How to keep on learning Chinese: Do something fun!

Can you recognize these characters?

It’s easy to lose motivation to study Chinese, especially on a Summer vacation when all sorts of things compete of your attention. Open a textbook or go to the beach? I won’t blame you for choosing the latter.

But what can we do in order to keep on learning and not forgetting everything before continuing lessons in the Autumn?

Do something fun every day!

Learning should be fun, especially on a holiday so choose a fun Chinese activity that fits your Summer mood.

For example:

  • Explore fun apps on Apple Store or Google Play, for example tracing characters on Chinese Writer by trainchinese can get addictive!
  • Listen to podcasts on interesting topics. What about listening ChinesePod podcasts At the beach or   Going on a picnic
  • Listen to Chinese songs on QQ Music app, Youku or YouTube. Follow the lyrics as you go to help comprehension.
  • If you want to improve your reading skills, get shopping on Taobao. 
  • If you live in China or close to a Chinatown, make it into a game to spot a certain character on road signs or restaurant menus. Forget catching Pokemons, try catching as many “人” as possible!

You don’t have to study for hours, even a few minutes per day is better than cramming a full day once a month. Stay consistent and your Chinese will improve. Most of all, have fun with Mandarin!

How do you make learning Chinese fun?


How to pass HSK level 1


HSK is the official Chinese Proficiency Test that is a great way to set goals or check your Chinese level. Sometimes having a clear goal in form of a test gets you more motivated to hit those flashcards or strike up conversations with the local Chinese. Taking HSK1 is the first step on your ladder.

Just remember that you don’t study Chinese for the HSK, but use it as a tool instead. Don’t start learning Chinese by buying a HSK prep book, but try the HSK after you have studied Chinese for some time and want to see how you’re doing.

HSK1 has two parts: listening and reading. The level is suitable for those students who have learned around 150 words and basic grammar patterns. If you are studying Chinese part-time one to two hours per week, you can usually pass HSK level 1 in half a year or so.

How to pass HSK1

1) Learn the vocabulary.

As you have been studying basic Chinese at your course or with a private teacher, you have probably learned most of the basic words that will come up in HSK1. Now it’s time to review those and fill in the blanks that you might have!

The best flash card system for Chinese is Skritter that works on your laptop or on your tablet or smart phone. I started using Skritter more than five years ago and have passed many tests because of it. Skritter is also my blog’s affiliate partner. You can try it our for free and see if it’s the best choice for you too.

2) Practice your listening skills

Listening comprehension is perhaps the most important skill in a foreign language and the best way to train any skill is to do more of it! You’ve probably been listening to the dialogues in your textbook, but that becomes boring quite quickly.

Where to find more interesting materials to listen then? Podcasts like ChinesePod are good resources for all levels. For HSK level 1 check out their newbie and elementary levels. On ChinesePod, with a code “SARAJ”, you can get 20% off a premium annual plan here.

3) Do mock tests

Getting used to the test format is also important with HSK and that is easy to do with mock tests. Do an online mock test of the reading section here on the official HSK website or download paper tests. You can also buy mock exams on Amazon.

Always do a mock test with the actual time limit so see how you would do in the real test situation. Find out with a tutor why you made mistakes and practice the section more which is the weaker one for you.

4) Read short stories

A great way to review vocabulary, grammar patterns and general comprehension is to read in Chinese. These days lots of graded readers are available for different levels. For HSK level 1 I recommend the I begin to learn Chinese by Confucius Institute which contains short stories and exercises.

With these four steps I’m sure you can ace your HSK1 exam! Just remember that passing an exam shouldn’t be your sole reason to learn Chinese, but a tool that helps you to set countable goals and make you even more motivated to master Chinese step by step.



No matter how hard it might feel, you can learn to speak Chinese

情 Character

How is it like to learn a second language as an adult is a question I encounter with on a daily basis when teaching my students Chinese. I started learning Chinese when I was 20, but before that I already had experience in learning a foreign language. I started English at 9 years old, German at 11 and Swedish when I was 13. But how is it like for adults who start their very first foreign language and it happens to be Chinese?

