Will a Chinese-only rule improve your learning?

chineseonlyMany language schools have a “Chinese only” rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese on campus. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practise as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.

You can of course also create a “Chinese only” rule for yourself, regardless of what your school requires of you. This post is not about language schools in particular, but about enforcing 100% Chinese language use in general.

While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a “Chinese only” rule really as good an idea as it seems? In this article, I’m first going to look at some pros and cons, then present my conclusion.

Why having a Chinese-only rule is a good idea

The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do that if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything.

Furthermore, by committing to speaking only Chines,e you avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practising sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.

The benefits of binary choices

Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice, you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re much more likely to end up speaking English.

This is related to a psychological effect that I would like to explore further in future articles. In general, it seems like binary choices are easier to both to make and to later maintain, compared with choices that are more open. If you have a rule that says “100% Chinese, 0% English”, that’s that, there’s no discussion. You know what it means and everybody else does too.

If you instead create a rule that says “90% Chinese, 10% English”, things get more complicated. How do you count? How do you know if you actually spend 90% of the time using Chinese? Should you count per day? Per week? Can you “save” time for later periods? And so on. If you instead commit to only Chinese, you don’t have to deal with all these issues.

Advantages of using Chinese-only rules in classrooms

Before we move on to the disadvantages of Chinese-only rules, we need to briefly look at two classroom aspects, one related to teachers and one to students.

First, it’s easy to forget that having a conversation at a very basic level with a beginner is demanding not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Therefore, without a Chinese-only rule in place, it’s tempting for teachers to give up earlier and use English instead. This is sometimes warranted (see below), but not always.

Second, in classes where students come from a variety of language backgrounds, the only language everybody has in common is Chinese. What other language is the teacher supposed to use, English? What about the students whose English isn’t so good or who don’t like speaking English? Thus, in some situations, enforcing a Chinese-only rule is a practical considerations, not one related to what is best for an individual student. The rest of this article, therefore, assumes that there is a real choice to be made.

Why having a Chinese-only rule isn’t a good idea

This part of the article is slightly more controversial, because to be honest, I’m not a fan of Chinese-only rules. With all the advantages listed above, how can I support such an opinion? Let’s look at a few of the main disadvantages of adhering to a Chinese-only rule:

  • Weak explanations – Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard to do entirely in Chinese. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
  • Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand, you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is in fact not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what was going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
  • Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want you to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been much higher.
  • Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practising, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on.
  • Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to an extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good. If you enforce a Chinese-only rule, you need to make sure that you have safety valves that allow you to vent frustration. If you’re a brave soul with lots of time on your hands, kamikaze-style immersion is great, just make sure it isn’t an actual suicide mission!

Conclusion

I don’t like Chinese-only rules because they are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to much.

That being said, the psychological effect regarding binary choices mentioned above means that I think that imposing a Chinese-only rule is mostly a good thing, even if you don’t end up following it in all situations. Scott Young went to Chinese with about 100 hours of preparation and wrote this about his failure to use Chinese all the time with his friend and roommate:

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

 This hits the nail on its head and leads to the general solution: Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.

What do you think? Have you tried a Chinese-only approach? Did you decide to do so on your own or was it a requirement where you studied? How did it go?

Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice

Image credit: Tony Clough
Image credit: Tony Clough

If you look at what methods work well for learning Chinese (or any other language), you will see the word “immersion” over and over. The analogy is straightforward: Chinese is like water and learning the language is like learning to swim. You don’t learn to swim by reading about it, you learn by getting wet, by immersing yourself, as often and as much as possible, but not so much that you actually drown.

Many students mistakenly believe that going to China equals immersion, but it can be easily demonstrated that this isn’t true. You can create an immersion environment in your home country. It’s also perfectly possible to go to China and stay in an expat or tourist bubble, thus only coming into contact with slightly more Chinese than your friends at home. The only significant difference between immersion at home and abroad is that it takes more effort at home.

Improving listening ability through immersion

This month’s challenge is about improving listening ability, so in this article, I want to focus on the listening part of immersion. Listening ability is a tricky beast. While there are some things to say about how to improve, it’s much more about exposure than anything else. You learn to understand Chinese by listening to Chinese, preferably with varied input from different speakers and, once you reach an intermediate level, with different regional accents.

Now, humans are not machines, so most of us can’t just program ourselves to listen to Chinese for six hours a day for months or years. If we could, our listening skills would sky-rocket and all other skills except handwriting would be dragged up along with it. I’m not going to focus on why it’s hard to “just do it” for such an extended time. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to overcome the problem of enabling yours to listen to as much Chinese as you ought to.

