Tl;dr: I went from freshly acquired HSK 2 to passing an HSK 4 mock test in 3 months and reading some of the easier native content with a dictionary. I spent a month before that properly learning and partially re-learning HSK 1 and 2 grammar and vocab, because I once dabbled in Chinese for three months three years ago.
I’ve been studying for about 2-3 hours per day every day in these four months and I have some previous language learning experience that made it easier. My comprehension levels are much higher than my output abilities, so my learning process isn’t the best. And yes, I’m basically doing it for the danmeis.
I also had a conversation with a native speaker today for the first time in my life. We talked for at least an hour in Chinese while walking around the city and I survived.
I’m writing this long-ass post to track my learning journey and maybe in order to encourage someone or offer some of my perspectives. I just personally enjoy reading posts like this a lot, so I wanted to contribute as well.
I get that not everyone wants to read that many words, so I’m gonna go in the following order:
– My takes on language learning mindset and learning methods in general
– Things contributing to my learning that gave me an upper hand (basically, disclaimers and trying to paint a realistic picture)
– What I did and how it went, what level are my skills currently at
So, I have a number of not-that-hot takes which I feel are important, at least they are for me. I won’t repeat things like “have a clear, realistic, measurable goal” or “better learn less but everyday than more on rare occasions”, we all know that. My suggestions are:
– Finding out what works for you and your own mindset for learning is a must. Sometimes it might be pretty mainstream, sometimes not so much or even be frowned upon. It doesn’t matter as long as it works for you personally and gets the job done. I’m, for example, a very impatient person, I’m learning to live with that. I’m fine with language learning being a lifelong journey when we’re talking C1 and beyond. But before that? I wanna get to B2+ fast or at least try, otherwise I feel very frustrated with the idea of it taking years upon years. I know there are hundreds of hours that must be put in and a large amount of work that must be done, no shortcuts. So if I wanna do it fast, I just need to squeeze more hours per day. Surely, this mindset isn’t gonna work for everyone, as isn’t going to work the “slow and steady” approach. And that’s fine, find yours and learn what are the downsides that you’re gonna get. For me it’s burnouts, for sure, so I’m learning how to deal with those or prevent them completely.
– Switching your methods when they become ineffective or you grow tired of them is a valid strategy. If it was really a good way to learn or a good source, you’re gonna go back to it eventually and enjoy it once again. But you still should strive for some consistency: stick with one textbook if you’re doing textbooks (if the one you’re using is decent, that is), or one show you’re watching in order to get used to the vocab before moving to the next one, preferably of the same genre.
– I believe people should be enjoying the process of learning at least 70-80% of the time. Sometimes, language learning activities we like aren’t the most efficient ones, but if it’s something you like, you’re gonna end up naturally spending more time doing that activity. And more hours are what we strive for in the long run. Maybe you don’t like reading grammar articles and then producing a ton of practice sentences, and at most you can make yourself study for 15-20 mins like that. And maybe you’re really into characters’ etymology and evolution and can spend literal hours reading on that. Speaking short term, diligently learning grammar is probably going to pay off quickly and in more obvious ways. But if in the long run you’re gonna end up feeling aversion to your learning methods because they bore you to death, chances are you’ll start procrastinating. On the other hand, let’s say, you’d spend two weeks obsessively reading on etymology of the characters and familiarizing yourself with the radicals and basically do nothing beyond that. Maybe not great for your current level, but in the long run this knowledge is still gonna be really useful and, most importantly, you had fun along the way. So now you’re probably itching to do something else fun with the language. Maybe learn more words and characters to apply your new-found knowledge or do something completely different.
– So, basically, the meta-goal is to shape your learning process, so it’s enjoyable for you and therefore sustainable. Don’t be afraid to change things when they start losing their appeal, just keep on learning through whatever means.
– Consider tracking hours spent learning the language, it can be very satisfying and motivating to see for some people. And it also gives you a constant reality check. If it’s annoying, boring or makes you anxious – don’t do it.
