Scott H Young

My Plan for Learning Chinese Over Three Months


Normally I share my learning experiences after the fact. I’ve written before about tackling MIT’s calculus, Spanish, linear algebra, finance and other non-academic learning tasks.

This time, however, I wanted to do things a little differently.

I want to share my thinking process before going to learn Chinese. Then, once we land and the three months progress, I can see how well my predictions met reality and how different my original strategy differed from the one I eventually settled upon.

The Futility and Necessity of Planning

With most of my learning goals, I start with fairly elaborate plans, involving dozens of separate tactics and schedules. Then, after a few weeks, I usually settle on something that only uses one or two of those tactics. The plans are complex and intricate, the reality tends to be simple and pragmatic.

I can remember my original notes when planning for the MIT Challenge. I had planned out 12-hour studying schedules, along with dozens of separate tactics to learn the material. I wound up using closer to 8-hour daily schedules with tactics that boiled down to (1) reading textbooks/watching lectures, (2) doing practice problems, (3) doing Feynman techniques.

The reason for this is straightforward. First, simpler strategies require less willpower to maintain, given the same amount of hours worked. Complex strategies have a mental overhead that, if you’re not suitably compulsive about following them, start to overwhelm the actual work.

Second, most tactics don’t work. Although I sell a course with dozens of tactics, 95% of them don’t work for whatever particular learning goal I’m working towards. That doesn’t mean they’re useless—just that different tactics work for different tasks and figuring out which work for which is a process of experimentation. Plans which start as dozens of tactics get reduced to the few essentials.

Given this, you might rightly ask why I even bother with planning? Why not just try a bunch of stuff out and see what works and what doesn’t? Although that tends to be closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, I still find planning useful for two reasons:

  1. Planning gives you flexibility. I come up with dozens of micro-tactics in advance, so that I have somewhere to turn to when I get stuck. Without these, it’s far easier to hit dead ends.
  2. Planning prepares you mentally. Thinking through what kind of schedule I want to use prepares me for the task of actually executing it. Thinking that I would be studying for 12-hour blocks for months in advance of the MIT Challenge made doing 8-hour blocks a breeze.

Given that, I don’t have high expectations for the eventually accuracy of my Chinese plan. I expect that what I eventually settle on will be less intense in terms of workload and considerably simpler in terms of technique. However, hopefully sharing the exercise with you will showcase my thinking process going into a challenge like this.

Prior Experience with Chinese

No learning project starts from zero. For almost every conceivable subject, there’s prior knowledge you can leverage to build off of. This is one of the tenets of holistic learning, that actively thinking about how knowledge transfers between domains can be enormously useful.

For Chinese, I’m decidedly not starting from zero. I spent 105 hours practicing prior to starting this trip. Over half of that was Anki, which is low-efficiency and low-intensity. Taking the equivalent amount of time in a Chinese class would have taught me far more Chinese, but it also would have been much harder to schedule. For that reason, I think the actual time spent learning Chinese overstates my ability.

Right now, my Chinese is far weaker than my Spanish was prior to arriving in Spain. I can make some basic requests, and with a dictionary and a patient conversation partner, I can express simple ideas. In the ten hours of tutoring I did, only near the end was I reaching a point where I could speak entirely in Chinese, with Google translate, and be understood.

Needless to say, my work in these next three months is cut out for me.

Schedules and Tactics

I typically divide new learning goals into two parts. The first is the schedule I want to use for learning. This is all time management and it is an incredibly important part of the learning process. Devoting insufficient time or making a schedule which is impossible to follow are recipes for disaster.

The schedule I want to use for Chinese is broken by roughly two big constraints, first, tutor availability and second, my social life in China. Both tutoring and social activities are helpful for the learning process, so making a schedule which sacrifices them in the name of getting another hour at a textbook is foolish.

That being said, I still have quite a bit of flexibility with setting my hours for self-study.

