filed under Guest Post, Mandarin Chinese
Defining Language Hacking: Lessons Learned From Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese

This is a guest post from Olle Linge who runs an excellent blog called Hacking Chinese - Everything You Need To Know About Studying Chinese But No-One Will Tell You.

Olle’s a native Swede with a few languages under his belt (including English), with years of experience learning Mandarin Chinese and being immersed in the language in Taiwan.

He’s one of the go-to guys for anyone interested in Chinese, and for those who aren’t his blog offers some very sound advice for general language learning. Make sure to check it out. 

Enjoy!

Olle Linge Hacking Chinese

A couple of years ago, I was living in Taiwan and was seeing this girl. We spent quite a lot of time together and we spoke mostly in Chinese. One evening, we were chatting about something I’ve forgotten now, when she suddenly broke into laughter. I was perplexed, because what I had said was in no way meant to be a joke. When I learnt that she laughed at my pronunciation, I felt a bit hurt. I care a lot about pronunciation in any language. Then, when she calmed down enough to explain, she said “when you said that, you sounded just like a foreigner”.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s probably the highest praise I’ve received from anyone. It meant that overall, my pronunciation had become good enough for her not to think about it too much while we talked. Only when I slipped on a few tones did she actually think about it. Of course, I don’t mean to say that my pronunciation is perfect, I still have a lot to learn now, two years later, but I will always remember this moment fondly. It was the first time I realised that I had actually learnt how to speak Chinese. Other people might have told me that, but this reaction form this girl was completely innocent and honest. She didn’t even intend to praise me.

More Westerners start learning Chinese today than ever before and I’m sure they’d be interested in knowing how I got there and what I’ve learnt since then. I started learning Chinese in 2007, mostly as an experiment. I had been interested in Chinese martial arts and philosophy for quite some time, and when a friend told me that it was possible to study the language for one year at the university, I felt that a break in my teacher courses was warranted. A year wouldn’t matter very much and it would sure be an interesting experience.

Little did I know that the decision I made was just the first in a series of events that leaves me where I am now, four years later (whereof two were spent in Taiwan), preparing to study a master’s degree in Chinese for native speakers. It feels weird to contemplate that I didn’t even intend to learn Chinese only a few years ago! I still have a long way to go, but looking back, I realise that the road behind me isn’t just a short walk in the park either.

So why did I do it? Why did I spend thousands of hours learning a language as foreign as Chinese? Some people say they do it because it will give them good career openings, some say it’s because it’s because they want to travel in China or be able to talk with Chinese people. In a sense, I could say that these factors have influenced me as well, but I’d be lying if I said that any of them were my main motivation.

No, instead, I’ve learnt Chinese because I really enjoy it. I love studying languages and for some reason, I love Chinese more than any other language I’ve encountered. If you’ve ever felt any kind of interest towards a subject, it’s not hard to understand how someone can spend ten thousand hours over just a few years pursuing ever increasing knowledge.

It’s not a quest for an illusory goal, it’s a passion to see and hear more, to know what lies just around the corner. It’s about wild detours and exotic side quests. There might be a goal somewhere at the rainbow’s end. Perhaps, but I don’t really care. The rainbow looks pretty enough from here.

Even though I think that pleasure of some kind needs to be the cornerstone of all long-term language learning, there is of course much more to it than just frolicking in the wilderness. I’m a very analytical person and I’ve spent many, many hours studying how to study, conducting experiments and seeing how I can improve my own learning. This is also essential. There is of course some widely accepted results from research into second language acquisition, but language learning is an extremely complex process and each situation is unique. Perhaps your analysis and your experiments are only relevant to you personally, but isn’t that enough?

Olle LingeThis brings us to the topic of language hacking. Some people think the word “hacking” is out of place here, but I think it describes perfectly what I’m talking about. Hacking is about gaining knowledge that is hidden behind something, perhaps a cipher. Learning a language is much like this, it’s about breaking the code and understanding the inner workings of the language, to get to know its soul. But there is more to hacking than that. If you can’t hack something, it means that you can’t do it because it’s too boring or too difficult. If you hack a language, you make it interesting and meaningful. Perhaps it won’t be easy, but it definitely won’t be impossible!

Another key element in language hacking is listening to others. Sure, your situation might be unique and specific to you, but that doesn’t mean that what other people have discovered is useless. You don’t need to invent the wheel twice. Yes, you need to make sure that you actually need a wheel, but if that’s what you want, you should check out the designs other people have been working at. You might want to adapt to better suit your needs, but if you want to build Rome, starting out as an amphibian in the ocean simply won’t get you very far.

