Warning: Declaration of TarskiCommentWalker::start_lvl(&$output, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker_Comment::start_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /hsphere/local/home/ackerfors/snigel.nu/wp-content/themes/tarski/library/classes/comment_walker.php on line 0 Warning: Declaration of TarskiCommentWalker::start_el(&$output, $comment, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker_Comment::start_el(&$output, $comment, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $id = 0) in /hsphere/local/home/ackerfors/snigel.nu/wp-content/themes/tarski/library/classes/comment_walker.php on line 0 Olle Linge - Languages, literature and the pursuit of dreams · Learning Chinese

Learning Chinese

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

Link: Anki website

Let’s say you want to learn a large volume of information (such as vocabulary when learning a foreign language) and you want to make sure that you remember most of what you learn not only next week, but also five years from now. Normal people need some kind of reviewing system to accomplish this, but most of these are not really systems at all, but more or less educated guesses at when something needs to be reviewed. In addition, the data is often reviewed in sections organised the way the material was arranged in the original source (such as a text book), meaning that most of what you review is data you already know and don’t really need to repeat.

Spaced repetition software is a highly effective way to avoid this problem and increase efficiency astronomically. I realised the importance of this when I started learning Chinese seriously, but it’s only recently I’ve tried to maximise the benefits of using spaced repetitions software to learn more and faster with less effort. I’ve used a program called ZDT almost from the start, but only a few weeks ago, I decided to change to Anki, another program more heavily focused on spaced repetition. I also want to refer to a previous article focusing on spaced repetition in ZDT, not because I suggest you use that programme anymore, but because most of what I said there still holds true for any programme.

Anki has a few advantages over ZDT, which isn’t to say that the latter is not a good program (in fact, it’s better than most). Still, I decided to change for a number of reasons and that’s what I’m going to talk about now. Even if you’re using some other program, I think many of the points I bring up below will be relevant. If you’re not using a computer to help your studying, I think you should seriously consider doing so because of the fantastic increase in efficiency that will lead to; I can’t possible overstate the importance of this. Here are a few selected advantages in Anki, sometimes with remarks about ZDT:

Heavier focus on spaced repetition – This is the core of Anki, meaning that a lot more effort has been invested into this area. These advantages are the main reason that I decided to change software, but they are too many to discuss in detail here, but they include intervals based on scientific studies, more control over intervals and more detailed options when reviewing, such as being able not only to say if the answer was correct or not, but also if it was hard, medium or easy to recall, thus speeding up the process of separating the difficult cards from the easy ones.

Flexibility and versatility – Anki is a lot more versatile than ZDT. It can handle lots of more different kinds of data, and is built to be expanded with plugins. The user can use the program to study anything than can be broken down into smaller pieces. In Anki any kind of data can be entered (in ZDT it’s impossible to add non-Chinese in the Chinese field, for instance, making it impossible to add words in Chinese using Latin letters).

A large community – Anki seems to enjoy a sizeable supporting community with lots of people writing plugins and a lot of things going on development-wise. This is not a prerequisite for me, but it is reassuring to know that people are constantly working to improve the software.

Online version – I didn’t really think about how good it would be to have online features until I tried it with Anki. I can now review my lists from any computer and keep the cards as well as the attached statistics synchronised on more than one computer. This means that moving around, travelling and so on will be a lot easier with no need to suspend reviewing for a long period of time. It’s also a safety precaution to have all cards online.

Superior card management – Cards can be sorted and viewed in almost any way imaginable, which makes it very convenient to make adjustments (which was a pain in ZDT). It’s also possible to search for cards, prevent duplicates from being added and much, much more. These features contitute an extreme improvement from any other program I’ve tried.

Practical and smooth reviewing – While reviewing, corrections of cards can be made on the fly as they are discovered without having to interrupt the session. It’s also possible to undo answers to cards, removing the annoying problem with easy cards being reviewed too often only because of typing mistakes or a wrong click with the mouse.

So, having said all this, is Anki the perfect solution? I would hesitate to say perfect, but it’s a lot closer to that than ZDT is. I see no reason whatsoever to continue using the latter and I recommend both new and old learners to consider your choice of software again. Please take into account that I used ZDT for literally thousands of hours over more than two years, so I think I know what I’m talking about. It remains to be seen if there are even better programs out there, but I feel like I’ve taken a major step in the right direction and that any other gains that might be found elsewhere are merely adjustments or smaller improvements rather than something qualitatively different.

By way of conclusion, if you are the students mentioned in the beginning who use pen and paper to review your vocabulary, please think again. It’s of course difficult to say how much efficiency can be increased by using the proper tools, but I’m prepared to say that the change is in the order of several magnitudes. If you are already using a program, it’s always healthy to question what you’re doing. This is not an attempt to convert people to Anki in particular, but rather a call for people to think more about what they are doing and urge you to look around you and see what options there are. After all, you don’t want to spend your life trying to build a mountain by carrying stones in your pockets only to later find out that you could have hired a truck for free.

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For some people, completing a certain task is not enough, it has to be done perfectly. Intuitively, I count myself to this perfectionist group, but intellectually, I’ve gradually come to realise that this a double-edged sword and that there are times (quite often, actually) when aiming for perfection is simply stupid. If you’re not a perfectionist yourself, the likelihood is that you will find this article fairly pointless, but for those of you who at least partly share this personality trait with me, I hope it will be more worthwhile.

I think it goes without saying that if you want to attain very high levels of ability for any given activity, perfectionism is a must (you don’t get to the top if you’re happy with anything but the best). However, I’m sure that this attitude can be inhibiting and slow progress in some cases, especially at more basic levels, and discussing this topic here might help to draw attention to this idea.

