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.

Using Audacity to learn Chinese (speaking and listening)

I have briefly mentioned that I use Audacity quite a lot (Recording yourself to improve speaking ability), but the more I use the software, the more I realise how awesome it actually is. Audacity is your best friend when it comes to recording yourself, mimicking others, manipulating recordings, managing media and recording things you aren’t supposed to record. It’s also free of charge and can be  installed on most operating systems.

In this article, I will introduce several useful functions and show how they can be used to learn (or teach) Chinese. However, this isn’t meant to be a manual of how to use Audacity, so even though I will show you how to do certain things, please refer to the official website for help and support. I’m a language teacher and learner, I learn only what I need to learn about the technical details.

Audacity can be found, read about and downloaded here: Audacity (official page at SourceForge)

The basics

audacityBefore we get into any details, let’s look at what Audacity is. This is from the official about page:

  • Record live audio.
  • Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
  • Edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files.
  • Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
  • Change the speed or pitch of a recording.
  • And more! See the complete list of features.

This is what we will look at in this article:

  1. Recording from any source
  2. Enhancing the recording
  3. Repeating or slowing down the audio
  4. Mimicking and recording
  5. Saving, editing, and exporting

This is a video I recorded of these six steps. It contains only sparse commentary, so read the rest of the article for more details. Obviously, you can do much more than this with Audacity, this is just a small demonstration.

Record from any source, record what you hear

Audacity can be set up to record anything you hear from your computer. This might be different depending on your operating system, but the general idea is to set Audacity’s input to “stereo mixer” or similar. WHen you press “record”, Audacity will register anything on your computer’s line out. Thus, if you find it hard to extract audio from a YouTube clip or from a movie you’re watching, use Audacity!

I use Linux and for me it’s a simple matter of changing the input settings in Audacity. If you use other operating systems, you can start here or simply search for “Audacity record playback” + [your operating system].

Audio recording enhancement

Apart from this, Audacity is your best friend when it comes to editing and manipulating recordings of various kinds. I sometimes record lectures or similar. I typically need two things to handle this kind of recording:

  1. Noise removal and compression
  2. Cutting and editing
  3. Automation

The first part is very complicated and I guess there are people who are actually earning their living from enhancing sound files, but we can do some basic but yet very effective things with Audacity. Noise removel is mostly a matter of trial and error, just use the function in the program and try different levels (the default ones to start with, obviously). Audacity’s compression function allows you to change the intensity of the recorded audio, removing high spikes and distributing the rest of the sound in a neat way.

Cutting and editing is fairly straightforward. Since you can actually see the audio, it’s a lot easier than trying to record from recordings or whatever else people do if they don’t know about Audacity or similar programs.

Automation is fairly complicated and I don’t know even a single percent of what there is to know, but I still want to point out that there is something called “chains” in Audacity that allows you to apply the same functions to any number of files. For instance, if you record twenty lectures in the same environment, you can use the same noise removal and compression settings for all files and you can apply these functions to all the twenty recordings with just one click. You can even make Audacity save the results as new files in the file format of your choice.

Using Audacity to mimic native speakers

Mimicking native speakers is one of the most powerful ways of acquiring good pronunciation in any language. However, it’s not always practical to do so. If we listen to a YouTube clip, the interface simply doesn’t allow us to repeat exactly what we want to repeat and even if we have a sound file, it would take ages to use a normal media player to be able to mimic a few minutes of speech.

In audacity, this is fairly easy:

  1. Import or record audio
  2. Select the part you want to mimic
  3. Click play and only the section you want to play will be heard
  4. If you hold down shift while clicking play, the section will repeat

This is useful because it isn’t very easy to mimic native speakers at their normal rate of speech, not even for advanced learners. Just listening to the same sentence a dozen times before even trying is good start.

The next step would be to record your own voice over the voice of the native speaker. After having practised until you can read a sentence or passage, simply hit record and Audacity will play the audio while recording your voice. You can the mute the original audio and evaluate your own recording. More about this below.

If you’re interested in either mimicking or the 蔣勳 clip seen in the video, I suggest you read Jacob Gill’s article about how he used that very same clip to improve his pronunciation (we did this at the same time, although I didn’t finish the entire clip and didn’t publish anything about the results).

