As you all know, there are countless ways to go about learning a language.
I have a general plan of action that I like to apply myself, but there's no such thing as a “perfect” way to learn a language. Perfection is not something that humans need to concern themselves with in anything outside the realm of mathematics and the like, as the real world has too many variables to make such a pipedream worth pursuing. However, it is important to tweak and improve what you do to get the best possible results.
You absolutely must try to see how you can improve your approach to achieving something you deem important, such as learning a language. While it's easy to shift the blame to your environment/circumstances, and say that it's lack of time, working too much, being too old, the language is too hard, not having the “best” learning materials, and all sorts of other rubbish (where millions with the same setback but succeeding prove you wrong), the reason you learned slower than you could have is very simple:
IT'S YOUR OWN DAMN FAULT.
Stop blaming everything/everyone else – you are your own worst enemy.
With that in mind, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate this critical analysis, by looking at what I could have done to have noticeably improved the result of these 3 months learning Mandarin.
Mistakes are good! It's all part of the learning process
As proud of the result of these 3 months as I may be, I'm still a few weeks off what I would call “fluency”. While some were hoping that I'd finally break, and “admit” that Mandarin is an oh-my-gawd-super-duper-hard-language, my conclusion is quite far from that. I've got so much to say about Mandarin that I'll get to soon enough.
Actually, all the mistakes I've made that are worthy of really looking at, are approach/technique mistakes that I'd apply equally to learning any language. This post isn't going to be some linguistic analysis (remember, I'm not a linguist, I'm an engineer) where I'd say things like
“I should have learned syntax before morphology, as well as applied semantic lexicons within accusative nominals in reference to indefinite conditional subordinating predicates.”
[This is what most linguistic texts look like to me]
Actually, everything I'll mention here is something that will be extremely applicable to the next time I attempt to learn a language as intensively, whether that language be Swahili, Icelandic or Lithuanian. With this in mind, analysing my mistakes is essential, and even though I was off target, this has actually been an excellent learning experience! That's forgetting the actual practical applications of why I learned the language in the first place.
It will also help me as I continue to improve my Mandarin. So I have no regrets at all – the only way I could come to these conclusions (or at least truly appreciated them even when they are logical enough) was by experimenting. Get your hands dirty because simply reading about it is not enough – you learn by doing!
So, here are my biggest mistakes that I'm really glad to have put the time into figuring out:
Biggest mistake: All work and no play make Benny a bad language learner
The biggest mistake I made by far, which took several weeks out of my potential to improve, will sound counter-intuitive when you first read it: I was working on my Mandarin too hard.
While I still have part-time online work, I am “lucky” enough to have had a lot of time to invest in this project. The logical course of action is to pour as much as you possibly can into it and work damn hard. The more time you put in, the better the results will be!
I want it to be clear that I think the vast majority of this work is the reason that I progressed as quickly as I did, and I will continue to encourage a “no pain no gain” approach to language learning, over a have-fun-all-the-time! one that too many people promote.
If your goals are different to mine, then a mostly enjoyable approach could work wonders, but if you need to learn something as quickly as possible, then it's way less effective than buckling down and doing things you don't want to do most of the time. Embracing the fact that I dislike language learning has worked to my advantage, as I don't waste much time on fun-games that don't push me out of my comfort zone.
One of my worst weeks in terms of morale, was the week where I decided to up my game and spend 3 hours a day in Mandarin-only language lessons. It was a really rough week, and I felt absolutely terrible, but it was by far one of the smartest decisions I made in the entire 3 months as it forced me to improve very fast and get over a huge plateau of being able to start participating in long conversations.
However, the problem I want to focus on in this post, is this:
I would improve very quickly for three weeks and then I'd reach a saturation point. The entire last week of every month had no major jumps to another level, and I'd barely be able to focus enough to even study in less pressured situations. My energy was totally dissipated and I made very little progress in those weeks, apart from learning a bit of vocabulary or some grammar rules.
But I kept at it nonetheless and tried to force the Mandarin into my head. It just wasn't happening, so I eventually (and reluctantly) gave in and would watch some silly Hollywood movie, give myself an “English break” and allow myself my official once-a-month English night-out, get a massage or something else that would finally make me feel better.
