Defeat in detail

“Defeat in detail” may sound like a military strategy, and that’s because it is. The concept can also be applied to learning languages, though.

Orignally, defeat in detail is about overwhelming a smaller section of your target with a disproportionate amount of effort and resources in order to guarantee victory. The idea is that doing this in a sequence, defeating individual parts of the enemy in detail, is safer and more effective than trying to take on all of the enemy’s forces in a head-on battle.

You can use the same concept when learning Chinese. One way that defeat in detail applies to language learning is the well-known approach of breaking a hard topic or task down into a range of manageable ones. For example, if you’re struggling with a particular text, it’s helpful to spend some time focusing on each difficult word in the text individually. From there, you can work up to tackling the entire text. This can be described as defeat in detail if you focus on working down from the full task, or a Lego-bricks approach if you think of it as building up from smaller pieces.

There’s also a more interesting application of defeat in detail for language learning. When learning vocabulary and other aspects of a language, we often cover each item in just one way. As an example, a lot of people learn vocabulary using a vocabulary list with translations into their native language. They might put it into an SRS system, but that list covers their approach to learning those words.

However, there’s nothing stopping you from attacking the same word with a range of approaches and resources, e.g.:

  • Learn several different example sentences that all use the word.
  • Learn nicelycollocated phrases that exemplify the word.
  • Learn antonyms and synonyms of the word, plus sentences and phrases for those.
  • Learn words that use characters the word contains.
  • Seek out audio and video material that contains the word.
  • Make sure the difficult word appears in your daily life using post-its, desktop backgrounds and so on.
  • Regularly try to form sentences using the word and find opportunities to use it.

With the above tactics, there’s no way you won’t get that word firmly lodged in your mind for fluent use and understanding. Note that this is closely related to the concept of complementary memory. They’re just different aspects of the same idea.

Defeat in detail is a useful tactic to have in your learning repertoire, but it’s not the only approach you’ll need. This kind of granular learning is great for rapidly expanding your vocabulary and gaining fluency in specific areas. At the same time, it’s also important to build a more general, holistic knowledge of Chinese. In any case, it never hurts to study more, whatever approach you’re using.

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