Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The three factors that determine how much Chinese you learn

When learning Chinese, three factors determine your progress: the content you study, the methods you use, and the time you dedicate. To achieve your goals quickly and efficiently, strive to optimise all three!

Understanding how to learn a language can seem complicated, but it’s possible to simplify the process. Typically, I discuss specific strategies for learning Chinese, but in this article, we’re going to take a different approach. We’ll zoom out and look at language learning success from a broader perspective, focusing on how these three factors influence your overall progress.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode (#203):

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube and many other platforms!

I have written a book about how to learn Chinese which is organised by these three factors: Skritter’s Complete Guide to Learning Chinese. You can get a free copy of this book simply by signing up for an account at Skritter, which is also free. In the book, I discuss all different aspects of learning but with an extra focus on Chinese characters and words.

Focus on factors you can influence

Naturally, other factors also influence your learning, but from the perspective of an individual learner, these are not helpful to discuss. For example, it’s well known that children typically attain native pronunciation and grammar, whereas most adults don’t, but knowing that doesn’t help you master tones or learn how to use 了 (le) properly.

Age is not an interesting factor for you as an individual learner because you can’t deliberately influence it, other than by waiting and growing older. And no, you’re not too old to learn Chinese! Similarly, working memory capacity has been linked to many areas of language learning and processing, but since there is no direct way to train this, discussing it is not very useful.

You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

This doesn’t mean that it’s completely useless, however. Knowing that some things are harder as you grow older and finding strategies to deal with that is worthwhile, and learning how to make better use of the working memory you have is equally helpful. It’s important to learn about your limitations and learn how to work with them.

This is why I also discuss these things occasionally, such as in my article about becoming a better listener: Beyond tīng bu dǒng, part 5: Becoming a better listener as a student of Chinese.

How much you learn is determined by three factors: content, method and time

In this article, I will discuss the three main factors you can influence: content, time, and method. In other words, we will examine the following:

  1. The content you study (vocabulary, reading and listening materials, etc.)
  2. The methods you use to study (how you learn vocabulary, how you read and listen, etc.)
  3. The time you invest (counted in seconds, minutes and hours, not years since you started learning)

I will discuss each of these factors in detail and provide practical advice for each category. But first, let’s organise these factors into a simple equation:

Content × Method × Time = Proficiency

Notice that proficiency is the product of content, time, and method; they are multiplied together rather than simply added.

This means you can’t neglect any of them, because anything multiplied by zero is zero. For example, a great method is useless if you don’t spend enough time, and even if you invest all your time into learning Chinese, it won’t help if you’re learning the wrong things.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the three factors!

Content: What you study

Content, or what you learn, is one of the most overlooked areas in language learning. Frequency analyses show that you can get far with a limited vocabulary, provided that you know the right words. I once wrote an article on Hacking Chinese using only the 1,000 most common words in English and most people didn’t even notice.

The problem with determining what to learn is that it’s not simply a question of frequency. Frequency lists are usually based on written texts, but the most commonly written words are not the most useful words for you to know as a learner. Native speakers don’t use the language in the same contexts as you do, so high frequency is not the same as usefulness, at least not on lower levels!

As a student, you might use Chinese for travel, family, work, hobbies or something else, and your specific situation will give rise to specific demands on vocabulary in particular. What is useful for you might be useless for someone else, and a frequency list can’t know what contexts you want to use Chinese in. For more about frequency lists, please check The most common Chinese words, characters and components for language learners and teachers.

The most common Chinese words, characters and components for language learners and teachers

The Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, can also be applied to the content you study, especially vocabulary. While the exact numbers are not interesting, it remains a fact that a low percentage of words, say 20%, accounts for 80% of content in interactions. Thus, by focusing on the most useful language first, you can dramatically improve your communicative ability.

For the theory of nerds out there, this is also directly linked to Zipf’s law, which states that the frequency of a word is inversely proportional to its rank in a frequency list. This means that the most common word occurs twice as often as the second most common word, three times as often as the third, and so on. For more about Zipf’s law and vocabulary frequencies, see Piantadosi (2014).

So, to summarise this section: Learn the most useful language first. For most people, “useful” is a combination of general frequency in the language as a whole and language that is relevant for contexts you care about more than the average person.

Here are some important articles focusing on content, or what you study:

Which words you should learn and where to find them

Method: How you study Chinese

Method, or how you study, is perhaps the factor most people associate with Hacking Chinese. The entire site originated from an attempt to address the lack of discussion on learning pronunciation, Chinese characters, tones, grammar, and more. This is why most articles on this website focus on this factor.