While I was doing all of these I still felt guilty because I was breaking my Mandarin-only rule, but I got my mojo back and would dive in even stronger. After easing off a bit during that first bad stretch, the last week of January, I was in a good enough frame of mind at the start of February to attempt the best decision of the mission I mentioned above.
No matter how hard I tried, I ran into the same problem at the end of February, and wasted an entire week again. And in March, I was actually working extra hard in the days leading up to my last video update, so after that I reached saturation point earlier and learned a lot slower in the entire last two weeks of March. I was so exhausted from working up to the day I recorded that video, that I slept for 14 hours straight the day after I recorded it.
This ultimately means that out of the 12 or so weeks that I devoted to this project, an entire four involved me learning at a dramatically slower rate than I could have.
So, what I'm ultimately getting to is this: we all have our own saturation points, where we just can't squeeze anything else in, no matter how hard we try, and we need to just let our hair down. Your saturation point may be very different to mine, but I now know that my limit is 3 weeks, working very hard every single day 7 days a week, (and a little less if I push myself to an unhealthy sleep deprived limit).
With this in mind, next time I attempt a 3 month project, I will specifically set aside an entire weekend every 3 weeks to do anything but work on the project. Go to a night club with cheesy American pop songs, read a novel in English, speak other languages, watch silly action movies, travel, catch up on online episodes of the “Big Bang Theory”, buy and play with some silly electronic gadget that I don't need and will just end up selling before I travel again, or whatever else looks like fun.
While a 3 month target to travel in China was what I was looking at to make it all worthwhile, that is too far off in the distance to seem real and you lose sight of it quickly. As well as my one-week mini-missions to focus on, in future I will have my major time-off always within a maximum of 3 weeks to work towards. This way the time I “waste”, actually recharges my batteries and gives me that extra boost. Rather than waste four weeks as I did this time, I'd “waste” just one overall, and be a lot less wound up in the process, since my pauses this time were sporadic, unorganised and riddled with guilt. Such a better frame of mind would make the remaining weeks work all the better.
Keep in mind that while I consider this a mistake, I absolutely do not regret this experience, because this process has revealed to me what my limits are and opened my mind up to how I can better learn intensive projects for the rest of my life! This idea will not be new to many of you – I know that the “4 hour body” book for example has a “cheat day” in its restricted diet program.
This concept of working hard most of the time and letting yourself take it easy once in a while at a very specific and planned time is a very powerful psychological tool to keep us at our best. Working hard all the time is actually a very bad strategy.
If you attempt something similar yourself, try to see what your limit is and give yourself a real break once you reach that limit. Once-a-week is a good starting point. So you could socialise with that English-only expat group I always warn against, as long as you limit them only to Saturday for example, and no other days under any circumstances. But ideally, I'd see if you are a 3-week person like me, or if you can handle an entire month!
Kill every single black hole of time immediately
This one isn't quite a new lesson to me, but is one I do need to improve upon and apply more universally.
I have killed major black-holes of time in the past, such as TV (I've pressed the on button on a TV remote control literally about 5 times in the entire last 12 months, despite devoting several hours a day to it when I was younger), and speaking English when you should be speaking the target language, and anything else you really shouldn't be doing, but a new one that crops up needs to be treated with equal vigilance, or every other leech you've squashed was for nothing.
One obvious one (that people have been telling me to ditch right from the start, so it hardly takes a genius to figure it out) was to not give time to the fact that “someone is wrong on the Internet“. I've grown thicker skin in the last few months from dealing with a particularly annoying wave of criticism that comes with the kind of exposure this blog gets. While the advice to ignore people who just want to argue with me is obvious, the immense stress I was (putting myself) under made it harder to follow through, and I made things worse by engaging with them without a clear head whenever I did.
While such a lesson is hardly useful to the vast majority of people, how I solved the problem is.
Many of us have a habit of wasting time on websites that really do not contribute in any positive ways to our lives. If you spend considerable time on any site on a daily basis that is not helping your life's projects, then you need to seriously consider putting a cap on it – that includes Facebook and Youtube.