Three steps to enable yourself to listen to more Chinese

  1. Finding suitable audio
  2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese
  3. Playing the long game

1. Finding suitable audio

I have already discussed the first step in several articles, so let’s look at an overview here before we move on to the more interesting second step. In essence, “suitable” means “comprehensible” and “interesting”. Here’s what I have to offer in terms of finding resources:

2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese

One thing I have learnt on my journey towards a better understanding of how to get things done is that controlling the environment is easier than controlling one’s own behaviour, and that it’s usually more effective. If you want to do something a lot, say an hour or two every day, the first step you need to take after finding audio is to make sure that it’s really easy to listen to it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always have audio available – This is super important. Wherever you are, you should have Chinese audio available to listen to. In the bathroom, when out on a walk, when you learn your friend will be 15 minutes late or when you miss the bus. If at any point you realise that you could have listened to Chinese, but can’t because of a practical problem, you make an angel cry.
  • Transfer audio in advance – If you don’t stream audio, you have to transfer audio to your smart phone in advance (even if you stream most of it, you should still have audio files just in case). Make a habit of managing your audio! Every Sunday (or whatever), check what audio you have available, and if it isn’t enough to last you at least two weeks, transfer some more. Additionally, keep a folder somewhere in the cloud where you store audio you can download to your phone if need be.
  • Remove distracting audio – I have already said that you should make it as easy as possible to listen to Chinese, but it also follows that you can do the reverse, i.e. making it harder to listen to audio in any other language. If you listen to a lot of audio in your native language, it might be tempting to listen to that instead. Make it harder to access! You might not want to make it impossible unless you want to go 100% Chinese, though.
  • Solve any technical issues – This involves bad audio players, faulty earphones or slow connections. If you’ve made an effort to find audio and make sure it’s available when you need it, it doesn’t make sense if fail because of technical issues. Have an extra pair of earphones available (they can be really cheap, you’re only going to use them if your primary pair breaks or if you forget them), buy a separate, cheap mp3-player just for Chinese.

3. Playing the long game

It you have succeeded with the first two steps, you’re still not home and dry. The real difficulty lies in keeping this up for weeks and months. Sure, you can vary the amount of Chinese you listen to, but if you study full-time, you have no excuse for allowing it to drop below an hour a day. That’s not easily achieved, especially if you have to create the immersion yourself by finding audio and then making it accessible.

I have two pieces of advice for making it easier:

  • Vary the difficulty level – It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired. Re-listening to old audio is a great way of lowering the difficulty. Read more about this here.
  • Make learning social – I like challenges, not because I like competing against others (I don’t), but because it gives me a clear and public goal. It makes me accountable and it’s easier to study when I’m doing it with others. This is why I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, so if you’re like me, you should definitely check it out. Other ways of making learning social is to find study partners, talk about your learning on social media and so on.

Conclusion

Listening to enough Chinese audio isn’t easy. It requires preparation and some discipline. However, the whole process can be made much easier by following the advice I have offered in this article. When I fail to listen as much as I want, it’s seldom because I don’t want to, it’s almost always because I have failed a seemingly trivial step such as transferring audio from my computer to my phone. that really shouldn’t happen! I hope that by discussing this issue, you will stand a batter chance at listening to as much Chinese audio as you should. Good luck!

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

When learning to write Chinese characters, we need to remember that what we have in mind and what we actually write aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, what we intend to write isn’t always what comes out. The difference is important. The goal of learning to write is mostly concerned with intent; you want to create a mental model of the language that resembles that of a native speaker. You might not be able to write a character perfectly every time, but that matters little if your intent is correct. With enough practice, you’ll be fine.

Posted ImageThis idea of focusing on intent has been mentioned on Hacking Chinese earlier, in a guest article by Harvey Dam (Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements). He adds another valuable observation that shows how important intent is. If you want to write the character 月, it will come out slightly different every time, even with a perfect mental image of the character. Some strokes will be too long, others too short and so on. This is natural. However, if you have the correct mental representation, you will never write the character shown on the right.

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

The difference between intent and result can cause problems, though, because other people can’t look into your head and know what you intended to write, they can only inspect the final result. This includes teachers. If they see the incorrect 月 above, they can be pretty sure you don’t know how to write the character, but if you accidentally forget to hook the last stroke, that’s not necessarily because you didn’t know it was supposed to be hooked. To be on the safe side, teachers will treat all mistakes as errors and correct them the same way.

What’s the difference between a mistake and an error?

I have discussed mistakes and errors before (Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis), but let’s look at the basic difference again:

  • A mistakes is an unintentional slip. You know the right way of saying or writing something, but for some reason  you failed to get it right this time. You would very likely be able to correct yourself if you got the opportunity, such as if you listen to yourself or read something you have written. Typos and slips of the tongue are typical mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. For some reason, second language learners feel much worse about slips than native speakers do.
  • An error is caused by a problem in the mental model of the language you’re speaking. You think something is correct, you intend to say or write it that way, but it turns out that you’re wrong. This is much more serious, because it means you will keep on getting this wrong every time until you correct your mental model. Native speakers have very few errors. Improving your speaking and writing for second language learners is mostly about finding and correcting errors.

thoughtHow does this relate to intent? It’s very straightforward: intent is directly related to your mental model (that’s what it’s based on). If your intent is correct, you might still make a mistake, but there will be no errors in your output.With practice, the number of mistakes will drop. If your intent in incorrect, you will only be able to get it right in cases where your faulty model overlaps the real one. The larger the overlap, the harder the error is to spot.

