Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Have fun learning Chinese or else…


In numerous articles, I’ve stressed the importance of finding ways of studying Chinese that you actually enjoy. This is not some hippie-kind of encouragement or well-wishing.

In fact, it’s not encouragement or well-wishing at all. It’s dead serious and it’s a warning. If you want to reach a high level in Chinese, you have to like what you’re doing. You have to enjoy the process in some way, otherwise you will never win through.

In order to learn Chinese, you will need to spend an awful lot of time. In order to persevere and study for a long time, you need to like what you are doing.

You need to have fun, otherwise you will never be able to bring yourself to spending the necessary amount of time.

This argument is connected to what I’ve written previously about talent versus effort: learning Chinese is much more about the time you send than anything else. This is a recurring theme on Hacking Chinese, because I strongly believe that the amount of time spent studying Chinese in some way is by far the most important factor that will determine your level of proficiency. The reason why most people who start studying a language don’t succeed is because they don’t spend enough time. Why?

Because spending thousand of hours doing something you hate is very hard

People are usually able to do boring things if required for their survival and comfort, but for the majority of people reading this article, studying Chinese doesn’t qualify as such an activity. It might work for immigrants needing Chinese for work or people who have family members who only speak Chinese, but those situations are exceptions rather than the norm. Some people might be able to force themselves through an education they don’t like, because they know something good awaits them at the end. Mastering Chinese takes a lot more effort than that, though, and if someone succeeds with that while thinking it’s boring, I think he ought to have his head examined, because something must be seriously wrong.

Have fun or else…

One of your main goals should be finding ways to study that you enjoy, not because they are effective or efficient, but because you feel that you can spend lots of time learning Chinese that way. This is the main reason why you should try different methods. Here are some concrete examples. If you love…

There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:

  • Finding friends who share your interest
  • Reading blogs about the topic in question
  • Writing about what you like on a blog
  • Talking with friends about what you like
  • Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes

The point is that you should try to integrate what you like with what you want to do, thus making them one and the same. Imagine what it would be like staying up really late studying, not because you have to because of an exam, but because you really want to know how the next episode of a series ends, or you just have to understand the lyrics of that song that has been echoing in your head the past week. Achieving such a mental state is the ultimate goal. If you can do it, you will master Chinese.


I’ve used these three words more or less interchangeably in this article. I want to clarify that the name of the game is “whatever floats your boat”. You might find things I like utterly boring and I might not be interested in your hobbies, but we don’t need to care about that. You’re studying the language, as long as you like it it’s okay.

It can’t be fun all the time, but always try to make the best out of the situation

Before I round this off, I want to point out that I don’t mean to say you have to giggle your way through every second of studying. However, I am saying that how much you enjoy doing something is one of the most important factors for how successful you will be.

For instance, I think spaced repetition software is really good, but if you hate reviewing vocabulary this way, you should do your best to find a way of reviewing which suits you better (a viable alternative is to read and listen a lot). If you dislike something which is essential or forced on you by someone else (your teacher, most likely), make the best of the situation, try to find way that make the task suck just a little bit.

Having fun is about more than just having fun

The point is, if you start hating Chinese, you’re doomed. It’s okay to think some parts are boring, but do everything you can to nurture a positive attitude. This is not about having fun all the time, instead it’s about having as much fun as possible. How fun you actually have depends mostly on your attitude, but also on your current situation and what external factors influence your studying. Don’t forget that having fun is not only fun (duh), it’s also more efficient!

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  1. jp 吉平 says:

    Thank God you said this. I’ve been saying this for years, but a lot of people learning Chinese don’t want to hear this. It’s like they’re personally invested in “no pain, no gain,” which I think is for chumps. When you make it fun, the learning sustains itself.

    The brain forgets pain; it’s biological. The brain remembers reward… but also other things, like shame, delicious, sexy, fun… All of those things are better motivators for language learning.

    1. ALLEN ANDERSON says:

      Well said, JP. 🙂

  2. Jonathan says:

    So this is true for everyone? I thought it was just me who was lazy and undisciplined!

    No, I’m kidding. Yeah, absolutely. For how many years I’ve been at Chinese, I think my level is nothing to be proud of. This has to do with my on and off again habit of studying. Whenever I’m in ‘on’ mode, though, there’s no question that the fact that I’ve found some way of studying that is fun is a big factor.

    Recently, as an intermediate to advanced learner, I’ve discovered a certain genre of Chinese non-fiction that I find fun to read; and the vocabulary is enough in my range that I can get through it without sweating too much. I actually look forward to having some free time to sit down with these couple books.

    Of course it’s still competing with other demands on my schedule, though. But if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t even be on ‘my list.’

