I’ll admit, the analogy might seem totally random at first. And while that may be true, I’ll argue that it’s also a useful one.
That is, when we compare the similarities between learning Mandarin and stretching, we find helpful takeaways that we can apply to our learning strategy.
So here are 9 ways learning Mandarin is like stretching (and why you should even care):
1. People don’t always get why you’re doing it
Go to the gym to lift some weights or get in some cardio and no one bats an eye. The minute you start stretching beyond the usual 5-minute half-ass warmup, people start looking at you funny. They might even ask if you’re training for some type of extreme sport they’ve never heard of.
The same goes for Mandarin. Take up learning French or even Spanish and people think nothing of it. But take up Mandarin, and everyone gets curious. They’ll ask, “But isn’t Mandarin Chinese the hardest language to learn?” or “Are you moving to China or Taiwan?” Maybe they think it’s rare. Maybe they wonder if they aren’t doing it, why are you?
While I’m sure you have some very valid (and personal) reasons for taking up Mandarin, that’s really beside the point—although I would very much love to hear them, so please share them below in the comments!
The truth is that with stretching, there are so many benefits for everyone to be doing it—to become more limber, to help prevent injuries, to get better at a particular sport (an extreme sport, even), to improve muscle strength, and on and on.
Learning Mandarin has too many benefits to count as well. For one, Mandarin is fast becoming a global language just like English. Plus, being bilingual is great for your brain, you can meet more friends, expand your choices in movies (and friends you watch movies with), and on and on.
So when someone asks you, “Why are you learning Mandarin?”, maybe the better question is…why aren’t they?
2. Progress can seem invisible (at least at the beginning)
If you start lifting weights and doing cardio consistently for even as short as a two-week period, chances are people will notice. Stretch every day, not so much.
Why is it that many people don’t stretch? Because they simply can’t see the benefits of stretching, at least at first.
The same goes for Mandarin. You can spend hours and hours on grammar without seeing any results that are, at the minimum, consistent with your investment in both time and effort. Then one day you’re listening to a Mandarin Chinese conversation and find that you can actually follow along—all thanks to those sentence patterns you’ve been drilling ad nauseam.
This is called the cumulative effect, which basically states that—not unlike the way a painting comes together through the gradual buildup of brushstrokes—repeated actions (studying or stretching) yield greater results than the sum of their individual parts.
In other words, improvement is dependent on consistent repetition.
The thing to keep in mind is that sometimes what you’d call improvement doesn’t start to become visible until a certain amount of repeated actions have taken place—like those brushstrokes I mentioned.
And the takeaway is? Stick with your Mandarin learning even if you’re not seeing results right away. Just like with stretching, which is great for you by the way, it takes some time to build up those foundational components that layer up to fluency, with every repetition you put in the tank.
3. The more you do it, the better you get
So you know the Law of Diminishing Returns, a principle in economics that basically says the more you do something, the less you get in return?
A simple food example is boiling water. You leave the pot on the burner only until the water boils. Any more time on the burner doesn’t get you any more results but it does waste effort and adds to your utility bills (of course, that’s assuming that your end result is boiling water—if you were simmering a soup, well that’s a whole different story).
The opposite of this law is also true…
It’s called the Law of Increasing Returns (the lesser-known cousin of the Law of Diminishing Returns,) which says the more you do something, the more you get in return. And that’s another way learning Mandarin is like stretching. The more you practice, the more you benefit from said practice.
4. A little bit every day is better
Say your goal is to stretch 20 minutes a day every day, but one week you get lazy and miss all your stretching sessions. To make up for it, you instead stretch the equivalent of your weeks’ worth in one day. What does it add up to? (No, this isn’t the start of a math problem.) A single stretching session of over two and a half hours.
Mathematically, it adds up. But will you get the same results from the seven 20-minute sessions than the single, longer session? The answer is no.
Not only is the longer session a whole lot more daunting than the shorter, spread out daily sessions (and thereby a whole lot easier to procrastinate on), but it’s also boring, and you could even run the risk of injuring yourself. Bottom line, you just can’t cram stretching.
Mandarin is sort of like that, too. (Well, except the injuring yourself part—although sometimes it does feel like it makes my brain hurt). It’s the reason why cramming should never be on a list of best ways to learn Mandarin.
Besides, dividing your study sessions into smaller, more manageable “chunks” has proven benefits…
- It makes it easier to get started and harder to procrastinate.
- It makes it easier to make time for learning Mandarin in the first place.
- It keeps you from getting overwhelmed and allows you to really focus on the material at hand.
5. It can be hard to find time for it
As our days keep getting busier and busier, you know how the story goes…
If we’re not ultra-vigilant about how we spend our time, some things can go by the wayside.
Getting to the gym in the first place is hard enough to do on most days, not to mention spending any more time than we need to on stretching. (Yes, even with all its purported benefits and all.)
Unless we have some pretty good learning habits in place, it can be the same story with Mandarin.
6. Variety is essential
When it comes to stretching, variety is the spice of life. Not only do you want to try different stretches to keep things interesting, but you also want to stretch different muscle groups to get the most benefits, keep things balanced and prevent injury.
