A little on learning Chinese

One of the fun things about the FOEN19 (Future of Education Now) was meeting up with two librarians who I greatly admire and in-between sessions geeking out with them. One of the great things (and possibly why I like them so much) is that they’re both keen students of Chinese, the three of us are all at various points of our Chinese journey.

There is of course the big “WHY” of learning a language – and besides a million other reasons it’s an excellent humbling experience that results in a lot of empathy for our EAL students.

The post below is almost literally taken from an email I’ve just composed on a few of the tools I’ve found useful in my journey.

1. Hacking chinese blog is definitely the best there is – they’ve got tons and tons in their archives and regularly do fun challenges. I’ve learnt so much from them about learning to learn etc.
2. Outlier Chinese – they’re newer on the scene. I did their Chinese Character Masterclass, It’s a tough one, I think it’s better to have a year or so of characters under your belt before you do it – or at least a couple of 100 characters, I think they say you should start with it. I found it hard to keep up with the course and then I’d binge on it and then lose momentum. In the end over the summer I put another thrust into finishing it. It’s good content but not very well presented and as a teacher (and design conscious person) I’d lay out things a lot differently.
Their supplement to the Pleco dictionary is definitely worth the extra $$ as it helps with the etymology and breaking down of components of complex characters.
3. Chinese Character books / Grammar books etc.
There are a variety of these, some I like more than others. Many have been supplanted by apps but they’re still good to use. As you can see from the photos, some are old and some are out of print, but if you’re working at a school are almost certainly still floating around the Chinese Department or text book store. I’m sure there are other new books, most of these are still around from when I first started learning 10 years ago. Happy to hear of better alternatives.
  • Easy way to learn Chinese Characters – possibly my favourite, but you’ll have to get it second hand as I don’t think it’s in print anymore.  It’s a workbook that builds things up very logically and possibly has been supplanted by other books since I used it – happy to hear about alternatives
  • Graded Chinese Reader – I’m on the 500 words one, I’m finding that that best way to read via the abridged short stories. I’ve tried other stuff including picture books, kids books, text books, but there’s nothing like authentic texts. There’s plenty of room for growth with 1000, 1500, 2000, 2500 and 3000 words.
  • Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters an nice visual way of learning uses various memory techniques to remember the tone and the structure of the character – of course the outlier folks would argue you shouldn’t be relying on this type of memorisation and that etymology is a better way. Worth looking at in conjunction with Outlier, to see what best suits your style.
  • Chinese Characters – starts easy and gets very complicated. Similar build up to “Easy way to learn Chinese Characters”
  • Rapid Literacy – this one literally does what it says. Great for a kick start to reading. There’s a CD you can listen to, plus the work book and it has you reading the most common characters in context in I think 10 lessons. It’s also great for listening practice.
  • On Learning Chinese is a more academic tome. It’s for people like me who really wanted to understand Chinese from a top down 10,000 feet perspective as well as from the daily character grind.
  • Teaching and Learning Chinese as a foreign language  again for the nerds or the former language teachers. It’s really a worth while book because it gives you all the grammar you need plus all the stuff you need to know about interference of L1 (English in my case).
  • iMandarin is possibly my favourite Chinese language institute and this 900 Sentence book is an absolute gem. Just what it claims to be – the 900 most common sentences you need as a beginner. With a CD to keep listening and repeating. I think you need to be a student there to get the book.
  • Just for the LULZ – Chinese character fast finder – if you like dictionaries and browsing through books of words this is great. It’s a throwback to the days when you didn’t have electronic dictionaries and had to find words by counting strokes and knowing radicals; and Peng’s Chinese Radicals – available widely in Singapore – nice when you want to flip through and learn some stuff without trying too hard.
I spent 2 years full time study of chinese (2009-2010) and never got the tones. Then I found this recently and went through the drills and by the end I absolutely got it. Suddenly I could hear all the different tones…
Absolutely worth a couple of weeks work (it’s short and intensive but you need time between the paired drills)
Your school probably has a subscription to this via the Chinese Department – if not it’s pretty cheap and great for creating writing worksheets with stroke order, creating (manual) flashcards etc.
6. Apps
A lot of the books mentioned in (3) above have been supplanted by apps. But I still prefer books and writing by hand. But these are great for stolen moments in taxi’s or while waiting and because they’re smart and can do the spaced repetition thing for you.
  • Pleco – dictionary with lots of add ons – the flashcards and outlier dictionary are well worth it. The getting words into lists and importing and sharing lists can be a real pain, I have to go back to the instructions every time I change text books but once they’re set up you’re good to go for a while.
  • Memrise – good for spaced repetition. The Chinese 1 course is particularly good for colloquial Chinese but then it gets more grindy and by Chinese 3 it becomes long and boring (too many words before you go up a level). The first 500 character one also takes a LONG time. I wish creators of these apps would allow for smaller chunks and more levels – even adults like feeling like they’re accomplishing something. Some language institutes have made their own courses within Memrise – this can be a good and bad thing depending on the recordings and care they take (some are riddled with errors and loud / soft / irritating recordings).
  • Skritter – in two minds about this one. Works best on an iPad, it can be very picky about your writing and I actually prefer pen and paper so I’ve stopped using it as much as I used to. It’s also relatively expensive, and you sometimes need to do your lists on a laptop and then import them, but using a track pad on a laptop is clunky, so then and iPad is better, so I’m not getting what I need out of this app.

There are a gajillion apps out there and I’ve tried a lot of them but those are the three left on my phone now.

7. Podcasts
I’m a bit back and forwards on this one. I used to listen to some and then I got a bit tired of them, and stopped listening because I could only really get benefit if I was sitting and taking note, and not if it was just background stuff going on. Again I’d love some good recommendations. The only one that I found consistently good was Melnyks Chinese. It’s free to listen but you pay for the lesson pdfs.

8. Videos
When I was lazy and wanted to pretend that I was learning but was actually just passive, I used to watch a fun set of YouTube videos in a sitcom like setting called “Happy Chinese

9. Role models
There are some people who are doing fantastic things. Jeremy Howard is an example of someone I’m in total awe of. Well worth reading about his approach.

Jeremy Howard – Language Acquisition Performance from Gary Wolf on Vimeo.





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