Episode #139 Highlights With Jake Gill CEO of Skritter
This is a list-style summary of the topics discussed in podcast #139, which includes key takeaways along with some of my own thoughts and direct quotes from Jake Gill, language enthusiast, self-proclaimed student turned writer, all-around incredibly wise dude (my opinion), and CEO of Skritter.
While this is not by any means a transcription and I don’t cover every single topic discussed in the podcast, like some of Ula’s and Tom’s questions for Jake (so I highly recommend you go and listen to the episode), there are so many nuggets of wisdom here that I think you’ll find really useful.
- Jake’s advice to anyone learning Mandarin: listen a lot more
Mandarin is a tonal language so you can’t ignore the tones, and you need to make pronunciation an essential part of your learning. To do that, Jake recommends you up the amount of listening practice—not only listening to others like native speakers but also to yourself as you repeat words aloud (yes, it’s totally cool to talk to yourself in this regard) and pay special emphasis to the tones.
“Become a parrot,” Jake sums it up. Parrots listen well and then repeat.
Listen and repeat.
- Don’t underestimate the power of small, incremental positive daily habits
Tiny goals you do on the daily may seem to offer up results only slowly at first, but in the long run they’ll get you much closer to accomplishing your bigger goals than trying to cram in an all-out effort into a short time window. Achieving big goals, like becoming conversationally fluent in Mandarin or learning Chinese characters is a marathon, not a sprint.
Actually, we wrote an article on how learning Mandarin the slow and steady method beats out any fast way to learn Mandarin in a lot of important ways. Great minds, Jake.
- Learning about habits can greatly, even if indirectly, help you improve your Mandarin
Taking the time to learn about habits (I know, it’s already a struggle to make time to learn Mandarin as it is) will help you develop a behavioral foundation on which to build better habits to learn Mandarin in the first place.
Jake recommends the book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear as a great resource on those positive daily habits we talked about above. I’ve read the book myself and have found it invaluable in helping me create habits that are conducive to learning Mandarin.
If you want to check out the top takeaways that most apply to learning Mandarin from the book, check out our article in which we break down some of the most useful ideas to start building those daily habits right now.
- Time is everyone’s ultimate limiting factor (so spend it wisely)
Learning about habits isn’t only essential to developing those positive behaviors that are congruent with our goals, but also to making the best use of our time, which is always in short supply.
Jake said in the podcast, “A lot of the ways that I prioritize things in my life and in my work is to figure out where to invest my time and energy.”
It’s a no brainer, right? We all know we should invest our precious time on those things which yield the greatest returns, according to our specific goals.
But distractions are everywhere, they’re ubiquitous, insipid and even irresistibly easy to get lost in. So it really takes an extra level of awareness to see (and gain control over) where your time is actually going—like how you can spend hours binge-watching the latest show or the equivalent of 2 whole entire days of just looking at your phone (total screen time compounded over the course of a week).
So why do we give our time so freely to all those distractions if we know they aren’t good for us, and actually keep us from making progress on our goals? The answer has a lot to do with immediate gratification.
Binge-watching and mindless scrolling provide immediate gratification. They make you feel good or let you unwind in the moment. Taking the time to learn Mandarin is infinitely more rewarding, it’s just that the rewards usually take some time to come around. (Of course, there are lots of ways you can make learning Mandarin more fun and enjoyable in the moment, too! I’m just saying that you need to make the pull to learn Mandarin a lot more irresistible than the pull to binge-watch Netflix.)
It’s okay that you get distracted. That Netflix gets the better of you. That sometimes you do waste time mindlessly scrolling through social media. Just as long as you notice that you’re distracted and have a plan of action in place to pivot your attention and do something else that gets you closer to your goals instead.
If you feel the urge to turn on the TV, go watch some Mandarin YouTube videos instead.
If you feel the urge to scroll, download the Skritter app and spend some time learning Chinese characters.
“Starting something like learning Mandarin can be really hard at first, but once you get into the groove it’s so much more rewarding than watching Netflix.”
- You want to learn Mandarin? Cool! Now how are you going to get there?
It’s not enough to declare a big goal like becoming fluent in Mandarin. You have to set in motion a plan of action to achieve said goal, and then get after it.
Once you figure out the what (your goal, aka Mandarin fluency) and the why (your reasons for learning Mandarin in the first place), the how is what will make the difference between giving up too early in the game and going the distance.
How you will actually learn Mandarin depends entirely on your unique goals, learning preferences, time constraints and a myriad of other factors, so it will take some experimentation on your part to find the best ways to learn Mandarin for you.
Are you going to take online lessons on your own schedule, with an experienced teacher that can provide valuable feedback and keep you steadily progressing along toward your goal? Are you going to listen to a Mandarin podcast to practice your listening comprehension?
Or maybe you’re interested in learning Chinese characters (there’s a whole host of perks to doing so, which we’ll talk about in a little bit) so you decide to use a spaced repetition-based method like the Skritter app (which not only uses spaced repetition to help you memorize the characters, but also teaches you the correct stroke order in an easy visual-driven way).
