Real immersion: Learning Chinese at Keats in Kunming

One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to join a Chinese language program in China. One of the key players in this field is Keats School in Kunming. They facilitate Chinese classes, accommodation, events and much more. I talked to the co-founder of Keats School Zier Liu (刘子尔) and asked her why students keep returning every year and how Keats adepts to the present Covid-situation.

In the realm of Chinese language education Keats is a household name. How did you start out?  

Keats School was founded in 2004 in Kunming. At that time, there was no Chinese language school in Kunming. Many foreign friends wanted to learn Chinese but had no luck to study at a professional language school. The founder Mrs. Xue Feng used to be a doctor in the First Provincial Hospital of Yunnan and then quit her job to start Keats School. I joined her in 2013, after I competed my bachelor studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The biggest challenge we had was how to create efficient methods for westerners to learn Chinese in an easy and fun way. Many students are intimidated when learning Chinese as they tend to think it is the most difficult language in the world. After years of research and development, we finally got what we want. Many students like our interactive and efficient ways of teaching and they keep coming back to Keats every year.

There are many Chinese language programs for foreigners in China. What does make Keats stand out?

Keats School has the most professional Chinese teaching team in Kunming. We also have developed our own in-house Learn-Repeat-Recognize-Produce (known as LRRP) learning methodology, which includes many methods that help students learn practical Chinese fast.

All of our Chinese classes are carefully prepared and delivered by certified Chinese teachers. The teaching team will review the learning content and collect feedback from students on a regular basis. This ensures that every student can enjoy the Chinese class at a comfortable pace and learn efficiently.

In terms of operation scale, as of 2021, our headquarters in Kunming owns 53 single dorm rooms with private bathrooms, gym, cafeteria, and 60 classrooms with computers in the school building.

We believe that students not only need professional Chinese teachers but also a Chinese language immersion environment. Therefore, we organize all kinds of activities with Chinese people outside of classrooms, so that you can practice your Chinese with your Chinese language partners.

What sort of qualifications do your teachers require?

When we select teachers, the teachers must have either 教师资格证 (teacher license required at a public school issued by the government) or 国际汉语教师资格证 (Certificate for Teachers of Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages issued by the Confucius Institute). This is just the very basic and intro requirement for the interview. If one passes the interview, the candidate has to take the training at Keats and learn to use Keats methods. Only by passing the training selection, the candidate can officially become a Keats teacher. The teachers will also be evaluated by the students to make sure that the student is satisfied with the progress made.

Kunming is probably not on top of the list for most people who want to join a Chinese language program in China. Why should learners of Chinese come to Kunming?

Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan province. Reputable as the “Eternal Spring City”, Kunming has the mildest climate in China, allowing you to escape the scorching heat during summer and the bitter coldness in winter. There are countless cultural and natural touring attractions for you to experience after your Chinese classes or during the weekends and holiday.

Unlike other major Chinese cities, Kunming is a city where you enjoy a slow-paced life while maintaining modern convenience. Since it is a less well-known Chinese city with fewer international people, Kunming offers more chances for language learners to practice speaking Chinese with locals during their stay.

Though Kunming is not as developed as Beijing and Shanghai, it is still easy to reach in terms of transportation. Kunming is already considered the transportation hub of Southwest China and is working hard to become the international transportation hub of Southeast Asia too. Kunming boasts the fifth largest international airport in China, making it convenient to fly in and out from this lovely city to different corners of the world.

Famous for the diversity of plants and animals, Kunming is the home for The Conference of the Parties (COP 15), which is a United Nations environment program.

Kunming has cleaner air than Beijing and Shanghai and is an ideal place for a comfortable stay.

Due to the pandemic visiting China from abroad can be difficult. What do people who want to come Kunming and join one of your Chinese language programs need to know?

The Chinese border is only partially open to international people at the moment. We’re still waiting for a policy-update regarding international students. We would suggest to pay close attention to the updates from your local Chinese Embassy to find out when you can hand in a student visa application. We would be happy to provide the invitation letter and other required documents to facilitate your visa application. We also post regular updates on our blog.

Since last year, Chinese people have pretty much been living a normal life and are back to work. Vaccination programs are proceeding here as well and it is estimated that 80% of the Chinese population will complete their COVID-19 vaccination by the end of this year. All Keats teachers and staffs have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and only a few infections cases have been reported in Kunming in the past half year, so you don’t have to worry about your safety when learning in Kunming. Keats School has also prepared an emergency plan to take care of the students in case that there is a breakout or lockdown.

What’s the best time to come to Kunming?

Many students choose to study at our school during summer and winter vacations. It is mainly due to the mild climate weather of Kunming. Besides the weather elements, many students choose to study at our school during touring season as well (from June to September, December to next May).

Yunnan province, where Kunming is located, is the most popular touring destination in China. Not only for its amazing landscapes, varying from tropical forests to snow-capped mountains, but also for its abundant ethnic minority group cultures.  All these destinations can be reached conveniently from Kunming.

Yunnan is a large province that is home to 25 different ethnic minority groups. Therefore, the ethnic minority festivals time – Songkran Festival for example – is also a very popular period of learning. Many students choose to study at Keats before the festival and fly from Kunming to Xishuangbanna to enjoy the water celebration.

What about the local Kunming dialect? Is it very different from Standard Mandarin?

The Kunming dialect, which belongs to the northern dialect family, is quite similar to Mandarin. China is a vast country where you will hear various dialects from north to south. But Kunming dialect is definitely simple to understand. Most people you meet in Kunming can speak standard Mandarin: excellent for practicing Mandarin on the street or in a restaurant.

You offer courses not only in Kunming but in several locations. Can you tell me more about that?

Keats School has set up a few branch schools in different locations such as Lijiang, Dali, Xishuangbanna, Jingmai Tea Mountain, Jianshui, Yuanyang, Tengchong and Puzhehei. Our students can combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan.

Which Chinese programs do you offer?

We have 8 major Chinese programs available currently:

Which program is the most popular and why?

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes, the Small Group Chinese Class, the HSK Test Preparation Course and Online Chinese lessons have been the most popular ones since 2004, because by following these programs students can really boost their Chinese proficiency.

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes offer the most immersive Chinese language experience. You can choose to study one-on-one with a certified Mandarin teacher for 4 hours per day or 6 hours per day. The course content will be completely customized according to your level and your goals. It is the fastest way to improve your Chinese.

If you are looking for a budget-friendly program in China, then the Small Group Chinese Classes at Keats is the best option. The price is low, but you can still enjoy personal attention in class with no more than 5 students. The Small Group Chinese Classes are lasting for 4 hours per day, with levels from new HSK 1 to new HSK 9.

