Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Your slumps affect your language learning more than your flows

altitude curveLet’s talk a little bit about cycling. As anyone who has ever cared about average speed knows, uphill stretches affect your average speed much more negatively than downhill stretches affect it positively.

In other words, even though one might look at a track and think that a hill cancels itself out, this isn’t the case. In fact, the best kind of track is one with no height differences at all (provided we start and finish at the same altitude, of course).

Learning Chinese is much like cycling in this regard. There are people who go on binges and study like maniacs for short periods of time (downhill cycling), but then run out of steam and have slump lasting considerably longer (uphill cycling).

The problem with this uphill-downhill kind of studying is that it isn’t your top speed that counts, it’s your average. Or, if you will, the distance you cover. The best is to have a steady, regular performance that gives you the mileage you need without burning yourself out completely.

Slumps, uphill cycling and procrastination

We all have slumps. People tend to think that I’m very ambitious, but in spite what is sometimes claimed, I’m a human rather than a robot, and as such, I do have my periods of low activity and procrastination, too.

However, the main difference between many students I know and myself is that my low output is still considerably higher than zero. When I “stop studying” Chinese, I still chat with friends, read comics, watch StarCraft matches, listen to music, practise gymnastics and so on, all in Chinese. I learn a lot even when I have no energy to study. A key component is to be able to adjust how and what you study according to how productive you feel.

I’ve written about low-intensity learning before (see the list below), but it’s essential that you set these habits or routines up before you find yourself in a slump. Forging habits is energy consuming in itself and when you’re fighting yourself up a very steep hill, you won’t have the energy it takes to redesign your study method.

Here are a few areas to focus on:

Doing this, being in a slump just means that you won’t focus so much on learning new words or grammar and that you won’t tackle new texts or recordings. You will focus on consolidating rather than conquering new territory. It’s still a slump, but it’s the difference between hanging in there, pedalling your way towards the top rather than stopping altogether.

Flow, downhill cycling and binge studying

That being said, flow is still something very useful. I sometimes feel a very strong urge to learn more and I try to go along with that as much as I can. The problem is that I think this kind of binge studying might feel very good when you do it, but that it still drains energy and makes the subsequent slump that much worse. If you often find yourself binge studying and then leaving Chinese alone for long periods of time, you need to change the way you’re studying.

Obviously, you need to binge study quite a lot if its going to make up for what you lose in the intervening slumps. If you can do it and it fits your personality and your schedule, by all means do it, but I think that most people would benefit from having steady routines and trying to level the highest peaks and fill the lowest valleys. That way, the road to Chinese fluency becomes that much smoother!

Final words of advice

  • Prepare for periods of low motivation when you’re motivated
  • Establish habits that increases your minimum daily Chinese exposure
  • Understand that all exposure counts as learning in some way

Continue reading: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps

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  1. Kong Meilin says:

    Sufficient (deep) sleep contributes to retaining learnt material. The brain needs time on its own to process and order new information. This is also part of learning. This is also true for physical training. There has to be sufficient periods of regeneration between training drills. Otherwise they may be ineffective.

  2. Mark says:

    I understand your point about average but a one size fits all does not seem right. People learn differently, have different temperaments, have different time commitments, and have different motivations. What matters most is whether they are able to communicate what is needed at the appropriate time.

    1. R Zhao says:

      It seems like you are criticizing a generalization by making another generalization.

      For me, this post certainly rings true. What matters most to me is not that I am “able to communicate what is needed at the appropriate time.” As an intermediate level speaker, I can pretty much already do that. My goal is to find the motivation to continue to build on my language skills but at times it’s difficult go motivate myself and study consistently. I think finding low-intensity learning habits is really great advice, at least for me.

  3. Sara says:

    Thank you for the article Olle!

    What I would be interested to read, is expanding from your final words. How do you personally prepare for low motivation before hand?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      You are completely right, of course. I should perhaps have been able to foresee this, but I didn’t. If I have time, I will try to write an article answering this question and publish it next week. If you have any suggestions yourself, let me know!

      1. Sara says:

        It would be very interesting to hear your take on this, when you have the time. As my motivation for many things often goes up and down, and I haven’t tackled it yet, I’m pretty much out of suggestions. But getting the balance is the goal, also in learning Chinese.

  4. AndrewV says:

    This is exactly the problem I face. I’ll study like crazy when I have tons of time, but now that I’m working full time and working on a Master’s degree I find that I am struggling to retain what I’ve learned, not to mention forging on.

    Thanks for writing these articles. It’s so good to know there are others who go through the same thing.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Great advice. Thanks for the kick in the pants, Olle! Time for me to flatten out the terrain…

  6. George says:

    Being an American in Taiwan for 19 years has been less productive that I expected for learning Chinese. I found it easier to throw myself into it for about the first two years, but then it was easy to be lazy.

    I have tried a lot of different materials and due to the fact that I see similar results from similar materials in teaching English in Taiwan, I would have to say the biggest hazard is that there is a huge amount of introductory material that never goes much beyond that in the Second Language Learning publishers.