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

One of the most obvious areas of application is character writing. The first lesson and most important lesson is that you have to know what you intend to write before you write. Here are a couple of very common ways of practising characters that don’t allow you to monitor your intent properly:

  • Copying characters on paper stroke by stroke – This is very bad. If you don’t have a mental model, it will take ages for it to form because you never actively rely on it to write, you just copy mechanically. You never check if you actually know the character or not, the representation of the character blocks your mental model. This method is also bad because it’s been shown that actively probing memory is much more effective than just exposing yourself to the information. Flashcards are good, in other words.
  • Typing characters rather than writing them by hand – Most input methods are phonetic, meaning that you type the pronunciation of the character or word you want to write. This means that you don’t even need to think about what the character looks like and how it’s structured before it pops up as an alternative on your screen. Typing is therefore a poor way of learning to write characters (but still very practical, of course). Since most input methods help you choose not only characters but entire words or phrases, you need to know even less about small but significant differences between characters.
  • Receiving too much help – Any program or method that offers hints to the user also makes it harder to monitor your intent. If you use a program like Skritter, make sure you have raw squigs turned on, which allows you to write the entire character before you get any corrective feedback. In other programs, turn off any character tracing functions and only check your result once you have finished writing the entire character.

Below, I’m going to provide a solution to the problem, but in case you want to read more about different ways of learning to write characters, I have written two articles you will find interesting:

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

The main goal of this article is to highlight the importance of what you intend to write before you receive any kind of feedback. Since this problem is purely in the mental domain and not directly related to what tools you use, you can take care of the problem literally without lifting a finger.

Simply visualise the whole character, component by component (or stroke by stroke) before you start writing it. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t know the character. If you tried to write it down on a piece of paper, you’ll probably get stuck. Naturally, you should be aware of the risk of cheating (intentionally or otherwise). If you want to make really sure you know a character, you have to actually write it down on a blank paper with no corrective feedback at all. You don’t need to do this all the time, but occasionally writing by hand is a good reality-check, regardless of what other tools you’re using.

How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
     
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

Is Chinese difficult to learn?

unicycle
This is a photo from when I had just learnt to unicycle roughly six years ago. And yes, it’s raining.

In one form or another, this is the most common question I receive. It’s asked by all kinds of people, including those who haven’t studied Chinese and assume that it must be impossible, those who are studying already and want to get a reality check of their future progression, and native speakers who want to know what it feels like learning their mother tongue.

I usually answer briefly, but I’ve done that enough times to feel that I should write something more in-depth. The result is this article. It won’t give you an estimate of how fast you can learn Chinese or compare it with other languages, but it will make the question of difficulty more nuanced than simply shouting “You can learn any language in a few months!” or “Learning a foreign language is impossible!”

Two kinds of difficulty

I think people who have learnt Chinese differ in their opinions of how hard it is because they mean different things when they say “hard”. I’ve read about this several times, but I’ve never seen a good terminology for it, so I’m going to call it “vertical difficulty” and “horizontal difficulty”.

Allow me to explain:

  • Vertical difficulty is what most people think of when they say that something is hard. It means that to advance, you need to improve your skill in a way which isn’t incremental and success isn’t necessarily guaranteed just because you try enough. For instance, I’ve tried indoor climbing a few times and even though I certainly meet the physical requirements, if I try a difficult route, I simply won’t succeed, even if I try a hundred times. This is where “vertical difficulty” comes from, you need to master new skills to advance and doing so is far from certain. It might depend on your method, instructor, ability in other areas, luck and much more. In any case, you need to change something you’re doing, not just doing more of the same.
     
  • Horizontal difficulty is very different. It’s still difficult, of course, but it requires you to do the same thing over and over – for a long time. This is the kind of activity where trying enough is guaranteed to give you success sooner or later. If your goal is to walk a thousand kilometres, you’re not going to fail the task because a certain (literal) step along the way is too hard, you’re going to fail because there are too many steps. You failed to put one foot in front of the other and didn’t reach your goal. This is where “horizontal difficulty” comes from, it needs no specific new skills, but you need to persist for a long time to succeed. You need to do more of the same, in other words.

Both these types of tasks are difficult, but they are difficult in completely different ways. I think most people would say that vertical difficulty is the scarier one, and they’d be right, psychologically, it’s harder to learn to unicycle than it is to walk a fifty kilometres. However, if the time it takes to accomplish something is what matters, I actually learnt to unicycle 100 metres several times faster than it would take to walk fifty kilometres.

Naturally, there are probably no tasks that are perfectly vertical and there are no tasks that are perfectly horizontal either, it’s a spectrum. Most activities are also complex and consist of many different tasks, so it’s problematic to sum them up in just one word.

For instance, walking a thousand kilometres isn’t something you can do just by putting one foot in front of the other, you need planning and you need to know what you’re doing. Similarly, all tasks with vertical difficulty also includes a lot of horizontal difficulty. Enough practice will get you very far, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like that.

Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Romary
Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Romary

Varying the slope

Many learning methods and strategies strive to help you learn faster by adjusting the slope. This means avoiding the extremes, decreasing the angle of the difficult tasks and increasing the angle for the easy ones. For instance, if you want to climb a difficult course, your best bet is to learn the basics first and try easier courses and then gradually build your skill. Then you can try the harder ones.

The opposite is less obvious, but still true in many cases. When I got past the beginner threshold for unicycling and could ride on normal roads until I got tired without falling, I found that I didn’t learn much by doing so. The difficulty was too horizontal. Then I tried riding forest tracks (which is really hard) and noticed incredible increases in my balance and control on ordinary roads as well. Increasing the slope helped me learn much faster.

The difficulty of language learning

This website is about learning languages in general and Chinese in particular, so you might feel that it’s high time to turn to learning Chinese. I agree.

What kind of activity is Chinese, then? Is it mostly vertical or mostly horizontal? Before I give my answer to that, let’s look at a few tasks associated with learning Chinese and see where they belong:

Chinese learning tasks with vertical difficulty

  • Learning basic pronunciation
  • Learning tones
  • Some grammar elements
  • Understanding characters
  • Handwriting (beginners)

Chinese learning tasks with horizontal difficulty

  • Learning thousands of characters
  • Learning thousands of collocations
  • Improving listening ability
  • Improving reading ability (especially reading speed)
  • Handwriting (advanced)

Note that handwriting appears twice. I could in fact have added more tasks that qualify for both lists at different stages of learning. I would say most things are vertically difficult for beginners since everything is completely new. The more advanced you become, the more the difficulty slope flattens out. At a very advanced level, learning mainly consists of using the language as much as possible, including all four skills. This isn’t as demanding as it is for a beginner to do practise the same skills.

Are there any other Chinese-learning tasks that are clearly horizontal or vertical? Do you agree with my classification?

Language learning is mostly horizontal

Except for the beginner stages, I think language learning is mostly horizontal. The amount of time you invest is by far the most important factor and any normal person who tries enough will likely succeed. However, remember that a task that is horizontal is still difficult! Most people fail learning a language because they don’t persist or don’t spend enough time, they don’t fail because the grammar is too hard to understand or pronunciation too hard to learn.

Naturally, there are many vertical elements as well. You can speak a foreign language for ten years and still have pronunciation errors, which is a clear sign that pronunciation has a vertical component. If you write a diary in Chinese by hand the rest of your life without anyone checking your writing, it will contain many errors even after a lifetime of practice.

Some things require high quality practice, others not so much.

The method matters

Which method you use is important both for vertical and horizontal tasks, but the results are different. When you’re engaged in a vertical task, the method is everything. Failing to apply the proper method means that you won’t succeed. This is why some have bad pronunciation even after ten years, it’s not that they haven’t practised enough, it’s that they haven’t practised with the right method.

Failing to apply the proper method for a horizontal task doesn’t mean that you will definitely fail, it just means that it will take longer to reach your goal. Vocabulary learning is a good example. Learning ten thousand words is definitely a horizontal task, but if you use the wrong methods to learn and remember vocabulary, it might take you several times longer than if you use the proper methods.

Study quality, comfort zones and the difficulty slope

The difficulty slope I have introduced in this article relates to many other concepts I’ve been talking about before. I often talk about quality and quantity, which are strongly related to vertical and horizontal respectively. If I tell you that you mostly need quantity to improve, it means you’re facing a horizontal task. If I say you should sit down and go through something carefully with a teacher, it’s probably vertical in nature; more practice won’t necessarily help.

I’ve also said that you should leave your comfort zone if you want to learn as much as possible. This is related to what I said about unicycling in the forest above, you won’t learn much by doing something you think is very, very easy. If you can, increase the difficulty and you will notice big differences, even for the tasks you already though were easy before.

Listening ability is a good example of this. By listening only to things you know (your teacher, your textbook), you won’t learn very fast, but if you spend enough time listening to things that are considerably more difficulty, you will have a harder time and spend more energy, but you will learn much faster.

Vertical and horizontal difficulty

They are both difficult. You need different tactics to meet different challenges. Hacking Chinese is about overcoming both these kinds of difficulties, but the more I study and teach languages, the more I realise that it’s really the horizontal tasks that are the most difficult for the average student. It’s hard to take the next step when you know you have a thousand kilometres to walk. I find it much easier to concentrate on the next handhold and try to negotiate my way up a wall.

Therefore, Chinese isn’t difficult in the way most people think, i.e. vertically difficult. The problem lies in spending enough time over many years to learn more characters, words and phrases. The difficulty lies in reading and listening enough, and in speaking and writing enough Chinese to hone active skills. In this sense, learning Chinese is much more like a thousand mile journey than scaling a steep wall.

How to find the time and motivation to read more Chinese

2014-11-13 20.17.10This month’s challenge is about reading Chinese, and that seems to be as good a reason as any to publish an article about habit formation and reading practice.

As is the case for listening, learning to read Chinese takes a lot of time and you need to form habits that allows you to read enough text. I have already written an article called Habit Hacking for Language Learners, but in this article, I’m going to focus explicitly on reading. Naturally, part of the answer is also challenges like the one that started this Monday (join here if you haven’t already).