As Chinese language is getting popular, we have seen a huge increase in the need of taking the HSK test. It is required to enter a Chinese university and to work for Chinese companies. By doing research in helping students pass the HSK test led by Keats head teachers, Keats maintains a 94% passing rate with 42% of all Keats students taking the HSK Test Preparation Course.

What about online courses?

Because of the pandemic more and more students start to take online Chinese lessons with Keats. The added value is that you can learn Chinese anytime and anywhere. We offer online Chinese lessons 24/7 to fit your schedule. You can decide when to take the lessons and how many hours of lessons you would like to buy. You can even start with a 5-hour package. At this moment, the online lessons are delivered one-on-one. The small group online lessons are coming soon.

Which Chinese language level do I need if I want to join one of your programs? What if I’m a (almost) complete beginner?

There is no minimal requirement of language level for enrolling in Keats Language programs. No matter which level you are in, beginner or advanced learner, we can always provide an appropriate learning schedule for you, based on your current language level and learning goals.

If you’re a complete beginner, your teacher will start with basic content such as Pinyin and standard pronunciation to help you lay a solid foundation before you can move to the next stage.

What does a typical study week look like?

According to your learning plan, you will attend Chinese classes from Monday to Friday, 4 to 6 hours per day. Aside from the Chinese class, you will enjoy a series of Chinese cultural activities and events organized by Keats School.

Free language exchange will be held on Monday and Wednesday evening (only offered in Kunming). You will be able to practice what you have learned in the classroom in real-life situations with native speakers.

Every Tuesday is movie night or drama night at Keats; Every Thursday, a cultural night will be organized with cultural activities or DIY classes such as Chinese mahjong, Chinese tea tasting, dumplings making, Chinese paper cutting, Chinese painting, etc.

Every Friday night is snack night where you and your Chinese friends will try local snacks.

On weekends, you can sign up for the free Saturday excursion with a Keats Chinese teacher and your Chinese language partners. By joining the excursion, you can make the most out of your time by sightseeing and learning at the same time.

You mentioned Chinese language partners…?

Yes, we also facilitate language exchanges and can match you up with a native Chinese speaker. Keats has an English school which has many English learners who are eager to learn English and make friends with foreigners. We organize language exchange activities every week.

If I were to plan a two-month study visit in Kunming and maybe some of the other locations you offer, what would the costs be (rough estimation)?

Taking the Intensive one-on-one Chinese classes as example, the price of a 8-week study varies in different locations. The prices listed below include one-on-one lessons and accommodation for your reference:

  • Kunming USD 5,700
  • Dali USD 8,178
  • Lijiang USD 8,178
  • Jianshui USD 8,178
  • Tengchong USD 8,550
  • Puzhehei USD 8,550
  • Yuanyang USD 8,550
  • Xishuangbanna USD 8,798
  • Jiangmai Tea Mountain USD 8,798

How can you combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan? Can I change location every week for example?

The multi-location option is currently only offered for the intensive one-on-one Chinese program. You can choose to study at different locations with a duration that fits your schedule.

For example, you are planning to study at Keats for 8 weeks, you can study in Kunming for 4 weeks and study in Dali for 2 weeks, and study in Lijiang for 2 weeks or even spend 1 week at each location. You can decide how many weeks you want to spend at each location and then combine them together.

It is completely customized and flexible. You can let us know which locations you’re interested in and what cultural activities or classes you would like to join. We will also recommend to you the best time of visiting and duration of staying at different locations. Aside from learning, if you need any assistance with a local touring trip, we would be happy to arrange it for you as well. 

What do students value the most about their experience with Keats?

Keats welcomes 40% returning students each year and many of them come to study at Keats every year. What keeps them coming back? It must be the Chinese course quality and school facilities. The Keats teaching team is always dedicated to delivering the best Chinese class for students. No matter what level you have and what your learning goals are, Keats School will accommodate the learning schedule to help you achieve them. Well-furnished dorm room and well-organized school facilities bring every Keats students the warmth of home. Keats Team also provides thoughtful service and assistance for students in both aspects of study and life. This ensures that you will enjoy a hassle-free learning time at Keats School.

I noticed that one of your former students is Ruben Terlou who made several, successful documentaries about China. Are there other “famous” ex-Keats students?

Yes, Ruben studied at Keats and we admire his films as well. I think we do have many great students. Each year, Keats attracts a lot of top-level people in their fields. Most Keats students are gap-year students, university students, PhDs, lawyers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, teachers, tour guides, managers, IT developers, scientists, government clerks, photographers and artists etc. The language environment at Keats is not only immersive but also academic. All students who come to study at Keats are really serious about learning Chinese and their progress, so they want to spend their time in a professional Chinese school. But they are all low-key people and very humble.

What are your plans for the future?

Keats School will keep working hard on providing the best Chinese language and culture programs for our students. Now the NEW HSK has been launched, we have redesigned our HSK Test preparation course accordingly as well. To offer more destinations in China as options for learning, we will set up more branch locations in other Chinese cities where students can enjoy relaxing cultural immersion and also efficient Chinese courses. At Keats School, we aim not only to help students learn the Chinese language, but also to help students find their potential for the Chinese language and Chinese culture.

Everyone has a dream, Keats also has a dream. Keats’ core value is to make your dream come true, so Keats offers the most affordable immersion Chinese language programs. Every student is a milestone to Keats because we are one step closer to make our dream come true.

Where can people who are interested read reviews and find out more about you?

You are welcome to find more about Keats School and other students’ stories and experience in Kunming on our website. You can learn about other students’ experience with the Intensive One-on-one Chinese course here or here (for students’ experience with the Small Group Chinese Classes) or simply contact us directly.

I hoped you enjoyed this interview with 刘子尔 from Keats school! If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment down below.

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Can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards?

The Pleco Chinese dictionary is a crucial app for Chinese learners. What about the Pleco flashcards add-on though, are they worth spending 10 bucks? Are they really essential or can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons!

The benefits of Pleco Flashcards

Pleco flashcards are a popular means to organize and train vocabulary. Say you’re in Taiwan or China and receiving tons of new input every day. How to keep track of all that new vocabulary? Are you going to write down the Pinyin and later add the character(s) and meaning? In such a scenario working with Pleco flashcards might be the superior approach:

  • Pleco combines dictionary functionality with a flashcard system. It’s very efficient to create flashcards based on your search history and to sort them by different categories. Scroll through your search history to bookmark those characters for further learning.
  • If you like reading the news or any other Chinese text: Pleco allows you to bookmark important vocabulary from any given text while using the clipboard reader.
  • The flashcards contain the link to the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Spaced repetition supports efficient memorization. More advanced users know how to tweak the settings to their personal tastes.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.

