Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Re-Engaging My Chinese Learning

Editor’s note: A couple of days ago I wrote a journal entry about my Chinese studies and why and how I was going to be re-engaging my learning. It seemed like a fitting topic to clean up and share. For all those language hackers out there, check out my on-going project HackingLanguage, where I’m writing about language hacks and building cool tools for my fellow language hackers.

It seems like I’m regularly relaunching my Chinese studies. Chinese is a hard nut to crack. It’s definitely not a language for the feint at heart nor a language that is easily hacked.

To be honest, Chinese is a language that regularly kicks my ass, and even after studying for quite some time, there seems to still be so much more to learn and master.

Chinese learning just takes time and energy. As a self-learner and overly-committed guy, it’s not surprising that sometimes my dedication to studying Chinese lags behind and I have to rededicate myself to my Chinese studies.

Here I go again.

How Long Have I Studied Chinese?

With all languages but perhaps especially with Chinese, the question of “How long have you studied Chinese?” doesn’t make much sense or at least it is not easily answered. You could say I’ve studied Chinese for 3-4 years but a long duration answer like this don’t make sense because I wasn’t putting in hours of study everyday and there were periods where I didn’t study at all.

Unlike my recent language hacks with Korean or Burmese, I don’t have long-term study stats on how much time I’ve put into studying Chinese.

Instead, I respond by saying that I seriously studied Chinese for about a year and a half when I first arrived in China. I think I put in about 2-5 hours a day during this first period. While I started with a university class, I quickly shifted to mostly self-study and supplemented that with a couple of tutors.

I then spent another year or so in full out “in China” exposure with friends, travels and business development. Since then I haven’t committed tons of time to learning Chinese, except a period engagement with Chinese character studies via the lovely app Skritter.

Technically I use and speak Chinese quite a lot. Partially since I live and spend quite a bit of time in China, have several Chinese friends and follow Chinese social media. I also like Chinese TV competitions like “China’s Got Talent” and “The Voice of China.” I do business and research about China and in Chinese. Ironically my several months in Spain where a rather intense period of Chinese speaking with the Chinese immigrant population in Barcelona.

But frankly just using a language doesn’t equate to studying or learning, so I can’t really count this usage period as studying.

Leveling Up My Chinese: A Mixed Approach to Chinese Studies

I want to level up my Chinese again. I’m still rather nomadic but I’ve committed to China again. This time I’m learning Chinese for personal as well as professional reasons since I’ve got a new project (Startup Weekend China!) that forces me to use and engage in Chinese.

For whatever the reasons, I’ve decided to start studying again. It’s tough process since Chinese as a language gets easier for general life and usage. But Chinese as a process of acquiring the components of the language (spoken and written vocabulary), it’s a mountain of time and effort. Chinese has a ton of vocabulary with very nuanced meaning and usage. Vocabulary takes time and situational understanding requires focused studies.

So, while I’ve got a lot of ideas and experience to share on learning Chinese (probably meriting a long overdue blog post), for this engagement I’ve settled on a mix approach.

The daily goal of studying Chinese will remain since you gotta study everyday (or nearly) to make progress and build memories. I’ll continue to use a vocabulary flashcard app (in my case, Pleco!) but my learning resources are a bit more balanced this time.

I’ll be using several advanced listening lessons from ChinesePod, which I’ve loved and used for a long time. This will force me to listen to new dialogues and situations as well as provide exposure to new words and concepts. ChinesePod was my main resource during my self-directed studies upon first arriving in China. It’s dialogues are great.

For my reading, I won’t be pushing that much initially. I will continue using social media and do my best glancing through various articles and sites in Chinese. I’ll continue using books from the “Chinese Breeze” series, which provide leveled readers 100% in Chinese. When the desire and fancy strikes me I’ll continue to use and review various vocabulary lists from Memrise.

I’m not a huge fan of watching Chinese dramas since the plots and characters are often hard to follow, and as a genre, I don’t particularly like them. Instead, I’ll continue to watch the occasional Chinese reality shows, which provide a great passive way to reinforce vocabulary.

Staying Motivated with Fellow Learners and Experts

Beyond that specific regime, I’ve been supplementing my drive to learn Chinese by reading various articles on language learning and fellow language learners. In particular for Chinese, the blog “HackingChinese” by Olle Linge (凌雲龍) is an invaluable resource of experiences, insights and deep reflections about the realities of learning Chinese.

These readings frankly help keep me honest with my progress and motivated to keep pushing forward. It never hurts to hear how someone has done or tips to improve your personal approach to learning.

I don’t have any illusions about being able to maintain this full regime forever nor studying in an entirely consistent manner. Instead, in this post, I wanted to verbalize the ideas and publicly put them out there since it’s at least another way to make a goal tangible and to commit myself to myself somewhere.

I may look back and laugh at another failed effort at improving my Chinese, but progress in language learning is in spurts and I’m looking forward to another marathon of sprints at learning Chinese. 加油.

For all those language hackers out there, check out my on-going project HackingLanguage. Learn faster though intelligent language studies.