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A Pre-Beginner’s Guide to Learning Chinese
Daniel Nalesnik
  •  September 6, 2020

If you are looking for guidance on how to learn Chinese as a beginner, you’ll likely come across a lot of advice mentioning things like pinyin, tones, characters, classes, textbooks, and apps.

This advice is well-intentioned: pinyin should definitely not be skipped, tones are absolutely crucial, character learning is essential, etc.

But if you are a true beginner learning Mandarin, all of that (important) stuff is not the first thing you should focus on.

Your first challenge should be answering this question: what can you do to increase, as much as possible, your long-term chances of success with Chinese?

Our first stop is how to become a motivation architect. In this article, we’ll look into a few methods to stay motivated when learning Chinese language. 

Learn to stay motivated when learning Chinese

Learn how to stay motivated. The rest is just details.

Grab your calendar and find the day one week from today.

Make a reminder on that day to ask yourself how motivated you feel about learning Chinese.

When that day comes, if you aren’t smiling and looking forward to another week of studying, if you “aren’t sure if it’s all worth it”, it’s time to slam the breaks and re-evaluate your learning strategies.

Because although you might still be studying, you’re already running on willpower. 

And your willpower will run out.

Planning on “willing yourself to continue” is planning to fail.

And while you are unlikely to ever run out of new Chinese learning resources to choose from, you could very easily run out of motivation to use them

Success is the result of finding what generates motivation

Within a few weeks, the excitement of learning a new language starts to diminish. Within a few months, pure willpower will be insufficient to keep you going. 

A few months in, you’ll be somewhat confident with Pinyin pronunciation, but you’ll still have a very basic Chinese vocabulary. You will unlikely be able to do anything truly enjoyable as a way to progress (like watching Chinese television or having casual conversations in Chinese). 

So do future-you a favor and find something that generates motivation

What generates motivation?

Measured progress generates motivation

Progress alone is not always motivating. Neither is measurable progress. But measured progress is.

Huh?

Let’s take an example.

Learning 10 new Chinese vocabulary words is progress. It’s also measurable (hey, 10 new words!)

But learning ten new words doesn’t grant any special skills, and it is unlikely to enable one to read anything new.

So although a student understands there are ten fewer words to learn, it isn’t particularly motivating.

Until they measure it, and find out they’ve gotten 6% closer to knowing all the vocabulary in the first HSK (China’s official language proficiency exam).

While they can’t notice any difference in their language ability (yet), they feel satisfied that their efforts have led to measured advancement.

And that generates motivation.

Not all measured progress is created equal

You’ve all seen learning apps that grant experience points, badges, or awards. The purpose of these devices is to bathe your mind with feelings of satisfaction. And it works. At first. 

But eventually, earning more badges and experience starts to feel meaningless. 

Because it is.

If someone asked you, “How good is your Chinese?” it would be pretty odd to reply, “I have 10 badges in my online app.”

Progress that is meaningful is progress with intrinsic value.

For example, in Hack Chinese, progress is measured by how many words you know.

The number of words you know, in and of itself, is intrinsically valuable. Would you rather be able to say you “know 2,000 Chinese words”, or say you “have 20 badges” or “200 experience points”?

Even if it all reflected the same thing, some of that progress is meaningful, and some is not.

Meaningful progress does not diminish in value as time goes on: it increases. So choose study tools now that will give you long-lasting motivation by measuring what counts: intrinsically valuable, meaningful progress.

In the beginning, Learning Chinese is less important than building the habit of learning Chinese

Countless ambitious students have decided to study Chinese for an hour (or more) every day. 

This usually lasts a few weeks before willpower comes crashing down and they quit, leaving them only slightly more familiar with Chinese than they were when they started.

You might be asking: what is much less common, and much, much more difficult to do?

Students who study every day for years (even if it’s only for 20 minutes a day).

And in the long run, it is these students (and only these students) who become proficient with Chinese. 

I suspect we can agree on this: you’ll only become good at Chinese if you develop the habit of learning it. (There’s just no other way: you can’t cram all the knowledge and practice you need into a short time frame.)