Now let’s look at how to increase the time you spend reading Chinese.

Solve all practical problems first

A requirement for reading a lot in Chinese is to always have something to read. If you feel that you want to read, but don’t have anything at hand, you have failed to do the basic preparations. To make sure you always have something to read, you should keep reading material with you at all times, plus put reading material in places where you’re likely to have some spare time.

The easiest way to do this is to have text stored on your phone. This can be in the form of a simple text file, a real e-book or some other format, it doesn’t really matter. I find Pleco’s reader add-on very useful (direct link here), because it gives me a pop-up dictionary integrated with the text I’m reading. I’ve read several novels in this way. I don’t think a small screen is a problem, in fact it might be a good thing because it avoids overwhelming me with too much text at once.

Controlling your environment

Apart from this, you should also put reading material where you typically feel like reading. I have an e-reader and I keep that next to my bed so I can read before falling asleep. I usually also put something to read in the bathroom.

Finally, you should remove distracting elements from these same locations. Remove your e-books in English from your phone, don’t have a novel in English on your bedside table. It should require no effort to start reading Chinese, considerably more if you want to do it in your native language.

Find interesting material to read

One of the trickiest parts when learning to read Chinese is the dearth of interesting reading material. I suggested some resource collections both in the challenge article and in a separate post about reading material earlier this week, but we all like different things and there’s no guarantee you will like the same texts as I do.

Don’t hesitate to give up on a text because it doesn’t interest you, spend some time trying to find something as interesting as you can. It’s usually preferably to read a text which is too hard or too easy rather than reading a text you really don’t like.

wotUnless you’re an avid reader, I also suggest reading short pieces of text. A novel might feel overwhelming and take you 50 hours to finish, but a short article or story doesn’t take that long. Bite-sized learning is usually a good idea. One way of doing this is by reading comics, which of course has many merits apart from this.

On the other hand, sometimes reading a long text can be more relaxing, but this is probably only for advanced learners. I’m still reading a translation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time in Chinese and it’s not that hard to read because I’m so used to it. Not changing to new texts all the time makes reading relaxing for me.

Finally, if you have any suggestions to other learners for what to read, especially beginners and intermediate learners, please share in the comments!

Don’t check every single word if you don’t want to

Reading is fun, flipping through a dictionary isn’t (even if it’s electronic). If you don’t already have a large vocabulary, it’s likely you will encounter many new words when reading authentic Chinese texts. If you want to, you can look up all these words, but I think this kills motivation like nothing else. Instead, I usually only look up words that are crucial for understanding the plot or words that recur several times.

This is why a pop-up dictionary is so useful: you can look up words in a second, which is fast enough to not really interrupt reading. Note that learning the word is a different decision and one you can usually postpone. Only learn words you think are important and common. Every rare word you learn means you have less time to learn a common one.

Naturally, if you really want to, feel free to look up as much as you want, I’m just saying that you don’t need to if you don’t want to.

Conclusion

I think the key to forming habits is to control the environment rather than to control yourself. Make sure you have the necessary reading material in the places you’re most likely to need it, remove English reading material from these same locations. This is easier than trying to avoid the temptation to make things easier and revert to English. Combine this with a challenge and you’re ready to go!

When it comes to motivation, the reading material itself is really important, but it also matters how you approach it. You don’t have to learn everything, reading in Chinese needn’t be a chore. Skipping things you don’t understand is perfectly okay if you get the gist anyway. Keep in touch with other learners, see what they like and exchange ideas for what to read!

Change your attitude to enjoy life and learn more Chinese

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/catalin82

With the right attitude, learning Chinese in China can make your life a lot more interesting. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense that you can communicate with people around you, which is great, but that focusing on the language can turn things that would otherwise be boring into interesting learning opportunities.

Attitude is the key

As is the case with so many other things in life, attitude is the key. Although we can influence what happens to us to a certain extent, life is chaotic and largely beyond our control.

However, we can influence the way we react to things that happen to us, and this matters greatly. .This is why I have written several articles about attitude and mentality in relation to learning Chinese.

To show you what I mean, I will list a number of scenarios and how different attitudes will make these situations completely different. The difference isn’t only in how much Chinese you’ll learn (which is important), it’s also about mental health. Focusing on negative things burdens your mind, focusing on positive things makes everything easier

I have argued before that you should try to regard the Chinese language as being fascinating and exciting rather than weird and stupid. The same goes for everyday life abroad (you could argue the same for your home country, although I want to stay closer to language learning here).

Scenario #1: Quarrelling neighbours

You’re living in a house where you can hear most of what your neighbours are saying. They seem to be a quarrelsome lot and there’s plenty of fierce arguments and quite a bit of bad language being used.

With the wrong attitude, this would be very annoying. You could complain for hours to your friends how inconsiderate your neighbours are and wonder why they got married if they fight every day. Whenever you’re at home, they would disturb your life and is this really the kind of thing you want to listen to as you fall asleep at night?

