Moving Back to Go Foward

Language learning

I love this photo of a bike in Beijing.

I have been feeling stuck about learning Chinese characters. I don’t know if Chinese characters are harder for me than they are for other people, or if they are just too damn hard. Regardless, it is clearly possible for people to learn Chinese characters, because a) native speakers learn them and b) plenty of non-native speakers of Chinese, who are no smarter than me, also learn them.

Yet it’s clear that my own strategy for learning characters hasn’t been working.

I have been using Skritter for about a year, and I while I can’t blame my lack of progress on the program, I do think that my recent frustrations have something to do with the way I have been using it.

When I was in China, my phone started having trouble connecting to the internet. This meant that Skritter couldn’t add new words, sometimes for days. After several frustrated days of being unable to add any new characters, I added all of the characters I wanted to learn, which were in a ready-made list of the 3,000 most common Chinese characters. Unfortunately, doing so basically broke the spaced-repetition system, so instead of giving me a character until I knew it, I would get endless characters I didn’t know, and instead of repeating every hour or every day, each character would repeat after a couple weeks, by which time I had forgotten it.

I’ve been aware of this problem for a while, but I haven’t taken any action. There are two reasons. 1) I can’t address the issue without erasing my whole Skritter archive, which I feel sad about doing, and 2) I am deluding myself into thinking that at “next week” I am really going to slog through all of the characters waiting in my queue. I’ve been telling myself that for at least three months, so it’s time to admit that it’s not going to happen.

I’ll talk about the problem with self-delusion as related to language learning some other time (it’s a very good topic), but today I want to address why I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about deleting everything in my Skritter queue: It feels like I’m erasing a year’s worth of progress, and like I’m moving backward. Which leads me to two very important insights in language learning:

1) Sometimes you have to do something that feels like a step backwards in order to move forward and make the progress you want to; and

2) When it comes to learning a language, you are never really taking a step backwards, because your real progress isn’t measured by what class you’re in, what books you read or how many characters are in your Skritter queue.

In fact, not only did I decide to reset my Skritter account, I’ve also regressed in my Chinese learning in at least one other important way. I am working on reading two books in Chinese. One is a best-selling novel, the other is a non-fiction biography. At this point, the biography is too frustrating for me to read, and I only read the first couple pages before coming to that conclusion. Even though I’ve only read about 25 pages of the novel, I had been making consistent progress and am enjoying the book. But I decided recently that perhaps it was also too difficult.

I put a Chinese-language version of Harry Potter on hold at the library.

While I believe in challenging yourself, but sometimes a challenge can be counterproductive. Because reading the novel in Chinese is so mentally draining, I won’t do it unless I have at least an hour of uninterrupted time, and it’s not the kind of reading I would do when I’m relaxing before bed. If I’m reading something easier, I’ll likely read a lot more. How much I improve in the language is primarily related to how much time I spend reading, not the intellectual caliber of the reading material. So I’ll actually get more benefit from something that is less challenging.

Even if this feels like regressing, though, it isn’t. I’ve read 25 pages of a serious novel in Chinese, which isn’t nothing. In fact, I think the fact that I can read a version of Harry Potter in Chinese – and mostly understand it – is reason to celebrate, and much better than where I was a year ago.

Yet I still can’t make myself delete my whole Skritter queue. Perhaps it’s because I get a warning from Skritter every time I think I might do it, and I chicken out. Instead, this time I finally activated Skritter’s “save me” feature, which is meant for people in my situation – who are feeling bogged down in endless reviews.

If the save-me feature doesn’t work, though, it will be back to the delete button.

When you’re learning a language, feeling of discouragement are important to avoid, because the worst that can happen is that you quit. If doing something difficult – like conquering a massive Skritter review queue or reading a work of literature – make you avoid or put off learning because they require so much concentration and willpower, you should try to focus on something easier.

There is no shame in moving from something difficult to something easy. Often, it will actually help you learn faster.