After language classes end

Between starting my degree program and finishing up my studies at the Mandarin Training Center, I had about two years of non-class time to try and get myself ready for a degree program. This was probably one of the hardest transitions I had to make in my journey; that is, from formal classes to my own informal studies. Of course, this blog grew from those experiences, but for a beginner on that path, where’s a good place to start?

After moving on from a language school or program, where do you go from there?

What can you do when finances run thin and affording language courses and other resources seem like a far off dream?

How do you keep studying and improving?

Here are some of the solutions I found to tackle this potential roadblock, including building an immersive environment for next to nothing. It’s a fairly long post, but I hope you’ll find something good and useful in it 🙂

Let’s get started!

Continue reading “After language classes end”

In Paper versus Electric Dictionaries, Electric Wins

It was quite a while ago now I ran a little poll asking if people preferred using Paper Dictionaries, Electronic Dictionaries, or both. Well, turns out the results were pretty much unanimously in favor of Electronic Dictionaries!

With their convenience, portability, and instantly accessible information, electronic dictionaries are probably the best option for language learners these days.

So, here’s my Top 5 Electronic Chinese Dictionaries:

#5: MDBG

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 7.37.04 AM

Why it’s a great choice:

MDBG has been around for a while, it is almost the staple online dictionary for Chinese language students. Quick, easy, and with plenty of display options for search results, it’s no wonder that it’s been around for a long time.

Easily accessible online through any browser, MDBG is a quick and easy reference that I turn to when I’m translating documents. Since I am usually at my computer when I’m translating documents, it’s much easier to pop open MDBG in another tab and reference to it when I need to. In addition, it has these other great features:

  • handwriting recognition for writing characters if you don’t know the Pinyin to type it in;
  • looking up by radicals;
  • Chinese and Pinyin typing interfaces

Check it out here.

#4: LINE dict


Why it’s a great choice:

LINE is pretty much everywhere these days, perhaps only second to WeChat, and it goes without much surprise they would also put out their own dictionary apps. LINE dict is available online, as well as for both iOS and Android. The online version seemed to me a bit slow and it had issues loading a few pages, so I would overall recommend the apps themselves.

The dictionary is fairly expansive, and it includes some nice features like a sentence analyzer, handwriting support, and stroke order animations. It also has audio throughout the dictionary. Having mobile apps put this one step above MDBG, but if you’re looking on your computer at home, stick with MDBG.

iOS version here.

Android version here.

Online here.

#3: Mengdian (萌典)


Why it’s a great choice:

As far as pure Chinese language dictionaries go, this is one of the best ones out there. It has a smart new interface and pulls from a larger variety of sources. It’s a good resource to have when you come across any ambiguities in the English definitions for Chinese characters or phrases. I often like to pop into this dictionary to verify that I understand the meaning of the characters that I’m using. They source this dictionary directly from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education.

Included in the app are also dictionaries for Taiwanese and Hakka, which are fun to reference if you happen to encounter those languages quite often (as happens in Taiwan).

Another really great thing about this dictionary is that you can get it for Android, iOS, as well as download it on Windows, OSX and even Linux.

Check out the online version here: There are links to the mobile apps at the top right of the page.

And my number one electronic dictionary is….. actually a tie!

#1: Hanping Chinese Dictionary


Why it’s a great choice:

I’ve already gone over this dictionary a bit in my Chinese Learning Apps for Android post, which you can take a look at here as well as in the recent tone colors post. The developer keeps the app updated regularly, and there is a whole series of related apps, including a soundboard and a Character popup reference tool (I’ll be covering these in another post).

Hanping is an Android exclusive app, but there’s a free version and a pro version available. The Pro version is totally worth the small investment, and opens up a bunch of great features, including AnkiDroid Flashcards and multi-dictionary support.

The free version is no slouch either, and includes handwriting recognition and audio pronunciation. So if you were on a tight budget, Hangping’s free version is a great option to start with (plus, no ads!).

Check it out on Google Play here.

#1: Pleco:


Why it’s a great choice:

It’s really hard to beat Pleco in terms of overall functionality, accessibility (both on iOS and Android), and the sheer number of add-ons that you can get. The variety of dictionaries available for purchase is also a huge asset that makes Pleco invaluable to any Chinese student. However, it is a significant investment to get in all of the features you might want to use (aside from a few dictionary options, pretty much all of the other add-ons cost money. For example, the app has a handwriting recognizing but costs $10 for the enhanced version).

Find out more about Pleco here.

Either way, both of the #1 dictionaries are the best you can get for mobile devices, and I highly recommend giving them a try. Both are free to try, with add ons you can purchase later (such as more dictionaries in Pleco’s case).

