Just Don’t Over-Do It!
Studying Chinese learning theory helps you notice vital aspects of the spoken language around you, and that is the key, the noticing.
Noticing a principle is not the same as consciously trying to apply it. If you succeed in noticing a 1st tone, you have taken a step towards producing a 1st tone naturally & sub-consciously. Just like learning a grammar rule doesn’t make you able to use it, neither does learning a pronunciation principle help you articulate the sound. What it does help you with is noticing it in native speakers. The result? Naturally wanting to drill the sound. In other words, don’t force yourself to produce, encourage yourself to notice. Producing follows instinctually from noticing.
See your goal with learning pronunciation theory as improving your ability to notice, not to produce. The desire to produce sounds comes naturally from numerous instances of noticing the habits of native speakers.
Learning Theory is About the Long Game
Studying theory isn’t always immediately useful. It’s not as if you read something about how a particular sound in Chinese is pronounced, shout “Eureka!” and your pronunciation improves. This joyful phenomenon sometimes happens, but not very often.
Learning theory in the bridge between awareness of what you know & don’t know. The process of learning nearly anything is as follows:
- Not knowing what you don’t know
- Knowing what you don’t know
- Focusing your attention on what you don’t know
Before you learn the theory about how to say something, you have no idea where to direct your attention. After the comprehending a theory, you haven’t acquired the knowledge yet, but geez at least you have a clue what to do.
5% of Your Time for Big Results
Spend as much time on Chinese learning theory as it takes for you to be able to recognize it while immersing yourself. Spend 5% of your time (tops) on approach & planning, and 95% on listening & practicing. Spending 5% of your time on Chinese learning theory will improve how efficient your practice is. However, don’t fool yourself into thinking it is a replacement for practice.
A great example of a theory that is worth learning (if you haven’t already) is called “Tone Change Rules.” It gives you the theory on when certain familiar characters and tones change based on context. It’s an excellent theoretical rule to learn, but after you learn it, you now can notice it for the rest of your time studying Chinese. In terms of time, by the end, it will be something like 99.9% noticing and 0.1% Chinese learning theory.
To recap, focus the majority of your attention on immersion, noticing and real practice, but remember that spending a little bit of time on theory can go a long way toward channeling your unconscious mind.