Applying The Power Of Habits In Learning Chinese

The Power of Habits

Since I’ve started learning Chinese years ago, I’ve paid money for classroom courses, books, apps, online lessons, and even a study abroad program. But, if I had only known that none of these approaches would be as important as forming good study habits, then I would have saved myself time and money. I admit I was too eager to find a one-size-fits-all solution to achieve my goal of becoming fluent.

An app that can help me learn to write Chinese? That’s just what I need. Complete immersion to reach fluency fast? Taiwan here I come! Learn Mandarin anywhere, anytime with podcasts? Sign me up!

I’ve tried all of these methods and more. They all do the job of teaching Chinese, and there’s nothing wrong with these approaches. But, when the program ended, or my interest waned, then staying fluent became a struggle.

I know fluency isn’t a one-time thing. Just like staying in shape requires regular exercise, maintaining fluency functions the same way. As it’s often said, “use it or lose it.” So how does one keep the fluency muscles from weakening? The simple answer is habits.

That doesn’t sound earth-shattering. In fact, it sounds rather dull. But, cultivating good study habits is the cornerstone to achieving and sustaining fluency.

To learn Chinese requires a serious time commitment. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn for native English speakers. They estimate 2,200 class hours are needed to reach Speaking level 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). Compare this to reaching the same level in Spanish or French: 575–600 hours.

While that estimate can vary depending on a person’s aptitude, time, and commitment level, the bottom line is learning Chinese takes significant time. And that means a person must have a long-term dedication to achieve and maintain fluency.

Therefore, it requires determination and belief it can be done. But, it also requires habits. Habits are the wheels that keep us in motion and make sure we reach our destination. They automate our behavior, so we can focus on what’s important. Without habits, it would be difficult to get anything done.

Of course, good routines are what we want to develop; however, it can be challenging. But, once you establish good habits, achieving any goal becomes easier.

I believe habits are powerful, and I’m certain it’s how I’ve been able to make enormous progress in learning Chinese. After all, you can have all the tools to help you learn, but if you don’t have a good routine for studying, it won’t get you far.

If you want to understand more about the way habits work, check out Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power Of Habit.” He gives many examples of individuals and companies that have harnessed the power of habits. In this post, I’ll pick out a few nuggets from the book you can apply to learning Chinese.

Keystone Habits as the Keys to Success

Duhigg notes that some habits have a greater effect than others and are known as keystone habits. Forming them can cause a chain reaction that changes other habits and, in essence, spark a complete transformation.

One example he gives is the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. His coach, Bob Bowman, had helped Phelps develop habits that put him in the right mindset before every race. For example, Bowman would tell Phelps to visualize the perfect race before falling asleep every night. Also, he created a routine for Phelps that allowed him to gain small wins.

In general, small wins are minor accomplishments along the path to a larger objective. Research shows that small wins are immensely powerful and help propel a cycle of success. Achieving small wins can convince a person that reaching a bigger goal is possible.

For instance, I found that my reading level in Chinese had plateaued for some time. I would try to read articles and books, but it was always challenging. Often, I’d rely on the help of browser plug-ins or smartphone apps to look up words while reading. Even so, it would take an inordinate amount of time to read a one-page article.

While I thought I could improve my reading speed over time, the progress was painfully slow. In truth, I had to face the fact that learning characters was the only way to enhance my reading ability. But, it seemed like a gargantuan effort to learn a few thousand characters.

So, I tackled the problem by committing to learn ten characters a day. And the small wins I made over time motivated me to learn over 2,300 characters in a seven-month period. Now, it’s much easier and enjoyable for me to read Chinese. I still occasionally need to look up words, but, overall, my reading speed has improved.

Willpower: A Direct Link to Success

One of the keystone habits that influences individual success is willpower. Duhigg shares that willpower is a not just a skill, but also a muscle. For instance, in one experiment, he writes about a group of students who enrolled in an academic improvement program where they learned to develop good study habits. As a result, the students’ learning skills improved. No surprise there. But, other habits strengthened as well. Surprisingly, the students exercised more, ate healthier, drank less, and watched less TV. Ultimately, by strengthening their willpower muscle, it had a far-reaching effect on their daily routines.

In another study conducted with knee and hip surgery patients, a scientist wanted to help participants use willpower to recover faster. They were each given a booklet with a rehab schedule and told to write out their goals for each week of recovery. Consequently, patients who had written their plans recovered almost twice as fast as those who hadn’t.

Furthermore, the successful patients wrote exactly how they would deal with moments of pain. In effect, this allowed them to handle their weakest moments when they would likely give up. By creating a strategy, it allowed them to manage through the pain successfully and strengthen their willpower.

