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!

Focusing on tone pairs to improve your Mandarin pronunciation

Tones are, without doubt, one of the hardest parts of Chinese to master and many students struggle with them even long after leaving the beginner stage of learning. Understanding the basics of tones in Chinese isn’t that hard and most people can do it relatively quickly with the right kind of instruction and some practice, but it’s not easy to translate this knowledge into actual speaking ability. I also make tone mistakes sometimes, although I have become much better at spotting them and the number of mistakes keeps on falling.

I believe that mastering tone pairs is crucial for all students. In this article, I will do two things: First, I will explain why tone pairs are so useful. Second, I will give you more tone combinations that you can possibly wish in the form of tone sorted HSK and TOCFL vocabulary lists.

tonepairs
T1 + T3 and T2 + T1 pitch contours in Praat.

Tone pairs

One problem with they way tones are normally taught is that way too much time is spent on single-syllable words. This becomes an even bigger problem if the third tone is taught as a full falling-rising tone, which will lead to problems because that’s not the way it’s normally pronounced. Therefore, the best way of practising tones in Chinese is to move to words consisting of two syllables as soon as possible.

Naturally, you can also practice sentences and intonation, but that’s something different and if you find tones are hard to grasp in the first place, reading a long sentence and superimposing intonation certainly won’t make things easier Mastering tone pairs is a must!

Practising Chinese tones in pairs

The reason disyllabic words are great is that most tone changes(sandhi) rules apply, but a single word is still short enough to be focused on properly. It also makes sense to focus on these words because modern Chinese has a very strong preference for disyllabic words, meaning that if you know all possible combinations really well, getting pronunciation in sentences right is mostly a matter of practise.

What I mean by this is that if you don’t get the basic two-syllable combinations, you might not learn to produce correct sentences at all, regardless of how much you practise. If you do learn how to handle disyllabic words, you will probably be able to produce good sentences simply by paying attention and speaking more Chinese since you already have the basics down.

If you’re a complete beginner or feel that you don’t know the basics at all, I suggest you head over to Sinosplice and check John’s Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills. He offers a few examples for every tone combination, as well as explanations and audio.

Another thing to remember is that your tones might not be as good as you think. I think all students should try doing a blind test at least once, meaning that the listener doesn’t know or guess the right answer and can’t pretend to understand. You will most likely find that there are problems you weren’t aware of, even if  you’ve studied Chinese for a while (some problems are really hard to spot without feedback). You can use my tone bingo game for this, which is very good at catching pronunciation problems and is quite fun as well.

This is not enough, we need more!

Both when I learnt tones myself and when I teach other people, I find that this is often not enough. After having discussed this with a number of classmates, it seems like both students and teachers alike have this problem: In order to practise tone pairs, we sometimes have to come up with a large number of examples of any given combination, which is not easy, especially not if we want to use known or familiar words!

However, this problem is solvable, because it is possible to write a script that sorts a word list according to the tone combinations. Since I lack the necessary coding skills to write such a script, I approached my good friend Magnus Falk with this problem to see how hard it would be to achieve. No problem, he said.

It actually turned out to take longer than he thought, but we now have a script that works fairly well. We still haven’t worked out how to implement the script on the website yet, but if you really want to play around with it on your own, all necessary files are available on GitHub (the tone sorter is written in Python). If you just want more tone combinations than you’ll ever need, just keep on reading.

More tone combinations that you will ever need

If you download and run the script yourself, you should be able to sort any word list by tone, but since most people probably don’t need that and it would be too much trouble to explain exactly how it works, for now I will provide you with a very large number of tone combinations you can use for either learning or teaching tones.

First, I offer the complete lists for both HSK (simplified) and TOCFL (traditional), sorted by tone combination. You can download the lists here:

Please note: These lists are based on the official lists, so any errors are (probably) not mine, unless the sorting itself is wrong. They should be mostly correct, though, the only common problem I have seen is for phrases, but they are quite rare and not the main issue here.

The lists contain words with more than two syllables as well, so if you want to practise three-syllable words, you just need to download the files. The polysyllabic words are of course also sorted by tone! The list also contains monosyllables, but mostly for the sake of comprehensiveness, I can’t really see why anyone would need them.

Second, I for quick reference, I have provided the first 50 combinations of each tone combination below for quick reference. This should be more than what most people need, but if you do want more for some reason, you can just use the download links above. Here’s an index of the words listed in this article. Simply click the combination you want; click “back” in your browser if you want to go back to this navigation.

T1 + T?

  1. T1 + T1
  2. T1 + T2
  3. T1 + T3
  4. T1 + T4
  5. T1 + T0

T2 + T?

  1. T2 + T1
  2. T2 + T2
  3. T2 + T3
  4. T2 + T4
  5. T2 + T0

T3 + T?

  1. T3 + T1
  2. T3 + T2
  3. T3 + T3
  4. T3 + T4
  5. T3 + T0

T4 + T?

  1. T4 + T1
  2. T4 + T2
  3. T4 + T3
  4. T4 + T4
  5. T4 + T0

T1 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 飞机 fēijī
1 分钟 fēnzhōng
1 今天 jīntiān
1 星期 xīngqī
1 医生 yīshēng
2 公司 gōngsī
2 咖啡 kāfēi
2 西瓜 xīguā
3 冰箱 bīngxiāng
3 参加 cānjiā
3 担心 dānxīn
3 发烧 fāshāo
3 公斤 gōngjīn
3 刮风 guāfēng
3 关心 guānxīn
3 几乎 jīhū
3 声音 shēngyīn
3 司机 sījī
3 香蕉 xiāngjiāo
3 新鲜 xīnxiān
3 应该 yīnggāi
3 中间 zhōngjiān
4 餐厅 cāntīng
4 参观 cānguān
4 吃惊 chī jīng
4 抽烟 chōuyān
4 出差 chū chāi
4 出发 chūfā
4 出生 chūshēng
4 粗心 cūxīn
4 发生 fāshēng
4 干杯 gān bēi
4 工资 gōngzī
4 加班 jiā bān
4 交通 jiāotōng
4 郊区 jiāoqū
4 开心 kāixīn
4 轻松 qīngsōng
4 沙发 shāfā
4 伤心 shāngxīn
4 稍微 shāowēi
4 通知 tōngzhī
4 增加 zēngjiā
5 安装 ānzhuāng
5 悲观 bēiguān
5 操心 cāo xīn
5 车厢 chēxiāng
5 吃亏 chīkuī
5 粗糙 cūcāo
5 当心 dāngxīn