Hidden dangers?

So, are Pleco flashcards the ultimate learning solution? Well, I personally think that the pros certainly outweigh the cons. If you have a goal of learning 100 new characters every month, Pleco flashcards allow you to realize this goal in a smart and efficient manner, helping you to keep track of your progress. There are some hidden dangers though which become more apparent the more frequent you use this feature:

  • The easier it gets to create flashcards, the harder it becomes to maintain order. Flashcards have a tendency to pile up. You can’t keep track of them all. This raises some questions like: should I really memorize every new word? Which words are truly relevant, which words can wait or even be dumped? As far as SRS is concerned all words are equally important.
  • The more cards are due every day, the more time you spend simply reviewing vocabulary. Is that the essence of language learning?
  • Is 100 percent retention a realistic goal or tyranny? How much time and energy do you want to spend on memorizing every single input? Shouldn’t it be acceptable to forget an X percentage of vocabulary?
  • Even though Pleco SRS flashcards make learning Chinese vocabulary considerably more convenient and manageable, we partly outsource the autonomy of our learning by allowing the algorithm to make daily decisions for us. It automatizes the process of vocabulary learning to some extent. We do control the algorithm of course and you can set up different test profiles, but I think there’s something to the idea that by employing such tools we become a little like these tools. The main point being that vocabulary learning shouldn’t turn into a blind automatism.
This video shows how you can change the standard dictionary settings to be able to turn example sentences into flashcards.

What kind of learner are you?

All of these “hidden dangers” don’t have to be a real problem as long as you’re aware of them. The ultimate article about pros and cons of flashcard learning by Sinosplice notes that whether you like flashcards or not really depends on what kind of learner you are:

Over the years of working with lots of different learners of Chinese through AllSet Learning, I have noticed a very clear trend: analytical, programmer-types loooove SRS. It’s the efficiency of it, having the “checklist” where nothing gets omitted. These types of learners can find SRS a Godsend which changes their studies completely, and they often evangelize for SRS quite a bit.

However, learners much more interested in talking in Chinese, or reading in Chinese, may find the preoccupation with flashcards a bit off-putting and unnecessary. If you really are speaking Chinese all day, or reading for hours and hours every week, you may not need SRS flashcards as much.

Sinosplice: SRS Flashcards: Pros and Cons

So now what?

Are Pleco flashcards as essential to learning Chinese as fuel to a flying airplane? On the one hand, this depends on your learning situation. If you’re intensively studying Chinese, whether in China or at home, you might want to consider Pleco flashcards as probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways to organize, keep track of and ultimately memorize new vocabulary. In the heat of the moment, Pleco flashcards definitely beat a notebook or any other app I know of. On the other hand, if you’re not that analytical kind of learner, you’re probably not going to find salvation using flashcards, although it may very well support your learning in a useful way.

My opinion

As far as I am concerned: I’m somewhere in between. My motivation for flashcard learning seems to be coming in waves. I appreciate how Pleco combines dictionary and flashcards, allowing me to keep track of what I’m learning, but I have a hard time keeping that motivation for daily reviews over a longer period of time. This goes against my better judgement, because daily reviewing (even 10 minutes) really does make a difference. The effects are real. In the end, it’s up to ourselves how to make the best use out of this Pleco feature. It’s not the one-size-fits-all vocabulary learning solution or the nr. 1 method to memorize vocabulary for everybody, but it most certainly is a powerful tool that has enhanced the way many people learn Chinese as a foreign language and will continue to do so until something better comes along.

What’s your opinion about Pleco flashcards? Are they a godsend or can you do without them? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

Further reading

Many long-term Pleco users have shared their favorite configurations and other tips:

  • How to Use Pleco to Really Learn Chinese: “As a Chinese-language learner living in China, Pleco is the most important app on my phone. Some days, I spend more time on it than WeChat.”
  • My Pleco flashcard setup: “The way I use the flashcard feature evolved over time. Now it is in a state that helps me learn new words faster. Therefore I will present to you the way I use Pleco’s flashcard feature in this post! You will learn about the different test profiles I have set up. Additionally, I will explain to you, how I customized Pleco’s scoring algorithm.”
  • Pleco flashcards: “If you are not familiar with Pleco’s flashcard system yet, be sure to continue reading on how to set up an ideal spaced repetition testing system.”
  • My Pleco flashcard configuration: “After going through various internet resources and using it for over a year, I’ve found a configuration that works for me. So I thought I would share it here.”
  • Is the flashcard upgrade worth 10 bucks?: “Do you guys think it’s worth it getting the flashcards upgrade on the app? Is there a limit to how many you can make in the demo?”
  • HSK 3.0 Flashcards: The Pleco flashcards for the new HSK.

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10 tips for learning Chinese in China

Chinese has gained popularity among language learners owing to the rapid economic growth of China. Many students would like to study Chinese in China as communicating with native Chinese speakers on a regular basis is one of the most effective ways for them to improve their Chinese. Well, if you want to make the most of your learning experience in China, we are here to offer you some tips that might help you make your Chinese learning more productive.

This is a guest article by That’s Mandarin

Improve Your Pronunciation

If you would like to quickly improve your listening comprehension and spoken Chinese, you will need to pay great attention to your pronunciation. Even a slight mistake in pronouncing the tones (there are four tones in the Chinese language) can lead to misunderstanding. Therefore, a good knowledge of the Chinese phonetic system will certainly allow you and your Chinese friends to better understand each other during a conversation.

Make Some Chinese Friends

If you are studying Chinese in China, it’ll be a good idea to make some Chinese friends. Nowadays young people in China are curious about different cultures, and they are also happy to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners. What you can benefit from making friends with Chinese people is that in addition to learning the Chinese language, you will also have the opportunity to know more about Chinese people’s daily lives. Exploring the local people’s lifestyle is quite interesting and can turn out to be an enjoyable experience on your Chinese learning journey.

Find Yourself a Learning Partner

More and more people in China have started to realize how important it is to have a good command of English as it’s the prerequisite of finding a decent job. If you are a native English speaker, it’ll be easy for you to find a language exchange partner in that many Chinese people are actually looking for foreigners to help them improve their English. Moreover, studying Chinese with a learning partner is considered a mutually-beneficial process that will make your Chinese learning more effective.

