How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days

I have been inspired by many people in my life and in many different areas. When it comes to learning things, Scott H. Young runs one of the most interesting blogs I know I have kept an eye on his various projects and thoughts about how to get more out of life for at least five years, so when he said that he would now turn to learning languages, I was eager to see what would happen. When I saw that Chinese was one of the languages he had chosen to learn, I was thrilled!

scottvatandme

In this guest article, Scott shares some of his learning experience in a practical and easily applicable way. He reached a very decent level of Chinese in little more than three months, including passing HSK4 (yes, including reading and writing). If you want to evaluate his speaking skills, there are several videos in this post, one of them with Scott, his friend Vat and me speaking Chinese here in Taipei a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

In this post I’m going to try to dissect the specific methods I found most successful for reaching a strong conversational level of Chinese, after just a little over three months of private study.

First though, if you haven’t seen it, check out the mini-documentary Vat and I shot about the experience of living in China/Taiwan and learning Chinese. I owe a debt of gratitude to Vat for painting an excellent picture of what life was like and the Chinese we managed to reach.

Beyond that video, however, I want to go into more detail and give you the strategies I found worked best so you can use them yourself if you plan to learn Chinese or any other language.

Side note: I’m indebted to the many people who helped inspire and encourage this project. Benny Lewis, who first wrote about going up against Chinese in only three months. Chinese-Forums member Tamu, who wrote about challenging the HSK 5 after just 4 months in Taiwan. Additionally long-time Chinese learners John Pasden and Hacking Chinese’s very own, Olle Linge, offered a lot of advice in designing this project, and I appreciate the time they took for interviews, which I’ve included below.

What Level Did I Reach, Exactly?

In May, just a little shy of three months in China, I wrote the HSK 4 and passed with a 74% (Listening: 82%, Reading: 77% and Writing: 62%). For those unfamiliar with the HSK, it is the largest official exam for Chinese as a second language. It is divided into six levels with HSK 1 being the most basic elements of the language and HSK 6 as the highest level.

According to the organization that conducts the HSK, an HSK 4 is equivalent to the CEFR’s B2 designation. However, personally, I believe this is an inflation and it is probably more like a B1.

The HSK does not test speaking ability, but both Olle and John Pasden of Sinosplice.com were kind enough to sit down with me for an unstructured interview. I believe these clips are representative of my Chinese. I’m by no means perfectly fluent, but we were able to carry on a decent conversation in both cases with minimal friction.

Interview with Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

Interview with John Pasden (Sinosplice.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

John’s interview was filmed in Shanghai, just before I wrote the HSK 4 and Olle’s was filmed three weeks later in Taipei.

Speaking more generally, I believe my level of Chinese is sufficient to deal with most basic necessities of living, travel, make new friends and have interesting conversations entirely in Chinese. I can also read most of simple emails, menus and signs, although my reading still lags behind my speaking ability.

I’m still not at a level where I could easily understand group conversations, movies, television or read books or newspapers.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving native-level functionality with the language, but I feel the level I did reach has enormous practical benefits.

How Much Time Did I Invest, Exactly?

Before arriving in China, my studying time was exactly 105 hours. I’ve included this as an hourly amount, rather than a specific time period, because it was spread over a few months and I was also concurrently studying Spanish and Korean while working full-time.

In China, I studied fairly aggressively from February 16th when we arrived, until around May 10th, when I wrote the HSK 4. Although I went on to spend another three weeks in Taiwan, I did no formal study at that time and spoke in English with Vat (taking a break to finish the video before starting Korean).

My studying routine in China was to study six days per week with roughly the following activities:

  1. Private tutoring 1-3 hours per day.
  2. Anki (MCC Deck + my own deck for HSK vocabulary) 80 minutes per day.
  3. ChinesePod listening practice (last two months) 2 hours per day.
  4. Textbook study (first month) 2 hours per day. (Textbooks used: New Practical Chinese Reader, Complete Mandarin Chinese, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar)
  5. Skritter handwriting (last two months) 30 minutes per day.
  6. Miscellaneous drills 0-2 hours per day.

Once you include breaks, I’d say this amounts to a solid full-time schedule. Although, there are undoubtedly people who could have studied much more than I did.

Aside from minimal work to maintain my website, which is my full-time job, I was entirely focused on learning Chinese.

Beyond my studying, I also had a few good friends and many acquaintances in China with whom I only spoke in Chinese. Movies and television shows I also omitted from the tally of total time spent. I watched a number of Chinese movies, a few seasons of 爱情公寓 (English title iPartment), and some Chinese music.

If I had to do an estimate of total time invested, I would estimate around 350-400 hours of study in China (plus 105 hours prior to arrival), another 150 hours of actual Chinese usage outside of my full-time studying and perhaps another 100 hours of Chinese media of some kind (television shows, movies, etc.). However the hours of immersion are much easier than the hours of studying, once you’re past the hump of making friends in the language.

I believe the methods and schedule I outline is something anyone could implement, provided they are living in China and studying Chinese full-time (either in classes or privately). Obviously, if you need to work in English while in China, you may have to adapt these methods to suit your schedule.

Exact Methods I Used to Learn Chinese Efficiently

Chinese was a far harder and more interesting challenge than previous languages I’ve learned, such as Spanish. With Spanish, aside from some time with a tutor and light grammar study from an exercise book, I learned everything from immersion. Chinese, on the other hand, erected many barriers that made immersion in the beginning stages often frustratingly difficult.

