Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learn Chinese efficiently, not quickly

The internet is full of stories of people who learn Mandarin quickly. Maybe it’s three months, maybe six, maybe a year.

Ignoring the hype and self-promotion that is often involved, I think such stories can be instructive. Many people believe it’s impossible to learn a language quickly as an adult, but this is of course wrong. Showing that something is possible is a good thing it itself.

On the other hand, I also think that such stories can have the opposite effect. It’s easy to look at a polyglot who moves somewhere, immerses completely in the language, and dismiss the whole project, because you can’t  go abroad and only have a few hours a week to spare. There’s too much distance between us and what they’re doing, which might make us feel daunted rather than inspired.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode:

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Learning Chinese efficiently is better than trying to learn quickly

In this article, I want to suggest a better way of looking at language learning. While learning quickly, as measured in months or years, makes for great marketing material, it misses the more important point: efficiency.

Learning quickly requires efficiency and huge time investments, which means it’s only possible for a lucky few. In contrast, learning efficiently should be a goal for all learners.

Why is it good to learn Chinese quickly?

People learn Chinese for different reasons. If your motivation for learning is completely internal, meaning that you learn because you’re interested and enjoy doing it, speed is not important, even though your strong interest will help you invest more time and energy, which in turn will enable you to learn quickly.

Learning quickly is more important if your motivation for learning is more external (note that you can of course have both internal and external motivations at the same time). If you study to get good grades, to be able to communicate with Chinese people, or because you believe it will help your career, speed seems to be more relevant, as it will allow you to reach your goal faster.

Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination

This article is not meant to be about motivation (which I will cover in an upcoming article), but research generally shows that more internal motivation is better and longer-lasting than external motivation, which I think most people are aware of intuitively. This menas that you should strive to find ways of studying we that you find interesting and enjoy, something I’ve written more about in Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination:

Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination

Also, focusing too much on the outcome reminds me of what Alan Watts once said about the meaning of life being to sing and dance, not to to get to the end of the music as quickly as possible. While his lecture is clearly more far-reaching than learning a language, it’s still a good counter to focusing too much on external results and reaching goals as quickly as possible (link to YouTube).

Learning Chinese as quickly as possible

So, if your goal is to pass a course with good grades, get a specific certificate to advance your career before next summer, or impress the internet, then speed really is important. Reaching a certain level in three months certainly sounds better than doing so in three years.

Still, this doesn’t mean that such learning projects are useless, it just means that you should focus on the things that apply to you. It might be that not all methods used by someone in an immersion environment studying ten hours a day will be possible for you, but most will!

For a good example of an inspiring and informative learning project, check Scott Young‘s guest article How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days:

How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days

The point here is not that he reached a decent, conversational level in three months, it is that you can do so too. If you spend less time, it will take you proportionally longer, of course, but most efficient learning methods work even if you don’t go all in.

Only a few should aim to learn quickly, but all should learn efficiently

For those who have varied motivations for learning Mandarin, at least some of which are intrinsic, learning quickly is not the right goal.

This is because how much time you spend is the most important factor determining success, and most people simply don’t have the time to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days, but maybe they do have the time to reach that level in 1000 days.

Merriam-Webster defines “efficient” as:

productive of desired effects
especially: capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or materials)

So efficiency is about delivering positive effects per unit time. Increasing efficiency, therefore, should be the goal for the full-time student and the dabbler, the ambitious and the lazy, and so on. Who wouldn’t want to get closer to their goal for each hour invested?

Efficiency schmefficiency

But wait, isn’t this just a different way of saying the same thing? Is there really a difference between learning quickly and efficiently?

Yes, I think there are several reasons why focusing on quick results can be inferior to focusing on increasing efficiency:

  • Efficient emphasises solid learning for the long term, quick is more about shortcuts that might actually come back to haunt you later. This is particularly true if you set short-term goals, such as learning a few hundred characters by rote or impressing non natives by speaking quickly. If you care about speed, you risk neglecting basic skills that will be hard to go back and rebuild later.
  • Efficient is desirable for every single learner, including those who study part time in their home country; quick mostly applies to people immersed in the environment with strong external goals. This is in effect what I’ve argued so far in this article.
  • Efficient is a wider concept that includes learning finer nuances, whereas quick smacks of sloppiness. The goal should be to get the most value for the time you invest, not rushing through to get to some arbitrary goal you have set.
  • Efficient focuses on the road, quick mostly on the destination (especially the time it takes to get there). While being mindful of the destination is important, it shouldn’t be the main focus for learning.
  • Efficient is useful for those who desire speed, but quick is not necessarily helpful for those who strive for efficiency. Another way of putting it is that efficient methods can also be quick, but quick methods are not necessarily efficient.