One excellent way to do this for the weak willed among us, is to install a leechblocker plugin for your browser – there are various grades of them too – so you can allow yourself 10 minutes on Facebook a day to catch up with your family or update your status, but no more, and no more than 30 minutes on Youtube a week – or whatever else seems most logical to you.
If you use Firefox, install Leechblock right now and fill out the sites that are sucking away your time and either block them entirely so that you can never give in to temptation, or block them for work-periods so you can waste time on them only when you are supposed to. In Chrome, install the equally effective (and in some ways more versatile) StayFocusd, and in Safari use WasteNoTime. (If you use Internet Explorer, first download any of these three browsers by typing their name into a search engine, install the associated plugin and then uninstall Internet Explorer. 🙂 )
So I blocked all sites that I knew would drag me into endless discussions, deleted messages sent to me from people who clearly wanted to pick a fight, and made it clear that troll comments would not be approved on my Youtube channel. The second month I wasted way less time because of this. If I had done this from the start, then I'd not only have had much more hours free, but I'd have been less frustrated and distracted for when I was trying to focus.
Make important gradual and deliberate habit changes BEFORE you attempt an intensive project
Last year I was slown down immensely by health issues during the summer. Since then I've been slowly improving many things I let get away, such as by eating healthier and sleeping better. Although my time in the states knocked the healthy eating out of whack and I had to start over again in Peru.
I had been much better in Taiwan, but there was still plenty of room for improvement; in fact, enough to make me low on energy too often. I kind of had this idea that I'd just go to Taiwan and automatically eat healthier and sleep better from the start. Unfortunately, doing this and trying to take on the immense challenge of learning a new language simultaneously was a lot to juggle!
Something that Scott Young brought up when I interviewed him about his fast progress in learning French, as part of the audio for LHG+SFD1, (which I'll be updating in a couple of months with everything I've learned in the last 2 years – that will be a free update) which he himself was inspired by from the impressive and immense habits blog, Zenhabits, was of the importance of focusing on one major habit to change at a time, usually just one per month!
It's tempting to try to turn your entire life around ridiculously quickly, but this hardly ever sticks. I couldn't quite switch to my most ideal healthy way of living as quickly as I had wanted, but am on the way and will change particular habits gradually over the coming months so that I don't have to worry about them in time for my next project.
More specifically, I would eat too much heavy and unhealthy foods, especially since western-style desserts are plentiful in Taiwan, and I'd “treat myself” to Italian food a couple of times a week, despite eating with chopsticks the rest of the time. Putting on weight wasn't as much of an issue as feeling groggy after eating too much, and this slowed me down for studying over the next hours, or focusing during a conversation.
You may also remember that I joined a gym at the start of my time in Taiwan! This was fantastic, as I went to great dance lessons and got an affordable personal trainer to help me get into a good rhythm and use the equipment correctly. My only issue is that I didn't go as regularly as I should have – sometimes just once or twice a week.
When I did go, I'd feel so energised and learn much more efficiently as a result, but many days I'd say that I “don't have the time” and should focus on the language. This was a terrible idea. I'm sure you have all heard many times before about the mental capacity benefits of regular exercise. My own experience has confirmed this, so I need to exercise more regularly, even if just a little every day, not just for the long term benefits, but also for the immediate ones!
If I had been eating more healthily and working out more regularly I'd have had way more energy and be able to focus much better when studying, and not lose track of conversations so easily when trying to take part in one. Energy levels are incredibly important, (when not-so-energetic, even sitting for hours studying would get me nowhere) so trying to solve these will be a continued priority for me over the coming months. By the time I take on a fluent-in-3-months language learning project again this issue should not pose the same problems. This month I've already gotten a major start on some poor eating habits that I've had to fix for a while.
