Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Why your Chinese isn’t as good as you think it ought to be

Investing time and energy into learning Chinese, but not making the progress you desire, can be very frustrating. It’s one thing to make slow progress if you’re busy with other things or if circumstances prevent you from putting in the effort required, but if you do what you’re supposed to and still fail to reach your goals, that is a problem so serious that it makes many students quit learning Chinese altogether.

The realisation that you’re not as good at Chinese as you think you ought to be can strike at different times:

  • Maybe you’ve been studying mostly on your own and finally get a chance to speak with real people, only to realise that they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, or perhaps more commonly, that you don’t understand what they say in response.
  • Maybe you’ve applied for a course that requires a certain level of Chinese, but when you attend the first class, you feel out of your depth (although this is a normal reaction of deep-end immersion) and you’re unable to follow what’s going on
  • Maybe you’re doing well in your textbook series and have good grades, and then think time to read a real newspaper or a novel, only to find that each paragraph contains a dozen characters you’ve never seen, and for the sentences where you do understand all the characters, you still can’t figure out what words they form and how the grammar works.

In this article, I will try to answer the question why your Chinese isn’t as good as you think it ought to be, and why you can’t do something you think you should be able to do, even though you have studied for a considerable amount of time, relatively speaking.

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!

Of course, I don’t know what your actual situation is like, but I’ve taught, coached and talked to many students from all over the world, and think I can analyse the problem in a way that will be helpful for most of you.

If you read this article and don’t think what I say can explain your situation, leave a comment below and describe what’s going on! Maybe I or someone else can help you.

Reasonable goals and realistic expectations

Before we get to common answers to the question of why you aren’t as good at Chinese as you think you ought to be, let’s get something else out of the way first: expectations. Expecting to be able to read newspapers and novels fluently after studying a few hours per week is unrealistic, even if you keep it up for years; thinking that tones are difficult after you’ve studied a few months, even if it’s full time, is completely normal.

In this article, I want to focus on situations where you really aren’t where you’re supposed to be, so to speak. It’s hard to objectively measure something like this, but the new course situation described above is a good example: The course is designed for people who have studied as long as you have, but it’s too hard for you.

Another example is if you compare with other people and realise that you’re far behind, even though you’ve studied for as long as they have. Naturally, people learn at different speeds, so don’t compare with the most extreme case you can find.

How much time and effort have you invested, exactly?

My response to students who ask why their Chinese isn’t as good as they think it ought to be can be divided into two parts, one focusing on the amount of study time and one focusing on what activities that time has been spent on.

Let’s start with how long you’ve studied. Obviously, how much Chinese you learn is not determined by how many years have passed since you started learning (just as you don’t learn Chinese simply by living in China), but by how much you have engaged with the language.

This is counted in hours and minutes, not years. Saying that you’ve studied Chinese for a year, five years or twenty five years is meaningless. Someone who studies Chinese in an immersion environment for a year and dedicates all their time and energy to learning the language will probably get further than someone who dabbles, taking evening classes an our every Thursday even if they do so for decades.

How long have you studied: A year? A thousand hours?

In a pair of articles I wrote a few years ago, I asked readers how many years they had been learning. I also asked them to make a quick guess of how many hours they had spent, and then also asked for a more structured estimation of the number of hours. Two lessons can be learnt from the results:

  1. Years is a meaningless unit of how much you’ve studied
  2. People overestimate how much they study by a large factor

That years is a meaningless unit should be obvious from my example above. In the survey, we also saw that the students who had studied the long time in years (35 years), estimated that they had spent the largest number of hours in the quick guess (10,000), and in the structured estimation (4,500 hours) were all different people. Naturally, having studied for many years makes it possible to also have studied many hours, but there’s no guarantee of that!

So how much time and effort have you invested, exactly? If the answer is that you’ve taken it easy for a few years and studied for a couple of hundred hours a year, maybe you shouldn’t be too surprised if a course that requires a year of full-time studying is hard for you, or if someone who has lived and breathed Chinese for six months is way ahead of you.

How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!

Where did you invest the time in energy, exactly?

Now that we’ve established that it’s hours spent learning that counts, not the number of years since you first started, let’s move on to the next question: What did you do with those hours?