Slow down the rate of speech without changing the pitch

Some media players can slow down the speed of the audio, but while doing so, the pitch also drops. Thus, we all sound like drunkards at half speed and like smurfs on illegal substances on double the speed. Audacity has a function called “change tempo”, which allows you to change the speed without changing the pitch. This allows you to slow down the rate of speech to a level you’re more comfortable with. Obviously, if you slow things down too much, you will get weird results.

Recording yourself

One very good way of improving your pronunciation is to record yourself. This fulfils several purposes at once:

  • You can share the recording for comments and feedback
  • You can listen to the recording yourself (this is actually very useful)
  • You can use it as a benchmark and see your improvements later

These concepts have already been discussed in more detail in other articles, namely Recording yourself to improve speaking ability and Benchmarking progress to stay motivated. However, there is one more aspect of recording yourself I think is worth mentioning:

How do you use audacity?

Do you have any favourite functions? Do you use audacity to learn or teach Chinese in a way that I haven’t mentioned here? Leave a comment!

Measurable progress is a double-edged sword

It seems to me that most people like to feel that they gradually improve and become better at what they’re doing. This is partly why learning is fun in the beginning when every step forward is noticeable, but it’s also why intermediate learners often feel frustrated and complain that it feels that their learning has plateaued.

Actually, they’re still learning, it’s just that the new things they learn don’t make a difference big enough to notice. If a drop of water falls in a dry bucket, you can see the effects. If it falls in a bucket that is half-full, there’s no noticeable difference. Just a drop in the bucket.

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Measurable progress is awesome…

Before we turn to Chinese in particular, I’d like to share with you my personal theory of measurable progress. It started with this question: Why is it that so many people like going to the gym these days? I like body-weight exercises myself (I practice gymnastics) and these can be done for free at home, so why pay money and spend extra time going to the gym?

I realise that the answer to this question is complex and involves many factors, but I think that measurable progress is a key component. In a gym, each movement can be measured very exactly. We repeat more or less the same routines every time and therefore we can see that, yes, I have added so and so many reps or so and so many kilograms since last month. This makes us motivated to keep going, even though we might not feel or see the difference in our everyday lives. The fact that the progress is measurable makes us move forward.

…but it has some serious drawbacks

The gym of language learning is spaced repetition software and other fairly mechanical ways of practising that give us detailed feedback on what we do. Why is it that some people use SRS more than they actually read or listen to Chinese directly? Why is it that some regard SRS as a comprehensive language learning strategy, when in fact it’s just a tool among many?

I think it’s because it offers us proof of progress. We can prove to ourselves that we are learning, we can show others what we have accomplished, even if we ourselves don’t really feel that much of a difference. I have at least learnt 20 new words today. I know 100 more characters than last month.

The problem is that these programs were never meant to supplant reading and listening. They are useful tools that can help us boost vocabulary and reinforce certain other areas, but they are not substitutes for actually using the language, either in written or spoken form.

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Using only spaced repetition software would be like doing a few exercises in the gym and then expect to win a multi-sport event in the Olympics.

Still, most professional athletes use a gym and I think SRS has a lot to offer to language learners of all kinds, so don’t read this article as recommendation to stop using SRS. However, if SRS is your main (or perhaps only) window to the language you’re learning, you’re doing something seriously wrong.

How to measure progress without being trapped in the gym

As I have written in another article, I think than benchmarking is the way out of the dire straits. Benchmarking offers you a way to measure progress while exposing yourself to the language in a healthy way. In case you’re not familiar with benchmarking in the sense that I use the word here, it simply means using various methods to record progress and compare with similar measurements in the future to highlight the fact that you are actually learning something, even if it doesn’t feel like that (or, in case you actually don’t improve, it’s a good way of telling you that you need to change your method).

There are many ways of benchmarking and which one you use depends on what you want to benchmark (see the above article for more specific guidelines). I’d also like to recommend this article about approaches to reading in Chinese, especially the part about benchmarking.

Turn a potential enemy into a powerful ally

Finally, if you feel guilty of exaggerated SRS use, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Perhaps the reason you use SRS so much is that you really care about being able to feel that you’re truly learning something. This need can be turned to your advantage. Measurable progress might be your enemy if you allow yourself to be trapped, but it can also prove to be a powerful ally if you use it wisely.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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Chat your way to better Chinese

Chatting is often frowned upon as being flimsy and a waste of time by people with traditional views on education. This attitude is often carried into the classroom and perhaps also remains in the minds of language learners like you and I. After all, chatting with someone, even if it’s in Chinese, is much less serious than studying a textbook or writing an essay, isn’t it? Chatting leaves no permanent mark, no paper with a grade on it and perhaps not even a lasting impression and therefore it can’t be good for serious language learners, right?

