Best Learning Habits for Mandarin

Best Learning Habits for Mandarin Chinese

Build & Maintain Strong Learning Habits

Even if you are legendary enough to follow every piece of Mandarin Blueprint’s advice perfectly, you can still have trouble with consistency. We all do. The best way to guarantee consistency long-term is to build a series of learning habits.

Then, make these habits so ingrained that it feels strange (and even uncomfortable) when you don’t do them. For a long time, Phil and I were both somewhat apprehensive about preaching consistency due to our perceived advantages over the average learner. After all, we were both unmarried with no kids, dogs, or mortgages, and living in China when we started learning Mandarin. 

However, after we began interacting with more clients of all ages and living situations, we discovered an interesting trend that caused a change in our perspective. Any guesses which of our clients excelled at our program the most? 

Full-time workers with kids, dogs, and mortgages. Still to this day, our most successful case studies are people who appear to have the least amount of spare time, and the most responsibilities.

The reason they do so well is that they know how to build strong learning habits to make better use of the limited spare time they have available. Creating habits is easy if you follow the habit-building cycle, which consists of four stages. Let’s break these down one by one and apply them to language learning.

Stage 1: Cue

The cue is the sensory trigger that begins an action. It can be the ‘ding’ sound that causes you to check your Facebook, or it can be a trigger for something more constructive. Below are what we know to be “the four great triggers”: 

1) Location

Best Learning Habits for Chinese

Focusing on Mandarin in the same spot every day can help to create a neural reaction to the location, so where you choose to study is very important. When selecting your regular study spot, ask yourself these questions: 

What can you do to increase the likelihood of starting to interact with Mandarin when you arrive there in your study location? Can you rearrange the room to increase your chances of starting? 

Can you clean things up to make the space more inviting? If you ever find the room is starting to become stale, it is reasonable to try a separate spot to spice things up a bit. Your environment can even trigger correct answers for flashcards you review regularly in the same place, so changing your location can also take away those invisible training wheels. I learned this cool little tidbit from this course on learning and the brain.

2) Reactions

Take the time to observe your environment and see what things might distract you and remove them. Turning off your phone and computer notifications is a great start. Set a timer for a period where there is no chance you will be distracted by a buzzing or ringing phone. Timeboxing is an excellent way of handling this. 

Pro-tip: The night before, open Anki on your computer and open it to the first card you want to start studying. The next day when you power on your machine, start studying immediately without being distracted by email, YouTube, messages, etc.

3) Time

What time of day are you most likely to want to do a focused study session? Perhaps you could set the alarm to start then? It is also advisable to get the biggest jobs done first, which is usually making and reviewing flashcards. 

What time of day are you most likely not to want to concentrate? Could you prepare a Chinese dub of your favorite movie from Childhood to watch at that time? How about having a meal with a Chinese friend?

4) How You Feel

What could you do to increase the likelihood of interacting with Chinese when you are in a great mood? A bad mood? A focused mood? An indifferent mood? All of these moods will require the use of language if anyone else is around. Determine the medium you can interact with that engenders the least resistance in different emotional contexts. 

Stage 2: Routine

Best Learning Habits for Chinese

An easy way to start building a habit is to attach the new desirable behavior to a previously created routine. Below are some essential points to consider if you want to achieve this: 

1) One new learning habit at a time

We are capable of creating new learning habits, but it is not reasonable to expect to make several changes all at once. “The small game” is either a good habit you want to create or a bad habit you want to delete. “The big game” is sticking to your series of small games over many years. If you suddenly try to drop all your bad habits and replace them with more than one healthy practice, long-term success becomes unlikely. 

2) Focus on “starting”

Merely starting an activity is an achievable goal that you can complete with minimal effort and say, “I did it.” Just commit one minute to a task, no matter what it is. Anybody in any mood can do one minute of Mandarin learning. 99% of the time, this one minute will turn into many more. 

3) Piggyback on other habits

Attach a new learning habit to something you are already doing in your daily routine. To do this, complete the phrase “After I (do some everyday activity), I (start doing some activity) for __ minutes.” Update this regularly.

4) Start slow on new habits

Invest only 15-20 minutes per day into any new habits and settle into your routine. Spread out your learning activities throughout the day, instead of trying to get everything done in one go. Do this for 30 days, and try not to add anything else. Whenever you add a new activity to your daily learning routine, do it for 30 days before adding another one. Do that all year you have 12 new habits.

5) Never have a zero-day!

You must maintain forward momentum. If you get to the end of a busy day and you realize you haven’t done anything to improve your Mandarin, just do one of something. “Just do one” is your new mantra. Just one character, reviewing just one flashcard, reading just one page, or even just one sentence. This concept of “just one” will keep you moving towards your goals every single day, no matter what is going on in your life. 

Stage 3: Reward

Rewarding yourself for reaching study goals makes your relaxation time feel earned. It can take around 30 days to form a new habit. Would you prefer those 30 days to go by with you being a tyrant towards yourself or a benevolent and fair judge that rewards success? Here’s how to reward your behaviors for effective habit-building:

1) Make a reward list

Write down what you like to do that falls into the category of fun/leisure before anything else. These should vary in ‘size’ to suit the ‘size’ of your goals. For example, for finishing your goals that day, you could reward yourself with thirty minutes of your favorite computer game or TV show. If you achieve something much bigger, like fifty sessions with an online Mandarin tutor, then perhaps a nice meal or spa day is in order.

2) Gamble (legally!)

Create some healthy competition with friends by making bets on what you will achieve and when. Whoever wins gets a reward agreed on beforehand by the group. If you don’t have any friends learning Chinese with you, make the bet with yourself.

3) Reward study streaks

Study streaks offer significant dopamine rushes. Keep a record of your streaks for any resource you are using to acquire Mandarin. You can do this using a pen and paper or utilize an app with a built-in study streak function. Give yourself increasing rewards for longer and longer study streaks.

Stage 4: Craving

Craving is the final step of the habit-building cycle. A craving is that empty feeling you get when you haven’t performed a habitual action for too long. This craving is what keeps the cycle going, and really is the lynchpin of your habit-building process. Here’s how you can cultivate a craving for learning Mandarin Chinese:

1) Have learning habits that you know work

If you know that every minute of your life spent with a resource will undoubtedly lead to results in both the short-term and long-term, wouldn’t you be jumping out of bed to get a hold of the phone in the morning? Listen to how Julian Laffey describes this feeling in our interview with him. 

2) Avoid negativity

If you find yourself in conversation with others who imply that you can’t succeed, do not engage, and avoid them entirely if possible. Their negativity either comes from ignorance, bitterness, fear, or some combination of the three. You may be surprised to learn that the most cynical and discouraging people out there are other language learners!

3) Identify your keystone habits

Best Learning Habits for Mandarin Chinese

Keystone habits are those habits that, when broken, tend to break other habits. On the other hand, they also have the power to maintain many different practices as long as you keep up with them. Exercise is a common keystone habit. Don’t exercise regularly? Perhaps that should be the first habit you build… 

4) Use an app

Use a habit tracking app to monitor your progress and build momentum. Some great apps are Habitica, Stickk, or Beeminder.

5) Know that learning habits is powerful

While seemingly negligible in their day-to-day effects, learning habits cause you to develop incredible skills over time. Remember that the price of not developing effective habits is losing a brighter future that could have been, and missing a chance to be of real value to the people around you. The reward for building positive learning habits? How about the realization that you are far more powerful than you thought, and possibly making the world a better place.