tl;dr: I am curious what your thoughts are on how to ease the (steep) learning curve with a new language.
I am 2 months in learning Chinese, already had my small ups and downs, and still working on my setting out my learning path. I came to think about it because I had an interesting discussion with someone that somehow learning Chinese went smoother so far for me than when I first learned English.
Generally, I am ‘bad’ at learning languages, and with ‘bad’ I mean a bit slower than most people, and I have tried many times to learn a new language for several languages. More serious attempts included German (learned throughout high school, can read on an academic level but barely write a sentence), French (dropped it early in high school but can comprehend the basics), Italian (lived there for two years, took 7 months of classes before I could not keep up anymore), Greek (same as Italian), Spanish (did some self-study at home and had friends to practice with a bit). But my English is considered quite good by most, even by fellow Dutch people (that generally speak a decent English). My English level generally makes it that believe don’t believe me when I tell them I am bad at learning languages. But I learned it slowly over many years, gradually using it more, and barely learned it in a classroom setting, so almost in a similar way to a native speaker but starting some years later and less intense (until I moved abroad some years ago and it became my daily driver).
I think the main issue I have is not so much with learning a language itself, but with the learning curve of traditional language learning. A problem with classroom learning is that I felt thrown in the deep most of the time. When I look at my Spanish textbook (not including the accompanying workbook and grammar book), that is of the total immersion type i.e. instructions are also in (simple) Spanish, chapter 1 starts with simple phrases. The typical hello, how are you, what’s your name stuff. This all in a few variations. Good approach for sure. But you suddenly get it all in a week. I turned all new words into an Anki deck (considering word pairs as one word, e.g. buenas noches = 1 flashcard/word), and by the end of chapter 1 there were 158 flashcards you could make. Over next chapters this count would gradually decrease, as a lot you learned in early chapters will be reused in later chapters, but they all have a similar length and are usually covered in a similar time (about 1 week). So, you have a very steep curve learning the basics!
And I get it, you can’t fill a classroom lessons with just some words. But this will lead to students being blown away by much content in the beginning, before that content is properly settled in your mind you’re already a few chapters further. Teachers of course take care to also repeat bits from earlier chapters (good ones anyway), this helps with it settling in your mind, but here you start to see problems arising with having slower and faster learners. As a slightly slower learner, I always reach a point where I get overwhelmed, can’t keep up, only learn parts of each chapter till I reach a critical point where I am too far behind to continue. Often for me this is around where you go from A1 to A2. So, I can’t start A2 classes, but I know too much to be accepted into A1 classes again. I think this is especially a problem with starters, as you know to little to properly immerse at the same time. Now, living and working in Greece I tried practicing with my co-workers what I learned. I got extremely fluent at certain phrases, but when they tried something slightly new, I couldn’t get it at all, I was simply not far enough into the language to carry a real conversation.
Now I do still like classroom teaching. First of all, you get a teacher that corrects you. But it’s also good to practice with other classroom learners. In fact, I can barely speak in German with a native German speaker but can converse quite well with fluent ‘classroom speakers’. I live in an area in Greece with many people that used to live and work in Germany, we can talk in intermediate German just fine. In the same way I find that many people in ‘continental Europe’ generally can understand each other’s intermediate/advanced English better than they understand a native Brit/Irishman/American/etc. The classroom is also a perfect controlled environment where the teacher can carefully inject some new words/phrases into a conversation you practice and give the proper explanation with it. So, I still want to take normal classroom lessons, but also avoid a steep learning curve.
So, starting with my recently started Chinese adventure, I want to make my own learning path. Classes are still a part of the progress. Not the monolithic single core of my language learning with all else being secondary as it usually was, but just one pillar on which to build. The main point being: Chinese with a gentle learning curve.
Some considerations: I am well aware it might not be the fastest way in the end. But I want something that works for me and keeps me motivated. I will follow the HSK structure. I have several reasons for this. A lot of material is geared towards HSK and most classes follow it (at least loosely), and though I learn Chinese mostly for myself, centering it on HSK will help with using it for my career more efficiently. It is also clearly defined, which helps with planning. I started using Skritter with the Chinese for beginners’ deck, which I think is actually much better in its build up than HSK, but for above reasons I still switched to pure HSK learning in Skritter (for now).
So finally, the plan to ease the learning curve. Consider it as starting from zero:
-First, I will work on my passive vocabulary, with a character & word focus (not phrases). After some trial and error, I learned 3-5 characters/words a day works best for me (depends a bit on the day and how busy I am with work etc.). Using Skritter for this + handwriting on paper. The reason being that learning just a few characters/words is not so hard and can be easily spaced out. Learning phrases at this point will require me to learn several words at once to learn 1 phrase, causing harder to control spikes in learning more/less words at a time. I try to get my pronunciation correct, but focus not too much on this as I find it hard to judge myself (I do record myself and instantly play it back, but I am looking for classroom lessons to have a pro correct me). I am not too interested in proper handwriting, but find it helps memorize characters better also for reading and typing through pinyin. I will do this till I know passively the 300 words for HSK 1+2 (and all used characters), judged by having learned them all on Skritter and not making many mistakes anymore in the test (90% or 95% test scores or something up there).
-Second, I will read in on the grammar rules for HSK 1+2. Just basically to get familiar with it, and recognize them being used, but not necessarily be able to use them myself.
-Third, I will try to read hsk2 level texts. Study how words are really used, see if I recognize properly the grammar rules (going over them again a few times). I am thinking to use linq for this, but not set on a method yet. I will do the same for listening with beginner level audio through perhaps Du Chinese or ChinesePod (again not set on a method).
At this point I hope to have a proper passive knowledge of what is required for HSK 2 (i.e., I can recognize words, understand simple phrases using those words). But besides some individual word writing in Skritter, I should have very little active knowledge (i.e., I cannot necessarily produce those words in my own phrases, either written or spoken). It was all very sequential till now; I try to avoid learning more words in the grammar and phrase learning and the other way around.
-Fourth would be beginner classroom lessons where I hope to have a head start with good passive knowledge of the used words. For sure new words will enter my vocabulary at this point and I will add them to a self-made ‘supplementary HSK2 deck’, so I can internalize them well during the classroom lessons period. At least the words I expect to come back throughout the classroom lessons, not necessarily one-off words I encounter in these lessons so as not to overburden myself. I hope to learn a lot on pronunciation and get familiar with my own phrase forming. I also expect a teacher point me other subtleties I missed. Because I learned the core words in advance, and learned to read them in phrases, I hope I will have to learn less at a time, so I can keep up in class with ease, and if I do miss some bits (e.g., I can’t come to a class for some reason) that should not impact me too much as I won’t miss the meaning of important words but just some practice in using the words.
-Fifth, after I finished classes to get me to HSK 2 level I will try to practice through something like a language exchange (e.g. use italki to find others) and occasionally maybe pay a professional tutor if I feel I need some padding on some area.
While doing step 5, I will also start from step 1 again, but this time for the HSK3. After that, go on for HSK4, but maybe at that point I will skip the classroom learning but do more with occasional online tutoring maybe (have less lessons, but more focused, assuming I have gotten better at identifying where I need help improving). After HSK3 I hope I can also do more phrase/text writing exercise, do an online journal, etc.
So above is my plan. But it is flexible. I know it’s a long text, but maybe it helps other beginners set out their own plan. I personally find it nice to read the insights behind someone else’s choices
I also hope to get input from the more experienced learners! How did you experience the learning curve, what did you do to scale it, and what would you have done different?