What do you think? Were there any that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

On Tone Colors

While looking for discussions on tone colors, I came across this blog post the other day, “Color temperature of Mandarin tones“. I am by no means a designer, but I found it to be a really interesting analysis of a couple different systems used for tone colors. I highly recommend checking it out. In the meantime, I thought it might be worth taking some time to look into tone colors: what they are, how to use them, which system to follow, and if it’s worth using. At the very end I’ll go over how to configure two popular dictionary apps to use whichever tone color system you prefer.

Continue reading “On Tone Colors”

Paper versus Electronic Dictionaries


Okay so this is a question I’ve been really curious about for a long time. Personally I love dictionaries, both paper and electronic–but I’m curious about what other people use. So, I thought it would be fun to just do a quick and easy open ended poll to see what people think.

Do you prefer Paper Dictionaries, Electronic Dictionaries or both? Let me know what you think in the comments below, too!

Why I like Zhuyin

photoThere’s a lot of debate out there on whether or not Zhuyin is better than Pinyin, which makes your pronunciation better, etc. (and I am caught up right in the middle of it). And I’ve thought out it. Really thought about it. And here’s my conclusion:

Your pronunciation can suck regardless of the system you use.

That being said, I think I finally realized why I prefer Zhuyin over Pinyin, and it’s the same reason I prefer the kanas over romaji: I’ve always loved how vastly different East Asian languages were from English–with Kanji, Hanzi, Katakana, Hiragana, Hangul–everything. That’s what really drew me to these languages to begin with. So, being stuck using Pinyin seemed, not necessarily bad, but that I was still trapped in that English environment. For me, to fully “immerse” myself in the language, I wanted to avoid (escape?) English, which meant avoiding Pinyin and learning Zhuyin.

So I always feel better seeing something like ㄅㄧˊㄐㄧㄢ rather than something like bíjiān. It also helps a text flow more, I believe, if you’re reading a book that has Zhuyin in there as a guide. It seems to make your brain glide along with the fact you’re looking at Chinese characters, instead of the sudden jarring of going from English letters to Chinese and back.

That’s just my thoughts on it, and although Pinyin ultimately wins out for speed and usefulness (no Zhuyin on US keyboards!), I still love seeing and using Zhuyin as my reading guide.

Pop culture influences

Among my friends and I, we’ve generally seen and grown up with pretty much the same movies. Often we’re able to quote them, fitting the context of whatever conversation we happen to be having. Of course, it’s often like this in the greater sphere of American pop culture, something everyone has either heard of or grown up with in some way or another.

It’s kind of like that here as well, and I’ve noticed with most specifically with Stephen Chow (周星馳) movies. Lines from his movies has entered pop culture in Taiwan, from referring to cockroaches as 小強 to making commentary on food in similar veins to the titular character in《食神》. Similar to how my friends and I will throw back and forth lines from Back to the Future or use nicknames from Star Wars (padawan comes to mind), so I was so happy to catch those references in conversations here.

I’ve only picked this up from watching (probably way too much) Stephen Chow movies, and it’s always fun to pick up those references and play off of them in conversation.

So the summary of this seemingly pointless post: watch more! 😀

Ask questions for answers you already know

One habit that I’ve picked up is asking questions for answers that you already know. While that sounds a bit silly, it’s really great practice for the variety of answers a question can have. At the same time, it’s good way to lead into other questions.

For example, even if I know how to get to the library/bathroom/7-11/etc. I still like to ask every so often just to practice. Since I already know where they are, I can learn how they would describe getting there in Chinese, and what variations they can use.

Reflections on Last Month’s Tadoku

The first Tadoku of 2013 is over! That month went by so fast. I am really impressed with the records people have made this round, many breaking over one thousand pages a month. Definitely a huge congrats to them! I believe I stayed in the middle with around six hundred or so pages, and I’m quite happy with those results. I am sure I could have done more, but that’s for the next round 😉 For now I’d like to reflect on what this round meant to me, and why I still firmly believe Tadoku is the greatest passive aggressive challenge available to language learners.

What This Round Meant

This is the first Tadoku round I’ve done while working my full-time job and being a full-time graduate student. So, my time was quite limited. To me, this Tadoku round was more to see what else I could squeeze into my already packed day. I tried to limit my updates to materials I read for fun, and less that I had to read (be it for school or translation work, etc).

Once again, Tadoku proved that you can always find a way–and the time–to work in reading in your target language. “Busy-ness” isn’t really a good enough reason; and to be harsh, it’s really just an excuse. We have daily obligations, such as work, but we are only as busy as we make ourselves. So why not re-evaluate your time and busy yourself with something fun in your L2?