My philosophy towards learning anything difficult is, if at first you don’t succeed, break it down into smaller pieces and try again. When I frequently hit frustrations in trying to learn Chinese quickly, I reverted to that motto and broke my sources of frustration into smaller units which I could set up drills for and improve in isolation.

Early in the challenge, when I found myself unable to correctly recognize and pronounce the 4 tones of Chinese, I turned to pronunciation specific drills. Later, when I found that my listening ability was hindering my Chinese much more than speaking, I spent a bulk of studying time doing targeted listening drills.

It’s important to note that these drills and exercises had immersion as a background. I don’t think I would have been successful if I had used them in isolation—that is without spending hundreds of hours having real conversations with Chinese people, listening to real Chinese media and living my life mostly in Chinese.

I won’t labor the point about immersion, because I’ve written about it before, but if you’re struggling with this half of the language learning process, see this article I wrote for John Pasden’s Sinosplice.com for specific steps you can follow.

Methods I Found Most Useful

I tried dozens of different methods for learning Chinese, from textbook study to pronunciation drills, vocabulary lists and grammar exercises. Ultimately, I narrowed down my studying to just a handful of methods I thought were the most broadly useful. They were:

1. Full-sentence, audio-included Anki decks

I opted for a set of Anki decks organized around learning characters. Although character-learning isn’t a necessity for reaching a conversational level, I felt the fact that these decks harmonized listening, vocabulary, sentence patterns and character recognition, made them the most useful resource I used.

I mostly didn’t create my own Anki decks, aside for a specific one to master HSK vocabulary prior to my exam. I also mostly ignored any decks that lacked audio or full sentences.

I also adjusted the studying parameters for the Anki decks. Normally a first-time card has a one-day “good” review and a three-day “excellent” review time. I adjusted these to three and ten days, respectively. I also reduced the leech threshold to three failures before a card was pulled from my deck. (Side note: I also increased the spacing between cards in Anki’s settings, but discussing it with Olle we’re not sure whether that’s good advice. In general, don’t change settings unless you have a good reason to do so. Nonetheless, I had 84.1% correct on mature cards which isn’t substantially different from Anki’s default goal of 90%)

The result of these tweaks meant that I was spending less time memorizing the cards and more time exposed to new ones. This exploits the 80/20 rule, by quickly eliminating too-difficult cards that waste your time and pushing too-easy cards far ahead.

Taking these decks allowed me to, using only 116 hours in China and 70 hours in Canada, learn roughly 1800 characters and see them used in a few thousand example sentences. Because the decks also separate listening/reading/production as well as single-character/sentence, I was also quizzed on each element separately.

My one regret with how I handled this part of the learning phase, is that I didn’t learn the radicals early enough. Probably my first 500 or so characters, I had only learned a handful of radicals. Once I learned the radicals, my mental model for chunking characters had changed and it became harder to recognize ones learned using previous mnemonics. My advice: if you’re serious about learning Chinese, learn the top 100 radicals as soon as possible, since it is the best foundation for recognizing them correctly down the road.

2. Listening drills

For listening drills, I started by just listening to ChinesePod episodes. My feeling was that these are nice passive resources, but they are too long to be easily used for improving your listening ability until you get to the upper intermediate level where both hosts speak almost entirely in Chinese.

Instead, what I did was download the dialog-only files for hundreds of episodes. These usually run around a minute or so, and I would listen to each one a few times, then go through the Chinese-character only text and try to read it, and finally go through the English translation. Then, any characters, words or sentence patterns I didn’t recognize, I would jot down in a notebook.

It typically took about 5-10 minutes to do each file, and I did around 250 in this way. The ChinesePod files are quite good because they use very natural sounding, conversational Chinese. Most other learner resources try to be overly clear and well-spoken, so when you listen to actual native speakers, you struggle to make a match.

This was my second most productive drill I used in China, and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels their listening ability isn’t top notch, and isn’t at a level to really get much benefit from native media yet.

3. Pronunciation drills

Pronunciation wasn’t the main focus of my time in China. Despite wanting to make it a large focus from the beginning, it wasn’t important enough relative to vocabulary and listening to make it a large amount of my daily time usage.

Despite that, I did find a small amount of pronunciation drills to be invaluable. I truly believe that getting even an adequate pronunciation in Chinese is quite hard, especially if you train poor habits from the beginning.

The first thing I did was look up anatomical charts which note tongue position for various sounds in Chinese that we do not have in English. These were very helpful because I got into the habit of moving my tongue into a different position for the q/x/j sounds than the ch/sh/zh sounds which mostly sound the same in English. It also helped me learn how to do the Chinese “r” differently from the English “r” which can be a problem for anglophones.

Next I worked on tone-pair drills. I made the mistake of doing these on my own in the beginning, which inadvertently had me pronouncing my second tone too much like a third tone. I worked with Olle to go through a specific pronunciation test to see if I could pronounce the sounds right, at least in deliberate isolation. The first time I had some tonal errors, mostly related to this 2nd-as-3rd-tone problem, as well as a couple isolated problems with the phonetics themselves.

After a few weeks with drills with tutors, I redid the test and got a good score. This hardly means my pronunciation is perfect. First, the test was mostly designed to see if I was making errors that would be large enough to cause confusion with native speakers, not accent reduction. Second, the test focused only on individual words in isolation, a much easier feat than getting all the tones right with unfamiliar vocabulary in a long sentence.

Pronunciation is probably one of the few areas with language learning that fixing mistakes as an intermediate or advanced learner is extremely hard. So even though Chinese can feel completely overwhelming and tones feel like a side concern, I completely agree with Olle that getting them right (even if just in limited isolation) is something beginners should allocate time for.

