Learning slump

July 15, 2010, 06:48 PM posted in General Discussion

Ok, I'm going through a bit of a slump. Since restarting properly with Chinesepod I've been learning steadily, doing about an hour's study a day, listening to 2-3 podcasts on the way home in the car and trying my hardest to learn characters.

But I feel like I'm really not getting anywhere at all. I can't seem to hold any new vocab, I'm near the top of elementary, and I can't get any of the intermediate lessons. I find that I've started to just tune out what Jenny says in Chinese because I don't understand it, and just listen to John's translations and explanations, which obviously isn't helping me learn.

So my study is slacking off, I've stopped trying to learn characters. It just feels really hopeless! I'm going to China at the end of October to meet my girlfriend's parents, and I know I won't be able to understand a thing.  Waah!

So my question is: what do you all do when your studying hits a dry patch? When it just seems to vast and foreign and difficult, what do you do? Help! 

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July 15, 2010, 10:16 PM

Take a break for a fortnight. It'll become a bit easier, you just have to try different things. I find transcribing the lesson (or at least a few mins of it) really helps, as you'll notice the same things coming up over and over. Transcripts with Tal will be useful. Also, do random other things like watch a Chinese DVD, or Youku. But break first! Anyway, you'll get The Fear as October approaches and it'll become easy again!

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July 16, 2010, 09:28 AM

Speaking of extra-curricular... one of the best ways I have found to boost the way I feel about learning Chinese is to have a massage.

It is in China's massage parlours that I can find Chinese people who (usually) can't speak English at all well, but who are almost always sociable and excited to chat away and ask lots of questions.

Not only are you being pampered, but you get one-to-one speaking practice in a relaxed setting - for a full hour! - without the option to revert to English.

I always come out buzzing - and totally inspired. I should do it more often. It's so cheap here in China - often no more expensive than a Chinese tutor.

I guess for you, xiao_liang, that might be a bit difficult, but something to bear in mind - and look forward to - when you get here in October!

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July 15, 2010, 11:43 PM


mate, I think we all go through this at times. I really believe that the key to success is just hanging in there for the long haul [that doesn't mean you shouldn't take some short breaks]. Also it sounds like you have a significant motivating factor to keep you going. I have no doubt that you'll reach a point where Intermediate will be very comfortable. I think it's excellent that you're stretching yourself and struggling to follow Intermediate. However, I think at times like this it's better to actually take it down a notch..listen to some easy ellies...even review some old newbies if you like [ok,perhaps that will be too easy and you won't get much if anything out of it..but perhaps you could for example download the audio review at that level and just practice your speaking..or practice your writing at that level...I don't know where you're at but if you're like me it's possible to have one's levels all over the shop].I agree with most of the advice above except maybe the movie suggestion [depending on your frame of mind]. I totally agree that varying up your approach ,focussing on some other aspect of the language is a good thing to do [the old saying about a change being as good as a holiday] but if you're trying to follow the spoken Mandarin in a movie rather than the subtitles it may potentially reinforce the feeling of futility and that you're getting nowhere. I think at other times movies are great for varying up the approach. I also think that if you've got inlaws to meet you might want to practice improving your simple sentences you might use with them rather than tackle territory you may struggle with. This might be a good time for that. Jiayou mate !

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July 16, 2010, 12:36 AM

I remember what a teacher told me once, and I think it is absolutely true.  When we learn languages, we learn in stages.  We think we are going nowhere for a while, and then boom, we hit a next level.  I think this is where you are at.  When you first started hanging out here, you hit CPod like a rocket.  You were everywhere, and still relatively are.  I think a lull is only natural, and learning a language is frustrating for everyone except a few gifted bastards people. Another thing is that our minds are absorbing more than we think.  As a friend said to me, learning a language is just exposure, exposure, exposure.  You might not think that you are getting anything from Jenny when she speaks Chinese, but somewhere in the back of your skull your mind is working on the problem.  Trust me, I was there too.  To summarize, you are normal, and you are learning more than you think you are.

I agree with Sebire's suggestion to mix your studies up.  I think youku.com might frustrate you as most of their videos are quite fast, but it is worth a shot.  You might go to your local library and look for Children's books.  I think it is fun reading children stories when I am back at a child's language level.

Good luck, dude.