In the same way you wouldn’t just do shoulder stretches, you want to vary the Mandarin topics you focus on, too. Again, not just to keep from getting bored, but to make sure you’re well-rounded in multiple areas of Mandarin Chinese—kinda like an Olympic decathlete.
A good way to do it is to “chunk” your learning sessions by “subject areas”, for example; one day you may focus on measure words, another day you make it all about how to use ba, and so on and so forth.
Variety doesn’t mean random. You can choose and order based on your current goals and even topics or vocabulary that is most useful to you, say you’re working in a field that has a specific jargon. Just remember to move on to another area of focus after some time to keep the variety going.
7. You use it or lose it (sort of)
You’ve probably heard the saying “Use it or lose it”, which states that maintaining any particular skill is dependent on regularly practicing that skill—whether that’s stretching or learning a foreign language.
It’s partly true. I know if I slack on my stretching routine, my muscles are a lot tighter when I get back to it. When we have to wear a cast and aren’t able to move a muscle, that muscle shrinks.
The same happens with language. Scientists who study language call it attrition: the phenomenon of a language fading over time when we’re not exposed to it. And it happens both with foreign languages and first languages, too (I know when I don’t visit my parents for a while—one of the few people with whom I speak Spanish, my first language—I start to struggle finding certain words in Spanish).
But it turns out, no language truly ever fades forever, but rather it becomes dormant.1
Scientists found that when people learned a second language as a child, they could perform better in vocabulary tests on that language, even though they had no memory of ever learning it.
Although I couldn’t find any comparable study done on adults who had learned a foreign language as adults (which is a whole lot more applicable for us here), it’s fairly safe to say that we can expect it’s a similar case. (With the exception being, of course, that we would actually remember learning Mandarin, I hope.)
The key takeaway? Even if you take a break from Mandarin, you probably won’t lose what you’ve already learned. After all, even if you haven’t stretched for a while, you can always pick up where you left off.
8. Both can feel uncomfortable at times
Just take a beginner’s yoga class and you’ll soon come to the conclusion that stretching can be uncomfortable sometimes. In fact, sometimes, it even hurts (although it should never be painful).
But you show up to the next class anyway because you know being uncomfortable is part of the process. It’s how you become (through that cumulative effect I talked about before) more flexible, as you slowly lengthen your muscles with every repetition. It’s no different when learning Mandarin.
I remember the first time I took a group lesson with Mandarin Monkey. Come to think of it, it was a lot like a yoga class…
There were other students there of all different levels, eager to learn just like me. We went through some exercise to “stretch” our Mandarin muscles and yes, sometimes it felt uncomfortable and yes, my brain even hurt at times.
Just like a yoga teacher, our Mandarin teacher was there to gently correct us when we needed it, all the while creating an environment that felt supportive and inclusive—and telling us to lean into the “stretch” and breathe through it when it got challenging. There were no judgements, even when my pose…err, pronunciation, was a little wobbly or didn’t sound like another student’s—or even when I fell flat on my behind. And before you knew it…ding! The little chime signaled the class had ended. (Okay, there wasn’t really a chime.)
Was my brain a little sore? Yes. Did I work up a sweat? You bet! (You mean learning Mandarin doesn’t make you sweat?) But I realized I had learned more in that 50-minute session than I had in some time using other study methods.
By the way, if you want to stretch your Mandarin muscles like I’ve been doing (sweat, even), you can get two 50-minute lessons free—just you and a teacher or with a group of three other students.
So yes, both stretching and Mandarin can be uncomfortable at times, but that’s how you make progress…so lean into it.
9. Sometimes it’s better with others
Just as there are pros to stretching with people (yoga classes being the perfect example), there are many perks to learning Mandarin with people, too:
- You get the built-in accountability of other peers who are counting on you to be there.
- It’s a great way to get tips, advice or new ways to learn you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
- You can practice speaking and listening all while having valuable feedback to help you improve.
- Sheer camaraderie—you get a support system of people who are on the same journey as you, even if they’re at different levels.
- There’s nothing more valuable to your progress than having an experienced Mandarin teacher there to gently guide you and correct you when you need it.
- Real conversation—nothing you’ll ever get from a textbook.
When I was looking around for the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese, one of the things that stood out to me about Mandarin Monkey was all the different ways to learn Mandarin online that they offer.
If you like to learn by yourself, they have private lessons and learning resources that totally lend themselves to going solo.
But if you’d rather have some company, they also have group lessons (up to four students) and weekly hangouts—aptly called, err, Hangouts—where students of all levels mingle, play learning games, share stories (and jokes), practice their speaking and listening, and—yes, maybe even stretch together. Best of all, Tom and Ula are always there and they are teachers themselves!
So if you want to improve your Mandarin flexibility, check out ways you can learn with them on their Patreon page. (Don’t worry, being into yoga isn’t a requirement.)
Ready to get more limber with your Mandarin?
So now that you know how stretching is just like learning Mandarin, are you ready to loosen up those Mandarin-learning muscles? Just like with stretching, stick with Mandarin long enough and you’ll soon be impressed at your own capabilities (though we’re not promising a full split).