– Overall, don’t do things that make the process worse for you, strive to make it more pleasant. Find the types of activities that you like or specific exercises that you enjoy, even for the skills that you favor less. For example, with any language I’m very anxious to speak, but I’ve found that a) reading texts out loud to myself and answering the questions from my textbook out loud b) writing short texts (sometimes resembling a very poorly written fanfiction, lmao) about the topics or characters I like c) chatting with natives over text turn out to be enjoyable. Maybe that’s not the best way to improve my oral skills, but those ones I won’t procrastinate on and over time they still will give me some kind of foundation to talk to real people.
– Find company! Give it a thought beforehand: what would you like it to be like? A very active community, not solely focused on learning, making friends there along the way? Great! A discord server, very heavy on learning and no-bullshit approach? Fabulous! Small community of five, ten, thirty people? Amazing. A single study buddy or an accountability partner? Fantastic. A language exchange partner or a dozen of those? Splendid. Just make sure it makes you want to learn more, not less, that it doesn’t make you anxious or demotivated. Human connection works wonders.
– Tl;dr: do things that make you wanna learn more, drop or postpone things that make you wanna learn less.
So, now to the transparency part. Why I’ve been learning this fast:
– My job leaves me with plenty of free time on my hands
– I didn’t start completely from scratch. In the year 2019 I once dabbled in learning Chinese and spent almost exactly three months learning, mostly via Lingodeer, and managed to read one beginner-level graded readers book. By the end of that period I could pass a mock HSK 2 test. My oral skills were a disaster, I couldn’t speak at all. I couldn’t remember most of the tones for the words I knew. In the three years after that I had almost zero contact with Chinese so it faded away a lot. I remembered none of the tones when I came back but did recognise the meaning of some characters and the basic sentence structure.
– It’s not my first foreign language to learn. I’m a native Russian speaker, I learned English to a decent level. I’ve dabbled in Japanese and French in my high school years, studied German from scratch up to something like B1.2 in the university. Then there was the aforementioned attempt to learn Chinese. And after that I really got into Thai drama, so for the two following years I studied Thai and got good enough to translate a complete series from Thai by ear by this spring. Also some second attempt at Japanese happened, this time I got to N4, got a clearer impression and finally decided that I don’t have enough love for it in me to pursue it further. So. I have language learning experience which makes it so much faster.
– Thai and Japanese from the previous paragraph get their own section. The time I spent with Japanese, getting used to the idea of characters and radicals, learning what a stroke order is and all the basic knowledge, saved me time with Chinese, because most of the knowledge was already there. The Kanji I knew – not so much, but I did know around ~400 when I started. And I do believe that Thai helped me tremendously, because many of the linguistic and grammar concepts people usually struggle with in Chinese (e.g. no proper grammatical tenses, time aspects instead; measure words; the importance of the word order; no grammatical gender as well as lack of many other European languages features; complements of direction and bits of the other ones; and finally, learning how to properly deal with a tonal language) I’d already struggled with elsewhere and persevered. Yes, Thai and Chinese grammar don’t map one-to-one, but it wasn’t THAT brand new to my brain.
– Sadly I’ve been tracking my hours and activities only since June 6th, so basically for two months out of four.
What I did in the first 2,5-3 months right from the start and the resources I used:
Duolingo (for the first 1,5 months mostly, then dropped)
Textbooks (HSK 1 and 2 Standard course)
Graded readers (overall 7,5 books across four levels of difficulty read, five more just listened to)
YouTube videos (mostly Chinese Zero to Hero videos available there and phonetics explained)
Talking to the google voice input and making it understand me; reading half of a graded readers book to it as well
A bit of chatting with native speakers online here and there
Watching and rewatching some of my favorite dramas with both Chinese hardsub and a translation simultaneously
Listening to music (mostly just for the vibe)
Learning vocab with memrise (HSK 1, 2 and 3 lists consecutively, then moved onto making custom ones + HSK 4), when my learning process stabilized, it amounted to 13-15 new words per day
Some more textbooks down the road (switched to Boya Chinese, did Elementary 1 pretty fast with all my previous knowledge by that point, learned all the unknown vocabulary from there; plus around ten lessons from Elementary 2)
The MVPs I’d say are learning vocab, learning some semblance of the grammar and graded readers. Graded readers are fantastic. That’s it, that’s the tea.
