How I’m Continuing to Learn (and Hopefully Master) Chinese

I spend a lot of time writing about learning in intense bursts. Part of that is for efficiency’s sake—doing a short project forces me to think hard about how to learn more efficiently. Part of that is that a short project is more interesting to write about.

But most learning doesn’t take place over an intense burst, rather through modest, sustained effort over time.

One year ago, I finished the year without English. Throughout the project I started learning four languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean. After the project finished, I was interested in maintaining all of the languages, using the method I described here.

Chinese was a language I was particularly interested in not only maintaining, but improving to a higher level. Both because of intrinsic interest and usefulness. My blog has a large number of Chinese readers, my book has been published in China and I live in Vancouver which has a large number of native Mandarin speakers.

My goal has been to take my intermediate level to an advanced level, albeit at a much slower pace than during my stay in China.

The Long Slog of Intermediacy

Going from zero to an intermediate level in a language is perfect for blogging. For one, it requires a lot less time than going from intermediate to advanced, so if you have the correct method it can make your progress seem almost unbelievable to people who are used to learning slowly in school.

Second, most people can’t judge your linguistic ability anyways. Non-native speakers are often impressed by the most rudimentary displays of the language. I’ve gotten stares of astonishment by saying something as simple as “Hello, where are you from?” in Chinese or Korean, even though that could be learned in just a few minutes of practice. Native speakers also similarly misjudge fluency if they don’t have an extended interaction with you. I’ve found native speakers tend to conflate decent pronunciation with fluency, especially if talking for short periods of time.

In reality, however, advanced levels of a language are important if you want to do more than travel.

Since I already have an audience in China, I’d love to be able to give presentations in Chinese on the subjects I write about, or even maintain a Chinese Weibo account (the Chinese version of Twitter). However, both of those things are still much above my level, even though I can have everyday conversations without too much difficulty now.

Once you learn the basics in a language, however, now you enter the domain of low-frequency words and expressions. Every new linguistic fact you learn has only a small amount of usefulness. While it may take a few thousand words and expressions to have basic conversations, it may take tens or hundreds of thousands to have the functional equivalence of a native speaker.

I talked about this fact with Olle Linge, of Hacking Chinese. I said that I had now entered the phase of my Chinese where I just had to keep adding more and more words to get better. He joked that this phase never ends. Indeed, intermediate and advanced levels of language learning are a long slog of asymptotically approaching complete knowledge.

How to Sustain a Background Habit of Improvement

These two constraints: that I’m no longer learning Chinese full-time and that I’m now in the phase of learning which has logarithmic gains, make for quite a different challenge than when I was in China. Instead of struggling with the intensity of learning a million new things at once, I’m faced with the challenge of not getting stuck at the same level.

The best method I’ve found for facing down these late-level learning challenges is to tackle smaller projects. If you define the project the right way, you should be able to see noticeable changes in your level of ability along some dimension. Then you just keep repeating until your overall ability rises up.

I’ve worked through several Chinese-related projects since I came back. None of them were very intense, usually requiring only couple hours per week. I did most of them sequentially, although because of review time, they overlap in the post-growth phase.

Here’s a short list of some mini-projects I worked on:

  1. Finishing Anki’s Mastering Chinese Characters. This series had flashcards for 2500 Chinese characters, including audio and full sentence examples. I prefer rich flashcard sets to more minimal varieties since seeing a character used in multiple contexts is better for learning than simply memorizing a shallow translation. When I left China I had finished six of the ten decks, so I spent another several months doing the remaining four. In total this is about 12,000 flashcards.
  2. Mandarin Companion Series Graded Readers. My time in China was heavily focused on speaking. Now that I’ve come back, and speaking opportunities are less frequent, I wanted to focus more on reading. I’m a big fan of extensive (as opposed to intensive) practice with a language, including reading, so this series was perfect since it was quite easy.
  3. Other Graded Readers. After I finished the beginner books, I moved onto this series of graded readers. This series is harder, and it presents short stories written by modern Chinese authors, offering a more interesting cultural and literary perspective while still being easier than native-level books.
  4. Chinese Meetup Group. Around once per week I go to a Vancouver-based Chinese meet-up group. The regulars to the group often have a Cantonese speaking background, so even when their Mandarin is weaker, their command of vocabulary is often much better than mine because of the shared Sinitic vocabulary. This has been good for extensive conversation practice, although I’ve maintained my speaking abilities less than improved them because I’m no longer in an immersive environment.
  5. Skritter handwriting review. I had started the very basics of learning to handwrite characters while in China, since it was necessary to pass the HSK 4. However, I didn’t maintain it and my handwriting ability went from minimal to non-existant a few months after China. I’ve restarted my Skritter reviews to catch up to my old position.
  6. Online Skype Sessions. I spend an hour per week on Skype with my Chinese tutor to continue improving, as with my other languages, to maintain my speaking ability. This has been a good complement to the Chinese meetup group.

