Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

3

Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.”

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are student of Chinese in 2019.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is drifting off in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (We’re afraid of China! Afraid of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.

Advertisements

Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

2

Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which offers a lot for Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and in different languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

5 Things we tell ourselves that keep us from studying Chinese

We sent people to the moon. We created touchscreens and video streaming. We discovered water on Mars. We developed robotic body parts. We can clone humans and grow new organs.

We excel in innovation.

What strikes me as odd though, WHY – at the same time – it’s so hard to get OUT of our COMFORT ZONE and take things to the next level.

This post is dedicated to this underrated capability of ours to come up with reasons that justify staying in our comfort zone just a little longer…

Especially, when we learn new skills OR LANGUAGES like Mandarin that are considered hard beyond belief.

Nr. 1: “I suck at foreign languages”

Many people worry about missing the mysterious language gene or think they generally lack the talent to learn a new language, especially a “hard language” like Mandarin. The idea that they could reach a certain level of proficiency in Chinese seems as likely to them as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

Language learning is a skill, however, that can be learned like so many things in life. If you weren’t particularly good at it at school, doesn’t mean you cannot do it. It probably just means at that time and place, in that particular setting, you couldn’t perform at the best of your ability. And is Chinese really that hard to learn?

Nr. 2. “Chinese is too difficult for me”

Is Chinese harder than Arabic, Icelandic or Spanish?

It depends for whom of course!

For Vietnamese people for example, Chinese is not completely outside their frame of reference. Many elements look and sound familiar:

I think this really comes down to how close your language is to Chinese. I, for example, am from Vietnam, my only mother tongue is Vietnamese and I’ve been learning English for roughly 10 years now and Chinese for more than 1 year. To me, English is definitely the harder one since its grammar and vocabulary are completely foreign, it took me like 5-6 years to be able to hold a normal conversation and to be able to listen and understand what others are speaking.

Nguyen Nguyen (YouTube nickname), commented the question if Chinese is the hardest language on earth.

Chinese generally has four main challenges as a foreign language:

  1. The writing system
  2. The tones and pronunciation
  3. The vocabulary (the lack of loanwords and other recognizable elements)
  4. Short phrases (idioms) linked to Chinese culture and history

Reading and writing Chinese is time consuming. No doubt about that. On the other hand: Chinese grammar is relatively easy. Compared to German for example, you don’t have to worry about different tenses, pluralization, cases, genus, articles and what have you.

Which means that basic communication can start from an early level, without the grammatical obstacles typical for German, English, Polish and other languages. Learning Chinese for daily survival is not as hard as many people think. Chinese people usually won’t hesitate to show you their admiration.

Nr. 3: “I don’t have time”

If you are a managing director with a family at home, you might well have too much on your plate already. You won’t be able to focus on yet another task, neither during the evening nor on weekends. You are either too tired or too occupied with work, family and the other 89 things on your to-do list.

What’s more, – I noticed this with management people I used to teach – if you cannot be good at it, you start to hate it. Therefore, without the proper time resources, any learning process is set up for failure.

On the other side of the spectrum, I used to know people men who worked a normal office job, were single and spent most of their leisure time playing Xbox and drinking beer.

Either way, time is a limited resource. That’s why we MAKE time for things (or people) we value.

The crucial thing for learning any new language is daily practice. Even 10 minutes every day amounts to 70 minutes a week, 280 minutes a month.

You can even do it on your way to work. If you “waste” a lot of time commuting every week, this is “hidden potential” you can tap into.

The hours normally wasted in the Berlin S-Bahn turned into a completely different experience when I started listening to audiobooks and courses in history and philosophy. Average traveling time per week: 10 hours. Around 480 hours per year! Why not invest some of that time in something more useful?

If you ever took driving lessons: it’s the same idea. Regular practice does the trick.

Imagine what you can achieve in a year if you spend two hours every week on learning something new?

