One Month Chinese Language Challenge

In my post One Week Digital Detox Reflection, I mentioned the possibility of doing a language-learning related challenge.

As I am sure most of you who have read my posts are aware by now, I am not great at doing things in moderation. If I exercise, I push myself very hard; if I meditate, I do it for an hour; if I want to cut down on something, I quit it completely; if I study something, I spend hours per day studying; if I want to take photos, I focus intensely on it; if I use my phone and social media, I often get carried away and use them too much. Of course, I am capable of doing things in moderation, it just takes much more willpower and has a higher chance of failure than doing things to the extreme. Knowing this about myself, I often like to do personal ‘challenges.’

These challenges are useful for me in several ways. While it may seem pointless to do something like an extreme digital detox for only one week, at the end of that week, because I got used to little stimulation and limited social contact, the result was that it became easier for me to moderate my phone and technology usage. Basically, even though my challenges are usually short-term, they can serve as a calibration period and help me to balance things in my life. Besides this, they also often allow me to learn a lot in a short period of time.

When it comes to language learning, people say that frequency is more important than intensity, and I would agree with this. If I study 30 minutes per day for 540 days, my language ability will most likely be much higher than if I studied 3 hours per day for 90 days, even though the total time spent would be the same. This is because our minds have limits on how much information we can retain in a short period of time. Intense study can result in learning very quickly, if done right, but often leads to burnout regardless.

When I started learning Vietnamese, I studied for 2-3 hours per day for several months, and progressed quickly. When I was studying Tagalog, I audited several classes at the same time to expose me to as much language as possible. However, after I burnt out or lost my initial spike of energy, I quickly forgot a lot of what I had learned – I’m sure this is something many/most people can relate to. I suspect that if I was somehow able to get myself to study a little bit every day for a long period of time, my ability in these languages would be much higher than it is now, even if I had spent the same total number of hours.

When it comes to Chinese learning, I was blessed with the opportunity to learn both intensively and over the long-term. I say “blessed” now because I have already reached an advanced level in Chinese, and that way of learning was very effective, but at the time it was pure suffering. Studying Chinese (or any language) for 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 64 weeks results in a level of mental exhaustion most people will never experience and cannot possibly imagine.

My struggle now is that although I live in Taiwan and use Chinese every day, I have a hard time finding motivation to actually “study” Chinese or even to spend my free time watching/reading Chinese language content, limiting my learning to whatever comes up in everyday conversations with people. Even though I know I would like to spend more time doing these things, it’s hard to make myself do them, and even harder to do them consistently – this is what leads me to think that this is an appropriate time to take it to the extreme and try to make it into a challenge.

My idea for this challenge is to limit myself to only Chinese-language TV, movies, music, books, etc. for a whole month, with a few exceptions.

The rules will be as follows:

  • Anything watched on TV or Netflix must be Mandarin or Taiwanese language
  • Any reading for pleasure can only be in Chinese (exception: language-learning books/PDFs that include English portions)
  • Any videos I watch on YouTube can only be in Mandarin/Taiwanese, but exception can be made for educational videos (e.g. a video for learning Taiwanese that includes English)
  • Internet searches should be done in Chinese
  • If I play any single-player video games, I will change the language to Chinese (if possible)
  • I can read/watch things in English if I’m at work and/or it is necessary for work
  • I can continue listening to my Pimsleur Japanese audio files because I don’t want to disrupt that learning process

The main reason for doing this is that I’m curious to see if watching only Chinese-language content for a month will have a noticeable impact on my language learning. Theoretically it seems like it should have a major impact, but I guess it would depend how much time I actually spend watching TV or reading over the next month. If I watch TV for 10 minutes per day, it would likely have little/no impact, but if I spend 2-3 hours per day watching Netflix and/or reading, it would probably be a different story. Considering I often like to watch Netflix while I’m eating dinner, and sometimes turn it on for background noise when I’m in my room, I’m likely to have at least 2 hours of additional passive exposure per day. I also usually spend at least 5 hours per week reading and studying at cafes, so if that is limited to Chinese, it would also add up.

The reason for me rarely watching any Chinese-language series/movies or reading Chinese books is that I often feel lazy or unmotivated and decide I’d rather just give myself a break and allow myself to watch something in English. Making Chinese-language the only option seems like a good way to force consistency, since my options are basically Chinese or nothing. I also need to remember that it’s ok to not understand things – sometimes I tire myself out by focusing too hard on what people are saying rather than just getting the main idea and enjoying the story, which I’m sure would make it much more enjoyable.

Another factor in this equation is that I use Chinese every day and the language is relevant and useful in my life, so any amount of studying and exposure is considerably more efficient than it would be if I was still in the US. If something is relevant and useful, it is easy to remember. I wrote about this in my post Language Learning. It feels like such a waste that I have not spent much time studying and exposing myself to additional Chinese language sources, since I know that my current vocabulary retention rate is quite high. It feels similar to if I was playing a game and got a 1-hour double XP bonus, but then decided to just log out and not use it. At least in this situation my XP bonus lasts as long as I stay in Taiwan, but I already didn’t take advantage for 1.5 years!

Wish me luck!

6 replies to “One Month Chinese Language Challenge

  1. Good luck Barton. This is quite an intensive task. Well done.

    What’s the name of this post’s font? I like it.

    1. I tried to check what the font is called, but I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere on the editing page. I believe I just used whatever the default font is!

  2. Hi, I think your Chinese is very good. When you can communicate with other people in Chinese like you do now, forcing yourself to follow some disciplines a very natural way to learn. When you feel tired or get bored, you will not want to continue anymore.

    Perhaps you can choose a subject you are interested, and then try to find anything–video, articles related to it, and see if this can raise your motivation, making you want to understand how you can address this topic/area in Chinese.

    From my experience, I feel my knowledge about English increases a lot after I start to use it in real-life situation (verbal or written communication to native speakers) and also to expose myself in lots of materials like TV late shows, cooking competitions, house renovation, any programs with real people talking in real life, not fictional dramas because the dialogues are imagined by writers. I think now you need to find something that surprises you and makes you want to know more. Hope you can reach your goal and find the “spark” that can raise your learning motivation. Good luck!

    1. Those are good ideas! I have tried that a little bit before, but I never went very deep into studying that topic. I have a few photography and spirituality related books in Chinese, but I didn’t finish reading them all haha. I think learning more photography vocabulary in Chinese would be particularly useful though, since I have met many people through photography in Taiwan and always have trouble talking about more technical aspects of taking photos.

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