Drop the formalities when learning Chinese

Learning Chinese is supposed to be fun, right? So why does it not always feel that way? Something that often affects language learners, myself included, is that we impose a lot of rules or restrictions on ourselves in terms of how or when we should learn. These restrictions in turn can become a hindrance to the learning process.

Ball and Chain

Unnecessary restrictions

For instance, you might find that when you buy a Chinese book you force yourself to start from the very beginning and read each and every page before continuing to the next. Where’s the fun in that? Or if a Chinese language movie is on television that looks interesting, rather that just sitting down and watching it there and then, you might think “I need to record this, or find the DVD so I can watch it later and really study it properly!”, instead of just enjoying it for what it is, at the time it is on.

We know that the more restrictions there are, the more a process becomes boring and feels limited, so why do we feel that we need to impose these restrictions? Maybe it’s that we feel for a process to end in success that it needs to have followed a rigid structure. Though we also know that the language acquisition process is based on natural experience and exposure to the language, something which we will be depriving ourselves of if we only allow ourselves partial exposure via strict periods of learning.

Learn to naturally enjoy the learning process

If you can learn to drop these formalities and simply learn to naturally experience the learning process you will enjoy it more and find that you take more in than if you impose strict rules on yourself. The next time you buy a Chinese book, don’t force yourself to start from the beginning. Flick through the pages and read some here and there. See how much you can understand at random points, skip back and forth to the parts you think will be most interesting. If a show comes on TV that you think looks interesting, just sit down and watch for a while, don’t worry about whether or not you can record it or find the DVD later for a serious study session. Enjoy it now!

This isn’t to say that some structure isn’t necessary to maintain motivation, as Steve from Lingomi discusses, but rather that you shouldn’t impose these rules and restrictions all the time, when they needn’t be.

What are some of the stupid rules you impose or things you do when learning Chinese that you think may actually be a hindrance to the learning process?

  • My favourite is obsessing over every character I don’t recognise, even when I can guess what it is by the context…I still have to know how it’s pronounced. I think I could have read all of Three Kingdoms with the time spent in radical tables!

    • This is one of the hardest to overcome, I think. What I started to do is limit myself to checking 3 words or phrases per page of a book. This way when I get to the end of a page I have to glance back over, choose my 3, look them up and move on. As opposed to looking up every single character and ruining the fun of reading.

      • Geoffrey

        I have a Kindle and one of the things; I really love about it is you simply touch the word (for Kindle touch) or click on it (for older models) and it pulls up the dictionary definition. It is not necessary to close the dictionary; I can simply continue reading, and it closes (the dictionary) automatically when I turn the page. So far I have not found anything like this for Chinese; but I sure hope this happens soon. I would love to use a Kindle or similar device as a language learning tool.

        • This is exactly what I want. The issue is that most Chinese language ebooks, in Taiwan anyway, don’t allow you to click on a character and even copy it out to Pleco (on the iPad) or something. I’m not sure why Taiwanese publishers aren’t using the already existing kindle and iBooks platforms, instead opting to write their own DRM-laden software, making it impossible to use as study material. It really is a shame. I have opted now to just reading Mandarin online, that way at least I can copy characters/short passages of text into my dictionary.

  • Good advice! Many times I start studying in one way, like writing all the characters from my text book 10 times. But after a good start it becomes really boring and I give up. I used to feel bad about this, but then I understood that I can study different things with different methods, or even same things in a different way. Most important things is that I’m studying, not that I start from the beginning and finish at the end.

    • Yeah, If you get bored with something and it stops being of use then it’s pointless in forcing yourself to continue and becoming a victim to the law of dinishing returns

  • thrashaolin

    totally agree! a few weeks ago I started reading an online sci-fi novel without focusing on the new words, but trying to enjoy the story itself. I recommend the use of “wenlin” in addition to this kind of readings: you don’t have to search each word in order to read it.
    http://www.zwydw.com/ here you can find tons of novels.

    please, forgive my english!

  • Yes and yes! I found that such ‘freestyle’ learning is really working for me with Chinese, I think one of the reasons is that I don’t technically ‘need’ the language for any serious purpose, like school or work, I’m just learning for fun. And I’m progressing much faster than with a few other foreign languages I ‘had’ to learn. Also, off-topic, it just kept popping into my mind while I was reading, if you substitute the words ‘learning process’ in your article for ‘life’, you could just copy paste for ‘Psychology Today’ or any motivational website, did you notice that? 😉

    • I didn’t notice it at first, but now that you mention it 🙂
      I like the way you classify your learning style as ‘freestyle’ learning, if it works for you then keep at it, as soon as something becomes a requirement the fun is taken out of it.

  • krist zhang

    The interesting is the best teacher.