Learning How to Learn Chinese

Learning How to Learn.

I’ve been doing a wonderful course entitled , ‘Learning How to Learn – Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects’ by by Dr. Terrence Sejnowski and Dr. Barbara Oakley.  The course is a MOOC (massive open online course) offered by coursera.  I’ve never done one of these courses but I’ve been massively impressed by this one.  The course is free unless you want to pay to have it validated that the work is all your own.  The teaching is via video with the recommendation that you read Barbara’s new book: Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).  The course is assessed via online quizzes and assignments that are peer-marked. This is surprisingly useful because you get to see the thoughts and insights of fellow students.   Whilst Barbara’s book is aimed at maths students, the information is valid for any learning and it has inspired me to have a go at learning Chinese again.  This blog post is my final assignment for the course – a round up of some of the concepts studied on the course and applied to learning a language – Chinese (mandarin).

Learning How to Learn Chinese

We are going to look at the latest insights from neurology to find out how best to learn a new language: states of mind, tackling procrastination, memorable memories, chunking, active recall and spaced repetition, and we’ll look the common mistakes we make in learning new material.

How NOT to learn.

Let us first look at the mistakes students commonly make in learning.  I’m not judging here – I’ve made all these mistakes myself!  So we’re going to look at the foibles of:

  • re-reading
  • highlighting
  • over-learning
  • Einstellung (how what we think we know blocks new learning)
  • procrastination
  • not taking breaks or setting a finish time.


The latest research shows that the best way to learn is via active recall.  After reading a section of text put your book down and try to recall as much as you can.  Karpicke and Blunt showed that mini-tests provided better recall and comprehension than not only re-reading but also elaborative techniques such as concept mapping or mind-maps.  While this research was in science study I think it is as valid for language study if not more so.  Re-reading French verb conjugations again and again is not an effective learning strategy and it might just drive you crazy!


Closely related to re-reading, the technique of highlighting words, sentences and paragraphs gives us the illusion that we understand and can recall the text.  We might call this an illusion of competence – as proven by Karpicke.


It’s easy when we are learning new things to get stuck on hammering away at material we have actually already learned.  Somehow it is harder to move on to newer material which is cognitively more challenging.  Instead we should actively pursue ‘deliberate practice’ and seek to learn new material as soon as we have learned what we are currently studying.  Focusing on our weak links makes our practice more effective.


Another block to learning is called Einstellung – the process where we fixate on an old idea which blocks a new idea forming:

The Einstellung effect occurs when the first idea that comes to mind,  triggered by familiar features of a problem, prevents a better solution being found. It has been shown to affect both people facing novel problems and experts within their field of expertise. We show that it works by influencing mechanisms that determine what information is attended to. Having found one solution, expert chess players reported that they were looking for a better one. But their eye movements showed that they continued to look at features of the problem related to the solution they had already thought of. The mechanism which allows the first schema activated by familiar aspects of a problem to control the subsequent direction of attention may contribute to a wide range of biases both in everyday and expert thought – from confirmation bias in hypothesis testing to the tendency of scientists to ignore results that do not fit their favoured theories. – Bilalić, M., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (in press). Why good thoughts block better ones: The mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect. Cognition.

To avoid the Einstellung effect it is vital to intersperse short ‘focused’ learning periods with relaxed times which allow the brain to enter a more ‘diffuse’ mode of consciousness in which the brain can globally process what you are learning and come up with more creative connections and associations.


We are procrastinating when we delay our learning.  A little learning on a daily basis allows us to build strong neural networks.  It is like building a wall brick by brick.  If we haven’t laid the bottom bricks well then the whole wall might collapse under the weight of bricks added later.  If a student crams information in a few short weeks before an exam it is unlikely that they will remember what they have learned in the long term.  It takes time and repetition to move material from working memory to long term memory.  In this regard a spaced repetition program is vital – especially for language learning – and we will come back to this later.

So how do we overcome procrastination?  It is normal to feel uncomfortable when we sit down to learn.  Turning away from learning, like to social media, makes us feel better in the sort term but makes matters worse in the long term.  When we know that it is normal to feel uncomfortable, and that this sensation quickly goes as we settle in to our learning session, then we can talk ourselves through it.  It can help to use the pomodoro technique: Set a timer for a short period of time; say 25 minutes.  Concentrate intensely until the alarm goes and then have a rest and a treat.  A cup of tea, a walk around the garden or a run.  Focused sessions followed by diffuse, relaxed thinking allows for the formation of greater nets of neural connection.  Having a treat stimulates dopamine release, giving a sense of reward.  Learning is more rewarding and easier to do again.