Ergo, as a beginner, developing the habit of learning Chinese is vastly more important than learning Chinese.

Let’s take a look at how to maximize your chances of developing the habit.

Set up your learning processes, goals are optional

Everyone: “Set a Goal, and you’ll be motivated to get there!”

Except you won’t. The act of setting a goal is the immediate-gratification version of language learning. It feels extremely good for 10 minutes (“Yes! My goal is to be fluent in 12 months!), but the effects won't last long enough to actually help you (“Time to celebrate having already set a big goal... by playing this video game.”)

Instead, focus on what actually matters: what are your processes for learning Chinese?

Here are just three tips (from ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear) on how to increase your likelihood of forming a new habit (processes):

  • The 2-minute Rule
    When forming a new habit, your to-do list should say, “2 minutes of reading Chinese”, not “30 mins of reading Chinese”.

    Why? Because at this stage, all you are doing is building a habit.

    You’d be surprised at how easy your mind can rationalize “not having enough time” for a 5-minute exercise. But it is much harder to justify skipping a task if you know it will only take two minutes. (Yes, you’re allowed to do more once you get started!)

  • Own your identity as a Chinese learner
    Instead of saying, “I am trying to learn Chinese, so I am attempting to study every day,” say, “I study Chinese every day.”

    With the second statement, you are attaching your habit to your identity. And once you identify a certain way, you will naturally fight very hard to defend your identity. Use this to your advantage.

  • Change your environment
    It is harder to create new habits in old environments. This means, if you usually watch Netflix on your couch in the living room, don’t try to study there. Find a local coffee shop, or even a new room in your house, to install your new habits.

Vocabulary is King

The more vocabulary you know, the easier the rest of your Chinese learning efforts become.

Stopping to look up every other word in your textbook is the onramp to de-motivation highway. Practicing grammar with words you don’t understand is a needlessly de-motivating way to increase frustration. 

Vocabulary is the most fundamental unit of language, the most basic resource you need to collect throughout your learning journey, which powers all of your other study efforts.

Here are some top tips to make sure you perform best:

  • Learn Pinyin on day one. Pinyin gives Chinese an alphabet to play with. It turns out, alphabets are enormously powerful technological advancements: you can learn to pronounce words or easily look them up in a dictionary. There are no benefits to skipping Pinyin.

  • Use a spaced repetition tool (like Hack Chinese) to learn Mandarin vocabulary words. Spaced repetition helps you spend the least amount of time learning the most number of words -- an unbeatable combination.

  • The perfect time to add a word to your long-term learning plan is right after you look it up in the dictionary. The experience of needing the word in a particular situation (if spoken) or while reading (a textbook) is a visceral memory that gives an incredible boost to your learning ability.

  • Learn the basic definition of vocabulary words before you need to use them (i.e. learn the vocabulary for a textbook chapter before you attempt to read the dialogue). Then let your exposure to that word help your mind solidify the meaning. This is a bit like a bootstrap problem: until you know the words, you can’t read. But until you read, you don’t really know the words. So do both.

We have an entire article on our blog that describes some techniques on how to memorize Chinese characters effectively.

Hack Chinese: Generate a constant stream of motivation while growing your vocabulary

Hack Chinese helps you grow your vocabulary from the absolute beginner stage to well beyond even the most advanced Chinese language courses.

Everything is designed to generate motivation: from subtle gamification that targets only intrinsically valuable progress, to your personalized dashboard that shows your learning trends and speed. 

Hack Chinese comes with predefined lists for Chinese textbooks and exams, but also lets you add any new words to your learning plan as easy as using the integrated dictionary.

Conclusion

With so many guides explaining how to learn Mandarin Chinese for beginners, it’s important to realize that some things are outside the realm of language, but will have an even bigger impact on your eventual outcome. 

Motivation management is vital. And your habits will predict your success. So find tools and methods that keep motivation high and are pleasant enough to use that you build daily habits around them. 

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