4. Conversational tutoring sessions

Tutoring was also very important, but not in the way most people think of tutoring. In China I ended up having three different tutors, two in-person, and a third via Skype using iTalki. My goal with tutors was to spend as much time as possible having real conversations with them, and a minimum of drills, exercises and the things tutors normally emphasize.

I bring this point up because many language teachers actively avoid using this method. Chinese teachers go through years of training teaching mostly passive students. As such, they’re used to guiding the student through exercises, grammar points and vocabulary. Many of the tutors I’ve encountered actually feel having conversations is a waste of time, and I’ve been interrupted in sessions where a tutor insists that we now “get back to work” after a conversational segue.

Therefore, if you’re an active student who is doing independent study for grammar, vocabulary, wasting tutoring time on such activities is going to hurt your progress, even if your teacher pushes you towards it. I suggest being upfront with your tutor from the start about what kind of class you want to have and don’t be afraid to get a new one if your tutor stymies your attempts at having conversational classes.

Other Methods

I emphasized the above four because I felt that they comprised (a) the most important studying I did in China and (b) they are activities many students do not do. I did use a textbook in the first month as well as a portion of my tutoring time in typical classroom activities, but my guess is that the average student spends too much time on these rather than too little.

What Can a Reasonably Dedicated Learner Achieve in Three Months?

Overall, I do believe that reaching a decent conversational level in a three months is possible for a reasonably dedicated learner, provided they follow the strategy I outlined.

Vat wasn’t at the same level of Chinese as myself after three months, but he could still have conversations about day-to-day topics without strain and deal with most issues related to living and travel in China. Vat’s approach was considerably less strenuous than my own, and he worked on other non-language learning projects at the same time (including the videography for our mini-documentary).

For learners who aren’t able to devote themselves fully, I think stretching the same strategy over a longer period of time could have a similar impact. If you’re teaching English in China, for example, and need to speak English for 8 hours a day, I imagine you could apply my approach to 2 hours per day in your spare time and probably see the same results in 6-8 months (given you also pursue immersion in your spare time as well).

Similarly, I believe someone learning in a classroom environment, but outside of China, could still arrange conversational exchanges via iTalki.com and the slowdown from not being within the country would be modest. The only challenge would be maintaining the motivation, since you have less pressure to learn Chinese.

Going Forward with Chinese

At the end of my stay in China, I was left with an impression that I really didn’t have enough time there. Not because my level was inadequate, but because the vastness of Chinese language and culture really deserves years of study, not a few short months.

Switching from a high-intensity period of study to a low-intensity, habitual, type of studying can be tricky. Now, my goal is to set up regular interaction with Chinese. Even if I have to return to real life and can’t devote myself full-time to learning Chinese, I feel I’ve established enough of a base that continuing progress can be done largely through real interactions with Chinese people and Chinese media, making it more enjoyable to keep learning.

A big thanks to Scott for this guest article! He is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you join his newsletter, he’ll send you a free copy of his ebook detailing the general strategy he uses to learn more efficiently. This includes language learning, but certainly isn’t limited to it!

Studying Chinese when your grades matter

In an ideal world, everybody would be studying Chinese according to their own goals, in which case the main challenge is to figure out what way of studying is the most efficient one for you personally. However, the world is far from ideal and for most people, studying Chinese has an extra layer of requirements superimposed over our personal goals, a layer of grades, tests and qualifications.

gradesIn some cases, this extra layer imposed by institutions, companies or organisations might even be more important than our own, personal goals. In some extreme cases, these external goals might indeed be the only reason we’re studying Chinese. Perhaps we need those credits to get into the program we want or our parents force you to take Chinese in school even though we don’t want to. Many people consider learning Chinese because they think it will give them an edge, not necessarily because they like the language.

There are extremes in both directions, of course, and most of us will find ourselves somewhere in the middle, i.e. personal goals are important, but we can’t afford to ignore grades or tests completely. If you only care about grades, I think you will fail unless you find some way of enjoying what you’re doing. If you don’t care about grades at all, you don’t really need this article. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle, however, this article is for you!

Personal goals and institutional goals

Before we go into this in more detail, however, let’s first discuss an underlying assumption. For this article to make sense, there has to be a significant difference between personal goals and external goals, but is that really the case? I think it is. It’s extremely unlikely that the requirements of the course you’re enrolled in or the test you’re required to take are identical.

There is also a difference between actual ability and performance on at est. Answering multiple choice questions is not the same as listening to a lecture, writing a short essay on a random topic is not the same as writing a letter to someone in Chinese. In short, you can be very good at Chinese and still fail the tests. Conversely, you can pass the tests and still lack crucial skills that simply aren’t within the range of the test.

I think that this is a problem with measurement (i.e. how do we measure progress, success or proficiency), something I’ve written more about in this article: Counting what counts. Having made this clear, let’s get into to the discussion of how to handle grades of various kinds. I will focus on three aspects:

  • Study the requirements
  • Efficiency analysis
  • The practice effect

Study the requirements

This might look simple, but in some cases it can be very hard to figure out what is required of you. What I mean by “requirements” here is that you should make sure that you know, in as much detail as possible, what is required of you. If your preparing for a test, you need to know what abilities they test, how they do it and how they grade your performance. The same is true for courses, where it can be even harder to figure out what’s required because of individual differences between teachers or an opaque grading system Still, i you don’t know what is required of you, the rest I have to say in this article will be pretty much useless.

