Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

 summaryWhat should you do if you want to improve your writing ability in Chinese? The answer is two-fold. First, you should start reading more. Without a passive understanding of the language you’re going to use when you write, it’s almost impossible to use it accurately and writing will be reduced to a translation exercise that relies heavily on dictionaries. You will forget most of the words right after you copied them from the dictionary. Not good. Don’t expect to be able to write something you can’t read.

Second, you get good at what you practice, so if you want to get good at writing, no amount of reading will take you there if you don’t also combine it with writing practice. I think these are parallel processes, so I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write anything until you’re literate. This is not a good idea for the same reason that it’s not a good idea to delay speaking until you can understand spoken Chinese. It’s not bad because it wouldn’t work (it probably would, perhaps even very well), but because it would take an awful lot of time before you could do anything useful with the language.

If you want to be able to write Chinese, you have to write. But how should you practice?

Low and high intensity writing practice

As I have argued many times before, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need activities of both low and high intensity. For casual, low-intensity writing practice, please refer to the following articles:

In this article, though, I want to look at a high-intensity activity that combines reading and writing into one. It’s the best way of improving writing ability that I know of, and can be used at any level, but works best from intermediate and up when you can read and write sentences.

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

Writing summaries of Chinese texts is excellent practice. You might think that it doesn’t sound like too much fun, but this activity is so good that you have to check it out. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Intensive reading – The first thing you need to do if you want to write a summary is to completely understand the original text. This means going through it carefully and resolving any issues with a tutor. This kind of activity should be on your weekly schedule anyway, and so getting it integrated in a more comprehensive exercise is excellent.
  • Focused reading practice – In order to write a summary, you have to read very carefully and pay attention both to the content and the language. It’s probably a good idea to read it several times, focusing on different aspects every time. I have written more about focused reading here: How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading. Underline keywords, understand what words in the text give it its structure.
  • Natural exposure to important vocabulary – If you’re goal is to be able to write about your work, your hobby or something else, by reading texts in Chinese about these topics, you are exposed to the vocabulary native speakers use when writing about these topics. Collect the words, add them to the spaced repetition program of your choice. You also have good examples of how they are used, so don’t just add words, grab phrases or sentences.
  • Making the text your own –  Just reading a text with the aim of really understanding it is a good activity in general, but it doesn’t become your own text until you do something with it. Writing a summary is one of things you can do. Other things include commenting on the text, discussing it and so on, but these require much more support than writing a summary.
  • Activating vocabulary and grammar –  Knowing something passively is one thing, but in order to be able to write well, you need to be able to use the words as well. When you write your summary, you practice using the words you have learnt from your reading practice. If you do this with several articles with a similar topic, your command of the key vocabulary will increase rapidly.
  • Preparing for exams – Writing exams are often about reading some text and then transforming it into your own. Naturally, it might not be a straight-up summary they’re asking for, but restating something you have read in your own words is common. Being able to do this well shows both that you can read well and have a command of the language that allows you to do something useful with the things you read.
  • Avoiding translation –  I think translation is an excellent exercise (Translating to improve your Chinese), especially for advanced learners, but sometimes its good to avoid translation and just focus on the Chinese. Furthermore, if you write under the guidance of a tutor, summaries don’t require that much from him or her, but discussing the finer nuances of translation is really hard and demands a lot from your tutor.

Have I convinced you? If so, let’s turn to how to write summaries.

How to write summaries for language practice

The following procedure can be changed according to your needs, but works well as a starting point:

  1. Find one or more texts about a certain topic (you should be able to read these texts)
  2. Read the text and make sure you understand everything (ask someone if you don’t)
  3. Collect interesting words, phrases or patterns from the text (learn them, review)
  4. Write a draft of a summary (length can vary, see below)
  5. Ask for feedback from a tutor (Why good feedback matters and how to get it)
  6. Correct your summary (and make sure you understand what you’re changing and why)
  7. Save your summary for benchmarking purposes (Benchmarking progress to stay motivated)
  8. Publish your summary on your blog, social media site or whatever (I publish some stuff here)

Also, don’t forget that it’s the process that matters (how much you learn), not the actual text. If you need more than one round with a tutor, that’s perfectly okay! Focusing on the process is key: Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process.