My current plan is to spend six hours per day on deliberate study. I imagine roughly two hours per day for private tutoring, two hours for Anki spread throughout the day and another two hours studying grammar, vocabulary or using other methods to improve my weak points in Chinese.

Six hours may not seem like that much in comparison to the 12-hour schedule I planned for the MIT Challenge or eight hours I actually followed. However, this is only for deliberate study. In addition to this, Vat and I are only speaking in Chinese, I’ll be trying to socialize as much as possible and I’ll be trying to watch television, movies or perhaps read simple books in my spare time. Total active and passive study will probably be more like the twelve hours I originally planned for in the MIT Challenge.

My hope is to accomplish the four hours of this which are independent from our tutor’s schedule in the mornings. If we do end up socializing a lot in China at night, I might have to flip this to an afternoon schedule on some days.

Tactics and Learning Technique

I’ve brainstormed a large list of possible tactics for overcoming problems in Chinese. Some of these I’ve read about. Others I’ve merely envisioned as being possibly helpful. A few I’ve actually experimented with in my previous Chinese study and want to continue.

1) Mastering Chinese Characters Anki Deck

My goal for the next three months is not to learn to read Chinese. I don’t expect, once I’m finished, that I’ll be able to read anything more than simple emails or text messages. Street signs, menus, newspapers and books will likely remain out of reach, even after three months.

Instead, my goal is to try to reach a comfortable conversational level in Chinese, hopefully in the same ballpark as we got with Spanish or Portuguese. Learning the thousands of characters necessary for literacy is a somewhat separate task, and I don’t want to split my effort away from being able to have conversations.

That being said, I’m also not going to be allergic to learning characters along the way. If a method helps me learn characters and spoken Mandarin, or even accesses some of the synergies between these two goals, I’m all for it.

MCC is a series of Anki decks I found quite helpful that fits into this category. Ostensibly designed to help you learn the basic few thousand characters, it actually helps a lot with speaking too. It has great audio samples, sentence samples to pick up grammatical patterns and listening exercises on top of the character recognition tasks.

My secondary hope is that the minimal exposure to the characters will also help with my ability to speak. Chinese characters often contain semantic connections (unlike the merely phonetic connections present in alphabetic languages) so the ideal amount of study of characters solely to maximize speaking ability is probably a bit more than zero.

I called this strategy “deep linking” in Learning on Steroids, where you learn more about a topic than is strictly necessary, not trying to memorize the secondary information, but using it to anchor connections within the primary information.

2) Phonology and Speaking Practice

One challenge of Chinese is that it contains many phonemes that aren’t present in English (or Spanish, French or Portuguese). The Chinese “b” and “p” sounds aren’t distinguished in the same way that they are in English, so a word that (in pinyin) is written with a “b” sometimes sounds like a “p” to my ear, and vice versa. Add to this the fact that Chinese uses tones, and pronouncing words properly in Mandarin becomes a far harder task than, say, Spanish.

If accent is a problem, I might spend an hour or so a day working on my pronunciation outside of class. Olle Linge has some good games you can play to work on your tone practice (and presumably could also be used to work on some difficult phoneme distinctions).

A simple method is simply listening to a recording of set phrases, hearing it, recording yourself repeating it, and listening to that recording. Pimsleur works on this principle, but skips the self-recording step. My sense is that if you separate out worrying about remembering words and grammar, and focus entirely on how to pronounce certain word combinations, you can train those habits of speech more effectively.

Of course, speaking practice with a native speaker to correct you is ideal. However, I’ve found tutoring works best when you prepare your best before coming to the session and then leverage the tutor to push you where you can’t go further. Expecting the teacher to fix/explain all your problems tends to be less efficient.

3) Getting a Good Grammar Book

My grammar book was one of my best investments in Spanish. Although I generally consider studying grammar to be a low-value activity done in isolation, if you spend your entire day speaking the language its value goes up tremendously.

Having a grammar book allows you to codify some of the intuitions you have while listening to people speak. Why do they say it that way? What exactly do they mean when they use a particular expression? Why don’t they understand me when I try to say a particular type of sentence? These are the problems a bit of grammar study can solve.

