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Tips and Tricks for Learning Chinese


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On 2/19/2022 at 3:25 PM, Moshen said:

Hah!  "Spam" as in spam email is named after the meat!  It is actually a very popular food in Hawaii, but looked down on most everywhere else in the US.


Yeah, but we don't have that here so I didn't know about it. 😂

Food packaging is interesting. There are big differences between countries in the brands on the shelf, packaging, names, colors used, etc. It is by no means something that you should expect to just understand if you know the language.

A good example was some article that said that people from some Asian country found meat packages in US disgusting, because of the color of the meat or because they couldn't see the animal or something. At the same time it seems many Americans found it disturbing to buy a live chicken at a market place and have it killed and sliced up for them right there. But the locals wanted to see that the animal was healthy and they knew that the meat they took home was fresh.

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  • 1 month later...

Hi All. It has been quite awhile since the last one, but I have finally finished a new article! I will link it below. I'm curious to hear what you think.




Do you need Chinese in your day-to-day life? Your answer should impact how you study


There are four main skills required for fluency in any language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Chinese is unique from western alphabetic languages in that the aural components of listening and speaking and the visual components of reading and writing are not well integrated with each other. For example, it’s possible to know the sound of the character (che1/car) but not know how to recognize or write it on paper. Similarly, I can know how to recognize it, but not know how it sounds. Sometimes you can correctly guess the sound from the construction of the character, but not always.


This means that for Chinese more so than for other languages, you really need to decide which of these four skills you want to focus on, because they don’t all directly reinforce each other like they do in other languages. For example, if I see an unfamiliar word in Spanish, I can “sound it out” into its spoken form, so my reading practice reinforces my speaking and listening skills too. This doesn’t work as well with Chinese for the reasons explained above.


Given these unique qualities of the language, the next relevant questions are: should you focus on one skill more than the others? If so, which one? Or should you try to keep them all in balance?


I chose to focus more heavily on reading at first, based on two principles:


  • Input skills (reading and listening) provide more broad benefit than output skills (writing and speaking). This is because input skills: (1) expose you to new Chinese content like vocabulary and grammar, and (2) polish and refine the content you already know. Output skills only do the latter. Both are valuable forms of practice, but especially early on, input skills will deliver more benefit per hour invested.
  • Based on the way that most people study, reading will teach both character recognition and pronunciation. This is because when you see an unfamiliar word in a book or article, you will most likely look it up in a dictionary. The dictionary will show you both the meaning and the pronunciation. It is less common to use a dictionary when listening, unless you are also using a transcript. Typically, when I hear an unfamiliar word spoken, I will (1) ask the speaker to explain it, or (2) try to figure it out from context. Both of these methods only give me the meaning of the word and leave me unable to write or recognize it. I think this quirk is probably why there are so many heritage learners (students who speak Chinese at home with family, but want to improve their skills further) out there who can speak and listen but cannot read or write, but fewer students who can read and write but cannot speak or listen.


To summarize the above two principles for each learning type:


  • Reading benefits reading, listening, writing, and speaking
  • Listening benefits listening and speaking
  • Writing benefits writing
  • Speaking benefits speaking


So, I chose to focus on reading, and to some extent listening first and then catch up the other skills at a slower pace. For me, this approach was faster and easier than developing all four skills equally. I believe this also led to less “re-work,” where I would first study basic Chinese and then relearn more complex Chinese to replace the basic Chinese I had used previously. This made my overall learning journey shorter than it would have otherwise been.


One other benefit to this method is that you are less likely to reinforce mistakes. If you start to speak from day 1, you will necessarily say a lot of things incorrectly due to lack of exposure to the language. However, if you start to speak after you have read a few graded readers or listened to a few Chinese TV shows for children, you will have a better feel for the language and make fewer mistakes. These mistakes will also be less likely to become habitual.


Now, back to the title of the article. If you live in China or otherwise need Chinese in your day-to-day life, you are probably better off developing these skills equally. However, for those of us that do not need Chinese every day, it will probably be faster and more efficient to focus more on reading at the outset. You can then catch up the other skills a bit more slowly, as desired. It may make your learning experience a smoother one.

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  • 3 months later...

After a bit of a hiatus due to a new role at work. I have finally written another article. Please let me know what you think!




Chinese vocabulary acquisition tips: part I, background


When I started to learn Chinese, I made a series of assumptions about my journey at the outset. Some of these assumptions proved to be correct, and others proved to be inaccurate. The assumption that proved to be the most inaccurate was that a mastery of the 5,000-word Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) level 6 exam curriculum (the highest level offered at the time) represented a mastery of the Chinese language. I further assumed that because 5,000 words was mastery, I could achieve my desired level (conversational fluency) around the HSK 3 or 4 level, or between 600 and 1,200 words. For me, this meant being able to comfortably hold general conversations on non-specialized topics, understand some television (TV dramas) and read simple books like Harry Potter translated into Chinese.


Needless to say, I was nowhere near capable of these tasks after I passed the HSK 4. In reality, I was only minimally able to do these things at a 2,500-word vocabulary, which corresponds with HSK 5. I would say that only now, at around an 8,000-word vocabulary am I comfortable with them. Furthermore, I am aware that my comfort level will only increase as that vocabulary increases further. In short, even at 8,000 words I do not feel like I have reached a plateau in terms of the value of additional vocabulary.


This journey was important, because it led me to two key realizations:


  1. The HSK test structure can trick you into thinking that learning Chinese is far quicker and easier than it actually is. This can actually be a good thing. If I had realized how difficult Chinese would be at the outset, I may never have started learning it. By the time I realized how much work it would really take to achieve my goals, I was already in too deep in to turn back.
  2. Vocabulary is absolutely critical. If you want to learn intermediate-to-advanced-level Chinese, you’re going to need a lot of it (5,000 to 20,000 words depending on your desired level). This means that the process that you use to learn vocabulary is extremely important.


Given the importance of vocabulary in learning the Chinese language. I have decided to post a few articles with my best tips for vocabulary acquisition!

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