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.


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!

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!

You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

Children learn languages quickly and effortlessly, adults slowly and painfully. This is an idea I’ve seen or heard so many times that I feel it’s time to write something about it. The notion that children are better language learners across the board is simply wrong. Before we look at why this is relevant for us as Chinese learners, let’s discuss why adults are actually better language learners than children.

Children don’t learn their first language quickly and effortlessly

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It takes many, many years for a child to learn his or her first language. Saying that it’s effortless is equally false, it’s just that we don’t remember how hard it was. I’ve studied Chinese for five years and I can promise you that my Chinese is far superior to the average five-year-old in most areas (I would probably lose when it comes to intonation).

That’s true even considering the fact that I’ve been doing many things that aren’t related to Chinese at all, such as writing articles for this website (in English), talking with friends and family (in Swedish) and so on. I have not experienced anything near the true immersion environment of a child. Learning a language is very hard, both for adults and children.

One reason that people believe that children learn faster is that much less is required of them. Adults who arrive in a new country are supposed to handle all aspects of a normal, adult life, which naturally demands a great deal in terms of language ability. We don’t demand the same kind of proficiency from children. We only increase the demands gradually as they grow up and learn the language. As adults learning a second language, we’re adults and children at the same time.

Children might also learn to perform very well in a limited set of situations and in certain contexts, which might lead others to (erroneously) think that their ability is as good in other areas as well. Adults are more likely to run into problems because they need to or want to express more complex ideas.

Adults are much smarter than kids

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but adults are much better at planning, analysing, executing, organising, deducing and so on. These are all skills that are very valuable when learning a second language.

Also, adults know a lot about the world that kids don’t. This means that we can often connect new words with things we already know, which is essential for any kind of learning. I can relate words and structures in Chinese to words and structures I know in other languages. This is of course only a crude form of scaffolding, but it definitely helps. If I see the word “progressive tax” in Chinese, I don’t need to learn what progressive tax is, I just need to learn how to say it in Chinese.

Hacking Chinese is of course a prime example of something that an adult language learner (myself) can do, but that a child cannot. I can observe and analyse my language learning and understand where I’m having problems and what to do about them. I can be systematic and plan my studying in an efficient manner. After five years of studying, my language level is apparently good enough to survive a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language taught entirely in Chinese, mostly aimed at native speakers.

This obviously takes much, much longer for a child (the average age of my native speaking classmates is more like 25 rather than 5). Most people go through nine years of elementary school, six years of high school and then four years of university before they do that.

I don’t mean to say that my own language ability is as good as my classmates’, though, far from it. Very far indeed. But using a language successfully is about much more than just words, grammar and pronunciation. Language and thinking are closely linked, which is why the more mature mind of an adult reaches a mature language level much faster. We take lots of shortcuts that aren’t available to children.

What we should learn from children

Still, children do have certain advantages. For instance, they definitely reach a higher level in the long run, especially when it comes to pronunciation. As mentioned above, my ability to express myself in Chinese (both in speaking and writing) is of course superior to a five-year-old, but in the long run, Give the child another five years and I’m left far behind in terms of pronunciation and accent. The native speaker will also have a more natural sentence structure and a better grasp of everyday language.

The reasons for this are many and various. Some of these are biological (children really do learn words very quickly, for instance), but let’s focus on the things we can learn from. To start with, children have extremely strong incentives to learn. Humans are social beings that crave contact and affinity with other humans and this is mediated through language.

Thus, no child will think to itself “learning this language just isn’t worth it, let’s do something else”. Instead, they will try very hard to fit in socially, which includes the ability to communicate flawlessly. There is no way that a second language learner can have such strong incentives to learn Chinese, even though it might be possible to come close.

The lesson we can lean from this is that motivation is something we need to consider carefully. We need to find ways of studying that we find interesting, entertaining or important in some way.

Moreover, children are less socially conscious than adults, or, in other words, they have less face to save. A baby doesn’t care if it pronounces “lamp” incorrectly or gets the word order of a sentence wrong. Kids care more than babies, they are subject to peer pressure and so on, but they are still more willing to experiment than adults. This is something we should remember as second language learning adults. We have to accept that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is learning. Adopting a more child-like attitude would do us good.

Children aren’t small adults

Way back in history, people tended to regard children as adults, but smaller. In the light of modern developmental psychology, this is of course nonsense. Children are simply different from adults. This means that arguments like “it works for children, therefore it should work for adults as well” are bunk.

