Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learn Chinese faster by leaving your comfort zone

Learn Chinese faster by leaving your comfort zone

If learning feels like unicycling down this slope, you’re doing it right!

How do you learn Chinese faster? The simplest answer to that question is to spend as much time as possible doing tasks that challenge your current ability, while spending even more time consolidating what you have already learnt. Today, I want to focus on the first of these; the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to challenge yourself.

Learn Chinese faster by leaving your comfort zone

Leaving your comfort zone more often will enable you to learn Chinese faster compared to simply slogging along at a comfortable pace, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels. For beginners, almost everything you do that involves Mandarin will be outside your comfort zone, so there’s not that much need to encourage you there.

To be clear, when I say “comfort zone”, I mean that in a linguistic sense, not that you should start doing other things you’re not comfortable with. This could involve immersing yourself in more difficult audio than you’re used to, deliberately talk about topics you’re not used to and so on. You will often find that it’s extremely difficult to begin with, but that you get used to it. This getting used to is called learning.

The kamikaze approach and off-road unicycling

I have made major forays outside my comfort zone when learning Chinese numerous times, which made me write an article titled The Kamikaze Approach to Learning Chinese. I have also noticed the positive effects of this in many other areas, but let me give you one example related to unicycling before we continue with language learning.

Learning to unicycle is not terribly difficult, it should take the average person less than ten hours to be able to actually ride the unicycle a hundred meters or so. This is very easy compared to learning Chinese, although it certainly looks hard and feels impossible when you first start. After that, you can quickly extend that to much longer distances until an uncomfortable saddle becomes a bigger problem than balance. I biked quite a lot for a while, including 5-kilometer rides in light traffic.

However, I didn’t really improve much. It quickly became routine and even though I covered a lot of distance, I didn’t really become much better at handling tricky situations (awkward turns in traffic, cycling very slowly to wait for red lights, negotiate curb edges and so on). Then I started unicycling on forest trails with a friend of mine, which involves a lot of tree roots, slopes, stones, fallen trees and other obstacles. After doing this for only a short while, I improved greatly, not only in that situation, but also when I was back on normal roads. I gained a whole new level of control I had never felt before.

Challenge yourself

I think this is directly applicable to learning Mandarin as well. It’s probably an aspect of what is often called deliberate practice in the literature (look up K. Anders Ericsson). Among other things, it involves practising at a higher level in order to master a skill.

When I cycled on normal roads, I didn’t challenge myself unless something out of the ordinary happened, which wasn’t often. When I cycled in the forest, those out of the ordinary things became the norm; they happened all the time. After adjusting to that, normal roads weren’t a problem, including what used to be out of the ordinary.

Learn Chinese faster

Applying this to language learning is easy. If you study Chinese in an environment where it doesn’t feel like you’re riding a unicycle down a forest path overgrown with tree roots, you’re not learning as fast as you could.

This is actually true for my current situation as well. I probably speak Mandarin more than Swedish or English, but it’s mostly well within my comfort zone. I’m not learning that much. While it’s true that I improve gradually by being exposed to Chinese and by using it myself, the progress is very slow.

How to move outside your comfort zone when learning Chinese

I think this applies to large number of learners, at least to a certain extent. It might not be that you’re entirely within your comfort zone, but you’re not really outside it either. So what should you do? Make an effort to move outside your comfort zone! Not necessarily in all areas at once as described in my kamikaze article, but for certain areas some of the time:

  • Listening and reading ability are easy to make more challenging. If you’re a beginner, use intermediate learning materials. If you’re an intermediate learner, use advanced or authentic audio or text. If you’re an advanced learner, focus on genres, media or topics you’re not used to. There are many ways you should diversify your listing in particular.
  • Speaking and writing ability can be most easily dealt with by managing need. You should put yourself in situations where you’re required or expected to talk or write about things you’re not used to expressing. Don’t just talk about the same things with the same people, move into new and more distant areas. Force yourself to use vocabulary and grammar patterns you’re not fully sure of. My most noticeable boost in recent years was when I started the master degree program in Taiwan.

While I think a full kamikaze approach is extremely useful to learn Chinese faster (or indeed anything else), I don’t think it’s suitable for the average student with a normal life situation. You need to be fully committed and very ambitious to pull that off. However, leaving your comfort zone as often as you are capable of is extremely important for all learners! Not all the time and not for all areas at once, but as much and as often as you feel up to.

Don’t give up, bud don’t kill yourself either

I also want to point out that you need some persistence for this to work. You can’t expect immediate returns and the first few times it will feel very difficult. If you give up, then this method isn’t very useful. You need to give yourself a chance to get used to your new, harsher environment.

Furthermore, you shouldn’t take too large strides outside your comfort zone. If you start learning to unicycle on an off road trail, you will probably fail. Learn on a flat, hard surface first, that’s difficult enough. For language learning, this means that you must have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

For example, if you listen to more advanced audio and understand nothing at all, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not learning to swim at the deep end of the pool, you’re drowning. This is especially true if the reason you can’t understand or express yourself is because you simply lack the necessary vocabulary. Stepping outside your comfort zone is a good method to improve your proficiency, but that requires a certain foundation to work.

Consolidation and conquest

In a follow-up article, I will discuss the necessity of focusing on material well within your comfort zone, too. The larger and more comfortable your zone is, the better, after all. The idea I wanted to highlight in this article is just that you shouldn’t stay there all the time if you want to learn Chinese faster. The most effective way of enlarging the comfort zone is by moving outside of it, conquering new territory. Next time, we’ll look at the opposite: consolidating what you have already learnt.

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

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  1. 亚历山大 says:

    Great article. Thanks!

  2. Martin says:

    I agree, thank you :). I have one question though. Especially for listening I find it hard to define the limit between challenging and too challenging, especially in the context of language podcasts. Because these usually contain explanation and transcript. For example, I usually listen to ChinesePod when I want to practise my listening ability. However, at my current level (Upper-Intermediate) I feel like the difficulty of the dialogs extremely varies from lesson to lesson. But even if I find a lesson extremely hard (=a lot of new vocabulary), after listening to the explanation, reading the transcript and learning the vocabulary things usually clear up. But that of course takes a lot of time and the vocabulary is mostly very specific. Do you think that is still within the limits of challanging or should I skip these lessons and focus on dialogs that I mostly understand?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      If you spend the extra time needed (re-listening, working through transcripts, learning vocabulary, listening again) to understand what’s going on, then I wouldn’t say it’s too hard. Of course, it’s very hard to draw the line, but I would say that if you’re unable to understand the gist after listening several times, it’s too hard. Likewise, if you don’t plan to work with it at all, you need to understand a little bit of what’s going on, otherwise you’re not learning much and you will quickly tire (nothing is more exhausting than really trying to understand something and constantly failing). Check my article about the grand listening cycle.

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