Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3

One of the most powerful ways of staying motivated is doing things with others, preferably during a limited amount of time with a clear goal. That is exactly what the sensible character challenge 2014 is about. Even though the challenge has now reach its last phase, it’s still not too late to join, just set a character-learning goal that you feel is achievable before the end of June and you’ll not only boost your own learning, you’ll also have the chance of winning some great prizes, including character posters, language learning products and free time on Skritter!

challenge14-3If you want to know more, please check the post that launched the character challenge. If you want to sign up, all you need to do is set your goal for this month and include that in a comment. The rest of this article will be for people who are already in the challenge. I will write a little bit about my own experience and also encourage you to write about yours. Once everybody’s had a chance to post their progress reports, prize winners will be announced!

 Prizes for milestone #3

Here are the prizes available for the third milestone:

  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in May).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and one participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.

Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Friday (June 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible. Also note that people who join the challenge now will have to wait until the end of the challenge (June 30th) before becoming eligible.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable.

My progress update

Again, I seem to have overshot my goal, but this time it wasn’t because of a bad goal, but because I spent a lot more time using Skritter than I thought I would. This is partly because I’ve been using the alpha test version of the Android app (which is working well enough to use instead of the online version for my own learning). It’s also because I went to 雲林 in southern Taiwan for a gymnastics competition and spent lots of time on buses and trains. Can you think of a better way to while away the time than learn lots of characters? I certainly can’t! As a result, I cleared my goal for May with relative ease:

  • Milestone #3 (goal): 5340
  • Current status (May 31st):5409
  • End of challenge (June 30th): +366 (5775 total)

I will also share some important insight into learning characters.

Lesson #1:Spread it out

One of the major benefits of using your phone to review characters and words is that you can learn Chinese or Japanese wherever you are, whenever you have a few minutes to spare. It only takes a few seconds to start and you can easily interrupt your learning with no ill effects if something more interesting happens around you. This is much harder to do with any of the major skills listening, speaking, reading and writing. For instance, if you just have two minutes to study, it doesn’t make sense to start reading a new chapter in a book or listen to a new podcast, but you can certainly clear a dozen reviews in that time!

Therefore, whenever you can, spread your reviews out through out the day. Don’t review tones if you can speak with a friend instead. Don’t write characters if you can read a book instead. Don’t practise definitions of words if you can listen to a podcast instead. If you want to learn a lot of characters, such as if you are in this challenge, this is even more important! This is about time quality, something I’ve written more about here in case anyone wants to know more. If you pay attention to your daily schedule, you will find that there are lots of slots to review characters that you probably weren’t aware of!

Lesson #2: Add context

Jake has written an awesome article on the Skritter blog about something he calls “list overdose“. He describes it as follows:

 List overdose (or simply LOD) describes the ingesting or constant studying of vocabulary lists in quantities greater than are recommended or generally practiced. LOD may result in very little actual linguistic improvement (emphasis added).

I personally have a somewhat ambiguous relationship to this, because I think that you can use word lists quite effectively, provided that you are combining it with real-world usage and large volumes of input. So, when I say that I’m adding so and so many characters from a list, that’s not the only thing I’m doing! I’m also reading tons of Chinese and listening to even more.

If you still want to add characters or words directly from a list instead of gathering them in the wild, I think it’s very important to put them in context. This is relatively easy:

  • If it’s a character component, add a few of the most common characters
  • If it’s a character, add a few common words it appears in
  • If it’s a word, add an example sentence that fits well with the word

This will make sure that you don’t end up with a brick yard instead of a house. Sure, knowing just one way of using a word doesn’t mean you know that word perfectly, but it is a lot better than not having any clue at all of how it’s used!

Stay tuned…

I will announce the winners on Friday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

…and the winners are…

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Lili Woodlight and Jeremy (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, join this group on Skritter and tell me
  • Glossika learning Chinese product: 愛美 (I have forwarded your info to Glossika)

Good luck everybody for the final stretch of the challenge!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2

This post marks the second milestone in the sensible character learning challenge 2014, which means that we are roughly halfway! Just like last time, the way you read this article depends on if you’re in the challenge or not:

  • If you’re in the challenge, it’s time to post your milestone #2 progress update (see below)
  • If you’re not in the challenge, this is an excellent opportunity to join (there are still two months left)

I would also like to say that I’m impressed by anyone who is still in the challenge. It’s easy to commit to something for a few weeks, but it’s much harder to stay committed for more than a month. If you’ve fallen seriously behind, don’t hesitate to revise your goals, making them realistic again!

challenge14-2Brief information about the challenge

The challenge was launched in this article, which contains all the information you need if you want to join. In short, the goal is to both improve the way we learn characters and learn to write a lot of characters together in the process. There will be prizes for active participants for each milestone (see below).

Prizes for milestone #2

I’m happy to announce that there is an extra prize available from Glossika for this milestone! Here are all the prizes along with information about how to get them:

  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and one participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too!
  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants, If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course). If this does not work, please contact me.

So, how are the winners determined? Randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts here, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates. I will announce the winners in this article on Sunday, so you have a few days to post your updates.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly normal.

My progress update

I overshot my goal by quite a lot last time, mostly because I misjudged the number of characters I had forgotten, so I upped the ante a bit this time and went for something much more ambitious (this is copied from my update for milestone #1):

Current status (April 8th): 4583
Milestone #2 (April 30th):
+300 (4883 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +400 (5283 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +492 (5775 total)

Let’s look at the numbers first. I was supposed to learn 300 new characters for a total of 4883. According to Skritter, I currently know 4933 characters, so I’m roughly 50 characters ahead of my goal. Also, since I have dealt with all my banned cards, this number actually reflects the number of characters I’m reviewing (banned cards count towards your total even if you don’t review them, for some reason). Since I’m slightly ahead now, rather than relax this months, I will shift some 50 new characters to the last stage of the challenge instead. Just to make things as clear as possible, this is what I have in front of me:

Current status (April 30th): 4933
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +407 (5340 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +435 (5775 total)

What have I learnt about learning and reviewing Chinese characters?

I’d like to highlight two things: the importance of not going on tilt and the necessity of horizontal vocabulary learning.

