10 years. 472 articles. 650,000 words. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been writing articles on Hacking Chinese for more than a decade now!
In this article, I will take a step back and look at the incredible journey this has been. I will look back at ten years of Hacking Chinese, sharing thoughts and reflections along the way.
To celebrate the ten-year anniversary, there is a $20 discount for both my courses, ending next Wednesday (November 25th). Use the code SHI2NIAN2 at checkout!
Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:
Hacking Chinese is an organism that has evolved gradually over the years and it’s hard to point at specific milestones. Some things are more important than others though, so here are my top picks:
- 2010: Hacking Chinese is launched. The domain name was registered in September and an early version of the site was up and running soon after that. The picture on the right shows one of the earliest screenshots I have of the front page. The reason it doesn’t still look like that is that Hugh Grigg designed a new theme for me. Thank you! I would also like to thank the Chinese teachers I’ve had over the years who inspired me to start teaching myself. If you’re curious about my own story and how I learnt Chinese, I’ve written about that already, starting in How I learnt Chinese, part 1: Where it all started.
- 2014: Hacking Chinese Resources is launched. This is an attempt at creating order in the chaos of resources for learning Chinese. This subsection of Hacking Chinese is still active and has a grand total of 472 resources, tagged by level, topic and type. This is probably the largest curated collection of resources for learning Chinese anywhere. Is your favourite resource missing? Let me know or add it yourself by signing up, reading the submission guidelines and uploading! I’m responsible for almost all the links, but Hacking Chinese Resources would not be there if it weren’t for Stefan Wienert, who has done all the coding and has been very helpful over the years. I also want to thank Julien Leyre for hashing out the resource structure with me.
- 2014: Hacking Chinese Challenges is launched. The tagline has always been: Building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition. 3,392 students have studied 12,948 hours across 72 challenges, covering everything from the recurring listening and reading challenges to more specific challenges focusing on pronunciation or habit formation. Join if you haven’t already, it’s great fun and at least makes me more motivated to learn more! Again, thanks to Stefan Wienert who developed the subsection and Julien Leyre who helped out with the conceptual design.
- 2015: Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin is launched. This is my first course. For a long time, there was nothing at all to buy on Hacking Chinese, but as I invested more and more time in writing articles, I realised that students risked missing the forest for all the trees, so I built this video course to provide more structured guidance. At this point, I had also invested thousands of hours into free content on Hacking Chinese and to keep doing that, I needed to at least offer people the possibility of buying something. The course is still available and still helping people get more out of their learning. If you want to check it out, use the code SHI2NIAN2 which will give you $20 off until next Wednesday (November 25th).
- 2019: Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners is launched. After releasing my first course, I felt that I had to do something specifically for beginners. There are many things beginners really need to learn, including actual words and sentences, along with proper introductions to tones and pronunciation, as well as Chinese characters. This is in addition to answering the how questions about learning strategies Thus, I created my second course. This took a lot longer to produce, mostly because I worked with other things (more about this later). Since the launch last year, Unlocking Chinese has helped out many beginners and is of course still available. With the code SHI2NIAN2, you get $20 off before the end of November 25th.
- 2020: Hacking Chinese Podcast is launched. I have more time to listen than read these days, and since I know I’m not alone, I decided to create a podcast. I had already started recording articles much earlier, so turning this into a podcast seemed like a reasonable next step. In future, I plan to expand the podcast in various ways, including interviews and content in Chinese. You can tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast through most podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts and many more.
Apart from this, there has been numerous meet-ups over the years, in Taipei, Beijing and San Francisco. The events above stand out in the general flow of articles, but in my mind, the articles are still the core of Hacking Chinese, so let’s talk more about those.
- Why did I start writing?
- Why do I keep writing?
- What has changed over the years?
10 years. 472 articles. 650,000 words.
While some of these articles are guest post (10 at the moment), the rest were written by me. There is no team of people behind the scenes. I come up with most of the ideas, do the research, write the drafts and proofread when I have time. I also maintain and update the website when needed, manage social media, do video and audio editing for the courses, respond to comments and emails, and, in the few cases where it’s needed, deal with customer support.
