Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time

Looked at the wrong way, Chinese is a subject to study or an activity schedule like any other. Looked at the right way, learning Chinese seeps into all areas of life and isn’t limited to hour-long blocks in your calendar.

I don’t mean that you have to study full-time in an immersion environment, what I’m saying here is true for anyone who’s serious about learning Chinese, regardless of how much time and energy you’re willing to invest.

Instead, I mean that many students think that learning a language is limited to going to class, working your way through difficult texts or having conversations with native speakers. These all contribute to your learning, but learning is not limited to things you can schedule in your calendar. If you think of it like that, you’ll miss so many learning opportunities!

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode:

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

To analyse this problem and help students find more opportunities to learn Chinese, I came up with the idea of time quality back in 2011 (this is a rewritten version of that article). In essence, this means that time has different levels of quality, and that this needs to be taken into account when thinking about a better way of learning languages. Let’s see what this means in practice!

Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time

The basic idea is that a given stretch of time has a certain quality, ranging from high to low. The time of the highest quality is when you can do anything you want; time of the lowest quality is when circumstances restrict your options. All this is meant with regards to language learning, but you could apply the same reasoning to other activities as well.

  • High time quality means that you have time, resources and energy to engage in any learning activity you want. If you have two hours in the afternoon with nothing planned, strong motivation to learn and access to the resources you need, that’s high time quality. Looked at the wrong way, this is the only kind of time you have available for learning Chinese.
  • Low time quality means that circumstances limit you in some way. Maybe you don’t have enough time to sit down and study for an hour, maybe you don’t have someone to practise speaking with or you don’t have access to the internet and can’t look things up they way you’re used to, or maybe you’re tired on your commute or drive home from work and don’t feel like continuing the book you’re reading. Looked at the right way, this time can still be used for learning Chinese, albeit maybe not in the way you think.

The key insight here is that all activities where you engage with the language contribute to your learning, but that different activities require different time quality. Thus, when planning:

Always use time with as low quality as possible, while still allows you to engage in the activity

This might sound odd at first, but let’s look at a basic example and you’ll see what I mean. Let’s say you have two hours to study Chinese every day, one at home before you go to bed, and one in a commute to and from work. Let’s say you have identified two things you want to focus on this week: listening and practising pronunciation.

In this situation, it would be stupid to spend the hour at home practising listening, because that is something you can easily do on your commute. The same can not be said about practising pronunciation, however, since that would be hard to do on a noisy train or outright dangerous when driving. The time you have available during the commute is of lower quality, so according to the above principle, you should take that into account. Listening practice normally requires much lower time quality than pronunciation practice, so use the low-quality time for listening and save the high-quality time for pronunciation. Or, to put it very briefly, don’t waste time you could do anything with on things you can easily get done on a bus!

Here’s how to plan your learning with this principles in mind:

  1. Identify activities you should engage in to learn efficiently
  2. Sort them based on the time quality required with the lowest quality first
  3. Go through your daily and weekly routines to identify what time you have available when
  4. Plan your low-quality time first and save the high-quality time for activities that truly require it

These steps are not hard to implement, but I’ve written two articles that are particularly relevant here, one about finding and utilising low-quality time:

The time barrel: How to find more time to study Chinese

And another about logging your learning and, by extension, how to balance your activities for optimal learning:

Chinese language logging, part 2: A healthy, balanced diet of Mandarin

Schedule the most demanding activities first

Another way of approaching the same problem, but still relying on the same principle, is to schedule the most demanding (in terms of time quality or demanding for other reasons) activities first. Look at the list of activities and see which of them you think it’s least likely that you’ll get done and make sure that activity gets done when you have high-quality time available. Things that are less demanding are much easier to get done throughout the day, without wasting high-quality time.

Time quality in action: Learning the right thing at the right time

Here are a few examples of how this might affect how you plan your learning:

  • Take vocabulary with you when you move around, preferably using spaced repetition software such as Anki or Skritter. Spending time in front of your computer reviewing characters is a waste of time quality. This can easily be done while you wait for a friend, while you wait for food, are on the bus or at any number of different times.
  • Make sure you always have something to listen to. Since listening ability is mostly a matter of practice, it’s essential that you can utilise low-quality time as much as possible, because you’re going to need high-quality time to learn other things. If you start analysing your time in terms of quality, you will be surprised at how much time you have at your disposal.
  • Use Chinese when you speak with yourself. Depending on what level you have reached, this can include anything from counting things in Chinese to having your internal dialogue entirely in Chinese. This means that you can practise piecing together sentences in Chinese in many situations where many other kinds of practice are impossible. Naturally, you save the high-quality time for actual conversations.
  • Prepare before you go to class. Asking your teacher questions you might as well have looked up on your own is a waste of time quality. You want your teacher to provide comprehensible input, help you with pronunciation and so on, which is very hard to do on your own. If you just want to know the Pinyin of a new character or how to say “torpedo” in Chinese (look it up, it’s a really cool word), use a dictionary at home before class.

Time quality can also be used by teachers to make sure their efforts are invested in the right areas, but this is much trickier, because as teachers, we can’t decide how our students acts outside class. In theory, some things, such as silent reading, should be done mostly after class since teaching time is precious and the teacher doesn’t really do much for the student during such an activity. In practice, however, students might not read at all if they don’t do it in class, which is why we still need reading in the classroom.

Time quality is important, both for the lazy and the efficient student

In short, time quality is just a different way of looking at the time you have at your disposal and trying to find what is optimal to do in a given situation. This strategy is useful for the lazy and the ambitious alike. Efficiency (gain per unit time) is always desirable, and that’s what time quality is about.

If you study what you can to study on your way home to or from work or school, you can do other things when you get home. If that includes learning more Chinese, then you’ll learn faster, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll still be able to do other things you want to do, many of which you couldn’t have done in a car or on a train or bus. If you study all your flashcards while waiting for a friend, you can chat with him or her a bit longer, regardless if it’s for fun or for learning Chinese!

Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2011, was rewritten from scratch in March 2022.

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