The amount of projects here makes it look like I’m spending a lot more time on Chinese than I am in reality. In practice, my Chinese investment each week would be only several hours. More importantly, most of the time I am doing Chinese it is on things like Anki reviews or reading at a level below intensity, so I never have to push myself to study.

The nice thing about reaching an intermediate point in the language is that there are hopefully at least some resources that you can use which are not too difficult but also not too boring, and therefore you can practice the language like you practice your native language—without thinking about it being practice.

My Short-Term Plans

Short-term, meaning the next six to twelve months, I’d like to finish another half-dozen graded readers at an upper intermediate level. I’ve really appreciated the extensive reading approach, and the native material I do have access to is often readable, but only with heavy referencing in a dictionary which makes for an unpleasureable reading experience.

I’d also like to switch from reviewing to learning new handwriting. I want to be comfortable handwriting the 1000 most frequent characters, and I’d like to be able to write attractively without having the proportions and spacing look like my characters are written by a five year-old.

I also combined my programming and Chinese knowledge to build some new Anki decks that resemble the MCC decks I liked so much using ChinesePod’s extensive library automatically. I probably won’t use all of the ones I generated with this process (using the format I made, there would be over 30,000 cards generated!), but it’s still nice to have as a complement to extensive reading in order to systematically study words I don’t know.

My Long-Term Plans

I have a few long-term Chinese goals which reflect the end uses I’d like to get out of Chinese. Some of these are quite ambitious, so it will likely take at least ten years to reach them at my current pace, if I reach them at all.

First is being able to comfortably give presentations, write short articles and handle business in China. This requires not only a much more precise and expanded vocabulary than I currently possess, but also the ability to have native-level comprehension abilities. I did a book signing in China where I gave a presentation in Chinese, which went okay, but then question-and-answer came up and I was totally baffled—both in understanding the questions and in forming precise responses in Chinese.

Second is being able to read literature. I would love to be able to read classic literature as well, but I feel that being able to read Confucius or Laozi translated into modern Chinese will still be an important achievement. I believe Eastern culture and philosophy is an important perspective and while it is certainly possible to read those translations into English, some of the poetry of words is inevitably lost when you switch between languages. Since a lot of Eastern philosophy in religions like Zen or Taoism is more poetic than analytic, I have a desire to read it in a form closer to the original.

Finally I’d like to make the things I currently can do in Chinese to some extent—having conversations, writing and replying to emails in Chinese, dealing with the minutia of travel—a lot easier and smoother. Even if improving doesn’t grant me new abilities, but just makes existing ones more fluid, I’d like to continue the investment.

The Decision for Mastery

Obviously this post is about Chinese, and specifically my Chinese, but I believe these principles apply to anyone who wants to master anything. Set aside small projects. Use extensive practice as a background habit. Pick achievable short-term goals, but keep in mind big, long-term goals that remind you of what you’re putting in the effort for.

Learning something for the first time is mostly about overcoming frustration and obstacles to momentum. As a result, I like intensive, bold projects since they allow you to apply focus and willpower to defeat these temporary barriers.

Mastery, in contrast, is quite the opposite. It’s mostly about patience and steadily increasing challenges to avoid plateaus. It’s about being able to keep up the same pace for years, not just a few weeks. I’ve only just started down the second path, so it will be interesting to see what lies in the years ahead.

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  • Daniel Dickson

    Love this post Scott. Few highly intelligent people can articulate their thought process on learning (and other cerebral topics you cover) in such a clear and engaging way.

  • Daniel Dickson

    Love this post Scott. Few highly intelligent people can articulate their thought process on learning (and other cerebral topics you cover) in such a clear and engaging way.