The problem is finding a good book. Most language learning books are bloated and horrible. They try to be all-in-one packages, instead of being specialized for a particular aspect of the language learning process.

During our brief stay in Toronto (a necessary step to process visas for China) I bought two books that look promising for giving some basics of Chinese grammar: Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar. They have the advantages of being concise as well as explaining the Chinese points from an English speaker’s perspective, which is a huge advantage over confusing Chinese-to-Chinese descriptions of grammar.

4) Character Decomposition

Continuing the theme that a small amount of targeting character practice may boost overall speaking (but a large amount is probably a distraction), I’ve been considering trying to master the basic radical system of Chinese characters.

Chinese characters can be broken down into radicals, which are more basic components that reappear in many different characters. Sometimes these components have semantic clues, such as indicating that a character is associated with water or women. Other times these components have phonological cues, indicating that a character has a similar sound to another, more basic, character.

I’ve considered two methods for learning the radicals. One is to go direct—learn the most common 100 radicals and memorize them using a visualization technique. The other is to decompose any new character I encounter in the MCC Anki deck and memorize along the way. I’ll probably end up doing both.

The problem with this technique is figuring out when to apply it. Pragmatically speaking, it doesn’t have the urgency of learning many other parts of Chinese and its payoff will more likely be long-term. Figuring out when to go through this step, if at all, is an open question.

What Won’t Change from Learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.

One major difference between the MIT Challenge and my upcoming Chinese project is that I already have the experience of doing two previous languages with this method. That means most of my planning is trying to cope with the additional challenges that Chinese offers, not with the basics of learning a language at all.

I expect that, as with Spanish and Portuguese, the no-English rule will once again be the most important factor in my learning progress. Private tutoring sessions and regular interaction with real people will also form the bulk of the learning progress, with the above tactics and study simply making this process go more smoothly.

Making friends (or better, getting a girlfriend) trump hours of self-study removed from actual speaking situations. Navigating a new culture may mean that these steps are more difficult in ways that we wouldn’t have experienced before, but that doesn’t make them any less useful.

My expectation is that the degree to which I follow these steps with Chinese will be based a lot on how much difficulty we have with the local culture. If making friends and having genuine social interactions is difficult, the more self-study and paid tutoring have to shift to accommodate for it.

While I have high hopes for culture in China, I’ve been given my fair share of warnings about the difficulties of short-term integration. I’m still optimistic that we can make a few close friends during our time in Kunming, but in the case that it turns out to be too challenging to break in, I’m certainly not going to let that slow down my learning progress.

Whatever happens, it probably won’t turn out anything like I’ve described. Like all plans, I’ll have to make many changes and experiments to adapt to problems I haven’t foreseen or ignore problems that never materialized. However, hopefully this article shows a little of my thought process prior to arrival.


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46 Responses to “My Plan for Learning Chinese Over Three Months”

  1. Kunkai says:

    Good luck to your new plan as a native Chinese speaker.
    Just found your method recently, and I will try to impove myself by learning Python.

  2. Nate Glenn says:

    I have not gotten to look at them yet, but I recommend Heisig’s books, Remembering the Hanzi 1 and 2. I read and loved Remembering the Kanji. I think it is exactly tailored to your personal learning style, since it emphasizes visualization and association. I also think that you would enjoy reading what he has to say about memorizing things.

  3. Orange says:

    Well, actually I am a Chinese! Welcome to China :) (sorry I don’t live in Kunming). I think the most important point of learning Chinese is often try to talk to others and let them correct your pronunciation.
    One little tips : you could ask Chinese ppl to practice with u, because generally they are eager to practice their English lol ( my foreign teachers complained about this, they haven’t got a lot of chance to speak Chinese because young ppl talk in English with them and they can not understand old ppl’s accent)

  4. Consider going with the Practical-Audio-Visual Chinese books for your grammar. Also, get Pleco if you have a smart phone – it’s the easiest way to look up words you don’t know during the day and adding them in – they have their own in-app flashcard deck, but its $15.