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

It’s pretty easy to get quick feedback on Chinese writing for free. I have written an article about Lang-8, which is a service that allows you to upload your texts and receive feedback. In return, you’re expected to help other students learning your language (not necessarily the same people who help you, of course). These native speakers aren’t teachers, but they can still help you out a lot. Read my article here: Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese.

A brief note about length

The length of the text you read and the summary you write are variable. You can summaries a book, but you can also summarise a short newspaper article. Furthermore, the length of your review can also vary, which is perhaps more interesting. This  is actually something which can be very difficult, even in your native language, so it’s not purely related to the language itself. Try the following:

  1. Choose a text (let’s say 1000 characters)
  2. Write a summary using 250 characters
  3. Write a new summary using only 150 characters
  4. Write a third summary with no more than 50 characters
  5. Make sure each summary is still accurate!

These texts will have to be quite different to capture the gist of the article you read while meeting the length requirements. If you have never done this in any language, you will find that writing a short summary is usually much harder than writing a long one.

Why good feedback matters and how to get it

Feedback is an integral part of learning a foreign language and there is no doubt that we need it to improve. While it’s certainly possible to learn a lot with simply a lot of exposure to the language, both when it comes to spoken and written language, it’s very hard to increase accuracy in speaking and writing without feedback.

wrongAs adult learners of Chinese, we have experience with at least one other language and that means that we constantly make assumptions about how Chinese works which might be incorrect. We need feedback from other people to correct these problems. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to pronunciation (it might sound good to you, but not to a native ear), but it’s also true for speaking in general as well as writing.

However, giving good feedback is not easy and it’s perhaps even harder to receive feedback it well. I have already written about the art of being corrected, so now it’s time to write about the other end of the exchange and discuss how to give feedback. This article isn’t meant for teachers only, though, because as a learner you can use these ideas to increase the quality of feedback you receive from your language exchanges, class teachers or private tutors. The quality of the feedback can be improved tremendously by following a few easy principles, but let’s look a little bit closer at the problem first.

What bad feedback looks like

When I was an upper-intermediate learner, I took a course in written Chinese that was awful in many regards, but the worst part of the entire course was the feedback we received from our teacher. I usually spent more time trying to understand what I had done wrong than I spent writing the essay in the first place.

Now, if this time was well spent trying to figure out good ways of expressing myself in Chinese, fine, but I actually didn’t understand what I was doing wrong at all or why the teacher wanted me to change something, so I ended up giving the essay to other native speakers for feedback. They sometimes didn’t understand either, but they still managed to help me improve the essay.

The reason the feedback was so bad was that the teacher didn’t use a sensible notation system. If something was wrong, she underlined it with a red pen and that was it. That meant that the only thing you knew when you saw that read line was that something in that sentence was wrong. Syntax? Vocabulary? Collocations? Logic? Something else? Does the sentence just sound a little bit strange or was it completely wrong? I didn’t even know where to start.

Why good feedback matters

Misunderstanding feedback is catastrophic, because it might lead to the unlearning something which is actually right, while ignoring the actual problem. For instance, I might think that the teacher don’t approve of the verb-noun choice in the sentence, and then make a mental note not to write that again, whereas it is in fact the word order of the sentence that is wrong, which I might fail to notice entirely.

One very common problem is not indicating if the sentence in question is just plain wrong or of it just isn’t very idiomatic in Chinese. This matters because if you (incorrectly) think that what you wrote is totally wrong, this might screw up your mental representations of Chinese grammar and syntax. If it were clear from the feedback that you sentence is actually quite good, albeit rarely used by native speakers, your confidence for grammar and syntax might actually be reinforced by the correction.

