Failing to learn Chinese

I've tried so many different ways to study Chinese that I'm writing a whole article about it.


Mandarin note

All my language studies begin with a note on my phone, typing in the words that people teach me. This is where I'm at in my efforts to learn Taiwanese, Malay, Czech, Italian, Urdu, Uzbek, Romanian, Portuguese, Korean, French, Lithuanian, Dutch, Hindi, Arabic, Amharic, Farsi, German, Nepalese, and Japanese.

You can read the Mandarin note using HubText.

Chinese name

Choosing a name is hard. I wanted a name that is easy to read, easy to type, easy to write, the same in simplified and traditional characters, and unique on Facebook.

Before I had a real Chinese name, I had to enter my name to use Ruten (Taiwanese eBay). I had to use 5 Chinese characters or fewer, and English letters are not allowed. Because my name is Peter, I wrote 尸三十三尺. Someone later told me that it sounds like "33 dead bodies", which is not such a good meaning.

There are only 100 family names.

I wanted one that is the same in simplified and traditional characters. That brings the number down to 60 names: 王李徐郭何高林宋唐曹彭曾田董袁潘于蔡杜程魏丁任姚崔汪金石廖夏方白孟熊秦邱江尹薛段雷侯史陶黎毛郝邵覃武戴莫孔康易常文洪伍卓.

Then I wanted to choose a name that is the first choice in the pinyin keyboard. That brought the number down to 7 names: 林高方毛莫常康.

I wondered whether to choose 方, but it's not the first choice in the simplified Chinese pinyin keyboard. 毛 was the communist leader of China, and I live in Taiwan and don't want offend people. The most appealing were 林 and 高. There are fewer strokes in 林, and the meaning is kind of similar to Burkimsher (birkenshaw, a small group of birch trees). So my family name is 林.

What about a given name? I found a list of Chinese names from Chih-Hao Tsai.

I found 725 characters with a stroke count less than 8, and then searched Facebook for names that were unique for 林. That cut the list down to 212.

一上, 一大, 一用, 一多, 一成, 三元, 三太, 三平, 三民, 三在, 三林, 上上, 上正, 上白, 上全, 上林, 也民, 大一, 大光, 大全, 大行, 小山, 小分, 小安, 山一, 山求, 山林, 元三, 元上, 元大, 元日, 元本, 元民, 元白, 元如, 元有, 元住, 元岑, 元若, 天一, 天山, 天林, 太正, 太同, 少分, 少民, 少岑, 日可, 日生, 日全, 日行, 日均, 日林, 木三, 木正, 比分, 牛在, 古上, 句均, 可元, 可多, 可昂, 平一, 平山, 平元, 平日, 平本, 平正, 平生, 平成, 本安, 本林, 正上, 正大, 正正, 正有, 正岑, 正林, 民山, 民本, 民先, 民全, 民如, 民安, 民昂, 生一, 生元, 生民, 生安, 生有, 白月, 先元, 先正, 先先, 先全, 先如, 先安, 先岑, 光一, 光大, 光月, 光正, 光民, 光全, 光列, 光好, 光安, 光成, 光有, 光均, 光林, 全平, 全正, 全民, 全安, 全有, 全均, 全林, 同一, 同山, 同元, 名可, 名正, 名全, 名名, 名林, 在三, 在元, 在民, 在生, 在全, 在如, 在均, 多生, 多成, 如一, 如山, 如元, 如天, 如月, 如民, 如光, 如如, 如成, 如均, 如岑, 如林, 安一, 安元, 安天, 安生, 安白, 安成, 安有, 安均, 安林, 成一, 成大, 成元, 成平, 成正, 成全, 成安, 成有, 成林, 早民, 有一, 有平, 有正, 有民, 有光, 有全, 有如, 有有, 有均, 有若, 米三, 自生, 自光, 自安, 自有, 行一, 行正, 行如, 行安, 行我, 均一, 均元, 均平, 均正, 均民, 均安, 均而, 求平, 定先, 定全, 定昂, 昂可, 林山, 林平, 林正, 林民, 林生, 林均, 林林, 若元, 若白, 若先, 若光, 若名, 若昂, 若林

I asked my friend Fawkes for advice, and he said that some of these sound rather feminine.


Months passed, and I still couldn't choose. I made friends with more people, some of whom have amusing names in English. 宜庭 Yi Tíng is eating. 韋廷 Wéi Tíng is waiting. Shī Tíng 詩婷 is... going to the toilet.

I realised that although these sound silly, they're actually very memorable. I usually forget names, but I could remember those friends' names because they made me laugh. So I decided that I want a name with a double meaning in English.

What verbs end in "ting"? There are many. I thought about this for a while, and then realised that I'm always on my computer "typing". Although my Chinese was still really basic, I knew the word 台 tái, for Taiwan. I also knew 平 píng (Peace), 和平 hépíng and 平安 píng ān. There are not too many strokes, and it's the same characters in simplified and traditional. Is anybody else typing 台平 táipíng on Facebook? Not yet!

