The get-back-up-to-speed summer challenge

I’ve been on vacation and haven’t thought too much about studying, which means that I have failed miserably to keep my vocabulary review queues at a manageable level. You might have other reasons for failing to do so or you might have other projects you really should finish before the end of the summer. I know I have. Rather than slogging away at this on my own, I thought I’d create a challenge that readers can participate in.

Summer 2013 get-back-up-to-speed challenge

  • Think through what you need to complete before the summer is over
  • Select one or several closely related projects
  • Define them as clearly as you can (define what the goal is)
  • The default deadline is September 1st, change it if you like
  • Use the template below and leave a comment to this article
  • Read my advice below on how to handle larger projects
  • Mush!

My challenge

Image source:
Image source:

I have actually a fair number of things I want to do before the summer is over, but as specified above, I’m going to choose one or perhaps two closely related projects and use them in this challenge. This is not merely an example, mind you, I’m in the challenge too.

My summer vacation doesn’t really end in August, but since I have lots of other things to do after that, I will set September 1st as my deadline. This should also be reasonably close to when other people’s summers end and therefore a good end-point for this challenge.

Template for participating in the challenge

Goal: Your overall goal for the challenge
Deadline: When you intend to reach your goal (I will use August 30)
Strategy: How  you intend to reach your goal before the deadline
Milestone #1, July 28: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #2, August 11: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #3, August 25: What  you should have achieved before this day is over
Milestone #4, September 1: You should be finished with everything now

Here’s what my challenge would look like:

Goal: Reduce all my SRS queues to zero, including leeches and banned/suspended cards
Deadline: August 30th, 2013
Strategy: I plan to use most of the strategies listed below, but most importantly, I will use timeboxing as much as i can and get rid of the Anki queue through five-minute review sessions interspersed throughout the day. Skritter will require more concentrated effort and I need to be in front of my computer, so I plan to do this just after getting up every morning, provided I’m at home. The same goes for killing leeches in Anki.
Milestone #1, July 28: Anki queue down to 2500, Skritter queue down to 600 with no banned cards
Milestone #2, August 11: Anki queue down to 1000, Skritter queue down to 400 with no banned cards
Milestone #3, August 25: Anki queue down to 0, Skritter queue down to 200 with no banned cards
Milestone #4, September 1: Clear leeches and suspended cards in Anki, Skritter queue down to 0

Regarding the deadlines, they are merely examples. I will use them, but it doesn’t mean that you have to.

How to handle quantitatively large projects

Getting through thousands of due flashcards or killing hundreds of leeches takes some serious time. Also, the point is to do something intelligent with these flashcards, not just go through them as quickly as possible (that would defeat the purpose). As usual, I advocate an active attitude to flashcards, so reviewing involves editing, deleting and adding cards according to your needs. Simply going through the motions is meaningless.

There are a few things you can do to make this easier:

  • Break it down – This is essential. Any step is easy as long as it’s small enough. Break your project down into manageable chunks. Read more here about micro goals.
  • Timebox This is a very powerful method to get quite a lot done quickly. Rather than repeating many times in a row, I would spread this out throughout the day, especially if we’re talking about vocabulary reviewing.
  • Change environment – Feel bored? Change environment! I assume that most people use their phones or at least laptops to review vocabulary, so take it outside, to the library, to a coffee shop or wherever.
  • Study according to your current energy level – If you’re too tired to perform a certain task, change task rather than stop studying altogether.
  • Create habits – I find it particularly effective to do reviews at fixed points in my daily routine, so for instance, I plan to do 100 reviews when waking up in the morning and 100 reviews before going to bed. That’s not a promise, but habits like that increase your minimum output considerably.
  • Give yourself reminders – Tell friends, set alarms, use an online calendar or anything else that will remind you of your project. In my experience, the most dangerous period for habit creation is after a week or two when the novelty has worn off. Set several reminders a week or two from now!
  • Reward yourself – Do you have other cool things to do during the summer? Did you just buy a cool computer game? Set up a simple system where you always do X amount on your project before allowing  yourself to play that game. if you play turn-based or very short games, intersperse reviewing in between rounds.
  • Punish yourself – Give money to someone and tell them that they can keep it unless you achieve X before a certain time. Make sure that X is specific and make sure you actually give the money now. You will get it back only if you finish on time.
  • Make the tasks fun – Anything that makes the tasks involved more fun is worth considering.

Looks like I have quite a lot to do, time to start mushing!

Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese

Note: There is now a new character challenge! It will run from March 22nd to June 30th, 2014. Click here to read more about the challenge!

Learning to write thousands of Chinese characters is a daunting task, but fortunately, character writing is also one of the most hackable parts of the Chinese language. This means that if you use the wrong method, it will take forever and be quite boring (see last week’s post), but if you use the right method, it’s neither impossible nor boring.

This article is a challenge which is meant to make students use more sensible strategies to learn characters and take you out of the boring, monotonous loop that helps you pass your tests, but isn’t very good in the long run. Before we go into details about the challenge itself, let’s look at the contents of this article to make it easier for you to find what you want.


  1. About the challenge
  2. The problem
  3. The solution
  4. What sensible character learning looks like
  5. Everybody can participate
  6. What tools you need to participate
  7. Skritter extended trial and discount
  8. The rules of the challenge
  9. How to join the challenge
  10. List of brave participants
  11. Possible problems and how to cope with them
  12. Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook
  13. Spread the word

Articles published about sensible character learning

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

The problem

The problem with how most students approach character learning has already been addressed; the following is a summary for those who haven’t read that article, but I still recommend that you read the full article here. There are many problems of course, but the most serious one is undoubtedly that many rely on rote learning, i.e. repeating a character until it sticks without actually understanding what they’re learning or deepening their knowledge of the language. This is almost useless if you lack a systematic approach, but if you use spaced repetition programs, it actually works to a certain point.

This is problematic, because when you reach that point, you’ll find that you need something more than mere repetition. Native speakers can rely on repetition because they spend more than ten years in school mastering their own language. They write characters every day for many, many years. Thinking that this will work for you is naive. Most native speakers also combine a fairly well-developed knowledge of components with massive repetition.

Symptoms of bad character learning:

  • When you’ve forgotten a word, you just keep repeating it until it sticks
  • You tend to forget the difference between similar characters
  • You’re reading ability is okay even though your handwriting sucks
  • You need to rely heavily on context to understand characters
  • You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)

 The solution

Even though I think SRS is part of the problem (people tend to misuse it), I also think it’s part of the solution. The problem is that when we review something mechanically (i.e. just looking at something without really processing the information actively), we’re not really learning anything new, we’re not expanding our knowledge of Chinese. Apart from this, it’s also quite boring and leads to poor results in the long run.

Still, using SRS, especially if the program is geared specifically towards character learning (see my introduction to Skritter below) is the most efficient way of learning, you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is the point of this challenge.

The alternative to rote learning is to work actively with the characters we forget and make sure that we’re learning something instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes over and over. It’s notoriously difficult to learn things that don’t mean anything to us, so the first thing we should do is really understand the characters we’re learning. If it takes more time, then so be it, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Most native speakers have pretty good grasp of character components, but many foreigners don’t.