Don’t go on tilt

First, for whatever reason, we sometimes encounter characters that are very hard to learn for some reason. There are three things you can do:

  1. Ignore the character or word (delete it)
  2. Keep reviewing it even if it doesn’t work
  3. Take decisive action and actually learn the character or word

Of these, solution one and three are both good. Solution two is really, really bad. If you keep forgetting a word, you need to deal with it. Suspend it, ban it or whatever it’s called in the program you use. Then, next time you’re in front of a computer with access to dictionaries, sentence resources and so on, look up the character or word properly and actually learn it. If you don’t, the number of problematic cards (called leeches) will increase and slowly drain both energy and time. Read more here: Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches.

Horizontal vocabulary learning

Second, horizontal vocabulary learning is essential. When you suspect that there are several similar characters causing confusion problems, you have to look them up. It can be very hard to spot these problems, but being sensitive to your own review errors should be enough. If you find yourself making the same mistake several times, you probably make this mistake for a reason, perhaps because you’re confusing two characters. The problem is often painfully obvious once you see it, but might cause a lot of trouble before that.

For instance, for a long time, I found it really hard to remember the order of the two components on the right of 踏. Sometimes I put the 曰 on top of the 水, sometimes I got it right. This kept happening many, many times and I only figured out why once I realised that I were confusing two characters with (almost) identical meaning and exactly the same pronunciation: 踏 and 蹋 (both are read “tà”). No wonder I felt confused about the placement!

Another problem I figured out only recently is with 皺 and 縐. Again, both have the same pronunciation (“zhòu”) and the meanings are at least related. I kept mixing up the placement of the 芻 because of this, but this ceased to be a problem once I looked at both characters side by side.

What I want to say with all this is that when learning or reviewing characters, you have to realise that it’s not only a matter of dealing with one single character or word, it’s about integrating that knowledge in your larger web of knowledge about Chinese.

Stay tuned…

I will update this article with the character poster winners on Sunday. In the meantime, you can check the article about handwriting Chinese characters if you haven’t already (published on Monday this week). Stay tuned!

…and the winners are

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Oaht and Gerrityong (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, join this group on Skritter and tell me
  • Glossika learning Chinese product: Xiaokaka (I have forwarded your info to the company)

Join now to become eligible for prizes for the next milestone!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

We have now reached the first milestone in the sensible character learning challenge 2014! What does this mean? That depends on whether or not you’re already in the challenge:

  • If you’re in the challenge, read on and follow the instructions!
  • If you’re not in the challenge, this is an excellent opportunity to join!

challenge14-1Brief information about the challenge

The challenge was launched in this article, which contains all the information you need if you want to join. In short, the goal is to both improve the way we learn characters and learn to write a lot of characters together in the process. There will be prizes for active participants for each milestone, including character posters from Hanzi WallChart, free extensions to Skritter and free promo codes for Nommoc. Note that thee tripled extension period and six month discount is still available for new Skritter users (follow the instructions in the launch article linked to above).

There are currently 94 participants in the challenge, which means we haven’t beat the record from last year, but we probably will soon if you help me spreading the word!

If you want to join, go to the launch article and post your milestones and goals according to the instructions (you can also check my example, which is the first comment to the article). Naturally, since milestone #1 is now reached, new participants start with milestone #2.

Active participants will receive prizes

What counts as active depends a little bit on what the purpose of counting is, but joining the challenge, talking about it here, on your own blog and on social media all count, as do posting a progress report for this milestone (see below). I will give you until Sunday (my time) to update your progress, then the activity status will be reset, so everybody starts equal from scratch again!

The prizes will be given as follows:

  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. I will announce the winners on Sunday in this article and will also contact you directly through the e-mail you used to sign up for the challenge with.
  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants, If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is contact me in some way and i will make sure you get your extension. Note that the guys at Skritter can easily check if you have been active in the challenge!
  • Nommoc promo codes – Two free promo codes will be given to the first two participants who request a promo code, just leave a comment to this post. These codes will be given on a first come first serve basis and there are only two, so hurry up!

Your progress report

So, how’s it going? To set a good example and initiate a discussion, I will share my own progress below; I encourage you to share yours in the comments! There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but focusing on these things seems reasonable:

  • Have you reached your goal for the first milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you gave succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly normal. The opposite is also cool; this is what happened to me. Share your experience, help others if you can (providing input, encouragement and so on) and see how you can improve yourself for the next stretch of the challenge.

My progress report

This is what my commitment to the challenge looked like:

Starting point (March 22nd): 4000
Milestone #1 (April 8th): +300 (4300 total)
Milestone #2 (April 30th): +250 (4550 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +250 (4800 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +200 (5000 total)

How have I been doing, then? Pretty well, actually. I spent a lot more time learning characters than I thought. I might also have slightly underestimated how many of the due characters I had forgotten. In any case, I currently have 4733 unique characters in Skritter. However, we have to subtract the 150 banned cards I have (Skritter includes these in your total character count for some reason). My actual number is therefore 4583! This means that I have actually not only reached milestone #1, I have already achieved the goal for milestone #2! This is a clear indicator that I set a goal which was way too easy, even though I didn’t think it would be easy when I set it.

What am I going to change? I will be bold and add the rest of the “common” character list I’m using (total 5568 characters). Since I have a number of characters not on that list, the grand total will be 5775 unique characters. My update milestones look like this:

Current status (April 8th): 4583
Milestone #2 (April 30th):
+300 (4883 total)
Milestone #3 (May 31st): +400 (5283 total)
End of challenge (June 30th): +492 (5775 total)

What have I learnt? Well, the most obvious thing is that being really good at character components helps quite a lot. I often learn new characters simply by looking at the parts and associating them with the meaning of the character. Naturally, it takes some reading and reviewing to associate the character with a few words it occurs in, but I generally try to focus on meaning and writing as much as possible.

The routine I outlined in the first article seems to work pretty well. I study the characters for the first time (read more about how to do this here) using Pleco and once I have a passive understanding of them, I transfer them to Skritter and write the by hand there. The only thing that takes a lot of time is making sure I don’t mix up character with similar meaning and/or pronunciation!

Stay tuned…

There will be two updates this week. First, I will post an article related to character learning (probably on Thursday or Friday) and then I will update this article with the character poster winners on Sunday. Stay tuned, keep focus and 加油!

