Category Archives: Language

Chinese language study 2021

What does it mean to learn a language?

I've been trying to learn Chinese for about seven and a half years now. I've tried a number of things: Pimsleur, Popup Chinese, Duolingo, trainchinese, watching TV shows and trying to translate them, old school flashcards on actual index cards, and sitting at the bar and writing characters over and over.

(The last one seems weird, but for two years I was traveling to California for two weeks every four weeks for work, and a man needs to pass the time with his drink somehow.)

So let's start this like a guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) problem, like when you need to point your spacecraft at something. You need, essentially, two things: (1) your current state (where you are, where you're pointing, how fast you're moving, how fast you're rotating); and (2) your desired state (where to point, when to point there, and how steady to hold that pointing). From that, you just have to figure out how to go from (1) to (2).

It's almost too easy.

Except that Chinese is a miserably difficult language to learn. The whole framework of the thing is designed to prevent people from understanding it.

But I want to become fluent—most usefully in terms of conversation, but personally in terms of reading and writing—so the misery is just a stage in the journey.
Learning Chinese includes these aspects:

  1. Listening (it's a tonal language, so words with the same sound but different tones—up, down, down-up, high, neutral—mean different things)
  2. Speaking
  3. Reading
  4. Composing (writing, but with all the work to turn thoughts into words, sentences, etc)
  5. Handwriting

Where am I on each of these?

  1. Listening: 2/5
  2. Speaking: 2/5
  3. Reading: 2/5
  4. Composing: 1/5
  5. Handwriting: 3/5

Chinese characters are the easiest part for me. It matches up really well with my ability to remember spatial patterns. Listening and speaking are hard—listening more so than speaking because it's hard to follow people with different accents, and tones are hard (for me) to detect, and some sounds sound the same to me. Composing is miserable—I can't imagine writing an interesting paragraph in Chinese, nothing more complicated than simple declarative sentences about what I want to do or who I am.

In short, I'm reasonably good at the parts that are least necessary, and worst at the parts I want to do best. Hi ho.

About that GNC problem: you need to know where you are, where you want to be, and (3) have a means to get there.

Listening can be improved through watching TV with captions to assist (Chinese captions, not English captions). Once you get better you can listen to more difficult shows, or listen to things that don't have captions or are audio-only. Speaking can't be faked or worked around. Besides, the point of speaking is to speak to—with—other people. The rest? The rest can be done alone.

That seems to be the most natural split: (1) with others; and (2) without.

Without includes: listening and translating; reading and translating; handwriting; learning vocabulary; learning grammar rules and nuances and so on.

With includes: having a conversation; writing with feedback.

The ratio or with:without should probably about 1:1 or so, based on nothing more than wanting to preserve the importance of feedback and a simple ratio.

I don't think the method to get to fluency is that important, other than giving priority to having conversations with other people. I think it's like dieting or exercising—there's always some other tip or trick or method or pill or whatever. You can really waste your time trying to optimize things that don't matter. You can't optimize anything until you understand enough about it to be able to tell what variables to optimize, and then tell what what is optimal against those variables.

Pick something that seems reasonably useful. Cut it down into a small enough chunk so that you can finish it in a few weeks or so. Finish, then adjust.

There's no such thing as optimal anyway. There are things that get the job done, and things that don't.

I've bought a few books about learning Chinese over the years. I've read none of them. I've collected sites that teach Chinese courses. I've finished none of them. My focus has been like a squirrel running from tree to tree, bush to bush. Finishing the Duolingo Chinese course was more about finishing something than the content itself. Finishing something can become a habit, just as much as learning, just as much as knowing.
So: which way do we go? I'll pick one with, and one without.

  • Without: I'm going to work through one of these books I have. Let's start with Fundamental Spoken Chinese (Amazon), which I bought seven years ago or so, but never finished.
  • With: Time to break out Zhongwensday. What? It's a portmanteau: Zhongwen (the Chinese name for the Chinese language) and Wednesday. ) The basic idea is: I will record myself speaking and get some feedback. It sounds horrible. I don't want to. I think it will be useful. I don't think it will necessarily be public—maybe just with some friends on WeChat.

Goals for this year: Goal 2021-06 is to get up to HSK Level 4. I'll do that in the second half of the year, and HSK Level 3 in the first half of the year. So, some time will have to be set aside to make sure I know enough to get that right.

I ought to regularly update /language/chinese. There are some useful and interesting resources out there that I can collect and display.

I don't believe in apps as a way to learn anything in a deep way. Duolingo is nice, but it's candy. I just downloaded Drops today, and it also looks like candy. And there are some others out there. I think they're useful for filling in 5 or 10 minutes here or there, but not as methods on their own.

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

So we'll start 2019 with those two as the focus: (1) Zhongwensday and (2) context on 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).

Hindi: masculine and feminine, singular and plural

I've been mixing up masculine and feminine forms--in part, I think, because I learned Spanish before Hindi, and the -a ending in Spanish is feminine. In Hindi, it is masculine. To keep it all straight, these are the general forms (i.e., there are plenty of exceptions) for Hindi words.

Singular Plural
Masculine -आ (-ā) -ए (-e)
Feminine -ई (-ī) -इयाँ (-iyāṃ)


Deepa Mehta, Water

As part of my language "training" I am watching one Hindi movie per week in 2010. This movie, like all of them via suggestion by a friend, was not what I expected. Pardon my ignorance: it wasn't a Bollywood movie, which is the de facto standard for Indian movies, as far I know. There was no singing, no dancing. It was quite serious, and that is fine with me. Go ahead and watch it if you're looking for a good movie, not just a good Indian movie.

Hindi: Fricative Consonants: श, ष, स, ह

The seventh and final group of consonants -- श, ष, स, ह -- is the fricative consonants (Wikipedia Fricative consonants). As an aerospace engineer, fricatives are easy for me to understand. Fricatives are formed by forcing the air from your lungs into a tight channel and causing turbulence in the air flow; it's like placing a model in a wind tunnel.

śa, /ɕ,ʃ/

ṣa, /ʂ/

श and ष are essentially two flavors of sh. श (śa) is a palatal consonant, so it should be articulated with the top of the tongue against the palate. ष (ṣa) is a cerebral consonant, so it should be articulated with the tip of the tongue placed against the palate, behind the location where श is articulated. So, for me, an American, it is a matter of getting the tongue placement right.

sa, /s/

ha, /h,ɦ/

स and ह are just like their English transliterated counterparts, sa and ha. They are very common letters, as well. The alphabetical order of the first five groups of consonants followed rows in the table below. However, the alphabetical order of the sixth and seventh groups follows the columns. Thus, the alphabetical order is: (labials) प, फ, ब, भ, म; (approximants) य, र, ल, व; (fricatives) श, ष, स, ह.

Stop Nasal Approximant Fricative
Unvoiced Voiced Unvoiced Voiced
Unaspirated Aspirated Unaspirated Aspirated Unaspirated Aspirated





























I am archiving this information about the alphabet on the Hindi page: More information from Wikipedia: