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As it has become more and more popular to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, Chiang Mai has emerged as what’s likely the most popular destination. I went there for a couple of months and here are my notes.

The advantages of being a digital nomad in Chiang Mai

  • It’s cheap
  • Housing is easy
  • Getting a local SIM is convenient and inexpensive
  • Scooters
  • There’s a great community of nomads
  • The weather and air are nice (except during burning season)
  • It’s a generally high trust society

Work from paradise

Digital nomads are people whose means of making a living comes from the internet and isn’t connected to living in any particular location. They are the “new rich” Tim Ferriss wrote about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a spectrum of digital nomad work that ranges from “almost a normal job” to “working four hours a week from the beach while sipping coconut water”. I’ll go over some of the strategies I’ve seen below.

The rise of the digital nomad

Digital Nomad search trends

I first started hearing the term digital nomad in early 2013 amongst a few acquaintances in the tech scene in 2013. It’s only in 2015 that the movement has really been gaining steam. Many, many people who have read the The 4-Hour Workweek have since moved to cities such as Chiang Mai, Prague, Saigon or Cartagena and set about making the dream a reality. In fact, when I was in Chiang Mai a couple of months ago, it felt very much like everybody inspired by Tim Ferriss’s work had crowded into the city. The weekly Nomads and Coffee meetup organized by Johnny FD rapidly ballooned from a couple of dozen people to too many to fit in the coffee house!

The spectrum of digital nomad work

  • Almost a normal job
  • Setting your own schedule
  • Repeated income from previous work

Almost a normal job

The most conservative way to become a digital nomad is to just do the same work you were before but work remotely. Depending on your job you may or may not need to stay in a roughly compatible time zone as you were in. While you won’t exactly exactly have a 4HWW-style life, you can move someplace that’s much cheaper, save more, have new experiences, learn a foreign language and maybe even take advantage in the arbitrage of local economies to invest in yourself. Piano lessons are cheaper in Prague than in New York!

It can be hard to find a job that will hire remotely (and pay first world rates) but if that’s your goal, then a good place to start would be Some famous companies that work mostly remotely are Automattic (the maker of WordPress, which powers this site) and Github. There are others, too.

An easier option is just work for your existing or previous employer remotely. A lot of people I know have been able to do that, including myself! After developing a good working relationship and proving your ability to generate meaningful business results, it’s usually not too hard to work out. In larger companies this can be difficult, but there’s often some leeway. For an American programmer, for example, health care costs are far higher in the US than they would be working remotely from a developed Asian country. This means it’s possible for the worker to retain the same level of income and benefits while saving money for the employer.

Setting your own schedule

The next level of freedom is to do some kind of work where you don’t have to work the same hours every week. It’s very likely you don’t need “full-time” employment to sustain yourself as a digital nomad. This is even true if you’re teaching English in Taiwan, China, Korea or elsewhere. If your employer makes you work 40 hours a week, it destroys some of the benefit of living in a cheaper country.

The solution is to start doing project-based freelance work. Ideal types of work for this kind of set-up are copywriting, blogging, design, translation and editing. Project-based gigs are also doable for software people, but quite a bit of work goes into finding high quality sources of work.

Repeated income from previous work

While it’s great to be able to set one’s own schedule, what really makes it possible to break into the ranks of the “New Rich” described in the 4-hour workweek is repeated income from previous work. This usually means either building your own marketing machine or building a product to plug into somebody else’s marketing machine.

Since it’s such an appealing prospect the rest of this article is devoted to how to decouple your earning powers from your working hours. The main options are:

  • Affiliate marketing
  • web publishing
  • writing ebooks
  • video publishing
  • creating courses
  • creating applications to sell
  • creating software as a service
  • selling physical products

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing just means getting paid to help sell products or services others have created. Many creators use 3rd party services such as Clickbank or ShareASale to connect with affiliate marketers, but many others have created their own internal programs. If you trust the merchant to be running their program ethically, the payout is always better if you cut out the 3rd party service in the middle.

