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Hacking Chinese

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I’m a creative person. To be happy in the long term, I need (at least) four things: mental stimulation, social interaction, physical challenges and creative input/output. If any of these are running low for a long period of time, I will feel it in some way. Being enrolled in a master’s degree program here in Taiwan, I have the first aspect above pretty much covered; just surviving my courses is mental stimulation enough to kill a small cow. Even though my social situation leaves some things to wish for (Zoe is 8361 kilometres away, and the number is roughly as large for family and friends), it still works fairly well. When it comes to physical activity, I’ve practised gymnastics this semester than ever before and I enjoy it immensely.

When it comes to creativity, however, I have felt a shortage building up since I came to Taiwan. In Sweden, I have very creative friends and play or write role-playing games regularly, which means that the default creativity input/output is significantly above zero. In Taiwan, the situation is completely different. My only significant creative output comes from more light-hearted and relaxed articles (such as the April Fool’s article last month) and some creative writing in Chinese. I have also written several hundred pages of text related to Hacking Chinese, but that doesn’t really count as creative writing. Creative input has been slightly better since I keep reading quite a lot of novels, mostly in Chinese, but output remains dismally low.

The problem

Obviously, something needs to be done about this. I feel a growing need to write freely about whatever I feel like writing about, without caring about what anybody else thinks about it, otherwise it will start creeping into my academic work (the detailed lesson plans I handed in last semester contained vampires, Hitler and fireworks, but I stopped short of including all three in the same setting).

The problem is that most of my current projects, especially my novel, takes quite a lot of time to work on, it’s not something I can pick up for half an hour and write a paragraph or two, it requires me to focus deeply. If I were in the habit of writing daily, it would be fine, but I don’t have time to do that. I always feel like I have a thousand other things to do. At this pace, I will never finish, not to mention publish, any novel. I can’t postpone my creative output forever. Let’s accept it, I will always be busy, I don’t need fewer things to do, I need a way of being able to write creatively even while I’m busy.

Enter: Creative Saturdays

To alleviate this problem, I intend to try something I’ve chosen to call creative Saturdays. It doesn’t mean that I will only spend my time doing creative things once a week, it means that I will prohibit myself from doing certain non-creative things on Saturdays. If I have already decided that I’m not going to study, review vocabulary, write on a paper or prepare next weeks classes, I might free up enough time and energy to actually get something else done. Perhaps I will be able to get rid of the feeling that I should actually be doing something else.

Here’s a list of things I won’t do on Saturdays:

  • Study Chinese in any way
  • Prepare for tests, reports or similar
  • Do any kind of homework
  • Manage the Hacking Chinese website
  • Reply to or discuss any of the above

So, what will I do instead? Well, they say the sky is the limit, so I suppose anything is possible, but here are a few things that I can say right away that I want to do more:

  • Write short stories (Swedish, English or Chinese)
  • Finish the draft of my novel (Swedish)
  • Plan the next novel (Swedish or English)
  • Write on the Hacking Chinese e-book(s) (English)
  • Write articles on this website (English)
  • Read more fiction (Chinese)

Conclusion

Will this work? Will the fact that I have forbidden myself from doing the things in the first list above actually help me create more? I don’t know. Today is the first creative Saturday and I haven’t done very much yet apart from writing this article, playing some games online, read about 50 pages in the novel I’m reading and planning an article about gymnastics. I still have almost 12 hours left before going to bed. I probably won’t have reached the sky by then, but I should at least be on my way!

 

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Even though only little more than a month has passed since the previous report,  enough has happened to motivate a new article. The previous post dealt with my Chinese ability in general terms and also more specifically about listening ability. I concluded that my ability in general is probably good enough to survive the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in. I also lamented the fact that spoken Chinese is much more context-based than any other language I’ve studied, which makes listening something of a problem sometimes. This time I will talk about pronunciation.

Attitude and pronunciation

I regularly ask people I speak with to offer suggestions for how to improve my pronunciation and I have done so since I first started learning. Often, these questions are met by surprise: “Why do you want to improve your pronunciation, it’s already quite good!” The answer is complex and something I plan to write more about later on Hacking Chinese, but it’s precisely because I have this attitude that I have managed to acquire the pronunciation I have now. If I were content with being better than the average foreigner, I could have stopped focusing on pronunciation years ago. The road to good pronunciation is very long and being complacent certainly doesn’t help. Thus, I still think I need to improve and that’s what this article is be about.

A question of tones

In general, I think my pronunciation of initials, medials and finals is pretty good. I don’t want to say that it’s perfect, but it’s definitely good enough for teaching Chinese to students. Even though I’ve tried, I haven’t found any serious problems in this area for a couple of years, so I don’t think this is something I need to improve much.