Not taking breaks or setting a finish time.

Research shows that we learn better when we divide our learning into focused, intent study sessions.  Our working memory has 4 things it can concentrate on at once.  It is important to avoid distractions like the phone, social media, web browsing and so on.  Set aside a period of time to work on, then take a break, as described above.  The diffuse mode of thought allows broader neural connections through the brain.  We learn deeper and have more creative use of what we have learned.  This is really important in science and creative arts where we are trying to come up with new ideas and connections.

Steps to learning Chinese.

We will look at:

  • chunking – listening, pronunciation, words, grammar.
  • memorable memories
  • spaced repetition – active recall spaced over time


We learn best when we learn chunks of related material.  Think of a jigsaw puzzle.  Small chunks of the total picture slot together to from the whole.  A language is made up of a series of inter-related chunks.  Learning Chinese needs different classes of chunks.  While the thought of learning the whole language can seem daunting, breaking it down into small, easily learned chunks, makes it a lot more accessible.  In his book, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget it, Gabriel Wyner, gives a fantastic guide to breaking down the steps to learning a language, any language!  And this meta guide to language learning is nothing like the way we learnt language in school – which is great because that didn’t work so well for me.  Wyner is an opera singer who needed to quickly learn several languages for his work, and on the way developed language learning as an addictive hobby.  Infused with the latest thinking in neurology and the cognitive sciences and the latest web based technology for rapid learning, Wyner makes it possible to learn a language with just a short daily time commitment (Wyner learnt languages on his daily subway commute).  Examples of the chunks delineated by Wyner are:

  • Learn the correct pronunciation of the language.  This starts with learning to hear your target language. If you are learning English, can you hear the very subtle difference between niece and knees?
  • Vocab and grammar aquisition (no English allowed) – eg with Anki which allows for spaced reptition, added media and sounds (pronunciation), Chinese character input, etc.
  • Listening, writing and reading work – eg reading Chinese comics, Chinese medical texts, watching Chinese films, and so on.
  • Speech practice.

There are obviously other ways of chunking the ordering of a language.  For example Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months, recommends jumping straight into speech – for example to native speakers via Skype with italki.com.

Chunking is a bottom-up learning process and it is good to get a top down, aerial view as well.  Read around your language’s culture, art, history to get a bigger context.

Another important chunk is learning the Chinese characters.  I highly recommend doing this initially as a seperate chunk using the method in Remembering Traditional Hanzi: How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters Bk. 1.  Using an innovative method of making the characters memorable makes this a great method.  There is also a version for the modern Chinese characters, but for Chinese medical practitioners and acupuncturists I would recommend learning the traditional characters first.

Memorable memories.

If you can make what you are learning memorable it is much easier to remember in the long term.  It can be hard to remember the word cat if we just alternate the English word with the Chinese word endlessly in our heads.  However, if we link the Chinese word to the image of a cuddly cat, or our own cat, it will be far more memorable.  It has been proven that we have fantastic visual and spatial memories and making use of this makes learning much easier.  The online flashcard system allows you to add images to your cards.  Gabriel Wyner recommends searching for pictures with Google images by searching for the word you want to remember; using the word in its own language to get culturally specific images.

Spaced repetition.

If we are learning a language we want to be able to recall it forever.  But how do we do this?  If you recall, earlier we discussed that active recall works better for learning than re-reading.  For long-term memory it has been shown that the best time to recall something is the moment we are about to forget it.  Flashcard systems like Anki employ a sophisticated algorithm that plays the cards back to us on a time line that will get the information to stick in our heads.  With a new card you will be asked to look, and recall it, several times a day, to daily ,to a few days, weeks, years.  All you have to do is log in and revise (recall) the cards it show you on the day.  How smart is that?  If you are of an artistic nature you can add your own images.  Research shows that writing something gets it into our memories better than typing.  It may be best to use software based methods like Anki together with writing and drawing physically on cards.





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