Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese vocabulary challenge, April 2020

Chinese vocabulary challengeHacking Chinese Challenges are about building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition. By focusing on one specific area of learning over a limited period of time, you will be able to learn more!

This month’s challenge is about learning vocabulary, which includes Chinese characters, words and expressions. Without words, you can’t do anything in a language. It doesn’t matter how good your grammar or pronunciation is if you don’t know the words.

Lack of vocabulary is also a big problem for many learners when it comes to reading and listening ability. Too many unknown words in authentic input makes it impossible to understand. When reading, nothing kills reading speed like a word you’ve never seen.

So, let’s learn vocabulary together!

Chinese vocabulary challenge, April 10th to April 30th

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the vocabulary challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Announce your goal in a comment to this article
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on April 10th, so if you join before then, you won’t be able to report progress the challenge starts

Learning vocabulary in Chinese

There’s much to say about vocabulary in Chinese, and there are dozens of articles about this on Hacking Chinese already. In this article, I will not repeat all that, but will instead point you in the right direction. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

  • Which words you should learn and where to find them – Perhaps you already know which words to focus on in this challenge and how to find more, but this article discusses this topic in more detail. Learning words is important, but learning the right words is even more so!
  • Zooming in, zooming out and panningThis is a series of three articles (the link goes to the first article) in which I discuss how to connect your web of words. Zooming in means breaking down things into their component parts, zooming out means putting the parts in context and panning means connecting units at the same level, though synonyms, antonyms or similar.
  • My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters – The title says it all, really. This is a summary of the most important advice I have to offer about learning characters. That includes learning them, reviewing them and understanding how they work. This covers words to a certain extent, too.
  • Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks – This article looks at what you should focus on. Should you put the emphasis on small building blocks or larger compounds? The answer is that you need to do both, but how much depends on your goals and what time scale you’re planning on.
  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use itIf you haven’t tried spaced repetition software, you really should. It allows you to learn much more efficiently and is great for remembering most of the words you learn. It doesn’t matter that much what program you use, that’s more about what you’re after and how much you’re willing to pay (including nothing, of course).
  • Should you focus on learning Chinese words or phrases? This is an important question for a vocabulary challenge. Learning words in isolation is easier and faster, but with some words, you also risk missing the point. Learning phrases makes sure you know how the word is used, but is also harder to do. The short answer is that it depends on what word it is and why you want to learn it.
  • Should you learn Chinese vocabulary from lists? Many students are tempted to just bulk add or download hundreds or even thousands of words, especially for a vocabulary challenge! However, learning words directly from a list comes with certain problems and it’s not something you should just do without considering the alternatives. Moreover, some lists are more useful than others!
  • Boosting your Chinese character learning with Skritter – This article introduces my favourite tool for learning and maintaining vocabulary in Chinese. I use it mostly to write characters, but it works for most things related to vocabulary. If you haven’t checked it out yet, give it a try!

Setting a reasonable goal

Knowing what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. It should definitely be more than you usually do. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 7 hours or so (that’s about 20 minutes per day). If you know what you’re doing, you can easily aim for two or three times that much. That’s “only” one hour per day, which is not even a lot if you’re studying full time!

My challenge

My biggest problem at the moment is that I keep mixing up fairly rare characters that have similar or the same pronunciation, and overlapping meanings. Some of these just require me sitting down and following my own advice (see the article linked to above about panning or another article about killing leeches).

I’m using Skritter to learn and maintain vocabulary and while there isn’t a leech function in there yet, I can usually sniff them out manually. The best way to approach leeches in Skritter at the moment is to either star or ban the words, then go through them later, preferably on a computer where it’s easier to get hold of more information and definitions and mnemonics are easier to clean up.

That’s what I intend to do for this month’s challenge. I also have a 500 card back log, but that oughtn’t take too long to deal with.

Preliminary challenge schedule for 2020

Here is a preliminary list of challenges for 2020, but I’m always open for ideas. Based on user participation, surveys as well as my own opinion, reading and listening challenges are particularly helpful for a large number of people, followed by those focusing on vocabulary. These will recur more often throughout the year, with other, more specific challenges spread out in-between.

Challenges last for roughly three weeks. They always start on the 10th each month and lasts until the end of that month. Three weeks is enough to get a significant amount of studying done, but not so long that people lose focus. This also leaves ten days of breathing space between challenges.

  1. January: Listening
  2. February: Writing
  3. March: Reading
  4. April: Vocabulary
  5. May: Listening
  6. June: Speaking
  7. July: Reading
  8. August: Translation
  9. September: Listening
  10. October: Vocabulary
  11. November: Reading
  12. December: Pronunciation

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  1. 武文山 says:

    Can we have the option to record our progress in words rather than hours?

  2. Laoxia says:

    Hi! First of all, these challenges are great and they bring some change to studying patterns.

    I regularly review with Anki, on average about 30 minutes per day.
    For the challenge, I will add another 30 minutes and use this time to add new vocabulary (which will also increase reviewing time, of course…)

    For reviewing, I found two-way audio a nice way to do this without having to sit down. I used to review my flashcards while driving to work. As I don’t commute anymore, I do this while jogging now. It even works when walking to the bus, in and out of subway stations – basically any activity where your body moves, but at least one hand and your brain is free (there is a lot of that in our daily lives, I found)

    Here is my Anki-technique:
    1. Anki with the Chinese add-on does half the work 🙂
    2. Then I record my own voice in English, that prompts me on the front side of the flashcard
    3. For the backside, I upload a recording of the word. Chinesepod is ok, but I now use forvo.com a lot. Forvo rocks.
    4. With the iPhone app and taps assigned, I can now review flashcards without looking at the screen.
    However, as written English, Hanzi and Pinyin are all there, I can also optionally do it without sound or check a character once in a while.

    Sources of words: I used to get new words and their recordings from Chinesepod, but nowadays, I get most from reading and work. I read a lot on Pleco. When creating flashcards, I just browse the reader history and then pick words that I have looked up recently to add them. It’s easy to download a recording from Forvo. If it’s not there, I request the pronunciation, then I can add it later-on, Forvo sends an Email notification once the pronunciation has been recorded.

    Words vs. Phrases: I find words easier, but I add some phrases. Some things I found helpful:
    – English-Chinese flashcard only for things that I could not express before. If a new word is just a synonym of something I can already say: Chinese-English (A lot chengyu go there…)
    – Phrases for words that are difficult to remember out of context
    – When I get to the point where very similar word start to confuse me, I sometimes collect them on one flashcard
    – I add “bonus phrases”, that is, after I have revealed the backside, one or several examples containing the word will be played
    – I have cards with homonyms on them, also homonyms that are only different in sound, but only if I see a real risk of confusion. 体制 and 体质 for example.
    – I like to put antonyms together, like 圈养 and 放羊 (pen-raised vs. farm-raised)

    Also, I would like to try doing some mind-maps for tricky characters. I did one for the different word for rising and falling (of prices), which I need a lot at work and it was quite helpful.

    Alright, let’s get to work and stay safe and healthy everyone!

  3. Stacey says:

    Oh I’m really excited and motivated now:) Can’t wait to start the challenge!

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