But as Laozi once said, behind every great website there is a great woman. My wife is both my cheerleader-in-chief and my most honest critic. Hacking Chinese would not be the same without her.
All this means that Hacking Chinese is very personal for me. During a few long walks and runs recently, I thought about why I started writing, why I still write and what has changed with my writing this past decade.
Here are some reflections I want to share:
- More about the topic, less about me. Hacking Chinese started out being very much about myself and my own learning, even if I tried to write in general terms whenever possible. I felt frustrated that there were so many problems in how Chinese was learnt and taught that no one really talked much about. This is why the site had the tagline “everything you need to know about learning Chinese, but no one will tell you” for many years. That’s still true, but I prefer the more positive “a better way of learning Mandarin“, even if it is more bland. What has changed is that these days, articles are based on ten years of teaching Chinese, reading and researching second language acquisition, working with professional development and the experience of hundreds of students. It might not look very different, but articles written these really are a lot better. A few typical examples would be: Are mnemonics too slow for Chinese learners? and Does using colour to represent Mandarin tones make them easier to learn?
- More about teaching, less about just learning. While Hacking Chinese is still aimed at learners rather than teachers, I actually spend most of my time working with professional development for language teachers, completely unrelated to Hacking Chinese. This has crept into articles more than you might think. True, there are some articles that are explicitly about teaching Chinese (such as How to not teach Chinese characters to beginners: A 12-step approach and Text adventure games and how to use them in the Chinese language classroom, which I wrote in Chinese first and also recorded in Chinese), but even articles that are superficially targeted at learners have teaching content in them, they are just worded in a way that makes them accessible to both groups. A good example of this is the series about training your Chinese teacher, which could equally well be a crash course in how to teach Chinese.
- More writing here, less writing elsewhere. Apart from the 472 articles on Hacking Chinese, I have also written 234 articles elsewhere about learning Chinese. Most of these were paid freelance articles I wrote for various content providers (you can check out a complete list here) in 2014-2015. The number dropped quickly after I started to teach more at university. Looking back, I don’t regret writing all those articles, but I wonder how I managed to write 150 articles in 2015. I mean, that’s almost one every second day for a year, a year in which I also published my first course.
- Easier to read (hopefully), better organised. It’s hard to judge one’s own writing, but it seems to me that I have become better at writing articles so that they convey the information I intend. I also imagine that my English has improved since 2010, even though that’s such a gradual process that it’s hard to notice. When Hacking Chinese was launched, I had been blogging in English for a couple of years, but that was about it. It’s quite interesting to listen to old audio (check this YouTube video from 2013 for example) with something recorded today (such as podcast episode based on this article), which makes it obvious that my accent is not very stable. I don’t think my pronunciation was bad back then, but it has definitely changed! I have spent less than a month of my life in English-speaking countries, so I really have no place to call home when it comes to English, so my accent tends to drift.
What makes me happy with Hacking Chinese
It should come as no surprise that I like writing, and that I derive joy from the process of arranging ideas and shaping them into articles. That’s not the most positive thing that comes to mind when looking back on ten years of Hacking Chinese, though.
Instead, I think the best that can happen is when someone contacts me just to say how a certain article helped them overcome a specific problem. Not just that the article was interesting or that it explained something in a good way, but that it helped solve an actual problem.
A good example of this is my treatment of the third tone in Mandarin:
Here are a few quotes from the comment section, and there are dozens of emails and in-person conversations to add to this:
I think you just solved all the problem(s) I ever had with Chinese in one blog entry.
This has been so, so helpful. My god, why is the third tone taught wrong all across the world?! This is why people quit. This is why people get frustrated. […] Thank you so much for the clarification, I think I’ll be getting back to practicing now!
This blog post cleared up my confusion really well. It’s amazing how simple and clear-cut you’re able to present it here, while other, more traditional resources simply add to the confusion.
This is what keeps me going; this is why it feels worthwhile to invest thousands of hours in a project like this. It’s one thing to think that what I write is helpful, but quite another to hear people testify to it!
I have also had many opportunities to do interesting things because of Hacking Chinese. I’ve been invited to speak and hold workshops at international conferences and events, and I have met a large number of students and teachers over the years, none of which would have happened if it weren’t for the website.
