Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Can you learn Chinese faster by making it harder?

Image credit: Stephanieking via Wikimedia Commons.

When learning Chinese, should you focus on extensive learning, where you cover a lot of fairly easy material, or should you throw yourself in at the deep end and make things as difficult as you can and hope you adapt? Can you learn faster by making it more difficult?

I have advocated both approaches, which might seem contradictory. During a lecture about learning and teaching Chinese I held recently at the University of Leuven, Belgium, this very question came up. I think I gave an adequate answer to the question, but I also realised that the full answer is probably not something that fits easily in a Q&A session after a lecture. Hence, this post!

The short answer: It’s better to cover large volumes of easy material

The short answer is that you should probably focus more on extensive studying than you are currently doing. I’m saying this both because it’s generally speaking a better approach, and because I know that most courses don’t do this even remotely as much as they should. Read more in this article:

The illusion of advanced learning and what to do about it

There are also many requirements that have to be met in order for deep-end immersion to be a good idea, but more about that later.

Extensive studying

To make sure we’re on the same page, the idea behind extensive studying is that you cover much more content in a given amount of time, which you can do because the difficulty is much lower.

Compare reading the next chapter in your textbook (which will contain things you don’t know) to reading text based almost entirely on things you already know. The latter is several times faster, so you can cover several times more content.

This is valuable for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it gives you the variation you need to really learn what words mean and how they are used. It’s also more fun and motivating, and opens up for incidental learning. For this to be effective, you really need to know almost everything (most research suggests 98%).

I have yet to write an article about extensive studying in general, but this article about extensive reading can easily be applied to other areas as well:

An introduction to extensive reading for Chinese learners

Making it harder: Deep-end immersion and courses that are too hard for you

One of the most popular articles on Hacking Chinese is Is taking a Chinese course that’s too hard good for your learning? where I describe how I managed to learn very quickly by immersing myself in classes that were actually way too difficult.

In essence, I enrolled in classes that were aimed at people who had studied much longer than me, and in doing so, I skipped several textbooks and had to do a lot of catching up. Merely staying alive in such a situation meant that I had to learn quickly. I never did very well compared to my classmates, but I did very well compared to the people who didn’t do this. I’m also very confident I did better than I would have if I hadn’t challenged myself in this way.

So, which one is it? Easy or hard?

As the person in the audience at the lecture pointed out, it seems contradictory to recommend both approaches. And it is, or at least would be if I recommended both methods for the same people in the same situation. But I don’t.

Like I said above, the short answer is that you should focus more on extensive studying, reading and listening to as much Chinese at or below your level as you can possibly manage. This is true for a vast majority of students.

The longer answer is that there are specific situations where you can boost your proficiency quickly by ramping up the difficulty You need several things to even consider doing this, however:

  • Enough time – You will have to work harder than anyone else in your class, so you need ample time to do this in. Apart from taking longer to learn the material you’re covering in class, you should also devote a significant amount of time trying to plug gaps below that level. If you don’t, you’re just adding to the illusion of advanced learning. Yes, perhaps you can make sense of the newspaper articles you read in class, but what good is that if your pronunciation is unintelligible and you can’t understand the answer when you ask for directions? You also need time after you’ve survived the challenge to catch up on things you missed.
  • Strong motivation – To succeed in an environment too difficult for you, you have to persist and keep at it for a long time, probably several months. You don’t only need time and motivation now, you need it for a long time. If you don’t give yourself time enough to adapt to the harsh environment, the effort will be wasted. In other words, I only recommend this method to people who are willing to spend significantly more than full time learning the language.
  • Passive knowledge – This is perhaps the least obvious element. I think that the reason I succeeded with some of my more daunting challenges was that I entered them with passive skills that were more advanced than my active skills. I knew more words and grammar than I could use. While I learnt many new things as well, the real benefit came from being forced to constantly use all the things I had previously learnt. See the conclusion below for more!

A tentative conclusion: Making it harder boosts skill development

This is a complex topic and to be entirely honest, I’m not entirely sure exactly what makes each method work. My tentative conclusion is that challenging yourself is very useful for improving skill-based components.

This ties in well with my experience in other areas, such as unicycling and gymnastics, where it’s essential to constantly do more difficult things in order not to stagnate.