Some guidelines to use for more useful feedback

Instead of complaining about bad teachers I’ve had, I’m going to share with you some easy steps to take to improve the feedback you give (if you’re a teacher) or that you can try to persuade your teacher to use (if you’re a student):

  • Different shades of wrong – There are numerous different ways of being wrong and knowing which one it is helps quite a lot. Let’s look at three of them, in decreasing order of seriousness. First, your teacher might not understand what you’re trying to express at all. This is typically marked with a question mark and usually requires a discussion. Second, the sentence might be understandable, but obviously wrong in some way. This needs to be clearly shown, preferably using a special colour like red. Third, a sentence might be technically correct (i.e. follow syntactic rules and be sound in general), but simply not part of what Chinese people say. Use another colour to mark this, perhaps blue.
  • Writing too much or too little – The theory of how context and language interact to form meaning is called pragmatics. Among other things, pragmatics cover how people try to hit the sweet spot between saying too much and too little when communicating with others. If you say too much, you will come across as verbose or boring: if you say too little, people won’t understand what you say. The tricky thing is that this is different in different languages. You might think your paragraph is perfect, yet your teacher thinks it lacks certain things and contain too much of something else. The language might be correct and idiomatic, but you’ve missed the third level of communication: pragmatics (the first tow being semantics and syntax). Use another colour to indicate this kind of problem, like green.
  • Don’t correct everything – If you’re a teacher and are dealing with average students, don’t correct too much, because nothing is more depressing than receiving a paper where the red ink used exceeds the black ink used to write the essay. Instead, focus on systematic and serious errors. Leave the fine-tuning for later. For some students, it might be okay to correct more, but I doubt that it’s beneficial even if the student is mentally strong and won’t feel depressed. There’s a limit to how much we can take in anyway.
  • Don’t always give the right answer – The  teacher shouldn’t always give the right answer, at least not immediately. If the student makes a mistake the teacher know that he can actually correct himself, there’s no need to spell it out. Thinking about a problem and solving it leaves a much deeper impression than just being fed the correct answer. However, it should still be clear what the problem is, we don’t want to end up in the situation I described in the introduction to this article.
  • Be aware that there are different kinds of mistakes – This requires that the teacher knows the student fairly well, but knowing what kind of mistake the student has just made is crucial. The main distinction between mistake (the student actually knows the right answer, but failed this time anyway) and error (a systematic problem that will occur in all such situation because the student doesn’t know what is correct). I’ve written more about this here: Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis.
  • Give positive feedback and praise now and then – If you encounter a sentence which is really good compared with the average level of the text, the teacher should let the student know. Personally, I’m very keen on learning what I do wrong and don’t mind heavy criticism on things I say or write as long as I’m given a reasonable chance to know what I should have said or written instead, but even I think that receiving praise now and then feels great. Don’t overdo it, though, and never praise erroneous sentences. Use a pretty colour like pink and add a short, personal comment.

Naturally, I have only given examples here. It doesn’t really matter exactly what method the teacher uses to let the student understand where the mistakes are and what to do about them, as long as the student can understand without spending hours and needing to consult other native speakers. Colours are perhaps most suitable for digital correction, but special symbols or coloured pens should do the trick on paper.

Feedback is precious

When reading your essay, the teacher might understand very well what you have done wrong and might know how to help you. It’s a pity if that potential help got lost on the way because of bad standards for giving feedback. If you follow the guidelines in this article, the quality of the feedback will increase, and, as a result, the amount of Chinese being taught or learnt will increase as well!

Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process

I’m sure many readers are familiar with the term process writing, because it’s used by many teachers when teaching native speakers and second language learners alike. As the name implies, process writing puts the focus on the process rather than the product. In traditional teaching, you write an essay, your teacher corrects it and gives you a grade and that’s it. Most students only look at the grade and throw the essay away.

