How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

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What languages do you speak? Do you speak Chinese? These questions are common and they both involve the word “speak”, even though they typically imply listening ability as well. We normally don’t ask about someone’s listening ability in specific languages, probably because it’s assumed that someone who can speak a language well can also understand it to a similar degree.

Assessing passive and active skills

I think this is true, but only up to a point. There are certain cases where people spend too much time on speaking and as a result neglect listening. The reason is probably that speaking ability is more highly valued and more obvious than listening ability, and it’s also easier to measure intuitively.

To assess someone’s listening ability, you almost need to design a structured test or at least be very active and ask control questions to verify that the listener understands what you’re saying and isn’t just pretending.

Speaking ability is hard to assess as well, but we can form an intuitive opinion about someone’s speaking ability very quickly, perhaps after just a few minutes conversation. However, as we shall see, it’s a lot easier to speak than it is to listen, because when you listen, you can’t control the language content to the same extent as when you speak.

Listening is hard

There are many reasons why listening is harder than speaking, but I’m going to focus on two major points here, one which is specific for Chinese and one which isn’t.

First, Chinese has a very small sound inventory (around 1000 common syllables) and the large number of homophones or near-homophones (words that sound the same or almost the same) in spoken Chinese makes it quite hard to understand. If you haven’t completely mastered tones, the number of perceived homophones sky-rockets.

Second, as I mentioned above, if you’re the one speaking, you can control the conversation, staying clear of areas you don’t know and steering the conversation towards areas you know. With just a few hundred words and some set phrases, you could probably have a conversation with someone and make it appear like it’s two-way communication, but in fact you don’t understand much of what the other person is saying except for the occasional keyword that you trigger on, use a few set phrases to express your opinion, improvise something using the words you know and then ask the other person a question in return.

This will work fine and you’re very unlikely to be found out except if someone is actively and competently probing your speaking ability. This mean that a video about how well you speak a language is pretty pointless, so if Scott Young just sent me a video of his proficiency in Chinese after 100 days, it wouldn’t have interested me much. However, after meeting him in person and talking with him in Chinese, as well as knowing that he also passed a formal exam (HSK4), I was quite impressed. A short video can give you a glimpse of what someone has achieved, but never more than that.

Listening ability is much more important than speaking ability

The problem with all this isn’t that I think a lot of people actively try to fake speaking ability or present themselves as being more proficient than they are, it is that it’s possible and you might even be doing it without realising that that’s the case. After all, impressing a teacher will give you a higher grade. This focus on speaking might make you skimp on your listening practise.

Don’t do it.

Speaking ability is important, but listening ability is essential. Speaking ability is mostly about using things you have already learnt, combining them together to communicate with others. This of course requires skill and practising speaking will help you do this more quickly and with less effort.

The problem is that you don’t learn many new things by speaking, you learn new things through listening, reading and/or studying. Of course, a conversation consists of both speaking and listening, but I’m convinced the listening part is actually much more important. Hearing mostly your own voice doesn’t teach you much.

Improving your listening ability accelerates your learning

The reason listening ability is so important is that it accelerates your learning in a way that improving your speaking ability does not. The more you understand of what’s said to you or what people say around you, the more you learn. This is very similar to the argument I’ve made earlier about knowing many words, which is indeed an important ingredient in listening ability.

Apart from this, I personally think that understanding what’s going on is more important for social integration than being able to express yourself. If you’re in a group of native speakers, it’s very hard to fit in or have fun if you don’t understand what people are saying; it doesn’t help much that your speaking ability is good, because what you say will be mostly monologues about topics you’re familiar with.

If your listening ability is very good, on the other hand, you can follow what’s going on and be a part of the group. Sure, your contributions to discussions might be limited in the beginning, but that will change gradually. In the meantime, you will learn a ton of Chinese just by understanding what the others are saying.

Writing and reading

Even though this article is about speaking and listening, most of the concepts here can be applied to writing and reading as well. In general, active abilities like speaking and writing are much more obvious to the listener/reader, whereas passive skills like listening and reading are more indirect. Still, a good reading/listening ability is the foundation of a good writing/speaking ability.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

No. It’s tempting to focus mostly on speaking when learning a foreign language. I know many beginners who spend a lot of time trying to say the words in the textbook, but very limited time trying to understand those words.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking from day one, I definitely think that’s a great idea, especially not if you have an immediate need of being able to speak with people where you live, but you shouldn’t allow that to overshadow your listening practice too much.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only knowledge which you can express counts. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, investing a lot of time in listening ability will give you better returns in the long run.