However, the abundance of articles about learning methods reflects what is often neglected, not that the method is more important than other factors. While I believe the method is crucial and there are many ways to learn more efficiently, most students would benefit more from focusing on the third factor: time.

Even the best method is bad if you don’t use it

As mentioned earlier, even the best method is useless without the necessary time investment. If you spend all your study time searching for the perfect method, you will never make progress. So, don’t stress too much over which method to use, especially at the beginning. Once you’ve gained some momentum, you can gradually refine your method to keep progressing with less effort.

Some aspects of how you learn are very important, so from the hundreds of articles I’ve written, I’ve selected five of the most crucial ones:

My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters

Time: How much you study Chinese

The third factor, time, or how much time you invest, is the most important factor for how much progress you make. If you don’t spend any time, you won’t learn anything. If you spend a lot of time, you will learn something, even if your method isn’t very efficient and you sometimes focus on the wrong content. Students who spend a lot of time usually outperform those who don’t.

Note that only time spent engaging with the language counts. The fact that you started learning Chinese three years ago means nothing if you used Duolingo for ten minutes per day or if you took a two-year break. One of the most destructive ways of thinking about your learning is to compare your progress with someone who started learning later than you but spent much more time. Learning full-time in China is not the same as having two lessons a week with minimal practice in between.

The number of seconds, minutes and hours spent with the language is what counts.

How long have you studied Chinese?

Practice makes perfect; quantity is king

When native speakers ask me why my Chinese is so good (in their opinion), I usually just say that I’ve practised a lot; 惟手熟尔/惟手熟爾 (wéi shǒu shú ěr); it’s all down to practice! The phrase comes from 卖油翁/買油翁 by 欧阳修 and emphasises that what might look fantastic is often just a matter of practice.

Time spent is also closely related to motivation. If you’re motivated to learn, you will spend more time. If you’re not motivated, you will find excuses to do other things and might even quit learning altogether. This sounds stupid, but people who don’t reach their goals with Chinese almost always do so because they lose motivation, not because they are unable to succeed.

How to learn Chinese in the long term with intrinsic motivation

Some research suggests that motivation is not that important, but this is because, in experiments, time is kept constant. If a strongly motivated and a weekly motivated student spend the same amount of time on-task learning vocabulary, maybe the difference in outcome won’t not that big. In real life, however, time is not kept constant, so motivation becomes the most important factor of all.

In general, you can learn anything with enough input; quantity is king. Comprehensible input, paired with targeted practice and other support structures, is the way forward for most students. For this to work, you need to invest a lot of time, albeit not necessarily the kind of time most people think of when mentioning language learning.

Here are some of the most important articles focusing on investing more time:

Habit hacking for language learners

Conclusion: Learn more by optimising what, how and how much you study

To maximise your learning, you should optimise all three factors discussed in this article. This isn’t a step-by-step process where you perfect one aspect before moving to the next; that approach will get you nowhere. Instead, it’s a gradual journey that will take years. Your goals and circumstances will change over time, requiring you to adjust your strategies.

My final advice is not to get bogged down in details. As long as you spend your time actively engaging with the language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), you’ll make progress. Refine your methods as you go. Don’t delay starting because you haven’t found the perfect approach yet!

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2016, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in June, 2024.

References and further reading

Piantadosi, S. T. (2014). Zipf’s word frequency law in natural language: A critical review and future directions. Psychonomic bulletin & review21, 1112-1130.

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  1. John says:

    I suppose by default you include “practice” (i.e. revision, real life conversation and listening, observing actual Chinese on the street in you happen to live in China) in the “method” component. In my view this is vital and easy to switch off once you close the text book or leave the classroom

    As for time, the physical passage of time is important. By this I mean if you study consistently you need the physical passage of time for things to sink into your long term memory. Even if you subscribe to Benny Lewis’s views or other kind of rapid learning, unless you repeat over and over for years, you will lose it very quickly.

    I did my PhD over 20 years ago and because I spent years at the same topic (day and night) I still remember a fair amount of it despite not looking the content for 2 decades

    1. Diego says:

      Was your PhD written in another language? I always found easier to recall concepts studied in highschool in my own mother tongue than in any other language (supposedly I did a decent amount of repetition of the topic and the vocabulary)

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