  • Daniel Dickson

    Instead of using flash cards, I have been using Microsoft OneNote to capture my Q&As for remembering tax law (I’m a CPA). I consider OneNote as my second brain (Microsoft Outlook tasks being my first and my meat brain number three).

    Do you use a note-taking app such as Evernote or OneNote to capture your ideas and thoughts? It would be great to have the benefits of the review tickler system from Anki somehow built into OneNote or Evernote – so you wouldn’t have to copy data into yet another software program.

  • Daniel Dickson

    Instead of using flash cards, I have been using Microsoft OneNote to capture my Q&As for remembering tax law (I’m a CPA). I consider OneNote as my second brain (Microsoft Outlook tasks being my first and my meat brain number three).

    Do you use a note-taking app such as Evernote or OneNote to capture your ideas and thoughts? It would be great to have the benefits of the review tickler system from Anki somehow built into OneNote or Evernote – so you wouldn’t have to copy data into yet another software program.

  • Foxan Ng

    Hi Scott, do you plan on learning traditional Chinese and Cantonese as a long term goal? As a Hongkonger I would argue that it truly represents the Chinese culture and history (with thousands of years), while simplified Chinese was invented several decades ago to solve the literacy problem in PRC. It is a pity that the majority of Chinese (well PRC has a dominating population..) is abandoning traditional Chinese.

  • Foxan Ng

    Hi Scott, do you plan on learning traditional Chinese and Cantonese as a long term goal? As a Hongkonger I would argue that it truly represents the Chinese culture and history (with thousands of years), while simplified Chinese was invented several decades ago to solve the literacy problem in PRC. It is a pity that the majority of Chinese (well PRC has a dominating population..) is abandoning traditional Chinese.

  • Jamie

    My personal experience in learning Chinese has been long and winding in more ways than one with the Chinese words and phrases (if you can call them that) being so flexible in terms of meaning at times. I’m currently at HSK level 3 trying to work my way upwards. In the start, I’ve previously relied on google translate (sad, I know), MDBG.net and free Android apps like HSK Locker that uses flashcard and quiz to build up my vocabulary bank.

    Nowadays, with my recognition of nearly two thousand Chinese words, I’m now trying to put them into practice by learning to read news articles and the like. Its a tough climb ahead, but I’m sure you agree that learning Chinese is not by any means a straightforward affair, particularly if you aim to read and understand classic literature..

  • Jamie

    My personal experience in learning Chinese has been long and winding in more ways than one with the Chinese words and phrases (if you can call them that) being so flexible in terms of meaning at times. I’m currently at HSK level 3 trying to work my way upwards. In the start, I’ve previously relied on google translate (sad, I know), MDBG.net and free Android apps like HSK Locker that uses flashcard and quiz to build up my vocabulary bank.

    Nowadays, with my recognition of nearly two thousand Chinese words, I’m now trying to put them into practice by learning to read news articles and the like. Its a tough climb ahead, but I’m sure you agree that learning Chinese is not by any means a straightforward affair, particularly if you aim to read and understand classic literature..

  • Joe Heininge

    I loved this article, Scott, especially for your use of “asymptotically” and this insight, which I totally agree with: “I’ve found native speakers tend to conflate decent pronunciation with fluency”. So true! Pretty much the only thing I can say in French is “I speak French very badly, but with a good accent” but when I do, French speakers immediately respond in enthusiastic, full-speed French, leaving me baffled (“No, I said ‘je parle tres mal, MAL!”).

    I have also struggled to get past the intermediate level in Spanish, which I got to extremely quickly when studying in Spain. I admire your detailed plan for continuing to make progress. I think reading is one of the best ways to build vocabulary, and one thing that makes it easier is installing a Spanish dictionary on my Kindle, so that I can look up a word just by tapping on it. I don’t know if they have Chinese dictionaries for the Kindle, though.

    Thanks again for all the great posts!

  • Joe Heininge

    I loved this article, Scott, especially for your use of “asymptotically” and this insight, which I totally agree with: “I’ve found native speakers tend to conflate decent pronunciation with fluency”. So true! Pretty much the only thing I can say in French is “I speak French very badly, but with a good accent” but when I do, French speakers immediately respond in enthusiastic, full-speed French, leaving me baffled (“No, I said ‘je parle tres mal, MAL!”).