Learning Chinese is a complex process that can be divided into many different skills and abilities. To keep it simple here, let’s focus on listening, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary. If you spent all your hours learning the written language, it’s not strange if you find listening difficult, and if you spent most of your time speaking, it’s only natural that your writing ability won’t be as good.

These skills and abilities also interact with each other in ways that are not always clear to students. Many students think of language learning like learning other complex tasks, such as physical exercise, but very few people in the field of second language acquisition think this is the case.

If you go to the gym, for example, it seems obvious that you get better at what you practise. If you want to get better at pull-ups, doing squats won’t really help you, and spending hours on a treadmill won’t improve your bench press much. There’s more transfer between more complex physical activities such as between gymnastics and football, or between tennis and short-distance running, but the rule of thumb is still that practice makes perfect and that you should engage in the activity you want to get better at.

This is not the case when it comes to learning a language. Instead, listening and reading are much more important than the other areas, because they provide your brain with the data and  patterns necessary to form your own mental model of the language.

While speaking and writing can increase fluency and help you develop strategies to communicate better, the key to better speaking and writing is still mostly to listen and read more. You will get better at pull-ups if you do only pull-ups, but you won’t improve your writing much if writing is all you do.

If you’re interested in balancing the different areas of language learning, please checkout my article series about language logging, especially part 2. If you’re a beginner, you might also want to check out Unlocking Chinese: The ultimate course for beginners, where I go through how to build a study routine that works.

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

How valid is your learning method?

To get at the real problem many students face, we need to ask a more basic question: What specific mechanism is it that results in learning?

This question is of course much too complex for a blog post, and is the focal point of a whole field of research, but if I were to attempt to summarise it, I might say that it’s mapping form (spoken or written words) to meaning and developing communicative strategies, all achieved primarily through engaging with the language and communication with others.

Let’s look at a few things that certainly don’t result in learning:

  • The bits of the podcast you’re listening to that isn’t in Chinese
  • Reading descriptions of how grammar works (written in English)
  • Living in a Chinese-speaking environment (in and of itself)
  • Listening to your teacher talk about Chinese culture in English
  • Reading this article or listening to my podcast

These activities might be interesting and some might even make other learning activities more efficient or effective, but if you included them in the count of how many hours you’ve invested into learning Chinese, you need to count again! Guidance is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much guidance!

Can too much guidance make you learn less Chinese?

This problem is sometimes severe. As a beginner, you might think that you’re spending 20 hours a week, but if the podcast you listen to is mostly in English, your teacher spends a lot of time explaining things in English, and you try to figure out why sentences you write are incorrect by posting them online so people can help you out (also in English), you might actually be spending just a few hours a week actually engaging with the language itself.

I’ve written more about how to figure out how valid your method is here:

Are you practising Chinese the right way? Is your method valid?

Chinese courses and formal education

I’ve recently spent a lot of time structuring curricula for university courses in Chinese, including organising them and figuring out how they relate to each other in terms of requirements and language level. This is hard; what should I write as requirements for a course at a certain level? 500 hours of studying? A semester’s worth of credits in Chinese? Something else?

When these courses started, a student complained that they had actually studied several times longer than the recommendation, but still found it very hard to follow a class taught almost entirely in Chinese. In this case, I had some knowledge about the student’s background and knew about the program where they studied before. The reason they found this new course difficult is that the program they were enrolled in before focused on explicit instruction in English to a very high degree (talking about vocabulary, grammar and culture mostly in English), combined with a strong focus on characters and the written language. If that’s all you do, then yes, following lessons taught almost entirely in Chinese will be hard!

But wait a minute, isn’t the point of taking a course that you can relax because you know someone else has taken care of selecting what to learn and how to do it? Ideally, yes, but in practise, sadly no. Most formal courses in Chinese, especially those at universities, are focused on a narrow set of skills and abilities, usually centred on the written language over the spoken one, and with explicit knowledge (the ability to accurately describe the language) overshadowing the ability to understand and communicate.

What your Chinese course will not teach you

The sad truth is that this is quite normal. I’ve heard similar stories from many students across the world over the years, and it’s been true for most institutions I’ve studied in or observed directly myself. It might be more prevalent in some educational systems than others, but the problem is that Chinese (and other languages) are often treated as subjects to study rather than a language to engage with and communicate in.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, you need to look at your curriculum, your own goals for learning Chinese and then figure out what the differences are. Your course will focus on some things you don’t care about, but it will also leave out many things that are essential for success. I also discuss strategies for figuring out the differences in my course Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin.

