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!

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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!

Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation: Interview with Hacking Chinese on Language is Culture

A few weeks ago, David Mansaray over at Language is Culture asked me if I was interested in appearing in his new interview series focusing on different aspects of language learning. Since the content he had produced earlier looked really interesting and he seemed to be cool guy in general, I didn’t hesitate. After having discussed briefly, we settled on pronunciation as the topic of the interview. You can listen to the interview here:

Everything you Need to Know About Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation

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Naturally, we didn’t talk about everything related to learning pronunciation (just like Hacking Chinese doesn’t actually tell you everything you need to know about learning Chinese), but we did cover a lot of interesting topics, such as:

  • How to train your ears to distinguish similar sounds in a foreign language
  • How to learn the pronunciation of words at the start of your language learning journey
  • The path to sounding like a native (and the reason why most people fail)
  • The best ways to get honest feedback on your pronunciation
  • How to manipulate the production of sound coming out of your mouth
  • How to constantly improve your pronunciation

The interview is about 70 minutes long and you can listen to it directly or download it from Language is Culture.

Some thoughts and reflections

I just listened through the interview myself and I’d like to share a few thoughts:

  • It’s great talking to other people who are also interested in pronunciation
  • It’s very hard to explain complicated topics in a limited amount of time for an imagined audience
  • I want to spend more time improving my own pronunciation, both in English and Chinese
  • I really do believe that the system is heavily stacked against people who don’t learn quickly
  • I have almost no photos of myself available (that was the only one I could find)
  • Pronunciation really is the most interesting part of learning a new language!

What did you think?

 If you listen to the interview, it would be great hearing what you think. Remember, I have (virtually) unlimited amount of space on this website to write more about any of the topics mentioned in the interview, so if you want me to expand on something, let me know! I also think I have a lot to learn when it comes to interviews and creating/contributing audio content in general, so feedback in that area would also be much appreciated!

Chinese Language Learner Interview Series – Olle Linge

I’m happy to announce that an interview with me have been published over at FluentFlix. To see what other things I’ve written elsewhere on the internet, please see Hacking Chinese elsewhere.

In this interview, I talk mainly about learning Chinese (no surprise there), including some personal comments on my own learning and some embarrassing mistakes I’ve made along the way.

These are the questions asked in the interview:

  • How would you sum up the approach you’ve taken to learning Chinese? Do you have a certain philosophy about how you learn?
  • What are your favourite tools and resources for learning Chinese?
  • What type of attitude should a Chinese learner embrace?Do you see other language learners making mistakes you think they should avoid?
  • Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes or misunderstandings?
  • Any memorable milestones? Any, “Aha!”, or eureka moments?
  • How do you keep yourself motivated while studying languages/Chinese?
  • Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?

If you’re curious about the answer to these questions, head over to FluentFlix and read the interview now!

About FluentFlix and why it’s awesome

Apart from featuring this exclusive interview, FluentFlix is a website you bookmark and visit often. First, the blog. Among other things, it features a large number of really interesting articles about 成語. These aren’t the boring kind of definitions and explanations, they are thorough and entertaining discussions about these idioms and how to use them. If you want to learn 成語, this is a very valuable resource indeed. Here are some examples:

The second reason you should visit FluentFlix is their upcoming video textbook. This is a project with huge potential. Imagine a textbook, YouTube and spaced repetition software merged into one. With such a resource, you would hardly need other resources to create a complete learning environment. Forget about boring textbooks and fake dialogues, why not use entertaining and authentic videos with subtitles, ready to be mined for vocabulary and grammar? FluentFlix is still in beta, but I’m really looking forward to the proper launch of this project!

Learn Chinese by listening to the listener

The most obvious way to practise listening and pick up some vocabulary is to listen closely to someone speaking Chinese. This is very obvious and is one of the most useful and accessible ways of learning a language, but only focusing on the spoken Chinese misses one important point.

Listening to a dialogue, have you ever tried listening to the person who isn’t speaking?

If you haven’t, you should, because you will learn a ton of useful Chinese. It probably won’t be the kind of language that increases your scores on tests, but it will definitely help you to sound more native and feel less at a loss when you’re in a similar position yourself.

The thing is that languages consist of a lot more than just words. Even if we disregard body language, there are still verbal communication going on all the time that can’t be said to be words. While listening to someone retelling a story, here are a few things that can be expressed with just a sound:

  • Yes
  • No
  • I agree
  • I hear what you say
  • Please continue
  • I don’t understand
  • I don’t believe you
  • What?

I’m not going to give a detailed analysis of these, but just to show you what I mean, I mean sounds in English like “oh” to indicate surprise, “hm” to indicate thought or perhaps reservation, “mm” to express agreement and so on.

The point is that these sounds are not necessarily the same in Chinese

There are some English sounds which simply confuses Chinese speakers if used in Chinese (the most prominent I’ve encountered is using “mhm” to indicate agreement, but which is often interpreted as” I don’t understand”).

Conversely, Chinese contains a lot of sounds which do not exist in English or any other Indo-European language I’ve studied (you should have come across these even in very basic textbooks, I talk about sounds written as 嗯,咦,噢 and so on). You can try to learn these by asking people how to use them, but even better than that is to do a listening exercise somewhat differently:

Listen to a naturally flowing dialogue, but only focus on what the listener is saying

Even though it certainly helps, you don’t need to understand everything said in the dialogue. Apart from giving you a feeling for how these sounds work and how you yourself can use them when you listen to someone speaking Chinese, you can also pick up some information on how to use very simple words. I’ve mostly talked about sounds so far, but of course people who listen to someone uses words as well, such as 是的, 对 (對) or 没错 (沒錯). Since this kind of words is used very, very frequently, it’s always a good idea to learn more of them and learn in which situations they can be used.

Make sure you do this with many different dialogues, because different people tend to use different words, so by listening to more than one, you increase the likelihood that you will pick up something new or that what you learn is common practice and not a weird aberration. TV, radio and any other media containing natural dialogue are excellent places to start (I find interviews especially interesting), but if you live in China, you could just listen to people around you.

By studying and mimicking the way people interact, including things that aren’t necessarily in your textbook and might not even be in the subtitles or transcriptions on TV or radio, you will improve your Chinese. Most of the time, you should of course focus on the speaker, but if you haven’t tried listening to the listener, give it a try!

Questions to the reader

  • Have you made any curious discoveries regarding how you use these sounds in your own language and Chinese?
  • Have you encountered any sounds that make people confused or that make you confused?
  • Do you find yourself using these words whet you speak your native language (I do, sometimes)?