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Wrong! I think chatting is one of the best ways there are to improve in a language, especially at beginner and intermediate levels. I have already written a little bit about this in my article about using social media to learn Chinese, but this article is specifically about chatting.

If we assume chatting in a text-only manner, it still encompasses two of the main skills we need: reading and writing. It also has a strong indirect impact on speaking, because chatting online is pretty much the same as talking, at least when it comes to vocabulary choice. Since most people use phonetic input systems, we also have to remember the pronunciation of what we write. This is not bad for something which is supposed to be flimsy and time-wasting.

11 reasons why chatting is underrated as a learning tool

Chatting has a number of advantages, some which are shared with other activities, but I can think of nothing else that combines all of the following advantages into one activity. Chatting offers or is…

  • Suitable for any language level, because the topic and the complexity of the chat is infinitely variable. I remember chatting with strangers during my first week of Chinese. I didn’t get further than asking who they were, where they came from and how old they were, but that was still thrilling. This is real communication from the start.
  • Extra time to think about what we’re going to say, thus increasing the range of words we can use, which in turn is helpful for transferring words from the passive to the active vocabulary. It’s scarier to use a new word in speech if you’ve never used it successfully before. Using the word when chatting is a good first step.
  • An opportunity to notice new words. In flowing speech, it’s sometimes hard to notice new words, especially if you have to struggle to understand the main ideas. The brain sort of edits them out. Reading these words help you notice them. This is similar to reading comics, which also has lots of spoken language in written form.
  • A relaxed form of practice because most people don’t feel that chatting is a formal practising session. Being able to practise written Chinese without having to come up with a topic, spend hours writing an article about it and having it corrected by someone, is quite good. Not all the time, but occasionally.
  • Manageable in difficulty and duration. It’s possible to postpone essay writing for days, simply because it’s a quite serious endeavour, but chatting for a few minutes is much easier. It won’t teach you to write essays, but it’s still good reading and writing practice.
  • Reading Chinese in bite-sized chunks. Reading in Chinese can be intimidating for beginners, but reading what the other person is typing is much more manageable, both in difficulty and length. Also, most native speakers automatically adapt their level to your understanding, making it gradually harder as you improve.
  • The option of using dictionaries without interrupting the flow of the conversation too much, mostly because the flow is slower and isn’t interrupted as easily. If we get lost, we can just reread the previous lines. This might make us able to talk about more advanced topics.
  • A written record of our conversation. Sure, you can record audio as well, but it’s much harder to handle and awkward in some situations. Chatting sessions are excellent for benchmarking purposes, you just need to activate the logging function. If you’ve used the same program or website, compare your logs!
  • A chance to spot errors, especially in the links between written and spoken Chinese. When people speak, you can’t be sure which characters they would have used to represent that word or sound, but when chatting, this becomes obvious. Sometimes the opposite problem occurs, i.e. that we’re unsure of how a character actually sounds!
  • The option of hiding behind our computer screens. Not being face-to-face means that shy people can interact with strangers in a natural manner. Getting to know someone a bit online first might be a good way of preparing for a real meeting.
  • More fun than other forms of practising, mostly because of the above factors. That chatting is fun doesn’t make it less worthwhile! Studying is supposed to be fun, that’s the only way you will spend enough time doing it.

I think the last point is perhaps the most important one. Traditional education has somehow embedded itself in our minds and some people think that fun must somehow be less serious. Studying can be fun at the same time as being very serious indeed.

Writing beyond chatting

Still, we need to understand that any method we use to learn anything is going to be limited. Even though some things overlap between writing essays and chatting, this doesn’t mean that we can ignore the former and put all emphasis on the latter, at least not if we want to be able to write essays. As we have already seen, chatting can help us with many things, but it’s not magic. The purpose of this article is to show that chatting is more than just a way to kill time and that chatting definitely has a place in the daily routine of the serious language learner.