So, when is aiming for perfection a bad idea? I’m prepared to say it’s bad at any time, except for the situation described above, when ability already is lost in the clouds, but it’s especially true for skills where you have to add a lot (like learning languages, chemistry or something). There are exceptions, such as sports where a solid foundation is everything (gymnastics, diving). But why is perfectionism so bad sometimes? Because it is inefficient. Spending too much time on something might mean that you spend less time on widening your horizons and learning more, which would in the end lead to even higher ability. Let me take an example from language learning, in this case Chinese because it happens to be what I’m currently doing. If I had a fairly big test next week, covering several chapters and many hundreds of new words, I’m tempted to aim for 100%. I did that all the time for the first year of Chinese, and indeed it payed off, but I think that the price I paid was too high and today I’m much more careful.

The alternative would be to be satisfied with something like 85-95%, which indeed isn’t bad. In my experience, reaching this level might require lots of work, but increasing the score further takes a lot more time per percentage point. To be sure to nail an exam, you really need review a lot and you will end up reviewing lots of things you really don’t need to review, just to make sure you know every single part. Making sure you have good grasp of the material and then being a bit more relaxed and accepting the fact that you might forget minor parts on the exam takes significantly less time and energy, but the outcome is almost equivalent.

I think those of you who frequent this website know that I’m not doing this because I’m lazy. The point here is that if the idea is to get really good at something (like Chinese) as fast as possible, focusing on perfecting basic or intermediate stages will be a waste of time. That time could be spent talking with people, broadening vocabulary or reinforcing grammar. I’m sure this gives a lot more in return for the time invested. I don’t mean to say that a solid foundation isn’t important (nothing could be farther from the truth), but I’m saying that you won’t get very high if you spend years just laying the foundations. Again using language learning as a an example, I’d much rather learn 100 words and remember 80%, than learn 50 words in the same time and remember every single one. I guessed at the numbers here, of course, but it’s an educated guess.

Looking closer at it, I think there are only two major differences between having 95% and 100% on a test. Firstly, there is a sense of achievement if the score is really high, and second, the time required is, as stated above, significantly longer. The lacking 5% won’t really affect anything real, only the grade and the students sense of achievement. Is this trade worth it? I don’t think so, especially when considering that it might be more healthy not to focus too much on exams and grades, but that’s really another topic altogether.

I realise that I’m in a quite unique position here in Taiwan and that people who study usually do so because they need the grades for something (I’m only here because I want to learn the language). In some cases, the difference between 95% and 100% might be extremely important. However, I’m convinced perfectionism is usually bad anyway if long-term learning is the goal. Furthermore, this principle is applicable to any hobby project or anything you do for your own good or because of your interests.

So, to all you perfectionists out there, do as I’ve done recently, try to relax a bit and understand that there is a rational argument, not for being lazy, but for not being too narrow-minded about exams and grades. Look at what you need to learn and learn it, but don’t be obsessive about it. We will always forget some of the things we learn, but the idea is to learn more than we forget!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

In my studies of the Chinese language, I’ve come across something which is at first not obvious, but in reality constitutes a huge difference between Chinese and any other language I know. If you haven’t studied the language yourself, Chinese writing and pronunciation are two separate, albeit related, things. In other words, you can’t look at a character you’ve never seen and know how to pronounce it. This leads many to the conclusion that it’s possible, as a foreigner, to learn to only speak Chinese and ignore the daunting task of learning to read or write characters. I think this impossible, or in the very least stupid and/or inefficient. In this article, I’ll write about this, in my experience, unique feature of Chinese and why it’s necessary to learn how to write if one hopes to attain any kind of advanced level.

Picture a web

In order to explain what I’m talking about here, I’m going to use the analogy of a web in many layers, superimposed on one another. So far, I’m only certain about two layers, but it might be the case that there is a third one, but more about that later. The topmost level represents spoken Chinese and the next level down represents written Chinese. In most languages, this distinction is irrelevant, or at least not very important; learning to speak Swedish is very much the same thing as learning to write, the only difference being that you have to learn a ton of arbitrary spelling rules. In Chinese the levels appear separate, but I’m going to argue that it’s a misconception that they are entirely isolated and that speaking can be learnt on its own.

So, why use the structure of a web here? Language learning, like any learning, can be said to be made out of associations of ideas and concepts in the brain. These nodes are linked together, and learning then consists of enlarging and reinforcing the connections between the various points. There are two ways of doing this: First, a connection can be stronger (this is mainly achieved by reviewing and rote learning); and, second, more than one route between any two given points in the network can be constructed (this is learning be associating things to what you already know and studying the same thing from many angles rather than repeating the same process). If you are interested in learning more about this way of learning, I suggest you check out what Scott H. Young has written about holistic learning on his website (it’s basically the same thing).

Chinese 101

Before I can start talking about Chinese regarded as a multi-layered web, I need to explain one more thing about Chinese to those of you who don’t know the language. Chinese has extremely few phonemes, around four hundred unique sounds, excluding tones, and about three times as many including tones. There are numerous words which sound very similar or indeed identical. In order to make communication possible, modern Chinese seldom uses a single character to represent a concept, but rather combines to, greatly increasing the number of available words. Many characters share the same pronunciation, so hearing a single sound is almost never enough to carry meaning (for example, my dictionary lists almost one hundred characters all pronounced “shi”).

The first layers – spoken and written Chinese

Knowing all this, we can now look at the top level of spoken Chinese, or the first layer of the web. As a foreigner, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the similarities of words or characters that in reality means completely different things. Even with knowledge about the way a word is written, it’s hard to distinguish words from each other. My theory here is that the learning web for Chinese takes a lot more time to develop than for other languages I’ve learnt, simply because it’s so easy to confuse similar nodes (words) in the network. Using only spoken Chinese, the links between words seem arbitrary and obscure; more about that soon. i think the web is hard to develop because it’s not obvious what to connect with what, there is (seemingly) no logic behind the sounds.

