Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3

One of the most powerful ways of staying motivated is doing things with others, preferably during a limited amount of time with a clear goal. That is exactly what the sensible character challenge 2014 is about. Even though the challenge has now reach its last phase, it’s still not too late to join, just set a character-learning goal that you feel is achievable before the end of June and you’ll not only boost your own learning, you’ll also have the chance of winning some great prizes, including character posters, language learning products and free time on Skritter!

challenge14-3If you want to know more, please check the post that launched the character challenge. If you want to sign up, all you need to do is set your goal for this month and include that in a comment. The rest of this article will be for people who are already in the challenge. I will write a little bit about my own experience and also encourage you to write about yours. Once everybody’s had a chance to post their progress reports, prize winners will be announced!

 Prizes for milestone #3

Here are the prizes available for the third milestone:

  • Skritter extension – One week free extension will be awarded to all active participants. If you want your free extension, you need to have been active in the challenge, all you need to do is join this group and you should get your extension (provided that you have been active, of course, meaning a bare minimum of joining the challenge, posting a progress update for this milestone, along with regular use of Skritter in May).
  • Hanzi WallChart posters – Two sets worth roughly $50 will be distributed randomly among active participants. These posters aren’t only informative, they look cool too! You can see the posters here.
  • Glossika Chinese products – Glossika offers a range of products for Chinese learners and one participant in this challenge will receive one product of his or her choice for free. You can find more information about both Glossika and their products on the official website.

Winners are determined the same way as for previous milestones, i.e. randomly, but weighted for activity in the challenge (basically anything I have a chance to notice, including posts on Hacking Chinese, social media and so on), with a particular focus on progress updates.

I will announce the winners here on Friday (June 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are eligible. Also note that people who join the challenge now will have to wait until the end of the challenge (June 30th) before becoming eligible.

Your progress update

There’s no fixed template, just write whatever you want to write in any way you see fit, but here are some examples:

  • Have you reached your goal for the second milestone?
  • What (if anything) are you going to change?
  • What have you learnt by participating in the challenge?

Note that activity in the challenge is completely unrelated to whether or not you have succeeded! Failing to reach your goal, thinking about why you failed and what you should do about it is perfectly acceptable.

My progress update

Again, I seem to have overshot my goal, but this time it wasn’t because of a bad goal, but because I spent a lot more time using Skritter than I thought I would. This is partly because I’ve been using the alpha test version of the Android app (which is working well enough to use instead of the online version for my own learning). It’s also because I went to 雲林 in southern Taiwan for a gymnastics competition and spent lots of time on buses and trains. Can you think of a better way to while away the time than learn lots of characters? I certainly can’t! As a result, I cleared my goal for May with relative ease:

  • Milestone #3 (goal): 5340
  • Current status (May 31st):5409
  • End of challenge (June 30th): +366 (5775 total)

I will also share some important insight into learning characters.

Lesson #1:Spread it out

One of the major benefits of using your phone to review characters and words is that you can learn Chinese or Japanese wherever you are, whenever you have a few minutes to spare. It only takes a few seconds to start and you can easily interrupt your learning with no ill effects if something more interesting happens around you. This is much harder to do with any of the major skills listening, speaking, reading and writing. For instance, if you just have two minutes to study, it doesn’t make sense to start reading a new chapter in a book or listen to a new podcast, but you can certainly clear a dozen reviews in that time!

Therefore, whenever you can, spread your reviews out through out the day. Don’t review tones if you can speak with a friend instead. Don’t write characters if you can read a book instead. Don’t practise definitions of words if you can listen to a podcast instead. If you want to learn a lot of characters, such as if you are in this challenge, this is even more important! This is about time quality, something I’ve written more about here in case anyone wants to know more. If you pay attention to your daily schedule, you will find that there are lots of slots to review characters that you probably weren’t aware of!

