Advice for those stuck Learning Chinese - Episode 167

167. A Pep Talk for Intermediate Mandarin Learners

Podcast Duration: 00:44:36

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The Mandarin Blueprint Podcast focuses primarily on The Mandarin Blueprint Method online curriculum. Creators Luke Neale & Phil Crimmins answer questions and comments, discuss topics related to China and Mandarin learning, and have special guests.

167. Feeling "Stuck" Learning Chinese? My BEST Advice For You

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0:13 Comments & Emails

Gavia by Email (PART 2)

Hi Luke & Phil,

I guess I’m getting to that intermediate plateau here, I don’t even know what to ask you… let’s see if I can clear my thoughts through writing how I feel. I’m sorry this is long again, please bear with me as I try to clear my mind:
I have been studying Chinese for almost two years and a half. It started “accidentally”, I was only going to learn a few phrases, just enough to make native speakers smile when I would travel to Beijing. (I still haven’t because of covid.) But then I just fell in love with the language and “flirted around with it” for the first year. Lots of Skritter, about 1400 characters, lots of free and paid videos online, read all Mandarin Companion books. But I was just learning ABOUT the language, not studying systematically.

After a year of doing this daily I thought that I really couldn’t justify the time I was spending on it. It didn’t make sense, I don’t need Chinese for anything in my life. But I couldn’t stop either, I liked it too much. Someone in a podcast somewhere said they considered learning a language to be like getting married: you make a commitment to spend some time daily for the rest of your life, doing something you care about, learning to know the language a bit better every day. I liked that, and realized that I had been just fooling around with this language for too long. It was time to quit or to get serious. Would I “marry” this language or not?

I did.  And as soon as I said “I do” to Chinese and decided to learn, I was lucky to find Mandarin Blueprint! I started all over from the beginning, this time with a clear goal in mind: I want to be able to speak, write, read and listen Chinese and be as comfortable as possible doing it. That’s my definition of “fluency”: enjoying communicating in a language on a level that is reasonably comfortable for me and whoever I am communicating with. 

MB is my “system” and “guide”, the course keeps me on track and I always come back to it when I frequently run through all kinds of rabbit holes like trying to listen and watch too difficult material, get lost in conversations on Hello Talk, or end up adding too many not so frequent characters on my Skritter lists that I still keep on reviewing on the side. Chinese is my 6th language and I tend to have probably TOO many ideas of my own as to what I want to do to learn a language. I have never been a classroom learner, although I´m not one of those people to just “pick up” a language either, I do need to study and I like to study, I just need to do it my own way. I am SO happy I´ve got your course to keep me on track! Above all, MB has taught me how to USE what I had learned before and of course I have many new characters and words as well. I can’t even imagine studying Chinese without you guys!

Now what….? Well, I guess you could say that my honeymoon with Chinese is over. I think that is in fact mostly a good thing. I had this mysterious motivation that I could not explain, but it was a bit too much. It actually feels very healthy now to notice that I start to pay more attention to things like eating and sleeping rather than ONLY studying Chinese in my free time. 😀 My study time is very limited, I work 60-70h per week and care for an elderly dementia patient at home at night and on weekends. There are times when learning Chinese actually should NOT be my first priority, that is just normal and good.

I am still totally committed and I keep studying daily with the clear objective of actually learning the language. I don´t even think about giving up. But somehow I have lost the spark and joy of learning lately. 

Speaking feels daunting, I have spoken a bit but it’s been long ago and every day that goes by without speaking makes it feel harder. I try to think that I will go back to drilling pronunciation, maybe it will be easier to speak again? But I don’t seem to get started with that, either. Reading… I have read all the books I have too many times but somehow feel like I don’t want to buy new ones “until I have learned some more characters”. In fact I would love to get to those 3000 as soon as possible to read stuff that is actually interesting, “real books”. But I’m only on level 47,so there is still quite a long way to go. Besides, I may be a bit “screen addicted”, I probably would need some good old fashioned reading on paper in ANY language to get back to that habit. 

Writing…. I have lost touch with the people I wrote with, although I don’t think it would be too hard to reconnect. Listening…. the most frustrating part of trying to speak is not being able to have a conversation because I don’t understand what people say to me. That´s what got me tired of trying and I “retreated” to just studying more characters. In fact I have watched a lot of series lately, way above my level, but I think my listening actually has improved. I’m just feeling too “gloomy” to notice that now. 

My hanzi movie method has also improved, it has helped that there are more characters now that are actually new to me. I think in the beginning I was relying too much on the rote memorization habits I had from that first year of learning when I still hadn’t found MB. I enjoy making my movies, but reviewing is starting to feel like “doing household chores”. I am probably very close to that point where I should start to take it easier on sentences, but I still don’t feel ready to do that either. Every so often I decide that “I will just try to learn the 3000 characters as soon as possible” but… if I start doing the math, looking at the time I have for studying every day…. it’s going to be a while before I get there. 

Then I think I’ll take it easier for a while and go back to the stuff that has been the most fun, using my skills, no matter how low level still, to communicate with Chinese people online. But somehow that feels daunting now too. It´s frustrating that I don’t have the time to do everything I would like to, to have to choose between “do I learn a few new characters today or should I go try to use and practise what I already know”? It feels frustrating that I don’t seem to be able to maintain my “language buddy” relationships. “Not being able to” means that I have no time. And no, I’m not making excuses, I still spend more time on Chinese than what is even healthy for a person working so much. I love learning, it really is the best part of my day. But sleep and food ARE necessary as well…. and I can’t do everything every day or even every week: read, write, speak, listen, learn characters, practise pronunciation…. I do SOME of everything every week, even every day (except for speaking and writing lately) but just not enough to feel that I’m advancing. 

