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I’m 26   New window
Date: Tuesday, 19 Aug 2014 19:40

Today is my twenty-sixth birthday. Continuing tradition, I’m going to write an article reviewing what I’ve done in the past year, and share my thoughts and plans for the year ahead. If you’re new here, or simply don’t care for this self-indulgence, feel free to skip this post. I promise I’ll be back to writing about learning and getting more from life next week.

My Year (Almost) Without English

Obviously the most important feature of my twenty-fifth trip around the sun was that I spoke very little English during that time.

I had hoped I could look back and say it was truly a year without speaking any English, but neither Vat nor I were perfect upholding that rule in Asia. I’ll be sharing the ups and downs of that in a lot more detail in a later post, but suffice to say switching languages four times and nearly completely avoiding English was a defining feature of this year.

A couple people have asked whether I’ll continue the language learning, taking on new countries and languages, all through immersion. Although it might disappoint some people, the answer is probably not.

From the beginning, both Vat and I understood this year of travel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not how either of us planned to live our lives perpetually. I have incredible admiration for people like Benny Lewis or Matt Kepnes, who can do the travel lifestyle continuously, but I’m not one of them.

Maintaining my (now 5) languages is a considerable amount of short-term work and a non-trivial amount of long-term work. Even if I wanted to keep learning languages at this pace, I doubt I could do so without sacrificing some of the ones I had learned earlier in the trip.

Second, although I’d be quite happy with all of my languages I’ve learned if I never improved any of them further, I’d like to continue to get more depth. Particularly with Chinese, as I feel there is still so much to learn about Chinese culture and language that I wasn’t able to scratch in our brief stay.

This year will end with me returning to the English-speaking world, wanderlust temporarily quenched and hopefully a bit wiser from my travels.

Rethinking My Focus

I’m proud of the projects I’ve done, and I feel they accomplished their purpose both personally and publicly. Personally, because I learned things I care about and taught myself more about learning itself, my major goal. Publicly, because I think they work as a good starting point of discussion about learning. No small amount of you have found my blog because of either the MIT Challenge or this language project, and I’m happy the project has encouraged other people to learn more.

However, the one-year-project strategy also has some drawbacks.

For one, by its nature, it tends to focus on quick bursts rather than slow mastery, a philosophical stance I’m uncomfortable suggesting. Learning something quickly isn’t as important as learning it deeply, and by hopping around to different subjects quickly I may be able to say something interesting about how to learn efficiently, but I may also be sending the wrong message about mastery and the patient devotion to a subject.

Privately, I feel mastery is incredibly important. If it isn’t obvious to the casual reader, my true focus is not computer science or languages per se, but learning how learning works. Understanding that has always been my primary goal, and experiencing it firsthand has been the laboratory for exploring those ideas. Often those same ideas feed back into my knowledge of learning itself. In China I was exposed to a different culture of learning than we experience in the West. In the MIT Challenge, I studied information theory and artificial intelligence, each important for learning theory.

However, I’m leaning more towards pursuing the study of learning itself more directly. Either through grad school or another self-education project like the MIT Challenge. My personal experience has been incredibly grounding, but it would be great to build that off a deeper theoretical foundation.

I also worry a little that I’ll brand myself too much as the guy who does one-year learning projects. Branding can help, but it also boxes you into a narrower set of expectations for your work, sometimes in a way that works against the quality of that work.

Future Plans

As my career and trajectory have stabilized somewhat, I’m also more eager to think in terms of 5-10 year goals instead of my more common 1-2 year projects. Certain aspects of my work can only really be pursued with such a long-term mindset, and although it sacrifices flexibility, such a sacrifice is acceptable if I’m reasonably confident I won’t need to pivot midway. Having written pretty much full-time about learning for the last four years, I’m now more confident in goals that may take a decade or more to accomplish.

What’s next? I’ve been giving serious thoughts to grad school, studying something related to learning. Part of me worries that my academic background may be insufficient to make the crossover. My undergrad is in business, and while I had good grades, I didn’t attend an Ivy-league school either. I’ve always preferred goals that don’t require permission from one or two people to be successful, and academic admissions are the antithesis of that. However, I’ve overcome far greater obstacles and odds already, so I think this will end up being more about forming the right strategy.

I’ve also wanted to get into writing real, dead-tree books. I originally intended to write a book related to the MIT Challenge, but as the project was wrapping up, I felt there wasn’t much I wanted to say I hadn’t already said better in a blog article. Similarly, this project Vat and I decided to tell the story through videos, which I think is a better format than trying to author a book about it.

These two goals may not be incompatible, and if I do end up pursuing an advanced degree in learning, it might be best to wait until I can comment more authoritatively on the science as well.

I also want to improve my courses and the outcome for the students who take them. A lot of online education is nascent and the technology is still far from being fully utilized. Why don’t products collect data on student outcomes instead of relying on testimonials and case studies? For courses which sell with limited capacity, why don’t we track admissions versus waiting list candidates as a control group to distinguish results?

I think a data-driven, scientific process for delivering outcomes is the future. It’s much, much harder to do, but I’m trying to inch towards it in the products that I offer, hopefully resulting in better, more consistent outcomes for the people who buy my courses.

Work and Life

In the short-term, however, I’m also planning to use the upcoming year to work on some personal goals that I won’t be writing about on the blog. Taking a year to shift my focus away from mega-projects will be nice to work on fitness, relationships, friendships and learning things that don’t line up nicely for a blog article. Building this career has been an obsession for me, so I need to occasionally remind myself that there’s more to life than just work.

I’d love to do some light continued language learning, take another MIT class or two to brush up on some of my computer science concepts, or even just get back into the habit of reading a lot of books. Focus, determination and even obsession are critical for success. Yet, stillness has its own virtue and that balance is critical for life.

As always, I’ll try to share what I find with you along the way.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 01:28

I just finished one of the best books I’ve read on the science of learning. Daniel Willingham is a Harvard educated cognitive scientist who writes books and articles about how to learn and teach better.

The title of his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, is a tad unfortunate, I think, because the book isn’t really about bored students. Instead, the book is divided into principles of learning. In order to make the cut, these principles needed to fulfill a strict set of scientific criteria:

  1. Robust scientific support. In Willingham’s words, “Each principle is based on a great deal of data, not only one or two studies. If any of these principles is wrong, something close to it is right.”
  2. Doesn’t depend on circumstances. These are facts about how human brains learn, so they don’t change whether you’re learning Spanish or mathematics.
  3. Ignoring it would be costly. Using the principles versus not using them showed a big difference in results. The principles aren’t just theoretical concerns but practically significant.
  4. Suggests non-obvious applications. The final criteria was that the implications of the principle should suggest new ways of teaching and learning.

The book is excellent, and I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself as Willingham explains many of the details and implications of each of these principles. I wanted to discuss each principle briefly, to share the implications it has for learning better.

Side note: The book lists nine principles, but two were more related to teaching, so I omitted them here.

1. Factual knowledge precedes skill.

Einstein was wrong. Knowledge is more important than imagination, because knowledge is what allows us to imagine. There is considerable research showing the importance of background knowledge to how well we learn. Without background knowledge, the kinds of insights Einstein praised are impossible.

Careful studies show that having more background knowledge on a topic means we can read faster, understand more when we do and remember more of it later. This means knowledge is exponential growth, with past knowledge becoming a crucial factor in the speed at which more knowledge is acquired.

This means that you cannot teach someone “how” to think, without first teaching them a considerable amount of “what” to think. Thinking well first requires knowing a lot of stuff, and there’s no way around it.

2. Memory is the residue of thought.

You remember what you think about. Whatever aspect of what you’re learning your mind dwells on, will be the part that it is likely to be retained. If you, inadvertently, spend your studying time thinking about the wrong aspects of your studies you won’t remember much of use.

The problem with this principle is that knowing about it is not enough. We can’t constantly self-monitor our own cognition, noticing what we’re noticing. So even if you try to pay attention to the right things, it can be easy to accidentally focus on less important details which will take precedence in memory.

This is a reason why highlighting is often a lousy tactic. When you highlight, you’re not focusing on underlying meaning, but observing bolded words or particularly emphasized sentences. So you don’t remember much.

I recommend tactics like paraphrasing with sparse notes while reading, the Feynman technique or taking pauses during a reading session to quickly recap what you just read. These are orienting tasks that encourage you to spend more time thinking about underlying meaning, which is almost always what you want to be learning.

This also shows one of the weaknesses I’ve seen in students who misuse analogies. If the analogy you make causes you to think about a surface detail of a concept, and not the underlying structure, you’ll only remember surface details on the test. A metaphor for voltage that uses volcanoes because they both start with “V” won’t help you with problems. The metaphor that voltage is analogous to height is useful because you’re forced to think about what voltage means (in this case the relation between gravitational and electric potential).

Interestingly, this also has implications for languages. The reason the “sounds like” method for memorizing vocabulary words can work is because it forces you to think about how a word sounds more exactly. Having to come up with an image that links to the sound forces you to spend a couple seconds thinking about what the word actually sounds like.

3. We understand new things in the context of what we already know.

Abstract subjects like math, physics, finance or law, can often be hard for people to learn. The reason why is that the we learn things by their relation to other things we already know (sound familiar?). Willingham here suggests using many examples to ground a particular abstraction in concrete terms before moving on.

I would also add that I believe people overestimate their ability to learn abstract things. As such, we tell ourselves we understand an idea without first grounding it in numerous examples or analogies. Smart learners correctly understand the brains weakness for abstraction and build scaffolding to support new ideas before they fully set.

Occasionally when I recommend to students metaphors or analogies for learning a subject, they come up blank. I admit, it can be a tricky technique. But I believe part of the difficulty is that it points out when you don’t really understand a concept. If you understand a concept but can’t put it into a single example or analogy, you don’t really understand it at all (and should first do something like the Feynman technique to get that understanding).

4. Proficiency requires practice.

The only way to become good at skills is to practice them. Additionally, some basic skills require thorough practice in order to be successful at more complicated skills.

Math is an excellent example: you may have a conceptual understanding of calculus, but if you aren’t fully fluent with algebra, it will take you hours to do a simple problem. The only way to make algebra automatic is to practice a lot of problems.

I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying the importance of repetitive practice in some of my early writing. But there’s no way I could have completed the MIT Challenge or this language project without extensive time spent practicing the basic tools for each subject. Merely understanding isn’t enough.

Willinham suggests an alternative to repetitive practice which can be painfully dull: learn harder subjects that require practicing earlier material. One study showed that those who took an algebra class showed rapid and predictable decline of their skills. The one group that didn’t? Those who learned calculus.

5. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.

Should you learn physics like Newton? For that matter, should you learn science like a scientist, making hypothesis, testing experiments, revising your theory to fit the data? Willingham offers substantial evidence that the answer is no.

I think there’s merit in understanding how scientists perform their work, but it’s also clear that knowledge creation and knowledge acquisition are very different. Because they are different, the learner needs to weigh them against each other. For most disciplines, understanding scientific facts is more important than scientific process, for the simple reason that scientific facts will inform our lives, but few of us will ever do scientific research. The same applies to history, philosophy and nearly any other discipline of knowledge.

Another implication of this is that the ideal method for learning a subject and creating knowledge within a subject will be different. Learning calculus and inventing calculus bear little resemblance, so don’t worry if you can’t learn calculus the way Newton did. You don’t have to.

6. People are more alike than different in how we learn.

Learning styles are bunk. There is no such thing as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. This is also true for every serious theory of different cognitive styles for learning.

Defending this conclusion takes a bit of thought, because to most people the idea that people learn differently is obviously true, even though research says otherwise.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that different abilities can exist while styles do not. Meaning Johnny might be really good at processing visual information and Mary might be good at processing auditory information. Show Johnny a map and he’ll remember where everything is better than Mary. Play Mary a tune, and she can hum it back a week later.

But this isn’t what a theory of learning styles suggests. It suggests that if you taught the same subject to both Johnny and Mary, and played Johnny a slideshow and Mary an audiobook, they would learn better than if Johnny had listened and Mary had watched. The experiments simply don’t find that.

This suggests that the ways we learn are more similar than different. Some people might be better at learning certain types of things than others, but given a particular subject, science hasn’t different ways of learning it that are consistently better for some people but not others.

Side note: Willingham also debunks holistic versus linear thinkers. However the only thing it shares with my idea of “holistic” learning is the name. My version of holistic learning is not a learning style in the sense Willingham debunks here, but a strategy and one that happens to closely correspond with the third cognitive principle listed above. The nomenclature is my mistake, owing to my being unaware of the other learning theory that used the same name at the time. I’ve since used tried to use the word less, preferring “learning by connections” to avoid confusion.

7. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

This was probably my favorite part of the entire book because it validates much of what I said here. Intelligence is partially genetic and partially environmental. Innate differences do matter and some people are born with more talent than others.

However, Willingham argues that intelligence is malleable. Psychologists used to believe that intelligence was mostly genes. Twin studies and other natural experiments seemed to bear that out. Adopted children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents in many dimensions.

However, now the consensus has turned far more towards nurture, rather than nature. One of the biggest pieces of evidence is the Flynn Effect, which is the observation that people, over the last century, have gotten smarter (and the effect is too large to be from natural selection). Genes may have an important role in intelligence, but most of that role is played out through the environment, not independent of it.

If you re-read the first principle I listed, that shouldn’t be surprising. Knowledge being exponential growth means that a small initial advantage can quickly compound. If genes gave you a 5% headstart in math in kindergarten, there may not be much difference between you and a similar child. However, expand that small initial advantage over thirty years and you may have someone who has done a PhD in physics and someone who stopped at high-school.

From a population standpoint the difference between these two people may be “explained” by differences in genes. However, genes only created a small headstart. Sustained hard work can help set off your own exponential growth of learning in a domain as well.

Concluding Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and don’t let my brief summary and insights spoil it for you. It’s a fairly easy read while still being smart and insightful. What’s more, the book is based on robust research and science.

In terms of my own, more informal, writing about learning, I was happy that most of the principles discussed in the book reflected my own thinking. It’s comforting to see when the experience I’ve gained from my own learning challenges converges on the serious work scientists are doing to understand the brain and how we learn.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Monday, 28 Jul 2014 00:55

A number of readers have asked me, now that I’m learning language number six, whether learning new languages changes how you think. Do you become more passionate while thinking in Spanish? More respectful thinking in Korean? More open to enjoying experiences thinking in French?

The answer is both yes and no.

Does Language Fundamentally Alter Thought?

One extreme view is that language forms the fundamental basis of our thinking and, therefore, certain linguistic systems make particular thoughts unthinkable or completely different. Known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this idea is also probably false.

Language is a tool that fills the needs of its speakers. When an easy word or expression is lacking, one is invented or imported from other languages. Modern, major world languages which have millions of speakers must cope with the full diversity of human experience and activity. Assuming I was equally fluent, discussing chemistry, philosophy or sitcom television in Mandarin shouldn’t have any real difference from discussing it in Spanish.

This all means that the strong version that people suggest—that learning a new language fundamentally structures different kinds of thoughts one can have, is mostly false. When it is true, it’s usually in fairly uninteresting ways.

Asian languages, for example, have more precise words for relatives than English, so your mother’s older sister’s children have a more precise name than “cousin” in English. But that’s just convenience. The same idea could equally be expressed in English, perhaps just a little more verbose.

Languages also have expressions and words for concepts that don’t match one-to-one. In poetic terms that can be useful, allowing you to carefully select one word that embraces slightly different overlaps of meaning than one which can exist in English. But, again, it’s a nuance in expression, the same fundamental thoughts can be conveyed fairly equally in most languages, plus or minus a bit of brevity.

Culture Does Matter

The big way that learning a new language changes your thinking is that language is a gateway to culture. Cultures do differ dramatically, even if people are fairly similar on a fundamental level, psychologically speaking. Culture offers a different identity and perspective that tends to be more homogenous within a group of people who all speak the same language.

I found that living in France and learning French made me appreciate experiences more, as North America tends to be more ambition-oriented than southern France. But this was almost certainly a cultural trait I absorbed, rather than a linguistic one. Studying French at home in my basement probably wouldn’t have changed my outlook just because of the phonemes and grammar patterns.

Therefore if you learn Spanish and find it makes your thinking somewhat more passionate, then perhaps it’s because passion is a more important cultural value than in English-speaking countries, and the language is giving you an access point to that culture.

But if it’s culture, and not the language itself, which is giving you this new perspective, then if you really want the new perspective, why learn the language?

Here I think is the real thought-changing value of language learning: because without learning the language the culture is always viewed at arms length.

Language is a Gateway to Culture

There are many access points to understanding a culture: cuisine, history, movies, music and friendships. I don’t want to demean any of these other avenues, because I’m sure their advocates would argue equally that you can’t appreciate a country without eating their food or knowing their history.

However I do think language is a preferential route for cultural understanding (albeit a difficult one) for two reasons:

First, most of the world doesn’t speak English, or they don’t speak it well. There are some countries which are exceptions, such as Sweden or Singapore, but not many. While it’s certainly possible to travel to places and only interact with the English-speaking minority, you end up leaving out most other people.

The people who speak English well in most countries also tend to be the better educated, cosmopolitan elite. They’re not a representative sampling from the underlying population, so you often completely miss aspects of the cultural perspective you wanted to gain.

