Podcast Episode 196 - Two Weeks to Basic Literacy in Chinese

196. Two Weeks to Basic Literacy in Chinese

Podcast Duration: 01:16:08
196. Two Weeks to Basic Literacy in Chinese

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5:08 Comments & Emails

Anonymous by Email


I just wanted to give you some quick feedback on memorizing characters. I went through the MB Challenge pretty quickly (I’m currently halfway through level 13) and ended up with… well over 200 characters to review on Traverse the last two days haha… No issues, I expected it – but the most amazing thing is that even with writing out every character by hand for each character, I’m only going through a few sheets of paper a day and I’m getting most of the characters correct! When I think about the short amount of time it took to get here and compare that to the physical pain I went through writing out characters over and over when learning Japanese years ago … MIND BLOWN.


Anonymous by Email

Update: I’ve gone through a bunch of sentences now. Are you kidding me? This is so much fun and I can’t believe I’m reading and understanding these (carefully constructed and curated) sentences with no problem at all. I also see how you’re introducing the grammar points in a completely natural way. Amazing 👏👏👏🙏🙏🙏


Gavia by Email

Hi Luke and Phil,

The Chinese New Year of course came and went already, I have just been too busy until today to sit down and think how I am doing. A year ago I was watching 春晚 on youtube and wondering where I would be a year from then, so let´s see:


I´m now studying Level 77, character 2471. I don´t have exact data on last year, just a comment that I was at “a good thousand well learned characters”. So that´s +1400 characters aprox in a year, not bad, and I can definitely notice that in my ability to read and understand Chinese.

Completing the course and getting to those 3050 characters is my most important goal for this year, but it´s also the one I need to think about the least. The habit I have built around learning characters is so strong by now that this will just happen.

All going smoothly on that front… or not…. because to be honest I am sick and tired of SRS! So much so that I might never want to use it again.

There´s just too much to review. I have tried to go too fast considering the time I have available and I STILL haven´t fixed my pre-MB bad habits of trying to memorize strokes directly. I do the actor & set part well and it works wonderfully, but I still don´t build memorable enough ACTION to those movies so I tend to forget the props and meaning. Mostly because I have relatively good memory and I can get by with just what I´m doing and with seeing the images on my cards, even if the action and meaning are not well thought out. However, when the review intervals start to be over a year the characters don´t stick. The ones I did make GOOD movies for do stick though, obviously!

There are days I´m too tired and feel like I can´t remember ANYTHING and this has been more frequent lately. But I´m learning to forgive myself, sometimes I just hit “hard” and just send those characters forward to a better day instead of trying to insist on memorizing or even reshooting my movie. On better days I leave the forgotten ones to the end to reshoot those movies and try to make them as fun as possible.

Also, I try to think that soon, very soon I will get to a point where I can start trying to read more interesting material and as I will start seeing those characters in different contexts in the real world and just use them, so they will eventually stick, just naturally. Please tell me they will, because I really want to get to a point where I´m not staring at an SRS screen for an hour every day!

Words and sentences

All sentences done until somewhere on the level 52. I’m not adding any, but I still review them, about 10-30 come up daily. It´s ok, that´s my minimum reading practise, practically all I do for reading so I keep at it, hitting OK as long as I can more or less understand. Maybe some day I will get back to unlocking more, but might not be this year. The SRS allergy is much too severe now….


My main method of focused immersion is listening to native podcasts, mainly 打个电话给你。When I started on that a year ago I understood a word here and there, parts of sentences, occasionally a complete sentence. Now I can listen to a full episode in one go and can get the gist of it all, and more, sometimes it feels like I understand EVERYTHING for most part of the episode. Maintaining attention is not a problem, on the contrary, when I listen repeatedly my mind may start to switch off sometimes because it feels “too easy” as I understand most of it.

This has made a huge difference in the conversations with my language partner, I can now understand what he says to me (mostly).

