Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

About opening doors and the paths beyond

Image credit: Mei Ying Chan (flickr.com/photos/jayna/)

When describing Hacking Chinese, I usually say that it’s about opening doors rather than showing the correct way. At present, there are around ninety articles on this website and even though it hasn’t been running for very long, I have received a fair amount of feedback.

This feedback, along with writing articles and reading what other people write elsewhere about learning Chinese, I’ve come to realise that people treat advice on learning very differently. I have also thought about my own role and the purpose of this website.

This article won’t only present some reflections on giving and taking advice, it will also contain some thoughts on Hacking Chinese itself as a project to help people learn Chinese with greater ease and a greater sense of satisfaction.

Opening doors and showing the paths beyond

The primary goal with Hacking Chinese is to open doors and showing different paths. However, this is just a metaphor that perhaps sounds nice, but what does it really mean? A door is simply a possibility behind which lies a path you can walk if you want to. It is a way of studying, a technique, a method. In order to use this, you need two things:

  1. You need to know that there is a door in the first place and where the door is located
  2. You need to know how to open the door and how to walk the path beyond

Regarding the first need, people who don’t think very much about the way they are studying just walk around randomly, stumbling upon a way of learning and then sticks to that, regardless if it’s actually helpful or the best way of doing it. So, on this website, I try to provide for that first need, I try to introduce different ways of doing things. Hopefully, there will be some you didn’t know or there will be ways of doing these things you hadn’t considered before. There might of course also be possibilities you hadn’t even thought of. This would be showing you that there is a door and where it is.

I also try to provide for the second need, the fact that you need to know something in order to walk the path behind the door once it’s open. Naturally, some doors will reveal paths that are obvious and easy to understand. Reading articles about these, you really only need to understand the basic concepts and you will understand how to continue immediately; no detailed descriptions are needed. Here are a few examples where merely opening the door is usually enough:

However, this is not always the case. Some things I consider to absolutely essential requires a fair amount of explanation for the uninitiated reader and cannot be grasped in a flash. A prime example is be spaced repetition software, which I consider to be absolutely essential, but which is quite hard to explain in just a few sentences. When trying to walk through any of these doors, it’s helpful to have a guide who can give instructions and advice. I try to be that guide.

Here are a few more examples of this kind. Note that they all have a number of other articles expanding and elaborating the topic, since just opening the door isn’t enough:

Also, don’t make the mistake of only reading about different methods, actually try them as well. You won’t master the art of learning a language simply by reading about it, it takes practice.

The importance of opening doors

As a learner, I think it’s essential to open as many doors as possible and to at least consider the paths that lie beyond these doors. Of course, no path will be suitable for every learner or every situation, but opening many doors increases the chances that you will find something that suits you and your situation. I also think that reading about different methods is in itself helpful, because if you have nothing to compare with, how can you analyse and understand your own method? Research into learning styles is many and diverse, but one thing most studies agree on is that people who are able to describe and discuss their own ways of learning generally learn faster than people who aren’t.

As you might have noticed, I make the somewhat exaggerated claim of trying to provide “everything you want to know about studying Chinese but no-one will tell you”. That implies that there are many, many doors few teachers or textbooks will ever touch upon, but that might indeed be very useful indeed (in fact, most teachers and textbooks hardly mention how to learn, only what to learn). Of course, I can’t open all doors, partly because there are an infinite number of them and partly because there are many methods I don’t understand or don’t know about.

There is no correct way…

I’m not a dogmatic person and I view myself as rather flexible in my approach to life and language learning alike. I don’t believe that there is one miraculous panacea that will solve all the language learner’s problems. Sure, there are some neat tricks that will make it easier, but that’s all we can hope for. Language hacking is about finding these tricks and trying new things to solve problems. However, regardless of what some people out there claim, there is no path that is correct or true.

What about science, then, can’t researchers just tell us what works and what doesn’t? The answer is that it depends on what you mean by “works”. Scientific studies can tell us what is true in a specific situation with a given set of parameters. Gradually, as more research is done, we can arrive at more general conclusions. The problem is that learning languages is an extremely complex process that will never be perfectly understood. If your own situation is compatible with that of a specific study, then yes, the results might be applicable to you, but bear in mind that just because a general truth seems to have been arrived at, it doesn’t mean that it’s true in all cases for all learners! Science can tell us something about the paths we have to choose from, but it can never be an infallible guide.