Second, understanding via a translation is the difference between seeing a postcard and being there in person. Most translations are shabby, and even the high quality ones you get for movies and books are, by definition, a paraphrase of what was actually said.

The person who says that there is zero merit in learning a foreign language because they can just get things translated, is a bit like a person who says there’s no reason to visit a place because the pictures are detailed enough. From an information perspective, it’s not entirely wrong, but it does somewhat miss the point.

The Language Learning Experience Changes How You Think

Finally beyond the changes in thinking that come from new linguistic categories or exposure to new cultures, the process of learning the language itself changes how you think.

The process of going from bewilderment, to struggled communication, to communication that flows but with a particular stiltedness that natives speakers lack (and potentially to complete indistinguishable fluency) changes how you view communication, how you view other people learning English and yourself.

I think this is the most valuable part of language learning as a way of changing perspective. Not because a new language will allow you to think different thoughts, nor even because it will give you access to people whose thoughts differ from your own, but because it will help you understand yourself in a way that wasn’t possible before.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014 23:53

Vat and I have reached the halfway point here in Korea, the final leg of our language-learning project. I’ve already written so much about language learning this year, and so most of it applies to Korean as well. Therefore, I’ll just share a few of the differences we’ve noted here and save a fuller analysis for later.

Learning Korean vs Learning Chinese

Korean is arguably easier than Chinese, but it’s still in the same ballpark (as opposed to clearly-much-easier languages like Spanish or French). The grammar is harder, but the vocabulary has more loanwords from English and the pronunciation is straightforward.

However, my Korean after three months will definitely be weaker than my Chinese, because I’ve been studying less.

One major difference between Korea and China is the level of English fluency amongst locals. A good proportion of Koreans speak English quite well. Combining that with our weak Korean and slow improvement, this has been the only country where the level of English has made not speaking English more difficult.

Standards for Language Learning

One factor that can make learning a language easier or harder is the standards people have for acquiring it. In southern Europe, I’ve generally felt that being able to speak the language is considered a requirement for people living in the country. If you live in France but don’t speak French, there will certainly be some negative social pressure on you to change that.

Asian countries have lower standards for Western foreigners learning languages. Part of that is a racial difference. People see a white face and the otherness of it automatically lowers their standards for linguistic ability. Part of it is simply that Asian languages are harder, so fewer foreigners acquire decent ability and therefore locals reduce their expectations.

Korea (I’m told Seoul, particularly) also suffers from the problem of the glut of English teachers who come to Korea with little intention of learning Korean. In China, the majority of my foreign friends were either studying Chinese or working in a company that uses Chinese. Fewer were full-time English teachers, but that appears to be the rule here in Korea, not the exception.

I don’t feel the issue of lower standards makes it more difficult for Vat or I to learn Korean. We came here with the resolved intention of learning the language, so social pressure isn’t going to change that. But I do think it makes it harder for other foreigners, particularly those without clear expectations to learn the language. If nobody else seems to learn the language, why seriously try?

Difficulty and Expectations

In China, I disagreed with my friend Benny’s admonishment that focusing on difficulty doesn’t matter. Of course it does—Chinese is much harder than Spanish and pretending they’re the same is foolhardy.

In Korea, I’m beginning to change my mind. People see that the language is harder, so the rational response should be that it requires more time and patience (which is true). But instead, the response is that it is too difficult so it’s impossible to succeed in a reasonable timeframe (which isn’t true).

Vat and I, in contrast, have had extremely high expectations for every country. Spanish-like expectations for Chinese were too optimistic. But, three months into China, I could still hold a conversation in Chinese about nearly any topic and with only a minimal amount of fumbling for words.

I’ll be harsh: if it’s taken you several years with an Asian language and you can’t hold a brief conversation entirely in the language, you either haven’t really been working at it, or your method is faulty.

Progress in Korean

Arriving in Korea was the hardest country for the no-English rule thus far. Korean, from the beginning, is probably somewhat harder than Chinese, and neither Vat nor I did significant preparation. Much of the quoted 50 hours of preparation I did do, had been forgotten in the intervening year plus three unrelated languages.

We didn’t handle the no-English rule perfectly, but we did mostly achieve it. Unfortunately, we “mostly achieved it” simply by not speaking much in the first month. That hardly seems like a fair victory, since the point of the rule was to encourage communication not adopt vows of silence.

Honestly, had I not had the experiences of success in the past, the first month certainly would have broken me. Learning Asian languages is slower than European ones, so you can do four weeks of conversations with a tutor and still feel like you can’t say anything. That combined with our enforced isolation and silence definitely made learning Korean the least pleasant part of the trip so far.

The beginning is always the hardest. Now, halfway through, Vat and I have resumed semi-normal communication, eating together and making friends. I’d put our current ability at the pre-intermediate level, since having a real conversation with a native at native-speed is at least a few weeks more work.

My expectation is to reach a somewhat low conversational level after three months. That would put it as the worst of all of the languages on this trip for me, but still at a level where I could hold a conversation with someone in the language and not have it be too arduous.

Why Learn all These Languages?

That’s certainly a question best saved for a bigger post, but it deserves attention to the case of Korean, which has been a more tiring process with less clear results than the other languages. 

However, even with Korean, where Vat and I are working under the fatigue of spending a year learning new languages, the painful part is short and the gain is (potentially) lifelong.

As long as I maintain a minimal amount of practice once this trip is done, all of these languages will be permanent abilities. I can return to any of these countries later, whenever I want, and the work is finished. I can make friends in Canada who speak those languages. If my practice is a little more, I may even improve so that reasonably watching movies without subtitles will be an eventual possibility.

As with the MIT Challenge, I believe the length of time it takes to learn something defines its viability for many people. Getting a computer science education with no degree probably wasn’t worth a four-year, full-time investment for me. But one year? Definitely.

Spending a handful of years to reach intermediate Chinese or Korean probably isn’t worth it for me, since I don’t plan on living in either of those countries. But a couple months of intense work and weekly maintenance practice? Even if it took Vat and I three times as long to reach the levels we did, I’d still say the lifetime payoff was worth the effort.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 09 Jul 2014 07:57

Say you’re planning to go abroad to study a language, and you want to learn the language through immersion. How much preparation should you do beforehand, in your home country?

I want to tackle this question, for two reasons. First, because I want to dispel the common myth that all you need to do to learn a language is simply live in the target country. Second, because carefully examining this question also says a lot about the language learning process, and what to expect.

Why Showing Up Isn’t Enough

Before Vat and I started our current language learning project, one of Vat’s relatives remarked that “of course” we’d learn the language if we live in the country that speaks it for awhile.

This attitude is a pet peeve of mine, in part because it dismisses the commitment and effort it takes to learn a language, and because it’s simply not true.

Most people who live abroad don’t learn the language of the country they live in. From my personal experience interacting with the expat communities, the majority of people who have lived in the country for less than five years cannot speak the language fluently. That is doubly true for Westerners living in countries with “hard” languages, such as China or Korea.

The inspiration for the No-English Rule during this trip was recognizing this. It is very easy to slip into an English-speaking bubble while you travel and never make more headway with a language than is necessary to order food at a restaurant.

Can You Go Full Immersion, Your First Day, With No Prep?

The closest thing I’ve done to full immersion with zero preparation was getting to Brazil with about 3-4 hours of Portuguese practice. Vat and I stumbled for the first two weeks, switching back frequently to Spanish to communicate with each other, but the process was mostly successful.

Unfortunately, our partial success with this in Brazil is probably the exception that proves the rule. Portuguese is incredibly similar to Spanish, with many linguists arguing they are technically dialects of the same language. While the difference is certainly much larger than, say American and British English, it’s less than English and Spanish, for example.

That means our “zero preparation” country actually had hundreds of hours of pseudo preparation from learning Spanish. The majority of grammar and vocabulary transferred with a little work and it only took about two weeks before we could translate a great deal of Spanish into Portuguese.

But even with the incredible similarities between Portuguese and Spanish, we still stumbled the first week or so. This suggests to me that full immersion without any preparation is either impossible or impractical for almost all cases. Either you arrive prepared, or you delay immersion.

What About Delaying Full Immersion?

There’s nothing stopping you from getting to a country, speaking English while studying the language and then later going full immersion. This approach may be best for some people, especially if you will have a lot more spare time to study in the target country than in your own country. It may also be okay if you plan to stay for a long time (say a couple years) so the pressure to learn efficiently is reduced.

However, I’m going to argue that this isn’t ideal. Whenever possible, you should try to put the minimum hours I’m going to list below in before you ever set foot in the country.

First, when you land in a country you have a unique opportunity to create a social circle. Friends you meet get used to speaking to you in one language. Abruptly switching that language will likely give a lot of resistance, and may not even be possible for the friends you make who can’t speak the language well.

If you have done the minimum hours I list below, and done them efficiently, you should be able to make friends in the language you want to master. Even if you don’t have a desire to live your life completely in the target language, you’ll have the option of adjusting the amount of friends you have with the language, thus controlling your degree of immersion.

Secondly, if you aren’t willing to do the minimum study before immersion can begin in your home country, what makes you certain you’ll be willing to do it in the country? Living in the country can provide motivation and opportunities to practice, but learning the language is still work and if you’re smart about how you study at home, the difference in environments shouldn’t matter in the pre-immersion stage.

A good rule of thumb to ask yourself in all situations is, “If not now, then when?” Many people delay important habits, work and goals for some hypothetical future. But the future quickly becomes the present and nothing will have changed. The minimal study I’ll discuss below will remain mostly the same whether you live in the country or outside it, so if you’re not willing to do it before you go to the country, you probably won’t have the motivation to succeed after you go.

The Minimum Prior Preparation You Need Before Living Abroad

When I say minimum, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Your starting point matters a lot. If you’ve studied another language through immersion before, you could probably subtract 25-50% off these numbers and still be okay. I’m also assuming English speakers. If you speak other languages which are closer in proximity to the target language you can cut the time considerably.
  2. Minimum doesn’t mean you’re already fluent. It simply means you have enough of the basics that going full immersion would be possible, albeit still difficult.
  3. These numbers are made up. I’m just estimating based on my progress curves having done this five times previously with French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and now Korean. The feedback you get from your conversational tutoring (discussed below) will be the ultimate arbiter of “readiness”.

I’m going to discuss preparedness in two parts. First, how many total hours I estimate is advisable before going to the country. Remember: going in with less doesn’t mean learning the language is impossible, just that you’ll either need more willpower or you’ll suffer from the problems I mentioned above. Going in with more is always good, of course.

Baseline Number of Hours by Language Type

I’ve only learned five foreign languages before, so my breadth of all the permutations of linguistic difficulty is an undersampling. However, the Foreign Service Institute, of the US State department, has a nice categorization of languages by difficulty for English speakers. They divide languages into roughly three categories:

  • Category I – Languages similar to English
  • Category II – Languages with significant cultural/linguistic differences from English
  • Category III – Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers

The list largely conforms to my experience (Spanish, French and Portuguese are all Category I, Mandarin and Korean are Category III). The FSI recommends 600, 1100 and 2200 hours for fluency in each respectively, however I’m going to ignore those numbers because we’re not looking for fluency, but rather, minimum required time for proficiency to enable immersion.

If you’re not sure where the language you want to learn lies, check out this table which has a full listing and should be fairly accurate for assessing the baseline hours needed.

My recommendation for minimum prior work, assuming English as a reference point:

  • Category 1: 50 hours
  • Category 2: 100 hours
  • Category 3: 200 hours

All of these minimum amounts are higher than the amount I had before entering any of the countries that we’ve gone to, so perhaps I’m being too conservative. However, Spain was the only country for me where going no-English was relatively smooth and successful from the first day (for which I had the benefit of previously learning French, probably halving the necessary prep time). All of the others were fairly rough for the first few weeks, and I had the ability to devote all my time to language learning when I arrived, which may not be your case if you have to work or study in another language.

Chinese was the country I prepared the most for, with 105 hours. However, going full-Chinese was still enormously difficult from the beginning and it took a couple weeks of extremely aggressive studying before I felt making friends was possible. Korean I prepared less and I’ve currently spent nearly the entire first month doing what could have been done at home, unfortunately effectively wasting my first month of potential immersion.

What Should You Do to Prepare Yourself?

There are far too many language tools to name and although I’m familiar with a good deal of them, I haven’t fully explored them all. Therefore this set of tasks shouldn’t be viewed as the perfect setup for preparing to a language, but rather simply one that works and the one I use.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. One month of Pimsleur = 15 hours. Pimsleur is my favorite starting point for a new language, although it quickly experiences diminishing returns. I recommend it simply because no other tool I’ve found gets you armed with some basic phrases as quickly or with as few frills. It’s main disadvantage is being boring, but it’s only thirty minutes a day for a month.
  2. Conversational tutoring = 30-50% of preparation time. Sign up with iTalki and either pay for a tutor, or recruit a conversational partner who can help you out with the basics. The aim should be to find a tutor who will have conversations with you (even made up, unreasonably basic ones) and every day try to push closer to having that entire conversation in the language. Use Google Translate or a dictionary if you have to. You’ll know you’re ready when you can do the entire lesson in the language (even if you’re still speaking very slowly, making lots of mistakes or have to get the tutor to repeat for clarifications).
  3. Basic textbook study = No more than 15% of preparation time. This is good for familiarizing yourself with the basics of a language. Knowing that Chinese has four tones, for instance. What the Korean hangul sound like. Understanding that Spanish verbs are conjugated by subject.
  4. Vocabulary building with Anki = remainder of preparation time. I prefer full-sentence decks with audio since they give you exposure to sentence patterns and phrases, rather than isolated words (which are harder to remember if not attached to context).

The conversational tutoring is the most important part. You can get away with doing it a bit less for harder languages since you’ll need to do more vocabulary building anyways. A good rule of thumb should be that it should start no later than when you’ve finished Pimsleur and be at least 50% of your time spent when you reach the end of your preparation time.

My notes on preparedness assume you won’t be learning Chinese characters/Japanese kanji. If you want to do both, you might need to tack on an extra 50% to the above estimates since studying these don’t directly contribute to your speaking ability until more advance levels.

Conversational tutoring defines your readiness. If you can mostly get away without using English in the tutoring session, you’re probably ready. If you can’t even keep up five minutes without using English, you probably aren’t.

Example: Japanese

Let’s say, after I finish reaching an intermediate level of Korean, and after having reached an intermediate level of Chinese, I wanted to tackle Japanese by living in Japan. How much prior prep would this rubric suggest I do?

The baseline amount would be 200 hours, but given my experience with Chinese and Korean, I could probably reduce that to 100-150 hours and have roughly the same results as someone with no background in Asian languages.

First I’d do a month of Pimsleur. I would also get an Anki deck that had some basic phrases and words with full audio to study. That first month would probably also need about 10-30 hours studying the absolute basics of Japanese sentence formation and phonology. If I devoted an hour and a half per day, I could get the first 45 hours done in a month.

After getting to about 30-40 hours, I’d make sure at least 50% of my studying time is conversational practice. I could start tutoring even earlier, but I usually find lessons when even basic phrases are unknown tend to be less efficient than just reading from a textbook. However doing a test lesson or two near the beginning to hunt out a good tutor or conversation partner would be wise.

At roughly 90 minutes per day, this would mean roughly four months of preparation would put me in a position where going full-immersion in Japan would be challenging, but reasonable. If I only had 30 minutes per day, a year of prior prep would probably put me in the same position.

Example: German

What if I wanted to tackle another European language? The FSI puts German in a special category, suggesting 750 hours for fluency, which is slightly higher than the Category I languages. Scaling appropriately, that suggests roughly 60 hours of prior preparation.

Once again I’d do a full month of Pimsleur. I’d probably spend another 10-15 hours to familiarize myself with German sentence construction and phonology. That should be enough to understand how extremely basic and common sentences are put together. I’d would start conversational tutoring after 2-3 weeks. After Pimsleur was finished I’d use the time I spent on Pimsleur on a full-sentence, audio-included Anki deck.

Given a 90 minutes per day, I should be ready in roughly one and a half months. Half an hour per day and I could probably be ready in around four months.

What to Expect with Minimum Preparation

I get a lot of emails from students, nervous about exams, who share with me their studying schedule and ask if it’s enough. I always have the same answer: I can’t tell you what’s enough—the results of your self-testing efforts will tell you what is enough. What is enough for one person may be insufficient for another depending on intelligence, motivation and prior knowledge.

This is especially true for languages. Depending on your linguistic background, picking up a new language may be a breeze or it may be the hardest achievement you’ve ever won. The measure of readiness isn’t my estimated hours, but your level of comfort speaking with your tutor.

Readiness here is also a far cry from fluency. Rather, I would consider it the minimum you would need so that going no-English in the target country is possible from the first day (or making no-English friendships, if you aren’t planning on being strict with immersion).

Readiness also doesn’t mean that you won’t ever need further studying, and that everything can be picked up from immersion. A good ratio is probably 25-50% studying and 50-75% immersion for maximizing your learning rate.

These hourly figures also assume the studying method I used. I believe classrooms tend to be less effective for preparedness, because you spend much less time speaking (and in the case of Chinese, a lot of time memorizing characters). If I were learning in a classroom, I’d supplement my time with one-on-one conversational practice so that I was spending at least 30-50% of my total time speaking. Otherwise, it might not be unreasonable to add another 50-100% to the total time needed, depending on the quality of the teacher.

