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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.

No, this post is not related to anything written by Jorge Luis Borges, but it is related to both dictionaries and labyrinths anyhow.Although there are hard-line radicals who advocate using only the target language when studying foreign tongues, I think most people agree that using knowledge from one’s native language is good or indeed necessary. When I started studying Chinese, if I encountered a word I didn’t know what it meant, I looked it up in a Chinese-English dictionary. Of course, this comes with it’s own problems, since the words in Chinese and English overlap only to a certain degree (much, much less than between Swedish, English or French for instance), but it’s often good enough, at least for understanding. Using a dictionary in a language you know is like using a bad map, which will allow you to find your way around, but will occasionally lead you astray.

Sooner or later, however, every student needs to start using a native dictionary. I almost never use English-Swedish dictionaries (I do sometimes for plants and animals) and I don’t need to, because I understand 99,9% of all definitions in a normal English-English dictionary. That’s not true in Chinese, but during the past six months or so, I’ve been trying to shift from Chinese-English to Chinese-Chinese dictionaries. I think that this situation can be much likened to entering a labyrinths, trying to explore and map unknown territories. This a post about this adventure and also a guide to how to survive in these convoluted corridors.

Entering the labyrinth

The first time I used a Chinese dictionary, I gave up immediately. Even explanations of simple words I knew well contained many words I had never even seen before. In other words, I stepped into the labyrinth and saw the path ahead of me fork off in numerous directions. Picking one at random, I found that the next intersection was equally unfamiliar. However long I walked in this labyrinth, I would never reach the middle and I would never return to the position where I started. The few points in the maze I knew (words I had studied) were close to useless, because they were too sparse and not connected. This is why I think it’s a waste of time to try to learn Chinese in Chinese for a beginner, you need at least a rough map to refer to in order to survive.

However, through the years, I’ve kept eying the labyrinth sideways, when it isn’t looking, and I’ve found some things out that make it more interesting. I have tried to enter it many times, using different approaches. I think that I’m now well enough equipped to enter it properly and survive in it’s winding corridors. I’ve been doing this for around six months now and I’m still sane enough to write about it!

Different kinds of labyrinths

To start with, it’s not true that all dictionaries are the same, and thus there are many different labyrinths with many different properties. Using a highly specialised dictionary  is considerably more difficult than using a more accessible one. Let’s consider these examples if you’re studyng English. Let’s look at the word “labyrinth” as defined in two dictionaries, first Merriam-Webster:

1a : a place constructed of or full of intricate passageways and blind alleys
1b : a maze (as in a garden) formed by paths separated by high hedges
2: something extremely complex or tortuous in structure, arrangement, or character : intricacy, perplexity
3: a tortuous anatomical structure; especially : the internal ear or its bony or membranous part
1: a large network of paths or passages which cross each other, making it very difficult to find your way [= maze]
2: something that is very complicated and difficult to understand

I don’t mean to say that either of these entries are extremely hard, but there is a considerable difference in required reading ability between these two dictionaries. To start with, the Merriam-Webster entry contains 38 different words and the Longman only 26. To understand the first entry, you need to already master words such as “intricate”, “blind alley”, “maze”, “tortuous”, “intricacy”, “perplexity” and “membranous”, whereas the second entry require a lot less. An interesting point here is that many of the words I just listed are considerably more difficult than the word we are currently looking up.

Thus, before you even think about entering the labyrinth, try to find out something about it, preferably by asking an advanced learner or a native speaker who can easily judge which dictionary is the most suitable for you. I would never ever recommend Merriam-Webster to a beginner (or even fairly advanced students), because the Longman dictionary is good enough for almost all situations. However, sometimes Merriam-Webster is a lot more complete and accurate, making it the preferred choice. It all depends on what knowledge and tools you carry with you into the labyrinth.

This is what we’re going to talk about now.

Surviving gear you will need in the labyrinth

Since I’m studying Chinese and that’s the kind of labyrinth I’m exploring at the moment, I will take examples from my own travels, even though most of what I say should be relevant in any language. I had three things that helped me a lot:

  • A broad vocabulary of around 9000 words. This enabled me to piece together most sentences and identify the words I didn’t know. Without basic vocabulary, finding you way will be like entering a normal maze blindfolded.
  • Knowledge of a high number of individual characters (parts of words would be applicable for other languages). I went through the 3000 most common Chinese characters before starting. This turned out to be incredibly useful since I usually only need to combine things I know rather than learn something completely from scratch.
  • I have an electronic dictionary which allows me to just tap a screen to go to the next intersection in the labyrinth. Using a browser-based dictionary is a good substitute, but it’s very practical to have a physical device.

