ChinesePod listed my previous post on their Daily, which was pretty cool. I have to admit though, that wasn’t my best piece of writing. It was after midnight, I was tired, and I didn’t proofread at all. I had the feeling when I posted it that it was disorganized and rambling, and I felt that I hadn’t really made much of a point. Or at least not the point I had set out to make. I’m not even sure now what that point was, but maybe I’ll get back around to it eventually. The main thing to know is that you’ll never get anywhere unless you take charge of your own learning in a big way.

Anyway, Greg from Mandarin Segments has this to say:

Hi there

That’s a really impressive self-study regime you have – 2500 words in 3 months. If anyone could just learn 2500 words ever, that would already be a good level just for conversation purposes!

Often people are shocked to hear that I self-studied Chinese. Along the way of course I had discussions with Chinese people, who were very helpful. And I’ve had a teacher at times – but then only an hour every week or two, just to answer my questions. But I can’t understand people whose only learning time is in the class – with little attempt to study outside class. Relying on someone to give you knowledge, or being scared of someone so you do your homework … neither bodes well for long-term progress!

PS. Do you have a name? Looked at your author page, and I now know all about you, but don’t have a name!

I was going to just write a quick response, but that turned into a full-length post (actually two – my post on Hacking your study time also branched off of this one), so here it is.

You’re right, my conversation has gotten up to a pretty decent level in the last 3 months. I can take care of my daily needs here in Taipei including going to the bank, ordering food, getting around, making conversation with people, etc. That was not anywhere near the case when I got here in mid-August.

My teachers and classmates are always astonished to find out that I self-studied before moving here. I didn’t have a conversation in Chinese until I was in Shanghai a few months ago, barring two or three (failed) private lessons a few months before that. The first two weeks of class, I was easily the worst in the class. My Chinese is now better than or equal to pretty much everyone in my level, including people who have done BAs in Chinese. It was tough, and at first I thought maybe I should drop down a level, but I stuck with it after my teacher told me she thought I’d be fine after a while.

At the time, my passive knowledge was decent, and my active ability was awful. But the fact that I already knew a lot of the vocab we were going over allowed me to activate my passive knowledge, and I quickly surpassed the rest of my class. That’s a key point. Learn a ton of words passively (reading and listening, the passive skills). When the time comes to learn to actually use them in writing or conversation, it will be pretty easy to activate your passive knowledge. This is part of the reason I’ve made an effort to learn material outside of the textbook: because a lot of the vocab I’ve learned passively from other sources are soon encountered in class, and previous familiarity is very helpful. Of course the main reason is that I want to be able to progress as quickly as possible.

My study schedule is nothing impressive, honestly. My success these past few months is largely due to the fact that I’m a full-time student at an intensive program in Taiwan. But my progress does tend to be faster than my classmates, or at least in different ways (they tend to focus on conversational ability while I focus on reading). I’ve found an effective way of cramming new information into my head and then just turning it over to the SRS for retention. Sure you forget some, but my average retention is over 90%. I’ll make a post about my SRS approach soon, but it involves extensive use of the “cram” function, which I find really useful in building passive knowledge of vocabulary.

The other part of the equation is focusing on the most important things and not worrying about the rest. Your study time opens way up this way. You’d think this sort of thing would be self-evident, but it really isn’t. It’s so easy to get caught up in “I NEED to do this and that and all these other things every day and it will easily take 8 hours but I only have 5 so I need to study as frantically as possible so I can try to fit as much in as possible”. It just doesn’t work this way. You (or at least I) end up stressed, guilty that you’re not doing everything you think you “should” do, and eventually burned out by all the stress you’re putting on yourself. Not to mention, you’re trying to burn through it all so fast that it isn’t really good quality study time.

Much better to pick the few things that are most important to you, and do those first every day, no matter what. The other stuff can fill any remaining time you have afterward. For instance, I study Classical Chinese and reading (be it manga, newspapers, whatever) in the morning before class so it’s out of the way. After class I have lunch, then I get all my homework done at one time. At this point, all the stuff that’s important to me (everything for class, plus Classical Chinese and reading practice) has been done, and anything else I do in the day is just a bonus.

Learning Chinese is a huge goal, especially if you’re trying to learn it to a high enough level to do serious research in the language. For this reason, I feel it’s best to set big, somewhat vague goals rather than have a bunch of complex, detailed things on your daily list. Then just make sure you devote some time every day to the big goals. At one point I had a daily list like “listen to the current chapter for class 3 times, listen to the previous chapter once for review, and the following chapter once or twice to get ready for it. Listen to random podcasts and other bits and bobs throughout the day”. And that was just for listening, not to mention reading, writing, speaking, and Classical Chinese! This is all good stuff to do, of course, but it’s too complicated. Too much stuff to check off the list. Now it’s just “listen to the current chapter a few times on the way to school, and listen to other stuff as interest dictates”. I’ve done the meat on the way to school, the other stuff is just gravy.

So there it is. Pick what’s most important to you, and work on that every day before you do anything else. After that you can work on the other, less important stuff. And then be done with it!