189. An Enlightening Progress Update from an MB Member

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189. An Enlightening Progress Update from an MB Member

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Gavia by Email

Hi Luke & Phil,

I´m proud to report that I just finished the Upper Intermediate Course!

As I click open the 高级课程 I can´t help asking myself: “Advanced?! Really? Me?”

I do NOT feel like an advanced Chinese learner. The more I advance the better I see how the REAL fun in Chinese learning will start AFTER those first 3000+ characters. There will just be a new BEGINNING at the end of this Advanced Course, a real chance to get to an advanced level some day. That said, I´m definitely NOT a beginner anymore either.

As I look back to last December and that “pep talk” that I got from you 10 months ago when I was feeling lost and stuck and buried in flashcard overwhelm somewhere in the second half of the intermediate course, I can see that what has changed the most is my attitude and immersion habits. And that changes everything: Attitude. Immersion. Habits.


After Habit Building Boot Camp in February I started tracking my habits, like 10 of them at the same time…. yeah, going overboard just is my thing…. but the only one that I really started building a streak on was New Characters. I soon found a pace of minimum one, minimum average of 21 per week = 3 per day ,and there have been very few zero days since and never twice in a row. I have recently added an “average 6 per day” goal that is not a must but something to aim at and its working very well.

Knowing my “cruising speed” and what is realistic in my day to day, week to week life has allowed me to do the math: at this speed I will finish the characters by the end of June which is my three year MB anniversary, even allowing for life to “happen” along the way, that is, even if I may not be able to maintain this speed ALL the time. This keeps me motivated to protect my streak on all levels, minimum and that goal I aim at. I don´t quite get to average six, but that´s ok.

It also helped enormously to have a few weeks’ media fast. I have that strong existing habit of staring at my phone especially when I feel too tired to do anything else… so when I was not allowed to click on ANY media where would I go? To MB and new characters! I´m back to limited media consumption now, but the habit of learning new characters on my phone, not just at home with the computer has stayed with me. With the added bonus that it makes me MUCH happier than endless doom scrolling!

In September I had a much needed 10 day vacation and I actually quit learning new characters, but switched my habits to more listening because my “vacation mode” allowed for more of that and I just did NOT want to do (new) flashcards. This extended to the whole month of September when work was busy. But I was reviewing and I was listening more and in the night of September 30th to of October 1st at 00:03 I quickly went back to learn ONE new character in the first minutes of October, just to make sure that I would get back to my habit as planned. Now I’m even proud to look at the one month break in the streak because it was CONTROLLED, it was a DECISION that I had taken. However, there WAS a moment when I did feel like “do I really want to go back…. is it necessary to learn Chinese….?” and I don´t think I will take such “zero” breaks in the future, much better to keep things to a minimum and still go on.

The Character habit has done much more than develop my “cruising speed” on characters, it may have even built MY character…. It has helped me to stay on track, constantly, control my tendency to jump around looking for new fun things, learning methods, content… I still do that, but now there is something constant that keeps me on track and I am starting to see that staying on track is FUN, too. There will be much MORE fun coming up in the future through these characters that I´m learning now. Thank you Phil, you can´t even IMAGINE how much the “make your bed, grow the hell up” newsletter and podcast resonated with me!


Your main advice for me last December was “less sentences, more immersion”.

Since my biggest hurdle to spoken communication is not understanding what I hear I started listening much more and more seriously. I listened to lot of things, soon getting bored, quickly looking for the next shiny thing, podcast, youtube channel, series…. as always. I cannot deal with graded content, no matter how good it is supposed to be for me, I just get BORED.

So I have ended up developing my own hack for “creating” comprehensible and interesting content through what I call “approaching things through meaning” and “listening on different levels” or “make it easy for yourself to win”. That´s actually nothing new, it´s all there in the Language Learning Legends course, especially in the Ethan Puzarne full interview, but somehow it all really clicked for me in the past six months so that it feels like my OWN method, something that is right for me, right now.

