21 New Year’s Resolutions to Level Up Your Mandarin Learning in 2021
New year, new you, amirite?
Okay, so there isn’t anything special about the first of January that will magically transform you into a new and improved you (who says you need that anyway?) Actually, the marking of the “new year” is pretty much arbitrary (there’s a whole lunar calendar, too).
But that’s not to say there isn’t something almost magical about the start of the New Year, as far as setting goals goes, at least.
There’s a kind of energy in the air.
No, I’m not talking about anything woo-woo here. Just that, well, for some reason or another, lots of us are more likely to set goals for the New Year—aka New Year’s resolutions. So I thought I’d share 21 New Year’s resolutions to help you learn more Mandarin.
But before we get to those, it’s helpful to keep some caveats in mind when implementing any new habits for the new year:
1. You can’t rush it
Forming a new habit takes time. Think about it, it probably took you a whole year (or even longer) to build the habits you have now, so it may take some time for any new habits to stick—especially making Mandarin an everyday habit. Give yourself permission to start slow and progress at your own pace.
2. Focus on the journey
Always have the end result in mind, but don’t use it as a measure of your progress. Instead, focus on the tiny actions you can take every day to get you there.
3. Don’t try to be perfect (or try to do everything)
You don’t have to implement all these tips all at once (or even at all). Some may stick, some may not. Try them and give yourself the flexibility to pick and choose the ones that work best for you.
With those caveats aside, here are 21 tips to help you learn even more Mandarin in 2021:
1. Make more time for Mandarin
In looking over the past year, one of the things you’ll hear most people say is “I wish I would have made more time for X.”
We’ve covered this topic before in our blog post 21 Tips to Make More Time to Learn Mandarin, but can you really learn too much about time management?
This coming year, try something different. Something Elon Musk does to manage his super-hectic schedule: the time-blocking method. Basically, you divide your day, just as Elon does, (no, I’m not really on a first name basis with Elon Musk) in blocks of time—and then use those blocks wisely.
Now, your schedule doesn’t have to look like, err, Mr. Musk’s. He opts for a lot of 5-minute time blocks throughout the day, while such a short time period may not be enough to study Mandarin. So how long should you study Mandarin using the time-blocking method? I’ve found that 15-minute time blocks work best.
It may not seem like much, but if you just study for 15 minutes a day (keep in mind that you can do more than one 15-minute time block in a day), after a year, that adds up to about 4 days of nonstop Mandarin learning!
And this goes both for listening and speaking practice as well as learning Chinese characters. You can even split up your time block so each “discipline” gets equal share.
2. Schedule your learning
Making a schedule might seem obvious, but it’s a crucial next step to implementing any time-blocking technique that often gets overlooked. You think “how hard could it be to carve out 15 minutes in my day for learning Mandarin?” The answer: harder than you think.
By writing down exactly when you’re going to use your time blocks, you make it concrete, and you also make it happen. If you leave it up in the air, chances are other responsibilities will creep in and quickly fill your day.
And be realistic. For example, I’m more likely to be able to find a 15-minute block of time in the early morning than later in the day. Also, it doesn’t have to be 15 minutes. It can be 8 minutes, 18 minutes, etc. Just make sure it’s long enough to be able to reasonably cover whatever Mandarin subject you’re currently working on.
Whichever way you make the chunking method work for your schedule, here’s a quick summary of its benefits before we move on to more useful tips (we have 19 to go!):
1. It makes learning Mandarin doable
You can say you don’t have time to learn Mandarin, but you can’t say you don’t have 15 minutes to learn Mandarin.
2. It sets a time boundary
There are so many things in your day competing for your time. By deliberately carving out—and scheduling—at least one 15-minute window to learn Mandarin, you’re making sure it actually gets done.
3. It helps you build a Mandarin learning habit
Time-chunking is reproducible. By repeatedly putting in 15 minutes every day, you’ll be building a Mandarin-learning habit you can stick to.
4. It’s flexible
You decide how long your chunk of time is, when you schedule it, and how many.
5. It’s anti-procrastination
It forces you to fill up seemingly free time with a pre-commitment to learn Mandarin, so you already have a plan of action in place.
6. It helps you maintain focus
By studying for smaller chunks of time, you’re more likely to maintain focus.
Remember that 15 minutes of focused studying will get you further than an hour of half-distracted studying.
3. Focus on attention over motivation
Most of us think that motivation is a sort of currency we can use in exchange for getting things done. In another article, I wrote how motivation is like a unicorn fart—awesome but fleeting.
Attention, on the other hand, is an invaluable currency most of us rarely stop to think of. We assume there’s plenty of it to go around. But guess what? Though renewable, attention, focused attention, is limited. And it’s in high demand these days.
Instead of studying when you feel motivated, try studying when you feel the most focused. Combine the 15-minute time chunk method to see how focused you can be for those 15 minutes. Making it a challenge can be a fun way to learn Mandarin.
4. Redefine fluency
When it comes to learning any language, most of us can say that “fluency” is the main goal. But just what is “fluency”? Are we clear on what it means, and what we’re working toward? Some people would argue that to be fluent, you have to be as proficient in the language as a native speaker. For others, it’s being able to have a 30-minute conversation about mushrooms in the target language.
Okay, so I made that second one up, but you can already see how the concept of a universal standard of fluency gets tricky.
The better question is: what does fluency mean for you?
If you sometimes fumble your verbs, misuse a sentence pattern, or pronounce the wrong tone, do you think of yourself as less “fluent”? Do you get discouraged or disheartened? Do you feel like no matter how much you study, you just aren’t getting it. I know I’ve been there.
Don’t get me wrong, fluency is definitely a valid milestone to work toward, but it is a goal that you get to define. If you follow someone else’s definition of fluency, you may dismiss all the hard work you’ve already put in and even how far you’ve come.
Trying to define “fluency” is almost like trying to define “fitness”. There are so many kinds of fitness. So many ways to be fit. You may want to be fit enough to run a marathon, someone else might want to build muscle.
We all go to the gym, but with different goals in mind.
So as you’re working toward fluency in Mandarin, keep your goals in mind. Do you want to teach in Taiwan? Do you want to both speak and read and write Chinese characters? Do you want to date a Mandarin native speaker? Do you want to chat about mushrooms? “Fluency” looks different for each one of those.
5. Learn 10 commonly-used words a week
When it comes to vocabulary, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you study commonly-used words versus any random words. After all, there are so many words in English that you’re not likely to encounter, nevertheless use yourself, like farctate. (See? I bet you had to look that one up.) The same goes for Mandarin.
The best way to learn Mandarin vocabulary? A professor of applied linguistics can help us answer that question…
According to Stuart Webb from the University of Western Ontario, “if you only learn 800 of the most frequently-used lemmas in English, you’ll be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life.” (We’ll apply the same math to Mandarin, although the exact numbers may look slightly different.)
Why 10 words per week? It’s really an arbitrary number, but I’d figure it’s a good place to start. If you keep at it, you’ll be past the halfway point to 800 within a year.
6. Use the Super Mario Effect
In his Ted Talk, Mark Rober talked about a study he did where he had his Youtube subscribers participate in a coding puzzle. One group would get penalized when they made a mistake (by taking away some arbitrary number of points), and one group did not.
He found that those who didn’t get penalized for making mistakes—they simply got a message that said “That didn’t work, try again”—made more attempts at solving the puzzle, and were more successful at solving the puzzle.
From the results, Rober concluded that those who weren’t presented with failure in a negative light more than doubled their chances of success.
He says in his Ted Talk, “What if you framed the learning process in such a way that you didn’t concern yourself with failure. How much more could you learn?”
He then compared focusing on the learning and not the mistakes to the way you would play Super Mario (the original version). After falling into a pit, you never decided you were a total failure and then never picked up the controller again.
Quite the opposite, it made you want to play more because the focus was on winning the game. The mistakes were learning points. (Next time, you’d remember that pit was there and jump a little higher.)
What if this year, you learned Mandarin like you were playing Super Mario? What if instead of seeing failure as a disappointment, you saw it as an opportunity to see the gaps in your knowledge and fix them so you get even better than you were yesterday (just like Jake Gill, CEO of Skritter does for his own goals)?
7. Try new ways to learn
Remember the 15-minute chunking method? You know what else is about 15 minutes or less—some of the best Mandarin youtube videos! In other words, dedicated studying doesn’t have to be just you and a textbook while the timer counts down.