Human Connection Necessary For Long-Term Success

The success of cultivating habits is greater when fuelled by a human connection. In particular, Duhigg refers to data collected by YMCA to figure out how to improve retention. The data showed what kept members returning were the social benefits. If they made friends at the gym, members were more likely to stay.

For instance, in my attempt to continue studying Mandarin after college on my own, I was unable to stick with a regular study schedule. Thus, my lack of success with forming good study habits can be attributed to a lack of social benefits. For a long time, I had let my Chinese skills decline.

Then, after several years and a move to a city with more Chinese speakers, I began taking classes. Every Saturday afternoon, I would look forward to attending class with a group of ten to twelve classmates. Consequently, it was the human connection that kept me learning. Although I no longer attend this class, I have found other socially enriching ways to motivate my learning.

How A Habit Is Established

The Habit Loop

Fig. 1: The habit loop as described by Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit”

So, how are habits established? In the book, Duhigg describes a three-step loop. First, a cue is established that serves as a trigger to go into automatic mode. Then, a routine immediately follows and, finally, a reward keeps the habit going. Over time, this habit loop strengthens and becomes more automatic.

In essence, habit formation reduces the workload for your brain and allows it to focus on more important tasks. Without habits, life would be more difficult. Imagine if every time you drove a car or walked down the street it felt like the first time you were doing it. As a result, that wouldn’t allow your brain to devote mental power towards more intellectual tasks. So, habits can be a good thing.

In the case of learning Chinese, habits can help drive success in attaining fluency. By creating a habit of studying, you reserve your brainpower for learning. And for a language that takes over 2,000 hours to reach a decent level of reading and speaking, you need good study habits to keep you going.

How to Set Up Good Study Habits

So how does this apply to learning Chinese? Below are six tips you can use to improve your study habits, so you can reach fluency faster.

1. Set up a daily study routine.

Create a cue that will trigger your study time. For instance, you can set an alarm on your phone that reminds you to study for half an hour after breakfast every day. Whatever time you choose, try to keep it consistent. Then, establish a routine for what you will study and how.

For example, it can be learning vocabulary by reviewing flashcards. Finally, decide what the reward will be to keep the habit going. Personal satisfaction can be a reward for those who enjoy learning languages. But, if that’s not the case for you, then, make sure the reward you choose will motivate you.

2. Create a plan, especially, for tackling more challenging aspects.

Like the patients who recovered successfully because they wrote out a specific plan to deal with pain, you’ll have a higher chance of succeeding if you create a plan. Write out the goals you want to accomplish and make a plan on how you will achieve them. Likewise, be sure to include how you will handle more challenging aspects or situations.

For instance, let’s say your goal is to have an hour-long conversation with a native speaker in three months. Thus, you might chat with a language partner for shorter durations in the beginning to build your comfort level. So, if you find yourself struggling in the conversation, decide what’s causing you to have a hard time. Is it because your partner is speaking too fast, or you don’t understand what he’s saying? Therefore, your plan could be to ask your partner to repeat what he said or ask him to explain in simpler terms.

3. Consider keystone habits that have a wide-ranging effect.

Keystone habits create a chain reaction and can lead to many positive changes in your life. For example, exercising is considered a keystone habit that has many positive effects. Notably, it often leads to stronger willpower and a healthier lifestyle among other things. In fact, scientific evidence has proven that exercise creates new neurons that improve your memory and ability to learn.

Another keystone habit you may want to practice is getting enough sleep. Accordingly, a good night’s rest could mean getting a jump-start on the next day, boosting your energy, and ensuring a sharp memory.

4. Visualize communicating successfully in the language.

Mental visualization is a powerful tool that can put you in the right mindset to succeed. Try to use this technique whenever you have doubts about your ability to become fluent.

For example, picture the perfect conversation with words flowing freely from your mouth and a hundred percent comprehension. Then, visualize your conversation partner’s head nodding in approval and marvelling at your Chinese language ability. Moreover, imagine how you feel, and the sense of fulfillment you’re experiencing in that moment.

5. Find ways to create small wins.

Remember, small wins fuel the belief in achieving a greater goal. In other words, give yourself the advantage by setting yourself up for success. Break down a big goal into smaller goals you can achieve regularly. The more little goals you’re able to accomplish, the more confidence you’ll have to tackle the big ones.

6. Form study groups or find language partners.

Finally, you’ll have greater success learning Chinese when you interact with others. Make it a social activity, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Besides, it’s more fun than studying in a bubble. Languages are meant to be used for communicating so form a study group or find a language partner. Learn in a supportive environment, and it will keep you motivated!

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