The most common mistake I see beginner language students make is that they only pay attention to what’s immediately in front of them. If they have a test next Friday, they focus exclusively on that. They use the method they first happen to stumble upon and then sticks to that, without even trying other methods. This is the opposite of language hacking. Since you’re reading this article, you are at least moderately interested in making your language learning more efficient, which is the first step. What next? Here is some advice:

  • Don’t just read about different methods, actually try them
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment
  • Regularly take a step back and relate what you’re doing to your long-term goals
  • If you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re doing something wrong
  • There is no substitute for investing thousands of hours

These five points all overlap and enhance each other: If you don’t read what other people have to say, you might miss some great ideas, but if you only do that, you won’t spend the hours you need. Likewise, if you don’t enjoy yourself, spending thousands of hours will be a pain. If you don’t relate your learning to an overall structure, you risk losing focus.

Next, I would like to return to the picture I used earlier with a foreign language being an exotic landscape. I didn’t write that because I like flowery metaphors, I did it deliberately and for a very serious reason. I’m convinced that in life (which includes language learning), attitude is everything. If you have the wrong attitude, the easiest task might become impossible to achieve. With the right attitude, you can reach the stars.

I think the mind of the curious explorer is the most suitable for language learning. Look at each word as a precious stone, see how it reflects the light in different angles. Enjoy it. When you encounter something you don’t understand, see the mystery as a skein of silk thread that needs to be disentangled before you can understand its intricacies.

In other words, we need to view the world with the eyes of a child, but analyse what we see with an adult brain.

You might have noticed that I haven’t said very much about learning Chinese in particular. That’s because I believe language learning is essentially the same regardless of languages. This deserves more focus that strategies only useful for that particular language. Still, I do want to provide some more advice regarding learning Chinese in particular:

Chinese is easier to hack than most other languages. Saying that Chinese is completely structured and logical would of course be a lie, but I do think that it’s easier to find patterns when studying Chinese compared to many other languages. Note that these patterns don’t have to actually mean anything, just as long as they’re helpful.

For instance, when learning characters, it’s quite easy to separate most characters into smaller component parts. You can then connect these parts with mnemonics, making it a lot easier to remember how to write that character. Note that when doing this, you’re not really after the true etymology (which usually is partly phonetic anyway), you’re after something which makes remembering easier.

Chinese also features a number of sounds that are weird to the Western ear, including a number of tones. These take a while getting used to, but I find it extremely important to not only practise the tones and the sounds, but to actually understand them. If you study in China, make sure you have someone teach you this in English. I’ve met many, many students who learnt tones entirely in Chinese and missed some important rules, especially for how tones change (tone sandhi). Of course, practising with natives is very good, but do make sure you understand what you’re doing. Tones are much more important than you might think at first. Learn them properly from the very start.

Finally, be persistent when you practise. It’s easy to believe that just because no-one corrects you, your Chinese is very good. This is probably not the case. The better your Chinese gets compared to other foreigners, the less likely people are to comment on your language skills in negative terms. They will praise you for saying “hello” with the correct tones, but they won’t tell you that actually”hello” is a bit awkward in this situation. If you want to master Chinese, you really need to realise that you have a long way to go. You also have to convince others that you enjoy having people point out your shortcomings (and you should enjoy it, too). Studying Chinese to a level where you can communicate is quite easy, but after that, complacency starts becoming a real problem.

Learning Chinese is indeed a long journey, but it’s a fascinating and worthwhile one. If you want to read more about what I’ve learnt along the way, head over to Hacking Chinese, where I’m trying to share my own thoughts with other learners in order to make the journey a little bit easier and even more enjoyable.

 

This was written by Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese.

Please do myself and Olle a favour and share this article around using the buttons below. Thanks! :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Enter your email in the 'Join the Guild' box above!

10 Responses to “Defining Language Hacking: Lessons Learned From Hacking Chinese”

  1. Great blog post! Hacking Chinese is one of my favourite blogs and there's always something interesting and useful to read. It's also always interesting to me to hear how other learners of Chinese have got to their current level and learn from their experiences.

