Tag: learning


Sep 2014

Confidence and Tones

It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:

Confidence Knowledge Quadrants

Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…

1. Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.

2. Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.

3. Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.

4. Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.

You need to KNOW the Tones

A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).

She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”

“I memorized them,” I said.

This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.

This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.

You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones

Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)

The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.

At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.

So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.


Aug 2014

Why You Won’t Learn Like a Child

It’s not that you can’t learn like a child, it’s that you won’t. You’re not willing to. Not because you aren’t committed, or aren’t smart enough, but because you’re an adult with a little bit of self-respect. And you get frustrated.

Have you ever hung out with a crazy friend who will go up to any stranger and say anything, seemingly without inhibitions? It’s awkward but also awe-inspiring, because it opens your eyes to how much your own inhibitions prevent you from doing and experiencing. This is sort of how I feel about my daughter as I watch her simultaneously acquire English and Chinese. Like all toddlers, she is awesome in so many ways that I feel that 99% of adult learners will not let themselves be.

You want to acquire language like a child? Here’s a list of things to do.

– Be told something is useful. Shrug it off and discard it because it’s boring and tackle something fun. [I see learners of Chinese tackle the HSK word list every day because they see it as “useful.” A child would not do this.]

– Say something wrong. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Etc…. and yet never lose the desire to keep communicating. [This is perhaps one of the most amazing things that kids can pull off. They know no shame, feel very little frustration, and when it comes to language-learning, that makes them invincible. They’ve never learned a language before, so have no idea “how they’re doing at it,” and don’t care.]

– Ask how to say something, forget two minutes later. Ask again. Forget 3 minutes later. Ask again. Forget one minute later. Ask again. Etc…. [Adults, quite simply, get quite embarrassed when they keep forgetting something that they feel they should be able to remember. Everyone has a limit, and eventually adults will get too embarrassed to keep asking.]

– Say something simple. Repeat it. Again and again, until your conversation partner is visibly agitated. Do the same thing the next day. You’re locking that in.

Working Lunch 7969
(Yeah, I’m in the middle of a non-sensical conversation with my mom, but she’ll wait.
photo: mliu92)

– Repeat something that you’ve just been told in order to confirm it. Then do it again. And again. Because why not do a triple or quadruple confirmation? You’re locking that in too.

– Say a word wrong, and get corrected on your pronunciation. Try to say it correctly, but fail. Shrug it off and doggedly continue with your incorrect pronunciation for now, because you know they understand what you mean (and hey, you’ll get it eventually!).

talk to the hand, the toddler is not listening
(Stop. I call it “pasgetti.” Now you just deal with that, and let’s move on.
photo: sesameellis)

– Ask how to say something. Discover the word is hard, and just dismiss it, as if you never really wanted to learn it anyway. Give your dad a withering “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that” look. [Adults will sometimes postpone difficult vocab, but very often, they’ll bite off more than they can chew rather than “retreat” and live to fight another day. My daughter repeatedly dismisses the English word “electricity.” In Chinese, “” is easy.]

– Tell your teacher super basic information all the time that your teacher obviously already knows. It’s like telling your Spanish teacher how to conjugate “estar,” or telling your math teacher about the Pythagorean Theorem. [They don’t need you to tell them this, but telling them helps you.]

– Talk and talk, even though you know you’re not making any sense. Use body language, tone of voice, and context to communicate something, anything. Then wait for the listener to try to make sense of that train wreck of a message, and just take it from there. Feel no shame.

– Make so little sense when you talk that you confuse your listeners. When they express their confusion, laugh at them. Then continue to not make sense if you feel like it.

(Whoa, whoa… who said anything about making sense? I’m just talking here. Come on, keep up, buddy.
photo: nautile)

If you can do all these things as a language learner, then congratulations! You are a rare learner indeed (or maybe roughly three years old?). You will learn quickly (if you don’t get shunned by too many native speakers for not acting “normal”).

But even if you can’t do these things, adults have lots of advantages over children, and no one expects you to learn like a child. Different ages call for different learning strategies. (But it doesn’t hurt to be just a little reckless in your learning, either.)