Why your Chinese isn’t as good as you think it ought to be…

In general, I think the above discussion covers almost all cases that I have encountered, at least if we’re talking about learning Chinese in general. Of course, there’s a lot to say about more specific questions, such as why your tones aren’t as good as you think they ought to be, or why you struggle with remembering characters, that’s what most of the other articles on Hacking Chinese are about.

But in general and on the whole, most students aren’t where they want to be because they haven’t engaged in the right activities for long enough, maybe because they’ve been mislead to believe that getting good grades is a guarantee that they’re learning the right things.

…and what to do about it

The solution to feeling that your Chinese isn’t as good as you think it ought to be is to look back and analyse what you have been doing, which is what we’ve talked about in this article. Then forget about that and look ahead instead: how can you make sure that you reach your goals in the next few months or years? How can you make sure you engage with the language as much as possible and study in ways that will actually enable you to reach your goals? The best time to take responsibility for your learning was months or years ago, but the second best time to do so is now!

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  1. Kai says:

    Don’t worry, I don’t think my Chinese is good so…kudos for me?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Not really! This is not about being good or bad, it’s about your level in relation to what you think it ought to be, regardless if your a beginner or very advanced. 🙂

  2. Christopher Coulouris says:

    Hi Olle,
    I am very glad that you wrote this article. It is relevant to my recent experience of applying for a government Chinese teaching job. I studied Chinese for 5 years at a Chinese university. The teaching methods frustrated me. Rather than engaging in learning Chinese I spent time complaining and letting my frustration get the best of me. Over the last year I applied for a government Chinese teaching job. An outside agency tested me. 5 being a native speaker I got a 3 in listening 2+ in reading and speaking. I fell short of the required 4 in all areas. Some months later I did a phone interview for the same job and I flopped. The criteria was that I answered the given questions as a highly articulate educated native speaker would. Maybe I was nervous but my answers were convoluted to say the least. After not getting the job and performing poorly I have been pondering my Chinese level and where I ought to be. Thank you for this article.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m sorry to hear about that, but I think this is probably a mix of what I talk about in this article and unrealistic expectations. I really think it’s impossible to reach the level of an educated native speaker in five years, it doesn’t really matter how much time you spend or how talented you are, the amount of especially reading you need to do to reach that level is so vast that I think few adult foreigners have ever done it. I certainly haven’t. I wrote an article some time ago about how to figure how good one’s Chinese is (here), where I talked about this and also wrote some thoughts about my own learning.

      Then there are oddities in tests like these, too. I had to take a test for native speakers to show that my pronunciation was good enough, but the test actually doesn’t really test pronunciation, it’s more about knowing difficult words and how they are pronounced. They give you a list of characters, words and sentences and ask you to read them. That’s okay as a check for basic pronunciation, but the problem is that the words are really rare (as in many characters being outside of the 5,000 most common ones). I was a bit lucky because I had spent lots of time in Skritter going through around 5,800 characters and actually knew those I got, but it’s a really unfair way of checking pronunciation. Maybe your test contained similar things, too.

      Anyway, while I don’t think it’s realistic to reach C2 or educated native level in five years, I can understand that you’re not very happy with 2+ and 3 for grades if 5 is the maximum. On the other hand, I’m not terribly surprised. I’ve studied both undergraduate and post-graduate courses in linguistics and related subjects in Chinese and while this is really good for listening and reading in these specific areas, it doesn’t really improve your overall level that much unless you also do lots of other studying on the side. When you get to a level where you can do these things, teachers don’t care about your language skills that much and the responsibility for learning is entirely on the student. This problem is not limited to Chinese courses or East Asia either; there are many countries where you can study a language for a decade without being able to actually use it.

  3. Christopher Coulouris says:

    Hi Olle,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough reply to my comment. You are right in saying that no one can attain the level of an educated native speaker in just 5 years. When interviewer on the phone told me that I should reply like a highly articulate educated native speaker I knew it was a long shot. It is quite an achievement for an adult learner of Chinese to attain that level. I also agree with you about the way second languages are taught in many countries. Here in the States second language teaching is like you said a subject to be studied but not for real use. Best wishes.

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