Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to start learning Chinese again after a break

So you’ve learnt some Chinese, but then you took a break. Maybe you become too busy, maybe you lost interest, maybe something else, it doesn’t matter, but now you want to get started again. So how do you get back into Chinese after a break?

Picking up a language anew and learning it from scratch are clearly not the same thing. It might feel the same at first, though, because there will be many things you’ve forgotten.

  • When trying to speak, ghost traces of words you knew will insert themselves into your sentences, but instead of the words smoothly popping up when you need them, they’ll betray you and leave holes in your ability to communicate.
  • When listening, things will sound familiar, but even speech you would have been able to deal with before your break will feel like an onrushing torrent of semi-familiar gibberish; it means something but there’s too much of it too quickly.
  • When it comes to the written language, you’ll probably recognise many characters, but handwriting seems to be the first thing that goes when you stop reviewing, so don’t expect to be able to write anything but the simplest characters by hand.

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How long was your break? How much did you use to know?

Naturally, when discussing getting back into Chinese after a break, many factors are important and your mileage may vary. How long your break is matters, for instance. I recently started learning French again after a twenty year break, which is clearly different from taking a few months off. In this article, when I say “break”, I mean anything from months up to years, but I don’t include shorter breaks such as a summer or w inter vacation.

How much you once knew also matters, so native speakers who don’t write by hand anymore will be able to pick that up fairly easily because their foundation is built on thousands of hours of writing in school. If you only practise characters for dictation tests, your ability to write characters by hand will fade very quickly, and you’ll need more than some refreshing to bring it back.

That being said, I think it’s still meaningful to talk about some general strategies for getting back into learning a language after a break, so that’s what I’ll do in this article. When discussing how to balance language learning, I think Paul Nation’s four strands are helpful. In the case of getting back after a break, they are extra useful, and the order is worth considering:

  1. Meaning-focused input
  2. Meaning-focused output
  3. Fluency development
  4. Language-focused learning

This is the order I think you should approach these when picking up Chinese after a break. Let’s have a look at each to see what activities you can engage in to reclaim your lost ability.

1. Meaning-focused input

The first thing I did when picking up French again was simply to listen. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know any French, it was that the memory traces and patterns had lain dormant for so long that they weren’t accessible. Sometimes, they were accessible, but it took much too long to access them. I knew a word, but it took me ten seconds to come up with it. Or I heard a word and only figured out what it meant five seconds later. This clearly doesn’t work, as such long delays blocks any attempt at communicating or understanding. I wrote more about this here:

Chinese listening strategies: Improving listening speed

Listening should be your starting point,because it allows you to activate what you already know in a convenient and practical manner. Try to find listening material you think you’d been able to deal with before your break, then listen as much as you can for at least a few weeks.

Of course, it can be hard to know what you would have understood before the break unless you have saved the resources from back then, so you need to guess and estimate. Listen, and listen again, as much as you can. Look at transcripts if you must, but do not read before you listen, since that spoils the listening practice:

Listen before you read: Improve your listening ability

The point is that your listening should be focused on meaning. Don’t care about details, don’t care about minor issues or subtleties; as long as you understand roughly what’s going on, that’s okay. A good way to know when you’re done with a specific piece of audio is when you don’t understand more when listening again. If you hear new things every time, keep listening until you don’t, not necessarily in one go, of course; spreading it out is fine!

You should also do the same for reading. Again, the goal isn’t to learn anything new, it’s simply to put your brain back into Chinese mode. You can look things up, but if you do, make sure it’s really easy, such as by using a pop-up dictionary. Don’t look up anything unless it’s really important.

This process is actually quite simple, but it does require a certain amount of courage and persistence. It will feel awful to not understand things you used to understand. You might start blaming yourself and feeling bad for taking such a long break. This is not helpful. Stop it. All you need to do is to listen and try to understand; let the language work itself into your brain until it connects with the knowledge that’s buried there.

2. Meaning-focused output

Once you’ve focused on meaning-focused input for a while, you can start the reverse process: meaning-focused output. Exactly how long you wait depends on many things, such as if you have easy access to speaking practice and how bad you feel about your weak speaking ability. If it’s convenient and you feel like it, by all means start speaking immediately, but I would still strongly suggest to you put the emphasis on input when you start out.

Meaning-focused here means that you speak and write Chinese with the main goal of conveying meaning to another person. At this point you might frown and wonder if that isn’t the point of all speaking and writing, but that is certainly not the case in most classroom settings.

