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:
- Openness and curiosity
- Creativity and self-awareness
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!
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.
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.
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:
- Openness and curiosity
- Creativity and self-awareness
- Discipline or the art of cultivating good habits