Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/adrian_s/

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/adrian_s/

We all experience slumps or periods when we don’t study much for some reason. This can be because the fun has gone out of it, because we’ve found other things to fill our spare time with or for a number of other reasons that are likely to be very individual.

When I talk about slumps, I’m talking about when you study less Chinese because of internal factors, so if you haven’t studied because you’re busy taking care of your newborn baby or surviving a one-man hike through the Amazon rainforest, you’re not experiencing a slump. Still, it’s important to realise that we usually have more time than we think, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

I wrote about the problem with slumps last week, arguing that slumps affect your learning more than flows, mostly because slumps tend to be long and draining whereas flows may be intense, but seldom last very long. I also said that the most important way of dealing with slumps is to prepare for them before they happen.

However, even though I think I explained the why, I didn’t really explain the how.After several comments about this both here on Hacking Chinese and on Facebook, I decided to expand the topic with another article focused exclusively on how to handle slumps in particular.

Productivity, time management and having fun

I have written three articles earlier that are all crucial to understanding how to deal with ebbs in motivation. For those of you who haven’t read them, I’ll summarise them as follows:

  • Study according to your productivity levelWhen studying and choosing between the many things you want to learn, you should choose a task that is as demanding as you can manage. This might sound obvious, but it has some really important implications. First, if you are too tired to learn something, your default solution shouldn’t be to stop learning, but you should learn something easier instead. Conversely, you shouldn’t waste productivity by doing things that require no effort at all when in fact you feel like you could conquer the world. Scale down or scale up depending on your current state of mind.
  • Have fun learning Chinese or else…The importance of enjoying yourself is something that really can’t be stressed too much, even when we’re talking about normal learning as opposed to learning in a slump. The logic is quite straightforward: Learning Chinese takes an awful lot of time and if you don’t enjoy it or find it interesting, it will be almost impossible to force yourself to do it. It would also be quite stupid. Find ways of learning that you like, or at least make the best of every situation.
  • The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think – The important lesson here is that accomplishing anything can be broken down into smaller tasks of various sizes. Some of them require serious planning because they are bulky and require a lot of space in your metaphorical time barrel (thes tasks are called rocks), some can be fitted in almost anywhere (pebbles or sand)  or even superimposed on top of other tasks (water). In order to fill your days with as much Chinese as possible, you should think about how to fill all those small spaces between the boulders. The picture below shows how to fill the time barrel.

timebarrelsHow to handle slumps

Now that we have looked at some of the key concepts involved, we can start talking about how to deal with the slump itself.

First, based on the article about productivity levels, it’s clear that we’re not going to accomplish anything too serious during a slump. Thus, anything that you consider challenging in anyway is probably not a good idea (you might still be forced to do it because of exams and so on, though), because you don’t have the motivation to see it through. To as large an extent as possible, stick to what  you already know.

Another option is to choose tasks that don’t feel much like studying at all:

Second, focus on anything you find interesting or fun for reasons that aren’t connected to learning the language itself (if you think learning the language itself is fun, you’re probably not in a slump at the moment and you’re reading the wrong article). Here’s some advice from the having fun article. If you already like…

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

Third, if we look at the time barrel, it’s easy to see that the big rocks need to go. They require focus and represent major obstacles that you certainly don’t feel like negotiating right now. When you feel upbeat, go ahead, but during a slump, you should get rid of most or all the bigger, more draining tasks. Depending on how serious the slump is, you could also get rid of lots of pebbles. The point is that you should keep as much of the small stuff as possible. Here are some suggestions:


  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese online
  • Reviewing vocabulary a few minutes at a time


Don’t conquer, consolidate

In general, I think that one common denominator for all the above arguments is that things you know already are less demanding than things you don’t know. Familiar things fit more easily in the time barrel. This means that you shouldn’t focus too much on adding to your knowledge in a slump, which could be likened to conquering new territory, but rather reinforce the Chinese you already know, which would be more like consolidating what you have already conquered. In essence, jump one rung down on the ladder of progress, go back to where you were half a year ago.