Feedback is extremrecycleely valuable

This is terrible waste. Feedback is the only thing in language learning you really have to pay for and students are throwing it away! This is because the course design is awful, there are usually no incentives for the students to learn from their mistakes unless they are very motivated and do so spontaneously on their own.

But what’s the point of a teacher correcting your essay if you don’t learn from the errors your teacher has found in your writing?

There is no point, or at least there is no reason you need a teacher in that case, you could just write an essay and don’t show it to anyone. You could also do the same and post it on Lang-8 for free. I guess the reason why we see this happening in schools is that the system requires teachers to grade students, but teachers seldom require students to actively process the feedback they give.

Process writing helps you learn from your mistakes

Process writing is meant to solve this problem. Instead of giving you one deadline and one grade for the essay, there are several, let’s say three, separate deadline and grades:

  1. Rough outline –This is just meant to be an outline. What are you going to write about and how are you going to structure the text? What do you want to express? To whom? Students often skip this step, which leads to poor texts, especially if you write in a foreign language. Very experienced authors might be able to do this intuitively, but most students can’t. By having a separate deadline and feedback after that deadline, the teacher forces the student to pay attention to structure.
  2. First draft –The next step is to actually write the text. This works like a normal writing exercise, except that students have received feedback from their outlines, hopefully leading to a more clearly structured text. The first draft is handed in and corrected by the teacher. Feedback is given in such a way that students have a fair chance of improving their drafts (i.e. they need to understand what they’ve done wrong and what they should have written instead).
  3. Final version –The students now read the feedback they received from the teacher in the previous step and try to improve their texts, correcting mistakes found in the draft. Again, this forces the students to focus on the problems they’re making, prompting them to correct them and hopefully remember what they have changed for later.

Repeat until you see significant progress

The above steps are of course just part of a cycle. You will only be able to identify and fix a few problems at a time (in fact, trying to correct too many errors at once is generally a bad idea). When you have corrected the most urgent problems, repeat the process again. This is probably an infinite cycle because perfection is a direction, not a destination. Still, this depends a lot on if you need quantity or quality for your writing practice. I think the above three steps are enough for most learners.

Naturally, following the above procedure means that it takes much longer to produce a text, but I think everybody can agree that the goal of composing a text in Chinese isn’t to write as many characters as possible. We’re unlikely to produce texts with intrinsic value anyway, so if we don’t learn anything from the process, we might as well not bother with writing the text in the first place and spend our time and money somewhere else. It’s the quality of the text you produce and what you learn from the process that matter.

Now apply this to speaking ability as well

Process writing is being widely used around the world, but I haven’t heard many teachers talk about process speaking. I think you can guess where I’m heading just by reading the word “process speaking”, especially after seeing the breakdown of the process above.

This is how process speaking works:

  1. Prepare an outline of a short speech or presentation on any topic. If you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, stick to things you’re already familiar with. Advanced learners should challenge themselves and select topics you are not familiar with in Chinese (but that you still know in your native language). The outline should consist of all the facts you want to include and in which order you want to present them.
  2. Practice your presentation until you know it reasonably well. Don’t write it down and just memorise it, talk your way through it until you actually know what you’re saying. If you’re not sure about how to say something, look it up or ask someone. Copy structures and words from others, but avoid lifting entire sentences, because they are obviously not your own and hard to internalise.
  3. Record your presentation, audio is enough, but video is even cooler. If you’re doing this for a course you’re taking, either bring your phone and record your own presentation or ask a classmate to do it for you. Save the recording in any way you see fit. Again, this is for future reference and analysis and you don’t need to show the recording if you don’t want to.
  4. Analyse the recording with a tutor. Up until this step, everything is standard practice (except perhaps that some people tend to write down their presentations first and then memorise them, which isn’t very good if you want to practise speaking). This feedback step is almost never performed, however. Ask your teacher (or hire someone else) to analyse the presentation you just recorded.
  5. Prepare and hold the presentation again. Some ambitious students actually do ask for feedback on their presentations, but I’ve almost never heard of anyone who actually hold the presentation a second time. Listen to the advice, which might include things like pronunciation, intonation, word usage, presentation technique, voice projection or anything else, then hold the presentation again.
  6. Repeat the process until you feel that you have made significant progress (in general, the more advanced you are, the longer you need to spend). I would say that giving the presentation just one extra time based on your teacher’s feedback is already a huge improvement over just doing it one single time. As was the case with process writing, I do think it’s better to move on after the second or perhaps third time, because covering new areas in new presentations is useful in itself and we don’t want to get bogged down in the same area for too long, especially not as beginners.

