Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Science and research

For the individual language learner, science and associated statistics is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, scientific enquiry can tell us much about the language we’re studying and how we should go about learning it. On the other hand, we must recognise the fact that what is statistically relevant for a large group of people might not be relevant for any given individual within that group.

I think we can divide scientific enquiry into two parts. First, studies on language learning itself tend to be of limited importance. Each learner is unique, each situation is unique and each language is unique, and chances are that the situation tested in a study is not the same as your own situation. Still, being aware of what generally seems to work is of course an indicator of what might work for you as well, but science is never an infallible guide.

I say that this is a double-edged sword because you can’t look at a study and say that “this study proves that method A is better than B”. You can say that for a majority of the people in that study, method A was slightly better than B, but only under very specific and well-defined conditions (usually very short-term). These might not be the conditions under which you study.

The importance of N=1

Still, a scientific approach to studying is essential. N is simply the number of subjects that participate in a scientific study. Normally, a single participant is not interesting for scientists, teachers or legislators because they want to be able to say something in general about the subject their doing research into and not about an individual.

For an individual learner, however, N=1 (one single participant, yourself) is enough to conduct experiments. You don’t need to care about that the method you use doesn’t work for 95% of the other learners. If it works for you, that’s good enough. Conducting scientific experiments on yourself is an excellent way of expanding your horizons and evaluating your own study method.

Scientific descriptions of Chinese

The second type of research is that into the Chinese language itself and this is much more useful. For instance, scientific enquiries into the difference in dialects might tell us that roughly one third of all tones in Standard Chinese are reduced to neutral tones in natural speech, but that this is not the case in e.g. Taiwan. This is helpful if we try to make sense of the way Chinese is used.

Furthermore, linguists have also produced frequency lists and other useful analyses of the Chinese language, all which might come in handy for the industrious student. The same can be said about grammar, syntax, phonology and much more.

Science not directly related to Chinese

I spent one year studying nothing but psychology, including memory and cognition. This opened the door for me into a different world and sparked my interest in learning how to learn. Studying how we learn, how we remember and similar topics gives you a deeper understanding about the process of language learning. Even though not all methods might be directly applicable to learning Chinese, having a basic understanding of the psychology of memory and learning is essential if we want to make sense of our own and others’ experiences of learning Chinese.

Articles in the science and research category: