Reflections on learning Mandarin Chinese since 2017 🀄️


From being limited to 'ni hao' in Shanghai, 2017... to 4500 words, fluent conversations, and new horizons.

Why Mandarin?

Over the last decade, I've been increasingly exposed to Mandarin. I heard it spoken everyday around Vancouver, BC for the six years I lived there, and as a developer, I increasingly found forum posts with mixed English/Chinese responses when trawling through search engines for answers.

The language, the culture.. it all felt more and more relevant.

And then as part of a broader trip to Asia in 2017, a few days in Shanghai sealed the deal for me. Completely unlike my experience in North American cities.

On the recommendation of a friend, I enrolled in a beginner Mandarin class at the local community center after getting back to give it a whirl.

I had no idea what was in store. Or that I potentially signed myself up for a new life-long interest/commitment.

What I did early on

Starting out, I was all over the place. I:

The works. I tried to emulate immersion without even being in Asia by raw exposure.

I think the sheer amount of time I spent doing all of the above helped train my ear around the phonetics so that I could at least parse the sentences that I would hear, even if I didn't know the individual words, so that I could use a dictionary to do lookups. I would pick up incredibly common phrases and cultural phenomenons. But outside of that, most of these methods were not suitable to a high-rate of learning. I was putting the cart before the horse.

Altogether, the above helped me get to HSK 2/3 (500-1000 words) over 12 months with an average of 3-4 hours a week of engaging with some combination of the above. Not terrible, but could've been better.

The (long) road to intermediate, or HSK 4/5/6

Going to China

I was barely conversationally fluent by the time I went to China at the end of 2018. But those two months in Xiamen 厦门 forced me get comfortable talking to people. I made friends by hanging at the local cafes, and just walking around. Met some truly wonderful people.

One of the biggest surprises was how I had to use Mandarin for 99% of conversations. Even during a brief stint in Beijing, English was not nearly as common as I had expected (which, as a learner, I was happy about!).

Anyway, while that trip didn't put me in advanced territory I did get unstuck and gain confidence.

The expert-beginner chasm

From 2019-2020, I barely made progress. While I gained confidence in my ability to speak and listen and use Mandarin, the next steps didn't feel obvious. I think the root of it was not having a strong 'why' for learning Mandarin. Particularly as the world locked down, travel seemed distant and I had lost the motivation as I focused on other things. I generally ran in circles continuing to occasionally engage with activities from the aforementioned list.

Zooming out to reign in progress

At the beginning of 2021, I recentered myself and realized that I wanted to take my learning more seriously. I adopted the One Big Thing framework, and chose this as my OBT for the year.

I knew that the first thing I had to do was to zoom out and think about what was the most useful for my learning trajectory, what could be dropped, and what could be added. I used the first 1-2 months of the year doing meta analysis (while continuing to use a new spaced-repetition vocabulary learning app that I liked, hackchinese, so I wasn't stalled).

It became obvious that my main bottleneck was my vocabulary. At that point, I had nearly 1000 words marked as learned on hackchinese. I knew that I wanted to drastically increase that number, 4-5x it at least. Grammar wasn't holding me back, my listening ability wasn't holding me back, I wasn't as fluent as I wanted to be simply because I needed to reach for a dictionary every other word I'd encounter.

Additionally, I realized that I couldn't run away from learning chinese characters any longer. It was going to make learning easier with time if I created associations with characters in order to see them repeated in new words.

As well, nothing I was doing at that moment helped me practice speaking. So, the next thing was to start taking classes again. Luckily, my same teacher was offering one-on-ones remotely (and I was referred to another fantastic teacher at this time).

For the next 6 months, I had three classes a week (4 hours of instructions per week) between both teachers. Tons of homework. hackchinese sessions nearly every day. I was learning fast (20+ words per day fast).

Overall, I spent around 6-8 hours per week on this smaller, curated list of activities.

A screenshot from my hackchinese dashboard from April 2021.

By September 2021, my vocabulary was at around 3000. But I was feeling overwhelmed. I had been accruing more responsibilities at work, and wasn't finding enough time for other interests. So I scaled down to one class at 90 minutes a week, and this is ultimately what became sustainable for me.

I ended the year with over 4000 words learned, which felt amazing.

What I would've done differently

By far, the most impactful portion of my learning experience was the two months in China. Our ability as humans to adapt to change is remarkable. Each day presented different challenges, but being open to them was both necessary and incredibly rewarding in order to form bonds with the people I crossed paths with there while speaking in their language.

The 2nd most impactful activity has been the weekly one-on-one classes. You not only get to practice listening and speaking, but you also have someone holding you accountable to progress.

The 3rd would be my switch to focusing on vocab acquisition on hackchinese.

Everything else was much less impactful or necessary. As much as I enjoy watching Chinese dramas or YouTube videos, they didn't speed up the rate of learning early on. They only started to feel much better at the 2000-3000 word mark. Unless a particular activity speaks to you and is part of your 'why' then you shouldn't feel like it's needed in order to be fluent.

After this whole experience, I would not opt into learning another language remotely again unless I was already somewhat comfortable with it or knew that it would overlap with one of my current spoken languages.

It requires a lot of discipline to learn new words every day in a language with written and phonetical systems that are completely unrelated to your native ones, particularly without living where it's spoken.

While this is rewarding and does provide transferable metalearning skills, unless you have a strong reason to learn a language like this (career, partner, cultural interests, friends), consider carefully!

Last Updated: Wed Sept 16 2022

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