24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert
Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about pronunciation. As promised last week, this post will contain my favourite resources for learning and teaching pronunciation. All of them are already listed on Hacking Chinese Resources, but I still think that highlighting the most useful resources for this month’s challenge will be useful. There are still 10 days left in the challenge, by the way, so it’s not too late to join if you haven’t already!

The best resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation

I usually limit my best-resource articles to ten, but since pronunciation is my favourite topic, I’m not going to stop there. I’m not going to give you everything I have (you wouldn’t want that), but I am going to give you more than you need. Probably a lot more. To make the recommendations more navigable, I have sorted them into four categories; feel free to skip those you don’t think you need.

  1. Basic sound references
  2. Pronunciation explained
  3. Advice on learning pronunciation
  4. Useful software and applications

If you have any other resources you think ought to be on this list or on Hacking Chinese Resources, please leave a comment or contact me.

1. Basic sound references

When you start learning Chinese, it’s essential that you have proper models to mimic. It’s also important that you look up how to pronounce syllables you’re not familiar with. There are several freely available resources that include all syllables read with all tones. I have included more than one here because as I have explained, listening to more than one voice is helpful.

  • Yabla Pinyin Chart With Audio – A web-based Pinyin chart with audio for all syllables with all tones. Also includes possible combinations that actually don’t exist as real words, which might be good for practice.
  • Pinyin audio and video on YouTube – This clip introduces all the initials and finals in Pinyin (using the first tone). It adds value to the rest of the resources here because the camera is pointed to the speaker’s mouth, showing clearly how the lips move.
  • Lost Theory Mandarin Phonetics – Another web-based resource with recorded audio for all syllables with all tones. You can also get the “spelling” of the syllable read to you, ie. Initial, final and then the whole syllable.
  • New Concept Mandarin introduction to Pinyin – Yet another web-based Pinyin chart with a different voice. It’s slightly more annoying to navigate, but only contains real syllables, which might be good as a reality check.
  • ChinesePod Introduction to Pinyin – This app is available for free for both Android and iOS and contains the full Pinyin chart with audio. It also explains the sounds, although not always accurately (there is no “nasal U” in Mandarin).
  • Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills – As the name implied, this is tone pair drilling with audio. You should really know how to pronounce all combinations and here you have them with audio references.
  • AllSet Learning Pinyin – This resource is only available for iPhone and iPad, but it’s free to download. It contains audio for all syllables in Mandarin (including tones) as well as some other useful features.
  • Pinyin Chart in IPA – In case you know the International Phonetica Alphabet (IPA) this chart provides you with a transcription of all syllables in Mandarin. It also highlight some potential issues with spelling in Pinyin.

2. Pronunciation explained

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics – This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice – This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia – This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls – My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) – This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a little bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

3. Advice on learning pronunciation

  • Tones are more important than you think – This is an article about the importance of tones. I don’t think anyone who reads this guide thinks tones aren’t important, but it might be good to have some arguments to convince your friends.
  • Learning the third tone in Chinese – I have spent a fair amount of time researching the third tone in Mandarin. In this article, I share some of the results and discuss what they mean for you as a learner.
  • A smart method to discover problems with tones – I have referred to this article already, but I want to mention it again. It introduces a really neat way of testing pronunciation without having a teacher. Everybody should try this at least once.
  • Recording yourself to improve speaking ability – This is a closer look at how you can use recording as a tool to improve pronunciation. Most of what I cover here has appeared in different parts of this guide.
  • John Pasden’s tips on Chines pronunciation – I have referred to specific parts of this site earlier, but this is the main page for everything about pronunciation. John has many good things to say about pronunciation, listen to him!
  • Extending Mnemonics to Tones and Pronunciation – This is isn’t specifically about how to learn to pronounce Chinese, but instead about how to remember the sounds (this is surprisingly often the problem; you have to remember how a word is pronounced if you want to be able to pronounce it correctly).
  • Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation – This is an interview done with me over at Language is Culture. I talk with David Mansaray about learning to pronounce Chinese (and other languages). It isn’t directly useful as a guide for how to change pronunciation, but might be interesting to some readers. The audio interview is about 70 minutes long.