Lesson #2: Add context

Jake has written an awesome article on the Skritter blog about something he calls “list overdose“. He describes it as follows:

 List overdose (or simply LOD) describes the ingesting or constant studying of vocabulary lists in quantities greater than are recommended or generally practiced. LOD may result in very little actual linguistic improvement (emphasis added).

I personally have a somewhat ambiguous relationship to this, because I think that you can use word lists quite effectively, provided that you are combining it with real-world usage and large volumes of input. So, when I say that I’m adding so and so many characters from a list, that’s not the only thing I’m doing! I’m also reading tons of Chinese and listening to even more.

If you still want to add characters or words directly from a list instead of gathering them in the wild, I think it’s very important to put them in context. This is relatively easy:

  • If it’s a character component, add a few of the most common characters
  • If it’s a character, add a few common words it appears in
  • If it’s a word, add an example sentence that fits well with the word

This will make sure that you don’t end up with a brick yard instead of a house. Sure, knowing just one way of using a word doesn’t mean you know that word perfectly, but it is a lot better than not having any clue at all of how it’s used!

Stay tuned…

I will announce the winners on Friday by updating this article, so make sure you post your progress report before then. Stay tuned!

…and the winners are…

  • Hanzi WallChart posters: Lili Woodlight and Jeremy (I have forwarded your info to the company)
  • Skritter free extensions: Everyone active is eligible, join this group on Skritter and tell me
  • Glossika learning Chinese product: 愛美 (I have forwarded your info to Glossika)

Good luck everybody for the final stretch of the challenge!

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  1. xiaokaka says:

    From April 30:

    April 30: 1663
    Milestone #3 (May 31): +150 (1813 in total)
    End of challenge (June 30): +120 (1933 in total).

    I reached my goal for milestone #3 on May 29! So the goal was quite good this time. I’m not sure if I would like to change anything, I think my Skrittering is quite time efficient. Maybe spread it out more over the day, but it’s hard if you are stuck on a long bus or train ride and have nothing else to do.

    Updated goal:
    Current (May 31) no. of known characters in Skritter: 1826
    End of challenge (June 30): +124 (=1950=original goal for end of challenge=+600 in total)

    1. xiaokaka says:

      No comment for me?

      1. xiaokaka says:


        1. Olle Linge says:

          Ha! I don’t know if you noticed, but I did change your post to non-cursive, but then I must have been distracted by something and forgot to reply to your actual comment. 🙂

          Looks good anyway, Skritter is definitely part of my minimum effort approach to learning character, something I will write about relatively soon (I have a draft ready).

  2. xiaokaka says:

    Oops, didn’t mean to make everything cursive, and don’t know if it’s possible to edit the post.

  3. LorenzoCC says:

    Hi everyone!
    I failed miserably this time… I still put in almost daily effort, but I needed to have done way more…

    Milestone #1 (April 8th): 54 Done! 63 as of 2014-04-06
    Milestone #2 (April 30th): 129 Done! 170 as of 2014-04-29
    Milestone #3 (May 31st): 383 Failed! 141 below target as of 2014-05-31
    End of challenge (June 30th): 545 500

    I am revising down my goal to the original one 🙁

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Don’t feel too bad about it, this is also about habits and daily progress is good even if it’s not as much as you hoped.

  4. Federico says:


    In some occasions I have lost track of the characters I have learnt. That’s maybe due to the fact that I consider double characters words just like one character… and that’s a bit confusing. Moreover I have a hectic work life and it’s hard to keep up with the challenge.

    Nevertheless I’m almost in line with my objectives.

    Milestone #3 (goal):300
    Current status (May 31st):280
    End of challenge (June 30th): +120 (400 total)



  5. I am so excited that I finally made it to a goal! After failing completely on milestone #1, picking it up and almost making it for #2, I feel so great to have met and exceeded my goal at milestone #3

    My goal was to hit 115 and I made it to 124 – so a couple over 🙂

    I’ll probably bump my final goal up from 165 to 200, to try and force me to be more consistent with my day to day studying. Yay, for the finish line ahead!

