Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Drills and exercises aren’t only for beginners

Image credit: John Kennicutt

Image credit: John Kennicutt

Drills and exercises are intimately connected to what most people associate with studying a language (rather than acquiring it through immersion). The goal of a drill is quite simple, namely to teach  you how to use something actively. I’m not a big fan of drills myself, partly because they tend to be quite boring and partly because I stress input much more than most people I know.

In our program, it seems normal to think that if the student can’t use what he has been taught after the lesson, that lesson was wasted. I don’t agree, but that’s perhaps beside the point. This time I’m not going to bash drills and explain why I don’t like them, I’m going to do the opposite and point out that they are actually quite useful if used in moderation and in the right way.

Drills are actually quite useful

The point is that various drills and exercises are very good at what they are designed to do. If you hear someone mention a word or you notice a certain pattern, you might be able to understand it next time it appears, but you’re not very likely to be able to use it yourself.

You need practice to accomplish that. Just as any other skill, speaking a foreign language requires both passive knowledge and active skill, and you can only gain the latter through practice. Only practice won’t do either, of course,  you can’t learn much without having the proper input first.

This is very natural and most beginners spend lots of time with their textbooks and teachers, going through new words and grammar. I think many of us have done thousands of those exercises, perhaps not when learning Chines, but at least when learning other language in school. I’ve sure done my share with English and French! Is there really a shortage of drills in language education?

Definitely not in the standard beginner or lower intermediate setting. However, drills gradually disappear at more advanced levels. Lessons turn into seminars where language is viewed more and more as a means of communication and as long as that tool works, it’s fine. The teacher still corrects the students, but mostly for written assignments.

The lack of drilling is a problem for advanced learners

This isn’t bad in itself, of course, I myself prefer this kind of lesson, but it does mean that advanced learners often stop learning new ways of expressing themselves or keep learning but a reduced pace. I include myself here, because I’m definitely guilty of the same thing. I know tons of words and phrases passively, but I can only use a small fraction of these with confidence.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, because I can still survive academic courses in Chinese and discuss freely in Chinese, but I do so without the variation shown by educated native speakers. Passively, I know perhaps ten ways of saying something, but I usually only use one or two. If communication is all you’re after, fine, but if you want to keep improving, you need to actively explore those other ways of expressing yourself.

Massive exposure and focused practice

In order to change this, we need one of two things: truly massive exposure or focused  practice through drills. The first one is great if you have the time to invest, because if you hear and see words used enough, you will learn how to use them yourself. This is how you learnt your native language. If you think it’s a kid/adult thing, remember that you learnt academic language as an adult rather than as a child. I learnt how to write formal English and Swedish without doing a single drill and the same is possible for Chinese. The problem is that it takes an awful lot of reading.

The other alternative is to focus actively on interesting words or patterns and practice until you know how to use them. This also takes time, but you do get quite a lot of value back, provided that you choose the right words or patterns. This is where it’s invaluable to have a good teacher that will spot your weaknesses and do his or her best to correct them. If you normally use expression X, s/he might prompt you to use expression Y which is slightly more suitable in this situation. This is hard or impossible to accomplish on your own.

Naturally, the best approach would be to do both. However, massive input works wonders in general for all language skills and the value of the drilling you do is related to how much Chinese you read or hear, which means that if forced to choose between the two, I would definitely say that more input is better than more drilling, I’m just saying that drilling has its uses, too.

Which drills and exercises to use

There are hundreds of different kinds of exercises you can spend time with as an intermediate or advanced learner, some similar to those you’ve seen in textbooks and classrooms. The important thing to remember is to not lose sight of real communication, so just because you practice using a specific pattern, you can still communicate with your teacher or language exchange partner rather than merely mimic them or produce random sentences. Again, a good teacher will help you find interesting ways to use the language you have learnt.

Active skill, passive knowledge

The reason I write this article is that I feel that many advanced learners don’t drill at all (I know I don’t) and as a result, the different between my passive and active language gradually increases. It’s only natural that there should be a big difference, but getting stuck in your intermediate ways of expressing yourself isn’t very good if the rest of your Chinese ability is very advanced.

Personally, I don’t consider this to me a big problem, but if I had more time to study Chinese with a teacher, I would focus on drilling important words, patterns or grammar points I understand well, but seldom use. I would also need help with pointing out where I could have said something much more suitable but didn’t.

An alternative way if you have no teacher

One way of getting around the problem of having a teacher to help you is to practise in writing first. It’s easy to get feedback for free online, so you can simply choose a word, pattern or grammar point, write sentences and then receive feedback from native speakers.

When you’ve done this, you will be able to use the words more confidently. I often feel a bit insecure with ways of expression that I have never used myself, even if I have heard them many times before. Using them in writing is perfect for people who don’t feel confident enough to use every new word they’ve just learnt when speaking with people around them.

Of course, it will take some time before practice in writing spills over to  your spoken language, but in my experience, it usually does. However, this isn’t a requirement, merely a suggestion if you want to include written language. Passive knowledge does transfer to active skill quite spontaneously over time, it’s just a matter of how much time you have.


If you aren’t taking any courses and aren’t actively focusing on learning Chinese, but still use Chinese regularly and think it works quite well, you probably still have a lot left to learn. Mastering Chinese requires more than knowing one way of expressing something and even though we can get most of what we want from immersion, I do think that drilling is quite useful to activate key vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar, even at an advanced level.