…and the winners are…

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners. To make it clear and to the point, I will just list the prizes and the names of the participants who have won, along with instructions for what to do next (if any):

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Teresa and 戴睿 (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, but you need to tell me that you want a code
  • Nommoc promo codes: Gerrityong and Xiaokaka (I have forwarded your info to the company)

There will be more prizes for the next milestone! I know people don’t participate mainly for the prizes, but I still hope it’s a small encouragement along the road. If you know someone who wants to give something away for the next milestone, let me know and perhaps we can even more prizes next time. Today, I also reset any data regarding activity, so everybody has an equal chance of doing well up to milestone #2!

Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

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

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

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

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

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

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

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

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

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

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

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

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

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

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

In my case, then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

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

List of participants in the challenge

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

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

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

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

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

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source:
Image source:

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.


5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

Chinese reading challenge: Read more or die

Input is a crucial factor when learning a foreign language. I’m not an input-only fanatic, but I do think that a large number of common problems can be solved simply by listening and reading more. That way, we can slowly build a feel for the language and learn grammar and vocabulary usage. In other words, we acquire the language by being exposed to it rather than by studying it directly. Naturally, these are not mutually exclusive, but this challenge is about reading.

The importance of extensive reading

Some people claim that reading ability is the most important skill of all, and even if I personally consider listening ability to be more important and don’t agree with everything in the quoted passage below, it’s still a good summary of this position and contains lots of good ideas and links to further reading in case you want to know more. This is quoted from the Read More or Die blog (more about this below):

The four skills of reading, listening, writing, and speaking ought to be viewed in that order, because each one feeds the next.  You can’t say what you don’t know, and reading is much easier to learn words from than listening.  The large quantity of exposure helps the learner to think in the target language, which in turn improves output abilities.  Many case studies have firmly established the effectiveness of this method.  For more details, read Rob Waring’s The Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading, or follow some of the links from

I’ve written extensively about listening ability already (there is an entire series of articles about listening ability), but I haven’t written that much about reading. This is strange considering that I like reading myself and attribute most of my English ability to being an avid reader. It’s time to change that with a reading challenge!

rmodRead more Chinese or die

I think relatively short and concentrated efforts are very good for increasing overall volume, mostly because they enable us to create habits and really focus on one area of language learning. As it happens, there is a reading challenge originally created for Japanese students and it has been running for many years now, roughly once every quarter. The challenge is quite simple:

  1. Set a goal (counted in pages)
  2. Report daily progress
  3. Compete against yourself or others

Personally, I don’t care much for competing against others and I prefer to regard this challenge as a personal challenge. I prefer to see other people in the challenge as fellow travellers who cooperate to reach similar but yet different destinations.

Join the challenge!

In the future, I plan to develop my own challenge system here on Hacking Chinese, but for now, we’ll have to use what’s available. The challenge will run from January 1st 2014 to January 31st 2014.

Important: Anyone can join! You don’t need to be at a level where you can read novels. It might take you longer to read ten pages than it takes me to read 1000, but that doesn’t matter. This is a challenge, not a competition!

There are two options (choose one):

  1. Join the Tadoku challenge This is the easiest option, but you need a Twitter account to participate. You register, set a goal for the challenge and then report your progress either through a web interface or using Twitter. Tadoku counts pages, which is a bit awkward in my opinion, but the goal here is to increase the amount of Chinese you read, not to arrange a formal competition.
  2. Join by leaving a comment to this article This second option is for those of you who can’t or don’t want to use Twitter. It would be too chaotic to report daily progress, so instead I want people who sign up to first leave a comment stating their goal (number of pages) and then post updates once a week, including what you have read and what your goal was.

Regardless of which option you choose, I suggest that you also make your commitment public, either on social media or on your own website. To set an example, my own goal for January is to read 1000 pages. I have participated in one Tadoku challenge earlier this year with the same goal and I think it’s a reasonable number of pages to read in my situation. If you want to follow my progress, you can check my account here.

How many pages should I read?

The important thing when setting goals is to be realistic. How much time do you think you can devote per day? How much can you read in that time? Make an educated guess and go for it. The goal is to read as much as possible, so being realistic is important (aiming too low and you might read less that you could, aiming too high might mean that you give up because it feels impossible). Reading 1000 pages would take about one hour per day for me, which should be possible. Only you know what’s suitable for you,though.

What counts as a page anyway?

Since the goal is set in the form of a number of pages, the obvious question is: What is a page? What happens if you read less than one page at a time? What if you read comics? Newspapers? Websites?

In another article, I have explained why the way we count things like this really matters. Here is what I would do if I couldn’t participate in the challenge on Twitter (if you do, it’s easier just to follow the format there):

  1. Set a goal for January
  2. If you read longer texts, report the number of pages directly
  3. If you read shorter texts, count sentences (about 20 sentences per page)
  4. If character counting is convenient, treat 400 characters as one page

Now, this is assuming that “longer texts” means novels, which is probably not always the case. A novel usually has around 400 characters per page, but (printed) newspapers might have several times that amount and books for a younger or foreign audience might have much, much less. This competition is against yourself so you decide how detailed you want to be. If you want to recalculate what you read according to the standard of 400 characters per page, by all means do so, but if you just want to report number of pages directly, do that.

How should I read?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on what you understand; you don’t need to understand everything you read
  • Use the rule of three (only look up words or characters if they appear three times in different situations)
  • Read online or on your phone, using a pop-up dictionary (Perapera) or designated reader (Pleco)

The goal in this challenge is to read a lot, so if you spend most of your time using dictionaries, you need to either change your strategy or find something easier to read. I also to suggest you read this article for a general discussion about reading in Chinese: Approaches to reading in Chinese. In case you do need a dictionary, this article contains everything you need.

How can I increase the amount of Chinese I read?

The obvious answer is that you need to spend more time reading. This is true in the sense that you should dedicate more time than usual to reading Chinese. However, there are many things you can do to encourage yourself to read more. Here are few tips:

  • Place books or reading material in strategic places (bed, bathroom)
  • Always have something to read available on your phone (e-books, text files)
  • Remove books in other languages from your immediate environment
  • Try to make reading at certain times a habit (before going to bed, for instance)

The last point is crucial. It’s very hard for foreign language learners like us to binge on Chinese reading, especially if we are beginner or intermediate students, so creating habits where we steadily increase the number of pages we read is essential. This is also why I think having regular updates is a good idea.

What should I read?