In order to sell someone else’s product, you need to have an audience to sell it to. This could be your personal blog. For example, if you click one of the links to 4-hour workweek in this post and buy it, Amazon will pay me a fraction of a dollar for helping them sell a copy (your price won’t be affected). Other common audiences are Twitter followers (very difficult), Facebook pages, or email lists (generally more effective). For obvious reasons, it helps you quite a bit if your audience knows, likes and trusts you at least on the topics you’re writing about. I wrote for nearly 10 years about language learning, language teaching and my personal experiences on this site and have a great deal of trust built up with my readers on these topics. It isn’t difficult at all to get people to try language learning products I recommend. Of course, the trust will only remain as long as I’m giving good suggestions!

My advice for the would-be affiliate marketer has two parts. First of all, find something you’re genuinely interested in, can write about and can give reasonably good advice about. Write about that on your blog and be absolutely as helpful as you possibly can to people. Collect email addresses. Review related products and don’t push them based on their affiliate commission structures. Try to be what Johnny calls an “Earnest Affiliate“, focusing on actually providing value to your readers. The more you do that, the more people will want to read your future pieces and the more they’ll share what you’ve already written with others.

The second piece of advice is to learn about how online marketing works. There are a ton of great resources. My personal favorite is Neil Patel. He writes at and has also written and compiled an impressive array of resources at Quicksprout. He offers very pricey personal coaching, but there’s more than enough free content on both those sites to become one of the top 10% of online marketers.

Web publishing

Web publishing is similar to affiliate marketing, but rather than spend a significant amount of time on marketing and selling-related activities, the primary focus is publishing content and building traffic. About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to make great earnings from Google Adsense. Believe it or not, it still happens. I saw it happen personally with a friend a couple of years ago, actually. He went from a few hundred dollars per month in Adsense, to a thousand to a few thousand, to twenty thousand and then to using higher-end advertising solutions such as Google’s DFP instead of Adsense. He went full-on digital nomad pretty quickly and as a result of all his travel I didn’t keep up with all the developments after that, but he definitely scaled up to five digits in monthly earnings without doing much with email, social media marketing or selling.

The secret? Get obscene amounts of traffic. Top out in Google search engine results for popular searches. Then do some optimizations around ad placement.

In order to be an effective ad publisher, you need to both pick one of the most popular niches on the internet—e.g. health, dating or career—and develop formidable SEO skills. This means, learning how to use google’s keyword tools to figure out what readers of your content are looking for, it means learning how to update your content to make it more useful and it means knowing what topics you have a reasonable shot at. Neil Patel (linked in the previous section) is also an excellent resource for this kind of information.

Writing ebooks

Writing ebooks is a surprisingly effective way to make good earnings. Ebooks can also be part of a larger marketing strategy, but here I’ll just cover the business of books themselves.

Amazon Kindle Store

If you have no audience and no distribution, then Amazon is a great way to get it. A 50 page book with the right title and cover in the right niche can bring in readers almost right away, especially if you can get a few positive reviews early on. Keeping your ranking is up to the quality of your work, of course.

It’s generally best to either write a bunch of books in the same general non-fiction category or to write a series or serial in a popular fiction category. Right now, the best selling categories are romance, suspense, survivalist prepper fiction, and sci-fi, swords & sorcery fantasy, vampire fiction and military fiction are also doing reasonably well.

If you price your book for $0.99 to $2.98 or more than $9.99, Amazon gives you a 30% commission. If you price between $2.99 and $9.99, then they pay 70%.

Selling ebooks through one’s own platform

If you do have an audience and you prefer not to have Amazon’s downward pricing pressure, then selling on your own is the way to go. You can do this with some kind of shopping cart system such as Member Mouse, by manually putting Paypal buttons on your site or by using a minimal system like Gumroad. I’ve used Paypal buttons before and I use Gumroad now (check out the guides link in my site navigation). I’m not really a fan of shopping carts. I find them clunky and annoying as a user.

Selling directly on your own site is also a great way to offer tiered products for which an email book is only one part. For example, you could sell your new cookbook with Korean recipes for $39, or the book plus videos for $99. For a great example, see Edmond Lau’s book, The Effective Engineer, which has tiers going all the way up to $699. Most authors I’ve spoken with have told me they’ve made the vast majority of their sales at the cheapest tier and still made more money from the most expensive one. It’s a great way to reach a level of income that sustains you without excluding the majority of people who just want the book.

