Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

What’s your next step to master Chinese?

Productivity is a slippery beast and catching it is not easy. When we have a tight schedule with clearly defined things we have to do, it’s relatively easy to get things done, but if we’re on our own with some time available and a wish to level up our Chinese, procrastination is a serious threat. Even if we have a well-defined tasks, such as writing a paper or reading a book, we still seem prone to postpone and delay, sometimes to the point of not finishing the task at all.

Image credit: John Leslie

Image credit: John Leslie

This article is for those of you who feel that you can and want to learn more, but you still don’t do it for some reason. It might be hard to pinpoint what that reason, is but I will do my best to help you solve the problem in this article.

The basic principles of getting things done

I think there are two approaches that we can use to understand how to get things done. The first is related to goals in general and the size of goals in particular. Having only very long-term goals offers no clue on how we’re supposed to achieve these goals. In other words, a goal isn’t really something you do right now, it’s something you accomplish later after you have done other things.

If we want to “master Chinese” or “write a thesis” (or anything else, I just choose two major tasks that I have faced and I know many of your are facing), it doesn’t really say anything about how we accomplish these things. If we’ve done these things a number of times before, we might have some experience to guide us, but the likelihood is that we don’t and that the task ahead looms terrifyingly. How do you approach such a big task?

However, the task looks huge simply because we haven’t broken it down, defined it and designed a way to deal with it. If you look at a big mountain, it will certainly look impossible to move yourself to the top, but actually doing it still mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, something everybody can do. Thus, the first thing we need to do is break down the task into manageable steps.

An personal example: It’s actually quite hard to keep Hacking Chinese up and running with one article a week and still keep up with my course work and do all the other things I want to do. This means that it’s very easy to just do the minimum amount of work required and postpone writing books and developing new projects.

However, I do still get lots of things done because I have broken these projects down and deal with one step at a time. I don’t have a task saying “write an e-book”, instead I know what the next step is (launch the funding project at Indiegogo, in this case), which I probably do next week. Rather than not doing anything, I keep placing one food it front of the other; I will reach that mountain top.

Taking one step after another is good, but in what direction should you walk?

The second thing we need to do in order to get things done is to arrange the steps in some kind of order. In a linear task like climbing a mountain or reading a book, this is fairly straightforward, but for non-linear tasks like “learning Chinese”, this isn’t easy at all. However, moving is always better than standing still!  The core of this article and my thesis is this:

Not knowing what the next step is makes progress impossible

Your next step is simply a small chunk of a larger goal that you can accomplish, preferably within the scope of one short timebox (let’s say 10-15 minutes). Do you know what your next action is for learning Chinese? If we’re talking about developing language ability, I tend to divide my activities in the same way as I have done on this website: listening, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary. That covers most of what I want to learn.

So, what’s your next step?

…to improve listening ability?
…to improve speaking ability?
…to improve reading ability?
…to improve writing ability?
…to expand vocabulary?

If you only have a vague idea of what the next step (the next action) is, it will be very hard to get started (impossible, in fact, since you have to know what you’re doing in order to start doing it, at least if we’re talking about active, voluntary studying). The next action needs to be very specific indeed, there should be no room whatsoever for interpretation or doubt.

This might sound silly, but I’m convinced that lots of people are held back simply because they try to achieve things that are too big, such as “improve my listening ability” or “correct my pronunciation errors”. You can’t achieve something like that  in any measurable way when you study, it’s something you achieve through doing other, smaller steps.

Some examples of what your next actions could look like

Enough abstraction, let’s look at a few examples of what the next action could be for the five areas mentioned above. Of course, these actions don’t exist in a vacuum, but appears to do so here because I haven’t attached them to a long term goal. I think that the long term goals are often obvious, so I haven’t included them.

Next action to improve listening ability

  • Find a suitable news article with transcripts
  • Transcribe one podcast dialogue
  • Look up new words in a dialogue you’ve already listened to
  • Transfer five new Chinese songs to your phone
  • Listen to a radio program for 15 minutes and take notes

Next action to improve speaking ability

Next action to improve reading ability

  • Make sure you have a book available in the bathroom and close to the bed
  • Read the first five pages in a book
  • Go through markings you’ve made when reading
  • Reread something you’ve read earlier
  • Benchmark your reading ability

Next action to improve writing ability

Next action to expand vocabulary

A few words about linear goals

I tend to have a number of projects going, such as “read book x”, “memorize y”, “learn z new characters” and so on. For each of these, I try to always have a next action, I try to always know what the next step will be. If I don’t know the next step, I simply don’t get anything done. If it’s simply doing something a large number of times (such as reading 1000 pages), I usually timebox.

For instance, I failed to write a series of articles on Hacking Chinese for a long time, not because I lacked ideas (I have more than enough), but because I didn’t know what the next step was. I just knew I wanted to produce a series and even if I knew what they should contain, the task of writing these articles still seemed too big and I didn’t know where to start. Only when I sat down and broke this goals into several parts and considered the next action for each did I start getting things done. This is also how I keep larger projects going even if I’m busy with other things.

