Blog Archive

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.

    Friday, February 13, 2015

    Standard references for Skritter Chinese

    Even though Skritter is mainly a language learning tool and not a dictionary, we still run into the same problems that dictionary editors and compilers do. There might be many different ways of writing, pronouncing or defining a word, but to make the learning simpler for you, we need to choose one.

    From now on, we're going to use the following references whenever we encounter problems:
    1. 现代汉语词典 - For most character and word references, including pronunciation. This is the major reference work that most native speakers use when preparing for exams or when determining what is "correct".
    2. 新华大字典 - For more detailed character references. The above is a word dictionary and sometimes lacks on character information. In case we need to, we'll use this dictionary for single characters.
    3. 國語辭典 - For traditional character references. This dictionary is available online and is published by Taiwan's Ministry of Education.
    The reason why

    Now let's look at our reasoning for choosing some references over others. Why not use all available data? Why not trust what "people actually say"? In essence, there are two approaches one can take when compiling a dictionary (again, Skritter isn't a dictionary, but the same applies to Skritter):

    • A descriptive approach strives to describe the language as it is used. It doesn't matter what someone thinks is correct or what textbooks say, if native speakers use a certain form, it's part of the language and ought to be described that way. Correctness, in this case, is a majority vote cast by all native speakers.
    • A prescriptive approach strives to prescribe how the language ought to be used. This can be done on a number of different grounds, such as historical (etymology) or communicative (writing in this way decreases the risk of communication problems).
    Even though I personally prefer a descriptive approach, there are numerous reasons Skritter can't be a reflection of how Chinese is actually used. First, including multiple versions of all the vocabulary would be very confusing for students. Second, keeping everything updated would require massive amounts of work, something we could never hope to do well. Skritter isn't meant to be a perfect map for how Chinese is spoken or written, it's meant to be a tool to help you learn. Again, Skritter isn't a dictionary.

    With that in mind, using more authoritative sources has two advantages. First, by using an absolute standard, students know that what they learn is officially sanctioned and should be fine on exams and proficiency tests. Second, by using an absolute reference, the task of keeping Skritter up-to-date becomes manageable. We no longer need to argue if 小姐 should be written xiao3jie5 or xiao3jie3 (it should be xiao3jie3) and so on.

    Going forward

    We're fully away that our current approach is not perfect. For instance, we're currently using Mainland references for pronunciation, which isn't optimal for students in Taiwan. We're working on addressing these issues! Still, it should be noted that this post doesn't change anything in this regard, we've always used Mainland references for pronunciation, the only difference is that now we'll do it consistently and systematically.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2015

    JLPT N5-N1 Lists

    The JLPT N5 through N1 lists are now updated and available for study! These together cover a total of roughly 8,500 words and 2,200 kanji, guiding you all the way from the easiest exam (N5), to the hardest (N1).

    The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test is held (in Japan and abroad) to evaluate and certify Japanese-language proficiency of non-native speakers. Before 2009, there were just 4 exams, JLPT4 through JLPT1. The new format adds an additional test.

    N1: Approximately the same level as the JLPT1
    N2: Approximately the same level as the JLPT2
    N3: Positioned a level bridging the old JLPT2 and JLPT3
    N4: Approximately the same level as the JLPT3
    N5: Approximately the same level as the JLPT4
    As of 2010, the JLPT no longer publishes an official list of words, which means these lists are an approximate guide likely to match the vocabulary and kanji requirements.

    If you do find any words that should be listed that aren't, please let us know at

    The last sections of each list contain the individual kanji "comp" writings. If you would rather only study kanji in actual words, be sure to disable these sections by using the "Edit study settings" link from within the list's page, after selecting it for study. 

    (Next to come are the grammar points for N5-N1)!

    JLPT N1 (Hardest)
    JLPT N2
    JLPT N3
    JLPT N4
    JLPT N5 (Easiest)

    Wednesday, January 21, 2015

    Confusing Mandarin pronunciation, part 1: The final "-ing"

    Learning to distinguish and pronounce the sounds in Mandarin can be difficult, even more so if you rely too much on transcription system or don't learn them properly. In some cases, there are also variations among native speakers that confuse second language learners.

    In this article I will first share my thoughts on variations in pronunciation and then discuss an example, the Pinyin final "-ing". These observations are gleaned from teaching experience as well as error reports here on Skritter. I call this "part 1" because I intend to write more about this later! If you have a specific sound you find confusing, please leave a comment and I will consider talking about that sound in future posts.

    The importance of mental categories

    Before we start talking about specific sounds, let's talk about mental categories. Our brains sort language sounds into different categories formed by earlier exposure to languages, both native and otherwise. If our categories aren't aligned with those of native speakers', we will make mistakes. Similarly, if we're not aware of natural variations in the language, we might mistakenly separate two sounds that for a native speaker are actually the same.

    Thus, we can either fail to separate two sounds that ought to be distinct or fail to merge two sounds that to us are distinct, but mean the same thing for native speakers. In this article, I'm going to give two examples of the latter case: the final "-ing".

    The final "-ing"

    When I teach pronunciation, I always stress the importance of thinking in terms of initials and finals rather than looking at the Pinyin spelling, which is full of traps and pitfalls most learners aren't aware of.

    The most common mistake is to think that by adding a letter in Pinyin, you just change that particular sound. For instance, the "-in" in "pin" is not the same sound as the "-in-" in "ping"! Thus, "-in" and "-ing" should be treated as two different sounds, not as the same sound with an added "g".

    I'm going to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) here, but don't worry if you're not familiar with it, I will explain. There are slight variations for how "-in" and "-ing" are transcribed by different scholars, but these are from Duanmu (2007) The Phonology of Standard Chinese. 
    •  "-in" is simply written as [in], which should be self-explanatory. It's a normal "i" as in Pinyin "pi" and a normal "n". No surprises here. You can listen to the recording we have here on Skritter by looking at a character such as 贫 in the scratchpad.
    • "-ing" is written as [iəŋ], which requires some explanation. The first sound, [i] is the same as above (one sound, one symbol). The second sound [ə] is the central vowel also found in English "the". The third sound [ŋ] is a merge of "n" and "g", a back nasal similar but not identical to "ng" in English (it's farther back). Check for instance the recording for 平 via the scratchpad.
    If you listen to the two recordings one after the other, can you hear that the difference between them extends beyond just "n" and "ng"? The first sound, "pin" doesn't have the [ə], but the second sound "ping" does.

    The problem is that since "in" and "ing" are spelt almost the same way, many students assume that the sounds must be similar as well, but this isn't really the case. If we take the two example syllables "pin" and "ping", the first is pronounced as most students would expect, but the second is not.

    If I had to write that sound closer to how it is pronounced, I would write "-ieng", so "ping" would be spelt "pieng". This is not a valid Pinyin syllable, so never write this, I just show you how it's actually pronounced.

    Local variations

    As I mentioned in the introduction, there are local variations. I haven't done enough research into this particular final so I can't tell you for sure where it's pronounced in what way, but there seems to be a difference between southern and northern China, or at least Beijing and Taiwan standard.

    In Taiwan, it's not uncommon to actually pronounce "pin" and "ping" almost the same way, some people even merge these finals completely so they are pronounced exactly the same way.

    This typically does not happen in northern China, where the central [ə] is clearly audible. This means that the difference between "pin" and "ping" isn't just about "n" or "ng", but about the vowel sound(s) as well.

    This can lead to the error I brought up earlier, of thinking that the same sound (phoneme) is actually two different ones, whereas that wouldn't be the case for native speakers. For instance, a student might mishear "ying" for "yong" or simply failing to understand that a sound that contains an obvious [ə] can still be "-ing".

    Learning the sounds of a foreign language

    Hopefully, you won't make those mistaken in the future! The way towards understanding sounds in foreign languages is mostly about listening very closely and paying attention to detail, mixed up with a small amount of theory, such as reading articles like this. Listen to the "-in" and "-ing" around you and see if knowing about the difference makes it easier to understand and/or pronounce them!

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015

    Understanding the neutral tone in Mandarin

    The neutral tone causes great confusion for most learners of Mandarin. What does "neutral" mean? How do you pronounce something "unstressed"? How high/low should the tone be? What about neutral tones in words, different dictionaries give different answers?

    In this post, I'm going to answer these questions (and some more) about the neutral tone. This is the kind of information which should be in any good textbook, but typically isn't.

    Some basic information

    In case you've just started learning Chinese, the neutral tone can be written in several ways:
    1. No tone mark over the vowel: "dōngxi"
    2. Using the number 5: "dong1xi5"
    3. Using the number 0: "dong1xi0"
    These all mean the same thing, they are just different ways of spelling.

    The neutral tone usually occurs in the second syllable of a two-syllable word or between two stressed syllables or in phrases. It never appears at the beginning of a word.

    What does "neutral" mean?

    The neutral tone is called 轻声/輕聲 (qīngshēng) in Chinese, which literally means "light tone" rather than "neutral tone". The most important thing to know about a syllable with a neutral tone is that it doesn't keep the tone of the original syllable. Instead, the tone comes from somewhere else. The syllable of a neutral tone is unstressed, but more about this later, let's look at the tone first.