4. Useful software and applications

  • Audacity – This program is excellent for mimicking purposes, but also for careful listening in general. It’s easy to use and available for free on most platforms. It’s a powerful audio editing and playback software that allows you to view and edit audio, as well as slow down,
    speed up, mute channels and much more. The link goes to my article about using Audacity and I introduce more tricks there.
  • Praat – This is one of the most widely used programs when it comes to scientific analysis of pronunciation. The program is not made for students specifically, but you can get pretty far just by using the material available on the website. Praat is free and works on most platforms. One of the most important features for students is to be able to see pitch contours and compare these to those of native speakers.
  • Pleco – This is my favourite Chinese dictionary (available for both Android and iOS), but that’s not why I mention it here. If you feel like spending some money, you can buy one or two voices that read most words in the dictionary. This is not synthesised sound, they actually
    record each word! Mimic your way to better pronunciation, don’t improvise or guess the right pronunciation.
  • WaiChinese – This app allows you to listen and record your own pronunciation, and to compare it with target audio. More importantly, it allows you to submit your recordings for corrections by a native teacher! This requires manual work and so costs money, but it’s a neat way to get quick feedback on your pronunciation.

Good luck!
Having the right resources is just part of successful language learning. Just as you won’t get strong simply be reading how to do push-ups, you won’t get good at pronouncing Chinese unless you practice. Without that, no theory in the world will help you. With the right theory, though, your practice becomes not only more effective, but usually also more enjoyable. Good luck!

Sensible character challenge, January 11th to 31st

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

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

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

Prizes on offer for this challenge

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

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

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

The challenge

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

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

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

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

What is a reasonable goal?

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

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

Sensible character learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

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

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

challenge14-1Brief information about the challenge

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

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

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

Active participants will receive prizes

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

The prizes will be given as follows:

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

Your progress report

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

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

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

My progress report

This is what my commitment to the challenge looked like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are…

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

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

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

Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.

So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.

1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days

I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.

Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.

My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.

Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal

In my case, then:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)

Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.

3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here

There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.

I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!

Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)

4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)

Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.

Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!

6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters

As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.

I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.

I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.

7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

skritterIf we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).

The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed)  will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):

List of participants in the challenge

If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Gerrityong
  3. Maggie
  4. Xiaokaka
  5. Elizabeth Braun
  6. 胡安马林
  7. Xiaomai
  8. Jacob Gill
  9. Brian Emord
  10. Teresa
  11. Rossi
  12. Magnus
  13. Ivan
  14. Jacob Job
  15. 勇氣
  16. Dan Poole
  17. Li
  18. Carmeljune
  19. Hugh Grigg
  20. Frederico Ferro Schuh
  21. Rob Flye
  22. Lucía 学习吧
  23. Oaht
  24. Fandez
  25. Leslie
  26. Kelby Barker
  27. Tai
  28. Nommoc
  29. LorenzoCC
  30. Georges
  31. Daniel
  32. Lagoyidice
  33. Ana H. Zentarski
  34. Joaquin Matek
  35. Kyle Balmer 凯尔
  36. Daniela Rodríguez
  37. Dean James
  38. 陳凱
  39. Luke
  40. Rachel
  41. Nicole
  42. Mariano
  43. Linitachinese
  44. Aaron
  45. Lechuan
  46. Hans
  47. Doug Stetar
  48. Aivlys
  49. 戴睿
  50. Julia
  51. Emily
  52. Matt
  53. Trey
  54. Carla
  55. Nathan Fields
  56. Leigh
  57. Lili
  58. Núria
  59. Kiwi
  60. 杨明晨
  61. 狄小可
  62. Georg
  63. Jeremy
  64. 9thcrane
  65. Jeb Topper
  66. 爱美
  67. Kevin
  68. 戴睿
  69. Jason
  70. Stefan
  71. Bailee
  72. Rebecca
  73. Evelyn
  74. Sammy
  75. Jack
  76. Clare
  77. Audrey
  78. Nancy
  79. Federico
  80. Jason
  81. Pnh
  82. Napo
  83. Nik
  84. Julia
  85. Renee Bovee
  86. Haris
  87. Jacob
  88. Javi
  89. Ann
  90. Kate
  91. Faiz
  92. William
  93. KarynL
  94. Jamison Watson
  95. Martin W 龍馬丁
  96. 爱美
  97. hitesh agrawal
  98. Jocy
  99. Ryan T
  100. Baroni Fabio
  101. Will
  102. Reixue90
  103. Jeremy89
  104. Nikki
  105. Steve L
  106. David Brett
  107. Julia
  108. You?

