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.

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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.

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.

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Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
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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

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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.

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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
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

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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.

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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.

Getting fluent in Mandarin: Underestimating the four tones

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In the process of Mandarin learning you’re never “done”. That’s especially true for the four tones. This video by Mandarin expert LeLe Farley reminded me that the mā-má-mǎ-màway people typically think of the four tones is wrong. LeLe reveals some other interesting things as well.

Mastering the tones

In this first episode of LeLe Linguistics, LeLe Farley walks you through “the first step” to achieving fluency in Chinese: mastering the tones.

LeLe Farley is a rising star on YouTube. What he has to say about learning Mandarin should be taken quite seriously, since his fluency in Mandarin and accurate pronunciation are outstanding and he doesn’t beat around the bush as to how he got there.

Who is LeLe Farley? In his own words: “Grew up in Texas, college in ATL, post grad in Beijing. Now, I’ve come to LaLaLand to try and make a name for myself as a Chinese English bilingual rapper and comedian. Banned in the PRC, but hope to return one day.”

He’s an interesting and wildly creative guy. Let’s examine his take on the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. He starts off debunking a common “misunderstanding” about them…

1. “Don’t think tones aren’t important”

YouTube comment: "I always loved those people who said they speak Chinese without the tones"

LeLe notes that many learners of Mandarin seem to think that tones aren’t that crucial to becoming fluent or that 差不多 (“almost right”) is good enough. Don’t believe Chinese people who complement you on your excellent 中文, he adds, most of the time they are just being polite – they might hardly understand what you’re saying.

Bottom line: hitting the tones right is essential for comprehension. You may not hear the difference, but they do. I don’t think LeLe means to say that you have to hit EVERY single tone a 100 percent right, but rather that you should put some real effort into it.

2. “Tones are not for beginners only…”

YouTube comment: "98 % of the foreigners learning Chinese can't get their tones right"

I argued in earlier post that it’s best practice to get the tones right from the start in drill-like fashion, meaning repeating nothing but tones and Pinyin for at least two weeks. While I still think that’s extremely helpful and necessary, it’s just as important, as LeLe explains in his video, to keep at it. Instead of gradually lowering “tone quality standards” once you’ve finished base camp. I couldn’t agree more with his message that if tones don’t come natural to you, you have to learn them the hard way. A long-term endeavor that will involve getting your ego hurt from time to time again. This of course is not something that learners want to hear, but it’s the truth anyway.

3. “Don’t learn tones, learn tone combinations instead”

YouTube comment: "You just taught me more about the tones than my mainland Chinese teachers"
(16 tones = tone combinations)

LeLe emphasizes you shouldn’t just learn the four tones in isolation, but learn their frequent combinations. As most words in Mandarin consist of two syllables, this makes a lot of sense. These “basic units” keep coming back.

Although I don’t like this kind of diagrams much – they remind me of similar ones for German grammar – , the point is to memorize these tone patterns and – over time – store them as little soundbites in your brain. New vocabulary can be shaped and pronounced accordingly.

Mandarin tone patterns 16 + 4

The next step to sound even more native-like would be to put these words in a sentence, since they too typically exist in a larger unit.

4. “The third tone is the tricky one”

LeLe explains why the third tone and the 3-2-combo in particular is the nastiest one to most learners. Even many Chinese teachers seem to be confused about the exact pronunciation of the third tone. They may pronounce it correctly; explaining how it changes in certain combinations can be a problem though. As a student you probably don’t get the relevance of this at first. That’s why you have to keep at it while you advance, record yourself and mimic native speakers.

Further reading

The way the four tones are being taught is evolving as are the linguistics behind it. Equally important, in my opinion, are intonation, stress and rhythm which determine for a large part whether you sound “native” or not (imagine a foreigner speaking Mandarin with a French intonation). How much time did your teacher(s) spend explaining these “musical qualities”?

By the way, LeLe Farley is not the first to come up with all this:

Learn tone patterns on YouTube

Good for practicing: In this video not merely the 4 tones are introduced, but the 16 frequent tone combinations are also covered at some length.

I hope you enjoyed this short article. Feel free to let me know your take on the four tones in the comments.

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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

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Why you shouldn’t use Douyin (“the Chinese TikTok”) to improve your Mandarin

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In case you have never heard of Douyin: it’s a Chinese short-video app with over 200 million daily active users in China. Or so they say. Can you use Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – as a tool for learning Chinese?

The ByteDance family

The company behind it (ByteDance) is still spectacularly unknown, although that may be about to change. Since its app TikTok has come under suspicion of political censorship in China’s national interest. Outside of China, ByteDance is best known for TikTok. This app could be called the global version of Douyin: same features, different users.