First an article on Hacking Chinese came to my mind: You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old. Olle reminds as that even though it’s easier for children to master the pronunciation of a new language , we adults are much smarter and thus are much better at learning. What we should learn from kids though is that they don’t give up and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

We adults often expect results way too quickly and get frustrated when we don’t learn a new skill right away. Remember that learning anything new takes time and effort, so does Chinese, and don’t be afraid to make lots of mistakes along the way.

Speaking of confidence, a blog post from Sinoplice, Confidence and Tones, reminds us how important it is to be confident in your studies. The perfect balance is with having the correct information (knowing the correct pronunciation) and being confident enough to open your mouth and say those words out loud. Children aren’t afraid to speak up so we should definitely learn from them!

I didn’t learn the Chinese pronunciation well when I started. Our teacher just made us listen and repeat after a CD recoding for hours and hours, without explaining why we were learning this way. She didn’t explain where and how all these new sounds should be pronounced in our mouths. She didn’t correct our tones enough and let us get away with bad pronunciation.

When I came to China I noticed that it could take me 5 minutes to try to order yì bēi shŭi one glass of water just because my pronunciation was so terrible. During the years I’ve noticed plenty of foreigners complaining how the Chinese don’t understand their Chinese, I felt the same way at first. But then I realized that it’s my fault, my pronunciation just wasn’t good enough to allow the listener to easily understand me.

Learning Chinese pronunciation is tricky, it takes lots of time and effort, but the good news are, that after you master it (or become good enough), learning Chinese becomes much easier. At first it may seem like that you never learn those difficult initials like j, q, x or zh, ch, sh, but that’s not true. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, study hard and you will notice how native speakers start to understand you.

It may take a while to get that first feeling of accomplishment, but trust me, it feels great! One day you realize the taxi drive understood where you were going, the waitress got your order right and you just said your very first spontaneous Chinese sentence without translating it first in your head.

John from Sinoplice describes learning Chinese in 5 stages, starting from “Ching-chong-ching”. At this first stage Chinese seems something completely alien to you. How could these sounds be learned? And how is it even possible to recognize the different tones, do they even matter? After learning Chinese for a while, with a good teacher, a learner will gradually realize that Chinese is a language just like any other language (Stage 2). You start to understand that for the Chinese the difference between mā with a first tone and mà with a fourth tone is as big as the difference between A and B letters is for us.

I wish that my students don’t make the same mistakes as I did and think the tones or correct pronunciation doesn’t matter. Yes, Chinese will understand you Xièxie (thank you) and fāpiào (incoive) no matter how poorly you utter them, just  because these are the two words they are used to hearing from a foreigner’s mouth. But try something else and you find yourself having communication trouble.

We also have difficulties with non-native speakers of our own languages if their pronunciation is way off, it’s the same with Chinese. English and Chinese just happen to be quite different languages so it takes a bit more effort to nail the pronunciation. So let’s make it easier for us and for the listener and learn those new sounds. Just like a kid, don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Now after learning Chinese for 6+ years I finally understand how valuable it is to listen to the advice or advanced learners like Olle from Hacking Chinese and John from Sinoplice. They have gone through the journey, made the mistakes and are sharing their wisdom on how to avoid those mistakes our selves.

As a final word for this not so coherent blog post, I would like to say that don’t give up. No matter how hard it might seem in the beginning, you can learn to speak Chinese. No matter if it’s your first or fifth foreign language, you are never too old to learn new things. Advance on your own speed, but take an advantage of the tips of other learners.

Good luck! Study hard!


How to make your character learning more efficient

Chinese characters are so difficult to learn! That’s what all of us Chinese learners have heard multiple times during our journey to master Chinese. So we turn to books, websites and apps to help us learn those tricky but fascinating hanzi. Today I’m very excited to have guest post from the Outlier Linguistic Solutions team and their answer to learning characters in a more efficient way. Enjoy!

The problem

Most of us are learning Chinese as adults. We have jobs, families, social lives, busy schedules. We’re lucky if we get an hour per day to study, but we still want to progress as quickly as possible.