I don’t mean to say that you have to have so and so many words, I’m just saying that’s where I started and I still find it quite difficult to only use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries even if I get the point most of the time. I have hard time understanding those teachers who recommend using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries from the start, except if the dictionary is written for preschool kids, but that’s quite unlikely because they can’t read.

Shortcuts and cheats

Yes, it’s possible to cheat and there are shortcuts. You can study some basic labyrinth architecture, bring your shoddy, native-language map, you can skip some corridors that end up in places you’ve already been and you can try to avoid the less trodden parts of the labyrinth.

  • There are many words which are commonly used in dictionaries but not otherwise, such as “signify”, “indicate”, “describe”, “contrast” and so on. Make sure you take time to learn these words, because they occur so frequently that you can’t really hope to survive without them. In Chinese, it’s sometimes hard because the words also exist in contracted forms (i.e. using only one character instead of two).
  • Decide that after a number of intersections, you always resort to Chinese-English dictionary instead. This means that if you look up a word, you always try to understand that entry in the dictionary in Chinese, but if there are words in that entry that you don’t understand, you look them up in your native tongue. Or you go one step further and only do that for words you don’t understand in the definition of the definition.
  • Skip parallel paths when you encounter them, i.e. don’t learn too many near-synonyms. In the labyrinth, they are only similar paths leading to roughly the same location. You will need to explore these parallel paths later, but if you’re trying to find your way around, don’t bother with them. If you know the component parts of these words, you will often enough be able to guess their meaning.
  • Avoid straying off the illuminated paths in the labyrinth. If you’re using a fairly advanced dictionary, you might leave the more commonly used parts of the language and enter the more dangerous areas where few people go and hideous monsters abound. Here there be Thesauruses! Don’t be stubborn. If you’ve decided to follow advice one above, it’s okay to stop if you peer into a dark corridor and two yellow eyes the size of your fists stare back at you.

Entering the labyrinth with the goal to map everything (i.e. not heeding any of the above advice ) is probably stupid and definitely impossible. A language is simply too big to ever grasp fully (you don’t mean to say that you know everything about your native language, do you?). How you choose to limit exploration is up to you, though.

Wild adventures and treasure hunts

Still, you can go on a rampage now and then if you like. This might be even more fun if you do it with a friend:

  • See how long it will take you to follow the definitions of a certain word until you arrive at an intersection where you know all the paths (i.e., keep looking up words until you find a definition you fully understand without having to look anything up).
  • Name two words and see if you can find a path between the two words. If you pick to very different words, it will be quite hard, but this can of course be made easier by choosing related words.
  • I sometimes just walk randomly, noting down words I find interesting and skipping the rest. This is probably not very good from a learning perspective, but you do stumble upon pretty cool words sometimes.

During these adventures, it’s up to you how detailed a map you want to draw. I’m currently writing recording almost every unknown passage and intersection, storing and reviewing everything with Anki, but you definitely don’t have to do that. If you encounter words more than once on separate journeys, it’s usually a good idea to look them up, though. A problem is that most dictionaries won’t tell you how commonly used a word is.

Some closing remarks

So, what do you choose, using a badly drawn and inaccurate map, or entering a strange and perhaps dangerous labyrinth, trying to understand how it has evolved? I think that the answer depends much on how much you have studied (i.e. how strange the labyrinth is) and what your goal is. If you’re short of time, running around in labyrinths all day is usually not a good idea, although you might have to do that sooner or later anyway.

I personally prefer to have a rough map that contains errors, but lets me find my way to whatever place I’m going, rather than having a patchy, incomplete map with weird symbols on it that I don’t even understand myself. Neither of these situations is ideal, but for my three first years of studying Chinese, the rough map has been a formidable guide. I write this post because I’ve now taken the step into the Chinese-Chinese dictionary and I feel that I can survive in there, I even relish the thought of yet another adventure. I hope I have been able to shed some light on this subject, as well as provided you with the tools you need to survive in the dictionary labyrinth!

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Native speakers

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.

During my time in Taiwan, I’ve come a cross enough examples of people overstating the importance of being a native speaker to lead me to think that it’s a general trend and not an isolated phenomenon. For instance, people are embarrassed when I know words in Chinese they don’t (“I’m a native speaker, why don’t I know this word?”) or they can’t understand why I have a category in Anki for Swedish words (“You’re Swedish, why do you need to learn Swedish words?”).

This attitude is so bizarre it left me baffled the first few times. At first, I thought that people who said this were just more ignorant than the rest of the population, but I’ve come across this so often that it can no longer be dismissed as coincidence: people really seem to think that native speakers know everything, although it’s obvious that they don’t.


This article might sound a bit harsh and therefore I want to state clearly that my goal is not to bash native speakers or to elevate my own ability in any way. I’m a native speaker of Swedish and recognise that there is much I need to learn; there will always be. I’ve also learnt English, French and Chinese which means I can approach the subject from that angle as well. I’m also grateful to a lot of native speakers, so this article should in no way be regarded as diminishing their contribution to my language learning.

My goal here is to point out that people generally think that being a native speaker is the same as being really good in all areas of that language, and that I think this notion is mostly false. I also want to point out that someone who masters a language as a second language will have different skills from someone learning it as their native language. This is not good, neither is it bad; it simply is.

Native speakers and native speakers

The first mistake her is to lump native speakers together in one single group. There is a huge difference between a native speaker who reads fifty books a year and has a  PhD, and a native speaker who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and spends all his free time playing football. Native speakers learn their own language to whatever extent is required of them (except perhaps for the few of us who genuinely love languages and thinks language learning is a goal in itself), which means that the football player above will have a very weak grasp of formal and written language.

Of course, the opposite is also true, that the PhD will know less about football. Still, pursuing a career which is heavily based on language (anything even remotely academic)  is bound to increase your vocabulary enormously, so thinking that native speakers are homogenous group is just stupid. Research suggests that the number of words that are used in everyday conversation is indeed very low; advanced vocabulary is only needed when discussing something specific or reading something on a decent level of complexity.

Native speakers and second language learners

  • Native speakers have a very good grasp of all practical aspects of their own language, but most of them have a fairly weak grasp of theoretical aspects (such as grammar, phonetics and so on). Just because an American can speak English for ten hours straight with perfect communication results doesn’t mean that the language he uses is 100% correct. Reading students essays in your native language is a good way of proving to yourself that not everybody master their own language, not even at university level.
  • Native speakers pronunciation is usually far from any kind of standardised pronunciation (how many people in the United Kingdom follow Received Pronunciation 100%?), which of course isn’t wrong per se, but might be something to keep in mind as a second language learner. If you plan on teaching the language in the future, this might be very important. Having an Indian dialect in Englsh is fine if you live in India, but I don’t think it will earn you any extra points if you look for a teaching job in Europe.
  • Second language learners who have reached a high level usually have a superior understanding of grammar, phonetics and other more theoretical areas, although they might not have a well developed gut-feeling for what is smooth and fluent language and might lack in idiomatic expressions or usage. In other words, native speakers will usually construct a sentence correctly and with proper intonation, but someone who has mastered the language as a second language will probably be far better at explaining the relevant syntax and pronunciation.

Why is this important?

This insight is important when you learn a second language from native speakers. Don’t think that their knowledge of their own language is infallible just because they are native speakers! For example, I’ve come across many people in Taiwan (some even teachers), who cannot explain the third tone in Mandarin properly.They think that they are accurately describing how they pronounce a given sound, but in reality they are doing something else.

This is not to say that second language learners in general know more than native speakers, but rather that just because someone is a native speaker it doesn’t mean he’s superior to a second language learner in all situations.

I’ve stated elsewhere that theoretical knowledge is fairly important for most of us when learning a second language. This is because even though you have lots of friends who speak the language and teachers who can help you, you cannot be 100% sure that what they tell you is right.If you have talent, you can pick up almost everything just by listening, but for us mere mortals, learning the tones in Chinese require a lot more than passive listening.

Some suggestions final comments

So, if you teach your own language, be open and admit that there are lots of things you don’t know. That’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn and develop further. You will be right most of the time, but thinking that you will be right every time is a sign of ignorance and hubris.

Knowing how to handle native speakers when learning a foreign language is sometimes tricky and involves more than I’ve brought up here (for instance, they might be reluctant to directly tell you where you go wrong even if they clearly hear that you’re making a mistake; I wrote more about attitude here).

