Pronunciation challenge, February 10th to 28th

waichinesePronunciation is one of my favourite topics in second language acquisition. I have a lot to say about learning and teaching pronunciation, some of which I have already shared here on Hacking Chinese. Because pronunciation is so important, it should naturally also be the focus of a language challenge and that’s what’s on the menu for the rest of February.

As usual, the goal is to spend as much high-quality time as possible improving your pronunciation. I will introduce some basic ways of practising in this article, but I will also post more about pronunciation during the challenge.

This challenge is arranged in cooperation with WaiChinese, where you can practise your pronunciation and receive quick feedback, both automatic and manual. Before I go into more details, though, let’s look at how you join the challenge:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the pronunciation challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

If you want to know more about Hacking Chinese Challenges, I suggest you check out the introductory article I published when the section was launched.

WaiChinese

Pronunciation is one of the most feedback-heavy areas of language learning. It’s very hard (impossible) to learn proper pronunciation as an adult without receiving feedback. Yes, you can get far by mimicking, listening to your own recordings and paying attention, but receiving feedback is essential. The problem is that most students don’t have native speakers around to ask all the time, and even if they did, it’s not always practical or desirable from a social point of view.

This is one reason I arrange this challenge in cooperation with WaiChinese. In essence, WaiChinese is a platform for Android, iOs or the web that enables you to practice pronunciation easily wherever you are. You can listen, mimic and record, but the main feature of interest is that you can submit your recordings for manual assessment. If you want to try this out, we have arranged it so that people who sign up as part of this challenge can submit 25 recordings for free.

To start using WaiChinese, please sign up here and follow the instructions.

Additional prizes

Just like the last challenge, Hanzi WallChart has offered posters to two serious participants. In addition to that, all who sign up on WaiChinese will also be able to download the digital versions of the posters for free (value $25). We can see who signed up and will send out more information to the e-mail address you used when signing up!

How to practice pronunciation

This is a topic more suitable for a book-length text, but the point here isn’t to tell you everything about pronunciation, it’s to give you a few useful tips so you can get started.

  1. Use WaiChinese (see above)
  2. Mimic the recorded voice of a native speaker as closely as you can
  3. Play a round of minimal pair bingo
  4. Record an everyday conversation and analyse it
  5. Read up on the theory (if you think you need to)

As I said, I will post an article later with much more detailed information and an overview of what I have written about pronunciation before, but the five activities above should keep you occupied in the meantime.

My challenge

I care a lot about pronunciation and even though I haven’t focused on improving explicitly, I still speak a lot of Chinese and often pay attention to what I’m saying. That’s not always enough, though, so I will take this opportunity to focus more explicitly on pronunciation. Here’s what I’m going to do:

  1. Explore WaiChinese and the lessons they offer
  2. Record my conversational Chinese and analyse it
  3. Identify a few problems I need to work on

I strongly suspect that any problems I might find will be relatively small, but still hard to correct. Thus, I don’t really think I will be able to do much about the issues during the challenge, but simply being aware of the problem is by far the most important step.

Your challenge

How do you plan to improve your pronunciation? What materials or tools will you use? Do you have any suggestions for your fellow challengers?

Sensible character challenge, January 11th to 31st

bulbThe first challenge I ran on Hacking Chinese was the sensible character challenge that started more than two years ago (Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese). It became much more popular than I thought with more than 100 participants. Last year, I ran another challenge, this time for 100 days, which also went well.

Since then, I have launched Hacking Chinese Challenges to better handle many participants and challenges in general. After running a few other challenges focused on listening, reading and translation, it’s now time for a character challenge again!

If you have participated before, you know roughly what to expect. If you haven’t, don’t worry, I’ll explain both how the challenge works and what sensible character learning is.

Prizes on offer for this challenge

This is what I have to offer at the moment (it’s likely to increase later):

  1. 5 months of free Skritter, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  2. A two-week trial and a 33%discount for six-month  on Skritter for new users (create an account, select “alternative payment methods” and then enter the coupon code SENSIBLE2015)
  3. Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart, randomly given to people who finish the challenge
  4. Books from Tuttle Publishing (this one and this one)

For new Skrtiter users, If you want to offer prizes that are suitable for this challenge or if you know someone who might, please contact me! My definitions of “finish the challenge” is to have reported progress throughout the challenge and posted about it either here, your own blog or social media.

The challenge

Is your vocabulary lagging behind? Can’t you write all those basic characters you really ought to know? Is your limited vocabulary holding you back? I think most of us would answer “yes” to at least one of these questions and that’s why I think character challenges are so useful. The procedure is easy:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the sensible character challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

In previous character challenges, we haves set goals in terms of absolute numbers, such as “learning X new characters”. However, this doesn’t always work out very well, especially for beginner and intermediate students who aren’t familiar enough with vocabulary learning to know what a reasonable goal is. Moreover, vocabulary learning tend to accumulate, so it’s very hard to set reasonable goals.