These things you can learn from a competent teacher. The next key to more sensible character learning is something I have never heard mentioned in a classroom, probably because it requires that the teacher has actually used the method to be able to teach it. Everybody will tell you to create stories (mnemonics) to remember characters, but few are able to or can be bothered to explain what kind of mnemonics work and why. I can and I have. See this article about learning character components (and the following articles in the same series).

What sensible character learning looks like

  1. Understand what you/re learning (learn the components)
  2. Combine the meaningful parts in a clever way (mnemonics)
  3. Use SRS to reinforce your knowledge and identify weak links
  4. Avoid rote learning at all costs (and make learning fun again)

Who can participate in the challenge

Students at any level can participate and it doesn’t matter if you study Chinese two hours or week or twenty hours a day. The challenge will remain open as long as I feel it’s relevant, which is likely to be indefinitely. The Skritter discounts mentioned below will only be valid for a limited amount of time, however.

What you need to participate

The following challenge is for anyone with an interest in learning characters (that should be most visitors to Hacking Chinese, I think), regardless if you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner. I’m going to join the challenge as well and follow the same rules as everybody else. A list of participants is included below.

Before you join, you need to choose software. I’m going to use Skritter and I recommend that you do too, mostly because it’s specifically geared towards handwriting and that it has excellent resources attached if you need to expand your knowledge about characters and components).

Participants receive an extended free trial of Skritter and 33% off subscriptions

If you register and join the challenge, use the coupon code SENSIBLE, which will double the length of the free trial as well as give you 33% off the price if you like the software and keep using it. If you register and later go for a paid subscription, I will receive a small commission, so please use the links included here if you want to help me out a bit, too. You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.

If you don’t know what Skritter is, you can check this brief demonstration on YouTube:

However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.

The rules of the challenge

  • If you fail a review, you’re not allowed to review that card again until you’ve dealt with it actively. You have two options: either you stop reviewing and deal with the failed card immediately or you remove the card from the review card and deal with it later (ban the card in Skritter, suspend in Anki.
  • If you ban or suspend cards you fail, you have to go through the list of banned or suspended cards often. You don’t know these characters and you need to relearn them before you enter them into the review queue again. Do not allow the number of banned cards to accumulate.
  • Characters you already know well and don’t fail aren’t part of the challenge. In other words, you don’t need to relearn characters you already know, regardless how you learnt to write those characters. However, if you fail any card, you still have to follow the rules of the challenge.
  • If you have an important exam coming up, you’re allowed to sidestep the above rules, but not using your normal review software. You have to rely on conventional non-digital study methods to cram for an exam, you’re not allowed to break the above rules when using SRS under any condition whatsoever.
  • Share your progress with me and your friends (Skritter has a function for this). If you join the challenge I will also check on you by sending you an e-mail later this months. I’m serious about this and shall be disappointed if you commit but fail to follow these rules!

This is what Skritter’s look-up interface looks like.

When you fail a card, here are some suggestions of what you can do. Don’t feel limited by these, though, there are more ways to learn characters. The important thing is that you deepen you knowledge and understanding of the character rather than just repeating it.

  1. Do you know the component parts? If not, look them up. Skritter has a built-in feature that allows you to check a character and its components in a number of online dictionaries (see picture). Regardless of how you access the dictionaries, I like HanziCraft and (better for traditional, but works for both).
  2. If you know the parts already, create a mnemonic or use someone else’s. Part of the goal with this challenge is to make students more aware of mnemonics and to make those already aware of it apply them more often and master how to create them. If you’re not already good at this, you should check my article about it here, including the other articles it links to in the beginning. If you can’t come up with anything, Skritter has a neat function where you can see other people’s mnemonics. I suggest that you adapt them to your own needs, but they serve as excellent inspiration.
  3. If you have a mnemonic (but still fail), make it better or start over. It isn’t easy to figure out how to create good mnemonics and I fail now and then, too. I think this is highly individual and thus hard to write about in general, but reviewing the principles mentioned above is a good first step.
  4. Next time you review a failed character, review whatever information you added to the card. If you created a mnemonic with a story, quickly review the story and see how it makes the components fit together.
  5. To each his own. The goal here isn’t to dictate exactly what you should do, but rather that you should do something other than simply repeating the characters many times over without really understanding what you’re doing. Try different approaches, if it works, it’s good.

Other things you can do that will help

  • Teach the character to an (imaginary) friend
  • Do a search on Google for related pictures (giving you visual input)
  • Look up similar characters that are confusing you and sort out differences
  • Anything else that forces you to actively process the character components

How to join the challenge

  1. Post a comment and say you’re in (please use a valid e-mail address so I can reach you). By doing this, you also agree to me sending you an occasional e-mail about the challenge and that I will give your e-mail address to the other participants for mutual help and support.
  2. Commit to the challenge publicly on Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media or in real life to friends or family. Make yourself accountable, ask people to check up on you a week from now and see how you’re doing. Once I have confirmed that you want to join, I will put you in the list below.
  3. Define a goal and share it with fellow participants (see list below). This challenge is about the method, the goal itself isn’t specified. Personally, I’m going to make sure I can write the 5000 most common characters by hand. This is of course a long term goal and I will spend 20-30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I suggest you set a goal which is reachable in a month or two. but this is really up to you.
  4. Send a brief introduction about yourself and your goals to the participants directly above and directly below you on the list of participants below. I will provide you with the e-mail addresses manually.
  5. Learn some Chinese, for real this time, with the intent of actually understanding the characters and putting the fun back into character learning. Be creative, be crazy, stay committed!

List of students who have accepted the challenge

These people have join the challenge so far. To get on the list, you need to give me your e-mail address so I can connect you with the participants next to you on the list for support and accountability. Thus, I’m accountable to Jake, Jake is accountable to me and Nick, Nick is accountable to Jake and whoever becomes the fourth participant. And so on. If you want a link to your own blog, website or whatever, include that as well, but I will only accept personal websites or Chinese-related sites.

Click here to skip the list and go to the next part (the list is getting fairly long).

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Jacob Gill
  3. Nick Winter
  4. Claudia
  5. Niel de la Rouviere
  6. Kevin Tynan
  7. Russel Sancto
  8. Gary Saville
  9. Matthew Ho
  10. Dianne Rennack
  11. Bill Glover
  12. Bob Clark
  13. Joy
  14. Douglas Drumond
  15. Lechuan
  16. Caitlin Goldston
  17. Alex
  18. Samanta
  19. Michel
  20. Robert Vose
  21. Gareth
  22. Sonja
  23. Jeff
  24. Jake
  25. Maikeximu
  26. Sascha
  27. Jaki
  28. Jeff Lau
  29. Mathias
  30. Christian
  31. Marcus
  32. Rachel M.
  33. Mark Jarvis
  34. Michael
  35. Dave
  36. Matt Raleigh
  37. Eddie
  38. Kevin Sciarillo
  39. Marc
  40. Victoria
  41. Martin
  42. Michael Knight
  43. Leon White
  44. Maozhou
  45. Ted Reed
  46. Catherine Pacey
  47. Jim Long
  48. Christopher Burroughs
  49. Ruben
  50. Scott
  51. Mai Laoshi
  52. Erik
  53. Jeriko Jak
  54. Georges
  55. Lei Laoshi
  56. Jan
  57. Liz Valachovic
  58. Matt Sikora
  59. Cooper Nagengast
  60. Matt Lawrence
  61. GBoomer
  62. Matt Arkell
  63. Matthew A
  64. Stoney
  65. Tom
  66. Wendy Purdie
  67. Rich O
  68. Kai Carver
  69. Ian Sinnot
  70. Brad Wright
  71. Muhammed Zubair
  72. Bjørn Schwartz
  73. Antonella
  74. Stumoke
  75. Vito
  76. Petar
  77. Liven
  78. James Carman
  79. Victor
  80. Shannon
  81. Teng Fang Yih
  82. Vito FJ
  83. Steph FS
  84. Charlie Southwell
  85. Julien Leyre
  86. Furio
  87. Gwilym James
  88. Manu
  89. Jakub
  90. Will Taylor
  91. Pia N-H
  92. Ashia
  93. Gisèle
  94. Michael
  95. Meg
  96. Milon
  97. Adam Dawkins
  98. Jan Willem Stil
  99. Gerlinde
  100. Amanda Viljoen
  101. Trung Hieu
  102. Wendy MC
  103. Daniel
  104. Chris P
  105. Anthony Pantekoek
  106. Nathan
  107. John Highan
  108. You?

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

Different people will encounter different problems with this challenge. If you’re an avid SRS user already, you will notice that it takes much more time to review, mostly because you stop cheating and actually study the things you forget. This means that you won’t forget them very easily, so that it takes more time is both natural and necessary.

Students who aren’t used to mnemonics will find that it takes a while before you find a style or method that suits you. Remembering things is a skill that you have to learn, so don’t feed disappointed if you forget things even with mnemonics or if you find them difficult to come up with in the first place. You will learn.

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

To help you with mnemonics memory tricks, I hereby declare January to be #mnemonicmonth on Twitter. I intend to share all sorts of links, tips and tricks, starting today. I encourage you to do the same! Tweet your best mnemonics or inspiring videos/stories/links. I also intend to spend more time on Facebook this month, discussing mnemonics and Chinese, helping students out in case you run into problems. Join the discussion here. I hope more advanced learners will help me with this so that we can create a good discussion environment. Share your thoughts, ideas and questions with the rest of us, we’re in this challenge together.

Spread the word about this challenge

The goal with this challenge is to change the way people learn characters. The principles are easy to understand, but still many people, including me sometimes, fail to follow them. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, but it’s not easy to quit. Rote learning is equally bad, let’s quit together. In order to start this revolution, we need more people. Spread the word, agree with one friend to check on each other, make yourself accountable.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

My first semester at the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese a Second Language here at NTNU in Taipei, Taiwan is coming to a close. For the past two years, my long-term goal for learning Chinese has been to survive a program like this, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Entering the program, some question marks remained, and even though this post won’t be about my first semester here (I will write about that later), I will talk about one of those question marks: Writing Chinese characters (by hand).

Although this program is report and paper heavy, it still has several in-class exams which require handwriting skills good enough to put down in writing whatever I’ve learnt throughout the semester. This means that I’ve spent some serious time learning to write characters and that I have re-examined the entire process of learning to write by hand. The conclusion I present here is the result of around five years of learning characters:

You can’t learn to write Chinese characters by rote

Note: If you want to skip the background, click here to scroll down.

This needs some clarifications. First, when I say “you”, I mean an adult who is learning Chinese as a second language. I can already hear people say “but how do native speakers do it, they don’t use fancy mnemonics?” I’m going to reply to this with another question: Do you know how long it takes for native speakers to learn how to write Chinese? We’re talking about at least a dozen years, filled with more writing-heavy homework than most Westerners can imagine. It should also be mentioned that it’s not uncommon even for educated native speakers to forget how to write some characters they really should know how to write.

Therefore, looking at what native speakers do to learn Chinese characters is completely irrelevant for us. It’s simply not on the menu unless you want to spend the rest of your life acquiring what is actually possible to achieve in a few years if you do it correctly. So, in future, anytime you see a comparison between native speaking children and adult foreigners, you should be very, very cautious, because the upcoming conclusion is probably useless. We are neither children nor native speakers. Our study methods should reflect this fact.

Handwriting from the adult foreigners point of view

As some of you might know, I wrote an article about the importance of handwriting in November and concluded that it is important up to a point, but usually not a goal in itself. Regardless of why we want to be able to write by hand (everybody should learn at least the most common one thousand characters or so), it’s essential that we use methods that actually yield long-term results. What I see most students do is short-term oriented studying which might get you past the next exam, but it will not enable you to actually learn the characters. Some people aim for the medium term using SRS. This is good, but it’s not good enough. This is what this article is about.

Using SRS is essential, but it’s far from enough

I’m usually very positive about using spaced repetition software to learn languages, even though I did write an article earlier this month about the dangers of relying too much on SRS. Learning to write characters is perhaps one of the best examples of how good SRS is. Let me explain why before I move on to the really important bit, i.e. why this isn’t enough.

Spaced repetition software allows us to review things in a structured manner, making sure that we remember what we have learnt (or at least 90% of it). However, if we review these things in our daily lives, we don’t really need SRS to achieve that. For instance, if you live in China, you don’t need SRS to learn everyday words, because you hear them all the time. This is natural spaced repetition and it works very well. The same is true if you rely on very high volumes of listening and reading. In short, this is why massive input can mostly replace SRS.

Handwriting requires special attention

Handwriting is unique because even living in an immersion environment typically doesn’t require us to write anywhere near the amounts we need to acquire handwriting by rote. Since we aren’t actually required to write enough (your occasional tests and exams aren’t enough unless they are very broad indeed), SRS is the best way to solve this problem. It helps us space the reviews in an efficient manner and we keep the actual writing to a minimum while still retaining most characters. However…

Just relying on SRS to learn to write characters isn’t enough either

This is what I have fully realised this semester. I have seen the light. Using SRS to learn characters is very good in the medium term (let’s say a week up to a year), but it’s completely useless in the long term. Learning to recognise characters is one thing, but learning to produce them is another kettle of fish altogether. I’ve said before that SRS shouldn’t be rote learning, but I realise now that that article was naive.

This is how most  people use SRS (including myself sometimes):

  1. Use a program to review characters
  2. When failing a character, hit “again”, “next” or “didn’t know”
  3. Repeat the failed character until it sticks

This is what most people do.
This is rote learning.
This is madness in a long-term perspective.

Trying to brute force characters into your long-term memory this way is not going to work. When the intervals get longer than a year and you don’t write the character by hand in other situations (which you’re unlikely to do), you will forget it again. And again. And again.

It’s incredibly hard to learn something meaningless

The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful. We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak. In short, we need:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Combining the above three

Learning by rote is possible if we repeat things often enough. I have no mnemonic for 你 or 是, because I’ve written those characters more than a thousand times and I’m not likely to forget them. This is only true for the most common characters, though, the rest you will forget sooner or later if you don’t make learning active and meaningful. It’s a harsh lesson, but I think it’s true. Let me repeat that:

If you, when failing a review don’t spend time to actively study the card you just failed and instead merely rely on repetition to learn what you have forgotten, you will forget again. Actively processing characters and making them meaningful is not just a good method, it’s the only method.

Towards more sensible character writing

Next week, which is also next year, I’m going to launch a challenge. I’m going to try to start a revolution in character writing for adult students. It’s going to mean big changes for some people, but I really think this is essential and I hope people are willing to join.