    First, there is a default height of the neutral tone used when reading words, which is what you should always use unless you have a good reason not to. The general rule is that the neutral tone is lower than the preceding tone, except if the preceding tone is a third tone, in which case the neutral tone is higher. There are specific pitch heights here, but let's not bother with that now, just remember that it should be lower than the preceding tone, except after a third tone.

    Second, the neutral tone is often influenced by intonation. This means that the same neutral tone can be read in many different ways depending on the context and the mode of speech. Intonation in general doesn't change the pitch contour (the shape of the tone) in Mandarin, but it does shift the entire tone range up or down, more or less in the same way as in English (i.e. up for questions, down for statements). The neutral tone is much less constrained and has no definite shape.

    What does "unstressed" mean?

    This should be relatively easy for native speakers of English. If we take a word like "English", the stress is on the first syllable, the second is unstressed. The same is true for many Chinese words and the neutral tone appears on these unstressed syllables.

    What does this mean? It means that the neutral tone is usually shorter and lighter. Compare these two words:
    1. dōngxī means "east west"
    2. dōngxi means "thing, stuff"
    The difference in pronunciation is that a) the syllables are roughly equally long in the first case, but not in the second ("dōng" is longer than "xi") and b) the tone height of the second syllable is lower on the second syllable.

    Unstressed syllables are also reduced, which means that the pronunciation often changes. This is fairly complicated and I won't go into detail here, just be aware of it. This happens in English as well, so when we say a word like "control", we don't pronounce the first syllable like we do in "continent", instead, the syllable is reduced and the vowel sounds more like "e" in "the".

    Default tone height of the neutral tones

    As mentioned above, I don't think the exact numbers matter much, but since I know someone will ask about it if I don't write them, here we go (the scale used is 1-5 where 1 is low and 5 high):
    1. After a first tone: 2 (mid-low)
    2. After a second tone: 3 (mid)
    3. After a third tone: 4 (mid-high)
    4. After a fourth tone: 1 (low)
    Variations in vocabulary

    Recently, I've started helping out with Chinese support and a lot of questions/issues are about neutral tones. The problem is that there is a large number of words that can be pronounced in more than one way, or written in more than one way. Should父亲/父親 and 母亲/母親 be "mǔqin" and "fùqin" or "mǔqīn" and "fùqīn"?

    You have two options here. Either you spend ten minutes trying to figure out which one is the "correct" way of saying it, or you realise that a language such as Mandarin is huge, diverse and organic and that there might be more than one way of pronouncing the word.

    In other words, don't worry too much, it's easy to understand regardless of which version you choose and it's not hard to adapt your pronunciation later if you want to. In general, the Beijing dialect contains many neutral tones and reductions compared with e.g. Taiwanese Mandarin.

    On Skritter, we try to use the most standard version of the pronunciation, but this doesn't mean that everything else is wrong. As I said, in many cases, both are perfectly acceptable. If you find a problem with a neutral tone on Skritter, please report it so we can improve!


    The neutral tone is hard, but if you make the syllable unstressed and remember that the neutral tone after a third tone should rise, you'll be okay in most cases.

    Wednesday, January 7, 2015

    Gaijin speaking Japanese

    I'm probably not the only one who finds it interesting to see other non-natives speaking foreign languages, in this case Japanese. Here is a list of videos I've compiled of mostly celebrities speaking Japanese:

    • Steven Seagal 
    Steven Seagal's Japanese is good, in fact the audience laughs with him from time to time in surprise when he uses natural sounding Japanese. He moved to Japan around 20 to study Aikido and teach English, where he eventually opened a dojo teaching Aikido, and has spent about 10-15 years living in Japan on and off.

    • Edward Norton 
    Edward Norton's Japanese is impressive considering he studied it over 10 years ago and likely hasn't spent much time since then. He studied Japanese at Yale before moving to Osaka to consult for his grandfather's company.


    • Jon Heder
    Jon Heder served briefly at a Mormon mission in Japan, where he picked up a little of the language. It's pretty fun seeing Napolean Dynamite speak Japanese!


    • Mike Shinoda
     Mike Shinoda doesn't speak the language, though is half Japanese himself. He did take the time out to practice and read a speech in Japanese at a show in Tokyo, which I think is cool.


    • A bird 
    Okay, so this isn't exactly a gaijin or a non-native speaker, but it is a bird. And cute. And speaking Japanese.

    • David Ury
    David Ury is an Andy Kaufman-esq actor and comedian who has appeared in a number of different roles, most notably AMC's "Breaking Bad". He's fluent in Japanese and makes YouTube videos where he pretends to be "Ken Tanaka", a long lost brother of David Ury who was adopted by Japanese parents and raised in Japan. He also works as a Japanese-English translation specialist for various manga.

