Level up your language learning habits

Whether you are successful in your language-learning pursuits is heavily influenced by whether you're able to stick with it or not. And sticking with it is much easier if you get into the habit of practicing your Chinese.

After all, isn't it better if language learning is more like brushing your teeth and less like pulling teeth?

Today we are pleased to introduce new tools on WordSwing for building and maintaining your learning habits.

Habit formation and maintenance

You can see how you're doing with your habits, as well as create new ones and mark habits complete right on the Dashboard:

Study habits screenshot

Successfully building a habit involves several steps:

  1. Identifying the desire to change one's behavior.
  2. Starting the new habit by performing the behavior and repeating the behavior.
  3. Internalizing the habit and making it routine.

The first item is largely up to you, though by being here it's clear you want to learn. That leaves starting a new habit and making it habitual.

Starting a new habit

An important part of getting a habit going is deciding what will make a good habit and doing it the first time.

What makes a good habit?

You can define your habits to be anything that is meaningful to you. What you choose likely depends on how much time you want to dedicate to studying Chinese, how you like to study, and where you are along your language-learning journey.

But in general, it's helpful to keep the following ideas in mind:

  1. Pick bite-sizes habits. Something that can be accomplished in a single sitting in somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes is probably best. This will encourage you to stay focused on the particular study goal.
  2. Be specific. You want to have a clear sense of what it will mean for the habit to be accomplished. For example, "Listen to one dialog", or "Use SRS for 10 minutes" are fairly precise. On the other hand, "Learn some new words" is much less precise. It's hard to be motivated to accomplish something when you don't even really know what it is.
  3. Pick something you'll want to do. While there is some merit to forcing yourself to do unpleasant things, you'll be much better off if you can find ways to practice Chinese that you enjoy. So if SRS isn't your thing but like watching Chinese dramas on Youku, then maybe make your habit something like, "Watch 15 minutes of a Chinese drama."

Recurring, expiring, and open-ended

There are three habit sub-types that relate to whether the habit expires and whether it automatically renews:

  1. Recurring habits - These habits renew after some number of days. And if you don't complete the habit before it renews you'll take a hit to your health. These habits are ideal for your usual study routine.
  2. One-time, expiring habits - These habits have a chosen duration (one or a few days), but do not automatically renew. These are ideal for when you have a goal in mind but don't want to commit to doing it on a regular basis.
  3. Open-ended habits - These habits do not expire. These habits are for activities you do on an irregular schedule.

Personal and Automatic habits

A habit can either be a personal habit, which describes anything you would like to do or an automatic habit, which is tied to a particular WordSwing activity.

Personal study habits can be defined to be any study or language-learning effort. These are entirely self-directed; you decide what it means to you and you mark it complete when you've met your goal.

When you tap on the "New Habit" button (see diagram above), and you choose "Personal" (shown below) you can describe the habit however you like and configure the other details:

Study habits screenshot

In addition to providing a description you also configure whether you would like the habit to automatically renew (recurring).

Automatic study habits are tied to a particular WordSwing activity and are based on how much time you use that activity. WordSwing automatically tracks your time and marks the habit complete when you've met your goal.

You can pick which activity you want the habit to track and how much study time will satisfy it:

Study habits screenshot

Making habits habitual

We have designed our habit tracking features with a mind toward innate human behaviors and psychology.

Contextual cues

One reliable way to make habits more automatic is to pair your study behavior with other activities you already do. Connecting a habit to an existing routine allows you to rely on an environmental or contextual cue to stimulate the desired study behavior, something the scientific literature has identified as an important aspect of habit formation.

For example, it's easy to develop a habit of putting your safety belt on when you get into the car because the action of putting the belt on is easily associated with the act of getting into the car. Every time you get in the car you put your belt on, and conversely, you don't need to think about putting your belt on except when you climb into the car.