More about listening ability on Hacking Chinese

Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice

How to find out how good your Chinese pronunciation really is

Something that have made me very frustrated throughout my Chinese language studies is the way my own Chinese ability has been evaluated by teachers and institutions. As a beginner, I felt frustrated because the tests only focused on a very small part of the language. This turned out all right for me because I learnt the rest because I was interested enough, but it wasn’t okay for students who were less independent. I wrote about this problem in this article: The importance of counting what counts. Arriving in Taiwan, I wasn’t happy with the way that the written language seemed to be much more important than the spoken.

praatThe problem hasn’t gone away, however, and even in my current master’s degree program, I feel that teachers have very strange ways of evaluating proficiency. I have also heard numerous students complain about their current language courses.. In some cases, a teacher claims to evaluate skill A, but is in fact evaluating skill B.

Case in point: Evaluating someone’s pronunciation by having them read very difficult characters they might never have seen before. If a student fails this test, you don’t know if it’s because he lacks skill A (pronunciation) or skill B (character recognition). Thus, it’s a very poor method to evaluate a student’s pronunciation. The same goes for reading aloud in Chinese; if the student fails, you have little or no idea what’s wrong, it could be because of problems with reading speed, character recognition, grammar or any number of other problems.

We need to know what the problem is before we can fix it

If we’re going to improve our pronunciation (or anything else for that matter), we need to know what we’re currently doing wrong. If we don’t know that, we might make small improvements just by practising more, but in many cases, you might actually perpetuate bad habits because you aren’t even aware that there are problems.

If we know what the problem is, we can make a concentrated effort to solve it. We can read about the problem, we can have other people help us and so on. Thus, I think it’s essential that Chinese teachers use proper methods to evaluate student pronunciation.

Methods to avoid

Let us look at three methods I have encountered that aren’t very good:

  • Reading tongue twisters might be great fun, but it’s not a good way to assess pronunciation. These phrases are designed to trip up native speakers, which means that apart from containing sounds you might find difficult to pronounce, they are objectively hard to pronounce, meaning that they contain rapid changes between phonetically either very similar or very different sounds. I would never ever make an l/r switch in any language, but if presented with twenty syllables only consisting of these two initials, I might still make a mistake. Does that mean that I need to work on my rs and ls? No!
  • Reading difficult characters seems to be a popular way of evaluating the pronunciation of native speakers. The pronunciation test teachers in Taiwan have to take includes a part with single characters and disyllabic words. These characters are not common (meaning that I have native classmates who can’t read all of them). To be honest, I have no idea what this has to do with pronunciation. This is character recognition plus the ability to remember the sound and tone of those characters, it’s got nothing at all to do with if you can actually pronounce the sounds or not. If pronunciation is the goal, use very easy characters and/or Pinyin.
  • Reading unfamiliar text aloud is very hard, especially in Chinese. Reading aloud involves many skills and actual pronunciation isn’t likely to come very high up the priority list for most second language learners. As frequent readers might remember, I have written an article about this. In short, reading aloud is only a good method to test pronunciation if you’re allowed to preview the text beforehand or if you read texts that are really, really easy.

How to test pronunciation

I’ve spent the majority of this article bashing existing methods, which is a bit unfair if I don’t provide any guidelines for what to do instead. In fact, testing pronunciation is relatively easy, which makes the above methods seem even more quaint. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • For the basics, test only pronunciation (provide Pinyin)
  • Be familiar with the content (preview) or use very easy texts
  • Be familiar with the language structures used
  • Start from single syllables, but move to disyllabic words as soon as possible
  • Learn basic tones before you start meddling with intonation

How to evaluate the results

When you have a recording of your pronunciation, there are at least three ways you can receive feedback. Doing all three is of course the best if you have the time and the resources to do so.

  1. Give it to a native speaker without telling him/her what it’s about: If they can understand what you’re saying, you know that you’ve got basic communication right. This is very easy for long sentences and very hard for single characters, because context makes it easier to guess what you’re saying. Thus, this method is best used for single syllables, disyllabic words or minimal pair bingo.
  2. Give it to a teacher along with a transcript: The goal here isn’t merely to check if the teacher can understand what you’re saying, instead you want the teacher to actively look for mistakes. Of course, these mistakes can still be sorted into different levels (wrong, understandable but not perfect), so ask the teacher to focus on the more serious errors first.
  3. Listen to it yourself and note any problems: While we’re speaking Chinese, it’s very hard to monitor everything at once and a lot of attention is spent on word choice, word order, what the other person is saying and so on. When you listen to a recording of yourself speaking, you will be able to pick out many problems you didn’t notice when speaking. I’ve written more about why and how to do this here: Recording yourself to improve speaking ability.


