Blog Archive

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recent changes to Skritter's newsletter mailing list

Each month, we send out a newsletter with information about things you probably don't want to miss. Normally, the newsletter includes summaries of important blog posts and language challenges from our social media channels. There's also a ranking of top users. We hope that you find such a newsletter helpful, but it's also there to strengthen the community. We're all learning together and the problems we face are similar. To see what last month's newsletter looked like, just click here or on the picture on the right.

Recent changes to our newsletter mailing list

Recently, everyone on our mailing list received a subscription confirmation. If you confirmed your subscription, you will continue receiving monthly e-mails, otherwise not.

This is because we have changed to a double opt-in list, which basically means that apart from subscribing, you also need to confirm your subscription, only then will you actually start receiving e-mails.

Previously, anyone who signed up for a Skritter account also ended up on our mailing list and received the newsletter. Of course, we think the newsletter is great, but we don't want to force it on users, you should only get it if you really want it!

If you want to subscribe to the newsletter, you can do so by clicking the link below. You can unsubscribe at any time, there is an "unsubscribe" link included in every e-mail.

Subscribe to Skritter's monthly newsletter here

What do you want from our newsletter?

Apart from updates from our blog, language challenges and top users, what would you like to see in our newsletter? If you have any ideas or any other kind of feedback, please contact us, either by leaving a comment to this post or sending us an e-mail. Thanks!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Hacking the most difficult Chinese characters (with examples)

Which characters do you find most difficult to remember? The answer to that question will of course vary between learners. Personally I remember finding 疑 really hard.

The best way of learning these tricky characters is to deal with them decisively. Cramming works in some cases, but it's inefficient and you will keep forgetting the same characters over and over. It's also frustrating and makes learning Chinese a chore.

In my approach to learning characters, there are three things you need to do:
  1. Understand the character - This should be the first thing you do with any character, not just those you have problems with. Do you understand how the character is composed? You don't need extremely detailed or accurate information here, but a basic understanding is essential. I will show several examples later in this article.
  2. Broaden your knowledge - Learning 3000 characters is not like learning 30 characters a hundred times, it's much, much harder. You need to relate characters you learn to those you already know. If you keep mixing up characters, you should look not only at the character in front of you, but also other characters you might be confusing it with. If you thought a character was written a certain way, but it turns out you're wrong, does the character you wrote exist? Comparing similar characters in this way can be very useful.
  3. Put it in context - If you learn character components, put them in characters; if you learn characters, put them in words or sentences; if you learn words, put them in sentences. This is essential not only because it shows you how they are used, but also because learning things in isolation is always harder than learning them in context. Your goal is to be able to understand and use the characters and words you're learning, so the way you practise shouldn't be too far removed from that goal.
The most difficult Chinese characters
In this article, I will go through this procedure with some of the most difficult Chinese characters. This difficulty is not based on anyone's opinion, it's based on statistics fetched from our database. We know which characters Skritter users in general find most difficult. We don't know why, of course, but it's often possible to guess.

For each character, I will explain:
  • Character frequency and basic definition
  • Pronunciation
  • Character composition and formation
  • The component parts and their functions
  • Common words and/or phrases for context
  • Why the character might be difficult
1.  耗 (hào) "consume; waste" (frequency rank: ~2000)

This character is a left-right composition with 耒 on the left and 毛 on the right. It's a semantic-phonetic compound, meaning that one part represents sound and the other meaning. In this case, 耒 means "plough" and gives the meaning of the character, while 毛 (máo) "hair" gives the pronunciation (it's the same final, but different tone and different initial).

By far the most common word with this character in it is 消耗 (xiāohào) "to consume". Apart from this, it might also be a good idea to know that it can be added after other characters to indicate consumption, such as 油耗 (yóuhào) "fuel consumption" or 時耗 (shíhào) "time consumption".