Approaches to reading in Chinese

This is a guest post about reading in Chinese, written by Sara K. Reading is one of the best ways of picking up new vocabulary once we reached an intermediate or advanced level, but it’s also necessary to read a lot to be able to write Chinese properly. Reading also enables us to understand word usage and brings us closer to the culture behind the language. I’ll now let Sara talk about her approach and experiences of reading in Chinese. Enjoy!

I’ve been studying Chinese for 2-3 years. During that time, I’ve made my share of mistakes and stumbles, and I’ve done a lot of trial and error to discover the most effective studying methods. Here, I present how I read continuous texts in Chinese. such as books, comics, the lease to my apartment, newspaper articles, etc. I will go over the steps that I use, how I modify my steps for different situations, how I benchmark, and other issues. I am not suggesting that my approach is the best or ideal for every learner – rather, my intent is to give fellow learners ideas about how to develop their own approach to reading Chinese.

  1. Read the text, or a portion of the text, once cold. No notes, no looking up things up in reference books, just trying to enjoy it.
  2. Read the text or that portion of the text again. This time I make notes of any vocabulary or anything else that I want to look up in a reference, but I do not actually look at references until I are done reading the text. I like to make the notes right in the text itself so that when I actually open my references later, I can see exactly what the context for that word or phrase is. If one does not want to mark the text itself (perhaps it’s a borrowed copy) one can make the notes on a separate piece of paper.
  3. After the second reading, I look up whatever I marked. Nowadays I turn my notes into cards for Anki without fleshing them out on paper, but in the past I would write out the full explanations on paper.
  4. Now read the text for a third time. When using paper notes, I did this as soon as I have finished looking everything up in references and completing the notes. Using Anki, I wait until I have reviewed the cards for a few cycles before re-reading the text.

The Approach

This full approach was very helpful to me when I was at an intermediate level. At that time, I felt I needed to re-read the texts to help the new language stick in my brain – and I advise all beginner and intermediate learners to re-read texts. Re-reading texts is also helpful for advanced learners. However my time is not unlimited, so usually I think reading fresh text is a better use of my time so I can see words being used in many different contexts. I still use this approach – I just take out steps. For example, I often do the following –

  1. Read the text cold and mark anything I don’t understand or am uncertain about.
  2. Later go through my markings, take note of the context, look things up in references, and turn them into Anki cards.

Notice that in this shortened version I am only reading the full text once (I of course re-read the bits I marked).

One of my basic principles is to never interrupt reading to look things up. I want to get involved in the text, and having to pull out a dictionary every time I see a word I don’t know breaks the flow. Once in a while, if there is a word that is showing up over and over again, is clearly very important, and I have no idea what it means, I might pull out the dictionary in the middle of reading, but that rarely happens.

Which steps?

Of course, I decide which of the above steps to include based on why I am reading a text. Here are the most common situations:

  1. On a Break: Sometimes I want to focus on skills other than reading, or I just want to take a break from difficult texts. So I pick texts which I find enjoyable and relatively easy. I just read the texts once cold, without markings – putting in any more effort would defeat the purpose of taking a break.
  2. Casual: These would also be texts which I am mainly reading for enjoyment, not expanding my Chinese – but if I do not consider myself ‘on break’ I will still mark whatever I don’t know, look up things in references, and make Anki cards out of them. The bulk of my reading practice these days is like this – it has to be enjoyable and not excessively difficult for me to be able to put in the many hours it takes to become truly comfortable reading Chinese.
  3. Pushing my level: This is when I am picking a difficult text so I can increase my Chinese proficiency (though I always pick a text which I am also interested in for its own sake – there are too many interesting things to read in Chinese for me to waste my time on a text I don’t care about). I am far more likely to add steps when the main purpose is to expand my Chinese – and if I feel overwhelmed, I will do the full approach described above.
  4. Specific purpose, example 1: I plan to write an essay about a text in Chinese. I will probably make the markings and Anki cards and re-read the text at least once (after a few rounds of reviews on Anki), even if it’s not challenging.
  5. Specific purpose, example 2: I have a prescription for some medicine, and the English instructions are so badly written that they are unreliable (this really happened to me). Even if I am 95% sure of what the Chinese instructions say, I would probably put in extra effort to be absolutely certain that I understand what my prescription says (such as talking with a fluent Chinese speaker to check my comprehension)

There are many other situations where something other than language acquisition goals might affect the way someone approaches a text.

Benchmarking reading comprehension

I like to benchmark two different things when reading Chinese; reading speed, and vocabulary comprehension (see this article for more about benchmarking language skills).

