Category Archives: Resources

Chinese learning habits for 2017

This year I have resolved to take a more deliberate and structured approach to my Chinese language study. I’ve also found a way to gamify my habits to help keep me motivated.

Study task types

I have come up with a weekly plan that has a list of study task types for each day of the week. Each weekday I am going to do:

  • my SRS study (e.g. Skritter, Anki), and
  • active listening practice (mainly from textbook audio at this stage).

SRS is designed to be used daily and is the primary way of acquiring new vocabulary (the most important thing). I view listening ability as my weakest area (especially considering how important it is) so I really want to put a lot of effort into this.

On some other days of the week I also have:

  • reading practice (currently using my Mandarin Companion graded readers), and
  • my regular Chinese class (2 hours on one day a week).

I haven’t specified a fixed minimum time I need to spend on these study tasks because I’m more concerned about forging the habits themselves, but I’m using ~10 minutes as a guide right now. The task types allow for a bit of variance, so I can easily swap in new audio (for example) resources.

Gamifying the habits

To give me more motivation to complete the habits every day, I have started using Habitica. For anyone that has played an RPG video game, it should look familiar.

Characters from Habitica

The idea is that you create a character and enter in your list of habits (daily/scheduled tasks, to-do items or repeatable habits). Recording the completion of your habits will give more experience points (XP) to your character and you will level up. Not completing your daily habits will result in you losing health, risking your character’s death and resulting in a loss of XP. You also earn gold to buy more powerful equipment for your character, which helps them lose less health for missed dailies, get more gold from completed tasks, etc.

Habitica is available via web and mobile app, so I’m easily able to tick off my tasks as I complete them even when I’m out (e.g. I often do my SRS task on the train to work). The health system is good because I feel that I can skip some dailies if I really need to, but I can’t keep doing it for too long otherwise my character will die.

The year of the rooster

I hope the combination of some (not too much) structure and some gamification will make for some good progress in this upcoming year of the rooster 🙂 新年快乐!

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Podcasts for Chinese current affairs & history

There are two great China-related podcasts I listen to that I really enjoy and feel compelled to share. I find them both quite entertaining and I highly recommend them for anyone wanting a to learn more about the country.

Sinica Podcast

The Sinica Podcast logo

Hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn, this podcast deals with current affairs in China and is great for keeping your ‘finger on the pulse’ of major issues there. Each episode they have special guests with expertise in the topic being discussed, and the hosts themselves are extremely knowledgeable.

Kaiser in particular is a very entertaining host (a former heavy metal guitarist) and, as a Chinese American who has spent much time in both countries, has unique insights that are often missed by the predominantly western (albeit highly informed) viewpoints usually expressed on the program.

The range of topics is extremely diverse, but some recent examples include nationalism & censorship, China’s ideological spectrum, China’s millennials, the Tianjin explosion and hip hop in China. In fact, it was through listening to this podcast that I discovered the next one…

China History Podcast

The Chinese History Podcast logo

  • Topic: Chinese history (both ancient & modern)
  • URL: Facebook, iTunes, web
  • Average episode length: ~40 mins.

Hosted by China history enthusiast Laszlo Montgomery, this is a topic-based podcast with topics ranging from overviews of particular dynasties (e.g. the Tang) to notable historical figures (e.g. Deng Xiaoping), events (e.g. the Opium Wars), major cultural things (e.g. tea, Daoism) and more.

Being topic-based is great because it means you can jump around to topics that interest you (which may be several episodes long) instead of having to listen to everything from start to finish.

Laszlo does a great job compressing complicated and vast topics down into manageable chunks that can be easily understood. He typically uses multiple high quality historical sources and the episodes are presented in an entertaining way. He also has a good working knowledge of Mandarin, so is able to pronounce Chinese words quite accurately.

Whilst the full transcripts of episodes aren’t available, he does provide the key terms used (including their Chinese characters), will helps if you want to dig into something you’ve heard further by yourself.

Both podcasts have taught me so much, helping me establish a decent basic understanding of China. I’ve been able to use this as a springboard to dive into more details in particular areas when needed. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do!


How I improved my ability to hear the different tones in Mandarin

I think Mandarin is a wonderful-sounding language, so early on in my studies I was eager to spend a lot of time improving my pronunciation and learning how to hear & produce the correct tones. One of the hardest aspects of this was training my ear to be able to identify tones that I heard.

Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese fame has created a free tone training course that gives you the chance to focus very specifically on training your ear to correctly identify the four tones in Mandarin. Some features that impressed me:

  • Performance report and analysis: The final report gives you a fascinating insight into a number of stats, including how good you were when you started, which tones you found difficult to differentiate relative to other ones, and how much you improved.
  • Multiple native speakers: The course uses various different male and female voices, giving you exposure to the tones from voices with different timbres and registers.
  • Thoroughness: It takes some time to work through the whole course, but unlike other tone trainers, it does have an ending. I am absolutely sure that anyone who is not yet comfortable with their tone differentiation will be much better by the end.

While I feel like beginners are likely to gain the most value from this, I’d recommend it to anyone that hasn’t cracked the intermediate level yet as it could highlight remaining weak areas. I consider myself at the lower-intermediate level and I was able to identify the correct tone almost all the time (>95%) but it highlighted to me that differentiating between second and third tones was my weakest area.

Performance report from the tone training course.

I had the most trouble during sessions only testing tones 2 and 3.

A couple of bonuses: the data collected from this training course will be used by Olle in his academic research and, if you finish the course before the end of 2015 (only a week from the time I’m writing this!), Olle will arrange to give you some free personalised pronunciation feedback. Get started on the course!

Unfortunately such a course was not available when I was getting started. I recall that much of my early progress was gained using an app called “Pinyin Trainer” by trainchinese. It’s available for free on Android and iOS and helped me with both tone differentiation and pinyin pronunciation. It’s definitely worth a try too! After that, I had quite a lot of one-on-one tutoring with a professional Mandarin teacher who helped get me up to an acceptable level.

I strongly believe that a solid grounding in the tones and pronunciation/pinyin is critical because it avoids the development of bad habits that can be very difficult to correct. Hopefully these resources and tips are useful to some folks out there. Best of luck!