On Mapping China’s Tech Giants (great project btw) you find out all about the company behind it.

What makes Douyin so popular in China? One thing works really well: Douyin’s self-learning algorithm “personalizes” your feed. It does so based on your viewing behavior (interaction, viewing time etc.). It adapts almost immediately. The more you engage with the app, the more it’ll show that kind of content Douyin thinks you want to see. That’s why when my friend from Russia opens his app, he only sees half-naked women dancing around.

If you want to know more about China and learn Mandarin, could Douyin with it’s massive Chinese user base be a useful tool?

Well, potentially yes, and here’s why:

  • Content: On Douyin you’ll find a broad variety of content: singing, dancing, cooking, sports, animals and sightseeing. There’s also a lot random everyday, normal life stuff going on from all over China which usually is more interesting than the more fancy “premium” kind of videos. This makes Douyin an endless source of raw and local content.
  • Your personal feed: It’ll give you what the algorithm thinks you want to see. Whether you want to watch squirrels climb up trees or prefer watching people eating turtles and snakes, the app will figure it out for you. (Or actually content moderators who label all those videos accordingly and feed the right categories to the algorithm…)
  • Interact, get famous: you can create your own content, make duets, comment and engage with the community 24/7. If you stand out from the crowd, you might even get a lot of views. With the right mindset, you can get very big on Douyin. But don’t say anything wrong.
  • As for learning: not everybody speaks Standard Mandarin, some post stuff in their local dialect which is fun for other Chinese, but hard to understand for foreigners. I do see a lot of potential to interact with native speakers.
Why you shouldn't use Douyin ("TikTok") to improve your Mandarin

Interact with Chinese people? BUT AT WHAT COST?

Here we go:

  • Douyin and data protection are antipoles. Douyin’s data privacy equals almost zero. The moment you’ll install it on your phone, it will absorb everything like a black hole. From your contacts and numbers to your fitness data. Even if you customize your privacy settings: where and how they store your data, with whom they share it and for what purposes, I really couldn’t tell. Also the practice of fingerprinting is a major concern.
  • Douyin drains your battery and uses a lot of storage. Even when it’s only running in the background, it’ll constantly be updating and inviting you back in.
  • Commercial crap: Advertising! Apart from gathering your personal data, they run advertisements. No, let me rephrase that: they gather your personal data, so people who sell stuff like to advertise on Douyin. So be prepared for commercial content or run away while you still can! You can’t always differentiate between ‘normal’ and commercial content, because everything’s in the same Douyin format.
  • Favorite hangout for pedophiles: Since Douyin doesn’t take age restrictions very seriously, Douyin and its overseas equivalent TikTok have become very popular among people who like to watch and contact little children using the chat function.
  • Douyin addiction: The app is very addictive and time-consuming. It’s designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. An Indian kid was reported to have fallen from a roof while watching videos on TikTok. It can turn people into walking zombies whose only concern is the number of likes on their videos…
  • The kind of stuff people do for likes: if you have spent some time on these apps, it all becomes too obvious. Girls start to wear sexy outfits and hang their boobs into the camera. Why? Because it works. And people copy each other.
  • No politics or “controversial” content: no, I wouldn’t do that. Unless you want to get banned or worse. Douyin is for “fun” only, so if you happen to have an opinion about Hongkong or Xinjiang: be prepared to be banned permanently. This we know from the TikTok moderation guidelines that got leaked.

Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with [TikTok],” Huffman said at the event, “because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.

Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman

Don’t do it!

Douyin might be fun (like facebook used to be cool and fun once), but it comes at a high price. I can’t recommend an app which I cannot trust. I can’t recommend an app that shares my personal information with … I don’t know who or when and for what reasons. I can’t recommend an app that might be using the faces of its users for facial recognition software. I don’t want to be a slave of another big data company which claims to create value, but only throws an addictive toy at the masses to get people’s personal data.

Please feel free to 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.

China’s 2020 HSK reform: How different will the new HSK be?

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Recently I have been blogging a lot about HSK 6 and how it relates to people’s language proficiency in Mandarin. Is it worth taking the test? Well, just when I was about to sign up for the exam, someone notified me HSK will be completely reformed!

“HSK is about to be reformed”

The big news was shared on the HSK Official Twitter account, the wording rather cryptic. Apparently the new HSK will consist of 9 levels instead of 6:

HSK Official Twitter message: "HSK is about to be reformed", 21.05.2020.

