Learning Chinese with GoEast and Outlier

Disclaimer: this post is not sponsored by Outlier; I am a paying Outlier customer. In fact, in a sense I am sponsoring them: I believe in this project so much that I've been volunteering quite a bit of my spare time to help make the dictionary better. More on that at the end of the post.

The road to fluency in Chinese is long, and while there are more resources available now than ever before, it is important to choose the right resources to avoid taking unnecessary detours. In this blog post I will describe the resources that I find helpful. I am a reasonably-but-not-overly serious student of Chinese: learning Chinese is a hobby for me and I have no need for it in my work or in my life, but I do spend quite a bit of effort on it; I hope to soon be taking HSK5—on paper (i.e., not on the computer).

I will start with a breakdown of the kinds of resources you might need, before discussing why I think a good school is so important and why GoEast ticks all the boxes for me in that regard. Then in the rest of the blog post I will describe how the Outlier dictionary fits into all this for me.

Aspects of language learning

Learning a language is learning to communicate, and as such it is useful to distinguish between our two most important modes of communication: spoken language and written language. How much the spoken and the written language differ from each other varies from language to language; if nothing else, the written language tends to be more formal. In Chinese, of course, we additionally have to learn a few thousand characters, requiring a significant additional investment of time.

If in addition to the two modes of communication we distinguish between passive skills and active skills we end up with four categories: listening and speaking, reading and writing. I’ll consider each of these in turn. My goal here is not to be exhaustive, but rather to give you what I consider to be the most useful resource or resources for each category.

Listening

When practicing any skill, it is important to practice at a suitable level: too difficult and you won’t learn much and get discouraged; too easy and you won’t make much progress. It is also important to find a way to practice that engages you; sheer will-power will not get you there in the long run.

When it comes to listening, ChinesePod is therefore a great resource. It offers many, many different dialogues, organized per level, on every topic imaginable, each with an explanation, vocabulary, and grammar points. A truly excellent resource. If you’re working towards the HSK tests, you may be interested in my selection of ChinesePod dialogues designed to match the HSK vocabulary (HSK 1-3, HSK 4 and HSK 5).

For practicing your vocabulary, Pleco is by far the best choice. In fact, I don’t know any serious Chinese student who doesn’t use Pleco; I use it literally every day. Be careful though: when you are using Pleco to revise your vocab, if you are trying to improve your listening, don’t practice by reading the words! You want to create an association between the sound of the word and its meaning, not between the written form and its meaning (you want to practice that too, of course, but it really is a separate skill). So, have Pleco pronounce the word rather than show the word; an added bonus is that you will constantly be reminded of the correct pronunciation (including the correct tones) as you revise. In fact, I set up Pleco so that even when I am practicing reading, and therefore have Pleco show the word to me, it still pronounces it as well (when revealing the card), just to reinforce the right pronunciation over and over again.

Speaking

The only online resource I can recommend for speaking is the The Outlier Mandarin Pronunciation & Accent Masterclass. Apart from that, find a good teacher; more on that below.

Of course practicing with your Chinese friends is always helpful, and you should do so as much as possible. I would however be cautious and try not to fall into student/teacher roles when doing so. People tend not to be very good at explaining their mother tongue (they never learned it in an analytical way), which makes them not very good teachers. I usually tell my friends that if there is a mistake I make consistently, I appreciate it when they tell me, but I don’t want to turn a friendly conversation into a study group. Time with friends is time with friends, and maybe an opportunity to improve fluency – the rest is for class.

Reading

Recognizing characters is obviously a prerequisite for being able to read. What’s perhaps less obvious however is that reading fluency takes practice. Picture a primary school child verbalizing every syllable when reading a sentence; “My - fa-ther - ate - an - ap-ple”. Reading Chinese is much like that in the beginning, and when for example I took HSK4, a lot of my fellow students said they struggled to finish the reading comprehension on time.

Fortunately, there are many graded readers available these days. If you’re just starting out, the Mandarin Companion series is excellent. The Chinese Breeze series is also worth checking out for beginner students.

There are a few series that aim at slightly more intermediate or upper intermediate students. “Chinese Graded Reader” contains simplified versions of stories or essays written by Chinese authors; I quite enjoy the texts, but the books have the disadvantage of mixing pinyin and characters on the same page (one line characters, one line pinyin, repeat); they do come with an inlay you can use to hide the pinyin but I find it makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. The 天天中文 series consists of shorter stories; a bit of a cross between a graded reader and a textbook. Finally the “Journey to the West” series contains both beginner and intermediate level readers; they do contain both pinyin and characters, but on opposite pages, making it much easier to ignore the pinyin.

Writing

As with speaking, good writing really requires a teacher; I’ll come back to that. I’d love to be able to recommend a good grammar book, but unfortunately I have yet to find one. I find most textbooks incomplete at best and horribly logically inconsistent at worst. I’ve gone nuts in the past trying to make sense of a particular construct, ending up skimming through PhD theses on esoteric grammar analysis—with almost no real benefit to my Chinese communication skills. I have a bunch of grammar books on my shelves, but frankly hesitate to recommend any particular one. Probably the best resource in this area I can recommend is the Chinese Grammar Wiki. Beyond that, unfortunately it mostly seems to be a case of reading a lot and listening a lot, and building up an intuition over time.

When it comes to the physical act of writing characters, well, that is a whole other topic. Fortunately, for most people they will never actually have to do so; typing on your phone or on the computer is just so much easier. If you do want to learn to write: if nothing else, please do not copy printed characters, but copy someone’s handwriting. Beyond that, you might want to check out Harvey Dam’s blog post series
Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements or read the (little!) book “Learn to Write Chinese Characters”. HSK students might find my Handwriting samples for the HSK curriculum useful.

The importance of a good school

Learning a language is to learn to communicate. There are many, many aspects to becoming fluent in a foreign language, especially one that is far removed from your own mother tongue. Many of those aspects are not necessarily even directly language related; history, culture, sense of humor or sense of decorum, linguistic habits in business, relationships, etc. are all necessary for true understanding and being understood.

It is therefore critical to find a good teacher. Even if the grammar in your sentence is perfect and every word means what you think it does, you might still miss your mark entirely. You might offend where you intended to joke, people might think you’re rude when you were merely trying to be cordial, or your sentence might simply come across as strange, bizarre, or hilarious, or any combination thereof. The opposite might be just as true – people might come across to you as condescending when they are actually being polite, as ridiculing you when they were just being friendly, as dismissive when they were being humble. A good teacher can help you navigate these problems, explain the background and cultural differences; a good teacher therefore understands not only their language and their culture, but ideally also yours.

A good teacher is patient and gives you the space to practice; rather than correcting every mistake, they understand that in order to make progress, most mistakes must go uncorrected – and they can hone in on the mistakes that you should focus on now. A good teacher also adjusts the class and the class content to what you need, focuses on the things you are interested in, and helps you achieve the goals that are relevant to you. They are also able to consider and answer your questions carefully.

The Chinese education industry is big business, with a lot of money in it, and it is of course understood that a Chinese school is a business. Nonetheless, it is important–to me anyway–that a teacher doesn’t feel like somebody who just considers you an opportunity to make money. Good rapport with the teacher is important; taking classes is just so much more enjoyable when the atmosphere within the class is friendly, you don’t feel judged, and you don’t feel like school is trying to just get as much money out of you as possible.

After trying a few others, I’ve now been taking classes with GoEast for two years, and I can honestly say that for me at least they satisfy all of these requirements. GoEast feels like a community; they work really hard to make sure not only that students are matched with the right teacher, but also that teachers are matched with the right students (not at all a given in a country where employers are extremely powerful). I feel lucky to consider my teacher not just my teacher, but my friend, and look forward to my class every week. After my previous experiences, it’s been a breath of fresh air; I can definitely recommend them. Check them out at https://goeastmandarin.com/ or watch some of the short videos in their absolutely excellent and highly entertaining Beyond Class series on YouTube.

Learning characters

When you first start to learn Chinese, it is easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of characters you need to memorize. What the beginner does not know, however, is that it is harder than they think. As the number of characters grows, they all start to look alike, you start to confuse them and forget ones you learned a long time ago. It is not that difficult to learn new characters; the trick is remembering them.

Structure

After you build up even a rudimentary vocabulary of characters, you will quickly realize that there is some structure to them. If you know that 人 rén means “person” and then learn that 从 cóng means “to follow”, it just seems to make sense: one person behind another. This provides some hope: if only we would understand the structure of the characters, the logic behind them, the components of the characters, then perhaps it would be easier to memorize them.

Books such as Chineasy capitalize on this idea. From 人 rén “person” we not only get 从 cóng, but also 众 zhòng “large group of people”; from 木 mù “tree” we get 林 lín and 森 sēn (both “forest”), and so on. I rather enjoyed learning using Chineasy, and was pleased with myself when I managed to memorize the few hundred characters or so that it teaches – even though the book is decidedly lacking in detail: sure, 木 mù means tree, but the common modern word is 树 shù instead, and when I called a cute small dog a 犬 quǎn (“hound”) instead of 狗 gǒu “dog”, hilarity ensued amongst my Chinese friends.