Attend Chinese Classes

Attending Chinese classes is an ideal choice for you to improve your Chinese language skills. Chinese language schools offering different types of courses can be found in major cities across China. The main advantage of studying Chinese at a Chinese language school is that you will be able to make gradual progress in Chinese under the instruction of a professional Chinese teacher. On top of that, you will have the chance to make friends from different cultural backgrounds if you choose to sign up for group classes.

Participate in Cultural Activities

In addition to Chinese courses, most Chinese language schools organize cultural activities like watching Chinese operas or making Chinese dumplings on a weekly/monthly basis. Participating in cultural activities would provide you with the opportunity to have an insight into Chinese culture and traditions, which could more or less stimulate your interest in learning the Chinese language.

Develop a Hobby

If you would like to gain a deeper understanding of the quintessence of Chinese culture, it’ll be helpful if you would be interested in developing a hobby such as calligraphy or paper-cutting. Even if you think it’s a bit hard for you to create nice “art works”, it’s still fascinating to, for instance, admire some of the greatest calligraphy masterpieces of ancient China so that you can experience the authentic traditional Chinese culture for yourself.

Visit Local Chinese Restaurants

China is famous for its rich food culture, and you definitely wouldn’t like to miss the chance to visit local Chinese restaurants when you’re in China. Despite the fact that local restaurants in China usually don’t provide English menus, pictures of most of the dishes are available, which means you’ll still be able to choose the dishes that you like based on what you see. Sometimes you will come across some traditional homemade dishes that are not on offer in those fancy restaurants, which is exactly what some passionate Chinese learners are looking for in order to have a clearer idea of what ordinary people in China like to eat.

Watch Chinese TV Series

If you are interested in knowing more about some of the social problems that can be observed in China at the moment, watching Chinese TV series could be a good option. The plots of most Chinese TV series are based on some typical problems that people encounter in their daily lives. For example, there are several popular TV series that are devoted to the stressful situation where young parents have to work extremely hard to provide their children with the best education. Therefore, if you consider yourself an advanced learner, it’ll be a good idea to spend some time watching Chinese soap operas to know more about what Chinese people really want from life.

Here are two famous Chinese TV dramas that may help you improve your Chinese language skills:

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids
家有儿女

This TV drama is ideal for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese people’s daily lives. The main idea about this TV show is centered on an ordinary Chinese family, in which a remarried couple and their three kids strive to enhance mutual understanding between each other. This TV drama contains a large number of episodes, with each of them representing a separate story.

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment
爱情公寓

This is a very popular TV drama among young people in China, and it’s all about the hilarious things that happen to seven people who share the same apartment. This TV show is more or less similar to the famous American comedy Friends, which means it would allow students to gradually improve their Chinese skills in a relaxing and enjoyable way.

Learn Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese characters is required for intermediate and advanced students in that they are expected to be able to read Chinese articles. Many Chinese learners think it’s very hard to master Chinese characters as some of them look really complicated. However, there is usually a logic behind a Chinese character based on its shape or meaning, which would make the learning process pretty interesting. Take the character “飞 (fēi)” as an example, it means “to fly” and it does look like a bird which is flapping its wings.

Read Chinese Newspapers

This final tip is for advanced Chinese learners who are interested in politics and would like to have a deeper understanding of China’s role in the international arena. If you want to carry out research on China, it’s indispensable that you understand contemporary Chinese politics. Moreover, it might come in handy even when it comes to job-hunting in China. Therefore, developing the habit of reading Chinese newspapers can be helpful for you to improve your Chinese language skills and develop your career in China.

I hope you enjoyed this guest article by That’s Mandarin and found their tips helpful. Here’s a short self-introduction from That’s Mandarin: “Founded in 2005, That’s Mandarin has been delivering excellence in Chinese teaching for over 15 years to more than 50,000 students of different nationalities. That’s Mandarin has excellent teachers with both online and offline courses on offer, and their various types of classes will suit all your needs for Mandarin learning.”

Two free online tools to hack Chinese texts

Reading difficult Chinese texts? These two free tools assist you reading and extracting value from any Chinese text you want to study in-depth.

Chinese Pinyin converter and Vocabulary List Generator

Previously on this blog I reviewed the app DuShu which allows you to import any Chinese text and get instant word translations, flashcards and vocabulary lists and difficulty check. DuShu can be a very effective tool when you’re reading the Chinese news, Chinese blogs or indeed any Chinese text that requires some outside help.

The Chinese Pinyin converter combined with the Vocabulary List Generator have similar features, but they are browser applications for desktop users. They are particularly handy if you want to study a text in-depth and create vocabulary lists, flashcards and the like. Another major advantage compared to popular yet costly Chinese reading platforms like the Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese is that they are free of charge and you can take control over the content.

Let’s be honest here: they are not spectacularly new tools. On the contrary, they have been online since 2013, but are not that widely known. Both tools are pretty self-explaining, but let’s do a quick run-through anyway.

01. Copy any Chinese text you want to study

Copy any Chinese text you’d like to study (max. 1000 characters). For this post, I picked a news article about Chinese tariffs for Australian wine, because I like wine:

Copy your Chinese text into the  Chinese Pinyin converter

02. Paste text into the converter

OK, we got our text. The next step: paste the text into the converter and click Convert. Note that you have different view options for Pinyin or Zhuyin transcription. I’m OK with Pinyin. Tone colors (never worked for me) can be added or removed. The English word translation will pop up in the converted text if you select Annotation. Of course, you don’t need that if you have your pop-up dictionary running. Now we’re ready to convert:

Convert your Chinese text in the Chinese Pinyin converter

Once you’ve converted the text, you can start studying the text. Under View the Pinyin for different HSK levels can be selected, depending on your level. For instance, if you don’t want to see HSK 1 – 3 words, you only select the higher levels. Or pick the hover-option to reveal the Pinyin only in individual cases when you mouseover the characters.

You want to listen to the text? The converter provides audio and (unlimited) translations for each sentence. To adjust the audio speed a pro account is required though.

This is what the converted text looks like:

This is what a converted Chinese text looks like in the Chinese Pinyin converter

03. Mark words to create a vocabulary list

Let’s imagine this text is interesting enough for you to want to remember its key vocabulary. One way to do this is by clicking on the characters. Simply handpick words to create a vocabulary list. This method is an exercise in itself and pretty fast, even compared to Pleco’s clipboard reader, and has the advantage that the list can be printed for “offline studying”.