Something that can help here is to consider what real communication is and engage only in activities that focus on that. One way of putting it is to say that real communication is when the language is used to convey unknown information. If you don’t know my name and where I’m from, my telling you about that in Chinese is real communication, but reading a sentence in a textbook where it says how old 王朋 is and where he is from is not (unless the listener doesn’t know the answer, of course). There needs to be an information gap between you and the person you speak to, and you need to use Chinese to bridge it.

This type of practice is normal when conversing with people you don’t know in real life. People rarely spend their days saying only thing both parties already know, although this does happen (“it’s a nice day” or “you’re very tall” or “oh dear, you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot hole”). If you have friendly conversion partners around you, this is great, just talk to them, but if you hire someone, you’ll quickly realise that this type of practice isn’t’ as easy as it ought to be. Many teachers see it as their main duty to correct your mistakes, teach you new words and new grammar, but this doesn’t count as meaning-focused output!

If you do hire a tutor, be clear that your goal is not to learn new words, improve your pronunciation or practise grammar, but to simply talk. Tutors can still be immensely helpful, especially if you find someone who is encouraging, makes it feel safe for you to practise and who is good at adjusting their language to your level. They can rephrase things until you understand, and help you out when you speak as little as possible, but enough that you can move forward. For more about getting the most out of a tutor for speaking practice, see Training your Chinese teacher, part 2: Speaking ability.

Training your Chinese teacher, part 2: Speaking ability

3. Fluency development

In Nation’s model, fluency development essentially covers the difference between knowing something and knowing something well. It’s about using what you already know, improving the speed at which you can understand spoken and written language, as well as fluency in speaking and writing.

Depending on how you look at it, getting back into Chinese after a break can either be considered to mostly be fluency development (you do know these things, just not very well), or not at all (you have forgotten so much that it’s more akin to not knowing them). I don’t think it’s worthwhile to debate which it is here, but I think meaning-focused input and output discussed above already cover the activities you want to engage in, so I’ll leave it at that.

4. Language-focused learning

Language-focused learning is when you focus deliberately on language features such as grammar or pronunciation (i.e. the bits that you were not supposed to focus on in the other strands). Traditionally, this used to make up a very big part of what learning a language meant, but many more modern, input-heavy approaches downplay or even deny the benefits of explicitly focusing on language features in this way.

Still, explicit focus on language features can be helpful to direct your attention, study systematic features in the language and sometimes also to contrast these with other languages you know. Another example of language-focused learning would be studying vocabulary itself, so much of the Chinese-specific challenges related to characters and handwriting belong in this strand.

My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters

As I have already said, this is not something you should focus on until you feel you’re back in shape. What’s the use of learning about grammar patterns if you struggle to find the words to use in those patterns? What’s the point of spending time with details in handwriting when it’s hard to even recognise common character?

However, I do think it’s worth talking about vocabulary specifically, as many students ask about this particular problem.

Learning Chinese characters and words after a longer break

One of the most visible signs after taking a break, even a short one, is that any app that keeps track of your learning will let you know that you’ve been slacking off. It differs from app to app how this is presented to you, but most flashcard apps will simply show you a large number of words overdue for review. If you log in to Skritter, Anki och Pleco after a long break, you might face thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of reviews, depending on how much you used these apps before your break and how long you’ve been neglecting them.

Some apps will try to make you feel better by hiding the true extent of how much you’ve fallen behind. If you don’t see a huge number of overdue flashcards, you’re being misled. Taking a long break has consequences for learning, that’s just a direct result of how our brains and memory work; there’s nothing an app can do about that. This is important to realise, because all you or an app can do is help you manage the situation. The only way to solve the underlying problem is to engage with the language itself!

Faced with a huge queue of overdue flashcards, there are a couple of things you can consider doing:

  1. Steadily chip away at your queue of flashcards. Use whatever functionality the app has to help you do this, be it a limit of cards per day, a goal of how many cards to study per day, or anything else. If you can break the queue up in segments, that also helps. For example, maybe you added 500 words just before your break that you didn’t really have time to learn. Ignore those! If possible, follow the same sequence I suggested above, so try to catch up on input (listening and reading) first. Liberally delete anything you don’t think you truly need. Many of the suggestions I gave in the article about managing a large flashcard deck are useful: Overcoming the problem of having too many Chinese words to learn

Overcoming the problem of having too many Chinese words to learn

  1. Reset everything and start from scratch. I have changed my mind regarding the nuclear option over the years. I used to think that resetting everything was not a good idea, but I have now done so several times and never regretted it. Spaced repetition software and apps are simply tools with a specific application. They don’t have a value in and of themselves, so if they become a burden or a chore, just start over or find a tool better suited to your needs. Naturally, your goal when you start over shouldn’t be to recreate your old flashcard deck exactly as it was, then you might as well use option 1 above. Instead,  add only things you need now. This can be incredibly refreshing! And don’t worry about deleting important things, because if they really are important, you’ll encounter them again soon enough. Read more here: Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?

Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?

How to start learning Chinese again after a break

To summarise, the best way to get back into Chinese after taking a break is to start with meaning-focused input (listening and reading), then turn to meaning-focused output when you feel ready to do so. Only add language-focused activities such as grammar and pronunciation once you have caught up a bit.

While it can feel frustrating and difficult to get back to where you were, keep in mind that it’s much easier than learning from scratch, and if you blame yourself for not starting earlier, remember that at least you have started now and didn’t postpone it even longer! You’ll get very far with some optimism and loads of input!

What’s your experience of picking up Chinese again after a break?

If you have started learning Chinese again after a break, what was your experience? Which areas were hard and which did you find easier to deal with? Please help making it easier for other people by sharing your thoughts and strategies in the comments below!

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  1. Scott Young says:

    Hey Olle,

    Your comments on flashcards are something I’ve thought a lot about myself. My Chinese deck grew enormous during my initial phase (maybe 16k old cards?), before I put it off to spend more time with actual reading/listening materials.

    Thinking back now, I wouldn’t mind getting back into the flashcards to brush up. Especially given I’ve noticed some weaknesses in some foundations. Yet, going back to the old decks is often a tricky thing with SRS. The options built-in tend to consider forgetting an all-or-nothing event, so there isn’t a good system for forgetting due to longer-than-optimal spacing.

    I suspect there’s probably a better algorithm for dealing with missed cards than the one Anki actually employs, but I haven’t seen it discussed so much. It seems clear to me that a failed card that was one you got correct a bunch of times in the past is simply a different kind of memory episode than a failed card which you’ve never encountered before. Not to mention the old queue of cards where failure means going back to the beginning again is hardly a great solution motivationally.


    1. Tristan says:

      I don’t remember where exactly I saw this right now (YouTube perhaps), but I found someone who had their Anki set up to address this.

      Say you forget a 30 day card, it then pops it back to the “new” category for a couple days. Get both of those right and it would go back up to a 20 day interval instead of resetting entirely.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I agree that this is an interesting area and probably not something that has been studied very closely. I think the best way to approach it is to be as aggressive as possible with settings and/or answer grading if available. In Skritter, for example, always picking “easy” if you do know something even though you’ve been taking a break. I Anki, there are other ways to be more aggressive (if you find the source you mentioned, that would be interesting).

        Personally, I think the SRS apps I’ve used work reasonably well after coming back from breaks (this would be Anki and Skritter). Obviously, the initial retention rate drops quite a bit, but I don’t have the feeling that subsequent scheduling has been messed up, at least not enough to cause noticeable problems.

        Then again, this is only what I’ve experienced, which highlights the issue here: Initial learning is rather similar compared to coming back after a break. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that retention when learning something completely new is more predictable than coming back after a break. There are so many different situations the latter could occur and each might be different.

        This might be an idea for an article for you, Scott! You’ve written so much good stuff about learning, but what about relearning? That would be interesting to read more about!

    2. Olle Linge says:

      I’ve ended up in roughly the same position as you. I started out really liking flashcards, and I still think it’s an extremely good way to build basic vocabulary quickly, especially for reading. Then I didn’t use flashcards at all for a while and just read and listened a lot, but then I picked them up again. The reason is of course that there are certain areas where flashcards do really well, especially for things you need, but might not need that often (specialised vocabulary and handwriting, to name a couple of examples).

      The problem with rare vocabulary is of course that the amount of reading and listening one needs to do to maintain knowledge of them organically simply is too big for people who don’t have that much time to learn and maintain their Chinese (this includes me, too). Then it’s a matter of finding a flashcard setup/solution that works for one’s particular circumstances.

  2. Mo says:

    Hi Olle, long-time reader here, really appreciated this post! I lived in China several years ago, and devoted a lot of time and energy to learning Chinese while living there. Since coming back to my home country, Chinese has fallen way down the list of priorities, but I feel a real sense of loss at how much I’ve forgotten. I’d love to see more about the most impactful ways to keep learning (or at least stem the tide of forgetting) over the long-long-long term, amidst lots of other work, family, and life obligations and interests. One bonus is there seem to be so many new ways to read and listen to Mandarin online that weren’t an option when I was first learning 🙂

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s never too late to pick it back up again! 🙂 And yes, it’s so much easier to find reading and listening material these days. Low-intensity listening and reading (but especially listening) is not very demanding, so if you can find some materials you enjoy, listening to it while doing specific other activities, that might be a good idea (maybe when you’re out for a walk, commute, run, knit or whatever you fancy)!

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