The writing chinese projet : setting goals.

I’m a big fan of Olle Linge, author of hacking chinese blog, because besides achieving something really hard, he reminds his readers to set goals into three horizons : long-term, short-term and micro goals.

Read those articles if you’re learning chinese, or any language as a matter of fact. really.

Personally, I’d like to be able to google anything I want in chinese. Stay close to my culture by being able to find any information, like what’s really in the weird medicine I took as a kid, or reading the hugely successful start-up story of Alibaba. If I break it down to those 3 levels, it gives the following:

Long-term goals Reading popular posts and blogs requires knowing about 2500 characters. Learning to write helps remembering, because writing is harder. So I’ll set to read 2500 and write 1500. and that before I turn 30. that’s in 4 years.

Short-term goals  Based on that, I need to learn read and write characters of one textbook every 4 month. That’s about 300 new characters. Check and acquire in parallel the equivalent amount from the 2000 most frequent words.

Micro-goals  learn and retain characters from 2 lessons, every week.  Not slower and not faster.

I’m not sure if these are good goals. Is it weird to aim to be able to search anything online? Is the short-term goal too ambitious? Will I keep it up with my job and moving to another city and planning a wedding? I don’t know. I don’t know but I have clear micro-goals that are reached every week since two months.  So maybe these are good goals because I worry, but not enough to stop me from focusing.

School didn’t teach you to set goals, so teach yourself.


I consistently think about setting goals, especially for this project. I’m really careful not to set unrealistic goals or let my expectations too high, because it’s so easy to lose motivation and stop. So I do a lot of research about how to set good goals.

I gathered that a good goal shouldn’t make you feel guilty nor stress at all. Instead it gives you confidence and allows you to use grit because you need well-defined directions in order to work hard, without having to worry if you should be doing something else with your time.

A good goal makes you focus : too easy, and you lose focus by loss of interst. Too hard and you lose focus by stress or by fear of failure.

Finally the time-constraint part allows the definition of a plan. I think it’s the essence of self-directed learning. You’re creating a curriculum instead of receiving from someone else. A good plan contains small steps which are manageable and for which you get small internal rewards specific to you. Like, if you’re a people person and can connect to one more person. Or you’re learning to programm and can make a fun function. Or you can read emails from family members.

Penelope Trunk wrote an article this week. It’s about school, but really it’s about learning.

« I think school is worst for the kids who do the best. Because if you get used to being told you are smart and good for learning what someone tells you to learn, then it’s a rude awakening when no one gives you gold stars as a young adult. And it’s a rude awakening when no one tells you what to do as a young adult. »

This not only touches the art of setting good goals for yourself, but also the need of doing it consistently. I like reading the story of Leo Babauta. It reminds me that there are so many aspects in life where goals should be set other than school work or career. Which is exactly what school didn’t teach us.

the writing chinese project: preparing materials.


During five months this first-year text book rested comfortably on my table, with a post-it on it “Dictate”, until one day I finally did dictate it. Since then other tools and materials have joined me in this writing chinese project.

For this project, you need:

1. writing sheets. Download one on the internet, like here. Print 50 copies front & back.

2. any source of text that is incremential. Choose one you are comfortable with.

I’m using the official primary school textbook because heck, if they use it it’s good enough for me. Plus I’m used to learn with babies anyway. I was really happy to find the entire collection online for free. If you prefer you can also buy them here as books.

But if it depresses you to learn with small chickens and cats, just take any textbooks for foreigners and skip over the pronunciation part. Some people creates their own text from series and films.

Just pick one source of text and stick to it.

3. A voice for the text you chose above. 

This is important for motivation and dictating. We need to partially replace the teacher. Any recorder on your smartphone (Wavepad or anything else), ipad, mp3 does the trick. Or a reaaaally nice person willing to dictate you every 2 days.

4. a repetition tool. 

This is where technology comes in really handy. I use Skritter. It is imo the best tool there is, you can practice on the bus, on the train, study any custom list, it detects the brush orders and remembers which word you have trouble with. Perfect to use any waiting time during commutes or any waiting time during a busy day. There is a one-week free trial. I bought a one-year subscription ($100). It’s not cheap but we should be ready to put more if it allows us to learn our mother tongue more steadily.

Another tool you can use – free on computer, $25 on smartphone – is Anki, which was widely used before Skritter came out.

Finally the old fashioned way with flashcard is always an option.

You don’t have to have decide right now – once you start learning you can pick one up on the way. you can always change afterwards.

5. a dictionary. A regular paperback, or if you’re using a smartphone, download Pleco.

Identify the differences to start self-directed learning.

We’re learning to read and write chinese, and we’re not special because everyone in China goes through the same process.

There are three notable differences that will lead to customisation in the learning process.

1. we’re not in the natural environment. 

Read: we’re not in China. There’s no need to mention that cultural immersion is important, we all know that. The relevant aspect that will be missing is repetition and exposure to learned words in various contexts. An important point to include in the learning method.

2. we are adults now. 

– we have a job/studies that take a good chunk of a day’s time.

– there’s no teacher telling us what to do next. So no more passive learning.

– there’s no test and good grades or patting on the back. Actually we’ll probably hear more of  “I told you so” from chinese parents but anyway.

– it’s psychologically depressing to go back and learn with kids.

3. we are adults now.

There must be some advantages! We’re not sitting in a 60-pupils classroom. We don’t have the rest of school curriculum. We live with internet and smartphones.

With these in mind, I think we can build and discuss the core of the writing chinese project in the next post.

There really are a lot out there like us!

Reading the last post you may think ah, we’re different. That our case or condition is special or something.

Then I realised, there is an estimated 80 millions people who are speaking fluently chinese and needing to learn to write every year: that’s basically all kids reaching the age of 6 in China.

It’s good news because it means there are thousands of books intended for them that we can steal.

Ok, the majority of people we relate to are children. So what ? If we were able to search on Baidu, I’m sure we’ll find illiterate adults needing to learn. And if we still searched further, there are undoubtely adults outside of china needing to learn.

It’s just that no one writes about it because it’s so unimpressive.

I have a hunch that it’s also because there is some kind of guilt. I know because I feel guilt, like everytime we’re fly to Beijing and can’t even fill in the yellow entry card in chinese.

And I want to change that.

How are others learning to write chinese ?

Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang

Before starting, I did a little research on how other people are learning chinese. Different methods fall mainly into 2 categories :

  • Chinese for kids, such as this website. Or the artistic project Chineasy,  although I’m not sure how far she goes with the characters.  Maybe it’s worth a deeper look.
  • Learning chinese for total beginner, including speaking. Basically all language books (Rosetta Stones, HSK, Boya etc..) are in this category. There are a lot of blogs of people learning chinese from scratch and succeeding, there’s a list here or here I didn’t have time to get through them all.

Not entirely satisfied, I looked if I could find any American born chinese (ABC) who wanted to re-learn how to read and write. Apart from discovering Gene Yang who drew a good comic on ABCs, I found only two results in obscure forums.

There are a few tools that are widely used, such as Skritter and Pleco on the smartphones.

I’m not listing all the ABC authors that blog about the cultural experience because this is not the topic. But I’m skimming them over, in case they are articles on how they re-learned chinese. If you find something or know someone in your entourage who learns writing chinese in a specific way, please let me know!


First post.

I’m an american born chinese, tired of not knowing how to write chinese.

So I’m starting to learn now.

This blog will be used to share this process with other motivated people (like my brother)!

testing pictures