In short, I will do everything in my power to convert as many of you as possible to a way of learning characters that actually makes sense, that will enable you to learn Chinese, not just for the test next month, but for life.

These articles have subsequently been published about sensible character learning:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote (this article)
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

Learning Chinese in the shower with me

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting you into my shower and show you some neat ways of improving your Chinese. I promise I will keep my clothes on, because even if the tone in the title is playful, what I have to say is important. I’ve used my shower to learn more Chinese and in this article I will share my experience with you.

Learning Chinese in the shower might sound exaggerated, but if we lead busy lives (or simply want to learn as much Chinese as possible), I’ve found that whet showering I usually spend minutes just staring into a wall. Now that might be useful in itself for meditative or recreational purposes, but if you want to diversify your learning even more and find time when you really think there isn’t any, using the shower is actually very good. Why not put something on that wall and stare into that instead? The basic concept is simple: Write whatever you want to learn on the walls of your shower (cabin).

Spaced repetition and some practical comments

Daily seeing the characters you have written is quite useful in itself and is a kind of spaced repetition. Of course, you don’t have to actually shower to look at them, it might as well be when you brush your teeth. The process of writing the characters is of course effective in itself, but it also requires time of a much higher quality, so it’s not necessarily suitable for everyone.

Writing on the walls in your shower works very well in most apartments and shower cabins, but do make sure that you can remove what you’ve written before you get serious. Make a mark in a hidden corner and leave it there for a few days, then try to wipe it away. If you fail, use another pen and try again. Just make sure that you can wipe away what you’ve written, I don’t want you to blame me if your landlord wants to kill you! I’ve found that most whiteboard markers work very well on both plastic and ceramic tiles.

Three examples

Even though you could use your shower to learn many things, I think handwriting, vocabulary and text learning are the most suitable areas. I’m going to give you three examples:

  • Killing leeches (i.e. characters or words you find very hard and refuse to stick in your mind)
  • Memorising texts (I’m currently trying to learn 道德經)
  • Intensive spaced repetition (let’s say you want to learn 大写(大寫); numbers used in formal or financial situations)

Killing leeches in the shower

We all have our nemeses among Chinese characters (called leeches in Anki). The best way of dealing with these is becoming friends with them. Inviting them to shower with you is a good first step (although I don’t recommend you doing that the first time you invite your normal friends). Whenever you encounter a word that refuses to stick or that you fail over and over again when reviewing, write it on the wall in your shower (with a non-permanent marker, see the above guidelines). Write it big, so that you can see all the strokes clearly. Small characters might look nicer because you can’t see your own mistakes as clearly, but when learning to write, write large characters ( see Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small). Also, add any extra information, translate, draw pictures.

Avoid writing small characters (left). Instead, Write them big and nice so that you can see all the strokes clearly.

Memorising texts

I haven’t memorised many texts in my life, but I have tried learning 道德經 (commonly known as Tao Te Ching in the West). I might talk about this project more later, but I will share the shower part right now.

Here’s the procedure I’ve used:

  1. Write a verse on the shower wall, far to the right
  2. The next day, rewrite the same verse, now one tile to the left
  3. Repeat until the verse has moved a few steps and you feel that you know it

This approach worked really well for me. You will need to do more than this to memorise classical Chinese, but it is a good tool to use once you feel that you have understood what you’re reading (memorising things you don’t understand is very hard and a waste of time).

This is a real example from my shower. I don’t care about handwriting here at all, so don’t complain about the sloppy characters. I used squares to highlight difficult passages and circles to mark characters I forgot often.

Intensive spaced repetition

Just because Anki happens to be awesome, it doesn’t mean that there is no other way of using the spacing effect. In fact, most systems where analogue up until recently. What I describe above with 道德經 is a kind of spaced repetition. If find this particularly useful for learning sets of characters which belong together, where it’s not very useful to see them one at a time. For instance, you could use this method to learn the following:

  • Fraud-proof numerals
  • The heavenly stems
  • The earthly branches
  • The Chinese zodiac

Follow the same procedure as above, move the characters around the shower. This is what it looked like when I reviewed the fraud-proof numbers:

I kept these slightly to one side so as not to disturb the other things I was writing on the walls. You probably don’t need to rewrite these often, simply looking at them now and them takes you a long way.

Beyond the shower

Of course, using the shower like this is just an example. You can do the same close to the toilet, in your kitchen or next to your bed. Placing things you need to study where you tend to have a few spare minutes is a very good way of getting more things done. Use the environment around you to make learning natural and easy!

Learning Chinese with StarCraft 2

If you enjoy playing computer games, why don’t enjoy them in Chinese? I’ve played a lot of StarCraft 2 in Chinese and even if I don’t play any longer, I still watch several matches online each week, with live commentary in Chinese. I have learnt and still learn tons of Chinese from this and enjoy every minute. As the title implies, this article is about playing or watching StarCraft in Chinese and improve your Chinese at the same time.

Note: This article is not only for those of you who like StarCraft. In fact, you can read the entire article as inspiration and as an example of how you can turn a hobby into a learning opportunity. You can also read it as a personal insight into how I learn Chinese.

See below for the video.

Among other things, I will talk about:

  1. How to install StarCraft 2 in Chinese
  2. What you get (with video examples)
  3. How to get started
  4. Watching games online with Chinese commentary
  5. Word list with vocabulary in English along with Simplified and Traditional Chinese

As frequent readers will remember, I have already written an article about playing computer games in Chinese, in which I summarised the benefits as follows:

  • It’s fun – I put this at the top because it’s the most important factor. Learning languages should be fun and this makes computer games an excellent way of learning. Naturally, the benefits will vary according to what kind of game we’re talking about, but reviewing vocabulary has never been this fun (some in-game words occur very frequently).
  • It’s instrumental – When playing computer games in a foreign language, we don’t simply learn because we want to learn, we have another purpose: we want to beat the game (or our opponents). This means that we need to use the language to succeed and reach the next level, a great motivational boost.
  • It’s social – Depending on what games you play (preferably some major game like StarCraft or Diablo), you will find that many native speakers are hugely interested in these games as well. This is an opportunity to interact with other people, not only while playing the game, but also elsewhere online and in real life.
  • It’s interesting – Playing a game, we typically want to know more about it or how to improve our game play. Popular games like StarCraft and Diablo spawn thousands of websites dedicated to the games, some of which will be in Chinese. This gives you lots of reading material which you are truly interested in reading. Participating in online discussions might require a relatively advanced level, but reading is easier.
  • It’s about more than gaming – Some people might wonder if it’s really useful to know how to say Dark Templar, Infestor, Demon Hunter or Witch Doctor in Chinese, but this question misses the point. These words might be commonly occurring in these games, but the language use is much richer than that. These are the words uninitiated people will notice, but the bulk of language use is still normal.

How to install StarCraft 2 in Chinese

Important: Due to a recent patch from Blizzard, it’s no longer possible to change the display language to one which is not native to the region in which you play. Sadly, this means that if you live in the US or in Europe, you cannot choose Chinese as your display language. However, you can still change all voices to Chinese. It’s also possible to acquire a native Chinese client and play either on the Chinese or Taiwanese servers. This is probably most useful for people who live in these areas, but you can do that from outside Asia as well. You can also access the campaign mode this way, which does not suffer from high ping.

