Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals

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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.

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Image source:

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.

What’s your next step to master Chinese?

Productivity is a slippery beast and catching it is not easy. When we have a tight schedule with clearly defined things we have to do, it’s relatively easy to get things done, but if we’re on our own with some time available and a wish to level up our Chinese, procrastination is a serious threat. Even if we have a well-defined tasks, such as writing a paper or reading a book, we still seem prone to postpone and delay, sometimes to the point of not finishing the task at all.

Image credit: John Leslie
Image credit: John Leslie

This article is for those of you who feel that you can and want to learn more, but you still don’t do it for some reason. It might be hard to pinpoint what that reason, is but I will do my best to help you solve the problem in this article.

The basic principles of getting things done

I think there are two approaches that we can use to understand how to get things done. The first is related to goals in general and the size of goals in particular. Having only very long-term goals offers no clue on how we’re supposed to achieve these goals. In other words, a goal isn’t really something you do right now, it’s something you accomplish later after you have done other things.

If we want to “master Chinese” or “write a thesis” (or anything else, I just choose two major tasks that I have faced and I know many of your are facing), it doesn’t really say anything about how we accomplish these things. If we’ve done these things a number of times before, we might have some experience to guide us, but the likelihood is that we don’t and that the task ahead looms terrifyingly. How do you approach such a big task?

However, the task looks huge simply because we haven’t broken it down, defined it and designed a way to deal with it. If you look at a big mountain, it will certainly look impossible to move yourself to the top, but actually doing it still mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, something everybody can do. Thus, the first thing we need to do is break down the task into manageable steps.

An personal example: It’s actually quite hard to keep Hacking Chinese up and running with one article a week and still keep up with my course work and do all the other things I want to do. This means that it’s very easy to just do the minimum amount of work required and postpone writing books and developing new projects.

However, I do still get lots of things done because I have broken these projects down and deal with one step at a time. I don’t have a task saying “write an e-book”, instead I know what the next step is (launch the funding project at Indiegogo, in this case), which I probably do next week. Rather than not doing anything, I keep placing one food it front of the other; I will reach that mountain top.

Taking one step after another is good, but in what direction should you walk?

The second thing we need to do in order to get things done is to arrange the steps in some kind of order. In a linear task like climbing a mountain or reading a book, this is fairly straightforward, but for non-linear tasks like “learning Chinese”, this isn’t easy at all. However, moving is always better than standing still!  The core of this article and my thesis is this:

Not knowing what the next step is makes progress impossible

Your next step is simply a small chunk of a larger goal that you can accomplish, preferably within the scope of one short timebox (let’s say 10-15 minutes). Do you know what your next action is for learning Chinese? If we’re talking about developing language ability, I tend to divide my activities in the same way as I have done on this website: listening, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary. That covers most of what I want to learn.

So, what’s your next step?

…to improve listening ability?
…to improve speaking ability?
…to improve reading ability?
…to improve writing ability?
…to expand vocabulary?

If you only have a vague idea of what the next step (the next action) is, it will be very hard to get started (impossible, in fact, since you have to know what you’re doing in order to start doing it, at least if we’re talking about active, voluntary studying). The next action needs to be very specific indeed, there should be no room whatsoever for interpretation or doubt.

This might sound silly, but I’m convinced that lots of people are held back simply because they try to achieve things that are too big, such as “improve my listening ability” or “correct my pronunciation errors”. You can’t achieve something like that  in any measurable way when you study, it’s something you achieve through doing other, smaller steps.

Some examples of what your next actions could look like

Enough abstraction, let’s look at a few examples of what the next action could be for the five areas mentioned above. Of course, these actions don’t exist in a vacuum, but appears to do so here because I haven’t attached them to a long term goal. I think that the long term goals are often obvious, so I haven’t included them.

Next action to improve listening ability

  • Find a suitable news article with transcripts
  • Transcribe one podcast dialogue
  • Look up new words in a dialogue you’ve already listened to
  • Transfer five new Chinese songs to your phone
  • Listen to a radio program for 15 minutes and take notes

Next action to improve speaking ability

Next action to improve reading ability

  • Make sure you have a book available in the bathroom and close to the bed
  • Read the first five pages in a book
  • Go through markings you’ve made when reading
  • Reread something you’ve read earlier
  • Benchmark your reading ability

Next action to improve writing ability

Next action to expand vocabulary

A few words about linear goals

I tend to have a number of projects going, such as “read book x”, “memorize y”, “learn z new characters” and so on. For each of these, I try to always have a next action, I try to always know what the next step will be. If I don’t know the next step, I simply don’t get anything done. If it’s simply doing something a large number of times (such as reading 1000 pages), I usually timebox.

For instance, I failed to write a series of articles on Hacking Chinese for a long time, not because I lacked ideas (I have more than enough), but because I didn’t know what the next step was. I just knew I wanted to produce a series and even if I knew what they should contain, the task of writing these articles still seemed too big and I didn’t know where to start. Only when I sat down and broke this goals into several parts and considered the next action for each did I start getting things done. This is also how I keep larger projects going even if I’m busy with other things.