This is a very good question. I haven’t been a beginner or intermediate student for a long time and I don’t have a good grasp of what suitable reading material is available. Here are some general guidelines, though:

  1. True beginners: Textbooks and (perhaps) graded readers
  2. Beginners: Textbooks and graded readers
  3. Intermediate: Song lyrics, manga, translated novels*
  4. Advanced: Anything you like (with a emphasis on “like”)

*When I say translated novels, I mean that you should take a novel you are already familiar with in English and read the Chinese translation. I think this is the best way of easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese. If you try to read random modern Chinese novel, it will most likely be too hard.

Why not help each other, though? If you find something interesting to read which is freely available online, please post a link to it in the comments, along with which level it’s suitable for and I will add it to the list below. I have merely added a few links, so I really need your help.

Beginner (use the comments to add more)

Intermediate (use the comments to add more)

Advanced (use the comments to add more)


 The challenge starts next Wednesday, so you should have time to find something to get you started. If you find something online, don’t forget to share it with the rest of us!

The get-back-up-to-speed summer challenge

I’ve been on vacation and haven’t thought too much about studying, which means that I have failed miserably to keep my vocabulary review queues at a manageable level. You might have other reasons for failing to do so or you might have other projects you really should finish before the end of the summer. I know I have. Rather than slogging away at this on my own, I thought I’d create a challenge that readers can participate in.

Summer 2013 get-back-up-to-speed challenge

  • Think through what you need to complete before the summer is over
  • Select one or several closely related projects
  • Define them as clearly as you can (define what the goal is)
  • The default deadline is September 1st, change it if you like
  • Use the template below and leave a comment to this article
  • Read my advice below on how to handle larger projects
  • Mush!

My challenge

Image source:
Image source:

I have actually a fair number of things I want to do before the summer is over, but as specified above, I’m going to choose one or perhaps two closely related projects and use them in this challenge. This is not merely an example, mind you, I’m in the challenge too.

My summer vacation doesn’t really end in August, but since I have lots of other things to do after that, I will set September 1st as my deadline. This should also be reasonably close to when other people’s summers end and therefore a good end-point for this challenge.

Template for participating in the challenge

Goal: Your overall goal for the challenge
Deadline: When you intend to reach your goal (I will use August 30)
Strategy: How  you intend to reach your goal before the deadline
Milestone #1, July 28: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #2, August 11: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #3, August 25: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #4, September 1: You should be finished with everything now

Here’s what my challenge would look like:

Goal: Reduce all my SRS queues to zero, including leeches and banned/suspended cards
Deadline: August 30th, 2013
Strategy: I plan to use most of the strategies listed below, but most importantly, I will use timeboxing as much as i can and get rid of the Anki queue through five-minute review sessions interspersed throughout the day. Skritter will require more concentrated effort and I need to be in front of my computer, so I plan to do this just after getting up every morning, provided I’m at home. The same goes for killing leeches in Anki.
Milestone #1, July 28: Anki queue down to 2500, Skritter queue down to 600 with no banned cards
Milestone #2, August 11: Anki queue down to 1000, Skritter queue down to 400 with no banned cards
Milestone #3, August 25: Anki queue down to 0, Skritter queue down to 200 with no banned cards
Milestone #4, September 1: Clear leeches and suspended cards in Anki, Skritter queue down to 0

Regarding the deadlines, they are merely examples. I will use them, but it doesn’t mean that you have to.

How to handle quantitatively large projects

Getting through thousands of due flashcards or killing hundreds of leeches takes some serious time. Also, the point is to do something intelligent with these flashcards, not just go through them as quickly as possible (that would defeat the purpose). As usual, I advocate an active attitude to flashcards, so reviewing involves editing, deleting and adding cards according to your needs. Simply going through the motions is meaningless.

There are a few things you can do to make this easier:

  • Break it down – This is essential. Any step is easy as long as it’s small enough. Break your project down into manageable chunks. Read more here about micro goals.
  • Timebox This is a very powerful method to get quite a lot done quickly. Rather than repeating many times in a row, I would spread this out throughout the day, especially if we’re talking about vocabulary reviewing.
  • Change environment – Feel bored? Change environment! I assume that most people use their phones or at least laptops to review vocabulary, so take it outside, to the library, to a coffee shop or wherever.
  • Study according to your current energy level – If you’re too tired to perform a certain task, change task rather than stop studying altogether.
  • Create habits – I find it particularly effective to do reviews at fixed points in my daily routine, so for instance, I plan to do 100 reviews when waking up in the morning and 100 reviews before going to bed. That’s not a promise, but habits like that increase your minimum output considerably.
  • Give yourself reminders – Tell friends, set alarms, use an online calendar or anything else that will remind you of your project. In my experience, the most dangerous period for habit creation is after a week or two when the novelty has worn off. Set several reminders a week or two from now!
  • Reward yourself – Do you have other cool things to do during the summer? Did you just buy a cool computer game? Set up a simple system where you always do X amount on your project before allowing  yourself to play that game. if you play turn-based or very short games, intersperse reviewing in between rounds.
  • Punish yourself – Give money to someone and tell them that they can keep it unless you achieve X before a certain time. Make sure that X is specific and make sure you actually give the money now. You will get it back only if you finish on time.
  • Make the tasks fun – Anything that makes the tasks involved more fun is worth considering.

Looks like I have quite a lot to do, time to start mushing!

Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections

Two weeks have now passed since I announced the sensible character learning challenge. Since I wanted to try the rules of the challenge myself before telling everybody else to use them, I actually started a few weeks earlier than the rest of you. In this article, I’m going to share with you some really useful things I’ve learnt during the past month. This is also a good opportunity for you to share how things have been going so far. Here’s what have been published about this challenge so far:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections (this article)
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

Challenge progress report

Before we do that, let’s look at what we have actually achieved:

skritterprogressThis is great! However, we all know that it’s fairly easy to start something and be enthusiastic about it for a week or two, but then it becomes much harder. Actually, looking at the stats on Skritter I can see that collectively, we’ve learnt more characters during the first week of the challenge than during the second, even though the numbers of students kept increasing! This is in fact part of the reason why I’m posting this article now. That’s also why I set up the accountability system where you’re supposed to connect with the people directly above or below you on the list.