To see the connections and the logic in Chinese, we need to dive down deeper, to the second layer of the web: written Chinese. Here, we find that many words that doesn’t seem to be related are in fact just that, and often in a very logical way. I will try to illustrate this from three different angles to make it understandable even if you’ve never studied Chinese.

Three examples

First, if a student approach Chinese like a Western language, let’s say French, it’s easy to learn vocabulary as translations from one’s own language: “Shikong” becomes “time and space”, “Kongjian” becomes “space” and “Shijian” becomes “time”. If these are studied as chunks, it will be hard to grasp the bigger picture. Looking at the characters for these words (時空, 空間 and 空間 respectively), we can see that 時 means “time”, 空 means “space or empty”, and 間 means “space” or “between”. Knowing the parts of the words make the words easier to remember.

Second, some characters might have different meanings if they are pronounced differently, let’s take 教 as an example. Read with a high, steady tone, it’s the verb “to teach”, but read in a short, falling tone, it is used in nouns, but still means something related to teaching. For śomeone who only can speak, these words, they will appear to be different words altogether. They aren’t. Learning how to read, one would only have to know this rule and then all words that include this character would be logical and easy to remember instead of separate cases. It’s the same root, but it’s not obvious from the pronunciation alone.

As the third and last example, I’ll say something about listening. Nowadays, I can sometimes guess the meaning of a two-syllable word I’ve never ever heard before. If I know the context and the pronunciation from what the other person says, which greatly narrows down the possible number of characters that can be involved. If I’m able to guess the characters, I might also be able to guess the meaning of the word and thus understand what’s being said. Without thorough knowledge of written Chinese, this would be very hard, if not impossible. it doesn’t happen very often now, but the frequency is increasing rapidly.

Efficiency and long-term perspective

Sadly, learning to read won’t save time in the beginning, but after a while, you will see that the characters appear all the time, and it will then be very easy to expand vocabulary, connecting new words to your growing, bilayered web. Simply speaking, words that seem to be completely different on the surface might actually be very close together in written form. Learning this written form will make it easier to reinforce your web, to connect the nodes using many different routes.

Another way of looking at it is using English as an example. If you want to expand your English vocabulary, a good way is to learn what different roots, suffixes and prefixes mean. For instance, if you know that “post” means “after”, “pre” means “before” and you know what “industrial” means, it’s very easy to guess what “post-industrial” or “pre-industrial” mean, even if you’ve never seen the words before. If you don’t know what the prefixes mean, you’re completely in the dark. It goes without saying that words like this appear in English frequently. Chinese is like this, all the time, for almost every part of every word! There are words for which the explanations are lost in time or sometimes they simply don’t make sense (at least not to me), but combinations of characters into words often follow a pattern that can be understood. Provided you understand what the parts mean separately, that is.

So, what would you rather do, learn thousands of thousands of various combinations and not really understand how they fit together at deeper level, or learn all the parts and thus create a densely interconnected web? I think learning to read is essential to learning advanced Chinese. It’s probably possible to reach intermediate levels only looking at the spoken language, but I’m sure it will be problematic as the total number of words increases. The reason I can distinguish between so many words in Chinese is because I know what characters they are made out of and thus can remember the difference, which otherwise would be arbitrary or non-existent.

This being said, there are of course lots of people who are native speakers without being able to write it, but if you consider that most people take quite a long time to learn a language that way, I don’t consider this very efficient and not an option for most foreigners. In addition, I would hazard a guess that native speakers who can’t write seldom have a very good grasp of the language, definitely not enough to teach it properly. I’m not saying this is cause and effect, but I do think that the two are related.

A possible third layer – classical Chinese

In the introduction, I mentioned the possible existence of a third level, even deeper than written Chinese, and I’ll discuss it briefly now. This level would represent classical Chinese, i.e. the old form of written Chinese that was used up until roughly one hundred years ago as the standard of writing, but is very different from modern, spoken Chinese, sometimes with different grammar and different meanings of characters (a native speaker of Chinese who can read well cannot simply pick up a text in classical Chinese and understand it; our teachers repeatedly say that it’s almost like a foreign language for them). I’m not sure how closely interrelated this third web is to the second one, but I’m starting to think that in order to learn to write and read well, it might be very helpful to at least study some classical Chinese, because I have already found that formal or literary Chinese borrows lots of grammar patterns and more advanced words from classic Chinese. I’ll probably return to this subject later when I’m more familiar with it myself.

So, what to do then? Focus on the top two layers simultaneously, of course. If you really don’t like spending time learning to write, do at least learn to read. It won’t pay off very quickly, but it will definitely do so in the long run (and if you’re aiming to learn Chinese properly, along time is what you need to spend). I have changed opinion over the years about how important writing is compared to reading, but that ought to be the topic of a separate article.


By way of rounding off this article, I think that ignoring reading and writing is a very tempting option, but I also think it’s dangerous and might hamper development, especially after the beginner stage. Learning all those characters is a daunting task, I know, but it will make both speaking and listening a lot easier. I’ve only now started to appreciate the benefits of a multi-layered, integrated web, but I’m sure that I still have many more benefits to discover down the road, because even though lots of reviewing is good, many links will always beat a few.

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This is the first article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction (this article)
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis


Earlier, I’ve been arguing that Chinese is quite an easy language to learn, although it does take a lot of time if you want to be able to read and write. There is one aspect of Chinese that isn’t very easy, though, and that’s pronunciation. Various people have difficulties in different areas; some think the tones are difficult, others find it difficult to distinguish between the many sounds that simply don’t exist in most western languages. Learning any language, I think good pronunciation is very important and Chinese is no exception. In this post, I’m going to share with you some experiences and reflection about learning to pronounce Chinese properly.

