Note: the post below was authored by Luke Neale, co-founder of Mandarin Blueprint, the Chengdu-based Chinese language school and includes an embedded Youtube clip. If you’re in Mainland China, you will want to have a VPN enabled for the video to appear.
When I decided to learn Chinese, I started off by doing what most people do when they want to learn something: I got a teacher. Actually, I had a string of them in the beginning. None of them were particularly experienced or competent, but at the time it didn’t really bother me. I was motivated enough to power through the initial grind, expecting it to get better. I was still surprised, however, to find that modern language education hadn’t moved on at all since I was at school: textbooks, blackboard. Teacher talks, student listens.
The textbooks were filled with words I didn’t know, which were made up of characters I couldn’t read, write or pronounce. In my first textbook, there were even excerpts from Tang dynasty poems, which I of course had no chance of deciphering. Even now almost four years later, I’ve still never really used textbooks with any regularity for no other reason than they bore and frustrate me. I think now more than ever: we didn’t use textbooks to learn our mother language, so why should we do it for any other language?
When I look back at my early days learning Chinese, and when I look around at how foreigners are still being taught today, it seems obvious to me that the whole business of learning Chinese is in serious need of reform.
How to Learn Chinese Characters
One of the things that troubles me the most is the way characters are taught. The method most teachers use for teaching characters is called learning “by rote”. This is where you write a character over and over again until it is burned into your memory (which incidentally was also an actual form of punishment given to me by teachers when I forgot my books at school). I was essentially forcing incoherent hieroglyphs into my head with out even understanding how they worked, or how and why their components are put together. This kind of learning creates a weak foundation, which affects other aspects of your study later on.
Research shows that our brains have powerful filters designed to get rid of pieces of information that it deems useless. You know that awkward situation of almost instantly forgetting the name of someone you’ve just been introduced to? That’s your brain’s filter at work. However hard you try to force something into your head, if you don’t create a personal connection to it in some way, you will have little chance holding on to it for very long.
So if learning by rote is so ineffective, then why is it still the go-to method of character learning for most teachers? It’s usually for the simple reason that it’s all they know. This is how Chinese people learn characters in school, so obviously it works or China’s population wouldn’t be able to read and write. However, when you factor in a minimum of 9 years mandatory education under strict supervision from teachers and parents, along with an intense social pressure to succeed thrown in to the mix, it’s not surprising that over a long enough time scale and with enough dedication from the student it can (and does) eventually work.
However, to learn Chinese as a second language in this way is an exercise in futility.
Efficient Learning with SRS
After nine months of fumbling my way through the basics, I arrived on a website called Memrise to learn the 2,500 words in the HSK (or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – China’s standard language proficiency examination) levels one to five. I did this to get some feeling of progress in the language. I was of the opinion that language is made up of words, therefore learning the words would make me fluent. Unfortunately it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
Memrise is one of several successful online flashcard sites powered by spaced repetition software or “SRS”. SRS automatically schedules flashcards using algorithms that conform with the “spacing effect”. The spacing effect comes from a huge body of research that shows that it’s better to space out your reviews of a piece of information over longer and longer periods of time, rather than binge-reviewing many times in one session. This basically means that you see new stuff often and old stuff less often, which makes for far more efficient study. On memrise, when you learn a new word, you are also prompted to make a mnemonic device or “mem” and add a picture for each word to make the word more memorable. Despite doing this for all of these words, and reviewing them every day, after another nine months I had a rather depressing realisation: I couldn’t use the vast majority of them.
My main misstep was that I didn’t take the time to properly learn the individual characters for the words I was learning, which gave me a very shallow understanding. To make matters even worse, I memorized words by relying on a single english definition for each, and rarely looked at it’s usage in a sentence. I was essentially learning a list of words one by one with little to no context, waiting for a “eureka moment” which would never come. Although I was great at identifying these words when they flashed up on my computer screen, I found myself fumbling for words in conversation when I needed to express an idea or feeling.
A Turning Point: Anki
My discovery of another SRS flashcard program called Anki marked a major turning point in my study. For me, it is the ultimate SRS because it is completely customisable to the user and, although not exactly beautifully designed, it has incredible functionality. By reading the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, I learned how to make incredibly effective flashcards that were more memorable than any I’d made before. I also made sure to review sentence flashcards every day so I could really get a feel for how the words were used in context. After seeing how quickly I began to improve after applying all of this to my study, I finally began to understand what one of my language gurus, Khatzumoto (founder of All Japanese All the Time), meant when he said: “You don’t know someone because you know their name, and you don’t know a word because you know it’s definition”.