    I also started with Anki and the Mastering Chinese Characters deck, but I think that becomes less useful after living in and speaking in the language. I’d bet, if you get Pleco and make the $15 investment in their SRS flashcards, you’ll wind up abandoning Anki and MCC in favor of your own Pleco vocab decks.

  5. Greg Coadonato says:

    I loved this book when I was learning Mandarin:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0966075005/zipubooks

  6. Nate says:

    Kunming is a beautiful city and one of my favorites in China. One thing to be wary about is the local dialect varies quite a bit in pronunciation than the standard mandarin of the north. Chengdu has a similar “dialect” to Kunming that many native Mandarin speakers I know have trouble understanding. When people from Sichuan, Chongqing, and Yunnan do speak Mandarin, they have significant pronunciation differences from the Standard. Sichuan and Yunnan tend to lack the sh, ch, zh and ending “r” sound (many areas south of the Yangzi have this as well). Some will also switch “l” in place of “n” in everyday speaking (few people can say my name, calling me “Late” instead) as well as mixing up their “h” and “f”. You may often hear, “Li si lage guojia de?” which in the standard would be “Ni shi nage guojia de?” (I left out the tones). Not to mention some different common words. Because of this, Mandarin has a strong Sichuan flavor to it, which many standard Mandarin speakers say sounds bad. Obviously, Yunnan and Sichuan have slightly different dialects, but they share more in common with each other than Standard Mandarin.

    These are just some things to pay attention to when studying anywhere in Southern China since there are a wide variety of languages. Listen to online radio and watch Beijing tv shows if you want more “proper” Mandarin pronunciation. The local radio stations may use Yunnanhua.

    Anyway, make sure you both have fun and good luck! All Chinese languages are fun and have their own charm to them. There are a lot good things to eat and places to see. I can’t wait to read about your experience!

    Cheers,

    n

  7. Gareth says:

    One method of learning the Chinese characters you might want to consider is the Heisig method. Check out “Remembering the Traditional / Simplified Hanzi” book. (I personally lean towards the traditional characters as they are easier to make sense of and then you can move to the simplified.

  8. John Pasden says:

    Scott,

    It’s very interesting reading your approach. I like how you call starting with Anki “low-efficiency and low-intensity” but that it’s still worthwhile as a simple way to get started. All too often Anki is presented as a central component, rather than a review tool.

    As for grammar resources, I hope you’ll also check out the Chinese Grammar Wiki. It’s something I’ve been working on for over three years, and it’s written from the learner perspective.

    I’ve read and reviewed “Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar,” and I think it’s pretty solid. We also referenced it for the Chinese Grammar Wiki. I’ll have to check out “Side by Side Chinese and English Grammar”…

  9. Alexunder says:

    欢迎来到中国,有机会请你喝酒!

  10. Samuel Lim says:

    Hey Scott! Some advice from a Chinese here:

    For long term retention (I assume this is your major goal here, to have your proficiency last years beyond this challenge), focus on really imprinting common conversational phrases/very common vocabulary relating to everyday situations in your brain. That’s it. That’s the critical 20% for fluency. Ignore vocabulary flashcards, aside from the very basics entirely. What you don’t use, you WILL forget five years down the road.

    Why? My background: I mainly speak and write in English today, and learnt Chinese in school by horrible rote-learning of advanced chengyu, vocabulary etc. Today, I have forgotten 90% of those, but am still able to speak conversationally in Chinese. What sticks is the commonly used phrases and vocabulary. So you could consider making conversations the majority of your practice time (with people showing you the characters written down).

  11. Tiago Lopes says:

    Thanks so much Scott. As somebody wanting to learn Mandarin over school summer break here in Florida, this definitely helps since we have similar goals. The only difference is that I won’t be in China, but hopefully I can still get the basics down.

