9 Months and 3 HSK Levels — my Ultimate Chinese Study Guide
Over recent months, this blog has sat silent as I’ve wholly invested myself into learning Chinese. On the side, I’ve been working on Chinese-related programming projects both public and private, but this has been my main focus.
I’m back to share all I’ve learned — both resource- and studying-wise — after three seasons of studying and passing HSK 3.
This post was originally published here on Reddit.
Routine, Mindset, & Studying | (Tips / Study Guide)
My hobby for language-learning has pushed me towards linguistics and the science of language learning. Because of that, I’ve come to realize a lot of study tips and thoughts in general about how to be most productive. I’m summing them up here.
- Find your motivation: this will allow you to struggle through the hard times and celebrate your achievements. I can’t emphasize this enough — you need to have a good reason to want to learn Chinese. Try to find intrinsic motivation - something that compels you — not extrinsic, like being admired by others or for a job.
To build on this, it’s important to also break this motivation down into goals — both short- and long-term. Reward yourself for finish these goals, and make them SMART so you can realistically attain them.
Some motivation/long-term goal suggestions based on what I’ve seen (for a long time I struggled with finding mine, so I hope this will be useful):
- Reading Chinese books in the original language (even classics)
- Speaking fluently with your Chinese friend
- Studying in China abroad
- Reaching an HSK level
- Sheer interest in the language (guilty as charged)
- Communicating with family
Read more, in a specific language-learning context about I vs. E Motivation, in this study.
Build a routine - consistency is key. If you can, study every day — 5 mins a day are better than an hour only on one day. The reasoning should be evident — constant repetition will better help with memory than random study spurts; this is the same reason you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to cram before a test.
Vary what you do - the variety will encourage you, and ensure the exercises you do are less boring. Try to spread out the number of tools you use, as well as the nature of the exercises (reading, passive, active, listening, etc.). See the Resources section for a commented list of those I found most useful.
It’s OK to take a break - the most important thing is not to lose your motivation and joy of learning the language. If you’re tired or just can’t do it today, that’s fine — just try not to break the habit; the shorter the break the better.
Find a group - going at something alone will dishearten anyone. If you can, find someone else interested in the language who you can talk/study with (language exchange sites are good for this). If not, even being on a Discord server or an active member of this subreddit will bring immense benefits motivation-wise by making you feel like part of a community.
Use flashcards - really, they are popular for a reason. Pleco’s flashcard module has a number of templates and pre-made HSK cards — I use the handwriting and spaced repetition daily. Anki is an awesome, though more general, alternative (not to be confused with AnkiApp). For Anki, I’d suggest sentence mining, I use the incredible Spoonfed Chinese deck — $3.
Onwards! The shortest section — mindset.
When studying, don’t lose sight of the big picture and your eventual goal. Sometimes, progress can be disappointingly slow — take a look back when you were at a lower level and be encouraged! The ease with which I read some books I have on Pleco now and old Mandarin Companion books really encourages me.
Keep a growth mindset
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” ( Dweck, 2015)
Don’t tell yourself you’re too old, too busy, not cut out for learning — it’s not true. The biggest obstacle I’ve faced learning is myself.
First off, some more long-term comments:
- Learn tones. The earlier you start the easier it will be; ask any Chinese language learner and they’ll ask you the same thing.
- Consider handwriting. This is almost a separate pursuit in and of itself, and writing on a keyboard is vastly different from doing so by hand. Handwriting is a lot more time-consuming and difficult, but it will bring you greater control of the language and easier recognition of characters. Decide whether you’ll learn to handwrite early on - I dropped the ball and am now playing catch-up with hundreds of characters. Helpful in deciding is this podcast episode, though I feel the hosts are a bit biased against it it’s worth mentioning.
- Stick to your routine. As far as possible, don’t break out of the habit. A new habit takes an average of 66 days to form, forgot a couple and you’ll be back to square one. And of course, form a good routine - ensure it is balanced or focused on what you want, not too exhausting, and beneficial. This is more of a personal thing, though you can read about my personal routine in the next few paragraphs.