What happens if you go to a country and you’re not prepared? It’s not the end of the world, it just probably means you’ll have to do a lot of learning that could have been done just as easily at home and you may find yourself with a bit less control over the degree of immersion you experience.

These numbers conform to my experience, but perhaps they’re a bit too high or low. Other language learners who have studied abroad? What was your level of prior preparation? How much immersion were you able to achieve once you got to the country?

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Date: Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 07:39

People who’ve never done a timelog before often grossly overestimate the amount of time they are actually working.

Years ago I had a friend who was launching a software company and earnestly told me that he was putting in 12-hour work days to achieve this. Despite that, I could see him making dozens of online forum posts throughout the day. Writing on a forum loosely related to running your business may be considered work, but it’s hard to see how chiming in on old topics stacked against his urgent goal to ship his product on time.

Doing a timelog, meticulously recording when you start and stop work activities, is often discouraging because the illusion of productivity gets shattered. You may feel you’re putting in heroic hours on a particular goal, but the actual logs show only a fraction of your time was spent on important work.

You Can’t Actually Work That Much

Most people, upon realizing their dismal productivity, resolve to do better. They’ll cut out the distractions and get back to task. They’ll continue putting in the long hours, but this time, they won’t waste time.

Unfortunately I think this is exactly the wrong realization to make from the information. The realization should be that getting even small amounts of deep work done is incredibly hard. Therefore, a schedule that prioritizes low-hours, but hard work, is better than one which pushes you all day long.

Part-Time Hours in a Full-Time Job

I first wrote about this idea several years ago, in my book about self-employed productivity. The idea was that the 40-hour standard for workweeks is almost certainly too high a bar for 95% of workers, if that time is spent mostly on deep work. And the 80-hour marathons that entrepreneurs and students grind themselves through are likely impossible without the benefit of pharmaceuticals.

What if, in your 40-60 hour stated workweek, you set aside 20 hours per week that was exclusively focused on the work that was of critical importance? No emails, meetings, calls, internet surfing or chatting. Just the hard, important work.

I imagine that, in these part-time hours, you’d get more done than you do trying to do the same work in unrestricted full-time hours throughout the week. I’d also guess that the amount of low-value activities would decrease as well, now that they are not being used as a crutch to help you avoid the work that truly matters.

My Recent Experiment With Part-Time in Full-Time Hours

I’ve used this strategy many times before, but I often fall into the same trap most people do. I either start expanding my hours or I become less rigid about the scheduling of my focused work. These two effects combine and I end up working more and more with less and less focus, until I’m back where I started. It takes discipline not to work, rather than to work too much.

Recently I wrote about using this strategy for Korean, in comparison with Chinese. I restricted all my studying time to two, 2-hour chunks every weekday. Although a fair assessment of my actual time spent studying in Chinese was probably more like 6-7 hours/day, the lack of rigidity in the schedule meant it felt more like 9-10 hour days, over twice the perceived effort for only 50% more actual work accomplished.

How to Take Advantage of This For Your Work

Whether you’re an office worker or a high-school student, you can use the same system to get more done of the things that really matter to your results. Just follow these steps:

  1. Pick an amount of hours of deep work that makes your deep work a scarce opportunity rather than a burden. The mistake is picking a schedule which you could potentially do, but doesn’t worry you that you won’t get everything done. That worry will ignite a greater focus in you and a certain seriousness that prevents you from procrastinating when that time comes up in your schedule. I personally recommend four hours per day, but 2-6 may be more appropriate depending on the nature of the deep work and how large a percentage it makes up of your total tasks.
  2. Schedule those hours first in your schedule, the same time every day. This tip goes to Cal Newport. Previously, in my Weekly/Daily Goals system, I left the act of scheduling more haphazard, and that makes the system weaker. Pick out the exact times you’ll be doing this, and it’s a plus if they’re the same every day for habit-building reasons.
  3. All of your deep, important work, must fit into those chunks. You aren’t allowed to bump them, extend them, swap them or reassign them from different days. If the nature of what is your deep work and what are your distractions aren’t already clear, make sure you define exactly what kind of work must fit into that box.
  4. Schedule all your other work, emails, calls, meetings, etc. outside of those chunks. Make those chunks the cornerstones of your day and move things around to accommodate it. If you have a job where you can’t be picky about when meetings and the like are scheduled, try picking times where rescheduling these chunks is less likely.

My schedule is Monday to Friday 8:30am-11:30am and 12:30pm-2:30pm. Currently, with my language learning project, I’m using this time for Korean, and scheduling the lower-priority tasks around it. When I finish, I plan to use the same structure for my writing and business development work.

Every time I’ve used this approach, I’ve seen a boost in my focus and productivity. If there are too many hours in the system, I’ll know I miscalculated because the productivity and focus will wear off once the initial motivation dies. You want to design a schedule which encourages you to treat your deep focus hours like a scarce opportunity, not an unfortunate chore to delay.

By cleanly separating the deep work and the lighter work which doesn’t demand the same mental resources, you also end up reducing your hours, since you stop using lighter work as an excuse to procrastinate on the things that actually matter.

HT to Cal Newport, who first introduced me to the concept of deep work, and whose writing informed a lot of the ideas in this post.

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Date: Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014 08:40

I’ve written two in-depth guest posts about learning Chinese. My first instinct was to post them here, but John Pasden of Sinosplice.com and Olle Linge of HackingChinese.com were gracious enough to let me share my recent experiences with their audiences.

First, my guest post at HackingChinese.com about how I managed to pass the HSK 4 with just a little over 3 months of preparation. I go into considerable detail here outlining the exact schedule, drills and time investments. I even explain some tweaks I made to Anki to make that part of my studying more efficient. I wanted to be as specific as possible, so that anyone who also wants to learn Chinese quickly can replicate my experiment.

I did a brief interview with Olle in Chinese, which you can see below. I believe it fairly demonstrates my level of Chinese at around the 3-month point:

Second, my Sinosplice.com guest post was focused on how to achieve immersion, even at a fairly low level of basic fluency. I found immersion to be considerably harder in China than with prior languages, both because of cultural differences and language difficulty. Once again, I outline exact steps I followed to make friends in the language, from the first few weeks, so I could make faster progress and avoid getting stuck in an English bubble.

I also did a brief interview with John Pasden.


Once again, for anyone that missed it our mini-documentary about learning Chinese is worth a look:

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Date: Tuesday, 10 Jun 2014 07:41

As we did with Spain and Brazil, we filmed a short documentary chronicling our experiences learning Chinese over a little more than three months. Vat also spent hundreds of hours doing timelapses, hyperlapses and videos to try to capture a different perspective on what life is like in China. We both felt that the China we saw wasn’t always portrayed that way in Western media, so we wanted to try to capture our experiences of the largest, oldest and possibly soon-to-be most powerful culture in the world.

For my Chinese readers, unfortunately, Vimeo is blocked in China. Never fear, we’ve made a special Chinese version of the video that we’ve uploaded to YouKu. This one has Chinese subtitles so it will make it a bit easier to follow along despite the many mistakes we made in Chinese. Click here to watch the Chinese edition.


Since this is a more impressionistic video, rather than a fuller assessment of my actual Chinese, I’ll be uploading a little later two interviews I conducted in Chinese, one with John Pasden of Sinosplice.com (and previously, ChinesePod) and another with Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese. I’ll save a fuller and more technical analysis of my thoughts on learning Chinese until then, in the meantime, enjoy the show!

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Date: Monday, 02 Jun 2014 05:22

Sometimes I question my sanity. After all, what kind of person agrees to learn four languages in a year, including two linguistically unrelated Asian languages back-to-back in six months?

Learning Chinese was a blast, but it was also an incredible amount of work. My stated goal from the beginning was to learn as much Chinese as possible in three months. I wanted to see what my upper limits were, and starting from a beginner level is the only way to make those efforts broadly comparable. If I started an intense Chinese mission after a few years of study, it’s very hard to compare the effectiveness of the method used.

I don’t want to tackle Korean under the same conditions. Instead, I’d rather set clear, reasonable boundaries for my studying time and see how far I can go, under those constraints. This method is certainly slower than the approach I used for Chinese, but I’m hoping it more replicable strategy for the average person trying to learn an Asian language while living abroad.

Can You Learn Korean, Part-Time over Three Months?

My plan is this: 20 hours per week, working out to 4 hours per weekday of study. Outside of that, I’m free to use as much immersion time as I want. So if I want to listen to music, movies or (hopefully) stick to the no-English rule with Vat, that’s fine. But I’m limiting the studying to a very specific chunk.

Vat and I will, once again, try our best to implement the no-English rule. I’m also hoping to make Korean-language friends and enjoy Korean-language entertainment. I’m not limiting these immersion activities to my scheduling restriction because I feel they’re an important part of the experience and I want to enjoy Korean culture as much as possible.

Instead, I’m putting a hard limit on the kinds of heavy, active studying I did in China. Paid tutoring sessions, textbook reading, listening exercises, Anki and other deliberate studying techniques will all have to fit into that time.

My goal with this restriction is not to make any particular claim about studying in less time. After all, 20 hours per week is still a part-time job, more time than most people could devote to learning a language. Secondly, because I’m not restricting immersion activities, it isn’t fair to say my total learning time will be 240 hours, since the actual amount of practice will be higher.

But I do hope that implementing this restriction I’ll be more efficient with my learning time, and that will help me weed out lower efficiency tasks. I’m hoping that I can then use that knowledge to pass onto many of you, who want to learn languages but can’t do it full time.

Which Methods Do I Plan to Use?

As Korean is language number six for me, I feel I’ve come a long way in mapping out the exact learning strategy that works best. I’m going to wait until this entire project is finished to do a complete summary of that method, but I’ll share some of the methods I found very helpful in China and plan to transfer to learning Korean.

Method One: Pimsleur

Pimsleur has been, so far, my favorite starting point for a new language. It’s really good for learning a set of core functional words to use as a basis point for the language. Very few other beginner resources I’ve seen really drill that basic phrasal patterns and vocabulary in from the first day.

Pimsleur’s main weakness, however, is that it quickly experiences diminishing returns. After about the first 15 hours I didn’t find it very helpful. It also suffers from a problem most language courses do: that of offering somewhat formal and stilted example sentences.

Method Two: Bulk Listening Drills

Input proved far more important for me in Chinese than with Spanish. I think this is because Spanish, and other European languages, often have shared root words for many concepts, making gathering the meaning from even diverse sentences more clear. Chinese, in contrast, has almost no common root words with English, so listening ability becomes much harder than speaking by possibly an order of magnitude.

The best way I found around that in Chinese was to use an Anki deck that had thousands of example sentences with audio and using ChinesePod’s dialog-only files to practice on vocabulary-restricted subsets of the language.

I haven’t found the best analog for those resources in Korean yet. But worst case, I plan to get a television show with English and Korean subtitles and use Subs2SRS to strip them into an Anki deck for practice.

Method Three: Textbook Study

I actually do like studying from a textbook for languages. I think this can be overdone if you’re not actually using the language, or if you’re using it as a substitute for bulk listening/vocabulary building exercises. However grammatical and structural features of the language often require a more deliberate effort that textbooks are good for.

Method Four: Pronunciation Drills

This was a small, but significant, part of my Chinese learning experience. Tones and a difficult phonology meant that pronunciation wasn’t just something I could learn once and then ignore. Korean will likely be easier phonetically, but my very brief amount of study shows there might be a few problems between ㄱ, ㄲ and ㅋ (which all roughly map to the “g” or “k” sound in English) or ㄷ, ㄸ and ㅌ (which all map roughly to the “d” or “t” sound).

Chinese also taught me the importance of drilling pronunciation early, even when it feels unnecessary, to reduce some of the future fossilization errors that can arise.

Method Five: Conversational Tutoring

Tutoring sessions which consist of just trying to have conversations blur the line between immersion and studying. Indeed, in all of the countries we’ve traveled to, we became friends with our tutors and often did things outside of class, spending time discussing things outside the classroom that we previously discussed inside of it.

However, I’m arbitrarily deciding paid tutoring counts in the “studying” category and unpaid, informal conversations count as “immersion”. Mostly this is because, in the beginning stages of language learning, having conversations with tutors really is studying. Later it requires little effort and can be a fun activity instead of a drain on your energy.

My Goals for Learning Korean

My goal for Korean in three months is still an ambitious one: be able to read simple writing and hold conversations about most everyday topics. This is a slightly lower bar than my Chinese, and because I believe I surpassed the bar for Chinese in being able to have a greater conversational range than I had previously imagined, I think it is possible to do the same with Korean.

As always, I see this initial period, not as an end to my learning, but as a beginning. I still believe that, even with these time restrictions, I’ll get to a level of Korean where continued study and immersion in Canada is enjoyable, and therefore I can steadily improve my Korean over time without strain.

Finally, I hope that this experience might give me more information for how to translate the methods I used in Chinese to a language learner who is under more significant time constraints than I have worked under. I know that my obsessive learning quests can paint unrealistic standards for a typical learner, so I always try to be aware of what methods are feasible for learners in more typical situations.

Side Note: When I wrote this piece, Vat and I were still in Taiwan, editing the upcoming Chinese mini-documentary and relaxing a bit before this final leg of the journey. We’re now both in Seoul. My first impressions are limited, but positive. Since we opted to speak in English for the first night in order to get to our apartment, we saw that the level of English spoken by Koreans is considerably higher than the Chinese or Taiwanese.

Given my on-arrival Korean is much less than my Chinese, that will probably mean some slip ups early on before I can force the conversations back into Korean. However, I’ll try my best and give you an update when I have more to share.

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Date: Monday, 26 May 2014 10:53

I remember taking a class in business school, where we had to evaluate the financial prospects of startups. The startups were real, but the names were changed and in industries obscure enough that we rarely could guess the true identity without cheating.

Given limited information and numbers, we were each given one company and asked to present our analyses. Soon, however, a dominant strategy emerged: nearly every presentation predicted failure.

For the incentives of the classroom, that made sense. Most new startups fail, and for many different reasons. It’s easy to find a reasons for failure, and when you predict failure, you’re usually correct. As a result, the class taught us to practice skepticism, find reasons why things might go wrong.

But real life isn’t like the classroom. An investor with ten companies may see several fail, a few break even and only one earn enough to make up for all the past losses. Skepticism, in this instance, is easy but also not terribly useful.

Training Optimism

This doesn’t just apply to startups. More formally, it applies to any situation where there is an asymmetric prior probability of success and equal (or greater) asymmetry in the results of that success.

Put simply: When failure is cheap, but frequent, and success is lucrative, but rare, it pays a lot more to recognize successes.

You can imagine the situation in a 2×2 matrix:

  1. Failure cheap, failure rare: No-brainer optimism.
  2. Failure pricy, failure rare: Trained skepticism.
  3. Failure cheap, success rare: Trained optimism.
  4. Failure pricy, success rare: No-brainer pessimism.

When success is likely and profitable, we all feel optimistic. Similarly when failure is likely and costly, we’re all pessimistic. It’s the latter two situations, where rare events also have uneven payoffs, that our intuitions often betray us.

For a good talk about many situations where cultivating trained skepticism is a good idea, Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, is a great book. Other websites like OvercomingBias and LessWrong, provide a lot of tools and examples of trained skepticism.

I feel trained optimism is a somewhat less discussed skill, so I want to highlight it here.

Is Trained Optimism Underrated?

Giving an overly optimistic prediction or idea, and having it be wrong, makes you look gullible and foolish. Giving an overly pessimistic prediction or idea, and having it be wrong, is generally forgiven as being cautious. Therefore, if your goal is only looking intelligent, and you have no other stake in it, skepticism is the more suitable strategy. Indeed, that’s what I observed from our classroom experiment: almost nobody was willing to bet their flawed startup would succeed.

But what if you have real stakes and not just your conversational reputation? Not every domain of life warrants trained optimism, but some certainly do.

I think a lot of personal and professional projects largely fit under this category. There’s some minimal opportunity costs and extra effort, and most the time they won’t be great successes. But some of the time they will, so the person who keeps trying and experimenting will beat the skeptic in the long run.

Learning new things is almost always this case. I’ve learned many things that have never served a practical purpose in my life, but often the few that do are quite unexpected. Doing the MIT Challenge, for example, I found the classes on probability and logic more useful than many of the programming classes, something I hadn’t expected.

Optimism as a Skill and a Mood

Bear in mind, this trained optimism is about trying to more carefully pick winners (rather than losers) not a blanket policy of good feeling about every possible action one could take. Also, if the size of success is still dwarfed by its improbability, it’s probably still a bad decision.

In this sense, optimism is a skill. It’s focusing on improving your ability to pick good project candidates, business ideas, habits to follow and not worry too much about the ones that fail. It also means accepting slightly less accurate beliefs, for the extra payoff big wins can create.

But optimism is also a mood, not just a skill. I don’t think one can mechanically implement trained optimism (or trained skepticism, in the situations where that is better suited) without changing your mood about a certain area of life. When hard numbers aren’t available, we rely on moods as heuristics for processing the world and biasing our thinking in a favorable direction.

