Personalise your Chinese learning

The fourteenth rule in the 20 Rules for Learning is “personalise and provide examples”. Dr Wozniak makes the valuable point that it’s easier to retain material long term when you include personal examples for it in your learning.

For example, you’ll find it easier to recall what 炕 (kàng) means if you think “like the one at 小李’s house”.

Without such an example, the word can be lifeless on the page or screen, making it difficult to retain long-term. With the addition of the more vidid personal example, the word springs to life, becoming quick to recall and use.

These personal examples can be stored alongside other mnemonics and notes in your flashcards.

Personalising new things

That’s all well and good, but what can you do when you don’t have any personal experiences involving the vocabulary in question? This obstacle is one of the reasons learning foreign languages is harder than it was to learn your native language. You often find yourself trying to remember vocabulary from a dry textbook that doesn’t provide the vivid experience you had when acquiring most of your native language.

Travelling to a place where Chinese is spoken or otherwise spending time with Chinese-speakers are the best ways to solve this problem, but those aren’t always practical options for all learners. Besides that, it would be hard to engineer personal experiences for every single word and phrase you want to learn.

A quick and easy work-around is to use Google Images or Baidu Images. Search for the word or phrases and incorporate the resulting images into your studies. It’s not quite as good as having your own memory of the thing in question, but it provides a stronger basis for acquisition than the word alone.

With some words you may also be able to find video content on YouTube, YouKu and so on. This is even more immersive and vivid than photos and images.

Expand your sources of input

If you don’t have as much opportunity as you’d like to talk with native speakers, you can still improve the situation by incorporating other types of input into your studies.

Watching Chinese films and TV shows (there’s no shortage of 电视剧 to watch) is a great way to learn, and brings you closer to having personal examples than just learning from a textbook. You’ll find it easier to remember the characters, dialogue and situations, and as a result get a better grasp of the material.

Once at you’re at the intermediate level, reading Chinese fiction can also provide more vivid memories of how words and structures are used.

Follow your own path

As well as seeking out personal examples for the words and phrases you’re studying, you can also personalise your Chinese learning by forging your own path in acquiring the language.

Textbooks and courses a good way to get structure and direction, but there a plenty of ways you can branch out and pursue personal avenues of learning.

Exploring the rabbit hole effect is one way to get started. You can also add your own sources of reading and listening that take you outside the scope of your course or textbook. Reading Chinese newspapers or listening to Chinese radio (both can be done online) are great for this if you’re at that level.

Advanced learners will have found their preferred way of structuring their learning, but for beginners it’s good to start exploring other routes to learning Chinese when you can. Olle Linge’s post on using more than one textbook is also an interesting starting point.

Learn about your interests

A great way to personalise your Chinese learning is to combine your language learning with your other interests. If you like learning about science, learn about science in Chinese. If you like basketball, follow basketball in Chinese. If you like video games, play video games in Chinese. The Chinese-speaking world is enormous and there will certainly be material available on whatever topics interest you.

At earlier stages of learning Chinese, it can be hard to even find interesting material, let alone consume it on a regular basis. In that case, it’s good to start by learning around what interests you, for example by learning extra vocabulary related to art, economics or whatever it is that you enjoy for its own sake. Learning this often requires less effort than other material, and can be put to use more quickly as you start to read and listen to real Chinese relating to the things that interest you.

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
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning (this article)
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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