Chinese Learning Technique

So what’s the most effective way we can learn Chinese?

The kung-fu jacket story

Have you ever watched the Karate Kid movie with Jaden Smith? In the movie the kung-fu master Mr Han is training the young Dre Parker how to fight in kung-fu. Although Dre is expecting some advanced training right from the start, the master instructs him to “hang up his jacket”, then “take it down”, then “put it on”, then “take it off”, “put it on the ground”, and so forth. He repeats this over and over again until he is bored stiff. Eventually as he wants to give up he is challenged by Mr Han and discovers the actions he’s been repeating over and over again (until they became natural and instinctive) were the very movements of kung-fu that he needed to master.

Though fictional, this story illustrates a powerful point that can be applied into language learning. It is by repeating and mastering the basic principles of the language that one becomes truly fluent, this is why children take years to learn simple words and sentences, but once learned they never fade away.

It’s in your brain

You know what’s interesting? The time it takes our mind to recall the meaning of a particular word is related to neural pathways within our brain, as particular pathways are used over and over again, they become reinforced — which raises the efficiency of this pathway, hence this directly affects our reaction time when using that word and how quickly we can recall it.

Iterations of phases

So my suggestion for a great technique to learn Mandarin Chinese is by going through two phases — Expansion phase and Consolidation phase — and then rinse and repeat!

Expansion phase (5%-10% of your learning time)

The expansion phase is time that you spend specifically putting in effort to learn new Chinese words and phrases (that you didn’t know before).The way I personally like to do it once I’ve identified a particular word or phrase that I think is at the appropriate level for me to learn at this time I will write it down on my whiteboard, and review it frequently until I am confident that I have memorised it. Please note there is some importance here attached to timing, there’s no point learning the Chinese word for “neutrino” (which coincidentally is  中微子! (Zhōng wēi zi) — why on earth do I know that?) before you even know the word for “Kettle”, because it’s just at the wrong level for you at this time. Learn words that are just beyond your current level.

Consolidation phase (90%-95% of your learning time)

Have you ever met someone who is learning English, but although they seem to understand a lot of what’s going on and seem to have a largish vocabulary, they speak very slowly and just can’t seem to string their sentences together? Maybe it takes them several seconds to remember a specific word? This is not due to lack of expansion, it’s due to lack of consolidation, or simply put, lack of practice. Most of your language learning time should be spent simply practising what you have already learned in order to A) more fully understand the grammar of Chinese and B) solidify your understanding of the words you have learned in the past — this is what leads to true fluency and power in the language.

Good Luck

I’ve been learning Chinese for almost six years now. I still have a long way to go. Every day I practice words I already know in the car while commuting, and I speak with native speakers every single day for practice. You reach a point where you no longer need to identify new words, they just “spill” into your vocabulary, you write them down, write a few sample sentences, and presto, your language skills continue to grow organically. I’d highly suggest for anyone learning Chinese — spend a majority of your time practising with native speakers, and never fear failure  or mistakes.

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