What I have written about in this article is relevant for both teachers and students alike. As a student, you have to realise that your teacher might not have the time or the ability to help you with your pronunciation and that you need to take responsibility yourself. As a teacher, you should try to be aware at all times what you are actually testing. Finding out what the problem actually is the first step of any sensible plan for improving!

The question you have to ask about your Chinese teacher or course

Some students ask many questions, but fail to ask the really crucial ones. Some students don’t ask at all, but might be considering these questions anyway. In this article, I’m going to talk about the question that you have to ask yourself about your current Chinese program (or one you’re planning of enrolling in) and your Chinese teacher.

This question is fundamental one and many students overlook it, perhaps because they want to dive straight in “and learn some Chinese”. Most teachers will not encourage students to ask this question either, but I will. Here it is:

What will you not learn from this teacher/course?

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Image source:

For obvious reasons, the answer to this question isn’t usually introduced along with the syllabus the first time you attend class, and neither is it posted on the school’s website. Teachers won’t highlight their own weaknesses, schools won’t tell students what they won’t learn from attending their courses. If they do, that’s a very good sign indeed.

Most of the time, however, you need to consider this question yourself. This is about taking responsibility for your own learning. You’re the one who will suffer if anything goes wrong. The basic principle is to take your own long-term goals and compare them to the curriculum of your Chinese course/program. Don’t be fooled by the flowery language, look at the actual requirements. They will most likely not be the same as your goals.

For instance, some teachers will say that speaking is important, but yet only have written exams. This phenomenon isn’t limited to teachers, of course, which is why I’ve written an entire article about it here. It’s frighteningly common among teachers to be unaware of how their choices of examinations and assessments influence how students plan their learning.

Consider the course you’re in or want to enrol in

The factors you need to consider are of course many more than I can easily list here, but one of the most important one for language studies is the size of the class. If you’re after oral proficiency in Chinese and there are twenty students in each class, you can rest assured that speaking and pronunciation won’t be what you see the most of.

In fact, I have attended several classes that were called “conversational Chinese”, but turned out to be mostly about listening to the teacher and reading dialogues in a book. I would argue that class size is the most important factor when deciding where to go for Chinese classes.

Analyse your teacher’s capabilities and resources

In a perfect world, teachers would be able to teach you everything with ease and they would be provided with sufficient resources to do so. This isn’t the case, though. Native speakers sometimes struggle with explaining the grammar or pronunciation of their own language. Foreigners like me find it hard to teach open conversation classes because we lack sufficient “language feeling” (语感) to be able to say for sure whether a phrase sounds natural or not.

On the other hand, advanced second language learners know much more about the process of learning Chinese as an adult than most native speakers. Each teacher has his or her strengths and weaknesses. You need to figure out what they are and see how they tally with your own goals and ambitions. Naturally, this involves more than the teacher, because even the best teacher might have limited resources (especially time).

Take note of what you won’t learn

You’re unlikely to find someone who can provide you with everything you want in the way you want it. This doesn’t mean that you should quit your course or stop hiring a private tutor, it just means that you should take note of the things you won’t learn and make sure you learn them in some other way.

If you find out that your courses are very heavy on reading and listening, find people to talk with on your spare time. If you can’t understand your teachers corrections for your tones or your teacher don’t have time to correct you, hire someone to do it and practice on your own.

When learning something as complex as a language, we shouldn’t focus on everything at once anyway, so focus on what you think is most beneficial for you at the moment and try to find ways of reinforcing other areas later, perhaps with a different teacher or in a different program.

Hacking Chinese is one answer

The reason I launched Hacking Chinese in the first place is that I found that most teachers don’t tell students about how to learn, either because they don’t know (this is surprisingly common) or because they don’t have time (also a common reason, see the discussion about class size above).

Either way, Hacking Chinese is an attempt to fill this gap. I hope that through reading my articles and applying the principles behind them, you will become more independent and aware of your learning situation. Comparing what you want to achieve with what your courses and teachers will offer you is a good start!

The importance of counting what counts

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

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We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways. In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon. Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher. I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese. Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.