Language learning burn out and rethinking your learning strategy

December 24, 2012

It’s been almost 2 months since I decided to take learning Chinese seriously. I’ve spent atleast an hour a day learning Chinese, and most days I do more, by watching films, listening to podcasts etc.. I’ve spent a significant amount of that time using Skritter, which has vastly improved my reading and writing of single characters and words. At the beginning I was doing about an hour a day and averaged about 5 hours a week. That’s been significantly scaled down now as I feel my understanding of the characters I know have dropped significantly (per character/word) and I need to spend more time actually using them. I was recently accepted into the Lower Intermediate course at SOAS university, so my short term study goals are going to be aimed at getting prepared for that. It uses the Chinese in Steps textbooks and I’ve bought the previous book to do some revision for when it starts.

Recently I’ve been finding that I’ve been burning out. There’s been some personal issues as well, but mostly I feel it’s been the lack of variety in my studies. I do watch a lot of Chinese related movies and videos, but I find that the more complicated ones I seem to switch off and read the subtitles as it’s pretty difficult and it’s also a welcome break from work and studying Chinese. So my Chinese studies mainly consist of revising flash cards and talking to my private tutor. I talked to quite a few people on one week and I felt that really did help my confidence and my fluency, so I feel I need to integrate a more varied study plan. The flash cards were good at the beginning as there were a lot of words I knew how to say and also use, but I didn’t know how to read or write them, but now I’m learning words I’ve never learnt before at all, so I need to learn them more fluently, before moving on to learn new words as I’ll never use them proper. I’ll only know how to read them when I see the characters or know how to say them if I’m specifically trying to translate (which could take a long time!).

I think this is a type of burn out - I’m not bored of Chinese, but I’m seeing a lack of progress and have hit a ‘flat’ in the learning process where I can’t see the progress so clearly. I feel this is because my learning process needs to change now that I know a good number of words and I can take on a more varied learning approach. Learning only characters and words was fine when I was a false beginner (I’ve spoken some Chinese for a number of years), with an understanding of basic grammar and sentence patterns, but now that I’m moving to the lower intermediate bracket, I’ll need practise fluency a lot more as there are a ton more varied verbs and nouns that I should be able to recall very quickly when I’m talking about that topic.

So my study plan was: Skritter 60%, private tutor 20%, podcasts 20%. But I want to change to something closer to Skritter (SRS) 20%, private tutor 20%, chatting to natives 30%, watching dramas 10% (with intent to learn), podcasts 20%. With also some Chinese films thrown in there, but I won’t count that as serious study time as I can’t really understand more than 30% of the words being said and it’s really not enough to learn by context. However I’ve found recently with watching dramas, I can understand A LOT more than films, especially school life dramas as it’s mostly everyday language, which is what you learn at the beginning of any language. I can probably understand about 50% of the words being said and that allows me to pinpoint which words I didn’t know and match that to the subtitles. I think a slightly higher recognition of about 70% would be optimum for learning new words, but it’s much more interesting (albeit a little on the cringey love side) than just listening to podcasts of pretty isolated situations (chinesepod) or creating your own sentences from vocab (also isolated and largely irrelevant). Learning in a more progressive environment where you learn the characters personalities, you can start to understand more about the context of words in a more broad manner. Many people talk about using words in context, as in to create a sentence out of a word so you know how to use that word, but I feel a more interesting way (possibly slower?) is to learn how people use certain sentences in certain situations, and in these cheesy Taiwanese dramas, those situations turn up time and time again, so you can begin to recognise patterns with the same words. It might be a little slower, but I feel it’s a better way to attain fluency, with the repetition, and my aim is greater fluency, not to be able to increase the amount of Chinese words I know.

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Distilling the complicated into the simple. And sometimes general wonderings. Follow me on twitter