- Immerse - popularized in the AJATT method, this just means surrounding yourself with Chinese. But not too early (wait until it is at least partially comprehensible). You can do so by changing your phone’s language, listening to Chinese podcasts (ChinesePod is a great example), or reading as much as you can in the language.
- Get a tutor if you can - self-explanatory. Tutors will help out immensely and are a prime opportunity for first-hand speaking and listening practice (especially corrected).
Now as to forming a daily routine — create one as soon as possible. I’ll briefly share mine and the logic behind it, but this is up to you.
— Side note: if you are a numbers kind of person like me, I highly suggest* PolyLogger *or another time-tracking platform to track time spent learning, watching time spent go up and change is satisfying and motivating.*
My Daily Routine
Just an example, make one that suits you. Given my goal is to read in the native language and pass HSK levels, notice how it is well-rounded but with a focus on Reading.
Comprehensive/Misc: 1 HSK workbook chapter, Pleco + HelloChinese + Anki flashcards
Listening: 30 mins Little Fox/story videos from YT channels detailed below, 1 SinoLingu audiobook (given sheer number available)
Reading: ~1 hour — SinoLingua 750-word story; DuChinese story or two; often HSKReading story
Writing: Journaly post, handwrite workbook dialogue/new words/Discord server challenge
Speaking: Tutor, Discord/Wechat
Total: ~3-4 hours/day
There are a number of excellent resource lists out there (find hundreds on Hacking Chinese), so I’ll keep this list concise with the tools I use regularly and find very useful.
Pleco is simply invaluable. Flashcards, a reader, a fantastic dictionary, and more all rolled into one. My only regret is not buying the Basic Bundle earlier. I’d advise downloading from Day 1.
A great beginner resource, it claims to get you up to HSK 4, I’d say it gets you to roughly HSK 3.5. However, I’d suggest not using this as your only resource. Grammar explanations are short and not reused often, and the brevity of the exercises makes them less useful.
Also a quick note: Starting soon after completing “HSK 2”, content is locked behind a ~$12/mo. paywall. I shelled out without regrets, but just remember to use other resources on the side — such as what I mention below, a textbook.
HSK Standard Course textbooks
These will get you farther than HelloChinese and go further in-depth. They are produced by HanBan, so contain all that you need to know. I’d definitely recommend buying the cheap exercise workbooks, which have writing, listening, reading, and comprehension exercises I found take ~30-45 min/chapter (at HSK 3, which has 20 chapters).
The textbooks themselves are made up of:
- New words introduced
- Grammar points
- Speaking/writing exercises
- Plus the occasional idiom, chengyu, or culture point
If you could only choose 1 resource, I’d go for the textbooks.
Paired with a tutor, textbooks are invaluable.
The best graded readers out there. Spanning from 150 to 450 unique characters, I would recommend starting at HSK 2 or near the end of HSK 1 if you are feeling brave. The books are relatively expensive and only medium in length, but the content is worth it. The authors reuse the same words to solidify them in your memory, and books are written only in hanzi (pinyin provided for new words). They are only available as paperbacks, but may soon be coming to Pleco.
At my current level (about halfway through HSK 4) the books are starting to become a bit easy, but it is still good extensive reading practice. But at higher levels (I’ll update this post), other tools may be more applicable.
Overall thoughts: excellent novels that I’d recommend to anyone in the above HSK range, but don’t start too early. Suitable for re-reading and extremely encouraging going back to see progress and actually being able to read a foreign text.
The app for reading, this resource provides hundreds of short stories from newbie to advanced.
Main benefits: slick UI, easy to translate and view HSK level of words, very customizable, and some stories are free.
Drawbacks: most stories locked behind expensive paywall and stories are somewhat short.
Overall thoughts: try out the stories; if you like them feel free to splurge on Premium. I mainly use this on the side for occasional content, however, so haven’t gone premium. DuChinese can motivate you at the very earliest levels by providing actually comprehensible content but at the more intermediate level, I find longer-form texts like Mandarin Companion books provide more bang for the buck.