Nr. 4: “I’m not in China. How can I learn Chinese?”

It’s a common belief that you have to be immersed in the language to make progress. Although not all immersion leads to proficiency, in general, language learners do boost their abilities significantly during their stay in the target language country. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Whatever you do, you should always prepare yourself for the real thing. If you are not in China right now, maybe you are planning to go their at some point and you’ll prepare yourself for that as good as you can.

If you cannot go to China: consider digital immersion and meeting up with local Chinese. The internet offers so many possibilities to communicate that Marco Polo would wish he had had. Chat with Chinese people, find Chinese teachers online, watch Chinese TV-series. There’s a surplus of options.

Nr. 5: “I’ll never understand Chinese culture anyway”

This is what a friend said to me after somewhat unfortunate first experiences with Chinese culture, working for a Chinese company. She never felt very sympathetic towards Chinese culture, but after being part of a Chinese company she completely lost all interest and felt she’d never understand “Chinese mentality” and their “indirect way of communicating” anyway.

“Never again”, she said to me, which I could understand, from her point of view. I just felt she gave up too early and let one bad experience waste everything. The road to understanding was from now on was blocked. By herself.

The obvious point here: If you don’t have any positive feeling towards a culture or language, learning their language becomes a struggle, cause you cannot develop any interest towards it.

This is where I’ve seen many people fail, because they couldn’t identify with their target language on any level.

Needles to say, studying the “Chinese mentality” and “indirect way of communicating” does serve as a mirror that could have prevented some of her hard feelings or at least questioned the universality of her own communication principles.

And Chinese culture envelops much more than the corporate culture of some Chinese enterprise entering the global market. The challenge here is to find some area of interest you can positively identify with.

The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

A reader asked me if there were any things I’d do differently today if I’d have to re-climb Hanyu mountain all the way from base camp number one. Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here’s my list.

Don’t skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation

Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language pyramid. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. This does not mean perfection, but you have to cover the basics:

  • Write basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
  • Speak and recognize the four tones
  • Read Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)

You can practice on your own (which I did for an extensive period), but probably the best way to do it is to join a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu in our dreams. But is was worth the effort and far more effective than self-studying Pinyin without anyone correcting you.

Don’t ignore Hanzi

Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?

I won’t pretend to have the only valid answer.

You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin in the long run cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll stay “illiterate” not just in the direct sense but also in terms of Chinese culture. Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.

Here is an example:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.

Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way but making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.

Don’t forget to make Chinese friends

Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere withing Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.

Don’t worry if you “still don’t understand anything”

Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.

Don’t expect apps to solve all your problems

Apps will shape the future of language learning and have been a major step forward, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications in the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.

Don’t think children’s books are easy

When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.

It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.

Reading “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me, without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but is not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.

That’s my list. If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.

Pop-up dictionary: Surfing the Chinese web like a pro

1

If you are learning Chinese and you haven’t installed this extension for your web browser yet, please pay close attention, because this will raise the quality of your life significantly.

For Chrome browsers follow this link (available for Mozilla Firefox as well). This is what the description says about the Zhongwen pop-up dictionary:

  • Look up more than 100,000 words an expressions while reading
  • Chinese web sites just by pointing at the words with your mouse
  • Includes links to grammar and usage notes for more than 400 keywords
  • Skritter users can add new words to their study list with a simple keystroke
  • Save words to a built-in word list
  • Create Anki flashcards by importing the text file exported from the built-in word list
  • Easily look up example sentences on tatoeba.org

For Mozilla users click here. This one may not have all the features of the Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary, but is still a great help.

Navigate the Chinese web with Perapera Chinese Pop-up Dictionary

I can only agree with what other users wrote to express their satisfaction:

I use this add on with my language studies to help quite a lot. It’s really helpful. Thanks a bunch for it!

