Incremental character learning through games

Stepping stones in river
(photo by Susanne Nilsson)

Reading text in Chinese can often seem like looking at wall of inscrutable text if too many of the characters are unfamiliar.

And while we've tried to keep the number of distinct characters low, our text games are no exception. Here's a breakdown of how many distinct characters are in each game:

GameDistinct Characters
Burning Building399
Wandering Cat574
Into the Haze649

Undoubtedly, many of these characters you already know, but if there are substantial gaps, these can interfere with your reading and make the game less fun.

Our goal here is to show you a study strategy for getting to about 95% familiarity with the text of the adventure games.

The characters that will help you play the game the most are also the characters that you see most often in the game, and so by focusing on these you can simultaneously make the experience of playing the game more fun and more useful.

And although the characters that appear only once in a game make up a substantial fraction of the distinct characters in the game, these singletons make up a tiny fraction of the actual text.

In aggregate, the characters that appear only once in a game only make up between 1% and 1.5% of the text in the game.

For these singletons, it makes sense not to worry about them and to just use the built-in dictionary feature to look up words when you encounter them. Later, when there is a context where these characters are more important, you can learn them then.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of overlap among our text adventure games. In what follows, we discuss one way to leverage this.

Stepping stones

The overlap in which characters are used in each game actually suggests an optimal progression through the games.

In total there are 965 distinct Chinese characters throughout our first five text adventure games. But only 197 of these are used in all the games. Furthermore, most of these are very common Chinese characters, and so you likely already know or are familiar with most of them.

Starting from this baseline, if you familiarize yourself with 88 additional characters, then as you play the first game in the progression, Burning Building, you will already be familiar with 93% of all the text in the game.

We're not suggesting mastering all 88 of these characters before you start playing. That would defeat the purpose of playing the game! The whole point of playing is to have fun while improving your knowledge of Chinese. Rather, we are suggesting familiarizing yourself with the ones you don't know so that when you see them in the game, you have an opportunity to recall them, which seems to be the important neural-connection-forming activity of learning.

From there, you can progress through each of the next 4 games, previewing exactly those characters that will most help you through each successive game.

Here I illustrate this progression:

Incremental character learning infographic

At each step of the way you will be familiar with upwards of 95% of all the text in the game! That might be a huge difference from if you dive in without strategically filling in the gaps in advance.

We estimate that the typical student can go from being familiar with less than 75% of text to being familiar with 95% of the text.

This is like going from 1 in 4 characters looking unfamiliar to only 1 in 20 characters looking unfamiliar!

Word lists to the rescue

If you would like to try out the above progression through our five games, we have set up six word lists on WordSwing corresponding to the above sets of characters.

These lists contain words that use the characters at each particular step pictured. Learning the characters in the context of words that are used in the game will provide you more context than learning isolated characters.

Tap the "fork" button to make a personal copy to study from:

The idea is not to learn all the words now, but rather to merely preview vocabulary that involves characters you are unfamiliar with. If you've been using WordSwing's knowledge stage ratings then you can use these to prune the list of words down to only those you haven't noticed yet.

If you tap the Adjust knowledge stages button, you can see your ratings for these words:

Incremental learning knowledge states

You can then tap the Prune list button and tap each of the three links for marking by rating, discovered, learning, and mastered. This will allow you to then delete these words from the list so you can focus on the words you don't know. After you've tapped the three links, you'll see purple X's next to the ones that will be deleted when you tap the trash button:

Prune incremental learning list

One way to preview the words is simply to select Drill down mode when viewing the word list and then tap on any of the words you want to look up. You can then see the pronunciation and meaning in the built-in dictionary.

But you can also use these word lists with any of our word list-oriented activities, including:

Pronunciation Recall - Spaced repetition where you are prompted with a character and are asked to recall it's pronunciation. This is my top choice for this task because it most resembles reading.

Pronunciation Recall screenshot

Frequency-ordered SRS - Spaced repetition where you try and recall how the character is written.

Frequency-ordered SRS screenshot

Character Memory Grid - An fast-paced character memory game where you remember how characters are pronounced.