I bought a mid-level tier and found it a great value as a software engineer in San Francisco. If I had been a software engineer working in Bangalore, the price tag might have just been too high to make sense, but the book only option still would have been a great value. If the lower tier didn’t exist, people with less money simply couldn’t get the product. If the higher tier didn’t exist, the author would miss out on a lot of revenue. Multiple tiers are a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Video publishing

Video publishing breaks down into the same general categories of “high traffic + ads” and “moderate traffic + sales” that text-based publishing does. In order to make it from ads alone on youtube you need hundreds of thousands or more likely millions of subscribers. If you’re doing product placements for something such as cosmetics, clothes, etc, you can make it much, much sooner. A lot of vine users went this route. Obviously it helps video if you’re young, attractive and/or famous.

The other massive source of people supporting themselves off of video is For those not familiar with it, Twitch is a where you can live-stream yourself playing (or even analyzing) video games. If you’re a top-level commentator of League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or other popular game you probably already have a Twitch account and paying monthly subscribers and don’t need to read this. If you’re not, but you are deeply obsessed with a particular video game or enjoy reviewing games, it’s probably worth trying live-streaming regularly for a few months and see if you can build a following. I wish that option had existed when I myself was a Starcraft-obsessed teenager!

Creating courses

If you have something to teach (and most of us do), a course is one of the very fastest ways to start earning an income online. In Chiangmai, I met quite a few people who had created courses on teaching everything from yoga to social skills to JavaScript.

Udemy is great for getting traffic. Assuming you’re proficient with recording video or screencasts, you can get your first course built within a week or so and be earning something, perhaps $100 in your first month. This will get more difficult over time, but now it’s still pretty open. On the downside, Udemy isn’t a great way to earn a lot. They aggressively offer discounts on their courses and after a while their users, myself included, start to assume that for any given $500 course, there’s a discount coupon that will let me buy it for $10. And if not, then within a month or so, Udemy will probably have a site-wide promotion letting me get it that cheaply. That said, one of my acquaintances doing software courses who has already eclipsed six figure Udemy earnings this year.

Once you do have a following (built through Udemy or elsewhere), the way to charge market rate for your courses is to sell them yourself. Once again, shopping cart plugins are a way to do it, but I’d strongly recommend keeping it simple and using something like Gumroad. They’ve actually added some tools that make it possible to release portions of a course one week at a time with new emails to customers and they’ve been adding new features at a furious pace. I’m a happy user of Gumroad, but other than that have no financial incentive to keep singing their praises here. To the best of my knowledge they don’t even have their own affiliate program. (If I’m wrong please tell me in the comments!)

Creating applications to sell

Creating software applications is a lot of work. The rewards for successful applications are sometimes enormous, but due to the real possibility of putting months of effort into something that earns nothing, I don’t recommend it for a first product.

App platforms

Probably the most popular platform is Apple’s App Store. It’s still the most profitable store I know of, but competition is intense. Choose carefully and bring your A game if this is your plan.The same general advice would go for Android apps, with the one difference that you’re likely to have a harder time making sales of paid apps and that you can probably get better distribution of in app advertising.

Steam has become pretty indie-friendly, but a lot of people are making games and the competition is intense. Fortune favors the unique here. and other flash game sites are amazingly still trucking along in 2015, but if you don’t already have flash development skills, 2015 is a bit late to be investing in them.

Probably the less risky option I see for people making apps on someone else’s platform would be to make a WordPress plugin for professional users. WordPress now powers 15% of all the sites on the web and an awful lot of those sites are serving some sort of business purpose.

Selling apps directly

You actually don’t need to sell an app through a platform. You can just write the code, put it behind some kind of paywall and then share a link to it. Like I did with Zhuyin King (a Mandarin phonics trainer) right now. I could have put the app on Apple’s Mac Store. But I didn’t have any idea how much interest there was for it. I didn’t want to pay $100 to join Apple’s developer program just for an experiment. Also, it’s a lot easier for me to send people updates this way. I just wrote a very very rough prototype of the software and threw it up on Gumroad for $1.25. A few people bought it and made suggestions. I improved the UI and raised the price to $1.75. New customers had to pay that much but people who already bought got the updates for free. Then I added more content and raised the price to $2.49 for new customers. This is great. It means I can sell software still under development, price it appropriately and then regularly improve it based on feedback. People who buy early on get a great deal, I have no obligation to continue development and yet if I choose to I can easily keep improving the product without having to wait for Apple, Google or someone else to say okay.

