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Is the Chinese course poorly designed?

or is it just me?

I have tried the first couple of lessons. All they care about is how to match a Chinese character with the sound it makes, but forget the meaning (they only did it ONLY for "hello" and "good").

It is difficult to memorize "drawings" and the syllabic sounds they represent, but not include translation and meaning.

Further more, in those "names" lessons, they do not do much explanation in the tips page. All they do is talk briefly about intonations and how they change the meaning of words. This leaves me scratching my head when I know I have correctly written, "What is your name?" only to find that it should be written, "Your name is what"! All that while trying to figure out the difficult-to-memorize characters.

What do you guys think?

June 16, 2019



I had this problem when trying to learn Chinese with Duolingo at first. And I gave up in frustration.

Then I used other resources (apps) that provide Pinyin, etc.

Now I'm back using Duolingo (productively) precisely because I need to strengthen my recognition of characters. The difference is that I already have a solid foundation of vocabulary and a knowledge of pronunciation.

My conclusion (at present) is that Chinese involves learning different skills (obviously) and there is no easy ENTRY point to learning, as a second language. One has to start somewhere and it will always be difficult. One can't "put the horse before the cart" (as would be ideal) because there is really no horse and no cart. The horse and cart (whichever is which!) run along side by side. Anyway, my finding is that one has to work on (at least) two different projects side by side. Duolingo is my project that helps with character recognition and, additionally, adds some vocabulary to my repertoire.

The main other app I've settled on is Hello Chinese. I completed the equivalent of the "tree" on that app, with the help of Pinyin, while only learning characters partially. I'm now re-doing the tree on Hello Chinese with the Pinyin turned off, but it is a slog. Duolingo is helping me to do that better. Side by side...

I am also using various flash card apps to focus on character recognition.

My weakest skills now are (not surprisingly) speaking and writing. In order not to be too overwhelmed, I'm saving more intensive practice of these until I make more progress on the other skills. I consider Duolingo to be a stepping stone to other resources.


Since this thread was refreshed, I am going to update my comment.

After completing the "tree" in Hello Chinese, I kept reviewing and got bored. At that point, Duolingo came to the rescue with some newer material, and it wasn't as "steep" a climb because I had the Hello Chinese background.

Ah! But then somewhere just prior to the final "checkpoint" on Duolingo, it got a bit too hard again! New words and grammar were being introduced too rapidly, with not enough reinforcement.

Luckily, I realized Hello Chinese has a "new" or "additional" tree (?). I really don't know what it was, but they offered to expand the tree to twice the original length. So, now I'm working through the Hello Chinese "extended" tree, which I believe will go through (?) HSK 4 level. It has a smoother progression. Then, I'll go back to the Duolingo upper levels. Meanwhile, I reinforce (level up) lower level lessons on Duolingo.

TL;DR: I'm actually finding success with Duolingo Chinese, even though it has design issues. The way to overcome those issues is to study other resources like other apps made for Chinese, flashcards, and HSK practice tests.

I most appreciate Duolingo now for the same reason I disliked it at the start: No pinyin, which forces me to recognize characters.


I do wish they'd add the meaning to the characters when we have to match the sounds to them (at least after we click on "Check"), but I seem to remember (I'm currently focussing on Spanish) that the character-meaning combinations were usually added in the next questions. So I think they are just trying to break it down into small steps for us.

I generally find other methods more effective for learning vocabulary than duolingo is (duolingo's strength is helping people to form sentences, which really only starts working a few skills in - the first skills are always very basic vocabulary and phrases in whatever language you're learning) . For Chinese, I combine classical flashcards (English on one side, Chinese character on the other side with the pinyin at the bottom (so that I can easily cover it with my thumb while holding the flashcard to quiz myself)) with lots of writing practice (I have so many pieces of paper filled with Chinese characters; but I've read the great suggestion of using a flat stone and writing characters on it with water and a brush).

Apps like Skritter can also be useful for practicing characters, their meaning and their pronunciation (though the free version is a bit limited in its usefulness, sadly).


Personally I've found Chinese to be fairly easy to learn. I've only ever spoken English, so learning other languages is interesting. When it comes to Chinese, I've learned to click on the Chinese character at the top because it will give you a list of meanings depending on which words are grouped together. I made my self a pack of flashcards using index cards. I wrote the character in the middle then above it I put what it means and below it I put the Chinese word pronunciation. It has helped a lot. Now it's getting easier to figure out what the sentences are. Just takes a lot of practice. It's fun to me though. It got me spurred on so much that I have picked up 7 languages in total to learn. It's a blast!


It's doable (though the tones will probably always be a challenge for me because I don't have good auditorial memory), I just currently don't have the focus I'd need to learn it (though I do intend to learn it when I have a better grasp on Spanish). I also started leaning it in a different way (with an offline course), so I'm probably just more used to that method.


Hello, one possible reason why the course was designed that way was probably because most native Chinese speakers learned their characters that way. Allow me to give you an example.