I can listen to native material now. No problem. No, of course I don´t understand all of it, but I´m understanding more and more and my most familiar native podcast starts to feel EASY, even when I´m listening to it for the first time around. I got here in…. about 6-7 months, starting from a level of having finished the intermediate course and not understanding much of anything of a native podcast at that time. Now I do. And I did NOT use graded material at all to get here. It did not take THAT much time either, about half an hour of focused listening a day maybe, sometimes less, a bit more of “background listening” without much focus.

No, it´s not like I can now understand just any native material or watch series without subtitles and get everything. I´m not there yet. BUT I know now HOW I can work up to this kind of level on other native material WITHOUT having to use any graded material that just bores me. And I know now HOW to do it with JUST listening, no text or subtitles – which is my check for “this counts as something REAL and is therefore worth listening to”.

So here is “my” method of “levels of listening” to all too difficult material. I´m being a “comprehensible input” heretic here and jumping directly into the deep end of native things I don´t understand:

Gavia´s “listening levels” – or how to get a win in listening comprehension when you actually don´t understand much at all…

I´m just defining things for myself here to make sure I keep doing it and maybe it´s helpful for others, too. This is for PURE listening, podcasts in my case, no visuals or text involved. To do it I need to be switching between the levels according to my mood or the content and how it feels “easy enough” and like I´m “winning” and don´t get bored when repeating things, even when it´s in fact all too hard:

1.Guess what´s going on here?

Great for far too difficult material. Don´t even try to understand anything more than looking for hints of what they are talking ABOUT.

All you got that this week’s podcast guest was a botanist and they talked about plants and trees? It´s a win! If you heard the words “north” and “south” and guessed it was about where certain plants grow, hey you are a pro! Next week it’s someone who had lived for a long time in Africa but you didn´t understand enough to even know why or if she liked it there or not? No problem, this still counts as a win! Another day you only got three names of different countries and guessed that this was about international matters? Win again!

2. Just get reps

A totally opposite approach, but also great for too difficult material or when you are listening without being able to focus completely because you are doing something else. Don´t even try to understand, just listen ONLY for words or parts of sentences that are OBVIOUS to you.

All you get is that 但是,对对对,现在, 对我来说, 基本上, 过程当中。。。or whatever it was you understood, even if you know NOTHING about what they are talking about. No problem, still a win, you are at the gym, just getting in those reps on the words that you do get, over and over again and growing your Chinese muscles. Reps on the tones, reps on words, reps on how they are used in a sentence – NO it does NOT matter that you don´t understand the sentence, your unconscious mind is still working on that. ONE DAY when you will start speaking that WILL come to you automatically because you did your reps, no need to think about anything, worry about anything, understand anything. You are getting reps, reps, reps, so you are winning. Winning is never boring!

3. Approaching things through MEANING:

Find out first what’s really going on, then listen for MORE MEANING

For me, this is the key to the “approaching things through meaning” technique and the key to success in “making” too difficult material gradually easier.

It´s really just a bit more advanced version of “guess what´s going on” : you find out FIRST what things are about (take the episode description and run it through a translation software, try to read some of it in Chinese with the translation and get even vaguely familiar with the pinyin for possible keywords), then go listen KNOWING what they are talking about and see how much more MEANING you can get out of it.

Yes, I said MEANING, not words. Do not try to understand the Chinese as words or sentences, just something about what it all MEANS. Only try to get something, a little bit MORE on what they are talking about through focusing on what you already know. So this week the interview is with an author who published a new book… what else can I understand here? How much about this could I tell about this in English if someone asked? I know he was asked about how his writing process is, why he became a writer, how he finds inspiration and does his fact checking. No, I could not tell much at all about those answers, but listening to them sort of helped me understand the question, so I must have understood something even if I can´t really summarise it. In any case, I got much more out of this and about what was going on. A win, again!