  • If you haven’t connected with your neighbours, you should do so as soon as possible
  • If you’ve tried to connect but received no reply, let me know
  • Starting tomorrow, I will remove people who aren’t following the rules
  • If I remove someone next to you, make contact with your new peer student

When you do connect, make a plan! When are you going to check on each other? I suggest at least once a week. I’ve been in contact with both Nick and Jacob and we send occasional e-mail more often than once a week, but it’s up to you how you want to arrange this. If you encounter problems or think something is difficult, ask each other. If you need support or encouragement, ask your fellow students.

Commit publicly if you haven’t already

If you want extra accountability, write a blog post about the challenge and ask readers to check how it’s going later. If you want me to, I will tweet the post to 4600+ followers on Twitter. Here are people who have already committed publicly (most have been tweeted, others will appear later this week; if you’re not on the list but have written a blog post, let me know):

Some advice on using Skritter

I’ve been using Skritter for this challenge and overall, things have been working out well. If you haven’t tried Skritter yet, I suggest you sign up and try it out (the coupon code SENSIBLE is still valid and will give you both an extended trial and a substantial discount). I will write more about Skritter itself in another post, but the fact that I’ve spent around 30 minutes per day on average during the past month and actually enjoyed it says quite a lot.

The only  problem I know some students have encountered is that they can’t view banned cards on their phones and tablets. There are two ways of handling this problem. First, you can ban the cards and deal with them later using your computer (or at least accessing the banned cards via the web interface rather than the app). Second, you can deal with cards you fail immediately so you don’t need to ban them. Either of these work and which one you use is up to you, I can see merits with both methods.

Another thing to note is that you shouldn’t be too quick to ban a cards. If you hit ban before you fail the card, perhaps because you can’t even recall how to start writing it and decide you have failed anyway, Skritter will not treat this as a failed card. If you then study the banned card and unban it, it will have the same interval as before. If you repeat this, the spaced repetition algorithm won’t work, because the interval will never decrease. This is easy to get around, though, just make sure the card turns red before you ban it. Most people do this when trying to write the character, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem. As far as I know, hitting the question mark to reveal the character also counts as a failed review.

Furthermore, if you are reasonably familiar with characters, I also suggest you turn on the “raw squigs” function (just tick the box in your settings). This will allow you to finish writing all the strokes in the character before Skritter shows you the right strokes. This means that it becomes harder to cheat, because without this function enabled, Skritter will sometimes give you clues (you thought the character started with a dot, but in fact it doesn’t, but since the dot was roughly in the right place, Skritter rewrites the stroke as it should have been written, thus helping you). Lastly, Skritter also offers reminders sent to your e-mail at intervals you decide yourself. If you want to be really accountable, you can link Skritter to your Twitter account, thus allowing everybody to see how it’s going for you.

Some advice on using Anki

Anki has a really neat function for handling leeches. If you want to stick to the rules of the challenge 100% of the time, you could set the leech threshold to 1, which means it will be automatically suspended if you forget the card just a single time. You can access the settings via options > lapses > leech threshold.

Note that this might be overdoing it a bit, because you will end up suspending cards automatically even if you accidentally hit the wrong button or similar. Still, setting the leech threshold really low is a good idea. The default is 16, which is ridiculously high. This just encourages you to use brute force to learn words you actually don’t know. If you fail a card 16 times, something is seriously wrong with your method.

Personal reflections and lessons learnt

Part of the reason I came up with this challenge in the first place was so that I could get my own character learning under control. Can you imagine a better way of making yourself accountable than being the guy who started the whole thing? I can’t. It’s worked very well so far. My goal is to work through the 5000 most common traditional characters on Skritter. Since I’ve already learnt most of these passively, my stats are somewhat skewed.

Lessons in mnemonics and Chinese characters

The best thing with this challenge for me personally is that I’ve spent some extra time dealing with some long-time leeches. It feels great to finally kill the beasts! My policy is to do some research, create a mnemonic and then, provided it isn’t very personal or refers to things few people know, share the mnemonic online. This puts some extra pressure on me to create good mnemonics. I sharesSome on Skritter, some on Facebook, some on Twitter (#mnemonicmonth and #sensiblehanzi). Here are a couple I’ve shared so far (don’t forget to read the discussion of each mnemonic):

Mnemonic for 纏 (wind up, wrap around): The people living in the house on the cliff (广) use eight miles (里 + 八) of silk (糹) WOUND UP to cover their dirt (土) floor.Discussion: This looks simple enough, but I want to point out one very important thing. Don’t simply read “the house on the cliff”. The words aren’t important, the picture in your head is.  [Read more…]

Mnemonic for 犧 in 犧牲 (to sacrifice). The simplified form is 牺, so this shouldn’t be a problem for those of you who learn only simplified. However, this might still give you some inspiration for how to work with mnemonics. To start with, this character is really mean, because the bottom right part isn’t common at all (does it even exist in other characters, except in 羲?). Thus it’s not a good idea to create specific mnemonic for this part and use that, but rather I would… [Read more…]

Reading questions from fellow participants in the challenge, I’ve also become more aware of what kind of problems students have when using mnemonics to learn characters. Thus, I have two articles planned for the coming weeks. The first will deal with mnemonics for abstract character parts (mentioned in the quote above). The second will deal with some problems related to overuse of mnemonics (in essence, if you don’t need a mnemonic, don’t create one).

In short, I’m very happy with how the challenge has been helping me to focus more on the meaning of characters. I feel that I’m actually learning something when I fail a review, it’s not just a monotonous cycle of repetition. I also think mnemonics are quite fun!

How about you?

Now I’d like to hear how you have been doing! Leave a comment and tell me about your experience. If you don’t know what to write, here are some suggestions:

  • What’s the most positive thing with participating in the challenge?
  • What problems have you encountered?
  • What goals have you set for yourself and how’s your progress so far?
  • How many characters have you learnt since the start of the challenge?
  • Do you have any advice for me or other participants?

(this article)

Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese

Note: There is now a new character challenge! It will run from March 22nd to June 30th, 2014. Click here to read more about the challenge!

Learning to write thousands of Chinese characters is a daunting task, but fortunately, character writing is also one of the most hackable parts of the Chinese language. This means that if you use the wrong method, it will take forever and be quite boring (see last week’s post), but if you use the right method, it’s neither impossible nor boring.

This article is a challenge which is meant to make students use more sensible strategies to learn characters and take you out of the boring, monotonous loop that helps you pass your tests, but isn’t very good in the long run. Before we go into details about the challenge itself, let’s look at the contents of this article to make it easier for you to find what you want.