Tones are different, though. I don’t think I have much problems when pronouncing them individually or in isolated words, but as soon as words are connected into longer sentences and intonation starts being important, I make several small but significant mistakes. During this semester, I’ve asked a number of people to pay attention to my pronunciation (thanks to those who have helped, you know who you are). I have also recorded my own speaking to analyse myself. The native speakers may have used different words to describe these problems, but in essence, they mostly agree on the below analysis. I do, too.

Second tone, fourth tone and pitch range

In general, my tones are correct insofar as the direction is correct (second tone rises, fourth tone falls), but the distinction isn’t clear enough. Occasionally, both these tones are incomplete and usually too low. There are some other, minor problems, but I would say the main problem is pitch range. Since I seem to speak Chinese with a deeper voice than I speak English or Swedish, the pitch range becomes too narrow.

The suggested solution looks as follows:

  1. Prolong second tones. Since the direction is already correct, making the tone longer will ensure that it goes high enough as well. Once I’m used to that, it should be easier to keep the tone height while decreasing the time it takes to get there. Right now it feels a bit uncomfortable, but I’ve checked with a few people and they think the new, higher version sounds better.
  2. Modifying the onset of the fourth tone. Right now, the general contour is correct (falling), but the fall is a bit abrupt. If I want to speak clearly to allow others to master tones as will, I should mark the beginning of the fourth tone better. See the graphs below.
  3. Paying more attention to the third tone. In theory and most of the time when I speak, I pronounce it correctly, but I sometimes slip. This is probably best remedied through more practice. My best performance here is good enough, so it’s mostly a matter of making sure my normal performance approaches my best performance.

The T4 to the left is from a tone reference chart and is a model T4 (female speaker, which explains the higher pitch in general). The T4 to the right is my own normal T4. Both pitch contours were drawn using Praat. Note that I lack the plateau in the onset (red ellipse).

Proposed line of attack

Changing pronunciation in general is hard, changing pitch range when you speak is several magnitudes harder. People tend to identify themselves with their own voices, so changing something as basic as pitch range requires time and courage. I’ll simply have to accept that this will take some work and time. I don’t doubt that it can be done, though. my plan is roughly as follows, although it isn’t really serial (I won’t wait until step one is entirely completed before attempting step two and so on).

  1. Individual syllables
  2. Disyllabic words
  3. Sentences
  4. Natural speech

The goal is to practice each step until it feels natural. Changing natural speech will be very hard indeed, so I’ll try to build up to it slowly, making sure I’ve implemented the above changes in a controlled environment. I’ll have several native speakers helping me, so I’m sure I will be just fine.

Benchmarking

Before I started analysing the problem(s) in detail, I did a recording with me reading an article. It’s roughly three minutes long and even if it isn’t the best I can do (I speak much better than I read), I still think it’s fairly representative of my pronunciation in general. I’ll leave that article alone for at least a month or two until I feel that I have actually achieved something. Then I’ll read it again and see if I have really achieved something or not. I used Praat to check some passages of that article, but tones in connected speech are so complex that I think that seeing the pitch contour doesn’t help much. In this case, I’ll rely on competent native speakers instead.

Please help

Changing pronunciation like this is difficult in many ways, but one of the hardest parts is staying focused. Naturally, I can’t spend all my energy thinking about tones, because that will make communication awkward. However, it would be very nice indeed if people who speak with me regularly remind me of this. As you well know, I don’t mind being corrected, indeed, it’s an essential part of learning. With your help, I should be able to correct these problems!

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I’m now five weeks into the Teaching Chinese as a Second Language MA program at NTNU in Taipei. This post is mostly about my own language learning, but will not follow the stricter style of the previous proficiency reports (scroll down). Since I left Taiwan last time in 2010, my goal has been to learn Chinese to a level where I can survive a master’s degree about Chinese taught in Chinese. Since this is exactly what I’m doing at the moment, even though I might not be in a position to say anything with certainty, I can still comment on the current situation and my progress towards that goal. In short, is my Chinese good enough?

The academic setting

The short answer is “yes”. I can read most textbooks we have without using a dictionary and I can follow along lectures without too much trouble. It requires some effort to produce formally correct Chinese and I still need help with that, but I very seldom encounter situations where I can’t express what I want. I feel confident enough to speak up in class, ask questions and discuss. This was quite nervous at first, considering that two thirds of of the class consists of native speakers.

Written Chinese is as yet an unknown area since I haven’t handed in any written reports yet. However, I’m confident that this will not be a big problem considering that my reading and writing has always been stronger than my listening and speaking. I will need help, I will need corrections and I will need lots of time to think, draft and revise,   but I’m sure I can produce acceptable, formal Chinese. Writing a complete master thesis is another matter, but I still have at least a year before I need to start thinking about that and I have lots of opportunities to learn before then.

The social setting

Speaking has stopped being a problem entirely, at least subjectively and in comparison with other areas. I can talk with someone for hours without feeling tired or without stumbling too much. Sure, I might not get all collocations right and I still make other types of mistakes now and then, but I’m usually able to correct myself. This is what spoken Chinese has felt like for some time now, so that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

Instead, I’m going to talk about context. I’ve known for a long time that context is important in Chinese, but it has only recently dawned on me how immensely important context is for understanding spoken Chinese. At first, I thought my experience might just be due to the fact that I was less familiar with Chinese than Swedish, English or French, but I’m now convinced that this is not the case. Understanding spoken Chinese is extremely dependent on context because of the vast number of homonyms or near-homonyms (words that are pronounced the same way or almost the same way).

The dreaded one-line question

This has lead to some serious frustration recently. Let me give you an example. As I said above, I can listen to a three-hour lecture about Chinese phonetics and understand 100% of what’s being said (although I might not know all individual words, I can extrapolate what I miss). However, when a friend asks me if we have midnight sun in Sweden, for instance, I sometimes need to hear it twice before I understand.

The problem isn’t that I don’t know these words. I do. I have known them for many years. It’s not a question of vocabulary. Instead, it’s the complete lack of context. Perhaps we’re having dinner with a few other people and people are talking about some other topic when someone suddenly thinks about something else they’d like to ask me. If it’s a short question and there is no context, I often fail to understand the first time. This almost never happens in English or even French (I should point out that in general, my Chinese is much better than my French). Also, as soon as I know the topic, I have no problem understanding much more complex sentences about that or related topics. Also, I would consider these questions trivial if put in writing.

A difference between languages

Someone (can’t remember who) made an excellent point illustrating this dependence on context. If you walk up to someone in an English-speaking country and, without warning, say the name of a technical term or chemical substance, the person is very likely to hear what you say, provided he knows what the word means in the first place. This isn’t necessarily true in Chinese, not even for native speakers, provided that the word is a fairly short compound. Again, this is because Chinese has very few syllables compared to English. I have no actual proof for that this causes the language to be more context-based, but it seems the natural conclusion to draw and also matches experience. As far as I know, there have been no scientific experiments conducted on no-context utterances, but let me know if you know of any.

Naturally, this doesn’t meant that native speakers can’t handle the basic communication situations I described above. The reason I fail to understand sometimes is partly due to external factors (noise, music, distance), but it’s also because of a lack of listening speed. In short, I don’t associate sounds with words quickly enough (see this article on Hacking Chinese for more about this). This might seem odd considering that I have heard many of these words hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times and can use them fluently in my sleep, but I still think it is the reason I don’t understand what’s being said. There is a significant difference between “very fast” and “native” in this case.

I’m not complaining, but I do feel frustrated sometimes

Unfortunately, this means that there isn’t much I can do apart from listening to more Chinese, which seems to be the remedy for most language problems I have. Still, this is okay, because all things considered, this is a very minor problem. I can still communicate without too much trouble with most people I meet. I can read and understand textbooks about linguistics, phonetics and teaching methods with some degree of confidence. I can talk about these topics and I can understand when others discuss them. I don’t complain, but I do feel frustrated sometimes.

Perhaps it’s partially a matter of pride. Not understanding a very basic question will lead people to believe that I can’t speak Chinese or at least can’t speak it very well. Considering that I’ve spent some serious time learning to speak Chinese and consider the endeavour to be a success on the whole, this feels a bit bad. However, it’s also just a matter of frustration arising from the fact that I know that this problem raises a barrier between me and some native speakers. Of course, people who know me know that they can mostly treat me as a native speaker in dialogue about a specific topic, but realising that takes much longer if basic communication sometimes fails.

In short, this will lead people to underestimate my language ability, which is about more than just hurt pride since it does influence interaction with these people.

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I have now striven for the goals I set up in January for almost five months. Even though I intended to study according to those goals until September, two things have made me change my mind:

  1. I don’t feel like keeping track of how much I study in such detail
  2. There is no way I will accomplish all the goals, some winnowing is needed

I will revise the goals and limit them to things that I can actually accomplish before the summer is over. If I don’t revise the goals, I run the risk of missing some goals that I deem more important than others. Because to be honest, even if I can improve my individual character knowledge from 4675 to over 5000 by spending a dozen hours or so, there are other things which are more important.