Find your how. Get going. Use every available Mandarin learning resource out there.
- Break the barrier to entry
The hardest thing about starting to learn Mandarin is starting. This is called the barrier to entry, an invisible wall that keeps people that really want to learn Mandarin from getting started.
At the beginning, motivation can be helpful in overcoming the inertia (this is where your why comes in) but you’ll need something even more powerful to keep you from procrastinating on your Mandarin goals—and break that barrier!
That, my friend, is something called passion.
When you combine those things you’re already passionate about with learning Mandarin,
it suddenly becomes easier to keep learning, and to stay excited about learning long-term.
For Jake, this came down to buying a bike and joining a bike club in Taiwan.
By combining his passion for bikes and learning Mandarin, he found a way to increase his potential for learning Mandarin exponentially. Not only would he now be part of a community of Mandarin native speakers which whom he could practice with, but he would be extra motivated to study Mandarin so he could talk about his favorite subject, bikes!
Jake calls this “connecting the dots” between Mandarin learning and other interests. It doesn’t have to be bikes. For you, it could be cooking, bird watching, kickboxing, sci-fi movies, tea or rescuing stray cats.
Find your dots, connect them with Mandarin, and enjoy the journey.
- Join a community
Being part of a community of people with whom you share something you’re passionate about (like learning Mandarin) can be a great way to keep you motivated and make learning a lot more rewarding.
Jake says, “Finding something [or some ones] that helps motivate you and bring some joy and happiness to whatever you’re trying to do is so important.”
Surrounding yourself with people that are on a similar journey as you not only helps with motivation, but it also keeps you accountable because people are counting on you to be there (whether that’s a class or a group meet) and is a great way to practice what you’ve learned in the classroom or self-study with real-world conversations.
Speaking of practicing with real-world conversations, the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts are a great opportunity to do just that, and be part of an amazingly supportive community, all at the same time.
The Hangouts are basically where Mandarin learners of all levels get together every week to practice their speaking and listening skills, play mnemonic-based games that help with memorization (and internalization) of vocabulary, share jokes and stories and well, have an all-around good time. Think about it like an online Mandarin meetup group made up of the best Mandarin language exchange students ever, getting in Mandarin conversation practice in a supportive, judgement-free zone.
It’s the next best thing to a Mandarin immersive environment because there’s enough Mandarin—thanks to Ula, native Mandarin speaker and host of the Hangouts—to challenge you, keep you improving and reinforce what you’ve already learned, along with plenty of English so that you never get lost—thanks to Tom, native English speaker extraordinaire and also host.
Oh, and if you’re more of an introvert and just want to practice your listening skills (which can actually help you improve your speaking skills, too—see bullet point #1)
you can also just hang back and listen to the dialogue in real time and follow along on the games.
- Let people help you along the way
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, mispronounce a word or jumble up your grammar. People are a lot more supportive and understanding than you think (because hey, they’ve been there too.)
Your worst fears of social humiliation will only play out in your mind. In the real world (as well as in the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts) people will love that you’re even putting yourself out there (not to mention helping them get their own language practice in) and will be super eager to help you—not shame you—if you just let them.
“You need to let your guard down a little bit and let people help you.”
- Utilize small failures as a strategy for success
In his book, Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, Ryan Babineaux
talks about failure as a pivoting point toward success.
Jake Gill would add one more to that title: fail small.
In the podcast, he talks about using small flops, or mini failures, to course-correct your way to reaching your goals, and seeing them as an opportunity to learn instead of an opportunity to give up.
“Every single failure is a chance to learn and grow. By noticing small failures and correcting those, and not allowing those to compound into something larger, that’s where you start leveling up in learning.”
- Don’t give up, reflect and pivot instead
Failure is inevitable. Giving up is optional.
Use the mini failures mentioned above to help you see the gaps in your knowledge and reflect on the actions you need to take to change course, instead of dropping out of the race.
“If we take these mini-failures and reflect on them a little bit, we don’t get to the point where there is a big blowup…it’s taking those steps back to move forward and ask yourself ‘what did I do wrong? what can I improve’…when you get up from and learn from that experience, you’re really going to go a lot further.”
- Learn how to read and write Chinese characters
Even if your main goal is to have a conversation in Mandarin Chinese and not really ever read Chinese, research shows that learning Chinese characters can help with the spoken component of the language.
There seems to be some carryover between learning how to read Chinese characters and speaking Mandarin. Plus, learning Chinese characters has its perks too, like getting a leg up on Japanese Kanji and being able to decipher which homophones people are talking about anyway!
One of the best ways to learn Chinese characters is by using a spaced repetition approach and by practicing how to write them, all of which you can do with the Skritter app, as we mentioned before. (By the way, here’s a helpful video walk-through of the app featuring Jake Gill himself.)
So there you have it, some of the top takeaways from Tom & Ula’s conversation with Jake. If you listened to the episode and gleaned some nuggets of wisdom that spoke to you in particular, share them in the comments below!