Sharpening the saw and learning Chinese

You’ve probably heard the parable about sharpening the saw. There are two people who want to cut down trees. The first one sets to immediately with a blunt saw and no skills. The second person first spends time sharpening their saw and improving their knowledge. In the beginning, the first person gets ahead whilst the other one spends time improving their ability. But once the second person gets going, they quickly gain the lead with the improvements they have made.

The point of the story is clear – preparing in advance can pay off in the future. As you’re reading this blog, you’re likely aware of this. There are plenty of sources of information on how to learn languages more effectively, and this blog is just one of them. If you have good teachers, they will also spend some time guiding you on how to learn as well as what to learn.

If you’ve been using rote repetition to try and learn Chinese vocabulary, discovering SRS and sentence mining would be a huge boost to your Chinese in the long term. If you’ve been focusing on memorising grammar structures, having someone encourage you to seek opportunities to speak Chinese in real situations would also be very beneficial.

It’s clearly worthwhile spending time to find out about the most effective ways to learn, seeing what other people do and also discovering what works best for you personally.

However, it can be easy to overdo this when it comes to learning languages. You certainly won’t learn much Chinese if you spend 100% of your study time reading blogs about it in English. Languages are a special category of learning, and one where sharpening the saw offers fewer benefits than it can for learning other kinds of material.

This is due to the fact that everyone has an innate ability to learn languages. Adult learners do have some advantages and can apply intelligent study methods, but ultimately you’re trying to train an existing system that works incredibly well if you can feed it with the right input.

Imagine if you were suddenly teleported to some remote location where an unfamiliar language is spoken. Let’s say you can’t leave for two years and your only option is to get on with making a living in this new place. Even if you know nothing about effective ways to learn foreign languages, you’re guaranteed to make incredible progress in that language out of necessity. No-one else speaks your native language and you’re only option for communication is to acquire the local one.

In that situation, there’s more than just motivation behind the progress you would make. You’d be constantly exposed to input and constantly be forced to produce that language in real situations. Your innate ability to learn languages would thrive in that environment.

The point I’m making here is that whilst it is good to sharpen the saw, the best thing you can do is still to find every opportunity to get real input and use Chinese in real situations.

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