Being able to pick winners requires looking for ways things can go right and not just the ways things can go wrong. It requires tuning yourself to see the subtler positive signs instead of the overwhelming negative ones. In that sense, optimism is a cultivated emotion, not just a calculation, and at least some of the time, the smarter bet.

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#1000   New window
Date: Monday, 19 May 2014 10:37

This is the 1000th post I’ve written for this blog.

A little over 8 years ago I typed the first post for the blog. I was young—I hadn’t even had my 18th birthday yet. And I was full of enthusiasm, if lacking in experience.

Originally I hadn’t planned on being a writer for a living. I had started out thinking I would make games with a personal development theme, and the blog was initially just to practice writing. I only ended up making one program, before discovering writing was an easier way of expressing ideas than programs.

The blog grew up as I did. It went with me through college, living in France, building a full-time business, the MIT Challenge and it continues with me today (I’m writing these words in Taiwan, preparing for the final leg of my language-learning project). My entire adult life is here, somewhere between the lines.

The themes of my writing changed as I did. I started by emulating my favorite writers of the time, Steve Pavlina, Tony Robbins and David Allen. I wrote with an authoritative voice on all topics, without irony, as I didn’t know of any other way to write. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a little more humility since then, trying to focus my writing on the topics where I feel I can offer something unique.

Today, I hardly read any personal development or business books at all. The blogs I read are mostly academics, scientists and people much smarter than myself. I’ve come to admire the rigor and honesty of such writing, even if I haven’t been able to match those standards in my own.

The shifting nature of this blogs themes and styles has, I believe, made it more interesting, but also more difficult to understand. People arrive, wanting a summary of main points, and get upset when they contradict. This blog has never been a thesis of unchanging principles, but just the process some guy is using to figure things out and writing it down along the way.

Yet despite the changes, I don’t want to go back and edit, rewrite and compile. Not only would that be prohibitively laborious, but it would also be disingenuous. My writing might have fewer mistakes, but it would also imply that I’m writing outside of time, so I leave the posts and the past unchanged.

I don’t know what will change in the next thousand posts, but I’m incredibly grateful for everyone that has chosen to come along for the ride, even if just for a short time.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 14 May 2014 05:57

Readers familiar with Vat and my current project of attempting to learn four languages in one year, will note that the big focus has been on one method: not speaking English. Today I want to talk about the failures and successes in applying that philosophy to learning Chinese.

My Chinese After Three Months (+100 Hours of Preparation in Canada)

Before I go onto talking about the method, I want to quickly summarize what I feel were the end results of this Chinese experiment.

Overall, I believe my level is at a solid intermediate level. In terms of functionality, I’m pretty good with conversations and can usually talk about most topics without too much strain. I still occasionally get tripped up understanding a question or communicating a point, so I haven’t reached fluency yet—but I’m definitely at the point where I can have meaningful conversations entirely in Chinese.

Last week I also wrote the HSK 4 in Shanghai (I’ll know my grade a month from now). The creators of the test formally declare it to be equivalent to B2 for the CEFR, but that’s almost certainly an overestimation. My speaking ability is probably around B1, but due to the difficulty of Chinese characters I still have tremendous difficulty reading anything of any complexity.

Because the HSK measures listening, reading and writing (but not speaking), I also worked with Olle Linge on a pronunciation protocol. After struggling with some tonal problems my first attempt and working to correct them with a tutor, I was able to fix the major mistakes.

The protocol only measures isolated words, spoken deliberately, so obviously my in-practice pronunciation isn’t perfect. However, it does meet my goal of being able to produce the sounds correctly, at least in theory, so that I can to a certain extent self-correct and avoid fossilization truly grave errors that will hinder my future communication.

Looking back at my original goals, I feel the project was a success.

How Well Did Not Speaking English Work?

In Spain, Vat and I were very good with the no-English rule. I only recall once or twice where we broke down and spoke English to each other, and those were emergencies. I did talk to my parents in English, but I had decided to make that exception from the start.

Sometimes the rule was maintained to somewhat ridiculous levels. Benny Lewis, my friend and successful language learner, and his girlfriend were both staying in Valencia while were were there. Benny speaks Spanish, his girlfriend does not. So instead of being a normal human being and taking a break from speaking Spanish to communicate with her, we just spoke in Spanish and Benny translated.

In Brazil, we had a rough start with temporary homelessness and video editing, so the first two weeks had more frequent interruptions from our no-English rule. However, after the work settled down, switching to speaking entirely in Portuguese wasn’t too difficult.

Chinese was different in ways I hadn’t anticipated and created different problems than Brazil or Spain.

My half of the no-English project started quite well. I had prepared more than Vat in Canada for Chinese, and I was more serious about studying Chinese while in China. So aside from dealing with our landlord on the first day and a few small exceptions, I spoke only in Chinese from when we arrived.

Vat’s starting point with Chinese was considerably rougher, and I feel, probably a lot more typical of new learners to Chinese. The Chinese people we met largely couldn’t speak English, so Vat was forced to use limited Chinese. However, with tutors and with me, Vat spoke a lot of English from the beginning, simply because transitioning to all-Chinese was too hard.

This created a real disconnect in our lives. While in Spain, we did things together, so our interpersonal conversations were a majority of our speaking time. In China we spent far less time together, often going a day or two without speaking more than a few words to each other.

Life during the first half of the project often went like this: Vat would work on his own projects or shoot video, I would study independently and speak Chinese with my friends and tutors. When we did have short dialogs about simple things, we would use Chinese. When we needed to discuss anything more complicated we would use English.

Midway through the project Vat’s Chinese was starting to get good enough that he could stick to Chinese more. However, Chinese was still more difficult than English (of course) so with the rule of not speaking English already broken, it became a lot harder to switch back to all-Chinese, even when we were both at a level where it was possible.

Finally, in Shanghai, we spent most our time together speaking English. In Kunming, I didn’t suffer from this problem too much because we weren’t spending too much time together. However, sharing a hotel room and not having friends or tutors in Shanghai, meant most our time was together and the habit of speaking only in Chinese together hadn’t been sufficiently reinforced.

Is the No-English Rule a Failure with Chinese?

Obviously, by the criteria of not speaking English, we both failed in China. As I was able to maintain the no-English rule with my other friendships in China, I think there’s a decent chance I might have been able to do the no-English rule alone. However, conditions are never perfect, and so neither of us reached the criteria we set at the beginning of the project, clear and simple.

However, there’s another way of judging the no-English rule: as a method for learning Chinese. That is to say, did we learn Chinese and did our failed implementation of the rule nonetheless help us learn it faster than the alternatives?

Evaluating the No-English Rule

On my end, I believe that the no-English rule, even though I failed to implement it as I had originally envisioned, was still one of the most important methods for reaching the level of Chinese that I did.

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

In some ways, the failure of the no-English rule is the exception that proves the rule. Vat and I, since we are traveling together and collaborating on this project, have no choice but to interact. Every other relationship wasn’t constrained in that way, so I could use the no-English rule as a filter for building a mostly Chinese-speaking social group.

But for Vat, and perhaps also more typical learners of Chinese, I have my doubts about the practicality of the rule. A method may work great, but if it is too difficult for a reasonably intelligent and motivated person to maintain, it loses relevance. Many dieting strategies fail on this mark: they *could* work, but they are so difficult it takes heroic feats of willpower to implement them.

I say this because of the sharp contrast in difficulty in implementing no-English in Spain and Brazil compared with China. Vat had no problem doing even the fairly ridiculous stringency we adopted for Spain, but considerable difficulty for China. I was able to maintain the no-English rule for the most part outside our conversations, but even that was quite difficult for me. Seeing as we met very few people in Spain who opted for our level of commitment to not speaking English and not even a single person in China, successfully applying no-English rule may simply be unrealistic for most new Chinese learners.

One potential exception might be living in China in a situation where nobody speaks English. After all, even though Vat used English a fair bit with me, he was forced to use Chinese with the majority of Chinese people with no English ability whatsoever, it just made for often frustrating encounters in the first two months. Had we gone to a special school or homestay where English communication was either not allowed or not possible, the environment might have made up from any deficits in willpower and made the rule more feasible (if still very frustrating).

Salvaging the No-English Rule for Korea and Beyond

From my perspective, I believe the no-English rule is mostly salvageable for Korea. Although Korean will likely be as hard as Chinese, Korea was Vat’s choice of country, so I think the motivation to stick to the rule and study more will prevent the divergence problems we had that made maintaining the rule in China so difficult.

However, I’m somewhat famous for being a bit insanely obsessive during these learning projects. What about someone who wants to learn a “hard” language (or even an “easy” one, for that matter) and is worried about having the self-discipline to implement the no-English rule?

Here I’m not sure half-measures are a good strategy. Simply because, at a beginner level of a language, it’s too easy to slide into English-only friendships which are very hard to break out of, even when your level of ability with the language improves. Even with Vat and my communication, once the no-English rule had been broken, it was very easy to speak mostly in English together in Shanghai, even though, at that point, it would have been possible to maintain Chinese-only.

Possible alternative strategies might be doing a thirty day trial to switch from partial-English to no-English while living in the target country. Studying more beforehand to ease the transition is also a possibility, as is switching cities when you make the switch to no-English so that you can form a new social group without having too many English-speaking friends.

However all of these strategies have drawbacks. Studying more beforehand can become a way of procrastinating on actually using the language. Doing a 30-day trial requires you to isolate yourself from your English-speaking friends, much harder to do in practice than in theory. Switching cities simply might not be a luxury you can afford.

Ultimately, however, the no-English rule may work (even if it is truly too hard) simply because the other structured alternatives all allow you to escape from using the language. That is to say, even if you fail to use the no-English rule, even trying to use it will let you learn the language faster than explicitly not using it.

My sense is that its this last alternative that held for my experience in China. After all, even if I couldn’t be completely faithful to the rule, I’m still happy with my progress in Chinese over such a short burst of time.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 07:51

A big question I had in my mind before starting this trip was how much harder is learning an Asian language like Chinese than a European one like Spanish? Obviously Chinese is harder, but how much? Is it just a little harder than Spanish or is it several times more difficult?

My experience with both Chinese and Spanish is limited: I spent three months in Spain and am entering my third month in China. However, I would say both have been a success. There’s still a lot to learn, but I feel I can have conversations about most topics in both languages and, in the case of Spanish, I can also watch television and movies.

Being an intermediate learner means I can’t discuss the long road towards full fluency. But I believe I have a unique perspective: having learned both these languages, under the same conditions, similar timescales and only several months apart, the two experiences can be compared more easily.

Should We Even Compare Languages?

My good friend and avid language learner Benny Lewis would disagree with my premise for this post. His argument, as I understand it, is that comparing language difficulties is a waste of time. Why does it matter what’s more difficult? Why not focus on the positive attributes of every language you learn, instead of dwelling in pessimism or letting comparative difficulty justify you holding back from using the language?

From this perspective, I completely agree. Too many people whine about some feature of language X being hard, and use that to justify a sloppy, inefficient learning method. If you want to learn Chinese, you can definitely do it. It just might take a little longer than with Spanish.

However, my experience has been that learning Chinese isn’t simply harder than learning Spanish, it is different. The progression of the language differs from when I learned Spanish, French or Portuguese, enough that I think examining these differences can be very useful. If you have European language expectations for Chinese you might become frustrated at what is actually a very natural progression.

For those curious on an entirely unscientific attempt at quantifying the difference in difficulty between the two, my current feeling is that learning Chinese to spoken fluency is probably 2-3x as much work as it is for Spanish. If you include reading and writing, then 3-4x isn’t an exaggeration.

What Makes Learning Chinese Different than Learning Spanish?

I don’t want to dwell on the overall difficulty of Chinese. Aside from budgeting your learning time and expectations, knowing Chinese is harder than Spanish isn’t particularly helpful. After all, it all has to be learned regardless, so why focus on the negative?

Instead, I’d like to break down which aspects of Chinese require more work and how I feel that changes the best strategy to use when learning it.

Every language has dozens of difficult points, but the ones that are particularly Chinese, (i.e. they trip up the most Western speakers) are:

  1. Tones
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Characters

Chinese isn’t all bad news, it’s near complete lack of tense, mood, gender, grammatical number and inflections means it is grammatically much simpler than Spanish for all but the more advanced nuances.

Side note: Spanish and English grammar, while distinct, share many sentence patterns which are completely different in Chinese. While I never had to go through elaborate conjugation exercises to memorize Chinese grammar, I was well over a hundred hours of studying before I confidently could express the concept “more” in Chinese. Many Chinese concepts have one-to-one translations with English, but relatively fewer than Spanish, which somewhat dampens the common, “Chinese grammar is easy”, claim.

How Tones Changes Learning Strategy

With all of the previous languages I’ve learned, pronunciation was mostly a learn-it-once and then apply-it rule. French was harder than Spanish and Portuguese, but as long as you handle their r’s and get good approximations of the vowel sounds, you shouldn’t have too many problems and your accent will naturally soften with more practice.

The non-tonal parts of Chinese pronunciation evolved in a similar way for me. Study phonetic diagrams to make sure I’m getting good approximations of the phonemes English lacks (j/x/q are often tricky for English speakers, and I also found correctly separating -eng and -ang tricky) but after that it’s simply practice and asking for corrections. Chinese phonology was harder than any language I had learned before, but not excessively so. It just takes practice.

Tones, on the other hand, are something that require continued study well beyond a beginner stage. I agree with John Pasden’s critique of Chinese language education as assuming tones are a basic language feature, rather than something which can stymie even fairly advanced learners.

The other reason tones change learning strategy isn’t just their weirdness for non-tonal language speakers, but something Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese told me in a conversation: Most new Chinese learners neglect tones because, for simple speech, they’re rarely that important—natives can correctly deduce which tones should be there because your sentences are simple. However, as you get to more advanced levels of dialog and conversation, mixing up a tone can change the meaning of a sentence completely or be confusing to the listener.

It’s not possible to get pronunciation perfect from the first day, but I do think their long-term importance, their short-term difficulty and the ease of fossilizing bad habits of speech means that some amount of blind tone drills (both listening and production) should be a regular part of the learning schedule until well into Chinese.

How Vocabulary Changes Learning Strategy

European languages tend to share common root vocabulary from Greek or Latin. Even when the languages are not even related, such as English and Hungarian, there is overlap in technical vocabulary (guess what the Hungarian word politika means?).

Chinese is an interesting case because it has very few easily recognizable loanwords from English. Not only does its completely separate linguistic roots preclude the connections you can make between European languages, but even the words that have come directly from English are often barely recognizable. Winston Churchill’s surname is pronounced Qiūjí’ěr in Chinese (if you’re not familiar with pinyin, click here and use Google Translate to pronounce it for you).

My feeling is that the dissimilarity between English loanwords and their English pronunciation is in part because of the fact that Chinese uses a non-phonetic script (imagine if every word from another language had to be described using English syllables), and because tones need to be added where they don’t exist in English.

These two features, linguistic dissimilarity and few recognizable loanwords, means that learning Chinese is about as close as learning a language from scratch as you can get.

Side note: This isn’t all bad news. Chinese culture, and in particular their writing system, was once the standard in much of East Asia. As a result, learning Chinese words can make learning other languages easier. Some linguists suggest as much as 30-60% of Korean’s vocabulary may be Chinese in origin, which means learning Chinese can serve as an investment in other Asian languages the way learning French or Greek would help you learn other European ones.

From my experience these differences change how learning Chinese progresses compared to Spanish. With Spanish, after mastering basic vocabulary, it wasn’t usually considerably more difficult to start talking about complex subjects (politics, science, art) since many of these technical words are similar in English.

Chinese doesn’t have that advantage, so while I can talk about everyday things and common topics fairly easily, the more esoteric the topic, the more I rely on a dictionary to make my point.

My feeling is that this also shifts the emphasis on Chinese in a more input-based direction. In learning Chinese, I’ve found two tools useful:

  1. Anki’s MCC (Mastering Chinese Characters) decks. These are great because they have thousands of example sentences with crisp audio. Although they aren’t ideal if your only goal was spoken Chinese (the sentences are somewhat more formal and written vernacular) I’ve found it an incredible resource for expanding my vocabulary when I was content to approach that more passively with Spanish.
  2. ChinesePod. In particular, subscribe to their mid-level subscription and download dialog-only files. The real podcasts can get kind of lengthy and I find my attention wandering. Instead I prefer to take their dialogs, listen once or twice and then meticulously go through and parse out every word or grammatical construction I missed. I can usually do 8-10 per hour using this approach, so it’s great for building vocabulary while practicing listening skills.

Are these kinds of drills necessary for learning Chinese? I can’t say for sure, but I feel that without them, it would take a lot longer to break into the upper-intermediate level where you can start learning directly from books, television or music.

How Characters Change Learning Strategy

Writing and reading has been a secondary priority for me here in China. While I was originally not going to invest any time at all into learning the characters until I reached conversational fluency, a few things made me change my mind:

  1. Anki’s MCC decks are good for both character recognition and vocabulary/grammar/listening practice. Although one could redesign a better deck if only spoken comprehension was the goal, using this resource as-is has been pretty effective.
  2. Characters are a good way of linking vocabulary. In the beginning, I struggled a lot with the extreme homophony of Chinese. Knowing the characters in isolation and then using those building blocks to think about words means that I can keep concepts separate that only differ by a tone.
  3. Reading and writing, while not a short-term goal, is definitely a long-term goal. Therefore, even if characters slows down my progress somewhat in speaking Chinese, I don’t think it hurts my long-term chances of becoming fully fluent.