T1 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 中国 zhōngguó
2 非常 fēicháng
2 虽然 suīrán
3 阿姨 āyí
3 帮忙 bāngmáng
3 当然 dāngrán
3 刚才 gāngcái
3 公园 gōngyuán
3 关于 guānyú
3 欢迎 huānyíng
3 经常 jīngcháng
3 空调 kōngtiáo
3 刷牙 shuāyá
3 突然 tūrán
3 新闻 xīnwén
3 要求 yāoqiú
3 中文 zhōngwén
3 终于 zhōngyú
4 安排 ānpái
4 安全 ānquán
4 当时 dāngshí
4 积极 jījí
4 坚持 jiānchí
4 将来 jiānglái
4 交流 jiāoliú
4 科学 kēxué
4 批评 pīpíng
4 区别 qūbié
4 森林 sēnlín
4 生活 shēnghuó
4 说明 shuōmíng
4 推迟 tuīchí
4 相同 xiāngtóng
4 心情 xīnqíng
4 支持 zhīchí
4 周围 zhōuwéi
4 专门 zhuānmén
5 包含 bāohán
5 编辑 biānjí
5 超级 chāojí
5 出席 chūxí
5 初级 chūjí
5 窗帘 chuānglián
5 匆忙 cōngmáng
5 单纯 dānchún
5 单独 dāndú
5 单元 dānyuán
5 多余 duōyú
5 发愁 fā chóu
5 发达 fādá

T1 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 中午 zhōngwǔ
2 宾馆 bīnguǎn
2 机场 jīchǎng
2 开始 kāishǐ
2 铅笔 qiānbǐ
2 身体 shēntǐ
3 黑板 hēibǎn
3 经理 jīnglǐ
4 标准 biāozhǔn
4 发展 fāzhǎn
4 方法 fāngfǎ
4 公里 gōnglǐ
4 积累 jīlěi
4 基础 jīchǔ
4 精彩 jīngcǎi
4 缺点 quēdiǎn
4 缺少 quēshǎo
4 申请 shēnqǐng
4 危险 wēixiǎn
4 污染 wūrǎn
4 吸引 xīyǐn
4 相反 xiāngfǎn
4 辛苦 xīnkǔ
4 修理 xiūlǐ
4 邀请 yāoqǐng
4 因此 yīncǐ
4 优点 yōudiǎn
5 包裹 bāoguǒ
5 标点 biāodiǎn
5 参考 cānkǎo
5 操场 cāochǎng
5 充满 chōngmǎn
5 出版 chūbǎn
5 出口 chūkǒu
5 发表 fābiǎo
5 发抖 fādǒu
5 分手 fēnshǒu
5 风景 fēngjǐng
5 风险 fēngxiǎn
5 钢铁 gāngtiě
5 根本 gēnběn
5 工厂 gōngchǎng
5 公主 gōngzhǔ
5 恭喜 gōngxǐ
5 观点 guāndiǎn
5 婚礼 hūnlǐ
5 基本 jīběn
5 肩膀 jiānbǎng
5 艰苦 jiānkǔ
5 交往 jiāowǎng

T1 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 高兴 gāoxìng
1 工作 gōngzuò
1 商店 shāngdiàn
1 天气 tiānqì
1 医院 yīyuàn
2 帮助 bāngzhù
2 鸡蛋 jīdàn
2 生病 shēngbìng
2 生日 shēngrì
2 说话 shuōhuà
2 希望 xīwàng
2 因为 yīnwèi
3 安静 ānjìng
3 超市 chāoshì
3 发现 fāxiàn
3 方便 fāngbiàn
3 干净 gānjìng
3 根据 gēnjù
3 机会 jīhuì
3 街道 jiēdào
3 经过 jīngguò
3 生气 shēngqì
3 相信 xiāngxìn
3 需要 xūyào
3 音乐 yīnyuè
3 周末 zhōumò
4 超过 chāoguò
4 出现 chūxiàn
4 翻译 fānyì
4 方面 fāngmiàn
4 方向 fāngxiàng
4 丰富 fēngfù
4 估计 gūjì
4 关键 guānjiàn
4 观众 guānzhòng
4 规定 guīdìng
4 激动 jīdòng
4 家具 jiājù
4 骄傲 jiāo’ào
4 接受 jiēshòu
4 京剧 jīngjù
4 经济 jīngjì
4 经历 jīnglì
4 经验 jīngyàn
4 究竟 jiūjìng
4 空气 kōngqì
4 千万 qiānwàn
4 签证 qiānzhèng
4 生命 shēngmìng
4 失败 shībài

T1 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 杯子 bēizi
1 东西 dōngxi
1 多少 duōshao
1 妈妈 māma
1 先生 xiānsheng
1 衣服 yīfu
1 桌子 zhuōzi
2 哥哥 gēge
2 妻子 qīzi
2 休息 xiūxi
2 知道 zhīdao
3 聪明 cōngming
3 多么 duōme
3 关系 guānxi
3 清楚 qīngchu
3 叔叔 shūshu
3 舒服 shūfu
4 包子 bāozi
4 窗户 chuānghu
4 胳膊 gēbo
4 功夫 gōngfu
4 接着 jiēzhe
4 亲戚 qīnqi
4 商量 shāngliang
4 生意 shēngyi
4 师傅 shīfu
4 收拾 shōushi
4 孙子 sūnzi
4 消息 xiāoxi
4 知识 zhīshi
5 玻璃 bōli
5 叉子 chāzi
5 称呼 chēnghu
5 抽屉 chōuti
5 答应 dāying
5 耽误 dānwu
5 姑姑 gūgu
5 规矩 guīju
5 姑娘 gūniang
5 夹子 jiāzi
5 结实 jiēshi
5 精神 jīngshen
5 狮子 shīzi
5 梳子 shūzi
5 屋子 wūzi
6 报酬 bàochou
6 报复 bàofu
6 辫子 biànzi
6 别扭 bièniu
6 伺候 cìhou

T2 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 明天 míngtiān
1 昨天 zuótiān
2 房间 fángjiān
2 旁边 pángbiān
2 时间 shíjiān
3 国家 guójiā
3 结婚 jiéhūn
3 离开 líkāi
3 聊天 liáotiān
3 邻居 línjū
3 年轻 niánqīng
3 爬山 páshān
3 其他 qítā
3 提高 tígāo
3 熊猫 xióngmāo
4 长江 chángjiāng
4 成功 chénggōng
4 重新 chóngxīn
4 传真 chuánzhēn
4 房东 fángdōng
4 航班 hángbān
4 节约 jiéyuē
4 毛巾 máojīn
4 皮肤 pífū
4 其中 qízhōng
4 十分 shífēn
4 熟悉 shúxī
4 提供 tígōng
4 文章 wénzhāng
4 学期 xuéqī
4 牙膏 yágāo
4 研究 yánjiū
4 阳光 yángguāng
4 原因 yuányīn
4 直接 zhíjiē
5 曾经 céngjīng
5 潮湿 cháoshī
5 承担 chéngdān
5 除非 chúfēi
5 除夕 chúxī
5 传播 chuánbō
5 传说 chuánshuō
5 服装 fúzhuāng
5 核心 héxīn
5 胡说 húshuō
5 黄金 huángjīn
5 集中 jízhōng
5 决心 juéxīn
5 离婚 lí hūn
5 明星 míngxīng

 

T2 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 同学 tóngxué
1 学习 xuéxí
3 黄河 huánghé
3 回答 huídá
3 留学 liúxué
3 年级 niánjí
3 皮鞋 píxié
3 其实 qíshí
3 完成 wánchéng
3 银行 yínháng
3 着急 zháojí
4 长城 chángchéng
4 成为 chéngwéi
4 诚实 chéngshí
4 厨房 chúfáng
4 从来 cónglái
4 儿童 értóng
4 符合 fúhé
4 国籍 guójí
4 合格 hégé
4 怀疑 huáiyí
4 及时 jíshí
4 零钱 língqián
4 流行 liúxíng
4 民族 mínzú
4 年龄 niánlíng
4 平时 píngshí
4 然而 rán’ér
4 仍然 réngrán
4 提前 tíqián
4 同情 tóngqíng
4 同时 tóngshí
4 完全 wánquán
4 无聊 wúliáo
4 严格 yángé
4 尤其 yóuqí
4 由于 yóuyú
4 邮局 yóujú
4 原来 yuánlái
5 长途 chángtú
5 常识 chángshí
5 成人 chéngrén
5 成熟 chéngshú
5 池塘 chítáng
5 辞职 cízhí
5 从而 cóng’ér
5 从前 cóngqián
5 敌人 dírén
5 繁荣 fánróng
5 国王 guówáng

 

T2 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 没有 méiyǒu
1 苹果 píngguǒ
2 牛奶 niúnǎi
2 游泳 yóuyǒng
3 词典 cídiǎn
3 而且 érqiě
3 啤酒 píjiǔ
3 如果 rúguǒ
4 词语 cíyǔ
4 烦恼 fánnǎo
4 即使 jíshǐ
4 结果 jiéguǒ
4 提醒 tíxǐng
5 财产 cáichǎn
5 成果 chéngguǒ
5 成语 chéngyǔ
5 成长 chéngzhǎng
5 诚恳 chéngkěn
5 迟早 chízǎo
5 传染 chuánrǎn
5 传统 chuántǒng
5 从此 cóngcǐ
5 罚款 fákuǎn
5 合法 héfǎ
5 合理 hélǐ
5 合影 héyǐng
5 急诊 jízhěn
5 集体 jítǐ
5 节省 jiéshěng
5 厘米 límǐ
5 良好 liánghǎo
5 浏览 liúlǎn
5 媒体 méitǐ
5 描写 miáoxiě
5 明显 míngxiǎn
5 模仿 mófǎng
5 难免 nánmiǎn
5 培养 péiyǎng
5 平等 píngděng
5 情景 qíngjǐng
5 人口 rénkǒu
5 随手 suíshǒu
5 调整 tiáozhěng
5 完美 wánměi
5 完整 wánzhěng
5 王子 wángzǐ
5 违反 wéifǎn
5 寻找 xúnzhǎo
5 牙齿 yáchǐ
5 营养 yíngyǎng

 

T2 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 前面 qiánmiàn
1 学校 xuéxiào
2 颜色 yánsè
2 羊肉 yángròu
2 一下 yíxià
3 不但 búdàn
3 成绩 chéngjì
3 城市 chéngshì
3 迟到 chídào
3 环境 huánjìng
3 节目 jiémù
3 结束 jiéshù
3 节日 jiérì
3 决定 juédìng
3 难过 nánguò
3 奇怪 qíguài
3 然后 ránhòu
3 容易 róngyì
3 同事 tóngshì
3 同意 tóngyì
3 文化 wénhuà
3 习惯 xíguàn
3 一定 yídìng
3 一共 yígòng
3 一会儿 yíhuìr
3 一样 yíyàng
3 游戏 yóuxì
4 博士 bóshì
4 不过 búguò
4 材料 cáiliào
4 乘坐 chéngzuò
4 答案 dá’àn
4 得意 déyì
4 国际 guójì
4 寒假 hánjià
4 合适 héshì
4 回忆 huíyì
4 活动 huódòng
4 来自 láizì
4 联系 liánxì
4 流利 liúlì
4 迷路 mílù
4 难道 nándào
4 难受 nánshòu
4 能力 nénglì
4 排队 pái duì
4 排列 páiliè
4 其次 qícì
4 情况 qíngkuàng
4 全部 quánbù

 

T2 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 儿子 érzi
1 名字 míngzi
1 朋友 péngyou
1 什么 shénme
1 时候 shíhou
1 学生 xuésheng
2 孩子 háizi
2 觉得 juéde
2 便宜 piányi
3 鼻子 bízi
3 别人 biéren
3 除了 chúle
3 还是 háishi
3 明白 míngbai
3 盘子 pánzi
3 瓶子 píngzi
3 裙子 qúnzi
3 头发 tóufa
3 爷爷 yéye
4 盒子 hézi
4 活泼 huópo
4 咳嗽 késou
4 凉快 liángkuai
4 麻烦 máfan
4 脾气 píqi
4 葡萄 pútao
4 勺子 sháozi
4 随着 suízhe
4 咱们 zánmen
4 值得 zhíde
5 脖子 bózi
5 合同 hétong
5 猴子 hóuzi
5 糊涂 hútu
5 桔子 júzi
5 粮食 liángshi
5 逻辑 luóji
5 馒头 mántou
5 眉毛 méimao
5 苗条 miáotiao
5 模糊 móhu
5 绳子 shéngzi
5 石头 shítou
5 学问 xuéwen
5 竹子 zhúzi
6 裁缝 cáifeng
6 残疾 cánji
6 含糊 hánhu
6 和气 héqi
6 唠叨 láodao

 

T3 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 北京 běijīng
1 老师 lǎoshī
2 好吃 hǎochī
2 手机 shǒujī
3 北方 běifāng
3 简单 jiǎndān
3 起飞 qǐfēi
3 小心 xiǎoxīn
4 饼干 bǐnggān
4 打针 dǎzhēn
4 堵车 dǔchē
4 广播 guǎngbō
4 果汁 guǒzhī
4 奖金 jiǎngjīn
4 紧张 jǐnzhāng
4 烤鸭 kǎoyā
4 可惜 kěxī
4 首都 shǒudū
4 首先 shǒuxiān
4 小吃 xiǎochī
4 小说 xiǎoshuō
4 许多 xǔduō
4 演出 yǎnchū
5 本科 běnkē
5 补充 bǔchōng
5 产生 chǎnshēng
5 打工 dǎgōng
5 感激 gǎnjī
5 拐弯 guǎi wān
5 海关 hǎiguān
5 海鲜 hǎixiān
5 假装 jiǎzhuāng
5 剪刀 jiǎndāo
5 酒吧 jiǔbā
5 卡车 kǎchē
5 启发 qǐfā
5 取消 qǔxiāo
5 始终 shǐzhōng
5 手工 shǒugōng
5 鼠标 shǔ biāo
5 损失 sǔnshī
5 体贴 tǐtiē
5 统一 tǒngyī
5 展开 zhǎn kāi
5 指挥 zhǐhuī
5 主观 zhǔguān
5 主张 zhǔzhāng
5 总之 zǒngzhī
5 组织 zǔzhī
6 把关 bǎ guān

 

T3 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 女儿 nǚ’ér
2 可能 kěnéng
2 旅游 lǚyóu
2 起床 qǐ chuáng
2 小时 xiǎoshí
3 检查 jiǎnchá
3 解决 jiějué
3 水平 shuǐpíng
3 选择 xuǎnzé
3 以前 yǐqián
3 有名 yǒumíng
4 本来 běnlái
4 比如 bǐrú
4 表格 biǎogé
4 表扬 biǎoyáng
4 打折 dǎzhé
4 导游 dǎoyóu
4 否则 fǒuzé
4 感觉 gǎnjué
4 感情 gǎnqíng
4 海洋 hǎiyáng
4 减肥 jiǎnféi
4 警察 jǐngchá
4 举行 jǔxíng
4 可怜 kělián
4 旅行 lǚxíng
4 网球 wǎngqiú
4 演员 yǎnyuán
4 养成 yǎngchéng
4 以为 yǐwéi
4 语言 yǔyán
4 准时 zhǔnshí
4 总结 zǒngjié
5 保持 bǎochí
5 保存 bǎocún
5 保留 bǎoliú
5 表达 biǎodá
5 表明 biǎomíng
5 表情 biǎoqíng
5 彩虹 cǎihóng
5 倒霉 dǎoméi
5 等于 děngyú
5 躲藏 duǒcáng
5 耳环 ěrhuán
5 反而 fǎn’ér
5 仿佛 fǎngfú
5 改革 gǎigé
5 果然 guǒrán
5 果实 guǒshí
5 火柴 huǒchái

 

T3 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 水果 shuǐguǒ
2 可以 kěyǐ
2 手表 shǒubiǎo
2 所以 suǒyǐ
3 打扫 dǎsǎo
3 了解 liǎojiě
3 洗澡 xǐzǎo
3 影响 yǐngxiǎng
3 只有 zhǐyǒu
4 表演 biǎoyǎn
4 打扰 dǎrǎo
4 管理 guǎnlǐ
4 减少 jiǎnshǎo
4 尽管 jǐnguǎn
4 老虎 lǎohǔ
4 理解 lǐjiě
4 理想 lǐxiǎng
4 偶尔 ǒu’ěr
4 所有 suǒyǒu
4 往往 wǎngwǎng
4 也许 yěxǔ
4 引起 yǐnqǐ
4 永远 yǒngyuǎn
4 勇敢 yǒnggǎn
4 友好 yǒuhǎo
4 语法 yǔfǎ
4 允许 yǔnxǔ
4 整理 zhěnglǐ
4 只好 zhǐhǎo
5 保险 bǎoxiǎn
5 本领 běnlǐng
5 彼此 bǐcǐ
5 采访 cǎifǎng
5 采取 cǎiqǔ
5 产品 chǎnpǐn
5 处理 chǔlǐ
5 导演 dǎoyǎn
5 岛屿 dǎoyǔ
5 辅导 fǔdǎo
5 赶紧 gǎnjǐn
5 感想 gǎnxiǎng
5 古典 gǔdiǎn
5 鼓舞 gǔwǔ
5 鼓掌 gǔ zhǎng
5 广场 guǎngchǎng
5 缓解 huǎnjiě
5 老板 lǎobǎn
5 老鼠 lǎoshǔ
5 了不起 liǎobuqǐ
5 领导 lǐngdǎo

 

T3 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 米饭 mǐfàn
1 怎么样 zěnmeyàng
2 考试 kǎoshì
2 跑步 pǎobù
2 准备 zhǔnbèi
3 比较 bǐjiào
3 比赛 bǐsài
3 打算 dǎsuàn
3 感冒 gǎnmào
3 可爱 kě’ài
3 礼物 lǐwù
3 马上 mǎshàng
3 满意 mǎnyì
3 努力 nǔlì
3 请假 qǐngjià
3 体育 tǐyù
3 饮料 yǐnliào
3 主要 zhǔyào
3 总是 zǒngshì
4 保护 bǎohù
4 保证 bǎozhèng
4 表示 biǎoshì
4 打印 dǎyìn
4 短信 duǎnxìn
4 法律 fǎlǜ
4 反对 fǎnduì
4 改变 gǎibiàn
4 感动 gǎndòng
4 感谢 gǎnxiè
4 鼓励 gǔlì
4 广告 guǎnggào
4 好像 hǎoxiàng
4 解释 jiěshì
4 景色 jǐngsè
4 举办 jǔbàn
4 考虑 kǎolǜ
4 可是 kěshì
4 肯定 kěndìng
4 恐怕 kǒngpà
4 冷静 lěngjìng
4 礼貌 lǐmào
4 理发 lǐfà
4 美丽 měilì
4 免费 miǎn fèi
4 普遍 pǔbiàn
4 使用 shǐyòng
4 讨论 tǎolùn
4 讨厌 tǎoyàn
4 网站 wǎngzhàn
4 眼镜 yǎnjìng

 