Jun 2014

Thoughts on Scott Young’s Immersion Experiment

I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.

Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.

On “No English”

I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.

I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.

But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).

On Studying before You Arrive

Me, Scott, Vat

Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.

This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.

I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.

On Preventing Friendships

In the guest post, Scott states:

> What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….

This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”

I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”

When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.

This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.


Jun 2014

Communication Is the Challenge

I have only vague memories of learning geometry in high school. I liked it because you got to draw stuff, and while some of my classmates hated doing proofs, I didn’t mind them so much. I saw them as sort of a puzzle, and the logic of the whole process appealed to me. I can’t say I ever really loved geometry or found it fun, however.

Euclid the Game

Fast forward to last weekend. I discovered “Euclid the Game” on Hacker News. It presents geometric challenges as a sort of game. It’s essentially the same as proofs, but rather than “prove this boring thing” it challenges you, and gives you a little toolbar with geometric “weapons” you can apply. One of the things that impressed me most is that after you demonstrate that you know how to construct a parallel or perpendicular line, or how to translate a line–with simpler tools–you gain new “shortcut buttons” for those tasks in your toolbar. Nice!

Anyway, the point of all this is that learning is a lot more fun when it’s presented as a fun challenge. How many of us had to learn geometry by memorizing axioms, and then theorems, and then drudging through joyless proofs? With this “Euclid the Game,” the challenge factor keeps you going, and the stuff you’re supposed to memorize you just kind of “pick up” because you need it to solve the challenges. And the cherry on top is that there’s more than one correct way to solve the challenges, because, hey, geometry is flexible like that.

Does any of this sound familiar? (Yes, I’m talking about language learning.)

If you treat a language as a big long list of words and grammar points, then yes, you can drudge through it just like any other horrible soul-sucking schoolwork. But in language, the real challenge should always be communication with another human being. If your language learning method doesn’t involve this crucial feature, it’s time to start questioning your methods.

Maybe geometry isn’t your thing at all, and unlike me, you could never get into “Euclid the Game.” But everyone enjoys communicating. Put down the flashcards and take up the challenge.



Jun 2014

Never Trust a Native Speaker

A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.

Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:

#1: Ignorance

Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.

The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:

– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?

A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).

So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.

So to address the types of questions mentioned above:

– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)

When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.

[See also: Olle’s take on this at Hacking Chinese.]

#2: Cockiness

OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.

The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)


Learning English from a cocky teacher

When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:

The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?

When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!

I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.

It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.

#3: Impossibility

This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).

In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.

And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.

So… what now?

I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.

No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.

If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.

Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:

1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions

When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):

1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name

(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)

Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.


May 2014

Multilingual, Multi-Personality

Dining out in Chinatown

Photo by London Transport Museum

In the past, I’ve speculated on how the second language acquisition process contributes to changes in the personality of the learner. Recently an article called Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities on New Republic caught my attention. It turns out it’s actually based on the same research as I quoted in my Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice post, but it’s still an interesting topic well worth revisiting (5 years later).


This time, rather than insights, though, I just have questions. I’m curious how my readers out there might answer the following:

1. Do you consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your foreign language (FL) speaking identity?

2. If you don’t consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your FL identity, how do you determine if your FL personality is any different from your native language identity?

3. If certain languages tend to influence personality in a certain way (as the New Republic article suggests), what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?


Here are my own answers:

1. Yes, I did that. I could only keep it up for so long, though, before my fluency made me self-conscious about maintaining my more outgoing, chatty Chinese self. I suspect that some people might be able to keep it up, though, depending on the specific “personality modifications” and the degree to which they’re applied.

2. Even after I “corrected” my Chinese self, making it more like my English-speaking self, my two personalities aren’t going to be 100% the same, if the New Republic article is to be believed (and I believe it). Most people I know don’t have the language skills or the opportunity to make such a comparison. Maybe Jenny from ChinesePod is in a decent position to judge, but she knows me mostly from how I am at work. That leaves basically just my wife, who’s not a native speaker of English, but is still in a good position to judge. No way to get an objective assessment, though (short of participating in an official experiment)!