  1. About the challenge
  2. The problem
  3. The solution
  4. What sensible character learning looks like
  5. Everybody can participate
  6. What tools you need to participate
  7. Skritter extended trial and discount
  8. The rules of the challenge
  9. How to join the challenge
  10. List of brave participants
  11. Possible problems and how to cope with them
  12. Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook
  13. Spread the word

Articles published about sensible character learning

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

The problem

The problem with how most students approach character learning has already been addressed; the following is a summary for those who haven’t read that article, but I still recommend that you read the full article here. There are many problems of course, but the most serious one is undoubtedly that many rely on rote learning, i.e. repeating a character until it sticks without actually understanding what they’re learning or deepening their knowledge of the language. This is almost useless if you lack a systematic approach, but if you use spaced repetition programs, it actually works to a certain point.

This is problematic, because when you reach that point, you’ll find that you need something more than mere repetition. Native speakers can rely on repetition because they spend more than ten years in school mastering their own language. They write characters every day for many, many years. Thinking that this will work for you is naive. Most native speakers also combine a fairly well-developed knowledge of components with massive repetition.

Symptoms of bad character learning:

  • When you’ve forgotten a word, you just keep repeating it until it sticks
  • You tend to forget the difference between similar characters
  • You’re reading ability is okay even though your handwriting sucks
  • You need to rely heavily on context to understand characters
  • You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)

 The solution

Even though I think SRS is part of the problem (people tend to misuse it), I also think it’s part of the solution. The problem is that when we review something mechanically (i.e. just looking at something without really processing the information actively), we’re not really learning anything new, we’re not expanding our knowledge of Chinese. Apart from this, it’s also quite boring and leads to poor results in the long run.

Still, using SRS, especially if the program is geared specifically towards character learning (see my introduction to Skritter below) is the most efficient way of learning, you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is the point of this challenge.

The alternative to rote learning is to work actively with the characters we forget and make sure that we’re learning something instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes over and over. It’s notoriously difficult to learn things that don’t mean anything to us, so the first thing we should do is really understand the characters we’re learning. If it takes more time, then so be it, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Most native speakers have pretty good grasp of character components, but many foreigners don’t.

These things you can learn from a competent teacher. The next key to more sensible character learning is something I have never heard mentioned in a classroom, probably because it requires that the teacher has actually used the method to be able to teach it. Everybody will tell you to create stories (mnemonics) to remember characters, but few are able to or can be bothered to explain what kind of mnemonics work and why. I can and I have. See this article about learning character components (and the following articles in the same series).

What sensible character learning looks like

  1. Understand what you/re learning (learn the components)
  2. Combine the meaningful parts in a clever way (mnemonics)
  3. Use SRS to reinforce your knowledge and identify weak links
  4. Avoid rote learning at all costs (and make learning fun again)

Who can participate in the challenge

Students at any level can participate and it doesn’t matter if you study Chinese two hours or week or twenty hours a day. The challenge will remain open as long as I feel it’s relevant, which is likely to be indefinitely. The Skritter discounts mentioned below will only be valid for a limited amount of time, however.

What you need to participate

The following challenge is for anyone with an interest in learning characters (that should be most visitors to Hacking Chinese, I think), regardless if you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner. I’m going to join the challenge as well and follow the same rules as everybody else. A list of participants is included below.

Before you join, you need to choose software. I’m going to use Skritter and I recommend that you do too, mostly because it’s specifically geared towards handwriting and that it has excellent resources attached if you need to expand your knowledge about characters and components).

Participants receive an extended free trial of Skritter and 33% off subscriptions

If you register and join the challenge, use the coupon code SENSIBLE, which will double the length of the free trial as well as give you 33% off the price if you like the software and keep using it. If you register and later go for a paid subscription, I will receive a small commission, so please use the links included here if you want to help me out a bit, too. You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.

If you don’t know what Skritter is, you can check this brief demonstration on YouTube:

However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.

The rules of the challenge

  • If you fail a review, you’re not allowed to review that card again until you’ve dealt with it actively. You have two options: either you stop reviewing and deal with the failed card immediately or you remove the card from the review card and deal with it later (ban the card in Skritter, suspend in Anki.
  • If you ban or suspend cards you fail, you have to go through the list of banned or suspended cards often. You don’t know these characters and you need to relearn them before you enter them into the review queue again. Do not allow the number of banned cards to accumulate.
  • Characters you already know well and don’t fail aren’t part of the challenge. In other words, you don’t need to relearn characters you already know, regardless how you learnt to write those characters. However, if you fail any card, you still have to follow the rules of the challenge.
  • If you have an important exam coming up, you’re allowed to sidestep the above rules, but not using your normal review software. You have to rely on conventional non-digital study methods to cram for an exam, you’re not allowed to break the above rules when using SRS under any condition whatsoever.
  • Share your progress with me and your friends (Skritter has a function for this). If you join the challenge I will also check on you by sending you an e-mail later this months. I’m serious about this and shall be disappointed if you commit but fail to follow these rules!

This is what Skritter’s look-up interface looks like.

When you fail a card, here are some suggestions of what you can do. Don’t feel limited by these, though, there are more ways to learn characters. The important thing is that you deepen you knowledge and understanding of the character rather than just repeating it.

  1. Do you know the component parts? If not, look them up. Skritter has a built-in feature that allows you to check a character and its components in a number of online dictionaries (see picture). Regardless of how you access the dictionaries, I like HanziCraft and (better for traditional, but works for both).
  2. If you know the parts already, create a mnemonic or use someone else’s. Part of the goal with this challenge is to make students more aware of mnemonics and to make those already aware of it apply them more often and master how to create them. If you’re not already good at this, you should check my article about it here, including the other articles it links to in the beginning. If you can’t come up with anything, Skritter has a neat function where you can see other people’s mnemonics. I suggest that you adapt them to your own needs, but they serve as excellent inspiration.
  3. If you have a mnemonic (but still fail), make it better or start over. It isn’t easy to figure out how to create good mnemonics and I fail now and then, too. I think this is highly individual and thus hard to write about in general, but reviewing the principles mentioned above is a good first step.
  4. Next time you review a failed character, review whatever information you added to the card. If you created a mnemonic with a story, quickly review the story and see how it makes the components fit together.
  5. To each his own. The goal here isn’t to dictate exactly what you should do, but rather that you should do something other than simply repeating the characters many times over without really understanding what you’re doing. Try different approaches, if it works, it’s good.