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"but somewhere in the back of your skull your mind is working on the problem"

..xiaophil, you always make good points and this is another one of them. I totally agree. I think a lot is being processed when your listening to stuff you don't understand. There is just a general tuning in to the language [even without understanding]..starting to distinguish sounds,tones,patterns. It's like laying a footprint. I think we also do hear words we've never encountered before and then when we do learn that word sometimes a bell will go off and you'll remember you heard it before without understanding. So some of the groundwork will already have been done. I don't think any of it is wasted effort. I guess it's part of the reason immersion works. As you say, exposure,exposure ,exposure.

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Thanks for the backup, baba.

I might add that it might be a good time to study something Chinese that isn't Chinese language to give the mind a chance to recalibrate. Perhaps read some history, watch some Chinese movies with English subtitles, read some fiction about China, look into tai chi or kungfu lessons. (I think you could score big with the gf's parents if you knew a few tai chi moves, but your gf might think you are a nerd, haha.)

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July 16, 2010, 03:03 AM

Start with the latest Intermediate lessons and work backwards. There are some back in the vault that are really hard, significantly harder than they are now.

I think xiaophil is right about exposure, exposure. I thought I was getting nowhere with the Int lessons, but just lately they're starting feel a lot more accessible. (I also find that reading the dialogue in English before you listen to the podcast helps too, so that you know what the dialogue is about).

Getting the Pleco dictionary has revolutionised my learning lately (available on a pda or iphone or ipod touch). Never again will I be stumped by a character that I cannot read! I love it. Being able to type in pinyin with predictive text is really useful too (the same way you can type Chinese on a computer).


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"revolutionised"..that's got my ears pricked up. I remember Calkins used to wax lyrical about it too. I haven't gotten around to figuring out it's advantages over free dictionary apps. I'd love to hear the main advantages you see pleco as having, so I can work out whether I should get it with all the trimmings,etc

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July 16, 2010, 03:45 AM

Hi xiao_liang

The best thing is that after your trip in late October you will have moved up a notch in your Chinese ability, guaranteed.  Without any conscious learning effort your listening and speaking will improve even if you are in China for just a few weeks.  The whole China experience will be exhilarating - even being told this, it will surprise you how much better you communicate.   So just wait for it to happen mate, don't sweat.  

If it was me I would find out what I could about where I am going, look on Google Earth you might find their house!  (This really happened to me - in 2006 a Sydney-based friend sent me a photo of my new home in China! I was knocked out to find that Google Earth worked so well there.)  I would check out the city on-line and learn about places I am going to visit.  Look up some food you are going to experience.  Learn your girlfriend's parents names well, practice how you are going to speak to them.  Practice talking about your own situation - your family, your work, England in general.  

Exciting - you are about to move to a new level.  

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July 15, 2010, 10:40 PM

Relax! It'll all work out in the end. :)

I can't speak directly to Chinese study, because I don't have the cred.--haven't been at it long, and, frankly,  haven't been applying myself. But, I'm trying to fix that.

However, I have run into the sort of thing you're describing on occasion while studying German. I'd feel like I wasn't learning anything, "can't read this, can't understand that," why am I still using this stupid dictionary? why does my pronunciation still suck? why does everyone else seem to be doing so much better than me?.... Well, I did my German  the "old school" university way so my prof.s  provided lots of positive reinforcement. (For what it's worth, I thought you were an old pro at this. UI or advanced or something.) Aside from that, I'd try changing things up a bit. Keep studying and listening to the podcasts, but try and remember to relax and enjoy it. Life doesn't depend on it (I hope).

Watch a Mandarin movie or a newscast, but don't worry about trying to get it all. No pressure! If it's really getting to you, take a few days off.

In my experience, you hit these "plateaus," and they really drag you down till one day, snap!, you're right back on track, you can't believe how well you're doing, how far you've come--honestly, it's kind of weird when you think about. (The same sort of thing happens to athletes, actually. Peaks and plateaus. You're stuck at a certain weight or time or whatever, then all of a sudden, you blow right through it.)

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July 16, 2010, 06:51 AM

I agree with what everyone's said here, so maybe i'll just add my own story of my language slumps...

My wife made it clear before we got married that she (and our family) would have to move to China for a year so that she could conduct her dissertation research.  I eagerly started taking a Chinese class in downtown Boston, learning introductory Chinese and learning some characters, and started learning with Chinese tapes.  I was doing lots of language learning in the car, playing the Chinese tapes on my 1-hour commute to work. After about 6 months, I hit the first plateau, felt I was going nowhere with Chinese and sort of stopped listening to the lessons. 

About 3 months after I stopped listening to Chinese in the car, we bought the tickets to China, and maybe a couple of weeks after that, I realized that I was going to have to travel in and out of China by myself for business, meaning that my Chinese had to be good enough, and soon, to get myself in and out of the country.  Otherwise, i'd be concerned i'd board the wrong bus/train/plane, and be on the bus to Moscow instead of Lanzhou.  I started studying like crazy, and then after about another couple of months, we flew to Beijing, then to Lanzhou.  My Chinese was horrible, but I could utter enough Chinese to get into a taxi and go where I needed to go.


First few weeks in Lanzhou, I was listening to Chinese language mp3s for about an hour a day, then doing something like shadowing. Maybe 6 months into language study, life took over, and i had little time to study Chinese, even though I was in the country and hearing and seeing Chinese continuously.  Listening to Chinese tapes slowed down, but didn't stop.


We were in China for a year, and then we returned to the US.  My Chinese was still horrible, but I could utter enough Chinese to get into a taxi, but still hoped that the taxi driver didn't say anything to me other than "Howard Johnson Hotel? got it".


I was back in my normal work routines, and i was back to listening to Chinese in the car on the 1-hour commute. But after 1 year, I stopped listening in the car, because I started feeling that it's going to be a long time before I go back to China again. 


About a year after i stopped learning in the car, I stumbled upon ChinesePod, and was motivated by the different kinds of lessons available. I subscribed for a year, and was motivated enough by interesting Chinesepod lessons to start listening in car again.  Even though I found some the of the lessons so interesting that I memorized the dialogue, I didn't feel my Chinese was progressing. I stopped listening in the car about about 8 months, and then would only listen to certain cpod lessons intermittently. Never focused on characters.


After 2.5 years in the States, my wife applied for a job in China that we both thought she was perfect for.  I started studying in the car like crazy.  We thought we was heading to China in a couple of months, but wehn the application process dragged on past 4 months, we assumed she didn't get the job. My Chinese study dropped down to intermittent review, no character learning.


The application process was a weird one for reasons we found out later, but about 9 months into the application process, she was offered the job. When I found out that my company would allow me to come to China, I started studying like crazy again.  4 months after we found out my wife was offered the job, we flew back to China.  Chinese study was 1 hour a day or more, no character learning. 


Even while in China, I hit plateaus, and then don't want to study Chinese.  I think I just get bored.  It is only recently that i've tried having a meaningful conversation with local Chinese, and even though I am stumbling through it, I can actually have a conversation. 



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July 16, 2010, 07:05 AM

I also hit numerous learning plateaus when I was learning English. But at the end, what always pulled me back was some aspects of the broader culture, be it pop culture, society or politics. I think it's really important to engage in some aspect of the culture beyond language in order to sustain your passion for learning the language. And Xiao_liang, I am sure coming to China in October will renew your interest for Chinese. You will feel plugged in to the language, the society and culture. That's very powerful.

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July 16, 2010, 07:18 AM

About understanding what Jenny says in Intermediate lessons, have you already seen the Podcast Language Qing Wens (1-3)? I think those will help, especially #2. Maybe start with #2, if you haven't done it already. Not only the podcast content but the discussion (linking tools are back--yay) should also be very helpful. Others there are expressing similar frustrations. Many helpful comments from fellow learners, many insights. 

In the Intermediate podcasts Jenny often says something which John mirrors in English. So OK, if you're "just" listening to John speaking English you know that most often Jenny is saying exactly the same thing in Chinese either immediately prior to or afterward. They give us many opportunities in Intermediate, to get how those things John says in English are said in Chinese.

Also--your upcoming trip in October is surely a great motivation. At the same time I guess you're feeling pressure and anxiety. Like Bodawei says I too would suggest you prepare to meet your girlfriend's parents by writing out and practicing the most important things you would want to say to them. Just the real priority stuff, so that you won't regret later having had opportunities to say things then and not having prepared. Maybe those opportunities will be when it's just the two of you, you and her dad.

