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Looking at the language section of my 101-in-1001 list, it’s obvious that Chinese is the focus of my studies, as it has been for quite some time. However, I still regard English as quite important, and even though I’ve reached a comfortable level of proficiency, there are always things to polish and areas to expand. I consider vocabulary one of my strong points in English, but learning more words is never a bad idea, especially since that might prove useful when taking higher level exams, something I haven’t done yet, but might have to do in the future.

Choosing English words to learn is not very easy. The words I learn risk being so obscure or formal that they are never used, not even in formal writing. Still, that doesn’t mean that I know all the formal English I should, just that it’s hard to determine what I need to learn. My basic approach is to look up any words I encounter in the Economist, which gives me a few words every week. This is good, but fairly slow.

Then I noticed that my electronic dictionary has a word list with vocabulary that are supposedly adapted to the TOEFL test (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The list contains 5,000 to 10,000 words (I didn’t find a good way of counting them). Of these, I picked out around 550 that I didn’t know at all or that I didn’t know how to use. I entered them into Anki and now I know the fairly well.

How useful this is in practice I don’t know, but I did get the opportunity to make sure I knew some words I had only knows very passively before. I also noticed that there are a number of fairly formal words relating to people who are too interested in sex (such as prurient, licentious, lecherous and lascivious). I thought formal English was quite dry and devoid of passion, much like any other formal language, but it appears that there is at least a lot of pent up sexual frustration.

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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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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.

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

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


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

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

Benefits of the interval filter

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

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

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

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

How to use the filter

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

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

Tweaking the filter

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

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

Conclusion and discussion

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

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Important: This is no longer my main page about studying Chinese, please visit Hacking Chinese to learn more about how to study Chinese more efficiently!


I started studying Asienkunskap in Linköping in 2007, and during that first year of Chinese studies, I accumulated a lot of material that might be of use to other students. If not explicitly stated, everything here is written by me. This is what I currently have available:

Complete lecture notes (Nordostasienkunskap 2)
Take-home exams
(Nordostasienkunskap 2)
Papers (Nordostasienkunskap 2, projektarbete)
Reviews and reflections (course-related books)
Word lists (Short-term Spoken Chinese volume 1-3)
A list of all posts related to Asienkunskap

Lecture notes for Nordostasienkunskap 2

What follows is transcriptions of fourteen lectures relating to East Asia held by Mats Anderson and Göran Lindgren in 2007 and 2008. The files are in Rich Text Format, in Swedish and provided as is, meaning that I take no responsibility whatsoever that the content is accurate, although I believe most of it is. Click on the titles to download the files.

Noa 2-1 – Kina 1
Noa 2-2 – Mentalitet
Noa 2-3 – Japan 1
Noa 2-4 – Japan 2
Noa 2-5 – Sydkorea
Noa 2-6 – Nordkorea
Noa 2-7 – Japan 3
Noa 2-8 – Ekonomi
Noa 2-9 – Kina 2
Noa 2-10 – Taiwan
Noa 2-11 – Kina 3
Noa 2-12 – Kina 4
Noa 2-13 – Kina 5
Noa 2-14 – Japan 4
Noa 2-15 – Japan 5

Take-home exams

Noa 1 take-home exam – Take-home exams for our course in North-East Asian culture and history. They cover (among other things) Western imperialism, Korean history, the Meiji era in Japan, comparisons of different versions of events during the Long March in China, and an attempt to summarise Daoism. I received 91/100 on this course and Per Bäck earned 90/100.
Download my exam in Swedish (.rtf)
Download Per’s exam in Swedish (.pdf): part 1, part 2

Noa 2 take-home exam – Take-home exams for our course in North-East Asian recent history and politics. They cover (among other things) economy in the region as a whole, opposition parties in Japan, negative aspects of Chinese growth, Chinese system of guanxi, and politics in South Korea. I received 95/100 on this course and so did Per!
Download my exam in Swedish (.rtf)
Download Per’s exam in Swedish (.pdf): part 1, part 2

Paper (projektarbete)

Quo vadis, Taiawn?– Since I knew suspected I might be leaving for Taiwan later that year, I decided to write my paper about the election held in March 2008, which in many ways can be said to have been a crossroads in Taiwanese Cross-Strait (i.e. dealing with mainland China) politics. The title is Quo vadis, Taiwan? and the paper was written during and slightly after the elections were held. I received full points for this assignment.
Read more about Quo vadis, Taiwan?