T3 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 我们 wǒmen
1 喜欢 xǐhuan
1 小姐 xiǎojie
1 椅子 yǐzi
1 怎么 zěnme
2 姐姐 jiějie
2 晚上 wǎnshang
2 眼睛 yǎnjing
2 已经 yǐjing
2 早上 zǎoshang
2 左边 zuǒbian
3 耳朵 ěrduo
3 奶奶 nǎinai
3 起来 qǐlai
4 打扮 dǎban
4 好处 hǎochu
4 饺子 jiǎozi
4 马虎 mǎhu
4 母亲 mǔqin
4 暖和 nuǎnhuo
4 主意 zhǔyi
5 尺子 chǐzi
5 打听 dǎting
5 点心 diǎnxin
5 骨头 gǔtou
5 管子 guǎnzi
5 讲究 jiǎngjiu
5 老实 lǎoshi
5 姥姥 lǎolao
5 脑袋 nǎodai
5 嗓子 sǎngzi
5 舍不得 shěbude
5 尾巴 wěiba
5 委屈 wěiqu
5 显得 xiǎnde
5 影子 yǐngzi
6 把手 ba3shou
6 本事 ben3shi
6 比方 bi3fang
6 打量 da3liang
6 恶心 e3xin
6 喇叭 la3ba
6 码头 ma3tou
6 免得 mian3de
6 曲子 qu3zi
6 嫂子 sao3zi
6 妥当 tuo3dang
6 枕头 zhen3tou
6 指甲 zhi3jia
6 种子 zhong3zi

 

T4 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
2 唱歌 chànggē
2 大家 dàjiā
2 第一 dìyī
2 上班 shàngbān
3 必须 bìxū
3 菜单 càidān
3 衬衫 chènshān
3 蛋糕 dàngāo
3 电梯 diàntī
3 放心 fàngxīn
3 健康 jiànkāng
3 面包 miànbāo
3 认真 rènzhēn
3 一般 yìbān
3 一边 yìbiān
4 差不多 chàbuduō
4 大约 dàyuē
4 放松 fàngsōng
4 害羞 hài xiū
4 互相 hùxiāng
4 降低 jiàngdī
4 竞争 jìngzhēng
4 客厅 kètīng
4 律师 lǜshī
4 耐心 nàixīn
4 现金 xiànjīn
4 信封 xìnfēng
4 信息 xìnxī
4 信心 xìnxīn
4 亚洲 yàzhōu
4 作家 zuòjiā
5 爱惜 àixī
5 爱心 àixīn
5 不安 bù’ān
5 刺激 cìjī
5 措施 cuòshī
5 地区 dìqū
5 对方 duìfāng
5 冠军 guànjūn
5 过期 guòqī
5 健身 jiànshēn
5 据说 jùshuō
5 客观 kèguān
5 辣椒 làjiāo
5 乐观 lèguān
5 利息 lìxī
5 列车 lièchē
5 录音 lùyīn
5 蜜蜂 mìfēng
5 面积 miànjī

 

T4 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
2 面条 miàntiáo
2 去年 qùnián
2 问题 wèntí
3 地图 dìtú
3 复习 fùxí
3 后来 hòulái
3 季节 jìjié
3 客人 kèrén
3 练习 liànxí
3 热情 rèqíng
3 认为 rènwéi
3 数学 shùxué
3 太阳 tàiyáng
3 特别 tèbié
3 一直 yìzhí
4 爱情 àiqíng
4 按时 ànshí
4 报名 bào míng
4 地球 dìqiú
4 调查 diàochá
4 对于 duìyú
4 负责 fùzé
4 复杂 fùzá
4 共同 gòngtóng
4 过程 guòchéng
4 获得 huòdé
4 既然 jìrán
4 价格 jiàgé
4 进行 jìnxíng
4 竟然 jìngrán
4 拒绝 jùjué
4 距离 jùlí
4 例如 lìrú
4 内容 nèiróng
4 确实 quèshí
4 任何 rènhé
4 适合 shìhé
4 橡皮 xiàngpí
4 幸福 xìngfú
4 性别 xìngbié
4 性格 xìnggé
4 预习 yùxí
4 阅读 yuèdú
4 暂时 zànshí
4 正常 zhèngcháng
4 证明 zhèngmíng
4 著名 zhùmíng
4 自然 zìrán
5 必然 bìrán
5 病毒 bìngdú

 

T4 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 电脑 diànnǎo
1 电影 diànyǐng
1 对不起 duìbuqǐ
1 汉语 hànyǔ
1 上午 shàngwǔ
1 下午 xiàwǔ
1 下雨 xiàyǔ
1 一点儿 yìdiǎnr
2 报纸 bàozhǐ
2 跳舞 tiàowǔ
2 一起 yìqǐ
3 办法 bànfǎ
3 地铁 dìtiě
3 或者 huòzhě
3 历史 lìshǐ
3 上网 shàngwǎng
3 校长 xiàozhǎng
3 自己 zìjǐ
4 并且 bìngqiě
4 不管 bùguǎn
4 不仅 bùjǐn
4 厕所 cèsuǒ
4 到底 dào dǐ
4 地点 dìdiǎn
4 地址 dìzhǐ
4 付款 fù kuǎn
4 号码 hàomǎ
4 后悔 hòuhuǐ
4 记者 jìzhě
4 禁止 jìnzhǐ
4 看法 kànfǎ
4 密码 mìmǎ
4 入口 rùkǒu
4 是否 shìfǒu
4 特点 tèdiǎn
4 效果 xiàoguǒ
4 正好 zhènghǎo
4 至少 zhìshǎo
4 重点 zhòngdiǎn
4 最好 zuìhǎo
4 作者 zuòzhě
5 办理 bànlǐ
5 傍晚 bàngwǎn
5 背景 bèijǐng
5 避免 bìmiǎn
5 彻底 chèdǐ
5 翅膀 chìbǎng
5 促使 cùshǐ
5 代表 dàibiǎo
5 贷款 dài kuǎn

 

T4 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 电视 diànshì
1 饭店 fàndiàn
1 看见 kànjiàn
1 睡觉 shuìjiào
1 现在 xiànzài
1 再见 zàijiàn
2 但是 dànshì
2 教室 jiàoshì
2 介绍 jièshào
2 快乐 kuàilè
2 运动 yùndòng
2 正在 zhèngzài
3 爱好 àihào
3 变化 biànhuà
3 动物 dòngwù
3 锻炼 duànliàn
3 附近 fùjìn
3 过去 guòqù
3 害怕 hàipà
3 护照 hùzhào
3 会议 huìyì
3 见面 jiànmiàn
3 世界 shìjiè
3 忘记 wàngjì
3 遇到 yùdào
3 愿意 yuànyì
3 照片 zhàopiàn
3 重要 zhòngyào
3 注意 zhùyì
3 最后 zuìhòu
3 最近 zuìjìn
3 作业 zuòyè
4 按照 ànzhào
4 抱歉 bàoqiàn
4 毕业 bì yè
4 错误 cuòwù
4 大概 dàgài
4 到处 dàochù
4 道歉 dàoqiàn
4 动作 dòngzuò
4 对话 duìhuà
4 对面 duìmiàn
4 放弃 fàngqì
4 复印 fùyìn
4 购物 gòuwù
4 故意 gùyì
4 顾客 gùkè
4 计划 jìhuà
4 技术 jìshù
4 继续 jìxù