Why is this character difficult? I think it's because it's hard to keep track of the number of horizontal strokes. The radical 耒 has an unusual large number of horizontal strokes and can be confused with 末, 未, 木 or 禾. This is why it's important to know your components! If you know what "plough" looks like, you'll be fine. If you find this confusing, look up the other characters and make sure you know what they mean. These character reappear all over the place, learn them now!

Furthermore, 毛 might be confused with 乇 or perhaps 手. However, this character is pretty common and you should learn it if you haven't already. The phonetic clue here is valuable. 毛 and 耗 rhymes! Neither 乇 (tuō) nor 手 (shǒu) rhymes with 耗.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!

2.  鉴/鑒( (jiàn) "to reflect; mirror" (frequency rank: ~1700)

This is a top-down construction with 監 at the top (note that in simplified Chinese, this has been reduced to five strokes which as far  as I know don't mean anything on their own) and 金 at the bottom. This is also a semantic-phonetic compound, with 監 (jiān) "prison; supervise" giving the sound (same initial and final, but different tone) and 金 (jīn) "gold; metal" giving the meaning (something that reflects or mirrors). An additional note for traditional characters is that it could also be a left-right composition 鑑; both are listed in the Ministry of Education dictionary.

There are two common words this character appears in: 鉴于/鑒於 (jiànyú) "in view of" and 鉴定/鑒定 (jiàndìng) "to evaluate".

I think there are two reasons this character causes problems. The first is that the component parts haven't been learnt properly. 金 is one of the most common character components, so that shouldn't be a problem, but while 监 is common (rank around 1000), it's still not easy to write. The second reason is that in simplified Chinese, it's not immediately obvious that 鉴 contains 监. By knowing that, it might be easier to remember both the pronunciation and how to write the character.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!

3.  诞/誕 (dàn) "birth; to give birth" (frequency rank: ~1900)

Just like the first example above, this is a left-right composition and it is, surprise, also a semantic-phonetic compound. Do you start understanding why these characters are very important to understand now? To the left, we have one of the most common semantic (meaning-bearing) components 讠/訁"word; speech" and on the right, we have 延 (yán) "delay; extend". The phonetic component shares the same final, but has different initial and tone.

This character occurs early in many textbooks, so even many beginners will have encountered it, usually in the word 圣诞/聖誕 (shèngdàn) "Christmas". It's also very common in the word 诞生/誕生 (dànshēng) "to be born", although this is more formal and not something beginners really need worry about.

I think the reason this character is hard to learn is partly because it contains many strokes, but also because there is another phonetic component that looks very similar. Compare 延 and 廷. It's really hard to remember such small differences!

However, if you know that all characters with 延 are pronounced with the final -an or -ian, and that all characters containing 廷 are pronounced "ting" (various tones), it's not so hard anymore. Just by knowing that it's "dàn", you know that it should be 延 and not 廷! I've written more about this here.

Practise writing the character using the scratchpad!


That's it for today, I'll be back later with more characters from our list of tricky cases. Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Skritter goes virtual*

Writing Chinese and Japanese has been a difficult and time-consuming task for thousands of years, and the learning tools have stayed roughly the same throughout history. Since the turn of the century, however, research into memory and retention has been combined with modern technology to create new, improved ways of learning familiar skills, accessible to ordinary learners.

Skritter is such a product; the result of using new technology to solve an old problem. To provide the best solution possible to all students, we offer Skritter for both iOS and Android devices, as well as on the web. So, what's the next step, you might ask? Does it end there? No, of course not, but before we disclose any details, let's look at some interesting research findings that underpin the next step in our quest for easier language learning.

Learning is context-dependent

Research has shown that learning environment has a direct impact on our ability to remember. A classic experiment into context-dependent learning, which is what this field of psychology is called, was done on divers, who were observed to have troubles remember things from a dive on dry land, but not while underwater.

This phenomenon was more systematically researched by Godden and Baddeley, who let people learn lists of words both underwater and on dry land, and then had them recall these lists, again both underwater and on dry land. The results showed that it was indeed easier to recall the lists in an environment similar to the one in which the learning was done! So, people who studied the lists underwater did better on a test if they were immersed in water! Similarly, people who memorised the lists on dry land found it harder to remember them if the test was done underwater. If you want to read a summary of this research, please check Memory (Baddeley, A., M. W. Eysenck, and M. C. Anderson, 2009).

Practical implications of context-dependent learning

This means that if your exam will be held underwater, you should make sure you practise underwater, too! Well, yes, but that's very unlikely to happen. Joking aside, there are at least two things we can learn from this research. First, learning in a similar environment as the one used on your exam is beneficial. The impact is smaller if the environments are more similar, but it's still there.

More significant, though, is that varying your study environment makes learning more dynamic! When you learn Chinese and Japanese, you want to be able to recall the words you learn in any situation. Since Skritter is available on most mobile devices, learning words in different situations has a positive impact on your ability to recall them later.

Indeed, some researchers have suggested that the main benefit of using flashcard apps is that learning environment becomes more varied, because the apps are portable and used everywhere. There is more to it than that of course, such as the spacing effect, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

Virtual reality Skritter

With this in mind, the decision to start developing a virtual reality client for Skritter wasn't hard to make. Imagine the benefits of being able to control the environment in which you learn Chinese or Japanese! You could use this to mimic your upcoming test location or vary the learning environment for more dynamic learning.

When Oculus VR released their first development kit in 2012, we were thrilled. This has been a long-term project we've been working on since then, but because of the high risk of letting you down if we don't deliver, we decided to keep it secret until now. We're not ready for a public release yet by far, but we are looking for people willing to test our beta version. Please note that you need your own Oculus Rift to participate!

Current features

There are currently two main features in the beta and we plan to develop both further. First, the most basic feature allows you to write characters in a pleasant environment of your choice. We have currently developed the following:
  • Zen garden
  • Mountain top
  • Tea house
  • Traditional dojo
If you'd like to study characters in other environments, please let us know! Apart from the inspiring environment, we also turn any writing instrument into a calligraphy brush and your writing surface into fancy calligraphy paper. There's virtual ink, too! We have also developed fonts to match, so instead of the computer-rendered look on our current clients, it actually looks like you're writing with ink on paper!

The second main feature is meant to increase variety. You can choose between a number of modern-day settings that are close to what you will experience in real life. These will then by changed randomly for each word you study, making sure that you will be able to remember words not just in the setting you learnt them, but in any situation you might encounter.

Looking for beta testers

If you're interested and have an Oculus Rift, please let us know! It's still early days and the beta is unpolished, but works. We need your help to produce a Skritter worthy of the 21st century!

*Sorry to disappoint anyone, but in case anyone didn't pay attention to the date, yesterday was April Fools'. Naturally, it would be cool to have Skritter in VR, but we're very busy as it is with improving the apps we already have!

Everything else in the article is true, though, including the research. However, VR will probably come to much better uses for language learning that providing inspiring environments to study. Just give it a decade or so.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Understanding Chinese characters: Components and radicals

It's common for beginners and sometimes even more advanced students to lack an understanding of how Chinese characters are structured. This includes misconceptions about radicals and other types of components. In this article, I'm going to address some of the misconceptions I have encountered as a teacher and as the "Chinese Guru" here on Skritter. What different kinds of character components are there? What's a radical?

Compound characters and character components

Most Chinese characters are compounds, meaning that they consist of several smaller characters. These may or may not be used as individual characters themselves, it differs from case to case. Characters are typically combined in specific ways and therefore you can't break them down arbitrarily.

For instance, a character like 想 (xiǎng) "to think" can be broken down first into 相 and 心. Then 相 can be further broken down into 木 and 目. The three characters 心, 木 and 目 can't be broken down further. This is the only way this character can be broken down, so there is no character that combines 心 with only 木 on top.

