Who decided what’s a Golden Rule for language study? I did! I love studying languages and have spent years of my life studying them. I also talk to teachers and students about learning languages all the time. All that research has left me with some insights on language study. These are ideas that, if applied to your study plans will show immediate benefits. In fact, I think you’ll have a hard time finding people who can disagree with these principles. Read on for more.
Make small goals
Sometimes people get stuck only thinking about big goals. When we decide to tackle a big goal, we think about how great we’ll feel when we accomplish it, but we forget how good we feel accomplishing all the small things that lead up to that goal. Learning to read 500 characters is a large goal and it feels great when you reach it, but memorizing just one new character is enough to reward your brain, so create small goals that build up to your larger goal. When making small goals, divide the large goals you have into smaller pieces. Large goals are great to have, but if you don’t have a clear way to make progress (something I blogged about before), then you’ll struggle to achieve them. Dividing and sub-dividing goals into small tasks makes it easier to track progress and easier to fit into a busy schedule.
Small goals not only take less time to finish, oftentimes, the pleasure, excitement and encouragement from accomplishing lots of small goals outweighs the achievement of large ones. Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) is pretty popular because of this effect. Every time you get an SRS question right, your brain is getting rewarded, which makes you want to study more to get more rewards.
Do something today.
In the larger scheme of life, it’s easy to feel like you have no free time. That’s ok. What’s not ok: consistently putting off your study routine for days at a time. The routine you create for yourself today helps create your routine for tomorrow. In his book “Predictably Irrational“, Dan Ariely talks about how one visit to Starbucks can lead to a person becoming a regular Starbucks customer. The first time you went to Starbucks, you may have been decided on a whim. But each time after, your decision to go was based partially based on your previous decisions to visit Starbucks.
Applying this to learning Chinese works both ways. Studying today means you’ll be more likely to study tomorrow. Studying tomorrow makes you more likely to study the next day, and so on. Unfortunately, it works in reverse, too. Not studying for one day can quickly snowball into not studying for a week and then a month. We are extreemly susceptible to momentum. Instead of getting caught in cycles of cramming and not studying, I suggest you use momentum to your advantage and do some studying today.
I’m not asking you to for a 4-hour cram session. In fact, I’m asking you to avoid a 4-hour cram session. Instead, just do 5 minutes of studying. Read part of a lesson or catch up on some news. Or even do a couple of reps on your favorite SRS program. Doing something for 5 minutes is better than doing nothing, and 5 minutes of study is the difference between your Chinese getting gradually worse and maintaining your Chinese.
Study what matters to you.
Things can matter in two ways: you find it interesting, or you need to do it. When you learn about things you’re interested in you put in extra effort, and you enjoy it more. Both of which lead to you learning more.
Everything, from how much you remember to how long you continue to study, can relate to the following questions: Do you like what you’re studying? and Do you get to use what you’re studying in daily life?
If you like what you study, you’re probably trying to learn more about it: more topics, more vocabulary. You’re more involved, and that interest, if maintained will allow you to make lots of progress. If you don’t like your study materials, you will get bored. And unmotivated. Study what you like and learn to like the things you need to study.
If you are studying things you that are useful, then you’ll be able to remember everything easier, and feel motivated and empowered. Knowing that what you learn that morning could be useful by the end of the day is extremely inspiring. If you aren’t using the words and phrases you’re studying, you’ll have trouble remembering stuff, and you’ll start to question the point of all the hard work.
It’s so important it bears repeating: study what matters to you.
Find out what works for you
There is no one true method that will help you learn Chinese. Plenty of people will preach about how one method is better than another, but what works for them probably won’t work for you. Everyone who successfully learns Chinese does it in a different way. Some people learn to read with textbooks and newspapers, some learn by watching Meteor Garden. Some people learn better in the company of friends, and some in the solitary confines of books. The general tools and principles might be the same, but the execution is always different. If you want to learn Mandarin well, you’ll need to spend time periodically figuring out how you should be studying. I don’t know anyone who mastered Chinese without a plan. What’s yours?
Whether it’s a song, a movie, or a book (I used Getting Real and Benjamin Franklin to get me stoked), you need something to hold onto that will get you through the hard times when you don’t want to study or you don’t like what you’re studying, or you don’t see a lot of progress. Create a goal. Write it down. Tell your friends (or me) about it. Then create a plan to reach your goal and do it. I know you can.