Learning pronunciation as a beginner

First, you need to accept that learning to pronounce Chinese will take some time and some effort. Reaching a level where you can communicate isn’t that hard, but advancing beyond that is quite a different endeavour altogether (as it is in any other language). As a beginner, the most important thing is that you understand what you’re doing; do not be fooled into thinking that you can learn pronunciation simply by repeating a word somebody else says! There are a few people who can do this, but the likelihood is that you’re not among them.

If you study Chinese in your home country, it’s probable that you will have a teacher who can at least make him or herself understood in your language. This is good, because it means that you can learn the tones and the sounds, how they are made and what’s the difference between them. If you’re studying Chinese in Taiwan or China, try to find somebody who knows how to explain it to you (searching the web might be a good alternative if you can’t find somebody to teach you).

I haven’t don much research, but New Concept Mandarin’s page about pronunciation is extremely useful, and Patrick Zein’s page about Mandarin Phonetics is also good. Regardless of what you do, make sure you’re doing it right from the start. It’s incredibly hard to change a pronunciation pattern you’ve learnt incorrectly.

Being taught pronunciation

I haven’t studied Chinese in China, but here on Taiwan, teachers default attitude isn’t to try to teach every student perfect pronunciation, because they know that most people are not interested in that or feel that it’s embarrassing to be corrected in class. Therefore, it’s imperative that you tell your teacher(s) that you want to focus on pronunciation, and you might have to remind them again after a while so they don’t forget.

I spent two years studying Chinese pronouncing some combinations incorrectly. Nobody told me. How are we supposed to learn if we don’t even know we’re making mistakes? Make sure the teacher tells you what you’re doing wrong and what you can do to improve.

Practice speaking

There are many ways you can improve on your own. Read texts and read them slowly, making sure to pronounce everything correctly. Speed will come later. Listen to somebody else reading, preferrably the audio recording that comes with most text books; compare, adjust, improve. Keep focusing on the areas you know you’re having trouble with and if you find yourself saying something wrong, repeat it slower and make sure you get it right.

Better than this is of course if you can find a native speaker to practice with, but keep in mind that you probably need to remind them about what you want, because they are usually a little bit uneasy about correcting your pronunciation, especially if they can understand what you say, even though you say it wrong.

Speed is fairly important for pronunciation. If you speak very quickly, it’s easy to cheat, which will probably be good enough for communication, but it’s no good if your aim is perfect pronunciation. Speaking slower than you can allows you more time to think about what you’re doing and it’s also easier to spot mistakes. Speaking slowly is very difficult (just try doing it in your native language and you’ll find out), but I’m convinced it’s very good for a number of reasons, reaching far beyond the realm of learning pronunciation.

The third tone

To be honest, it’s only the third tone that causes real trouble for me, the others are fairly easy to handle. I think there are two reasons for this, the first one being very obvious: the third tone changes according to what tone comes after it, so naturally it’s harder than the others.

Secondly, I think the traditional way of teaching the third tone is deeply flawed, resulting in many students misunderstanding how it’s supposed to be pronounced (I only recently understood how it works, and I’ve been studying for two years; I’m sure there are many students out there who still don’t know).

In fact, many native speakers (including some teachers!)  cannot describe the third tone correctly in combination with other tones, even they of course pronounce it correctly themselves. Some will actually tell you that you should go up on a third tone followed by a first, second or fourth  tone, which is wrong and in defiance both of their own pronunciation and the theory.

The problme is that the third tone is usually pictured as being a v-shaped tone, first falling and then rising again. This is hardly ever the case. Instead, only the first half of the third tone is used before a first, second or fourth tone, which means we end up with a tone starting low and going even lower, i.e. completely different from the long down-up v-shape of the textbook. Third tone plus another third tone naturally results in something similar to a second tone plus a third tone, but I think most people get that.

Please read this post for a suggested different way of picturing the third tone. Although perhaps not more accurate, it does shed some light over why the traditional method isn’t very good either.

If you think it’s difficult to understand how the third tone changes depending on the following character, try to draw tone diagrams for sample sentences, i.e. draw a line representing the tone of each character as it is truly pronounced, not the way it’s written in pinyin.

Using some sort of physical representation might also be useful, such as letting a finger follow the tones as you read/speak. I’ve encountered people who use their heads for this, but I’d advice against that because it look quite silly.


Learning to pronounce Mandarin requires conscious effort and diligent studying. It might be possible to do it simply by immersing oneself in a Chinese-speaking environment, but that’s definitely not the most effective way and I doubt everybody can do it. If you think pronunciation is important, do it properly and from first principles.

Listen to what people say and to what you yourself are saying, but also try to learn and understand the theory. True language wizards might be able to do without the theory, but it truly is helpful for us mere mortals. Good luck and see you in the next article!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

Update: Much of what is written in this article is irrelevant or obsolete, even if the underlying arguments are still valid. I no longer use the ZDT software, but have changed to Anki, which is superior in almost every regard. Check it out if you haven’t already!


There are many tools out there which will greatly facilitate learning Chinese (I’ve discussed some of them here). For various reasons, I’ve been using a program called ZDT (Zhongwen Development Tool) almost from the start, which is about two years now. The program isn’t perfect, but it’s by far the best I’ve found, mainly because of one single function: the interval filter. This post is not meant to be a review of the program or its functions, but rather an attempt to explain why this filter is the best thing since sliced bread and how I use it in my everyday learning. I realise that a general post about ZDT would be a good idea, but I’ll leave that for later.