3. This is really hard to say. One way to judge might be to look at how expats in China relate to each other in China, compared to how they relate back home. For example, they may be less shy about asking someone how much they make (kind of a taboo in most western countries). So… speaking Chinese makes you nosier about money?? Not exactly insightful. Obviously, there are problems with the method, too. I’m especially curious what other people think about this: what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?

Leave a comment and answer all three questions, if you have the time! (Insight into acquisition of any language is fine; it doesn’t have to be Chinese.)


Aug 2013

On Delayed Language Acquisition

JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:

> Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.

> I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.

> Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.

Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!

The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.

No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.

For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?

Pork Chops Are Marinating

Mmmm, nuance. (photo by Merelymel13)

The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.

To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.


Nov 2012

What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:

1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)

2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)

To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]

OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).

A few additional notes for beginners:

* Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
* Particles are something new. Some of them, like and , aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like , will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
* Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word . So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with , but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.


Nov 2012

Animal House for Studying Chinese

We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.

Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!

Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)

Anyway, happy Friday! 中文!中文!中文!中文!中文!


Aug 2012

Better Chinese, Worse iPad Skills

I’ve heard some good things about a program for school kids called Better Chinese. Like many modern Chinese learning programs, Better Chinese is also on the iPad learning bandwagon. This screenshot from the website features the app:

Better Chinese, Worse iPad Skills

Yikes! How’d they get a kid from the late 70’s to pose with that iPad, and why didn’t they tell him not to use a pen with that touchscreen?

I’m sure we’ll all figure out how to learn Chinese using these touchscreen tablets sooner or later…


Jul 2012

How I Learned Chinese (part 3)

I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?

I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…


After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.

And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.

Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.


It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.


The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.

I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.

Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.

Goals do help

So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.

What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.

When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.

Remember that plateau?

The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.

For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…


Jul 2012

Bombing the Wall of Characters

Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”

No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.

Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.

Today, however, I’d like to introduce a tool of a different sort. One that operates on the “primitive and ignorant” level of the “wall of characters.” It’s a “bomb” in a more literal (but digital) sense of the word, a toy called fontBomb.

I’ve found that applying fontBomb to the “wall of characters” is surprisingly satisfying, in the same way that smashing glass can be satisfying, and looks cool to boot. Here’s a video I made (sorry, YouTube only):

fontBombing Chinese Wikipedia

FontBomb is easy to use and apply to any page of text. Happy bombing!


Jun 2012

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

> When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I’m still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.

> “Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:

> 2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).

> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

> The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.

> As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3”, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.

> My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.

(David Moser is the guy who once explained why learning Chinese is so damn hard.)

My own experiences:

I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.

Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)

What’s the deal?

It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!

It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.

The good news

The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!

I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?

I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:

– Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
– Chinese learning materials are getting better
– Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
– Competition is naturally raising the bar
– Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall

This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!

One more thing

Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:

> Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.

Very true.

Speaking a Foreign Language without Translating


Feb 2012

Speaking a Foreign Language without Translating

Friends of mine have asked me many times: can you really speak Chinese without translating it first in your head? And when I answer yes, the follow-up question is: but how can you get to that point? I have to translate everything!

There’s both an implied lie and a rather direct lie in that follow-up question.

“But how can you get to that point?”

The problem is that it’s not a “point.” There’s no instant when you can suddenly stop translating completely. Rather, you stop translating longer and longer stretches of language. Over time, what was once long stretches of language which needed to be translated, interspersed with only occasional words you understood, eventually becomes long stretches of language which don’t need to be translated, interrupted only by the occasional need for translation.

“I have to translate everything!”

Do you? Do you have to translate 你好 (“hi”)? Do you have to translate 谢谢 (“thank you”)? To tell someone you don’t want something, do you have to consciously translate “I don’t want it” into 不要? Or do you just blurt them out?