Most of the time you probably won't understand what they and other people will be saying in your company, and most of the time you won't be able to make yourself understood. I would guess at some point most every day that will bring you close to tears. Happened to me in Tokyo, every day of just three days, esp because it was kids I was around and both the Chinese and Japanese kids trusted me to be helpful and know what I'm doing (*sniff). (it's what babies go through, right, this frustration? as they learn to speak)

But I do think any such inability to make yourself understood with people who do matter to you, that experience, will be a much greater motivation than The Fear, than the prospect of meeting the parents. Once you've had the opportunity to spend time with them and not be able to express yourself, I think that will just make you study with an intensity you didn't know was possible and never look back, you'll so never want to feel so unable to communicate again.

I don't mean that you are not going to have a lot of success communicating with people in China--not at all. Also not setting you up to dread failing. Just saying I'm sure that feeling of inadequacy comes to the most advanced learners.

Also agree with the suggestions to take a breather. Sometimes I'll just need to walk away from a lesson after struggling futilely for days. Then I'll come back to it and for some reason it's simply twice as easy. Also think, again, like babies need their sleep time for their brains to organize all the information they've absorbed while they're awake, rest time is beneficial to adult learners too. And agree again with suggestions to look for material like children's books and videos. I've always found kids' books and learning material fascinating.


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I didn't mean anything extraordinary or dramatic by "opportunities to say important things". Just the things that are absolutely necessary to us when we interact with others, like expressing simple gratitude, gladness, delight, concern, letting others know that something has moved you, stuff like that ...

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I was interested in your observation:

"(it's what babies go through, right, this frustration? as they learn to speak)"

...and was wondering what made you think they're frustrated.

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They cry and shake their heads and let us know we're not getting something, because they're perfectly clear as to what they want to tell us. Maybe I'm thinking mostly toddler-age kids. But I think younger babies go through it too (OK now maybe I'm thinking about those stories in Mary Poppins).

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July 16, 2010, 08:32 AM

Wow, thanks for all the responses people. Too many to reply to individually! I really appreciate them, and I guess I kind of knew the answers already, around taking a breather, and just keep plugging away, even if it feels nothing is sinking in. I must be absorbing it on some level, right?


I think Jenny's advice on other aspects of Chinese culture is really good, but I'm having trouble thinking of them. There are some gameshows that Christine watches that look quite fun, but it's difficult to enjoy them without her telling me what's happening, because obviously the language is so quick. General chinese pop music leaves me a bit cold (beyond a bit of LMF and S.H.E. as an occasional guilty pleasure :-p)... What other aspects of chinese culture do people recommend I could study as an extracurricular activity? 


Thanks again, I appreciate the help when I'm generally feeling a bit low at the moment! I'm away for a couple of days looking after my mum, but will try and check back in a few days :)

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Oh, children's books! I'm going to try and find some - that's a great idea :-)

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Check out amazon.com. I did a quick search for "chinese dr. seuss" and came up with several viable options. Of course, once you come to China in October you can buy them muuuuuuuuuuch cheaper. (Let me know if you'd like to know where to go in Shanghai or Guangzhou to buy these.)

Regarding other aspects of culture to get into, I have a couple of widely varied suggestions. One is to take a page out of Hank's book (http://chinesepod.com/community/conversations/post/9480#comment-182996) and dive into something very Chinese: tea...or chopsticks, or ink painting, or the subleties of the eight major Chinese cuisines (Yue, Chuan, Lu, Min, Su, Zhe, Xiang, and Hui, if you were wondering).

My second, infinitely more irreverent suggestion, is to take up an interest in Chinglish. There are tons of websites devoted to this stuff, and not only is it humorous, it provides a really interesting insight in to how the Chinese language works.

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July 16, 2010, 04:26 AM

I think the main points have been already been made so I will keep this short...

You could try changing your language preference on your PC, console, phone etc... to Chinese. I'm sure you would pick up lots of new words when you go looking for the "Phonebook", textmessages or launch a game etc. You will be forced to learn it quick in order to function. 

Also: bodewei is correct, you will probably come back from China feeling much more improved and motivated but also be prepared to feel overwhelmed and possibly disappointed in your first few conversations. It can be a very different/difficult experience going from podcasts to real people with different accents but that is exactly what will improve you.