In ZDT, each vocabulary item has some data attached to it, most importantly how many correct and incorrect answers you’ve had for that specific word and when it was last checked in a flashcard session. The interval filter is very simple in its basic function: it simply looks at each character and determines how well you know it (based on the balance between correct and incorrect answers), and then checks when you last reviewed it. Depending on how well you know a word, the program will then determine if it’s time to review it again or not, everything based on your familiarity with the card (again based on test record).

Benefits of the interval filter

Correctly set-up (more about that later), the interval filter is all you need to expand and maintain vocabulary. Let’s take a look at that sentence again: the interval filter is all you need to expand and maintain vocabulary. Yes, I’m serious, I hardly use anything else. How is this possible? There are two areas in which the interval filter proves its usefulness.

First, when studying a new chapter, I simply enter all the words into a new category and immediately start a new flashcard session for that category (no, I haven’t made an attempt to learn the words first). What will happen now is that some words I will know from before without having to study. These are sorted out and won’t return for another 24 hours (see about tweaking the filter below). The rest of the characters automatically get -2 points because I don’t know them. When they appear, I study them carefully, perhaps looking up radicals, composite parts and whatever. At the end of the session, these words come back and usually I’m able to nail around 90 % of them the second time around, which means they end up on -1 point each. The remaining cards will have even more minus points depending on how many rounds you need to finish them off. Repeat this at least once within the first day. Note that this will leave you with flashcards ZDT thinks you ought to study now (some had -1 or less, which means you need more than one session to bring them to a positive value), and even if you do two more session the same day, some will still have a negative score and thus appear in the test. This is fine.

The next day, all characters will return again, even those you answer correctly the first time. This is essential for long-term retention. Most of the rest won’t be a problem, but some characters or words always persist and seem impossible to learn. Don’t worry, these will retain a very low score and you will be harassed by them once or twice every day until you know them. The characters will slowly advance up the ladder and out of the way, occurring more and more infrequently. Thus, the only thing you need to do is do at least one ZDT flashcard session every day, but two might actually work a lot better because it will the decrease the load and make sure you get the really difficult ones more often.

Second, the interval filter is perfect for revising old characters and words (this is rather obvious and probably the main reason why it was created in the first case). You never ever have to care about which words to review, you seldom have to waste time studying words you already know. Most other revision methods will force you to check ten words you already know for every word you actually need to study; the interval filter greatly reduces the time you thus waste on things you already know. It makes it possible to remember all the words you’ve ever learnt, without putting unreasonable strain on you.

How to use the filter

If you’ve just started studying Chinese, well, congratulations, the transition to using a filter like this is painless. When you have time, simply select all the categories you have and start a flashcard session. Do that as often as you can, keeping the characters you need to review at zero. If you’ve been studying Chinese for a long time and have thousands of words, it’s a lot tougher. I would suggest gradually moving over to a time interval system, but you might have to open the ZDT file containing the words and manually alter the points for your old words and start out at level higher than zero. Having 5000 characters all starting from zero would be an insurmountable obstacle, so don’t do it.

This method currently has one drawback, and that is that in ZDT, you can’t distinguish between different kinds of flashcard sessions. For instance, the program scores a pinyin recall test in the same manner as a self-review test. My own solution to this problem is to use two separate “super categories”, one for characters I want to be able to write (i.e. all characters in the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese series) and another for those I’m satisfied if I know the meaning and the pronunciation of. Then I simply run self-review for the first section and pinyin recall for the second. This isn’t perfect, but it has worked fine so far. I currently have 3200 and 3600 flashcards respectively in these two categories and this is probably the only way to handle such a large quantity of words.

Tweaking the filter

The filter can of course be tweaked, which is what I’m going to talk about now. First, the points you gain or lose for correct or incorrect answers can be altered. The default values are 1 point and 2 points respectively, and I see no serious reason to fiddle with these numbers. The reason the penalty has to be 2 and not 1 is that the character will return at the end of the test, which means that you will always get at least one correct answer. Changing both values to 1 would therefore mean that you can never lose points unless you answer incorrectly twice in the same session, which isn’t very likely.

Then there is the intervals themselves, and I recommend changing these frequently in the beginning to gradually find ranges which suit your learning curve. For instance, if you find that you continuously run in to characters you added a week ago, but that you never answer correctly, you have to change the intervals in the lower range of the spectrum. If you find that old characters which you know intimately keep bothering you although you never answer them incorrectly, you need to expand the intervals in the upper range. I have tweaked a lot and I currently use 1, 1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 20, 35, 50, 75, 100, 150, but this is of course no guarantee that it will work for you.

Conclusion and discussion

The ZDT interval filter is indeed the best thing since sliced bread and it is a marvellous tool for learning Chinese. I can envisage few other ways of building a solid vocabulary base (a friend uses a sort of manual interval filter with physical flashcards, but that seems too impractical when you reach several thousands of flashcards). I think many people use ZDT or other similar programs without realising the potential of the tool they’re using, something I hope to have changed at least slightly by writing this article. If you have any feedback, please post a comment. I would especially be interested in other people’s values for the intervals, provided you aren’t using the default ones, but any constructive feedback is more than welcome. Thanks to Chris for a wonderful program and thanks to you for reading this!

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On this page, I have collected references to a number of useful tools, some of them indispensable to learning Chinese efficiently. These tools include, but are not limited to:


Useful websites

3000 most common Chinese characters – Rather self-explanatory, being a list of the 3000 most frequently used Chinese characters. I use it to check how much effort I should invest in a given character. Make sure to check on the author’s other pages and his collection of links.

Chinesepod – This is a must for students of Chinese on any level. Chinesepod provides hundreds of hours of conversation lessons in audio, which will enable you to listen to and learn Chinese at any time. The lessons themselves are free, but there is additional material on the website that isn’t.