Scalability

There is however a bigger problem with Chineasy and similar approaches. The first is an over-reliance on trying to find components that provide meaning. For example, Chineasy explains the presence of 门 “door” in 问 “to ask” as “to ask a question is the door to knowledge”. As we’ll see shortly, this isn’t the “true” (historically/scientifically accurate) role of 门 in 问 (it does not actually mean anything), but you might quite legitimately ask why you should care: as long as it helps you remember the character, isn’t that all that matters?

That question brings me to the second problem: scalability. I’m sure that a talented teacher and illustrator can come up with an explanation and a visualization of every character in existence. Coming up with an explanation of a component that makes sense not just for that component in that character, but for that component in any character, that is the hard part. To stick with the 门 “door” example, Chineasy says for 闷 mèn “bored”: “imagine a heart (心) that wishes leave because it is bored” – hence the door, presumably. The problem is not so much that such explanations are “wrong” (by which standard?), but rather that you now need to learn a different explanation for each use of 门. As the number of characters grows, it starts to become hard to remember which story goes with which character – not to mention that we don’t have a pretty picture and nice story for each character we need to learn.

Outlier

Outlier from the outset makes its goals very explicit: rather than trying to come up with clever explanations for characters, it will give you a historically and scientifically accurate description, summarizing contemporary scientific research and making it available to Chinese learners, beginners and experts alike. When I saw the original Kickstarter campaign to back Outlier, and the dictionary that they were promising to build, I was immediately sold: this was what I had been looking for. If I understood the true logic of characters—how they came to be, why they are what they are—learning characters would become a lot easier.

If you look up 问 wèn “to ask” in the Outlier dictionary, it will tell you something rather different. Sure, it will tell you that 口 kǒu “mouth” hints at the meaning of the character; however, 门 mén is listed as a “sound component”: that is, a component of the character that gives you a clue about how the character is pronounced. The explanation for 闷 mèn “bored” is similar: yes, 心 xīn “heart” is a hint at the meaning of the character, but 门 mén is again the sound component. We do not need to learn a different story for each use of 门 mén, and we gain something new: we can make an educated guess about how the character might be pronounced (or, more likely, use this to prompt our memory if we have previously learned but since forgotten the character).

Admittedly, we do have to work a little harder to really be able to apply this new knowledge. After all, the pronunciations are not a perfect match: mén versus wèn or mèn. The reason for this disconnect is that characters are old and language evolves; sound components that might have been obvious 2000 years ago may not be obvious anymore today. Therefore to really understand the role of 门 in 问, 闷 and many others – and recognize sound connections more generally – we have to understand a little about how the pronunciation of characters has evolved in Chinese. The Outlier dictionary will not tell you this, but the Outlier Character Masterclass will, and I can heartily recommend it: it will make the information in the dictionary significantly more useable to you.

Realistic expectations

My experience with using the Outlier dictionary to study Chinese characters went from excitement to disgust and then finally back to gratitude and relief. To spare you the disgust stage, let me try to set some realistic expectations here.

Characters are old and language evolves. Above I gave the example of 门 mén used in 问 wèn and 闷 mèn. Sometimes the connection is more clear than that; for example, 胆 dàn (“gallbladder”, also “courage”) is 月(肉) “parts of the body” (hinting at the meaning) plus 旦 dàn, giving us the sound component. Unfortunately, oftentimes the connection is less clear; for example, to understand the sound connection between 脱 tuō and 兑 duì, you really need to understand a bit about sound evolution. It is nonetheless very helpful to do so: otherwise you end up trying to construct some kind of just-so story about how “take of clothes” is related to “exchange”; an exercise in futility that obfuscates rather than illustrates the character.

Characters are old and language evolves—and it’s not just pronunciation that changes; meaning does too. For example, what does 媒 méi “medium, intermediary” have to do with 女 nǚ “woman”?When understanding sound connections, it is useful to understand a bit about the evolution of sound; when understanding meaning connections, it is useful to understand the original meaning of the character, as that is (necessarily) the only one that is relevant to its construction. In this case, the original meaning of 媒 was a match-maker, and in historical China those were always women.

It is important to realize that characters made sense in context. To an ancient Chinese, the riddle “what is a woman and sounds like 某 mǒu?” might have an easy answer (“matchmaker”); that answer may not necessarily be so obvious to us now thousands of years later.

Let me give you the example that turned my excitement about Outlier into (temporary) disgust: 轻. As most other characters, this character too consists of a semantic component and a sound component; in this case, the semantic component is 车 chē “vehicle” and the sound component is the right hand side, pronounced jīng (not a common character anymore; these days written 经). Again, to an ancient Chinese, perhaps the riddle “what is a vehicle and sounds like jīng” may have had an easy answer: “oh, you must mean that specific type of chariot that is only used for light loads” – the character means “light”.