  12. Mark says:

    Hey, Scott. We chatted via email about MOOCs and OCW a while back.

    I actually used to run an English teaching school in Taiwan for a few years. Here are some thoughts:

    1) If you work really efficiently, which I bet you will, you can get to a high beginner level in three months. Understand that learning a language means picking up an awful lot of shared cultural background and assumptions and that the Chinese speaking world doesn’t share a lot of common stories or assumptions like communities of European languages tend to. Last time I saw a blogger claim he’d get fluent in Mandarin in 3 months the results were pretty horrific.

    2) It’s not true that Chinese characters “contain semantic connections” but alphabetic systems don’t. There’s nothing magical about the writing system. Like all other modern ones it contains both phonetic and semantic information. It would be on the end of a spectrum representing phonetic vs semantic purity (say Spanish->English->Chinese), but it is on the same spectrum.

    If you doubt this, then consider the English words “meet” and “meat”. They have identical phonetic information but very different semantic information.

    3) Just doing a lot of speaking, especially at the beginning is a terrible way to improve your accent. Before you have any hope of pronouncing the sounds in a foreign language, you have to be able to hear the difference! There is a decent amount of L2 acquisition literature showing that adult learners who focus on comprehension based activities before speaking attain better accents. During my years teaching 1000+ EFL students, I found dramatically better results after I started giving them comprehension work (both phonics and full sentence instructions) before requiring them to say that much.

    Also, believe it or not it can help speed up your vocab acquisition. Activities like this are phenomenal in how quickly they can pack passive vocab into your head: http://www-01.sil.org/lingualinks/languagelearning/EssaysOnFieldLanguageLearning/AFwSmplIdsFrNwLnggLrnrs/SimpleActivity1LearningNamesOf.htm

    4) It’s good that your anki decks have audio, but I still think it’s way too much of your time to spend on SRS. I love anki. I’m a contributor to the project, in fact. But it’s a way better use of your time to do some extensive reading. Check out this 2 minute video I did on it (part relevant to you starts at 1m) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cjnP6mogEU

    I think it would really be worth your time to read this book by John Defrancis (the most influential Sinologist ever):http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Language-Fantasy-John-DeFrancis/dp/0824810686/

    And possibly if you’re interested in language acquisition in general read some of Stephen Krashen’s stuff online. I can also recommend Steve Kaufmann’s blog, The Linguist. I saw him give a talk in Taiwan back when I lived there and can verify that his skills are legit. He speaks Cantonese, too. Most amazingly, he isn’t just a rich world traveller or professional student. He’s learned language after language on the side while having a quite impressive career in the process.

    Oh last thing! I spent a month in Kunming once… don’t assume that what you’re hearing people speak is Mandarin! And good luck. I hope you have a great experience.

  13. orange030 says:

    呵呵

  14. Lonion says:

    SCOTT,你的中文学得怎么样了?你现在是在中国吗?

    Hi, scott. How the level of your Chinese? Now are you in China? I’m a Chinese, live in Shenzhen. Nice to meet you.

  15. Karsten Kristensen says:

    Hi Scott,
    This is going to be very interesting to follow. I am already studying some japanese and plan on going there for at least three months in fall, so I’m looking vey much forward to follow your journey with mandarin over the next couple of months. Especially because I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts about japanese before going into it, that you’ve seem to have about mandarin.
    I am sure, there is going to be a lot of value to take out of reading your posts about this challenge.

  16. daizy says:

    中文欢迎你

  17. daizy says:

    中国人民希望您这几个月的博客用中文写。

  18. Jasmine says:

    You rock, Scott! Thanks for the inspiration. Wishing you top language-learning juju!

  19. Zhang says:

    some tips from one of your Chinese readers:

    1. watch out the dialects! different people in China speak different Chinese . Some places’ dialects sound far away from Mandarin. So make sure the people you talk with in China speak Mandarin, otherwise your accent (which is VERY important as you noticed) would go ‘out of the tone’.

