ability, I can express anything I want in Chinese with relative ease and in a language that is mostly correct and idiomatic, but my passive vocabulary and knowledge of grammar is much broader than my active skill. If I want to learn to express myself in a more varied and nuanced way or learn to use expressions I find easy to understand but don’t use myself, I would need to study.

The same is true for pronunciation. My pronunciation is good enough to almost never cause any problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. If I want to improve my pronunciation from this point, I need focused practice to improve. This is the only way to avoid fossilisation.

If I focused only on communicating in Chinese, it’s likely that I would improve slowly over the years and that my Chinese would be better ten years from now, but I know that if I really want to improve, I need to stop just using Chinese and focus on the aspects I have mentioned here. I already do so to some extent, but I really should be doing more.


Communication is the essence of language and it’s also the goal of language learning, but as I have argued in this article, focusing only on communication isn’t the best approach. I think we should use the language as much as possible, but I also think we need to study hard to overcome our weaknesses and learn more efficiently, regardless if we are beginners or advanced learners.

About cheating, spaced repetition and learning Chinese

cheatingCheating is an interesting phenomenon, especially when it concerns motivated students who cheat even though this can only have negative effects on their long-term learning. In the case of language learning, cheating is (almost) always bad for you.  It’s not only morally questionable on exams, it’s stupid as well.

Of course, if we’re talking about a language in school people take only to receive a grade, it’s understandable that some will consider cheating, because they aren’t really interested in learning. This is not what I want to talk about today. My guess is that most readers of Hacking Chinese are learning Chinese for more than just a grade (if you do care a lot about your grades you should read this: Studying Chinese when your grades matter).

…and still we cheat

I can honestly say that I have never cheated on an exam in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in different classrooms, but I do cheat sometimes in an environment where it appears odd to cheat because there’s nothing to gain from doing so. My guess is that if I sometimes take shortcuts, the likelihood is that there are lots of other learners who cheat too. This is what I want to talk about.

Spaced repetition software and cheating

The cheating is related to spaced repetition software or any kind of program that checks your knowledge of Chinese through some kind of self-grading. In general, asking yourself (or having the program ask) you is a very good way of retaining knowledge. However, even if you get it wrong, all programs I know of allow you to go back and change the answer (and rightly so, you don’t want to reset the interval of a card just because you accidentally hit the wrong button). In some cases, you’re meant to just think or say the answer and then compare that with the correct answer.

I don’t do this very often, but sometimes I catch myself choosing a higher grade than I actually deserve. This isn’t a mistake or sloppy thinking, I think it’s more akin to actual cheating, albeit not in the sense of violating the rules of an institution. I didn’t know that character, but I think I ought to and once I see the answer, I knew that I should have chosen answer A even though I actually chose B. If the answer isn’t written down, it’s tempting to just think that I actually meant to choose alternative A from the very start…

We are only cheating ourselves

From a rational standpoint, however, this is completely ridiculous. The only reason we use spaced repetition software is because we want to learn Chinese, and pretending to know words better than we do is not going to take us closer to that goal. In fact, cheating increases the risks that we forget words and it will thus impede learning.

The weird things is that there’s nothing to gain from cheating in this case, no-one sees your retention rate or your score for your reviews today. Even if someone did, they most likely wouldn’t care at all. You don’t earn a degree or a good grade.

Why do we cheat?

So, why is it so tempting to cheat, then? I don’t know, really, but I have two theories; perhaps you can come up with better explanations than I. If so, leave a comment!

Before I do that, I just want to say that when I say cheating here, I don’t mean the deliberate kind of cheating that some students use to get better grades than they deserve, I mean an almost subconscious process that biases your self-grading in a positive direction, even though if you stopped and thought about it, you would know that it was wrong. Let’s get to my theories about why it’s tempting to cheat even if we will lose in the long run.

First, it is painful to admit defeat. Forgetting a character or word that we really ought to know means that we have failed and that’s bad for normal people (but it really shouldn’t be). If we’re trying out a certain learning method that we really want to work, failing might also mean that the method is less effective than we thought. In this situation, it’s tempting to just change the answer.

It's tempting to cheat in this situation!
It’s tempting to cheat in this situation!

Second, humans are lazy, which is another word for focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring long-term goals and commitments. In this case, if we have a backlog of reviews or a certain number we have to go through before we can do something else, it’s tempting to cheat because it means that the session will end sooner. Of course, this might mean that the next session will be longer or that we slow down our learning in general, but this is a long-term effect that we’re not well-equipped to deal with, at least not intuitively.

No cheating!

I said above that I catch myself cheating now and then, but what actually matters is what happens then. Nowadays, when I find myself doing this (which isn’t very often), I just go back and judge myself harshly, sometimes even more harshly than I should.

When doing this, I think to myself that this is for my own good, I will learn more Chinese in the long run by admitting that I didn’t know this word or by realising that I might need to review this again, even though I have 500 cards in the queue and I want it over and done with. Another mantra I have is that it’s much better to realise that I don’t know this word now compared with a situation where I actually need it, such as when teaching or using Chinese in an important context.

This is actually very similar to my requirement for last year’s character challenge, where participants were supposed to ban or suspend any character or word that they had forgotten so that they could deal with it later. This was presented as a method to avoid rote learning and going on tilt, but it could also be a shield against cheating. By establishing a proper system for dealing with failure, we can take the next step and realise that mistakes aren’t all that scary, they are a natural part of the learning process.


Do you find yourself cheating sometimes? Do you agree with the arguments I have presented? I could of course be completely wrong and be the only one who behaves like this, but I really don’t think so. My guess is that most people will spontaneously think that they cheat less than they do. So my suggestion is this: Pay attention to your behaviour when you use spaced repetition software over the next few days and report here. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say!