That said, from an economic perspective, most people who don’t already have huge followings are probably better off plugging into someone else’s platform.

Selling software as a service

Selling software as a service is the holy grail for many, regardless of whether they plan to write it themselves or hire others to write it for them. Once you have a product people are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use, your income becomes very predictable and your life choices expand greatly. It actually doesn’t even have to be software. It could also be something like a podcast or a blog that you sell a subscription to, but those choices generally come with the obligation to keep making new content.

The types of software that can be sold as a service are almost unlimited, but here are a few ideas: BufferApp (schedules your social media postings), Baremetrics (Stripe analytics for your business), Bingo Card Creator (makes bingo cards for teachers). It’s important to note that only the last of these businesses was run as a single developer for long. SaSS is brutally tough to go alone. If that’s what you’re doing, I suggest aiming for the simplest thing you possibly can.

Selling physical products

Amazon FBA is huge right now. It’s a pretty wide-open opportunity for people with enough savings to get by to ramp up their sales and cover some risk (~$300) of not being able to sell a product.

The way it works is you sell the product and Amazon ships it. A very common way to sell physical products is to buy in bulk from a Chinese factory (via Alibaba), have the product shipped to Amazon and then sell the product on Amazon. I’m far from an expert, but what my friend in SF did was basically this:

  1. Find a product on Amazon with a relatively high sales ranking where the top listing had a rating of less than 4 stars.
  2. Read all the three and four star reviews
  3. Repeat for other products high up in the listing
  4. Identify one or two ways to improve the product based on the reviews
  5. Go on Alibaba and find a manufacturer to make the improved product for you
  6. Test the samples yourself and revise and necessary
  7. Sell it on Amazon
  8. Market it as if Amazon wasn’t even helping sell it
  9. Do anything and everything within the rules to get good reviews
  10. Profit!

For an example of an insanely successful Amazon product launch see this video from Zen Active Yoga.

Risky is the new safe

It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to build a business online now than it used to be. Even when I was running a brick and mortar English teaching school with a couple of partners in Taiwan 7 years ago, I sometimes thought about how great it would be to be doing something that scaled more easily and something that didn’t tie me down to 60+ hours of work per week year in and year out.

When I went back to the US in 2012, I met some people with great jobs. But I also met people who were really struggling and who had basically done the “safe thing” all along, getting good grades, getting a degree from a renowned school and then joining “safer” career tracks. I still think that path is reasonably safe for those at the very top. But when there’s a big shift in the market and people have to retrain and compete with much younger people for a different role, the “dangerous path” taken by authors, freelance marketers and various small entrepreneurs starts to look pretty safe by comparison. What do you think?

With the right approach, you can do it easily in a single day.

When I first started taking Chinese classes at the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei, I already knew pinyin… or at least I thought I did. I had a basic idea of how to spell Chinese words I heard. They had a phonics training course that used zhuyin and I figured it would be a waste of time.

I found a chart at the back of my Chinese-English dictionary that mapped every syllable initial and every final to its zhuyin equivalent. I knew from my Japanese classes in college that learning a new alphabet (or syllabary if you insist) isn’t that hard. Our teacher told us to learn the curly alphabet—hiragana—before our first day of class. She just gave us some worksheets and sent us off!

hiragana sahiragana "shi"hiragana-su

How I learned hiragana and katakana

It actually only took a day to pretty much get it down. I went row by row through the worksheet. After writing each character of the first row with I closed my workbook and wrote each of them down. Then I checked and saw I’d made a mistake with あ and also with お. So I wrote them again and got them all right. Then I got a glass of water and wrote them again when I got back. Next, I practiced each character in the second row—. Then I closed the workbook and wrote them all from memory. After the fourth row or so, I tested myself on the whole thing and took a break for lunch. Upon getting home, I retested myself and then went on to the next row and continued like that.