    2. Chinese characters are made of many little parts. try to recognize them.

    3. Almost every Chinese character represent a object or an action. combining the characters you know may help you a lot.

    4. Even Chinese and English are way different from each other, they have similarities. I’ve found a lot general patterns that can easily be transported from Chinese to English. Try to find’em and you may find that they are naturally connected.

    Finally, enjoy your days in China dude. You rock. you can send me an email if u need help. I’m living in Hangzhou now and going to move to Beijing in a few months. You rock Scott!

  20. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    William,

    That’s a common opinion about Anki, but I’ve been leaning against self-made Anki decks. I might write more about that and my reasoning behind it, as it goes against pretty much all the advice I’ve heard about Anki, but it’s been my bias lately.

    Nate,

    We’ll definitely be on the watch for accent, but we’re only doing 2 months in Kunming (maybe a bit less if we go to Beijing) followed by time in Taiwan, which should hopefully balance some of the local idiosyncrasies out a tad.

    John,

    Low-eff/low-intensity can be a feature, depending on the work. I would say more than half of my language learning efforts fall into a passive mode of lower intensity, so it can definitely be helpful. However, if your goal is strictly to measure progress against hours invested, it’s a little weaker than perhaps a one-on-one focused teaching session, for example.

    Alexander,

    谢谢!

    Samuel,

    Our no-English rule has tended to reinforce that quite well, so I’m not worried about that. Imprinting *incorrect* grammar or pronunciation is more of a problem for Chinese than the other languages, but I think with a strong amount of study and drills we can minimize that.

    Mark,

    1) I’m careful to avoid any declarations I’ll reach fluency. My high hope would be to get to a level similar to Spanish, considering I plan to work much harder, but even if that’s not possible, I’d like to document my actual level of speaking as accurately as possible for people who’d like to follow the project.

    2) From the character study I’ve done, I’ve found characters, owing to their greater multiplicity, tend to show more than English (which has more or less phonetic spelling) and certainly more than Spanish (which has rigidly phonetic spelling). Considering the homophony in Chinese, this can be helpful for distinguishing to words that sound the same in Chinese, have different meanings, but are at least somewhat connected (by way of the same character) and two words that sound the same but have different characters.

    3) Speaking a lot won’t improve my accent, but it does provide a wealth of feedback that can be driven back to self-study as well as force learning the most relevant phrases and words (needing to look them up before running an errand, for example). If we’re talking about splitting self-study time, I think leaning on listening is probably wise. But if we’re strictly making a comparison between speaking English, waiting, and speaking Chinese, I think the benefits of the latter are apparent.

    The only sensible critique I’ve heard of this approach is that fossilization of mistakes will be dangerous. I’m willing to concede this, but I believe that being aggressive about phonetic drills in the beginning can avoid the worst mistakes and being perfectionist about your pronunciation over the long-term can help you break some bad habits that inevitably form from speaking at a lower level.

    4) Thanks, I’ll definitely check out that book. I’ve been indebted to many bloggers for some of the meta-learning skills specific to Chinese that will hopefully make me aware of the biggest challenges to learning it.

    I’ve read Steve’s book and I read his blog heavily during my days with French. I disagree with him on a couple methodological points, but I do think his long-term dedication and strategy will be something I turn back to when I want to look at slowly maintaining/improving my languages back in Canada.

    Lonion,

    现在多伦多,明天昆明!

    Daisy,

    我觉得我不会写中文很好,可是我尝试写一点!

    Zhang,

    Thanks!

    -Scott

  21. Sharon says:

    Dear Scott,

    Have you ever thought of learning Cantonese? Heard that Cantonese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers.
    You should try it sometimes. :)

    Cheers,
    Sharon

  22. michael says:

    Just enjoy the learning process, and enjoy being ‘naive’ in China. That’s probably the best way to enjoy the country. Everything is new and exciting.

    I wouldn’t get too hung up on using Chinese in your career etc. It would probably take about 5 years of living in China/Taiwan, and even then your ‘ahem’ background will probably hold you back from business deals, etc.

