Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese vocabulary challenge, December 2021

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.

Win prizes from Skritter!

This month’s challenge is sponsored by Skritter (read my in-depth review here), which means that some nice prizes are on the line:

  • Anyone new to Skritter can use the code HCDEC21 to get one month of free Skritter (offer expires December 31, 2021)
  • Six participants, including those of you who already use Skritter, have a chance to win 3 months free subscription, worth $45 each

Naturally, you don’t have to use Skritter to participate, even if I will do so. Winners are selected randomly, but weighted by activity in the challenge. The time spent studying counts, but other types of participation counts too, such as talking about the challenge on social media (tag me), commenting on other people’s activities and generally contributing to the challenge.

Chinese vocabulary challenge, December 10th to December 31st

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to learn more about Hacking Chinese Challenges:

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

  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 the 10th, so even if you can join before then, you won’t be able to report progress until the challenge starts!

Understanding Chinese characters and words

If you want to understand how characters and words work in Chinese, which will make them significantly easier to learn, the most accessible way to do so is via the character course I’ve helped create in Skritter. The video course consists of 16 episodes of roughly 6 minutes each, teaching the fundamentals of Chinese characters, including 150 common characters and components. All this is available in-app at no extra cost! If you use the code to get free Skritter above, this of course includes the character course as well. Here’s a trailer introducing the course:

If you’ve listened to the Hacking Chinese Podcast, you’ll recognise my voice in the course (not the trailer; that’s Gwilym James), because I designed most of the pedagogical content and recorded the audio. I hope you like it!

If you’re not interested in video content, I have also published a series of articles about the Chinese writing system that covers partly the same content, but from a different angle. These articles also have podcast episodes associated with them. I suggest you start with the first article: The building blocks of Chinese, part 1: Chinese characters and words in a nutshell

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

Learning vocabulary in Chinese

There’s much to say about how to best learn 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 you want to check all articles categorised under “vocabulary, just click here. Below, I have selected a few articles I think are extra important for this challenge.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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!
  • 7 mistakes I made when writing Chinese characters and what I learnt from them – I wrote this article after an earlier vocabulary challenge. I trace seven mistakes I made, which is something you should try to if you haven’t already, and explain what I did wrong, what I should have done instead and what I learnt from making these mistakes. Failing is not  a bad thing if you learn something from the experience!

Setting a reasonable goal

I can’t give one-size-fits-all advice about how to set goals, but try to set a goal which is high without being unreachable. It should definitely be more ambitious that what you’re used to, at least for this area of learning Chinese.

If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 10 hours or so (that’s about 30 minutes per day). If you know what you’re doing or study full time, you can double or triple that. 21 hours is” only” about one hour per day, after all.

There are different schools of thought about whether or not announcing your goals publicly is a good idea, but I tend to think that doing so is beneficial in most cases, hence my pledge in the next section. When you announce your goal and share your progress, don’t forget to tag me if you do so on Twitter!

My challenge

I have been reasonably good at keeping my review queue in Skritter at zero recently, so my goal for the challenge is two-fold:

  1. Keep the queue at zero until for the duration of the challenge
  2. Trace errors for at least one error every day

I’m participating in all challenges this year as part of my New Year Resolution for 2021.

Preliminary challenge schedule for 2021

Here is a preliminary list of challenges for 2021, 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 last 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: Speaking
  5. May: Listening
  6. June: Vocabulary
  7. July: Reading
  8. August: Translation
  9. September: Listening
  10. October: Pronunciation
  11. November: Reading
  12. December: Vocabulary

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  1. Flick Drew says:

    Thanks Olle for creating this challenge! I have just joined and my goal is to spend an average of at least 30 minutes per day (10 hours total) on Skritter. I’m new to Skritter and trying it out for this challenge.

  2. Cliff says:

    Finally doing this. I’m doing only 15 minutes per day for 21 days…. that’s a little over 5 hours. Not impossible, not too difficult. Plus, it gives me a good excuse to keep working on my mega list of 625 words. I found it years ago and right now I’m on #80. The idea is 625 of the basic words to learn a language…. I’m looking them up in Chinese, drawing a picture and then the pinyin and asking questions to my HELLOTALK friends. Especially all the words in Chinese for BUILD. Crazy. 建设 Jiànshè 修建 xiūjiàn 建造 jiànzào and 修筑 xiūzhù。

  3. Megan/艾珍 says:

    大家好! I’m keeping my goal on the low end at 15-20 mins/day (total goal: 6 hours) as I haven’t been in the habit too much lately of studying Mandarin. Like Olle, I’ve decided to clear my queue and I’ve decided to focus on the first 50 vocab in the HSK 1 deck. 加油!

  4. Michael Fitzhugh says:

    Looking forward to this one! I was doing pretty well in September’s Listening Challenge, then ran out of steam. Still, it was my best HC Challenge run yet. Hoping to level up this month! I’ll return to the “Remembering the Simplified Hanzi” list on Skritter. So far I’ve tackled 65 out of 1,500 words, so I think I’ve got a little ways to go!

  5. Pablo Sancho says:

    Ok, let’s do this! My first challenge. I will go for the 1-hour per day. That’s a little over what I usually dedicate for listening, speaking and vocab, so let’s concentrate on the vocab part, and see the results. See you guys out there.

  6. 笑天 says:

    The plan is at least 20 words per day. Feels like a lofty goal but the idea is to cover many words by reading. Good luck, everyone.

    1. 马笑天 says:

      Changing goal to 30 minutes to match challenge metrics.