Efficiency analysis

The next step is to figure out which parts will give you the highest number of points for the least amount of effort. This holds true both for when you prepare for an exam and when you actually take the exam. When preparing, focus on what’s likely to give you many points without costing you too much time. In my opinion, this mostly involves fixing your worst problems rather than honing the skills you’re already quite good at. If grammar is your weak point, increasing reading speed by 5% will probably help less than drilling grammar patterns all those hours it took to increase the reading speed.

When taking an exam, you need to be very clear how the scoring system works. For instance, earlier this year, I took the TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language, Taiwan’s version of the HSK), and since the test is arranged so that the questions become gradually harder but still have a fixed number of points, it doesn’t pay off to rush through.In other words, you need to spend much more time to get one point late in the exam than you need early in the exam.

A particular point of interest is the grammar/vocabulary part, which gives you many, many points without having to read a lot of text. This is where you can get the most points per unit time. Having looked at the requirements carefully, it is also clear that you can afford to miss quite a number of questions on the reading part and still pass, so it makes much more sense to go through questions carefully and run out of time rather than rush through. This is not obvious if you don’t analyse the test.

The practice effect

When doing scientific research, the practice effect is very bad. For instance, if we want to figure out if study method A is beneficial for preparing for an exam, we can’t test the students too often, because if we do, we don’t know if they improved because of study method A rather than because they practised (and thus got better at) taking the test. When you care about grades, this is good, because we don’t care about what’s giving us the good results; as long as the results are good, we’re happy.

Taking a test requires a set of skills which are quite unique and we need time to adjust to the requirements of the test. A good example of this is IQ tests on the internet. If you do several consecutive tests that contain similar exercises (or if you do the same test more than once), you will of course receive a higher score, but it would be naive to think that this implies that you have increase your overall IQ.Your increased score is due to the fact that you’ve become more proficient at taking that particular kind of test.

Everything is hard the first few times we try, Chinese proficiency tests are no exception. Thus, take as many mock exams you can, sign up for any pilot tests or do whatever practice questions are available. This is likely to be the most efficient way to study for a test and also allows you to identify problem areas where you might need to spend more time.

Conclusion

Passing a difficult test or a demanding language course isn’t something you can expect to do just relying on your general proficiency level. Sure, if you’re level is way above the required level, you should still be fine (most native speakers would probably do very well on Chinese exams for foreigners, even though they haven’t prepared at all), but if that’s the situation you’re in, I don’t think you would have read this far.

No, passing an exam or receiving good grades in a course is based both your general proficiency and your ability to apply that proficiency to the particular exam or course in question. This latter part requires practice, analysis and some planning to achieve. Thus, even though it’s obvious you need to know the language, too, don’t overlook the structural aspects of proficiency exams and language courses if you care about the grade.

Learning the right chengyu the right way

Ever since I started learning Chinese, I’ve heard people say that if I want to impress native speakers and show that I really know Chinese, the key is to learn chengyu (成语/成語). They are often presented as magic keys not only to the Chinese language, but also to the culture, the people, the philosophy and so on.

However, this approach has always irked me. The way chengyu are presented and taught is, in my opinion, flawed. In this article, I will share my own experience of chengyu and how I think they should be approached, both from a student’s and a teacher’s perspective. In case you’re not sure what a chengyu is, please read the article on Wikipedia.

My own experience of learning chengyu

Let’s look at a typical case (myself): Having heard that these idioms are the pinnacle of the Chinese language, as a student I want to learn as many as possible. I also find the stories behind the idioms interesting and there are lots of books written in English to explain these stories and the idioms they have created. When I try to use the idioms with native speakers, they are typically overjoyed that a foreigner has learnt these supposedly very hard phrases.

Then, after having learnt Chinese for many years, I figured out that most of this was wrong. Most of the chengyu I learnt were actually not that important and had a very limited usage (see below). When native speakers said it was cool that I used chengyu, it was more in a “oh, look, the foreigner is trying to use chengyu, how cute!” way. I don’t think I used many of those idioms in a correct way. I still don’t. Chengyu are much trickier than most students (and teachers) think.

For example, let me tell you about a little game I play when writing articles. I have a fairly good passive grasp of chengyu, so when I write articles, I often have an idea that there should be a chengyu that would fit in a particular sentence. I’ve come to see article writing as a boxing match: it’s me versus the idioms. When I use an idiom correctly, I score one point, when I use an idiom incorrectly or in a awkward way (as pointed out by a reliable native speaker), chengyu scores one point. I almost always lose. This is after having studied Chinese for many years and focusing quite a lot on writing.

In essence, I have three things to say about chengyu:

  1. Chengyu have a more limited use than you might think
  2. Always learn chengyu with a sentence
  3. You don’t actually need chengyu

Chengyu have a more limited use than you might think

The first thing you should know about chengyu is that they typically express a very specific concept. This concept is usually much narrower than the English definitions you will see next to it in a dictionary. Of course, this isn’t true for all chengyu; some even have very close counterparts in English (see this article on World of Chinese), but it is true in most cases.

If you have fully grasped the story behind the chengyu and its meaning, you might still get it wrong, because modern usage isn’t necessarily the same as it once was or native speakers interpret the story differently from you. You also need to grasp how the chengyu is used in a sentence. Is it used as a verb? A phrase perhaps? Both? Or it might just be the case that native speakers don’t use that chengyu very much at all.