With this in mind, if you ever feel like attempting an intensive learning project like this one yourself, then you need to fix any such health problems that may otherwise leave you low on energy and start changing your habits efficiently right now, while doing it in such a way as to make the habit stick. This way, when you do attempt it, you'll be so much better prepared! Don't even think about trying for “get fluent AND get fit in 3 months”!! 🙂
For further inspiration to live a healthier life, check out my good friend Steve Kamb's blog NerdFitness. I've personally had great success from exercise and food tracking apps, especially Noom on Android (although it's expensive). Counting calories can be so time consuming, but simply tracking anything is a great psychological reinforcement to remind you of whether what you are doing is healthy or not, and I like Noom's very quick ballpark input.
To improve your sleep, consider giving siestas a try, and once again, a sleep tracking app can help you wake up at a better time to be more energetic. I was sleeping WAY better than I was last summer (I'll never again live in such a poorly lit apartment as I did in Istanbul), but still far less efficiently than I could have. On the days when I slept and ate well, I learned way more and excelled in my conversations, forgetting almost no words that I had previously learned. If most of my days were like this, the progress would have been immense in comparison!
Many other things that I did wrong
I made several other mistakes during these 3 months, but will be going into some in detail in other posts, where it's more relevant. Actually what I mentioned above really is 95% of my most important problems in this time. Any minor language related problems were only small tweaks I'd make if recommending an approach to others.
Overall, I am very happy with this time! Any mistakes I made were excellent learning opportunities for me to do it better next time, and I'm happy to share the story with the world on this blog. In fact, the video updates themselves were so essential as milestones to force me to improve that I'll probably switch to one every week next time I do this.
What I didn't do wrong
Just so we're clear, the following are a few things people suggested that I'd be regretting by the end of this experience, and I just want it to be clear that that's not the case 🙂
- Aiming for C1 was a fantastic idea.
It forced me out of my comfort zone and pressured me to go beyond what I would have done if I was simply “working hard”, since I was trying to stick to the road map that would somehow get me there. In the “Aim for the moon; even if you miss you'll still be amongst the stars!” philosophy, there is obviously no “drifting off aimlessly into space” – anything between the earth and the moon is useful, so you should aim as high as humanly possible and don't be a crybaby about “failure” on the highest target being a real option.
People really need to aim higher than they “should” – it's how great things have been achieved throughout history. Prudence has never produced greatness in the same way as taking risks has.
If I can manage to fix the major issues I mentioned in this post, I think C1 in a language from scratch may still be a possibility in this short a time, so you can bet I'll be aiming for it again in another totally unrelated language some time later 🙂
- Confidence is VERY effective.
I'll continue to encourage people to dive into their languages with the same spirit. Humility is an important personal quality, but a terrible one (in my opinion) when taking on a project that you want to get results out of quickly, as a completely positive mentality is the best way to make strides forward.
I am very humble when speaking Chinese in person and constantly apologize for how terrible it is. In fact, if someone asks me how long I've been learning Mandarin, I prefer to say “it feels like years”, to avoid compliments that I'm speaking better than I should after such a short time.
Doing anything but at least acting humble would be a huge cultural mistake, especially in China. But I will continue to start my day with an upbeat attitude, aim high and ignore advice that I see as doing nothing but slowing me down. More about why you shouldn't be “humbled” by Chinese (at least no more so than what you should be for any other language) in future posts.
I'm very glad to say that now I'm much more relaxed than I was in the last 3 months, and am finally truly enjoying the language, so all this hard work has indeed paid off 🙂 Last night I was out socialising all evening, visiting a food market, and eating dinner with some locals, [Note that such regular travel updates will be shared frequently in detail on my Facebook page] and today I shared some of the frustrations I've written about in this post, with someone in person, in Mandarin.
That's actually been one of my sources of stress – that for three entire months, I haven't been able to open up (offline) to people apart from that once-a-month English meeting. This is quickly becoming less and less true.
It feels so great to be at this level, so despite some mistakes, and despite 3 very rough months filled with frustration, some of which I now know I didn't really have to go through as badly, I am able to use the language in a truly useful way. I'll continue to improve on this, and will share videos so you can see me continue to improve, but when I hit the road (actually, train tracks) and can do what I need without any English, then it will all have been worth it!
Hopefully you liked this further glimpse into the approach I took and the major problems and lessons learned. I know there are still plenty of questions more relevant to Mandarin etc., but don't worry I'll get to them!
Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts below!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.