  7. Daniel says:

    I am excited to start! I want to review the entire set of the most common radicals for 1 hour during the entire duration of the event. After this, I will move further into the HSK 1 Vocabulary list and maybe learning some common phrases! I will be using Skritter for this purpose. Cannot wait to start and I wish you all the best luck!

  8. Nova Stark says:

    I will try to see if I can become top 3. My goal will adjust according to leaderboard, but starting at 1 hour a day! Good luck all. Remember to have fun and don’t give up!

  9. jacenba says:

    I think I’ll go for at least 45 minutes a day, to reach at least 12 hours in total for the 18 days I have left.

  10. Asia says:

    大家好! I have joined a bit late but am working hard to catch up! My goal is 10 hours. I am trying to prep for HSK4 exam in December while I am only at the begging of this level (aim high right?!). I have been on elementary level since forever and feel extremely motivated to finally make the jump.
    I focus on hsk1-3 in Skritter to know writing as well and hsk4 in Quizlet for more efficient review, skipping writing part for now.
    I am also doing additional classeses and reviews which I do not plan to track here.

  11. Jasmine says:

    Joined a bit late (only started a week ago), but I’m finding both this blog and Skritter to be very helpful! Setting a goal of 15 hours (an hour a day), but also aiming to surpass that 🙂

  12. I “completed” my vocabulary challenge late (November 11), but just today finally reached 0 reviews in Skritter, where I had accumulated about 6,000 reviews due when I signed up in October. It took me a month, but I made it, and developed a habit, so that I will keep on reviewing and solidifying what I supposedly know, instead of letting it decay. Thanks for giving me an excuse to just do it rather than despair that I fell so much behind over the past year or so.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Glad to hear you completed your challenge! Late doesn’t really matter, the important thing is that you did it. I have been able to keep my own queue down at zero since the end of the challenge, so it worked out for me as well. I try to clear my queue before getting out of bed in the morning, which has worked out well so far. 🙂

  13. Harmony says:

    First step is for me to come up with a consistent studying platform, which I haven’t had for quite a while. Considering that I may need to handwrite more characters soon, I’ll give Skritter a try. My target after that is 8 hours over the course of the challenge.

  14. Kevin says:

    I’m trying to sign up with the code HCJUNE21 but it tells me the coupon code is invalid?

    If I can get it running I want to try to do half an hour of Skritter per day (focussing on HSK Standard Course 5下)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’ll look into it! That should work and the code is right. Half an hour per day sounds like a reasonable goal!

    2. Olle Linge says:

      Did you use it as an activation code? I tried setting up a test account just now and it works for me!

      1. Kevin says:

        Ah silly me, I was trying to enter it as a discount code under the payment tab, I didn’t see that there was an altogether different “activation” tab as well, all good now!

        I really like Skritter so far, only option I’m missing is for disabling the “retrace character with stroke order indication” during writing learning — I feel like for anyone from intermediate upwards the stroke order is pretty self-evident, so unless there’s some other benefit from retracing the character twice it would be great to have the option to disable/automatically skip that step (at the moment I just have to double tap through it for every new character)

  15. Olga says:

    This is my first time participating, I think it’s going to be an interesting new experience for me:) I’ll try to do an hour a day, so my goal is 21 hours.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I hope you find it helpful, 加油! 🙂

  16. Saraslaya says:

    My goal for this challenge: Review vocabulary flashcards for 30 minutes every day between June 10-30, aiming for 10 hours of vocabulary study as participation in the Hacking Chinese Vocabulary Challenge. Will review flashcards using The Chairman’s Bao, Popup Chinese, and maybe will clean up my Pleco and Anki flashcards for this challenge.

  17. Sofia says:

    Setting a goal of 15 hours in total! My goal is to get a solid head start with HSK 6 vocabulary. By the end of this challenge, I want to have familiarized myself with 220, which amounts to about 15 vocab a day. Let’s do this woooo~

  18. laura says:

    My first Hacking Chinese challenge! I set my goal to 10 hours (30 minutes per day). I’m going to use Skritter and the HSK decks starting from level 1 so that I can learn traditional characters.

    I can read simplified through HSK level 5-ish right now, but I really want to conquer my fear of traditional characters and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the characters’ meaning and history.

    1. laura says:

      Oh wait, I just realized I didn’t do this right. A vocabulary challenge means learning new vocabulary (Probably the goal I wrote should be used for a writing challenge)

      My new goal is –> learning the *new* words from the textbook I’m currently studying: All Things Considered. I’ll use Anki for this one. Hopefully I can keep up with my 3-chapters-per-week pace and not leave cards overdue.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Anything related to vocabulary is okay! My goal in the previous challenge was to get my queue down to zero from around one thousand. I learnt hardly any new words along the way. You can see that my goal for this challenge doesn’t involve many new words either!

  19. Amber Wycklendt says:

    I am completely new to this and planning to start with 30 minutes per day (10 hours total). Very excited!

  20. Jamie Lee 晓利 says:

    This month I am setting the goal to focus on learning new HSK 5 vocab for 15 mins everyday, for a total of 5 hours over 20 days.

  21. Hamptot71 says:

    My goal is to study my current vocabulary list for 30 min everyday adding at least 10 new words a day. My current study routine is more than this but since it’s a vocab challenge, I am dedicating time specifically to this.


  22. Coli says:

    This is my first time participating in a language learning challenge. My goal is to do a total of 15 hours using Skritter. I will be reviewing HSK 1+2 and adding new words from HSK 3. At the moment I’m about 1/5 in and I’m aiming to finish HSK3 by the end of the challenge.

  23. Bryan says:

    My goal is to average 40-45 minutes per day.
    I’m starting late so I set a goal of 12.9 hours.
    I’ll be using hellochinese, memrise, pleco, and anki.

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