Here are some examples of how you might pair practicing Chinese with other behaviors you already have habits for:

  1. Review vocabulary while on the bus. If you get in the habit of getting out your phone and reviewing some Chinese vocabulary each time you find yourself sitting idly on the bus, not only will you be making good use of downtime, but the context of sitting on the bus will spur you on to whip out your phone and knock out some words.
  2. Listen to a podcast while jogging. Rather than listen to music while jogging, why not listen to a Chinese podcast? (e.g., ChinesePod). Your desire to be in shape and desire to learn Chinese can mutually complement each other in reinforcing both of these habits.
  3. Review some vocabulary before bed. Going to bed is not something you're likely to forget to do, and if you establish a habit of reviewing some vocabulary before going to bed, pretty soon Chinese words will start popping into your head as soon as you start yawning in the evening.

When you create a new habit, you have a choice to associate a contextual cue:

Study habits screenshot

You can write anything you like as the cue. Something that works well with the activity (driving and reviewing vocab is probably a bad idea) and that you already have a habit of doing is often a good choice:

Study habits screenshot

Naturally, you don't need to only do that study behavior in the context of your environmental cue. But thinking about and setting a cue, and seeing it when you check off the habit, is a great way to help the study habit become an automatic part of your routine.

Reinforcement and loss aversion

Part of our habit building toolkit is the gamified tracking of health and knowledge points. While this may seem like a gimmick, we hope it will be effective, as is taps into two symbiotic human behaviors, reinforcement and loss aversion.

Completing habits yields a reward, knowledge points, while letting them expire incurs a hit to your health. When you reach your knowledge goal you advance to the next level, but if you lose all your health you go back a level (starting anew with full health). These positive and negative rewards help reinforce successful execution of the habit.

And although these rewards are entirely synthetic, please don't forget that there is also the entirely intrinsic reward of working successfully in the Chinese language to complete your study tasks and the accompanying sense of accomplishment.

Study habits screenshot

But there's another force at play here too.

Once you've worked hard to meet your goals and level up, it will become heartbreaking to move backwards (okay, maybe not quite heartbreaking, but you'll be disappointed).

This is the natural human tendency to be loss adverse. By having achieved the your current level, you value it even more than potential future rewards you might get from completing future habits. But by not completing your recurring or expiring habits you will lose health and eventually a level.

Thus if you are willing to buy into this imaginary reward system of knowledge and health points, then you can turn these quirks of human psychology into powerful tools tools to develop reliable study habits and advance your Chinese.

As always, we hope you enjoy and that these tools help with your study of Chinese. And don't forget to let us know what you think @wordswing or by email at team@wordswing.com.

Finally, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the amazing folks over at Habitica who have pioneered this form of habit tracking, and proved that it exerts a powerful tug on our psychology. If you're looking for all-purpose habit tracking and a more gamified experience, we encourage you to check out Habitica.

Kevin & Olle

The magic of learning Chinese through games

There is something magical about learning through games. Why is it so effective?

Does the brain learn more efficiently when it's having fun? Or do the games present certain constraints and puzzles that facilitate particularly effective learning? Or is it something more mundane like games are fun and addictive and therefore we spend lots of time playing them; and it's simply the number hours that yields impressive learning outcomes?

While there is likely some truth to all of these, I'm going to focus on the last one:

Games are fun and addictive and thus we're willing to spend lots of time playing them.

And in the context of learning Chinese, it's clear that quantity matters.

Escape, a case study

Last year we released Escape, a text adventure game for learning Chinese. Our text games work like interactive graded readers. You read text descriptions about where you, what has happened, and you make choices that affect the subsequent course of the game. The games are complete with dangers and surprises, so sometimes your choices lead you to unfortunate outcomes. But no worry, you can always play again.

Here's a screenshot from near the beginning of Escape:

Escape game screenshot

But what concerns us here is that these games can take hours to explore and solve, resulting in a great deal of practice reading (or listening to) Chinese.

What follows is an analysis of a random sample of the games played by 100 students.1

Quantity, quantity, quantity

On average these students played for between 30 minutes and 13 hours (aggregating across each students' games) and read on average 10,000 Chinese characters each and played on average 10 games each. Here's the relationship between how many hours they played and how many characters they read:

Escape game screenshot

Some students read an impressive 70,000 Chinese characters, but you can tell from this plot that there is a broad range of reading speeds, with some students reading reading more than 50k characters in just a few hours, and others taking more than 7 hours to read 10k-30k characters. This also probably reflects differences in how much time students spend re-reading text they have seen before (which is great practice, btw), how many words they look up in the dictionary, and whether they're spending time adding words to word lists or updating their knowledge ratings.

