Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Best of Hacking Chinese 2021

2021 was overall a good year here on Hacking Chinese. I was able to write one article and publish one podcast episode every single week, without exception. That’s not bad! At the moment of writing, there are 473 articles on Hacking Chinese, along with 77 podcast episodes.

I also published a new course at the beginning of 2021, a course I’ve been working on for many years: Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence. The course was well received by students, which makes me very happy!

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Overcast, Spotify and many more!

I also ran twelve challenges (one per month) over at Hacking Chinese Challenges. My New Year’s Resolution for 2021 was to participate in all of them with a minimum effort of 7 hours for active challenges like writing and speaking, and 15 hours for more passive challenges like listening and reading. I managed to do that for all challenges except one! Not a resounding success, but still a passing grade I think.

How was your 2021? Did you reach any goals or milestones last year?

I think 2021 has been a difficult year for many, but hopefully, you’ve had time and energy to improve your Chinese nonetheless! Did you reach your goals? Did you pass any significant milestones in the last year, maybe something you’ve been wanting to be able to do since you started learning and that you are now able to do? Or maybe you didn’t reach your goals, but learnt a lot anyway?

Regardless if your learning went according to plan or not, leave a comment below and let the rest of us know!

Best of Hacking Chinese 2021

In this article, I’d like to reflect a bit on the year that was, and highlight the most important articles and podcast episodes (all new articles have podcast episodes these days). I will present the five best articles by popular vote (as measured by page views) and the five best articles (according to my humble opinion). It’s not uncommon that articles I don’t like myself end up being very popular, or the other way around, so this is a good opportunity for me to highlight articles I think more people ought to read!

Before we do that, though, here’s a list of previous New Year summaries on Hacking Chinese for those of you who want to see development overtime, which almost never goes according to plan. There are many things I’ve been wanting to do for years, but just don’t have the time for:

Best of Hacking Chinese 2021 – Editor’s choice

Below are my favourite articles from 2021. I have included a short introduction to each article, as well as a link to the article itself, where you can find the related podcast episode. Enjoy!

It should come as no surprise that I like writing, including in foreign languages. I also like teaching writing, and I’ve had the opportunity to do that at university for many years on different levels. I think writing is often approached in the wrong way, putting too much emphasis on the writing itself, rather than the fundamental skills it relies on, which can only be obtained through reading. This article summarises my advice on improving writing ability in Chinese (and other languages, of course). Please note that I’m talking about composing text here, not writing characters. For that, check My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters. Anyway, here’s 20 tips and tricks to improve your Chinese writing ability:

20 tips and tricks to improve your Chinese writing ability

Something I struggle with on Hacking Chinese is guiding new visitors to the right content. I’ve written so much over the years that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. The best remedy for this problem is to write longer articles or series of articles that summarise everything important about a specific topic, but the problem with writing these is that it takes many times longer to write than a normal article. In 2021, I spent an inordinate amount of time (more than a hundred hours) writing a series about the Chinese writing system, from strokes and components up to words and phrases. Thus, my pick for number for is not a single article, but rather a series of articles: The building blocks of Chinese. Here are all the articles in this series so far, all published in 2021:

The building blocks of Chinese, part 1: Chinese characters and words in a nutshell

In 2021, I was responsible for restructuring the Chinese courses my university offers for students not enrolled in engineering programs. This made me think a lot about difficulty levels, level requirements and how to think about language development in general. How much do students learn in one semester? How much can you assume that they know after having studied for a year? While it’s possible to answer these questions in general terms, it’s not possible to do so on an individual level. Sometimes, students enrol in a course they just barely qualify for, but then stroll through the course effortlessly. At other times, people have twice as many credits as needed, but fail to even reach the minimum needed to get started with the course. Thinking about these very practical issues made me write an article focusing on why it is that students often aren’t as good at Chinese as they are supposed to be or as good as they ought to be.

Why your Chinese isn’t as good as you think it ought to be

I don’t like competing with other people, but I do like competing with myself. Progress tracking is an essential part of that, and I’ve been playing around with various ways of logging progress for years, not just for language learning, but also for sports, games and personal projects. I believe that logging your learning can be very valuable, as it offers both the means and incentives to optimise learning. In 2021, I wrote a short series of articles sharing what I’ve learnt about language logging over the years and how to best apply it to learning Chinese. Here are the three articles in the series:

  1. Chinese language logging, part 1: Why and how to track your progress
  2. Chinese language logging, part 2: A healthy, balanced diet of Mandarin
  3. Chinese language logging, part 3: Tools and resources for keeping track of your learning

Chinese language logging, part 1: Why and how to track your progress

As a writer, publishing many articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you automatically become better at your craft. That requires a willingness to experiment and invest the time necessary to really try to write well, not just churn out more text. My favourite article of 2021 is one I enjoyed writing a lot and also spent enough time with that I actually feel happy with the result. It’s about the seemingly innocent problem of transcribing names to and from Chinese, and the communicative barriers that it raises. I also like the title a lot: Lost in transcription: Saylaw, Ice Island and Aristotle.