    I have also struggled to get past the intermediate level in Spanish, which I got to extremely quickly when studying in Spain. I admire your detailed plan for continuing to make progress. I think reading is one of the best ways to build vocabulary, and one thing that makes it easier is installing a Spanish dictionary on my Kindle, so that I can look up a word just by tapping on it. I don’t know if they have Chinese dictionaries for the Kindle, though.

    Thanks again for all the great posts!

  • John Miller

    What will you being doing with Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean? Are you going to let one or all of them slide away slowly?

  • John Miller

    What will you being doing with Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean? Are you going to let one or all of them slide away slowly?

  • Scott Young
  • Scott Young

    What I said here: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blo

  • Scott Young

    I think being able to at least read traditional characters is something I’d like to do eventually. However, I’d prefer to be comfortable reading native-level documents in one before the other. I do know some of the traditional characters (especially since in Canada most Chinese writing is traditional), but it’s a lot more spotty.

    Cantonese… I really don’t know. It’s a completely different language, although there might be some benefits, I would probably treat that like the decision to learn any new language related one I already know (say Italian or German…)

  • Scott Young

    I think being able to at least read traditional characters is something I’d like to do eventually. However, I’d prefer to be comfortable reading native-level documents in one before the other. I do know some of the traditional characters (especially since in Canada most Chinese writing is traditional), but it’s a lot more spotty.

    Cantonese… I really don’t know. It’s a completely different language, although there might be some benefits, I would probably treat that like the decision to learn any new language related one I already know (say Italian or German…)

  • Scott Young

    I really like Anki because it’s quite versatile for making flashcards and I’m already in the habit of using the app. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the number of uses.

  • Scott Young

    I really like Anki because it’s quite versatile for making flashcards and I’m already in the habit of using the app. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the number of uses.

  • Travis T

    Scott, I’ve always enjoyed reading your multi-layered,
    intelligent, subtle, illuminating, and nuanced posts. Your article raises one
    pivotal point for anyone interested in learning and mastering a foreign
    language: “I’m a big fan of extensive (as opposed to intensive) practice
    with a language…” Years ago, I took Chinese 100 and 101 courses at
    UBC and I quickly realized that learning in intense bursts was not conducive to
    making steady progress in acquiring Chinese vocabulary. We were quizzed
    every week and the tests were cumulative. Our prof said that’s a fair game to
    have a test that includes words/expressions from any chapters, and not just
    words learned most recently.

    It’s energizing, inspiring, and transcending to know that you were interested
    in the Chinese language due to its “intrinsic interest and
    usefulness”. My visceral impression is that you’re one of the minority and
    I’d say (I could be wrong) that a number of people learning Chinese in the
    world do it for utilitarian reasons. This is not a criticism of utilitarian
    values, since the pay-off can be a powerful source of impetus/motivation
    in setting and realizing goals. However, having a deep intrinsic interest in
    something would be akin to longing for the endless immensity of the sea…One
    is blessed with the resilience to embark on a Sisyphean and intellectually
    rewarding journey of learning Chinese. It is worth noting that in the 1980s,
    there was a proliferation of school enrolments in Japanese classes as Japan
    economically was in the ascendancy. Japan, being a shadow of its former
    economic self for the past two decades, has been a factor in the decline of
    learners who are interested in learning Japanese.

    Your comments about reading Chinese literature (Confucius or Lao Tzu) prompted
    me to contemplate the “what if” scenarios pertaining to China. How
    would China have turned out if a majority of Chinese had subscribed to Lao
    Tzu’s philosophy instead of Confucius’? Would China be less capitalistic and
    more egalitarian like the Scandinavian countries?

    Scott, thanks so much for your insights, Travis T.

  • Travis T

    Scott, I’ve always enjoyed reading your multi-layered,
    intelligent, subtle, illuminating, and nuanced posts. Your article raises one
    pivotal point for anyone interested in learning and mastering a foreign
    language: “I’m a big fan of extensive (as opposed to intensive) practice
    with a language…” Years ago, I took Chinese 100 and 101 courses at
    UBC and I quickly realized that learning in intense bursts was not conducive to
    making steady progress in acquiring Chinese vocabulary. We were quizzed
    every week and the tests were cumulative. Our prof said that’s a fair game to
    have a test that includes words/expressions from any chapters, and not just
    words learned most recently.

