What advice or techniques have you heard, tried or been told about that you think are just not that effective?  It could be things like 'starting with pinyin first is wrong' or 'learning without a teacher' or 'only using flashcard apps' etc. 

I feel like rote memorization / mass character writing is not that effective. Handwriting & repetition are definitely important but I think a person needs to be focused on creating stories about the characters to remember them rather than just blindly writing stroke after stroke.

What do you think simply does not work for learning Chinese?

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Interestingly most of the responses so far are recommendation on what does work.  I have started learning Chinese 4 times (ages 12-16, 28, 31-32, and now 37+) so here are some things I found do not work (at least for me):

1. Learning without characters.  It's fine to stick to pinyin for the basics but it's so worthwhile to bite the bullet and learn characters.

2. Pronouncing stuff without correction.  Get a teacher who will do it, and do it early.  I had my "q" and "c" corrected years ago, but not my "x" and "r", and also some finals still need work.   Wish I had gone through more pain back then, or they'd drilled us hard on it at high school (see group classes below).

3. Learning whole sentences at a time.  I tried to do this and it's just painful.  Better if you know at least 50% of the sentence before learning it.  Better still if you just learn 1-2 words in a sentence that is otherwise familiar.

4. "The Girlfriend Method" - not all girlfriends are interested in teaching you their language.  Not all girls interested in teaching you their language are those you want to be your girlfriend.

5. English subtitles and pinyin - your eyes will gravitate to these immediately.  Cover or remove them until you are good enough at reading characters that you don't get too distracted (can kind of tune them out).  I know, I know, I freaked out when I arrived in Beijing and my school recommended a textbook with no pinyin anywhere but in the new vocab section.  Turns out it's been really good for me.

6. Writing it 100 times to "learn" it - or any other rote memorization. Yes that's how they learned in China as kids and it's how you learned a lot of stuff in English too, but there are faster and more efficient techniques today (SRS).  Writing many times is cool, just space it out more and you can learn ten times more things.

7. Group classes of the beginner variety.  I find it better to have half as many 1:1 classes and doing self study, or you can afford it, only do 1:1.  Group classes are a good way to make friends that you can talk to in English about how little you are learning Chinese, or to progress at the rate of the slowest student.  I'm talking about 4 hours a week style classes with like 10 students.  Intensive (all day) classes with 100% mandarin might be an exception just due to the pure intensity - I haven't tried this.  Classes beyond your level might be ok too, but then you might be the one slowing down the class -- again haven't tried.

8. One character a day calendars.  Pimsleur.  Rosetta Stone.  Not that these things are bad per-se but they aren't really worth it given the costs or time taken.

This has been a great conversation and it's interesting to me that I'm having a hard time saying what definitely doesn't work.  There are lots of things that work in varying degrees for different people.  But considering that I've seen thousands of language learners from my years in the classroom, these are the two common characteristics that I've seen in students who don't do well learning a language.

1. Disengaged - Rote learning would fall under this characteristic but it doesn't just apply to writing.  I've seen plenty of students complete assignments without really understanding it.  In other words, any time you do something just to get it done so that you can check it off the list, you're probably wasting your time.  You've got to intentionally put your mind to the task at hand.  

2. Learning in isolation - Some students love flashcards.  Others love reading about grammar.  Lots of people love apps.  But if there is no communicative task at the end of your studies you're heading down a lonely path: one in which your skill set isn't going to match up with what it takes to communicate with real people.  In fact, I think that most people would learn faster by simply chatting in the target language, text or speech, than by studying. If you are going to study, it would be better to study the conversations you've had (instant message) and make that the thrust of your study time.  As it is, most people spend way too much time studying the language and not actually using it.  Could you imagine trying to learn how to play piano without actually playing the piano?  You'd sit there, learning sheet music, singing the notes to yourself, studying (looking at) the keys, listening to recordings of how other people play piano, etc. You'd be lucky to learn anything, let alone be able to play piano in a band with other people someday.  

It seems crazy but that's the kind of scenario that most people find themselves in when they are studying a foreign language.  Most of the learning is happening in isolation and they do very little communicating.  But if you flip the percentages to most of your time communicating and some of your time studying, you'd likely see more progress and also be more motivated to learn.  The only exception here is with learning characters.  It's unlikely that you'll be able to learn to write characters while you're in the middle of a communicative situation.  Also, once a person is at an advanced level, it's unlikely he will learn much more by simply communicating because his progress will depend on knowing more highly specialized vocabulary that probably won't come up in normal conversations.

So there are my thoughts on what doesn't work: you've got to be engaged and you've got to communicate with the language.  If you can be sure that those two things are happening on a daily basis, you're chances learning are much better than they would be otherwise.          

Thanks for the great comment.  Teachers KNOW.  I don't teach but was involved in a project at Yale University with Pierre Capretz who is known for the Capretz method of language teaching.

Essentially, it involves students performing in brief vignettes using the new language. It is fun and very effective.  The play may last from as little as 5 min. to 1/2 hour depending on the level of experience of students. 

It avoids the rote learning, isolation etc. that was so aptly raised.  When learning Mandarin, we never used this but as an advocate of introducing Chinese into American schools, the Capretz method would be helpful.

There is a basic theme to the vignette, but the students must "ad-lib" in the new language". It can also fold in some written text in clever ways as well.


Hey Gordon,

I haven't heard of the Capretz method in particular but role play is definitely one of the best tools a classroom teacher has at getting students to communicate.  

I just looked up the method.  It looks like students view video and then perform a role play similar to the video, is that right? 

There's all kinds of variation on the role play that work well.  Task based learning is also successful.  I used to set up a staged "crime scene" before students came into class and then they had to solve the mystery.  It takes a lot of prep but it's definitely worth it.  I know this post is about what doesn't work but I'd love to hear about any classroom methods that have been successful for others.  

Yes there are many variations of the method.  The point is to get the students engaged in the performance and get to the point that the language eventually becomes secondary. "The Play's the thing"

Teachers often participate in a role, to keep the energy going.  It takes preparation, but if you ever seen videos of this method you will see how the students learn in a more natural way.

We tried it in some of my Yale Mandarin classes, but the professors had difficulty adopting the method.

Oh, and now the vignette can be easily video taped for review, and constructive criticism by peers and the teacher....


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