Finding out first what is going on can make surprisingly hard material MUCH easier. Not to FULLY understand it, don´t even try, but to get more out of it on a level of being able to tell in English what was talked about. To see how I´m doing I’m constantly asking myself “how much about this could I summarise in English to someone if I needed to”? What would be the right QUESTIONS to ask about this if I was making a list of listening comprehension questions for a test here? (I have never designed those tests but I sure TOOK a LOT of them back in my school days studying English).

4. “Building the puzzle”:

Find out first what´s really going on, then listen for MORE WORDS

This comes after the previous step, maybe after a few rounds of that on the same material. Again, don´t try to understand the whole thing, but you now know more about what is going on. Focus on that and see if you can now find words related to that meaning. Just words, parts of sentences. You need to do this REPEATING the same material you have listened to before on those previous “levels”. Words that you have studied will magically start appearing there, I promise you. Things you KNEW but didn´t get before because it was too fast or accented, but now are all of a sudden totally clear. How could I NOT get that before? I KNOW that word, it´s like a foundation course thing! A nice win, AGAIN.

And then you listen again… and again…. and again…. switching between this and the previous level or any other level. Yes, listen to the SAME thing, but it is NOT boring, because the THRILL of understanding balances out the fact that you are repeating the same thing. It´s a puzzle that is being assembled, it just starts to appear in front of your eyes – well, ears in this case – and all of a sudden, just like that: YOU UNDERSTAND NATIVE CHINESE! Not everything, but maybe 98% of the meaning. You will miss details and words, lots of them, but if you were to tell someone what is going on, you CAN do it.

Luke, your “depth not breadth” podcast on shadowing is SO valuable! I don´t do much shadowing now, but I use that on listening now, going really deep on the same stuff – and mixing with something new all the time as well to keep that boredom away at the same time.

5. Just listen to the sounds

Great for times when you can´t focus fully or are tired. Forget understanding, just listen for HOW they say the few things you understand. I also call this “building my accent & speed module”. It´s like getting reps on the fact that sometimes – all the time…. – they say things SO fast or with such a weird accent that it would be impossible to get the first time. I don´t really know how to describe this better, but I think of it as training my unconscious mind to “directly transform” the little knowledge I have of standard Mandarin to be automatically applicable to this particular accent and speed, sort of “transform” (not translate) that speed and accent into standard Mandarin on the go, automatically.

I don´t try to consciously think “they don´t really make the difference between -n & -ng endings or they pronounce this or that vowel a bit differently. I might never be able to analyse like that. But I know that is what is happening in my brain.

6. Shadow words and sentences based only on sound – stepping stone to speaking

When whatever material is easy enough it starts feeling boring, UNLESS I switch focus again, now thinking “could I say this myself”? So I’ll start trying. Just very lightly shadowing, saying out loud parts of sentences, separate words, not in any formal way. No need to try to think or understand, by now I understand anyway, this is relatively easy even if I don´t get every word… and you don´t need to understand ANYTHING to imitate a sound, do you?

7. Quit listening, just understand

This is hard to describe, I´m not quite there yet…. it only happens when I´m NOT focusing on the language at all really. Sometimes when I´m driving, sometimes when I´m cleaning or cooking and just sort of half listening. All of a sudden I notice that it feels like any other language that I do understand. Generally I get so surprised that I start focusing and immediately fall off that state of mind and can´t get back through “making” myself listen that way. Sometimes it happens even with the very tough Beijing accent podcast I listen to every now and then. It’s cool, it´s very elusive, but it gives me hope that it WILL be just the NORMAL state of things – and that may be sooner than I think!

Switching between “listening modes”

The trick for me has been to make it easy by limiting my focus to just one specific level, one of the above, at any given time. Forgetting trying to understand, just focusing on that one aspect that I was aiming at. Keeping the listening “intervals” short enough to get repetition and being able to maintain engagement, I mostly listen for 10 minutes and the repeat the same 10 minutes, at least three times over, sometimes more – especially after I listened to Luke’s depth not breath podcast on shadowing. there is a magic to that!

