Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese

When learning Chinese, there are three factors you need to improve to get the most out of your learning: content, method and time.

The first, content, refers to what you’re learning, so which characters, words and so on. Method is about how you’re learning, so what approach you take and what activities you engage in. The final factor is time and simply refers to how much time you spend learning.

You can read more about the three factors here.

While time is the easiest to explain (it’s obvious to most people that more practice leads to better results) it’s not as easy as it might seem at first. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to study Chinese 10 hours a week this year” and quite another to actually do this, especially if you’re busy with other things and other projects.

In this article, I will discuss the problem with such an approach to learning Chinese and also suggest an alternative.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Overcast, Spotify and many more!

The project management approach to learning Chinese

As with any big project, the most logical thing to do when starting to learn a language is to start with long-term plans and gradually work you way down to everyday actions and activities.

For example, it makes sense to figure out what your long-term goal for learning Chinese is, partly because it can be motivating to think about what you will be able to do with the language, but also because it dictates how to approach the language. If your long-term goal doesn’t involve the written language at all, it makes little sense to spend hundreds of hours learning characters, for instance.

On the other hand, such plans seldom succeed. Sure, there are people who can draw up plans for the coming year and then execute them more or less as intended, but they are few and far between. I’m certainly not one of them and the likelihood is that you aren’t either.

In order to stay committed to a long-term plan for learning Chinese, you need a very strong driving force. This can come in several forms:

  • A keen interest in the language that makes you enjoy learning so much that you naturally study enough to succeed. I have felt such motivation at times, but I think almost no one can maintain such an interest over months and years.
  • A strong desire to fit in or socialise in Chinese, either because you live in an environment where Chinese is spoken or because people you care deeply about speak the language.
  • The knowledge that Chinese is not only important, but essential for your future career and well-being. Simply thinking that learning the language will give you an edge is far from enough, you need more than that.

And even if you have one or more of these, success is still not guaranteed because it’s easy to get distracted or discouraged. If people always chose what was in their long-term interests, the world would be a different place.

Why the project management approach often falls flat

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. They might do so for many reasons, apart from a lack of motivation. One of the most common reasons why big personal projects fail is that changing behaviour is much harder than most people realise. Habits and routines are automated processes we have learnt so we can do things without great effort being needed, but changing these habits and routines is hard!

Some plans also become obsolete soon after they were drawn up. Measurable goals are useful because they make progress easier to see, but they are also dangerous, because you risk focusing on the measurement instead of the thing that was supposed to be measured. A good example of this is the goal of getting good grades, which can be bad for your language learning if the grades don’t reflect actual ability in the language, but rather a small subset of that ability.

Finally, long-term, all-in plans tend to fail because if you miss a step or fall behind, reaching your goals might seem impossible, which is very discouraging. If your goal was to read for an hour a day, what will you do if you’re unable to do so for a week because some unforeseen reason? Streaks are great, but only if you keep them. Breaking the streak make it vastly more likely that you will break it again.

An alternative approach: The forking path

Let’s turn the project-management approach upside-down! Instead of focusing on long-term goals, then gradually breaking them down into smaller and smaller goals, let’s focus directly on the everyday actions and routines that will teach you Chinese. You still need an implicit goal such as “learning Chinese”, but the thoughts you have about learning right now are enough and you needn’t spend more time with them.

Imagine a landscape stretching out in front of you. The distance to the horizon represents a certain time period: a month, a quarter or a year. After the time period is up, you will be at the horizon. To the left is a life with little Chinese, to the right a life with only Chinese. Your goal is to get as far to the right as possible, but not by planning a path through the landscape that takes you there, but by realising that each day is full of small choices where you choose one of several paths. Your goal is to choose Chinese as often as you can.

Some choices are fairly obvious, maybe you can even think of some right now:

  • Waiting for public transport or a friend who’s running late – Do you pick up your phone to play a game? Or do you read something in Chinese, review some flashcards or listen to a podcast?
  • Choosing what audio to listen to during a long walk – Do you listen to your normal podcasts, music or audio books in your native language, or do you choose something in Chinese instead?
  • Reading ten minutes before going to bed – Do you idly browse through social media channels you don’t really care that much about, or do you read at least a few paragraphs in the graded reader you’re working on?

