Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Hacking Chinese: Contradictory and provoking?

At the moment, there are roughly 150 articles on Hacking Chinese and although I doubt that anyone has read all of them (apart from myself, obviously), I know for sure that at least a few people have read most of what I’ve written. Sometimes, alert readers point out that I contradict myself, or at least present ways in radically different ways depending on situation. At other times, I exaggerate a point or neglect to mention something that perhaps ought to be mentioned.

contradictThis week’s article isn’t so much about learning Chinese, but more about Hacking Chinese itself and some reflection regarding my own articles. Still, understanding how to read articles on this website as well as others is of course key to improving one’s own learning. In a sense, this is an extended discussion of About opening doors and the paths beyond.

There is no golden path

I don’t exaggerate arguments or contradict myself because I’m so convinced that what I’m writing is correct that I don’t see any alternatives or because my opinions change rapidly . Instead, this is a deliberate effort on my part to make readers think about what they’re doing. In general, it’s useful to read about other people’s ways of learning, even if you think they’re wrong (see the article linked to above for more about this).

That doesn’t mean that you should heed bad advice, but it means it might be worthwhile to read (and therefore write) advice that presents different views on the same topic. Since Khatz over at AJATT has already put this very neatly, I’m going to quote him again:

Don’t be too smart to use good advice. Don’t be too humble to ignore bad advice. Don’t be too dumb to see the difference.

I have several reasons for writing articles here and only one of them is to present the way I think about a specific topic. Writing only balanced and self-critical articles would probably provoke readers less, which would result in less critical thinking on your part. Who says I should do all the critical thinking, eh?

Below, I will talk a little bit about how I write and how that affects you as a reader.

Contradictory articles

I have written one article that argues that Chinese is really easy, although it should be apparent to anyone who’s tried that learning Chinese is actually very hard. If it were easy, I wouldn’t feel motivated to write hundreds of articles about how to overcome different problems related to learning Chinese and you wouldn’t visit my website.

This appears to be contradictory, but in fact isn’t, that article is simply discussing things from different perspectives. In certain areas, Chinese is actually very easy, it’s just that in other areas it… isn’t. In a sense, both views are correct and both represent the way I think, even if they are slightly incompatible with each other.

The real world is seldom black and white, but more like a kaleidoscope with myriads of swirling colours. To capture that, it’s sometimes necessary to deliberately omit something in order to highlight something else. Highlighting everything at once means no highlighting at all.

Deliberately exaggerated articles

Another example of this is exaggeration, where I argue a point much more forcefully than I would if I merely discussed an idea. For instance, in my article about the 10,000 hour rule (and elsewhere), I say that talent isn’t very important. This isn’t a lie, I really don’t think it is that important, but it is a deliberate exaggeration. I realise that talent might be important in a number of situations, but rather than weakening my own argument by discussing these, I tend to stress that talent isn’t that important, partly because it’s beyond our control anyway and not something we can manipulate or experiment with. We’re trying to learn Chinese here, not earn a degree in educational psychology.

It’s not that I avoid or ignore counter-arguments, it’s just that I choose one perspective and stick to that. What I want to say with “talent is not important” is so that people can’t use it as an excuse. Scientific studies might prove something else, but that’s beside the point. I usually provide a more critical look in the weekly newsletters.

Another very good example of this was the You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote article. Of course you can learn Chinese characters by rote, I just think it’s not a very good way of doing it. I know many people felt provoked by that article because they themselves have learnt Chinese through rote (just skim through the comments).

Of course, they might not have read very carefully or meet the criteria for “learnt Chinese”, but the fact still remains that the title of that article isn’t true. Part of the goal is to make you think, part of the goal is to make you think in the right direction. The former is more important than the latter.

How to read my articles (and articles in general)

I think my articles (and others’, regardless if they do it on purpose or not) should be viewed as thought-experiments, as alternative ways of viewing reality and the interesting challenge that is language learning. No-one will be able to give you the whole picture or the true story, but we might be able to give you a glimpse of the truth now and then. However, these glimpses aren’t shards or fragments that can be easily fitted together to form some kind of ultimate truth.

What I have done previously and will keep on doing is trying to provide insight into successful language learning. I will do it in different ways and from different angles. Sometimes these will appear to contradict each other, sometimes they might feel exaggerated, but they will hopefully be helpful for you.

