Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The Big Finish

challenge14-4When I launched this year’s sensible character challenge, some people told me that I was over-ambitious, I would never be able to keep people engaged for such a long period of time, 101 days. To be honest, I was a bit pessimistic, too, but I figured that at least I would be learning a lot of characters.

Even though of course I can’t know for sure when I write this article, I still think that I was too pessimistic. The number of learners who have stayed in the challenge from the very beginning is high and there are also lots of people who have joined the challenge along the way. Now the challenge has come to an end!

In this article, I want to talk about several things, some of which are similar to the previous milestone articles, such as how things have gone for me and what I have learnt, as well as opening up for you to report your progress and discuss your own learning. There will be even more prizes this last time, so make sure to report your progress below!

Before we go into that, though, let’s provide some background in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. Even though the challenge is over, each post contains a lot of information that will help students focusing on learning characters.

Here are all the articles; I recommend reading the first article (Sensible Chinese character learning revisited) as well as the “what have I learnt” sections of the other articles.

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish (this article)

Prizes for the big finish of the challenge

The prizes are the same as before, but there will be more of them:

  • 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 – Three sets of posters worth roughly $50 each 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 three 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 Sunday (July 6th), so you have a few days to post your updates. Note that only people who have officially joined the challenge are 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

I have reached my goal, I now have more than 5800 individual characters in Skritter! Naturally, I spent some significant time learning the last few hundred this month and some of them haven’t really sunk in, but they have all been studied and learnt. his is what my challenge history looks like:


How many characters do you need to know?

My goal for this challenge begs the question of how many characters one actually needs to know. The simple answer is that it depends on what you mean by “need”. If you mean to be able to read most modern Chinese texts without having to look up many characters, you need far less than the 5800 I’m close to here. In fact, you can get very far with around 3000 characters and 4000 will make you comfortably literate (I’m now ignoring the fact that literacy of course includes other things than knowing characters, such as knowing words, grammar and so on, but that’s not the point here).

So why did I think it was interesting to learn an additional 2000 characters if it isn’t very useful? I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel what it was like learning characters again. I haven’t spent significant time learning characters for many years and this challenge was interesting because it made me realise some things I hadn’t noticed before. I will write about these things later (some of them are already mentioned in the milestone reports).

Second, it’s a mental challenge and quite fun. Even though I haven counted the exact time I spent on learning 1800 characters, I’m pretty sure the average is no higher than half an hour per day. That means about 50 hours or about two characters per minute. This might sound extremely efficient, but then keep in mind that most of the time, learning a new character is a matter of associating two characters that I already know with a new meaning. If it’s a perfect phonetic-semantic combination, it becomes even easier (learning a character like 浬, nautical mile, takes just a few seconds to learn). Also, spaced repetition is very efficient.

Learning characters is not like learning random facts

When I started learning Chinese, I remember being a bit confused by people who said it was difficult to learn lots of characters. I mean, learning a few thousand isolated facts isn’t that hard. What I didn’t understand back then was that learning 5000 characters isn’t like learning 50 characters a hundred times. The main problem when learning new characters isn’t to learn how they are written and what they mean, but to keep them separate from the other characters you already know. Thus, even though character learning certainly becomes easier in some sense, it also becomes a lot harder, but for different reasons.

Future challenges on Hacking Chinese

I’m working on something called the Hacking Chinese language challenge engine, which will allow me to run monthly challenges on Hacking Chinese, all with a different focus. There probably won’t be another character challenge for some time, but there will be listening, reading, translation and pronunciation challenges! If you want to help me test this out (it’s already quite ready), please leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Stay tuned…

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

…and the winners are

It’s now Sunday and it’s time to declare the winners:

  • Carla (both prizes for her wonderful graphics)
  • Doug Stetar (Glossika product of your choice)
  • Georges (Hanzi WallChart poster set)
  • Luke (Glossika product of your choice)
  • All active participants: Free Skritter extensions

I have sent e-mails to the winners. If you are an active participant and want your Skritter extension, please join this group on Skritter and tell me. Any prizes left over from this challenge will be handed out in future challenges, stay tuned!

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  1. Leigh says:

    Hi I would be interested in helping out with the Engine. I gonna poste my progress later. Even though I have not been active posting my progress, I was keeping track of it.

    Best wishes

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks Adrian! I will send you an e-mail with more information in a moment.

  2. xiaokaka says:

    All good things must come to an end… I really enjoyed the challenge, and I look forward towards the future Hacking Chinese Challenges.

    I reached my goal! My end-goal was 1950 and I now know 2035 characters(according to Skritter). At the start of the challenge I knew 1350, so I’ve increased the number of known characters by 50.7%!

    I think that I will now go back to learning characters in context of words or sentences, but it has probably been very helpful with the extra character boost due to the challenge.