This year I want to do the same with 日谈公园。I feel insane just writing that down. But I want to feel comfortable listening to Beijing accent at natural speed, so this will be my challenge, I´ll see how far I can get with it this year. Right now just maintaining attention on it for 10 minutes is a challenge, my mind says “this is impossible” and wants to switch off. But I know that depending on the topic I will start getting the gist of it through repeating each 10minute chunk 5-6 times. I love that “mental configuration” where you start to understand something that is so fast you can’t fix your mind on anything, just somehow…. surf the wave, believing it will carry you to a new level of understanding.

Absolute weekly minimum: focused listening to the weekly episode of 打个电话给你 at least once (they are 40-60min each.) Weekly goal: preferably listen to the episode 3 times each week. Work on 日谈公园 but only when the other one is done for that week. Aim to increase listening time in general and get into the habit of tracking it. I´m not being more specific because the characters are still my main focus, listening is my main immersion focus.

Series and movies

Last year I would not watch anything in Chinese without English subtitles. By now I have quit watching anything with English subtitles. I can´t really get things through listening and reading Chinese subtitles only, but if it´s a “slice of life” type of series and I get into it and learn to know the story I can follow things relatively well after a few episodes. I watch just for entertainment and practise recognising characters. Occasionally rewatch in 10 minute chunks repeatedly, but this is just when I need a break from the podcasts. Not a priority at the moment, but I hope slice of life type series with Chinese subtitles will feel natural to watch by the end of the year.


Not a priority now. I read short text messages from my language parters and the few sentences I review. I have bought a bilingüal edition of The Little Prince that I plan to read as a paper book in Chinese as soon as I finish the 3050 characters.


I can pronounce all the syllables, but zh-, ch-, qi-, ji- and -e need practise to get them constantly right. The tones are just painful…. especially the second tone. I can imitate after listening to an audio model several times, but if I try to read a sentence, no matter how simple, it´s very hard to control tones. Even harder if I´m trying to speak freely. I have written to Santa Claus AND the Three Kings (who bring the gifts in Spain) saying that all I want for this year is 正确的声调。I want to believe in the miracle of Christmas. And new year. And the summer solstice we celebrate in Finland… I need ALL the miracles there are to get those tones natural and right…. even just to hear them!

I am working with my new “pronunciation coach” (a new Hello Talk buddy with whom I focus on pronunciation) every day through audio messages. I´m starting to speak my own sentences to her and not feel totally awkward. And I’m starting to feel eager to speak with people in general, hoping to get a chance to do that. Last year I wouldn´t even imagine speaking with anyone else than my one and only Chinese language partner.

I want to keep working with my pronunciation teacher long term. That means daily messages on most days (currently about 5-6 days a week). I hope that by next Chinese New Year it will feel totally natural to speak Chinese to a Chinese person, whether it is in messages, on the phone or face to face. I´ll make mistakes, that´s inevitable. But my goal is to feel as natural speaking as I now feel about typing Chinese to anyone Chinese, I can write their language so why would I use English? And soon I´ll speak,too.


One hour in Spanish & Chinese with my language partner on Sundays. Short audios to pronunciation teacher almost daily. The goal in the first: just feeling relaxed and natural, occasional words and corrections. The goal for pronunciation: keep doing it, own those tones! Still not speaking to anyone in the real world, face to face.


I´m writing some sentences when working with my two language buddies, this is not a priority. Won´t write English to a Chinese person anymore, I avoid using translation software but will resort to that every now and then. (Yes, my messages are quite simple for now….)

