Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Don’t forget to consolidate the Chinese you have already studied

consolidate your knowledge

Image credit: Severin Stalder

When learning Chinese (or anything else for that matter), both students and teachers tend to put focus on conquering new territory rather than consolidating what you already have.

This means an emphasis on learning new characters over becoming more secure in your knowledge of those you’ve already studied, or working quickly through a textbook without caring too much how much of the content you actually learn.

I don’t mean to say that you need to master everything on a certain level or in a certain area before you move to the next, but I am saying that never spending time on consolidating what you have learnt is really bad.

Don’t forget to consolidate the Chinese you have already studied

This is part of the reason why this month’s learning challenge is about benchmarking (no, it’s not too late to join). That’s a great way of taking a step back and gain a better understanding both of what you do know and what you don’t.

If you evaluate your current progress and really think that charging ahead at full speed is what would benefit you the most, then of course do that! I’ve done several such attack runs myself. However, you can’t only do that, or you will end up with a top-heavy proficiency (knowing lots of difficult things, but having a bad foundation).

Full speed ahead isn’t always the best option

After evaluating your current situation, you might find that your main problem isn’t that you don’t know enough Chinese, but that you don’t know how to use what you have already studied. In my experience, this is much more likely to be the problem! You can get far with limited knowledge if your foundation is very stable. It will also make it easier to build up to an advanced skill as you learn more.

Here are a few examples of how you can consolidate instead of conquer, but before you try to implement any of these, make sure you understand the concept of time quality. In short, you should do some of the easier things here when you can’t do harder things.

  • Listen to old audio or material below your level – Reviewing is important. If you live in a Chinese-speaking environment and use Chinese every day, then you will get most of the repetition you need automatically, but if not, you need to review systematically. Set up a system where you regularly listen to audio you are already familiar. You should also listen to large volumes of audio that you think is fairly easy. Always listening to something difficult will make it hard to listen enough.
  • Speak as much as possible – When you speak, you usually have to rely on what you already know (looking things up takes too much time). The key here is to not give up and revert to English. Provided that you have a friendly conversation partner, it’s perfectly okay that it takes much longer to explain something. By forcing ourself to use what you do know, you will gradually become better at it.
  • Reread familiar texts or focus on graded readers – I have emphasised this many times before, but it’s very important that you read more than you normally get assigned in class. I don’t mean that you need to read more text that are as difficult, I mean just reading more. Reread old texts from last semester. You can also use graded readers, which allow you to read long texts without increasing difficulty. A good example is Mandarin Companion.
  • Write to communicate about familiar topics – I think writing is usually better suited for exploring new territory, but if you’re going to write, make it communicative and about topics you already know. Chatting on social media is a good example of this.
  • Review characters and words rather than cramming new ones – Learning a character or a word is only useful if you can remember them. Learning 100 or even 1000 words in a week is meaningless if you forget them a week, a month or even a year later. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to decrease the amount of words you’re learning in favour of consolidating vocabulary you have already studied.

Conclusion: Summer consolidation

Doing all these things is an effective way to make the Chinese you already know count for more. Again, I’m not saying you should never conquer, just that most student I have coached or talked to tend to focus too little on consolidation.

It’s also the case that some institutions force you to move at a certain pace. I know several language schools that have a fixed schedule where you’re supposed to finish a certain number of chapters per semester, regardless if the students actually learn the content or not.

I think the summer vacation (if you have one!) is the best time to do this. Slow down your intake of new things and take the time to go back and sort out old questions and revisit all the things you’ve already learnt. Not only will your Chinese improve as a result, it will also feel better when you realise that you’ve learnt a lot!

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

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!


  1. Enrico Brasil says:

    I totally agree. I always tell my students to review on their vacations not what they have learned this semester, but instead review what they have learned a year or more ago. That’s good for many reasons:
    1 – They get a great felling of improvement. (“I couldn’t understand that before, but now I can.”)
    2 – They can ask questions they couldn’t have before. (“Now that I now this, why is that back then?”)
    3 – They can consolidate what they have learned. (A sort of long term spaced repetition)

  2. Fearchar says:

    Exactly! Unfortunately, almost all courses and teachers or tutors fail to appreciate that nothing is learned by a single introduction followed by one or at best two reviews. Life isn’t like that, nor is the human capacity to add and control new skills, or we’d see sporty types taking on Wimbledon one year, the World Cup the next and then the US Open! ? People are not machines, and have to grow into using their faculties: learning is more like gardening than construction, and the environment can enable or hinder growth. Reviewing provides a congenial environment that encourages growth – or motivatiin, as we tend to call it.

  3. marta says:

    I am 52 years old and I have passed HSK1 and HSK2 successfully, with the highest marks too. Although I can reproduce the textbook dialogues, I can hardly speak the language. Textbook vocabulary is so limited and subject-focused that I find myself being able to say things that are not likely to pop up in a conversation and unable to have a very simple conversation at home with my daughter. My exam do not mean much, I feel.
    My private teacher presses me on to go for HSK3 but I have decided not to, too much characters that I do not know how to use in a likely context. She does not help me with any reading material and does not want to introduce the language in the teaching process. It is very frustating, so much so that I have reduced my classes and I am thinking of changing teachers and maybe joining a school, where I am more likely to get the chance to practise my speaking skills.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.