To benchmark reading speed, I need a set of texts which have equivalent length and difficulty, preferably of a type which I have also read in my native language (English). Thus, when I compare the speed I take to reach each text, I am comparing apples to apples, and I can also compare to my English reading speed. The set of texts I use is a manhwa called Goong (我的野蠻王妃 ). Each volume is of a similar length and has similar language, and a new Chinese-language volume gets published once in a while. I had actually been reading Goong in English before I started studying Chinese, so I know how long it takes to read a volume in English – but this is a personal choice.

Unfortunately, no two texts are completely equivalent, and many factors can interfere with the accuracy of the measurement. Each learner should find their own texts which personally works for them. Aside from comics, other good sources of long series of texts with consistent length and difficulty include: novels (each chapter can be counted as a separate text), series of novels, newspapers, magazines,, and blogs (if it is a very consistent blog). Olle Linge says that he uses the novel The War of the Worlds and reads it 10 pages at a time. If you have any other ideas about good series of texts to use for benchmarking, please comment.

I find it very encouraging when I know that I am encountering fewer and fewer unfamiliar vocabulary, so I benchmark it. Like benchmarking for speed, I need a set of texts with equivalent length and language difficulty. When I took paper notes, it was obvious when the notes were becoming fewer and fewer for each chunk of text. Now that I use Anki instead of paper notes, I use a different tag for every chunk. For example, I read an 8-volume edition of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion (神鵰俠侶 ). I used different tag for each volume. I could have also chosen to make tags for each chapter, or for every 20 pages. By tagging each equivalent chunk of text, I can track whether I have to look up more or fewer things per chunk. For example, according to Anki, theses are the cards I made for each volume of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion:

  • Volume 1: 105 cards
  • Volume 2: 74 cards
  • Volume 3: 80 cards
  • Volume 4: 92 cards
  • Volume 5: 74 cards
  • Volume 6: 60 cards
  • Volume 7: 60 cards
  • Volume 8: 73 cards

Now, notice that sometimes I had to look up more words than for the previous volume. Yet I had to look up 88 words per volume on average for the first half of the novel, but only 72 words per volume on average for the second half of the novel. If you’re wondering why I looked up so few words, it’s because this is the sequel to The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), which I read first. For the just first chapter of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, I had to look up 82 words.

Sometimes there is a major vocabulary spike for a certain chunk. For example, if a story which mostly takes place on land has a scene which takes place at sea, I might have to look up a lot of vocabulary related to seafaring, and which would cause a vocabulary spike. But the overall long-term trend is downward. Measuring and seeing the downward trend is very satisfying.

Dealing with the glossing problem

When I read in my native language (English), particularly when I’m a little tired, I have a lot on my mind, or I am reading for a long period of time, I have a tendency to let things the words enter and exit my mind before I register them. For a long time, this was not an issue in Chinese because a) I did not have the stamina to read Chinese for long periods of time without break b) I read Chinese extremely slowly and c) reading Chinese required a lot of my mental faculties. However, I can now read Chinese for hours non-stop, my reading speed in Chinese has increased greatly (at least for works of fiction), I stumble on far fewer unknown characters/words/idioms, and it requires less of my mental faculties. So, if I’m not careful, I can read 10 pages of Chinese text and have none of it sink in.

In a way, it is a wonderful problem to have – it means that my Chinese reading skills are approaching my English reading skills. However, it is still a problem. What I do is that after each page or so, I try to summarize in my mind what happened. If I can’t make a summary, then I know that I need to be more focused, and I might even make myself re-read the page. This almost always slows me down, which is frustrating, but it’s better to read slower and absorb it than to fly through it. If I get involved in the story, I’ll stop doing the mental summaries because it is no longer necessary.

If you have any other suggestions on how to deal with the glossing problem, please comment.

The most important thing

The most important thing is to find a text that you are really motivated to read.

There is a comic – Evyione: Ocean Fantasy – which I loved when I first read it, but was never continued in English. Then I discovered that it had been translated into Chinese as 人魚戀人 – and that the Chinese-language edition went beyond where the English-language edition stopped. Even though the Chinese was significantly above my level, I was a lot more interested in reading it that whatever I was reading at the time in Chinese. So I dropped my short-term study goals had a kamikaze experience. It was the most challenging experience I ever had reading Chinese. I developed the approach described in this article so that I could handle Evyione (some refinements came later, of course).

