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.

  • SC

    Hi Scott: Do you still have all the Mastering Chinese Character decks? They are no longer available on Anki.

  • Susana

    Hello Scott, I am also interested in MCC Anki deck, could you please share it with us?