Therefore, we’re going to measure time in this challenge rather than characters or words. It’s easier to estimate how much time you can or want to spend on an activity such as vocabulary learning. The challenge engine can actually handle other units than time, but we’ll explore than in future challenges!

What is a reasonable goal?

I would say that 20 minutes per day (including weekends, words don’t care about which day of the week it is) is a reasonable goal for people who are not studying full-time. You can find 20 minutes per day just by reviewing and/or learning vocabulary on your phone while commuting, waiting in a queue or in the bathroom, it needn’t influence your other activities too much. If you study full-time, an hour isn’t unreasonable!

I’m going to go for ten hours, which is roughly half an hour per day. My main goal is to battle down my enormous review queue in Skritter. I’ve been to busy to actually study much vocabulary recently, so I have around 2000 reviews due. I probably won’t be able to kill the entire queue in 10 hours (that would mean slightly more than 20 seconds per review, which isn’t enough if we include some editing of definitions, example sentences and so on).

Sensible character learning

So what’s “sensible character learning”? I started using this term a few years ago because I felt that most character learning done by students (native and non-native speakers alike), isn’t very sensible. It often involves horribly inefficient methods that require much more effort than more sensible methods. I’m going to do a recap of sensible character learning and vocabulary acquisition in general next week, so let’s focus on some key points here:

  1. Reviewing and learning are two different processes – When you learn a character or word, try to understand it as much as possible. Learn it in context (use sentences or common collocations). Approach the character or word from different angles. Study carefully. Reviewing is much quicker and should actively probe if you remember the character or word (see below).
  2. Active learning is better than passive learning – Reviewing by just looking at the characters is almost useless, you need to actively ask questions and recall the information before you see the answer. This is why flashcards are so good. You can use fill-in-the gap phrases or sentences, or translation.
  3. Diversified learning is smart learning – Don’t do all your reviewing in one go or in one place, spread it out. Using a smart phone to learn is really important because it moves studying away from your desk, the library or wherever you normally study. Do small bursts of a few minutes when you have time to spare throughout the day.
  4. Spaced repetition is better than massed repetition – Reviewing the same character or word several times in a row is not efficient, it’s better to wait between reviews. Exactly how long to wait can be hard to know, but fortunately, there are lot’s of programs that do this for you (see below).
  5. Rote learning isn’t good, understanding is essential – Rote learning Chinese characters works only for a comparatively small number of characters or if you spend a very long time writing characters (the compulsory education of native speakers). It typically doesn’t work very well for second language learners. Rote learning works well for basic characters in the beginning, but its usefulness dwindles as you learn more characters.
  6. What vocabulary you learn matters a lot – I subscribe to a “the more the merrier” attitude towards learning characters and words, but it matters greatly which character or words you learn. Make sure you learn common and useful words first. Keep an active attitude towards your vocabulary: delete and edit more than you think you should.
  7. Don’t go on tilt – When using spaced repetition software, don’t go on tilt when you encounter words you ought to know but actually don’t. Some words you learn automatically, but others refuse to stick. The worst thing you can do is to try to hammer these words into your head. Ban/mark/suspend these cards and deal with them separately instead! Add context, study the character, create mnemonics.

I will write more about learning characters in a proper overview article next week. For now, just join the challenge!

What program or app should I use to learn characters and words

Even though there are many programs and apps (perhaps too many) out there for learning Chinese characters and words, it doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as it has proper spaced repetition and fulfils your requirements in other areas. I usually suggest three programs, so if you have no idea, see which one of these suits you best:

  • Skritter is the ideal app for learning to write characters. It’s the only app that allows you to write characters on the screen and offers you feedback for each stroke, such as if you put it in the wrong place or write it in the wrong direction. If you register with the code SENSIBLE2015, you’ll get an extra week of free trial and then a six-month discount if you want to continue using it. I should mention that I work for Skrttter, even though I started using it well before that.
  • Pleco is one of the best apps for learning Chinese in general and it also has a flashcard module that integrates well with the dictionary. The basic dictionary is free, but the flashcard module isn’t. If you just want one single app for your Chinese learning, Pleco is your best bet.
  • Anki is much more versatile than any of the above apps and you can do almost anything you want, including cloze test, very advanced card editing, picture/video/audio flashcards and detailed control of how the cards are displayed. It’s somewhat harder to use than the above, but still one of my favourites. Anki only costs money on iOS, it’s completely free elsewhere. Do make sure to get Chinese support (a plug-in).