I used “Chinese Breeze” series because it’s available in my country and also has nice audio recordings. The four levels go up in difficulty very smoothly: it’s for 300, 500, 750 and 1100 words of vocabulary needed. I started my first one before achieving HSK 2, so at first I had to look things up quite a lot and sometimes had hard times processing the meaning of less straightforward sentences. But by the end of the first book I was reading quite smoothly and the story itself was pretty entertaining. I read another one of the same level before moving onto the second level. The rise in difficulty was noticeable but not horrible, and yeah, surely, I needed a dictionary for the first half of the book again. I read three of the level two books and then graduated to level three. After 2,5 (the third one just didn’t sit with me for some reason) of those I finally moved to the level four book. There were a couple of unknown words per page or so, but still it was okay. And I was excited because I decided previously that I’d work my way up the graded readers ladder and then will move on to struggling with actual native content.
And I did move, actually, even before I finished the graded readers book.
So, a week before I hit my three months mark, on June 30th I had: solid HSK 1-3 knowledge, ~250 words and bits of grammar from HSK 4 and additional ~350 words consciously learned from elsewhere. Probably a couple of hundreds that I picked along the way without using SRS and any conscious effort.
hsklevel and hanzishan websites both put me at around ~800-900 hanzi knowledge at that time, 1300+ words under my belt.
And then I was reminded of the existence of 19 Days manhua. It turned out to be really simple in terms of language because it’s a slice of life in a high school setting and I remembered that I loved it when I read it in Russian maybe four or five years ago.
So I just sat and read 60 eps in the span of 1,5 hours with some help of a dictionary. The chapters are very short at first and are not dialogue-heavy, but it’s still native content. The one I was able to enjoy after three months of (pretty intensive) study. But my “reading pain” tolerance is pretty high, that should be noted.
Then I additionally picked a detective novel (SCI 谜案集) that I had been wanting to read for a long time. It’s written in a very straightforward, sometimes repetitive manner which is great for learning. My routine changed and I began to read for at least an hour per day, sometimes one and a half, rarely more. I learned the words that I frequently encountered in the novel or just liked, including my first couple of dozens of chengyus. So for a month I was just basically reading, learning and reviewing vocab and occasionally doing some other activities, my vocabulary and grasp of the flow if the sentence structure improved a lot.
On July, 23d I passed the HSK 4 mock test (41/45 listening, 35/40 reading) and I plan to take a real one this October.
By August, 7th I have:
spent 140 hours total on Chinese since June 30th. 54 hours reading native content and around 30 hours working on vocab, the rest spread across different activities
read 315 eps of 19 days with a dictionary, chapters got much, much longer after 120-150s; plus read some chapters from other easy manhuas
I hit 180k 字 of novels read! I have read 60k 字 that comprise the first case in the SCI 谜案集 web-novel + 88k 字 from the second case and some bits here and there on top of that
listened to two more level one (300 words) graded readers books I haven’t previously read and one level two (500) which was also new to me, at a native speed, enjoyed it, missed just a couple of details
hanzishan and hsklevel both now put me at 1.2k+ characters known. Vocabulary size also has grown quite a lot (~2200 words learned in my decks), there are definitely also lots of words I didn’t put into srs but still learned just from reading.
My reading speed for SCI went up from 65 characters per minute to 90-100 due to less lookups and just a lot of reading practice. On easier chapters it goes a bit higher, there was 110字 a couple of times.
Oof, that was a very, very long read, my apologies. I’m open to any questions or feedback! If you’ve read all of that, you’re a monster and I appreciate that a lot.
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