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Motivation: The 8 steps manual to keep you learning Chinese

· Learning Chinese,Learning Tips,Motivation

The idea for this post came from my girlfriend.

She (is not learning Mandarin Chinese yet, but) uses an app for her daily meditation routine.

And she keeps coming back to the app to prevent her from losing the daily streak. This is her motivation (or at least part of it) to continue meditation.

Obviously, motivation is important for anything we do; even more so in long-term projects that require lots of energy, such as meditation or, learning Mandarin Chinese.

So how do we motivate ourselves to keep on learning? What is the role of goals and habits? And how do we leverage learning methods and socializing for motivation?

In this blogpost, we are going to give you an 8-part manual to (re-)gain your Chinese learning motivation to help you reach the next level of Mandarin Chinese.

At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.

1. The Science

Motivation is the process that causes a person to move towards a goal, in our case, learning Chinese. Broken down to its basis, we are all either striving towards a positive stimulus or trying to stay away from negative ones, or, in simpler terms, life is about gaining pleasure and avoiding pain. James Clear on his blog gets to the heart of the idea of motivation:

“At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”

In the case of my girlfriend and her meditation habits, it is obvious that missing out on a day of meditation would mean she loses her streak. Therefore, even if one day she doesn’t feel like it, the pain of sitting down is probably less than the pain of losing the streak and having to start over again. Moreover, because the streak becomes greater every day, the pain of losing it also does. Genius.

But what does this mean for learning Chinese?

But, when the pain gradually becomes greater, how do we stay motivated

2. Initial stimulus and long-term goals

There are a lot of positive brain reactions when you start out learning Chinese: excitement about learning a new language, maybe meeting new people in class. First successes come quickly: Getting to know the different tones, finally being able to distinguish between the tones, recognizing your fist Chinese characters, being able to say hello and introduce yourself.

But then gradually, reality sets in. You progress isn’t as great as in the beginning. Not only are you struggling to learn new words but you are also fighting against forgetting the old ones. Chinese characters become increasingly complicated. Your first try at real life conversation in Mandarin did not go all that well and finally you failed that last language test.


But, when the pain gradually becomes greater, how do we stay motivated?

Achieving some sort of goal is normally something triggering positive emotions. So what is your goal for learning Chinese? Is it traveling China, conversing with your Chinese boyfriend’s family, doing business in Taiwan? If yes, that’s great! If you don’t have a long-term goal yet, you should find one. You usually wouldn’t want to start a journey without knowing where it will end.

However, having such a long-term goal isn’t going to be enough. Between the beginning of learning Chinese and that long-term goal in the end lies that great valley, where you will struggle some. To stay motivated, you are going to need shorter term goals, once that push you forward. Knowing your long-term objective helps you define the process “on the road”. For instance, if your goal is to converse with your boyfriend’s Chinese family, maybe Chinese characters aren’t all that important (though it definitely doesn’t hurt to know about them).

But to really get you over the valley between initial excitement and your long-term goal, you will need to set these objectives “on the road”. But how do we know which goals are the right ones?

3. The Goldilocks Rule, setting goals and flow

If you are into sports, try to recall a situation in which you were completely energized and focused, fully enjoying the moment. With some chance, you were picturing yourself in a competition that just challenged your skills at the right level. In that moment, you achieved what is called a state of flow. This happens when you are dealing with a task that is neither too trivial for you nor too difficult, but just “manageable”.

If you participated in a swimming competition, you wouldn’t get excited about swimming against a four-year old: The task is simply too easy and boring. But, you also wouldn’t be motivated to seriously win a race against Michael Phelps for exactly the opposite reason: There is just no way you could ever win. So the perfect serious challenge is a race against your teammate, who is just a tiny little bit better than you: You know you can win if you perform well and put all your energy into the task at hand with no distraction.

With language learning, you can put yourself into this flow state as well in a similar way. As with sports, the essence here is to set challenges that are just manageable, not too easy, not too difficult.