Language learning is only partly skill-based, though. There’s also a knowledge component, such as basic understanding of written characters and spoken words. In this area, I think extensive learning excels. The only reason that challenging yourself works is if it makes you spend more time engaging with the language, probably because you spend more time yourself and because more Chinese is being used in the classroom. Still,  if you can invest all that time while focusing on easier content, that’s probably better!

I’m very curious to hear what you think about this, so please leave a comment below!

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  1. Morgan says:

    I have tried a kamikaze style (ish) approach to learning Chinese in an effort to increase vocabulary, listening and reading quickly during a 4 month career break. I do not like using HSK as an indicator of my Chinese level (and I know Olle is also not a fan of this), however as a rough indication I was around level 4 so give or take 1200-1500 characters. I was listening to native radio stations, primarily news channels and story channels, reading transcripts from TED Talks, reading textbooks higher than my level and using native articles. I would say that besides the odd word or phrase that jumped out or regularly kept coming up (Rule of 3), I learned very little and my understanding of the language barely increased. However, more importantly, it sapped my motivation and I was losing drive to continue studying. I wasn’t looking forward to studying because I knew it wasn’t going to be a slog and chances are I’d finish whatever session I was doing feeling drained and as if I had little to show from it. In contrast, I have recently been doing my best to consume a lot more material at my actual level and that just below, from many diverse sources. I am reading textbooks and graded readers that are pitched around and below my level; I am watching lots of Chinese cartoons (熊出没 and 小猪佩奇 are favourites) and I am using the audio from the books and readers to supplement listening practice. Whilst I may not be increasing the scope and range of my vocabulary, it does feel like I am gaining a better understanding of the language, albeit slowly, which is arguably just as important as having a broad range of vocabulary (there’s not point having a wide range of vocab if you can’t apply it correctly. More importantly, I don’t feel so drained after “studying” like this compared to how I felt when doing a kamikaze-esque approach and I don’t feel demoralised because in this method I am actually able to understand 95% or so of what’s going on. My study method is (very) far from perfect, but I’m hoping that with a new online course I’m doing with BLCU, along with practice with native speakers and my more laid-back approach to consuming Chinese material (i.e extensive studying), I’ll start making some steady progress in Mandarin.

  2. Riley says:

    Great post! I like Paul Nation’s idea that learning a language well is all about balancing what he calls the “four strands”: meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, fluency development, and form-focused study; he recommends about an equal mix of each. Fluency development is essentially extensive studying, where you’re familiar with about 98% if the vocab, and “meaning focused” is more intensive, but even there the floor is about 90-95%. I think super-intensive “kamikaze” study works for some learners, but would be overwhelming for most.

  3. Eric Majerus says:

    Great article! Where do you recommend getting material for extensive learning at a particular level? I’ve been using The Chairman’s Bao as a graded reader because it allows me to select which HSK level article I want to read (which is currently between 2 and 3).

    I find it easier to practice character recognition by having at-mt-level material because I spend less time looking up every other character and more time interpreting the context.

  4. 白羽 says:

    I would say that I practiced the “making it harder” approach when it came to a certain cartoon series: 偵探鴨子. It is an English-language cartoon dubbed over in Chinese. I forget its English name. All the characters are ducks. Miss Mallory, the main duck, is an amateur, but brilliant, detective. She is clearly based on Agatha Christies’s Miss Marple down to the knitting that she always carries in her purse.

    Anyway, I was enchanted by this cartoon….but there were no Chinese subtitles, and at that point in my studies, I couldn’t understand even the gist of a story without Chinese subtitles.

    So I began the plodding work of listening, stopping the video, writing down as much as I understood, replaying, ad infinitum. It took days. I would then have my Chinese tutor listen to the video and correct my transcript. I remember the delight I felt when I could understand the whole video. I went on to write transcripts and have them corrected for many more duck detective videos. I definitely threw myself into something over my head, but I was motivated by delight at these take-offs on Miss Marple mysteries. As a result, my listening comprehension and vocabulary shot way up.

    One take away is that one should try to do it with a subject matter that really motivates you to learn it. For me, it’s like desert—not the one and only, and not the main, course in my studies.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for sharing! I think reading and/or listening to content you’re truly interested in is essential, but if it’s relatively difficult, it works best as a small part of the overall study routine, as you say. I have spent way too much time trying to tackle very hard content and regret it; it feels like I spent most of the time looking things up and that’s not a very efficient way of learning a language. In my defense, there wasn’t as much graded listening and reading content around when I started learning Mandarin and it was harder to find, but I did not make proper use of it.

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