In short, be aware of your limitations in your own language and strive to gradually expand your horizons. Teaching is a wonderful tool too deepen your knowledge of any subject, your native language notwithstanding! If you learn a language from a native speaker, don’t trust what he tells you blindly. Naturally, some native speakers have reached a very high level of proficiency,but being a native speaker does not guarantee that!

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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.

I’ve heard many stories about people in East Asia who try to learn English by committing complete dictionaries to their memories Even if it’s true that some people actually do that, I think this somewhat puzzling technique is in the decline. Hearing such stories, it’s easy to shake one’s head and wonder why all rational thinking has deserted (at least this part of) the world.

Then perhaps it comes to you as a surprise that I spent roughly one hundred hours spread out over six weeks learning all the characters in the Far East 3000 Chinese Characters Dictionary (you can use any dictionary as long as it only contains commonly used characters). Of course, I knew a lot of them from before, but I still ended up with 2404 new words (including one extra word for every new character, so the number of characters I didn’t know were actually half that number, i.e. around 1200).

In this post, I’ll explain why I think going through this dictionary was an excellent idea, and I will also share some thoughts on how to do this without running into some of the problems I did. I used the book mentioned above, but if you don’t have it, a similar dictionary or this online list will work equally well.

I never expected this, but the day has come when I actually recommend other people to memorise a dictionary!


First things first, why would memorising a dictionary be a good idea? I’ve argued before that Chinese is a language consisting of many building blocks and rather than learning a character, it’s fruitful to learn its composition instead. The same goes for words in Chinese (words consisting of more than one character). Making sure that I know the 3000 most common characters, I thus gain access to a huge number of new words. By access I mean:

  • I can sometimes guess a compound word because I know the characters in it
  • I can learn new words more easily, because I know the component characters

Let’s look closer at these two benefits. The first one might be either useless or invaluable depending on the word. Chinese consists of lots synonym compounds (i.e. words that consist of two characters which mean the same thing, such as 快捷 or 饋贈) and if you know both the characters, you can be pretty sure about what the word means, whereas if you only know one, the meaning might be anything.

There are also numerous examples where there are more than one similar way of saying something (compare 時限, 期限 and 年限, which are really easy to distinguish if you know what the individual characters mean, but might cause trouble if you don’t).

The picture is from Patrick Zein’s excellent introduction to Chinese (in Swedish). On the X-axis is number of characters one knows and on the Y-axis is the expected ability to understand written Chinese, assuming that grammar and character combinations are not a problem (which they of course are, but that’s not the issue here).

Even though being able to guess words is important, I think the second point, that it’ll become easier to learn new words, is more important. The problem that faces most students of Chinese is that when they encounter a new word, they sometimes also need to learn new characters, which takes considerably more time than just combining characters one already knew.

Thus, having gone through all these characters, I feel that I can learn new words at a much higher speed. In combination with the first point, this means that sometimes words can be guessed at and learnt even without using a dictionary.

Suggestions and tips

After having completed this project, I have some suggestions to make:

  • Be careful, sometimes you just think you know what a character means because it’s so common, but in fact it means something completely different when it’s on its own.
  • Learn at least one example word where a given character appears, also make a note of this word in connection with the single character so that when you revise it, you can easily see at least one example.
  • If you use the same dictionary as I did, don’t use the example words in the book. Some of those are extremely rare and some native speakers have never seen them. Find words in a normal dictionary or a corpus instead.
  • Don’t learn the words in alphabetical order, starting from page one and going through the book, because it will be extremely hard to distinguish between one hundred different “shi”. A better way would be to first learn the first character on every page, then the next time learn the second character on every page.
  • Spread it out! Even if you’ve studied for a while, 3000 characters will take a while to get through (100 hours in my case). I managed this by portioning it out, going through a dozen characters now and then.

Some final words

Conclusively, memorising dictionaries is not a very good idea in general, but in this case I found that making sure I knew these 3000 characters meant that my reading ability made a quantum leap up. This will not take care of reading speed, complex grammar or other problems associated with reading ability, but it will enable you to understand many texts you would otherwise have been completely unable to decipher. More importantly, it will make it a lot easier for you to learn more later, given that you now have more building blocks and tools to deconstruct the language around you!

