Learning Chinese: These Four Beliefs Lead to Failure

To learn Chinese, you must overcome your biggest obstacle. You. We are always our own biggest obstacles. First, you must stay motivated. Next, there are three beliefs you must change if you want to speak Chinese.

Understanding is Mastery

To learn Chinese you must not only understand how the grammar works, you must be able to use it. Understanding is only the first step. If you want to learn Chinese you have to take it one very important step further.

For me there are two fun parts to learning Chinese. The insight that comes when I learn something new and the exhilaration of using that something myself. The hard part here is that there is a lot of practice between understanding something and actually using it.

If you don’t study until it is boring then you won’t be able to speak Chinese.

Speaking Chinese will Just Happen.

Speaking Chinese will not just happen. Without structure and support, you will give up. Giving up starts small. First, you will rationalize that you are too busy to study this week. Class will be more difficult that week and that will reduce your motivation. Other distractions like TV will take over. Then you will miss a class for something important. Things do come up. Then you will be behind the rest of the class and your motivation will drop.

The truth is we can all find 3 hours a week, but accomplishing a major goal like learning Chinese requires planning. You not only have to plan out how to study. You also have to plan out the rest of your life so you can learn Chinese. Eventually, you start to miss so much class that you have to take a month off. Most people never return from the month off. The final step is forgetting most of what you learned and having to give up or start over.

To learn Chinese successfully, you must step out of this cycle.

I will Find Time to Study

Review the grammar while you wait in line at the bank. Listen to an mp3 on your drive to work. Memorize vocabulary before bed. All of these might lead to mastery. Start by answering four questions:

What will help me learn? Some people are auditory learners. They learn by listening. You might be a visual learner and need to see it. Think about how you learn best. What helped you prepare for tests? How do you solve problems now? Do you write them out or talk them out?

What do I need to do this? Now that you know how you learn, how do you do this on the run? Do you need mp3s, flashcards or a pencil? How do you make sure you have the right stuff at the right time? Go make a study kit.

When do you learn best? Some people are morning people. Others do best at night. Where are the gaps? When do you have some free time? Is it on the drive to work, after dinner or at breakfast? Make a schedule and include study and class time.

What will get in the way? Family and work are important. Plan those too. Predict when those activities will take time away from Chinese. Don’t let this happen. Include other activities and projects in your schedule.

One more thing. Stick to it!

As Long as I Study, it will be Okay

Fluency is going to take time. Just studying isn’t enough. You must study the right material. When you learn Chinese, it is easier to skip the very difficult (grammar) and very dull parts (vocabulary). Do not do this! Memorize the tones! Chinese people do not sort vocabulary the same way we do. When you make a mistake on a tone, a Chinese person simply won’t understand you.

You will get more out of learning Chinese if you focus your efforts on your goals. Take time to consider your immediate and long term goals. Once you learn the basics, focus your efforts on the vocabulary and grammar based on your goals. If this means buying an extra book, go for it. This will help you speak Chinese and that will motivate you to stick with it.

Learning Chinese Like a Child

I had a completely different post planned for today. It will have to wait. I was listening to the radio and I got a little angry. A woman’s voice came on and promised fluency in days. She explained that her program will teach me a language just like when I learned to talk as a child. Fluent in 10 days. It sounds so nice. In a year, I could speak 36.5 languages. No drills. No vocabulary lists. Just language learning bliss.

Learning Like a Child

The ad promises that you can learn Chinese easily. Just like when you learned English as a kid. I don’t know about you, but I learned to speak English over about 14 years in English class. Some of my teachers didn’t care if I enjoyed learning or not. That’s really the promise of these ads. You don’t have to be bored when learning a language. It won’t be like middle school.

The Truth

The truth is: accomplishing something worthwhile is hard. Harder than you expect. It always is. That’s how it will be with learning Chinese.

Every language is made up of words. If you want to speak Chinese, study the words. In fact, you even need to spend time learning how to say the words right. You probably need to make lists of words and memorize them.

You probably want to talk to people. So you need to learn how to use those words in a sentence. Now you have to study grammar. That means drills.

Mastering a language really involves practicing it to the point that it is easy. Doing something easy is boring.

So there you have it. I’m mad because you were setup. It was never going to be easy. You were never going to be fluent in Chinese in 10 days. You were never going to get away without learning grammar. You will need to memorize lists of words and learn how to use those words in sentences.

Here’s the Difference

The real truth is that learning Chinese is going be harder and take longer than you would like. On the other hand, you have the power of choice. You can choose to learn (or not!). You can study as often (or as little) as you like. You get to decide how well you will speak Chinese. You will choose the best way for you to learn Chinese. Just remember, learning Chinese can be fun because we’re social creatures. We learn best when we have fun learning together.

Get to It

Find a school that you like. Try a Chinese class. It could be us, another school or a tutor. (But if it isn’t us, please tell us why!)

If you can’t join a class, find some friends. Form a study group.

Then study and don’t give up.