    I have turned to native elementry school texts with good results, but these do get a bit silly in terms of topics.

    But recently I discovered a source for Chinese idioms, (Cheng2 Yue3) for elementry school and middle school learners. Reading these are really helpful as they diversify my vocabulary into the wider realms of Chinese culture, they tend to be short chapters, and I can see what is considered excellent quality written text.

    I found in teaching English in Taiwan, the same applies. If I import middle school mainstream books from the USA, the students are exposed to more real everyday English. Before the “Magic Tree House” series arrived in Taiwan, my young students were NOT learning to talk like American kids.. they never learned words like ‘peek’, ‘to take off (run)’, and so on.

    Wrong word choices make social interation and listening expectations difficult.

    In sum, explore mainstream literature for kids ASAP and don’t try to cram second language texts for a limited range of generalized vocabulary.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sound advice in general, but I do think there lies some danger in choosing books for children at random. Some of them, even for fairly young ages, contains tons of flowery language that most beginner and/or intermediate learners really don’t need. It’s as if the books are written to educate children about proper Chinese language rather than entertain them and encourage them to read. I still have tho word lists from the first book I read five years ago and it contains tons of words and phrases that I have yet to see a second time. I know, not all books are like that, but it’s still a real risk. In general, though, I think people wait too long before diving into native material. I have an upcoming article about this, but it will take some time before it works its way through the publishing queue. 🙂

      1. george says:

        Overly ambitious text book authors and publishers are a real hazard in any field of study. Good authors are informative and helpful to students. Generally the good authors are just writing in their native language, so that is why I suggest mainsteam material over 2nd language material.

        The transistion is important and helpful. But there will always be some poor writers and poor publishers (I really dislike Oxford for teaching second language English as they tend to be overly ambitious and try to sell a big array of must have accessories. If you see these kinds of behaviors, go elsewhere.)

        Ask a native elementry or middle school teacher to recommend something.

      2. george says:

        Additional thoughts about studying the Chinese idioms with elementry or middle school texts.

        The purpose is NOT to learn the obscure idioms so much as it is to learn the explanitory text with its grammar, phrasing, and clarifying vocabulary.

        I most cases, the idioms themselves are what linguists call opage. This is that they are very difficult to guess the meaning, one has to study them. Knowing and using a lot of them might just confound others by talking over thier heads.

        But the supporting text is extremely rich in ways that 2nd language texts tend to ignore. We need to graduate from “This is a door.” and “I want a bowl of noodles.” to a mode where we identify topic, the salient itemss and inferred relationships. We these texts, a lot is presented in short texts, a bit of Q & A, and we also learn some obscure idioms with related characters.

        I enjoy this and feel it is impowering.

        I also watch Chinese TV with a phonetic dictionary handy to look up phrases that keep hearing and wondering about. It is good to have more than one dictionary and place them where they are most useful (with the TV in one case, with reading material in another case.

  7. Sara K. says:

    This is a very interesting post, and relevant to what I’m going through vis-a-vis studying Chinese and, recently, Korean.

    My Korean level is currently way, way, way lower than my Chinese level, which means it takes more effort to make certain kinds of progress (for example, it’s a lot easier for me to learn ten new words of Chinese than ten new words of Korean because my ‘knowledge web’ for Chinese is much more expansive).

    I’ve formed enough habits which involve Chinese that, even when I focus less intensely on learning Chinese, I still get quite a bit of practice. Of course, it helps that I live in Taiwan ex-Taipei – even if I dropped all of my other habits involving Chinese, I would still need a bit of Chinese for certain every-day interactions (or rather, using a little Chinese would be easier than not using Chinese, such as when I asked a sales clerk how much a certain item costs today). However, I also have other habits which involve practicing Chinese, not unlike your habits.

    The only habit I’ve established for Korean is reviewing my Korean Anki deck. That means that, when I’m not intensely focusing on Korean (and I cannot focus intensely on Korean all the time), the only Korean study which gets done is reviewing Anki cards. That is still way, way, way, way better than not getting in any Korean practice at all – at least it means that I still remember most of the vocabulary when I return to focusing on Korean – but I feel that it is not enough. Perhaps I need to deliberately need to establish some low-energy Korean habits (such as finding some Korean songs I like and learning the lyrics) so that when I go into a slump I have more to do than just review Anki cards.

  8. Ryan J says:

    The riding up and down a hill analogy is great… While not totally the same, it reminds me of people getting into diet or fitness regimes. So many jump in full of gusto, try to cut out all bad foods, and get physical movement for an hour every day. They keep that up for a few weeks and then burn out and give up.

    I think it’s reflective of our instant gratification world, I want to be skinny now, I want to speak Chinese now.

    There was this great talk I heard about a guy trying to establish the habit of flossing his teeth. He simply set the goal of flossing ONE tooth per day and he’d consider it a success. More often than not, he did more than one tooth, but the point it he formed that long term habit with one easy step. That’s it.

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