Practise every day

In my final year of university I joined the university Kungfu club. One day the head instructor asked the class who wanted to get good at Kungfu. Almost everyone in the room put up their hand.

“Right”, said the instructor, “I’m going to tell you the secret for getting good at Kungfu. It’s simple. All you have to do is practise every day. If you practise every day, you will eventually get good.”

About a month later, the instructor once again asked the class who wanted to get good at Kungfu, and once again, almost everyone in the room put up their hand. He then asked how many people had been practising every day since he last asked. Most people, myself included, put their hands down.

Developing a reading habit

Once you reach an upper-intermediate/advanced level of Chinese, one of the most beneficial things you can do for your language skills is develop a reading habit. Regular reading will:

  • Expand your vocabulary
  • Expose you to common sentence structures and grammatical patterns and help you develop a feel for the language
  • Reinforce your existing knowledge of the language
  • Increase your ability to read for long periods of time
  • Show you the world as seen through Chinese eyes, which can be invaluable in helping you understand the Chinese thought process

It’s something that requires little investment from you (apart from your own time), and if you’re the sort of person who likes reading, it can also become an enjoyable pastime.

Setting a quota for daily learning

If you are getting a large amount of exposure to native content as part of your learning process (something that I highly recommend), one problem you are going to have to contend with is learning all the new words.

This is especially so if you’re just starting to read native content, because you won’t have a sufficient vocabulary base and it will be easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of new vocabulary to learn.

One of the best ways to control this is to give yourself a quota of new words per day, and make sure that you don’t exceed it.

The mathematics of learning Chinese

I like maths. Maths helps us solve numbers problems.

In some ways, learning Chinese is a numbers problem and therefore it’s reasonable that many people turn to maths to try and help them solve the problem of learning Chinese.

You need to be careful though to make sure that you are doing the right kind of maths.

Internalise the tones

A common mistake people make when learning Chinese is to treat tones as a separate part of the pronunciation.

For example they’d look at the characters 妈、麻、马 and 骂 and think of the pronunciation as:

    ma + 1st tone  
    ma + 2nd tone  
    ma + 3rd tone  
    ma + 4th tone  

This represents an incorrect mental model of the Chinese language that makes it difficult to learn and remember the tones.

Finding suitable reading content

Finding Chinese content suited to your current level is one of the most important things you can do if you want to read native materials.

If you try to read something too far above your current level then reading it will feel like a chore and it will also destroy your confidence. This is because even after learning hundreds (or even thousands) of new words you will still need to perform frequent dictionary lookups to understand the text and it will feel like you aren’t making any progress, despite the large number of words already learnt.

On the other hand, reading something at the right level, or only slighly above your level, will make you feel energized and give you a huge sense of satisfaction because you will feel that you can read Chinese! Which is an awesome feeling to have.

Confidence in knowing a word

Sometimes it’s easy to convince yourself that you know a word even though your actions demonstrate that this is not the case.

For example, imagine you are reading something in Chinese and you encounter a word that you’re 90% sure of.

You look it up in the dictionary ‘just to check’, and sure enough, it means what you thought it did and it’s pronounced how you thought it was, and you think to yourself ‘yes, I was right, I do know that word’, and so you keep reading, oblivious to the fact that actually you were wrong and you don’t know that word.

More haste = less speed

It’s not uncommon for some learners of Chinese to decide that they want to learn Chinese as fast as possible, and they decide that the best way to do this is to try and learn as many new words per day as they can.

Although they have the best of intentions, this can be a flawed approach because increasing the number of words you learn per day can decrease the amount you learn, especially if you are talking about learning words in the long-term such that they are useful to you in daily life.

Learning from general word lists is inefficient

If you are at the point where you are starting to read native content but you find that your vocabulary is lacking, one of the least effective things you can do to boost your vocabulary is learn from word lists such as the HSK or other word lists based on general frequency.

The reason for this is quite simple - generic word lists are derived from a large body of content, spanning multiple fields, genres and topics. They contain a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and therefore only a little bit is going to be relevant to what you are currently reading and the rest will be words you are not going to use or encounter for months (or maybe even years).

Train what you want to learn

Think for a moment about the things you’d like to be able to do in Chinese.

Would you like to be able to read a newspaper?

Would you like to be able to understand T.V. shows?

Would you like to be able to speak fluently using well-formed sentences?

Probably you’d like to be able to do all of that and more, unfortunately, there might be a large gap between your current level and the level required to be able to do those things, and so the question you find yourself asking is: how can I improve my Chinese so that I will be able to do X?

Regardless of X, the answer to this is simple.


© Copyright 2021 Imron Alston