With the right attitude, this can be quite an opportunity. You can learn a lot of interesting words from people who quarrel (the above scenario isn’t made up, by the way), even if you perhaps should think twice before using that language yourself. These guys are giving you free language lessons at home, you ought to thank them! Don’t do that, however, I don’t think they would understand. Now, if your neighbours were doing something other than quarrelling very noisily, well, let’s just say you will learn different words.

Scenario #2: Boring lectures and speeches

Scenario: You find yourself in a situation where you have to listen to someone droning on about something you really don’t care about. You have better things to do. This could be a particularly boring lesson or lecture, or perhaps a public speech of some kind, it all depends on what kind of life you lead in general.

With the wrong attitude, this is a waste of time. With some luck, you can get away with reviewing flashcards on your mobile phone without anyone catching you, but if it’s a lecture or lesson, this might be risky (I know most of you would probably play games instead, but I advocate a 先苦后甘 philosophy).

With the right attitude, it doesn’t matter what the guy is talking about, just as long as it is in Chinese. Analyse his dialect, choice of words and sentence structure. This is of course easier if you happen to like pronunciation in general like I do, but paying close attention to how native speakers speak is never a bad idea. And don’t give me the “he doesn’t speak proper Chinese” if it’s not perfect Mandarin. China is a big country and people won’t adapt their language to our preferences, so deal with it. If you don’t understand what he says, focus on the bits you do understand.

Scenario #3: Transport delays

Scenario: You’re going by train somewhere and you learn that the train is delayed by two hours.You’re now stuck in an unwelcoming train station much longer than you intended. It might even be cold and start raining.

With the wrong attitude, this is a catastrophe because now you’ll waste two hours on the train station or on the bus.You can feel how time is slipping away and you need to cancel the activities you had planned for the evening.

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from a train station. To start with, there are probably hundreds of people around, so even if you aren’t the outgoing type who can just start chatting with random stranger, there are plenty of listening opportunities. Train stations also contain a lot of information in written form, so you can also practise reading.

Scenario #4: Long flights, bus or train rides

Scenario: Once you actually get on the train ride described it the previous scenario, you still have a five hour journey to your destination.The train is full of people and there is no internet. If you’re really unlucky, your batteries are running low too.

With the wrong attitude, this is just being on your way to somewhere. You might have brought a paperback in English with you or you might play games on your phone to kill time (murderer).

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from the people around you. The difference between a train station and a train is that people sitting next to you typically will stay next to you for some time. This both makes it easier to speak with them if you want to do that, but it also gives you more context in case you just want to listen in on what they’re saying to each other. If you don’t look Chinese, they might even talk about you!

Attitude matters

The point is that you have a choice. You probably can’t get your neighbours evicted or make them stop quarrelling, but you can change your attitude. You might find it difficult to avoid boring lectures or speech entirely, so you should do your best to enjoy them. It’s all in your mind. Sometimes, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can change the way you think about it. This is good for your mental health as well as your Chinese learning! If you’ve turned any other “negative” scenarios into learning opportunities, please share them in the comments below!

How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!

studytimeA few weeks ago, I posted an article about study time and why it should be counted in hours and not the more commonly used unit: years. I received over 100 answers to the survey and in this article I’m going to share some insights from the gathered data.

In general, the survey confirmed what I suspected, namely that:

  1. Years is a meaningless unit
  2. People overestimate how much they study

This is not a scientific report, but I do want to say a few words about the data. I have only included replies that answered all three questions, i.e. number of years studied, a wild guess and a guided guess. I deleted several responses that fit this category but were obviously not honest, such as guessing 3000 hours study time but arriving at only 30 hours after the guided estimate in the article. That left about 55 samples that I have used for the analysis here. I also excluded myself.

Years is a meaningless unit to count study time

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but number of years is almost no indication of how much someone has studied. The range is incredible! We have several respondents who study seriously and clock around 1000 hours per year, but we also have a large group who study less than 100 hours per year. Thus, someone who has studied for one year can easily have studied more Chinese than someone who’s been doing it for ten years. Clearly, number of years is a very bad indicator of how much we have actually studied.

In total, the 55 respondents have studied Chinese for 290 years (5.3 years on average) and guessed that they had studied Chinese for 82196 hours (1500 hours on average), but reduced this to 58 992 hours in the guided estimate (1100 hours on average).

Here are some other random stats that you might find interesting:

  • Longest time in years: 35
  • Longest time in guessed hours: 10 000
  • Longest time after guided estimate: 4500

Note that all these are different people!

People overestimate how much they study

The second point I want to bring up is much more interesting and also has more consequences for learning and teaching Chinese. In general, respondents overestimated their study time by 40% on average (comparing wild guesses with guided guesses). That’s a lot! To give you an intuitive (but meaningless) year-based example, it would be the difference between saying casually that you have studied for seven years while you have in fact only studied five.

Furthermore, it seems people don’t study that much. Perhaps it’s because all the really serious people who are immersed in studying didn’t have time to read the post and take the survey, but I doubt it. As I said, we have a relatively large group of people who average around 1000 hours per year, but that only averages out to about 3 hours per day (including weekends, holidays and so on).