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s great! May I ask what genre it is and what books you’ve found? Perhaps others will find them interesting, too.

      1. Jonathan says:

        Yes, the books generally are kind of success-oriented / life philosophy / self-improvement kind of books, written by or about some ‘successful’ Chinese person.

        I’ve always liked reading self-help books, and had found years ago that this type of book translated into Chinese can be relatively easy reading. But it never sustained my interest, because I would feel a little silly reading something that I would do better just to read the original English.

        But now, I’m exploring similar things written in Chinese – about entrepreneurship (based on the ideas of ‘Ma Yun’, founder of the company, ‘Ali-Baba’, for example).

        The reading really is fun for me. (Though not non-stop giggles). 🙂

        1. Olle Linge says:

          That’s great! The thing is that if we’re really, really interested, it doesn’t matter if the content is slightly too difficult for us, we will find ways of coping anyway. One good way of bridging the gap between one’s native language and Chinese would be to read the same book in both languages. That way, we know what the book is about, but we also know that we like the book so much that we’d like to read it again, only this time in Chinese. This makes it much, much easier to read, of course, but still enjoyable!

  3. Armin says:

    Good article Olle!
    “you have to giggle your way through every second of studying” definitely made me giggle (:

    I try to combine various things to maximize the fun of studying Chinese and just recently started to read 蜡笔小新, which is hilarious. I also like to listen to Chinese radio while reviewing my anki decks, as it does not distract me too much because I only understand something like 30 percent. It does, hoewever, make the reviewing more pleasent and gets me used to the “melody” of Chinese.

    1. Sara K. says:

      Hey! Crayon Shinchan!

      I actually haven’t read Crayon Shinchan in any language *lowers head in shame* but I salute the use of comics books for language using. Manga for the win.

  4. Grace says:

    Very well written article, Olle!

    I’d like to add one more point to “learning Chinese the way you enjoy”: If it’s something that you really love and care, you will actively “think” and “feel” in the language that you’re learning. That’s probably the best approach if you want to reach a higher level in the language. There’s nothing better than “your authentic interest” to bring you experience of exhilaration through reading, listening and watching in the new language you’re learning.

  5. Great post and so very true! I have always found that finding music I like in another language always increases my interest in learning it and in turn enhances the “fun” element. I become curious as to what the lyrics mean but also become attracted to the intonations and undulations of the phonetics of the language as it is presented through the music and instantaneously becomes more attractive. For example students on Chinese courses in Beijing might want to listen to some Chinese hip hop to get them motivated.

  6. Loriana says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I’m currently wrapping up my first year, finals next week (that’s how I found hacking Chinese) currently trying to understand all the stuff that wasn’t explained this semester and memorize all the stuff I missed (not going so great). But anyhow my point is when I can enjoy what I’m doing, listen to sing and understand music, watch an interesting movie, read some poetry or do some writing, even having a good conversation with a friend. I can remember things so much better. I mean honestly that’s why I started studying Chinese to begin with, my difficulty is reconciling all the things I have to know for school that are seriously pointless to me, finding the time to learn the requirements is hard enough, I never seem to find time to enjoy anything. And trust me it’s a big problem. So any ideas on how to reconcile what I have to learn and the things that actually interest me?

  7. David Feigelson says:

    The only thing I would add is that it’s not enough that something is fun. It has to be something we can fail at. We have to be able to have a certain amount of discomfort in something to provide an impetus to get better at that thing. For example I used to spend 1-2 hours listening to Chinese philosophy lectures. I understood almost nothing. After a few months of listening a couple hours every day I became able to understand every word individually even though I was missing the meaning of sentences or idioms. This process was not fun. But the initial discomfort and pain translated into increased comprehension later after failing enough times. So yes, by all means seek out fun things, but make sure it is something that you can fail at, like a kid laying a video game who keeps dying but eventually masters the game.

  8. Rob says:

    So, so true. When I started Chinese and when I studied abroad, I was in love – I paid more attention to things I wanted to learn in the future than how much I had progressed, and when I looked back, wow. However, I had to take a break in the fall of 2012, for some reason my class at school turned into this strange bureaucratic nonsense, where I was constantly pestered about changes made to the syllabus, adopting a 埋頭傻幹 method of doing things, and the structure of our semester rather than making sure we were learning.

    The Chinese teachers were obviously sad to see me go and I was especially sad the really great ones had to see it, but I had to do it – otherwise the structure might murder the thing I love. I might study slower now but I definitely enjoy it more, and when I opened up a box (recently moved) last night, I found a copy of 軒轅劍 my friend had bought me not long before I had the falling out – I am so psyched to start the game!!!

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