For the curious, my daily schedule is as follows:

6:40-7:30am (wake up, shower, get dressed, breakfast, catch the bus)
7:30-9:00am (travel time, arrive at office)
9:00am-6:00pm (work, 1.5 hour lunch break)
6:00-8:00 (travel time, arrive home)
8:00-8:30 (dinner)
8:30-sleep (free)
Weekends (free)

Often that “free” time is often not very “free” and is taken up by studying–reviewing articles, studying Japanese/Chinese, organizing thesis, etc. However, there was still plenty of time I could squeeze in. Such as reading while on the bus instead of sleeping through traffic, or reading during my lunch break. There’s also great variation each day, some days I would work late or have errands and chores come up cutting more into my free time. In essence, “life happens”. Yet I still read 600 pages this month. So can you.

Why Tadoku is Important

Tadoku to me is not important for the challenge part, but rather for motivating me to find the nooks and crannies within my daily schedule where I can read something, even if only for a few minutes. Every little bit helps, and as Lan pointed out in this blog post on Tadoku, you’ll find it benefiting other areas of your language learning as well (unfortunately my organ and piano happened to both be on loan at the time).

And, as I said before, I find reading acts as its own SRS:

The text, then, acts like an SRS system for itself. That is, the text, as you read, will automatically reinforce the words that you’ve already looked up at the start. As long as you have a good idea of what they mean, you’ll see a wide range of uses for it in context.

Even if you don’t Tadoku, it is still a good idea to go back and take a look at your schedule. Where can you fit some time in to read? Play a video game? Do anything fun in your L2–the key being fun. Don’t make it a chore; instead fit some L2 fun time into your daily schedule.

It’ll work wonders.

The Problem with Defining “The Hardest Language to Learn”

This is something that kind of irks me. Often I will see friends or friends of friends post links to info-graphics or websites that categorize languages from easiest to hardest to learn. It starts with languages that are similar to English, which it then classifies as “easier” for a native English speaker to learn. Then it goes on, listing languages that are further away in similarity to English, finally ending up with Chinese, Japanese, or Korean as the hardest language to learn.

This information is great…

….if you want to be completely intimidated about learning Chinese.

….if you want to establish a virtual barrier in your mind to Chinese, that it is too hard to learn.

….if you want an excuse to not learn it, or to not learn it well.

I suggest avoiding this kind of information as it’s only useful in intimidating you.

The fact is, anyone can learn Chinese. Anyone. It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. You can do it.

When you’re fluent in Chinese, you can come back, bring those charts to a high school reunion and show off how smart you are to those jerks from second period look at those charts and laugh

Technically Dependent

I had the pleasure of meeting up with a buddy of mine, and 2x the more diligent student, Joe (you can catch him on Twitter). The issue of technology in language study came up, especially in relation to Pleco, the Chinese dictionary available on most smart devices. Now this isn’t say Pleco is inherently bad–it’s a fantastic dictionary which looks like it’ll only get more amazing once the new version (finally) gets released. What is more of interest here is how technology, and this sense of instant access, influences studying another language.

This is probably turning into an old debate of new versus old, technology versus books, but I still think it is an important aspect of our language learning that we need to at least concern ourselves with.

Basically, it came down to this: Pleco, and other dictionaries like it, suffer from Google syndrome–that is, information is instantly accessible. The answer is right at our finger tips, and as Ian Malcolm famously stated:

…it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it…

Okay maybe that’s a little extreme, but what I’m getting at here is that the knowledge we obtain from these instant access dictionaries required no effort to obtain it. Handwriting recognition is great, and has saved me large amounts of effort, but I never felt I learned much more about the character than a quick pronunciation or “oh okay”. It never really stuck. Sure, no-one wants to lug around a 1,000 page dictionary around with them (unless you’re me), but there is something magical, something satisfactory with a sense of accomplishment that comes with looking up the word by radical or stroke count (not by pronunciation please!) and gaining the knowledge about it yourself.

Not to get too Old-Man-In-Viridian-City on you, but ‘back in my day’ we didn’t have these fancy dictionaries. I had to look up everything by paper dictionary. It was tiring. It was time consuming. It lead to many ripped pages from frustration. But, you know, I remember those characters the best.

I doubt anyone will run off and remove Pleco (I sure won’t), but I wonder, perhaps, if we made it a bit harder to use–restricted look ups to by radical only, avoid handwriting or pronunciation input and use it in a more “classical” way, we might avoid Google syndrome and start learning.