If you live in Asia where the Chinese version is the norm, you can skip this section. For the rest of us, installing StarCraft in Chinese ought to be relatively simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. This is because Blizzard has (for some reason) decided that language packs are limited to specific regions, so someone living in Europe (like me) and who buys the game, cannot just download the Chinese version. This is unforgivable and I can see no reason why it’s like this.

It used to be possible to change the entire game into Chinese, but if you’re not prepared to use a real Chinese or Taiwanese client and play on their servers (or you could ignore multiplayer and just play campaign mode), you can only convert the voice packs. This is still pretty good, because there are lots of talking going on in this game. There are many ways of doing this, but I used this. However, if you do this, some cool things I bring up below will not be relevant. I’m very sorry for this, but blame Blizzard, not me!

What you get

In case you haven’t noticed, Blizzard is a company that really doesn’t skimp on details. The translated versions of the game aren’t slipshod products to sell a few more copies of the game, they are actually good. Not only do they contain all dialogues and sounds rewritten and rerecorded in the specific language, but all in-game text is also changed. This includes graphics in move sequences and even details on the maps!

This game contains huge amounts of dialogue

In between missions (and sometimes in them), Starcraft 2 features long dialogues and interaction with the characters in the story. This audio can be replayed again and again (which is excellent for language practice). Even better, you can turn on subtitles and read what the characters are saying if you’re listening ability is not up to the task! As if this weren’t enough, you can pause the game at any time and spend as much time as you like reading the dialogue.

Playing through the game on any difficulty will expose you to huge volumes of Chinese. If you play on a very easy difficulty setting, you will mostly have dialogues and story-related sequences, which might be very hard for beginner and intermediate Chinese learners. However, it’s probably still enjoyable, especially if you’ve played the campaign in English before. The language used is quite good and not just hastily translated. Voice actors are competent and leave little room for complaining (although there are exceptions; I hate the Chinese Kerrigan).

Here’s an example of what a cut scene looks (and sounds) like. Note that the text on the ground is also in Chinese:

Here is a normal dialogue, note the subtitles (there are hours and hours of these):

Gampeplay and multiplayer

One of the great advantages of playing RTS (real-time strategy) games in Chinese is the huge number of times you will hear the same things. Each unit has a respectable number of things to say when you click on them and order them about, so playing through a campaign or playing online, you’ll hear these words and phrases a lot. For instance, here’s what the marines say when you click on them.

Apart from this, true to tradition, Blizzard has expanded the “annoyed unit” dialogues. This means that if you click the same unit a lot, it will start saying entertaining things. In Starcraft 2, these dialogues are quite long and are occasionally quite good. Here’s an example of what the Banshee says in the Taiwanese version of the game:

How to get started

Starting to play and watch StarCraft in Chinese isn’t easy and parts of it would have been difficult for native speakers as well, even though they would get used to it much quicker. Here’s what I did and recommend other people doing as well:

  1. Install the game
  2. Play through the campaign on casual or easy
  3. Check vocabulary only if you want to (see word list below)
  4. Start watching commented matches (again, see the word list)
  5. Discuss StarCraft in Chinese, either online or with native geeks

You might also want to read the article about StarCraft 2 on Wikipedia (in Chinese), not to learn more about the game, but because it contains some key vocabulary if you want to be able to follow dialogues in the story.

Watching StarCraft matches online

An even better way of learning Chinese from StarCraft is watching commented games online with live commentary in Chinese. I realise that the threshold is quite high, but I still want to share my experience. Before you try this, you need some basic understanding of the game and I also suggest you watch some matches in English first, otherwise this will be very, very hard to understand.

The first time I watched a commented match in Chinese, I understood almost nothing. I mean literally below 10%. This isn’t because I suck, but rather because this is a very narrow and specialised area with some specific terms not used anywhere else. If I show a commented match in English to a native speaker with no exposure to computer games, they will understand almost nothing. Thus, we need vocabulary to survive through a StarCraft match in Chinese. This includes unit names, names of common map features, tactics, strategy and much more. The point is, don’t feel disappointed if you can’t understand anything at first, that’s only natural.

The benefits of watching broadcasts don’t end with geeky discussions about tactics, however. Usually, there are more than one person commenting, especially for bigger events or TV-shows. I usually watch the Taiwanese professional league, and they always have one host and one expert commentator. This means that the host doesn’t really understand the game (which is of help to new viewers) and continuously asks questions that the expert can answer. Apart from actually discussing the current match, however, they also banter, chat and discuss other things, so watching broadcasts isn’t really limited to StarCraft. I think over half of what is said during a broadcast is actually about other things than the game.

Here are two examples of what it looks like:

Taiwanese commentary on a match between Taiwan and the Mainland in Asia StarCraft 2 Invitational Tournament.

Mainland commentary on a match from GSL (Korea). NeoTV is quite good, but most clips are on YouKu.

Websites and channels to check out if you like StarCraft 2, sorted in the order I think they are good or useful:

Vocabulary lists

These lists have taken me a while to compile. They aren’t meant to be complete in any way, but I hope that they will help other people to enjoy StarCraft and learn Chinese at the same time. All vocabulary is tagged according to race, function, etc. There are also tags for words which doesn’t appear in the game itself, but which are essential if you want to make sense of live commentary in Chinese.

If you feel that something is missing or if you find a mistake, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. In other words, I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve written is correct (especially the simplified Chinese). I’ll keep these lists updated and they are also available for Anki, my favourite spaced repetition program. Download the deck here. If you don’t use Anki 2, you can use one of the following:

Chinese StarCraft 2 vocabulary in tab-delimited .csv (this file is using UTF-8, so if your program displays only weird symbols, you need to change the character encoding to UTF-8)
Chinese StarCraft 2 vocabulary in .anki format (old Anki 1 format, for Anki 2, use this link)

A note on differences between Mainland and Taiwanese versions of the game

The game has actually been translated twice, so it’s not just a matter of using different character sets. The voice acting has also been made separately for the two versions. However, most of the vocabulary is the same (or very similar). In the vocabulary list, I have provided both Mainland and Taiwanese versions of the words. This might be slightly inaccurate in some cases where I’m not sure about exactly what something is called in the Mainland version. Please let me know if you find any mistakes!

Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

This is the third year I teach the introduction course in Chinese at Linköping University here in Sweden. Each time I’ve taught this course, I’ve felt the lack of a beginner-friendly radical list. I often tell students that learning character components is essential, that it’s a long-term investment that will pay off several times over the course of their Chinese studies. I then show them some of the most common radicals. But then what? Beginners often find it hard to distinguish which parts are common and which aren’t. Sure, you can use the “if you see it more than twice, learn it” rule, but that’s not terribly helpful.

Filling a gap

Curiously, I have been unable to find a good list of the most common radicals. Before you post a comment telling me that there are many, hear me out. If you don’t want to here me out and just want the list, click here to scroll down.

Most importantly, all lists sorted on frequency that I have seen (such as the article on the Kangxi radicals on Wikipedia) are based on data from a very large volume of characters. If you base such a list on the 50 000 characters in the Kangxi dictionary, you will end up believing that 鸟/鳥(bird) is one of the most common radicals. It’s not. If you only take the most commonly used 2000 characters into account, it only occurs nine times. That means it doesn’t even make the top 100. Thus, most of the 750 occurrences of this character in the Kangxi dictionary are not common characters. Other lists I’ve found are based on the 8000 most commonly used characters, which is much more useful, but still not suited for beginners.