Example: Improving listening ability

Another examples is listening ability. I think it’s not uncommon to have a vague notion of that we should listen more to Chinese, that we should immerse ourselves. But we don’t, because we don’t really know what the next action is.

Of course, if someone asks you what the next action is, then you might say something like “download suitable audio” or “transfer these podcasts to my phone”, which are obvious answers. The problem is that they only became obvious when you voiced them. Next actions need to be explicit, they need to be said aloud or written down.

Why a thousand mile journey is so hard to start

The reason is that it’s very easy to postpone starting the journey to better listening ability is that starting it tomorrow or next week is essentially the same as setting out today. However, if the next action is much smaller and more manageable, it becomes much harder to argue that you might as well postpone it until tomorrow. Immersing yourself in Chinese might sound like a very hard task, but downloading a podcast is very easy and there is simply no way you can fail that.

What I’m talking about here is essentially just another approach to micro goals, something I’ve written about before first in a separate article, and then again in the article about timeboxing. Khatz over at AJATT puts it well when he says that it’s about winnable games, it’s about breaking things down to such an extent that you cannot possibly fail. It’s easier to beat ten enemies one at a time than ten enemies at once.

However, breaking it down in this fashion isn’t enough, you also need to know which action is the next one. Only then can you actually complete in and move on to the next. It sure is a cliche, but a journey of a thousand miles really needs to start with the first step. If you don’t know how to take that step, your plans and dreams for the rest of the journey becomes meaningless.

Why you need goals to learn Chinese efficiently

A few years ago during a lecture I held focusing on strategies for learning Chinese, a student asked me a good but unusual question: Why do we need to set goals to learn efficiently? This question might sound either uninformed or stupid, but I can assure that it wasn’t, so please hear me out.

I personally think that goals are an essential part of learning anything, but I sometimes forget that the underlying reasoning might not be all that transparent. You might have read about goals, but do you really understand why they are essential?

targetA few words about goals

Before we go into a discussion about goals, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Goals are targets for your learning, clearly defined milestones that are placed along the road to your final destination (the purpose of studying Chinese).

Goals can be set on many different levels and can range in scope from a few minutes to several years. In fact, the reason you study Chinese is probably because you have some kind of goal, although it might not be that well defined. Rather than going on about this, here are the basic four articles about goals on Hacking Chinese:

  1. Goals and motivation, part 1 – Introduction
  2. Goals and motivation, part 2 – Long-term goals
  3. Goals and motivation, part 3 – Short-term goals
  4. Goals and motivation, part 4 – Micro goals

Why goals are necessary, indeed crucial

Even if the articles above explain how to use goals and perhaps a little bit about why they are good, they don’t really explain why goals are crucial and they don’t answer the question why you can’t learn Chinese completely without setting any goals at all. I think there are two arguments that need to be explained.

First, it would be very hard to imagine what learning would be like without having goals. Learning in itself means that we get to know something we didn’t know before, and in the case of language learning, it means learning how to use a foreign language. This is a goal in itself. Thus, what we’re talking about here is having explicit and clearly defined goals, rather than just having a vague idea of what we want to achieve, because after all, few people do things completely without a reason.

Second, and more importantly, if you don’t have a goal, there is no such thing as “progress”. The reason we say that we become better at something is because we’re approach a goal, explicit or implicit. If we know nothing about why we are learning Chinese and have no goals defined, we are just wandering around randomly. Since the term “progress” becomes meaningless, words like “efficiency” also lose their meaning.

Why should we use SRS to learn more words if learning those words doesn’t accomplish something we strive for? Why should we try to hack our daily lives to fit in more listening if we’re not accumulating exposure to the Chinese language for a reason?

What about having fun and enjoying the journey?

I suppose it’s possible to see learning Chinese as pure recreation, so that learning is done for the sole purpose of learning itself or because it’s fun or entertaining in some way. However, this has huge consequences for what strategies you should use for learning and almost everything written about learning languages would be useless. Suddenly, you would discover that:

  • The best learning method is the one you think is the most fun, even if you don’t learn any words
  • It doesn’t matter if you don’t learn anything at all in class, as long as you’re having a good time

The journey is important, but the destination matters as well

This will inevitable lead to the question why you are learning Chinese at all. Why don’t play computer games, go swimming or watch a film instead? I often stress that having fun is important, but since my purpose here is to help you learn more efficiently, I tend to regard having fun as important because it significantly helps you learn more, not because it’s fun in itself. Having fun is of course good in and of itself, but that has nothing to with Hacking Chinese. Speaking of which, it’s probably time to play another round of Faster Than Light. Bye!

