Is Learning Mandarin Faster Better?
If you do an online search for the fastest way to learn Mandarin or how to get fluent in Mandarin fast, chances are you’ll come across a few methods that promise to get you to fluency in record time.
But what if I told you that learning Mandarin the slow and steady way is actually the best way to learn Mandarin in the long run.
Okay, so you’d probably ask me Wait, why should I spend more time learning something than I have to? or Isn’t faster always better? or I need to learn Mandarin like, yesterday!
To which I would say quit your arguing and just read the article. Just kidding! (But not kidding.)
In this article, we’ll go over some of the key things you could miss out on with any learning method that promises to speed your way to Mandarin fluency. On your marks, get set, go.
Preface: Oldies but goodies
But first, we couldn’t possibly write an article about learning the slow and steady way without acknowledging the long-standing appreciation of the old master archetype, in both Chinese culture and pop culture. In fact, teacher in Mandarin is lǎo shī (Simple: 老师 , Traditional: 老師) which literally translates as old master.
Filial piety aside, what every old master has in common (besides the being old part)—all the way from Mister Miyagi in the The Karate Kid to Pai Mei in Kill Bill, and yes, Oogway in Kung Fu Panda—is that they developed their insane skills, unorthodox wisdom and overall badassery by training for decades (or in the case of Oogway, centuries, since he’s purported to be at least a 1,000 years old).
They didn’t learn what they know by using any fast method. Rather, they took a slow and steady approach to let their superb skills blossom over time.
Okay, so all the masters I mentioned before are from movies, so what do they have to do with the real world?
They represent the belief (whether you agree or not) that it takes time to truly develop any skill at a high level, and that if we choose a quicker approach (80’s martial arts movie montages not withstanding), we’re ultimately shortchanging ourselves to the degree that we can reach a deep level of mastery in any skill.
And with that in mind, let’s see if this belief holds up in the real world by looking at why learning Mandarin faster isn’t always better.
What the fast ways to learn Mandarin don’t account for:
The compounding effect
This is, essentially, the power of small efforts to compound, or add up, over time, from working out for an hour every day, to saving a small amount every month, to studying Mandarin for just 15 minutes.
On their own, these little habits may seem insignificant. But you just need to add one ingredient to really see the magic happen: time.
And time is essentially, be definition, what’s missing in any fast method to learn Mandarin. (Time is also, by the way, everyone’s ultimate limiting factor, as we heard Jake Gill, CEO of Skritter say in another article.)
In his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear talks about how time multiplies not only habits, but also skills. The more practice you can get in over time, the better you become at anything.
Would you pick a Mandarin teacher that spent less time or more time learning Mandarin? No brainer, right?
True, there are other reasons other than experience alone for choosing a Mandarin teacher, like their teaching style, likability, whether or not they offer Mandarin lessons that work with your schedule, etc. But all things being equal, teaching experience (or rather, the compounding effect of their experience) beats out the less-experienced candidates every time.
The same applies if you were picking out a chef, hiring someone, getting hired (a longer job history usually outperforms a shorter one), you get the idea.
Of course, that’s not to say that just because someone has spent more time learning something, that they’ve actually learned more.
There’s another crucial element that’s essential to learning anything, including Mandarin, that one usually gains over time: valuable feedback.
Other than getting in plenty of practice time, feedback is essential to successful learning. It’s the reason Mandarin students have Mandarin teachers (and Mandarin lessons), athletes have coaches, Karate Kids have Mr. Miyagis, and Kung Fu Pandas have Oogways.
It’s also the reason I hired a swim coach when I was training for a triathlon. (Bear with me, this has to do with learning Mandarin, I promise.)
Instead of having me log countless miles at the lap pool like other coaches would recommend, he had me focus on one lap at a time, and each time we would work on correcting some errors in my stroke. We spent weeks ironing those out before I even swam two consecutive laps without stopping.
You see, in swimming, if you never take the time to correct your stroke through the valuable feedback of a coach, you’ll practice that wonky stroke thousands (and millions) of times, each time (through the compounding effect), reinforcing it even more.
If I had just focused on getting in the laps (the faster method), instead of taking the time to streamline my stroke (the slower method), I would have picked up bad habits, preventing me from improving in the long run. (Okay, so I’m still not much of a fast swimmer, but I can swim a lot longer now, thanks to the efficiency of my stroke.)
So to summarize, the equation for mastering a skill looks a little like this:
practice + feedback x time = mastery
(You can see how, all things being equal, making the time element smaller yields a smaller result on the mastery output.)
When it comes to learning Mandarin, it’s important to have the valuable feedback of an experienced teacher so that you don’t practice errors and well, get really good at them over time.
One of the best ways to do that is by taking Mandarin classes, where an experienced teacher can provide the gentle correction you need, from pronouncing tones to understanding common Mandarin sentence patterns.
The cool thing is that all the teachers at Mandarin Monkey have spent a great deal of time honing their craft using the slow and steady approach (think of them as the Oogways of Mandarin teachers), so they’re uniquely equipped to give you the feedback you need to continue improving.
Aside from teachers though, you can also get valuable feedback even from just practicing Mandarin with your peers, and in turn, provide valuable feedback to a fellow Mandarin learner.
The Plateau of Latent Potential
Have you ever been struggling to open a jar of pickles, tight grip on the lid, giving it all you got, only to hand it to someone else who magically opens it on the first try? Or maybe you’ve been the one with the seemingly Herculean grip strength, suddenly an apparent contender in arm wrestling circles.