Efficiency and effectiveness

Before I round off this article, it’s worth bringing up a third relevant word: effectiveness. In essence, an effective method is one that gets the job done. This does not automatically imply that the method is also efficient, even though it could be.

For example, it can be argued that rote learning is an effective method for learning Chinese characters. It does get the job done, as proven by more than a billion Chinese people. It’s not very efficient, though, because they also invest an insane amount of time throughout their education learning to write characters.

That might be okay because the writing system suffuses the entire culture, but it’s very hard to replicate as a adult second-language learner. We need efficient methods!

Conclusion: Learning Chinese efficiently, not quickly

Here are two things I think you as a learner should take away from this article:

  1. Be inspired and learn from those who engage in rapid learning projects, but identify and discard methods that won’t work for you.
  2. Be on the look-out for efficiency wherever it shows itself. It’s important to note if something works because someone invested a lot of time or because the method was efficient.

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  1. Hugh Grigg says:

    All good points. Aren’t Benny’s methods (the source of all this quick Chinese learning discussion) all about the efficiency you describe? Shortcuts aren’t necessarily bad. If there’s nothing to be gained on the longer route then the shortcut is the efficient option. Benny does take a lot of shortcuts, but as far as I can see they’re well considered with the goal of efficiency and not just speed.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      In essence, I think you are right. Most of the methods he uses to increase speed are increases in efficiency that would work for people who don’t have a three-month mission to accomplish (note that I have stated several times that I actually quite like what Benny is doing in general). I wrote this post not to say that learning quickly is by definition something bad, but that people who only think like that might run into some problems. I’m not saying that applied to Benny, because I’m quite sure he knows what he’s doing. Instead, I’m writing this to counterbalance the recent focus on X months etc.. I want to say that these methods are useful even if you spend ten years learning Chinese to the same level as Benny plans to do. This should be obvious, but I don’t think it is.

  2. David Feigelson says:

    I mostly agree with this article. I think you wrote about this in another article, but the real trade-off between speed and efficiency is that speed is essentially cramming and purting tremenduous pressure on oneself, like the Chinese students that memorize every entry in an English dictionary, while efficiency is allowing yourself to make mistakes so that you can then correct yourself. Speed is like shooting a shotgun at a clearly marked, stationary target–you try to hit many things at the same time. Efficiency is like shooting a rifle at a blurry moving target–you may miss but you can keep trying to correct your aim. What the speed approach assumes is that we know the best way to learn a language. This is not always the case. The efficiency approach assumes we don’t know the best way, but we will keep trying new things until we get it right.

  3. Luqman says:

    Help me to learn Chinese

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What do you need help with?

  4. Scott Young says:

    Despite being used as an example of the “quick” approach, I definitely agree!

    I tend to use efficiency and speed interchangeably when I write, as generally the effective approach is so by virtue of the learning accomplished per unit time. Thus, the person who learns the fastest with 100 hours is generally going to be the person who learns the most efficiently.

    The main places I think the concepts diverge is (a) spacing, where the same hours over a longer schedule look less impressive in the near-term, but result in faster forgetting and (b) learning fundamentals, like character components or tones, can be practically avoided in the early phases, but end up creating obstacles later if you try to advance.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, there are many particular situations that could be researched in detail, and it seems reasonable that different areas of a language have different optimal spacing, which might also be different between individuals. There’s clearly an upp boundary to how much learning one can do, even if relying mostly on comprehensible input and engaging content, and equally clearly, there’s a point beyond which spacing things out further decreases efficiency.

      I think terminology is interesting, because there is of course a difference is how normal people use words and how people who spend most of their time with a subject use words (hence professional jargon, etc.). However, when writing for the general public, I try to avoid using words that have very specific meanings, so even if this article is about efficiency, effectiveness and speed, I also use this somewhat interchangeably in other contexts. The same goes for errors and mistakes, which I think are fundamentally different, yet people normally don’t use them with such clear distinction. Another one might be whether or not to use a word like “radical” to mean what most people think it means, or to mean what it actually means. Tricky!

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