Don’t just read about learning methods, actually try them as well

When I wrote a guest article about language hacking on the Mezzofanti Guild a while back, I took some time to think what I consider to be the essential elements of language hacking, what makes it different from just language studying. I ended up with a list of things, some of which I talked about in that article. Other things I haven’t talked about so much, something I intend to change with a few articles, this being the first one.

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The first thing I want to look at is the notion of actually doing things as opposed to just reading about them and, depending on what you read, either shake your head in disagreement or nod your head in approval. As you might guess, I spend a significant time reading about learning Chinese, both in books and journal articles, but also on blogs and forums. I consider this influx of ideas to be essential, I could not possible write everything I’ve written on this website without the inspiration and help I’ve received from others.

Reading about something isn’t enough

Even though it’s important to open doors, simply learning of a method isn’t enough. Sure, it will give you a certain amount of knowledge, but it will be the knowledge of the armchair general, who knows everything about warfare but has never held a sword in his hands. This is good if you want to write books about war, but it’s not good if you want to actually fight a war. The same is true for language learning. In order to master language learning as a skill, you need to try many different things, because it’s unlikely that the first method you stumble upon is the best one for you.

Please take a moment and consider the following question:

How many of the good ideas you’ve read about recently have you neglected to try?

I can list quite a few and I’m sure that most of you can as well.

Why is this? I think it’s mostly a question about complacency and rigidity (see this article about the convenience trap and how to escape it). We have our ways of studying and we tend to stick to what we know, not necessarily because we think it’s superior to other methods, but simply because it’s more convenient. We might even know that there are better methods, but we still stick to what we know simply because challenging our habits requires effort.

Macro methods

Some ideas operate on a scale which makes them hard to test and in these cases, simply reading might be the only way of evaluation we have. For instance, I like the idea of sentence mining and using entire sentences for spaced repetition, but it’s simply not possible for me personally to evaluate this method. I have already learnt Chinese to a certain level and I can’t large-scale methods again for the same language. Sure, I could use a new method when learning a different language, but the results are not necessarily applicable to Chinese.

Still, there listening to what other successful learners have to say is valuable in these cases. Also remember that there are polyglots who focus on learning many languages and even though it might not be the case that you can apply everything to one specific language, it still makes sense to read and learn.

It’s sometimes possible to reduce the scale somewhat. For instance, if you want to try sentence mining, you can do so for a specific area. You don’t need to delete all your other flashcards and start again just because you want to try a new method. Try it out next time you read a book or start mining sentences from a specific TV program. Only then will you know what it’s like.

Micro methods

Most other methods are much easier to test and there is simply no other explanation for not trying than complacency and laziness. If you really think an idea about improving speaking ability (such as playing a tone guessing game to improve tones or other word games to practise fluency), write it down somewhere and try that next time you have an opportunity. If it works well, incorporate it into your study routine, if not, then revise the idea or abandon it entirely.

Good and bad advice

This doesn’t mean that you should try everything you read about. Khatz over at AJATT has said quite a few interesting things about language learning, but the following quote has always struck me as particularly insightful and is also relevant for what we’re talking about in this article:

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.

Most ideas are worth reading about, at least if they are new or unique in some way or has worked for other people. That, however, doesn’t mean that we should try everything we read about, that would be way too time consuming and would be utterly confusing. No, instead, we should try to determine if the advice someone gives us is good advice and then heed that. If we hear something we have no reason to believe works, we should ignore it and move on.

Having a clear idea about what our goals are is essential when doing this, because no method can be evaluated as effective or not if we don’t know what it’s supposed to achieve.


All things said and done, I think the people who try too many different methods are in a minuscule minority. In other words, the problem isn’t that we’re too smart or even too humble, the problem is that we are lazy and complacent (myself included, of course). Most of us need to widen our horizons and not only read about awesome ways of learning Chinese, but also implement them as well.

Call to action

Promise yourself this: Next time you encounter a tip, trick, hack or strategy related to learning Chinese which sounds promising, try it. If you encounter many interesting methods, keep a list of them and try them out when you feel adventurous.

Don’t try to improve everything at once, limit your focus

Learning any complex task requires many distinct processes to work smoothly and in unison. For instance, I practised Tai Chi for many years and when competing in form (with or without weapons), there are ten different criteria on which the judges rate your performance. When competing, all these components have to be present if you want to earn a decent score. The problem is that nobody can keep ten different things in mind at any given time, so while useful for competitions, judging someone who practises on all the ten criteria at once is bad. When we practice, we need to focus on one or two aspects for a while until these have improved, then shift focus to something else. Cycling through the various components in this manner, we will gradually improve our overall ability for all the different criteria.

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This is of course directly related to learning languages. If we take speaking Chinese as an example, there are many processes that must run smoothly if we want to produce intelligible and good spoken Chinese. We need to handle pronunciation of the syllables, tones, stress, word order, word choice and much more. This is very much like Tai Chi. Our overall ability is judged on a combination of all these aspects, but it’s impossible for us to focus on all of the at once. We need to focus on just a few things, even if we aim to improve overall in the long run.