To me, however, that information seemed less than useless; how do I go from “chariot” to “light”, and from jīng to qīng? It’s not reducing the amount of things I need to learn, it’s making it worse! But here’s the thing: I still remember the character. Once you understand some basic rules of how sound evolves, the majority of sound connections is not that hard to see anymore (though admittedly not all), and while the connection the original meaning to its modern meaning is at times rather convoluted, learning this connection gives sense to the character; and the advantage of a historically accurate explanation is that the explanation must make sense: after all, it actually happened!

This is such a powerful insight, that it’s actually hard to convey in words; you must experience it for yourself. These days when I revise vocabulary, I frequently feel a sense of gratitude towards the Outlier dictionary. Don’t get me wrong: I still forget characters, and it’s still hard work. But previously I took two steps backwards for every two steps forward: I would learn a bunch of characters, then not revise for a while, and promptly forget all of nearly all of them again and have to start over. These days when I don’t revise for a while, I still forget a portion, but a much larger portion I do remember, and the ones that I did forget I re-learn much more quickly. Two steps forward, one step back, if you will. I learn all my characters the Outlier way now, and while it might mean learning a little bit more upfront, as a consequence the characters I learn make sense; memorizing things that make sense is so much easier. It is still hard work, but it is not a hopeless task anymore and I enjoy the experience so much more.

Learning with Outlier

My character knowledge is currently well behind the rest of my Chinese level; I’ve just found it hard to be consistent – work would get busy, or other project got in the way – and before Outlier that meant I’d lose all my hard-won gains again. This is all the more embarrassing because I study Chinese calligraphy. Fortunately, with Outlier progress is now more steady.

The Outlier dictionary is just that – a dictionary. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what to learn or in which order to learn things. Here’s how I use Outlier right now to study: for every new character that I learn, I look up the Outlier explanation of the character. There is often detail there that I don’t necessarily need to know; of historical interest, perhaps, or useful for research, but not necessarily useful to an intermediate learner like myself. Here’s what I pay attention to:

  1. For characters that contain a sound component (which is the vast majority of them), I memorize what that sound component is, and I try to make sure that I understand how the sound component is related to the modern pronunciation. The Character Masterclass provides enough background to be able to understand this for a large portion of them. For the rest, I just memorize.

  2. If the modern meaning (that is, the meaning I need to know at my level!) is sufficiently related to the semantic component in the character (if there is one), I don’t bother memorizing the meaning tree: it suffices that I can recognize the semantic component and it reminds me of the meaning of the character.

    When the character’s meaning has evolved so much that the relation between the semantic component is hard to see, I memorize the character’s original meaning (which is directly related to the semantic component, by definition), and then use the meaning tree to help me construct a story from the semantic component to the modern meaning. Again, the goal here is to memorize enough that the semantic component can help prompt my memory about the meaning of the character (or vice versa).

I then really memorize this; I treat it as part of my vocabulary practice. I set up Pleco flashcards to test myself, find out which ones I have forgotten, and practice. Although this means having to learn a bit more for each character, it’s so worth it – I now retain what I learn.

I do think it would be worthwhile to construct some materials derived from the Outlier dictionary specifically to help learning the material and make this process a little easier. In fact, I have been working together with the folks behind Outlier for the last two years, and I’ve been writing code for them that can be used to do precisely that. The first results of those efforts will hopefully soon be released; that’s pretty exciting, and I really look forward to seeing the results of all our hard work being shared with you all. It’s already a great product, and it’s only getting better!


1 comment

  • Hi, thanks for the interesting blog post. I too prefer Outlier’s scholarship vs coming up with some artificial/arbitrary stories about the origins of a character.

    However, one thing I find useful (which no one seems to mention) is to put myself in the position of an imaginary Chinese scholar trying to come up with a new character to represent a word or concept. I would suppose that (at least in principle), some scholar had to invent new characters as the Chinese language evolved over time.

    If I were that imaginary scholar, what would I do? I wouldn’t arbitrarily come up with new strokes (although that could happen). I would do my best to borrow from other existing characters – e.g., characters with a similar sound, or characters with a similar meaning. But I would also have to add something new to distinguish the new character from an existing character. Some arbitrariness is inevitable, but my aim (as a scholar coming up with a new character) is to minimise the arbitrariness as much as possible.

    I suppose this process continues even today. When Chinese scholars come across new words from other languages, they have to decide what characters to use. And I feel sure they do their best to minimise arbitrariness by borrowing from existing familiar words.

    Kien

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