Example: Improving listening ability

Another examples is listening ability. I think it’s not uncommon to have a vague notion of that we should listen more to Chinese, that we should immerse ourselves. But we don’t, because we don’t really know what the next action is.

Of course, if someone asks you what the next action is, then you might say something like “download suitable audio” or “transfer these podcasts to my phone”, which are obvious answers. The problem is that they only became obvious when you voiced them. Next actions need to be explicit, they need to be said aloud or written down.

Why a thousand mile journey is so hard to start

The reason is that it’s very easy to postpone starting the journey to better listening ability is that starting it tomorrow or next week is essentially the same as setting out today. However, if the next action is much smaller and more manageable, it becomes much harder to argue that you might as well postpone it until tomorrow. Immersing yourself in Chinese might sound like a very hard task, but downloading a podcast is very easy and there is simply no way you can fail that.

What I’m talking about here is essentially just another approach to micro goals, something I’ve written about before first in a separate article, and then again in the article about timeboxing. Khatz over at AJATT puts it well when he says that it’s about winnable games, it’s about breaking things down to such an extent that you cannot possibly fail. It’s easier to beat ten enemies one at a time than ten enemies at once.

However, breaking it down in this fashion isn’t enough, you also need to know which action is the next one. Only then can you actually complete in and move on to the next. It sure is a cliche, but a journey of a thousand miles really needs to start with the first step. If you don’t know how to take that step, your plans and dreams for the rest of the journey becomes meaningless.

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!


  1. Kelby Barker says:

    As I explore your site I keep finding myself thinking “Olle is in my head.” Oddly enough I wrote about just the same thing when it comes to breaking down becoming fluent this week. Just out of curiosity, how do you pick your projects? Asking “what do I suck at most roght now?” Of myself usualy seems to fit the bill for me. Only works if you’re not egotistical though, lol.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good question! I do roughly what you said, but it could be separated into two categories, one based on overall assessment, trying to strengthen the weakest link in the chain, the other based on what goals I’m currently working towards. So, it’s not necessarily about what my weaknesses are, but what I currently lack to be able to reach whatever goal I’m working towards. For instance, during my period in Taiwan, I didn’t do much handwriting, simply because that wasn’t part of what I wanted to achieve back then (I found it better to focus on speaking, which would be much harder to achieve in Sweden; writing ability can be acquired anywhere without too much problem). So in essence, yes, it’s an analysis of what I’m worst at, but weighted according to my current goals.

      1. Kelby Barker says:

        Where do the broader goals come from them? I seem to grab the next shiny Chinese thing I see (story telling, a song, some chengyu for some past examples) and work toward those in relatively short sprints. What does the timeline usually look like for your these skill improvements versus these current goals?

        1. Olle Linge says:

          This is a very dynamic process and hard to put in numbers. Most of the time, long-term goals are pretty obvious for me. For instance, when I moved back to Sweden in 2010, my goal was to bring my Chinese to a level where I would survive a master’s degree course in a language-heavy subjects taught with native speakers in mind rather than foreigners. That kind of goal is easily split according to the five areas I discussed in the article. For instance, I need to be able to read university textbooks in Chinese, listen to lectures in Chinese, write exams (probably by hand) and reports in Chinese and express abstract or fairly complicated concepts orally in Chinese. That’s not the kind of goal you finish in a semester or two, so most of my mid-term goals were simply generated by this long-term one.

          The interesting thing right now is that I have no explicit long-term goals (since I passed both first semesters with 90+ on average, I consider the previous long-term goal to be accomplished). This is mostly because I haven’t collected my thought enough, but if I did, it would probably be mostly related to teaching. I also have a vague notion that I want to be able to play tabletop role-playing games in Chinese (or, preferably, game master). Since I have no explicit and instrumental goal at the moment, I mostly try to fix the most urgent problems. For instance, I’ve long thought that my immersion efforts aren’t enough (even though I arguably read and listen to much more Chinese than other students I know), so I’m trying to read more, the goal is 25 book this year. I could go on, but i think you understand what I mean.

  2. Hugh Grigg says:

    Keep up the great work Olle. Hacking Chinese is already becoming a wonderful resource for learning Chinese, and learning languages in general. It feels to me like a more down-to-earth, less wacky AJATT, and that website is great too.

    I like how HC focuses neatly on how to learn Chinese rather than providing direct learning materials, as it’s something the Web is slightly lacking at the moment, I think.

  3. Wendy Purdie says:

    What a fantastic article on HC this week Olle. It helped me to look at what I have not been doing and plan my next step. I have also recommended your website to my family and friends.

    It is great how you have looked at how you learn and have applied it to help us to learn a foreign language. My spouse has also asked to show him what I am learning so he can learn along with me. Regards Wendy

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.