Renminbi: Under värdering – This is a paper written by one of my friends, Per Bäck, who studied Asienkunskap at the same time as I did. It’s about the alleged under-evaluation of the Chinese currency (yuan or renminbi), a topic which was relevant then and is still debated hotly. Per also received full marks for this paper.
Download paper in Swedish (.pdf)

Course-related reviews and reflections

Miljoner sanningar – Per Bäck’s reflections on Linda Jakobsson’s book.
Download document in Swedish (.pdf)

The Journey to the West – My reflections on this classic by Wu Cheng’en. Probably not the pinnacle of reflective writing, but perhaps it might provide inspiration for someone. Note that the review and the document are complete different.
Download document in English (.rtf)
Read my review

Den törstige munken och hans dryckesbröder – Per Bäck’s reflections on this the first part of the Chinese classic 水滸傳. I’ll have to read it myself some day.
Download document in Swedish (.pdf)

China Candid – My reflections on this book by Sang Ye. Probably not the pinnacle of reflective writing, but perhaps it might provide inspiration for someone.
Download document in English (.rtf)

Röd åklagare – Per Bäck’s reflections on this book about crime, justice and corruption in China, written by Xiao Rundcrantz.
Download document in Swedish (.pdf)

One Man’s Bible – My reflections on this novel by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, a lovely book which I highly recommend.
Read my review

Vitlöksballaderna – Per Bäck’s reflections on this book by Mo Yan, telling the story of a revolt in a small Chinese village. The farmer have been forced by the government to produce garlic, and when the garlic market collapses, the people decide that enough is enough.
Download document in Swedish (.pdf)

Mei Wenti! – My reflections on this Catharina Lilliehöök’s book about living in China, a book I found somewhat deterring.
Read my review

Word lists

Important: I no longer use ZDT to learn Chinese. The lists for ZDT will still be here, but no longer updated. The vocabulary can and should be accessed from the Anki software, which is far superior to ZDT. If youh aven’t changed already, you should do so now.

Short-term Spoken Chinese – Threshold, chapter 1-30 (汉语口语速成入门) – My lists of new words for ZDT (see the Tools section), sorted into categories, one per chapter of the book. I have often left out proper names and I take no responsibility whatsoever that the lists are correct (I doubt that there are many errors, though). Please use File >> Restore Data when importing the characters to retain category structure. The file can easily be opened in any text editor for use with other software or independently.
Download list (.zdt)

Short-term Spoken Chinese – Elementary, chapter 1-25 (汉语口语速成基础)– Same as above, use at your own risk, but please report any errors you might find. Please note that proper names go in a separate category. Use File >> Restore Data when importing the characters to retain category structure. The file can easily be opened in any text editor for use with other software or independently.
Download list (.zdt)

Technical Chinese – New words from our course in technical Chinese for ZDT – Includes basic vocabulary for math, chemistry, physics and biology. As for the lists above, use at your own risk, but please report any errors you might find. Please note that proper names go in a separate category. Use File >> Restore Data when importing the characters to retain category structure. The file can easily be opened in any text editor for use with other software or independently.
Download list (.zdt)

Short-term Spoken Chinese (汉语口语速成) – Complete glossary for the first three volumes in .xls format, an outstanding word list compiled and contributed by Henrik Gustavson. Not only does it contain all the words for the first three volumes, but they are also neatly arranged in various useful ways. For the automatic generation of the lists to work, changes should be made in the tab named “kapitel”.
Download list (.xls)

Related posts

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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.

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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Title: 100 Words to Make You Sound Smart
Author: Editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries
Year: 2006

100 Words to Make You Sound Smart is the first book I read out of a plethora of books aiming to improve the reader’s English, in this case vocabulary. Since I’m interested in English as a language, I thought it might be worth it to see what one of these books had to offer. Quite a lot, it turned out.

Not surprisingly, this book contains one hundred words, presented with meaning, etymology and usage (usually with at least two examples) and sometimes also general commentary. I like the fact that the examples are fairly long, which gives a deeper sense of context than a single sentence would. The examples are also fairly good in that they really show what the word means (it’s actually quite hard to write example sentences in this way). The extra commentary is welcome whenever it appears, but I would have liked to see more like that.

What about the words, then? The book should probably have been called “100 Words to Avoid Sounding Stupid”, because most words here aren’t that complicated. I made a count and found that I knew how to use 73 of them, understood another 14 and had no idea about the last 13. However, I realise that the level might be just right for other readers. Most interestingly, I found one word which meaning I was wrong about, and that’s worth a lot (the word is “quintessence”, which I thought meant the most important or salient feature of something, rather than a prime example, which is the correct definition).

This book is fairly good and I can recommend it. I will definitely have a look at similar books in the future, trying a new approach to improve my English. It’s a fairly relaxed way to do it and I think it’s possible to expand at least passive vocabulary without serious studying. Lastly, there are a couple of other books in this series, so even if you think this particular one might be on the wrong level, perhaps another will be just right for you.

Update: The words used in this book can be found here.