Don’t forget to consolidate the Chinese you have already learnt

Naturally, this is easier the more advanced you are. If you can read comics with ease, but find novels hard, stop reading novels and go back to comics. If you find new comics too demanding, re-read old ones or continue reading a series you’re already familiar with. Re-watch your favourite Disney or Pixar films in Chinese.

If you have a serious slump as a beginner, you might have a different kind of problem. How serious are you about learning Chinese? Rather than studying, I think you should try to find ways to motivate yourself in general. What made you start learning Chinese in the first place? Return to that inspirational source or find others.

Focus on ways of learning that don’t involve studying

Another way to look at this is to highlight the difference between studying and learning. The first usually means that you focus on doing something in order to learn (i.e. learning is the main goal). Learning is then the result of studying (if you’re using an efficient method). However, studying isn’t the only way you can learn! Basically, anything you do that’s related to Chinese will improve your Chinese. Don’t think of studying Chinese as sitting in front of a computer looking up characters or doing grammar exercises in a book. During a slump, focus on ways of learning tat don’t involve active studying.

You’re not alone

Although I haven’t discussed it explicitly above, social factors are very important. You’re not the only one learning Chinese and neither are you the only person around in general. It’s much harder to motivate yourself if you’re doing everything alone, but if you allow other people to help you, it will be much easier. This includes normal social interaction with Chinese speakers as well as teaming up with study partners or discussing learning online. I have written more about this here: You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone.


This is a Chengyu that for some reason seems very common in textbooks but which use is quite limited (as is the case with most Chengyu). This is the definition from Baidu:

未雨绸缪,拼为wèi yǔ chóu móu,

In other words, you make sure the doors and windows are tightly fastened before the storm (rain) arrives, which simply means to prepare for an event in advance, to prepare for a rainy day. Or prepare for a slump before it hits you. This is my final and perhaps most important piece of advice:

Prepare for the slump before it hits you

The logic behind this is very simple: There are many things you can learn during a slump, but most of these require effort of some kind before you get started. To name a few examples, you can’t watch a Pixar film in Chinese if you don’t have it available, you can’t reread a comic book if you haven’t read any comic books, you can’t practice sports if you haven’t found a club, you can’t hang out with friends that you don’t have, establishing habits is much harder than maintaining them. And so on.

You need to find learning activities at all different levels and establish habits when you have the energy to do so, not when you’re in a slump. I review vocabulary daily because it’s a habit I have established over many years. It doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s just something I do. Establishing such a habit is hard, maintaining it is not (that’s part of the definition of a habit).

Lastly, even though this might be obvious, don’t overdo any task that will come back and haunt you later. This is perhaps most important when it comes to spaced repetition software. Some people binge study in programs like Skritter and Anki, but fail to realise that the hard thing isn’t to add lots of flashcards, it’s to maintain those words later. Instead of just adding lots of words, spend that time actually using Chinese instead (listening/speaking/reading/writing).


If you’re in a slump now, take a step back (or down) and follow the advice above. Try focusing on the fun aspects of learning and avoid forced studying. Hopefully, your motivation will come back soon. If you don’t have much to fall back on in terms of habits or leisurely activities, you’d better make that a priority after the slump.

If you’re not in a slump now, you should prepare for the storm now rather than waiting for when the rain starts pouring in through your leaking roof. I have provided a lot of things you could look into, but I’m sure you know better than I do what will work for you in a slump. You will still experience slumps, but hopefully they will be less severe!

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  1. This is a very important and useful tips.
    As I study quite a few languages, what usually happens to me is that I find some kind of system that I like and then I make the mistake of applying it to other languages, as I get excited about this method and want to use it as much as possible. After some time, that method stops working as well as it used to, or maybe I just lose motivation for it, which lets me know that I need to change methods.
    I used to watch movies and series in the target language, back then specifically in Italian. After I’ve watched a bunch, I got tired of this and didn’t want to watch anymore, so I found another way of entertaining myself with the language – flashcards (or actually, vocabulary lists, which I like more). After I got tired of that, I started watching video game Let’s Plays, which I recently lost motivation in, and now I use regular iPhone flashcards to study a new language, Mongolian.