And it was so worth it. I went from frequently feeling discouraged when I saw written Chinese to seeing any text in Chinese – no matter how difficult – as something I could handle if I had enough time and put in the effort.

If you cannot find any text for which you have a strong motivation, do some research on Chinese-language literature and pop culture. Particularly pop culture – I am amazed at how ignorant I used to be of Chinese-language pop culture. and I think most Chinese language courses do not do enough to introduce students to the pop culture. There was a time when there seemed to be nothing I really wanted to read in Chinese; now it seems like I’ll never have enough time to read all of the things I want to read in Chinese (many of which are not available in English). Do whatever you need to do to get a Chinese-language text that you are really motivated to read in your hands.

If you want to learn more about Chinese-language pop culture, you could follow my new column, It Came From the Sinosphere, at Manga Bookshelf, where I write about Chinese-langauge pop culture every week. There is also my article on reading comics in Chiense, which will be published here on Hacking Chinese in roughly a week..

Your own approach

I have shaped my approach based on my goals, my learning style, and the texts I am dealing with. These factors are obviously going to be different for every Chinese learner. My purpose in writing this article was to explain my approach to reading Chinese so that other Chinese learners could get ideas of things they could try to integrate into their own approach to reading. For example, I wish somebody gave me the idea of extracting vocabulary to make Anki cards earlier so I would have quit making paper notes sooner.

On the other hand, I think there might be situations where paper notes are more appropriate than Anki (for example, if somebody needs to have a good comprehension of a text within two days and has limited computer access during that period of time), so maybe somebody out there finds the idea useful. So rather than a prescription, I think of this as a series of ideas laid out on a table for anybody to take – some of them are not going to be useful for a particular learner, but there might be a helpful new thought or two.

My own reading approach continues to evolve as my goals, my Chinese proficiency, and the texts I’m working with change – so please comment about how you approach reading Chinese. I would appreciate some helpful new thoughts myself.

About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She currently lives in Taoyuan County, Taiwan, but grew up in San Francisco, California. She writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit.

Recording yourself to improve speaking ability

When we speak Chinese, we need to keep track of many different things, and even if we can hear what we’re saying, most of our energy is still spent on producing correct language rather than monitoring that language. This doesn’t mean its impossible for us to hear our own mistakes, just that we can never hope to hear all the mistakes we make while speaking at the same time. This is good. When speaking, some self-correction is helpful, but an overly critical approach to our own speech is counterproductive and tends to leave us tongue-tied.

Use Audacity to record and compare.

Recording yourself alleviates this problem

If you record yourself, you can listen to what you’ve said afterwards, fully concentrating on your language production, trying to find things to improve. You’ve already said what you wanted to say, now you can focus solely on correcting yourself. This is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s free (you need fewer hours with a tutor)
  • It’s convenient (you can do it at home at any time)
  • It increases understanding (knowing yourself what’s wrong is much more powerful than having someone else point it out to you)
  • It enables comparison (if you have a model to follow, you can compare it with what you have recorded)
  • It’s a benchmark for future reference

It’s only natural that you feel that your voice sounds weird when recorded, because the sound you hear when you speak normally is not only heard from the “outside” and is thus different from what everybody else hears (and that’s what’s recorded, of course). Still, this is something you will get used to very quickly if you just listen to yourself a few times.


If you have free access to tutors, of course that will take you farther than you will ever get on your own. However, even if you have a tutor, record what you’re saying! The benefits of recording yourself doesn’t disappear  just because you have a teacher. Hearing yourself is still important.

What should you record?

You can record anything you like, but here are some suggestions that I find useful myself. Try recording yourself when you…

  • …read a text in Chinese
  • …talk with a friend
  • …talk in class 
  • …hold a speech
  • …talk on the phone

If you’re going to keep this for future reference, I strongly suggest naming the files properly and organising them in such a way that you can later clearly see what you’ve recorded, how and when it was done.

What program should I use?

I recommend Audacity. It’s cross-platform, open source and generally awesome. Audacity has a number of useful functions, including visual representation of the sound recording, smooth editing of sound channels and different sound tracks. If you want to combine, edit or cut sound, this is the program for you. You can also export to mp3 and record information about date, type of recording and so on.