What I have done

Goals are dynamic, living creatures that need to adapt or face extinction. This is one of the major insights I’ve had into goal management over the years. No system is perfect and each system needs to either change or collapse. Sticking to goals that are no longer valid or relevant isn’t only stubborn, it’s stupid as well. I haven’t reached all the goals I set for myself, but I’ll show you briefly what those goals helped me achieve from February to the beginning of June:

  • Vocabulary work: 157 hours (~1.3 hour per day)
  • Writing practice: 128 hours (~1.1 hour per day)
  • Hand-writing: 20 hours
  • Reading: 93 hours (~0.8 hours per day)
  • Listening: 193 hours (~1.6 hours per day)
  • Other studying: 151 hours (~1.3 hours per day)
  • Hacking Chinese: 178 hours (~1.5 hours per day)
  • Learning 道德經: 18 hours
  • Administration: 62 hours (~0.5 hours per day)
  • Total: 1000 hours (~8.4 hours per day)

One thousand hours in little more than four months can’t be considered a failure. Sure, I spent time with other things than I thought I would and i haven’t completed even half the goals I specified, but I have still studied and learnt a lot. Note also that some aspects of learning haven’t been included, such as speaking and background listening. Anyway, the point here was to show that even if I now will abandon most of the goals, I don’t want to give people the impression that I consider these goals to be failures. They have served their purpose and it’s time to move on.

New goals to be achieved before September

This list of goals is much more limited and contains several items I consider very important (or essential) if I’m going to survive a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese. Therefore, these goals aren’t just guidelines, some of them are indeed necessary. I need to spend time with Hacking Chinese now if I intend to be able to post articles even if I have no time to write new articles during by first semester, for instance – 未雨綢繆. The goals are as follows:

  • Spend 60 hours practising handwriting (I need this, badly)
  • Spend 120 hours reading any material (for speed and vocabulary)
  • Memorize 道經 (that’s the first half of 道德經)
  • Study 漢語語法 (a comprehensive grammar handbook, mainly for vocabulary and reading practice)
  • Study The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (I need a broader base)
  • Write 27 articles for Hacking Chinese (these will last until Christmas or thereabout)
  • Write some kind of Hacking Chinese book (type yet undetermined)

Why count time for the first two goals? Because I don’t write anything by hand if I don’t force myself to. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s just that I don’t do it. Counting how much time I have spent and see the accumulated hours rising (I use poker chips to represent hours) is good for motivation. I read even if not prompted, but much less than two hours per day. Note that this goal overlaps with the grammar reading.

Hacking Chinese means quite a lot to me and I don’t want the project to die simply because my mind is otherwise occupied. My plan is to write enough articles to allow me to last until January next year. Of course, I don’t think I will be so busy that I can’t write anything at all, but I don’t want to feel the pressure to have to write articles. The same goes for the book , which is okay to write now when I have time, but might be trickier to write later.

That’s about it, really, time to get started!

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I’m happy to announce that the website is now back again after a few week’s downtime because of a server crash. I think everything should be back to normal, but if you find something that doesn’t work, please let me know. There are some things I know aren’t working or is still missing:

  • Pictures from Taiwan are available, but it will take some time to restore the folder category, so old posts might lack pictures
  • Pictures taken after I came back from Taiwan might be lost (fortunately not that many)
  • Comments to posts made after 2012-02-28 are definitely lost
  • The Chinese blog I launched is completely lost, but fortunately all articles exist elsewhere

When both Snigel.nu and Hacking Chinese went down, it felt like the latter was the more important, simply because it’s something I’ve invented hundreds of hours in recently, whereas this website is perhaps more important in the long run. I didn’t realise fully how much it mattered until I saw it online again earlier today. When Hacking Chinese went online again  after the crash, I felt relieved, but when Snigel.nu came online again earlier today, I felt happy.

 

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I haven’t written anything about learning Chinese for quite a while now, the previous proficiency report was written almost nine months ago. This is partly because I’ve been busy writing about how to learn Chinese. Although I have been studying Chinese on my own during this time, it hasn’t been the main focus in my life. Still, I have made considerably progress, even though much remains to learn.

In this post I will take the opportunity both to evaluate my own learning and plan ahead. I need more direction when studying and writing about that is one important step along the way. As usual, I will divide the post into several parts, but I will add two new areas, apart from the standard writing, reading, speaking and listening, namely meta-knowledge and vocabulary. Let’s remind ourselves of my overall goal first, though.

Overall learning goal: I want to take my Chinese to a level where I can manage an MA in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, taught in Chinese for Chinese-speaking students, without dying. This mostly involves being able to swallow academic literature at a reasonable pace, being able to understand fast-paced, formal spoken Chinese, as well as being able to write formal Chinese with more fluency.

Speaking

Reiterating what I said last time, I’ve spoken a lot more Chinese in Sweden than I ever thought I would, which is really good. I have improved my pronunciation, fluency and accuracy.

My pronunciation will probably never be perfect, but I feel that it’s getting quite good, at least when I have time to think (as when reading). What I mean is that I know how to pronounce Chinese really well, but I haven’t had enough practice to always speak that well. I don’t think there are many areas where I’m unable to pronounce things close to perfectly in a controlled situation.

I feel no big difference regarding fluency, although I no longer feel that it’s very taxing to speak Chinese for long stretches of time. I might also be able to discuss more complex topics, but having to clear benchmark it’s hard to say.

I think my main problem is accuracy. I can already make myself understood in most situations and I can do so with reasonably fluency, but I don’t always get it right grammatically. I find that this problem just grows bigger and bigger the more I explore it. At an advanced level, it becomes very clear that Chinese and English/Swedish are truly different languages.

The plan: I think I need to improve all the three areas I mention above, but some of them I do naturally without trying too much. Fluency will come automatically simply by speaking more. Pronunciation will slowly improve considering that I pay quite a lot of attention to how I speak even when I chat informally with friends. However, I do need to focus on pronunciation exclusively now and then to improve. Reading and recording texts and sending them to native speakers for correction would be a good idea. The problem of accuracy is more tricky, but can partly be solved in the same manner. In addition to recording my own speech, I can also ask people in my surrounding to pay more attention to how I speak and mistakes I make. I need this kind of negative feedback since it’s impossible for me to figure out these things on my own. So, here’s a distilled version of the plan:

  • Keep talking Chinese focusing on pronunciation
  • Record texts and have them corrected
  • Ask people to pay closer attention and correct mistakes

Listening

Even though I feel like I haven’t improved much since last year, I really think that I have. Last time I wrote that one tricky part was listening to a group of native speakers chatting and participate in that conversation. I could do that before as well, but now I feel that I can follow almost any conversation if I really pay attention. I feel less like the stupid foreigner and more like a part of the group. There might be other things that set me aside, but I do feel that listening ability is becoming less and less of a problem.

This, however, doesn’t include formal Chinese. I haven’t practised listening to news broadcasts nearly as much as I should. I’m mostly listening in a friendly environment and if I really don’t understand something, I can usually ask and have someone repeat it. If I want to achieve my overall learning goal, I need to be proficient enough to listen to formal Chinese and be able to follow along without too much trouble.

The plan: I have said many times that the key to listening ability is to listen more, quantity is king. Still, I haven’t listened to that much spoken Chinese recently, apart from what I get naturally by speaking Chinese with friends. I need to enter the daunting jungle of more formal spoken Chinese, such as that being used in news broadcasts and audio books. There is no shortcut here, but I have several ideas on how to make this more interesting or more connected with other things I’m learning.

  • Listen to radio broadcasts more, including formal Chinese
  • Devise exercises or tasks that connects listening to other areas

Writing

As usual, it’s tricky for me to compare articles I’ve written myself, but I can compare the content. A year ago, I wrote mostly about things that happened in my life, about books I read or certain ideas I wanted to express. Recently, I’ve spent a lot more time translating from English or Swedish to Chinese. I believe this is better practice because it forces me to express certain things that might be difficult (if I use my own words, I can change the content to fit my language ability).

Translating to Chinese has lead me to discover that Chinese is quite hard to master if accuracy is what counts. There are so many things I don’t know, so many words that might mean the right thing but cannot be used in such and such a situation. Still, I do think that this is extremely good and I intend to continue doing so. If you want to check how I’m doing, check out my Chinese blog.

The plan: The problem I would face right now if I were to attempt studying on an advanced level in a Chinese-speaking environment is two-fold: handwriting and formal Chinese. I think the translation will help me to acquire a more formal language and also express more complex and difficult topics, compared with writing diary entries and commenting on current events. I think I should diversify the sources a bit, including areas that lie close to what I would like to study in the future.

Handwriting does itself contain two problems. If I want to teach Chinese professionally, I need to be able to write Chinese more accurately and I need to be able to actively recall a lot more characters. I also must learn more character parts and etymology. In order to survive courses taught in Chinese, I also need to be able to write Chinese fluently by hand. I can’t do that now. I can recognise around four thousand characters, but I can write approximately half of them. That’s not good enough. Also, some characters require time before I recall how to write them. If I’m going to sit exams in Chinese, I have to be able to write without stopping to think too much on how to write any given character. Thus, more handwriting!

  • Deliberately focus on understanding character parts and etymology
  • Spend more time writing by hand, regardless of the content

Reading

Last time, I had just finished my first novel in Chinese. Since then, I’ve read several, all of them intended for adults and some with quite complex (although familiar) content. I feel that my reading ability is steadily increasing and I seldom come across things I don’t understand at all. I haven’t found a good way to measure reading speed, but I’m slowly beginning to get the hang of reading more quickly.