Native speakers, on the other hand, have nothing else going on because they start learning as infants. The get massive amounts of exposure to the language on a daily basis, they’re already fluent speakers when they begin to learn to read and write, and they have around two decades to reach the level of an “educated native speaker.”

So if an adult wants to become fluent in Chinese — or any language — more efficient methods must be used than what works for a native speaker.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with learning Chinese characters. A non-native adult learner usually only has a few years in which to master the most common characters needed for literacy!

The solution

The first principle of effective memorization is understanding. You must understand what you’re trying to learn. So one of the best ways to increase the efficiency of your character learning is to increase your understanding of how Chinese characters work as a system, rather than as a bunch of disconnected single characters to be individually mastered.

To do that, you need to know what functional components are and how they function.

What are functional components?

Functional components are the parts of a character form which express sound or meaning. They can also serve as a replacement for an earlier form, which I’ll get to in a moment.

There are four types of functional components: form components, meaning components, sound components, and empty components.

Form components

A form component depicts something. In the example below, we have a picture of a hand 又 taking an ear 耳.

Meaning components

A meaning component adds its meaning to the character’s meaning. In the example below, we have “small” over “big,” which expresses the meaning “sharp” or “pointed.” Note that we’re using the meaning of 大 here (big), not the form (a person).

Meaning and form components are often grouped together and called “semantic components” or simply “meaning components,” but it’s useful to make the distinction between them.

For example, the form of 大 is “the front view of an adult.” Its meaning is, of course, “big.” So as a form component, 大 depicts a person (as in 美, “a person wearing a headdress” = “beautiful”). But as a meaning component, it expresses the meaning “big” (as in 尖, “small” over “big” = “sharp”) Quite different, right?


Sound components

A meaning component gives a hint about the pronunciation of the character. In the example below, 相 xiāng serves as the sound component for 想 xiǎng.


Sometimes the connection between the character’s pronunciation and its sound component isn’t very obvious. One example is 各 gè, which is the sound component in 路 lù. The dictionary we’re working on will have explanations and simple formulas which explain these relationships.


Empty components

An empty component gives neither sound nor meaning. Some empty components serve as substitutions for sound, meaning, or form component in an older form of the character, while some serve merely to distinguish two characters from each other.

In the example below, 羊 yáng, meaning “sheep,” is a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress. So we have a person (大) wearing a headdress (羊, a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress). It’s important to note that 羊 is not adding meaning (sheep) or sound (yáng) to the character, nor is it depicting anything (the form of 羊 is a sheep). This is why we call it an empty component.


And there you have it: how Chinese characters really work. I bet you’re probably familiar with sound and meaning components, and you might have a vague notion about form components, but there’s really nothing out there which teaches about empty components. And like I mentioned earlier, a correct understanding of how the characters work as a system is one of the best ways to increase the efficiency of your learning.

The dictionary we’re developing is the only resource available for learners which:

  • Explains characters in an etymologically accurate way: what are the character’s functional components
  • Distinguishes between two types of semantic components: form components and meaning components
  • Tells you when a component is an “empty component.” That is, it doesn’t express a sound or a meaning. Most other systems try to force a meaning onto these components when there isn’t one.
  • Explains how sound components work. The sound formulas which will appear in the official release are simple, easy to understand, and explain some of the weird variations you get in pronunciation between characters sharing the same sound component. For instance, how is it that 客 kè and 路 lù share the same sound component (各 gè) when they seem completely unrelated?

This is information that simply isn’t available in English. And even in Chinese, you have to read some pretty heavy academic books to find it all, so this will be the first time all this information has been brought together anywhere.

Not only that, but our dictionary will be released through Pleco, so it will be available on your phone or tablet and integrated into all the other great features that Pleco already offers, making it much easier to fit character learning into your busy schedule.

So check out our Kickstarter and help us spread the word by clicking “Share this project.”

I’ve already supported the project on Kickstarter and can’t wait to get my hands on their dictionary next year!