Focus on only a few things at any given time

I suggest that we should focus on one or two things at a time. For instance, if we have language exchange planned for this afternoon, we could decide (and tell our partner) that tones should be the focus of today’s practice. If you focus exclusively on getting the tones right, it’s likely that you’ll start making other mistakes. This is okay, indeed it’s to be expected and a sign that you’re doing things the right way.

The problem is that we only have the mental capacity to focus on a few things at once. We can’t keep all the things we need to improve in our heads at once, so if we want to improve tones, we have to accept that other areas will suffer for a while. I suggest sticking with a specific aspect of learning Chinese until you feel that you’ve made significant progress. How you define that is up to you, but if you feel that you’re improving, then I think it might be time to shift focus. This might take days or weeks depending on your current level and what you’re focusing on.

Narrowing the focus

Note that I’ve only talked about fairly big areas so far, such as tones or word order. You could and should limit the focus even more and during a period where you focus on tones, you can pick a number of smaller targets to home in on, such as:

  • Getting T3 right before anything but another T3 (it should be a low tone)
  • Making sure T4 starts high enough
  • Mastering the neutral tone
  • Practising many consecutive T3s
  • Exploring how stress influences tone

The list could of course be made much longer, but those are a few things you could focus on. If you tell your teacher, language partners or friends that you’re doing this, they are more likely to be able to help you.

Shifting focus to the next target

How often you change target depends on a number of factors, such as the difficulty and size of the target. If you want to improve your tones in general, you could of course spend a long time only focusing on this and still not reach a perfect result. If you focus on a narrow topic like those described above, sometimes an hour will be enough.

Note that perfection isn’t necessarily the best thing here. Once you feel that you have made significant progress, you should move on to something else you need to improve. Languages are complicated things that can’t be learnt in a modular fashion, so even if it might be tempting, trying to learn everything perfectly before moving on to something else is a bad idea. Remember that just because you focus on something else for a while doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to return to old targets. Indeed, returning to something you have already focused on before is essential.

Identifying the next target

Your next target should be the factor that limits your proficiency the most. How you define “proficient” depends on what goals you have, but basically you should focus on whatever is currently the major hurdle to overcome before you can achieve the goal you’re currently striving for. If this is something you focus on only two weeks ago, then so be it, give it another go. Shifting focus often means that you will and should return to old targets fairly often.

Explicit practice to aid implicit processes

Let me state the basic function on which all of this is based. When we speak Chinese, we can’t be aware of everything that we’re doing. If we pay attention to tones, we will perform worse in some other area. However, by explicitly practising tones for some time, the proficiency we gain is transferred into implicit skill, which will help us produce tones correctly even if we don’t think about it when we talk.

The reason this works is because things we consider difficult requires mental effort to do well and since our mental capacity is limited, it follows that we can’t focus on everything at once. By deliberately practising at aspect we find difficult, we lessen the mental stress that element requires to be performed well, which means that it can later be part of our natural speech simply because it does not make us exceed our mental capacity.

The danger of doing everything at once

Many people aren’t aware of the problems that might arise if they don’t focus on a limited number of things. This includes teachers, students and normal people. It’s not uncommon for teachers to correct a student’s tones for a few sentences, and then, as the student struggles to get them right, he of course makes a mistake of a different kind and mixes up the word order. The teacher points out that the word order is incorrect. The student tries again and succeeds, but now managed to pronounce an initial incorrectly.

And on and on it goes.

Needless to say, this is useless and may even me counter-productive. People don’t learn immediately, we need time to adapt and adjust, so shifting focus every 20 seconds is simply not going to do us any good. We have to accept that if we’re going to focus our minds on improving the third tone, we can’t expect to improve other aspects at the same time.

Other people shifting the focus for you

If other people keep shifting focus for you, the best thing you can do is politely tell them that you think that it’s too hard to learn so many things at once and that, for the moment, you’re happy to focus on one or two things. Also mention that you’d be happy to focus on whatever other mistakes they help you point out, but later. Not now. If this is embarrassing or otherwise inappropriate, ignoring advice is also a viable option.

I had a diving coach once who gave excellent advice, but who shifted focus for every dive. If he told me to wait longer before twisting, he would then say that my landing was off, and when I tried to correct that, he would point out that I did some other mistake. I ended up picking one or two of the things he said and simply ignored the rest, which worked much better than the alternative.


We need consistent and deliberate practise in order to improve. This is only achievable if we select a limited area in which to improve, because otherwise the effort we spend will be diluted and lead to frustration rather than success. Exactly how many targets you have, how you identify them and cycle between them, is probably individual and there is little I can say about it. The most important thing is that you realise that if you aim at all the targets in the firing range at once, you’re not likely to hit anything at all.

