I‘ve been studying Mandarin for just over a year and I have put a significant amount of my free time into it. Yet, the other day, while writing a quiz I just completely blanked on several vocabulary words for the chapter. Absolutely frustrating! While the mark didn’t turn out so bad, it was enough to make me want to hide my head in shame. Before that, I felt pretty confident with the vocabulary. I had committed most of it from that chapter to memory ages ago, and I had just assumed it would still be there in my head, that my brain should have no problems.
With the paper in front of me, I stared at it thinking “oh crap”. Was it test anxiety? Nah, I wasn’t worried. I was pretty sure I’d remember them before the 15 minutes was up. NOPE Did not happen.
For me, it was a personal embarrassment; I had become cocky. It’s so easy to become overconfident, isn’t it? Thankfully, this was by no means a serious setback. In my mind, it felt more significant than it really was, but it’s also a great reminder. Maybe it was the Dunning-Kruger effect – I thought I was better than I am and needed to be pushed down a peg.
That disappointment led me to think – when we make a mistake, we can’t just accept it and move on, but also don’t let it kill our confidence. Revisit, re-evaluate, analyse, and regroup. Where did we go wrong? What was the mistake – how can we avoid it next time. This is where many (if not most learners) tell themselves they aren’t smart enough, or just hit the books, cramming, studying until exhaustion in hopes that they will remember and understand more.
Filling the brain with new vocabulary has its limits. I am not a believer in the saying “If it’s not broke – don’t fix it”. I am always experimenting. It doesn’t always work, but maybe trying a new learning strategy will give better results.
Keeping the brain nourished without overfeeding it
I realised – the problem on the quiz wasn’t the grammar, or the pinyin (okay, tones can be easy to forget…), it was a few vocabulary words that stumped me. I needed to strategize – what had I been doing that held me back? What had previously been effective, and did it still work? what had previously helped me recall vocabulary better than anything?
The brain works at full efficiency for a while – but it’s like a bathtub filling up with water – sometimes you need to adjust the faucet or shut it off so it doesn’t overflow. That’s how my brain feels when I obsess over some new interest and study like crazy. I open the learning faucet too fast and it overflows, spilling all over the floor.
A slower pace is ideal. Maybe intelligence can be equated to the rate of learning, so putting on my physics hat it’s like an electric current. I guess different people have different size “bathtubs” or “faucets”. No, let’s not go there. If you love to learn as passionately as I do, it can be really difficult to slow down.
Finding Your Learning Pace
One app I relied on last year for both learning vocabulary and writing is Skritter. For me it was remarkable. I learned so fast with it, it felt like magic. Yet, after awhile, my progress turned into boredom – I couldn’t keep up as my effectiveness slowed. So much repetition and I saw that incredible progress slipping. So I put it away, promising to get back to it. What I really wanted was to find a way to narrow down the reviews. SRS software is great, but it gets overwhelming after a while – I’ve read many questions online from people asking how to handle the increasing volume of reviews. (I intend to give a full review of Skritter in an upcoming post – stay tuned). I overextended my brain. My pace of learning was too fast, and I was trying to learn too much too rapidly.
Personal trainers, Kinesiologists, and Doctors, all know how to help us build our health and bodies, and not to overextend ourselves. It seems our brains are no different. The brain gets exhausted just like the body. Have you ever felt physically exhausted from thinking too much before? I really love thinking, so it’s rare. Maybe I’m like a “thinking” bodybuilder – not that my body is anywhere in that same shape.
Learning really needs to include an understanding of pace. When learning guitar, I was always told to play more slowly, to be patient. I couldn’t. Later, while I teaching guitar, I noticed the same thing – students wanted to go much faster an they should. Their progress can be tremendous – because passion drives a person no matter the difficulty, but it can also lead to mental exhaustion and some just give up. We need to find our sweet spot (or range perhaps), Just as much, learning a language should involve creative thinking, repetition, experimentation – and never letting a few mistakes (even on a test), destroy your confidence. It’s the journey, not the destination.
Find your pace, your discipline and your passion
So while I still feel bad about that test, I know it is time to consider – should I slow down, or change HOW I am studying? After all – a test is really just a reminder of where we are at in any skill. It should never be something that makes you feel like a failure – it should be a guide. Unfortunately, in the case of education (and certainly in the Gao Kao – China’s entrance exam), it really can make or break your future. That’s why I love self-learning, but it requires a lot of discipline – and an understanding of how you learn, what tools you can use, and your pace. This applies to most learning – and most definitely, for you and I – learning Mandarin.