This isn’t an argument against any particular method, but if anyone motivates their approach with this kind of statement, an alarm should go off in your critically thinking mind. That it works for children might mean that it doesn’t work for adults, for instance. Or it might mean nothing at all, because we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Adult learners, pronunciation and fossilisation

I think the most obvious example is pronunciation. Almost all children achieve very good pronunciation and a natural accent in languages they start learning early. Most adults who start learning a second language don’t achieve this. As I said earlier, children do learn pronunciation and accent to a higher level than adults do.

However, this is not only because they are children, but also because adults tend to have fixed ideas about certain things. Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make. The incentives are also different. People would find it very strange if someone pronounced words incorrectly in their first language and would exert social pressure on that person to change. This isn’t true for adult learners, especially not advanced ones. Communication is usually deemed to be enough. That is, I believe, the main reason adult learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation.


Children learn languages neither quickly nor effortlessly. Adults have several advantages that allow us to learn more efficiently. It’s true that children achieve better pronunciation and accent, but I personally think this isn’t mainly because they are children, but because adults don’t care enough,  don’t receive enough feedback or don’t spend enough time.

So, no, you’re not too old. You might be too lazy, too close-minded or too busy, but you’re definitely not too old.

Study according to your current productivity level

In order to learn Chinese, there are a wide range of things we need to study. Some are very demanding (writing, active listening), some relatively monotonous (entering new vocabulary, reviewing old vocabulary), others aren’t actually studying, but still beneficial (finding suitable reading material, reading articles on Hacking Chinese), yet others are fairly passive and can be combined with other activities (background listening, passive listening). Perhaps the most overlooked kind of studying is that which doesn’t really feel like studying (listening to music, playing computer games, doing sports).

These all require different levels of productivity. Sometimes, we are full of energy and feel that we can do anything, but sometimes we feel listless and when we try to write an article or transcribe a dialogue, it simply doesn’t work.

If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it

In order to invest thousands of hours into learning Chinese, you need to either enjoy what you’re doing or be very masochistic. Not only does studying become a pain if you don’t enjoy it, but studies also show that being interested in what you’re doing and enjoying while you learn is of paramount importance for your study results. Therefore, if you planned to do something, but then figure out that you don’t have the energy required, you shouldn’t force yourself. Generating negative feelings in connection with learning Chinese is dangerous and counter-productive.

If you don’t feel up to it, do something else instead

However, just because you don’t feel up to spending an hour transcribing a dialogue or writing an article on Lang-8, that does not mean that you should play games on Facebook or idly browse the internet instead. No, you should instead try to find something else to study, something that matches your current productivity level. This is the true topic of this article. Maximising output is about being able to find something suitable to study for any given mental state or level of productivity.

If you have to do it anyway, choose the best time

Before delving deeper into different kinds of tasks and how to rank them according to productivity level, something should be said about procrastination. If you have tasks you really have to do, either because you think they’re essential to your language learning or because of curricular pressure, you can’t simply choose other tasks, at least not all the time. However, if you start with your assignment well on time, there’s usually enough time to allow some flexibility. If you just can’t concentrate on learning complex grammar right now, perhaps after lunch or before dinner will be better?

This is not an excuse to postpone indefinitely, it’s about knowing yourself. If you know that you become very tired after meals, don’t place heavy tasks like active listening or writing articles directly after lunch. If you know that you’re usually very productive for a few hours after waking up, try to use that time to get these things done instead. This is related to what I’ve written about time quality earlier, but is more closely related to your own emotional state, rather than external factors.

In essence, you should choose the task that most closely matches your current productivity level and mental state.

This means that you might have to do things you don’t feel up to sometimes, but that’s difficult to avoid if you have exams and homework assignments.

Productivity levels vary over time

Although people are certainly different in this regard, productivity levels vary over time, both in the short and long term. Personally, I know that I’m very productive before lunch (this article was written around eight o’clock on a Sunday morning) and after midnight. On the other hand, I know that time between lunch and dinner is much less productive for me, and the closer to five o’clock it gets, the more prone to procrastination I become.

Productivity levels also vary in the long term. If I’m busy with other things that require productive output of some kind, I have less energy left for demanding study tasks. If studying Chinese is the only thing I’m doing at the moment, this usually isn’t a problem, but it still might be. Almost everything in our might influences how productive we feel (particularly social life). Therefore, understanding yourself is necessary if you hope to optimise your studying.