If you want to master Chinese, make long-term investments

When we encounter challenges, both as beginners and as advanced learners, most people tend to make decisions that solve the immediate problems in the short-term. This is a minimum-effort approach which is natural and useful most of the time. If we only need to spend a certain time to overcome a given problem, why invest more than that?

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Here are a couple of short-term problems we may encounter when learning Chinese and their minimum-effort solutions:

  • Learning characters: Reviewing many times before a test
  • Learning words: Treating them as indivisible units
  • Difficult texts: Reading them for the first time in class

To understand these problems better, let us use an imagined situation where I’m enrolled at some kind of language school and study Chinese a few hours every day. On Monday, I’m presented with some new vocabulary for that week and I’m supposed to learn around fifty new words each week. There is also a text containing these words (and more).

Intuitive problem solving is mostly short-term

The natural thing to do here (and what I as a teacher see most students do) is to learn the words we have for homework. They diligently practise writing, pronouncing and translating the words. They score pretty well on the test. And they forget most of these words soon after. Most students read the text for the first time in class, meaning they stumble a lot, even on words that aren’t new this week.

The problem here is that this approach focuses on solving problems in the short-term, whereas your goals are long-term (learning Chinese to any decent level is most certainly a long-term goal). Learning a number of characters and/or words is what students need to pass the test, so that’s what they do. Most teachers don’t force their students to review, so they don’t. You can’t just rely on your teacher, you need to take responsibility for your own progress!

Shifting to a more long-term strategy

What I suggest is that we always dig deeper into what we learn and see the underlying logic. If we’re talking about words, you should look at the characters comprising the word and learn what they mean, provided that they are not extremely rare. If we’re talking about characters, you should learn what the parts mean (and not only the radicals, I’m talking about any part of a character here). If we’re talking about texts, you should review before the lesson.

This is a long-term investment because it will take a while before it pays off, but in the end, it will pay off grandly. If I study thirty characters and you study thirty characters plus all the component parts (perhaps another fifty elements to learn), it’s obvious that provided that the time is limited, I will perform better than you do on a test You’ve learnt many things which won’t come on the test, whereas I’ve spent all my time efficiently learning what I’m the teacher has said will come on the test.

This approach doesn’t make sense in the long-term, though, because it overlooks the fact that Chinese is a language that can be easily broken down into more or less logical parts. This is true for any language (think about suffixes and prefixes in English, for instance), but to what extent and how frequent the basic building blocks are differ from language to language.

Making use of building blocks

In Chinese, many building blocks occur frequently. This means that if you spend extra time to learn these, you will regain that time many times over later. Sure, it will take more time in the beginning, but once you have a base of character components and individual characters, you will see that most of the time, learning new things is simply a matter of connecting what you already know in new ways. Using mnemonics, this can be done very efficiently.

Sometimes, the connection between character components and the meaning of the whole character is phonetic, meaningless or lost in time. This isn’t a big problem, because as long as you’re using elements that are actually there, it’s cool (in other words, don’t fall in the “the man with a hat”-trap). The same goes for words. True etymology (the origin of the word) isn’t always necessary, interesting or even desirable. Learn basic parts as they are, but you can make up the connections between them on your own.

Previewing texts is perhaps an even more obvious example of short-term versus long-term thinking. Looking closer at the problem, it’s evident that previewing is very good. We need to study the text thoroughly in order to learn, but if we do part of the work before class, we can benefit much more from what’s going on in  the classroom. This is extremely important if you’re using anything similar to a kamikaze approach, in which case you will often encounter very difficult texts.

Achieving long-term goals require long-term thinking

So, if we want to achieve long-term goals, we need to make long-term investments. Learn those character parts, learn those individual characters. If you’re not sure how common something is, wait until you see it a second time before you learn it. You can also use dictionaries such as to see what other characters a certain component occurs in. Characters are more easy to judge, just use a frequency list and determine if you think it’s worthwhile to learn the character alone or not.


Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination

Many articles I write come across as quite ambitious and not a little solemn. Reading articles such as The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese or Benchmarking progress to stay motivated, it might seem like I’m a robot that views learning Chinese simply as a difficult mountain to scale, and that reaching the top as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters.

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Even though we all have our different ways to climb, I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to improve and learn more, whatever goal we’re striving for. Some long-term goals take a very long time to accomplish, so simply aiming for the top and trudging on is not only daunting, I think it’s impossible for most people to keep up in the long run. Therefore, in this article I will talk about why I think rewards in the short-term perspective are absolutely essential when learning anything. Another way of saying that is that you need to have fun if you hope to reach the top of the mountain.

Learning Chinese for the thrill

Come on, my friends, let’s make for the hills.
They say there’s gold but I’m looking for thrills.
You can get your hands on whatever we find,
‘Cause I’m only coming along for the ride.

