Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

I only endorse software, books and other websites when I think that they are truly excellent in some regard. I’m always hesitant to review what other people send to me for the simple reason that it might influence my judgement of these products, and even if it doesn’t, you as a reader might still think it does. Thus, the recommendations I publish are few and far in between. Today, it’s time for another recommendation, this time to help you improve your Chinese in general and your writing in particular.

The basic problem: Lack of correction

There are numerous reasons why, but most students lack people who correct what they write when they learn a  foreign language. Sure, we have friends, teachers and so on, but if you write a lot (which you should do), it’s not easy to find people who are willing to correct your texts, at least not if you care the least about not overburdening your friends (see this article for more about this).

Writing is in itself helpful to learn, but if we receive no feedback at all, we have no way of learning from the mistakes we’re making. This is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to remedy.

The solution: Enter Lang-8

The basic concept behind Lang-8 is simple and brilliant. It’s a language exchange system, but instead of be reciprocal (i.e. I teach you Swedish, you teach me Chinese), you fill in your native language and target language when you register. You will then receive corrections on texts you write in your target language, while you help people learning your native language to improve. That means that there is no shortage of people willing to help you.

Lang-8 is excellent mostly because it will give you almost instant feedback on what you write (I typically receive feedback within a couple of hours, never later than one day). No articles are left uncorrected and you don’t need to ask your friends if they have time to help you every single time you have a question.

Of course, you need to help other people to study your language (otherwise people will stop correcting what you write), but I find this surprisingly pleasant and I have corrected far more articles than I have been corrected myself. Also, correcting short articles or sentences in your native language is quite easy and goes very quickly.

Lang-8 is free and can be used as much as you want without paying. There are several features that are available only for premium members, but I’ve been using the site for some time with a free account and it works just fine. The extra features look good, but aren’t at all necessary.

Users can colour words, cross out and in different ways highlight things they think ought to be changed. The original author can then ask questions or discuss word usage and other native speakers can comment.

Some words of advice on how to use Lang-8

  • Start with sentences rather than longer texts, especially if you haven’t studied Chinese for very long. Writing a few sentences a day is very easy, but regularly posting long diary entries in harder to keep up. Make sentences based on words you’ve learnt recently or words you find difficult to use.
  • Short articles are corrected more quickly than long ones. This means that you can and should break down long texts into smaller parts, simply because this encourages more people to read what you’ve written (avoid walls of text). If you include questions for the reader, you can also start conversations, find friends and so on.
  • Spread the website to Chinese people, because the more native speakers we have, the better the system works. If you know anyone who is learning English, for instance, let them know about Lang-8. This will help both your friend and yourself (and me for that matter).
  • Reward people who help you. Do this through the built-in reward system (you can give stars to people who correct your articles, give more stars for more ambitious corrections, give extra stars if people answer your follow-up questions). Remember that being corrected is an art you need to master.
  • Avoid correcting people who have huge amounts of written entries, but refuse to help other people. This means that they are leeches, exploiting the system for their own advantage without being prepared to give anything in return. Check their stats and see if they look okay, then go ahead with correcting and encouraging them.
  • Translation is an excellent way of practising if you don’t know what to write. Simply translate something from a book, an article or a song. Try to avoid very long texts and texts that require much knowledge that isn’t included in the text itself. If possible, provide the original English.

Native speakers and native speakers

As I have argued elsewhere, there is a huge difference between native speakers and native speakers. Some might be language teachers, others might have dropped out of school. Some are from Beijing, some from Shanghai and others from Taiwan. Some read hundreds of books every year, others nothing. Some are sloppy, some are meticulous. I’ve had people who say that an article is extremely good, better than something some native speakers would produce, only to have 50 corrections in the same article by another native speaker five minutes later. Oh, well.

What I want to say is that just because a native speaker corrects your texts it doesn’t necessarily imply that the corrections are justified or that the remaining text (the non-corrected text) doesn’t have room for improvement. However, in a vast majority of cases, any native speaker can still help you, especially if you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner. More advanced learners will still benefit, but should be a bit cautious about taking every single correction at face value.