To that end, using almost exclusively Anki’s MCCs, I’ve learned roughly 1300 characters. By the time the three months are done, I’m expecting that to be around 2000. I also tried out Skritter briefly to get a sense for handwriting and to learn radicals. Thus far, I have learned to handwrite around 450 or so (although half of these are the Kangxi radicals rather than independent characters).

Estimates on the number of characters needed to be functionally literate vary from as little as 2000 to as much as 5000. By these estimates, I’m likely only a third of the way there in terms of character recognition (which is only part of reading Chinese, since most words are polysyllabic and whose meaning only vaguely corresponds to their component characters).

The biggest impact of characters on learning Chinese is short-term. For a long time in China you’ll be illiterate. You might be able to have conversations without issue, but anything more complicated than text messages or emails is often out of reach. Learning Spanish (or even Korean) one takes for granted that literacy is only a small extra cost on top of learning to speak, whereas with Chinese it is nearly the amount of work of learning the spoken language itself.

To handle the characters in Chinese I’ve seen two strategies advocated for:

Strategy One: Ignore All Characters Until You’re Conversationally Fluent

This is the strategy that Vat is using while we’re in China. It’s the strategy advocated by respected linguist and Sinologist Victor Mair. It’s also the one Benny used while learning Chinese, and what he suggested to me when I asked him for advice before attempting my own version of an intense Chinese-learning burst.

In learning Chinese, I can definitely see advantages to this approach. It simplifies the task of learning considerably and avoids students getting bogged down memorizing characters when they should really be practicing conversations. Most natives I’ve spoken with tend to balk at this approach, until you remind them that no Chinese person has ever learned characters before he could already speak Chinese.

If you’re not particularly interested in learning to read and write, or you find the idea of learning characters mildly terrifying, this is the strategy I’d suggest. There are some weaknesses, but I think it’s probably the best fit for most learners.

Strategy Two: Emphasize Character Learning from the Beginning

The other strategy, used heavily by textbook authors, is to make you learn a bunch of characters from the first day. This pedagogical style is even more prevalent in China where I’ve even seen beginner textbooks that have students reading over full dialogs in characters without pinyin.

This latter strategy often suggests practicing handwriting characters until the students can write full sentences in characters with a pencil and paper.

My verdict is that the second strategy is almost certainly a mistake (unless you just really like characters and have no interest in conversing in Mandarin). However, I’ve personally found I don’t lean as far as other advocates of the no-characters approach to learning.

Instead, I think characters are something worth learning if they’re used as a backup to the spoken language. Putting some light amount of character recognition has helped me remember vocabulary more easily, separate homophones and near-homophones mentally and has been useful in the inevitable situations where recognizing characters is required (even if full literacy is still a ways off). Learning characters does make more work, but it has been useful in combating those short-term problems with the spoken language and will, of course, be useful when I eventually want to read books in Chinese.

I also sense that characters shouldn’t be learned in isolation. Seeing characters when reading ChinesePod transcripts or MCC deck example sentences is great since you’re forming a link between character and spoken language.

Expectations for Learning Chinese

In comparison to the difficulties I foresaw learning Chinese, I feel that learning Chinese mostly met my expectations. It’s harder, but if you’re interested in learning about the largest, oldest and one of the most powerful languages and cultures in the world, I think it is definitely worth the extra effort.

Aside from the points noted above, Chinese does largely conform to my experience learning languages: as close to full immersion as possible is the best way to go, start using the language as soon as possible, don’t speak English. The difference is that compared to Spanish, I’d probably budget more time to reach the same level of speaking ability.

Interestingly, I believe Chinese is actually somewhat more exploitable than Spanish for rapid-learning methods. With Spanish, everything aside from the no-English rule, minor tutoring and a grammar book seemed unnecessary; what mattered was immersion. With Chinese, there’s a lot more room for improvement to be made through listening and pronunciation drills, visual mnemonics and active practice.

My Chinese and Future Progress

In terms of my own Chinese, based on my original goal of wanting to be able to have conversations in Chinese without considerable difficulty, I’ve already passed the lower-bound of that benchmark some time ago. I’ve now had more than a few multi-hour length conversations without needing to check for a translation more than a handful of times.

My next step is increasing my vocabulary and recognition to smooth my conversations and hopefully graduate to being able to watch television shows and movies and understand most of the dialog. I’ve also signed up to write the HSK 4 (China’s supposed equivalent of the B2 language proficiency exam) in Shanghai in one month.

Unlike my other languages, Chinese will probably require continued study (as opposed to simply continued use) to reach a truly proficient, long-term level. However, I think making the adjustments to the learning approach I’ve noted above, and a good work ethic, a strong foundation for the language can be achieved in only a few months.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2014 05:24

Most of the time I talk about learning better, I try to focus on long-term habits. Build good habits over months and years, and they’ll serve you for the rest of your life. Even if you fall off the wagon, it’s easier to rebuild old habits than construct fresh ones.

Sometimes, however, you won’t have that luxury. You’ll have a big test or deadline which you need to learn a lot, fast.

In this article, I’m going to share the strategy I used both when tackling the roughly four-fold pace of the MIT Challenge and currently, learning to speak Chinese over three months. What makes this strategy powerful is that it is the opposite of how most people approach tough learning deadlines, and why they eventually succumb to procrastination or burnout.

Burnout and Procrastination, Symptoms of a Poor Strategy

The typical student’s approach to a looming deadline is something like this: force yourself to spend all your time in the library, eliminate all social activities and fun, beat yourself up for wasting time or getting distracted.

It’s a common pattern because its a reinforcing cycle. You start getting distracted, so you force yourself to buckle down and spend more time studying. This drains you more, making it easier to get distracted, which guilts you into spending even more time in isolation. This generally continues until you’re either operating at very low levels of your peak efficiency, or you’re burned out and have given up.

What’s hard for these students to realize is that they can learn more, by spending less time studying. (Or, more accurately, less time guilting themselves into studying since in the unfocused haze of semi-work, very little studying is actually occurring.)

How to Study Hard Without Burning Out

The key of the method is simple: constrain your studying hours, but make them higher quality.

Here are the three steps, which I’ll explain in detail:

  1. Set concrete studying hours that leave room for rest time.
  2. Switch passive learning tasks to active ones.
  3. Build a comfortable, but distraction-free working environment.

Step One: Concrete Studying Hours with Ample Rest Time

The first mistake is believing you can study non-stop. This is a dangerous temptation, and the bigger the exam or deadline looms, the easier it is to fall into this trap.

I’m not going to tell you that the optimal amount of hours of studying should be leisurely. If you want to study hard, you’re going to have to work hard. But think of it like running a race, there’s a hard pace you can stick to and a pace that goes too fast and you run out of air. Separating the two is a fine line.

The easiest way to separate that line is to set concrete hours that allow you enough time to rest. I personally find working 5 days per week 8am-6pm plus an additional half day (with breaks, of course), to be about the best I can do for more than several weeks at a time. I used this schedule throughout the MIT Challenge, and I’m using it now while learning Chinese.

Notice that this schedule means every evening is free as is one whole weekend day (and half of another). This means that going out to meet friends, exercising or anything else you do for fun doesn’t need to be sacrificed.

If you’re currently studying hard, feeling burned out, and are trying to switch strategies, your transition workload needs to be even less than this. I might do only half as much for a few days or a week until I build back up to this schedule. If you’re winded when running, you need to go back to a slower pace for awhile before you return to your sustainable pace.

Step Two: Switch Passive Learning Tasks to Active Ones

I’ve used the running metaphor to explain why setting concrete hours is essential. However, the running analogy fails because mental and physical tasks are fundamentally different. If you’re in a race and start feeling you’re running too fast, you have to slow down. If you’re in a mental race and start feeling you’re pushing too much, your body can compensate by wrecking your focus.

When your focus is damaged, your learning speed is curtailed significantly, but you’re still putting in a lot of effort. This means you may be putting in the same effort as someone who stuck with a concrete schedule, but you’re learning far less.

The next step to combating this problem is to switch your tasks from passive to active ones. These will strain you more, so if you’re transitioning from a burnout schedule to a fixed one, you’ll need to set even more minimal hours for the first few days. However, the benefit of active tasks is that they force you in a higher efficiency direction with your studying.

Activeness is a spectrum so there aren’t two categories of studying tasks that are labelled either passive or active. Rather, some tasks are higher-focus, higher-efficiency than others.

Self-testing is an active task. Re-reading notes is a passive one. The Feynman Technique is an active task. Skimming is a passive one. A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out you’re incorrect, it isn’t an active task. I would make some limited exceptions to that list (some mnemonic techniques have no feedback, but are mentally demanding and fairly efficient) but it’s a small one.

Step Three: Build a Comfortable, Yet Distraction-Free, Work Environment

This step is obvious: if you work where you have distractions, you’ll get distracted. I do my non-conversational studying of Chinese at a cafe where I don’t have internet access. If you need to use the internet for part of your work, use an app like SelfControl to selectively block all websites that aren’t work-related. If you can go without internet altogether, even better.

Put your phone on silent, or don’t even bring it while you’re studying. Go somewhere your friends aren’t (although I picked my studying location in Chinese so that it can occasionally facilitate random Chinese conversations, it’s the exception which proves the rule).

Even though you don’t want to be distracted, don’t worry about taking breaks. The ideal should be to create an environment where breaks are boring (but still relaxing) so you don’t get tempted into giving up studying. Choosing break activities that fit that criteria in advance can help you sustain your focus over an entire day.

During the MIT Challenge, I’d often go for short walks or just sit quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes. These are good breaks because they allow you to give your mind a short breather, but they are boring enough that returning to your original task doesn’t require willpower. Surfing the internet, chatting with friends or playing phone games aren’t good break activities.

My frequency of breaks depends a lot on the type of activity I’m doing. I took frequent breaks during the MIT Challenge because the hard math problems and long reading assignments were difficult to sustain focus for more than an hour or so. During this language challenge I rarely take long breaks because the mental task of grammar exercises or vocabulary building is less taxing.

How to Transition from a Burnout Schedule to an Effective One

Despite knowing these lessons deeply, I even recently succumbed to the temptation to work too much. I built my language-learning routine around immersion, which meant nearly constant engagement with the language. That worked with Spanish, where studying time itself was rather minimal in comparison to simply interacting, but it broke down when applying it to Chinese.

My problem wasn’t the No-English rule, but rather, trying to fill each day with too many activities that were mentally demanding. Always listening to ChinesePod instead of music, only watching Chinese television and media, studying every day instead of taking a day off each week. By the time I noticed I was about to hit a wall, I had a Chinese-language presentation looming in the following few days I couldn’t get out of, and it burned me. I probably lost a few days of good studying time and possibly more in lowered efficiency due to my mistake.

But mistakes happen, and once I realized I had fallen into that trap, I redesigned a new studying schedule which followed the above rules and eased into it over a few days. Now I’m back on track and I’m getting at least as much studying done as I had been before, but I’m not exhausting myself to do it.

Sometimes you can fall into a burnout schedule but not recognize it for what it is. This can happen when you aren’t making enough progress towards your goal (or are procrastinating so much) that you feel you should be working more, not less. In these cases, it can sometimes be hard to recognize that your inability to stay focused is a symptom of unconstrained work hours, not laziness.

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Date: Tuesday, 01 Apr 2014 07:30

I occasionally get emails asking about various ways to improve cognitive performance: supplements, brain-wave audio CDs, drugs or therapies. Usually I refuse to comment on them because I don’t know the research, but I’m generally skeptical.

However, there is one category of brain-enhancing products I will comment on: braintraining exercises. These are games or puzzles with the sole purpose of improving cognitive function. They’re also one of the silliest ideas I’ve ever heard of.

Why Train Your Brain with the Fake Stuff?

First off, I’m going to ignore the entire issue of whether brain training exercises actually improve cognitive performance. Although I’ve seen some reports that they can improve working memory, I also have doubts about how generally it can transfer to new situations.

But let’s ignore this fact for a moment and focus on an even better reason to ignore these products: the world is full of interesting, challenging and useful mental problems—why devote your precious time to solving fake ones?

Why not use that time instead to learn Chinese, physics, computer programming, history, economics, calculus or millions of other engaging skills. Many of these have similar cognitive stresses that the brain games supposedly induce, plus the problem of transfer goes away since these subjects are actually useful.

If the reason for the game instead of exercising your mind by learning something real is that learning real things is boring, that’s fine. But, in that case, why not just admit you want a mentally stimulating game and pick a game for a game’s sake. For the masochists, you can download and try here a version of Scrabble that plays against a nearly perfect computer opponent.

The Gym for Your Mind is the Real World

An analogy I’ve seen is that braintraining games are useful in the same way a gym is useful for building muscle. Although you could train your body just through physical activity, that is often harder to achieve in our modern, sedentary habits.

This analogy breaks down, however, because, if anything, the mental aspects of our modern lives have become more demanding, not less. While it’s possible we’re may be less physically active than our ancestors (although there’s some controversy surrounding this as well), the opportunities for mental engagement have never been higher—both in our entertainment and our self-improvement.

Why pick a brain game when you can train your mind to do something useful and interesting instead?

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Date: Wednesday, 26 Mar 2014 06:29

Out of the thousand articles I’ve written, there are few that I genuinely like. Most of those I feel are mostly correct or useful, upon reflection, are still lacking in a lot of ways. Sometimes they’re too wordy, the research is too sparse or there are obvious counterarguments I ignored.

I feel the same way about all of my books, and all of my products. Since I wrote Learn More, Study Less, several years ago, I’ve done at least five major renovations (although often as different packages, rather than a complete replacement to its predecessor). Even after five generations, I’m still not satisfied with my work, and it will probably take me another few thousand hours of work before I might be.

Looking back at when I did the MIT Challenge, I see the flaws in my design. I can think of dozens of ways that would have make the project more successful, more generalizable to others or more interesting. I’m not finished yet, but I’m sure I’ll look back on this current project with a similar eye for its shortcomings.

Because I live in a Western society, where any lack of self-praise that doesn’t border on oblivious narcissism is somehow an illness that needs to be cured, let me stress: I think this a good attitude to have about your own work.

Too Much Self-Esteem?

If you look throughout history, or across other cultures, it’s hard to see why self-esteem in your own work is currently seen as an indispensable virtue. Eastern cultures historically valued modesty and a focus on process rather than your accolades. Even Western culture’s roots recognize the danger in self-praise: pride did, after all, make the short-list of deadly sins.

Today, self-esteem seems to be the quality one can never have enough of. Almost any problem, from depression to narcissism, somehow stems from not having enough self-esteem. Every successful person is painted as someone with unwavering faith in themselves and their talents.

There’s definitely a point at which, below that, having too low an opinion of your work is crippling. You end up obsessing over details instead of going out into the real world and getting feedback. Maybe you’re below that point, in which case this entire article doesn’t apply to you. I don’t know.

But, I feel, just as there is definitely a lower-threshold where insufficient self-esteem kills your motivation, there’s definitely an upper threshold where it blinds you to feedback. When you think too highly of your ideas and your work, then you can’t see the flaws which should be improved for the next iteration.

Balancing Self-Criticism and Praise

Since knowing exactly where those limits lie is difficult, I’ve found it’s better to employ a rule of thumb: your past work, which needs no motivation since it is already complete, is optimally viewed in a more self-critical light. Your current work, which needs commitment to a plan and less wavering, needs more of your inner motivational speaker.

When I worked on the MIT Challenge, I tried to avoid criticism of the project as much as possible. Not because I knew the criticism wasn’t valid, but because I knew it probably was. My critics had a point: self-grading isn’t perfectly accurate, the value of college has a lot to do with accreditation rather than knowledge, college is about more than just book knowledge, computer science isn’t terribly important to the career of a writer. However, mid-project there’s little you can do with these criticisms other than have them suck away your zeal.

Now that the project is complete, I’m more than happy to entertain those criticisms, and often agree with them to some extent. I don’t need faith because the work is already done—I can instead view my own work with a critical eye, looking for information that can improve the next iteration.

As a blogger, I think the form of this introspection is equally important as its skew. I generally don’t rely on reader feedback (good or bad). Of course, I use it on clear-cut cases of bugs that need to be fixed or features that need to be reworked in a product. Hard data for quantifiable metrics or benchmarking against writers who you feel better you along a specific dimension work well. But the general waves of love-or-hate comments you get as a writer are a terrible proxy for the actual quality of your work.

This last step though, of going through your past work and dismantling all the conviction you built up along the way, isn’t a fun step. It aches to look through the thousands of hours that could be dismissed with a simple objection. Or that a possibly wrong idea has been etched into the thesis of a book.

If your only desire is to feel good about yourself, then, by all means, skip this step. It’s not nearly as fun as being your own biggest supporter. But if your work matters to you on a deeper level than just its emotional or material rewards, I don’t think it’s one you can afford to ignore.

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Date: Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 01:11

I originally wrote this article about learning Portuguese in the last week of our stay in Brazil. Now, more than a month later, we’re finally able to upload the video. Hopefully the nearly one-month lateness of this post doesn’t confuse anyone.