The value of replay

For centuries, language learning methodology has employed repetition, writing Chinese characters hundreds of times, or memorizing classic texts, or more recently, using flashcards.

Repetition is helpful, but it risks being boring, causing ones mind to wander and focus to wane. This reduces its effectiveness. And what's worse is that it's much harder to force yourself to engage in a boring task.

But playing a game multiple times suffers much less from these problems, and still allows you many opportunities to practice familiar text. Our text adventure games are never exactly the same. Choices you make at one point in the game affect outcomes later in the game, and there are many possible paths through the game. This requires you to keep paying attention to all of the text if you want to succeed, and the desire to win is a great motivator for encouraging you to pay attention.

Chinese has thousands of characters, and given how easy they are to forget, it's helpful to have many exposures to the characters. And while flashcard activities give you many exposures, these are not in context, making it much less useful for learning and remembering.

We can get a sense of how the number of times you're exposed to the characters in the game scales with how many times you play in this next figure:

Escape game screenshot

This plot shows how the number of characters you've seen at least once rises as a function of how many times you play the game. For example, if you've played five games, you probably saw about 250 characters at least once (gray line) and you probably saw 150 characters at least 5 times (red line).

In total Escape has about 400 distinct characters, so even though these students have played many games, there are still parts of the game and outcomes they have not explored.

Looking forward, into the Haze

Our newest game, Into the Haze, adds several game mechanics that we think make it substantially better than Escape for learning. The new mechanics include:

  1. Random encounters. These are scenes that can happen in different places and at different times.
  2. Random outcomes. Sometimes taking a certain action, like jumping across a gap in a broken highway will succeed and other times it wont.
  3. Resources. These are items you can gain and lose throughout the game. The most important one is your supply of air which you need to survive the poisonous haze.

The sources of randomness mean the game takes unexpected twists and turns, forcing you to pay more attention to what's happening.

The introduction of resources, combined with random events, introduces more contingencies into the game. For example, maybe in one game a path you tried works well the first time, but when you try retracing your steps a second time, you unexpectedly lose some air, changing your calculus about which route is the best one to take.

Conclusion

Perhaps I've convinced you that our text adventure games are a good way expose yourself to lots of Chinese. But you don't need to take my word for it, head over to WordSwing and try out all of our text adventure games for yourself.

1. The 100 students were selected from among those students who made at least 30 choices in at least one game. This was a convenient way to identify students whose ability level was well-matched to the game.

Into the Haze is not as hard as you think

We recently released Into the Haze, our second text adventure game for learning Chinese.

This game works like an interactive, graded reader, and it is targeted at intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of Chinese.

But when you first dive into the game, you may find all the Chinese text overwhelming, even if you already know hundreds of Chinese characters.

But all is not lost. In this post, we'll hopefully see:

  1. How the game is not as hard as it may appear.
  2. How a bit of up-front study can go a long way to making the game easier.

How hard is Into the Haze, really?

On the surface, Into the Haze seems pretty daunting. The opening few steps of the game look like a wall of text:

Wall of text screenshot

By the raw numbers, the game can also seem pretty daunting. In total, the full text of the game contains 649 distinct Chinese characters. These combine in various ways to form 922 distinct words that appear throughout the game. And in total, the full text of the whole game is more than 13,000 characters of text (though keep in mind that when making your way through a text adventure game, it's not possible to see all of the text in any given path).

But wait, it gets worse! Suppose you know about 500 characters. (Not sure how many you know? Check out our character knowledge estimation tool). Even if you know 500 characters, it's likely that the characters you know are not exactly the characters used in this game. In fact, based on a simplistic model1 of learning Chinese, if you know 500 characters, you're only likely to know 263 of the 649 (40%) characters that appear in this game.

It's now starting to look truly terrifying.

Can we take an axe to this fear?

Before you call it quits and go home, let's dive in a bit deeper, because I think you will see the picture is not so bleak.

Like the rest of WordSwing, our text games have a built-in dictionary. So whenever you don't know a word or character you can tap on it and pull it up in the dictionary. But you might be thinking, "Won't I be looking up every other word in the game?"

