Studying new characters everyday, you have to keep track of your progress somehow. People always like to hear exact numbers. Stating you have mastered over 2000 characters sounds impressive, but how can you be sure? You can find several online tests to check the number of characters you already know. But can they be trusted? I’m skeptical. Have a look at my test results and understand why.
I tried three different tests. All three tests are free – you don’t have to sign up – and take only a few minutes. I answered as honestly as possible. These are the tests:
The results blew me away, because they varied from 1600 to 3434 characters! How can the gap be so wide? Which test should I believe? Feel free to have a closer look:
Which test is the best?
Personally, I can’t say which test is most reliable. The main complication I see with all three tests is that most learners of Chinese as a foreign language would typically use the HSK levels and vocabulary to orientate. Or, alternatively, the Chinese textbooks they use in class. No matter which books and methods, all focus on the most commonly used vocabulary as opposed to less frequent ones like these from the Hanzishan test which I couldn’t even find among theHSK characters (!):
So that’s a problem. Grabbing a Chinese novel, opening a random page and pointing your finger blindly at some character could lead to the same result. Or so it seems to me, due to the randomness of the list above.
As a HSK-student, you would probably get a higher score testing HSK characters, but then again, Chinese texts don’t necessarily stick to HSK-vocab just to make your life easier.
As a testing method, I can’t recommend any of these tests, unfortunately.
Anyway, I could be wrong. If you want to feel the same frustration, give these Chinese character tests a try and feel free to comment your score down below.
A reader asked me if there were any things I’d do differently today if I’d have to re-climb Hanyu mountain all the way from base camp number one. Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here’s my list.
Don’t skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation
Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language pyramid. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. This does not mean perfection, but you have to cover the basics:
Write basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
Speak and recognize the four tones
Read Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)
You can practice on your own (which I did for an extensive period), but probably the best way to do it is to join a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu in our dreams. But is was worth the effort and far more effective than self-studying Pinyin without anyone correcting you.
Don’t ignore Hanzi
Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?
I won’t pretend to have the only valid answer.
You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin in the long run cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll stay “illiterate” not just in the direct sense but also in terms of Chinese culture. Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.
Here is an example:
To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.
So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way but making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.
Don’t forget to make Chinese friends
Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere withing Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.
Don’t worry if you “still don’t understand anything”
Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.
Don’t expect apps to solve all your problems
Apps will shape the future of language learning and have been a major step forward, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications in the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.
Don’t think children’s books are easy
When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.
It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had a hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.
Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me, without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but is not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.
That’s my list. If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.
Here’s a top 10 of Chinese songs that are suitable for beginners. When I say beginners, I don’t mean absolute beginners, but learners with at least a few months of learning experience. Enjoy!
Do you have any songs that helped you improve your Chinese skills? Please leave a comment below.
Nr. 1. Teresa Teng – 月亮代表我的心
For those who do not know her yet: Teresa Teng (邓丽君 (dèng lì jūn), 29 January 1953 – 8 May 1995) was an extremely popular singer from Taiwan. Her fame spread all over Southeast-Asia in the 70’s and 80’s, although her romantic songs were officially banned from mainland China for being to “bourgeois”. Her records could still be bought on the black market though and were played all over China, even in government circles and night clubs. Her fans from mainland China nicknamed her “Little Deng” as she shares her family name (邓) with the communist leader Deng Xiaoping. The saying went that “Deng the leader ruled by day, but Deng the singer ruled by night”.
By the way, she not only recorded songs in Mandarin but also in Taiwanese, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian and English. She even spoke French fluently.
Nr. 2. Teresa Teng – 甜蜜蜜
Some people may know the song from the Hongkong movie “Tian mi mi” which was released in 1996. Teresa’s music is featured prominently throughout the whole film; in fact, the cinema classic is considered a “love poem” to the Taiwanese singer. The song is about love at first sight.
The reason Teresa’s songs are so excellent for learning Chinese is they are mostly slow love ballads sung with her sweet and clear voice. The lyrics are simple and pure. From a learning perspective you only need basic grammar to be able to follow. Repetition is key here. Soon you are singing along and can impress your Chinese friends in a karaoke bar of your choice.
