Serious Mandarin Chinese Learner: The Comparison Trap

“Reader be warned: at the time of writing, I’ve only completed six months of formal Chinese language instruction. I’m still a beginner, perhaps verging on intermediate, so my thoughts on language learning are by no means definitive, sound, or sane. My voice is just one of many: I’m a single drop of water in an ocean of smarter, harder-working people. But if you’re also a beginner or taking your first fledgling steps into intermediate territory, perhaps my perspective will be of some assistance. And perhaps reading the thoughts of smarter, harder-working people isn’t actually helping you right now. Let me explain.”

Any serious student will spend some time at the outset scouring the internet in search of Chinese language learning’s magic beans. This quest invariably takes the aspiring 学生(xuéshēng) to forums, message boards, and comment sections, which are consistently replete with fellow students and a few savants sharing tales of superhuman study habits and humble-brags passed off as well-meaning advice. In the comment section of a Reddit post with a headline along the lines of, “What’s the ideal number of hours to study every day?” you’re likely to see responses that make three hours per day of flashcard drills seem downright lazy. After scanning through these responses, you may initially feel a surge of inspiration to match their machismo, only to quickly become crestfallen at the realization that there’s no way you’re every day going to watch three hours of Chinese soap operas, listen to an hour of Chinese podcasts, write twenty pages of 汉字(hànzì), create custom Anki decks (complete with pictures), speak with language partners for two hours before dinner, and finally go sleep with a Chinese textbook on your forehead to absorb new grammar by osmosis.

This emotional pendulum-swing between inspiration and self-loathing has struck me down countless times. It’s like scanning through WeChat Moments and becoming depressed after comparing yourself to the beautiful, successful, well-traveled friends who populate your newsfeed. But just like how your old highschool classmate who constantly posts romantic selfies with her boyfriend is probably masking insecurity through the vessel of public validation, those Chinese language geniuses of the internet may not be as disciplined and ardent as their anecdotes imply.

Perhaps I’m making matters worse, but I’d like to share some of the observations I’ve made on my journey thus far. If something resonates with you, try it out. If something sounds stupid, it probably is — so leave it aside and do it your way!

  • Rather than compare yourself to people you’ve never met, those with dubious claims to proficiency, be proud of your progress, even if it seems slow. I suggest you only compare yourself to yourself. I would be willing to wager that your “self” of today has greater Chinese proficiency than your “self” of six months ago. Recite positive affirmations daily.
  • Don’t spend time with people who aren’t serious about studying. Yes, the girl sitting next to you in class is cute. Yes, your classmate is good for a laugh and is probably a swell guy. But if they’re both half-hearted about their studies, their bad attitude will infect you. Surround yourself with people who are both enthusiastic and hard-working. Feed off their good energy, and offer them them the same in return.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to speak Chinese. I know it sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered beginners (especially Westerners) who, despite the fact that they paid thousands of dollars and flew thousands of miles to attend a Chinese university, seem like they are ashamed to clearly and distinctly enunciate tones, especially the first tone. And I would go even further to say that you should EX-A-GGER-ATE the tone sounds during your learning process, even if it makes you sound like a robot. In time you’ll sound more natural, but at the start it’s better to speak correctly than melodically.
  • Which brings me to my next point: don’t merely emulate the sound of native Chinese speakers’ voices, observe and mimic the shapes that their mouths make while speaking. I’m serious: stare at their mouths as they speak. I’ve found that the physical shaping of the tongue and lips is half the battle when it comes to mastering spoken Chinese. If you can’t see how your Chinese teacher is shaping her tongue, ask her. For example, the ǚ sound of lǚxíng is best spoken with tight cheeks, a pursed mouth, and a stiff tongue pressed gently against the lower teeth.
  • This one will be the most controversial, but here it goes: don’t waste your time learning things that are not in keeping with your personal goals. That could mean anything from skipping certain vocabulary to forgoing entire aspects of the language. In my case, I decided to take a raincheck on learning how to handwrite Chinese characters. The preceding sentence is surely blasphemous in the eyes of academics and teachers — and I wholeheartedly agree that handwriting is a valuable skill. Learning to write by hand could drastically improve my reading comprehension ability, and perhaps more importantly, it’s one hell of a party trick. There are only 24 hours in a day, however, and I’m already juggling work and school. My goal is, in one year’s time, to go from zero Chinese to being able to operate conversationally within a Chinese office environment. So I chose to de-prioritize handwriting in favor of listening, speaking, reading, and writing on computer. I’m losing something, yes — and maybe I’m making a huge mistake — but I’ve made peace with my decision. In today’s world the majority of communication is done on a computer or smartphone anyway. (I’m bracing for pitchforks).

If I leave you with anything, I hope it’s this: do what feels natural to you. Set reasonable goals and stick to them. If you’re balancing school and work like I am, don’t be ashamed that you aren’t reciting Li Bai poems in the shower and practicing calligraphy on the john. By all means set your bar high, but don’t paralyze yourself by attempting to break the Olympic record during your first week of practice.  Every person is different. Every person’s aptitudes are different. Every person’s goals are different. Know thyself, young squire, and be the hero of your own story — not someone else’s.

Tyler McWilliams

Tyler is currently a resident of Shanghai, splitting his time between studying at East China Normal University and working remotely for a US-based firm.