Chinese Pronunciation – An indispensable guide for the beginner, featuring pronunciation for all possible syllables in Mandarin Chinese, including tone variations. Make sure you learn the sounds correctly from the start!

Mandarin Chinese Phonetics – A useful guide to Mandarin Chinese phonetics for those thus inclined. The site being written by the same person as the 3000 list, make sure you check out the various other sections of his website.

Nciku Dictionary – Probably the best all-round dictionary available online (or at least the best one I’ve found). Provides not only translations in both directions, but also lots of examples and idioms. This dictionary has a lot of words I’ve had difficulties finding elsewhere.

On-line Chinese Tools – The most comprehensive collection of useful links I have encountered so far. Includes links to software, websites and much more.

Yahoo Chinese Dictionary – One of the best English-Chinese-English dictionaries I’ve found online. Sample sentences make this dictionary truly useful even when writing stories or articles in Chinese. My defualt dictionary nowadays.

Zhongwen.com – Online, free edition of a popular Chinese-English dictionary, featuring a system of hyperlinked etymology which allows the student to smoothly browse components of characters and their origin. Indispensable.

Useful software

Anki – The most indispensable of all language-learning programs. It’s a must if you plan to learn lots of words in any language in any way that can be called efficient. I use this program more than any other software on my computer, including Firefox.

Chinese Perapera-kun – A must-have plugin to Firefox that provides the user with online, automatic translation of individual characters or words; all you have to do is hover over the character/word with the mouse.

DimSum Chinese Language Tool – Java-based dictionary software with excellent character recognition. Works with Linux and OS X, as well as Windows. Comes with flashcard capability.

Pablo – A handy dictionary with the extremely useful feature of being able to recognise characters written with the mouse (or otherwise). It also offers the function to break down characters into their component parts. Free to try, small and comfortable to use; very neat indeed.

Useful hardware

Besta CD-859 mini – At some point, you should buy an electronic dictionary. It’s extremely useful and the earlier you buy it, the better. Of course, any dictionary that suits you and has a handwriting function is adequate, I just happen to have bought this one and it works for me.

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Most people who have studied a foreign language in a classroom situation (which should be most of us, I think) have depended on a series of textbooks, or a number of them, since different institutions and different levels might use different textbooks. The only situations I know of where textbooks aren’t used at all in a classroom are when the students have very special needs (no text book is applicable) or the students are too advanced. In these cases, the teacher might decide that the class is better off using a freer form of teaching. What I’m going to discuss here, mostly from a learner’s perspective, but also from a teacher’s, is the value of using additional textbooks as a resource for more comprehensive language learning.

Before even beginning to discuss the various benefits that using additional textbooks entails, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what a textbook can do in the first place. I’m convinced that textbooks are useful, but used alone, they will never lead to mastery of a language. Textbooks are good for a number of reasons. First, the authors have chosen vocabulary that they think is suitable for students. These lists are valuable, because the authors’ guesses are a lot better than yours and they also know not to use overly complicated language that might be a waste of time at a student’s particular level. Second, textbooks explain the language, which is crucial for some learners (myself included). I cannot simply learn a language efficiently only by everyday conversations, I need a top-down approach for some elements, including but not limited to grammar. That being said, there are of course lots of things textbooks can’t teach, but that’s not the subject of this article. Also, I should mention that I prefer as challenging environments as possible for my main courses, but that’s something completely different from what I’m talking about here.

Let us look closer at vocabulary for a moment, the essence of language learning. Repeating what I explained above, a textbook can be said to be the your guide in an unfamiliar landscape after having parachuted from the sky. It indicates a direction and leads you along a path of ever increasing difficulty as the topics gradually becomes more difficult as the starting point vanishes beyond the horizon behind you. However, you mustn’t fool yourself into thinking that being able to walk a distance in one direction means that you can do the same in another. A new language is a huge landscape and even the easier parts are vast. Approaching more difficult challenges doesn’t mean that the easier ones are all mastered. This is where additional textbooks come in, but before I explain how, I shall illustrate with an example.

Consider my Chinese studies. As textbooks, I’ve primarily used the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (although I did use Short-term Spoken Chinese for my first year). This means than when I landed in alien territory, those books took me around a carefully guided tour, introducing various subjects and topics. Perhaps this guide also resulted in a false sense of security, because even though my vocabulary and grammar is now pretty advanced in some fields, I can fail very basic vocabulary tests for areas I simply haven’t visited yet (this is true for English as well, please don’t ask me about word for cooking or cars!).

So, how might additional textbooks be used here? The thing is that they constitute new and different guided tours through the landscape, which by now should be at least partly familiar. The vocabulary is chosen by different authors with slightly different perspectives, leading to another set of words somebody thinks you really should know. Of course, no author can include all words they want, so they have to choose, but if you choose more than one author, you can learn an enormous amount of extremely useful words (this also applies to grammar, but let’s continue using vocabulary as an example). The alternative would be to choose words that you encounter in everyday life, but they might be very far from universal or not even common at all; deciding which to learn and which to ignore is almost impossible. Since you can select textbooks already at your level or below, you can expand vocabulary and strengthen fundamental grammar in quite a relaxed manner.

Again returning to studying Chinese, I’ve recently started looking into a second series of text books called Far Eastern Everyday Chinese, which is the other major textbook series used in Taiwan, and I have also used Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course (this was what gave the impetus that resulted in this article). All the chapters studied in these books can be said to be below my level of Chinese, but that’s the whole point. Studying these chapters, I found that I knew about two thirds of the words and most grammar, but the elements I didn’t know were truly interesting. The topics chosen in these books do of course differed from the ones in Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, so some specialised vocabulary were new (one book might have a chapter on going to the swimming pool, another about playing football, for instance). Some of these I could safely ignore, but I always found lots of words I didn’t realise I was lacking before I saw them, or expressions that are genuinely useful although I had never thought of them. Continuously reading more and more challenging texts is a very inefficient way of mastering basic language skills and doesn’t ensure a complete map of the most essential parts of a foreign language.