 

T4 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 爸爸 bàba
1 后面 hòumian
1 漂亮 piàoliang
1 认识 rènshi
1 谢谢 xièxie
2 弟弟 dìdi
2 告诉 gàosu
2 妹妹 mèimei
2 事情 shìqing
2 意思 yìsi
2 右边 yòubian
2 丈夫 zhàngfu
3 地方 dìfang
3 个子 gèzi
3 故事 gùshi
3 记得 jìde
3 句子 jùzi
3 裤子 kùzi
3 筷子 kuàizi
3 帽子 màozi
3 为了 wèile
3 月亮 yuèliang
3 照顾 zhàogu
4 部分 bùfen
4 大夫 dàifu
4 肚子 dùzi
4 父亲 fùqin
4 护士 hùshi
4 镜子 jìngzi
4 困难 kùnnan
4 力气 lìqi
4 厉害 lìhai
4 热闹 rènao
4 任务 rènwu
4 态度 tàidu
4 袜子 wàzi
4 味道 wèidao
4 笑话 xiàohua
4 样子 yàngzi
4 要是 yàoshi
4 钥匙 yàoshi
4 叶子 yèzi
5 被子 bèizi
5 大方 dàfang
5 地道 dìdao
5 豆腐 dòufu
5 教训 jiàoxun
5 戒指 jièzhi
5 舅舅 jiùjiu
5 力量 lìliang

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.

Listening strategies: Improving listening speed

Now that I have cleared the main types of listening (background, passive and active listening), it’s time to look at something which is common to all of them: listening speed. This is a concept I think is both simple and useful. I have talked about it briefly in the article about problem analysis, but apart from that I haven’t found any references to “listening speed” in the sense I’m using the word here on the internet. I don’t say I’m the first or the only one using the word like this, but I hope this article will increase awareness of the phenomenon and its importance for improving listening ability.

In short, listening speed is the speed at which you can understand spoken Chinese.

It’s analogous to reading speed and works the same way. For instance, both listening and reading speed are influenced by the difficulty of the language you’re presented with. While I’ve seen many articles and books about reading speed (I’ve even written one myself!), I’ve never seen anything about listening speed. That’s what we’re going to talk about today, but before we do that, let’s look at the other articles in this series:

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/4seasons

Articles in this series:
Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed (this article)
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

What is listening ability?

According to my article about analysing problems with listening ability, we need five things in order to be able to understand what we’re listening to:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2.  Vocabulary and grammar
  3. Listening speed
  4. Motivation and a wish to understand
  5. Understanding of language and culture

In this article, we will look closer at the first two in order to understand how we can achieve reading speed.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is simply knowledge about the sounds of Standard Chinese. The sound inventory is relatively simple compared with some other languages, because Chinese doesn’t have that many different syllables (about 10% of the number in English), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn. Some sounds might not exist in your native language (zh/ch/sh, z/c/s for example) and many learners feel that these are difficult to distinguish and/or pronounce. The same is true for tones. Being able to distinguish all syllables from each other is the most basic skill we need in order to understand.

Vocabulary and grammar

Once you can distinguish the syllables and tones used in Chinese, you can map these sounds to meaning (vocabulary or grammar). I prefer doing this with a combination of exposure and spaced repetition software. However, it’s not obvious what “mapping sounds to meaning” actually means. I think there are two ways we can understand a word:

  • Depth – We can understand a wide variety of usages and nuances, we can use the word in many different contexts accurately
  • Speed – We can map the sound to the meaning of the word quickly, which is the essence of listening speed

The first of these two is what people mean when they say “I know this word”. However, as we shall see, I think how fast you know that word is of paramount importance for listening ability. This is what I call listening speed.

Listening speed

Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean when I say listening speed. The first time I see a word in Chinese and understand its meaning, either because I can guess it or because someone tells me what it means, a link is created between the sound and the meaning. For example:

tīng lì = listening ability

Next time I encounter this sound, tīng lì, I might or might not remember its meaning. If I do remember it, the recollection is probably not instantaneous; let’s say it takes me five seconds to search my mind and come up with the correct meaning. (The figures I’m use here are wild guesses and are merely included to illustrate my thoughts.) Next time I hear this word, the recollection will be quicker, let’s say it takes two seconds. Then one second. Gradually, as our brains get used to connecting the sound with the meaning, the process is completed more and more quickly.

Lack of listening speed

Assuming that we can distinguish the sounds used in Chinese and that our vocabulary is broad enough, we should be able to understand anything said to us in Chinese, and if we just know enough words we should be able to pass the listening test on the advanced HSK, right?

Wrong!

Even if you understand all the words, your parsing of the sentence and it’s meaning might be too slow. If the speed at which you process the audio you hear is slower than the rate of speech, you will have a problem. By my own non-scientific estimate, news broadcasts are typically read at a pace of 3-4 syllables per second, which gives something like 2-3 words per second. Thus, if you require more than half a second to understand what these words mean, you will get lost very quickly. This is of course a crude example and the actual speed required is faster than that, because you not only need to understand all the words, you also need time to understand the sentence as a whole and how it related to the topic in general.

The solution is simple: Listen more

I think the solution is very simple indeed: Listen as much as you can. Each time you hear a word you understand, the time required to retrieve that word will decrease. If you’ve learnt thousands of words in Chinese, you need to listen a lot before you’ve heard all those words a significant number of times. Before you have, you will continuously run into problems with listening speed. Note that you have to understand what you hear for this to be effective. You’re training your brain to link e.g. “tīng lì” to the meaning of “listening ability”, but if your brain can’t make the connection, it doesn’t count (it might still be good for practising other things, though).

A very simple solution is to use an SRS which is capable of reading all the words for you (Anki, for instance). For the purpose of listening speed, it’s of course better to have the audio on the front of the flashcard (as part of the question), but if that doesn’t work with how you’ve set up your cards (let’s say you’re testing yourself on the pronunciation of characters), you can still add the audio to the back of the card (as part of the answer), which means you will still hear the sound each time you review the card and can associate it with its meaning. Listening to the words in context is of course even better, but SRS is a very good start and an excellent complement.

Quantity is king

The more you listen, the better. In this case, it doesn’t need to be very advanced or hard, just listen as much as you can. Listening to the same audio more than once is fine, but don’t overdo it, because the brain is very good at learning context, which means that you might understand words only in the context you’ve encountered them, but not in others.