Tasks requiring low productivity levels

Regarding tasks requiring low productivity levels, I think it’s important to always know what you’re going to study next. You can keep post-it notes on your desk or have a text file on your phone, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but having a list of things to study is necessary. Why? Because determining what you want to study requires productivity/creativity in itself! If you don’t have that, how are you supposed to know what to study? Here are a few things I can do almost regardless of how listless I feel:

  • Review vocabulary – Make sure to timebox if it’s hard to concentrate or if you feel tired
  • Edit vocabulary definitions – I routinely mark and update flashcards with new info, example sentences and so on
  • Find, download or manage audio – Do you have relevant audio on your phone? If yes, you can always get more.

If these things are too demanding or you find them too boring to cope with, then try the following (but don’t do this all the time, know yourself well enough to know when you’re procrastinating and when you are realistic):

These are just examples, of course. What you personally think is demanding isn’t something I can comment on, but the above examples are based on my own experience. For instance, music is something which makes me more energetic, so using music almost never fails. This might not be the case for you, but I hope you understand the principle.

The most important thing of all: When you feel tired, don’t stop studying, study something else instead

If you take one thing with you from this article, I’d like it to be this: The next time you feel tired while studying Chinese and feel like giving up, don’t simply put down the book and go on Facebook or similar. Instead, find something else you can study which is more suited to your current emotional state. It might be something which doesn’t feel very serious (such as music), but it’s still exposure to Chinese, something you need more of. In any case, it’s much better than doing nothing!

Language is communication, not only an abstract subject to study

According to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the word “language” is defined as follows:

a system of communication by written or spoken words, which is used by the people of a particular country or area

That languages are about communication should come as a surprise to no-one, but if you think about it, how often do you study Chinese with communication in focus? If you study somewhere else than China, the likelihood is that your contact with native speakers is quite sparse, perhaps even non-existent. I studied French for seven years in Sweden without actually using the language in a real situation more than a few times! This is absurd, but still a reality for many people.

In this article, I will talk about the importance of communication. It’s mainly directed towards those of you who don’t live in a Chinese-speaking environment, but the rest of you will probably find some interesting things as well.


Two-way communication from the very beginning

If you’ve just started learning Chinese, you should start communicating immediately. Find someone to practise with as soon as possible,  don’t wait until the day you’re “proficient enough”, because that day is only drifting farther and farther into the future for every second you’re harbouring that kind of thought. There are many ways you can find Chinese speaking friends, pen pals and language exchange partners. Here are some suggestions:

There two reasons why you should do this:

  1. It creates a real need for communication
  2. It makes you understand that Chinese is a real language

Let us consider these points one by one. The first one is rather straightforward. Having something you want to say to another human being, but that you are currently unable to communicate, is a much stronger incentive to learn than almost anything else. Writing a very basic self-presentation might seem boring and pointless, but if you’re going to use it to find friends, it suddenly becomes important. You won’t spend time writing it only because you want to pass the course that requires you to write the presentation, you’ll also do it because you want to communicate with other people.

The second point might not be obvious at first, but it ties in with what I said earlier about lacking contact with the real language. It’s possible to study for many years and only see textbooks and teaching materials designed for foreigners. Of course, no sane person doubts that China exists and that a majority of Chinese can speak Mandarin, but actually getting in touch with native speakers makes this certain beyond doubt. Don’t create a barrier between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world. Sure, they aren’t one and the same, but it’s important to create links between the two.

Communication as motivation

If you’re regularly communicating with natives, you will find that there are lots of things you need to learn and areas where you need to improve in order to make yourself better understood. As a beginner, you might realise that your tones are off and that you need to practice those, as an advanced learner, you might realise that you need to work on your vocabulary to be able to choose more suitable words to express what you want to say. Regardless of your level, real communication is a much more powerful motive force than exams, grades or anything else related to the classroom. Anything that strengthens your motivation to learn is good, so make sure you’re not studying only for the sake of studying!

Inside vs. outside the classroom

Contrary to what seems to be all the rage among language learning bloggers, I’m not going to say that classroom learning is useless. Sure, there are significant differences between learning inside and outside the classroom and the two can and should be used for different things. What bothers me is that for many students and teachers, it seems like the two ways of learning are completely separate and isolated. It needn’t be like this, aspects of real communication can and should be a part of classroom learning as well.

I will return to classroom learning in another article, so today I’ll just say that you can make classroom learning much more effective by linking it to the real world. If you’re a teacher, I think it’s your responsibility to help students with this (or arrange it for them if possible). If your a student yourself, you can create these links on your own.

Don’t isolate yourself, join the world!