There are four major ways of creating compounds, but in this article, I'm going to explore phonetic-semantic compounds, which are the most common type of character (but still the least understood by the average student). Read more about the four main types here.

Meaning and sound

A character component typically has one of two functions: either it carries information about sound (a phonetic component) or it carries information about meaning (a semantic component). To give you a few very basic examples, it should be obvious that in a character like 看 (kàn) "to see", 目 is related to the meaning of the character (it means "eye").

It should also be clear that the 马 (mǎ) "horse" in 妈 (mā) "mother" probably isn't related to meaning. On the other hand, it's a good guess that it is related to the sound (the pronunciation only differs in tone). The same is true for some other examples that often occur early in textbooks, such as 吗 (ma) "(question particle)" and 骂 (mà) "to scold". These are unrelated to horses, so 马 component is included to show that the characters have pronunciation similar to 马. A component that carries information about sound is called a phonetic component.

Naturally, I have cherry-picked clear examples here. In some cases, it's not obvious what function a specific component has and you need to do research into character etymology or the pronunciation of older forms of Chinese to make sure. Perhaps they sounded the same thousands of years ago, but not any longer. Some characters are very reliable, though, check some examples here. If you want to know more about how you should use phonetic components to learn characters, read more here: Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters.


Now let's turn to radicals, which are misunderstood by a majority of students. To understand what they are and how they work, we need to look at how Chinese dictionaries are structured. Traditionally, Chinese dictionaries aren't sorted alphabetically, but instead use what's called 部首 (bùshǒu) in Chinese, meaning "section head". For some reason, this is translated as "radical" in English.

Each Chinese character has one and only one radical, and it's used to sort the character into the right section of the dictionary. The exact number of radicals varies. In the most recent edition of 现代汉语词典, there are 201. Another standard reference for radicals is the Kangxi dictionary published in 1716 which contains 214 radicals. Not all characters are sorted by exactly the same radical in all dictionaries, but most are. Within each section, characters are sorted by the number of additional strokes necessary to write the character, not including the radical.

So, a radical is a part of a character that has a special function used in dictionaries. It's not the same as a character component, it's not even the same thing as a semantic character component. A radical is the part of a certain character that is used to index it in dictionaries, nothing more, nothing less. This means that a certain character component, say 土 (tǔ) "earth", can be the radical in some characters like 境 (jìng) "situation", but not in others such as 肚 (dù) "stomach". What kind of information do you think 土 carries in 肚?

Why all the fuss about radicals, then?

If radicals are so limited, how come that everyone seems to talk about them and use them for teaching Chinese? Part of the reason is that many haven't understood the difference between radicals and character components in general, which is evident when you hear someone say that "this character contains two radicals, 木 and 目". No character contains two radicals, that would defy the purpose of radicals!

Character components, on the other hand, are very important to understand how characters are structured, but the radicals themselves aren't useful unless you want to look up characters in old dictionaries. Thus, pay attention to components and what function they have.

That being said, many of the radicals also happen to be very common semantic components, so it's sometimes convenient to use radicals as a proxy for semantic components. I have done this myself when creating a list of the 100 most common radicals. You can study this list on Skritter too:
  1. 100 Most Common Simplified Radicals
  2. 100 Most Common Traditional Radicals

The point isn't that they are radicals, it's that they also happen to be common semantic components. This is a simplification, though, and there are many common semantic components that aren't radicals. Unfortunately, there is no good overview of these, as far as I know.


