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🤚 You're learning Chinese backward and how to fix it
The simple framework I used to learn fluent Chinese
哈咯 Chinese learners,
I want to share more in-depth articles about my experiences learning fluent Chinese and hopefully help you in the process.
If this interests you please reply and let me know and I’ll do more of these.
Today I’ll share one of the most fundamental paradigm shifts that helped me learn Chinese fast.
Let’s dive in.
Before learning Chinese, I spent a decade studying medicine in Canada. But for the first 4 years of medical school, it felt like I was barely learning anything.
Don't get me wrong. I accumulated a lot of concepts and facts about anatomy, cardiology, dermatology, etc. But whenever my exams were over, I would immediately forget everything.
Everything I "learned" was temporary.
Things didn't start to click until I began my residency, seeing patients at the bedside, applying my knowledge, and learning from my mistakes.
But the problem with this approach is that it's slow and ineffective.
You accumulate a lot of information upfront but it's fragile and you forget everything easily because there is no application for years.
This is the same method that most schools and universities use to teach.
I call it Top-Down Learning.
"Top-down" because you focus on high-level systems and facts (e.g. grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary lists) without applying on the ground level.
This method might make sense when there is little room for error, and mistakes can be fatal like in medicine, so it's better to gain lots of knowledge before applying.
But this doesn't make sense when learning languages where mistakes are much more forgiving (apart from hurting your ego).
Saying the wrong word or making a tone error won't kill you. Rather, mistakes are the best drivers of learning because you get feedback, which helps you learn faster.
There's a better way to learn.
I call it Bottom-Up Learning (opposite of Top-Down Learning).
Instead of focusing on broad concepts and topics with little application, we want to learn about specific situations that we can apply immediately.
Instead of focusing on abstract grammar rules and sentence patterns, we want to start learning and applying right away at the grassroots level (basic conversations, ordering food, etc.) and then learning about grammar along the way.
All of the successful learners I've met use this method. They may not call it by the same name, but they all focus on application, making mistakes, getting feedback, and improving.
This process is iterative, meaning you continue to get better with time and practice.
Once I realized this, I remembered more of what I learned, I had more fun, and my learning skyrocketed.
The truth is, we learn best by doing.
Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Wiling is not enough, we must do.
Doing and application is so powerful because it gives us context.
Context means knowing how to use what we learn and why it matters to us in real life.
When we learn grammar rules, sentence patterns, and isolated vocabulary, there is very little context.
We don't know how these grammar rules and vocabulary relate to real-life situations.
There is a disconnect. It's too abstract.
This doesn't mean that you can't learn grammar rules and vocabulary out of context. But I wouldn't focus on them without application.
It's better to focus on application and review the grammar rules along the way. This makes learning grammar more relevant and less dry because you have real-life context and situations to refer back to.
How this looks like in practice
Language learning is like playing video games.
No one likes long tutorials full of rules. I want to start playing right away and learn the rules and controls along the way.
The best way to start learning languages as a beginner is to:
Get a quick overview of the journey.
Understand the point of the game (your goals and mission) and learn what it takes to get there.
Learn the absolute basics to start playing.
When learning Chinese, this means learning about the basics of pinyin, characters, radicals, tones, and pronunciation. I cover this in my free 7-Day Chinese Crash Course.
Start playing and interacting with the game.
Learn vocabulary and phrases that you plan to use in the near future and apply and practice with native speakers such as language exchanges and teachers.
Learn as you go.
Get feedback from native speakers on your vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc., and make improvements along the way.
This approach is effective because you only learn what you need to know.
No fluff. No wasted time and energy.
And because you're constantly getting feedback, you improve faster, which means you are more motivated to continue and less likely to give up.
Progress is the best form of motivation.
This is how I learned fluent Chinese in a matter of months after failing and quitting many times.
Take home points
we learn best by doing
don't worry about high-level grammar rules and isolated vocabulary
only learn what you plan to use soon
apply what you learn to get context + feedback
improve based on feedback and learn high-level concepts as needed
PS Here are some practical ways I can help you learn Chinese today:
Speaking Course: This is the step-by-step system I used to go from being afraid to speak to having meaningful conversations with native Chinese speakers (in real life, podcasts, live streams etc.) and making life-long friends.
The Language Learner OS: The all-in-one hub to help me organize all my notes, track my progress, stay more productive, and learn Chinese faster and more effectively.
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