By way of conclusion, I would like to recommend people to use more than one textbook. You don’t necessarily need to study it carefully, but do at least make sure you know the grammar and the relevant words (ignore those that are too specific in areas you have no interest in). It’s an efficient way of strengthening basic language skills and makes sure that you cover as much of the truly essential language as possible. Which textbooks to use is of course impossible to give general advice about, but for Chinese, the Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course is an excellent choice. Good luck!

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There are lots of misconceptions about learning Chinese, spread to an equal extent by native speakers and foreigners. Most people’s reaction to my studying Chinese is that it must be extraordinarily difficult. This is wrong. I’ve thought about this a great deal, and I’m convinced that it’s much more difficult for Chinese people to learn proper English than it is for foreigners to learn proper Chinese. In this short article I’ll try to explain why Chinese isn’t as difficult as most people think.

The first problem arises from the confusion of the words “difficult” and “requiring much time”. These two are indeed related, but they are not synonymous. In this context,”difficult” can mean “requires skill”, as opposed to “requires time”, and even though one can achieve skill through diligent practice, they still aren’t one and the same. Learning to write Chinese characters is a prime example of this: it requires almost no skill whatsoever, but on the other hand, it does require the student to spend thousands of hours practicing. Provided normal memory functions, anybody can do it. On the other hand, learning to construct sentences requires actual insight and understanding of the language, which naturally is a result of studying over time, but isn’t necessarily directly proportional to the amount of time invested.

Before I go on to explain why I think spoken Mandarin is fairly easy, I’ll discuss the two things that might actually cause trouble: pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation in Chinese is wildly different from Indo-European languages. Not only are there quite a lot of sounds which sound very similar to the untrained ear (and still are essential for communication), but there is also the problem of tones. I still haven’t formed an opinion as to what determines one’s ability to learn the tones and characteristic sounds of Mandarin, but if learners pay attention in the beginning, most seem to be able to learn this (I don’t even think about it anymore, and I’ve only studied for one and a half year). Vocabulary is a bigger problem, but entirely related to time. Assuming one’s native language isn’t related to Chinese, the languages have few or no words in common. When learning French, I can guess at the meaning of many words, but in Chinese, this is completely impossible (one can of course guess the meaning of Chinese characters and words based on previous knowledge of Chinese, but that’s a different topic entirely). In short, all words have to be learnt from scratch.

Up until now, I’ve only discussed difficulties, so what is it that makes Chinese easier than most people think? Grammar. I think I can safely say that even though I cannot use all of it, I have already studied most of the grammar necessary to speak or read Chinese. If we compare this to French or German, Chinese grammar is extraordinarily simple. Please don’t get me wrong here, Chinese grammar is flexible and dynamic, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s inferior or anything, but it’s a lot easier to learn than any other language I’ve tried.

Most importantly, there are no inflections. A verb in the present, past or future looks exactly the same (even though it takes different auxiliary verbs, just as in English), number (i.e. singular or plural) does not affect other words, and there’s no gender to take into consideration. In addition to this, the separation between different parts of speech isn’t very distinct; most words can function as verbs, nouns or adjectives without any transformation whatsoever. Thus, new vocabulary is flexible and can be used in a variety of situations. This especially useful for understanding written Chinese.

Now, please form a mental picture of the reverse situation; somebody with Chinese as their native language trying to learn English (or French or German). First, they need to construct a completely new way of thinking about time, it becomes important when something happens for how you are going to say it (and some of the tenses in English are far from easy), you have to inflect verbs depending on the person(s) performing the action, parts of speech are clearly delimited and sometimes a verb and its associated adjective/noun are completely different. And not only do you have to learn when to use these different inflections and variants of words, but you have to learn to use them instantly, in the flow of normal speech. This challenge seems far more daunting than my own approach to Chinese.

Conclusively, I don’t mean to imply that Chinese is easy to learn, but it’s certainly not difficult in the way that most people I talk with assume. It requires an awful lot of time to learn to read and write Chinese, but if I would have ignored the written language and only focused on speaking, I’m sure my spoken Mandarin would be very, very good by now. As it is, I think I’ve come pretty far in the limited time I’ve had at my disposal, much longer than I think I would have if I were a Chinese exchange student coming to Sweden to study Swedish. Learning Chinese takes diligent studying over a long period of time, but it isn’t as hard as it might seem.

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There are several theories out there describing how to best learn a foreign language (or indeed to learn anything), and one of them promulgated by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He views the learning situation as a sort of construction project, where the teacher uses scaffolding to create support for a student to attain ever higher levels of ability. When the student can stand alone on a new level, the scaffolding is simply moved higher up the planned tower of knowledge. The construction work should then be focused on the appropriate level, meaning that it shouldn’t be too easy (in which case the student already know what is taught and doesn’t need scaffolding)  and not too difficult (because scaffolding can only reach to certain height). The question this gives rise to is of course what is too difficult and what is too easy; what level of scaffolding is appropriate?

I have studied at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages for two weeks now (this is the third week), and I know for sure that the class I attended in the beginning was too easy. Of course, it depends on what “too easy” means, but in this case I mean that I felt we spent too much time in class on things I already knew. I had the feeling that I could handle more difficult topics.