Sure, when you first start out, you have to learn these expressions, and then you do have to translate them when you first start using them. But especially if you’re in the target language environment, their usage starts to become automatic quite quickly. I observed 你好 and 谢谢 becoming automatic for my parents during their recent two-week visit. They don’t speak a lot of Chinese, but even they were “speaking without translating” relatively quickly.

With enough practice, more and more words and phrases become automatic. You don’t feel your brain shirking its translation duties; it just happens so naturally. When you finally realize it’s happening, that you’re starting to understand and process not just individual words and short phrases, but whole sentences without even translating them, it feels a little surreal. It’s kind of like one of those Escher works. You really can’t pinpoint at what point the bird became a fish.

But the truth is, if you’ve been not just “studying,” but using your language skills for any length of time, the ebbing of conscious translation has already begun. If you try, you can sort of feel it. It’s this weird sensation called “fluency” creeping up on you, ever so subtly.


Jan 2012

Personal Experience with the Other Particle “ma”

I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle . I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle , but not this new , which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this was all about.

So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up . Here’s what I found:

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.

I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.

But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?

Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:

How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?

For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the entry did just that, right when I needed it.

Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.

Related Grammar Links:

Yes/No Questions with 吗 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)
Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


Sep 2011

A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

> Me: Hi, how’s it going?

> Student: [confused] Going?

> Me: Hello, how are you?

> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

> Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.


Aug 2011

Shanghai Internships for Learning Chinese

Today marks the end of the summer internships at AllSet Learning. We had our first intern, Donna, last summer. That was when the company was just starting out. Since we now have quite a few more clients and a whole team of teachers, there were a lot more interesting tasks for this summer’s interns, Lucas and Hugh. And their internships were pretty cool, directly related to learning Chinese.

Some of the things the AllSet Learning interns got to do:

Lucas and Hugh

– Take demo lessons to help evaluate different teachers’ teaching methods
– Play with “Chinese character building blocks” (a children’s educational toy set), experimenting with Chinese character constructions
– Provide feedback on various types of learning materials, from comics to Communist Party doctrine to iPad apps
– Help research and compile Chinese grammar information
– Test the effect of regular tone pair drills
– Participate in game-like components of teacher training sessions
– Play Settlers of Catan (and explain it in Chinese)
– Eat 东北菜 (pictured above)

One of the things I personally gained from having the interns around the office was a reminder of the very specific early challenges learners of Chinese face. But I also saw firsthand how the new generation of learners is coming to China much better prepared and knowledgeable. One of my interns, Hugh, even has an excellent blog on learning Chinese called East Asia Student. I’ve mentioned it before, but the days of coming to China clueless and expecting to have opportunities thrown at you really are winding down (or at least moving to China’s smaller cities).

Anyway, if you’re a bright young mind looking for an internship that offers the opportunity to learn Chinese, we’ve got them at AllSet Learning.

And finally, a sincere thank you to Lucas and Hugh for their hard work this summer. You guys were great!


Jun 2011

Learning to Write Chinese Characters on the iPad

One of the reasons I rushed to get an iPad for my own company is that the iPad is the leading tablet computer device, and tablet computers, with their relatively large touch-driven screens, seem uniquely poised to offer a great learning experience for a new generation of learners. Now that the iPad has been out for a year, developers have had some time to dig into iOS and create some cool apps for learning to write Chinese characters.

The only problem is that they haven’t yet. It’s not that they haven’t done anything, it’s just that no major player with a lot of resources has put a lot of effort into creating a superior app just for teaching writing. Significant effort has gone into Pleco‘s iOS handwriting recognition and OCR function, but neither of these teaches writing.

Before I go into my reviews of the handful of Chinese writing apps I found, I should first pose a question: what should an app that teaches Chinese characters do? This is a question that at times seems neglected by app creators. It’s easier to focus on what can be done with an app, rather than what needs to be done for real learning.