Say, the school wants to teach the little kids how to write the word "waterfall." (This is a little unrealistic because teachers usually don't teach little kids characters with too many strokes. But this is a hypothetical scenario.)

瀑布 Pùbù = waterfall

The teacher will first write 瀑布 on the blackboard, along with the pinyin, then this is how the student will memorize it:

瀑布 Pùbù

瀑布 Pùbù

瀑布 Pùbù

瀑布 Pùbù

瀑布 Pùbù

瀑布 Pùbù ....

They write it about 50 times. Then if they forgot how to write it during a test, they write it another 50 times.

At no point during this exercise would the teacher explain what each individual character means. The students are never told what 瀑 means, or what 布 means. The students will eventually know what 布 means, though, because it is a character they will encounter again (it means fabric.)

The point is, because a lot of Chinese characters either change their meaning completely when combined with other characters, or has no meaning whatsoever by itself, Chinese simply don't bother trying to learn the meaning of each individual characters from the start. If you go up to some native Chinese speakers and ask them about 瀑, this is how the conversation would usually go:

"Hi, can you tell me what 瀑 means?"

"瀑? Oh, you mean 瀑布! It means waterfall."

"No no... I mean, just 瀑. What does the character 瀑 mean."

"Huh? Oh, um, wow, damn, I have no idea... um, maybe it means waterfall?"

Eventually, the meaning of each individual character might come to you as you learn more and more of them. You will, however, encounter instances that you never know what each individual character means when they are not in combination with another character. This is especially true when it comes to names. For example, the last name 赵 Zhào. Every Chinese knows that this is a last name (and a famous one.) But what does it mean? Most Chinese probably don't know. ( A Chinese dictionary will tell you that 赵 is, um, a last name! Woo-hoo!")

The hard truth is, you just have to write it many, many times until you memorize it. There is no way around it. It is hard. It's been hard for a couple of hundred years. (99% of the Chinese population used to be illiterate. Every Chinese knowing how to read and write is a VERY RECENT phenomenon.)

And about "Your name is what," that is a grammar issue. In my experience, Duolingo courses have a tendency to let grammar happen naturally. And in Chinese, it is true that it says "your name is what?" That is just something you will have to learn by trial and error until you memorized the pattern. Fortunately, Chinese grammar has almost zero exceptions, so once you nailed it, you nailed it.

I hope that helps! Should you have more questions, don't hesitate to ask.


As a Chinese I have to point out three problems in your response:

  1. We don't actually copy words for 50 times... Even in primary school I think we did 4 times. AND personally I could remember most words from the very beginning - I believe that's because a lot of characters with similar meanings and/or similar pronunciations look like each other.
  2. We actually start by the pinyin, and then the 笔画, and finally the characters. So I don't think Duolingo is applying how the Chinese learn the language - also it just can't be copying how the Chinese learned the language because since we're little our parents would talk to us in Chinese, and this process just can't be imitated.
  3. It is true that a lot of our population remains illiterate, but I think that's because a lack of primary education, and the fact that Chinese characters are hard is a minor issue.

Also it is very true that we don't know what 瀑 means because it doesn't really have a meaning as a single character in modern Chinese. It's kind of like when you ask a native speaker of English what "wa" from "waterfall" means. Hope this helps you and @mshenoud.


You're right about everything, of course. 50 times was an exaggeration. LOL.

And yes, knowing the right sequence of strokes is EXTREMELY important. I failed to mention that. Knowing the sequence of the strokes is a must if you are serious about memorizing the characters. I have been writing Chinese characters for so long that the strokes have become too natural for me and I've completely forgotten about it.

Thank you for your valuable inputs!


Stroke order is something I really miss on duolingo! I know it's possoble to learn it on other sites, but it would be useful to have it here as well.


For what little I know about Chinese, perhaps it was better to start from the pinyn. The characters are already complicated, if you don't even remember pinyn and accents is even worse. It does not seem to me that there is no grammar, most of my mistakes are about the construction of the sentence ! it's a problem because I think with my language (i'm italian) that is full of grammar ? However, a fascinating language.


@IanthePrick This course is then helpful to only Chinese people who looking at the pinyin would know the meaning of the word.

What is missing is to write: (50 times) 瀑布: waterfalls AND (50 times): Pùbù: waterfalls

So for a non-native speaker, duolingo is doing one third of the work it should. Or, maybe half the work it should, if it links

瀑布: waterfalls: Pùbù.

repeating 瀑布: Pùbù ONLY is not enough for a foreigner who does not know what Pùbù means. They actually did that with Nihao, saying that hao means good, and nihao means hello. They didn't do that for "name", "is", "what". They wrote their sounds in pinyin, and left me with google translate to link the pinyin with the English meaning. Instead of matching the pairs exercise, it should match the triples 瀑布: waterfalls: Pùbù.