Mimicking native speakers

One of the most powerful ways of learning pronunciation is mimicking native speakers. Find a recording of a suitable piece of text and simply try to mimic it as closely as you can. Then listen to both versions and see what you can improve. Repeat until you think that the recordings are identical (save for differences in voice quality). Then ask your teacher or a native speaker to check the recordings for you and see if there is anything more you can do. Repeat with a different sound file. If you’re a beginner, I suggest using your textbook, but more advanced users can of course use anything you like, but make sure you check the file with a native speaker who’s judgement you trust (a teacher, preferably).


Recording one’s own voice is useful for more reasons than I have room for in this article and I think it should be a natural part of both learning and teaching. As a teacher, I often record students to see if they can hear their own errors. Most often they do when recorded, even if they can’t hear them when they speak at the same time. This has lead me to use recording extensively to learn/teach both Chinese and English. To give you an example, I can hear lots of mistakes in this video I recorded on YouTube (in English), even though I thought it sounded pretty good when I recorded it. If I wanted to improve my English pronunciation, I would record myself much more.

I don’t need a tutor to improve, I can do it on my own if I record and listen, because I can hear the mistakes. So can you. You might not be able to hear all mistakes, but why not try and see? I’m sure you will learn more about yourself and your pronunciation.

Benchmarking progress to stay motivated

When we set out to learn Chinese, everything we learn is new and we can feel that we improve for each day that goes by, for each time we are exposed to the language. We know this because, in relative terms, we’re learning so much. However, as we gradually advance beyond the basic level and enter the intermediate and advanced stages, this feeling is inexorably weakening and finally all but disappears.

This is a problem, because if we don’t feel that the effort we invest pays off what will then prompt and motivate us to continue learning?

Image credit: Pam Roth (

 Even though there might be satisfying answers to that question, in this post I will argue that we needn’t even ask the question in the first place if we pay more attention to our progress. I suggest using benchmarking, not to compare ourselves to other learners, but to compare with ourselves at different stages of learning. It is usually quite easy to know that we have indeed made progress if we compare our  language proficiency now with that of the past.

Define your current level for further reference

The first thing we need to do is record our current level in the areas we are interested in. Measuring language ability is notoriously difficult, but as long as we keep the parameters as constant as possible, that will be good enough for our purposes.

Basically, we will device a way to describe our  own ability as best as we can. Then, in a month or a year, we can compare and see if there is any difference. By doing so, we will see that we improve and we will get solid proof that we are indeed still moving, even though it might sometimes feel that we aren’t. Naturally, we might stop moving if we don’t study, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.

Even though this isn’t a scientific undertaking, a scientific approach is essential. For instance, we need to keep the variables to a minimum and make sure that our own ability is the major deciding factor. This means that if we measure reading speed, we should use a text with the same level of difficulty and belonging to the same genre. When we check our current level, we need to make sure to also note how we performed the benchmarking. If we’re going to do this again in six months, it’s likely that we will forget some important parts which make the comparison unfair.

As we will see, benchmarking isn’t straightforward in all cases and requires some further illumination and helpful examples. We’ll start out with the easier kinds of benchmarking (reading and listening) and then move on to more tricky areas (writing and speaking).

Benchmarking reading ability
Reading ability should be the easiest area to benchmark, simply because we can do it entirely on our own without using any fancy equipment. Reading can of course be tested in many ways and here are some goals we can strive towards and measure our progress:

  • Reading easy texts for full comprehension
  • Reading harder texts to understand the gist
  • Reading texts belonging to different genres

These goals can also be combined, but since it would be far too time consuming to try all combinations, we should try to find a few that match our  current goals for learning Chinese. Here are some things we should pay attention to:

  • How often we need to use a dictionary
  • How much time we need to complete the text
  • How we feel when reading the text

Benchmarking listening ability
Listening ability is also a passive skill that we can test on our own. Simply find a suitable audio source and see how much you understand now and compare that with a result in the future. listening ability can incorporate a number of different skills, so here are some distinctions to cover a larger portion of listening ability:

  • Listen to informal vs. formal Chinese
  • Listen once vs. listening many times
  • Listen to a standard dialect vs. regional dialect
  • Listen to texts read aloud vs. natural conversation
  • Listen to content with different topics

Again, since the possible variations are almost limitless, we should examine our goals for learning Chinese, and pick a few that seem the most relevant. Benchmarking is not meant to assess language ability fully accurately, but rather to give us a general idea of where we are. Again, make sure to detail how you perform the benchmarking for future reference.