But as for all the other details, even now three weeks later, I couldn’t find any news concerning the HSK reform on their official website (and still can’t (20-01-2021)). The link they shared in the above tweet strangely enough seems to have nothing to do with the announced updates to the HSK system, or does it? The article covers the language requirements for overseas students in China who study medicine in English university programs, but what about the new HSK exam?

Isn’t it odd to officially announce a big reform that will happen this year and then share a link to an Chinese article that offers very little explanation to the average HSK candidate?

“Three Stages and Nine Levels”

This is what the new HSK system looks like. Each “stage” is divided into three levels:

China's language test HSK: Three stages and nine levels (2020 reform)
Image via @山下智博/Weibo

What does this mean?

The best article I could dig up so far was published in The Beijinger which apparently was able to win some inside info. Since I’m not sure about the source, I think it’s still too early to go into the details of the new system. Many questions remain to be answered: Will an oral examination be mandatory for the higher levels? How will the progression between the levels be? Will HSK 9 more or less match the current HSK 6 or will it be harder?

Concerning this last question the article does give an answer, but honestly I don’t yet know what to make of it. It says the difficulty between the different test levels will increase more gradually, reducing the gaps between the levels to some extent:

Compared to the current standards for HSK 1 to 6, it is not hard to see how the new system will alter the overall difficulty curve. For example, the current HSK 6 requires takers to master cumulative 5,000 words, half of which are new, and 2,663 characters, 978 of which are new. In HSK 3.0 [Kaohongshu: the new system] though, students need to memorize 5,456 words in total, 1,140 of which haven’t previously appeared, while the number of characters needed has been reduced to 1,800, 1,500 of which should already be familiar. That’s good, right? Not so fast.

All those words have to go somewhere, in this case, they’ve been divided among the lower levels: the threshold to pass HSK levels 1 to 4 have now all increased, with the word list for each expanding drastically, by a multiple of three or four. Let’s take HSK 1 for example. Whereas 150 words is currently sufficient for someone to pass, that number will rise to 500 words in HSK 3.0. No word list has yet to be released for any of the levels.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

New HSK requirements for international students in China

What does this mean for people who want to study in China? Which HSK level is required? We don’t know yet:

There has also been no word on what these changes will mean for graduation requirements for international students in China. Until now, foreign students who study in Chinese are required to pass the HSK 6 test prior to graduation, while a HSK 4-5 certificate is usually sufficient for students taught in foreign languages to pursue graduate or higher-level degrees. If you major in medicine or a related field, an additional Medical Chinese Test (MCT) may be required.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

Is the new HSK system an improvement?

One major problem of the HSK levels in the past was that they were supposed to correspond directly to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, except they didn’t, meaning that HSK 6 was nowhere near the “almost-native” C2 level, HSK 4 by now means matched B2 and so on. To me at this point it’s not at all clear if the reform’s intention is to eradicate this flaw and bring HSK closer to the European Framework. Will the higher levels go beyond the “old” HSK 6? Will they alter the structure of the exams? What’s the reasoning behind the reform?

Two things I would welcome: a more gradual progression between each level and a closer correlation to the European Framework. On that I agree with The Beijinger:

While the changes seem intimidating at first, we’re all for the levels being rebalanced to better reflect an individual’s proficiency. For too long, levels 1-3 have felt little more than token certificates, too easy to pass with a little effort and making the jump to HSK 4 and up too substantial. Finally, adjusting the test to better reflect the CEFR system should help give the HSK improved weighting and caliber on the international stage.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

But will that be what we’ll get? I hope we receive an update soon. Then we’ll know what Hanban, the organization behind HSK, has in mind with the new HSK system. Maybe the changes won’t be that radical after all. Only time (and vocabulary lists and mock exams) will tell.


Update, 02.06.2020 – from the Chinese Testing International Barcelona:

Lately, news such as “HSK will have 9 levels! The Chinese level 3.0 test will be coming soon” have attracted a lot of attention inside and outside China. The concerns and inquiries of Chinese students and teachers who are dedicated to the international teaching of this language come one after another, which excites us and shows unprecedented support. In order to answer the main concerns, the “Standards of the Chinese level in international education”, the Chinese proficiency test (HSK) and the relationship between the two will be explained.

With the development of the teaching of the Chinese language and the changes in the global needs of teaching and learning the Chinese language, it is necessary to adjust the “International Standards of Proficiency in Chinese” (published by the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in 2007), to Continuously improve the international teaching and learning of Chinese. In 2017, we began research and development of a new standard, namely “Chinese level standards in international education” (hereinafter referred to as “Level standards”). This research has already been completed and will therefore be launched in the second half of the year.

