Chinese language study 2021

What does it mean to learn a language?

I've been trying to learn Chinese for about seven and a half years now. I've tried a number of things: Pimsleur, Popup Chinese, Duolingo, trainchinese, watching TV shows and trying to translate them, old school flashcards on actual index cards, and sitting at the bar and writing characters over and over.

(The last one seems weird, but for two years I was traveling to California for two weeks every four weeks for work, and a man needs to pass the time with his drink somehow.)

So let's start this like a guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) problem, like when you need to point your spacecraft at something. You need, essentially, two things: (1) your current state (where you are, where you're pointing, how fast you're moving, how fast you're rotating); and (2) your desired state (where to point, when to point there, and how steady to hold that pointing). From that, you just have to figure out how to go from (1) to (2).

It's almost too easy.

Except that Chinese is a miserably difficult language to learn. The whole framework of the thing is designed to prevent people from understanding it.

But I want to become fluent—most usefully in terms of conversation, but personally in terms of reading and writing—so the misery is just a stage in the journey.
Learning Chinese includes these aspects:

  1. Listening (it's a tonal language, so words with the same sound but different tones—up, down, down-up, high, neutral—mean different things)
  2. Speaking
  3. Reading
  4. Composing (writing, but with all the work to turn thoughts into words, sentences, etc)
  5. Handwriting

Where am I on each of these?

  1. Listening: 2/5
  2. Speaking: 2/5
  3. Reading: 2/5
  4. Composing: 1/5
  5. Handwriting: 3/5

Chinese characters are the easiest part for me. It matches up really well with my ability to remember spatial patterns. Listening and speaking are hard—listening more so than speaking because it's hard to follow people with different accents, and tones are hard (for me) to detect, and some sounds sound the same to me. Composing is miserable—I can't imagine writing an interesting paragraph in Chinese, nothing more complicated than simple declarative sentences about what I want to do or who I am.

In short, I'm reasonably good at the parts that are least necessary, and worst at the parts I want to do best. Hi ho.


About that GNC problem: you need to know where you are, where you want to be, and (3) have a means to get there.

Listening can be improved through watching TV with captions to assist (Chinese captions, not English captions). Once you get better you can listen to more difficult shows, or listen to things that don't have captions or are audio-only. Speaking can't be faked or worked around. Besides, the point of speaking is to speak to—with—other people. The rest? The rest can be done alone.

That seems to be the most natural split: (1) with others; and (2) without.

Without includes: listening and translating; reading and translating; handwriting; learning vocabulary; learning grammar rules and nuances and so on.

With includes: having a conversation; writing with feedback.

The ratio or with:without should probably about 1:1 or so, based on nothing more than wanting to preserve the importance of feedback and a simple ratio.


I don't think the method to get to fluency is that important, other than giving priority to having conversations with other people. I think it's like dieting or exercising—there's always some other tip or trick or method or pill or whatever. You can really waste your time trying to optimize things that don't matter. You can't optimize anything until you understand enough about it to be able to tell what variables to optimize, and then tell what what is optimal against those variables.

Pick something that seems reasonably useful. Cut it down into a small enough chunk so that you can finish it in a few weeks or so. Finish, then adjust.

There's no such thing as optimal anyway. There are things that get the job done, and things that don't.


I've bought a few books about learning Chinese over the years. I've read none of them. I've collected sites that teach Chinese courses. I've finished none of them. My focus has been like a squirrel running from tree to tree, bush to bush. Finishing the Duolingo Chinese course was more about finishing something than the content itself. Finishing something can become a habit, just as much as learning, just as much as knowing.
So: which way do we go? I'll pick one with, and one without.

  • Without: I'm going to work through one of these books I have. Let's start with Fundamental Spoken Chinese (Amazon), which I bought seven years ago or so, but never finished.
  • With: Time to break out Zhongwensday. What? It's a portmanteau: Zhongwen (the Chinese name for the Chinese language) and Wednesday. ) The basic idea is: I will record myself speaking and get some feedback. It sounds horrible. I don't want to. I think it will be useful. I don't think it will necessarily be public—maybe just with some friends on WeChat.

Goals for this year: Goal 2021-06 is to get up to HSK Level 4. I'll do that in the second half of the year, and HSK Level 3 in the first half of the year. So, some time will have to be set aside to make sure I know enough to get that right.

I ought to regularly update /language/chinese. There are some useful and interesting resources out there that I can collect and display.

I don't believe in apps as a way to learn anything in a deep way. Duolingo is nice, but it's candy. I just downloaded Drops today, and it also looks like candy. And there are some others out there. I think they're useful for filling in 5 or 10 minutes here or there, but not as methods on their own.

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