I hope this article has helped you to understand the difference between different kinds of character components on the one hand and radicals on the other. If you still have questions, please leave a comment!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Japanese tongue twisters (早口言葉)

Tongue twisters, or 早口言葉 (はやぐちことば), translating literally to "fast mouth words", are quite a lot of fun in Japanese and also a great way to practice speaking speed. There are a lot of common 早口 that most Japanese speakers know, much like how most English speakers are familiar with "Sally sold seashells at the sea shore", or "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." Here are some tongue twisters, along with their translations:

namamugi namagome namatamago.
Raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg. 

bouzu wa byoubu ni jouzu ni bouzu no e wo kaita.
A monk skillfully painted a picture of a monk on a folding screen.

tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kuu kyaku da. 
The guest next door is a guest who often eats persimmon.

basu gasu bakuhatsu. 
Bus, gas, explosion.

akapajama aopajama kipajama. 
Red pajamas, blue pajamas, yellow pajamas.

sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi.
Both plums and peaches are a member of the peach family.

kisha no kisha wa kisha de kisha shita. 
The reporter from your company returned back to the office via steam train.

nyanko, konyanko, magonyanko, himagonyanko.
Kitty, kitten, grand-kitten, great-grand kitten.

Got any more? Be sure to share them in the comments!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can you pronounce these Chinese words correctly?

Chinese pronunciation is systematic and relatively simple, especially when it comes to spelling (Pinyin). In theory, it's possible to teach a class of beginners almost everything they need in a week. Naturally, it will take much longer to master pronunciation, so don't feel bad  if you still struggle, but since Chinese has so few syllables and they are very regular, it's still easier than many other languages.

That doesn't mean that it's always systematic, simple and easy, though. I have been responsible for Skritter's Chinese language support for a couple of months now, and much of the feedback we receive is about pronunciation. Since we adopted an absolute standard for pronunciation, we have sorted out a few issues that keep popping up, so I thought I'd share some of them with you.

Some common questions about Chinese pronunciation

The conclusions below are based on the resources given in the article linked to above (mainly 现代汉语词典). That doesn't mean that other pronunciations are uncommon, rare or wrong, but they don't conform to the standard. If people in your area speak differently, by all means study the way they speak, but if you have no preference or care about being "correct", follow the advice here, which is also what we use in Skritter (if you find other words you think are incorrect, please report them).

If you want to check if you know the answers before you see them, write down the Pinyin for the following five words before you read on:
  1. 背包
  2. 打烊
  3. 尽快 (儘快)
  4. 下载 (下載)
  5. 一模一样 (一模一樣)

Here are the right answers with brief discussions:
  • 背包 (bēibāo) "backpack" - This word should be pronounced with two first tones. I have seen people argue that it should be "bèibāo" because backpack is a noun and 背 is a also a noun (meaning "back") when read with a fourth tone, but a verb (meaning "to carry on the back") when read with a first tone. However, 现代汉语词典 only lists "bēibāo". The standard in Taiwan is the same as on the Mainland.
  • 打烊 (dǎyàng) "to close a shop or restaurant (for the evening)" - I was a bit surprised by this standard pronunciation here myself, because most native speakers I know say dǎyáng with a second tone rather than a fourth tone. This includes speakers both from Taiwan (where it is the standard) and Northern China. Conclusion: dǎyáng is very common, but the standard pronunciation of this word is dǎyàng.
  • 尽快 (jǐnkuài) "as quickly as possible" - This word is tricky because the first character can also be pronounced with a fourth tone and has a very similar meaning. I won't go into the details here, but jǐnkuài is the only listed version. Note that it should be a fourth tone for 尽力 (jìnlì) "to the utmost" and that both are possible for 尽量 (jǐnliàng or jìnliàng), but that they have slightly different meanings.
  • 下载 (xiàzài) "download" - This word is very common with the internet invading our everyday life, but it is perhaps less obvious what the correct pronunciation is. 现代汉语词典 only lists xiàzài. It's true that 载 can be read with a third tone, but then it means "year". It's still common to hear this word pronounced xiàzǎi, though.
  • 一模一样 (yìmúyíyàng) "identical" - This is often pronounced "yìmóyíyàng" in Mainland China and Taiwan (where it is the standard), but the standard pronunciation should be mú not mó. The difference isn't very big, and as is the case with the other words on this list, people will definitely understand what you say regardless of which version you choose.
These are five of the more interesting words I have dealt with recently and I plan on sharing more later. I don't do this because I think all students have to follow the standard, I do it because I want to explain what we're doing and perhaps also clear some questions marks regarding these words. Finally, I'd like to apologise to those of you who have reported errors but still haven't been taken care of. We're doing our best to catch up, but we're not there yet!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Common mistakes when writing Characters

