How to learn Chinese fast: my (lazy) way

learn Chinese fast

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This article introduces my plan to learn Chinese fast, where “fast” doesn’t mean that I hope to learn how to speak Mandarin within two months. Conversely, I intend to optimizing my time and efforts to learn Chinese by only studying an hour per day.

My goal is to be able to read Chinese newspapers, understand a talk show and have a “normal speed” conversation with any Chinese person. I want to achieve this purpose within one year.

Chinese is the sixth language that I’m learning so this plan is based on my past experience.

Also, I’m a big fan of SRS (spaced repetition software). If you are just starting to study Mandarin or you never heard the word “SRS” before, you should definitely keep reading : – )

My plan to learn Chinese

Commitment

I’m a lazy pig. However when I pay for a gym I can easily motivate myself to train three times per week. So I thought that I could use the same strategy and I bought a Chinese course (Rocket Chinese).

This is also what Napoleon Hill suggests on his book Think and Grow Rich, which is probably the best book that I ever read on goal achievement.

The idea is that we will only pursue our goals if we have invested some resources on them (time, money, face and so on). For the same reason, I also decided to make a public commitment and monthly update my progresses on this website.

Immersion

I’ll watch at least two hours of Chinese television per week, hopefully a good movie. I’ll upload the lessons of my language course and some Chinese music – so far I only got a couple of albums by the Fenghuang Chuanqi – on my iPod.

I will speak with local people in Chinese even when they try to switch to English (my Chinese is bad and people often get bored). This doesn’t include working time, as I have to speak English at work.

Context

If “sugar” then “sweet.” If “fire” then “smoke.” Our brain recalls information by generating connections. This is a well-known concept among the people that study memory.

This means that when we try to memorize Chinese characters one by one, we are slowing down our learning process. We can learn much faster by studying short sentences that provide a specific context for the characters.

I’m not saying anything new. I found this concept over and over again and this is the way kids learn a language. Also, Chinese characters change their meaning according to the context.

As an example, take the characters 小 (which means “small”) and 心 (which means “heart”). If you put them together you obtain the Chinese word 小心, which means “be careful.”

This is not an exception. It’s just how Mandarin works: changing the order of the addends you’ll get a different result.

By now it should be obvious to anyone that studying the Chinese characters one by one isn’t so effective. However there are still a lot of people that choose to do so (I’ve been there too).

Memorize the most common 3,000 Chinese characters

I’ll use a free software called Anki to learn and revise Chinese characters through flashcards with a clever scheduling called SRS.

In order to exploit the “context” rule, I downloaded a deck of flashcards called Mastering Chinese Characters, which is composed of 14,000 sentences.

Smart.fm, the company that released it (you can download it for free once you installed Anki), claims that the deck contains the 98% of characters used in newspapers.

This deck mostly contains sentences so I can learn these 3,000 characters in the right context.

This should allow me to learn the WORDS used in the newspapers. Again, a Chinese word is often composed of two or three characters.

How to learn mandarinAnki’s screenshot: you can see how the flashcard for a question (on the left) and an answer (on the right) appears.

Evaluate my results

In order to achieve any long term objective, we need to set measurable short term goals. My weekly measurable goal will be to learn fifty new flashcards per day, to complete a lesson of my Chinese course and watch a Chinese movie in Chinese.

Also, I’ll try to talk in Chinese as often as I can. I may modify my goals if, after a while, I find them too easy or too difficult.

Click here to read the review of the most popular Chinese courses!

The chronicle of “my lazy way”

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Comments

  1. says

    Some great tips Furio, and as I need to get back on-board the Learning Chinese train, well timed for me to read!

    I think your goals are just ambitious enough to push you without fatiguing you. This is where I often go wrong — I tend to get really hyped about study, do it hardcore for a week or two (occasionally longer, but rarely) and then I burn out. Ultimately, as you mentioned, I too am a lazy animal and tend to return to my natural position after I’ve lost momentum.

    I’ve used Anki in the past and Smart.fm. I’m also a proponent of SRS. Am going to go download Anki again and get started myself.

    With Chinese films, do you intend to watch them with English subtitles? Chinese subtitles? No subtitles?

    • furio says

      Hey Ryan,

      thank you for your comment! Glad to see I’m not the only lazy laowai on the Middle Kingdom : – P

      My problem with “burning out” is a bit different: I usually start slowly then tend to push my limits every time to avoid getting bored. The results is that after a while the everyday task becomes to difficult and I… burn out. This is especially true for running and swimming but I know I will have to watch out also with Chinese.

