One mistake a lot Chinese learners make is to create extreme number based goals. I meet plenty of people who are trying to memorize the first 5,000 characters of Jun Da’s frequency list, or trying to learn 1000 成语, to name two examples. It’s great to have an ambitious goal. But language like life needs balance. If you are spending all your time learning the 4,300-4,400th most common characters, you’re probably neglecting your speaking and listening skills. If you make a goal of speaking to 100 different Chinese people in a day, you could probably get a lot out of a few more hours of character study.
Take Bryan’s advice
When I was learning intermediate Chinese, Bryan, a good friend of mine who was learning advanced Chinese, asked me how many characters that I could recognize. “2000!” I said with pride. Then he asked me how many I could write. “More than 1,800,” I replied, “but I want to always be able to write all the characters I learn.”
At that time, I spent at about 2 hours a day learning write characters. It was brutal and time consuming. Some characters I’d write hundreds of times (check out my tips on learning to write characters here). I was proud of all the characters I knew and proud of the fact that I could write over 90% of them. Bryan, though, was less impressed. He could recognize 5000 characters but could only write around 50-60% of them.
Bryan’s advice was simple:
You’ll never get to 5,000 characters if you try to learn and write each one. Some characters are more important than others. Learn the ones you’ll need.
I ended up taking his advice. Spending less time writing characters gave me free time. I studied reading more. I practiced speaking more. I went out more. And learning Chinese got easier.
Have you ever done anything that you later realized made studying Chinese harder than it should have been?