春晚 show

Ah, I didn´t tell you how this year’s 春晚 went for me: I can now get what they are talking about, more or less. I didn´t watch for long, but I did end up watching the 躺平式干部 joke over and over again so that I could tell my language buddy what was going on and hear him laugh at my attempts. He very diligently prepares topics to talk about each week and we sometimes get a bit too serious, so I decided to learn to tell about this. These comedians seem to be 春晚 regulars, so let´s see if I get the jokes next year without watching the same thing 30 times over. This is just to make the 春晚 a yearly ritual to check where I am and decide to continue for another year. I guess watching it for a moment reinforces my “Chinese identity”, you are kind of supposed to, right? 🙂

Identity and relationships

I am someone that will soon be fluent in Chinese. I am serious about this. It´s fun, yes, but “fun” doesn´t mean that I´m just “playing around”. It is surprisingly scary to decide to get serious! When I do…. I might fail, you know… What if I don´t learn or reach my goals? Do I seem ridiculous attempting the impossible? I can´t say anymore that I wasn´t really trying. Because I am. Seriously.

I also have a new level of commitment to my language partner. That kind of scares me as well. I have been in touch with him for almost two years now. We speak EVERY Sunday and I´m starting to realise that we might actually become real friends in this process, some day we might be able to speak on a level where we really find out about each others’ thoughts on whatever we are talking about. We started at not understanding simple 3-4 word sentences! Now I really enjoy our conversations. He likes to follow international news and hearing a well educated Chinese point of view on current affairs is VERY interesting. We often don´t agree, but we listen to each other very carefully and I think that is so important on many levels. Being forced to simplify those topics A LOT due to linguistic limitations sometimes actually helps to see things more clearly somehow.

On the other hand, my new pronunciation partner plans to go to Finland to study a Master’s degree in 2024 and stay for a year or two. I want to be part of that journey and learn together with her. Teaching her has taught me a lot and finding a pronunciation partner like her is an absolute privilege: she has been trained in the university for four years, prepped for perfect, beautiful putonghua, because she has studied to become a news anchor. She also teaches pronunciation to native kids as a volunteer. I guess I have become one more of those kids, just not native. 🙂

I really want to hold on to these people! It means showing up for them and helping them reach their goals, too. And it means not fooling around in “HelloTalk land” looking for new people all the time…. forget “shiny new things”, stick to what works, be there for them and for my own Chinese learning, stay committed, time is limited…. These two are my persons for Chinese now and I am grateful to have found them.

Phil, I think I´m really “growing the hell up!” here! It is VERY scary, but feels really good at the same time. To be honest, lately it mostly feels like my head is about to explode… I feel like I just can´t get any more Chinese in me, there´s too much to do, too much to learn and everything is just so HARD! Yeah…. I know…. that MIGHT have something to do with the fact that I´m constantly choosing content WAY above my level. I try to be kind to myself, but I can´t go for anything easier, I want to keep this interesting. It’s getting more interesting every week as my skills improve!

So I´ll now go practise that 绕口令, the one my pronunciation buddy gave me as the exercise for today… maybe I´ll write to you in Chinese next time so it will be shorter?

Thank you for reading this far and for taking me this far, if it wasn´t for your course I would never have maintained my direction long enough to get to goals like what I have accomplished by now! So thank you, I could not do this without your course and your encouragement!

Take care!



John by Email

I just wanted to thank you for incorporating Traverse! I really did not enjoy using Anki, and naturally I stopped. I was listening to the MB podcast recently to try and get back “into my studies” and heard about traverse. I jumped back in and I am loving it. I started over and am already at Phase 2 Level 7. Your system is amazing (i’ve been studying Chinese for a looong time) and traverse fits what you’re doing like a glove. I’m even using traverse to study Python concurrently! Again, thanks!


Glenys Gallagher on Level 13 Complete

Gosh …I have finally finished level 13 and wow ! I am very slow….and I mean slow …but I have turned up everyday, done my flashcards every day and enjoyed every day. Yes I have been frustrated if I couldn’t remember a character or a word (even if I knew I knew it) but I have remembered some top down words. Yes the grammar and sentence structure confuses the hell out of me sometimes but I am slowly understanding and am getting quicker. I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment when I think this time last year I only knew how to say hello and thank you .
A huge thank you Luke and Phil !