Benchmarking writing ability

Leaving the more passive realm of listening and reading, it becomes a bit more difficult to benchmark, partly because we cannot or should not rely entirely on ourselves to do the evaluation. Still, writing is in its very nature something permanent that can be accessed at any time. There are many ways to benchmark writing, but I recommend starting a blog in Chinese.

Using a blog, we can have all written Chinese concentrated in one location, easily accessible both to you and others (you will have to share what you write anyway if you want people to comment on what you have written). Exposing your own writing might feel a bit anxious in the beginning, but as I’ve stated elsewhere, be brave and remember that genuine mistakes aren’t necessarily bad.

Try writing texts of different kinds:

  • Write texts in different styles (formal/informal)
  • Write texts on different subjects
  • Write text with or without the help dictionaries
  • Write texts with or without helping friends/teachers
  • Write texts by hand or type using a computer
  • Write in different genres (fiction/discussion/accounts/explanations)

When it comes to comparing texts, there is a certain amount of work that we  can and should do on our own. The obvious thing is of course to compare the level of the texts themselves. Don’t forget to take the circumstances into account here; it’s grossly unfair to compare a polished texts you’ve written with the help of a dictionary and that has been corrected by you teacher, and a text that you’ve written in five minutes by hand without having access to any help.

Still, comparing texts might only give us part of what we’re after, or we may find that we don’t think that things have changed that much. Simply speaking, it might be hard to evaluate our own writing. It’s time to ask a friend or a teacher:

  • Ask a native speaker to compare texts of a similar type
  • Ask a native speaker to comment on what kind of mistakes you do
  • Ask a native speaker to give you an overall judgement of your situation
  • Ask a native speaker for advice on how to improve

Since we want to keep the number of variables to a minimum, it’s strongly suggested that you use the same native speaker (or more than one, if you can). Remember that writing is easy to store, so you can simply select texts you want to compare and send to someone for comparison. You don’t even need to tell them you’ve written all the texts yourself, just ask them to do an honest comparison focused on language.

Benchmarking speaking ability

It’s now time to turn to the fourth and by far the hardest of the four areas we want to benchmark: speaking. As opposed to writing, speaking is in nature evanescent and we need quite advanced technology to record it. This is essential, because there is otherwise no way we can make honest comparisons.

Sure, we can meet a native speaker, talk to him or her, wait a year and then do the same thing. This will yield some results, but will it be enough? Does the native speaker remember how you talked a year ago? He or she probably remembers the feeling of speaking with us, but that’s only half of what we want.

Instead of doing this, I suggest record speech digitally. Again, we should record different kinds of speech, focusing on different aspects:

  • Record your best performance (prepare, record, record again if needed)
  • Record your average reading (just read a text, no second chances)
  • Record improvised speech on a prepared topic
  • Record improvised speech on a random subject

Actually, you can start a blog for this as well, doing a podcast or a video diary or something like that, but some people may find this a bit too exhibitionistic (add a password). The important thing is that we keep our recordings for later. As is the case for writing, we can compare our own recordings, even though that will probably not be enough in itself.

In my experience, this is extremely valuable and I can usually hear many mistakes I didn’t think about when I actually did the recording. Still, that is not the issue here. At some point, we have to include a native speaker. Do the same as you did for benchmarking writing:

  • Ask a native speaker to compare recordings of the various kinds above, preferably a native speaker who isn’t used to hearing you speaking Chinese
  • Ask a native speaker to listen to the various recordings with focus on different aspects (fluency, accuracy, pronunciation, tones, whatever)
  • Ask a native speaker for advice on how to improve

Benchmarking speaking is difficult not only because it involves technology, but also because most people find it unnerving to listen to their own voice. You have to get used to that and you will if you only allow yourself to try. You voice only sounds weird to you the first couple of time. Again, be brave. You don’t need to publish your recordings if you don’t want to, but recording yourself in some way is essential.

Some final remarks

It’s essential that you organise your benchmarking files and keep things tidy. If you’re going to compare texts or recordings that are months or even years apart, you’re going to need a neat structure that allows you to find the files later on. If you think that this sounds like too much work, remember that all the listening, reading, writing and speaking you’re doing is as good practise as anything else.

Good luck!