You could learn all the uses of “le”, or “qu” and “lai”, in short, everything from the basics to the more complex subjects from videos.
That being said, if you’ve been learning from videos, try adding a textbook (just as reference, since textbook learning alone is rarely ideal), take a class, make Mandarin-speaking friends by joining the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts, the sky’s the limit!
Variety is the spice of, err, Mandarin learning! By trying new ways to learn Mandarin, you’ll keep boredom at bay and maybe even activate more areas of your brain to learn even more.
8. Play more Mandarin-learning games
Speaking of activating different areas of the brain for learning, games are a great way to practice your Mandarin and train your memory.
In the Hangouts, weekly get-togethers available to Mandarin Monkey Patreon members, games are always front and center. That’s because playing games is not only a fun way to learn Mandarin Chinese, but it actually helps improve language acquisition skills in several ways…
1. Games can help train memory
Some games that make use of mnemonic devices—basically ways to train your memory to recall information—really prime your brain to remember better.
2. Games add variety to your leaning routine
Remember that variety we mentioned earlier? Playing games ensures you’re having more fun while learning, which will make you want to learn even more.
3. Games can train you to look for context
When you play games with others, you’ll always be looking for clues and signals from your peers, and that makes you more aware of context, which is an essential skill in Mandarin.
4. Games can help you remember words
Games that rely on funny or weird word associations can help you remember words by associating them with an emotion or concept. The more funny or weird they are, the better word associations work.
9. Be more social
Sure, we can play games by ourselves, but it’s just not the same. Add other people to the mix and now you’re talking Mandarin!
Mingling with other Mandarin-learning peers is an important part of the journey as it provides “language exchange partners” to practice your speaking and listening with, but it also helps you stick with your learning by having a support group you can count on.
This year, if you’ve been a lone wolf, try joining a Mandarin-learning community instead.
10. Stretch more
You’ll have to trust me on this one. Who doesn’t want to be more limber in 2021 anyway? Also, stretching is a lot like learning Mandarin, so the two go great together (we wrote an article about it).
11. Try some Mandarin “retreats”
No, I’m not talking about hiding away in a cabin in the woods for days. I’m talking about focused time periods where everything is in Mandarin. Call it an immersion hour, or even a whole Mandarin only day.
For whatever time period you choose, you only speak, listen or read Mandarin.
Dedicated Mandarin “retreats” that are a little longer (a day at the most) are a great way to supplement the 15-minute time blocking method covered earlier.
12. Make learning a family activity
Learning Mandarin together as a family is a great way to not only bond together, but it can also spur you on to improve your own learning, too.
By the way, if you’re family isn’t really into learning Mandarin, you can replace them! I mean, we’re kidding, of course, but everybody over at the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts are totally like a real family of Mandarin learners that will always be up to practice your Chinese…so we’re not too far off from the truth on the replacing your family part.
13. Listen more this year
In a study published in Brain and Language, scientists found that listening skills were directly correlated to speaking skills in a foreign language. Listening itself was able to “light up” the brain regions involved in speaking.
In a recent podcast episode (#167), it was discussed how listening is often underestimated as a skill, over speaking. Now there’s scientific proof that listening actually directly helps boost your speaking skills!
So this year, make a commitment to spend more time listening. It’s really one of the best ways to learn Mandarin that you can do anywhere and anytime.
14. Get a Mandarin teacher
Because sometimes you need more structured learning to take your Mandarin to the next level.
If you want to get started with an experienced teacher that makes learning fun, in an engaging, cooperative online classroom environment where there are never any judgements, give the Mandarin Monkey lessons a try! In 2020, I started taking online group lessons with Ula, and I am looking forward to taking more lessons in 2021.
Having a teacher is one of the best ways to learn Mandarin because a teacher can provide valuable feedback, correct you when you need it, and make sure you’re progressing at a steady pace.
15. Become fluent in Chinglish
I’ve talked about Chinglish on other blog posts because it’s a really useful tool to learn Mandarin (actually , some of the best podcasts to learn Chinese are using Chinglish, whether they’re aware of it or not). And it doesn’t get as much of the limelight as it deserves.