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Important: I no longer use ZDT to learn Chinese. The lists for ZDT will still be here, but no longer updated. The vocabulary can and should be accessed from the Anki software, which is far superior to ZDT. If you haven’t changed already, you should do so now. Please visit Hacking Chinese to read more about how to learn Chinese more efficiently!

Since I came to Taiwan, I have been studying a series of books called Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, 2nd Edition. I have over the past three months assembled a complete list of all the new words from the first three volumes in this series. Before I present the links to the files, there are a couple of things I would like to say. To begin with, these are my personal lists, which means that they are not proof to mistakes or misunderstandings. I take no responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy of the definition, although I am fairly sure they are mostly correct (most of them are identical to the book). Since this series of text books use traditional characters, I have made no attempt to type in correct simplified alternatives. Also, since the characters from book one were much too easy for me, I have not been very careful with the English translation (most of the time is straight from the dictionary). Please use with caution. If you find any other mistakes, please let me know so that I can update these lists.

Second, the format I present these lists in is the ZDT backup format. This program is a wonderful help to learn Chinese and I have spent many hundreds of hours using it (the website is here and the program can be downloaded from here). Please refer to my article about revision in order to learn the advantages of ZDT’s time filter. You can use these lists in two ways. First, simply download and install ZDT, then use File >> Restore Data and select the files listed below (please check the box name Ignore stats, because otherwise my stats will disrupt the filters you use). Second, open the backup file in a text editor or spreadsheet software, and use the lists for whatever purpose you desire; the backup format is in plain text, so the lists should be useful even if for those who do not wish to use ZDT.

Finally, here are the three word lists; I hope they will help you study Chinese more efficiently!

Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 1
Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 2
Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 3

Link to words from book four, along with a review

Update: The word lists have been moved, but the links should be working properly now. I’ve also added a link to book four.

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

Update: This article was written a long time ago, so even if most of what I say here is still relevant, I have developed my revision strategy a lot. Check this post for some ideas.

This article is the third part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – Revision
Having read the first two posts in the this small series of articles, one might draw the conclusion that learning what a character means and how to write it is the most difficult and time-consuming part of studying Chinese. This is wrong in every repgard. The really difficult bit of studying Chinese is to have the discipline and time to revise what one has already learnt; in other words, not to forget what the first two parts of this series focused on. Since this is a problem that increases with one’s knowledge of the language, it is also something I personally feel is very important to discuss. Remembering how to write a character is a real problem for native Chinese as well, especially for those who do not write by hand as a part of their daily lives. Writing using a computer merely requires one to know how a character is pronounced and what it look like, which is not the same as being able to write it by hand.

That being said, I have used trial and error to find a suitable revision method (admittedly, after studying languages for many years, I had a good idea of what I wanted before). My original intention was to publish this article in close succession to the previous two parts, but I began altering my revision strategy at the same time, so I decided to wait until that change was fully implemented. What I present here is by no means based on any serious research, but it is founded on my rudimentary knowledge of psychology and a lot of consistent blood, sweat and tears.

Committing characters to long-term memory
If the disposable time was unlimited, it would probably be best to keep track of sets of characters (such as from a chapter in a book) separately and make sure that any given set of characters was revised occasionally. However, time is painfully limited and for reasons I will explain in the next section, I have come to the conclusion that two separate systems are needed for revising characters. What I will say about the initial phase, committing characters to long-term memory, is based on my own revision schedule, which looks like this:

Click for higher resolution image.

It is difficult to analyse this kind of data without proper software or knowledge, but basing my writing on feeling, reflection and studying of the chart above will probably get me somewhere. The blue boxes are checks from pinyin to characters using ZDT. This is by no means anything fancy, it just means that I go through all the characters in a random order and make sure I know how to write them. If I do not remember how to write them or write them incorrectly, I count that as an error and continue with the rest. After one round, the incorrectly answered characters appear again, and normally I have no problem the second time. Later, I repeat this procedure for the same chapter, noting the number of correct answers (the figures in the blue boxes). The most important question here is of course how often to do this in order to optimise retention.

If working with simple repetition (which is a fairly poor sort of revision anyway), the human mind works in a rather predictable pattern. The most important thing is to find out what that pattern is like for a given learning situation. I have found out a couple of truths about how my brain works when it comes to revising characters, and I am pretty sure than most of them are applicable to other people in other situations as well. Here is what I have found out about revision intervals:

As I have already stated, I do the initial learning in the evening, and the first revision session is directly afterwards. Once I have studied each and every character carefully (as described in the second article), I simply read through the list of characters, refreshing my mnemonics and making sure I know what the various parts mean. This is often done very quickly.Then I go to sleep. Immediately upon waking (or very soon thereafter), I carefully go through the list again, using a pinyin to character test again. This is not done in a hurry, but I actually make sure that I can write all the characters. Usually, I am able to remember between 80 and 85 percent of the characters from the evening before.