Here I selected 6 important words to study:

Creating a vocabulary list with the  Chinese Pinyin converter

To print your new vocabulary list export it to Word, make the adjustments you want to make and start printing:

Exporting the vocabulary list with the  Chinese Pinyin converter

04. Create a filtered vocabulary list without duplicates

And even faster way to generate a complete vocabulary list for any text you’re studying is by clicking Vocabulary List. Paste the text into the Vocabulary List Generator. Say you don’t care so much about HSK 1 to 4, then simply select these HSK levels to filter out the corresponding words. Also be sure to mark Duplicates to get rid of double entries:

Create a filtered word list without duplicates with the Vocabulary List Generator

The result looks something like this:

Filtered Chinese word list without duplicates

This list can be refined: if you don’t want words like 周五 or 澳大利亚 in your list, simply select them and click Hide Selected. This is probably one of the most efficient methods to create a Chinese vocabulary list.

05. Create flashcards to print

For those who like the good old paper flashcards: the Vocabulary List Generator also allows you to create printable flashcards:

The Vocabulary List Generator allows you to create printable flashcards

Once printed you only need a pair of scissors to cut the cards and maybe some glue.

06. Export vocabulary lists

Too much work or printer not working? Export the vocabulary list to your flashcard app of choice. If you’re using Anki to study flashcards, downloading the list as a CSV-file is an option:

 Export the vocabulary list as a CSV-file with the Vocabulary List Generator

After that import the file to study the flashcards with Anki:

Import the CSV-file to study the flashcards with Anki

PS. It’s also possible to study the vocabulary within the Vocabulary List Generator itself, since several study options like flashcards and a matching game are included. And I forgot to mention the writing sheets for Hanzi.

That’s it. Although these two tools certainly aren’t the newest state-of-the-art learning apps, they’re still pretty cool. Especially if you like to print stuff, hold things in your hands and make notes. I admit that for mobile readers that the Chinese dictionary app Pleco with its clipboard reader is probably the better choice, since it provides almost the same key features (Pinyin, translations, audio, flashcards).

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Related posts

Improving your Chinese writing skills on Journaly

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is discovering new learning resources and tools. Recently, I tested the new online platform Journaly and found that it has great potential for Mandarin learners. Although maybe not for everybody. Here’s why!

Writing to improve your speaking skills?

First I have to say a few words about the benefits of writing.

Writing as a means to improve oral fluency in Mandarin is undervalued. This is mainly because to most people writing texts in general isn’t particularly enjoyable. Moreover, most Mandarin learners value speaking, listening and reading skills over writing skills. They more or less tend to overlook writing or associate it with school and exams. I’m no different: except for writing messages to Chinese friends, I “dropped” writing pretty much after passing HSK 5.

Writing texts – from keeping a (language) diary to writing short articles or essays – does have two major benefits though:

  • Writing helps to improve your ability to build correct and more complex sentences by using new and more daring sentence structures you’d avoid in a rapid conversation.
  • Writing helps to expand your vocabulary in a focused and thoughtful way. This is like slowly conquering new territory.

And let’s not forget feedback, because when nobody’s offering feedback on what you wrote you might as well speak Chinese with your parrot. Is it correct what you’re writing? Is there a better way of saying it? Is it correct what you’re writing but do you still sound like a laowai / foreigner? This kind of thing. Feedback is essential.

But most important of all: writing should be enjoyable. This is where Journaly comes in.

What’s Journaly?

Journaly is a foreign language journaling platform and online language learning community and both are growing fast. People on Journaly obviously want to improve their writing skills, but it’s more than just writing for the sake of being corrected by native readers. Journaly is a way to involve in meaningful communication by writing about the stuff you really care about. This can be almost anything, from every day life to quantum mechanics and robotics. And it’s about helping each other.

How is this different from lang-8?

Lang-8 was the first successful language learning platform where native speakers correct what you write. When I tried to create an account back in 2019, I got the message that “new sign ups for Lang-8 are currently suspended”. This actually has been the case since 2017. But to compare the two anyway, let’s see what Robin MacPherson, the man who created Journaly, has to say about Lang-8 and how Journaly is going to be different:

Lang-8 was very useful, but the design was incredibly outdated and they closed off the ability for new users to sign up years ago. There’s been a great need in the community that we aim to address, but Journaly is so much more than a Lang-8 replacement. Lang-8 was transactional, whereas Journaly has been designed from the first moment through the lenses of User Experience and habit-forming product design to help you not just write often, but also to help you build meaningful connections in the community with fellow learners who share your interests.

You’ll be able to find not just perfect language matches, but also perfect people matches. Let’s say you’re an English speaker who’s learning French. You like rock climbing, food, and movies. You’ll be able to use our robust filters to find French speakers who are learning English, and who write about one or maybe even all of your interests!

Robin MacPherson in his post “Introducing Journaly”, 25.09.2019

This idea to connect language learners with the same interests or background has great potential and goes beyond the simple quid pro quo of correcting and being corrected. Journaly’s ambition is to be one of the major online language learning communities of the future where people engage in meaningful interaction, build relationships and share skills and inspiration.

But let’s start with the basics first…

Native readers correct your posts

Once you publish something native readers usually correct your posts within hours, depending on the language. Mandarin is one of the most popular languages on Journaly – after German, English, Spanish, Italian and French, so timely response isn’t a problem. This, for example, is a comment I got on one of my texts:

Journaly - comments by native readers

You correct their posts

In return, you can correct other people’s post in your native language(s) and contribute to the community. Since I’m from the Netherlands, I feel most comfortable correcting texts written in Dutch. Yes, there’s even a place for relatively “small” languages like Dutch which is great. To add a comment, you simply select the part of the sentence and start writing, not unlike editing a Word document:

Journaly - I corrected a Dutch post

Is “correcting” the right word?

It’s not about wrong or right actually. I’d comment for example: “people usually say this” or “If you mean X, the word Y is more commonly used”. On the other hand, there’s no denying that writing on Journaly is all about learning from your mistakes. The whole point is making mistakes and getting the instant feedback you need. This can hurt a little bit, yes. I have to admit that even though I see the “greater good”, I didn’t much like the idea of being corrected in front of everybody and have my “mistakes” pointed out. But in the end, this is really a mentality thing that’s simply not helpful when learning Mandarin (or indeed learning anything).

And if your comments are useful to others, you actually “receive thanks” that are displayed in your profile. This means you’re being encouraged to support other learners:

Journaly - an example of a user profile on Journaly

Read what others are writing and learn from their mistakes

If you’re not writing or correcting, you can read the corrected posts by fellow learners in your target language. You can filter by languages and topics:

Journaly - my personal feed on Journaly

And start reading. There’s plenty of Chinese posts to choose from. This Chinese post for example is about the difficulties of choosing the right Chinese name for oneself. The author also asks questions and starts a discussion with native speakers. That’s the kind of meaningful communication what foreign language learning should be all about:

Journaly - example of a Chinese post by a fellow Mandarin learner

What to write?