Other things you can do that will help

  • Teach the character to an (imaginary) friend
  • Do a search on Google for related pictures (giving you visual input)
  • Look up similar characters that are confusing you and sort out differences
  • Anything else that forces you to actively process the character components

How to join the challenge

  1. Post a comment and say you’re in (please use a valid e-mail address so I can reach you). By doing this, you also agree to me sending you an occasional e-mail about the challenge and that I will give your e-mail address to the other participants for mutual help and support.
  2. Commit to the challenge publicly on Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media or in real life to friends or family. Make yourself accountable, ask people to check up on you a week from now and see how you’re doing. Once I have confirmed that you want to join, I will put you in the list below.
  3. Define a goal and share it with fellow participants (see list below). This challenge is about the method, the goal itself isn’t specified. Personally, I’m going to make sure I can write the 5000 most common characters by hand. This is of course a long term goal and I will spend 20-30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I suggest you set a goal which is reachable in a month or two. but this is really up to you.
  4. Send a brief introduction about yourself and your goals to the participants directly above and directly below you on the list of participants below. I will provide you with the e-mail addresses manually.
  5. Learn some Chinese, for real this time, with the intent of actually understanding the characters and putting the fun back into character learning. Be creative, be crazy, stay committed!

List of students who have accepted the challenge

These people have join the challenge so far. To get on the list, you need to give me your e-mail address so I can connect you with the participants next to you on the list for support and accountability. Thus, I’m accountable to Jake, Jake is accountable to me and Nick, Nick is accountable to Jake and whoever becomes the fourth participant. And so on. If you want a link to your own blog, website or whatever, include that as well, but I will only accept personal websites or Chinese-related sites.

Click here to skip the list and go to the next part (the list is getting fairly long).

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Jacob Gill
  3. Nick Winter
  4. Claudia
  5. Niel de la Rouviere
  6. Kevin Tynan
  7. Russel Sancto
  8. Gary Saville
  9. Matthew Ho
  10. Dianne Rennack
  11. Bill Glover
  12. Bob Clark
  13. Joy
  14. Douglas Drumond
  15. Lechuan
  16. Caitlin Goldston
  17. Alex
  18. Samanta
  19. Michel
  20. Robert Vose
  21. Gareth
  22. Sonja
  23. Jeff
  24. Jake
  25. Maikeximu
  26. Sascha
  27. Jaki
  28. Jeff Lau
  29. Mathias
  30. Christian
  31. Marcus
  32. Rachel M.
  33. Mark Jarvis
  34. Michael
  35. Dave
  36. Matt Raleigh
  37. Eddie
  38. Kevin Sciarillo
  39. Marc
  40. Victoria
  41. Martin
  42. Michael Knight
  43. Leon White
  44. Maozhou
  45. Ted Reed
  46. Catherine Pacey
  47. Jim Long
  48. Christopher Burroughs
  49. Ruben
  50. Scott
  51. Mai Laoshi
  52. Erik
  53. Jeriko Jak
  54. Georges
  55. Lei Laoshi
  56. Jan
  57. Liz Valachovic
  58. Matt Sikora
  59. Cooper Nagengast
  60. Matt Lawrence
  61. GBoomer
  62. Matt Arkell
  63. Matthew A
  64. Stoney
  65. Tom
  66. Wendy Purdie
  67. Rich O
  68. Kai Carver
  69. Ian Sinnot
  70. Brad Wright
  71. Muhammed Zubair
  72. Bjørn Schwartz
  73. Antonella
  74. Stumoke
  75. Vito
  76. Petar
  77. Liven
  78. James Carman
  79. Victor
  80. Shannon
  81. Teng Fang Yih
  82. Vito FJ
  83. Steph FS
  84. Charlie Southwell
  85. Julien Leyre
  86. Furio
  87. Gwilym James
  88. Manu
  89. Jakub
  90. Will Taylor
  91. Pia N-H
  92. Ashia
  93. Gisèle
  94. Michael
  95. Meg
  96. Milon
  97. Adam Dawkins
  98. Jan Willem Stil
  99. Gerlinde
  100. Amanda Viljoen
  101. Trung Hieu
  102. Wendy MC
  103. Daniel
  104. Chris P
  105. Anthony Pantekoek
  106. Nathan
  107. John Highan
  108. You?

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

Different people will encounter different problems with this challenge. If you’re an avid SRS user already, you will notice that it takes much more time to review, mostly because you stop cheating and actually study the things you forget. This means that you won’t forget them very easily, so that it takes more time is both natural and necessary.

Students who aren’t used to mnemonics will find that it takes a while before you find a style or method that suits you. Remembering things is a skill that you have to learn, so don’t feed disappointed if you forget things even with mnemonics or if you find them difficult to come up with in the first place. You will learn.

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

To help you with mnemonics memory tricks, I hereby declare January to be #mnemonicmonth on Twitter. I intend to share all sorts of links, tips and tricks, starting today. I encourage you to do the same! Tweet your best mnemonics or inspiring videos/stories/links. I also intend to spend more time on Facebook this month, discussing mnemonics and Chinese, helping students out in case you run into problems. Join the discussion here. I hope more advanced learners will help me with this so that we can create a good discussion environment. Share your thoughts, ideas and questions with the rest of us, we’re in this challenge together.

Spread the word about this challenge

The goal with this challenge is to change the way people learn characters. The principles are easy to understand, but still many people, including me sometimes, fail to follow them. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, but it’s not easy to quit. Rote learning is equally bad, let’s quit together. In order to start this revolution, we need more people. Spread the word, agree with one friend to check on each other, make yourself accountable.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese

This post is about advancing very fast when learning Chinese, provided that you have time and determination. Before I get into the details, I will present a short introduction. If you want to skip this, I suggest scrolling down to “a personal example” and start reading from there.

Learning as a collaborative construction project

There are several theories out there describing how to best learn a foreign language (or indeed to learn anything), and one kind of theory is usually referred to as sociocultural. In this tradition, learning is viewed as a sort of collaborative construction project, where the teacher uses scaffolding to create support for a student to attain ever higher levels of ability. When the student can stand alone on a new level, the scaffolding is simply moved higher up the planned tower of knowledge.