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I have studied Chinese full-time for more than two years now, and before that I have spent a decent amount of time learning English and French. In this article, I’m going to describe my general learning strategy. Here are the core concepts, which I will elaborate on in due time:

– Knowing lots of words superficially beats knowing few words in detail
– Expanding passive vocabulary is extremely important
– This large amount of words will enable you to learn a lot faster
– Listening and reading is the key for everyone but the true beginner
– Practice is important, but far less so that most people think

This method differs in some important ways from traditional language learning:

– It does not focus on detailed knowledge of words
– It does not focus on studying lots of grammar
– It does not focus on getting everything right the first time


Learning a language is a huge task and given the varying properties of the language, the student and the environment, there are naturally a number of ways of striving towards some kind of proficiency goal.

Because of the huge number of variables, it’s really hard to show any hard evidence of what works and what doesn’t, but what seems certain is that people who are aware of and care about how they learn, tend to learn faster than those who don’t really think about it too much and just follow the herd. This post is based mostly on personal experience, but I have read quite a lot of relevant material, both from other learners and from people who have done research in the field of language learning.

Still, it should be noted that this is the way I learn. I don’t mean to say that it’s the best way for you, perhaps it isn’t even good, but it’s proved to quite successful for me, both in learning English and, more recently, Chinese.

My method can be divided into three parts, but before I even define these different areas, I’d like to make it very clear that these are not separated in time (meaning that they should be done simultaneously). Focusing on just one of these parts or neglecting one of them would probably be catastrophic for the end result.

The first part is vocabulary building, which strives towards learning as many words as possible as fast as possible, without thinking too much about grammar, how the words are used or any deeper understanding of differences between near-synonyms, etc.

The second part is immersion, meaning listening and reading as much as possible, again without caring too much about deeper understanding; yet again quantity is king.

The third part I call practising and it’s the only one in which quality is really important. Here, I try to make use of the things I’ve learnt in the previous two parts and I also adjust or highlight things that might have been unclear before.

Part 1 – Vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary, quantity is king. If you have a well developed vocabulary, you can understand a lot of what’s going on around you and most of the time you can make yourself understood, although you need more than vocabulary if you’re going to speak or write fluently and correctly. The goal is to be able to understand as much as possible and thus reinforce part two, which probably is the most important one.

Going for quality (i.e. trying to remember everything or spending lots of time to understand all aspects and usages of a piece of vocabulary) is not only a bad idea, I think it will actively keep you from progressing at a decent rate. The idea is that you learn how to use things from seeing or hearing the words in a natural context, not by reading in a text book how they are supposed to be used, but more about that in part two.

There are many ways of expanding vocabulary, but I strongly suggest using some kind of software to help you reviewing, because after a while, this will be a major problem. It’s true that you want to cover as much material as possible as quickly as possible, but if you forget most of it, it won’t do you any good and the effort will be wasted.

Part 2- Immersion

How do we learn our native language? By listening a lot and then trying out what we hear and receiving feedback from our environment. Learning a foreign language as a foreigner comes with some advantages, such as having an adult brain which is far superior to any child’s when it comes to organising and understanding abstract concepts.

The idea in part two is to immerse yourself as much as possible in the language you’re trying to learn, the more you read and listen, the better. This might be obvious and I think most people agree on this, but this is the cornerstone of my learning strategy, not merely an important tool.

If quantity was king when discussing vocabulary, when it comes to listening and reading, quantity is the God Emperor of the Universe. The amount of time needed to absorb the necessary amounts of material is staggering, but the payoff is amazing. I learnt English through reading and listening to many hundreds of books; I did not reach my current level because of diligent studying of textbooks and grammar.

The problem with immersion is that if you can’t find something truly entertaining, it will never work. I didn’t read those hundreds of books because I thought it would be good for part two of my language learning strategy, I did it because I enjoyed reading the books! Perhaps there are people who can force themselves to invest thousands of hours into something truly boring, but I’m not one of them and I think most people are with me here.

So, the main task here is to find entertaining ways of listening and reading as much as possible. This includes chatting with friends, watching movies, reading books, listening to music or whatever happens to suit your personal taste.

So why is a large vocabulary necessary here?

  1. If you know lots of words, you will be able to piece together what you read or hear, even if you don’t fully understand the details.
  2. Since you know so many words, every time you read or listen, it will be a repetition and a learning opportunity, and you will think “ah, so that’s how it’s used”, adding to your mental database of knowledge.

Compare this to the situation which would occur if you focused all your time in learning few words, but in detail and with grammar. Then you probably wouldn’t even understand what was being said at all and so the opportunity would be missed completely.

In other words, a large vocabulary vastly expands your opportunities to absorb knowledge from what you hear or read.