The most common radicals among the most common characters

The list I have compiled is based on the frequency of the radicals among the 2000 most commonly used characters. This means that all these radicals are essential. Almost all occur in at least ten characters, most of them in much more than that. This means that as a beginner, you can learn all the radicals in this list without fearing that you’re learning things that actually aren’t that common. It’s meant to be a solid foundation on which to build. The alternative is to learn all the radicals, but some of them are very rare indeed.

The list and what it contains

The list I have compiled is available both as a tab-delimited text file and as a shared deck in Anki (available here), download whichever version suits your needs.

  • The 100 most common radicals in .anki format (this is the old Anki format, if you’re using a new version of Anki, you can just use this link, if you want better formatting of the cards, please refer to this text file, created by Gregory)
  • The 100 most common radicals in .txt format (for use in other programs or for easy editing or viewing, change character encoding if it doesn’t show properly; in Firefox, do View >> Character encoding, in Internet Explorer, right click and the Encoding, this should be set to Unicode)
  • The 100 most common radicals as a PDF (suitable for printing). There are two PDF versions available, so download both and see which one you like the most. The first was created by Markus Ackermann and can be downloaded here.  The second is created by Peter Lee and can be downloaded here.

These are the columns used in the list:

  1. Simplified – This shows the simplified version of the radical as it appears in most characters.
  2. Traditional – This shows the traditional character as it appears in most characters.
  3. Variants – This shows other common variants of the same radical or the original character.
  4. Meaning – This is the basic meaning(s) of the radical in English.
  5. Pronunciation -Pinyin. If written in parentheses, it is not among the most common 2000.
  6. Examples -Five examples chosen from the 2000 most common (simplified) characters.
  7. Comment – My notes for the radical with extra clarification and warnings about similar radicals.
  8. Colloquial name – The name Chinese people use to refer to the radical. Beginners can ignore this.

How to use the list

As a beginner, you can use the list to boost your understanding of Chinese characters. Learning these 100 fairly simple characters will enable you to recognise parts of almost any character you will encounter. Of course, you won’t recognise all parts of every character, but it is a good start.

Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.
Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.

If you want a good tool to learn characters in general, I suggest using Skritter. It’s the only tool that gives you instructive feedback and requires you to write correct characters. It also uses spaced repetition, making learning characters much more efficient. If you want to study the list on Skritter, go to user-made lists, search for “” and choose simplified or traditional characters.

As a teacher, you can use this list (or a section of it) to introduce students to radicals. You can also provide as extra material for students who want to learn more than what is offered on the curriculum. Even if you don’t teach all the radicals yourself, you should at least make it easy for people who wish to do so.

Kickstarting your understanding of Chinese characters

Chinese is a wonderful language to learn, partly because it can be hacked very efficiently. Learning Chinese characters by pure rote takes huge amounts of time, but learning basic components (such as those in this list), you can make learning characters both meaningful and fun. Instead of simply writing a character over and over, take a close look at the parts and find creative ways of linking them together.

I have written more about how to use mnemonics to learn characters and words elsewhere, check these articles:

Future development

This list isn’t perfect. In essence, there are two things I would like to do, but don’t have the time to do right now. First, even though this list is weighted according to character frequency (I only looked at the 2000 most common), it’s not properly done. The best solution would be to look at each character among the 2000 most common and assign each character a frequency. This number would then be taken into consideration when determining how common a radical was. Thus, the 亻 in 他 should give a higher score than the 亻 in 伪 (僞).

Second, radicals aren’t necessarily the most important building blocks. A radical is really just the part of a character under which the character is sorted in dictionaries. This means that there are other character parts which are really common, but which aren’t radicals and that even if you learn a radical, it’s not necessarily the radical if it appears in another character. I used radicals for this list because it was easier to do and there is no commonly agreed on way of listing components in general.

There are many other components that normally carry information about how a character is pronounced. I have written about phonetic components already (Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters), but I haven’t been able to produce a list similar to this one for sound components. The ideal thing would be to have two lists, one for components that carry meaning and one for components that carry sound, but that’s a project still in progress.

Thus, this list is a compromise. It’s the best I can do with the time I have available. I do think it’s useful and learning all these radicals will be genuinely helpful when learning Chinese. If you have suggestions for how to make the list even better, let me know!

Why learning Chinese through music is underrated

I think music is widely overlooked as a way of learning languages. I often hear people say that music is good to learn languages, but how many of them practise what they preach ? It’s of course very hard to estimate how many songs I know in English, but I probably know several hundred (with lyrics). Listening to music is spaced repetition packaged in a way which makes it feel very much like playing (or singing or dancing) and not at all like studying. Learning those songs, I had no intention at all to improve my English, but considering how much language those songs contain, it would be very strange if they haven’t helped me learning English.

Image credit:

In Chinese I know perhaps fifty songs. How many do you know?

In this article I intend to take you with me on my exploration of Chinese music. I will first talk about why I think listening to music is so good and then I will share some songs I like. In upcoming articles, I will share much more, this is just a warm-up.

I don’t like Chinese music! Really? I mean, seriously?

This attitude is quite common and I thought like that for several years myself. All the Chinese songs I had ever heard sounded roughly the same and were slow ballads about love, relying heavily on the singers voice and the lyrics. If you don’t understand the lyrics and don’t particularly like this genre, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that all Chinese music sucks. However, it wasn’t Chinese music that sucked, it was my ability to look for alternatives that sucked.

If you say there is no good Chinese music, you’re either ignorant or very, very narrow-minded.

How to finding Chinese music you like

There are a few things you can do to find Chinese music you like:

  • Search for “[any genre you like]” + “Chinese” on YouTube. You’re likely to find at least something, depending a little bit on what genre you search for. Here are some examples: reggae, hip-hop, trash metal, there’s lots of stuff out there just waiting to be discovered.
  • Pick any of the songs you already like and check the related videos on YouTube, which is likely to give you similar  (or the same) artists. Note that you might dislike one song, but then love the next by the very same artist, so don’t give up if you don’t find anything immediately. You can also look for related artists by searching on forums and on the internet in general.
  • Check music sites such as 一听音乐, 独立音地, 新茶锋潮. Also check this article (in English) about QQ Music.
  • Check one of the songs below. I have more articles in the pipeline with over 30 additional songs, so stay tuned.

Some effort is needed

Naturally, using music to learn is not effortless, because most people can’t just listen to music in Chines and absorb the words automatically. Some studying is required. Still, if you pick music you like, this is excellent practice, because you will automatically review vocabulary and grammar every time you hear the songs, not because you think you ought to, but because you like it. I suggest learning the chorus of the song first and leave the verses until later, because they are usually more complicated and repeated less often, which means that they are harder to learn.

If music is difficult to learn (probably because you lack vocabulary), you have to balance the gains from music against those from normal listening practice (see this article series). I think the main reason music is useful is because it requires time of a different quality than active listening practice. Thus, if it’s too hard, I would suggest focusing on really easy songs or wait with music for a while and focus on more important things.

Also, don’t forget that liking music is sometimes a matter of exposure. I have several songs I didn’t like at all at first, but that I have later started liking. Thus, don’t listen to a promising song once and then dismiss it, take a dozen or so and put them on your phone. Listen to them a couple of times and then remove those you don’t like.