Then I do not touch the characters for the remainder of the day, or if I do, I just quickly skim through the list on my mobile phone waiting for the bus and suchlike. The next revision session is the next day (the third day since, counting the initial learning as the first day). It does not seem to matter when during the day I do this, but it has to be done the third day. After than, I should revise again on the fifth and eighth day, which usually leaves me with a score seldom below 95 % and often close to 100 %. Even if i do not revise further, I can usually remember how to write more than 95 % of the characters several weeks after the initial learning (see the first article for a discussion about how good is good enough). If I realise that I have a problem with specific characters even after this time, I put them in a separate category so as to be able to practice them without having to go through the entire chapter that contains them. This is obviously saves a lot of time.

In summary
Day 1, initial learning in the evening
Day 2, revision in the morning
Day 3, revision
Day 5, revision
Day 8, revision

Future revision and retention of characters
Even if the aforementioned procedure leaves me with a satisfactory 95 % knowledge of the characters in any give chapter, even weeks after the initial learning, this does not mean that the understanding is permanent. If characters were left unused and unrevised, I have no idea what the curve showing loss of writing ability to time would look like, but I am pretty sure it would be an unpleasant affair, so let us instead make sure that they are not left unrevised.

As I mentioned in the first article, it should also be noted that the goal is very important. Is it necessary to have 95 % retention or is 90 % or even 85 % satisfactory? The relationship between percentage of correct answers and time spent on revising is exponential, so think carefully about this one.

Before I go on to explain why I think a computer is an essential and powerful tool to study Chinese, I will discuss the problem that faces all those who study foreign languages, namely that of effective revision (so far I have only dealt with intervals, not how one goes about the actual revision). Simply using a text book to revise is abysmally ineffective, because it means that too much time is spent on revising vocabulary that does not need revision. Imagine, for instance, a chapter where I know 95 % of the characters and need to revise 5 %. Studying the entire chapter is a waste of time, time that could be spent on revising other characters or learning new ones.

This is where the computer comes in handy. As I have already said, I use ZDT for this, but I do not doubt that there is a plethora of programs out there on the web capable of doing the same thing. I will use ZDT as an example simply to explain what I mean. The key feature is what is called an interval filter. Running any of the various flashcard checks in the program, this filter adds X points to a flashcard each time the user gives a correct answer, and deducts Y points every time an incorrect answer is given. X and Y are of course parameters set by the user. Furthermore, there are parameters for every given value of the sum X and Y, in other words, the current score for a certain flashcard (a high value meaning that correct answers are frequent). These parameters govern how often a flashcard is shown if the interval filter is enabled.

Why is this so marvellous? Because, provided that the interval filter is set up correctly, it means that it is possible to only focus on the characters that really need revision. If a character seems to be easy (many correct answers), it will appear less and less frequently, until at last almost never. If the character is difficult, it will keep appearing very often until the number of correct answers increases. Likewise, if an old character is forgotten, its score will tumble and it will appear more frequently until it is mastered once again. This is impossible, or at least extremely impractical, to do without a computer. It will save a lot of time, even including the fact that it takes time to key in the characters in the first place (please note that wordlists from many text books are provided by users, including myself, on the ZDT page).

That being said, simple repetition is a poor revision method. It will work for many characters, but if I feel that some character is refusing to lodge itself in my long-term memory, I will change method for that character. Here are some ways of learning difficult characters:

– Create a sentence of your own
– Find a better mnemonic
– Draw a picture
– Count the number of strokes
– Check the various parts again
– Check etymology
– Look at other words including the character
– Read the source text

The only thing that is required apart from a system like this is diligence over time, which of course is extremely difficult, but which is something I will not even try to approach in this article (even though I have written about related topics here and here).

Revision in context
Perhaps this ought to be the topic for an entirely new article, but I feel that my writing about learning Chinese is beginning to spin out of control, so I will try to keep it short. In essence, the best (and perhaps only) way to learn a language is to follow up studying by revision in context. By this, I mean that it is necessary to encounter the characters or words in context a couple of times before being able to use them properly. Simply studying a text book and grammar will never instill the feeling for the language which is necessary for a high proficiency. Obtaining this feel is only achievable through reading and listening a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. I am sorry, but there are no shortcuts, no smart strategies or other ways to help; spending perhaps thousands of hours immersed in the language is the only way.

By way of conclusion, I would like to invite everybody to some sort of discussion. Have you thought about the topics for these three articles and have you related them to your own situation? Have you some experience you feel is relevant for what I have said or do you just want to voice your opinion? Perhaps you even have pertinent scientific material or references to share? Whatever it might be, please, go ahead and post a reply.

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