Character memory grid animation


So if you're looking for a methodical way to use our Text Adventure Games to grow your Chinese vocabulary and character knowledge, we encourage you to try the games following the above progression, and preview the vocabulary before you play the game. This way, as you play the games and master the vocabulary, upwards of 95% of the text will at least be a bit familiar.

And keep in mind you are more than welcome to just dive in and play. This strategy is just an idea, and you're also welcome to use some hybrid approach, whereby you go back and forth between previewing word lists and playing the game.

Have fun!

Kevin & Olle

PS: If you'd just like the lists of characters in this progression, here you go:

Universal (common to every game):


Important for Burning Building:


Important for Escape:


Important for Zoo:


Important for Wandering Cat:


Important for Into the Haze:


Turn an adventure game into speaking fluency practice

Class in the forest

Our text adventure games, on the surface, are reading and listening activities. Yet, these same games can be easily transformed into speaking fluency exercises.

The games games have a default mode of practice, namely you read the game narrative, listen to the voice recordings, and look up words you don't know.

But this doesn't help you improve your speaking fluency. In fact, nothing that WordSwing currently offers directly helps you practice speaking. But that doesn't mean you can't turn the table and make your own speaking fluency practice out of our text adventure games.

Here's one such methodology:

  1. Play through a couple choices in the game, looking up any words you don't know in the built-in dictionary and listening to the audio.
  2. Stop when you have a comfortable amount of text on the screen, perhaps after 5-10 items of text have been added to the game conversation window.
  3. Go back and see if you can read through a line of text without looking up any words. If you can't, listen to the audio and try again. If you forgot what a word means, look it up again.
  4. Speak the line out loud. Pretend you are an oral storyteller. This will require you to speak it smoothly and in a compelling and engaging way. Speak it out loud at least three times. Each time, try and increase the fluency of your speech, but be sure not to sacrifice your tones too much.
  5. Continue to the next line when you're ready, and repeat this exercise for each line in the batch.

Upshots of this style of practice

Obviously there's a lot more to speech fluency than is embodied in this exercise. You need to have the vocabulary at your fingertips, be able to formulate your thoughts into sentences, and speak them out smoothly and clearly.

The value of this exercise lies in isolating just the last part: speaking smoothly and clearly. This allows you to ignore mastering a sufficiently large vocabulary to have a conversation; instead you just need to learn the words in the exercise sentences. And you don't need to know how to form error free sentences; you are provided with a good one to work with.

This leaves all of your attention at the disposal of practicing your speaking, freeing up brain power to focus on tones, and cadence, getting the sounds to flow smoothly off your lips.

Another major advantage is you can do this activity entirely privately. If you're not that comfortable having conversations with others in Chinese, you might not actually get that much speaking practice.

But why not just read aloud to oneself? Why go to all the effort to practice the same sentence many times?

The answer is simply that your progress would be too imperceptible. If you had some trouble pronouncing a certain phrase, say it had an awkward tone transition or phoneme combination, it might be a long time before you encounter that again. By then you might make the same mistake again or not improve. But by practicing the same sentence several times in a row, you can observe very clearly your improvement in speech fluency throughout the few repetitions.

You can identify problem spots and work to solve them. Very soon you will see the dividends of this deliberate practice on your unscripted speaking efforts. The gains from this entirely artificial exercise will carry over into natural speaking.

Let's give it a go

Now, I'll embarrass myself by trying to do this with the first two sentences in the game, Wandering Cat.

Here's the sentence:


nǐ zhèngzài jiā zhōng kàn shū. nǐ māma zhèngzài yībiān kàn shǒujī, yībiān hē chá. zhè shí, ménlíng xiǎng le.

And here's me embarrassing myself:

And here is the second sentence:


yīdìng shì nǐ jiùjiu lái le. wǒ wàng le gēn nǐ shuō le, tā zhīqián shuō guò yào lái.

Which I try here:

(keep in mind that yībiān is pronounced yìbiān with the appropriate tone sandhi change and yīdìng becomes yídìng)


By isolating just the task of speaking a sentence with fluency, you can make rapid gains for isolated sentences. But very quickly these fluency gains will begin overflowing into your everyday, unconstrained use of Chinese.