– Pink Floyd, “The Gold, It’s In The…”

Personally, I started learning Chinese simply because I found it interesting and I wanted to see what it was like. I wasn’t interested in reaching the top of the mountain and I sure wasn’t interested in finding gold. I was only coming along for the ride, so to speak. Then, the more I climbed, the more I found that the climbing itself was fascinating. I discovered that the challenge of learning Chinese in itself was more interesting than anything I had tried before. After spending many years on the mountain, I’ve become interested in climbing ever higher, not because I think there is a pot of gold at the top, but because I’m curious to find know all the different parts of the mountain.

…or to find the pot of gold

I’ve taught a number of introductory courses in Chinese, usually for people who will study several years of Chinese integrated in other university programs. Each time, I ask people why they want to learn Chinese, partly because I’m curious and partly because I think it’s important that they know why they are studying. A significant number of students say that they study Chinese to find better jobs, earn more money or add a feather in their caps in some way. In other words, they’re climbing the mountain to find the pot of gold. Some of these students, when I ask them why they chose Chinese and not another language, they refer to the rise of China, which doesn’t come as a surprise at all.

However, this tells me that what they are doing is really trying to climb a really high mountain simply to find gold at the top. I think  that most people can’t force themselves to do something for many years simply to achieve something at the end of that period. Yes, if your life depended on it, I’m sure you could do it, but for people living in fairly comfortable, developed societies, the motivational force just isn’t strong enough. Fortunately, this isn’t really a problem.

Why not study for the thrills and the gold?

There is nothing that says that you can’t study Chinese both because you think the progress is interesting in itself and because you want to find something at the top of the mountain. I personally know that I need both to be happy with my studying and my life. I study Chinese because I think it’s fascinating, but also because I want to use Chinese professionally in my career. I want to reach a certain level and I want to do it relatively quickly, not because it’s a goal unto itself, but because it opens other doors for me, perhaps with new, different mountains to climb. I won’t talk more about gold in this article, neither real nor metaphorical gold, but I will talk more about thrills and the journey itself.

It’s the journey that counts

This cliché is old as the mountain itself. However, looking closer at it, there is more to it than most people think. If we hope to scale a high mountain, isn’t it going to be a lot tougher if we think that every step (or misstep) along the way is a pain? Each time we take a wrong turn or get stuck somewhere, it would count as lost time. Frustration and increasing pressure. But if we flip the coin and regard the journey as the essential part of the climbing, everything we do on the mountain becomes interesting it itself.

Choosing your way up the mountain

We are all different and what counts as enjoyable is highly subjective. There are many, many ways of learning Chinese and it’s obvious that we should choose methods that we enjoy. The important thing is that we have to enjoy what we’re doing, because otherwise the journey up the mountain will kill you rather that thrill you. As I’ve already said, “enjoy” is a vague word, but what I mean here is that when you study Chinese, you have to find ways that you genuinely enjoy. If you don’t, your learning will either be a source of great stress and frustration or you will fail and abandon the task altogether.

One powerful way of making learning interesting is simply to integrate it with something you already think is fun to start with. Here are a few concrete examples:

  • If you like playing games, why don’t you try to find Chinese versions of the games you play? I’ve recently played some StarCraft 2 in Chinese, which allows me to combine something I like (playing computer games) with learning Chinese. The result is so awesome that I’m probably going to write an article about it.
  • If you like music, why don’t you make music a source for learning Chinese? Try finding artists playing the kind of music you usually like (even though some genres are less popular in China, you can almost always find something) and use the lyrics as a source for learning the language.
  • If you like fashion, why don’t you start following some related blogs, written in Chinese? Of course, it might take you a while to understand everything if you’re a beginner, but the idea is that you read the blogs because you like it, not because you want to achieve something in the long run.

I could make the list a lot longer, but I think the idea is clear enough. Balancing enjoyment and progress might be difficult, but my advise in general is that enjoying yourself is more important than making hasty progress. If you’re going to read a book in Chinese, choose something which avoids drowning you in difficult words (if that stops you enjoying the book) and which allows you to enjoy the reading instead. If you want to improve your listening ability, find material you’re genuinely interested, don’t force yourself to just listen to textbook audio.

Enjoying the journey while still staying focused on the destination

I know that many learners of Chinese do have clear goals of what they want to learn (I have, too). However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy yourself along the way. I don’t say that the journey is important because it sounds fancy, I do it because I think it’s an essential part of a healthy attitude towards studying. Learning Chinese to an advanced level takes thousands and thousands of hours of hard work. If you hate every second of it, are you really likely to invest the time necessary to succeed? What if you love at least a significant part of that time? If you can make studying become interesting regardless of what the final destination is, you have achieved something marvellous which will allow you to reach your goal.

As you can see, there is possibly a paradox here. If we focus only on the destination, we will fail because the road is too long and we need something in the short-term that will keep us motivated and keep our spirits high. If we focus only on the journey, we risk getting lost and not finding our way up the mountain at all. This might be an acceptable outcome for some people, but for others, enjoyment alone is not enough. Personally, I think that this doesn’t need to be a paradox and that we can find ways to do both most of the time. Sure, we might not enjoy every second of studying, but neither should we prioritise advancing quickly over enjoying what we’re doing. The key to learning anything to a high level is finding ways to practise that focus on both the journey and the destination simultaneously.