Firefox-user

This add-on is quite handy for language learners trying to navigate the Internet in Chinese. I appreciate that there are options for both traditional and simplified characters, as well as different ways of rendering Mandarin pinyin. And it just got handier; I’m excited to see that support for Cantonese has been added in version 2.1!

Firefox-user
The definition will show up automatically (Perapera Chinese Pop-up Dictionary)

If you want to test your new tool on some of the most visited Chinese websites, check out this top 50 of popular Chinese websites and roam your way through the Chinese web like a modern-day Marco Polo. Sure makes booking a Chinese train ticket or online shopping on taobao a lot easier.

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

When learning Mandarin, you have to find your own way, but why not profit a little from others who started their journey before you did?

The main reason I visit these language blogs is this: They are a great source for tips & tricks, ideas and inspiration, even free resources like reading materials, cheat sheets, video’s and podcasts. What’s your favorite Chinese learning blog?

When I made this top 10, I looked for four things:

  • Relevance
  • Passion
  • Integrity
  • Engaging and fresh content

Here we go!

ONE: Sinosplice

This is a great blog by John Pasden, an expert “who’s been around”. Check out his list of resources and podcasts for learning Mandarin. I put it on number one, because it’s a great starting point to see what’s out there online for Chinese learners.

TWO: Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog by Mandarin expert Olle Linge from Sweden who has studied for four years in Taiwan and teaches Chinese and English. Having a solid background in linguistics, he answers almost all questions related to successfully learning Mandarin Chinese. His main advise for language learners: “If you don’t take responsibility and think for yourself, it will take ages to reach a decent level, but if you become aware of how to learn and study efficiently, fluency is within reach.” Olle also organizes the “monthly extensive reading challenge“. The main goal here is not “intensive reading” but reading as much Chinese as you can below or at your current level.

THREE: Chinese Hacks

Chinese Hacks is a widely-varied blog where you find all kinds of practical advise, ideas and inspiration. I particularly enjoy the Chinese idioms covered on his site.

FOUR: Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze is run by three authors who studied Mandarin in China and offer their advise to other learners. This main overview by Kevin Peters, who taught English in Xinjiang for four years, is especially useful for starting learners.

VIFE: Just learn Chinese

This blog by native Chinese speaker Grace (currently living in Toronto, Canada) hasn’t been updated for several years and has some technical issues, but its content and resources are just to great to ignore. If you are looking for free reading material on your level, you might get lucky here. Or look for tips, for example on how to express disagreement in Chinese.

SIX: Sapore di Cina

This blog is actually a lot broader than just focusing on mastering Mandarin. I included it because of its practical tips for foreigners interested in traveling or even living in China.

SEVEN: FluentU

EIGHT: Sara Jaaksola

NINE: Carl Gene

TEN: En Route to Fluency

Related post: China podcasts

Check my post on podcasts about China!

Three character traits you need to improve your Chinese skills

Someone asked me which “character traits” you need to be successful at learning Chinese. “Character traits”? I had to think about that. Finally, I came up with three things which I think are important to have or develop.

But let’s go back a little bit. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just take the basic meaning of the word “character”. It generally refers to the particular combination of qualities in a person or place that makes them different from others. The “character traits” are those qualities that make us “different from others”.  

The five-factor model (FFM) has become very popular. It describes human character (or personality) by focusing on these 5 factors:

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)

It’s a scaled approach which can be really helpful to understand how you are wired up. You can also ask yourself who you want to be.

Anyway. Looking back on my experiences as a language student and teacher, here’s what I came up with:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline

You can of course argue if these three are really character traits in the traditional sense.

Openness and curiosity

In the five-factor model “openness” is described as follows:

Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings.

Now we can’t be open for everything all the time, but we can cultivate an open mindset or growth mindset when it comes to learning.

As a language teacher I know how many people only see their limitations and the obstacles down the road. “It’s just too hard for me! I’ll never be able to speak fluently!”. I heard that kind of phrase a lot. I would ask them very bluntly: “Look, if you don’t believe in your own potential, how can you learn anything?” You need to start shouting back at that negative voice inside you. Start shouting back right now if you have to!

