Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Study according to your current productivity level

In order to learn Chinese, there are a wide range of things we need to study. Some are very demanding (writing, active listening), some relatively monotonous (entering new vocabulary, reviewing old vocabulary), others aren’t actually studying, but still beneficial (finding suitable reading material, reading articles on Hacking Chinese), yet others are fairly passive and can be combined with other activities (background listening, passive listening). Perhaps the most overlooked kind of studying is that which doesn’t really feel like studying (listening to music, playing computer games, doing sports).

These all require different levels of productivity. Sometimes, we are full of energy and feel that we can do anything, but sometimes we feel listless and when we try to write an article or transcribe a dialogue, it simply doesn’t work.

If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it

In order to invest thousands of hours into learning Chinese, you need to either enjoy what you’re doing or be very masochistic. Not only does studying become a pain if you don’t enjoy it, but studies also show that being interested in what you’re doing and enjoying while you learn is of paramount importance for your study results. Therefore, if you planned to do something, but then figure out that you don’t have the energy required, you shouldn’t force yourself. Generating negative feelings in connection with learning Chinese is dangerous and counter-productive.

If you don’t feel up to it, do something else instead

However, just because you don’t feel up to spending an hour transcribing a dialogue or writing an article on Lang-8, that does not mean that you should play games on Facebook or idly browse the internet instead. No, you should instead try to find something else to study, something that matches your current productivity level. This is the true topic of this article. Maximising output is about being able to find something suitable to study for any given mental state or level of productivity.

If you have to do it anyway, choose the best time

Before delving deeper into different kinds of tasks and how to rank them according to productivity level, something should be said about procrastination. If you have tasks you really have to do, either because you think they’re essential to your language learning or because of curricular pressure, you can’t simply choose other tasks, at least not all the time. However, if you start with your assignment well on time, there’s usually enough time to allow some flexibility. If you just can’t concentrate on learning complex grammar right now, perhaps after lunch or before dinner will be better?

This is not an excuse to postpone indefinitely, it’s about knowing yourself. If you know that you become very tired after meals, don’t place heavy tasks like active listening or writing articles directly after lunch. If you know that you’re usually very productive for a few hours after waking up, try to use that time to get these things done instead. This is related to what I’ve written about time quality earlier, but is more closely related to your own emotional state, rather than external factors.

In essence, you should choose the task that most closely matches your current productivity level and mental state.

This means that you might have to do things you don’t feel up to sometimes, but that’s difficult to avoid if you have exams and homework assignments.

Productivity levels vary over time

Although people are certainly different in this regard, productivity levels vary over time, both in the short and long term. Personally, I know that I’m very productive before lunch (this article was written around eight o’clock on a Sunday morning) and after midnight. On the other hand, I know that time between lunch and dinner is much less productive for me, and the closer to five o’clock it gets, the more prone to procrastination I become.

Productivity levels also vary in the long term. If I’m busy with other things that require productive output of some kind, I have less energy left for demanding study tasks. If studying Chinese is the only thing I’m doing at the moment, this usually isn’t a problem, but it still might be. Almost everything in our might influences how productive we feel (particularly social life). Therefore, understanding yourself is necessary if you hope to optimise your studying.

Tasks requiring low productivity levels

Regarding tasks requiring low productivity levels, I think it’s important to always know what you’re going to study next. You can keep post-it notes on your desk or have a text file on your phone, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but having a list of things to study is necessary. Why? Because determining what you want to study requires productivity/creativity in itself! If you don’t have that, how are you supposed to know what to study? Here are a few things I can do almost regardless of how listless I feel:

  • Review vocabulary – Make sure to timebox if it’s hard to concentrate or if you feel tired
  • Edit vocabulary definitions – I routinely mark and update flashcards with new info, example sentences and so on
  • Find, download or manage audio – Do you have relevant audio on your phone? If yes, you can always get more.