When you look for material to immerse yourself in, you should strive to find language which isn’t too hard. If you don’t understand what’s going on without the help of a dictionary, it’s too difficult. The goal here is to reinforce, adjust and expand words you’ve already studied (and of course add new words to your vocabulary; these are parallel processes, remember).

This might be tricky for a beginner (try using more than one textbook on the same level), but once you get through the basics, you can start looking for children’s books and advance from there.

The ultimate goal of immersion is building a feeling for what’s correct language usage and grammar. When your vocabulary is big enough and when you’ve heard those words used many times, you will start to feel if they make sense in a particular context or if you need to find another word.

This level is hard to attain, especially in truly foreign languages such as Chinese for me as a native speaker of Swedish. It requires extreme amounts of reading/listening, but if you manage to find a way which is both fun and educating at the same time, this shouldn’t be too daunting, even though it will of course take many, many years to attain something close to a native speaker’s ability.

Part 3 – Practice

Following the principles above, it would probably be possible to attain really high levels of reading and listening comprehension, but if complete fluency is the goal, that won’t be enough. Practice serves four purposes.

  1. It helps you correct errors in your vocabulary, grammar and intuition. Most errors occur in the immersion part as well, because you will notice words that don’t fit your mental picture, but actually receiving feedback on spoken or written language is far more effective.
  2. It enables you to sort out complex or difficult parts of a language that are hard to untangle passively by reading and listening. Up to this point, quantity has been king, but now quality starts to play a significant role. Complex grammar would be a good example here.
  3. It takes a lot of practice to get good at piecing together various words in your head to create meaningful and correct sentences, so it should be obvious why it’s important.
  4. If fluency is the goal, lots of practice is needed to decrease the time you need to think when constructing sentences. You might know all the words and the grammar, but if you can’t do it quickly enough, your language won’t be fluent enough.

The third part isn’t very different from the way most people learn languages and it is in this area that almost all class time is focused (grammar drills, questions from the teacher, tests, questions, and so on), so I won’t discuss it in more detail.

Make sure you expose your language (written or spoken) to native speakers and make sure that you get feedback. This will enable you to find errors or misunderstandings, as well as identifying areas that really need specific attention (such as complicated grammar or the use of tricky words).


As I said at the outset, these three are parallel process in how I learn languages and they need to be integrated to make sense. Traditional teaching focus a little bit on part one, almost nothing (or at least not enough for it to count) on part two and quite a lot on part three. I advocate a focus on the first two parts, especcially the second.

However, it’s essential that you actively strive to integrate these processes, because a two-legged tripod (think War of the Worlds) won’t be able to move very well. For instance, this can be done by actively using words you’ve just learnt in conversations, by noting difficult or confusing parts and ask questions about them or, when listening, actively noticing and repeating to yourself various useful phrases or use of prepositions.

It goes without saying that this article is not complete in anyway. It’s also a given that this method isn’t perfect, but it has proved to work very well for me, especially when learning Chinese. I hope to be able to update this article later with new insight and perhaps also with more references to actual research.

For the time being, however, I feel that I’ve accomplished the goal of explaining the overall strategy I use for language learning. As usual, comments about what I’ve written, suggestions for further reading, personal opinions or experiences are all more than welcome!

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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.

This post is the first of three presenting my opinions about learning Chinese. My primary goal is to help people studying the language more efficiently, mainly through sharing my own experiences and thoughts. Each article is deliberately quite brief in length, and if there are articles delving deeper into an aspect of the learning process, a link will be provided. For a comprehensive overview of all these articles, kindly refer to the Learning Chinese main page. These are the three articles in this series:

Beginner (this article)

Introduction to beginner level

Chinese is a language which is, in many regards, completely different from most other languages, which makes it very hard at the outset. However, it’s surprisingly easy to get used to it once time and diligent studying have been able to work their wonders. The primary goal in the beginning is to establish routines and get to know your own abilities and limitations.

Organising your studies

One thing you should do as early as possible is to develop a system to keep track of what you learn. Some people use printed flashcards, others (me included) rely on software and electronic devices (see the tools page). Regardless of what you choose, you need to choose something. It might seem like a daunting task, but in order to learn Chinese, you not only have to learn new things all the time, you also have to remember what you have already studied. I suggest you use Anki for this. If you are taking a course in Chinese, it sometimes isn’t required of you to actually remember what you did two months ago, but this is vital if you have any serious plans of learning the language! Attitude is important.