Stepping up the level of your current Chinese course

Naturally, if you’re enrolled in a course of some kind, you will probably encounter many situations where you have to give oral presentations or write texts about specific topics. Even though your teacher probably won’t encourage you to do what I have described above, you can still do it on your own, but it does require you to start earlier.

If you finish your presentation a week before deadline, you can give the presentation in front of a private tutor or friend and let them help you improve your speaking ability. You then have at least a week to practice and both your final grade and your spoken Chinese will improve!

You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

Children learn languages quickly and effortlessly, adults slowly and painfully. This is an idea I’ve seen or heard so many times that I feel it’s time to write something about it. The notion that children are better language learners across the board is simply wrong. Before we look at why this is relevant for us as Chinese learners, let’s discuss why adults are actually better language learners than children.

Children don’t learn their first language quickly and effortlessly

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead

It takes many, many years for a child to learn his or her first language. Saying that it’s effortless is equally false, it’s just that we don’t remember how hard it was. I’ve studied Chinese for five years and I can promise you that my Chinese is far superior to the average five-year-old in most areas (I would probably lose when it comes to intonation).

That’s true even considering the fact that I’ve been doing many things that aren’t related to Chinese at all, such as writing articles for this website (in English), talking with friends and family (in Swedish) and so on. I have not experienced anything near the true immersion environment of a child. Learning a language is very hard, both for adults and children.

One reason that people believe that children learn faster is that much less is required of them. Adults who arrive in a new country are supposed to handle all aspects of a normal, adult life, which naturally demands a great deal in terms of language ability. We don’t demand the same kind of proficiency from children. We only increase the demands gradually as they grow up and learn the language. As adults learning a second language, we’re adults and children at the same time.

Children might also learn to perform very well in a limited set of situations and in certain contexts, which might lead others to (erroneously) think that their ability is as good in other areas as well. Adults are more likely to run into problems because they need to or want to express more complex ideas.

Adults are much smarter than kids

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but adults are much better at planning, analysing, executing, organising, deducing and so on. These are all skills that are very valuable when learning a second language.

Also, adults know a lot about the world that kids don’t. This means that we can often connect new words with things we already know, which is essential for any kind of learning. I can relate words and structures in Chinese to words and structures I know in other languages. This is of course only a crude form of scaffolding, but it definitely helps. If I see the word “progressive tax” in Chinese, I don’t need to learn what progressive tax is, I just need to learn how to say it in Chinese.

Hacking Chinese is of course a prime example of something that an adult language learner (myself) can do, but that a child cannot. I can observe and analyse my language learning and understand where I’m having problems and what to do about them. I can be systematic and plan my studying in an efficient manner. After five years of studying, my language level is apparently good enough to survive a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language taught entirely in Chinese, mostly aimed at native speakers.

This obviously takes much, much longer for a child (the average age of my native speaking classmates is more like 25 rather than 5). Most people go through nine years of elementary school, six years of high school and then four years of university before they do that.

I don’t mean to say that my own language ability is as good as my classmates’, though, far from it. Very far indeed. But using a language successfully is about much more than just words, grammar and pronunciation. Language and thinking are closely linked, which is why the more mature mind of an adult reaches a mature language level much faster. We take lots of shortcuts that aren’t available to children.