Switching between those different “levels” of focus feels like…. it’s a bit like those 3D images that look like some uniform mess without any particular image but when you relax your eyes and look at them in a certain way you start to see a 3D images floating over them. It may be a bit hard to maintain at first, but then you get the trick and are soon able to do it and somehow even see and focus on both, the “background mess” AND the image at the same time. I couldn´t really explain HOW that is done either, but I´m observing something similar going on in my mind as I try to observe how listening on each level feels and then I practise consciously switching between them until they are all clear at the same time. Or something. I don´t know. But I understand native speed Chinese now. Kind of. Much better than I used to at least.

Whatever is going on… I believe it is MUCH faster and powerful than what it would be for me to try to work through easier content. With easy content my mind doesn´t let go, if there’s a word I don´t understand, it´s a word I don´t understand and I feel frustrated. With the much too difficult material everything is SO complicated that the ONLY solution is to just let go of trying to understand and that gets me…. to understanding, little by little.

I think it helps me enormously to have that VIVID memory of the time when Spanish sounded JUST as impossible to understand. Having learned to listen and understand multiple accents in English and Spanish (it´s been DECADES of using those languages and living in Spain) probably does help with my Chinese listening even if the languages as such have nothing in common.

That´s why I don´t necessarily recommend going through this “listen to too hard material ONLY” path for someone who is working on their very first foreign language. BUT I am convinced that the process of understanding is universal, meaning comes first, THEN the words and it´s got nothing to do with any talent I might have, just a BELIEF that comes from having been through the process before, a trust in the system. And I do think that everyone should do some of “too hard” listening every now and then and just practise letting go of the need to understand. You will never understand everything, you just get USED to not understanding everything. When you get better that you don´t even notice that there is always something you miss. I believe in comprehensible input, I really do. But I also believe that we need to train for reality as well.


I can hear that my language partner now sometimes speaks to me as if he had forgotten that I am not Chinese. No, my level is nowhere NEAR that. But he is starting to feel comfortable enough to do that, it´s really nice! Most of those times I don´t understand and need to say so, but it still feels cool to hear that change in his attitude. Obviously that happens because I now understand MUCH better what he is saying in general. Generally he is still adjusting his speed and vocabulary to my level, though.

I still can’t follow series based on listening only and subtitles distract me. I either watch first reading English subtitles and then try to read Chinese and/or only listen – or I don´t watch series at all. Only listening, mostly podcasts is just my thing now. It has felt weird to notice that after a few months of native podcasts those standard putonghua series start to sound so amazingly SLOW AND CLEAR! Even if I don´t get everything the speed and general pronunciation sounds like a piece of cake compared to the hardest podcasts. At some point I can just come back to those series and understand them. Not yet. But maybe next year.

Real conversations with anyone else than my language partner are still a pain, but I can see now how that WILL get easier as my understanding improves.


Clicking on that 高级课程comes with a feeling of responsibility. I WANT to be advanced now! I have my cruising speed set for the characters and I WILL be literate in Chinese with my 3000+ characters by next summer. I´m practising speaking EVERY week. I WANT to understand what Chinese people say to me, so I keep listening. I AM someone who will soon be able to have a conversation in Chinese. Not in some imaginary “I could do this” world, but in the real world, relatively soon.

Since I know how much the character habit helped me I have now started seriously tracking focused listening (minimum 10min, aim at 30min), shadowing (minimum 5min aim at 10-15min) and reading (not very good at that, time is limited). I have decided to take Phil’s advice and grow the hell up. There can be a lot of growing up to do still even at 50 years old. Forget chasing the shiny things and switching what I´m doing and looking for new people to talk to or learn with. Quit fussing about whether my language buddy is who I thought he was or something different or if we agree on some of the issues we talk about or not. He is PERFECT for language learning, that´s enough. And it´s quite enough to speak with one person for now, that´s a start.