Anything you want. Anything you want to share with others.

Really ANYthing? Well, I couldn’t find any community guidelines on Journaly, but I also didn’t encounter any spam or other unpleasantness. Either content moderation works or people here are really focused on learning languages.

Any tips on writing on Journaly?

Disclaimer: I only tested Journaly for one month. My thoughts:

  • Write according to your level. I tried to write something about the corona situation in Germany, but it got to a point where I had to look up too many words, because I wanted too much.
  • Writing should be fun and it shouldn’t take too long. No one says a post should have at least 400 words.
  • Write about your life and daily stuff. This is difficult enough as you have to write about it in a way that outsiders can understand, but it’s also the most universal stuff everyone can relate to.
  • Engage with the audience, ask questions (why is it that so many people in China hardly have any holidays?) and ask for advice.
  • Have a good time. At the end of the day, the main point is having fun. Being active on Journaly should be enjoyable to such an extent that you keep coming back to write more.

Start writing

Journaly is like a basic version of WordPress. It’s kind of like blogging. Simply start writing. Add a title, pick your language and select one or more topics:

Journaly - it's very easy to write and publish a post

Journaly is a very promising platform

Journaly is an excellent online learning platform if you want to improve your Chinese skills by way of writing or simply enjoy writing and reading in foreign languages and engaging with other learners. Here you receive the instant feedback you usually don’t get or can’t process fully when speaking Mandarin. Plus, this feedback becomes part of your posts. It can be studied and reviewed anytime. In a way it’s like blogging in a foreign language. You can make it as interesting and challenging as you want. Your language level doesn’t really matter.

Some people who love writing or blogging anyway will immediately be drawn towards Journaly. Others who hate this kind of silent, introverted activity probably prefer face-to-face communication and don’t want to waste their time with writing. But lots of people in the middle should give Journaly a try to see if it works for them.

Long story short: I’m looking forward to see both the Journaly platform and online learning community develop and grow in the time to come. It’s exciting to be part of this young community (almost) from the beginning. Here you can sign up for free.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu! What are your thoughts on improving your writing skills to become more fluent in Mandarin or indeed any other foreign language? Feel free to let me know about your experiences with Journaly.

Update (1-5-2021): Journaly Premium is now live with a first premium feature: inline post images. This allows you to include an unlimited number of images inside your posts and bring them to life. More premium features will follow in the future.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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“How to learn any language in six months”

7

Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?

Chris Lonsdale’s language learning principles

The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).

The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).

Chris Lonsdale on how to learn any language in six months…

Lonsdale’s approach in a nutshell:

Things that don’t matter in language learning

  • Talent
  • Immersion (per se)

Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.” (We need comprehensible input)

What does matter is Language modeling

  • Attention
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Memory

Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition

1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition

Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.” Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images

My thoughts…

First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.

A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:

C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…

I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learned Chinese (to a very impressive level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.

This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?

Another issue: Lonsdale believes you should start speaking from Day One and use the language as a tool for real communication (no simulation stuff). In a way, I think he’s right about this. It’s the most natural thing to do (in the right environment). BUT many people are extremely uncomfortable with this. It’s a big step out of their comfort zone. Other high profile language learners like Steve Kaufmann argue you should acquire basic vocabulary first and read, read, read, before you can have a meaningful conversation. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with communicating in Mandarin from Day One, so that’s an issue.

Conclusion

On the whole, I really like what he has to say about language learning. He’s got a powerful message that’s all about learning a new language the “hard and uncomfortable” way, telling us to “get out there and do it”. We need people like Lonsdale who develop their own ideas about language acquisition.

Does this method apply to everyone? Well, he overgeneralizes his own learning approach and success a bit, but he knows what he’s talking about. The thing is no learner is the same. Language learning depends on so many personal circumstances and preferences. At the end of the day, I guess you’re free to try his method or parts of it. I personally like the “leave your comfort zone” part as it’s essential to any kind of growth.

By the way, if you want to hear Chris Lonsdale speak Mandarin, check this video from Mandarin Corner where he tells all about his method, covers Chinese characters (what about them, right?) and explains why Mandarin class is a waste of time.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.

Chineasy vs Uncle Hanzi: two radical approaches to Chinese characters

5

The biggest obstacle to mastering Mandarin for many people is its writing system. In a previous post, I focused on deep-rooted bad practices surrounding the study of Chinese characters. A relevant topic, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So what does work? In my own quest to improve my command of Hanzi, I found two interesting approaches: one is the well-known “Chineasy method”, the other is the “Uncle Hanzi way”. This is what you can learn from them.

The “Chineasy Method”

Visual mnemonics

Shaolan’s elevator pitch-like introduction to Chineasy (TED talk, 2013)

The Chineasy approach is to put Hanzi into a visual context and memorize them with the help of illustrations that depict the character’s meaning. Shaolan Hsueh, the entrepreneur behind Chineasy, managed to exploit this idea commercially better than anyone else. Chineasy’s impressive design and Shaolan’s smart marketing campaign even helped popularizing Mandarin and Hanzi abroad. For the first time, it seemed, someone had come up with an unique method for Chinese characters that makes them learnable for almost anyone.

Chineasy – a serious learning resource?

But is Chineasy really a “language learning system” as it says on Wikipedia? To what extent does it teach you to read and write Hanzi? It’s hard to ignore that some Mandarin teachers and other experts have pointed out some serious flaws:

The Chineasy approach: visual mnemonics
Source: Chineasy on Amazon
  • Chineasy teaches all characters as if they were pictographs. Pictographs are easy to explain (my teachers have been guilty of this kind of cherry-picking too), but unfortunately they only make up around 5% of all characters. This is misleading.
  • These characters don’t necessarily match the most frequently used characters which is unpractical for learners.
  • Chineasy mixes traditional and simplified characters for convenience. This is not best practice. Especially for beginners, it’s much less confusing to stick with either simplified or traditional characters.
  • Chineasy overreaches when it calls itself a “learning method” or “system”. It’s not a system, it’s rather a learning technique put into practice. It reaches its limits pretty soon though.