In point #4, we talked about defining fluency and how that affects the way you learn. What if you decided this year to make fluency mean being being fluent in Chinglish? My guess is that you would be surprised as to how much Mandarin you’ll learn!
16. Start learning characters
Why not make 2021 the year you learn Mandarin characters? And if you’re already doing so, why not find a fun way to learn Mandarin characters?
It’s called Skritter, a reading and writing app (they have a web version too) that teaches you stroke orders of each character with an awesome spaced repetition (flash card) system already built in. Spaced repetition is a learning method that exposes you to more of the characters you remember less of, at the perfect time interval to optimize memorization.
If you want to learn Chinese characters the fun and effective way, you can try out Skritter for free, thanks to their partnership with Mandarin Monkey. (Oh, and if you decide to purchase any of the options, you also get 10% off with promo code MANDARINMONKEY.)
17. Learn Mandarin for a cause
Why do you want to learn Mandarin? It may be an even better question than “how to learn Mandarin.” That’s because one of the best ways to learn Mandarin—if not the best way to learn Mandarin (okay, so it’s not really so much a “how to learn” but more of a “how to stick with learning”)—is to have a compelling reason for doing it in the first place.
Learning Mandarin just for fun may be great to start learning Mandarin, but it doesn’t have much staying power, especially when you hit a learning plateau.
18. Find your external motivator
In episode #167, we talked about some external motivators to staying on the learning journey, from wanting to teach your kids to preserving an endangered language (Taiwanese, that is).
Having something greater than you to drive your learning is a great way to make sure you stick to your goals for the long haul.
So what will your external motivators be for learning Mandarin in 2021?
19. Watch less TV (unless it’s in Mandarin)
Watching less TV is probably on everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions, and it should be, since it’s a total waste of time. Then again, watching TV in Mandarin is a fun way to learn Chinese. Not a total waste of time after all!
Weather you’re watching the best Taiwanese movies on Netflix from 2020 or the best Chinese dramas on Netflix, you can spend more time listening to Mandarin this year all while being entertained! (And remember that listening will directly help boost your speaking.)
20. Review what you already know
Taking an inventory of the Mandarin Chinese concepts you have a pretty good grasp on may seem odd. Wouldn’t your time be better spent learning new concepts or reviewing those you need to improve on?
On your learning journey, you’ll always want to be moving forward, but sometimes, pausing to get a glimpse of what you already know can help you gain new momentum.
Some time last year, I designated a notebook to do just that. I basically started to do a “mind dump” of all the Mandarin in my head, grouped by loose categories like common sentence patterns, commonly-used words, measure words, etc.
The way to do it is to pretend you’re writing this notebook as a sort of textbook for someone else. If you had to teach someone Mandarin, this would be the material you would turn to. It sounds like a tedious exercise, but it’s so useful in many ways because it:
1. Builds confidence
You may be surprised to see how much Mandarin you could already teach someone yourself, if you had to. (By the way, if you are going to start learning Mandarin as a family this year, teaching your kids or your significant other Mandarin is one of the best ways to learn Chinese yourself.)
2. Solidifies what you already know
It’s the perfect opportunity to review and get some more repetition to further engrain those concepts in your mind.
3. Shows you the gaps in your learning
As you go through, you may find you have a hard time recalling measure words, so then you spend more time on those, and so on.
4. Helps you be more optimistic about your learning
It shows you how far you’ve come and makes you feel good about your ability to go even further this year.
21. Be more optimistic
In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns talks about the concept of mental filtering. One type of mental filtering is called discounting the positives, in which an individual overlooks the positive things they’ve accomplished, or the positive qualities about them.
When it comes to learning Mandarin, that would be like making a mistake, and focusing on the mistake itself instead of what you learned from it (remember the Super Mario effect?) or even your ability to learn from mistakes and move on—even move on to win the game!
Or not understanding a word and focusing on that instead of everything you do understand already. Someone tells you how much your Mandarin has improved, and you think they’re just saying that to make you feel good. All of these examples seem relatively harmless, but overtime they could start to wear away at your confidence.
So this year, make a commitment to be more optimistic about your learning and see how far your new outlook takes you.
Ready to make 2021 the year you level up your Mandarin?
Get started with these 21 New Year’s resolutions and share your own with us below!