    Thanks again for arranging the challenge!

  3. As great as this has been, I’m so glad to be finished! I’m really pleased that I made it through the 101 days, so thank you Olle for being optimistic enough to set up this challenge.

    I learned a total of 200 characters, up from my original total of…zero! I learned that it’s not impossible and I just need to apply myself.

    I’d love to participate in the language challenge engine Olle, as I’ve set some new goals, but want to see a more positive move forward in my learning (which has all but remained at nothing beyond this character challenge), not just on the character level, but as a whole.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      101 days is indeed a long time, so it’s cool to see that so many made it through the entire challenge, well done indeed! I will send you more information about testing the challenge engine in a moment.

  4. Jeremy says:

    My total goal was 628 new words. I completed it. This was a lot of fun. Congrats to everyone else who participated. I blogged about this again.


    I also am interested in participating in the language challenge engine.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Well done! 🙂 I will send you an e-mail with more information about testing in a bit.

  5. 9thcrane says:

    Wow! I can’t believe I made it! 1242 new characters learned for a total of 1500 characters.

    I’m thankful for the challenge and look forward to participating in more challenges. I’m sure I wouldn’t have learned so many characters without the challenge and I appreciate the external motivation.

    I want to keep learning and reviewing – just not at such an intensive pace. I realize now that learning characters is not as impossible as it first seems.

    Thank you for helping all of us along!

    1. 9thcrane says:

      Oh, and I am definitely interested in helping test the new challenge engine.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Great, I will send you an e-mail shortly!

  6. Luke says:

    Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to complete my goal for June :(. I was away for two weeks at the start of the month and never managed to properly get back into it. However, it’s still been a very useful exercise and I did manage OK on the previous milestones so have learned a lot. I’ve also started again in earnest, even though the challenge has finished. Thanks for organising it!

    One thing that has occurred to me is that I don’t have any real *practical* use for writing characters stroke-by-stroke as supported by Skritter (fun as it is) – I can recognise characters and phrases a lot easier than I can reproduce them from scratch on a blank page. So I’m now focusing more on reading from flashcards and I think this will help me advance more quickly overall.

  7. gerrityong says:

    I reached my total goal!
    Starting point (March 22nd): 2895 characters

    My total goal was: +500 new characters, i.e. 3395 characters.

    By the end of the challenge I reached 3433 characters in total. So I surpassed my goal by only 38 characters. I guess my final goal of 3395 characters has been chosen (nearly) perfectly.

    But now I really need to concentrate more on reading and listening again:-)

  8. Alessandro says:

    Hi Olle,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for all the incredible work you do with this site, lots of post had helped me very much so far. I’d like to give my contribute for testing the Engine.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks! I will send you an e-mail with more information shortly!

  9. Doug Stetar says:

    Unfortunately, I didn’t reach my goal of 1000 characters. I did, however, learn a respectable 700 characters. Maybe I should feel bad about only achieving 70% of my goal! but I actually feel pretty good. One important thing I’ve discovered is that I was using full Skritter studying, so I wasn’t just learning to write/read the characters–I was also learning tone and definition.

    One of the most useful things to come out of this experience for me was the amount of “raw data” about my own studying and learning situation. I’m still thinking about this data and considering what I’ve learned about how I study, what works best for me, where I’m being inefficient, etc., but so far I feel like I’ve gained a lot of insight.

    Thanks again for running this challenge Ollie. I definitely would be willing to test out the new challenge software you’re developing.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s still respectable progress, well done! I will send you an e-mail shortly with more information about the challenge engine.

  10. Carla says:

    Hello Hacking Chinese!
    This is the report of my whole progress: http://pictochinia.tumblr.com/post/90929047182

    I really enjoyed the challenge 🙂 was amazing and I got a lot of fun!
    Also I want to share with you something very special… I’ll go to Taiwan on September to study a fall term! When I started the challenge I didn’t know that I’ll go to Taipei, I only wanted to learn how to write some traditional characters and maybe recognize some others. This challenge was like a “destiny path”. It’s a shame that you are not longer in Taiwan, I would like to thank you in person.

    I don’t know how is gonna be my trip to Taipei but at least I’m not going to scare when I see this “臺灣桃園國際機場” instead of this “台湾桃园国际机场” 🙂

    Thank you for reading me!

    1. xiaokaka says:

      Very nice graphics!

  11. Oaht says:

    Hi all,
    I also reached my goal at the end of this challange. Now in my Skritter stat I have 3010 characters learned (increased around 720 during the challange). I know that doesn’t mean I can remember all of them like the back of my hand, but I still feel quite good somehow. From now I will expand those characters into the combinations of words to help me retain what I have learned.
    Thanks to Olle for seting up this challange and all of you guys (good to know that there are many people doing the same thing like me, hehe).