Visual mnemonics can be helpful

That being said, the visual approach exemplified by Chineasy can be useful. Associating a certain image with a character or its individual components makes memorizing Hanzi less of a struggle. It all boils down to this: Chinese characters have to make sense when you learn them. Yes, Chineasy’s approach is quite random at large and disregards the composition and history of the character, but applying some form of visual mnemonics is much more effective than blindly memorizing meaning and stroke order, especially when you’ve just started out.

The “Uncle Hanzi Way”

Richard Sears – also known as 汉字叔叔: “I found that almost all Chinese had learned to read and write by absolute blind memorization and almost no one had a clue where the characters actually came from.

Obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters

In the long run though, we shouldn’t stick with random images and stories. Instead, we should try to get the characters “right”. That means caring about their origin and history. Let’s discuss the second approach.

“Uncle Hanzi” is the nickname of Richard Sears, an American physicist, who has been obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters for most of his life. He created an online database of more than 96.000 ancient Chinese characters called hanziyuan.net.

In his own words: “At age 40, I got the idea that I needed to computerize the origins of Chinese characters so that I could sort out the crap from the truth. I started researching but did not get started actually doing it. At age 44 I had a near-fatal heart attack and after recovering, but not knowing when I might die, I decided I must get started.” At hanziyuan.net you can trace back the composition and meaning of almost any character to its origins as far as they are known. Take 家 (house) for example:

Hanziyuan: Input single Chinese character for etymology
The search results from hanziyuan.net for 家

Getting back to the source

“Uncle Hanzi” is an extremely interesting case, because he doesn’t come from the field of sinology and seems to be a lone wolf fueled by a hardcore obsession with Hanzi. (Just imagine a sociologist investing 30 years of his life into die-hard quantum mechanics research). Sears obviously wasn’t satisfied with blindly memorizing characters or Chineasy-style mnemonics. He wanted to grasp the “logic” and understand the origins. After all, the ancient Chinese didn’t just “make them up” as they went along according to Sears.

He also argues that practically all the first characters would have been pictographs which evolved and became more abstract over time. In other words, what today seems abstract, used to represent something concrete which we should try to understand to make our lives easier. The case of 家 (a pig under a roof) illustrates this.

Of course, it’s going to slow us down when we take a history tour for each new character, but I’m convinced that the more solid our foundations are the easier it becomes to add new layers. But how to put the “Uncle Hanzi Method” into practice?

How Pleco and Outlier Linguistics can help

Pleco breaks down each character into its components

The dictionary app Pleco (partly) supports this learning method by breaking down each character into its components. That’s good for a start, but doesn’t give you the full story like the example of 名 shows. Its components don’t add up to its meaning (name), so there must be more to tell here.

For those who want to gain insight into the etymology of Chinese characters, there’s a practical solution called Outlier Linguistics. Their dictionaries help you understand the history of Chinese characters that most Mandarin teachers fail to explain. You don’t need to install another dictionary app by the way, because they come as add-ons for Pleco in a “Mini” and “Essentials” edition. For most people this is probably overkill, but for serious Hanzi learners quick access to etymological basics might well be the key to progress. This is how I see it: the more profound your understanding of Hanzi, the easier it becomes to grasp and memorize new characters. They’ll start to make sense.

The Outlier Essentials Edition should get you a long way:

  • 2700+ characters as of newest update (plus regular updates until they reach 4000)
  • Simplified and Traditional characters
  • Detailed explanation for every character
  • Stroke order for all 4000 characters
  • Meaning tree for every character showing how different meanings relate to each other
  • Ancient forms for all semantic components

The dictionary (meaning add-on for Pleco) looks like this:

Conclusion

The “Chineasy method” and “Uncle Hanzi’s approach” both have their merits. Putting characters into a visual context does help, just like developing a basic understanding of their origin and history does.

Actually, to zoom out for a moment: we’re not really talking about methods, but learning techniques linked to different levels of understanding and experience. Mandarin expert Olle Linge came up with 5 different levels of understanding Chinese characters which gives us something to hang on to. I added Chineasy and Uncle Hanzi in brackets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this scale:

  1. Inventing pictures that disregard composition and structure of characters (Chineasy)
  2. Creating stories and associations that obscure functional components
  3. Using superficial pictures while being aware of functional components
  4. Using superficial pictures and encoding functional components
  5. Etymologically correct mnemonics with no shortcuts (Uncle Hanzi)

I’d label myself with level 3, although it differs from case to case. I know I’m nowhere as good as I could be with serious studying. Taking some inspiration from Uncle Hanzi, I keep aiming for level 5. I do hope though that it won’t take me 30 years to get there!

好好学习,天天向上!

What’s your take on Chineasy? Does it work for you? Do you think Chinese characters have logic like that can be understood if you study them long enough? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.


Further reading

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.


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Learning Chinese becoming less popular?

5

Not so very long ago, probably around January this year, I was working on an article with the cheap yet upbeat title “10 reasons to learn Chinese in 2020”. Then 2020 came along, bulldozed my plan and the article died an early death. What bothered me the most though: I simply couldn’t think of any convincing reasons why 2020 should be the year to study Mandarin!

Was it just me? Or maybe studying Mandarin is just not as popular as it was before? I had to find out and looked at some data from trends.google.com that I want to share with you in this post. This website plots the popularity of any given search term on Google over time. The results were shocking.

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline

Search term “learn Chinese”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese" on Google.
Global search volume for “learn Chinese” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

I simply entered “learn Chinese”. What we see on the whole is a more or less steady decline, starting from 2005 (!), with a little peak at the beginning 2020 due to the Covid-19-pandemic. But could it really be that in 2005 studying Mandarin was more popular than say 2015? I had to have another try with a less vague search term.

Search term “learn Chinese for beginners”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese for beginners" on Google ( 2004 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Chinese for beginners” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What I got was more or less the same picture, the line dropping with ups and downs until 2013, then climbing up a little and then almost stabilizing on a low level. To get a more complete impression, I consulted the data for YouTube as well.

Popularity of learning Chinese on YouTube

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Mandarin" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Mandarin” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

As everybody knows YouTube has developed into an important platform for language learning, Mandarin Chinese being no exception. The YouTube data surprisingly shows a different picture. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of people looking for content to learn Chinese fluctuates on a relatively high level. Then the frequency of the search term suddenly drops in July 2017 with no sign of recovery. The exact same thing we get for the search term “learn Chinese”:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "learn Chinese" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “learn Chinese” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

Just to double check, I entered the search term “living in China”, only to discover the same “crash” in July 2017:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "Living in China" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “Living in China” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What happened in 2017?

The YouTube data clearly indicates a downward trend that sets in from July 2017 and continues until this day. What happened in 2017 that had such on impact? My best guess is that Trump and the Sino-American Trade War happened, leading to much insecurity.