Thus, the best way to improve listening speed is listening to audio you can understand and do it a lot. This is the main reason why I think passive listening is so important! Without it, our brains would simply not be able to parse audio quickly enough to allow us to understand the meaning behind the sounds.

Reading speed: Learning how to read ten lines at a glance

I think most students feel that they want to read faster. There might be many reasons for this, but mainly it’s about taking tests or being able to consume more text (for pleasure, at work or when studying). Personally, I want to read faster partly because it’s a requirement for advanced Chinese language tests and partly because I enjoy reading and want to read more books. The ultimate goal would be the Chinese idiom 一目十行, to read ten lines at a glance. This is of course a lofty goal, but let’s have it as a direction rather than a destination.

Taking Chinese language tests (such as the HSK) on advanced levels require a reading speed which is significantly faster than most learners achieve without specifically practising reading speed. The first time I took an advanced test in Chinese, I understood almost everything I read, but finished only half the questions, because I didn’t read quickly enough.. I’ve heard people describe their advanced Chinese tests in a similar way so many times that this can’t be an exception: Reading speed really is a major hurdle to passing advanced proficiency tests. Reading speed does of course also affect the intermediate level, but to a lesser extent.

Why am I reading so slowly?

If we want to read quickly, we first need to identify where we have problems and what skills we need to improve. Just practising reading faster in general will be useful, but it’s always more effective to analyse the problem a bit before starting. Here are some obstacles that might affect you:

  • Weak vocabulary: Not knowing enough words absolutely kills reading speed. Most people get stuck on words they don’t know, but even if you can learn to skip these words and still understand the gist, lacking vocabulary might be a major problem. Encountering characters you don’t know also required time even if you decide to skip them. See this article where I argue that learning lots of words is even more important than people generally think.
  • Weak connection between words and their meaning: If you see a word, need to think for five seconds and only then know the meaning of the word, then you have this problem. You’re not lacking the vocabulary (see point one), but the connection between the visual input and the meaning of the word stored in your brain is too weak.
  • Weak reading skill: Reading is a skill that can be practised like any other skill. Knowing ten thousand words is not the same as being able to read. Connecting things together and extracting meaning from vocabulary is something that requires practise before we master it.
  • Weak grammatical understanding of Chinese: I’m not talking about details in grammar here, but if you don’t understand how Chinese sentences are structured, it will be very hard to read quickly. On the other hand, if you know this, it will become fairly easy to figure out which parts are essential for understanding of a passage and which aren’t. This is absolutely crucial if you want to speed-read.

So, I know what the problem is, how do I solve it?

The first thing we should do when trying to achieve anything is defining what it is we want to achieve. The long term goal might be reading at the same pace as a fairly slow native speaker (around 300-400 characters per minute). This (or any) number is meaningless unless we know what speed you’re currently reading at. We also need to break down the goal into smaller, achievable pieces (I’ve written a series of articles on goal management).

Benchmarking

Select a text which is at a level you can comfortably understand and read a few pages. Count how many characters you’ve read and divide by the time it took to read the passage. For future reference, keep the text if it was longer than you read (I use books, so next time I want to benchmark, I simply continue reading where I left off the previous time). Benchmarking is helpful to keep motivated, because you can see that you’re actually learning something. This is not only useful when trying to increase reading speed, but is equally useful in almost any area.

Setting reasonable goals

Let’s say you ended up with 100 characters per minute. If you’re goal is to reach 300, you should know that this is not something you will accomplish overnight. We need short term goals and focused practise to gradually build up reading speed. Perhaps you can set a short-term goal of 110-120 characters per minute and try to achieve that. Then you increase gradually until you reach your target speed. The important thing here is that you set a goal which is achievable and that you can practise reaching. This is standard practise when setting short-term goals.

How to practise reading speed

Looks quite easy, right? Well, it isn’t, but there are a number of things you can try that will help. I’ve put these things roughly in order of importance with the most important method first:

  • If you don’t already read a lot, start reading more: None of the following advice is any use at all if you don’t practise. There are no magic tricks to reading speed, but there are things that can make practising more efficient. This will help alleviate all the problems described above.
  • Force yourself to read slightly more quickly than you normally do: Use a pointer of some kind (your finger, a pencil) and run it along the lines of characters at a specific pace and read at that pace. Time yourself to see that this speed is slightly faster than you normally read (perhaps +10%). If you miss words, skip them. The goal is to make your brain accustomed to reading more quickly. Another way of forcing yourself to read quickly is reading subtitles on TV, but that might not match your speed or your vocabulary.
  • Make sure you know enough words: What “enough” means here depends entirely what you want to be able to read quickly and why. If you lack key vocabulary on a reading comprehension test, you will have a problem, even if you can read words you know fast as lightning. Read more about plugging gaps in your vocabulary here.
  • Read a passage more than once: If you read a passage a second time, you can mark important words and become aware of the structure of the sentences and which parts where actually crucial to understanding. Read the passage again with these words underlined and practise pure speed when you definitely know all the words. If some words still slow you down, stop and practise them and read again.
  • Practise reading aloud: This might seem counter-intuitive, but works well if your reading speed is slower than normal speaking speed (this is quite likely if you’re not already a reasonably fast reader). I did a non-scientific estimate of the speed of news broadcasts and arrived at a speaking speed of about 200-250 characters per minute. Of course, pronunciation in itself isn’t necessary to practise reading speed and it might even be counter-productive after you’ve reached a certain level. If you want to learn to read faster than speaking speed, you need to stop sub-vocalising. Also note that it’s perfectly possible to be able read Chinese without being able to speak it, so if for some reason you don’t care about pronunciation at all, reading aloud isn’t a good idea.

Speed reading and taking tests

I said above that there are no true shortcuts when it comes to reading speed, but there are some things you can do in order to read faster if you have an exam tomorrow and it’s too late to increase speed in general. These methods will be familiar to anyone who can read quickly in their native language, so I’m not claiming to present something new, just making sure everyone knows these practical tricks:

  • Don’t read linearly: Just because a text is written in a certain way (usually from left to right and top to bottom), it doesn’t mean you have to read it this way. Read headings first, so you know what you’ll expect. Read the first and the last sentence of a passage first, they usually contain lots of information. Also, read the questions before you read the text.
  • Don’t re-read immediately if you stumble on a word: This requires practise, but if you encounter a word you don’t know or a sentence you didn’t really get, don’t re-read it immediately. Finish the paragraph first, because it’s quite likely you’ll understand the difficult automatically because you know the rest of the content. Even if it isn’t automatic and you have to go back and re-read the tricky sentence, you still stand a better chance of understanding it if you know what comes after.
  • Don’t read sentences you don’t have to read: If you read the questions first (which you always should), you might figure out halfway through a sentence that this isn’t related to the questions at all. Skip the rest of the sentence and try to find where the text starts talking about things you really need to know.
  • A caveat for tricky language tests: Some tests will deliberately try to trip you up. It might look like a passage is about something or that someone’s opinion about a topic is in a certain way, but then in one key sentence, that is turned upside down. This in not very common in natural texts produced in natural situations, but it does occur in some proficiency tests. Thus, skimming through a text to find something which is related to the question and then taking that as your final answer might be extremely dangerous.