      1. I just saw that you’ve awarded me the poster – I can’t stop smiling! 😀 Thanks so much Olle!

  6. Gerrityong says:

    Starting point (March 22nd): 2895 characters

    My goal set for milestone #3 (Mai 31th) was: +400 new characters.

    Today I reached 3321 characters, +26 chars.
    I guess my final goal of 3395 characters is just fine. I’m planning to slow down a bit and concentrate on reinforcing the new words and characters already learnt. Besides I really like the idea of adding context to the characters and words I have in my lists – so for the last weeks of the challenge I’ll spend more time on this aspect of learning.

    My retention rate is still insufficient. Banning words did not really work for me until now. I should probably do it more rigorously …
    Slowing down a bit will definatelly help too.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Do you mean that banning didn’t work or that you didn’t do it? Nice progress anyway!

      1. Gerrityong says:

        Well, I did ban a few words, but I just forgot to review my band words afterwords. This is of course a manageable problem.
        The main problem I have is that I’m not exactly shure when it’s the right time to ban, since coming across a new character/word, it’s just normal that I don’t know (exactly) how to write it. Banning it right away feels wrong.
        In addition for me it often needs some time to have new mnemonics stick. So I’m now trying to have a mnemonic for all characters (where necessary) in place. Besides I’m adding some examples now and then.
        So probably the right time for banning would be if I failed on a character let’s say for the third time although I have a mnemonic for it in place and just forgot it again, right?

  7. Jeremy89 says:

    I met my goal on paper, but I feel I failed the purpose of setting the goal. I wanted to become more consistent and get my due words down to zero – which I did. However, my overall time spent on skritter was less than I would have liked. So, I’m going to be honest with myself and say I failed this milestone.

    From this point forward I am going to try for smaller blocks of time and more days studying per week. Instead of one hour twice a week, do 15 minutes everyday.

    I will maintain my original goal of adding 100 more characters by the end of June.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That feels like a good approach in general (going for less on more days)!

  8. David Brett says:

    I’m just starting the challenge – way late! my goal is 100 new words over the next 30 days. I have Skritter and have not been using it; this should get me back into it.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good luck and 加油!

  9. Baroni Fabio says:

    For milestone #3 I planned to reach 300 characters (complete HSK 2 wordlist)by 31st May. I met my goal because I completed HSK 2 wordlist (300) + 40 new characters from HSK 3 wordlist. Total characters learnt: 340. I met my goal ahead of time and I still could learn more characters (I could have learnt even more), anyway I slowed down a bit because I’ll take HSK 2 exam on 14 June, so I focused on reviewing and on doing exam simulations. I should speed up and I hope to be able to complete HSK 3 wordlist (600 characters) by the end of June for milestone #4. On July I’ll go to China and knowing the 600 characters of HSK 3 wordlist is surely better than knowing the 300 characters of HSK 2 wordlist. I’m trying to learn as much as possible before the trip, so I can leverage what I know for making conversations and to further improve my Chinese when I’ll be in China.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Well done, good luck for the final stretch!

  10. 小表 says:

    I have failed all my milestones so far. Things are busy and I have young kids. However, I am managing to maintain my Chinese and this is challenge is keeping me active if only in small amounts. My new goal is 100 more words by the end of milestone 4. So at least progress I hope.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Progress, not perfection. Every step counts!

  11. 9thcrane says:

    I made my goal for this milestone (1252 total characters). I missed the first two milestones but made this one with 4 days to spare. My goal for the end of June is 1500 total characters. That’s about 250 more and only less than 10 per day. I plan to continue at my current pace of 20 per day so I should finish early and have time for review.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great, 加油!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great, nice blog post too!

  12. Julia says:

    Hey everyone.