    Olle, how would you describe your current Chinese level? You started learning Chinese a year before me and somehow it makes me to study harder when I want to reach a fellow learner's level. Just a little competition in my own head :)

  2. Olle, thanks, your blog is one of the most inspiring I know. Not only for the useful tips and tricks but also because it invites us to take a look at the big picture and apply some ideas to other fields than Chinese. I was happy to learn a bit about your personal background.

  3. Hi Sara! Thanks for your kind words. :)

    I would describe my current level as C1. I can communicate anything I like in Chinese, both spoken and written, but I still make mistakes. My pronunciation is okay, but I have some minor quirks with certain tone combinations and some words, but I'm quite sure I get it right most of the time when I concentrate. Reading is probably my strongest skill and I can read most modern material I come across without a dictionary. Listening is slightly worse, but I can still follow radio programs without too much trouble.

    I haven't taken any exams including speaking and writing, but my reading and listening are roughly at TOP level 6 and 5 respectively (approximately HSK 9 and 8). What stops me from higher scores is mostly reading speed.

    I don't think I've learnt Chinese exceptionally fast, and considering that I've spent three years of my learning time in Sweden, I think it should be possible to reach this level much more quickly than I have done. Where are you at, then? Add oil! :)

    By ollelinge on Mar 22, 2012 | Reply
  4. Hej bror! Mycket bra skrivet! Jag blir sugen på att börja lära mig kinesiska igen :)

    By Martin Linge on Mar 22, 2012 | Reply
  5. "If you study in China, make sure you have someone teach you this in English."

    Well, that's the trick, isn't it? Native Chinese teachers don't understand anything about how to teach their own language. Seen it a million times. They just teach straight from the book, like a listless foreign English teacher. Sandhi? What's that?

    Sadly, I didn't learn too much from this post other than "I sure wish I could force myself to enjoy learning Chinese as much as this guy. It's just a means to an end for me. His advice won't work for anyone but himself. Oh, and I sure wish I had ten thousand hours to spare and didn't have this silly job where I have to work all day and make money instead of lying about learning."

    By anonymous on Mar 23, 2012 | Reply
  6. I think I'm on B1 level and I've passed the new HSK 5 level that would support that thought. Even though I'm happy with my progress, I still have this feeling once in a while that I should study harder and improve faster :)

    I whish to pass new HSK6 before I graduate in the beginning of 2014, the first try could be in December this year.

    Any advice for getting from B1 to C1 is appreciated!

  7. Didn't learn anything, eh? Let me help you out:

    "If you have the wrong attitude, the easiest task might become impossible to achieve. With the right attitude, you can reach the stars."

    I wonder which camp you fall into?

    If you know anything about the foreign language blogosphere then you'll know that there are more than a couple of bloggers (Fluent in 3 Months [Fi3M] and All Japanese All The Time [AJATT] for example) who consistently rail against the myth that you're unable to learn a foreign language unless you quit your day job and go gallivanting across the world.

    My guess is your cynicism comes from numerous failed attempts to learn a foreign language. You would probably benefit from the following advice Olle also shared in his article:

    "Don’t just read about different methods, actually try them."

    Lastly, it's easy to make blanket statements about the quality of education received from your teachers. I won't deny the importance of having good teachers to help stoke the flames of passion for foreign language as well as provide a solid foundation. In my own experience I've had two separate teachers kill my passion for two separate foreign languages and it took me a couple years to fully recover.

    That being said, if you're not motivated enough to take responsibility for your own learning in the event that traditional learning methods fail you, then you need to question your reasons for learning that language in the first place. If language is just a means to an end for you then maybe you need to reassess that end as well.

    I hope that you'll re-read this article and consider taking the time you might otherwise spend writing pissed-off comments and using it to actually learn something instead.

    Mike

  8. Agreed, Mike.

    @anonymous: a normal day job shouldn't prevent you from successful language learning. I'm a bit of an extreme example but just to give you an idea of what my situation is currently like – I work 6 days a week currently with all the usual family/partner commitments, manage a deceased estate (which takes up a LOT of time), run this website, exercise and then try to have a fun social life as well. I study multiple languages daily in between all that stuff.

    I'm not trying to sound impressive saying that but just to prove the point that a normal job is no excuse. People who say they don't have time usually have time to watch TV, play video games or other wasteful activities but for some reason 'they don't have enough time for languages'.

    Also, I've got no problem with people making criticisms of someone's points but 'anonymous' attacks aren't cool. Criticize as much as you want but at least identify yourself.

    By mezzoguild on Mar 24, 2012 | Reply

Post a Comment

About The Author:

I’m an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

Like this blog?