Also, it wouldn't hurt to put say in the notes that the way to ask your name is, "Your name is what?" changing the word order. What are the notes section for if they don't mention this rule, and I am left to figure it out for myself?

I hope I am not offending any one with my constructive criticism.


I believe that you're right about this, and I've been wondering about this for a while myself. I think this became a problem because, like many online language courses, the absence of a person on the other end actually listening and answering your questions means that you need some way to communicate to the students non-verbally. And the result is that the Chinese writing system is introduced even before the students learned how to say anything. And the Chinese lesson notes are indeed a bit lacking - while the practical approach is to simply have faith in practicing, having notes will certainly help lessen the frustration and confusions. As you said, it wouldn't hurt.


My opinion is that they should've started with the pinyin and tones before throwing characters at us. I'm guessing many people unfamiliar with Chinese are going to have trouble with that. They could even have done something like the French course, where it asks you periodically to identify sounds among similar looking words/letters.


Yes that's how Chinese people learned it!! I mean when you learn a lot of other languages on Duolingo they also just throw sentences at you right away, but most other languages are based on the roman alphabet and most people are familiar with it. Chinese is such a different language for English - or a lot of other language - speakers that Duolingo should try a different method though.

In addition, Chinese does NOT have clearly defined grammar, and a Chinese word or phrase can have so many different - sometimes slightly different - meanings. Learning Chinese on any website would be VERY challenging.


I think the course is very well designed, it suits me.


The trouble is that with Chinese being so different than the languages duolingo was designed to teach it was a difficult challenge as the format isn't brilliantly suited to it. The result is a course with a much higher difficulty gradient than others. But I don't think it is because of the way they are teaching it although they could do with a way of teaching stroke order. I think mainly what the course needs to be is longer to give more practice with what is being taught. The sentences become complex very quickly. Using the words in shorter sentences to help them sink in before using them further would be good. And providing pingying on hover over would help too. It is actually quite easy to learn Chinese characters when you have the character the sound and the meaning of words it is used in clear in your head. Assigning a meaning to an individual character is less useful than one would at first think but I personally feel the need to jolt my memory with a sound. And I can't really begin to remember without one. With alphabtic languages you always have at least a rough idea about how things sound but an unfamiliar character leaves you in the dark about it at least at begginner levels which is of course where duolingo is aimed. It does teach the sounds first but when you review they don't always get repeated so the pinying would be enormously helpful.


I can only speak from personal experience, but I spent a year learning German in secondary school and learnt far more from the Duolingo Chinese course in a fraction of the time, which tells me that the course does work.. for me. I did find that when I started to learn other languages after Chinese I struggled and do struggle, I have a feeling that my brain started to see the patterns in Chinese that are different from many other languages. Initially I found the lack of meanings an issue but decided to trust the course and found that things did start to come together. Repitition is essential for my learning and I find that the course does that well, so in summary the Chinese course works for me, it probably helps that I have a very keen interest in the far east, do chinese brush painting, Qi Gong etc so it's the same old story I think, if you want to learn, you will.... hopefully


is there some group in whatsapp to find people who are practicing chinese?


i dont know but we can develop a chinese lerner group


Actually I agree with you. They expect you to write full, grammatically correct sentences but teach little to no grammar in the lesson plan. I'm sure you have to supplement other resources with this as a beginner to have any success.

It is also seems wildly inconsistent, especially at the later levels. Weird, unnatural phrases with strange English translation. Getting some questions wrong because you omit part of it which is known from context, even though other questions/answers do exactly the same thing.


practice, practice and practice


I wish they added the parts of symbols so you can see stuff like: "ok, that part of the symbol means it is a question word" or " ok that part is used a lot and it means that so whenever I see that part I know it means that"

Like in another app there was stuff like that + writing of the symbols


I absolutely love this course with my whole being. I can’t believe how much I am learning. After five months of working on it I am able to speak a little Chinese. I’m not good at learning languages. This is the most I have ever learned in a language. It’s a language quite unrelated to English. So it takes really dedicated practice. But I think the course is brilliant and look forward to practicing every day. The points run out after reaching a certain level for each lesson but I just keep going. When I focus on mastery instead of points I learn at my own speed and progress every day. And I am always so excited when I can recognize characters I see elsewhere! I am so glad the content creators focus on teaching characters and not pinyin. This course is amazing so long as you put the time in. It’s incredible I can speak and read a little Chinese after five months without any previous experience. ❤️


Get a popup dictionary extension for your browser such as Zhongwen, so you can see character meanings when you mouse over. Also get something you can study to acquaint yourself with the parts that characters are built out of, such as the Elements of Chinese poster from mandarinposter.com, or Book 1 of either Remembering Simplified Hanzi or Remembering Traditional Hanzi by Heisig and Richardson.


They could definitely strengthen the tips section with more explanations of grammar. Often, you can just google stuff you don't understand.


I have just made an application to become a contributor, as I am a native from Shanghai. I will see what I can do, if I get accepted, that is!

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