Getting started

This is your goal for the coming week: Write at least one entry every day. It can be anything from one sentence up to several paragraphs, it’s up to you. I refuse to believe that people are so busy that they can’t write one sentence per day, so you have no excuse for not doing this.

If you feel that it’s difficult to come up with good ideas for articles, then fear not, I have an article scheduled dealing with that very problem. In the meantime, here are some topics/questions you can use for your first seven articles:

  • Why are you learning Chinese?
  • Write about where you live
  • Write about what you did this morning
  • Something that made you sad recently
  • Something that made you happy recently
  • Translate something from your native language
  • What are your plans for the weekend?

Good luck!

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  1. Chris says:

    This is pretty similar to Livemocha, isn’t it? Is there a particular reason why you recommend Lang-8?
    I haven’t used either before, but in my understanding, Livemocha has far more users, so feedback might be more and faster. It comes with plenty of predefined exercise suggestions as well.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I haven’t used Livemocha, so I don’t know. I’ll check it out! What I say in this article should be mostly relevant regardless of which service you use, however.

    2. It’s really nothing like Livemocha. On Lang-8, you can write absolutely anything you want and submit it to get corrected; it’s a one-trick pony, but it does that trick splendidly. Livemocha, on the other hand, is primarily centered around RosettaStone-like lessons, although you can submit assignments for correction in a way similar to Lang-8. For more, see my review of Lang-8 and similar services and my review of Livemocha.

    3. I really miss LiveMocha. Unfortunately Rosetta Stone bought it and closed it down. I was really active on it. With Lang-8 you don’t get as many languages in your account and you don’t help out in different languages the way you could on LiveMocha.

  2. David Feigelson says:

    You should put a link to Lang 8 in the article. Just to make it easier to find.

    Also, check out italki.com if the website is up. I like it better than livemocha. I think the website might be down though. Not sure.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, thanks everybody for recommending other sites. I haven’t really tried them out, but I will. Regarding a link to the website, there is already a link to Lang-8 the first time it’s mentioned.

  3. Maggie says:

    Hi Ollie
    Just to say I LOVE Lang-8. Thanks for introducing it. I’ve not written Chinese in a regular way for years and years. So this has given me a discipline and a reason to write. Each time I’ve written I’ve got feedback within a couple of hours (I’m in the same time zone, so maybe that helps.) Great learning tool – thanks so much.

  4. Sara K. says:

    I’ve tried the website for a few days, and I can see its potential. I am not focusing on my writing skills right now, but writing a few sentences in Chinese a day does not hurt, does it?

    I have to disagree with the point ‘Also, correcting short articles or sentences in your native language is quite easy and goes very quickly.’ It depends on how you do the corrections. Minimal corrections are easy and go quickly, but more detailed corrections take more time and thought. I do put forth the effort, because that’s how I want other people to correct my entries, but it does take some time and effort.

    Sometimes I have to put in significant effort to figure out what somebody means (the last correction I made I had to do a little quick internet research on a Japanese city to figure out what someone was trying to say). I could just say ‘I do not understand you’, but I can usually make a pretty good guess if I think about it, and people seem to find it helpful when I say ‘I do not know what you mean, maybe you mean x?’ (often I guess correctly, and even if I guess incorrectly it still helps them figure out how to re-phrase).