你说过两天来看我 Ni shuo guo liang tian lai kan wo 一等就是一年多 Yi deng jiu shi yi nian duo 三百六十五个日子不好过 San bai liu shi wu ge ri zi bu hao guo 你心里根本没有我 Ni xin li gen ben mei you wo 把我的爱情还给我 Ba wo de ai qing huan gei wo
Teresas Teng – 你怎么说
Nr. 4. Teresa Teng – 美酒加咖啡
The idea of mixing wine and coffee or drinking both simultaneously didn’t occur to me till I heard this Chinese drinking ballad. In this song, a heartbroken Teresa assures her listeners time and time again that she is not yet drunk but just brokenhearted and looking for equally grief-stricken company to empty another cup.
“Women are tigers”. This may be common knowledge to some, but for the poor monk in the song it serves as a warning not to mingle or even come close to the opposite sex as they will swallow him alive. Listen to Li Na to find out what became of him.
Nr. 6. 于文华、尹相杰 – 纤夫的爱
The original name of this unbelievably catchy love song seems to be “纤夫的爱” or “boat tracker’s love” and is another gem from yesteryear. I love the epic video clip of the heroic bloke with the glasses pulling the boat with his “younger sister” behind him. ”The virtues of Chinese rural life”, someone commented. The “dangling rope” between them becomes a metaphor for their unfolding love. He pulls her, he sweats for her: This is old-school Chinese chivalry (with “traditional” gender roles), no matter if the male singer (Yǐn Xiāngjié) was arrested for possessing drugs or not.
妹妹你坐船头 mei mei ni zuo chuan tou 哥哥在岸上走 ge ge zai an shang zou 恩恩爱爱 en en ai ai 纤绳荡悠悠 qian sheng dang you you
于文华、尹相杰 – 纤夫的爱
Nr. 7. 于文华、尹相杰 – 天上有太阳
If you found the last one a bit too hard, try this one. It’s another extremely catchy duet between gege and xiaomei, still breathing the rural spirit of the nineties. As their relationship enters into a more mature stage, gege – in an optimistic and forward looking mood – is wondering how to satisfy xiaomei’s dreams and expectations.
Nr. 8. Joyce Chu -【好想你 I MiSS U】
Joyce Chu is a young singer from Malaysia. She changes her outfit and whereabouts just about every second in this clip just to underline how she misses you. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head pretty quick.
Nr. 8. Wanting 曲婉婷 – 我的歌声里 (You Exist In My Song)
Do you hear an English accent? I wonder if Wanting Qu does it on purpose, because she was born in Harbin, China and already 16 years of age when she moved to Canada. Wanting earned a degree in international business and relocated to Vancouver where she began her musical career. “You exist in my song” is about lost love that still lives on in heart and dreams.
你存在 我深深的脑海里 Nǐ cúnzài wǒ shēn shēn de nǎohǎi lǐ 我的梦里 我的心里 我的歌声里 Wǒ de mèng lǐ wǒ de xīnlǐ wǒ de gēshēng lǐ 你存在 我深深的脑海里 Nǐ cúnzài wǒ shēn shēn de nǎohǎi lǐ 我的梦里 我的心里 我的歌声里 Wǒ de mèng lǐ wǒ de xīnlǐ wǒ de gēshēng lǐ
曲婉婷 – 我的歌声里
Nr. 9. 慕容晓晓 – 爱情买卖
Murong Xiaoxiao became famous with this poppy R&B song from Chinese street life that even involves some rap elements (I guess that was something new back then). It could be heard on every Chinese street corner in 2009 (and afterwards). 买卖 or 做买卖 literally means buying and selling (doing business) and is often used to refer to small businesses and street vendors. In this case, it’s Xiaoxiao’s love that’s been bought and sold and she obviously feels wronged by her lover who thinks love is something that can be purchased and thrown away anytime.
This extremely popular song by the Chopstick Brothers “traumatizes” a lot of people on their first trip to China. Imagine getting caught in a massive swarm of elderly women (阿姨) dancing in formation to the beat of “xiao pingguo” and being forced to join their revolutionary movement as happens to numerous innocent tourists every year. Most of them don’t make it back. The upside is though, that the lyrics are plain and simple. Listen to it once or twice and the song will stick with you for days!
你是我的小呀小苹果 Nǐ shì wǒ de xiǎo ya xiǎo píngguǒ 怎么爱你都不嫌多 zěnme ài nǐ dōu bù xián duō 红红的小脸⼉温暖我的⼼窝 hóng hóng de xiǎo liǎn er wēnnuǎn wǒ de xīn wō 点亮我生命的⽕ diǎn liàng wǒ shēngmìng de huǒ ⽕火⽕火⽕ huǒ huǒ huǒ huǒ huǒ
I just tried to find my way through the ever-changing landscape of China podcasts and I can tell you it really wasn’t easy. Podcasts come and go. Here’s an overview of the most relevant shows sorted by topic.
One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.
The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.
The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.
The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.
The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.
Host: Rutch Kirchner, Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich, Frank Pieke and other MERICS experts
China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.
Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network
Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.
China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.
Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.
Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”
Starting out learning a new language? If you are new to language learning or want to rethink the process, bear with me for some self-discovery. Knowing your personal learning style will make studying easier and more fun. Non of the four styles match you? I have some advise for you too.
Do you prefer lectures over reading books and articles? You do a good job at following verbal directions? You don’t really need the visual backup to support your learning?
If you are a so-called auditory learner, you learn particularly well by listening. In essence, auditory learners retain information best when it is presented through sound and speech. If you identify with this type, consider listening to dialogues, vocabulary and music. Build your own playlist and put tracks on repeat. Speak or sing along and try to repeat the phrases. Stop when you feel the urge to destroy your playing device. For Chinese in particular, repetition really will help you to get the tones and the melody right.
“I see what you mean”
Sorry, what did you just say? Can you write that down please?
If you are more of a visual type of learner, you typically process new information by reading, writing and using other visualstimulus. I personally like to write summaries and vocabulary lists, because the visual backup not only helps me to memorize words and sentences I’d otherwise forget in the long run, but also helps my neurotic self to create order out of chaos. The drawing of symbols and pictures is essential in this as well.
Tactile and kinesthetic
Are you more the kind of hands-on learner who benefits from actively doing something? Then you might feel more comfortable with working with flashcards, tangible objects, and other creative means. As a kinesthetic learner you already know that standing up will improve your comprehension and retention. When you stand up, your body is more engaged and connected to the learning process. Investing in a book stand or standing desk may help you concentrate for longer periods of time and remember more of what you read. You may also consider to do some burpees or jumping jacks in between chapters. Combining activity keeps you energized and cements the language you’re studying in your brain.
Last but not least, there is the intellectual learner. As the name suggests as an intellectual learn you learn best the abstract way. You want to first understand the rules and are not afraid to read rather dreary grammar explanations like this:
Chinese, like English, is classified as an SVO (subject–verb–object) language. Transitive verbs precede their objects in typical simple clauses, while the subject precedes the verb. For example: 他 喝 酒。Literal: He drink alcohol. Translated: He drinks alcohol.
Not my style?
If you got the feeling that non of the above styles or types matches your particular profile? That’s completely fine, since they are only abstract distinctions to help you orientate. Have you ever met a person who learned language purely by listening to spoken dialogues and other recordings? Would be unnatural, wouldn’t it? Speaking of natural and unnatural: Don’t forget that when we try to learn a foreign language as adults, we are actually kind of helplessly imitating the natural process of language learning that we all went through as children as we mastered our first language. How did that work out so well? Natural language acquisition involves all the senses and is meaningful. It’s both active and passive. All four areas of language skills, that is speaking, listening, reading and writing, develop overtime, but not necessarily in a guided manner.
So taking that into account, you should really try to create your personal mixture of the four learning styles. Know your strengths and keep it balanced: If you like to read, don’t forget to communicate with people. If you are the opposite and prefer learning by conversation and listening, try making notes. It will help you remember fresh vocabulary and keep track of your progress. Challenge yourself by trying some new things!
I have never believed that there are “auditory learners”, “visual learners” or other types of learners. I do believe that learners are motivated by different things. It is these different kinds of motivations that need to be researched and better understood.