    Just think of it like a challenge (like Sudoku, etc), and every day will be interesting and fun. An intellectual such as yourself will obviously relish in this. Don’t worry too much about the food in Beijing, etc, I’m sure you can detox when you get back to Canada.

  23. Yudi Ilhamsyah says:

    This is great, thanks for the tips Scott. I also started to learn Mandarin recently. I use self-made anki just like you did for things I have learned [mostly basic conversation, pinying and some vocab]. I haven’t started to learn about Chinese character and grammar yet, my goal for the first 3 months is to be able to conduct basic conversation in Chinese. After that, I would probably take on the Chinese character and grammar. Thanks for the book suggestion and the tips. Update us on your progress.

  24. WindListener says:

    加油,你会成功的!

  25. Tavi says:

    Will there be a post about the outcome of your Portuguese mission?

  26. Jin says:

    牛逼啊,希望将来你可以用中文来交流了。

  27. CY says:

    加油哈亲~~中文超级有意思呢~~语言其实是文化的精髓所在,你将不仅学会一门语言,更多的是我大天朝5000年的文化~~

  28. Haha, love the girlfriend bit. That’s my Chinese learning secret. Nothing teaches you the language like trying to impress a girl, or in my case getting engaged to one :P

    I’m excited to see where you go with this.

    加油!
    -Kelby

  29. Mark says:

    Hey Scott. I wanted to say that I find your humility really uplifting. Even though you’re essentially making a living off of being perceived as a badass you’re not overly inflating your accomplishments. The actual ones are already impressive enough!

    One minor thing I want to clear up on #3, though. I think it’s great to speak when you feel comfortable speaking or have a use for a word. The research regarding accent and grammar is legit (and fits with my many years of varied experience as a teacher). But the main thing I was getting at, at least with regards to my experience, is that you can learn to recognize words much more quickly than you can learn to both recognize and pronounce them. But once you do learn to understand them when you hear them, you’ve just increased the amount of input you’re getting that’s comprehensible.

    When I went to Hong Kong (only for a week), I made great use of this. I had already prepared some stock phrases via audio-lingual methods, and once I was there I focused my study time purely on learning to recognize words. How was this useful? Well, when I went out and asked a question I’d learned to pronounce well ahead of time (e.g. “Hey, where is blahblahblah subway station?”), people would answer in Cantonese. Due to my work on comprehension, I could actually understand some of their answers and figure the rest out from context! I couldn’t understand everything, and I certainly couldn’t speak all of that vocab, but since I understood it, it got gradually reinforced. And then by the end of the week, I could speak some of it! That’s the kind of dividend I was talking about. I sacrificed some number of words I could force myself to speak early on in order to learn to recognize more which lead to more comprehension and ultimately more active vocabulary, too.

    That said, I’m sure you’re figure out some of your own tactics. Everyone seems to find their own toolset that works for their own brain, level of motivation and circumstances. You say the word and I’ll gladly shift all online correspondence with Chinese to help you out, Scott!

  30. jerryz says:

    哈哈,对你们来说这太难了。。。节哀.

  31. Scott Young says:

    Sharon,

    Haha one Chinese language at a time!

    Michael,

    My book was published in China recently, and my Chinese readership is one of the fastest growing parts of my blog. None of that necessitates learning Chinese, but I believe what one learns dictates the opportunities one finds.

    Jin,

    我也希望!

    Mark,

    Thanks. Feel free to write in Chinese, but my current literacy is quite low, so don’t be surprised if I can’t understand!

    -Scott

  32. […] Scott Young is learning Chinese quickly. […]

  33. CdiajadeX says:

    iOS的应用要多少有多少,WinPhone的应用要多少有多少。

    If you can understand what I typed above, I think you were very good in Chinese. LOL

  34. Yar says:

    Scott Young!
    I wanna learn Portuguese but there are no classes here in Doha!! They have Spanish classes here . I’ve heard Spanish and Portuguese are the same. Since you have learned them both, you know it well.
    waiting for reply..