    Also, I’ve noticed some imbalances in the language pairings. All of my entries have gotten 3+ corrections, but I notice that people writing in English generally only get 1-2 corrections unless the writer has a lot of friends (I am not surprised that English is one of the language where there is a shortage of native speakers). I do not think it is because my entries are particularly fascinating. How is the situation for Swedish? Is there a glut of Swedish speakers, a shortage of Swedish speakers, or are they fairly evenly balanced with Traditional Chinese / Mandarin?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I mean that the corrections are quick in relation to how much time you spend writing in Chinese. Writing, posting and correcting a few paragraphs sometimes takes me an hour if I’m translating something tricky. Correcting the same entry in Swedish, even if I add explanations and think about it, seldom takes more than ten minutes. I didn’t mean that it’s instantaneous, just that it’s a short time in relation to how much we practice ourselves. I mentioned it mostly in order to calm people who might feel worried about having to spend much time correcting others. 🙂

    2. Olle Linge says:

      And about Swedish, I don’t think there are many learners or native speakers. I typically recognise most of the people learning Swedish and about half the time I check, there are no entries to correct. What’s it like for you?

      1. Sara K. says:

        Well, lots of people are trying to learn English (not surprising) so I almost never recognize English learners when I sift through the general list of entries to be corrected. I occasionally recognize another native speaker who is making corrections since there seem to be a few really dedicated native English speakers who make LOTS AND LOTS of corrections.

        Taking a look through the entries posted a few days ago awaiting correction in English, about half of them never get corrected, and the majority which do get corrected have only one correction. Of course, many of the ones which are left uncorrected are entries from people who have not made many corrections. People who have made many corrections are much more likely to get their English entries corrected, though even so, they are only likely to get one correction.

        The people who get multiple corrections in English are the people who socialize and get native English speaker friends.

        Most people who post entries are native Japanese speakers, and it seems many of the native English speakers are learning Japanese. This sometimes means that I am often not the best person to correct an entry since a) I cannot use Japanese words to explain corrections and b) it’s harder for me to figure out what the writers are trying to say than it is for people who are learning Japanese (especially if the writers include the Japanese original).

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Yes, I see. I have that problem sometimes, too. I try to select more advanced students and correct what they write, because then communication usually isn’t a problem. I write my comments in Swedish and they can respond/ask questions in Swedish as well. If I don’t understand what someone is writing, I think they’d better wait for someone with whom they share a language.

  5. David Feigelson says:

    Having used Lang-8, I really don’t see what the big deal is. Some problems 1) many ways to correct one thing, 2) correction can be colloquial or literary, 3) learning by output is a terrible way to learn. Just my thoughts.


    1. Sara K. says:

      I don’t think there is any replacement for input when it comes to learning a language … in fact, when I correct entries on Lang-8, I often think ‘this person needs to read more stuff in English’. But at the same time, if one wants to be able to produce output in a foreign language, one has to practice producing output, and receive feedback. Olle Linge explains it with his article about mental models better than I can.

      Anyway, I know that Olle is a big advocate of reading and listening to tons of Chinese, so I think he suggests this as a complement, not a substitute, for massive input.

      As far as colloquial vs. literary … I try to figure out what the writer’s intent is, and match my corrections to that (and I’ll sometimes make a comment like ‘this is okay in informal English, but is not okay in formal English’). People also sometimes comment on these distinctions when they correct my entries.

      I don’t understand how multiple possible corrections is a problem.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I agree with Sara. I think I have already explained this thoroughly in the articles linked to as well. I think input is essential, but relying 100% on input is not good and not in line with research into language learning. Instruction IS helpful. I know you often refer to children and natural ways of learning, but if you think about it, children are under tremendous pressure to produce correct language. Their parents (and teachers) correct them all the time, they are also under social pressure from peers to not deviate by using incorrect language.

        That being said, I think adults are much more dependent on receiving corrections on output. Just to give you an example, we can learn how to use 了 from listening and reading a lot, but it will take thousands of hours to build up a feeling for when NOT to use 了. Doing this simply by listening isn’t very helpful. There are of course many other cases, this was just an example. Sorting out synonyms is another example when output is close to being the only way of indentifying problems.