The plan: I can identify two problems with reading. First, I need to be able to read advanced texts related to my subjects, i.e. teaching and Chinese. I should start reading handbooks, articles and papers in Chinese about learning Chinese as a second language. I’m going to need that knowledge later and the content might prove interesting as well. Second, I need to improve reading speed. This just involves reading and reading a lot, it doesn’t really matter what it is. Increasing the amount of Chinese I’m exposed to is also a good idea in general, so I think I should go for a mix between difficult texts to learn more useful vocabulary and how to parse more complex sentences, and easier texts simply for quantity and strengthening feeling for grammar and word usage.

  • Read difficult articles in topics related to teaching and/or Chinese
  • Read as much as possible on any level and of any kind

Vocabulary

I’ve decided to separate vocabulary from the rest of this post simply because it’s relevant for all four of them and doesn’t belong simply to reading, where it was somewhat arbitrarily put before. I maintain that vocabulary is the single most important aspect of language learning, even at quite an advanced level. I still stumble upon fairly commons words I don’t know, even though they become more and more infrequent. There is also a plethora of more formal words I still need to learn, not least words related to education science and applied linguistics.

I seem to keep on learning words even though I often say that I probably will focus less on vocabulary. Last year, I had 12 500 words in my Anki deck. Now I have close to 16 500, which is an increase of 4000 words in nine months, resulting in about fifteen words per day. Not bad. Consider also that I have learnt how to write most simplified characters and that I also have a deck consisting of the 500 most irregular or special simplified characters.

The plan: I really don’t think more words is a reasonable goal to pursue, but I really like learning/knowing words, so I seem stuck with that. I should try to focus my learning more in the direction I want to go later, so reading difficult texts as I described above and extracting relevant vocabulary seems like a good idea indeed. Apart from that, I need to focus more on the words I’ve already learnt, which is tied to what I said about accuracy above. I know lots of words, but I need to understand better how to use them.

  • Keep on learning words as long as it is fun
  • Learn more advanced vocabulary in relevant areas
  • Focus on word usage more than mere recall

Meta-knowledge

I’ve always been a person who values meta-knowledge. I like to understand what I’m doing and I want to understand the processes involved. Simply knowing Chinese very well is not enough. Basically, the knowledge I strive for can be divided into two parts: knowledge about learning and knowledge about Chinese.

Knowledge about learning involves reading more scientific writing about second language acquisition and trying to find ways to apply this to Chinese. Knowledge about Chinese involves theoretical knowledge about etymology, phonology, semantics, grammar and many other things. I know quite a lot already, but far from enough.

The plan: My career is in one way or another based on knowing Chinese quite well, but it’s also based on being able to express that knowledge. Increasing my knowledge about Chinese is at least part reflected in my wish to learn more about characters, but it’s about more than that. I need to read more scientific articles and books. The same is true for knowledge about learning.

  • Read books about second language acquisition
  • Read scientific material about the Chinese language
  • Practice expressing knowledge about grammar, phonology, characters, etc.

Conclusion

This post ended up being horrendously long-winded, but I felt that I needed to talk through what I have to do if I’m going to reach my goal. I have few people in my vicinity who want to or is able to listen to and understand what I’ve written here. I don’t expect anyone to have read this far, but if you really have and feel that you have something to contribute or point out, feel free to leave a comment!

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Last autumn, I started working on a project called Hacking Chinese. I did this because I thought there were lots of websites and books teaching Chinese, but none that in detailed described how to learn the language. Having studied Chinese for about four years, I’ve learnt some tricks to make things easier and the goal with Hacking Chinese is to help other people learn Chinese (and other languages) more easily and avoid both the mistakes I’ve made myself and the mistakes I’ve seen other people make.

I need your help

My long-term goal is to write a book about learning Chinese, but in the near future, my main goal is to make the website as useful as possible. Every article on the website will always remain free, so I’m only asking you to help people help themselves. If you know someone who might be interested in or is currently studying Chinese, please let them know about Hacking Chinese!

There are many ways you can help me, regardless of if you study Chinese or not. Remember, the website is about learning languages in general as well, so if you study English, Japanese or Spanish, I promise that about 95% of the content will be useful anyway. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Tell a friend who is into Chinese (or languages)  in some way
  2. Tell your teacher who teaches Chinese (or another language)
  3. “Like” Hacking Chinese on Facebook
  4. “Like” articles I’ve written to spread the word
  5. Post questions, comments or give feedback
  6. Link to Hacking Chinese from your website
  7. Link to Hacking Chinese on relevant forums

I’ve invested a lot of time in this project and I hope that people will benefit from it. If you could help me with only one of the above, I would be much obliged. I’m also deeply indebted to people who have helped me so far. I wouldn’t have been able to come this far without you; I won’t get much further alone either. If you want to know more about Hacking Chinese, please read on. This is copies from the About page.

