Interference when learning Chinese

This is the eleventh article in this series based on Dr Piotr Wozniaks 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge. The eleventh rule is “combat interference”.

Let’s have a look at the concept of interference, how it can affect your Chinese learning and what you can do about it.

What is interference?

Interference is Dr Wozniak’s term for knowledge that damages or clashes with other knowledge in your mind. You have no trouble remembering fact A on its own, but once you learn fact B, you find it’s now difficult to remember either of them. In another form, you learn related items at the same time and confuse them from the start.

A more common term for this is simply “getting confused”.

For example, it’s quite easy to remember that the Northern Song dynasty started in 960 CE if that’s the only dynastic starting date you know (and we’re assuming that there’s one simple date for these things). If you then try to learn the starting dates for the Tang, Southern Song, Liao and Jin dynasties, it gets a lot harder. You might even be unable to recall that the Northern Song dynasty started in 960, even though that was easy for you before. This is interference.

It’s helpful to have a specific term for this problem that focuses on the learning aspect, as you can describe it, identify it and find ways to address it.

Interference is not distraction

It may be worth clarifying here that interference isn’t about getting distracted whilst learning. Distraction also hinders your pace in learning Chinese, but is more of a discipline issue than a learning phenomenon.

Getting easily distracted is an indicator that you don’t have a lot of energy, or are lacking motivation to study at that moment. At those times it can be better to find a less-intensive way to improve your Chinese, or to just take a break. Down-time is an important part of making consistent improvements.

Interference when learning Chinese

Interference comes up a lot in language learning, and will occur for different people in different ways. This applies to Chinese as much as any other language, but here are some specific examples to look out for in your own learning.

Vocabulary

Interference in vocabulary learning is probably the kind that language learners encounter the most. A classic example in Chinese are the words for “honey” and “bee”. If you learn 蜂蜜 on its own, you probably won’t have trouble using it. Once you learn 蜜蜂, though, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself getting them mixed up.

(As an aside, you might be interested to see other swap-around words in Chinese.)

This can work in either order, and with practically any pair of similar words. Which words interfere with each other depends on the individual learner, how and when the words are learnt and other unpredictable factors. As a result, every learner will experience inteference with different things.

Characters

Chinese offers learners a special kind of interference to deal with: getting hanzi mixed up. Because of the way Chinese characters are composed of common components, the potential to get them confused is huge. Everyone has to deal with this, including native speakers.

When struggling to remember how to write a character, you most often have a vague sense that it had a particular component or certain parts next to each other.

As well as that, Chinese has no shortage of similar characters that are especially prone to cause interference in the learner’s mind. Have a look at 末 / 未, 土 / 士, and 撒 / 撤. When learning to write those characters, it’s common for them to interfere with each other.

Tones and pronunciation

Interference can mess with a lot of people’s pronunciation of Mandarin’s tones. For example, this might occur when you get really good at pronuncing third tone in different combinations and over-extend it to second tone. Now your second tone is messed up due to over-confidence with third tone leaking into it.

Similarly, you might struggle with syllables like ju. You focus on that vowel sound to get it right, but then find yourself inserting it into zhu, which you previously didn’t have problems with. Interference in pronunciation is interesting because it’s at the level of muscle-memory rather than conscious recall.

This is a general phenomenon with confidence in language learning. As you get more fluent, it’s easier to slip up as you put less conscious effort into things that you previously would have been quite careful with.

Grammar

Interference could occur in all sorts of ways while you’re learning Chinese grammar. It’s common to get similar sounding particles like 的, 地 and 得 mixed up in writing, or the different reasons to use 了. The different types of verbal complement are also a source of interfernce for a lot of people learning Chinese.

In the longer term, it’s common to learn a grammar structure that makes it harder to use the ones you already know. This is a big frustration in language learning, and it’s important to recognise interference at play when it happens.

How to deal with interference

So what can you do about interference when you’ve recognised its impact on your studies?

The first and most important step is be aware of the concept and to be wary of it while you’re learning Chinese. Ignoring interference or trying to brute-force your way through is likely to lead to frustration and a stall in your progress.

One approach to interference is to put off learning one of the difficult items and focus on one at a time. There are elements of the minimum information principle and defeat in detail here.

If you’re using Anki or other SRS software, the leeches feature can be helpful for dealing with interference. This feature automtically detects items you’re struggling with repeatedly, and pauses them until you want to approach them again. This helps you identify and deal with interference.

Finally, it can be helpful to make mnemonics that focus specifically on the interference. This could use the items involved, or the topic of the interference itself.

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese
  7. Use mnemonics
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations
  11. Interference when learning Chinese (this article)
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

Keep reading