Again, more graded readers. While they have more books available than Mandarin Companion, they are generally of lower quality — calling some of them graded is a bit of a stretch, as analysis of even the 500-word ones shows they are at HSK 5/6.
I find the above analysis a bit misleading, though, given that while their books have a lot of new and high-level words, they are reused. At HSK 2-, the content was very difficult, but after finishing HSK 3, I find the 500-unique-word and 750-unique-word stories are challenging, but suitable.
- Extremely cheap
- Comes with good images
- Free audiobooks available — see my post
- English translation
- Many high-level vocabulary words
- When a new word is introduced, it only has 1 footnote. When it is shown again in the text, its meaning is not linked to, you have to flip back to find it. ^(But it is true they have a keyword “sheet” available.)
- Short (at least at lower levels, maybe ~40-50% shorter than MC)
Overall thoughts: still good practice, but not suitable for novices. Definitely need to consult the list of the keywords before starting. Paired with the downloadable audiobook, can serve as good listening practice.
Free, awesome site with stories at different HSK levels. Hover to see translation (or use Zhongwen Popup Dictionary); most stories also have an audio recording. The only cons are a lack of new content — the site stopped being updated about a year ago — and inaccurate HSK levels (I’ve found the real level at lower HSK levels is generally somewhat higher due to the number of new/difficult words introduced).
Chinese For Us and Go East Mandarin YouTube channels
Excellent grammar explanations, videos with HSK-appropriate dialogues and stories. Go East in particular has some short videos appropriate even at the lowest levels. The only thing to look out for is running out of videos, in which case look at Mandarin Corner or Little Fox.
See Comprehensive section.
Little Fox Chinese
A truly excellent all-around resource for learners of every level. Their animated, simple stories go from HSK 1+ and can be found on YouTube as well. You can try listening to higher-level materials — I tried 西游记 — definitely intensive listening but trains the ear.
Free, longer-form, enunciated, and interesting, but difficult language (wouldn’t recommend below HSK 3)
Take a look at “Routine” to see how I suggest using them.
I suggest reading my reflection on writing before choosing to write and look at these resources.
I haven’t found a large number of useful resources for writing, given the personal and unique nature of this pursuit. I recommend keeping a journal or writing out textbook dialogues/new words; this has worked for me. I’ve also heard a lot about the Heisig Method, but haven’t used it myself.
Consistency and routine here are key. My one suggested resource:
A solid alternative to the now-defunct lang-8. In a nutshell: write texts in your TL to be corrected, and correct posts by others in your native language.
- Completely free
- Open-source (GitHub)
- Very open to user feedback, they even implemented a few changes I suggested
- Excellent UI
- Small user base = time before feedback. Pretty much all my posts get feedback, but it is typically within 6-24 hours.
- Somewhat minimal — just out of beta so not feature-chocked.
Overall thoughts: I use this more as a tool to write every day, like a journalling application, than for the feedback. But the comments I get back on the post and mistakes are clear and helpful as well. If you want to practice writing, which I suggest you do, given that it’s not a passive activity, this is one site I can suggest.
This I have the least tools to provide. WeChat is a good platform if you can download it, and you can check out Tandem to find partners. I’ve used Tandem but am not adding it to this list because it has some very large drawbacks, such as the tiresome process of repeating introductions and timezone differences. However, I’ve found using WeChat to send voice messages is perfect.
See the Guide section at the top for suggestions to practice speaking.
Other resources used to a lesser extent and not detailed in-depth are: Discord servers (also good for speaking), Chinese Reading Practice, and this subreddit (as well as the language learning one). Podcasts I’d recommend are* the You Can Learn Chinese podcast (by Mandarin Companion) and previously stated ChinesePod.
This concludes the guide I wish I had. Let me know if you found it useful or have anything to add! As said before, I’ll update it when I pass HSK 4, 5, 6, etc.
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