Just starting to learn how to write Chinese characters? Or thinking about taking up the brush and starting to learn? Then this article is just for you!
We asked Cōngmíng, one of our most experienced 汉字 teachers at Hutong School about her experiences teaching 汉字 to total beginners. And here are her findings and useful tips.

Carefully read through them and you’re already better armed in starting this learning journey!

1. What are the most common mistakes students make when starting to learn how to write Chinese characters?

This is an easy one! Most mistakes beginners make are with stroke order and stroke direction. As the structure of Chinese characters is totally different from the Roman alphabet for instance, students very easily mix up the rules of the strokes.


  • piě: down stroke to the left
  • tí: upward stroke
    How to distinguish them?


    Calligraphy allows you to see much clearer how a stroke has been written. As the ink is much thicker where the brush first touches the paper (the start of the stroke), you clearly see what direction the calligraphy master has used to write this particular stroke.


    2. What tips you always give students learning how to write Chinese characters?

    Tip #1: Start with the right tools!

    The first thing that’s really essential when learning how to write Chinese characters are the textbook and software you will use.

    At Hutong School, we have carefully selected textbooks specialized in teaching 汉字 for each level and furthermore simply love Skritter, as we find it the best app to learn how to write characters.

    Whatever you choose, here’s a list of aspects I strongly feel every good learning tool needs to have:
    • detailed explanations on the rules of the strokes
    • introduction of the origin and development of characters
    • examples of common words and phrases
    • information on radicals and the meaning of radicals
    Choosing the right book and software is the first step, if not the most important one, in learning Chinese characters. They are as essential to your learning process as weapons are to a war.

    Tip #2: Follow the instructions carefully!

    Your textbook is king. Follow the instructions on stroke order and direction very carefully. As we like to say, writing Chinese characters is actually not difficult, it just comes down to copying. As a student, you don’t need any creativeness. The hardest part is remembering how to write it, that’s it.

    I often need to tell my students they can’t just change the way of writing characters to their liking. It’s a fixed science so to say, just like math (2+3 will always be 5).

    Common mistakes

    niú牛 (bull)
    • mistake: The vertical stroke doesn’t cross the upper horizontal one
    • memory trick: Cutting off the head, will kill the bull
    shēng 生 (life)
    • mistake: The vertical stroke doesn’t cross the upper horizontal one
    • memory trick: It’s like the head, you can’t cut it off, or there’s no life anymore. 
    ge 个 (measure word)
    • mistake: all strokes touch
    • memory trick: Your character can simply not look like an arrow
    Tip #3: Love characters!

    Lastly, love characters. Students who use their heart, don’t find writing characters difficult. The hardest part is simply to remember how to write them.

    The four essentials of remembering:
    1. understanding
    2. association
    3. practice
    4. love/affection
    I always say: Chinese characters are the world’s most beautiful characters. The beauty of it lays in the wisdom and cultural changes of this nation embodied in them.

    What mistakes are you encountering when first starting to learn how to write characters? Or do you have any other questions you would like to ask the team of teachers at Hutong School? Write it in the comments!

    About Hutong School

    With over 10 years’ experience, Hutong School is one of the leading Chinese language schools in Beijing and Shanghai and offers language programs for everyone eager to learn Chinese Mandarin. Their Chinese classes are characterized by their small group size, individual attention to students’ needs and highly qualified and motivated teachers.

    Find out more on learning Chinese in China on their website.