Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

7 things Chinese students should do during the winter vacation

The academic year looks different in different parts of the world, but for many readers, a semester will end soon if it hasn’t already. For some, the semester continues until the Chinese New Year, but this post is relevant for you as well.

As a serious and ambitious student, what should you do on the winter vacation, in the time between semesters? You probably have a few weeks off, but simply not touching Chinese for the entire time is a very bad idea unless you’re close to burning yourself out and really need the rest. As I’ve explained earlier, your slumps affect your study results more than your flows.

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7 things Chinese students should do on the winter vacation

The answer to the question of how you should spend your time is going to be different for each student, but in this post, I’ll provide a few things you should at least consider doing.

If you did well academically during the semester, pat yourself on the back, but don’t pay too much attention to your grades, because it’s unlikely that they are a true reflection of you ability and many things that are important ore often left out of formal curricula.

If you didn’t do very well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going about it the wrong way, it could also be your course that isn’t well aligned with your goals. I wrote about how to study Chinese when grades matter in How to get good grades when studying Chinese. Naturally, it could also mean that you didn’t learn much, so you have to be honest with yourself!

Let’s move on to what to do beyond the current semester, regardless how you did. In general, consider your energy levels before attempting anything too demanding. A gap between semesters could be an important opportunity to recharge your batteries if you think the they are almost drained of energy.

1. Put enjoyment above learning outcome

Normally, how much you learn should be the most important guide to what activities you engage in. Sure, you should try to make it enjoyable as well (or else…), but that’s rarely the main goal.

What I want you to do now is to put enjoyment at the very top. Find any activity you enjoy that involves Chinese in some way. This could be things that are only remotely related to language learning, such as playing Mahjong in English with friends who don’t even speak Chinese, listen to Chinese music or watch a film or documentary about China, even if it’s not in Chinese or you just read the subtitles in English.

The goal here isn’t to learn more Chinese, it’s to boost your interest in Chinese-related topics that can drive your learning for months and years to come. What activities help you boost your motivation? Leave a comment below!

2. Solidify core knowledge

A major shortcoming of most formal courses is the lack of extensive reading and listening. Students spend most of their time reading texts that are very difficult, sometimes containing many new words per sentence. This means that over a full semester, you might end up reading only a small amount of text and listen to a limited range of Chinese.

This can lead to an illusion of advanced learning, where you learn ever harder words and structure, but without really knowing the most important words and structures.

To alleviate this, focus on extensive learning. Read and listen as much as you can, use graded readers and other content that is at or below your current level. Seeing new words in a couple of sentences in your book is not enough, you need to see and hear them repeatedly in meaningful contexts.

I run regular challenges here that you can participate in entirely for free to boost motivation and get more done. The challenge for January 2021 is listening.

An introduction to extensive reading for Chinese learners

3. Socialise in Chinese, and if possible, travel

Travelling and socialising can either be very refreshing or very demanding, depending on who you are. For some people, it’s great fun and an incredible motivational boost; for others it’s exhausting.

However, if you’re studying in an area where people speak Mandarin, you should definitely take the opportunity to go travelling when you have some time off. It’s sometimes hard to be a tourist where you live, but don’t miss the opportunity!

It’s likely that you won’t have time off until the Chinese New Year, so be careful about transportation around that time. You probably have a longer winter vacation than the week everybody gets off, though, so make sure you take the opportunity to get out a bit.

This year, if you’re studying Chinese in your home country, travelling is probably not in the cards, but you can still socialise online!

4. Consolidate what you have learnt

Reviewing is important! Just because that exam went well, it doesn’t mean that you will remember everything after a few weeks of downtime. Sure, it will come back if you work on it, but why take steps backwards in the first place?

By reviewing, you make sure you have a solid foundation to continue building on next semester. This is also a good opportunity to go through vocabulary and grammar you didn’t really understand when you encountered them in class.

5. Wander outside the bubble; tie up loose ends

As I’ve argued in Three factors that decide how much Chinese you learn,  content matters a lot, meaning that what you study is at least as important as how you do it and how much time you spend. That’s almost always the case, but I want you to forget about that for now.

During the semester, you probably had some questions that didn’t make sense to try to find the answers to at the time. Perhaps it seemed to be a monster from outside the bubble, perhaps it just didn’t seem to be very important at the time.

Some of these things are terribly interesting, though, and this is the time to go crazy and follow your instincts! If you’ve kept a Chinese notebook, you should have plenty of loose ends to tie up.

6. Compensate for what your course is lacking

It’s highly unlikely that your course aligns perfectly with your own ambitions. There will be areas that you are think are important or interesting that your course does not cover.

For example, pronunciation is often neglected in most educational settings, so that’s something you might want to work on yourself during the vacation.

There might also be things that you are interested in for personal or professional reasons that just aren’t taught in your course, such as language related to your work or hobbies.

If you want to know more about how to do this, I suggest you check out my course Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin, which contains instructions for how to analyse your current situation and figure out what might be missing. If you’re a beginner and are afraid you missed important things during your first semester, check out Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners, which will make sure you’re up to speed with the basic stuff, including how to learn characters, pronunciation and so on.

7. Look forward to the next semester

This should come as no surprise, but if you have a demanding semester coming up ahead, you should spend some time preparing for it. This involves previewing texts, familiarising yourself with vocabulary and so on.

I put this last because it doesn’t feel much like relaxation at all and is actually a way of shortening your vacation. Only do it if you feel up to it! Previewing is important, but staying sane and maintaining motivation to learn is more important still.


The time between semesters should first and foremost be used to recharge your batteries. However, unless you’ve lost momentum completely, you should make sure you spend at least some time with Chinese, because you don’t want to start the next semester significantly worse off than you finished this one.

Try to spice things up a bit and find ways of learning and consolidating that don’t necessarily feel like studying!

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