The road is long, you’d better start walking now

If you want to be able to read quickly, it will require a lot of practise. Even if you use all the accumulated wisdom of the internet (I’ve tried to highlight what I find most useful here, see further reading for more), it will still take many, many hours to achieve high reading speed in Chinese. Reading speed is mostly about exposure and volume, combined with conscious and targeted practise. If you’re having problems passing that proficiency test, don’t wait until two weeks before the exam and start practising reading speed. You need to practise now!

I don’t have all the answers

Even if I have tried a number of different ways of improving reading speed in different languages, I’m not in any way an expert. I’m sure there are useful things I haven’t brought up or that I can be explained in a better way than I’ve done here. I would love to hear what you have to say, especially if you have something I haven’t mentioned which has been useful for you. Share and enjoy!

Further reading, references and credits

Speed reading on Mind Tools
How to read faster 101
Imron’s post in this thread on Chinese Forums
This (entire) thread, also on Chinese forums
Speed reading on Wikipedia

Mapping the terra incognita of vocabulary

Image credit: Max Braun

Learning a new language sometimes feels like parachuting from high altitude and landing in a foreign and sometimes also hostile land. Slowly, you establish a base camp; you start exploring your surroundings. You start building up confidence, you start knowing your way around. As you reach the intermediate level, you know the area close to your camp pretty well and you start exploring the high mountains and deep valleys beyond, gaining ever more experience. However, the larger the territory you explore becomes, the longer becomes the perimeter. As the area increases, it also becomes more and more difficult to make sure that you haven’t overlooked something important.

Just because you can read an advanced text doesn’t mean that you know everything on the intermediate level

It’s easy to fool yourself and believe that because you can read a text at a certain level, it means you master everything below that, which is never the case, not even for native speakers. Your map might reach far and wide, but there will always be hidden caves and valleys that you haven’t visited, sometimes really close to home. In other words, dropping the metaphors for a while, you might know how to say “claustrophobia”, “recession” and “promulgate” in Chinese, but if you haven’t been exposed to enormous amounts of Chinese, it’s very likely that there are fairly easy words that you don’t know. The problem is that you don’t know that you don’t know them.

Finding and mapping unknown terrain

There are basically two ways to improve your map:

  • Expose yourself to huge volumes of Chinese
  • Use frequency dictionaries and compiled word lists

The first one is what native speakers do and what we should do as much as we can. However, saying that we should simply listen and read more Chinese is not very helpful (and it has already been said many times on Hacking Chinese), so in this case we’re going to focus on the second method. I have touched upon this subject before when talking about using more than one textbook to diversify vocabulary, but using frequency lists is taking the same thinking one step further. I have also written about memorising dictionaries, which also touches on the same topic.

It’s fairly straightforward: use a frequency list (you can use official lists for HSK preparation or similar) and go through them to see what words you don’t know. If you combine this with proper flashcard software and just import the lists and see what you lack, this will only take a few minutes. It allows you to find words you ought to know (or at least that someone thinks you ought to know), but don’t. If you haven’t got all your words in a program already, it might still be worth the effort going through the words manually.

Learn words below your expected level

Note that I’m talking about learning words within the limits of the map you already have. I do not suggest that you use only word lists to expand your vocabulary in general. In other words, if you think that you are on an intermediate level, use this method to learn beginner-level words. If you’re advanced, don’t use this method to learn advanced words, but anything below that is cool.

Some practical aspects and an example

I use Anki and some time ago I had around 15000 cards in my Chinese deck. This means that I should know a significant amount of words, but as we shall see, there were many I tried adding TOCFL lists (the Taiwanese HSK equivalent) , but I tried it with the HSK lists as well and the results were similar. I imported these lists to Anki, which of course rejected words already in my list. This is what I did and how it turned out.

  1. Adding the beginner words (800) gave me two words I didn’t know
  2. Adding the basic words (+1600) gave me roughly a dozen new words
  3. Adding the intermediate words (+3400) gave me a couple of hundred words
  4. Adding the advanced words (+2800) gave me over one thousand new words

Naturally, you should stop at a decent level. Adding a thousand new words is quite a daunting task, so I would advice against doing that. The point here is not to cram in more words (even though you can do that if you want to, of course), but rather to note that there were words on the easier levels I didn’t know. Not all of these were words I truly didn’t know; some of them just wasn’t in my deck, but a significant number were words I actually didn’t know.

Special note for traditional characters in Anki: There is a plugin called Traditional Hanzi Statistics which will compare your deck with a list of characters based on frequency and see what words and/or characters are lacking. This plugin is extremely useful.

This is a good example of a map that is very spread out and has lots of blank areas. Considering that my deck consisted of more than twice the number of words than the complete list of vocabulary for the test, it goes without saying that I know a lot more words than required for the advanced level. However, there were more than one thousand words I didn’t know!

What does that mean? It means that there were one thousand words someone responsible for preparing the word lists thought important, but that I hadn’t learnt yet. Regardless if I’m preparing for that test or if I’m just thirsty for knowledge is irrelevant, adding these words is truly useful, provided that you use good word lists. Regarding the words I didn’t know in the beginner, basic and intermediate lists, let me just say that there were some words I was amazed that I actually didn’t know how to say in Chinese!

Advanced level context

When learning words that are very common, I don’t think that spending time to find good example sentences is necessary, especially when we’re talking about nouns and verbs that are fairly straightforward to use. You will pick up how to use common words simply by listening and reading if you do it enough. Combine this with speaking and writing practise and you’ll be fine.

This is not true on an advanced level, though, because you’ll be much less likely to encounter the words you learn again. Thus, I strongly suggest that you learn any advanced words in contexts and with at least one clear example of how to use it. If you doubt the validity or correctness of your sentence, ask a friend or use Lang-8 (you can post several sentences at once and ask people questions about them).

Conclusion

Whether for test preparation or simply to enhance your vocabulary, using frequency lists is really useful. It might be incredibly hard to find these words, which might be embarrassing/bad/catastrophic if you don’t know them. The outcome depends on why you want to learn Chinese in the first place, but I think that we can all agree that learning words that are actually below our average level is desirable regardless of how far we’ve come in our studies.