Well, let's see.

Of the 649 distinct characters, 230 of them appear 3 or fewer times in the game. Let's call these rare characters. And let's call the remaining 419 characters, which appear 4 or more times, common characters.

Although the rare characters comprise 35% of the distinct characters, these actually only comprise 3.4% of the text of the game, because, naturally, the common ones are used much more than rare ones.

Thus, if you only need to look up words that contain rare characters, then on average you'll be looking up 2.8% of the words. That's not so bad, is it?

But if you only know 500 characters, then you probably don't know all 419 of the common ones in the game. Rather you probably know about 263 of the characters overall and 213 of the common ones.1

This translates into needing to look up 5 words per text item, and Into the Haze has on average ~13 words per text item. So this is nearly 40% of the words!

What if there was a way to strategically learn some characters and words in preparation for the game?

If you were to learn the 50 most frequent characters in the game that you don't already know, bringing your total to 263+50 = 313, where would this put you?

Amazingly enough, this would bump you up to understanding 85% of the game, and require you to only look up 2 words on average in each text item. And remember, the average text item is 13 words long.

That seems much more doable, right?

But how can I learn an extra 50 characters?

WordSwing has a Word Lists feature that allows you to build, customize, share, and study lists of words. And there are many other tools, such as Anki and Skritter that can also help.

On WordSwing, we've created two official lists for the Into the Haze game:

Into the Haze word lists

The list labeled Part I contains 499 of the most common words in the game. And the order of the words in this list is based on their frequency in the game.

Although we've been talking about individual characters, we recommend on expanding your character knowledge by learning new character in the context of words. This list contains 428 distinct characters and has 95% overlap in characters with what we're calling common characters.

You can make your own personal copy by "forking" the list, and then you can prune it based on your knowledge ratings so that you can focus on studying just the words you don't know. With a bit of up-front study, you'll probably find the content of Into the Haze looks much familiar.

Here's a screen cast of how you can create your own personalized study list based on the game:

This screencast illustrates the following:

  1. Making a personal copy (forking) the published list of the 499 common words in Into the Haze.
  2. Using your knowledge ratings to prune the list down to just the ones you don't understand.
  3. Studying this list using the Pronunciation Recall tool, which is a good way to practice your ability to recognize the written form of Chinese words.
  4. Or, exporting the list to Anki for external flash-card study.

A possible strategy

If you find yourself feeling that the fraction of unfamiliar words in the game is overwhelming, perhaps something like the following strategy will be helpful.

  1. Prepare a pruned word list as I illustrated in the screencast.
  2. Choose a way to begin familiarizing yourself the most common of these words. Our Pronunciation Recall activity is one option. Anki is another good option or maybe Skritter if you know how to import your words there.
  3. After spending a bit of time learning some words, try playing the game again. Does it feel any easier or more familiar?
  4. Continue to alternate between studying words and playing the game.

Here are two important points:

We recommend you don't try and learn all the words in your word list before playing the game. After all, the point of the game is to practice Chinese. Instead, just familiarize yourself with some of the words and use the game to practice them.

And:

In very short order you'll probably be a pro at navigating the game, and the subset of Chinese used in the game will feel like second nature. This is the magic of learning through games.

By focusing on the vocabulary of the game and practicing it through the game, you will quickly be able to read what is arguably more difficult text at a higher level than were you not to narrow the scope of your efforts. You can read more about narrow reading on Hacking Chinese.

tl;dr

By strategically focusing on familiarizing yourself with the most important vocabulary of the game, and practicing these words by playing, you'll quickly master the small subset of Chinese used in the game. This will happen almost magically through play.

And soon the world of Into the Haze will feel like home, albeit a post-apocalyptic Chinese version of home.

1. This calculation assumes that each time you encounter a character, there is some small probability, p, that you learn that characters. As you encounter more written Chinese, you see common characters more than rare ones, and the probability of not knowing a character you've seen k times follows a geometric distribution. prob(not known) = (1-p)k. And thus the probability you've learned a character is prob(known) = 1 - (1-p)k.

Into the Haze

At long last, our next text adventure game, Into the Haze is here!