Music helps you fit in: Karaoke/KTV

An added benefit of learning some songs in Mandarin is that you don’t feel completely at a loss when karaoke is on the menu. This is much more widespread in East Asia than in any Western country I’ve been to, and I felt fairly awkward in the beginning simply because I had had almost no contact with Chinese music and definitely didn’t know any song lyrics. In our native language, we can often learn songs simply by listening to them on the radio for a few times. This is much, much harder in Chinese. Focusing on music now and then not only makes learning more fun, it helps you fit in as well.

A word on pronunciation and grammar in songs

As you well know from your own language, songs don’t always contain grammatically correct sentences perfectly pronounced. Indeed, some songs are more like poems and use the language creatively. Some singers deliberately sing in specific ways to make it sound better or achieve certain effects. However, most of what you hear will still be useful Chinese and if you can hear what the singer is singing after seeing the lyrics, I wouldn’t worry too much. Obviously, you shouldn’t use this as your primary tool to perfect pronunciation, but I’d be surprised if anyone thought so.

If you are a beginner, be careful with pronunciation. You should know that even if tones are sometimes present in songs, they are rarely pronounced as they are in normal, everyday speech. Thus, I would advice against listening to lots of music before you have the basics of Chinese pronunciation down. Music is a very poor teacher of intonation and tones, so you’d better find a real teacher to learn that first.

Not enough? Check the other articles in this series:

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated (this article)
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

Enough talking, let’s hear some singing instead!

Matzka – 情人的眼淚

This is raw emotion. I seldom like emotional music, but I can think of few voices that could convey this lyrics better than his. The lyrics is relatively simple and the pronunciation is clear. One of my favourites.

崔健 – 一無所有

A rock classic which is actually quite good. Pronunciation is not clear at all and therefore not very suitable if that’s what you’re after. The lyrics is relatively simple and has been translated by Hugh Grigg here.

弦子 – 逆風的薔薇

As far as I know, this isn’t the kind of music she’s typically associated with (I’ve checked some of the other albums and didn’t like it at all). This song is quite good, even though her voice gets a bit annoying towards the end. The pronunciation is clear, but the language used is probably more suitable for intermediate students and above.

王若琳 – 有你的快乐

If you have a voice like this, you can’t make bad music. The pronunciation is relatively clear, at least if you’ve read through it once or twice before. She’s made several songs of similar quality, this is just one among many. You probably need to watch some ads before the song starts, sorry, couldn’t find a better version.

王菲 – 再見螢火蟲

Well-known in China (or in the West as Faye Wong) who has a marvellous voice, here used to create something darker and leaning more towards rock. Very good indeed. The lyrics is more difficult than the above songs. She’s made lots of good songs, but also a huge number of mundane and boring ones.

As I said earlier, there will follow several articles with more music I consider worthwhile. If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Further reading

Why Teach Chinese through Song (Hong Zhang)

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:

Articles in this series:
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?


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.

Answer buttons and how to use SRS

Spaced repetition is very powerful compared to massed repetition, which is why software utilising the spacing effect is growing ever more popular. I sometimes feel like an SRS missionary, writing articles about why everybody should start using SRS and which program I prefer myself (if you don’t know what SRS is, please read these articles before reading this one). This is all very good, but it leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, how should spaced repetition software be used?

In this article, I will discuss how to review vocabulary using SRS, including how to use the various answer buttons and some other functions commonly available. I will use Anki for all examples, but other good programs will of course have similar or indeed identical features. The algorithms used to calculate the spacing between repetitions might not be identical for all programs, but they are similar. What I discuss in this article is useful beyond specific programs, so don’t put too much emphasis on the exact details.

This article isn’t meant to be a guide to what is correct, it’s rather meant to be a discussion with some personal examples and motivations to why I’m doing what I do. If you have other ideas or don’t agree, please leave a comment!

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

Answer buttons

Most programs make use of four buttons, typically labelled:

  1. “again”
  2. “hard”
  3. “easy”
  4. “very easy”

Without any kind of definition, these answers are completely arbitrary. Do you hit “again” even if you fail a minor point in an otherwise complex and completely correct answer? Do you hit “easy” or “very easy” when you encounter a word you feel that you know quite well? What’s the difference between “hard” and “easy”? Of course, there are no entirely correct answers here, but I will give you my own ideas. Before that, though, let’s discuss briefly why this matters at all.

The short answer is that the choice matters greatly in the long run. Even if the algorithms will more or less automatically adjust the difficulty and the intervals for you, make sure you’re not being too harsh. A quick calculation shows that if you could use “very easy” for 10% of the cards instead of “easy”, you will save many hours over a year of reviewing (how much you save depends on how much time you spend reviewing of course). This time could have been spent doing something more useful. However, the opposite is true as well. If you select “very easy” for cards you don’t know that well, you will end up failing them, thus wasting more time than you would have saved, so don’t be too lenient either.

What does all this mean, then? It means that you should assess your answers as accurately as you can. This is individual to a certain degree and requires a bit of practice. If you use a decent program, you should be able to get detailed graphs showing you how much you click the various alternatives. Here’s what my graph looks like:

Avoid perfectionism: 90% is good enough

Note that most algorithms are set to give a 10% failure rate, which is almost exactly what I have if we ignore new cards. This is because a higher rate would mean that you’re wasting time studying too many words you already know, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that a higher number is necessarily better. Perfectionism is a waste of time. If you fail 10% of the cards, you’re doing it right!

Now, most of this is self-adjusting. If you enter a bunch of difficult words, you will hit “hard” quite a lot (check my new cards, for instance). However, since the intervals of these cards will be shorter because of that, you will also learn them better, which means the interval will be adjusted so you think they are “easy” next time you see them. This is the whole point.

The answer buttons and how I use them

Here’s what I usually do (including approximate percentage for mature cards):

  1. “again” (~10%) – I really don’t know the word, or I have forgotten a crucial part of it (such as forgetting the pronunciation of a character or only having a vague idea of what it means). However, the nature of the mistake is important. If it’s something I think it’s likely I will remember next time, I might choose “hard” rather than “again” for relatively new cards (interval less than one month). The reasoning behind this is that it will just clog the review queue if I reset the interval by hitting “again”. If I make the same mistake next time, I will choose “again”. I’m convinced this saves quite a lot of time in the long run.
  2. “hard” (~20%)  – I select this answer if I can come up with the right answer, but only after considerable mental effort, such as retrieving old mnemonics or comparing with other words I know. Also, see the discussion above about using “hard” instead of “again” for mistakes that are unlikely to occur twice. I never use this for words that have longer intervals (months or years), because you simply won’t see them again for a long while even if you choose “hard”.
  3. “easy” (~65%) – This option is for cards that I recall almost instantly or feel very familiar with. These are words that wouldn’t stop me when I’m reading and don’t require much mental effort to recall. I estimate that I spend less than three seconds each on these cards; if more, they count as “hard” rather than “easy”.
  4. “very easy” (~5%) – I only use this answer when I’m completely sure that I won’t forget this word within the given interval. For new cards, it means that I have learnt it properly and really think that the current interval is much too short and is a bit wasteful. For old cards, I answer “very easy” for anything I’m sure I’d know years from now even without reviewing. Instant or intimate knowledge of the word is what generates “very easy” for me.