Read the comments

In all, there are almost 2000 comments on Hacking Chinese. Some of them contain a lot of critical thinking, usually about what I’ve written, perhaps agreeing with 90% of an article, but finding the remaining 10% hard to swallow. You should read those 10%. I’m just one guy, there’s bound to be dozens of angles, ideas or perspectives I haven’t thought of. Reading the comments will give you a much more balanced view than only reading the article. Also, I encourage anyone who doesn’t agree with me to post comments. By doing so, you contribute to the diversity on this website and thus also to the value it offers learners of Chinese over the world. Thank you!

The really crazy ideas

Still, even though I think every thought or idea is worth thinking, not everything is worth actually trying out or writing about. We need wild and crazy ideas, such as “you don’t need to learn characters at all”, “tones are useless” or anything that challenges the current paradigm. Such thoughts provoke us to think in new paths and in new ways, which is essential in itself. That doesn’t make these ideas less crazy, though.

A good example of this is Benny Lewis’ quest to learn Mandarin to C1 level in three months. I was 100% sure that he would fail before he started, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad that he tried. Actually, it’s excellent, especially for people who don’t believe that he will succeed. It’s actually rather refreshing.

Why? Because he makes us think in new ways, he makes us motivate, consider and reconsider our own opinions. In doing so, we learn more about ourselves and our own studying. That’s great!

Conclusion

I can guarantee that I never deliberately misrepresent things on this website. I really do believe everything I write here, at least when I write it (it’s been a while since the first articles were written). I might make the important bits bigger and the rest smaller, but I will never deliberately misrepresent the subject I’m writing about. There are enough people with different ideas about learning Chinese out there and they do have some crazy ideas.

So, don’t only read what I have to say, check out what other people think. Read the comments to the articles, read other people’s websites (if you follow my Twitter feed, I keep a steady stream of links to other interesting articles about learning Chinese). I routinely post links to articles presenting ideas I don’t agree with, but are still worth considering.

Read, evaluate, apply, learn!

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese translations? Check out my Patreon page!

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6 comments

  1. Warp2243 says:

    The reason why Chinese can be both seen as easy and hard is a matter of time scale and knowledge scope. Quoting (and adapting) my math teacher, “Chinese is globally difficult, but locally trivial”.

    When you think about “your Chinese learning”, you think of the last few days or weeks of studying, where it was really easy (relatively to your own level). Just a few pieces of characters, words, grammar, immersion. But at the same time you think of your progression as a whole (scale of several years), and then it appears as a huge and complex accumulation of data, patterns, habits, training and meta-knowledge.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Agreed. It’s more like walking a very long road on foot than scaling a precipice. Each step isn’t necessarily very hard, but the fact that you need to take an awful lot of them makes the whole endeavour hard nevertheless.

  2. Billy says:

    Your articles are fantastic, whether they’re contradictory or otherwise. I don’t come here looking for a panacea. I come here looking for inspiration and advice from someone with similar goals. That’s the way all advice should be taken: take it all in, ruminate on it for a little while, and do what you think is best for you. But then I largely agree with what you write anyway: before I found this blog, I was seriously considering writing one of my own, that would have turned out to be very similar, but about Japanese.

    (And, honestly, I’ve never really found them contradictory anyway – Chinese *is* both more difficult than people think and easier than people think.)

  3. Your blog is great! I think your almost scientific-like and methodological approach to learning Chinese is refreshing. As for ‘contradictory advice’, well, I’m sure you wouldn’t think that you have all the answers worked out for how to learn Chinese. I see your blog as more of a discourse on things you have tried to be used as ideas for others. Also, in learning anythings, things that work for some people will not always work for others!

  4. Knut Erik Rosmo says:

    Thanks for writing these articles about learning Chinese. It is very valuable for me, especially as I’m trying to learn Mandarin on my own, to get input and ideas about the process of learning Chinese. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  5. Rob says:

    It has been great trying to catch up to the present for the last couple of weeks, I have had a chance to witness a growth of ideas for you and feel one in myself. I apologize if you are wondering who this strange Rob is commenting on old posts.

    What I like the most is that it is not that pedagogical, and rather than just saying “Many ways of studying have their merits, find a way that works for you” and “Find a dictionary you like”, you offer an actual opinion and give actual resources, as well as advice on really hammering out a path. The specific examples are so much more useful than vague guidance that I have received in the past.

    I haven’t felt anything to be blatantly contradictory, and I cannot even think of an example of something mildly contradictory at the moment. I am really enjoying the ride and sifting through things I am trying and want to try in the near future!

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