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. (Edmund Hillary)

You need to be keen on learning new things.

The thing with people who score high on openness is that they don’t look before they leap. They just do it. They’ll just start learning some obscure instrument you never heard of or book a course in programming although they never wrote one line of code in their whole life. This is a mentality thing.

As a teacher (and a student) I’d also see many people who just cared about the language certificate they’d receive at the end of the course. They just cared about that, not about actually learning anything beyond the course requirements. The positive thing was that they were very focused on their goal. In the long run though, they are limited by that purely practical mindset. Their learning curve stagnates in an early stage, because they are not interested in the thing itself.

To cultivate that growth mindset, you must believe in your own potential to learn.

Creativity and self-awareness

This next point is not about being a creative genius who invents new apps every other day or writes music or poems and what have you. If you do though, that’s great too.

What I had in mind though, is the ability to discover new ways to learn outside the curriculum you’re in. Typically, you’ll have Chinese class with prescribed books and homework you are expected to finish. You’ll trust your teacher knows what’s best for you. But guess what? Your teacher doesn’t! Your teacher has other stuff to worry about!

The kind of creativity I’m referring to here involves knowing what you need. Just trusting your teacher won’t unleash your full potential. Your teacher probably won’t tell you to paste vocabulary stickers all around your house, although it can be quite useful. I still didn’t remove the 微波炉-sticker from my microwave, and I used to have many other stickers like 门,电脑,雨伞,花盆 and so on pasted around the apartment. It was just an idea and it worked for me.

You have to know what works for YOU. You must get creative in some way.

And this can mean many things. It can mean finding a Chinese tandem partner to chat with or team up with other students to practice. It can even mean inviting your Chinese teacher to dinner or using wechat to fire random questions at people you just learned: 你是哪国人?你今天想做什么?你饿了吗?Again, you have to get active and find out what’s best for you.

Discipline

I use the word “discipline” for lack of a better word. I like to think about “discipline” as the art of developing (and maintaining) good habits. It’s not about making a schedule and sticking to it no matter what (though it does involve effective time management). It’s not about creating a cage around you. It’s more about cultivating positive learning habits and integrating them into your daily routine. This relates to the “conscientiousness” from the five-factor model:

Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High conscientiousness is often perceived as being stubborn and focused. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Toegel G, Barsoux JL (2012). “How to become a better leader”. MIT Sloan Management Review. 53 (3): 51–60.

Indeed, if you can combine a high degree of openness and curiosity with a form of self-discipline, you are holding the key ingredients for successful learning in your hand.

“20 to 30 minutes every day”

I don’t want to mystify anything here. The kind of “discipline” you need for language learning is really not that special, but you have to be serious about it. It’s like practicing violin. It’s better to play 20 minutes every day instead of two hours every Saturday. By playing every day you’ll develop a feeling for the instrument, your hands will get accustomed to new movements and finger arrangements, you learn new melodies and sound better. Without being aware of it you’re slowly climbing a mountain. Every hour you play is another step on your way up. It’s the same with learning Chinese. To make progress you need daily practice.

Now I know that can be challenging. Time is a valuable resource. Maybe you are looking at your schedule right now and saying that’s not going to work for me. If you don’t have 30 minutes, then take 10 minutes of your day and try that for one week. Check your progress: What did you learn? Were you focused enough? In some cases, you will find out that you need to make more time.

They may not admit it, but every “successful person” I know of practice some way of self-discipline, knows how to set goals, track progress and structure their time in an effective manner.

To wrap it up here, these three character traits I think are very useful:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline or the art of cultivating good habits

From my own experience, I don’t see character or personality as static and unchangeable. I also spoke of “mindset” and “mentality” to underline that view. If you possess or cultivate these three traits you will climb higher than most.