If we take normal words and experiment by expanding their use to areas which we haven’t really encountered them in before, we will sometimes find that they work in this new context as well, sometimes we’ll find that they don’t. Through a mixture of negative and positive feedback, we slowly grasp how the words are used. When you experiment with words, you’ll be right a fair number of times, with chengyu, you will almost always be wrong.

The following drawing is a rough representation of what’s going on. The green circles represent correct usage and the white circles represent the learners understanding of that usage. If the circles overlap completely, the word or phrase has been mastered. As we can see, the process of learning words is mostly about adjusting the circles so that they match (of course, the size should vary too, but that would make the drawing very messy). For chengyu, though, the most significant difference between the circles is the size. Chengyu usually have a much more narrow usage than learners think.

Learning ChengyuThis leads me up to the second point.

Always learn chengyu with a sentence

The biggest mistake students (including myself) make is that they treat chengyu as normal words, which isn’t a good approach. Instead, learn each chengyu in a specific context. I don’t mean that you should just add an example sentence, I mean that you should learn the example sentence and the chengyu as one unit. Of course, the sentence should be a typical sentence that shows the way the chengyu is typically used.

In fact, some chengyu are only used to describe one specific thing, so if you know that one sentence, you’ve covered most of the uses of that chengyu! In other words, you should start from a very small circle and then slowly expand that if you find other examples of how that chengyu is used, rather than drawing a big circles and then gradually shrinking it. This will of course mean that you will use chengyu less, but you will at the same time avoid using them incorrectly most of the time.

My normal approach doesn’t work very well for chengyu

I’ve learnt most of my Chinese this way:

  1. Learn to understand something
  2. Read and listen a lot, pay attention
  3. Experiment and learn how to use what I already understand

This has worked very well for increasing all four skills in Chinese and I think this is a great method, provided that you spend enough time doing 2), which is where most people fail. Still, with hindsight, I realise that this method is horrible for chengyu. Yes, I can understand most of the idioms I encounter when reading, but I suck at using chengyu. This is because I thought of them as flexible building blocks rather than fixed expressions used to convey a very specific meaning.

You don’t actually need chengyu; they aren’t magic keys to anything

Chengyu are cool. I like the stories and I like the culture I gain access to through the stories, but saying that you have to be able to use lots of chengyu to get good at Chinese is simply wrong. Do you have to understand chengyu? Yes. Do you have to be able to use them? Not really. It’s perfectly possible to speak Chinese extremely well without using too many chengyu.

Your normal vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation matters much more than if you throw in a chengyu here and there. And remember, if you throw one in the wrong idiom, you’ll just show that you actually don’t know that much. As a beginner, it’s cool to be the cute foreigner doing his best, but that’s not so cool when you’re trying to grow up in Chinese and become an adult speaker.

Of course, if you’re Chinese is so good that it starts approaching an educated native speaker, you really have to start using chengyu correctly to really show your mastery of the language. You also can’t escape some common chengyus, both written and spoken. That’s not what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about the thousands of chengyu that pop up in books, articles and so on. Understand them, study them if you like, but do so because you’re interested and because you like it, not in a vain attempt to show off, because you’re most likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

If you don’t love chengyu, I suggest you learn the most common ones, especially those that can be used in a large variety of situations. The general rules is that if you hear a chengyu three times in different situations, it’s probably worth learning. An alternative is to check this article by Carl Fordham, who has gathered 20 chengyu that are actually useful. Never learn chengyu from huge lists you find on the internet.

A question of effiicency

The real reason I think people focus too much on chengyu is that the effort it takes to learn to use a chengyu is several times greater than the effort required to learn most normal words. Thus, you get much more value for the time you invest if you focus on high-frequency chengyu only and leave the rest for later. I’m not saying it’s bad to learn chengyu, I’m just saying that its not the best way to invest your time.

Learning efficiently vs. learning quickly

Lately, the internet has been buzzing with discussions about learning Chinese quickly (in three months, to be more precise). This is obviously not the first time people have been discussing learning languages quickly, and each time the discussion starts, someone asks a question which might seem stupid to some people, but which still is a genuine and legitimate question:

Why do we want to learn a language quickly anyway?

I always stress that our main motivation for learning (at least in the short-term) should be pleasure. We should strive to find ways of studying we thoroughly enjoy, because only then will we be able to spend enough time to reach our long-term goals. Also, leading this kind of life is far more enjoyable than cramming in things you don’t really enjoy.

Image credit: world.werner-kunz.com

Enjoying is learning.

So, if the goal is to enjoy ourselves, why is it important to learn a language quickly? Well, we might have extrinsic reasons for wanting to learn the language. Perhaps we want to be able to communicate with Chinese-speaking people where we live, or we plan to find a job where proficiency in Chinese is necessary. In this case, the quicker we learn Chinese, the better.

The quicker the better? Really?

Writing the last sentence of the previous paragraph, I felt bad. Having that kind of attitude towards language learning is counter-productive and harmful to any kind of long-term learning. We might be able to force ourselves to reach limited success in learning a language, but if we hope to master Chinese, we really have to like what we’re doing.

Still, these are real questions and not everyone has the same idealistic approach to language learning. There is a way to reconcile these two standpoints, which involves stopping using the work “quick” and start using the word “efficient” instead.

Learn Chinese efficiently

Hacking Chinese is about learning Chinese efficiently (this is indeed the core of language hacking). The definition of efficient is that you gain a lot per unit of time. The goal of learning languages efficiently is something I think we all share, even though we may have different ideas about what is efficient. Who want to spend twice the time to learn the same number of characters, for instance? On this website, I mainly write about how to make the most of your studies, how to overcome problems and save time. I write about efficiency, not speed.