Becca G on 反正 in Context

I’ve barely touched MB for the better part of the last year and a half (just life stuff taking me elsewhere) and I have to say, this program is amazing. I’ve been slowly getting back into my Chinese studies here again, and am constantly amazed by just how quickly I can recover character meanings, sounds, and tones after not reviewing them at ALL for so long. The one that got me on this lesson was 随 in one of the sentences. I thought to myself “Surely I’ve not learned this one…. no, WAIT. These characters all did a thing somewhere!! It was with… that guy! At that place! In the kitchen! And suddenly I had it right back. Absolutely amazing how Luke and Phil have helped build such permanent structures in my brain like this. It’s happened a few times as I’ve gotten back into MB this past month and it’s just the coolest thing ever. Thank you so much for this program and all the hard work you guys do, because I can say without a doubt now that your method absolutely does work and these personalized stories really stick with you forever. 好极了!


Moose Little Thunder on Special Effects & Memory Athletics

Did not expect to go through a visual meditation with sound effects. That was surreal.

I came across this technique for memory many years ago in a course called pmemory (phenomenal memory). It was a system for developing props and places to be used for remembering facts, figures, languages, etc.. The site and community does not exist anymore, but everything it preached was quite revolutionary for me, at that time. It was what memory athletes used.

I tried to get through the course, but I could not, it was not fun and I lost interest.

What I just experienced here is the usage of that material towards an actual outcome, learning a language, in a fun way. This is a big win, and I believe I’ll finally go through a course like pmemory, but towards an actual outcome.


Rafael Hurtado Rosas on Choose Your Challenge

Insanity, no one can stop me – (Join the challenge: www.mandarinblueprint.com/challenge)


Becca G on 一日三餐

Some of these Phase 4 dialogs were really slowing me down and I was getting a little bugged by it, but then I happened to watch a random podcast by Phil (I think 108) called Grinding vs. Gearshifting. To sum it up, stop worrying about understanding every single character perfectly right now, and accept that the vast majority of the story does in fact make sense to you. I was really focused on understanding each individual character and WHY are these ones together making that word?? It slowed me down tremendously. Do not do that! The character pairings to make a word will not always make sense, so rather than “grinding” at every character, you “shift’ to seeing it as a whole word itself just… because! Which is my least favorite answer to why, but sometimes that’s really all there is to it. I’ve stopped picking these apart and just roll with it. Get the basic gist of the story and don’t fuss over bits you aren’t sure of. Just come back for shadowing practice now and then and eventually these will stick on their own over time. Phil’s words really changed how I approach these dialogs so I highly recommend giving the podcast a watch if you are feeling at all frustrated with these like I was. Thanks Phil for helping me “shift” into a higher gear!


Florine van Meer on Level 14 Complete

Super happy and proud to have finished level 14.

I can’t believe it only took 2 levels to go from ~ 100 to ~140 characters. In level 13, I just sat down to study as before, and before I realised it I had learned 10 characers. Still cautious that I would forget, but it really sticks and the Traverse flashcards keep confirming that. It feels like the solid foundation of the Hanzi movie method is paying off now.

I have a few questions though on my approach and would appreciate some guidance
1. I did not watch all the movies, or read all the comments and replies for every section. I only started reading when I did not understand one of the sentences/characters completely. I’m a bit afraid I might miss out on some of the information, is your advise to read all comments and replies for every section or is it ok to skip this as long as I understand the sentence?
2. When you introduce new words in the sentences, do you recommend making a new movie for them? Or should I wait until they appear in the course later as a separate character?
3. When reading sentences, do you recommend to read them out loud and make sure every tone and piece of information comes to mind? I can quickly glance over it and understand the sentence due to previous Chinese knowledge, but the tones and 100% understanding of every single individual character is not necessarily there, the overall understanding of the sentence is.

Thank you very much for the motivation and guidance!