It’s my last week here in Brazil, learning Portuguese. Vat and I landed a little over two months ago in Florianopolis with the goal of not speaking English the entire time. I wanted to share my thoughts on our progress, as well as how it differed from Spain, the first country of our four-part journey.

Overall Language Progress

Before I go into details, I thought I’d cut to the chase. I feel my Portuguese is a solid intermediate level, as is Vat’s. My Portuguese is weaker than my Spanish was after three months (as opposed to ~2 in Brazil), but they’re roughly in the same ballpark in terms of functional ability.

More specifically, I feel I can hold a conversation in Portuguese about most topics, and I can quite easily have one with Vat. I can read books in Portuguese with roughly the same fluency as I could in Spanish. Group conversations and following movies and television are still tricky, but they also were with Spanish after three months.

I’d consider this second leg to be a success, although a qualified one. Learning Portuguese, after Spanish, is a considerably easier task than learning only Spanish (or indeed, the two Asian languages we’ll be tackling next). So while I’m happy with our ability after two months, I still think we could have done better in some aspects.

Comparing Spanish and Portuguese

Although our level of Spanish and Portuguese wound up around the same, the level of effort we put in was quite different.

In Spain, I put quite a bit of emphasis on maintaining a no-English environment, watching television shows in Spanish, reading books in Spanish and listening to music in Spanish. In Brazil, I relaxed those rules and read/watched the shows I wanted to.

As someone who reads/watches a lot on the internet, going no-English in my input was harder than going no-English in my output. That said, I don’t feel the results of the two were the same. Not speaking English dramatically impacted my rate of learning (compared to French, which I neither restricted output nor input), but the further step of restricting output I felt had only a moderate boost.

I sense this was because I was primarily judging myself on my ability to hold conversations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, forcing yourself to hold conversations in a language has a larger impact on your conversational ability than watching movies or reading books. Had my standards been somewhat different (primarily wanting to read literature or watch television) the input/output difference might have reversed.

In Spain, I also studied more, using grammar books to learn the rules of expressing myself. In Brazil, Vat and I went to a regular Portuguese class, but that was the extent of our formal study. As such, I feel I have a slightly better grasp of Spanish grammatical rules than Portuguese.

Why the Change of Strategy?

Our reasons for being lazier in Brazil was partially a chance to relax a bit before tackling Chinese. The other reasons had more to do with work. Vat spent more than half of this trip working nearly full-time processing his grad school applications and editing the video for Spain. I also worked quite a bit more, catching up on some business work that had been getting neglected in Spain.

Given the lack of formal effort put into learning Portuguese, I think we did quite well, which is a testament to the no-English rule. After having tackled three languages, it remains my favorite learning method because of its simplicity and ability to focus your learning energies on what actually matters to you when communicating.

Experience of Living in Brazil

From the beginning of our planning stages, Vat and I decided this trip would be about depth more than breadth. As a result, in Spain we spent over two months in Valencia, and only two weeks traveling. Brazil was even shorter, so we spent the entire time in one place.

I think this kind of travel has tradeoffs. It’s cheaper, less tiring and you get to form deeper friendships. But, the downside is that you don’t get a good survey of what a culture is like in general. We spent all our time in Florianopolis, so I’m not in the best position to comment on what life is like in Rio, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte.

Florianopolis is an island in one of the southern states in Brazil. It’s relatively safe and affluent with forest-carpeted mountains, encircled by miles of natural beaches.

We ended up staying in Barra da Lagoa, a small fishing village on the far side of the island, outside of the main city. It was a great location for surfing, after taking a few lessons, I bought a surfboard to practice during the two months we were there.

I enjoyed the proximity of the beach and the great weather, but I’m more of a city person so the small town life was occasionally frustrating. Withdrawing cash, for example, meant spending an afternoon taking buses to the next city which had the only ATMs.

Being in a small, tourist town, also made it a bit harder to make friendships. Although we had a couple good local friends by the end of our stay, many of the people we met were other travelers, only passing by for a few days. In Spain we had plenty of other foreign friends, but they tended to be exchange students who were staying for as long as we were.

Learning Portuguese from Spanish

The language burden in Brazil was considerably less than it will be in the other three countries, because of the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese. Some linguists classify the two as being dialects of the same language, because they are at least somewhat mutually intelligible.

I didn’t notice the mutual intelligibility in the first week, which I noted here. Perhaps our Spanish wasn’t advanced enough to pick out the similarities, or Peninsular Spanish is simply further away from Brazilian Portuguese, but when we had a couple emergencies, we broke down to speaking English as nobody understood our Spanish.

After spending two months in Brazil, however, I can say that the similarities between the two languages greatly facilitated the learning process. The grammar is more or less the same, especially at basic levels. Where vocabulary differs, there are often systematic differences, meaning you can quickly add a lot of likely vocabulary just by learning a few rules for translating between Spanish and Portuguese.

The biggest worry I had going into Brazil wasn’t learning Portuguese, but forgetting my Spanish. Although Vat and I did bump into this problem, it turned out to be less severe than I had experienced with my French. For one, we got the chance to practice our Spanish semi-regularly with the Argentinians who were also traveling to Floripa.

The recency of learning Spanish also seemed to help, since I could still remember the rules in Spanish, so when they differed in Portuguese I could make a mental note not to transfer the newly learned concept back to my Spanish. With French, I suffered from this more simply because I had forgotten many of the rules formally (I was speaking from habits) which made it more difficult to maintain the barrier between the two languages later.

I think the ultimate solution to picking up a third or fourth language is to maintain some kind of practice schedule for your prior languages. I plan to schedule a half hour each week of Skype in each of the languages I’m learning to prevent them from deteriorating when I return to speaking English.

For those looking to see a longer, unedited look at our ability, you can see an interview we did here in Portuguese. Again, I feel our level is somewhat worse than Spanish, but in the same ballpark.

This time I didn’t try to include our errors in the subtitles, so the lack of subtitled errors shouldn’t lead you to believe our Portuguese is error-free!

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Date: Sunday, 02 Mar 2014 08:53

A little less than two weeks ago, Vat and I arrived in Kunming, China with the goal of not speaking any English. Now that we’re in I wanted to write about life in China and first impressions on learning Chinese.

I wanted to be as thorough as possible documenting the progress in learning Chinese, so for those who are only mildly interested, I’ve divided the article into six parts, which you can skip through:

  1. Why I Was Wrong About China
  2. Life in China
  3. First Impressions on Learning Chinese
  4. My Goals for Chinese
  5. Studying Chinese
  6. Immersion in Chinese

EDIT: When I originally wrote this article, I hadn’t been informed about the Kunming terrorist attack last night. I originally thought about changing my article’s tone to reflect the recent news, but then decided against it. While graphic and tragic incidents like these are horrible, and my sympathies go to the victim’s friends and family, they are, nonetheless rare.

To my, primarily Western, audience, it would seem absurd to form an opinion of Boston (or, more broadly, the US) solely based on their recent tragedy. Similarly, I believe the first impressions I wrote here should stand and that forming an opinion of China or Kunming based on one vivid incident is equally misguided.

That being said, those personally affected by this tragedy have my deepest condolences.

Life in China (or Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Stereotypes)


I have to admit, living in mainland China worried me a little prior to arrival. Of all the countries we planned to visit, it was the place with, by far, the most warnings. Negative stereotypes from friends who had visited here abounded: people aren’t friendly, they dislike Westerners, watch out for scams, the culture is closed, and, my favorite, the conjunction of that people both speak too much and too little English.

I try not to take too much stock in tourist advice, mainly because experiences are so idiosyncratic it is hard to make fair generalizations even after decades of experience. However, the sheer abundance of negative feedback (often from Chinese themselves) did make me wonder whether China would be an uncomfortable grind trying to start in complete immersion.

After arriving, I’m happy to say, I’ve never been to a place which so reversed my expectations. My expectations about China were so thoroughly flipped, that I’m almost embarrassed that I had paid heed to them in the first place.

Culturally, I’ve not found Chinese people to be unfriendly at all. If anything, the novelty of seeing a white and brown guy trying to speak Chinese amuses many people. People have generally been both patient and helpful with us while we moved in.

If people dislike Westerners here, it hasn’t manifested itself in any obvious way yet. In contrast, I’ve met both Europeans and South Americans tell me to my face that they dislike anglophones. If less obvious racism is actually worse in China, I’d guess the reason is that we’re far easier to physically distinguish from the native population.

The only thing approaching a scam we experienced was sharply overpaying for our cab ride from the airport (we only later realized how cheap they actually are). However, to put that in perspective, our cab ride to the airport in Toronto we took the day before cost 3x as much. My sense is that even if cons are prevalent in China, they still only affect a minority of travellers. Being cautious about muggings, pickpockets, scams and tourist traps is probably wise, but it’s worth remembering that they are still rare.

It’s still too early to judge the relative openness of the culture, but from the few people we’ve met, they’ve been eager to offer introducing us to help make friends. I can’t say the same about Brazil, even though it has a famously open culture. This isn’t to make a statement that China is more open than Brazil, merely that there’s a high variance to experiences, so making predictions based on the average is foolish.

As for speaking English, I can say that, for Kunming at least, the vast majority of people have almost zero English ability. If I had been worried that people would just switch to English for me, any worry quickly evaporated on arrival.

As for livability, China is actually quite modern and comfortable. The only amenity our apartment lacks is indoor heating (Spain also lacked this, a problem in countries which are generally warm all the time). Everything is cheap, convenient, and despite the warnings, not particularly low-quality.

In short, basically every stereotype I had about China was either flatly wrong or at least not nearly as severe as it had been described to me.

This isn’t to say visiting China will be a wonderful experience for everyone. Nor is it to say my two weeks of brief exposure constitute a definitive opinion. My first impressions may be wrong. My only point is that travel is idiosyncratic and that we tend to put a lot of weight on secondhand experiences of other people when no other good information is available, even if secondhand experiences are poor predictors of your personal experience.

Culture and Life in China

So what is China actually like? Again, if you’ve learned anything from my previous warning, you’ll take these first impressions with a grain of salt.

First item that stands out is food. I’ve come to the impression that the Chinese eat everything. Although pork, beef, fish and chicken are staples, you can also buy live frogs at the supermarket and chicken feet are a delicacy. Here in Kunming, insects are even an option at some restaurants.

food in China

While some might take the odd menu options as off-putting, I think they add to China’s appeal. After all, nobody is forcing you to eat bee larvea. You can easily get a bowl of chicken soup or some mixed vegetables with rice. But, the diversity means someone with an adventurous palate can really enjoy China.

Development is another huge factor. China has grown so rapidly, so recently, that many things are very modern, despite being quite cheap. This is in contrast to Europe where hundred-year old buildings have charm but are often incredibly poorly designed. Our building, rented more cheaply than in Spain, has video intercom, widescreen television, good internet (for sites not blocked) and a spacious private courtyard.

While this rapid development also has detractions (smog, traffic, density) at least in Kunming I haven’t found any of those to be noticeably worse than in Canada. Because the Chinese are willing to build high-rise residential buildings, I’d say density is even better than in most European cities. Paris is nice, but the 6-storey building limit means every possible square inch is filled up. Nothing is very tall, but you can’t see around a corner leaving a more claustrophobic feel.

My level of Chinese isn’t good enough to get a real sense for the political atmosphere in China, but it seems to be about as present as it is in the States. The truth is, political life just isn’t important to most people as long as their lives are advancing materially (EDIT: I realize the irony in writing this the day after a, likely politically motivated, terrorist attack but once again I assert such actions are still rare, and the generalization still holds). This, I’d argue, is true in both America and China. This isn’t to argue that political liberalism isn’t important, or that people shouldn’t care, merely that political apathy during prosperous times seems to be a common human trait. As my political views are somewhat libertarian, I don’t want to be an apologist for China, but I do think Americans receive a distorted view of the country when daily life is framed in terms of its political ideology.


In short, China was a country I had hesitations about having an extended stay in, and now I’m disappointed I won’t be staying longer.

First Impressions on Learning Chinese

How is learning Chinese compared to Spanish and Portuguese? Harder, but manageably so. That may be a fairly bland statement in the online extremes of Chinese being easy to learning Chinese being the one of the hardest possible things, but I feel it’s a fairly accurate one.

We couldn’t do zero English from the first moment of arrival. We had some miscommunication with our landlord, so we ended up having to speak in English to get settled into our apartment. I’ve also broken the no-English rule on a few other pressing situations, but otherwise I’ve been able to uphold it.

Vat has broken the no-English rule considerably more than I have. A big part of that is Vat’s 25-hours of prior practice time meant he was still lacking core phrases upon arrival. Things like “how do you say ___?” and “how much is it?” needed to be learned (or relearned). Despite that, after every slip, Vat’s quick to get up and try again.

The fact that most people don’t speak English has made our job of immersion much easier. We’ve definitely had some interesting conversations trying to describe basic things. Vat once spent nearly 15 minutes trying to ask someone if they could add chicken to the meal he had ordered. (I admire his ambition in trying to order off-menu items the first week in China)

The hardest part about Chinese is the writing. Living in China is a glimpse at what being illiterate must feel like. Ordering from menus that don’t have pictures is a near impossibility (yes, even with Pleco’s OCR). Ditto reading packages or signs. While my Chinese character recognition is around 500 characters (enough for simple text messages and emails) the vocabulary in menus and packages is advanced, so I likely won’t reach a level where this problem will go away even after three months.


Pronouncing Chinese isn’t too bad. It’s harder than Spanish, given the large array of new phonemes and tones. But most people generally understand us if we speak slowly. I still have a lot of work to do on improving my pronunciation, but it’s not the most pressing problem.

Understanding Chinese people speak is quite difficult. Some of this seems to be the Kunminghua people speak here, leading to an accent that is fairly strong when they speak Mandarin. But most of the difficulty I’d chalk up to a lack of vocabulary. The vocabulary necessary to understand someone is much greater than to communicate the same desires. This is particularly true in Chinese which has fewer markers to separate words and words have no resemblance to English, making it nearly impossible to “guess” the meaning of unknown words.

These descriptions may sound defeatist, but I trust you they’re not. Chinese is hard, but so was Spanish. All of the problems we had with Chinese we also had with Spanish (and to a lesser extent Portuguese). In fact, I’d guess my ability to understand Chinese after two weeks is considerably better than I could understand French, despite having invested a similar amount of time prior to learning.

Overall I feel Chinese is deeply logical and consistent. There’s more to learn, but the additional learning burden is also an access point to deeper cultural richness. Different etymologies, grammar and expressions may be more work, but they are also offer insight into a culture that has mostly grown independently from my own.

So my impressions of Chinese are an acknowledgement of the difficulty, but certainly not an admission that it is impossibly difficult. Given my current rate of progress, I believe my original goal of wanting to be able to hold one-on-one conversations without difficulty is an achievable goal.

How I’m Learning Chinese

My last post was commenting on how I planned to learn Chinese. Two weeks in, I’m still spending a lot of time experimenting. It will probably be near the mid-to-end part of the challenge where I’ve stabilized my routine. That’s fine. Most experiments still teach you a lot, even if you eventually find they’re not the most efficient method.

I’m going to divide the discussion of my learning methods into two parts:

  1. Study
  2. Immersion

Whenever I discuss concepts like these, people come with their own associations to the words. Indeed, I may have used the words differently in different contexts. Therefore I want to be clear about what I mean by each of them so that there isn’t confusion.

By study, I mean deliberate efforts to learn Chinese that are not really using Chinese. This means memorizing vocabulary, doing grammar drills, pronunciation drills, listening to podcasts about Chinese (as opposed to in Chinese), comprehension drills and working with a tutor to deliberately learn a linguistic fact (i.e. not conversing).

By immersion, I mean using the Chinese in real contexts. This means having conversations with tutors, conversations with Vat, speaking to Chinese people, sending and reading messages, deciphering menus and signs, watching television and movies and any of the myriad of smaller exposures in daily life.

Both are important, but study is perhaps more important with Chinese than it was in Spain. In Spain and Brazil, our learning method was 90% immersion, 10% study (perhaps even less). This meant I learned everything through context, trying to interact with people or interact with media.

In China, my goal is to have at least 50% of my time in immersion. As we progress, I hope to increase that to 60%-70%, but that also depends on how able we are to make friends.

Immersion doesn’t become less important in Chinese, rather, studying becomes more valuable. I found everything more than some grammar study to be somewhat unnecessary in Spanish. Why memorize vocabulary when you can learn most of what you need to know by interacting in context?

Study is a little more valuable in Chinese simply because you start off at a lower point. Memorizing vocabulary is a little more useful because there’s so much basic vocabulary you lack at the start. Drilling pronunciation is more useful because there are more new phonemes and tones are quite difficult to master.

That being said, this is a marginal shift, not a revolution. Learning Chinese compared to Spanish isn’t a wholly different endeavour. Yes, it’s more work in a few key areas, and some of those areas benefit from deliberate practice. But, the notion that immersion or active engagement with the language is good advice for Spanish but bad for Chinese strikes me as absurd.

