Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese vocabulary challenge, March 10th to 31st

Chinese vocabulary challenge

Hacking Chinese Challenges are about building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition. By focusing on one specific area of learning over a limited period of time, you will be able to learn more.

The focus this month is vocabulary, which includes (but isn’t limited to) Chinese characters. Without words, you can’t do anything in a language. It doesn’t matter how good your grammar or pronunciation is if you don’t know the words.

Likewise, lack of vocabulary is the biggest problem for most learners when it comes to listening ability as well. Too many unknown words in authentic input makes it impossible to understand. The same is true for reading, especially for reading speed. Nothing kills your speed more than unfamiliar words.

So, let’s learn vocabulary together!

Chinese vocabulary challenge, March 10th to February 30th

Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the vocabulary 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
  8. Share progress, tips and resources in the comments

Please note:  The challenge starts on March 10th, so even if you can join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then.

Learning vocabulary in Chinese

There’s much to say about vocabulary in Chinese and there are dozens of articles about this on Hacking Chinese already. In this article, I will merely point you in the right direction. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

  • Which words you should learn and where to find them – Perhaps you already know which words to focus on in this challenge and how to find more, but this article discusses this topic in more detail. Learning words is important, but learning the right words is even more so!
  • Zooming in, zooming out and panningThis is a series of three articles (the link goes to the first article) in which I discuss how to connect your web of words. Zooming in means breaking down things into their component parts, zooming out means putting the parts in context and panning means connecting units at the same level, though synonyms, antonyms or similar.
  • My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters – The title says it all, really. This is a summary of the most important advice I have to offer about learning characters. That includes learning them, reviewing them and understanding how they work. This covers words to a certain extent, too.
  • Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks – This article looks at what you should focus on. Should you put the emphasis on small building blocks or larger compounds? The answer is that you need to do both, but how much depends on your goals and what time scale you’re planning on.
  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use itIf you haven’t tried spaced repetition software, you really should. It allows you to learn much more efficiently and is great for remembering most of the words you learn. It doesn’t matter that much what program you use, that’s more about what you’re after and how much you’re willing to pay (including nothing, of course).

Active vs. passive vocabulary

Should you focus on learning to recognise characters and words or should you try to learn how to use them? The research into vocabulary acquisition is fairly clear: you start with simple things (recognition) and then move on to being able to perform more complex tasks (production). Thus, don’t force yourself to use words you’ve never heard or seen before.

However, don’t think that you will learn how to use words just by reading or hearing them either. This does work, but it takes a lot of time. If you want to speed the process up, make a conscious effort to use words you are already familiar with but don’t know how to use. Introvert students can start with writing. Drilling is also a useful tool if you have a tutor, and definitely something even advanced students should do!

Setting a reasonable goal

Knowing what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. How much time do you normally spend on vocabulary? For the duration of the challenge, I think it’s reasonable for part-time students to spend 30 minutes per day, which will mean roughly 10 hours over the entire challenge provided that you have no major events coming up that will take days away. Full-time students can aim for 15-20 hours or even more, depending on your needs.

My challenge

I have been neglecting vocabulary for a while and have a 1000+ queue in Skritter. Apart from that, I’m also lagging behind when it comes to more active vocabulary work. I will work with these in parallel, with the goal of catching up in Skritter and going through a list of words I have collected for active usage practice (this involves creating cloze tests or translation cards in Anki, plus active use in speech and writing). I have many other things to do, though, so I think 30 minutes per day is about what I can manage. I’ll set the goal to 10 hours!

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Preliminary challenge schedule for 2016

To make sure that the challenges cover all major areas, I have created a rough schedule of what challenges will be on for the rest of the year. I might change this somewhat and insert more specific or unusual challenges here and there (if you have any ideas, please let me know). Challenges in italics are preliminary.

  1. January: New Year
  2. February: Listening
  3. March: Vocabulary (this month’s challenge)
  4. April: Reading
  5. May: Writing
  6. June: Benchmarking
  7. July: Translation (to Chinese)
  8. August: Reading
  9. September: Mimicking
  10. October: Speaking
  11. November: Translation (from Chinese)
  12. December: Vocabulary
Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese translations? Check out my Patreon page!

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