I won’t say that my ability to write or even read hiragana was perfect at the end of the day, but it was about 95% there and I’d only spent about three or four hours, broken up into four sessions. When I woke up the next day, I tested myself on the full set of hiragana and got them all!

Next, I shifted focus to the more angular mean-looking Japanese alphabet called katakana. It was a bit harder because some of the symbols look almost the same. vs and vs . I was fine in class on Monday. I misread a few things, but it wasn’t a big deal and with constant exposure there was very little danger of forgetting any of them, unlike kanji which were my bane.

Learning bopomofo in one evening

Back to the original story… I was absolutely brimming with confidence when I discovered there was a Chinese alphabet, 注音符號, to learn. Equivalency table in hand, I just marched through the alphabet column by column, starting with and continuing until I reached and .


Half a day and done! That’s all it took to learn to read and write the mandarin phonetic alphabet and if you’re already a Chinese speaker, you can probably power through it even more quickly using the method I described. If you’re someplace such as Taiwan or a school for overseas Chinese where it’s used, keeping it is pretty trivial and it opens up a lot of learning resources.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t already a Chinese speaker and I’d just made a horrible mistake.

Learning the symbols is easy, learning the sounds is hard

I actually should have taken that bopomofo phonics class. Learning to recognize and write the characters wasn’t the main thing to have worried about (or taken pride in). Learning the sounds of a foreign language is much harder task, especially if you’re over the age of about 5. The problem is that I learned Chinese first through Pinyin and I basically went through English phonics where possible. I quickly realized that something special was going on with x and q. A while later I realized the pinyin r and u also caught my attention fairly quickly and I got them mostly sorted. But I spoke Chinese every day for years developing some messed up pronunciation habits related to thinking that the b and d were basically the same sound in Chinese pinyin as in English. They’re not. In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious. I wouldn’t try to speak French as if every letter were pronounced exactly like in English. Why would I do that with Chinese?

But that’s a different story for another day. You can learn to read, write and recognize just about any alphabet in a day. Thai might be pushing it, but for Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Russian, it’s mostly about having a decent resource, preferably with some sort of mnemonic like those liked above, diving in and testing yourself. If you’re studying the language, you’ve really got no excuse not to go for it!

On a side note, I’ve recently made some improvements to the Pinyin – Zhuyin converter. It now converts zhuyin to pinyin and handles tonemarks, too.

Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods


  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes to become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.


  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab as explained here.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.

1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

There are two major forms of Chinese characters used in the world today—traditional and simplified (or three if you count Japanese). Most Chinese learners very reasonably decide to learn only the character set that’s used where they intend to use their Chinese—simplified in China or Singapore or traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong or most overseas Chinese communities. Some learners even more pragmatically decide not to bother learning how to write either type and instead use the time saved to learn a couple of Romance languages!

Really the people who are asking which they should learn first are the unreasonable people with grand ambitions. A lot of them are college students planning to take on both character sets, maybe study some classical poetry and then pick up another language before graduation. I like those people 😀

By far the most relevant thing is which type of writing you have access to, but there are some objective advantages and disadvantage to each approach.

Why learn traditional first

As their name suggests, traditional characters predate simplified ones. The simplified characters were, in fact, simplified from the traditional characters. (See! Some things related to the Chinese language are very easy!) As a result, the way of simplifying characters is often pretty reasonable and not always reversible.

It’s often easy to remember how to simplify a character you know

For example, many characters are simplified just by using part of the original! In these cases, it’s very easy to remember how to write the simplified if you already know the traditional. The opposite isn’t true.

豐 -> 丰 (a piece from the top)
麵 -> 面 (the right half)
廣 -> 广 (first 3 strokes)
號 -> 号 (the left half)

Similarly, a lot of characters were simplified by just swapping out a big scary complex component with a simple one that has the same or a similar sound.

讓 -> 让 (sounds kind of like 上)
認識 -> 认识 (sounds like 人 and sort of like 只)
餐廳 -> 餐厅 (聽 sounds a lot like 丁 and exactly like 汀, 耵, etc)

Once again, this is very easy for someone who knows traditional. They can often remember how to write the simplified character immediately since it’s a sound substitution and the substituted component is simple. If you were a simplified learner, you’d have to try to think of a complicated component with the same sound, you’d have lots of choices to guess from and then you’d still have to remember how to write a complicated component.