Well, that my friend is the perfect example of the Plateau of Latent Potential, a principle put forth by James Clear. Basically, it’s the concept that tiny, imperceptible improvements build up over time until they reach a breaking point when we actually see the outcome of our efforts.
In the pickle jar example, every try at the lid nudged it just a little bit over time. When you gave up and handed it to your friend, you actually had already gotten the lid to almost open. Then, your friend took all the credit (unless your friend is Clark Kent, in which case that is one mighty pickle jar!)
The fast ways to learn Mandarin just don’t allow the time it takes for tiny efforts to build up over time to their full potential. Those tiny efforts—the 1 percent improvement every day—are also easier to repeat consistently than any grand, hulking effort, on any day.
If you remember the fable, it’s how the turtle beat the hare. By improving just 1% at a time, and staying on that upward (though slow) curve toward the finishing line.
In other words, any slow method to learn Mandarin that you can repeat consistently will beat any fast method when fluency is the goal.
Making learning Mandarin a lifestyle
Speed-focused methods for learning Mandarin may be useful in the short term by getting you up to speed on some aspects of the language, and even helping you get started while the motivation is still fresh. You know, the whole strike the iron while it’s hot thing.
But what if instead of focusing on learning as much Mandarin as you could in the shortest amount of time possible, you focused instead on making it part of your lifestyle for the long term?
In the Atomic Habits book, James Clear talks at depth about different approaches to reaching goals, like, say, becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese. One approach is to focus on the results or outcomes—like being able to carry on a 10-minute beginner level conversation in Mandarin, for example.
But another approach is to focus instead on how your goal can become part of your identity, which may lead to more success over the long run—and lots more 10-minute conversations over time, to boot.
As Clear puts it himself, “Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.”
If you look at people who run marathons or swim in triathlons, those that focus on training as much as possible in the shortest amount of time usually don’t end up sticking with either running or swimming long-term, when compared to those that make it part of their lifestyle—those that join running groups, have special collections of running shoes, actually pay to run races (they must be crazy, right?), and make Vaseline a grocery staple (you know, for all the chafing).
For the latter group, running or swimming isn’t something they do, it’s actually part of who they are. And by aligning their identity with their goal, they increase their chances of sticking with it longer.
So you see, there’s more to it than just how much learning you can cram into a short period of time. It’s about taking those steps to make Mandarin part of who you are as a person (and an incredibly cool person at at that!)
Stacking your passions
Another benefit of learning Mandarin the slower way is that it gives you more time to connect Mandarin to your other interests.
I call this stacking your passions. It’s when you take two things you’re really passionate about and combine them.
On episode #139 of the Mandarin Monkey podcast, CEO of Skritter app Jake Gill talked about how he was able to join (or stack) his passion for bikes with his passion for Mandarin by joining a bike club in Taiwan, and how this really helped to take his learning of both skills to another level.
For you, it might be cooking. If you’re into the culinary arts, try getting some Mandarin cookbooks and start learning to read Chinese characters . Sci-fi buff? Watch sci-fi shows in Mandarin like Firefly, which has Chinglish in it, too.
For me, I’m really into wildlife and tea, so recently I’ve started to stack those passions with Mandarin, and already I’ve been able to learn some new vocabulary and even some Chinese characters along the way.
In summary, learning Mandarin the slower way allows you to connect the dots between things you really love and want to learn more about, making Mandarin a more integral (and rewarding) part of your lifestyle.
It’s less about any race, and more about enjoying the journey.
Being part of a community
Another important element that’s missing from any fast way to learn Chinese is the element of community.
When you use the slow and steady approach—and join a group of like-minded people that are on the same journey as you—you build relationships that keep you learning for the long haul.
Just like running with a group of other runners makes running more enjoyable—especially when you hit plateaus or find it hard to stay on track—learning Mandarin with other people that totally get the language-learning journey can make all the difference between getting discouraged or sticking through the sticking points.
At Mandarin Monkey, one of the things that makes their approach to learning Mandarin really unique is that they understand the importance of having a Mandarin-learning community by your side.
Through their Hangouts, they’re building a tribe of Mandarin learners that—just like a running group (minus all the chaffing)—gets together every week to practice their listening and speaking skills as well as share tips, knowledge (and jokes), plus new ways to learn Mandarin.
The focus isn’t always on learning Mandarin as fast as possible, but instead on learning Mandarin the most enjoyable way possible. They play games that use mnemonics to help with vocabulary learning, get into sometimes off-the-wall conversations that train your Mandarin listening and speaking skills (as well as train your brain to tune into context), and share stories and ideas that both inspire and motivate.
To summarize, the slower approach to learning Mandarin gives you the time you need to build rapport with like-minded Mandarin learners who can keep you motivated, keep you accountable, and keep you falling in love with the language all over again.
By focusing on pure speed alone, you miss out on those opportunities to surround yourself with people that make the path toward Mandarin fluency all the more worthwhile.
What’s the rush anyway?
There are many ways to learn Chinese out there that promise to get you fast results in less time.
And while some of them are certainly useful in helping you achieve a certain criteria of fluency, say, being able to have a short, beginner-level conversation in Mandarin, there can be trade-offs between speed and long-term sticking power.
While you can definitely accelerate your learning with some of the faster methods out there—not to mention they’re a great way to challenge yourself to see just how much you can actually learn if you put your mind to it—it isn’t always all about speed.
In terms of keeping you motivated, helping you find ways to infuse Mandarin into some of your passions, and making friends along the way, learning Mandarin slow and steady just might win the race, after all.