That’s not very much and very far indeed from full-time studying, which I would consider to be at least twice as much. For brief period of time, I have spent closer to ten hours per day, but I don’t think many people can maintain that for very long. I average about 1700 hours per year so far, which is clearly much more than even the most serious readers. I’ve heard many people simply say that I learn quickly because I have a talent for languages. That might be true, but if I’m learning faster than you do, it’s much more likely because I spend, on average, seven times more hours per year.

Conclusion: You learn Chinese by… studying Chinese

I think the ultimate conclusion is related to the one about where you study Chinese. We know that it’s possible to learn Chinese from home without living in China, but we also know it’s possible to live in China without learning Chinese. Where you live isn’t the point.

The same is tor study time. It doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, when you started learning Chinese. What matters is how much time you’ve spent with the language since then, and, to some extent, what you have done with that time.

About cheating, spaced repetition and learning Chinese

cheatingCheating is an interesting phenomenon, especially when it concerns motivated students who cheat even though this can only have negative effects on their long-term learning. In the case of language learning, cheating is (almost) always bad for you.  It’s not only morally questionable on exams, it’s stupid as well.

Of course, if we’re talking about a language in school people take only to receive a grade, it’s understandable that some will consider cheating, because they aren’t really interested in learning. This is not what I want to talk about today. My guess is that most readers of Hacking Chinese are learning Chinese for more than just a grade (if you do care a lot about your grades you should read this: Studying Chinese when your grades matter).

…and still we cheat

I can honestly say that I have never cheated on an exam in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in different classrooms, but I do cheat sometimes in an environment where it appears odd to cheat because there’s nothing to gain from doing so. My guess is that if I sometimes take shortcuts, the likelihood is that there are lots of other learners who cheat too. This is what I want to talk about.

Spaced repetition software and cheating

The cheating is related to spaced repetition software or any kind of program that checks your knowledge of Chinese through some kind of self-grading. In general, asking yourself (or having the program ask) you is a very good way of retaining knowledge. However, even if you get it wrong, all programs I know of allow you to go back and change the answer (and rightly so, you don’t want to reset the interval of a card just because you accidentally hit the wrong button). In some cases, you’re meant to just think or say the answer and then compare that with the correct answer.

I don’t do this very often, but sometimes I catch myself choosing a higher grade than I actually deserve. This isn’t a mistake or sloppy thinking, I think it’s more akin to actual cheating, albeit not in the sense of violating the rules of an institution. I didn’t know that character, but I think I ought to and once I see the answer, I knew that I should have chosen answer A even though I actually chose B. If the answer isn’t written down, it’s tempting to just think that I actually meant to choose alternative A from the very start…

We are only cheating ourselves

From a rational standpoint, however, this is completely ridiculous. The only reason we use spaced repetition software is because we want to learn Chinese, and pretending to know words better than we do is not going to take us closer to that goal. In fact, cheating increases the risks that we forget words and it will thus impede learning.

The weird things is that there’s nothing to gain from cheating in this case, no-one sees your retention rate or your score for your reviews today. Even if someone did, they most likely wouldn’t care at all. You don’t earn a degree or a good grade.

Why do we cheat?

So, why is it so tempting to cheat, then? I don’t know, really, but I have two theories; perhaps you can come up with better explanations than I. If so, leave a comment!

Before I do that, I just want to say that when I say cheating here, I don’t mean the deliberate kind of cheating that some students use to get better grades than they deserve, I mean an almost subconscious process that biases your self-grading in a positive direction, even though if you stopped and thought about it, you would know that it was wrong. Let’s get to my theories about why it’s tempting to cheat even if we will lose in the long run.

First, it is painful to admit defeat. Forgetting a character or word that we really ought to know means that we have failed and that’s bad for normal people (but it really shouldn’t be). If we’re trying out a certain learning method that we really want to work, failing might also mean that the method is less effective than we thought. In this situation, it’s tempting to just change the answer.

It's tempting to cheat in this situation!
It’s tempting to cheat in this situation!

Second, humans are lazy, which is another word for focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring long-term goals and commitments. In this case, if we have a backlog of reviews or a certain number we have to go through before we can do something else, it’s tempting to cheat because it means that the session will end sooner. Of course, this might mean that the next session will be longer or that we slow down our learning in general, but this is a long-term effect that we’re not well-equipped to deal with, at least not intuitively.

No cheating!

I said above that I catch myself cheating now and then, but what actually matters is what happens then. Nowadays, when I find myself doing this (which isn’t very often), I just go back and judge myself harshly, sometimes even more harshly than I should.

When doing this, I think to myself that this is for my own good, I will learn more Chinese in the long run by admitting that I didn’t know this word or by realising that I might need to review this again, even though I have 500 cards in the queue and I want it over and done with. Another mantra I have is that it’s much better to realise that I don’t know this word now compared with a situation where I actually need it, such as when teaching or using Chinese in an important context.