If you hope to master Chinese, I think that is what you should do.

Goals and motivation, part 4 – Micro goals

This post is about micro goals. To see the introductory article about goals and motivation in general, please follow this link.

Micro goals

Just like long-term and short-term goals, micro goals have already been introduced, but let’s start from the beginning, shall we? To start with, I think the importance of micro goals is very dependent on personality, even though it should be an important tool for most learners. A micro goal is what it sounds like, a very, very short-term goal, perhaps only an hour or two.

Here is a number of examples:

  • Learn the words for the basic colours
  • Enter words from a chapter in your textbook to your computer
  • Read one chapter in a book
  • Write one diary entry
  • Post a contact add on a forum
  • Review your long-term goals

As you can see, many of these coincide with the short-term goals. For instance, you might have the short-term goal of writing ten diary entries this month, so writing one of them is considered a micro goal because you can probably do it within an hour.

Use micro goals whenever you sit down to study

You can set micro goals whenever you plan to study. Before you start, you simply think through what you want to do and then set about completing the task. If they relate to you short-term goals, you can make notes on that sheet of paper to see how you progress towards those goals. Again, this gives you a feeling of movement, you’re actually learning something.

Another important aspect of micro goals is that they limit your studying. If you just sit down to study characters in general, you might lose focus and feel pretty bored. That might happen if you have a micro goal as well, but the good thing is that you have already said how much you’re going to learn. If you know that you’re going to learn 10 radicals and one sample character for each, when you’ve done that, you’re done! If you want to continue, set up another micro goal.

Micro goals are flexible

For me personally, I seldom write these goals down, but I do try to be conscious about them at all times. If I plan to review vocabulary and have a huge workload (let’s say it would take two hours to review everything I should), I simply say that I will review intensely for 15 minutes and then take a break. This kind of time limited goal is usually called time boxing (please refer to Timeboxing Chinese). If I don’t feel tired, I set a new goal. I never sit down and just review without knowing what I wand to achieve, however. If you feel that writing micro goals down, by all means, do so! This is a tool, just like the other goals, use it intelligently.

Goals and motivation, part 3 – Short-term goals

This post is about short-term goals. To see the introductory article about goals and motivation in general, please follow this link.

Short-term goals

As we did in the previous article, let’s repeat the basics again in case someone missed them in the introduction. If long-term goals stretch over months and years, short-term goals would stretch over days and weeks. These goals are as important as the long-term goal, but because you complete them much faster, you’re going to have to deal with them more.

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Here are a few example of short-term goals:

  • Pass the exam on March 5th
  • Go through all the sounds in Chinese
  • Read five short texts
  • Write at least ten diary entries
  • Find a language exchange partner
  • Learn the lyrics of five songs

Note that except for the first goal, I haven’t specified any deadline, but that’s something you should do. Each goal should have a specific time when it should be accomplished and it should be realistic. Don’t overdo it. If you find that ten diary entries is to easy to do in one month, you can write a few extra anyway. Don’t set goals you can’t reach, it will only make you depressed. Be realistic and increase over time instead.

Take a blank sheet of paper or open a blank document. Write down a couple of things you want to achieve within the coming weeks. Some goals might have a deadline this weekend, others in a month. Compare this list with your long-term goals. Are you lacking anything or are your short-term goals reasonable stepping stones to the higher levels? Remember that it might be hard to focus on everything at the same time, so you might have to favour some areas over others for a time and then switch.

If you’ve done this using a computer, print it out! I’m not joking, this is important. You can’t paste your laptop to the bathroom door (or any other place you pass by frequently), so you need a printed version. Put it somewhere where you can’t miss it (I have my goals on my door).

Clearly stated goals and accountability

The reason “I want to learn Chinese” is a bad goal is because nobody knows what it means. Similarly, “improve my reading ability”, “talk a lot” and “learn more characters” are equally useless. These are directions, not destinations! A goal is good if you can put a box next to it and when you know that you’re done, you can put a tick there. Not only does this make you aware of the fact that you are learning something, that you are moving forwards, but it also gives you the opportunity to think for a few minutes and replace the old goal.

Some people find it useful to make themselves accountable in various ways. If you take a course in Chines, you will naturally receive bad grades if you fail, but what about these goals you have defined for yourself? There are many ways to do this and I don’t think they are all suitable for all kinds of learners, but you should at least try them out once!

Tell people about your goals

Start a blog, write on Facebook or Twitter, talk to your family, anything you can think of, but do something to let other people know what you’re doing and when you’re supposed to be done. Ask people to ask you how it’s going, have someone check the deadlines for you. This is usually a fairly powerful tool to achieve short-term goals, but don’t overdo it. Only create hard goals for yourself when you know what you’re doing. Also, you have to realise that simply stating your goal is not the same as achieving it. When I say accountability, I mean that someone should actually check how’s it going, not that you just tell people about your goal.

