How To Stay Motivated While Learning Chinese

How to stay motivated while learning Chinese

Anyone who studies Chinese knows it’s not for the faint of heart. Learning Chinese requires an intense amount of time and practice to master. Of all the languages that exist, Chinese ranks as one of the hardest for native English speakers to learn. So why would anyone want to learn such a brain-busting language?

If you compare it to something you consider being just as hard, you’ll understand why. Imagine the thrill you got from achieving what had seemed impossible to you, such as running a marathon or finishing a large and difficult project. In my case, it was learning to snowboard.

In Chinese class, the teacher leads you through pronunciation drills and dialogues, while you follow along with unsteady speech.

As a beginner, you tumble and fall through your tones, but you get back up and try again. Once you’ve reached a Zen state, you carve through mountains of characters, piling them into your brain to form perfect sentences. Other times, you twist with effort trying to understand every word of a conversation.

Whenever you become overconfident, you quickly realize that learning Chinese is not the bunny hill you had envisioned it to be. Instead, you stare down the steep journey before you and swallow hard.

Your mind fogs up and gets sore from flailing through grammar patterns and sentence structures. And your ego gets bruised by the chattering eight-year-olds who race past with little effort.

Eventually, you gather momentum while feeling the joy of a conversation’s perfect run. You may hit bumps along the way and make the occasional face-plant. But you’ve gotten a taste of the thrill and nothing can stop you now.

That feels good until your brain aches from trying to remember all the strokes of every character you’ve learned, and all you want to do is give up.

So, what keeps you motivated to continue on? How do you keep your brain from freezing over when the journey seems endless?

How motivation works

If you want to jump into how to stay motivated, you can skip down below for tips. But, if you want to understand how motivation works, keep reading.

According to Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who created the self-determination theory to explain what drives us to pursue a goal, motivation consists of two types: intrinsic and extrinsic.

With intrinsic motivation, personal satisfaction or enjoyment drives your desire to engage in a particular activity.

However, with extrinsic motivation, external factors such as earning money, receiving praise, or avoiding punishment drive your behaviour.

So, the difference between the two is the source of the motivation; intrinsic comes from within oneself, while extrinsic is external.

Which is better? You might think that intrinsic motivation is better and more sustainable, and you’d be right. Extrinsic motivation is often thought to be less effective in comparison. This may sound like bad news if you’re learning Chinese to impress others or feel pressure to learn it.

But before you lose hope, you shouldn’t dismiss extrinsic motivation altogether. Based on the self-determination theory, there are various degrees of extrinsic motivation, which differ in their level of autonomy and effectiveness.

The least effective type is an external demand or fear of punishment that drives your behavior. Examples include parents who demand their children to learn Chinese, or doing training for your job because it’s mandatory. In this form of extrinsic motivation, you feel you have little freedom due to the controls put upon you. As a result, you become less interested and spend less effort in learning.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a type of extrinsic motivation in which you feel greater autonomy and identify a behavior more closely with your own values and needs. For example, you may learn Chinese because you see the advantages you can gain in your career opportunities. Therefore, you find value in learning the language.

With this type of extrinsic motivation, you’re more engaged in learning the language and likely will have better success at it. According to Ryan and Deci, the more you can internalize the reasons for doing something, the more self-determined you’ll be.

How to stay motivated

How do you internalize those reasons? They suggest it’s important to have a sense of belonging or relatedness with others. Students who feel connected with a teacher or a group of people who share the same interest can help them stay motivated. The other factor is having the essential skills to succeed. Therefore, having the proper support will help to internalize a goal. But more importantly, the more freedom you have to accomplish a goal, the better.

Let’s explore these motivating factors in more detail.

Relating with others like you

Why is it important to feel a sense of belonging? It’s human nature to want to feel accepted as part of a group. If you’re bored in your Chinese classes or feeling left out, you’re probably not relating much to the teacher’s lessons or to your classmates. How do you expect to stay motivated then?

On the contrary, if you’re having fun in your classes, and your teacher’s lessons are engaging, you’ll be more motivated to learn. That’s why it’s important to find a teacher and class that’s right for you before giving up. Find a class that fits your level of Chinese and classmates who share the same values or interest for learning Chinese.

If you’re a self-learner, then find your tribe and learn together. Be creative and make the learning experience fun. Play games like Taboo or Pictionary in Chinese and deduct points for using English. Learn Chinese songs and go karaoke. Find a language exchange partner online or offline. Practice speaking Chinese at a Meetup group with other learners. Or learn about the many interesting Chinese art forms and share what you’ve learned. One example is 快板 (kuàibǎn): a Chinese art form performed by clacking bamboo clappers to a beat and a rhyme.

Having the right skills to succeed

Let’s consider the other motivating factor: having the skills to succeed. If you’re learning to snowboard only on black runs before you can even balance on a board, you will likely lose motivation fast because one, it’s too painful, and two, it’s too hard. The same goes with learning Chinese. Take it one step at a time so you can build your skills gradually and your confidence at the same time. To reach the top, you need to build a strong foundation and develop your skills level by level.

If you don’t have a teacher that can help you, look for native speakers on or who can help answer your questions. You can also join groups for Chinese language learners on Facebook or Google+ and post questions to the community.

Also consider the many online learning websites such as, BBC, MIT OpenCourseWare, and MOOC sites like and have courses for learning Chinese from Chinese universities that you can take for free. Just do a search and you’ll find a few for beginners and intermediate-level learners.

Freedom to learn what interests you

Finally, the most important factor is having autonomy. So, consider taking charge of your learning rather than leaving it up to the teacher. Even if you’re taking classes, you may learn about an interesting cultural aspect or custom and decide to explore it further on your own. Apply what you learn and ask questions. Consider what your interests are and explore those areas in Chinese.

For example, if you like martial arts, why not find articles and books in Chinese to read or learn related vocabulary? Perhaps you can write about your interest in Chinese or create a presentation and share it with others. Maybe you like comic books or scuba diving or cooking. Whatever it is, the possibilities are endless and so will be your motivation for learning!

(Source: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci)

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