Lost in transcription: Saylaw, Ice Island and Aristotle

Best of Hacking Chinese 2021 – Popular vote

Now over to you! Or to all visitors, actually. I don’t know why these articles are popular, but I can hazard an educated guess. Did you like these articles, or where there others you liked more?

I have already mentioned articles that consolidate lots of already published content, and it seems that even though these take a very long time to write, they often turn out to be quite popular. One such example is My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters, which summarises most things I’ve published about the subject in one place. It’s a mix between a summary of other content and a gateway for people to find the right articles. I’m happy to see that this article has received a lot of attention and hope it will float closer to the top of articles on Hacking Chinese over time!

My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters

A new standard for the Chinese proficiency exam HSK was published last summer, and as part of the Skritter team (read more about Skritter here), I spent a fair amount of time working with the new standard, including the new vocabulary lists. Since there seemed to be no good guide for the new HSK and there was some misinformation or misunderstandings floating around to boot, I wrote an in-depth guide for students, focusing on what the new changes mean for you as a student (not very much, to put it briefly). People seem to care a lot more about HSK than they should, so I’m not surprised that this article ended up on the most popular list this year!

The new HSK 3.0: What you need to know

Finding suitable reading content as a beginner is very hard. Learning Chinese is not like learning language fairly close to your own, where you can guess what many words mean and with some scaffolding, you can dive into easier books almost from day one. Instead, almost all reading material you will find, including textbooks, require students to read texts that are way too difficult. In the article The 7 best Chinese reading resources for beginners, I don’t solve this problem (although I am working on a project that will alleviate it), but I do discuss seven types of resources you can and should use as a beginner. Most of these tips are suitable for intermediate learners too!


When I started learning Chinese, I misunderstood the third tone and pronounced it incorrectly for about two years before someone pointed out that I was wrong. Since then, it’s become abundantly clear to me that many students make the same mistake, and that it probably is the most common mistake when it comes to tones in general. I think this is partly because of how the third tone is taught, and the article Learning the third tone in Mandarin Chinese is my attempt to fix that side of the problem. Naturally, there’s another side to it in that the third tone is inherently more difficult than the other tones, but that’s hard to do anything about. The least we can do is teach people how it’s pronounced!

Learning the third tone in Mandarin Chinese

Continuing on the theme of reading and resources for learning Chinese, the article The 10 best free Chinese reading resources for beginners, intermediate, and advanced learners was the most popular in last year! That’s great, because I think I spent more time on this article than any other single article in 2021. That’s because even though the article “only” contains 30 recommendations (10 for each level), I tried out hundreds of resources to be able to select these; this is not just ten random resources I happened to find! For a more complete list, including those that aren’t free and those that are, but didn’t make the cut for this article, check out Hacking Chinese Resources. Select your level and then “reading” and you’ll find more resources than anywhere else!

The 10 best free Chinese reading resources for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners

Popular pages

The above list only contains articles along with their podcast episodes, but there are also pages on Hacking Chinese that are much more popular than most articles. Pages are what I use to organise articles, so it’s one step up in the hierarchy. You can see most pages in top menu or the side bar (bottom on mobile). Here are the top five most visited pages (disregarding the front page, blog and archive pages, because those obviously have many views):

  1. Articles for beginners
  2. Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners
  3. Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence
  4. Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin
  5. Articles about listening ability

Happy new year!

So, happy new year! A belated happy solar new year, and a somewhat early lunar new year, but happy new year in any case!

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  1. Tim says:

    Thank you very much for all your work. I come back for every new article and also re-read many older ones, esp. the ones dealing with the foundations and ressources.

    I am happy with the last year of learning Mandarin. I’ve found that consistency makes a big difference, even if every new step itself is a small one. My reading has improved quite a bit – so far, most of what I have read was within the range of my developing vocab (roughly HSK 4 plus). Just started a Chinese Breeze reader at the 1100 (word? character?) level but that turned out to be quite difficult – quite a big step-up from the previous level, even if the numbers suggest otherwise. It would be great to have graded readers which build on and go beyond HSK 4 but somehow only use a well defined additional set of vocabulary.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Glad to hear you find the site useful! Yeah, there really isn’t much carefully controlled content at the level you describe. I think the problem is that there’s only one way to be a beginner, but countless ways of being an intermediate learner. It’s hard to develop something that fits most or even many intermediate learners. When we write the games over at WordSwing, we often have this difficulty level in mind, but we don’t control vocabulary super carefully either (but we do our best!).

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