How to find time to study Chinese

I’ve been a full-time student of Chinese for five years now, but it’s rarely a situation most learners of Chinese are. For example my students are either busy working or staying at home with their active kids that demand most of their time. Often it’s hard to find enough time for studying Chinese.

Do you really want to learn Chinese?

The first problem to solve is if you really want to make time for Chinese or not. For many the idea of learning Chinese is intriguing and they know knowing Chinese would help their daily lives in China, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily enough for motivating your self to actually make time for studying. So do you actually want to learn Chinese and do you find it interesting enough to slot time for it in your daily life?

Chinese is a fascinating language, it has captivated my life for six and half years now, or even more depending how you count. It’s such a different language from European languages and is part of a culture I find very interesting. But not everyone comes to China to fulfill a childhood dream. Many of us come here to work or accompany a working spouse.

Of course it’s possible to learn Chinese without being interested in it, but according to my experience it’s hard to keep up the motivation if you find the language boring or unnecessary.

Lets look at the reasons why learning Chinese is beneficial when you live in China.

Why to learn Chinese?

It is totally possible to live in China without knowing any Chinese besides nihao and xiexie, I know foreigners that have been doing that for years. So why should you learn Chinese then?

From the practical point of view, for many expats they soon find out that the taxi drivers don’t speak any English at all. During my five years in Guangzhou I’ve met one taxi driver that knew three sentences in English. As taking the taxi is a common way of transport for many foreigners, it comes handy to learn some related phrases and words. Makes your commuting a much more pleasant experience.

Talking with a driver or ayi. Nowadays there are English-speaking drivers and ayis (cleaners and nannies) available for expats, but often their language skills might be lacking. If you learn even a bit of Chinese, it helps you to communicate with them and also to get to know those daily helpers better. You can learn a lot about the city and the culture from them!

Shopping and haggling the prices is also a valid reason to learn Chinese. No matter if you are grocery shopping or hunting for gifts to take back home, knowing the numbers and relevant phrases in Chinese is a must. You might get along with a calculator at first, but miscommunications often happen without a common language. Chinese skills can also help you to negotiate a better price!

One important reason to learn Chinese is also to step out the expat bubble and experience the new culture around you. Living in China is an exciting experience for the whole family, sometimes accompanied with a culture shock. Understating the people and the culture helps you to tackle Bad China Days, and learning the language is the first step.

I recently met a fellow Finn living in Guangzhou and I was amazed by her adventurous mind. Her son goes to school where there isn’t a metro station nearby, so she was wondering what is the best way to take him to school and back. She noticed there is a bus stop next to hear home and the school, with one bus with the same number. She hopped in and found a quick and easy bus route to her son’s school! Now she is looking forward to learn Chinese and get to know the city even better.

How to find time to learn Chinese?

Now that you might have a rising interest towards Mandarin Chinese and during your first weeks or months in China you noticed it’s both useful and important to learn for living in China, how do you actually make time for studying?

Take group lessons at a language school or schedule a private tutor every week. If you are busy, even one 1.5 hours tutor meeting a week gets you to the journey of learning the daily expat Chinese. With an experienced tutor you make sure not to waste any time and get the tips and tools to study on your own as well.

Be realistic when your tutor asks you how much time you have for self-study, even 15 or 30 minutes per day allows you to start getting the basics of Chinese.

Make use of those extra minutes when waiting in line or when commuting. Besides more traditional textbook study, I give my students a small list of smart phones apps to download.

  • I recommend Skritter (affiliate link) for reviewing vocabulary as it has tons of vocal lists ready, also for the textbook I use.
  • Pinyin Trainer by trainchinese is great for mastering pinyin and learning to differentiate to similar sounding sounds.
  • Tone Test by Laokang is my choice for learning the four tones of Mandarin. Train your ear regularly and see your score get higher and higher.
  • For dictionary I of course recommend Pleco which is the choice of most Chinese learners all over the world.


Here’s my thoughts about why to study Chinese as an expat and how to motivate yourself to keep at it. If you are living in Guangzhou and want to know more about learning Chinese or hire me as your tutor, send me an email (sara (at) sarajaaksola . com) and we’ll meet for a cup of coffee.