      About the movies, so far I’m not very organized. I watched what I already had at home, that is “12 monkeys” in English with Chinese subtitles, “A world without thieves” and “The flowers of war” in Chinese with Chinese subtitles (but in “The flowers of war” they mostly speak English as the main character is a white devil that has no clue about Mandarin). I guess the best would be Chinese language with both Chinese and English subtitles as I’m not at all able to follow Chinese subtitles right now. I should invest some time looking for it.

      Here a link you may find interesting: http://www.laits.utexas.edu/orkelm/chinese/index.html

      The website hosts a lot of interviews with Chinese professors. You get both Chinese and English subtitles and you can even download the mp3.

  2. Jonathan says

    Very good advice! If you want listen to Chinese music maybe you like Kenji Wu. He has a western style.
    (sorry if bad English)

    • furio says

      Hey Jonathan,

      thank you for the advice, I will try to find them : )

      Right now I’m listening to 二手玫瑰, which are quite cool!

  3. Nrupesh Soni says

    Hi,

    Very good post Furio

    You might also want to check out http://www.memrise.com which offers a different perspective to learning mandarin. I am also only of those who gets into learning Chinese and then can’t continue or try a different tool every other week!

    Cheers,

    Nrupesh

    • furio says

      Hey Nrupesh,

      thank you for reading!

      I checked the website and it seems interesting as it’s based on mnemonics… Sort of implementing Remember the Hanzi’s idea with 2012 technology ; )

  4. says

    Furio,
    This is an excellent strategy for language learning. I’m thinking about posting my own goals for learning Korean on my blog. Thanks for the inspiration!
    Sarah

  5. PoChu says

    I’m so glad I happened to find your website! I’ve read many language learning sites but you have some unique strategies. Thanks so much for sharing them. I just started Mandarin 2 weeks ago and hope to achieve fluency in 2 years. However, I hope to be pretty functional in Mandarin in one year’s time. I will check back to see your progress. Wish you all the best!

  6. Cjohnson says

    This is a really nice site! I have been traveling in china for a little more than a year and I find I struggle with many of the same things you mention in your posts. Especially forcing myself to speak the language. It seems I always use English as most people here can speak a little. Also I too became frustrated after learning hundreds of words and characters I still could not understand written words. (Words change meaning when combined)

    . So your posts really addressed the issues I was having in learning the language and I felt better knowing I was not the only one struggling.

    One suggestion that I have for your readers as an alternative to Anki is Trainchinese.com. This is a great site with apps for your mobile device that allow you to study anywhere on the go with spaced repetition. You can build your own lists of words and study on your phone computer or iPad

    Thanks again for the great info and insight that you have posted!

    • says

      Hey,

      thank you for reading and commenting! I’m glad you found the article useful and I will take a look atTrain Chinese App as soon as possible : )

  7. says

    Nice read, Just passed this onto a colleague who was simply doing a
    little research on that. And actually bought me lunch since I stumbled upon it for him smile So okay rephrase
    that: Thanks for lunch!

  8. Chris says

    Hey, what you’ve done so far is inspiring. I’ve been using the same deck for a few weeks and have been happy so far. I’ve been going at the furious pace you started at, but I imagine I’ll succumb to boredom and difficulty eventually and have to scale back. Right now I’m in the middle of nowhere USA for work and I’m hoping to finish with the first 3 decks by the end of May when I move back home.

    I have one question about that deck since you’ve used it so much, what do you do with the cards that are character sound on the front? I’m getting really annoyed with distinguishing between all my shi4 cards. I was thinking about deleting them and just going with sentences both ways and written character front cards.

    • Furio says

      Hey Chris, yeah you can block the “audio cards” if you find them annoying.

      About the pace. I started with 50 new cards per day, but after two months I was spending more than an hour per day to review my deck. I then scaled down to 20 cards per day and finally to 10 per day.

      At the moment I barely add new cards as my goal for 2013 is to learn how to write the characters.

      So I’m using Skritter (www.saporedicina.com/english/skritter-review/) and I only use Anki to review my old cards.

  9. PalB says

    Hi Furio,
    You website is so timely. I have been trying to get some research done on how to start learning mandarin and become conversational by same time next year. In addition to all the invaluable tools and resources you have provided on your blog, I also came across this interesting TEDEX talk. Its called the First 20 Hours to learn something really quickly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY. I am planning on employing this discipline in combination to all that you and other readers have suggested.
    Will keep posting the progress on my blog.
    Best,
    PalB

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