  12. Georges says:

    We didn’t die, but succeeded in our challenge. Indeed it has been though at times. But knowing that others also continue to compete helps you to continue and study harder. It’s the second time we have competed in the challenge. It has been fun, and we are looking forward to upcoming challenges. The new challenge engine looks great. It will definitely help with boosting your own personal goal since we can see the progress of other competitors. This will also help by keeping track of your study buddies ( our 1st challenge we had) and continue to encourage each other.

    Warm Greetings


  13. 爱美 says:

    Hello everyone

    My life overtook me and my challenge suffered but I thought I should post a final comment.

    I met my goal of hsk4 vocabulary but stumbled on learning my list of everyday characters from living in China, perhaps because those lists are not so well defined.

    I have recently put up a Hanzi Wall Chart so that is going to be my next goal list before the scary hsk 5.

    Milestone #1 (April 8th): 985 total EXCEEDED! 1004
    Milestone #2 (April 30th): 1100 total Learned 1073
    Milestone #3 (May 31st): 1200 total Learned 1100
    End of challenge (June 30th): 1300 total Learned 1100

    Thanks again Olle for creating this challenge.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      There will be other challenges, probably quite soon (although perhaps not about characters since we just finished this one). Stay tuned!

  14. Julia says:

    Thanks for making this challenge Olle, it was great motivation. My goal was about 400 characters and, according to Skritter, I’ve learnt about double that so I’m pretty chuffed.

    Your language challenge engine sounds intriguing, drop me a line if you’re still looking for testers.

    Thanks again!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think I’m done with the testing this time around, we need to do some fixes before the next round, but stay tuned, it probably won’t be long (a couple of weeks is my guess).

  15. John Nomura says:

    I didn’t participate in the challenge but I read your articles and found a lot of useful ideas for learning Hanzi. You are quite amazing in the amount of high quality material you are able to produce

    I’m working through a textbook that has 20 dialogs that get progressively longer & more complicated.
    I started in January and I can now, by only looking at the English, write 14 of the dialogs to Hanzi correctly – about 400 characters. Also, doing this translation has improved my intuitive understanding of the structure of the language. More importantly, my speed for mastering a dialog has greatly increased. I’ve been using James Heisig’s books ‘remembering traditional Hanzi’ – he basically gives names to every primitive in each of 3000 characters – I’ve found his hints & approach quite useful. I also like learning characters in the context of sentences because I feel like I’m learning to communicate. In Sept 2014, I’m enrolled in a University course. They cover 500 characters per sememeter & have 8 classes – I intend to take all 8. They cover both traditional & simplified.

    Below is my method for learning a dialog.
    I would be very interested in hearing other people methods for learning Chinese.
    1. make a 3×5 card for each character I don’t know in dialog. My 3×5 card has stroke order, names of primitives used, & ping ying, english translation & any words from dialog that use the character. Any other characters that I might confuse with this character.
    2. Using 3×5 card, practice going from English to naming primitives and writing character until I can do this well
    3. practice translating dialog from English to Ping ying.
    4. practice writing Hanzi from ping ying
    5. For any mistakes in writing Hanzi, I make a new 3×5 card that covers the phrase or sentence that I missed
    6. Also maintain a spreadsheet that has all of this information that can be easily converted to anki. I’m also using the spreadsheet to keep track of which of the 3,000 Hanzi I’ve learned & which I have not. My longer term goal is to learn all 3,000 Hanzi (traditional & simplified) in his 4 books. I don’t use Anki now – I just sort my cards into 2 piles – the ones I know quickly & the ones I don’t. But I will be using Anki when studying at the Univ. to help me retain the characters I know. I’ll also continue writing at least 2 dialogs every day.
    It now takes me just a few minutes to write these dialogs.
    6. I have a Chinese friend who looks at my Hanzi and gives me feedback.

    One other useful thing about writing dialogs without any grids is that I’m getting better at making all of my characters take up roughly the same amount of space.

    Olle, Thanks again for all of your ideas – they helped me a lot.


  16. Nick says:

    In regards of mnemonics, I was wondering if you know any sources where people share their mnemonics? Memrise uses this, but the website has no search function.
    I am past 1500 characters that I have learned writing by rote learning, but my problem is I keep forgetting many of them. So inspired by your articles about creating mnemonics I have started doing so. I have been doing it for a couple of days now, but I find it incredibly hard. I typically spend 30-40 minutes creating a mnemonic for a character, so at this point it wouldn’t pay off in the long run. It would be a great help if there is somewhere to find some inspiration.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think Skritter is a good place to look. Users share their mnemonics and there’s also a simple voting system where you can vote for good mnemonics. There are mnemonics both for words and individual characters.

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