After this, I spent six months learning the 3,000 most common chinese characters, after which I immediately gained a deeper understanding of the words I’d already “learned” previously, and at the same time was able to learn new words much easier. Why? Well, because the vast majority of Chinese words are a combination of two characters put together in a very logical way, just like the English compound words “playground” or “flashlight”, essentially giving them their own built-in mnemonic devices. Learning characters also allowed me to process sentences easier, giving me the confidence and inclination to take on more engaging content. I immediately read more books, watched more movies and television, and had more interesting conversations with friends. The reading raised my vocabulary, which in-turn increased my listening ability and gave me more to try and use in conversation. I had soon become noticeably more fluent and literate, which fed my desire to learn even more. I had created positive cycle of progress for myself and things had gone from hopeless to promising in just a few months. I discovered a feeling I had never felt in my 15 years of formal education: I was truly enjoying learning.
The University Method
Spurred on by my sudden progress and positive mindset, I made another lifestyle change congruent to my progress in Chinese and signed up to a local university. It sounded like a great idea then, but little did I realise that it was going to end up doing a lot more harm than good. There is something to be said for being obligated to spend your entire morning several days a week surrounded by Chinese. I would say that university is great in this respect, as it gets you up and into “Chinese mode” for the day. Overall though, I found a few major problems over my year there that I wish someone had made me aware of before I signed up.
First, to say that the classes were “textbook heavy” is an understatement. It was the core focus of most classes, even more so than when I had private tutors. At least with them I could chat about what I wanted as I was on my own and calling the shots. The classes were led by teachers who were often graduate students with little experience, ranging in quality from below average to terrible. I did have one professor that was not only good, but just so happened to be the best teacher I’d ever had, and his 3 hours of class a week alone made my first semester worth the money. It’s really too bad that he turned out to be somewhat of an anomaly.
Passing the HSK 6
Not long after joining University, I took the highest level of the HSK exam (level 6) on a whim and (much to my surprise) I passed. A year or so before that, I wasn’t really able to read much or express myself clearly, nor was I very confident that I ever would, but I’d made enough progress in the months leading up to the exam that I made the grade. It’s apparently supposed to take 4 years of full-time study to reach the level required, but factoring in the relatively meager hours I’d put in over my time in China, I’d done it in less than half the time. This exam didn’t mean much to me as a qualification, but it was my only reliable benchmark that proved that what I had been doing had worked. The bulk of my progress didn’t come from my time with textbooks, teachers, or any other “traditional” teaching methods. It came from leveraging a mix of technology and engaging content to take a more natural approach to learning.
Most of us have the mantra “no pain, no gain” instilled in us throughout our school years. This tends to communicate the idea that if you are enjoying the study process, then whatever methods you are using aren’t going to work. This concept may apply to many things in life, but I don’t think it applies to learning languages, and especially not a language with such a large time investment as Chinese. A rare minority can just push on through the tough times with little reward, and they’ll eventually get there, but most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to delay gratification for so long, least of all me.
Creating Mandarin Blueprint
I was close to the point of quitting when I discovered study methods that worked, but many aren’t so lucky. I still see so many other students much smarter than myself unnecessarily going through their own similar struggles with Chinese, often leading to them giving up and moving on to something else after months or even years of stop-start study binges. Knowing that I had the knowledge and the skills to help, I decided to take actions that would help the Chinese learning community, leading to the development of what became known as “Mandarin Blueprint”.
The mission behind this company is to provide an overall guide to learning mandarin Chinese from beginner to advanced, laying out exactly what needs to be done (and perhaps more importantly, what not to do) to have rapid success with Chinese. Among the many things we include in the course are: developing native-like pronunciation, speed-learning characters, acquiring vocabulary and grammar as quickly as possible, and finding and consuming interesting content. I think the most valuable concept we teach is how to have fun with (and even get addicted to) studying Chinese on a daily basis, and how to make it a part of your daily life, rather than something you just try to get out of the way so you can move on to more interesting activities. You can have the best study methods and the flashiest apps out there, but nurturing a positive mindset and developing rewarding study habits is what truly holds it all together.
We have free demo classes running regularly in Chengdu, which you can sign up for through our wechat official account, or visit our website at MandarinBlueprint.com.