This is actually very similar to my requirement for last year’s character challenge, where participants were supposed to ban or suspend any character or word that they had forgotten so that they could deal with it later. This was presented as a method to avoid rote learning and going on tilt, but it could also be a shield against cheating. By establishing a proper system for dealing with failure, we can take the next step and realise that mistakes aren’t all that scary, they are a natural part of the learning process.

Conclusion

Do you find yourself cheating sometimes? Do you agree with the arguments I have presented? I could of course be completely wrong and be the only one who behaves like this, but I really don’t think so. My guess is that most people will spontaneously think that they cheat less than they do. So my suggestion is this: Pay attention to your behaviour when you use spaced repetition software over the next few days and report here. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say!

Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin

If you want to get things done in life, there seems to be one general truth that is applicable in almost all situations, learning Chinese included. That principle is to break things down into manageable chunks.

There are numerous ways of describing this principle, but I think that the most useful one is this: without breaking a major goal like learning Chinese into several smaller parts, it will feel overwhelming, but if you break it down to bite-sized pieces, it suddenly doesn’t look all that scary. To use the analogy of a journey, it sounds hard to walk a thousand miles, but each step is actually quite easy, so focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you will get to your destination sooner or later.

Another reason for breaking things down is that you can’t really do something like “become fluent in Chinese”. You reach a goal by doing things, but you can’t do a goal. Therefore, specifying what it is you actually need to do to become fluent takes you much closer to real action. Do you know what your next step to learn Chinese is?

Two ways of breaking things down: time boxing and micro goals

So, if we want to accomplish something in the long term, we should break it down. But how? I think there are two major approaches to this, either you split a major goal into smaller parts (short-term goals, then micro goals) or you split the work you have to do into predefined time units (time boxing).

In my experience, both methods are very powerful, but they work quite differently for learning Chinese, so in this article I want to discuss some pros and cons with the different methods. As we shall see, they work well in different situations, so it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other.

Time boxing

Time boxing means that you set a timer and do something for a certain amount of time, 10-15 minutes is normal, but you can use longer or shorter times depending on what you’re doing. I have written a separate article about time boxing that you can read here. If you have never tried this, you’re likely to be surprised at how much you can get done in just 10 minutes if you have a clear deadline and a well-defined task.

The major advantage with time boxing is that the scope of each session is very well defined. This means that it’s easier to motivate oneself to get started, because you know when you start that it only takes ten minutes. Can you really persuade yourself to not spend just ten minutes learning characters today? Compare this with learning a fixed number of characters, which might take 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and is also of unknown difficulty (you might actually fail). Spending ten minutes on something is easy, it only requires you to do your best, not to actually succeed.

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu

Time boxing works best for tasks that are continuous, such as learning a large number of words or translate sentences to practise your Chinese on Lang-8. The journey is a good metaphor for this kind of studying and step number one is very similar to step number one thousand. It’s also a good when you find it hard to get going, because really, spending ten minutes doing something isn’t hard and you will at least achieve something in that time.

Micro goals

Micro goals are goals that can be accomplished in one study session (I have written an article about micro goals as well), and just like time boxing, the actual scope of such a session varies depending on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. The point is that the goal has to be well-defined and have a very high chance of success. Some people also talk about winnable games, meaning that you shouldn’t set up a situation where the chance of failure is high. Instead, break things down until each step is almost certain to be a victory.

Micro goals are more useful for tasks that are complex and can be separated into stages with clearly different characteristics. If you want to improve your pronunciation in Chinese, there are numerous steps that you need to take, such as identifying your problems, selecting a few priority areas and focusing on them one by one. If some of these steps are long and complicated in themselves, you can use time boxing, but in most cases, it makes more sense to specify something you need to achieve, such as “record one paragraph of x”, “compare my recording x with the native speaker model”, “discuss my pronunciation of x with a native speaker”, “design a plan for practising problem y” and so on.

The major advantage with micro goals over time boxing is that they are synonymous with progress. You can’t reach a micro goal without having made progress, but you can spend ten minutes trying to do something and not achieving anything. If you feel that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing, time boxing also invites procrastination in a way that micro goals don’t. Micro goals aren’t sensible to your spending time doing something else, this will just mean that it takes longer.

Use both methods

As I said at the outset, I think both methods are very useful and I use them both daily. I tend to use micro goals more, especially when I know what I’m doing and have a good grasp of how long something takes to achieve. However, when it comes to reviewing characters or doing anything that feels even slightly menial, time boxing is king. It is also the default solution when I can’t or don’t want to break something down further or when the process is unknown (time boxing works very well for brainstorming, for instance).

So, in short, try them both in different situations, see what works and what doesn’t. I know people who hate time boxing and others who say that it has revolutionised the way they do things. I also know people who say that micro goals are a big waste of time, as well as people who break things down to the point where it can’t really be broken down any more.

I do all these things on a need-to basis, I don’t time box just because I can, and I don’t create long lists of micro goals if it seems like I’m getting things done anyway. I do these things when I feel I need to. This guarantees gaining maximum benefits from the two methods without spending too much time on things other than achieving my goal.