“Level Standards” is based on the essence of Chinese language and writing, and has been nurtured by the strengths of other language standards in the world, inheriting the experience of teaching Chinese as a foreign language and the international teaching of Chinese. . From this base, divide the Chinese level of non-native speakers into three categories: beginner, medium and high, and each category is subdivided into three levels, that is, three categories with nine levels. Each level description includes three parts: verbal communication skills, content of thematic tasks and quantitative indicators of the language, and describes each level from five aspects according to their abilities to listen, speak, read, write and translate. “Level Standards” is an open and inclusive professional standard system that, after launch, will lead all international fields of Chinese language learning, teaching, testing and assessment, and will become an important indicator of reform and development of international Chinese teaching.

The main change to the next “Level Standard” consists of three new advanced levels 7-9. A higher level of the Chinese language requires students to understand complex subjects in various fields and genres, carry out in-depth exchanges and discussions; are able to express themselves on complex issues of social, professional, daily activities, academic research, etc., have a flexible and effective organization of language, with a clear logic, a rigorous structure, a coherent and reasonable speech, and can communicate decently in various situations; Be flexible in using various communication strategies and resources to complete communication tasks, gain a deep understanding of Chinese cultural knowledge, and possess an international vision and intercultural communication skills.

To this end, we will expand the levels by developing the Advanced HSK exam (levels 7-9), with the premise of guaranteeing the stability of HSK levels 1-6. The advanced exam is mainly for foreign students who specialize in Chinese language and literature, as well as for students from other majors with Chinese proficiency who come to China to study and for Sinology researchers abroad. A single exam will be implemented in the levels 7-9 test for the three levels, which means that only one exam will be added and will be determined by the score if the level 7, 8 or 9 is obtained. The Advanced HSK exam (Level 7-9) is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year.

This text is a translation of the Chinese original and is for informational purposes only.

Chinese Testing International

June 2, 2020 (Source)

Update, 20.06.2020 – from Skritter

Skritter published the below overview on their YouTube channel showing the new levels and vocabulary requirements from “HSK 3.0”. If this information is correct, there will be three new levels on top of HSK 6. The current sixth level will be downgraded to a more appropriate intermediate level. Only those passing the seventh level will be able to call themselves “advanced”. The vocabulary for the advanced levels will be significantly increased (or actually this is true for all levels).

On the whole, “HSK 3.0” will be more difficult and – according to this information – the new levels will correspond more closely to the European Framework (someone who masters HSK 9 in the new system would truly have C2 proficiency for example). But we can’t really be sure until an official statement with more details has been issued by Hanban.

HSK 3.0 - new levels overview
YouTube screenshot. Source: Skritter

HSK 3.0 updates, 18.01.2021

Hard to believe, but It’s still unclear on which date HSK 3.0 will be launched exactly. Without any official updates and information, much about HSK 3.0 still remains speculation. Any news? Well, a longtime Chinese-Forums member compiled a first rough (unofficial) HSK 3.0 vocabulary list which can be downloaded via Dropbox. It is based on this paper which presents the following HSK vocabulary breakdown:

Provisional HSK 3.0 vocabulary breakdown

The same forum-member published a HSK 3.0 FAQ section on Reddit which summarizes the latest information (and rumors) about the HSK reform and is worth sharing:

FAQ about the NEW HSK (03.08.2020) (Source: Reddit)

Q: What changes? A: An increase of 6,092 words, going from 5,000 to 11,092 words, divided over 3 categories corresponding to the CEFR groups which are further divided into 9 HSK levels. The new progression will be less of an inverted pyramid and the newly added words will be divided across said levels.

Q: What is the new Vocab? A: The official vocabulary is so far unknown, but we can make an educated guess. The author of the essay《汉语国际教育汉语水平等级标准全球化之路》***, 刘英林 Liu Yinglin, beckoning in the new HSK structure in 2020 has published a book with the corresponding amount of vocab (11,092 words).

Q: Should I still keep studying for/take the current HSK? A: Yes. If we take in mind the 2010 changes to the HSK: all grammar and the vast majority of vocabulary will carry over. Most, if not all, HSK exams are taken online so if you require an HSK certificate for a course/job you should still take it.

Q: How can I prepare for the new HSK? A: By spending more time on non-course content. Studying only the HSK vocabulary will no longer be enough (at least for the reading section), so venture off the current HSK Standard course and start consuming media and books, or whatever you can get your hands on at your specific level.

Q: Will my old HSK certificate still be valid? A: \[speculation\] Current HSK certificates will be valid for another 2 years. Though for graduate programs they might implement the changes sooner.