That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

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

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf
Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.


5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

21 essential dictionaries and corpora for learning Chinese

Most learners of Chinese soon realise that available dictionaries have some serious problems. This is mostly true for Chinese-English (and English-Chinese) dictionaries, but it’s also true for Chinese-Chinese dictionaries (in short, they don’t work very well for learners). This article isn’t about the problem itself though, but how to overcome it. If you want to read about the issue, I suggest you head over to Albert Wolfe’s article about the shortcomings of CE dictionaries.

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

I have studied Chinese for some time now and have used a number of difference dictionaries. The bad news is that I still haven’t found a good dictionary that can do everything I want it to do, but the good news is that I have found several different dictionaries that among them can handle most of the questions I have.

In this article, I will share with you my favourite dictionaries, including why I think they are good, what I use them for and what drawbacks they (all) have. I also hope that you might give me suggestions of dictionaries that might replace those I list below. Note that I’m not looking for dictionaries that can do things that those below can already do well.

My goal here isn’t to give you a list of all available dictionaries. In fact, I have tried to keep the list as short as possible (it’s still quite long). This is because I know most learners are after simple and effective solutions. People who really want to explore other dictionaries will do that without my having to write about it.

This article about digital resources, so even if I mention offline dictionaries, they are still digital. I haven’t used enough paper dictionaries to evaluate them properly and most learners don’t bother with paper dictionaries today anyway.

I have sorted these sources into the following categories:

  1. Online dictionaries mainly relying on English
  2. Online dictionaries mainly relying on Chinese
  3. Online dictionaries for traditional Chinese
  4. Offline dictionaries you should check out
  5. Online corpora and other sentence sources

Online dictionaries mainly relying on English

  • MDBG
    What I use it for: This is my default dictionary in this category
    Pros: Clean interface, easy to use, handwriting recognition, stroke order, sound
    Cons: Sometimes inadequate English definitions (true for most dictionaries, though)
  • Zhongwen.com
    What I use it for: Etymology, character components, horizontal character learning
    Pros: Click on any character part to view that component, good etymology in English
    Cons: Horrible interface, characters as pictures rather than text you can copy
  • Arch Chinese
    What I use it for: Character components, collocations, word frequency
    Pros: Offers related characters and words sorted by frequency (this is awesome)
    Cons: None, really, this site is great in general
  • HanziCraft
    What I use it for:
    Breaking down characters for sensible character learning
    Pros: Very easy to use, integrates well, very fast
    Is still quite new, I haven’t found too many problems though
  • Yellow Bridge
    What I use it for: Same as above
    Pros: Reasonably quick look-up, all information in a tree structure
    Cons: Need to log in for full details (I don’t use that feature, though), much slower than HanziCraft
  • Youdao
    What I use it for: Academic and/or specialist jargon, fixed expressions, dictionary
    Pros: Provides parallel translations, excellent for translation work
    Cons: None, really, this site is very useful