What about individual countries?

I chose to examine Google’s “global data” using English search terms. How about individual countries though?

To my surprise, the general trend in these six countries is very similar. All charts indicate that the popularity of Mandarin is in decline.

Validity of data from Google Trends

I’m still not completely sure if the data give an accurate picture of the situation. It could for example well be that people’s search behavior on Google has become more sophisticated over time, which would (partly) explain the decreasing popularity of a search term “learn Chinese”. The YouTube data is probably more significant, but we still require more indicators to satisfyingly answer the question. HSK statistics revealing how many people have been taking the standard Mainland Chinese test over the last decade could be insightful for example. Let’s have a quick look.

HSK exam growing in popularity

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any up-to-date numbers, but the overall trend points towards growing popularity of the HSK exam:

HSK test takers statistics: how many people took the HSK test from 2009 to 2012.

This China Daily article even mentions 6.8 million test takers in 2018:

The HSK exams, a test of Chinese language proficiency organized by the Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, were taken 6.8 million times in 2018, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, the Ministry of Education said on Friday.

China Daily (31.05.2019)

These HSK statistics obviously contradict the data I found and are somewhat reassuring, since it’s only logical that the language of a growing superpower has increasing significance in the world. And even though the interest in Mandarin may be waning in some parts of the world, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this a global trend. Take a look at African countries like Zambia for example where starting from 2020, Mandarin Chinese will form part of the Zambian high school curriculum.

Learning Mandarin becoming less popular – so what?

To end on a positive note here: even if it is true that fewer people are interested in studying Mandarin, why should we care? After all, when Mandarin skills and Chinese cultural competence are becoming more rare, people who do possess them become even more valuable. We need people who are proficient in the language and understand China’s culture and history. We have lots of challenges still ahead.

Is studying Mandarin becoming less popular? What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Related posts

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

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From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi which can be awful. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binge-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this introduction has an affiliate marketing tone to it, but that’s how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I had discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

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The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
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Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
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How long does it take to get HSK 6?

In a previous post I tried to answer the question how difficult the current HSK 6 exam is. Now I want to find out how long it takes to get to that level.

Obviously, the duration of the climb towards HSK 6 depends on many factors I don’t want to go into here, but for example: what’s your starting point? How much experience do you have learning foreign languages and different writing systems? Can you immerse yourself in the target language? What I want to do here is take a look at some practical cases. I found five test candidates who passed the HSK 6 exam, let’s see how much time they needed to beat the test.

HSK 6 in one year

Took 1 year: This is extremely fast! One year to reach HSK 4 is already extraordinary, but HSK 6? I have no doubt that this German girl, who spent her gap year in China, is highly intelligent and hardworking. In addition, she was immersed in various Chinese speaking environments (Beijing, Chengde, Shanghai) during that year and had private tutors to assist her. What’s striking though is that she speaks Mandarin well, but does not seem super fluent (yet): she speaks rather slow and uses basic phrases. Needless to say that doesn’t diminish her excellent achievement, but it could be a sign of an imbalance in her Mandarin skills. (Plus, it’s a reminder HSK is just a test).

HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”

Took 2 years of part-time study: Wait a minute, HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”?! I have a hard time believing that. It might not be completely impossible, but his story sounds more like some kind of elevator pitch to me, an awe-striking from struggling to completely fluent in just two years kind of story – without any real effort (like learning more or less 40 hours a week for example). It just sounds too good to be true. I’m not saying these guys haven’t got a good thing going (looks like they run a language school in Chengdu for expats), but I don’t buy into their one-size-fits-all solution, success guaranteed kind of thing. And in my experience, it’s very difficult to learn a language from scratch in your spare-time, even when you’re already living in “the right country”. And you could argue that once you’re living and working in China and joining a Chinese language program, you’re in fact learning full-time, since you more or less receive 24 hours input.

HSK 6 in four years

Took 4 years: Now here’s someone who took four years and is actually fluent, sounds local and gets her tones right (as far I can judge), but also is aware she still has to improve her pronunciation (she’s communicating to a Chinese audience). It’s clear she spent more than one year in China. Well done!

HSK 6 in four and a half years

Took 4 and a half year: another interesting experience. 1.5 years of studying in Finland, 3 years in China, eventually passing HSK 6 with 238 points out of 300. She writes: “If I could get to this level in 4,5 years, you can do even better if you live in China the whole time or/and work harder than I do!

HSK 6 in six years

Took 6 years: unfortunately she doesn’t reveal how she did it exactly and how much time she spent in China, but what I get from her words is that she studied Mandarin at least three years (full-time, I assume). I’m sure there are plenty of people who take even longer, but aren’t very eager to admit it. I don’t think there’s any shame in taking six years. After all, Mandarin is a difficult language and not everybody is good at taking tests.

The official HSK recommendation?

Is there an official recommendation how long you should take to get to the sixth HSK level? I couldn’t find any such information, but others claim they have:

According to the Hanban (汉办), HSK tests should reflect distinct stages in the Chinese acquisition journey. They designed the HSK 6 to be reflective of someone who has reached what they consider to be the highest level of proficiency in Chinese that can be expected of a second language learner. Unsurprisingly, it’s a challenging test. They estimate that you must have four years of full-time study before you can pass the HSK 6.

When they say “full-time,” they mean approximately 40 hours per week during university semesters. In China, the winter & summer holidays from a university add up to approximately 16 weeks of the year. With that in mind, we can glean that “four years of full-time study” means 36 weeks a year (52 weeks in a year – 16 weeks of holiday) at 40 hours per week on average.

With this in mind, they estimate that you need 5,760 hours of study to reach HSK 6 level (36 weeks in a year * 4 years= 144 weeks, 40 hours a week * 144 weeks = 5,760 hours.)

Mandarinblueprint

Conclusion

I think this rough estimation of 4 years full-time study or +5000 hours of study is reasonable. In reality it might be more of a 3 – 6 years range. Some are slower, some are faster, some are more accomplished at structured learning and test taking. Others lack the time and resources for full-time language learning – if you’re a student of sinology, you probably pass the test within 4 years, but if you aren’t and have other obligations like work and family, things are likely to take more time. Some may even outgrow the need to write the HSK 6 test completely. At the end of the day, it’s just a test.

Another thing I noticed: easy come is easy go, super quick learners tend to have less stable foundations. Plus, spending time in China or at least in Chinese speaking areas and really soak up the language does seem the key to success for our five test candidates.

Any thoughts on HSK 6? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
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Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

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