Some characters were “merged” during the simplification

The character 麵 mentioned above was indeed simplified to 面, but 面 is a traditional character, too. In traditional characters 面 is face and 麵 is flour. In simplified characters, 面 could be either. Similarly 發 (to emit or project) and 髮 (hair) are both simplified to 发. In general it’s easier to remember to lump two things together mentally than it is to start distinguishing them (e.g. as students of Japanese have a much easier time merging their l and r sounds than Japanese students of English have in separating them).

Traditional may be easier to read

Traditional characters do tend to be easier to distinguish, in my opinion. Part of this is due to having more semantic information available and part of it is due to simplifications that created new characters very similar to existing ones or to other simplifications:

nothing vs day
无 vs 天 (simplified)
無 vs 天 (traditional)

head vs buy vs read
头 vs 买 vs 读 (simplified)
頭 vs 買 vs 讀 (traditional)

bountiful vs life
丰 vs 生 (simplified)
豐 vs 生 (traditional)

You have to learn the “hard” components eventually anyway

Even though you can avoid the difficulties involved with the right hand side of 讓 and just learn 让 in your first semester class, you can’t escape it forever. 釀 (ferment) simplifies to… 釀. Guess you still had to learn that right half of 讓! The same sort of pattern plays out with many, many other characters.

Why learn simplified first

Simplified might be harder to read, but its definitely easier to write. Every single simplification was made with the purpose of making a character easier to write. And with the possible exception of one or two border-line cases such as 者 -> 着, it was successful. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is.

Reading is easier than writing

Even if learning to read simplified characters were a full 30% harder than traditional (which it definitely isn’t), it would still be a great bargain if it made writing 5% easier. Why? Reading is far easier than writing in terms of the time investment required to become competent.

Writing traditional characters is brutal for beginners

There are certain extreme simplifications such as 個 -> 个 that were done on very basic characters. This is amazing for beginners! 個 isn’t too bad, but every single Chinese textbook for foreigners I’ve seen includes the word “doctor” in the first few characters and learning 醫 as one of your first couple dozen characters just sucks. 医, on the other hand, isn’t too bad! Ditto for 讓 -> 让, 認識 -> 认识 and 興 -> 兴. The sum of all these simplifications is that writing just a huge ordeal instead of a cruel form of punishment for beginning students of Chinese.

Some traditional characters are just ridiculous

I used to live in a town called “turtle mountain”. This is written as 龜山. I had to write that 龜 every single time I wrote my address. Why couldn’t it have been 龟 or even just 亀 like in Japanese? 龜 is ridiculous. Even worse, it’s a radical which means it’s used as merely a part of even bigger, even more ridiculous characters.

Speaking of ridiculous characters, you know which one really depressed me upon encountering it in my level 2 class at Shida in Taiwan? It was part of the word for depression, actually! And since it would be basically just a black splotch on the screen otherwise, I’ll blow it up for you:

Yeah… lets all memorize how to write that one when we’ve only been in class for a semester!

Handling complex Chinese characters gets much easier over time

This is the biggest reason why it’s better to learn simplified characters before traditional. Complicated characters, even crazy characters aren’t that bad if you know enough of the building blocks. I haven’t really written any characters by hand in years, but it’s still easy to write that horrible doctor/medicine character 醫 from chapter one of my first Chinese book from memory because I know the parts. I know the simplified 医 (and that it contains an arrow 矢 in a box radical 匚), and I’m familiar with 殳 from many other characters and it’s easy to remember you 酉, one of the 12 celestial stems associated with the animals and years because it’s inside a lot of other characters including 酒 (alcohol) and I imagine an ancient Chinese doctor using alcohol to sterilize a wound before treating it.


I still think it makes sense to learn the character set that’s in your environment because learning both is a gigantic effort that very few people make. But for those who really are going to learn both, I think the faster way is actually to start with simplified.

If a genie were to magically grant you one or the other, the right move would almost certainly be to take traditional since it would make learning simplified so easy. But that’s not going to happen. You’ve actually got to do the learning yourself and you’d might as well start with the easier system that will let you get a faster start. Doing it the other way would be kind of like going to a gym out of shape, and starting with the heaviest weights you can with the plan of later being able to easily switch to the lighter ones.

