Easing the learning curve

Hi all!

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 :slight_smile:

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?

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First let me say I admire all of your language adventures and your indomitable spirit! Wow do you have a lot of experience!

And it is because of that experience that I trust the agenda you have set for yourself. You are already aware of what works and what doesn’t, especially for yourself.

I similarly thought I was dreadful at languages, until I first moved to Taiwan to teach, almost determined not to learn the language after bad school experiences with French.

But I had to take some classes in order to be allowed to work, and more importantly I often found myself in situations where I just had to learn something or else continue to get lost, be unable to order food, or to make friends.

Long and short of it is, it was not the language learning that was my problem, it was the classroom. And I hated grammar (yay Chinese! So much more straightforward).

So my only advice to you is: replicate as many of the reasons for your success in English as you can.

One: Immersion, immersion, immersion. If you cannot live in a Chinese community, spend as much time listening and speaking as possible. That is the natural way. There is an abundance of opportunity online and with various apps. It will make reading and writing easier too.

Two: settle in for the long term. Don’t pressure yourself and disappoint yourself by seeing your progress as slow. Make it slow, and deliberate. Build a pyramid of language and make sure foundations are solid before going up a level. Don’t be pressured by classroom paces, which are rapid, narrow ladders of cram-climbing that leave you adrift in real situations. Especially for reading and writing, expect to take your time. Just keep a reasonable pace and make it daily. Look back every few months and be proud of how far you’ve come. Rarely if ever look up when the going is tough, as with real mountain climbing, lest it discourage you. Get to a plateau? Then time to take a breather and look around, and back.

Great admiration for not only your current ambition but for all your language efforts. That’s the spirit!


Yes, the easy grammar is a big plus for Chinese! It seems to be especially easy with the more low level dialogue and only ramp up a bit when you get to the more advanced texts/dialogues. As a guy that struggles with genders and conjugations, I love I can ignore that and mainly have to think about some word order basics (which is not even that important to start reading/listening for the most part!).

I like your point on settling for the long term. I think it is important as wel. I do have some long term plans of reach lvl x in y time (if you are interested: hsk 2 by next summer, hsk 3 by early 2022). Not very ambitious with daily study I think but it does keep me focussed.

I am curious about your Taiwan experience; Besides immersion, what other methods did you use to study in the end? Was there anything specific that helped you in taking the classes you had to take?


While in Taiwan at the time, I barely had time to study as I was working several jobs from early morning to late at night, with a Chinese class in the afternoon.

So immersion was it, and that got me into a pretty good level of speaking and listening. The classes were good but not so serious as the ones offered in universities (I studied at 國語日報 / 国语日报 the Mandarin Daily News Language Centre, which at the time had a huge foreign student population - you can get their newspapers online now to practice reading with the local phonetics side by side - now I would recommend Taipei Language Institute, TLI if you go for private or group classes, 師大 ‘s teacher quality is spotty, and 太大 too expensive), so my reading and writing were very poor as I just did not have time for serious study.

When I returned home I studied Chinese at university where my oral/aural skills got me into third year straight off - but I spent the first four months of the program heading for serious failure, which culminated in failing the midterm - I just could not keep up with the pace as my reading/writing were nowhere near my other skills, and the course didn’t care how well I could speak.

So over a three-week Christmas break I resolved to master these “radicals” that I’d vaguely heard about. It was intense, hours and hours a day. But I ended up with a B on my final exam, and worked my way into As in my fourth year, at ferocious effort.

So I highly recommend studying radicals!

Many years went by and somewhere along the line I gradually “lost” my Chinese from disuse. (中文還給老師了 / 中文还给老师了)

About five years ago I decided to reclaim it, but since I have the luxury of being able to do it on my own terms now, I decided to learn on a components basis, a system I contrived, whereby I learned not only the radical of each new character, but also at the same time any other component, breaking it down from largest to smallest and even the most obscure chararacter-components. Then I used these to build mnemonics, which I discovered via Skritter.

I can’t recommend my system because the majority of people have no choice but to follow classroom paces, which I personally find unbearable and unhelpful, especially long-term.

My system slowed me down on more fundamental levels for longer, but that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to constantly advance through higher and higher levels of vocabulary, because I was sick of being unable to have a conversation with a young child, or being able to talk about the ordinary things in life with my adult friends, or explain to a hairdresser what kind of cut I wanted. I wanted that before I learned fables from the Ming dynasty and obscure idioms. I wanted utilities, jobs, emotions, the ups and downs of life, nature, and anything a six-or seven-year old can discuss comfortably before moving to the university-level but necessarily narrow vocab of your average post-beginner Chinese classroom.

I have been lucky to be able to supplement this self-learning with a couple of weeks (most years) of intense immersion conversation-only daily classes, in situ. The reading and writing I continue to learn on my own.

I don’t know if you can use any of my experience to help you as it’s not easy to replicate, but perhaps something in there will give you ideas?


Though I can’t replicate it, it is definitely helpful advise. Thanks so much!

For example, I never really thought much about the differences between local language schools and university classes for example (I recently applied for university level classes actually, hope to hear if I’m accepted next month). For my case, I hope to get some support on pronunciation from a professional through these classes, for when I start to intensify speech training. Speaking is normal my achilles heel. Because of your advice I still plan to do that for a start (but after I got at least reading proficiency at that level, so I’m not dealing with having to learn every aspect of a new word in class, just how to pronounce). I can imagine now classes become more futile if you got the basics (for pronunciation), as fluency and advanced Chinese is not my goal. I expect that after HSK3 you’ll have had nearly all frequent syllables anyway? The few rare ones I am sure you can learn on your own.

Immersions is a bit of a problem for me (my job ties me to Europe for the next ~2 years, with not much leave). But your comment on focussing on being able to have conversations with normal people got me thinking a lot. I will try to find more ways to incorporate that. My plan was after reaching HSK2 or 3 to try and read some daily news in Chinese, but that is quite formal I imagine. Perhaps try to join some group chats / discussion boards maybe (maybe install tantan and set the location to China, perfect way to talk with new people all the time :sweat_smile:). I’ll give it some thought!


Sounds like you have a good plan!

Even if fluency is not your goal, maintain a good listening practice in addition to character learning. You will absorb phrases and the grammar more naturally that way without the same effort you would need with non-aural study alone. With many apps, you can actually slow down the speed, and increase it gradually the more you listen.

Skritter is starting to introduce instructional videos tied to word lists. You can control the speed here too. It’s a great initiative and I look forward to more.

In my experience newspapers are fairly difficult reading material for some time until you get to pretty high levels of characters and words. There are so many references to institutions and specialised terminology that it can get frustrating. Especially the headlines! They are difficult in any language.

I tried Chairman’s Bao for a while and personally found it did not give enough extra value over finding free articles online to read.

I recommend giving Taipei’s 國語日報 / 国语日报online newspaper a try - even though the local phonetics system won’t help you make out the words (if you don’t already know the system,) it is an actual newspaper of simplified real news stories designed for people learning to read.

I am finding now that the app Du Chinese provides a good daily quick read, by level, introducing new vocabulary at a reasonable pace with the benefit of being able to listen over and over, at a reasonable price.

I have also tried Chinese Pod but personally found getting through the lesson itself and the vocab needed to master it more demanding time-wise than I was able to handle then. If you have time for it, it is excellent, however not cheap. I plan on going back to it when Du Chinese gets too simple.

There is a discussion in this forum about Du Chinese vs Chinese Pod. Haven’t gotten to it myself, but it may help you.

All the best to you and happy to help with any advice you may need.