That’s it for now, I will publish more about character learning next week!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The Big Finish

challenge14-4When I launched this year’s sensible character challenge, some people told me that I was over-ambitious, I would never be able to keep people engaged for such a long period of time, 101 days. To be honest, I was a bit pessimistic, too, but I figured that at least I would be learning a lot of characters.

Even though of course I can’t know for sure when I write this article, I still think that I was too pessimistic. The number of learners who have stayed in the challenge from the very beginning is high and there are also lots of people who have joined the challenge along the way. Now the challenge has come to an end!

In this article, I want to talk about several things, some of which are similar to the previous milestone articles, such as how things have gone for me and what I have learnt, as well as opening up for you to report your progress and discuss your own learning. There will be even more prizes this last time, so make sure to report your progress below!

Before we go into that, though, let’s provide some background in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. Even though the challenge is over, each post contains a lot of information that will help students focusing on learning characters.

Here are all the articles; I recommend reading the first article (Sensible Chinese character learning revisited) as well as the “what have I learnt” sections of the other articles.

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

Prizes for the big finish of the challenge

The prizes are the same as before, but there will be more of them:

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

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

I will announce the winners here on Sunday (July 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible.

Your progress update

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

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

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

My progress update

I have reached my goal, I now have more than 5800 individual characters in Skritter! Naturally, I spent some significant time learning the last few hundred this month and some of them haven’t really sunk in, but they have all been studied and learnt. his is what my challenge history looks like:

challengestats

How many characters do you need to know?

My goal for this challenge begs the question of how many characters one actually needs to know. The simple answer is that it depends on what you mean by “need”. If you mean to be able to read most modern Chinese texts without having to look up many characters, you need far less than the 5800 I’m close to here. In fact, you can get very far with around 3000 characters and 4000 will make you comfortably literate (I’m now ignoring the fact that literacy of course includes other things than knowing characters, such as knowing words, grammar and so on, but that’s not the point here).

So why did I think it was interesting to learn an additional 2000 characters if it isn’t very useful? I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel what it was like learning characters again. I haven’t spent significant time learning characters for many years and this challenge was interesting because it made me realise some things I hadn’t noticed before. I will write about these things later (some of them are already mentioned in the milestone reports).

Second, it’s a mental challenge and quite fun. Even though I haven counted the exact time I spent on learning 1800 characters, I’m pretty sure the average is no higher than half an hour per day. That means about 50 hours or about two characters per minute. This might sound extremely efficient, but then keep in mind that most of the time, learning a new character is a matter of associating two characters that I already know with a new meaning. If it’s a perfect phonetic-semantic combination, it becomes even easier (learning a character like 浬, nautical mile, takes just a few seconds to learn). Also, spaced repetition is very efficient.

Learning characters is not like learning random facts

When I started learning Chinese, I remember being a bit confused by people who said it was difficult to learn lots of characters. I mean, learning a few thousand isolated facts isn’t that hard. What I didn’t understand back then was that learning 5000 characters isn’t like learning 50 characters a hundred times. The main problem when learning new characters isn’t to learn how they are written and what they mean, but to keep them separate from the other characters you already know. Thus, even though character learning certainly becomes easier in some sense, it also becomes a lot harder, but for different reasons.

Future challenges on Hacking Chinese

I’m working on something called the Hacking Chinese language challenge engine, which will allow me to run monthly challenges on Hacking Chinese, all with a different focus. There probably won’t be another character challenge for some time, but there will be listening, reading, translation and pronunciation challenges! If you want to help me test this out (it’s already quite ready), please leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners:

  • Carla (both prizes for her wonderful graphics)
  • Doug Stetar (Glossika product of your choice)
  • Georges (Hanzi WallChart poster set)
  • Luke (Glossika product of your choice)
  • All active participants: Free Skritter extensions

I have sent e-mails to the winners. If you are an active participant and want your Skritter extension, please join this group on Skritter and tell me. Any prizes left over from this challenge will be handed out in future challenges, stay tuned!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3

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

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

 Prizes for milestone #3

Here are the prizes available for the third milestone:

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

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

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

Your progress update

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

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

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

My progress update

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

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

I will also share some important insight into learning characters.

Lesson #1:Spread it out

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

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

Lesson #2: Add context

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are…

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

Good luck everybody for the final stretch of the challenge!

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2

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

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

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

challenge14-2Brief information about the challenge

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

Prizes for milestone #2

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

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

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

Your progress update

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

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

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

My progress update

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

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

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

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

What have I learnt about learning and reviewing Chinese characters?

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

Don’t go on tilt

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

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

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

Horizontal vocabulary learning

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are

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

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

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

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

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

challenge14-1Brief information about the challenge

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

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

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

Active participants will receive prizes

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

The prizes will be given as follows:

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

Your progress report

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

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

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

My progress report

This is what my commitment to the challenge looked like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are…

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

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

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