Related Content: Also check out Chris from Fluent in Mandarin’s take on this question:

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?

Part 3, at last! After another month, this is what I sound like:

Progress summary since last time

  • Anki Decks: Almost nothing… just trying to keep up with reviews
  • Living Language: 80% Finished Living Language Intermediate
  • Reading: Read 2 Blaine Ray books, started a third and have done some short stories

Time allocation

I haven’t done so well this month at making time for Spanish. I barely used Anki at all and I spent about 30 minutes, 4 days a week on Living Language. I’ve been reading graded readers, but sporadically. The one bright spot was getting in more tutoring sessions. I managed 6 in April, I think.


Living Language still seems pretty standard, but of high quality. I’m almost done with the intermediate book and while my memory of previous material isn’t perfect, I think I’m retaining a good amount. One thing I particularly like about the series is that while it uses all four language skills, it does a good job of keeping the time spent on writing in control. Back when I was learning Chinese, I spent far, far too much time writing. I think that if I’d spent 2/3 of that time reading or listening instead I’d have improved my vocabulary and comprehension more efficiently and it would have gotten me to a high level more quickly.

Simplified readers

I’ve been super impressed with the Spanish readers I’ve bought. They’re of way better quality than the easy reading materials I used learning Chinese. Especially Blaine Ray’s novels have been fantastic. The first one, Pobre Anna, only has 300 headwords! There’s also a glossary at the back which contains all the words used. Even more importantly, it’s well written and manages to be kind of interesting despite being so simple. The next book in the series, Patricia va a California has a slightly bigger vocabulary but is still very easy. In total, there are five books in the easiest level of the collection, four at level two and two at level three. I’m not exactly sure what the levels correspond to, but the series definitely has a gradual ramp up in difficulty.

Hey everyone! As I predicted, I’ve been too busy with work to have much time for studying Spanish, but I’ve tried hard to do at least a little every day.

Progress summary since last time

  • Audio programs: Finished Michel Thomas’s Total Spanish
  • Anki Decks: About 500 words learned in total
  • Living Language: Finished Living Language Essentials (their book 1)
  • Reading: Ordered some graded readers but don’t have them yet

Time allocation

I’ve barely spent any time at all on Anki. I’ve been reviewing about 1-3 times per week and I don’t spend that long. The “learned” and “mature” cards of the two decks are still growing though. I spent about 1 hour per day on Total Spanish until I finished it. Recently I’ve been spending most my time—30 minutes to an hour a day—on the Living Language series text books.


Michel was great for grammar and for leveraging cognates between English and Spanish to get as much as possible out of the similarity of the two languages. After I get to a higher level, I may do his next program. Anki is doing all the wonderful things it does and unlike when I was learning Chinese, I’m not giving myself stress over it or spending over an hour a day doing flashcards or anything like that. Living Language seems like a pretty standard textbook, but a bit better than average.

I don’ know if my progress in these past three weeks has been good or not. It feels slow and my ability to speak is lagging reading, which wasn’t often the case with Mandarin! Here’s another video in Spanish:

I’ve just finished going through the Michel Thomas Total Spanish audio course. It’s eight CDs in total and it assumes the listener is a complete beginner.


It’s been too long since I’ve been actively learning a language and I’ve decided to take on a new challenge! I’m going to learn Spanish. It should be good fun. Since learning how to learn a language, I haven’t studied anything so similar to English. It’s going to be great having so many cognates with English and not needing to learn thousands of characters!

I have a lot of skills from my experiences learning Japanese and then Mandarin that will help me. On the other hand, now that I’m a software engineer at a tech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have nearly the time I had in my 20s while I was learning those languages. Here is my plan:

I’m going to spend some time on vocabulary flashcards in an SRS, but no more than three hours a week. I’ve also got some textbooks and I’m doing an hour of private tutoring each week.

While I’m not a complete beginner, my Spanish is very, very bad at the moment. I’ve often wished I could see the version of Mark from many years ago who struggled to speak Chinese, so I’m recording videos of my Spanish right from the beginning level.

Next time will be better! At the very least, I’ll know how to say 500.