This knowledge is essential for goal setting: Your goal shouldn’t be reading The Three Kingdoms in original after one month of studying Chinese. But it might be understanding pinyin and mastering some basic Chinese phrases. What is important here is that it really comes down to your own skills and amount of time. There is no one size fits all approach as motivation as something deeply personal. So only you can determine (maybe in consultation with a teacher) what the right goals are for you at each level.

But remembering the Goldilocks rule goes a long way here.

The more regularly you do something, the less effort is needed.

4. Creating habits

Goals are an important part of motivation. They are also closely connected to habits, another essential of staying motivated. Habits make it less painful to pursue an otherwise unpleasant task. Remember, half of motivation is about avoiding pain.

A friend of mine took on a 30-day challenge to go running every day. By day 10 or so, his body was already so used to working out, that not running seemed to be worse than going. That’s the power of habits. The more regularly you do something, the less effort is needed.

Setting a schedule or a plan goes a long way here. Class on Monday, listening on Tuesday, language exchange on Wednesday and reading and vocab on Sunday before class again on Monday. Every time you are sitting down for two hours from 7 till 9 pm. That might be how a schedule looks like, but it depends on your own commitment and activities. The important thing is obviously to follow through for the first few weeks before this schedule goes into autopilot, in other words, becomes a habit.

Even for these scheduled tasks, it makes sense to break them down into even smaller smaller routines and habits. For instance, you may want to start your vocabulary session every time by going over your flashcards for 15 minutes, then write down new vocabulary and then look up words and sentences associated with these. These routines do not necessarily have to directly contribute to your learning, they also serve as a reminder that the habit phase has started. Before your language exchange for example, both you and your partner might want to agree to go to Starbucks and grab coffee. So every time you go to Starbucks with your language partner, you know that a learning session has started.

5. Tweak your Learning Methods

Apart from setting goals and building habits, tweaking your learning methods as such may make your journey more enjoyable! Endless vocabulary lists, tests and exercises aren’t all that funny after all. What about reading a Chinese comic for a change? Or playing a Chinese adventure game?

Sometimes, there is no getting around sitting down and remembering Chinese characters and words though. Even here, why not try out some new methods including beautiful visuals and crazy stories? For instance, Zizzle App has proven to increase motivation when learning Chinese characters.

Image showing a business person using Zizzle App to learn Chinese characters.

6. “Socializing” Motivation

Socializing is a great way to stay motivated. We all seek for appreciation, friendship and just generally human interaction. How many people go to language classes or sports courses only because of the people that are their with them? Even if you don’t have access to language classes, there are still tons of ways for you to get to know your fellow learners.

Over the internet, finding a meetup or a language tandem is no problem anymore. And if you don’t want to leave your house at all, there is still iTalki or HelloTalk, which are fully-fledged language exchange platforms.

7. Learn through topics you are passionate about

Changing the topics you learn about can also have powerful effects on your motivation. We all still remember that textbook reading about Chinese art in the Ming dynasty where literally every student fell asleep (except for the art nerd).

The point is, combine your Chinese studies with something that interests you personally, be it business, travels, sports, you name it. You love action movies? Well how about watching transformers in Chinese? Business and world affairs is your thing? Then check out the Chairman’s Bao, a unique online newspaper in Chinese, with graded texts, vocabulary and a ton of other tools to help you effectively read Chinese. As an extra, you can get a special 20% discount on subscriptions now using the coupon zizzletcb2017. Don’t miss the chance!

8. Celebrate Success

Last but not least, don’t forget to celebrate! If you have finished that Chinese novel or passed the HSK test, pop those bottles or finish that Hot Pot! Learning Chinese is a long journey and once in a while, you have to pat yourself on your shoulders and remind yourself, how awesome you are.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love Zizzle App, the best way to learn Chinese with mnemonics and visual stories. Download now for iOS and Android.

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