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:
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.
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:
Making it harder: Deep-end immersion and kamikaze runs
One of the most popular articles on Hacking Chinese is The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese, 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 doing a kamikaze run. 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 the kamikaze run 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 my kamikaze learning was that I entered these challenges 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.
In other words, if the goal is to improve reading and listening, I think the kamikaze approach is a bad idea, and I would much prefer to read and listen to more Chinese at a lower level. But if the goal is to boost communication when passive knowledge is already quite good, and given enough time and motivation, I think that placing oneself in a very challenging environment can be very beneficial.
I’m very curious to hear what you think about this, so please leave a comment below!