    It’s energizing, inspiring, and transcending to know that you were interested
    in the Chinese language due to its “intrinsic interest and
    usefulness”. My visceral impression is that you’re one of the minority and
    I’d say (I could be wrong) that a number of people learning Chinese in the
    world do it for utilitarian reasons. This is not a criticism of utilitarian
    values, since the pay-off can be a powerful source of impetus/motivation
    in setting and realizing goals. However, having a deep intrinsic interest in
    something would be akin to longing for the endless immensity of the sea…One
    is blessed with the resilience to embark on a Sisyphean and intellectually
    rewarding journey of learning Chinese. It is worth noting that in the 1980s,
    there was a proliferation of school enrolments in Japanese classes as Japan
    economically was in the ascendancy. Japan, being a shadow of its former
    economic self for the past two decades, has been a factor in the decline of
    learners who are interested in learning Japanese.

    Your comments about reading Chinese literature (Confucius or Lao Tzu) prompted
    me to contemplate the “what if” scenarios pertaining to China. How
    would China have turned out if a majority of Chinese had subscribed to Lao
    Tzu’s philosophy instead of Confucius’? Would China be less capitalistic and
    more egalitarian like the Scandinavian countries?

    Scott, thanks so much for your insights, Travis T.

  • Josh M

    The path to C2 and beyond is something I want to get a better grasp on. I’m sitting around a B2 level in Turkish, but working towards getting it to a C2 level. It seemed much easier pushing through from 0 to A2/B1, because I had the very specific goal of just being able to “get by”. Now I’m able to get by great, and even have deep conversations with people, but there’s still a ton I’m lacking. I’m getting the consensus that this is going to be a long journey (everyone keeps saying “years to mastery” is what to expect), but, I’d like to make it less than that, if at all possible :P.

    Though, I do appreciate this breakdown of your aiming for mastery; especially that last couple paragraphs.

    I’d love to read more about the journey from B levels to mastery. I feel like that’s a principle that’s not covered well enough in a lot of accelerated language learning writing.

    Enjoy the journey!

  • Josh M

    The path to C2 and beyond is something I want to get a better grasp on. I’m sitting around a B2 level in Turkish, but working towards getting it to a C2 level. It seemed much easier pushing through from 0 to A2/B1, because I had the very specific goal of just being able to “get by”. Now I’m able to get by great, and even have deep conversations with people, but there’s still a ton I’m lacking. I’m getting the consensus that this is going to be a long journey (everyone keeps saying “years to mastery” is what to expect), but, I’d like to make it less than that, if at all possible :P.

    Though, I do appreciate this breakdown of your aiming for mastery; especially that last couple paragraphs.

    I’d love to read more about the journey from B levels to mastery. I feel like that’s a principle that’s not covered well enough in a lot of accelerated language learning writing.

    Enjoy the journey!

  • Maria Rachel Pinto Pereira

    Scott, seu português não tá muito ruim. Tá com muita influência do espanhol e com sotaque parecido de um francês tentando falar português!

  • Maria Rachel Pinto Pereira

    Scott, seu português não tá muito ruim. Tá com muita influência do espanhol e com sotaque parecido de um francês tentando falar português!

  • Alex Wu

    Some said the best way to learn is by playing games, so if you do get bored with the routine learning, why not play mah-jong(required 4 players) or Chinese Chess(2 will do)? If nothing else, there are words and phrases related to these games that could be augmented your Chinese as well as the strategy that goes with them. Of course if you play for money, being a novice will definitely set you back a few bucks, which I hope you would not mind as they are just learning fees in disguise.

  • Alex Wu

    Some said the best way to learn is by playing games, so if you do get bored with the routine learning, why not play mah-jong(required 4 players) or Chinese Chess(2 will do)? If nothing else, there are words and phrases related to these games that could be augmented your Chinese as well as the strategy that goes with them. Of course if you play for money, being a novice will definitely set you back a few bucks, which I hope you would not mind as they are just learning fees in disguise.

  • just anyone.

    http://interpreters.free.fr/language.htm

    here’s a good link for languages learners.
    Publish only articles about Chinese, please.

  • just anyone.

    http://interpreters.free.fr/la

    here’s a good link for languages learners.
    Publish only articles about Chinese, please.

  • Just anyone.
  • Just anyone.

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