Jorge Sanchez

Jorge Sanchez

Jorge is the Monkey editor in chief at Mandarin Monkey. When he's not writing about Mandarin, he's learning Mandarin, spending time with his indoor cat, or playing outside.

Unconventional Advice to Break Through a Mandarin Learning Plateau


Sometimes when learning Mandarin, you hit a wall—the dreaded plateau. Naturally, you search for some motivational advice to pull you through.


You won’t find any of that here.


Instead, here are 7 pieces of uncommon advice that actually work:



1. Stop making goals

Stop making outcome-based goals, that is.


Outcome-based goals depend on a specific end result—say, getting to a certain level of conversational fluency in Mandarin.


The problem with outcome-based goals is that they don’t account for all the specific actions that need to take place to get to that specific end result—like say, studying for 30 minutes every day, going to the Hangouts regularly to get in that conversation practice, etc.


That’s where behavior-based goals come in. Behavior-based goals focus on the actions that get you to where you want to go.


Think of your outcome-based goals as the X on the map where you’re headed to, and the behavior-based goals as the most efficient (though not necessarily the fastest) way to get there.


So when you hit a plateau, take a step back and assess your goals, you may need to redefine those behavior-based goals and course-correct your way out of it.

2. See mistakes as a sign of progress

A sign that you’ve hit a plateau is you’re not making any new mistakes.


Seth Godin defines a mistake as detrimental to our progress only when we continue to make the same mistake. Making new mistakes, on the contrary, is essential for learning.


Mistakes (even these top 5 most common ones) show us the areas we need to shore up, teach us valuable lessons, keep us humble, and allow us to get honest feedback so we can keep improving.


Of course, nobody wants to make mistakes on purpose, they’re just part of the terrain. So if you feel like you’re in a valley with your Mandarin learning, follow the (new) mistakes to start climbing back up to the peaks.


A quote by artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky sums it up nicely:


“If you never fail, you’re only trying things that are too easy and playing far below your level.”

3. Suspend self-belief

You’ve heard the old advice “believe in yourself.” To break through a plateau though, you have to not believe in yourself.  


When we come up against a plateau, we often tell ourselves a lot of things like “I’m just no good at this Mandarin thing otherwise I wouldn’t be as stuck as I am,” or “this is a sign I’m not meant to speak Mandarin” or “maybe I should go back to learning French.”


Your mind will come up with all kinds of reasons to explain why you—especially you—hit a plateau, and totally ignore the fact that it’s only part of the process and everyone experiences them from time to time.


One, you’re not special (I mean, you are, but not in this case, and that’s a good thing.) Two, you don’t have to believe what your inner voice tells you (unless it’s saying, “don’t worry, you got this Mandarin thing if you just keep at it!”)

4. Study when you don’t feel like it

Study whenever and wherever, even when you least feel like it. 


In his book Constructive Living, David K. Reynolds argues that feelings don’t really matter as much as acting in alignment with our values. If we want to learn Mandarin, we study Mandarin. It’s what we do. Regardless of how we feel.


That means behavior comes first, and then feelings arrive. Although it sounds counterintuitive, it’s useful to think this way because it empowers us to change our feelings by changing our behaviors.


5. Forget confidence

Just as feelings follow action, so does confidence.


When you’re developing any skill, whether you’re learning Mandarin or underwater basket weaving, you shouldn’t feel confident in it initially because you’re learning.


We like to think that we gain confidence (through some magical trick of the mind) and then that it’s through confidence that we somehow improve. But actually it’s the other way around. As we hone our skills in Mandarin, our confidence grows.


The horse goes before the cart.


So if you’re at a plateau and you’re not feeling confident in your abilities, no need to worry. Get back on the horse and keep doing what you’re doing to improve your Mandarin, and the confidence will follow.       

6. Be as unproductive as you can

“Instead of focusing on how much you can accomplish, focus on how much you can absolutely love what you’re doing.” — Leo Babauta 

Sometimes, we think we need to be doing anything and everything in order to be improving our Mandarin. That can lead to us quickly setting ourselves up for a plateau by adding too much to our plate all at once. Vocabulary, sentence patterns, measure words, characters—the load gets heavier and heavier.

So scale things down. Lighten the load. It’s perfectly fine to learn at a slower pace if the journey keeps you happy—and learning. 

7. Just go with the flow

Be unique, be independent, be yourself, they say. But to bust through a learning plateau, sometimes it takes being like everyone else.


By everyone else I mean a tribe of like-minded people going after the same things you are and experiencing the same pain points, too.


Finding a group of people that are on a similar learning journey as you can help you break through a plateau not only through the support and camaraderie that comes with a tribe, but also by sharing ideas to keep the learning curve moving upward, and helping you get in the essential practice to continue improving.


Plus, there’s the built-in accountability part (it’s harder to skip a study sesh or group lesson if your friends are counting on you to show up). And you also have to admit that others’ motivation is pretty contagious. 

Ready to Plow Through That Plateau?

Follow this uncommon yet proven advice to bust through your next learning plateau, and basically become unstoppable.


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