If these things are too demanding or you find them too boring to cope with, then try the following (but don’t do this all the time, know yourself well enough to know when you’re procrastinating and when you are realistic):

These are just examples, of course. What you personally think is demanding isn’t something I can comment on, but the above examples are based on my own experience. For instance, music is something which makes me more energetic, so using music almost never fails. This might not be the case for you, but I hope you understand the principle.

The most important thing of all: When you feel tired, don’t stop studying, study something else instead

If you take one thing with you from this article, I’d like it to be this: The next time you feel tired while studying Chinese and feel like giving up, don’t simply put down the book and go on Facebook or similar. Instead, find something else you can study which is more suited to your current emotional state. It might be something which doesn’t feel very serious (such as music), but it’s still exposure to Chinese, something you need more of. In any case, it’s much better than doing nothing!

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  1. jono1001 says:

    I really like this post. The advice is very sound indeed. It is something I have always known….but need to be more disciplined to put it into practice. So many attractive distractions on the Internet…lots of Chinese information full of digital goodness…often does not contribute to my studies.

    Thanks again for this post…I am off to study now.


  2. Great post!

    For listening to music I prefer 酷狗 because with it you can decide if you want to see the lyrics or not. You can find many music videos from 酷狗 too.

    I think watching Chinese TV/movies is a great way to learn Chinese. I think my listening skills are thanks to Chinese TV shows and movies.

  3. Federico Smanio says:

    Hi Olle,

    as usual very insighful and inspiring. Thanks to your advice I have also found music is of great help to me giving a touch of fun and change to the typical language learning pattern.

    I do think watching video is a great tool also, as my greatest flaw is listening comprehension.

  4. Joe Lemien says:

    Great advice. I’ve used similar things in the past for various fields of study (such as watching a documentary about the Mao years when I was too tired to study for my Chinese history class). It is great to view movies as a language-practicing experience!

  5. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for this great advice. It reminds me of an activity I like to do that I could do even when at a low energy level – and that is to watch American movies that have been dubbed into Chinese.

    I generally find watching Chinese shows, for myself, is a high energy task – but this is much easier on me – Yes, you miss the cultural aspect, but it is perfect putonghua, plus the predictability of the familiar culture aids comprehension.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Excellent suggestion! USing material you’re already (at lesat slightl) familiar with lowers the threshold significantly. If you have watched the movie fairly recently in English and are familiar with the plot and dialogue, it makes it even easier. I used to extract the audio from movies I had already watched, that’s also quite useful.

  6. A. Shen says:

    Excellent article! Even when not “actively studying”, language students should find something that involves the language in a fun way. For those that like to listen to music, QQ music works good for following along the lyrics. The site has the music player embedded in. There is a button on the player which to turn on the lyrics, so the student can follow along.

  7. Rachel M. says:

    I totally agree with this post! Some of my friends get so hanged up on how little they’ve studied this day or that month that they don’t realize that they are wasting time being tired and could just be enjoying the language they are passionate about! It all adds up! On the other end, this post encourages me to actively study more and I feel is a good advice article on how to stay energized by not burning out by trying to over study and look out for those times when you do have the energy.

  8. Aaron Posehn says:

    Shared! 🙂

    I really enjoy watching Taiwanese dramas because I find that I can learn a lot of new vocabulary quickly.

    I like your advice about “studying something else instead”. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve just given up for the evening because I was bored or frustrated with what I was looking at at that moment.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      This is perhaps the most important point of all for people who study full time or who otherwise aspire to learn Chinese quickly or to a very advanced level. We simply can’t afford to stop learning as soon as we don’t feel up to studying what we originally intended to study. We’re either going to kill our motivation or ourselves in the process. The trickiest bit is that deciding what do do also requires effort, which is why I think it’s essential to have actual lists of things to do in different areas that require different energy levels. I don’t like dramas that much, but I like watching StarCraft matches in Chinese. 🙂

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