Look at the interval

I think it’s a mistake to be 100% consistent when reviewing vocabulary if you ignore the intervals and only look at the buttons themselves (“again”, “hard” and so on). There is a huge difference between “hard (4 days)” and “hard (4 years)”. The reason is that I can easily pick the first one if I make an easily correctable mistake on a new word because I know I will be checked again in a few days anyway. If I fail again because the correction wasn’t as easy as I imagined, I will know that and can hit “again” if I feel the interval has grown too large. If the interval is four years, however, I won’t see the card ever again (in practical terms) even if I choose “hard”, which means that I can’t be sure I’ve corrected the mistake. In this case, I would hit “again” and suck it up.

Other useful functions

There are many other features you should use to increase efficiency further:

  • Leeches are cards that drain time because you fail them over and over. Anki suspends these cards automatically after a given level. I suggest lowering this level (the default number is 16), because if you fail a card that many times, you really need to do something else. As I’ve argued elsewhere, spaced repetition is meant to reinforce what you already know, not force new knowledge through cramming. Please also refer to my article about killing leeches.
  • Suspending cards simply means that you manually remove them from the review queue and that they won’t appear until you activate them again. I do this for cards I suspect have serious problems or when I think that reviewing them is useless, perhaps because I’ve given too little information and might confuse the word with other words.
  • Marking is something I’ve started doing a lot recently, which basically means putting a tag on the word that you can easily find later. I separate active vocabulary learning from reviewing, both in time and space. I review using my phone, but I always use my computer to kill leeches, delve deeper into difficult words or sort out synonym issues. Therefore, while reviewing, I simply mark any card I might need to work more with and keep reviewing. Then, I go through these words later, using dictionaries, asking native speakers, correcting mistakes.

Some questions for the reader

  • Are your answering criteria different from mine?
  • What does your graphs look like for new/young/mature cards?
  • Do you use leeches, suspending and marking as I do?
  • Do you use any other cool tricks I haven’t mentioned?
  • Any other tips, tricks or ideas you’d like to share?

Using search engines to study Chinese

Studying on your own comes with certain problems I think all language learners have encountered many times. If you encounter a concept you don’t know how to say in the target language, you have to look it up. The first natural thing would be to look in a dictionary. If you’re lucky, the dictionary is comprehensive enough to include some examples of how the word is used, but more often than not, it will still not be enough to enable you to use the word in the sentence you’re making. If you have a corpus, it might be possible to find more help, but the problem with a corpus is that the sentences are usually way too difficult for beginner and intermediate learners and it will be hard to draw any conclusions.

Reaching this stage, most people would ask a teacher or a language exchange friend. However, I think there is one more step you should try before you tax your teachers and friends. It’s not that I don’t think you should rely on people to study, but I think there are more valuable things to discuss with your teacher and native speaker friends. This is what I call language question triage. Furthermore, studying in your home country might entail a serious lack of native speakers to ask (or there might just not be any around when you want an answer to your question). So, what’s this extra step?

Using search engines

I said dictionaries and corpora are limited, so why not use the entire internet? A search engine gives you access vast amounts of written text (you can of course use any search engine you want, but I’m going to use Google as an example here). Here are a few really useful things you can do with Google that most dictionaries can’t help you with.

  • Verify word usage
  • Compare word usage
  • Check grammar patterns
  • Learn through pictures

Verifying word usage

As soon as we leave the very basics of a new language, we usually have some idea how to say or write something, although we might not be sure if it’s correct. Sometimes, we know what a word means if translated into our native tongue, but we’re not sure if it can really be used in the context we want to use it in. In this case, using Google will be a great help. simply search for the word you’re looking for and browse through the results and see if any of the matches what you want to say.

If the word is part of a brand name or very common, you might have to skip the first several hundreds of hits, because you don’t want the word to be part of a headline or title, you want it in a sentence. If you think that a sentence requires a certain preposition, search for the relevant part of that sentence (don’t forget quotation marks!). The number of hits will tell you if the extra word is right or wrong.

Example: Let’s say you’ve learnt that you can double some characters to give the the meaning “each” or “every”, so 天天 means every day. But what which words can you really do that with? 年年?日日?Since we don’t want interference from other patterns or names, let’s add a 都 at the end.  Google  says yes, all are quite common:

天天都 39 000 000 hits
年年都133 000 000 hits
月月都17 000 000 hits
日日都29 000 000 hits

Comparing word usage

An even more powerful tool is comparison, although this is a bit more limited in scope. If you can’t decide whether alternative A or B is the correct one, use two separate searches and see which version comes out on top. This is probably the method I use the most when writing articles in English, such as this one, but increasingly often in Chinese as well.

Example: Do you have to use 都 in  a sentence like 我什么都不知道? Gooogle says yes, probably you should. If you check these results, you will see that the alternative without 都 also have lots of hits, but most of them are obviously not what you’re looking for (such as using commas, quotation marks, etc.)! If you want to express “don’t know anything”, 什么都不知道 is your preferred choice.

什么都不知道611 000 000
什么不知道319 000 000

Check grammar patterns

So, you’ve learnt a grammar pattern, but you’re not really sure how it’s used? Do a search for the pattern and see what you find. More often than not, there are plenty of examples telling you how those words are used. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how seldom textbook patterns are actually used, compared to abbreviated or modified informal ones! Searches like these might give better results using a corpus.

Example: You have seen 之所以… 是因为(因爲)in a book, but you’re not sure how to use it. Check the Google search results and you will know!

Learning through pictures

Using Google to search for pictures of the word you don’t know what it means is quite useful, especially if it’s something fairly concrete, such as a bird, a colour or an object. The dictionary might not have it, but once you see it, you definitely know what it is. This is especially useful if there are no good dictionaries for your native tongue and the target language (this is the case for me, so if I look up something and I’m not sure what the Chinese word means, a quick picture search will usually do the trick). This is extremely useful for food, clothes and animals.

For instance, what colour is 青? See the answer here.

Three words of warning

Using Google instead of asking real people isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are at least three real dangers, which I will talk about briefly now. First, the hits on Google might be completely irrelevant. For instance, the words might be next to each other, but in two different sentences with a full stop in between! This problem can be overcome by checking the hits you’re viewing. Of course, you can’t verify all of them, but you can make quick estimate.

Second, there is no guarantee that the articles you find will be correct, because a lot of people who are posting things on the internet aren’t native speakers (I think what I write is mostly correct, but I’ve probably polluted the internet a bit as well).  Of course, native speakers sometimes make mistakes, too. This problem is hard to overcome, but consider using a corpus, even though this isn’t guaranteed to be correct either.

Third, you will find examples how the language is used, which isn’t necessarily the officially correct way and thus might not go down well with your teacher. This problem is language dependent, since some languages might have very strict formal rules which differ a lot from colloquial usage; other languages might not. This problem is very hard to get around, so if it’s really important, real human help is necessary.

Then why?

If there are so many disadvantages with using a search engine to find the answer to your questions, why not ask a friend directly? That’s a good question. The reason I think this method is so useful isn’t because I don’t have friends to ask or because I don’t want to ask them. Rather, it’s because I want to ask them questions that I can’t find out for myself. Most of the time, the problems above are not relevant or can be overcome, and then there is no reason why you should need to ask other people to help you.

Save your friends’ valuable time until you really need it and use a search engine instead!