Tag Archives: Chinese

Finished with Duolingo Chinese course

Back in July, I made it to the Diamond League in Duolingo, and it was only semi-ironically that I declared it my major accomplishment for the year. 2020: take your wins where you could get them, I say.

Many days later—308 "consecutive" days, although there are a few streak freeze days in there—I finished the Chinese course:

Please clap.

OK, simmer down.

When I started using Duolingo in 2013, there wasn't even a Chinese course. I mostly did the Spanish course (to better understand the local language in California) with a little bit of Portuguese (since our main customer at Mason was Embraer down in Brazil).

Duolingo works well for me because it is a game—it reaches right into that part of my brain that counts points and acknowledges streaks even though they're meaningless. You don't win anything, but you have many of the ceremonies of advancing in tournaments and winning. Even much of the content itself has limited educational value—but it has some value, so if you keep going, you get something out of it. The language content isn't optimal—whatever "optimal" might mean here, I'm not very concerned about defining—but your knowledge will follow an upward trend.

Duolingo is dessert. You can't (shouldn't) live off it, but it is nice and good and has its place in the world and I'm not going to stop eating it.

I've been thinking of bailing out of the Duolingo Chinese course for ages now, but more than wanting to finish the course for its content, I believed in the value of sticking to something to the end because my self-education history is a scrapyard of partially-finished projects. It's a weakness of mine to have some other plan catch my attention before the finish line, and then run after that; then another one, then run there; then another and run; and so on and so on. (Bokonon: "Round and round and round we spin, / With feet of lead and wings of tin".)

So: I stuck this one out. Now what?

On Duolingo? I don't know. I think it could come in handy to study the language for places where I'm planning to travel, if the language is available. I think the app is good for languages you don't plan to master, but just want to learn a bit about. The other languages aren't my focus, though.

Chinese? See, this one I want to master, so I have to figure out the next path. A simple, discrete goal for this year is to get up to HSK Level 4. A certification like that is a lot of vocabulary and grammar patterns—useful stuff, but in and of itself not very interesting. I don't care about a certification, but it is a landmark off in the distance that I can walk toward. Not not-moving is key.

It would be more interesting to be able to read good literature in Chinese. It would be more interesting to understand what the crosstalk performers are joking about. It would be more interesting to be able to both understand what people are saying to me and say something back to them—not just something but something witty and hilarious. (The people of the Chinese-speaking world deserve this Content and I must not deprive them of it.)

So I'll make a new path. I don't know what it is yet, but I'll head off in some direction, then adapt and adapt and adapt. It's a little bit like hiking. Sometimes it's best to know exactly where you want to go and how to get there. Sometimes it's even better to have a rough idea of where to go, no idea how to get there, and then have an open-ended adventure as you find or don't find a destination. I've found some places in India and Inyo County and Ingersoll Scout Reservation that have stuck in my memories all these years, and I don't know where they are, what they are, or how I got there. It's a matter of taste to decide which type of trip to take when it's time to set out, and then again when you're out there, and then again when you've returned.

Diamond League

I have achieved my [checks notes] only stay-at-home accomplishment so far: made it to the top league in the weekly leaderboard on Duolingo (kirkkittell).

As I've mentioned somewhere around here, it hasn't been easy to focus the last few months. That's hardly a controversial thing to say—is anyone focusing? Send detailed instructions if you are. I don't know how people with kids are managing it. Running through a few lessons on Duolingo in the morning is one of the few things I've been consistent about—I'm on a 102-day streak now. I've been slowly walking up weekly running distance to 30 km/week and pushups to 220/day—bumping them up every week (recently) by 5 km/week and 10 pushups/day. The increase will eventually collapse under its own weight, but in the meantime I'm trying to grab onto the things that I can and fix them in place, then build something around them.

There is a feeling of the days being lost to routines like this—do this in the morning, do that after work, do this before bed, repeat repeat repeat repeat, where did the month go? However. I've lost plenty of days to irredeemable low spots, so if Chinese lessons and running and pushups keeps the world on track, I'll go with it.

Chinese study 2019, part 2

Previous story: Chinese study 2019

In the previous post, I only got as far as trying to identify where to spend effort to learn Chinese. But there was no plan about what to do. Here's what I'm thinking about that.

The two things that need to go way up in effort: speaking and composing.

The two things that need to give way: listening and reading.

There's another way to put that. The thing that needs to give way: practicing by myself. The thing that needs to be increased: practicing with others.

Here's an idea I had: Zhongwensday. It's a sketchy portmanteau of 中文zhōngwén ("Chinese language") and Wednesday. Every Wednesday, I would take the results of speaking and composition—presumably a video and an article, which could be different versions of the same topic, both in Chinese—and present them for your consideration. It's simple, it lends itself to refinement, and the quality of the output can be compared over time. One more thing: other people can do the same thing, and we can all share with each other and compare.


I know it's a good idea, but I'm not entirely sold on taking such a big drink of embarrassment... but what the hell? The base goal is not "Avoid embarrassment" but "Speak fluent Chinese".

