Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Goals and motivation for learning Chinese, part 1 – Introduction

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/zandi2000

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

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

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!


  1. Excellent set of articles! This is the first step I take with all my students. Setting realistic and achievable goals is essential for success. Students need to be empowered to set their own individual goals and direct their learning – especially if they are taking extra-curricular classes or engaging in self-learning.

    Instructors must also set realistic goals and adjust them as students react to homework and out of class assignments. If your students are not completing these assignments – why? Are the goals you set not aligned with the motivations and available time your students have? When students are in a for-credit class, goals are typically teacher determined. However, this does not always lead to high student satisfaction. When students are in non-credit classes “customer satisfaction” is primary and teachers need to engage students in the goal setting process.

    On a personal level, when I studied in private classes at Taipei Language Institute (highly recommended), I was able to set my own goals, work with my teachers to select curriculum that would meet those goals, and move farther in less time than I had previously.

  2. Jack Wang says:

    Very wonderful post for someone who want to learn chinese well

  3. John Oliver B. Monghit says:

    I just want to share this sudden realization of mine.

    During the day of the HSK, I found out that thing that I do not have in studying Chinese, that thing that definitely motivates other second-language learners of Chinese to study the language zealously.

    I have a different view of the Chinese language. I see Chinese as a linguistically beneficial language. The Chinese words seem to be linguistic data for me. I study Chinese for its typology and grammar and its use in other Asian languages like Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and even to literary Chinese. It is just like the same reason for learning Latin or Ancient Greek. I decided to learn Chinese in the first place not to speak to a Chinese speaker. Just so you know, I am also studying Korean on my own since I was 13 and have been receiving formal Korean language education since last June while I have been studying Chinese since last year of June at the same university. I think why my Korean skills are better than my Chinese is because my motivation to learn Chinese was not to communicate in Chinese in the first place. For me, I think I have to have this “communicative motivation” to speak Chinese. I have always wanted to study Korean and go to Korea but since that day of our HSK, I have changed my mind. Now, I want to go to China to learn Chinese, to practice my Chinese. I only have competence in Chinese but I do not “perform” it (to those of you who are familiar with linguistic performance and competence). I also want to have the confidence in speaking Chinese. I want to speak Chinese fluently and I really thank my laoshi and tongxuemen for always supporting me in this endeavor. I really hope the results of my HSK Level 4 and HSKK Elementary would be good so that I could apply for a Chinese scholarship next year. Thank you for reading my comment and more power to this very informative site ^^

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.