The construction work should then be focused on the appropriate level, meaning that it shouldn’t be too easy (in which case the student already know what is taught and doesn’t need scaffolding)  and not too difficult (because scaffolding can only reach to certain height above the students current level). The question this gives rise to is of course what is too difficult and what is too easy; what level of scaffolding is appropriate?

The answer is individual, but in this post, I’m going to share personal experience from how I tried to learn Chinese in a language environment which was way above my level, but which was still manageable and lead to quite good results. The title of this post includes kamikaze, which means that survival is not guaranteed and that this approach is not for everyone. However, I do think it is interesting and will be useful for people who think about what level of class they should choose when abroad, for instance.

A personal example

In the spring of 2009, I had studied at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages (文藻外語學院) in Gaoxiong, Taiwan, for two weeks and I knew for sure that the class I attended in the beginning was too easy (i.e. I could handle it without any scaffolding whatsoever). Of course, it depends on what “too easy” means, but in this case I mean that I felt we spent too much time in class on things I already knew. I had the feeling that I could handle more difficult topics, I could swim in deeper waters.

Thus, I resolved to check what possibilities there were to alter my learning environment. It turned out I had two choices, either a slightly more difficult class (same book, but eight chapters further on) or a class twice as difficult (different series, but at least two books ahead). I didn’t need to think long before deciding that the slightly more difficult one was out of the question, simply because it wouldn’t make any significant difference. So, how about the significantly more difficult class?

I attended both classes to try and see if it would be possible to survive or not. The answer was a hesitant yes, I would probably survive, although the books they used was book five in a series I’d only managed to finish book three. In addition, they used real newspaper articles which seemed really daunting after only three semesters of Chinese.

Going kamikaze

Why “kamikaze”? Because doing something like that isn’t simply immersion, it’s like a combat diver attacking an aircraft carrier, but having the air tank removed and equipped only with a spoon to carve through the one-foot steel hull. Perhaps it’s impossible to get all the way through, but something like that will at least make one really good at holding one’s breath and carving.

In more practical terms, doing something like this requires determination and time, but it’s definitely possible to survive, despite the “kamikaze” in the name. However, since there is a real risk of failure, I do advise caution if grades are important to you or if you don’t feel that you have the time and motivation it requires.

I’ve done this kind of leap to much more difficult classes several times and it has worked out well every time, mostly because I spent twice as much time as anyone else in my class. Helpful teachers and friends are also invaluable. I call it kamikaze mostly because of the feeling I have when diving headlong into a project like this.

If it’s so difficult, why do it?

One reason it’s useful to take more difficult classes is of course that you are more or less forced to learn more, but that should be obvious and I don’t feel that I need to talk about that. Another, less obvious, reason is that you get much more time to practise. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How much time do you usually spend listening to classmates at your own level speaking poor Chinese and making lots of mistakes?
  • What if all or most of your classmates are better than you? Wouldn’t that reverse the situation, meaning that everything that’s being said in the classroom is something you can learn from?

Each time I’ve made one of these kamikaze attacks on a new course, there has been a brief period at the beginning when I’ve been close to giving up. Then it slowly settles down and I feel that even though my Chinese probably has more holes in it that my classmates, I can at least participate at their level. I can follow what’s going on. Towards the end of the semester, I’ve felt ready to move on. Doing this every semester might be very tiring, but not doing it at all would seriously hamper learning speed.

Don’t just strive for height, broaden your base as well

One more word of warning. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you master something at a certain level, you master everything below that level. This is a dangerous misconception; I’ve often found that beginner and intermediate textbooks and courses have things to teach me, it’s just that I don’t want them to be my main source of learning. Even if you strive for the stars, be sure to spend a decent amount of time making sure to solidify your foundation.

Requirements and practical tips

Having done this kind of kamikaze attack several times, I have learnt something about the process itself and what it requires:

  • Time – First and foremost, you need lots of time. You will read texts that are way to difficult, you will have many more words to learn than those that your teacher will give as homework, you will struggle with things your classmates think are easy.
  • Preview – It is essential that you preview and that you preview thoroughly. In the beginning, you stand virtually no chance whatsoever to keep up if you arrive unprepared. Learn all the words before the class, read the text, work with difficult structures/words.
  • Be brave – Realise that it will be hard and don’t expect immediate results. You’re doing this because it’s helpful in the long run, so you should look for rewards from a long term perspective as well.
  • Benchmark yourself – You will probably feel that your Chinese is quite lousy, because it is compared to your classmates. However, if you regularly measure your own progress, you will see that even though they might still be better than you at the end of the semester, you’re a lot better yourself than when you started.
  • Don’t neglect the basics – Even though you spend most of your time simply trying to survive, don’t forget the basics. Don’t skimp on pronunciation practise, for instance. Since you might be the only person in your class having a specific problem, it’s not likely that the teacher will focus on that. You have to do that on your own.

Further reading

Below, I have selected and introduced four articles I think are important/helpful when using the kamikaze approach:

  • Spaced repetition software: I strongly advocate the use of this kind of software for learning Chinese (and make sure you use it in a smart way). When going kamikaze, you will have to cope with a huge influx of new words, so having a computer program to help you remember them efficiently is key.
  • Be inspired by your superior classmates: Rather than viewing your classmates with envy and compete with them, you should regard them as valuable sources of learning and inspiration. This is the whole idea behind the kamikaze approach!
  • Studying the right thing at the right time: Since time is one of determining factors if you will survve or not, studying the right thing at the right time is essential. Some of the tips given in this article will help you organise your studies more efficiently, which will increase your chances of survival.
  • Take responsibility for your own learning: Deciding to use the kamikaze method is your own choice, so don’t blame your teacher if you end up missing something important. It’s essential that you make sure that your foundation is solid and that you don’t miss out on more basic things your classmates take for granted.


Figuring out how much scaffolding we need and how far we can reach with it takes self-knowledge and the will to try. I think the most common mistakes people make is that they don’t dare to advance fast enough, even though they would be perfectly capable of doing so. I don’t mean to say that everyone should start skipping textbooks, but provided you have the time and the motivation, don’t stay at a level you already master.

Thinking to yourself that you can stay at your current level for just another semester is just a way of fooling yourself. You need scaffolding, but you don’t need someone to hold your hand and take baby steps with you up the winding stairs of the pagoda of learning Chinese. You’re an independent, adult learner. You set your own limits, you decide how far you can go.