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The 7 Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life

By Mark Wilbur

It’s fair to say by any estimation that I learned Chinese to a pretty fluent level during my seven years in Taiwan. I managed EFL classes without the help of a co-teacher. I explained classroom expectations to seven year-olds, stopped them from stealing each other’s pencil cases and discussed their behavior and progress with their non-English speaking families. Later, I became more entrepreneurial and built a new school and needed to use Chinese in many new circumstances. I read business books in Chinese and played many, many geeky board games and card games in Chinese. I don’t hold up the way I learned as an example for others, though.

In fact, my methods at the beginning were so inefficient that I’m fully convinced that all the free time I gave up following them was equivalent to a year of my life or more! I’m sharing the very worst of my mistakes so that others can avoid my pain. Ignore these mistakes at your peril!

Inconsistency

I’m proud to say that there were times when I put nearly every waking moment outside of work into study—doing chapters in my textbook, reviewing the accompanying CD, listening to a Taiwanese radio station I couldn’t understand, writing characters until my fingers were raw…If I wasn’t sleeping, working or exercising, I was learning Chinese!

What I’m not so proud of is that I would burn out after a few weeks of this frantic activity and not touch my book for an entire month or more afterwards. The way the human memory works is a curious thing. Over the course of a single week, it’s possible to learn a surprising amount. But if you don’t use what you’ve learned in that week, then most of it will be gone in a month. On the other hand, if you put the exact same amount of time into studying, but space it out over a month, you’ll probably still retain a good chunk of it a month later.

The effects of my inconsistency were worst of all when it came to learning characters. So bad, in fact, that they have their own special header lower in this article.

The best analogy I can think of to illustrate my inconsistency is boiling water. Imagine I wanted to make some tea. I was saying, “I WANT SOME HOT WATER, NOW!!!”, cranking up the stove to HIGH, setting a teapot on it and then yanking it off in frustration upon seeing it wasn’t boiling 90 seconds later. Then I’d try it again repeatedly throughout a week before finally declaring that boiling water was ridiculously hard to get anywhere with.

A better way: make it a priority to study daily. Even if it’s just 30 minutes, you’ll still keep what you have an make progress over time.

Unrealistic Expectations

Perhaps the reason for my sporadic study habits was my extremely unrealistic set of expectations. I’m a native English speaker. I studied French in high school with very little success. In college, I learned quite a bit of Japanese in two years. Having a Japanese roommate and a bunch of Japanese friends probably helped.

So, upon graduating, I decided to move to Taiwan to learn Chinese in a year! Maybe I’d stay two years and publish a book in Chinese, too! I mean, if I did French poorly in four years and then Japanese well in two years, how could Chinese take me more than one? Besides, the internet was full of people talking about how they had pulled off various linguistic feats. On second thought, maybe I could be fluent and literate in more like 6-9 months…

With a goal like that, I figured I needed to learn 500 characters per month to get up to the four to five thousand or so it takes to become a literate reader in Taiwan. And I’d figure out the grammar, pronunciation and everything else somehow.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I found it much more time consuming to learn and maintain characters than I’d thought. I found that unlike my Japanese friends in America who were sick of English after 5 hours of classes per day, people I met in Taiwan very much wanted to speak English with me. Pronunciation was more difficult than I’d expected and it really hurt me not having a solid foundation at the beginning. I could have done that, but instead I was rushing.

A better way: talk to people you know who have already become fluent and who have a similar language background to you. Try to focus on learning effectively over quickly. Aim high but don’t feel bad about starting out with more ordinary goals.

Learning a different accent than the one spoken around me

I was living in Taiwan, but basically trying to learn the mainland dialect for my first few years. My textbooks had traditional characters, but the language in them was not very colloquial for Taiwan. The usage was very outdated and the speakers in the CDs sounded like mainlanders.

