Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese vocabulary challenge, October 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.

Sponsored by Skritter

This month’s challenge is sponsored by Skritter (read my in-depth review here), which means two things:

  • Anyone new to Skritter can use the code HCVOCABCHALLENGE to get free access for the duration of the challenge
  • Three participants, including those of you who already use Skritter, have a chance to win 6 month’s free subscription, worth $60 each

Naturally, you don’t have to use Skritter to particpate, even if I will do so. Here’s a video where I talk about the challenge with Jake over at Skritter, including a more general discussion about learning vocabulary, setting goals and much else:

Chinese vocabulary challenge, October 10th to October 31st

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

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

My due count in Skritter has ben hovering around 1,000 for almost a year now. It’s time to do something about it! I hereby commit to:

  1. Geting my due count to zero by the end of the challenge, or
  2. study at least one hour/day on average

The challenge uses time spent as a proxy for effort, which is a decent compromise. I think I should be able to clear my queue by spending one hour a day.

I also commit to sharing my progress on Twitter daily, including both my progress in terms of due count in Skritter and how much time I log on Hacking Chinese Challenges. Wish my luck and keep me accountable!

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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14 comments

  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.
    祝大家好運!

  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.
    大家一起加油!

  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. 🙂

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