Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Escaping the convenience trap to learn more Chinese

People like doing what they’re good at and studying Chinese is no exception. For instance, one might think that speaking and listening is not a big problem, but often find reading and writing difficult. What’s the result? More time spent on speaking and listening, less time on reading and writing. Why? Because humans like doing what they’re already good at.We receive positive feedback from my environment. When we do things we’re not so skilled at, we become frustrated and unhappy, decreasing our incentives to practice.

Thus, we become even better at what we already know, while we don’t improve our weak sides.

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/carolinespics/

You are your weaknesses as well as your strengths

Sometimes you will hear people give the advice to focus on your strong sides to make them even better and make your more competitive. This is sometimes correct, but also comes with a downside. By constantly practising what you already know, you will become very proficient in a few areas, but will lack knowledge in others. Being aware that this might be dangerous is the first step to escaping the convenience trap.

The convenience trap

One of the more obvious examples of the convenience trap is group assignments in school. The system sets the trap for you and since most students care about their grades, they gladly walk straight into it. If you have a group assignment, it’s natural that you take responsibility for what you do best and that your friends take responsibility for other areas they excel in. This will obviously give the best final result and would be a very good idea if you want to win a competition or are designing a new product for the market.

But it’s also very bad for your learning in the long run, because it means that you keep doing the same thing rather than broadening your knowledge base. I think most people agree that learning a language means learning all or most parts of it, not isolated aspects. It’s of course possible to focus only on writing, but even if that’s what you want to do, you can break writing down into many parts and apply the same thinking. Are you focusing exclusively on formal writing? What about other areas, styles or topics?

I used to spend less time listening than reading, simply because I found the latter much easier. This is bad. It should be the other way around, otherwise I’m setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy dooming myself. If I ever want to attain a high level of listening ability, I’ll need to listen more, not less! Still, even though this is obvious, I’m amazed by how often people (including myself) get caught in the convenience trap. We don’t do it deliberately, but rather out of convenience, hence the name.

Escaping the trap

Escaping the trap is more easily said than done, but being aware of the trap and understanding it make it a lot easier. If you have a choice between doing two things you need to do, make sure you don’t always pick the thing you know you’re already good at. If you have two tasks and have to choose which order to perform them, do the one you’re not so good at first, making sure that it gets done. Spend time now and then to actively think about how to change your routines to allow you to focus more on what you need to focus on. For example:

  • If you want to listen more, always have something to listen to on your phone or mp3 player (read more about practical things to do in order to increase listening volume)
  • If you want to read more, make sure you have suitable reading material handy, preferably where you have time to spare, such as beside your bed or in the kitchen
  • If you want to speak more, find someone to practice with and decide on a regular time to meet (a language exchange might be a good idea if you find it hard to find friends to practice with)
  • If you want to write more, find friends to chat using social media of different kinds, or promise yourself to write at least one short blog post in Chinese every day, regardless how short it is (you can use Lang-8 if you want natives to correct your Chinese)


If we want to learn Chinese properly, we should identify what we need to practice and focus on improving those part, strengthening the weakest links in the chain, rather than always polishing those that are already strong enough.  It’s okay to be bad, it’s okay to make mistakes, the important thing is that you realise that you have to start moving if you’re ever going to reach a distant goal. It’s also okay to neglect certain areas if you do it deliberately, but it’s not okay if you do it without noticing or because you’re lazy.

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  1. David Feigelson says:

    The only thing that tests all four skills is the TOP or HSK. Reading and writing are usually private activities where a teacher or private tutor may see this, but no one else. Listening and speaking can be done with anyone who speaks Chinese. I think this is why reading and writing are so neglected. You practically have to pay someone in order to practice. I think its a tossup for which is harder listening or writing. Both involve pattern recognition. The memory component is what makes writing difficult. The vocabulary component is what makes listening difficult. I’ve never taken TOP or HSK so I don’t know what they’re like.

  2. Guus says:

    I think it’s safe to say we all have this temptation. When drawing it broader than language learning, I think it also has advantages. We all must specialise in something, no one can learn everything.

    I guess the main takeaway from this post is to be conscious of what we want / need to learn and spend our time accordingly.

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