Learning Chinese and The Law of Diminishing Returns

A comment by Nick on the post Learning Chinese – in for the long haul? started me thinking about how much time per day is adequate to effectively learn Chinese, yet without burning yourself out.

Diminishing Returns

The Law of Diminishing Returns

You might be asking yourself what economic theory has to do with learning Chinese, well… Time spent learning Chinese relative to Chinese learnt is the perfect application for the economic Law of Diminishing Returns, which refers to:

how the marginal production of a factor of production starts to progressively decrease as the factor is increased, in contrast to the increase that would otherwise be normally expected.

In other words, when learning Chinese (or any language, really) the more time you put in, the more Chinese you can learn – up until a point. After this point the return you get (the amount of Chinese you are able to learn) drastically decreases. Meaning that you are essentially wasting your time after this point.

For instance, if you can learn 10 words in 1 hour without resting, you might assume that if you study for 3 hours you can learn 30 words. Though in the second hour since you are tired you can only learn 5 words, and likewise in the third hour you are even more tired and so can only learn 3 words. The result is a yield of 18 learnt words for the total 3 hours, as opposed to the 30 words that you might have expected.

Finding the sweet spot

The key is finding what amount of time is right for you. You’ll know when you have gone too long because you’ll probably find yourself day dreaming or staring at a word for longer than usual. But don’t mistake procrastination or boredom for tiredness from learning!

Set yourself a time limit, say 40 minutes or an hour, and try switching subject matter and learning style a few times within that period of time. For instance, you might learn new words for 20 minutes, read a news article for 20 minutes, then look at sentence structures for a further 20 minutes. If you feel fine after the hour then adjust the times of each activity based on your interest and keep adjusting until you reach the point where you can feel you aren’t getting much out of studying. Then take a ten minute or so break before coming back and continuing to study.

The important thing is not to force yourself to study for too long, and if you get bored then switch to something else.

How long do you study for at a time?

Obviously everybody is different and there are people who can study for 3 hours without a break and still get a lot out of it. But if you have entered the zone of diminishing returns then there really is not point in continuing to study.

How do you split your time between studying? Do you study by yourself or go to class, or both? What is your favourite activity for learning Chinese? All of these can have an affect on how effective your time is spent during learning.

And for completeness:

邊際報酬遞減定律 (边际报酬递减定律)

Pinyin: biān jì bào chóu dì jiǎn dìng lǜ
English: Law of Diminishing Returns

6 responses to “Learning Chinese and The Law of Diminishing Returns

  1. When I read the blog title, I was expecting something along the lines of diminishing returns in terms of the language itself, especially vocabulary. Like learning more and more uncommon words that you won’t use. But interesting post nonetheless.

    1. Great comment, I hadn’t though of it from that angle while writing the post, but that is also the case – for the most part. I read a blog post about the rarer Chinese words a few months back but can’t remember where.

    2. I was expecting something along those lines too. This seems a bit more like AJATT’s time-boxing idea.

      I also think the diminishing returns thing is a bit too simple for learning languages – it’s not like when you first look at a new language you make the fastest progress. The bell-curve graph you’ve drawn is probably a better representation of it – you make the fastest progress somewhere in the middle of your journey.

      1. While the diminshing returns doesn’t reflect the overall reality of learning a language, it does matter.

        As Dave mentioned, you can’t spend all day studying the same thing at peak efficiency. Just like the graph, you start you slow and then reach a peak. If you recognize when you’ve fallen off your peak and take a break, you’ll maximize your high quality study time.

        Another place where I’ve seen people run in to diminish returns is progress. When starting out with Chinese, you feel like you make a lot of progress. Sometime during the intermediate stage you feel like your progress is slowing. And by the time you get to advanced Chinese it barely feels like your making progress at all. Usually your perception doesn’t match reality, but it feels like diminishing returns. I wrote about this idea earlier here.

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