John Pasden, linguist at SinoSplice.com and head of a Chinese learning consultancy, offered me some private advice on my learning methods. While most of his thoughts were in line with my previous thinking, it was useful hearing his stress on the immersion side of learning. I think many Chinese learners, caught up in the difficulty of tones or the array of unknown vocabulary, can use that as an excuse to avoid regularly using the language. I’m trying to avoid falling into that trap myself by trying to make sure the immersion half stays constant or grows during my time in China.

Before I look into how my studying and immersion time are devoted, I need to reflect on my specific goals for Chinese, since these define my activities. If your immediate goals are different, therefore, then my plan probably won’t be ideal.

Goals for Chinese

I have two main goals for my Chinese during these three months. The first, and biggest, is being able to hold a one-on-one conversation without significant difficulty for either party.

Defining significant difficulty is hard, and I refuse to do it. Saying I’ve only succeeded if I understood every word or never needed to use a dictionary is too strong—I don’t have that in Spanish, and I feel almost none of my Spanish conversations are remotely difficult. However, my current level of conversational Chinese isn’t nearly smooth enough to meet this standard. I get lost for words. I have to make lengthy look-ups of a dictionary because I’m missing vocabulary and also the ability to describe the missing vocabulary. So my goal is a subjective one, but subjective goals are okay too.

I consider the one-on-one conversation to be the benchmark of intermediate language learning success because it greatly expands what you can do. Before this level, nearly everything is a struggle. After this level, there are still many advanced hurdles to summit (following group conversations, watching television and movies effortlessly, comedy, etc.) but you can still draw enormous personal value from your language level.

My secondary goal is to have the best pronunciation possible in three months. This is also a subjective goal. Tones and accent reduction isn’t something you just learn once. It will be almost impossible for me to have a near-native accent after only three months, even if I made it my exclusive priority (i.e. I just parroted preformed sentences).

Instead, my goal is to have good tone and phoneme understanding with decent pronunciation. By pronunciation understanding, I mean that when I correctly remember the tones and speak slowly, I can get it right almost every time. That is, a Mandarin speaker shouldn’t have difficulty guessing a word if I’m being deliberate about it.

That being said, understanding is different than practice. I have a good understanding of gender agreement in Spanish, but I still mix it up in rapid speech. When I ask Spanish speakers to correct me, gender agreement problems are the most common mistake I make. I expect, even with strong tone understanding, I’ll still mix it up when speaking quickly, but that having this understanding allows me to self-correct my errors more frequently and pronounce things properly when I know there might be confusion. Beyond that, perfection is just years of practice.

My reasoning for wanting to work on pronunciation are threefold. First, pronunciation is essential to being perceived as speaking the language well, particularly over short conversations. I’d like to be able to strike up a conversation in Mandarin in Canada, and if my pronunciation is bad, the person is almost undoubtedly going to respond in English (because they perceive me, correctly or incorrectly, to be a weak speaker).

Second, pronunciation is a very interesting study in the process of learning languages. In European languages, I mostly fell into the pronunciation. I had an accent, but usually there were only one or two phonemes that gave me difficulty. Studying pronunciation in Chinese, a phonemically difficult language, should give me a wealth of tools for accent reduction in my other languages.

Finally, vanity. I know I’ll be producing a video at the end of this project where the most obvious aspect of my level of fluency will be my pronunciation. I’d hate for all my work to hold a conversation in Chinese be dismissed because my tones sounded funny.

How I’m Building Conversation and Pronunciation Through Study

My current studying approach lines up surprisingly nicely with my original plans. (Although this is only at my current, elementary level. Things will necessarily change as I progress).

My daily studying is divided into:

  • 90-120 minutes for MCC and HSK vocab list (Mastering Chinese Characters, an Anki deck, which, despite its name, is actually quite good for listening comprehension, vocabulary building and grammar patterns, not just characters)
  • 30-60 minutes pronunciation drills. (Right now, I’m focused mostly on tone pairs, although I do sentence-level practice during my Anki decks.)
  • 30-60 minutes listening drills. (Take dialog-only ChinesePod podcasts and try to transcribe them. Good for building vocabulary but also recognizing listening mistakes. I hope to move onto more difficult content as my vocabulary grows)
  • 30 minutes writing exercise (mostly to practice grammar)
  • 2 hours of tutoring (I’m including tutoring in both study and immersion, since it is a mix)

In total, it works out to be around six hours on a good day. I’m not perfect, and not every day I get to everything. Today and yesterday, for example, I fell ill with a bad cold so my output has been less.

My tasks are currently focused on two instrumental goals which I believe are holding back my Chinese level: vocabulary and pronunciation.

Building Vocabulary

Early on in the first week, I did some listening drills since I found it quite hard to understand Chinese. I was hoping that I might get a hint as to whether I was mishearing particular tones and phonemes so that I could make an adjustment.

After graphing my mistakes, I failed to see any obvious patterns. Indeed, if I listened to the recordings more than once, I almost never mixed up the phonemes. I did mix the tones up more frequently, but rarely in any consistent way.

However, this exercise was useful since I noticed something, seemingly obvious, but that I had missed: my ability to note tones and phonemes was near perfect for words I understood. Indeed, around half my mistakes were from over-interpretation, believing I heard a familiar word when it was actually an unfamiliar one.

The solution here is obvious: more vocabulary. From a computer science perspective, my matching algorithm was weak not because it was biased, but because I had a lack of data.

Building vocabulary isn’t an easy task. It involves a lot of work, some memorization, lots of exposure and a decent amount of making connections and contexts to secure the information.

My MCC deck was already quite good for vocabulary building, since it had whole sentences. Compared to when I first started processing the deck, I’ve started repeating the whole sentences and decomposing them to identify words and grammatical patterns. That’s helped me learn countless words, including many that I wasn’t explicitly trying to study.

I like MCC, but I also like diversification of input sources. Each source has its own biases, so having a couple decent quality input sources beats having only one.

The way I wanted to pursue vocabulary was by frequency. So I decided to add two types of drills which would also help me build vocabulary during my studying sessions. Both of these were roughly sorted by frequency so that, along with MCC, I’d have three different sources giving me high-frequency vocabulary and hopefully avoiding biases of any particular source.

The first was the HSK vocabulary list. HSK is Chinese’s equivalent to the European CEFR exams. Each of its six levels comes with a vocabulary list of representative vocabulary one should know at each level. Therefore, it represents a good source of high frequency vocabulary.

I got this list of tone-sorted HSK vocab here. My first step was to filter out all the words I recognized. (Note: recognized isn’t the same as remembered. I only wanted to study words I’d never heard of, not words I’d heard of but didn’t get correctly in a test because presumably those words were already embedded in my other studying methods). I did this by putting Google Translate’s meaning in the adjacent column and adding a mark next to each word that I had never seen before. I did this for all of HSK’s levels 1-4, since they represent fairly high-frequency words.

Once I had finished, I noted roughly 450 words I didn’t recognize. Unfortunately, relying on Google translate to is a lousy way to learn vocabulary. It’s often wrong, and when it isn’t wrong, it often misleads the meaning of the word by a lack of context. To learn these words, I wanted to pair them with example sentences.

I made a quick and dirty Python script that automatically stripped example sentences, pinyin and English translations from an online dictionary and parsed it together into an Anki deck. Now I had a way of learning all the vocabulary I was missing from HSK’s 1-4 vocab lists, with example sentences for context.

The second way to expand vocabulary by frequency was going through ChinesePod’s dialog-only files. ChinesePod is great for passive study (I put their full podcasts on my iPod for use while walking around or at the gym), but it’s rather slow if you just want to build vocabulary. Using their dialog-only files, I’d first listen, try to transcribe and then explore the dialog to fill any missing vocabulary.

I like this method for two reasons. One, it introduces vocabulary through the audio channel first. It’s easy to study written lists of vocabulary, but actually picking those words in fluent audio is a slightly different task. Second, by listening to the dialog and only then going through the meaning, I’m doing active, rather than passive exposure. Learning is done best through self-testing, not passive review.

These three methods give me three, fairly direct ways of adding vocabulary. This, of course, isn’t an isolated method. All of this gets pushed back into     immersion, which is essential and can’t be ignored. My biggest weakness with my pre-China study was a lack of immersive practice, not a lack of vocabulary building.

Improving Pronunciation

Beyond vocabulary, my second push is for better pronunciation. I do this by trying to do an hour of drills every day (again, along with immersive practice). I don’t do them every day, but I hope that after three months I’ll be able to log at least 50 hours of deliberate practice on this front, along with hundreds of hours of passive practice.

My main activity right now is doing tone pair drills. I’m fairly good at doing individual tones, but most people can do individual tones with very little instruction. The hard part is being able to say tones in rapid succession, and to do that you need to practice switching tones. This is really where tonal languages differ from English, and where most practice is needed.

I’ve heard some people dislike tone pairs, opting for full-sentence practice. I agree, getting sentence rhythm is more important than simply matching pairs of tones. After all, a given sentence has many tones and not all of them are stressed equally (or at all) in natural speech. If you only practice tone pairs, you’ll have a misleading view of how Mandarin sentences sound.

That being said, I subscribe to the deliberate practice view on this problem. The way to get better at a skill is to break it down into its atomic components, master those and then slowly build up to a more complex representation. The time to give up tone pairs is when you’re doing them nearly perfectly.

Tone pairs, I believe, also help build tonal understanding. That’s the ability to perform something deliberately and carefully, even if you aren’t as strong in practice. Knowing what a 3-2 sounds like, in its ideal form, means that even if it is sometimes downplayed in unstressed parts of speech, I know which mistakes I’ve made when I’ve made them.

Right now I’m still only getting 70-80% on tone pair drills done at a speaking pace and my ability is even lower for unknown words. I think another 10-15 hours of practice should be enough to have that near 95-98%, which means that I can more easily recognize and fix my mistakes in actual speech.

The problem with actual speaking situations is that the brain’s working memory is incredibly limited. You can only hold a few things in your mind at a given time, so you can only focus on one or two things that require deliberate effort.

For Spanish, I was constantly juggling the grammatical rules. For every sentence I had to make sure that verbs were conjugated for tense, aspect, mood and person, and that nouns and adjectives agreed in gender and number. Eventually these patterns become automatic, but even a slight distraction (say searching for a vocabulary word) would disrupt my ability to maintain one of the other rules.

For Chinese, I’m constantly juggling pronunciation rules. Grammatical rules mostly come in the form of word order and word choice, so while I’m still learning these, they are simpler than in Spanish. Instead, I’m constantly thinking about which tones a word has, making sure my ch/sh/zh sounds don’t blur with my q/x/j sounds, or trying to maintain a distinction between -eng/-ang or -in/-ing. Adding to this the difficulty of correctly parsing word order or finding a difficult to remember vocabulary word means my pronunciation suffers in practice.

Pronunciation drills alleviate this problem somewhat because your default pronunciation becomes the correct pronunciation. When confused by vocabulary, you can think about pronunciation less because your default way of speaking is closer to correct.

I’m also hoping to invest a bit of tutoring time each class in getting feedback on my pronunciation drills, however, at the moment my first goal of conversational fluency dominates. Getting 15-20 minutes of feedback each week should probably be more than enough to occupy 4-5 hours of subsequent drills.

Other Deliberate Study

Other pieces of deliberate study include listening to ChinesePod (mostly as a passive activity, since the pace is quite reasonable) and doing occasional written exercises. I don’t want to overdo writing, since it is the furthest removed from my immediate goals. However, writing is a good way to drill grammar, since tones and vocabulary aren’t a problem (you can always look a word up). Chinese readers can see my first two entries I did on iTalki’s notebook, which many have already corrected. My hope is to write 2-3 per week, so that I can get grammatical feedback on more complex thoughts.

How I’m Learning Conversation and Pronunciation Through Immersion

I like to write about studying techniques since they are easily analyzable. However, studying isn’t as important as immersion in language learning. Many people seem to think this doesn’t apply to Asian languages. That somehow to bulk of vocabulary, weird grammar or pronunciation rules make them exceptions. I disagree.

Instead, I feel the importance of immersion is somewhat larger with Asian languages. European languages, owing to their similar structure to English and often similar vocabulary, an uninformed guess about the meaning of a sentence or how to express an idea is often accurate. Asian languages require more feedback, since your intuitions are more likely incorrect.

Secondly, because immersion is harder in Asian languages, I think that means the pressure to use immersion should be higher. It’s very easy to sit on your couch and do Anki drills, praising yourself for the extra vocabulary you’ve “memorized”. However, if you can’t hold a real conversation or understand a real dialog, what’s the point? There’s plenty of ways you can escape some of the worst biases that studying leads to, but it’s almost impossible to escape all of them. The only way to get real feedback is to be in real situations.

Now, by immersion I simply mean using the language. True immersion may only be possible in the target country. However, having conversations with Skype, or through meet-ups, watching native-language television shows, music, podcasts and movies are options available to anyone, anywhere.

My studying approach is quite detailed, but I’m pushing myself to spend at least half of my time interacting as I am studying. I’m doing this, even though I can’t understand basically any television or movie. Despite the fact that most conversations with native speakers are tremendously difficult. Even though extended conversations with native speakers who can’t help me out with missing vocabulary are often impossible.

Studying is hard work, but it’s easy to do. You just have to sit at your desk and put in the hours. Immersion isn’t hard work, but it’s hard to do. You have to go outside your comfort zone, get embarrassed, sit through meaningless noise and deal with situations that have zero positive feedback.

I’m using several methods to push immersion at a beginner level of Chinese, and I’m also trying to transition to some harder methods that I hope will become more feasible as my level improves.

Conversations with Tutors

The backbone of my immersion is holding conversations with my tutors. This is more important than listening practice, since listening immersion doesn’t give me pronunciation feedback and tends to focus on slightly different vocabulary. This is also more important than conversing with Vat, since both coming from English, we tend to make similar mistakes or at least fail to notice mistakes in each others’ speech.

My first week of conversations with tutors was a predictable grind. I refused to speak in English, but my expressive ability was quite low so I found it hard to have meaningful dialog. My Skype tutors would quickly revert to the typical Chinese pedagogical style of dictation and drills, since I didn’t have the linguistic ability to push the lesson in a conversational direction.

After two weeks, I’m now at the point where I can keep the lessons conversational and actually have meaningful conversations about everyday things. With the help of Google translate to fill in some missing words, I’ve had conversations about Chinese teas, travel, movies, climate and cultural differences.

I’m still a ways away from truly deep conversations I’d consider essential to my success in China. Talking about art, learning, life philosophy, books, religion or other deeper topics are something I can do comfortably in Portuguese, French and Spanish, but are still beyond me in Chinese.

However, by holding regular one-on-one conversations (2 hours per day) with native speakers, I guarantee that I’m getting feedback and can see progress on my main goal of holding one-on-one conversations.

Conversations with Vat

The gap between our speaking ability was largest in Chinese, where I had put in four times as much preparation as Vat. Additionally, I’m putting in heavy hours to learn Chinese as well as possible. Vat is also investing a lot of time learning Chinese, but since he’s also preparing the video, he’s spending quite a bit of time filming and trying to capture life in China.

Despite this gap, speaking with Vat is still a great opportunity to practice. Speaking with native can help with some issues, but speaking with non-natives or beginners can also be helpful, because you can speak more slowly, they are more patient and you can have a dialog about what you’re learning. Vat and I have tried to record semi-daily conversations, as we did in Spain and Brazil, which you can listen to here. Note: it’s taking us a bit longer to get these uploaded, since we can’t access SoundCloud from here in China, however we’ll be uploading them as soon as possible.

Interacting with Locals

Another essential tool any new language is being able to have basic interactions with local people. Things like ordering food, getting directions, asking for particular items, making reservations, etc. While I think many language learning guides mistakenly overemphasize this part of language learning at the beginning stages, it’s still an invaluable way to practice.

I’ve tried to make it a habit to ask a question or probe a little in my everyday interactions with people. This is particularly hard for me because it’s something I don’t do in Canada. I prefer to browse than to ask someone for help, and this feeling is magnified when I’m concerned they won’t understand my request.

However, in the interests of language learning, I’ve decided to push myself in this regard. This is a great way to build practical vocabulary and can give you a chance to test your speaking ability with complete strangers (who haven’t adapted to your accent yet).

Watching Television and Movies

A third source of immersion is watching television and movies. I’m still at a point where I can’t understand most of the dialog. However, I do pick up words and phrases. More importantly, you get used to a rhythm of speech which filters into your own conversation.

I don’t put much priority on this part of language learning, at my current level, for two reasons. First, the level of real dialog is considerably above my current understanding. While foreseeably, grinding through watching natural dialog for years could create fluency, its hardly the most efficient stage at the beginning. The amount of learned words and phrases is dwarfed by those that you miss entirely.

Second, television and movie dialog tends to be somewhat removed from real speech. This means you learn words, but not necessarily those that are most useful to you. I remember watching some dubbed Star Trek episodes in Spanish and I learned the words tripulación (crew) and alférez (ensign), I can say with certainty I’ve never used these words in a single conversation.

Watching television and movies is probably a better step at an intermediate level, when you want a low-effort way to start picking up lots of lower-frequency words.

Humility and the Lengthy Journey Ahead

Someone once said that learning Chinese was a lesson in humility. While I admit to the difficulties, I still believe I’ll reach my goals in three months.