If someone calls me on the phone, and says "Are you 台平 táipíng?", I can reply "No, I'm speaking." I also like the meaning: Peace in Taiwan.


This is what I really want to learn - text from everyday life. Restaurant menus. Church notice sheets. The Bible. People have generously given some of these to me, but I can't understand without translation.

At 7s church, I was using Pingtype's text input method to type in the notice sheet during the sermon, because nobody was translating. Tracy saw that, and very kindly offered to write the bopomofo for the characters. That is actually slower for me to type right now, but it's the only time I see bopomofo in real life.

Lydia kindly translated the menu for a nearby restaurant. Unfortunately I can't really read her handwriting, and I need to tick a box on the menu to say what I want. It's easier for me to see which box is ticked and make it line up instead of trying to match the characters. So sorry, but I never ended up using this, even though I know you spent a long time making it for me.


I suggested phrases to my teacher and asked her to translate them to Chinese for me. I wrote the pinyin as I heard my teacher say it (without tones). The testing method was to cover the pinyin and make me read the sentence in Chinese. I could still see the characters, because I couldn't actually understand them. That meant that I knew how many words were in the phrase. Over time, I started to learn the characters this way, and reading became easier. But that didn't help me to learn the phrase, just the words. I should have discovered word spacing at this time, but I still didn't realise until later. It was useful to memorise some of these phrases, because I use them in everyday life.


My teacher chose some vocabulary words (about 16 per week), and tested me on them using flashcards. She would write the words (and later, only the characters and bopomofo). I'd type them into my phone using bopomofo, then copy them onto my computer. I found translations for every word, and drew a table in Microsoft Word. Then I added the pinyin from Google Translate, and the tone colours. This was very time-consuming; it took 1 hour just to prepare my materials before I could start studying. At this point, I started to realise that words have more than one character, but it wasn't until the Week Summary method that I decided to make a program to add spaces between words.

Week Summary

Before class, I wrote a week summary, and my teacher translated it to Chinese. Then I added the spaces and tones by hand using Microsoft Word. I would have to read the sentence out loud, and I would usually just read the pinyin. I also discovered that some characters change tone because of the word that they are in. Supporting two-character words was the start of my word spacing program. My teacher didn't like the literal translation, though. Our classes have moved on to a textbook, to my disappointment, but I kept developing the app so I can release it for you.

I wrote Pingtype to make it faster to add those tone colours, making my homework faster and allowing me to read the Bible as well. This method directly resulted in my app.

Bopomofo Flashcards

I learned Bopomofo using flashcards. I have another article about that.

Copying Characters

It would take me about 2 hours to copy 400 characters. I did this every week for months. I still don't remember most of them. I didn't know the pronunciation or the meaning. Even copying the bopomofo didn't help. I made lists of characters (most frequent characters in some LINE chat data, my friend's names on Facebook), and copied all of those. I still couldn't read.


I've used all of these for several weeks each, sometimes even up to a few months. Please don't waste your time with textbooks. You'll learn how to study, but not how to apply this to life. Use Pingtype to get some useful text and start figuring that out. At least then you're more motivated.

Chinese With Drawings teaches one character at a time. I'm making the case that words are more important than characters. I only tried this for a few weeks before moving on to copying more interesting characters.

Everyday Chinese-English Picture Dictionary is alright. The extra space for simplified is kind of a waste though, because I'm learning traditional. I would memorise the words, then point at the pictures and say the word. But I never really learned it. I made a sentence using the words, and then memorised the pattern that I would point to the pictures. If my teacher tried to test me on one word, I'd have to re-play the whole phrase. When I actually went around and needed to find a convenience store (便利商店 biànlì shāngdiàn), I couldn't remember the word for just that. I needed the pattern and the picture in the textbook to remember it. And I've probably forgotten everything by now.

Speak Real Chinese is probably the most useful of the textbooks, even though it scared me off when I was just beginning. There is Chinese, pinyin, and English. But these are shown in separate boxes, instead of on alternating lines. There are also no colours. My teacher also didn't like it because she doesn't know pinyin, only bopomofo.

Let's Learn Chinese is my current textbook. My teacher downloaded it and got it printed locally.!RVVDmC7a!8YsywCzS!0qm-7MwqhtQ47tPcTMUqlQ

It was printed in black and white, so there are no tone colours. There are sample conversations, but they're not relevant to my life. I don't care whether Dawen's toy is behind the sofa. I want to know how to talk to university students and colleagues. Although there is some concept of words, it is the individual characters that are tested later on. There are also a lot of mistakes in the book - how many people are in 老師's family? On page 25 it says 4, but on page 22 is says there are 3. This kind of mistake just annoys me, because if I miss a tiny part of a character then I get a big red mark against my writing, but the book makes a logical error, and it can't be corrected.

Also note the Seal Script, "How Chinese Characters came to be" section. That is the same concept Alex Lebrun wrote about in an article that got shared on Hacker News this week. Maybe 山 and 火 look a little bit like a mountain and fire, but this usually requires a lot of imagination and is irrelevant in everyday life. Remember that characters are not important - you need to learn words!