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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