        1. David Feigelson says:

          I think the challenge with language learning isn’t to be perfect but to develop an intuitive grasp of nuance. I think the best input is interaction with native speakers. There is something intangible yet highly beneficial from this kind of learning. The intuitive grasp of language does not come from being perfect. It comes from making many many mistakes. After hearing native speakers speak a certain way, the child or learner internalizes it and can even self-correct. If one focuses too much on having perfect output, there is a lot of fear toward making mistakes. The language begins to sound unnatural. My biggest problem with lang 8 is that no one likes criticism and that is what it amounts to. Again just my thoughts…


          1. Olle Linge says:

            I just want to point out that I have never said that output should be perfect. I have always said that making mistakes is essential for learning (see this and this).

            Regarding Lang-8, I don’t really understand the problem. If you don’t need criticism, that’s a very big problem indeed, but surely it’s not related to Lang-8. If other people don’t like criticism (which is a weird idea, I’ve never seen anything but big smiles and heaps of “thank you” when I correct people), what does it matter? You don’t need to worry about their language learning, that’s their problem.

    2. Ronnie Biggs says:

      Don’t understand your last comment?!?!?! It sounds like you’re suggesting people should be mutes and that only one person in the midst of a dialogue should speak and the other should only listen. How you write is how you speak is what I’ve been taught/told so if that is essentially true/accurate then if you don’t know how to write then how can you expect to speak and that’s what language is…communication with another human being!

  6. Sara K. says:

    I’d like to point out another benefit of Lang-8: benchmarking writing skills.

    Of course, one doesn’t need to use Lang-8 (or similar services) to do this – one could just keep a private diary in Chinese, and look back at older entries once in a while. Nonetheless, this is an additional benefit of using Lang-8 regularly over a long period of time.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, indeed. Similarly, keeping logs from various chat clients is an easy way to keep track. I try to save as much as possible, not that I look at it very often, but at least I have it in case I do want to look at it. Thanks for pointing this out!

  7. Ian Sinnott says:

    Started using the site, and now I feel somewhat addicted. It’s actually kind of fun to provide and receive feedback so quickly. I’m amazed how active that community is.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Being addicted to things that help you improve your Chinese is a good sign that you’re doing something right. 🙂 Just make sure you don’t overlook other areas.

  8. Avendesora says:

    You should post a link to your account on Lang-8 so I we can add you as friends 🙂

  9. allen says:

    Just found out about Lang-8 though this site. The speed that I get feedback is very impressive. I can defenatly see myself getting a lot of use out of this site.

  10. Luca says:

    I discovered last week Lang-8 and now I’m reading this article! What a coincidence!
    It is a very useful social,I wrote some entries in Chinese and they got almost immediately corrected but for English I have very hard time having people “read” my papers. How come, it might due to “tags”?
    My “correction made” and “correction received” are equal, so i don’t think I am a leecher..
    By the way, I speak Italian 🙂

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I suppose it’s a question of supply and demand. I have never tried Lang-8 for anything other than Chinese (I correct Swedish in return)!

      1. Luca says:

        I’ve just submit a new entry in Chinese and I forgot tags .. in less than 10 minutes I got 5 corrections!
        I know that Lang-8 was born in the East yet I thought English speakers still were in majority! 🙂

  11. JNobbi says:

    lang-8 does has not accepted any new users since March 2017.

  12. Stephen says:

    As already noted, it’s no longer possible to register a user account on Lang-8. Instead new users are directed to a new service called HiNative which has been created by the same people. Does anyone here have any experience of the new service they could share? Many thanks.

    1. JNobbi says:

      HiNative is not so good for long texts, because it is more focused on short texts and answering questions and don’t have an interface which marks errors as red.
      HelloTalk offers a similiar correction interface as lang-8.

  13. Andrew says:

    Sadly, Lang-8 seems to be no more.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think they have merged/changed to HiNative, which does something quite similar. You can still access it, though, but it could be that you need to have an account already. I just logged in and the site looks much like it used to, and there’s also activity there, so the site is still there! Writing a better post about where to get feedback online is on my to-do list, though, it’s just that it’s a bit daunting as it will take dozens of hours to research.

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