I studied languages in isolation for a long time. I think I studied French for five years before I spoke French to a real French person. I even repeated this mistake with Chinese and didn’t speak much Chinese before I moved to Taiwan. I say “mistake” because communication with other people lies very close to the heart of what it is to be human. Tapping this need for communication is essential, perhaps even necessary if we want to have the energy required to learn Chinese. It’s also an excellent tool to help us find out what we should improve.

What I’ve said here is in no way limited to having conversations, reading and writing are also means of communication. For instance, learning to read characters because you want to read a certain book or an interesting comic is much butter than learning them in order to pass the next exam. Another example is practising listening ability in order to understand films and TV shows. It doesn’t really matter what area we’re talking about; don’t isolate yourself and your language learning from the real world. The language and its speakers are out there, go join them!

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.

Goals and motivation, part 1 – Introduction

I think everybody knows that motivation is something you need in order to succeed. I’m naturally going to assume that you have some reason to learn Chinese (otherwise, why are you reading this?), but that’s not going to be enough. Do you know why you want to learn Chinese? Are you the ambitious entrepreneur? The curious student? The involuntary learner? The Chinese culture aficionado? The linguistics nerd?

Be specific

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Even though it’s helpful knowing what drives you to learn Chinese in general, that’s not enough and even if you feel that you fit in one of the above-mentioned categories, reality is seldom classified that easily. Thus, you need to create your own language learning profile. Naturally, this will change over time, but that’s okay, the point is to make you aware of what you are doing and why. You can revise your profile as your attitude and your outlook change.

A strong motivation is necessary to succeed with any task that requires an extended period of time to accomplish; learning Chinese is definitely not an exception. I’m not going to delve much deeper into how to maintain motivation at the moment, but try to be aware of what makes you move forward.


This is yet another buzzword that most people have heard in close connection with education and learning: you need to set goals for yourself! What goals? Lots of them, in fact, on many different levels. You need to set long-term goals as well as short-term ones. Sometimes, you can also use micro goals that only spans a couple of hours. It’s absolutely essential that you understand these concepts to gain anything from the rest of the articles on this website, so please pay attention.

Why are goals so important? Because they can tell you what you have to do and what you don’t have to do. Efficient learning is a lot about being able to ignore things you don’t need and spend the time you thus save on studying something really useful. Simply defining your goals won’t make you able to do this, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Goals is also a way of measuring progress, and since learning things makes most people feel good, achieving goals likewise make you feel that you are getting somewhere, you are taking steps down that thousand mile road.

This post serves as an introduction to goals of different kinds, but there is one article for each kind of the goals mentioned below. This articles simply aims to introduce them and point out their main uses. Please refer to each articles for more details and some hand-on tips.

Long-term goals (click to read the article)

A long-term goal is something you can’t achieve within a few days or weeks, but something that takes months or sometimes years. By definition, they will take a long time to achieve, but they are very important because they allow you to focus your learning process towards a few specific goals, which helps you to avoid distractions and formulate goals that can be more easily achieved.

Long-term goals are destinations on your language learning journey. You wouldn’t set out in your car without knowing where you’re going and then hope to arrive at some specific place, would you? There are many kinds of long-term goals, some are reasonably easy to attain, others extremely hard.

Here are some examples I think are quite common for Chinese learners:

  • Be able to chat with a 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 have written more about long-term goals in the second article about goals and motivation.

Short-term goals (click to read the article)

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 they change a lot faster, you’re going to have to deal with them a lot more. Short-term goals are created by breaking down long-term goals, asking the question: What do I need to practice doing to achieve this long-term goal?

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

Setting short-term goals is an art that requires lots of practice. It also requires a lot of knowledge about yourself and how you work as a person. Setting deadlines and making yourself accountable in some way (perhaps just by telling other people what you’re doing) are usually good ideas, but there are many more things to keep in mind.

I have written more about short-term goals in the third article about goals and motivation.

Micro goals (click to read the article)

Micro goals are, just like the name implies, very short-term indeed. They should be achievable in one sitting, perhaps even less than half an hour. The idea here is to be able to stay focused on something concrete and tangible, while the other goals (long-term and short-term) linger in the background.

Here are some examples of micro goals:

  • 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 ad on a forum
  • Review your long-term goals

Staying focused even for short periods of time is sometimes incredibly more productive than aimlessly learning words or otherwise studying without a specific goal in mind. Micro goals needn’t always be written down, but it’s good to be aware of them.

I have written more about micro goals in the fourth article about goals and motivation