Start looking for extra-institutional sources

Your text book might be the best available and your teacher the coolest guy around, but you should start looking for secondary language sources almost from the very start. If possible, find native speakers, but there are also loads of computer software, radio shows, film clips on YouTube and so on, to help you get started. I suggest checking out Chinesepod directly. Buying an extra textbook might also be a good idea, but remember that you don’t read that one to learn everything, just to see things from another angle. Of course, you don’t need to spend as much time on these extra sources as you do on your main one, but simply reading easy texts and listening to very basic conversations with explanations will help you get started quicker.


You’ve just set out on a journey of a thousand miles, so if you don’t need to get everything right the first lesson. You should not strive to have maximum points on all tests and so on, the important thing is that you’re moving and that your moving with a purpose and a goal. There is one exception to this and that’s pronunciation. Learning to pronounce Chinese correctly, especially the tones, is difficult for most people, but it becomes almost impossible if you have to relearn everything from scratch later because your foundation was bad. Apart from this, don’t stress it, everything will come naturally with time and practice.

Find friends for help and cooperation

To start with, allying yourself with somebody who seems reasonable in class is quite a good idea, but this is nothing specific for studying Chinese. Having somebody on the same ambition level as you can be an incredible boost to your learning speed. Furthermore, at some point you want to find native speakers to actually help you develop quicker. It’s very easy to find Chinese people online who want to learn English, so if you can’t find anything else, this might be a good idea (be careful, though, just because they are native speakers doesn’t mean their Chinese is good). The best way is of course to find native speakers who you can meet and make friends with in the usual manner. I’ve found that an explicit language-based relationship is sometimes preferable, but to each his own.

Examine your goals and motivations

Why do you want to learn Chinese? What are you going to do once you have mastered the language? These are very, very important questions you should keep on asking yourself, because your learning strategy is intimately related to the answers to those questions. For instance, if your goal is to be able to travel in China and chat with Chinese people, learning to write five thousand characters by hand is a waste of time, but on the other hand, if you plan to teach Chinese, you probably have no choice. You have to know what you want in order to achieve it.

Enjoy yourself

This is not a cliché ending to make you feel good, but rather a serious word of warning. Make sure that you like what you are doing, regardless of whether it’s language exchange with a native speaker, listening to audio lessons or writing characters. If you don’t enjoy yourself, you will never ever master Chinese (or any other language for that matter). The project ahead of you requires an insane amount of time to accomplish and if you don’t enjoy it, you will never be able to invest the amount of time and energy required. So, try different ways, find whatever strategy seems to work best for you and go with it. Good luck!

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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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During my time in Taiwan, I’ve come across a fair number of people who want to learn English and thus ask me questions. In return, I ask them questions about Chinese. Even though this is in essence a fair trade, I have noticed that the kind of questions we ask are different. Some of the questions I get could have been answered with a dictionary (the obvious place to look), but some of them could also have been answered using Google. Since dictionaries should be the default place to check for answers regarding words, I won’t bother to discuss that. Instead, this article will be about how to use Google (or any other search Engine, of course) to learn languages. I’ve found that there are four useful things you can use a search engine for. Note that I’m not talking about using a search engine to find useful websites and forums, this is about using the search engin itself. This is what you can do:

– Verifying word usage
– Comparing word usage
– Check grammar patterns
– Learning through pictures

Verifying word usage – As soon as we leave the very basics of a new language, we usually have some idea how to say or write something, although we might not be sure if it’s correct. Sometimes, we know what a word means if translated into our native tongue, but we’re not sure if it can really be used in the context we want to use it in. In this case, using Google will be a great help. simply search for the word you’re looking for and browse through the results and see if any of the matches what you want to say.

If the word is part of a brand name or very common, you might have to skip the first several hundreds of hits, because you don’t want the word to be part of a headline or title, you want it in a sentence. If you think that a sentence requires a certain preposition, search for the relevant part of that sentence (don’t forget quotation marks!). The number of hits will tell you if the preposition is right or wrong.

Comparing word usage – An even more powerful tool is comparison, although this is a bit more limited in scope. If you can’t decide whether alternative A or B is the correct one, use Google fight (or simply do two separate searches) and see which version comes out on top. This is probably the method I use the most when writing articles in English, such as this one.

Check grammar patterns – So, you’ve learnt the grammar pattern, but you’re not really sure how it’s used? Well, do a search for the pattern and see what you find. More often than not, there are plenty of examples telling you how those words are used. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how seldom textbook patterns are actually used, compared to abbreviated or modified informal ones!

