This is the 2nd part of my Thoughts on studying Chinese this year and tips to begin or re-boot your studying (part 1).


If you are looking to study a new language, or looking for a re-boot to revitalise your studying, here are my recommendations.

Plan your study time and Fight through the wall.

No matter what you do to study, there will be times where you hit a wall and you just don’t want to do it any more. Its very easy to stop if you are studying alone. Or even if you are in a class its very easy just not to participate. Have realistic expectations about how much you can study in one day, and how long it will take in total. My recorded times this year have amounted to 300 hours, at a rate of between 2 and 4 hours per day. And I expect to double that to 600 hours before getting to a level where I could reasonably work professionally in Chinese.

Lets say you intended to sit down for 2 hours of study after work or class. You sit down with your study book, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone and a cup of coffee. 15 minutes later your mind starts to wane and you wonder what’s happening on facebook, someone sends you a message, your coffee is finished. There are seemingly a mountain of things that you want to do before you get back to studying. Every time you check your watch, it seems like time is standing still. Your mind is blank. You can’t think of the answer. What’s happening on facebook?

There’s the temptation to just give in and take a small 5 minute break to clear your mind, then of course you will definitely be ready for the remainder of those 2 hours. The only problem is 15 minutes later the same happens again. Before you realise it, the 2 hours of time you gave yourself are over and you have other obligations. You take a look back on what you’ve done, to realise you haven’t even completed one page of your 400 page study book.

This has happened to me countless times before, and still embarrassingly often now. The key is to not give up. Just keep pushing and you will pass through the wall. When you catch yourself thinking of something else, just switch back to study and keep going. If you can’t think of the answer and can’t think what to do, just think about the mechanical steps to find out the answer. Turn the page to find the Vocabulary list. Look down the list until you find the word you want the translation of. Look left until you see the English word. That is the translation. Turn back to last page you were on and go back to the last word. Keep reading. You will get back into the swing again. I find often that my first wall comes after 10-15 minutes. If I can get past that one, I can keep on going for another 45 minutes or so of straight studying, without even realising the time pass. During this time of being in the zone, in flow, I’m not considering whether or not I like studying, whether I have any new messages, I’m not even aware of background noises or where I am. I’m just studying. The next time I check my watch its already been 2 hours and 5 minutes.

Study alone

You might go to classes to study, you might find language exchange meet-ups are a fun way to practise your language skills but these don’t provide the complete steps to learning. Imagine the 4 steps of competence, 1. Unconscious incompetence, 2. Conscious incompetence,  3. Conscious competence and 4. Unconscious competence.

Before you even go to class or pick up a beginners’ book, you don’t know what you don’t know. In the class, you are introduced to new content. That takes you from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

Having conversations rely on your ability to know the content. Practising to a level when you are not even thinking about what you are saying is stage 4. so Practising conversation takes you from Stage 3 to to Stage 4.

The missing part is Stage 2 to Stage 3.

A class might provide exercises in class and homework exercises to help this process to reinforce what was taught in class. But in the absence of classes, I was forced to develop my own techniques. The result was using the Flashcard app to memorise vocabulary by listening, reading and translating from English. I ended up creating an open-source app to help with this.

The key is to keep on reviewing vocabulary until you instantly recognise the meanings. I don’t mean after 5 seconds you get finally get it, I mean keep on repeating the words until you see a word or phrase and can instantly imagine it, even quicker than you can speak it. In the case of learning Chinese characters, it means seeing the shape and/or combination of the characters and instantly knowing its meaning and how to say it. When this happens for most words in a list, it makes it far easier to use these words when reading examples, having practise conversations, and when out in the wild having conversations with people in the real world.

Speak out the vocabulary

As mentioned before, the tones in Chinese are vitally important. Speaking out the vocabulary gives you a chance to practise the tones in words and it will built a sort of muscle-memory when you pronounce words.

Create strange stories to remember Vocabulary.

If I find myself continually repeating the same vocabulary and just not making any progress on an individual word, I will try to think of a story to help me remember. The weirder the story, the better it helps. A website called memrise uses this technique to help with remembering, but I feel I remember better if I create the story myself. After I get to stage of instant recognition of the word, I tend to forget the stories, but I already have the word learned by then, so it has served its purpose. Example words might be the Japanese word 婚約, Konyaku, to get Engaged.  The story is at your engagement party you will have a drink to celebrate, and everyone drinks Cognac. Another word, in Chinese.  詛咒, zuzhou, curse. I just imagine the the 2nd character to look like a frowning face, because no one likes to be cursed. Over time it becomes easier to use relevant words in the Language you are learning, using similar sounds and shapes.

Another technique I use to remember the tones in particular words is to imagine the shape of the tones if they were put together. For example, Shēngqiān (promotion) is a long flat stick, Shěng qián (save money) is a unicycle travelling right. They don’t have to really make sense, but they do have to stick. The uncooked letters “TN” riding a unicycle to save spending on bus fare may not be a thought you can relate to, but to me that means saving money.

A similar technique I remember reading about was using peg-lists to remember position numbers of letters in the alphabet. i.e. a Dog has 4 legs, a Flute has 6 holes, the Queen has 16 houses. They don’t have to be true, they just have to be memorable stories that link numbers to letters.

Try different study techniques

Maybe your class or book already provides examples to help you learn. And maybe its enough. In my case, even at a time with classes to study, the content didn’t really help me enough to gain fluency. After searching through various techniques, I finally found a combination that really worked for me. Maybe you do better talking with a another person in an exchange situation. Maybe watching TV shows can help you to learn listening skills. The point is, if you aren’t seeing the desired effects, chances are its because you havent yet found your perfect way of study. If thats the case, keep an open mind and search for a new way of studying.

Move to the country

Quite an extreme option, just to learn a new language. However, it does provide some real incentive to learn. Other options may be to find exchange partners in your own country. Getting exposure to real-life situations where you must use your new language skills is essential in order to solidify what you learn in a study environment. Good luck!

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