Online dictionaries mainly relying on Chinese

  • Zdic
    What I use it for: This is my main Chinese-Chinese non-traditional dictionary
    Pros: Comprehensive, detailed definitions, English, very detailed single-character information
    Cons: None, really, this is my favourite online Chinese-Chinese dictionary
  • Baidu Dictionary
    What I use it for: Idioms, fixed expressions, other things I can’t find in other dictionaries
    Pros: User-edited, so very comprehensive (think Wikipedia), usually easier than formal dictionaries
    Cons: User-edited, so quality varies, but usually very good

Online dictionaries mainly relying on Chinese (only traditional)

  • Chinese spell checker
    What I use it for: Check the use of character variations in different words
    Pros: The above feature is unique as far as I know, incredibly useful
    Cons: None, really, this site fulfils its function pretty well
  • Character variant dictionary
    What I use if tor: Sort out character variants (obviously)
    Pros: This site is indispensable for independent advanced learners
    Cons: It’s sometimes a bit confusing and doesn’t always give clear answers
  • Taiwan Ministry of Education Chinese Dictionary
    What I use it for: Look up words I can’t find anywhere else, single character information
    Pros: Comprehensive and detailed
    Cons: Archaic examples, hard definitions, too detailed (this is not beginner-friendly at all)
  • Taiwan Ministry of Education Elementary School Dictionary
    What I use it for: Single-character definitions and collocations in Chinese
    Pros: Easier to understand than its bigger cousin (see above)
    Cons: Only has single-characters
  • Taiwan Ministry of Education Character Stroke Order Dictionary
    What I use it for: Check stroke order, check the current writing standard in Taiwan
    Pros: Detailed, well-structured, comprehensive
    Cons: None, really, it does the job pretty well

Offline dictionaries you should check out (apps)

  • Pleco
    What I use it for:Everything on the move, this is all you need, really
    Pros: Excellent handwriting input, OCR input, flashcards, excellent dictionaries
    Cons: Some functions aren’t free
  • Hanping
    What I use it for: Very similar to Pleco in terms of functionality
    Pros: Cheaper than Pleco
    Cons: Still costs money, fewer features than Pleco

Online corpora and other sentence sources

  • Jukuu
    What I use it for: Sentence mining, gathering large volumes of examples
    Pros: Contains a large number of sentences
    Cons: Sometimes hard to find actual sentences, some results are either only words or fragments
  • Iciba
    What I use it for: Similar to Jukuu above
    Pros: Contains a large number of sentences
    Cons: The English translations are horrible, don’t trust them more than you would trust Google translate.
  • Nciku
    What I use it for: Same as above; has fewer but in general better sentences
    Pros: Higher quality sentences with much better translations (reliable English in many cases)
    Cons: Lacks examples of uncommon words and sometimes have too few sentences to find the usage I’m after
  • LCMC
    What I use it for: Collocations, mostly
    Pros: Is a real, tokenised corpus, very big
    Cons: Hard to use if you’re not used to corpus research
  • Academia Sinica Balanced Corpus of Modern Chinese
    What I use it for: Most queries about traditional Chinese or Mandarin usage in Taiwan
    Pros: Is a real, tokenised corpus
    Cons: Only covers Taiwan, not big enough at times
  • Google
    What I use it for: Anything I can’t find using the other sources I’ve listed above
    Pros: Mindbogglingly high number of sentences
    Cons: Hard to find what you’re looking for, hard to be sure that what you find is actually a good example

That’s all for now, I think. If you have any suggestions for how to improve this list by replacing any dictionary with one which is strictly better, let me know! Remember, though, this isn’t an attempt to gather as many dictionaries as possible, but rather to list the best dictionaries for specific purposes. I will keep the list updated as I find better alternatives, please help!

Update: I removed Wenlin and added Hanping instead. Wenlin is great, but it’s very outdated and I can’t even use it with what I have available, whereas Hanping is much more likely to help students. I also removed I Cha Cha and added Youdao instead. The latter is roughly a hundred times better than the previous and I blame my previous inclusion of I Cha Cha on plain ignorance.