The other things I do I also do at least partly because of Hacking Chinese. I don’t know exactly what made the scales tip in my favour when I was applied for a position at Uppsala University to work with professional development for Chinese teachers back in 2015, but I still spend most of my time there. While it’s possible that I would have joined Skritter even without Hacking Chinese, I doubt it would have happened the way it did without the website, since I was hired to manage the blog in the first place. The same goes for WordSwing and much else.
In a sense, Hacking Chinese is a kind of resumé. I can point to it and say: “Hey, I made this. I started the project ten years ago and it’s still going strong.”
What makes me frustrated with Hacking Chinese
The most frustrating things with running Hacking Chinese are all the limitations I have to work with. The most obvious one is a lack of time. If I tally up my other professional commitments, the total is 95% of full-time.
Obviously, Hacking Chinese doesn’t fit in 5% of my time, so that means that even though it clearly is more than a side project, it’s still something I do largely in what’s supposed to be my spare time, where I also like to practise gymnastics (check my recent handstand video below, for example), unicycle, (Rubik’s) cube, get beaten by my wife in 象棋, read and write fiction, etc.. I’m not complaining, but it can be stressful sometimes.
This also means that I haven’t tried many time-intensive ways of expanding Hacking Chinese, such as creating more video content or constructing more courses. Maybe I could have expanded into other languages or widened the focus within Chinese to cover more than how to learn.
Another limitation lies in my lack of expertise in certain key areas, mainly coding and graphic design. I have considered learning to code many times, and even if I know enough HTML and CSS to just about be able to modify the site and implement simple solutions, I don’t know enough to develop something from scratch, not to mention anything app-related.
I realise that I can’t do everything at once, but I sometimes feel frustrated when I think of what I could have done. There are exceptions, of course, such as Hacking Chinese Resources and Hacking Chinese Challenges, where Stefan has been kind enough to help me out in his spare time.
Graphic design is another area I would like to explore more, but can’t because of limited time. When I do sit down and design something, I think the result is reasonably nice. I think the info page for Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners turned out okay, and I like the cover of the crash course I offer for new subscribers to the newsletter (the image on the right).
I don’t mean to stay that these are great works of art, I just mean that I would enjoy learning more about design, but don’t have the time to do so. This, fortunately, is easier to outsource than almost anything else that I do, which I have been trying out recently (the podcast cover was created by Prominhaj on Fiverr, for example).
It should also be said writing is sometimes very enjoyable. Some articles are written based on a single, clear idea, and I only write one draft. Others take many attempts and even after trying for hours, I might end up scrapping the whole idea. Writing insightful and unique articles is easy when setting out, but harder when there are almost 500 articles in the archive.
Many of these challenges could probably be overcome if I decided to work on Hacking Chinese full time, but that would mean that I have to stop doing many other things I enjoy. As Douglas Adams put it in Mostly Harmless: “Every single decision we make, every breath we draw, opens some doors and closes many others. Most of them we don’t notice. Some we do.” I hate closing doors, which also means that other doors will never open.
Over to you
If you’ve indulged me so far and read this introspective piece, I would be interested in hearing what you think about all this. What is Hacking Chinese for you? Why are you reading this?
If you want to support Hacking Chinese, the best thing you can do is always to share my content. That will help both the people you recommend to check Hacking Chinese out, and it will also help me. Maybe one of them will post a comment to an article saying that it helped them solve a tricky problem? Maybe some might purchase one of my courses, thus making it easier for me to motivate spending more time on Hacking Chinese, rather than less?
Here’s to another decade of Hacking Chinese
I think Hacking Chinese will still be here in 2030. It’s notoriously hard to predict the future, of course, but even if the universal translator from Star Trek arrives on the market tomorrow, there will still be benefits of learning languages for real.
Who knows what the world will look like a decade from now, but I doubt that the need to understand China will decrease, and I would argue that it’s impossible to even begin understanding China without learning at least some Chinese.
I will keep on writing, I will keep on teaching and I will keep on learning myself. Here’s to another decade of Hacking Chinese!
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I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!