Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The importance of counting what counts when learning Chinese

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways.

In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon.

Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher.

I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese.

Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– William Bruce Cameron

This quote from William Bruce Cameron (often misattributed to Albert Einstein) to really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.

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  1. Guus says:

    I once had a math teacher who unreasonably penalised a friend of mine for a systematic mistake he made in notation. each repeated mistake got a deduction. My friend was upset, he never scored so low in an exam. But the teacher’s intention was good and successful: I’m sure my friend never made that mistake again!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      This is fine, provided that the teacher thinks that notation is very important. I don’t argue that emphasising on a particular area or ignoring another is bad, I’m arguing that it’s bad if it’s unintentional.

      The question isn’t whether your friend benefited from the corrections or not, but rather if it was worth the effort. Could he have learnt other, more important things instead of focusing so much on notation? If yes, then I think the teacher has made a mistake. If no, the teacher is doing the correct thing.

  2. Harland says:

    2 mistakes in the first paragraph.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks, I have corrected them (and some others I found, obviously too eager to publish new articles).

  3. Federico Smanio 牛飞 says:

    Hi Olle,
    very interesting as usual. I was just wondering if there’s an actual method to measure one’s language learning improvements.
    I am not referring to something ethereal but a real metric, an index that is built for the purpose of measuring the student’s improvements.
    I know it might sound odd, but I work in marketing and now everyone has become obsessed by the measure of performance. So I was just thinking that it could be interesting to create an index,taking into consideration the amount of time spent or the number of words memorized… I don’t know… that could be monitored to see our path to language learning. A Language ROI. The return on Investment of the language learning. (Roil)
    What do you think?

    1. Sara K. says:

      Olle’s already written an article about this:


  4. Federico Smanio 牛飞 says:

    Thank you Sara. Great article and useful advice.

  5. nommoc says:

    The Einstein quote was good.

  6. Julien Leyre says:

    Yep yep yep! I actually wrote a post once on how bad evaluation methods made me quit a language class in Nanjing (but then I’m the rebellious type). http://julienleyre.me/2014/03/12/why-i-quit-class-trust-and-teaching-institutions/

    In the specific case of Mandarin, there’s one element that particularly bugs me: should we entirely get rid of ‘handwriting skills’? That’s a real question I’m asking myself.
    I’d be now on the ‘advanced’ spectrum. I have read a number of books, I’ve had meetings of all kinds entirely in Mandarin, social conversations with multiple people, I’ve made appointments over the phone, and written emails and wechat messages which, if not the height of style, did the purpose. I don’t know that I can handwrite 400 characters, though, and would probably fail at any text that requires handwriting (in Australia, that would include year 12 Chinese). Do you have any thoughts on this – alternatives and importance of evaluating ‘writing’.

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