I'm sure you've noticed by now, that this activity is not particular to our text adventure games. All it requires is line-by-line audio. Many of our other activities like our comics and dialogs can also be repositories from which to mine practice sentences.

If you like this practice idea, you can even use WordSwing's study habits to try and make a routine of it.

Text Adventure Game: Wandering Cat

Silhouette of cat
(photo by Sai Mr.)

Our latest text adventure game is now available

In this game, you are 奇奇 (qíqí) a school-age girl who lives with her mother. Your mysterious uncle shows up and asks you to watch after his cat for a few days. But after an unexpected encounter with a fortune teller, you realize there is a lot more at stake to this task than you thought.

This adventure is titled, 小女孩寻猫记 (xiǎo nǚhái xún māo jì). This roughly translates as "Diary of a girl searching for her cat", though we have used a shorter English title, Wandering Cat.

Let's go play!

This game differs a bit from our previous games

We recently surveyed WordSwing students about their experiences and attitudes toward our text adventures. We got a huge amount of insightful and helpful feedback. Thank you!

One of the themes was that the games had many dead ends (sometimes literally), and these felt a bit punitive to the reader. Another theme was that the games involved lots of backtracking and replaying the same scenes to get through. While repetition can be a great form of language practice, we also want to be sure it's not drudgery, and so we have written this game in a slightly different style.

We have built this game with a more linear narrative structure and less free choice, though there are two main puzzles embedded in the game.

The opinions in the surveys were quite diverse, and so with this game we hope to diversify our game lineup with one that is a bit different. Going forward we'll continue to experiment with different game styles so that there is something for everyone, including your future self. After all, what is best for your Chinese practice today, might not be best a few months from now, after you've made some more progress.

In the near future, we'll share more about the surveys, as there's too much for this post.

How difficult is this game?

This game is certainly easier structurally than many of our other games. Language-wise, the difficulty falls somewhere between Escape and Zoo.

There are 578 distinct Chinese characters. This is not a very big number, considering the full game narrative is over 9,000 characters long.

To think about how the game relates to HSK levels, we can perform the following analysis:

  1. Assign HSK levels to characters based on the HSK level the character is first used.
  2. Examine the full text of our adventure game and consider two aspects:
    1. What fraction of the text is is composed of each HSK level?
    2. What fraction of all the HSK characters at each level appear in the game?

This character-wise analysis gives us the following picture:

HSK plot

The first orange bar suggests that 60% of the game text is composed of the 173 characters in HSK 1. And the first blue bar shows that the game contains 80% of those 173 HSK 1 characters.

But perhaps this is what you might expect from the observation that the bulk of text is made up of common characters, and HSK 1 is a bunch of common characters.

However, based on the frequency distribution of Chinese text in typical text, you would expect only 82% of the text to be characters introduced in HSK levels 1-4, while in our game, 95% of the text is introduced in HSK 1-4 (you get 95% if you stack the first 4 orange bars together).

Instead of 1 in 6 characters being outside HSK 1-4, in our game, only 1 in 20 characters are outside HSK 1-4.

This is the very definition of a graded reader, and it's part of what makes our text adventure games more accessible than most of the Chinese you might encounter in the wild.

Plus it's packaged in an engaging game with an interesting story, and you need to pay attention to make it through.

Let's go play!


Kevin & Olle

Pepper & Carrot: Episode 1

Pepper & Carrot cover
(art by David Revoy)

Episode 1 is here!

Today we're releasing narrative to go with Episode 1 of Pepper & Carrot, complete with audio. Although we started off with episode 5, going forward, we'll go through them in numerical order, aiming to release one per week.

If you're not familiar with this comic, Pepper & Carrot is an open source web comic produced by David Revoy and collaborators. We have added narrative in Chinese to accompany the original artwork. This enables you to practice your Chinese with the help of the rich visual context of the world of Pepper and Carrot. You can read more in our earlier blog post, Pepper & Carrot: Visual Context for Chinese Practice.

This episode is free until we release the next episode (at which point that will be free). And as always, our back catalogue is available to our much appreciated WordSwing backers.

Go read!

We have also published word lists to go along with episode 1 and episode 5.


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