This is just what I do now. Characters, listen, shadow, read a bit, speak a little every week. Forget thinking about when I will arrive (where?), forget how I want to study, forget if I am learning as much or as fast as I would like to or not. JUST DO MY REPS. Like a grown up person would.

As a prize I get that weekly conversation with my language partner who is just perfect as he is. I am linguistically in LOVE. (Just for the sake of the language, nothing inappropriate going on here! 🙂 ) I don´t know HOW he has managed to create that environment of total safety where it doesn´t matter how badly I pronounce or how ridiculous mistakes I make, it is all about aiming to communicate and trying to understand the other person, that´s all that matters. Even on the days when I feel like I can’t say ANYTHING in Chinese and I´m trying to finish the call after speaking Spanish only and teaching him, he somehow always manages to get half an hour of Chinese out of me, every time. The most amazing thing is that speaking with him just feels EASY and natural. I don´t memorize or study or review what I learn with him, but those weekly “reps” on the feeling of “it´s just easy, natural and relaxing to speak Chinese with a friend” is just priceless. That´s what I hope to build my “Chinese identity” on!

He adjusts his words and speech to what he knows I can understand. Often there are moments when I pronounce so badly that he can´t understand me and that just turns into a warm and loud laugh when he finally gets what I was trying to say. He´ll pronounce it correctly a few times and makes sure I repeat it back to him more or less correctly a few times before we go on. Every now and then he will patiently drill tones with me over and over no matter how boring it must be for him. Other than that he just lets me speak and occasionally suggests better ways of saying things, again asking me to repeat a few times over before going on.

He never lets me off the hook when he asks 你明白了吗? If there´s any doubt in my voice when I claim to have understood he will hear that and then wants me to try to tell him in my own words in Chinese what I had understood or translate it into Spanish for him – if I can´t do it he´ll repeat again and again in Chinese, more slowly and clearly or say it in a more simple way until I do understand. He knows what kind of words or phrases I will want to have in writing and sends them to me without me even asking now. And even if we hardly talk about anything very personal or controversial there is a real feeling of “you can say anything, ask anything, any time”. He calls every single Sunday like a clock and we never even needed to agree to do so, it just started to happen because it works well for both of us.

If you had asked me a year and a half ago how I would describe a perfect language buddy I could not have imagined him, he is better than I would have known to ask for. Just like you guys are and the MB course is! I wanted to learn Chinese but I never wanted to go to class. I wanted to have fun with the language, not stress about it. With MB, Hello Talk and this language partner that I found there…. I have it all. I´m really enjoying my journey, it feels incredible and I´m very grateful for it all!

Keep on doing what you are doing, it really helps us all learn Chinese!

Gavia Arctica


Christopher by Email

Hi Luke,

I need some advice with regards to how to regain balance and paying the correct amount of attention to each area. I am struggling with recall and in recent months I seem to be having more problems with my pronunciation as the number of characters I learn increases. I also still have grammar errors regarding HSK 2/ 3 level stuff which seems to have been forgotten over time. Fixing this and foundational pronunciation is a priority as it is really holding me back from being understood when out in the wild in China. I know I need to focus on the basics for the rest of this year while also keeping up with my flashcard reviews. What’s the best way in your opinion to fix some of these? Also are there any tips I could give my own teacher with regards to fixing these.

I am midway through the Upper Intermediate Course and have studied nearly all of the sentence flashcards for the Intermediate sentences too. All of these were started again in Traverse so I didn’t have to keep going between Traverse and Anki.

In addition I have weekly conversations with a tutor involving some free talk, and loosely following the Boya Chinese Quasi Intermediate 1 book. As my follow up from this I do the book exercises, sentences with new words from class conversations and correct any sentences or written character errors which my tutor kindly marks outside of class.