Not an arbitrary difference

But wait, isn’t this just a different way of saying the same thing? Is there really a difference between efficient learning and quick learning? Yes, I think there is, and it’s far from arbitrary. Here’s why “efficient” is a much better word than “quick”:

  • Efficient emphasises on solid learning for the long term, quick is more about shortcuts that might actually come back to haunt you later
  • Efficient is desirable for every single learner out there, including those who study part time in their home country; quick mostly applies to people immersed in the environment with strong external goals
  • Efficient is a wider concept that includes learning finer nuances, whereas quick smacks of sloppiness
  • Efficient focuses on the road, quick mostly on the destination (or the time it takes to get there)
  • Efficient is useful for those who desire speed, but quick is not necessarily helpful for those who strive for efficiency

Let me finish by highlighting the last of the points above. Note that the methods that can be used to learn Chinese efficiently are in essence the same as those that can be employed to learn the language quickly. This means that most of the things I’ve written are helpful for anyone, regardless of why you want to learn or what your goals are. Put simply, learning efficiently is always good, whereas learning quickly isn’t necessarily always a a good thing. My wish is that people stop staring blindly at speed and start focusing on efficiency instead, because after all learning Chinese quickly is just a matter of doing it efficiently, combined with investing lots of time.

How to find more time to practise listening

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As I have written before, listening is mostly a matter of practice. There are some things you can do to increase the time, however, such as eliminating practical problems, but if you really want to listen a lot, you need to really make an effort. If you want to improve your listening ability to a very high level (or very quickly if you’re a beginner), you need to make listening to Chinese a part of your life.

Two approaches to extending the time available for listening

Having eliminated practical problems (see above), it’s time to look at how to make more time available for listening. These are not different methods, but simply different angles from which to approach the problem that there is never enough time to do everything. The first method focuses on listening at the same time as doing something important, the other emphasises how listening can be made more worthwhile by doing something else at the same time. As can be seen, the difference between the two is merely a shift in focus.

Doing something important and listening to Chinese at the same time

Life is full of things that we have to do and that eats up a lot of time, such as walking, cooking, doing the laundry and so on. These are things that usually can’t be neglected, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t combine them with listening practice. Many menial everyday activities can be combined with listening without trouble, although it might requite some practice before it works smoothly.

Here are a few examples:

  • Walking/driving/biking
  • Doing the laundry
  • Washing dishes
  • Shopping groceries
  • Cleaning/tidying up
  • Cooking
  • Eating

The amount of time spent on these activities every day will of course vary from person to person, but a rough estimate is that I spend around 20 hours weekly on these activities. Again, depending on your civil status and social situations, not all of this time will be available for listening purposes (you can’t listen to the radio while eating with your spouse or put your earphones on when taking a walk with your neighbour), but even if only half the time is available, it’s still ten hours!

Don’t worry if you don’t focus very much on what you hear, because anything is better than nothing. If you want to read more about background listening, check my article about it.

Doing something else while listening to make it more worthwhile

You can also approach the problem from the opposite direction. Say that you’ve found a radio show you want to listen to, but leading a hectic life, you might not find the time to sit down and just listen. Then why don’t you try to find something you can do at the same time, which will perhaps not be worthwhile on its own, but is ok when combined with the listening practice? You can do this with virtually anything, but here are some suggestions of varying degrees of seriousness:

  • Gardening/replanting potted plants
  • Knitting/sewing/crafting
  • Reorganising drawers/cupboards
  • Baking/cooking
  • Jogging/exercising
  • Playing video/computer games

Actually, you can combine listening with almost anything that doesn’t require you to hear what’s going on. If you listen to recorded material, it isn’t very important that you understand or hear everything either, you can just play the same part again if something made you lose focus.

Practice makes perfect

Listening to audio while doing the above-mentioned tasks requires some skill and most people can’t do it flawlessly without practice. If you try listening to Chinese while cooking and constantly lose focus on either task, don’t give up! I wasn’t particularly good at this when I started out, but now I can comfortably combine most tasks with listening to Chinese if I want to. With practice and some patience, you can too.

Challenge yourself and see how much time you can find!

Even though we can surely find many hours of time every week, I should say something about humans being human and not robots. Don’t overdo it! If you find music you really like or a radio programme you enjoy, listen as much as you can, but filling every second of your waking time with something useful might prove very tiring in the long run. Listen to yourself as well as to Chinese!

Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches

A leech is something that drains time from your studying and will keep doing so until you do something about it. The most essential example would be a piece of vocabulary, let’s say a character, that just refuses to stick in your mind. Even though it has appeared numerous times in your spaced repetition program, you just can’t recall the correct answer, perhaps because it’s very difficult, perhaps for no readily apparent reason whatsoever. What makes a particular word turn into a leech is very difficult to say, simply because it seems to be wildly different between different learners. Every learner I’ve talked to knows about leeches, although they might not use that word. This article is about how to deal with leeches.

Other articles on Hacking Chinese related to spaced repetition:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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Leeches are harmless on their own, but deadly in packs

Fortunately, we don’t need to know exactly why a leech appears, we simply need to know how to recognise it and how to do deal with it. The reason for wanting to kill leeches should be obvious: Not only do they drain time since they require much more reviewing than other flashcards, they also create a sense of frustration when you always fail a certain flashcard. Speaking of flashcards, I’m more or less assuming that you are using spaced repetition software (Anki, for instance), but you will be able to benefit from this article even if you’re old-school and still rely on pen and paper.