    Also, studying a few languages at once can help with alleviating the boredom and lack of motivation. Within my vocabulary list, which has around 7000 pages, there are words and vocabulary items in all of the languages I study. I make a note to keep the pages randomized, so that I study Mandarin one minute, and the next I’m having fun with French, and the one after that with Korean and with any other language.
    While this is not the best idea if you wish to learn one language well and fast, it does help me avoid slumps usually as I keep things fresh and interesting.
    As you mentioned in your article, and I rephrase, motivation is key in anything you learn, including languages. In my opinion, motivation is much more important than speed!

  2. Chris Butler says:

    I like the analogy of big rocks, pebbles, sand and water as a way to fill up my time. I agree the power of avoiding slumps is around forming good habits. More on that in a minute…

    It is not always possible to plan for short periods of free time (like getting stuck in line somewhere) which is why I think that ‘snack’ like apps and websites via a smartphone can be very helpful. I use this time to improve myself (Lumocity), read (Kindle) or practice (see below).

    We are building an app to learn to read and write Chinese (and testing on myself and a few beta testers) that provides these ‘snacks’ when you have time. So far I have been able to learn a good amount with limited use, but I could see it would be helpful to do this along with other exercises and activities like you mention.

    The hard part is to get into the habit of choosing snacks that are healthy (or helpful in this case).

    I have been reading the book The Power of Habit and it talks about finding a cue and reward that you can use to make some routine be part of a habit. I have been thinking what those cues and rewards would be for learning a language so we can load the routine of an app, website or practice. I’ll try to write my thoughts down on this soon…

    Keep up the great work with the blog!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Looking forward to your thoughts on habits for language learning! This is something I think should be discussed more, because good habits are really, really powerful.

      1. Chris says:

        I just posted something on habit cues related to language learning, but I think it is fairly complex and hard to find something that is definitive. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  3. Maozhou says:

    I used to chat with my maid (ayi) at lunch everyday. She liked to eat lunch and read the gossip magazines. Not only did my Chinese improve but I learned a ton of gossip about Mainland movie and singing stars.

    1. We actually have a similar thing for our students. Because they live in Homestay families, they usually eat breakfast and lunch with them. As the families tend to be a bit talkative, this helps the students improve their Chinese input and output. Kind of like forcing them to listen and speak to Chinese outside of a classroom. So far it worked wonders for them!

  4. Daniel says:

    Great post, as usual. I just want to add two things:

    One is that I’ve found an analogy with driving to be apt here–namely, that it’s best to slow down going into a curve and accelerate coming out of it.

    The other is that everything you wrote applies just as well when lacking time (instead of lacking internal motivation).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I really like the analogy with driving! It also introduced another problem that I haven’t really talked about, namely how to spot the curve so that you can slow down before entering it…

      I agree that the same thinking can be applied to situations when you lack time as well, which should be clear from the number of already published articles I referenced in this one. I have already written about most of that, but this time, I wanted to focus on motivational slumps in particular!

  5. nommoc says:

    I’m in a slump.
    Haven’t read Chinese aloud in days.

  6. Andreas says:

    I always feel a bit like learning Mandarin is mainly a test of character. These slumps will come and while above is very good advice and there are ways to make it easier, in the end this is when people are separated into two groups: those who give up and those who don’t.

  7. lechuan says:

    Thanks Olle, a very timely article for me! I just hit a slump, and was prepared thanks to your article. Fortunately I picked up enough characters in my flows to start reading basic graded readers. Slumping through Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze is a lot more productive than playing (english) video games!

    I also try to switch between different learning materials when I start feeling slumpy. Even with a short attention span, having enough to switch through keepa me moving forward.

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