To effectively teach the writing of Chinese characters in a comprehensive way, an app would need to do the following:

1. Introduce the basic strokes, emphasizing the direction in which each is written and the shape of each.
2. Introduce the building blocks of Chinese characters, calling attention to how they function is a part of a whole.
3. Introduce the various structural types exhibited by Chinese characters, and the order in which characters’ various component parts should be written.
4. Introduce new characters in a progressive way, building on what has come before, while still trying to stick to useful characters as much as possible.
5. Provide practice writing the characters and give feedback.

This issue goes way beyond the scope of this blog post, but the point is that most of the apps out there now stick mainly to #5. Because most of the apps are largely about practicing writing, I’m going to talk mostly about the concepts of tracing and feedback. Now onto the reviews…

iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer

Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (it’s in the name!)
Feedback Yes, a green star tells you where to start writing when you go off track. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer is a very polished app. It’s attractive and was clearly crafted with care. The issue of stroke direction takes center stage in this app, as a star in a green circle tells you where to start, and a series of numbers in little circles show you which way to make the strokes.

iPad Apps for Writing

While the app is not a course in characters (which would need to go through numbers 1-4 I outlined above), it does offer a nice collection of characters to choose from, ranging from a frequency list to common phrases. I missed this feature at first, and it definitely adds a lot.

iPad Apps for Writing

Overall, the app shows a lot of attention to detail. It wasn’t created to be a writing course, so it’s mainly a polished “writing practice app,” and its name very clearly states what this app is all about: tracing. It can’t help you with recalling characters without any prompt and writing them out.

On the plus side, I actually met with the main developer in Shanghai, and he seems quite open to suggestions for improvement, and has plans to make the app better. (Full disclosure: the developer let me try out this app for free.)

If you’ve already learned how to write characters and are looking for a mechanical way to practice writing on your iPad, this app is not a bad choice.

trainchinese Chinese Writer

Price: Free (for the basic app)

Feature Description
Tracing Yes, in game form
Feedback Yes, a big red “X” tells you when you make a mistake but gives you no immediate clue where you went wrong. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

I really like that this app tries to be a game. It’s not the most fun game in the world, but I’ve seen more than one learner really get into it. The timed aspect also adds another dimension which makes the “trace the strokes” mechanic a bit less monotonous (at least for a while). I also like the options in the beginning (although that screen with its crazy animated background is a little busy).

iPad Apps for Writing

The way the game works is that characters slowly drop for the top of the screen. You tap them once to zoom in, then quickly trace over them to “destroy” them. That’s it. If you can write a character especially fast, you are praised with a “很快” (“very fast”). If you’re too slow or keep getting the strokes wrong, the character eventually drops off the bottom of the screen, and that’s one strike against you.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

One of the best things about the app is that at the end, after you’ve gotten your 5 wrong characters and the game is over, the game shows you which characters you got right and which you got wrong, and then you can review the correct stroke order for the ones you got wrong. The app is never especially clear about the direction of strokes, however.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

In the end, it’s tracing only, and the characters are chosen at random. The app is solid, though, and it’s free. Not bad for basic mechanical writing practice.

Chinese Writer for iPad

Price: Free (tutorial only; additional account required for other functionality)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Yes, the correct stroke flashes on the screen when you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No

Chinese Writer sets itself apart in that it is not a tracing app. It’s slightly confusing at first, because (1) the app button is labeled “ChinesePad,” and (2) it seems like you have to sign up for a Popup Chinese account to use the app, since neither the simplified or traditional “practice mode” seem to do anything. Apparently only the “tutorial mode” is available if you don’t have a subscription (that button works).

iPad Apps for Writing

As you write each stroke, the app shows your stroke in red, but it doesn’t actually save it on the screen; it either accepts it as “correct” and replaces it with a print-style version of the stroke, or it rejects it and erases it, flashing the correct stroke in the correct place to prompt you.

iPad Apps for Writing

In theory, the app is fine, sort of a simpler version of the Skritter system. It can be confusing, though, rejecting seemingly perfect strokes, and rejecting quite imperfect ones.

The app is free, and will be updated in time, according to Dave Lancashire, the developer. When asked if it will stay free, his reply was, “I can’t see changing the price, although you should tell people it will be $99.99 next week so GET IT NOW!”


Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (optional)
Feedback No automated feedback, just a layer of numbers to indicate where strokes should start
Free-form writing Yes

Chinagram is not free and contains a very limited number of characters, but in many ways, it’s my favorite of these apps. While it doesn’t teach strokes or radicals, it does show the evolution of the characters through various scripts over time, and offers graphics to help clarify the pictographic characters.


I also like how the app offers very free-form writing practice. There’s no computer program to tell you you’re right or wrong. There’s simply a faint guide which can be switched on or off, and some little guide numbers to help with stroke order, which are not tied to the tracing guide, and can also be independently turned on or off. This simple combination of options makes for a quite satisfying range of writing practice possibilities.



With Chinagram, it does kind of feel like you’re paying for design and pretty graphics, but let’s face it: characters are graphic. Chinagram offers an attractive and appealing, although somewhat limited, introduction to the writing of Chinese characters. I’d still want more instruction on how to write characters than this app offers, but it definitely goes farther than the three above.

(See also my original review of Chinagram.)

Chinese Handwriting Input + Notes

Price: Free (comes with the iPad)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Indirectly, because if you’re too far off in your stroke order, the character you’re trying to write won’t appear
Free-form writing Yes

One of the things that struck me while reviewing these iPad apps is that (1) many of them assume some previous study of characters, and (2) if you’ve previously studied characters, there’s probably nothing better than just writing. And the iPad let’s you do that out of the box. All you need to do is enable Chinese handwriting input:

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

Once you’ve got that working, go into the “Notes” app (or anything that lets you write text, really), and just try to write something. You’ll learn a lot just by the act of writing the characters stroke by stroke, and identifying the one you want from the resulting list of characters. If you get a character totally wrong, chances are, it won’t be in the list. Try again.

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

(In the example above on the right, the correct character “写” meaning “to write” is written in a way that is clearly recognizable, but does not appear in the list of resulting characters because the stroke order/direction used was totally wrong.)

This really is not a bad option for practicing writing, especially if you have someone you can write to.

My conclusion: these apps are worth checking out, but better writing apps for Chinese are still needed!

I have a student intern at AllSet named Lucas, who kindly gave me his own feedback on the four apps above. Lucas has studied Chinese for three years in college, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai for the summer. I asked him to rank the four apps, and make some comments about each. Here are his independent picks, #1 being his favorite:

1. Chinesegram: “Seeing the picture and comparing the scripts and evolution helps me remember them better.”

2. Word Tracer: “Helpful for learning stroke order, but a bit over-sensitive, which can be frustrating.”

3. trainchinese Chinese Writer: “Kinda funny, I guess, but I don’t like the time pressure.”

4. Chinese Writer for iPad: “It’s too sensitive; it kept making me redraw the strokes.”

Related: iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)


Nov 2010

Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction

A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?

I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)

He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:

  1. Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?

    As I’ve said before, tones were the single most difficult part of learning Chinese for me, and I know it’s true for many other students as well. More needs to be done. We make this a major focus at AllSet Learning, but most schools really drop the ball on this one.

  2. Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.

    Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.

    Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.

    It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)

What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?


Nov 2010

Why Learning Chinese Is Hard

I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

> needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.

But John also says:

> …learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.

While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.

Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill

When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.

Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.

Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:

> Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

> Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

> Learner: Really? Let me try.

> [I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

> Learner: This is harder than it looks!

> Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

> [5 minutes pass.]

> Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.

The Jazzy Juggler

photo by Jeff Kubina

In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?

This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”

The Hard Part

When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.

Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.

See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:

> What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!

This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!

The Good News

The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)

I essentially expressed this point a while back when I compared the difficulty of learning Chinese and Japanese:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.

You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?

Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.

There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser
…so, you want to learn Chinese? by Brendan O’Kane
Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language by Ben Ross
How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really? by Albert Wolfe
Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It? by Truett Black
Learning Chinese isn’t hard by John Biesnecker

Relevant Sinosplice content:

The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills
Chinese Pronunciation
Tone-related blog posts