The Mandarin spoken in Taiwan is a bit different from the Mandarin spoken in mainland China. Like most southern Chinese people, the Taiwanese don’t tend to curl their tongues for words with r sounds or even sh/ch/zh sounds. Additionally, some words have different tones (e.g. 星期 is xīngqí in Taiwan but xīngqī in China). There are also some differences in words used to describe things. The Mandarin spoken in Taiwan isn’t a completely different language, like the Taiwanese language (臺語) is. It’s just a different dialect, much like British English is different from American English.

Imagine, if you will, a Korean man living in London and learning exclusively from American language materials. He could make himself understood, but he’d often have a hard time understanding what locals were saying to him. Now imagine, he stubbornly continued with the US-based materials along the reasoning that since there are more Americans and since it’s a more important economy, he should learn “standard” English. Yep. I’m ashamed to say, that’s basically what I was doing in my first couple of years in Taiwan with my mainland-accented Chinese study materials.

I believe that in the end learning any accent of a language is fine and that once you reach a high level, it’s easy enough to pick up a different one. But if you’re not talking the way the people around you do, it unnecessarily creates distance and acts as a brake both on your learning and on your social integration.

A better way: Choose a language role model. Ideally this will be your conversation partner, your friend or a famous person on local TV. Try to speak exactly like they do. Pretend you’re an actor. Use the same intonations, facial expressions and body language. You’ll be amazed how much faster your accent improves and how much faster you’ll connect with people.

Slogging through material that was just too hard

Efficiency of effort matters when learning any language, but it’s especially important when learning one that’s very different from your own. This is doubly true for a language with such a convolutedbeautiful writing system as Chinese.

Most L2 acquisition linguists now agree that the most important factor in language learning is input. Input is just material in the language that you listen to or read. Reading is special in that you can take as much time as you want to go through a given passage. As a result, there’s a spectrum of different difficulties of material that a student can reasonably use. At one end is Extensive Reading—i.e. books where the reader already knows 98% or more of the vocabulary and where it’s possible to read at a pace of 120 words per minute or more. At the other end of the spectrum is Intensive Reading, which contains many new vocabulary and possibly new grammatical constructions per page. This can be a good way of practicing a newly taught pattern or set of vocabulary, but it may take an entire hour to work through a single page.

Most work in textbooks is intensive. If you’re at a beginner or low intermediate level, almost anything you read in the real world is intensive. The problem with this is that most students just don’t get enough input. After spending 5 hours, I may have memorized 70 new vocabulary phrases (at least temporarily), but I’d only have read 5 pages! Needless to say, on such light amounts of input I often didn’t know how to use the words I’d “learned” in the contexts that came up in life.

A better way: Make sure that easier material takes up at least half your study time. Whether that’s graded readers (such as Chinese Breeze), or children’s books with pronunciation written by the characters or it’s introductory textbooks from a different series than the one you’re using, find something you can read at a speed that is actually reading! And when you are doing intensive reading, be strategic about it!

Driving friends crazy with the question “why?”

A: “Hey, how do you say _____ in your language?”

B: “blah blah blah”

A: “Really? That doesn’t make sense. Why is it _____ when _____?”

B: “I don’t know”

A: “But why not? _____ means _____ so it seems like it should be …”

Does this look like a fun conversation to be in for either party? It’s not! I had such a desire to “figure it all out” that I’d actually ask people why their language worked the way it did. For many of my friends, this was something brushed aside with an “oh, I don’t know… don’t worry about it, your Chinese is fine.” My poor teachers, on the other hand, had no escape!

Anyone who knew me in my early 20s, I’m sorry. Except for a few true language geeks out there, it must have been unbelievably annoying. And thank you so much for the patience you had until I finally realized I was asking the wrong question.

A better way: Ask how. It doesn’t matter why Japanese speakers put the verb at the end of their sentence or why Chinese speakers start their sentences with a topic and follow it with a comment. They do. Learn how to express what you want to say, and then declare victory!

Focusing too directly on my goal of learning

Learning a language starts with motivation and motivation is wonderful. Having a goal to learn really can make a huge difference. But especially after reaching an intermediate level, focusing on the specific activity of language learning is probably a mistake.