One other thing: I run a daily service called Chinese Word of the Day. (Better on Twitter and Facebook, @zhwotd and @zhwotd, respectively.) For the most part, it's just been words words words, but no examples, no digging into the characters, etc.—no context, just words. Words are easy. Turning the words into thoughts and ideas is hard—but not impossible. That's the next step on zhwotd.com.

So we'll start 2019 with those two as the focus: (1) Zhongwensday and (2) context on zhwotd.com. Because, again: learning how to learn a language is hard. These two things are wonderfully discrete and easy to measure, but will require some work to develop and some practice to pull them off. Hi ho.

Chinese study 2019

Next story: Chinese study 2019, part 2

Learning how to learn a language is hard.

I've been trying to learn to speak Chinese now for about six years with, I think, little to show for it. I can't watch TV and understand an episode. I can't listen to people talk and understand it. More importantly, I can't listen to people talk to me and respond to them, unless it's childishly simple—and even then, there's a limit, and it doesn't take long to reach it.

So there's that. And there's the people I know who speak English as a second language with great results, nothing to give them away but an accent, proving empirically that that it's possible to jump the wall from one language to another—the same wall that I'm beating my head against. I don't have the answer on how to do it right, but I suppose I can just live the process out loud, here, and hope that the exposure causes some some sense of obligation to do it right.

What are some different aspects of learning a language? Speaking. Listening. Reading. Composing. Handwriting. The last two could be the same, but in Chinese, composing something by keyboard is wildly different than composing it by hand. (Never mind aspects like semantics, syntax, vocabulary, etc. I guess I'm really talking about modes.)

Speaking and hearing are the most important pair if you want to communicate with someone else in person. Composing is important if you want to communicate via email, WeChat, website, etc. Reading is useful, but mostly for yourself, alone. Handwriting is fun, but it can be thrown out without consequence, although I enjoy doing it because it looks like magic.

So that's the rough ranking in terms of importance: hearing, speaking, composing, reading, handwriting. Now: what to do about it?

Here's what I'm doing now.

Listening. For pure listening practice, I listen to TV shows on YouTube. It's a good drill, but it's limited.

Speaking. I do this almost never, and never in any sustained way, just a few simple things here and there at home. We'll come back to this.

Composing. Never. I really don't write or say anything new.

Reading. Yes. I do this the most out of all of the different modes. It's (relatively) easy to do because I can pick the speed, and I can stop to look things up when I don't know them. Every week I pick an article and pull out some new vocabulary as a way of discovering words for Chinese Word of the Day.

Handwriting. A little, actually, as part of listening practice.

How should the levels be adjusted? Let's arrange things in terms of effort:

Mode Current effort Should-be effort
Speaking 10% 25%
Listening 60% 30%
Reading 25% 15%
Composing 0% 25%
Handwriting 5% 5%

A method for learning Chinese by watching TV

(This is mostly for my own reference, but I'll share it in case someone else finds it useful. By the way, the video I'm using for this post is 向往的生活2 episode 1. I'm a 黄磊 fan.)

The short version of what I do: I listen to short clips of audio from Chinese TV shows and practice listening. Hearing Chinese sounds is very difficult for me—much harder than reading, writing, etc.—so I'm trying to overcome it with more deliberate practice matching what I hear to what the actual sound is.

Programs/services used

This is all running on a 2011 MacBook Air, so it doesn't require anything really sophisticated.


  1. Find a video. This one is easy for me—I just notice what my wife is watching. I'm looking for videos that have Chinese subtitles, not English subtitles. The important issue here is not worrying about the meaning of words, sentences, or topics—in fact, I find that to be a distraction. I'm focusing solely on the link between listening and hearing. It's the hardest part of Chinese for me.
  2. Download mp3 audio from video. Use the YouTube to MP3 app. I put these in a folder in Dropbox (Language/Chinese/[show name]).
  3. Set up table. Here's a blank table. I put these in a folder on Google Drive (Language/Chinese/[show name]).


  1. Open the mp3 file in Audacity. Usually takes a while to import the mp3, so later I'll save it as an Audacity project (.aup) and use that file.
  2. Select a range of audio to repeat. ⌘1 to zoom in, then select the range with the mouse. Usually I select less than 10 seconds at a time so I get to hear what's being said until it sinks in without being overwhelmed.
  3. Shift + Space to play the range on repeat.
  4. Listen and write the sounds that I hear in a notebook. If I know the character I'll write the character, but it's not important—the important thing is to correctly identify the sound.
  5. Select a new range and repeat.

After about a cumulative minute of video, I compare what I've written to the actual Chinese subtitles in the video.

Sometimes it's obvious and I recognize the character. Sometimes I can type the pinyin into Pleco or MDBG and see if what I heard matches a sensible word. Other times I have to switch to the Chinese handwriting keyboard on my phone and write the characters I don't know and let Pleco help me out.

There's a pattern to the colors: Black for what I hear; Red for corrections; Green for Hanzi; Blue for selected definitions (although no definitions shown here).

After I've figured out the correct sounds and characters, I'll store them in a table for later. (Example: 向往的生活2 #1) Sometimes I'll use that to later run longer ranges of the video and read along. Also, I'm saving the info for later when I want to study meaning, sentence structure, etc.

Extra step: New vocabulary gets used for another project, Chinese Word of the Day (@zhwotd).