    Here are my goals:
    Milestone #3 (May 31st): 320
    End of challenge (June 30th): 400

    What I’ve achieved is 656, so above my overall goal.

    I’ve just started doing an hour of Skritter every morning which feels like a really good habit to get into. Although has anyone else noticed that Skritter time (on the timer) is much slower than actual time? An hour on the timer takes me about an hour and a half…

    Well done everyone who reached their goals & to those who didn’t 加油 – you can do it!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good luck and 加油!

  13. Oaht says:

    My progress report

    Goal: 3000 characters in Skritter
    Starting point (March 21nd): 2287
    Milestone #1 (April 8th): +125 (2412 total) DONE!
    +139(2426 total)
    Milestone #2 (April 30th): +155 (2567 total) DONE!
    +163(2589 total)
    Milestone #3 (May 31st):+220 (2787 total) DONE!
    +195(2784 total)
    End of challenge (June 30th):+213 (3000 total)

    216 new characters more to finish the challenge!


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Certainly looking good, just need to keep it up for one more month!

  14. 爱美 says:

    Milestone #1 (April 8th): 985 total EXCEEDED! 1004 Total
    Milestone #2 (April 30th): 1100 total MET
    Milestone #3 (May 31st): 1200 total UNDER 1150
    End of challenge (June 30th): 1300 total

    Hello everyone

    I seem to be under goal but I have met my primary aim of adding all the HSK 4 vocabulary and am extremely happy about that!

    I will try to make up by adding some common words I use in daily conversation but don’t know the characters.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      You’re still close enough to make up for it this month, 加油!

  15. DanielG says:

    I’m pretty much on track with my character learning, but I am not quite sure how to evaluate my results. At what point can I consider a character “learned?” Even if I manage today to produce all of the information about a character (how to write it, recognize it and pronounce it), what about tomorrow? I’ve been using Anki to practice and test my knowledge, but it still happens quite often that I find I have forgotten part of word that I thought I knew. I guess this will always happen to some extent, but it has led me to adjust how I’m learning the words in the first place. In any case, whether I remember everything or not, I’m quite sure that making the effort with this challenge has improved my overall Chinese ability quite a bit.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think this is up to you to decide. I use a relatively loose definition that means that i count something as learnt once it’s left the span of just a couple of days in my SRS.

  16. Luke Taylor says:

    I’m roughly on target :). My goal was to complete the third section of HSK4 and I’m already into section 4. Some of the earlier sections are still a bit shaky, but I’m reasonably happy with how things are going.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s not as if you’ll never see those characters/words again, right? This gives you the foundation, which is still good.

  17. Carla says:

    Hello Hacking Chinese!
    It’s a little bit late to share my progress, but this time was not because I couldn’t complete it on time, I just forgot the deadline >_<
    During the challenge I have changed my study strategies just to recognize which one is the best for me. This time I keep some strategies from the previous milestone (http://pictochinia.tumblr.com/post/88245695852) and tried a new one that was really funny!

    Here is my report:
    I've learned to recognize a bunch of traditional characters and I also can write most of them. But I noticed that I have no practice my handwriting skills with them… like notes, phrases etc.
    So I decided to start a Diary! A diary only in mandarin with traditional characters 🙂
    But of course someone have to read it and correct it, so I asked my boss (He's from Hong Kong) to do that job! … and he refused a thousand times. But after a week of prays I could convinced him!
    He always scolding me because sometimes I made up chinese characters, so he has problems reading my handwriting notes at the office but I keep learning and practice day by day.

    This strategy helped me to use the characters that I had learned before. And I use the strategies of the milestone #2 to learning the new ones.

    Thank you for reading me! And I want to share with you a little comic that I made in honor of my boss 😀 (but of course I haven't show it to him yet)


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great report! The only difference between posting it on time and not is that you can’t win prizes if you post it too late. 🙂 I think it’s good that you’re trying different strategies, that’s one of the main goals with the challenge. Good luck for the final stretch!

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