Hacking Chinese? Hacking? Chinese?

“Hacking” means to gain access to hidden information using a skilled and sometimes secretive method. The ideas shared on this website aren’t secrets as such, but since I find that very few people indeed speak about them, in some cases they might as well have been highly guarded state secrets. To learn Chinese, you need to to unlock and unveil the language and understand how it works, and you need to know how you can do this in a skilled way. In other words, you need to hack it!

To the outsider, “Chinese” might seem like a straightforward term. It isn’t. However, what I mean here is simple enough: I mean all aspects of modern Chinese as it’s spoken, used, studied or otherwise exists in the world today. Most of the articles will be applicable to learning languages in general, others will even be relevant for completely different subjects. As for spoken Chinese, I’m going to focus exclusively on Mandarin, but if you for some reason want to learn another dialect, I can assure you that over 95% of the articles are still relevant.

Opening doors rather than showing the correct way

The primary goal with Hacking Chinese is not to tell you the ultimate solution to all language learning problems, because it’s naive to think that there is such a thing. Research and science might lend credibility to certain methods, but even so, students and their learning environments differ wildly across space and time. My mission is to open as many doors as I can to show you a multitude of ways to reach efficient learning, but it will be up to you to walk the roads behind those doors. Only you know if a road suits you or not.

Hacking Chinese is for everyone

This website is meant for anyone who is interested in learning Chinese, regardless if you haven’t started yet or if you have been studying for ten years, if you study a few hours every week in your home country or if you study full-time living in China, if you study because you think Chinese is the most interesting language in the world or if you study because circumstances force you to do so. Naturally, different sections will be relevant for different groups, but I’m sure that you find many articles of interest regardless of who you are.

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This is the fifth of the posts in which I explain and motivate the items on my 101-in-1001 list. The list itself can be viewed here, where you can also find a list of all posts related to the list. If you want to follow my progress in more detail, you should check my profile page at the Day Zero Project.

Have a total of at least 120 academic credits in Chinese

This goal is mostly a question of bureaucracy; I need to convert the Chinese I know to the Swedish university system. 120 credits equals two years of pure Chinese, which is enough to start a master’s degree course if I want to. I plan to do this during the spring of 2011. I might have to learn some simplified characters, but I should do that anyway (see below).

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 100 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Write 100 000 characters worth of blog entries in Chinese

I need to practice writing. Quantity is king here, even though I want to be corrected as much as possible as well. I need to get into the habit of writing more Chinese. 100 000 characters is a lot, around 100 major entries.

Perceived difficulty: 7/10
Estimated time needed: 200 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Launch HackingChinese.com and publish at least 50 articles

This is my major project to demystify learning Chinese. I think there is a lot to talk about and I think there are lots of people who are willing to listen. The project is not official yet, but as you can see if you care enough to enter the URL, the website is up and running. Comments are appreciated! At the moment, I have 16 articles, but the official launch date is still quite far away.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 40 hours
Progress so far: 15%

Have one month with over 5000 unique visitors to HackingChinese.com

Since I plan to write a book and to at least try to sell it, I want to build a substantial community. 5000 unique visitors is a very arbitrary number, I know, and I have no way of assessing how difficult it will be. The point is that I want to make a conscious effort to reach many people and force myself to read and understand how website communities and traffic works.

Perceived difficulty: ?/10
Estimated time needed: ? hours
Progress so far: 0%

Write a book about learning Chinese

A book is not the end result of the above-mentioned project, but it is a significant milestone. I want to summarise and present everything I’ve come to understand about learning Chinese over the past few years and present it as a book. Currently, there is a huge list of things I want to include, but when Hacknig Chinese is up and running properly, I will start working on the book.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 200 hours
Progress so far: 5%

Read ten university level textbooks in Chinese

My goal is to bring my Chinese to a level where I can take a master’s degree in Taiwan and survive the courses. This means I will have to get used to reading academic material, so reading ten textbooks will be an important step. I haven’t read a single book at this level before, so I expect the first one will take a lot of time.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 400 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Read a total of 10000 pages of Chinese (any text at any level)

This task overlaps the previous one since the both focus on reading, but 10 000 is a number which easily exceeds the pages in ten course books. In other words, I plan to read more Chinese in general, of any kind. This includes children’s books, novels and anything else I can lay my hands on.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 300 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Be able to listen to news broadcasts in Chinese with close to full comprehension

Listening is the area in which I need the most practice. I can understand the gist of news broadcasts now, but I need to listen a lot to increase this to the goal “close to full comprehension”. I plan to listen at home, on my way to class, when I walk, when I… well, most of the time, to be honest, although I don’t think listening when I sleep will do much good.