I am also living in China be it working at an English school so I am often talked to in broken English and am often slowing my own brain down to understand what my students are saying as they are very much in my shoes but learning my language.

I feel like I am doing enough work, but I am forgetting a lot or encountering other problems too.

In recent months I have noticed decreases in my pronunciation and a disconnect between what I want to say and what come out. The amount of flashcards are also going up but I try my best not to exceed the 300-400 daily reviews (hanzi and sentences) unless it is catchup. I only use flashcards for MB as creating other flashcards would definitely lead to overkill at this point.

My listening has improved this year, but my attention continues to be terrible, but this applies to my English too!

Any tips or advice on how to try and balance this out over a week? Say 2 to 3 hours a day?

I also seem to have a real mental block with wanting to immerse in Mandarin content as well as losing sight of why I am learning it in the first place. Obviously the majority of Chinese people want to use me to practice their English and still can’t understand me when I am speaking which has really affected my willingness to even try and speak outside of the classroom with my tutor. However I am always complimented for my characters though my writing of paragraphs and thinking in Mandarin seems to have decreased these days. I seem to also be losing my why in why I am learning Mandarin and am even wondering whether to call it a day at the end of this year and focus on a new challenge or project. Especially when the country and society looks like it will continue to have some rough times in the years ahead. Is it worth perservering or is it actually a good idea to take a break?

Perhaps the answers already lie in your courses I have consumed already, but much like some of my Chinese I forget where it may be contained.😂

Hopefully you and the family are well. Thanks for reading this long e-mail.

Kind regards,


Hi Luke,

Thanks for the response.

So my meaning is that as I learn more and more characters, I have a larger database of characters in my brain so there will be more conflicts when I recall. For example like if you are searching for one file amongst 10000. However I might recall that something is third tone, but I say it as fourth.

It also happens with listening because my vocabulary has become larger. For instance, yesterday my tutor was trying to say 区别, but in my head I hear 出 instead of 区.

I still have issues with 车 and 吃. Pronouncing jv as just.

I actually have purchased the Hacking Chinese personal feedback program for more detailed feedback too but self study using this material still hasn’t helped and has even embedded some mistakes despite very good feedback and analysis from Olle. However I am a person with very poor hand eye coordination and quite clumsy so this could be a personal processing problem. I sometimes have hearing difficulty in English too.

Yes you can use my emails or situations in the podcast. I am likely not alone, and the advice given can help others!

Kind regards,


Hi Luke,

Here’s a screenshot to evidence I am back using the Mandarin Masterclass.

After your response last week, I have found some motivation again. Your emails and loom responses are definitely helpful.

Over the previous few days I increased my character flashcards to complete my 2000th character, and get those upper intermediate flashcards into my Traverse reviews as I had seen a lot of the final characters before in other contexts.

I have taken the next week off of work and my weekly Chinese classes, in which I have recently finished the textbook too, so going forward I can ask to concentrate on slightly different things in my classes.

Rather than travelling too much during this week, I am going to use it to restart my Mandarin Immersion habit and reinforce my self discipline by reading Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday and I have just finished reading Willpower by Roy F Baumeister.

Until January 2023, I won’t add any character flashcards for now unless they come up during the immersion content to get used and let the 2000 characters consolidate, make links to each other as well as strengthening my vocabulary with those characters. In January 2023, I will go back to completing at least a level a month/ 10 characters a day.

Thanks again, and have a great Monday.



Kelli by Community

Cai. This pronunciation has been giving me a hard time for months. Natives point out my struggle with it and I seem to have regular disputes with my husband over it. He claims that he hears me say the zai pronunciation when I mean cai. Discussion over 煮菜and 住在 is what most recently brought up the issue. I’ve been trying to find where this is addressed in the Pronunciation Mastery Course but I can’t seem to find anything. HELP!


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