The more you think in terms of forking paths and small choices, the easier these will be to spot. Naturally, it can be very helpful to study other people and see what they are doing. For example, I usually recommend beginners to start counting real-world things in Chinese immediately, such as number of push-ups in the gym or steps in the staircase at work. If you’re going to count these anyway, you can choose to do so in Chinese. And your path takes you closer to the Chinese side of the horizon.

The point is that there is no plan. There are no milestones in the landscape and there’s no path from where you are to where you want to be. Instead of lifting your head and looking ahead, you look down at the path you’re walking, looking for forks in it where you can choose to take the right turn.

You will notice that some of these require effort. It’s hard to stop playing that mobile game and it takes effort to pick up your Chinese reading material before falling asleep, at least to start with. It’s unrealistic to take the path of more Chinese every single time, but you should do it as often as you can. With time, these choices will turn into to habits, requiring an effort to not choose the path to more Chinese. Over time, the importance of these choices accumulate and result in genuine progress.


I feel that this approach to changing your life in the direction you want is a bit more human than a top-down project management approach, which is more suitable to robots. It’s true that planning can be beneficial, even if the plan itself quickly becomes obsolete, but for most people, following a detailed plan simply doesn’t work.

How many people succeed with their new-year resolutions? Some, obviously, but most don’t. Instead of planning everything out in advance only to fail after a few weeks when motivation runs out, why not focus on the small things and make improvements that way, one fork at a time?

Credit: My main inspiration for this way of thinking about language learning comes from Khatzumoto over at All Japanese All the Time. That was over ten years ago and I don’t even remember what the blog post was called, but his site is well-worth checking out!

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  1. Yedafu says:

    Really well said! So true, life made of small and every day life choices.
    Thanks again for the affort of making the audio version.

  2. Maureen says:

    Hello Ollie, yes this is a good article, I nearly got lost in some of the other links within it! Whilst I like your equation, and your recommendation to implement tiny habits, or learn organically – counting whatever, I think the learning process as you state, is complex with many variables and therefore difficult to reduce to a simple equation! If,

    1. I can find the most compelling contact for my purpose.
    2. I can spend however much time I want.
    3. Choose a learning method I like….yet proficiency is not guaranteed!
    why not?
    perhaps it’s because the method I choose is not a good fit for my cognitive strengths/weaknesses. I.e. do I learn best via auditory.visual.kinesthetic modalities?
    Can I retain.recall and apply new learning? It’s of no use if I can’t!
    Using apps to learn, I have found I can do well within the app….but when applying its contents….its out the window, and I’m back to square one!!

  3. Adam says:

    Wonderful article! Love the forking path. Absolutely agree in these small steps and goals. Making each small goal a success can be an exhilarating feeling, and success breeds success, you will be in a more positive mind frame, and you will give yourself extra motivation to continue.

  4. Dicky says:

    Very good idea.
    I will use this to learn another langauge.

  5. Joel T says:

    This is a really cool analogy with applications far beyond language learning. I tried to Google “forking path method” and I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Can you tell me what inspired it?

    1. Joel T says:

      Oh sorry you said at the end…

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Yeah, I kind of made the name up when I wrote the article. I don’t know what other people call it, or if “the forking path” is used to describe other things, it just felt right. 🙂 I have since been alerted to this YouTube video by CGP Grey where he talks about something very similar, but not specifically for language learning. It’s more about New Year Resolutions, but the metaphor is the same.

  6. Fabíola says:

    This is so relatable to art studies! Thanks for the post 🙂

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for the comment! I think this approach is useful for almost anything, actually, which is true for a surprising number of articles on Hacking Chinese. I have considered expanding to other languages or to life in general, but I think it’s safer to stay with Chinese for now. 🙂

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