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  1. Scott says:

    I’m interested in what you mean by drilling exactly. Do you mean repetitive oral practice? How should we drill grammar patterns or vocabulary?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I avoided that question deliberately for several reasons. The first is that it’s mostly a teacher question and the second is that it’s quite complicated. In general, though, I mean actively using and playing with a particular word, pattern or whatever with the expressed goal of learning how to use it. I think it does matter how you do it, but it matters more that you do it at all.

  2. David Feigelson says:

    Olle, do you remember when we first started corresponding in Taiwan by e-mail and I asked you if you were practicing speaking Chinese and you said you were putting it off for some future date? This has come back to haunt you. Now, your passive vocabulary is much greater than your active vocabulary. Reading a whole bunch of books will not increase your active vocabulary. Only speaking and thinking aloud will increase the words you can recall and use instantaneously. The input hypothesis has its limits.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you must have misunderstood what I meant. I have been practising speaking A LOT during my entire time in Taiwan, although it has of course fluctuated. I don’t see why this should “haunt” me in any way, I’m actually quite happy with the way I have learnt Chinese, at least if we disregard the first 1-2 years.

      Having a substantially larger passive vocabulary isn’t a problem and is completely natural. The reason I would like to do more drilling is that there are areas in which I don’t know a lot of stuff actively and would need to practice. I’m sure immersion would solve that problem as well over time, it’s just that the type of Chinese I tend to read/listen to don’t involve that kind of language.

  3. Harland says:

    My experience with the drills in Chinese textbooks is that they were mostly worthless. Actually, most textbooks written by Chinese to teach adult foreigners are crap. What are some good drills for lower intermediate?

  4. David Feigelson says:

    Olle, I agree that passive vocabulary is as a rule much larger than active vocabulary. I mean, the difference between passive vocabulary in English and passive vocabulary in Chinese for a native English speaker, is that I can actively use passive vocabulary in English if I have to with no problems in comprehension. In Chinese, passive vocabulary can be understood by listening but I cannot use my passive vocabulary in speaking. I find that if I have exposure to certain vocabulary long enough, I start using it at a certain point. I don’t have control over this, though. I think it’s one of those mystical things.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      There are different definitions of passive and active here. For me, passive vocabulary are words you understand but can’t really use. It’s not word you understand but choose to not use for some reason. For instance, swear words in English are very much in my active vocabulary, it’s just that I choose not to use them very much. This isn’t the only way of looking at it, but it’s the one most useful for language learning, I think. I’m not worried at all by understanding many more words than I can comfortably used. In my experience, they gradually turn to active through tons of immersion and some opportunities to speak and mimic how others speak. Still, I wrote this article because that process is fairly slow and it can be significantly sped up if necessary or desirable. I suppose I don’t find it desirable enough. 🙂

  5. I completely agree with most of what you said in this article and believe so myself.
    While it is natural to have more passive vocabulary than active one, I would love to have all of my passive vocabulary turn into active. Many of the vocabulary items become active by mistake. For example, when I talk to someone, and I’m like “Oh, there’s an exact word for what I want to say, but I forgot, what was it again?” If the person I talk to understands my meaning, he reminds me of the word and it clicks! I remember it and it becomes more active, because I had to use it.
    Naturally not all words are like that, but I notice that when I practice vocabulary lists (which I enjoy doing either way), there’s a higher chance that I will suddenly get reminded of these words I learned through some context during my daily life.

    One thing I like is the part where you said, “This is where it’s invaluable to have a good teacher that will spot your weaknesses and do his or her best to correct them. If you normally use expression X, s/he might prompt you to use expression Y which is slightly more suitable in this situation.” I agree that a teacher or some kind of feedback is a good way to improve and activate your dormant vocabulary or other previously solely input-based content. However, most native speakers wouldn’t correct you if you make mistake or a not-so-accurate sentence, unless they simply don’t understand what you mean. A good teacher (like the ones we have :p) corrects and sharpens the student’s way of speaking and vocabulary use.

  6. george says:

    First language children spend roughly five years learning their language primarily via listening and speaking before they engage in reading (though with subtitles on TV the process of character recognition my be addressed earlier).

    The implications are quite simple. Second language learners tend to default to reading books and to gloss over the need to listen critically or to speak accurately. So at least a return to drills to actively notice where one’s pronunciation is poor or where one’s hearing is incomplete.. can be very productive.

    It doesn’t matter whether you study Chinese or English as a second language… too little time is spent on phonology and the results are poorer learning performance.

    So just commit to returning to the topic regularly and often as possible.

    I enjoy the mainstream Chinese texts that include BPMF along side the Chinese character as these keep me engaged in the sound of the language. That may be more productive as one matures than returning to simpler basics.

  7. nommoc says:

    Why does it seem native speakers speak with more diversity and clarity? Is it simply time?

    I’ve noticed some expats who have lived in China/studied Chinese for 5+ years, even close to 10 years, yet their speach patterns, vocabulary, and pronunciation are all very “waiguoren” sounding… clearly time alone and non stop daily exposure to the languange like a native has not fixed the problem.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What you’re really asking is if there is a big difference between first and second language acquisition and the answer is yes, there is, but people have written numerous books about that and it’s not something I’m going to discuss here. However, I’m going to question your statement. Do you really know expats who have been using Chinese non-stop for ten years? I mean, really? Like, only speaking Chinese, not using their native tongue more than occasionally? I know a few, and their Chinese is very, very, very good. I do think that time is a major factor, but it’s counted in hours, not years.

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