Thus, I resolved to check what possibilities there were to alter my learning environment. It turned out I had two choices, either a slightly more difficult class (same book, but eight chapters further on) or a class twice as difficult (different series, but at least two books ahead). I didn’t need to think for long before deciding that the slightly more difficult one was out of the question, because it wouldn’t make any significant difference. So, how about the significantly more difficult class?

Last Thursday and Friday, I attended both classes to try and see if it would at all be possible to survive on this higher altitude. The answer was a hesitant yes, I would probably survive, although the book they use is book five in a series I’ve only managed to finish book three (which alone took us one semester in Xinzhu). Monday through Wednesday, the responsible teacher is different and so is the text book, which is even more difficult than the one used Thursday and Friday. Basically, it’s a book about Chinese journalism and reading newspapers in Chinese, something I predicted that I would do in five months, not now.Today, I talked with the teacher and attended a two hour class. It was great!

Apart from this, I also have six hours of supplementary classes: two hours calligraphy writing, two hours Taiwanese and two hours media (listening to music, watching films and so forth). I don’t know very much about these classes yet, but I hope they will be interesting rather than useful. To be honest, I don’t need more subjects which require me to study diligently.

So why kamikaze? Because this isn’t simply immersion, this is like a combat diver attacking an aircraft carrier, but having the air tank removed and equipped only with a spoon to carve through the one-foot-thick steel hull. Perhaps it’s impossible to get all the way through, but I’ll be really good at holding my breath and carving when this semester comes to an end, believe me. In more practical terms it will mean that I have to study a lot. And I mean a lot, even compared to what I normally consider as a lot. To give you some sort of idea, we are currently studying a one-page article which I needed to look up 124 words in order to fully understand (I assume that we will finish it in three lessons or so). In class, I understand about 90 % of what the teacher says, slightly less of what my classmates say, but that’s okay.

This kind of situation might ring a bell for some of my more devoted readers, mainly because of what I wrote after my first language lesson last year. In that class, I not only managed to survive, but in the end I thrived (my score was 94/100, I learned today). The scaffolding of my Chinese pagoda might be reaching to the stars and with crossbeams few and far between, but I’m quite confident that I can negotiate my way upwards nonetheless. Banzai!

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Although I can’t say that I’m a veteran, I’ve done some travelling in countries which language I’ve studied in school, namely France and the Republic of China. Since Chinese is what I’m focusing on right now, that’s where the main focus of this short article will be. I’ve heard many people say that a good way of learning a language is to travel, and I’ll do my best to explain why I think this is wrong in at least one important way. Travelling is a way of learning a language, but not in the way most people think. Of course, I realise that all learners aren’t one and the same, but I do think that what I’m going to say is true in a more general sense.

What has to be realised at first is that learning a language is an extremely time-consuming project. There are thousands upon thousands of words to learn and numerous grammatical points to understand. There are two ways of learning this, either one can grow up in an environment where the language is spoken or one can study it in school. There are ways of mixing these two, such as playing computer games or watching TV in the target language, but I’m making this distinction in order to simplify things.

Travelling is a very bad environment for learning large volumes of vocabulary (which I consider the most important thing when learning a foreign language), because that requires revision and planned studying to be effective. Of course, when travelling, one will pick up words here and there, but considering the time spent, it’s a very ineffective way of expanding vocabulary. When it comes to a language such as Chinese, the situation becomes even worse, because hearing a word is simply not enough to learn it (even though I can distinguish the various tones in Mandarin, it’s still very hard to learn words only by listening).

So, what use is travelling when learning a new language? I’d say that the three most prominent advantages are self-confidence, cultural context and listening ability. First, having learnt a language in school, it’s something quite different to actually use it to communicate. After the first threshold is passed, one’s self-esteem grows for almost every conversation. The language learnt actually works and people can understand what is said. This feeling is wonderful and is perhaps the most important thing with travelling. Perhaps there is a nagging feeling in the back one’s head that asks if this language is real or just made up in the classroom. Travelling kills that thought instantly, regardless of how weak it was from the start.

Second, travelling in a the native country of a language allows one to pick up lots of things that’s impossible to learn in a classroom. Even though it’s possible to know a vast amount of words, no text book will teach in what situations certain words are really used and what they mean. To do this, it’s necessary to hear those words time and again in different contexts. Only then can the words truly be understood. In addition to this, language and culture are sometimes highly integrated. People in the street don’t simply speak English with Chinese words, they speak real Chinese. Everyday conversation translated into English would seem extremely odd in England or the United States, because people think and talk differently (what I’m trying to say here is that even the content of a conversation might differ between languages). Travelling around and meeting a lot of people is probably the only way of acquiring knowledge like this.

Third, listening ability is very important when travelling, especially if one doesn’t share another language with people in the country. When I do things here in Taiwan, almost no one understands English, which means that I’ve no choice but to rely on my Chinese. If somebody says something to me, I can’t always nod and smile, I actually have to understand what is said in order to buy food, find my way and so forth. It makes many conversations to miniature listening ability exams, and, as everybody knows, practise makes perfect. Understanding the locally-flavoured Chinese is extremely hard the first time, but it becomes more manageable for every day. It’s important to hear as many people speak as possible, because they have different voices, difference dialects and different ways of expressing themselves.If travelling is to expensive or impractical, watching TV might be a good substitute.

When it comes to actual language usage, travelling makes one able to use what has been learnt in school. Perhaps one’s knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is great on tests and so forth, but being required to use them in a real context is a marvellous way of truly learning. Don’t expect to learn many new parts of a language when travelling, but consider the positive effects of mastering what you already know, and, in addition to this, picking up useful information about how words are actually used within the culture. Travelling will make you improve a lot, but it’ll do it through strengthening what is already there, rather than expanding into new territories. So, in a sense, one can learn a language by travelling, but not without prior diligent study.

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