Some people recommend all kinds of “challenges”, to concentrate on a certain aspect of learning like reading or speaking for a month, take a “sprint” in one aspect of language learning and enjoy your improvement. I have tried but it feels too “artificial”, after a while I want to do something else and just doing what I feel like doing has worked relatively well so far, as long as I have made sure that I also make progress with MB every day, even it if is just a little bit. Everything else… is just practise, a bonus, the “real world” where I can test and use what I learn in the course. Just that “the real world” is only online and is therefore quite artificial as well, my life doesn’t include Chinese language or Chinese people naturally. I need to go create that immersion environment, but it needs to be more than just some series on youtube, that is too passive. 

I try to give myself some credit, it is in fact incredible how much you CAN do with just about a 1000 well-learned characters and maybe another 500 rather passively learned characters. And I should remember that not so long ago I couldn’t understand ANYTHING. Now I can actually watch a series with just Chinese subtitles and understand what’s going on. Not everything, but if something is interesting, I keep watching and try to read even if the English subtitles aren’t there. This is CHINESE, shouldn’t I feel just completely amazed that I can do that? 
I guess the goal of those 3000 characters just feels somehow too “heavy” now. The 150+ daily reviews feel like too much. I finished my latest favorite series and don’t know what to begin to watch now. It feels hard to write back to people I haven’t been in touch with for weeks. Speaking…. horrible. Can’t pronounce those qi-ji-xi’s, not to mention try to make zh and ch sound somehow different. 

Sometimes I think maybe I should “take a vacation”, just quit learning new characters for a few weeks, only review, and meanwhile try to go “out” again to see what I can DO with what I have learned and just have fun. Not that the course isn’t fun, it IS. But I´m only at 1000 characters and maybe too focused on those 3000, thinking too much about just wanting to get “there” and forgetting how much I already have “here”.

I´m probably just a classic case of the “intermediate plateau”. There´s not even a clear question here… I just really don´t know what to do or what to focus on next. I have a MILLION ideas on how to learn and practise, always had, but I have so little time and now I feel like I’m lost on how to focus and how get over this feeling that “I just can’t do it all”. 

Luckily that mysterious motivation to keep going is still there. Even if the world looks like I might NEVER go to Beijing after all. I really don´t know WHY I´m doing this, but I guess if I just keep on learning I will find out one day why I needed to do it. 

Thank you for “listening”, reading. Any words of wisdom for me at this point? 🙂



Gavia by Email (PART 2)

Hi Luke,

A quick update on how I´m doing, no need to answer, just wanted to let you know:

My “Chinese learning depression” and sudden lack of motivation turned out to be due to a flu or something, I was getting sick. Everything feels very difficult now, but I know it’ll get better when I get better, just a bit of a cold.

I absolutely love Atomic Habits, thank you! You saying “you are an intermediate learner” really stuck. I have decided that it is definitely time to “change my identity” from a “beginner mentality” to an intermediate and an intermediate learner CAN and SHOULD do something different! This somehow makes all studying feel fresh and new, a journey to explore and see how to do this at this “next stage”.

Still not ready to give up sentences… I don’t trust my immersion enough yet, but I have switched my sentence reviewing to “listening practice”, I only listen to the sentences, it feels different and less stale – and it has made my review time almost half shorter. I also hit “very easy” much more now that I’m not trying to figure out what goes in the cloze anymore, just listening.

My chosen immersion for the time being is Chairman’s Bao, I read and listen to those stories every day now and I watch my series without English text. No, I don’t get it all, but I get lots of fun practice and the visual context keeps it comprehensible enough. I think I should still take the ratio of time between immersion and reviews more towards immersion. Little by little… It feels encouraging to notice that HSK 1-3, sometimes even HSK4 on the Chairman’s Bao feel SO easy to read, some day HSK5 and 6 will feel just as clear. It just takes some time and exposure.

I just can’t do comics and / or young adult things. I know I should, that’s where my level is, sometimes not even there yet, but it´s just not interesting enough. Every now and then I listen to Gushi FM podcasts. That’s pretty much native level, I understand many words, occasionally some sentences, I can only more or less figure out what they are talking about, MAYBE. But there is a huge “cool factor” in understanding even that much because the pace and level of the speech are native. They seem to be interesting, authentic stories that mean a lot to the people who are telling their story, I believe there is some sort of “magic” in that meaning making it more interesting and compelling.

I listen to the same story twice a three times (little by little, not all in one go, and only when I can really focus) and it’s amazing to see how things start to “take shape” little by little. But I´m still far from understanding the story really, even the third time around. I still enjoy it so I guess as long as it´s interesting, why not keep listening? It helps to have the experience of learning other languages, I remember how impossible Spanish sounded to me many years ago, but it didn’t take that long and it feels so clear and easy now, no matter what’s the age of the speaker or their accent. I think that experience helps me to “tolerate ambiguity” and not understanding everything, I like to just listen and focus on “let’s see what I CAN understand” and just let the rest of it be. If I just notice what I DO understand the rest of the puzzle WILL fall into its place sooner or later, I KNOW that. But I know this is way above my level so I try not to overdo it and keep easier things in the mix as well. 

I’m thinking I’m getting to a point where LingQ might be useful for reading, I took a look at it some time even before I found MB, but my level was not high enough at the time to find it interesting.

Still taking a break from trying to write or speak, HelloTalk is there when I want to go back. Not now.
Stil slowly reading through Refold. Interesting and very much matches my previous language learning experience.

Very much looking forward to the MB Immersion course! And also Phil’s favorite teacher teaching us about characters IN CHINESE, that sounds like the BEST kind of immersion, interesting and fun!

Thank you for taking the time to give me that “pep talk”, just wanted to let you know that your advice IS taking my learning to that “next level”!



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21 December, 2021