What we should learn from children

Still, children do have certain advantages. For instance, they definitely reach a higher level in the long run, especially when it comes to pronunciation. As mentioned above, my ability to express myself in Chinese (both in speaking and writing) is of course superior to a five-year-old, but in the long run, Give the child another five years and I’m left far behind in terms of pronunciation and accent. The native speaker will also have a more natural sentence structure and a better grasp of everyday language.

The reasons for this are many and various. Some of these are biological (children really do learn words very quickly, for instance), but let’s focus on the things we can learn from. To start with, children have extremely strong incentives to learn. Humans are social beings that crave contact and affinity with other humans and this is mediated through language.

Thus, no child will think to itself “learning this language just isn’t worth it, let’s do something else”. Instead, they will try very hard to fit in socially, which includes the ability to communicate flawlessly. There is no way that a second language learner can have such strong incentives to learn Chinese, even though it might be possible to come close.

The lesson we can lean from this is that motivation is something we need to consider carefully. We need to find ways of studying that we find interesting, entertaining or important in some way.

Moreover, children are less socially conscious than adults, or, in other words, they have less face to save. A baby doesn’t care if it pronounces “lamp” incorrectly or gets the word order of a sentence wrong. Kids care more than babies, they are subject to peer pressure and so on, but they are still more willing to experiment than adults. This is something we should remember as second language learning adults. We have to accept that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is learning. Adopting a more child-like attitude would do us good.

Children aren’t small adults

Way back in history, people tended to regard children as adults, but smaller. In the light of modern developmental psychology, this is of course nonsense. Children are simply different from adults. This means that arguments like “it works for children, therefore it should work for adults as well” are bunk.

This isn’t an argument against any particular method, but if anyone motivates their approach with this kind of statement, an alarm should go off in your critically thinking mind. That it works for children might mean that it doesn’t work for adults, for instance. Or it might mean nothing at all, because we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Adult learners, pronunciation and fossilisation

I think the most obvious example is pronunciation. Almost all children achieve very good pronunciation and a natural accent in languages they start learning early. Most adults who start learning a second language don’t achieve this. As I said earlier, children do learn pronunciation and accent to a higher level than adults do.

However, this is not only because they are children, but also because adults tend to have fixed ideas about certain things. Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make. The incentives are also different. People would find it very strange if someone pronounced words incorrectly in their first language and would exert social pressure on that person to change. This isn’t true for adult learners, especially not advanced ones. Communication is usually deemed to be enough. That is, I believe, the main reason adult learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation.

Conclusion

Children learn languages neither quickly nor effortlessly. Adults have several advantages that allow us to learn more efficiently. It’s true that children achieve better pronunciation and accent, but I personally think this isn’t mainly because they are children, but because adults don’t care enough,  don’t receive enough feedback or don’t spend enough time.

So, no, you’re not too old. You might be too lazy, too close-minded or too busy, but you’re definitely not too old.

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

I only endorse software, books and other websites when I think that they are truly excellent in some regard. I’m always hesitant to review what other people send to me for the simple reason that it might influence my judgement of these products, and even if it doesn’t, you as a reader might still think it does. Thus, the recommendations I publish are few and far in between. Today, it’s time for another recommendation, this time to help you improve your Chinese in general and your writing in particular.

The basic problem: Lack of correction

There are numerous reasons why, but most students lack people who correct what they write when they learn a  foreign language. Sure, we have friends, teachers and so on, but if you write a lot (which you should do), it’s not easy to find people who are willing to correct your texts, at least not if you care the least about not overburdening your friends (see this article for more about this).

Writing is in itself helpful to learn, but if we receive no feedback at all, we have no way of learning from the mistakes we’re making. This is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to remedy.