In my third year of living in Taiwan, my biggest frustration in life was that Taiwanese people didn’t want to talk to me in Chinese. I wanted to improve my Chinese and they wanted to improve their English. We were at an impasse! One might even say, a language power struggle. In many ways I was right. Most people my age in Taiwan really did want to learn English and their opportunities for speaking it with a native speaker such as myself were relatively few and far between. But I failed to see the other side of the coin.

Taiwanese people I met had no reason to speak to me in Chinese. If the entire goal of the conversation were to speak Chinese, what would they get out of it? How interesting would the conversation be? While it was annoying that seemingly everyone under the age of 40 (and half those above it) wanted to use English with me, I had to empathize with their point of view.

A better way: Use the language you’re learning, but focus on an activity! It was amazing once I started playing board games like 皇輿爭霸 (AKA “Dominion”), people were happy to talk to me in Chinese for hours and even help me with the pronunciation of various rare Chinese characters I encountered. It’s because it wasn’t about the language. They were having fun playing the game with me! Later I started watching and talking about popular TV shows with friends, going to sing KTV with friends and many other activities that were fun in their own right and not about learning Chinese. As a result, I saw my Chinese abilities soar.

Spending insane amounts of time on writing characters

Learning to write and more importantly remembering how to write Chinese characters is one of the most time consuming activities I’ve seen any learners of any language undertake. Even native speakers often find their writing skills deteriorating after just a few years abroad. In contrast my English writing ability, vocabulary and even spelling improved while I was abroad in my 20s.

Chinese characters are daunting, and my mistake was attacking them head on through sheer brute force… and inconsistently (see mistake #1). Even setting inconsistency aside for a moment, the time investment to learn characters through brute force is enormous. Even native Mandarin-speaking children carry around damned character writing books basically 24/7, from kindergarten until high school. As a working adult, there simply isn’t time for that.

I was ignorant of mnemonic methods popularized by James Heisig’s famous series Remembering the Kanji. While it’s not for everyone, some people have had notable success using them, and a lot of people even share their mnemonics with each other on Kanji Koohii. Heisig later wrote books for simplified and traditional Chinese characters. If you’re totally unfamiliar with the approach and you have a vivid imagination, then I recommend looking them up.

Mnemonics aren’t necessary, though. Even without them it’s possible for a busy person to learn effectively using spaced repetition, a system where software determines when you’re in danger of forgetting a given vocabulary item and need to review your flashcard. One great tool with spaced repetition built-in, Skritter, is designed specifically for learning to write characters. Another great option is Anki, a free spaced repetition software suite. When I discovered it, I was so appreciative that I contributed to its development!

In the end though, even the best of methods are largely mitigation strategies. Writing characters is brutally time consuming, especially for beginners.

A better way: Don’t worry too much about writing at the beginning. Focus on learning the phonetic system. Write some characters as you learn them, but try to spend at least 3x as much time reading as writing. You’ll find that characters you’ve read hundreds of times are a easier to learn to write. Learn the rules for how to write a character, but don’t obsess over memorizing and drilling characters until you can read newspapers and children’s novels comfortably.

Final words

I’m not any sort of language expert. I love language learning, and I love all the doors learning Chinese opened for me. All I say with authority is what things I tried, what worked for me and what didn’t. If even a single reader learns from my mistakes and has a smoother journey towards fluency, then I consider the time I spent writing these 2,500 words time well spent. Best wishes with your language studies!


Mark Wilbur was the founder and academic director of Pagewood English School in Taipei, ran HR at an ed-tech start-up in Beijing and is now a software engineer at Verbling in San Francisco. He blogs at Toshuo.com

  • I’m learning Mandarin right now and this article was really helpful. Right now my main problem is consistency as, when school goes on break I spend a lot less time practicing the language. I don’t find the repetition of writing characters for hours to be working well for me, reading helps as I can already visualize it in my head.

    • The key is to get into the habit of doing something for your study every day. It’s really difficult to form the habit, but if you can make yourself do it for 2 weeks, then it will seem very natural after that..

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