The problem with leeches is treacherous. One leech might perhaps drain a couple of minutes study time, which is insignificant. However, if you let the number grow, the time that get sucked in by these bastards will quickly accumulate and start becoming a real problem. This is completely unnecessary.

How to spot leeches

Spotting leeches is in one regard very easy, but in another quite difficult. It’s easy because you often get a feeling that you forget a word very often, which means that it’s probably a leech. If you’re using Anki, there is a specific function that will identify leeches for you, which means that you don’t really have to think too much about it yourself.

The default setting for the definition of a leech is that the card has been failed 16 times, which is ridiculously high in my opinion; I’ve lowered the number to 8, but possibly you could lower it even more, down to 5 or so. When this number is reached, the card is suspended and you will have to manually do something about it. This is precisely what we want.

However, noticing leeches might sometimes be more difficult than that. What if there are three characters you often confuse or you’re simply too lenient when you correct yourself, so you fool yourself into believing that it’s not a problem? Being aware of leeches and having an active strategy to combat them is essential and will probably solve most problems related to identification.

Kill the leeches!

So, you have identified a leech, but what do you do with it? It depends on what kind of leech it is. Characters that refuse to stick are usually the result of bad mnemonics. Go back and look at how the character is composed and see how you can create a new story or picture that will allow you to remember it. If it’s a multi-character word, the same is true: you need a new approach and a more vivid connection to allow you to remember the piece of vocabulary in question.

Confusing similar characters is a problem which might be a little bit harder to deal with and requires more effort. However, as I have argued elsewhere, knowing lots of individual characters is essential if you want to learn words really fast. If you have a series of characters you can’t distinguish, you have a flawed tool kit and your learning in general will also suffer. What I do in these situations is to compose a list of similar characters and then go through them systematically. Using a dictionary with a visual etymology tree is essential, because that way you can actually see similar characters right next to each other (see below).

Let’s take the characters 氐, 抵, 诋, 底 and 低 as examples. They are all pronounced more or less the same (only 低 differs in that it’s first tone). I found it very hard to remember which one of these was which, so I looked at this page over at Zhongwen.com. Look at the right and you will see all the different characters that contains 氐. Going through all these and writing them down (preferably by hand) is a good way of killing related. I usually gather these collections on a single sheet of paper and then put that somewhere where I usually have spare time, like next to my bed, close to the table or in the bathroom.

Being lazy means more work, not less

Dealing with leeches is quite easy most of the time. Laziness is usually a bigger problem than a lack of ideas about or insight into how to solve the problem. What I do is that I mark or label potential leeches in some way and then ignore them for a while until I feel like I have the time and energy to deal with them. Then I spend an hour or so looking at them and weeding out any problems that might be lurking there. That way, I kill lots of leeches at once. Finish what you started before you go leech hunting.

The reason I say it’s stupid to be lazy is that you don’t save time by ignoring leeches, rather the opposite is true. Lowering the threshold of leeches in Anki will mean that you spend more time looking at character parts and killing leeches. However, this is not a waste of time, because it means that you actually learn something instead of just failing over and over. Not only is it good for your Chinese, it’s good for your self-confidence as well.

Giving up is (sometimes) an option

Even though it’s necessary to learn most words at some point and there probably is a reason why you have entered a specific word into you vocabulary list, it’s important to realise that you don’t always have to fight. Let’s say you have a word you’ve tried to learn a number of times but which simply just refuses to stick, regardless of mnemonics or any other strategy you try. In such a case, I ask myself: Do I really need this word? Is it commonly used? Can I do without it? If the answer is yes, just delete the card and get rid of the leech that way. Spend the time thus saved learning something else.

In any case, keep your eyes peeled for leeches! When you feel that you have a couple, take decisive action to get rid of them, once and for all. A few leeches are irritating, but a throng of them will kill you. Don’t let them! Take control and make you studying even more effective.

Questions to the reader

  • Were you aware of the concept of leeches before reading this article?
  • How do you handle the problem with leeches?
  • What’s your worst leech ever (you can check most reps in Anki, for instance)?
  • Do you have tactics for leech hunting than presented here?

(PS my worst leech ever is 昆, which has 62 reps, proving that I don’t always follow my own advice)

Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time

Thinking about how to study Chinese involves planning of some sort. If you try to combine studying with working or find that other things take up a lot of your time, it’s important to spend at least some of the time you have thinking about how you spend the rest of the time. Even if you’re lucky and study Chinese full-time, you still need to think about what to study at what time to make the most out of it. I have come up with a concept of time quality that I think helps quite a lot when thinking about time management. This concept of time quality is not revolutionary, but since I’ve found that most people don’t think like this, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the subject.

Time has different levels of qualities and should be used accordingly

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The basic idea is that a given stretch of time has a certain quality. The time of the highest quality is when you can do anything you want and is quite rare. However, if you have an entire afternoon free, can go where you want and have few obligations, that is good enough to be considered as perfect quality time in a practical sense. Time quality is not a linear spectrum, however, because even if there is only one kind of very high quality time, there are many different types of low quality time and it is important to understand the differences between them.

Low quality time is time when you can study, but only in a limited manner. A good example would time when you drive your car to work. You could listen to something while doing this, but you can’t practise writing characters. This is one kind of low quality time. Another example would be time you spend alone, but away from your computer and phone so you can’t listen to Chinese or look up things on the internet. This is another kind of of low quality time. Using this approach, every second of the day can be considered to be study time of different qualities, albeit sometimes so low that it’s impossible to use for studying.