Make yourself financially accountable

Pick a friend you trust (or a family member) and give him or her a significant sum of money (I’ve been using roughly one hundred dollars, which is quite a lot for a student, but this should vary according to your situation; the importance is that it feels like a significant amount money for you). Then you say that if you haven’t achieved a given goal before the deadline, they can keep the money (see why the goal has to be clear here?). It’s vitally important that you give the money and then get it back when you’re done, don’t promise to give money away if you fail!

These are only examples, some of them hopefully suit you, others perhaps not so much. In any case, you need to try and you need to be creative to come up with ways that work for you.

Keeping a record

I think it’s motivating to keep a record of short-term goals I have accomplished. Either you can move them all to a separate sheet or file on your computer where you simply list all the things you have done. In case you every feel like you’re not learning anything or that you’re studying is standing still, take a look at the list. I usually find that I’ve learnt more things than I think I have!

Go to the next article about micro goals.

Goals and motivation, part 2 – Long-term goals

This post is about long-term goals. To see the introductory article about goals and motivation in general, please follow this link.

Long-term goals

Let’s start from the beginning, let’s answer the basic question: What’s your long term goal? What’s your final destination, so to speak? I can hear lots of “I want to learn Chinese!” when I ask this question (I’m not sure about you of course, but this is a common reply from real students).

Stop, right there!

What do you mean when you say “I want to learn Chinese”? Before you say anything, I’ll list a few goals that I know many people have.

  • Be able to chat with my Chinese friend
  • Understand a film in Chinese
  • Be able to do business in China
  • Be able to read The Journey to the West in Chinese
  • Teach Chinese in your country
  • Pass the highest level HSK exam
  • Pass a university course taught in Chinese

I think these are all reasonable interpretations of what “I want to learn Chinese” means, and they may all be right for different people! As you can see, these goals are wildly different. It might take a thousand times longer to achieve the proficiency needed for the last goal compared to the first, for instance. And no, that’s not an exaggeration.

If you want to read classical Chinese or pass a written exam, you don’t need to care very much about pronunciation, but that becomes extremely important if you plan on teaching Chinese in the future. Handwriting isn’t necessary if you want to be able to talk with Chinese people while travelling in China, slang is useless if you want to read history books. And so on.

To be honest, we already know that you want to learn Chinese, so let’s break it down a little bit, shall we?

Start with the list of motivations you should have made after reading this post and think what kind of long-term goals are related to what you’ve already written down. Sometimes, the motivations and the goals will be almost identical, sometimes not. What you want to achieve is of paramount importance, so don’t just jot something down quickly and leave it like that. Think carefully, discuss it with a friend, take a walk.

What long-term goals do you have? What is long-term, you might ask? I would say anything that takes more than a couple of months can be said to be long-term, but the time might stretch up to a lifetime. This means that you can and should have more than one long-term goal.

For instance, I had these long-term goals when I started learning Chinese:

  • Explore Chinese enough to know if it’s worth continuing with
  • Pass all courses and learn the material, not just pass the tests

These goals are modest enough and reasonable for a person who has never studied Chinese before. My course stretched over two semesters, so as soon as I knew that I wanted to learn Chinese properly, I formulated some new goals:

  • Be able to function socially with Chinese-speaking people
  • Be able to read a novel
  • Pass a university course taught in Chinese

As you can see, these goals are on different levels again, but they are still long-term. To pass the university course, I definitely need a reading ability that enables me not only read a novel, but read it quickly. However, even if you can survive a university course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can socialise in a relaxed manner with natives, because the skills involved are very different. Also note that long-term goals can change faster than they are achieved. Just because you have set a long-term goal doesn’t mean it will be there until it’s reached. Goals need to change according to your life, general situation and motivation for learning Chinese.

Look at what you have written so far and try to break it down further. You don’t have to remove anything, but if you think it will take years to achieve your long-term goal, you definitely need more easily attained milestones. For instance, if your taking a course, formulate a couple of goals that describe what you want to have achieved at the end of the semester.

Analysing long-term goals

I tend to separate my learning into the five areas of speaking, listening, reading, writing and vocabulary (as I have done on this website as well, see the menu to the right), not because they are entirely separate areas, but because it’s easier to handle that way. It also helps you to analyse your goals and see how to accomplish them.

When you go through your long-term goals, please have this in mind. How much do you need to focus on speaking, listening, reading and writing respectively to achieve your gaols? This question is very hard to answer, but asking more advanced learners or teachers is a good idea. For instance, is reading more important than listening if you want to pass a certain exam? Is writing really necessary if you only want to chat with friends?  Do you need to spend time polishing your pronunciation or not?

Go to the next article about short-term goals.