Perceived difficulty: 9/10
Estimated time needed: 500 hours
Progress so far: 5%

Learn the lyrics of 50 songs in Chinese

Listening to music is an interesting way of approaching a language. Not only does it involve listening to the language in question, but learning the lyrics also requires learning the words and the grammar. If the song is a good one, these grammar patterns and words will be reviewed often and with pleasure! Music is also an example of how language is used, even though it isn’t formally correct all the time.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 4%

Correct all the listed pronunciation mistakes in Chinese, at least when reading

It’s of course a lot harder to improve pronunciation when I live in Sweden compared to when I lived in Taiwan, but since I have a list which I think covers most of the problems I have, I think it’s still possible. Those people who are willing to help me can have a look at the list and evaluate my progress. Achieving all this for relaxed speech is of course very difficult, but the goal here is to be able to do it when reading.

Perceived difficulty: 8/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Record one hour of Chinese to study my pronunciation

This is in line with the previous task, but the approach is somewhat different. Analysing my own speech has proved to be useful before and I don’t see why it shouldn’t again. I will try to do this both for reading and for speaking, but as is the case above, I strive towards attaining perfection for reading first. Then, that pronunciation can be transferred to spontaneous speech.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 3 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Learn at least 5000 new words and/or characters

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: vocabulary is king. I currently have 11 669 words in my database, so I plan to have around 17 000 towards the end of this period (hopefully more). I feel that the need for quantity is decreasing all the time, otherwise this goal would be more ambitious.

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 500 hours
Progress so far: 8%

Learn to recognise all simplified Chinese characters

There are roughly 2000 simplified characters, but a huge majority of them (around 1750) are based on a systematic simplification of parts of characters which are generalised to other characters as well. I don’t know how difficult this will be, but my working hypothesis is that it won’t be too hard. I want to learn this because this is what I’m going to teach in the future. Note that I mean recognition here, I don’t plan to be able to write all these characters yet, that will have to come gradually.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 50 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Keep review queues in Anki at zero

Time-wise, this task overlaps the vocabulary task above, because I use Anki to learn new words. However, this item includes other languages, not only Chinese, even I think it unlikely that I will learn more than a few thousand words in any other language during this time. Also, in the time estimate here, entering the words isn’t included. On the other hand, I have around 15 000 words in Anki already! I spend roughly 30 minutes per day reviewing vocabulary, so the total time might exceed 600 hours.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 600 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Offer my help to all arriving Taiwanese exchange students

During my stay in Taiwan, I’ve had so many people who’ve helped me with thing that would have crushed me if I’d been forced to handle them on my own. Therefore, at the start of each academic year, I want to offer my help to all arriving Taiwanese exchange students. I’ve already done so this year, but so far, few people have actually used the help I’m offering. I plan to be more available in the future and be clearer about my ambition to help them as much as I can.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 20 hours
Progress so far: 20%

Record one issue of the Economist to study English pronunciation

My pronunciation in English is quite good at the moment, but there is always room for improvement. There are several people who record the audio edition of the Economist who speak what I deem to be perfect English. I intend to record articles equalling one issue of the magazine and analyse my own pronunciation as compared with that of the professional readers.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 25 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Study one solid English grammar book

Obviously, I know how to use English grammar, but that doesn’t mean I can explain to other people how to improve or why a certain sentence is better than what they’ve written. Studying grammar to learn how to teach English is of course a natural part of becoming a teacher, but I want to focus more on it. Studying (and learning) the contents of one solid grammar book should be a big step in that direction.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 25 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Learn all the words in the TOEFL words in my electronic dictionary

Improving my formal English is always a priority, so going through the suggested vocabulary for the TOEFL test on my electronic dictionary is a good idea. It’s also convenient because I have the words already prepared for me. I estimate that there are around 2500 words in this list that I need to study, either because I don’t know what they mean or because I’m not sure how to use them.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 100 hours
Progress so far: 10%

Learn full IPA for standardised Chinese, English and Swedish

The more languages I study and the more advanced my level becomes in these languages, I realise that learning phonetics properly is really important. I do think it’s a waste of time for beginner or intermediate students, but I don’t consider myself to be at that lever for any of the three languages I’m currently using or studying (Chinese, English, Swedish). This goal is as much about learning phonetics in general as learning the phonetic symbols, but since they go hand in hand, I think a wording like this works well.

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 60 hours
Progress so far: 0%

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