  35. 景德镇 says:

    景德镇人民表示欢迎 :P

  36. hon says:

    I found an excellent starter app to learn basic chinese Pinyin: Pinyin Beginner.
    I used this to repeat listening the pinyin every day before sleep, very useful to brainwash myself, XD
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.zbase.pinyinbeginner

  37. 一只程序猿 says:

    兄弟啊,看完你写的这篇文章,愚兄深感自己行动力不够啊~,话说,作为一个中国人,老实的跟你说,你就学学能说就算了,汉语博大精深,我也没学明白啊,学历理论挺好~。再来点励志小故事吧

  38. Peeter-Paul says:

    Hi Scott,

    I suggest you reevaluate your approach to character learning. When I went to China for a year as an exchange student, I also initially thought of becoming proficient solely in conversational Chinese, but the more effort I gave into improving my Chinese, the more obvious it became that reading materials would be the cornerstone to improving my sense of Chinese all round. They’re an invaluable source of knowledge (semantically loaded as they other are) and they provide a great visual aid to help you conceptually differentiate between homophones or confusingly similar sounding words (which, as a beginner, there are a lot of).

    加油!我相信你的中文会变得一天比一天好!

  39. Qi Chen says:

    Scott:
    I love your blog!
    How about the Chinese learning program? Is everything OK as planned?
    Welcome to China and welcome to the country with much to explore.
    I’m eager to watch your Chinese learning Video!

    Maxil Chen

  40. broaderzhang says:

    Are you still in Kunming? Maybe it is a little dangerous and unconvinient now in Kunming.

  41. euphylia says:

    Scott:
    你现在在昆明?那你知道昆明火车站3月1号的恐怖事件吗?注意安全啊~

  42. […] last post was commenting on how I planned to learn Chinese. Two weeks in, I’m still spending a lot of time experimenting. It will probably be near the […]

  43. nathan kim says:

    Hey,

    I got back from China to study the Chinese language at BLCU. (beijing language culture university).

    Before you decide to goto China to study the language I recommend you to study the language back at your home country first. Because the first couple weeks in these classes at unis are very basic. You could save a lot of time and money by studying for the basics at home. If you come into the school with some basic skills, you will advance faster into your studies at school. Remember before you take classes, you take a placement test. And if you start from the beginning the first couple weeks are just memorizing the chinese characters in class, in which you can do at home. I’d rather spend that class time learning something I can only learn in school. So my advice to you people planning on going is to study on your own for a bit. It will help you a lot if you are able to not just in studying but for ordering food, traveling on your first couple days in China.

    Here are some websites where you can study – (some are language programs ex. rosetta stone)

    1. rosetta stone – very famous and popular, but very expensive. It is split into different levels. ONE of the best out there, but expensive.

    2. Rocket Language – This is just as good as the rosetta stone, but much cheaper. This is what I still use to continue my study after my stay in China. THIS IS WHAT I RECOMMEND.

    3. yellow bridge – has a dictionary and translator. word of the day.

    Well anyways, I hope this helps. Have fun in china!

  44. mona peters says:

    I agree with peeter-paul and “suggest you reevaluate your approach to character learning………..the more obvious it became that reading materials would be the cornerstone to improving my sense of Chinese all round. They’re an invaluable source of knowledge (semantically loaded as they other are) and they provide a great visual aid to help you conceptually differentiate between homophones or confusingly similar sounding words (which, as a beginner, there are a lot of). ” This has been my experience as well in learning Chinese. Reading is the cornerstone and it will tie everything together like a bow on a package.

  45. […] used both when tackling the roughly four-fold pace of the MIT Challenge and currently, learning to speak Chinese over three months. What makes this strategy powerful is that it is the opposite of how most people […]

  46. […] not use that time instead to learn Chinese, physics, computer programming, history, economics, calculus or millions of other engaging skills. […]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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