Q: When will the new HSK be official? A: Either Winter of 2020 or Spring of 2021.

Q: When/where to buy the new HSK books? A: The first materials will probably be released by BLCUP (Beijing Language and Culture University Publisher), expect this to coincide with the official release of the test.

Q: Will the new HSK be 4+ times more difficult??? A: Not necessarily, the amount of characters you’re required to know has only increased by a few hundred and the same holds true for the grammar covered. What this does entail is that you won’t be able to pass the new HSK by solely learning the course vocab and neglecting any extra-curricular consumption of content. But, this time it will include an (optional?) translation section and the HSKK spoken test has been integrated.

Q: How about the TOCFL? A: The Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) is a Taiwan specific test and is thus not affected by the new HSK changes (which is a mainland test).

Source: Reddit

Go East Mandarin: “We’re at a presentation about the new HSK levels” (01.11.2020) (Source: Reddit)

GoEast Mandarin is a Chinese language school in Shanghai. They posted the following picture on Reddit which suggests that the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing six HSK levels, but merely will add three additional levels on top. They did provide some additional details on their website. I don’t think this affects the overall validity of the “educated guesses” by the Chinese-Forums member or Skritter, but again, we have to wait and see to be certain.

(Source: Reddit) 教育汉语水平等级标准
Translation: Chinese international education Chinese-level standard grading
HSK3.0只增加7-9级,1-6级不变
Translation: HSK 3.0 only adds levels 7 – 9, levels 1 through 6 are unchanged

Latest HSK 3.0 updates, 20.01.2021

Yesterday I sent an email to two Confucius institutes (one in Germany, one in the Netherlands), asking when it would be possible to take the HSK 7 – 9 exams and in what way the newly added levels would be different from the HSK as we know it.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Here’s the reply from the Confucius Institute in the Netherlands. It confirms what it says on the picture above and corresponds with the information shared earlier by the Chinese Testing International Barcelona from June 2020, that is, the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing HSK levels 1 – 6, but will mainly add three additional levels. Here the original mail with translation:

关于HSK 7-9级,暂时还没有出台相关的文件和方案。
目前我们了解到的信息只是汉考国际会在保证HSK 1-6级考试稳定的前提下,延伸开发HSK高等(7-9级)考试。考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生,以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9级考试将实行一试3级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定7-9三个级别。具体的信息,会在我们收到总部的文件后在我院的官网上与大家分享。
希望上面的回答能够解决你的部分疑惑。

Google Translate: Regarding HSK Levels 7-9, no relevant documents and plans have been issued yet. At present, the information we have is only that Hankao International will extend the development of the HSK advanced (level 7-9) test under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level test will be implemented with one try for all 3 levels, that means, only one additional test will be used to determine the three levels of 7-9 through the score. Specific information will be shared with you on the official website of our institute after we receive the documents from the headquarters. Hope the above answer can solve some of your questions.

The mail from the Confucius institute in Germany states the same, adding a rough time frame for the launch:

汉考国际最新的HSK3.0还未正式落地,就目前公布的信息来看HSK3.0主要是增加了高等 7-9 三个级别

考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生, 以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9 级考试将实行一试 3 级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定 7-9 三个级别。HSK 高等(7-9 级)考试计划于最晚明年上半年推出

一旦HSK3.0政策信息落地,我们将第一时间发布考试相关信息,请随时关注。

Google Translate: The latest HSK 3.0 of Hankao International has not yet been officially released. According to the information currently released, HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level exam will be implemented at 3 levels, that is to say, only one additional test will be used to determine the 7-9 three levels through scores. The HSK Advanced (Level 7-9) test is scheduled to be launched in the first half of next year at the latest. Once the HSK 3.0 policy information is implemented, we will release the test-related information as soon as possible, please feel free to pay attention.

So to sum up the main information from these two emails:

  • “HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9” on top of the existing six levels, “under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test”. To me this sounds as HSK 1 – 6 are not affected by the reform, but I’m not fully sure.
  • The new levels HSK 7 – 9 are targeted at overseas M.A. students and researchers studying / working in China in fields that require advanced Mandarin language skills. This probably means HSK 7 – 9 won’t concern most Chinese learners, only a very small group of students and academics.
  • Candidates are supposed to take the advanced test only once to determine their HSK level. My interpretation: there will be one exam for the HSK levels 7 – 9.
  • At the latest, the new HSK 7 – 9 exam will be launched by the first half of next year. This doesn’t sound like the new levels will come as early as this spring.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the HSK reform or share any updates in the comments below.

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