…but some ways are more correct than others

Reading the above argument, it’s easy to believe that just because there is no true path, all paths are equal. This is obviously not true. If we take reviewing vocabulary as an example, I’m fully convinced that using spaced repetition software is a much better way than simply flipping through old textbooks once in a while, and that this is true for a huge majority of learners. The spaced-repetition-software path is better than the flipping-through-old-textbooks path, because it will lead you to your goal of learning Chinese much more easily. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad to know about the inferior path, you just shouldn’t follow it most of the time.

Be aware that some advice (even that offered by a single person, such as myself) will be contradictory. The narrow-minded person panics when two seemingly good methods contradict each other, but in fact, if we just accept that there is no single, true path to success, there is nothing that says everything should align perfectly. Still, I think most articles on Hacking Chinese are fairly well aligned, simply because they are based on the same ideas. Occasional contradiction is unavoidable and might indeed be healthy.

My advice on reading advice

To conclude this article, I’ll give you some concrete advice on how to read advice (including anything I’ve written on Hacking Chinese):

  • Read what other people have to say about learning Chinese
  • Read what researchers have to say about learning Chinese
  • Discuss learning Chinese with friends or online
  • Consider promising methods carefully and try them out
  • Constantly evaluate your own methods
  • Be open-minded and avoid being dogmatic at any cost

I’m slowly building up a register of other websites, books, blogs, forums and so on that deal with learning languages and that are valuable sources for how to find more doors and explore even more paths. If you have any suggestions, please let me know! Kindly include a motivation to why you think a specific source is useful as well.

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  1. laurenth says:


    “most teachers and textbooks hardly mention how to learn, only what to learn”

    So true. All the more so as far as learning Chinese is concerned. For me, learning Chinese also means a parallel reflection about how to identify better methods and to tailor them to my needs, my brains, the time I can devote to studying, etc. Thinking about how to learn is not wasted time, it allows to improve your efficiency and, what is more, it is an interesting activity in itself. Pedantic as it may sound, learning how to learn also taught me a lot about myself, about the ways I have to organise myself to get things done, also in areas other than Chinese.

    Your site (and Chinese Forum) is an invaluable tool.



  2. Jacky says:

    I myself do remember at least some teachers covering the topic of how to learn. Of course, they’re very few, and not all students in a class are very willing to learn how to learn.

    I’d definitely recommend the following online dictionary:


    It was down the past three or four days and I’ve been desperately searching for an equal tool. (Forvo is somewhat alike with a good concept, but the quality of many audio files lags behind: http://de.forvo.com/) Basically, Ting is just another dictionary. Until you notice two things: Audio files of multiple native speakers for most words in an acceptable quality; example sentences with said audio files.

    It’s not the most comprehensive dictionary, but I find it extremely usefull to include audio files on every single fact in my Anki decks. Doing the reviews, I also repeat every single word, phrase or sentence – multiple times if I feel like it. (repeating only words may, or may not be very helpfull in the long run, but I rarely forget a word’s tones this way)

  3. Olle Linge says:

    @laurenth: It is definitely an inward journey to learn about oneself. I’ve learnt more about myself that about Chinese during the time I’ve studied the language, most things which are applicable to situations outside language learning. It is definitely worth the time to stop and think. There is value in doing things as well, of course, but if we plan to learn Chinese to any level beyond the beginner, we have to stop and think about what we’re doing.

    @Jacky: Of course, there are some teachers who teach this, but they are extremely rare. None of the standard textbooks I’ve seen includes discussions about this (and I’ve seen a lot). I don’t mean to say that I do is completely unique, just that it’s quite rare and needed.

    I checked the dictionary you suggested and I’m not sure what I think. The audio didn’t work on my computer and the explanations of words were short and not very exhaustive at all. Would you say that the audio is the main advantage?

  4. Jacky says:

    @Olle Linge
    As I said, it’s not the most comprehensive dictionary. Apart from the short answers, it’s also missing far too many words as well, which is why I’m supplementing with Forvo.
    It’s unfortunate if the audio doesn’t work, as it’s really the main advantage. Those are wav files, so they shouldn’t cause trouble.

  5. Olle Linge says:

    @Jacky: It’s probably a problem with my computer/browser. I’ve bookmarked the site anyway, I just wanted to make sure what you thought were the main advantages. Audio is mostly lacking from other dictionaries I use, so thank you very much for the suggestion!

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