What I am realizing, however, is how much more Chinese there is to learn. Going from holding one-on-one conversations comfortably to true fluency is a huge task that requires years of exposure. While I feel the same is true with my Spanish, where there is still a lot to learn, China’s vastly different origins means there is still enormous cultural richness I won’t be able to touch in just three months.

I don’t see this as a detraction of Chinese, but as a positive. It means that, even after this trip to China, I’ll have plenty of reason to go back, improve and explore.


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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Thursday, 13 Feb 2014 23:30

Normally I share my learning experiences after the fact. I’ve written before about tackling MIT’s calculus, Spanish, linear algebra, finance and other non-academic learning tasks.

This time, however, I wanted to do things a little differently.

I want to share my thinking process before going to learn Chinese. Then, once we land and the three months progress, I can see how well my predictions met reality and how different my original strategy differed from the one I eventually settled upon.

The Futility and Necessity of Planning

With most of my learning goals, I start with fairly elaborate plans, involving dozens of separate tactics and schedules. Then, after a few weeks, I usually settle on something that only uses one or two of those tactics. The plans are complex and intricate, the reality tends to be simple and pragmatic.

I can remember my original notes when planning for the MIT Challenge. I had planned out 12-hour studying schedules, along with dozens of separate tactics to learn the material. I wound up using closer to 8-hour daily schedules with tactics that boiled down to (1) reading textbooks/watching lectures, (2) doing practice problems, (3) doing Feynman techniques.

The reason for this is straightforward. First, simpler strategies require less willpower to maintain, given the same amount of hours worked. Complex strategies have a mental overhead that, if you’re not suitably compulsive about following them, start to overwhelm the actual work.

Second, most tactics don’t work. Although I sell a course with dozens of tactics, 95% of them don’t work for whatever particular learning goal I’m working towards. That doesn’t mean they’re useless—just that different tactics work for different tasks and figuring out which work for which is a process of experimentation. Plans which start as dozens of tactics get reduced to the few essentials.

Given this, you might rightly ask why I even bother with planning? Why not just try a bunch of stuff out and see what works and what doesn’t? Although that tends to be closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, I still find planning useful for two reasons:

  1. Planning gives you flexibility. I come up with dozens of micro-tactics in advance, so that I have somewhere to turn to when I get stuck. Without these, it’s far easier to hit dead ends.
  2. Planning prepares you mentally. Thinking through what kind of schedule I want to use prepares me for the task of actually executing it. Thinking that I would be studying for 12-hour blocks for months in advance of the MIT Challenge made doing 8-hour blocks a breeze.

Given that, I don’t have high expectations for the eventually accuracy of my Chinese plan. I expect that what I eventually settle on will be less intense in terms of workload and considerably simpler in terms of technique. However, hopefully sharing the exercise with you will showcase my thinking process going into a challenge like this.

Prior Experience with Chinese

No learning project starts from zero. For almost every conceivable subject, there’s prior knowledge you can leverage to build off of. This is one of the tenets of holistic learning, that actively thinking about how knowledge transfers between domains can be enormously useful.

For Chinese, I’m decidedly not starting from zero. I spent 105 hours practicing prior to starting this trip. Over half of that was Anki, which is low-efficiency and low-intensity. Taking the equivalent amount of time in a Chinese class would have taught me far more Chinese, but it also would have been much harder to schedule. For that reason, I think the actual time spent learning Chinese overstates my ability.

Right now, my Chinese is far weaker than my Spanish was prior to arriving in Spain. I can make some basic requests, and with a dictionary and a patient conversation partner, I can express simple ideas. In the ten hours of tutoring I did, only near the end was I reaching a point where I could speak entirely in Chinese, with Google translate, and be understood.

Needless to say, my work in these next three months is cut out for me.

Schedules and Tactics

I typically divide new learning goals into two parts. The first is the schedule I want to use for learning. This is all time management and it is an incredibly important part of the learning process. Devoting insufficient time or making a schedule which is impossible to follow are recipes for disaster.

The schedule I want to use for Chinese is broken by roughly two big constraints, first, tutor availability and second, my social life in China. Both tutoring and social activities are helpful for the learning process, so making a schedule which sacrifices them in the name of getting another hour at a textbook is foolish.

That being said, I still have quite a bit of flexibility with setting my hours for self-study.

My current plan is to spend six hours per day on deliberate study. I imagine roughly two hours per day for private tutoring, two hours for Anki spread throughout the day and another two hours studying grammar, vocabulary or using other methods to improve my weak points in Chinese.

Six hours may not seem like that much in comparison to the 12-hour schedule I planned for the MIT Challenge or eight hours I actually followed. However, this is only for deliberate study. In addition to this, Vat and I are only speaking in Chinese, I’ll be trying to socialize as much as possible and I’ll be trying to watch television, movies or perhaps read simple books in my spare time. Total active and passive study will probably be more like the twelve hours I originally planned for in the MIT Challenge.

My hope is to accomplish the four hours of this which are independent from our tutor’s schedule in the mornings. If we do end up socializing a lot in China at night, I might have to flip this to an afternoon schedule on some days.

Tactics and Learning Technique

I’ve brainstormed a large list of possible tactics for overcoming problems in Chinese. Some of these I’ve read about. Others I’ve merely envisioned as being possibly helpful. A few I’ve actually experimented with in my previous Chinese study and want to continue.

1) Mastering Chinese Characters Anki Deck

My goal for the next three months is not to learn to read Chinese. I don’t expect, once I’m finished, that I’ll be able to read anything more than simple emails or text messages. Street signs, menus, newspapers and books will likely remain out of reach, even after three months.

Instead, my goal is to try to reach a comfortable conversational level in Chinese, hopefully in the same ballpark as we got with Spanish or Portuguese. Learning the thousands of characters necessary for literacy is a somewhat separate task, and I don’t want to split my effort away from being able to have conversations.

That being said, I’m also not going to be allergic to learning characters along the way. If a method helps me learn characters and spoken Mandarin, or even accesses some of the synergies between these two goals, I’m all for it.

MCC is a series of Anki decks I found quite helpful that fits into this category. Ostensibly designed to help you learn the basic few thousand characters, it actually helps a lot with speaking too. It has great audio samples, sentence samples to pick up grammatical patterns and listening exercises on top of the character recognition tasks.

My secondary hope is that the minimal exposure to the characters will also help with my ability to speak. Chinese characters often contain semantic connections (unlike the merely phonetic connections present in alphabetic languages) so the ideal amount of study of characters solely to maximize speaking ability is probably a bit more than zero.

I called this strategy “deep linking” in Learning on Steroids, where you learn more about a topic than is strictly necessary, not trying to memorize the secondary information, but using it to anchor connections within the primary information.

2) Phonology and Speaking Practice

One challenge of Chinese is that it contains many phonemes that aren’t present in English (or Spanish, French or Portuguese). The Chinese “b” and “p” sounds aren’t distinguished in the same way that they are in English, so a word that (in pinyin) is written with a “b” sometimes sounds like a “p” to my ear, and vice versa. Add to this the fact that Chinese uses tones, and pronouncing words properly in Mandarin becomes a far harder task than, say, Spanish.

If accent is a problem, I might spend an hour or so a day working on my pronunciation outside of class. Olle Linge has some good games you can play to work on your tone practice (and presumably could also be used to work on some difficult phoneme distinctions).

A simple method is simply listening to a recording of set phrases, hearing it, recording yourself repeating it, and listening to that recording. Pimsleur works on this principle, but skips the self-recording step. My sense is that if you separate out worrying about remembering words and grammar, and focus entirely on how to pronounce certain word combinations, you can train those habits of speech more effectively.

Of course, speaking practice with a native speaker to correct you is ideal. However, I’ve found tutoring works best when you prepare your best before coming to the session and then leverage the tutor to push you where you can’t go further. Expecting the teacher to fix/explain all your problems tends to be less efficient.

3) Getting a Good Grammar Book

My grammar book was one of my best investments in Spanish. Although I generally consider studying grammar to be a low-value activity done in isolation, if you spend your entire day speaking the language its value goes up tremendously.

Having a grammar book allows you to codify some of the intuitions you have while listening to people speak. Why do they say it that way? What exactly do they mean when they use a particular expression? Why don’t they understand me when I try to say a particular type of sentence? These are the problems a bit of grammar study can solve.

The problem is finding a good book. Most language learning books are bloated and horrible. They try to be all-in-one packages, instead of being specialized for a particular aspect of the language learning process.

During our brief stay in Toronto (a necessary step to process visas for China) I bought two books that look promising for giving some basics of Chinese grammar: Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar. They have the advantages of being concise as well as explaining the Chinese points from an English speaker’s perspective, which is a huge advantage over confusing Chinese-to-Chinese descriptions of grammar.

4) Character Decomposition

Continuing the theme that a small amount of targeting character practice may boost overall speaking (but a large amount is probably a distraction), I’ve been considering trying to master the basic radical system of Chinese characters.

Chinese characters can be broken down into radicals, which are more basic components that reappear in many different characters. Sometimes these components have semantic clues, such as indicating that a character is associated with water or women. Other times these components have phonological cues, indicating that a character has a similar sound to another, more basic, character.

I’ve considered two methods for learning the radicals. One is to go direct—learn the most common 100 radicals and memorize them using a visualization technique. The other is to decompose any new character I encounter in the MCC Anki deck and memorize along the way. I’ll probably end up doing both.

The problem with this technique is figuring out when to apply it. Pragmatically speaking, it doesn’t have the urgency of learning many other parts of Chinese and its payoff will more likely be long-term. Figuring out when to go through this step, if at all, is an open question.

What Won’t Change from Learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.

One major difference between the MIT Challenge and my upcoming Chinese project is that I already have the experience of doing two previous languages with this method. That means most of my planning is trying to cope with the additional challenges that Chinese offers, not with the basics of learning a language at all.

I expect that, as with Spanish and Portuguese, the no-English rule will once again be the most important factor in my learning progress. Private tutoring sessions and regular interaction with real people will also form the bulk of the learning progress, with the above tactics and study simply making this process go more smoothly.

Making friends (or better, getting a girlfriend) trump hours of self-study removed from actual speaking situations. Navigating a new culture may mean that these steps are more difficult in ways that we wouldn’t have experienced before, but that doesn’t make them any less useful.

My expectation is that the degree to which I follow these steps with Chinese will be based a lot on how much difficulty we have with the local culture. If making friends and having genuine social interactions is difficult, the more self-study and paid tutoring have to shift to accommodate for it.

While I have high hopes for culture in China, I’ve been given my fair share of warnings about the difficulties of short-term integration. I’m still optimistic that we can make a few close friends during our time in Kunming, but in the case that it turns out to be too challenging to break in, I’m certainly not going to let that slow down my learning progress.

Whatever happens, it probably won’t turn out anything like I’ve described. Like all plans, I’ll have to make many changes and experiments to adapt to problems I haven’t foreseen or ignore problems that never materialized. However, hopefully this article shows a little of my thought process prior to arrival.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Tuesday, 28 Jan 2014 19:00

If you care about being correct more often, here’s a handy rule of thumb:

Figure out which groups of people have spent their lives studying the issue you want an answer to. If there is a significant majority who believe conclusion X, then make conclusion X your default answer unless you have very strong evidence to believe otherwise.

Put even more simply: “When you want the right answer, find out who the experts are and believe what they believe.”

People already do this with topics they have no emotional investment in. When physicists say they discovered the Higgs’ Boson, I take it at face value. However, when it comes to accepted theories global warming, economics, evolution, nutrition and psychology people are full of skepticism and pet theories.

When it Hurts to Think for Yourself

We strive to teach people to think for themselves and mock people who accept answers simply because of authority. While this policy has good intentions, it has some serious problems.

First, many subjects are enormously complicated and time consuming to fully understand. Yes, we can chastise people for not making themselves fully informed, but this is a wasted effort. The amount of knowledge in the world greatly exceeds what the average person can or is willing to consume. Advising people to “think for themselves” on every topic is a recipe for shallow observations.

Second, this is the kind of advice that is applied selectively. We all, subconsciously, accept the value of expertise. I cede to Stephen Hawking when he tells me something about black holes. However, we tend to use the “think for yourself” justification to ignore equally informed opinions in sensitive topics. Selective skepticism can be more dangerous than outright gullibility, because at least the latter won’t get biased results.

My advice isn’t to cede your thinking ability, merely that the default position for all beliefs should be the majority view of experts of that field. Only once you’ve done a comparable amount of research and study on the question as those experts, does skepticism bear fruits.

Who are the Experts?

People have varying answers to this question. Some people would argue that only scientists fit that bill, and within them, only the hard sciences where millions of repeated experiments have proved theorems to incredible accuracy.

This kind of thinking is too strict. While it’s true that physics has more rigorous standards for evidence than economics, that doesn’t mean your opinion about economics is equally valid as the body of work of thousands of people spending, collectively, millions of hours investigating such problems.

What we really want is a group of people who (a) have studied the topic in question more than most other groups and (b) don’t have significant biases or incentives to distort information.

Academia fits this bill pretty well for most topics. The problem with other sources of information, is that they often study the issues in question less or they have larger incentives to distort. Writers like me are a weaker source of expertise for that very reason: I’m paid by how many books and courses I can sell, and how many people want to read my work, not directly on how truthful it is. While I still trust and listen to other writers, if they make a claim that is obviously out of line with more authoritative sources, I side with professional researchers.

There are domains of knowledge which academia doesn’t cover, or doesn’t treat as an important concern. In those cases, I’d look at people who have studied the topic for considerable time and don’t have considerable incentives to distort. Writers, professionals and role models can fill these gaps.

What if the Experts are Wrong?

The experts are often wrong. However, they’re wrong a lot less than the average person. And, unless you’ve studied the topic for a comparable length of time as the typical expert, they’re wrong about it less often than you are.

The justification for trusting a group of experts needn’t be based on their infallibility. It only needs to assume that they are, on average, more reliable in their judgement than you are.

Some people might suggest that this would have compelled trusting alchemists for their model of chemistry in the middle ages. To which I would say yes. The alchemists were definitely mistaken. However, the point isn’t that they were wrong, but that had you lived along side them, your pet theory of chemistry would probably have been even worse.

Fallibility of a source of information doesn’t logically permit you to believe whatever you feel like.

Majority, Not Outlier Viewpoints

When I say that you should believe what experts believe, I don’t mean you should believe what one expert happens believes. With millions of PhDs, it’s never very hard to find one person who has non-standard views. What you should be looking for are areas where most people within that field agree. If 99 people with PhDs in math believe 2+2=4, you can safely ignore the one guy who thinks it equals five.

A big problem with reading articles and books on topics, is that they tend to come from a single author. However, because popularity and controversy are positively correlated, this tends to overrepresent quacks in the space of easily accessible ideas.

A better place to start is to look at more neutral sources to get your ideas. Textbooks, classes and even Wikipedia pages, are all more likely to tell you what the majority of a profession think, instead of the one random outlier.

Don’t Teach the Controversy

If a debate exists between sizeable fractions of a group of experts, it is worth understanding both sides of the debate. However, more often the case is that a debate consists of a handful of outlier experts against a more or less consensus viewpoint.

Like the “think for yourself” heuristic, people are quick to point out the controversy if they dislike the majority viewpoint. Don’t like what biology has to say about evolution? Well it’s only a theory. Don’t like what climatologists have to say about global warming? Well the jury’s still out. Don’t like what economists have to say about price controls? Hey, there’s some people who disagree!

If a viewpoint is uncontroversial within the selected class of experts who study the problem full-time, but controversial outside of it, you can trust it’s the people on the outside who are wrong.

How to Figure Out What Experts Think

Unfortunately, this is often the more difficult part. Expert opinions tend to come to us filtered through journalists, television personalities and authors. Some of these people do a good job at translating, but there is a considerably higher incentive to distort than within academia.

Sometimes this incentive to distort comes from creating false controversy. Making a subject seem more controversial is an easy way to grab more news coverage for an idea.

Sometimes the incentive is to simplify needlessly. A quick, recitable slogan may be easier to pitch than reality even if it doesn’t fit the facts.

Sometimes the incentive is to lean on the expertise of others for credibility, but then to say whatever you feel like. You can trust that any self-help book that uses the word “quantum” is of this sort.

Finding out what experts actually think about issues can be tricky. My advice:

  • Read more textbooks and take more courses
  • Read the Wikipedia articles on a topic (or on a book, if it’s famous) to see whether the book/ideas you’re reading are biased in any way.
  • Read what other experts have to say about the books you read
  • When you can, look at surveys like this to get better statistical analysis of what are indeed the majority viewpoints.

Lining Up Your Beliefs With Other Experts

Thinking what experts think sounds like a cop-out. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a lot of work to line up your beliefs with what experts think. You have to go out and read what they say about different topics, and if you want to have more robust opinions, you have to study a little bit about why they say it.

Thinking for yourself, by contrast, is the easy way out. It gives you the freedom to selectively apply skepticism to any answer that makes you feel uncomfortable, all with the easy justification that you’re an intelligent, rational person.

Thinking for yourself certainly beats thinking by popularity, but that’s hardly the only alternative. For almost any possible question, there’s probably a group of people who have thought deeply about all the possibilities and tried to determine which fares the best on the balance of evidence. Making these your default answers goes a long way to making you smarter and more effective.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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