The solution: Enter Lang-8

The basic concept behind Lang-8 is simple and brilliant. It’s a language exchange system, but instead of be reciprocal (i.e. I teach you Swedish, you teach me Chinese), you fill in your native language and target language when you register. You will then receive corrections on texts you write in your target language, while you help people learning your native language to improve. That means that there is no shortage of people willing to help you.

Lang-8 is excellent mostly because it will give you almost instant feedback on what you write (I typically receive feedback within a couple of hours, never later than one day). No articles are left uncorrected and you don’t need to ask your friends if they have time to help you every single time you have a question.

Of course, you need to help other people to study your language (otherwise people will stop correcting what you write), but I find this surprisingly pleasant and I have corrected far more articles than I have been corrected myself. Also, correcting short articles or sentences in your native language is quite easy and goes very quickly.

Lang-8 is free and can be used as much as you want without paying. There are several features that are available only for premium members, but I’ve been using the site for some time with a free account and it works just fine. The extra features look good, but aren’t at all necessary.


Users can colour words, cross out and in different ways highlight things they think ought to be changed. The original author can then ask questions or discuss word usage and other native speakers can comment.

Some words of advice on how to use Lang-8

  • Start with sentences rather than longer texts, especially if you haven’t studied Chinese for very long. Writing a few sentences a day is very easy, but regularly posting long diary entries in harder to keep up. Make sentences based on words you’ve learnt recently or words you find difficult to use.
  • Short articles are corrected more quickly than long ones. This means that you can and should break down long texts into smaller parts, simply because this encourages more people to read what you’ve written (avoid walls of text). If you include questions for the reader, you can also start conversations, find friends and so on.
  • Spread the website to Chinese people, because the more native speakers we have, the better the system works. If you know anyone who is learning English, for instance, let them know about Lang-8. This will help both your friend and yourself (and me for that matter).
  • Reward people who help you. Do this through the built-in reward system (you can give stars to people who correct your articles, give more stars for more ambitious corrections, give extra stars if people answer your follow-up questions). Remember that being corrected is an art you need to master.
  • Avoid correcting people who have huge amounts of written entries, but refuse to help other people. This means that they are leeches, exploiting the system for their own advantage without being prepared to give anything in return. Check their stats and see if they look okay, then go ahead with correcting and encouraging them.
  • Translation is an excellent way of practising if you don’t know what to write. Simply translate something from a book, an article or a song. Try to avoid very long texts and texts that require much knowledge that isn’t included in the text itself. If possible, provide the original English.

Native speakers and native speakers

As I have argued elsewhere, there is a huge difference between native speakers and native speakers. Some might be language teachers, others might have dropped out of school. Some are from Beijing, some from Shanghai and others from Taiwan. Some read hundreds of books every year, others nothing. Some are sloppy, some are meticulous. I’ve had people who say that an article is extremely good, better than something some native speakers would produce, only to have 50 corrections in the same article by another native speaker five minutes later. Oh, well.

What I want to say is that just because a native speaker corrects your texts it doesn’t necessarily imply that the corrections are justified or that the remaining text (the non-corrected text) doesn’t have room for improvement. However, in a vast majority of cases, any native speaker can still help you, especially if you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner. More advanced learners will still benefit, but should be a bit cautious about taking every single correction at face value.

Getting started

This is your goal for the coming week: Write at least one entry every day. It can be anything from one sentence up to several paragraphs, it’s up to you. I refuse to believe that people are so busy that they can’t write one sentence per day, so you have no excuse for not doing this.

If you feel that it’s difficult to come up with good ideas for articles, then fear not, I have an article scheduled dealing with that very problem. In the meantime, here are some topics/questions you can use for your first seven articles:

  • Why are you learning Chinese?
  • Write about where you live
  • Write about what you did this morning
  • Something that made you sad recently
  • Something that made you happy recently
  • Translate something from your native language
  • What are your plans for the weekend?

Good luck!