Learning through pictures – Using Google to search for pictures of the word you don’t know what it means is quite useful, especially if it’s something fairly concrete, such as a bird, a colour or an object. The dictionary might not have it, but once you see it, you definitely know what it is. This is especially useful if there are no good dictionaries for your native tongue and the target language (this is the case for me, so if I look up something and I’m not sure what the English word means, a quick picture search will usually do the trick).

Three words of warning

Using Google instead of asking real people isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are at least three real dangers, which I will talk about briefly now. First, the hits on Google might be completely irrelevant. For instance, the words might be next to each other, but in two different sentences with a full stop in between! This problem can be overcome by checking the hits you’re viewing. Of course, you can’t verify all of them, but you can make quick estimate.

Second, there is no guarantee that the articles you find will be correct, because a lot of people posting things on the internet aren’t native speakers (I think what I write is mostly correct, but I’ve probably polluted the internet a bit as well).  Of course, native speakers are sometimes mistaken to, or simply slipped on the keyboard. This problem is hard to overcome, but consider using a corpus (a corpus is a collection from a certain language and might include spoken as well as written sources, see the links below), even though this isn’t guaranteed to be correct either.

Third, you will find examples how the language is used, which isn’t necessarily the officially correct way and thus might not go down well with your teacher. This problem is language dependent, since some languages might have very strict formal rules which differ a lot from colloquial usage; other languages might not. This problem is very hard to get around, so if it’s really important, real human help is necessary.

Then why?

If there are so many disadvantages with using Google, why not ask a friend directly? That’s a good question. The reason I think this method is so useful isn’t because I don’t have friends to ask or because I don’t want to ask them. Rather, it’s because I want to ask them questions that I can’t find out for myself (like the third problem above). Most of the time, the problems above are not relevant or can be overcome, and then there is no reason why you should need to ask other people to help you. Save your friends’ valuable time until you really need it!

Some useful links

Google fight
British National Corpus
Corpus of Contemporary American English

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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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During my time here in Taiwan, I’ve spoken to a large number of students at varying levels, everything from total beginners to those close to being completely fluent. Apart from this, I’m a student myself and can rely on my own experience. From this broad, albeit anecdotal, base of evidence, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea to go abroad for you first year of language studies.

This statement needs some explanation. First, I’m referring to the very first year of language studies, so this doesn’t apply to people who have studied a second language at school, for instance. Furthermore, this is more true for languages wildly different from your native tongue (such as Chinese for a native speaker of Swedish). Since a lot of people study languages abroad only for a short period of time, I’m mostly referring to those that can only spend a semester or two in another country. If you can spend an unlimited amount of time, what I’m going to discuss here is mostly irrelevant. To show what I mean, I’ll take myself as an example.

I studied Chinese for one year in Sweden before I went to Taiwan and I’m sure that was a really good idea. Why? In Sweden, I was able to learn the basics of Chinese grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary from teachers who spoke my native language. When it comes to pronunciation, it’s essential that you understand the explanations. Many people seem to believe that you can learn to speak a language simply by listening to what somebody is saying and then repeating, but I’m convinced that this is true only for children and perhaps adults who spend a lot of time immersed in the language. Some of the finer subtleties of tones, stresses and so forth really need explanations to make sense. If you go abroad for your first year, you are very likely to be taught this in the target language (or at least that’s the case in Taiwan), which means that you will never get a comprehensive overview of the language in a language you are comfortable with.

In addition to this, all languages require some basic vocabulary and some fundamental grammar, things which you can equally well learn at home. Sure, you won’t pick up information about the way people really speak, but neither are you prepared to assimilate that kind of information if you don’t know anything about the language at all. The first year is basically an attempt to understand the basics, so if you only have one year abroad, choosing your first year is a waste of resources. Try instead do leave your country when the lack resources there is slowing you down or you feel that you know the basics already and want to advance. I left Sweden after my first year and I think that’s a sensible choice, even though later would probably work pretty well, too.

That being said, going abroad directly to learn a language isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It depends much on personality and learning style, but if you only have a short time at your disposal, I think that you are likely to get much more from it if you have already attained a descent level in the target language. This will allow you to benefit fully from the experience and to immerse yourself in language and culture, and minimse the time you spend studying things you could equally well have done at home, before you left!

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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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