    • Bill Murray
    In addition to a number of other awesome films, Bill Murray starred in "Lost in translation", where he played an actor filming a commercial for a Japanese company. Here is a behind the scenes video of him on set, though the Japanese he uses in this video doesn't come from what he recently learned, and instead from a book he bought a long time ago called "making out in Japanese", which he doesn't know why he bought.

    • David Lee Roth
    Van Halen's ex lead singer David Lee Roth decided to buy an apartment in Tokyo in 2012 and takes private Japanese lessons. He does have a thick accent in his pronunciation, but that's probably partially due to how he's trying to speak as fast as he can, and that he hasn't studied that long.


    Do you think someone is missing from the list? Leave a comment below!

    Tuesday, December 16, 2014

    When small changes make a big difference, part 3

    This is the last and final post about confusingly similar Chinese characters. In the first article, there was a quiz where you could check how many of these characters you know, so if you haven't taken the quiz yet, I suggest you do that before you continue reading this post.

    Last week, I explained the answers to the first half of the confusingly similar character pairs and triplets, this week it's time for the remaining seven characters.

    土 (tǔ) "earth, soil", 士 (shì) "warrior, scholar"

    As was the case with 未 and 末, the only difference between these two characters is the length of the horizontal strokes. The first character, 土 (tǔ) "earth, soil", has a short stroke on top and a longer stroke at the bottom. It's a common character (624th), both used on its own and in compounds such as 土地 (tǔdì) "land, territory" and 土豆 (tǔdòu) "(Mainland) potato, (Taiwan) peanut". It's also one of the five elements.

    The second character is 士 (shì) "warrior, scholar" and has the opposite strokes, i.e. a long one at the top and a short one at the bottom. This character is also common (368th) and means "warrior“ in some common words, such as 士兵 (shìbīng) "soldier", but is more related to studying in other words, such as 博士 (bóshì) "doctor, Ph.D.".

    Since these characters mean completely different things, there are no real communication issues if you get them wrong (the reader will be able to guess what you meant), but if you want to write correct characters, do pay attention to the length of the strokes. This of course includes when these characters are found as component parts in other characters!

     夭 (yāo) "young", 天 (tiān) "sky"

    This example is similar to 千 and 干 in that the difference is the slope and direction of the first stroke. In 夭 (yāo) "young", the first stroke should be written from right to left and slope gently down, whereas in 天 (tiān) "sky" the first stroke is a normal horizontal stroke from left to right.

    夭 (yāo) "young" is not a common character in itself, but it is contained in some common characters, such as 笑 (xiào) "laugh, smile". Thus, if you write the bottom part of that character like you write 天 (tiān) "sky", you're not doing it right.

    天 (tiān) "sky" is of course a very common character (55th) and appears early in many textbooks. It can also mean "day" and is most commonly seen in words like 今天 (jīntiān) "today", 明天 (míngtiān) "tomorrow" and 昨天 (zuótiān) "yesterday".
    入 (rù) "enter", 八 (bā) "eight", 人 (rén) "person"

    The last group of confusingly similar characters is perhaps the most confusing one. All three characters are common both as individual characters and as character components, making it hard to remember which one is which. Knowing their basic form and meaning makes it a lot easier to remember which of them should go in a specific compound! Rather than trying to remember details of the strokes, it's better to remember the meaning of that component.

    入 (rù) "enter" is the 193rd most common character and is written first with a down-left stroke and then the down-right stroke, obviously longer and leaning over the first stroke. It also has a slight hook at the beginning. This character is most commonly seen in words like 加入 (jiārù) "to join" and 进入 (jìnrù) "to enter".

    八 (bā) "eight" should be familiar to anyone who has studied for more than a few weeks and is the 282nd most common character. It is written with the same stroke order as 入 (rù) "enter", so the only difference is that the two strokes shouldn't touch each other. Also, the second stroke doesn't have the characteristic hook that make 入  easy to recognise. Sometimes, "eight" is also written with more vertical strokes of almost equal height There is also a fraud-proof version of 八 which is harder to confuse (and change): 捌.

    Finally, 人 (rén) "person" is also a very common character (6th) and it's usually one of the first characters students learn. Note the difference between this and the other two characters, though! 人 (rén) "person" is written with the same stroke order as the others, but the first stroke should be longer and leaning over the second stroke that supports it. In a way, it's the opposite of 入. Apart from being a very common character in words, 人 is also common as a character component, but pay attention, because it might change shape!

    What characters do you find confusingly similar?

    I have now covered seven groups of confusingly similar characters and I hope this will help you write better characters and confuse similar ones less. There are more similar characters out there, though. Do you have a set of two, three or even four characters that you find annoyingly similar? Leave a comment and share!