So, why bother about this? Why is it helpful? It’s necessary to think like this, because if you don’t, it means that you will be wasting time doing the right things (studying) at the wrong time (wasting quality). The general principle is this:

Always strive to use time with as low quality as possible, but which still allows you to complete a task

This is simple enough and can be illustrated with a basic example. I will give more examples of this later, but let us consider an obvious one first. Let’s say you have two hours to study Chinese every day, one at home before you go to bed and one on the bus. It’s  stupid to spend the hour at home practising listening, because that is something you can easily do on the bus.

On the bus, however, it’s much harder to study characters, read texts or any number of tasks associated with learning Chinese. At home, these restrictions are gone. Time at home has a very high quality, so you should spend it wisely. Don’t do things at home you can do on the bus!

The best way to manage time in this way is by starting from the bottom with the time of lowest quality and then moving up to gradually increasing qualities. This means that you make yourself think about your time on the bus, in the car, waiting for dinner, doing a menial task at work or something else, and then figure out what parts of your studying you can do in these slots of time. Doing this, you will find that after a while only tasks that require very high quality is left and you can then choose to do these parts whenever your have high quality time at your disposal.

Here are some more situations analysed using this concept:

  • Take vocabulary with you when you move around, preferably using spaced repetition software such as Anki. Spending time in front of your computer reviewing characters is a waste of time quality. This can easily be done while you wait for a friend, while you wait for food, are on the bus or at any number of different times.
  • Make sure you always have something to listen to. Since listening ability is mostly a function of time spent listening, it’s essential that you can utilise low quality time as much as possible, because you’re going to need the higher quality time to learn other things. If you start analysing your time in terms of quality, you will be surprised at how much time you have at your disposal.
  • Use Chinese when you speak with yourself. Depending on what level you have reached, this can include anything from counting things in Chinese to having your internal dialogue entirely in Chinese. This means that you can practice piecing together sentences in Chinese in many situations where many other kinds of studying is impossible.
  • Prepare before you go to class. Asking your teacher questions you might as well have looked up on your own is a waste of your time (as well as your classmates). You want your teacher to correct your pronunciation, grammar and so on, which is very hard to do yourself. If you just want to know how to pronounce a character or how to say “torpedo” in Chinese (look it up, it’s a really cool word), use a dictionary.

For the ambitious and the lazy

In short, this is just a different way of looking at the time you have at your disposal and trying to find what is optimal to do at a given situation. It’s of course not only useful for studying Chinese; the same approach can be used for anything. Note that this is a strategy for the lazy and the ambitious alike. If you study what you need to study on the bus, you can do other things when you get home. If you study all your flashcards while waiting for a friend, you can chat with him or her a bit longer before you have to go home!

If you can only stay abroad for a short time, don’t go immediately

During my years abroad studying Chinese, I’ve come to a conclusion about when to go abroad to study. This is based on my personal experience, as well as a limited statistics based on other students I’ve met. This idea might seem counter-intuitive, but I’m fully convinced that it’s true nevertheless.

If you can only stay abroad for a short time, then study the language at home before you go

As you can see from the wording, this doesn’t apply to people who can study abroad as much as they want to, nor does is it relevant if you’ve studied many years at home. Instead, I’m talking to those of you who think that the ideal way of starting your Chinese learning is to spend what money you have and go to China without any prior knowledge of the language.

Note that I’m not saying it’s bad to go abroad in general, I’m simply discussing when to do it if you have limited time and/or money.

Why is it a mistake to go abroad without any prior knowledge of the language?

  • You will spend most of your time learning things that are so basic you could have done it at home
  • You might be taught essential concepts by a teacher who don’t share a language with you
  • You lack sufficient vocabulary to be able to do very much at first
  • You will need the time abroad later, when you need immersion more than basic training
  • You can get all the above things in your country, so if you’ve only got a short time abroad, don’t waste it!

These points need some explanations.

First, you need to understand that Chinese isn’t French. If an English-speaking person goes to France and is determined, I’m quite convinced that it’s possible to learn the language to an adequate level very rapidly, perhaps even within a few months. This is because English and French are two languages which are very close (parts are identical or close to identical). Chinese and English, on the other hand, share almost no words whatsoever. Going to France, you can usually get by simply guessing words from English. This isn’t true in China. This does not mean that you shouldn’t speak Chines before you know the basics (you should speak as much as you can, always), but it means that you don’t need to spend extra money to do it in China.

Second, many of your teachers will only know basic English, or sometimes no English at all, which is a very bad way of learning difficult concepts such as pronunciation and grammar. It would be really cool if we could pick up the tones in Mandarin simply by listening, but alas, I don’t think that’s possible for the average adult learner. You need to understand what you’re being taught and that isn’t going to happen if the teacher only speaks Chinese.

Going abroad to study is very good, but doing it immediately is inefficient and a waste of resources

Of course it’s good to study Chinese in a Chinese-speaking environment, anyone can tell you that. It will give you an immediate and personal experience that might make you more motivated and you will also learn more than if you stayed at home, so please don’t think that I’m trying to gainsay that. What I am saying is that this is a question of efficiency, that if your resources are limited and you can’t stay very long, you need to maximise the gains. Make sure you have the basics before you go!

So how long should you wait? A few weeks of intensive studying should be enough. That will will give you basic pronunciation, a couple of hundred words and some grammar. If you don’t dedicate all your time to learning, this might take a few months, but no more than than.