Can you survive the poisonous haze and rescue your brother?

Into the Haze is an interactive graded reader that takes place in some post-apocalyptic Chinese city. Your brother has gone missing, and you need to make your way into the city, survive the poisonous haze, and rescue your brother.

Into the Haze cover art

Try it out!
(You'll need to be signed up, which is free.)

How do I play?

Our text adventure games are interactive stories. You're presented with a sentence or two about where you are and you advance through the game by making choices, so read carefully and choose wisely!

The main narrative of the game is presented in the style of a conversation (think a messaging app) with the most recent message at the bottom. Below the conversation box, you will see a question and one or more choices. To move forward in the game you select one of these choices by tapping on the numbered button. If a scene or action results in more than one message, you won't initially see the next choice. Instead the messages will be displayed one at a time so you have time to notice and read each one. You can press the down arrow icon to show each subsequent message, until the choices display below.

Here's what the game interface looks like:

Into the Haze cover art

What's new in Into the Haze?

In addition to an entirely new setting, story, and characters, Into the Haze also introduces some new game mechanics, as compared to our first text adventure game, Escape. We think these new game mechanics make this game more fun to play, and more fun to keep replaying.

Also, Into the Haze is about twice as long as Escape. And although we tried hard to keep it at the same difficulty level, with the longer length comes some additional characters (649 instead of 422). But don't let this worry you! Even if many of these Chinese characters are new to you, they will be second nature by the time you manage to fully explore the world of Into the Haze.

Resources

Into the Haze features some resources that you accumulate and use throughout the game. The most important resource is Air (空气). The city you must explore is covered in a poisonous haze, and you must wear a gas mask and breath only the air you bring with you. As you move around the city, you consume air and so you must find an efficient route so you can complete your mission without running out of air. You will also find opportunities to gain air throughout the game.

Other resources include your health, health kits, and various other items, such as a guns and gas masks.

Randomness

There are two sources of randomness that make playing Into the Haze less predictable:

  1. Random outcomes. Sometimes the outcome of an action you take will depend on the roll of a die. This introduces a bit of luck into the game. And although you can often avoid such random outcomes, to do particularly well in the game, you'll need to take risks and test your luck.

  2. Random encounters. Some scenes of the game occur at random times. These scenes will test how well you can deal with unexpected situations as you carry out your mission.

Strategies and replay

The world of Into the Haze is rather large and you have a fair amount of free reign to move around in it. We purposely don't provide a map so that you need to read carefully and explore until you discover how the places connect together. That said, it is probably very helpful to try and draw your own map. We've given each place a short name that you will find next to the map icon () in the game state area. Keep in mind that the random encounters happen in different places each time.

At the beginning of the game, you're asked a question about how you have survived. Both answers are good answers, but how you answer will affect various aspects of the rest of the game. Can you beat the game using both strategies?

Keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with failing. You can always play again. And by exploring different paths through the game you will develop a better understanding of the world, and get additional practice with your Chinese. You can always restart from a checkpoint if you lose. There are many good ways through the game, so don't stick too much to one path you happened to find that works okay.

After you have explored the game, you can challenge yourself to try and see how many points you can earn and how much text you can read by the end. And the more you play the more Chinese you'll learn.

And don't forget to try the game in audio-only mode to improve your listening comprehension ability.

Playing the full game

Into the Haze is free to demo (you can make up to 10 choices), but in order to play the full game, and have the benefit of saving your game at checkpoints along the way, you'll need to subscribe as WordSwing backer.

Currently there is a discount (62% off) until we ramp up the pace of creating text games, meaning a subscription is only $3/month.

WordSwing is entirely student-supported, and we hope you'll consider becoming a backer to help us keep WordSwing alive and flourishing.

We are no longer charging separately for audio. Both demo mode and the full game feature audio for the game content.

What's next?

Now that we've finished up Into the Haze, our plan is to develop some games aimed at less advanced students. We also hope to pick up the pace of releasing games, eventually aiming to release a new game every ~6 weeks. We also have lots more free stuff planned for WordSwing and many other improvements.

We hope you enjoy Into the Haze, and don't forget to let us know what you think.

Kevin & Olle

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