How to improve your focus and find more time

The more we can focus during our study time the better we can learn and the more information we will retain.

The ability to be able to sit down, concentrate and just get on with it is something that is getting harder and harder. Especially with the advent of phones, laptops, tablets and the like built to send you popups, adds and notification after notification.

It can be so hard to concentrate with all this technology around us, but if we can, this will accelerate our learning and help us reach our goals even faster.

 

How to concentrate

The first piece of advice I would give is to carve out a designated time to learn the language every day.

This can be 30 minutes, it can be 2 hours, just go with whatever time you have and make sure it's sustainable in the long term.

Once you do something at the same time EVERY DAY, it starts to become a habit. The habit becomes automatic and procrastination stops altogether.

If like me you have a short attention span, or at least I did when I started, it is best to start with a small time slot of half an hour or so. Then the more experienced you get, and the less foreign the language becomes, you can start to increase the amount you do each day.

For me, I like to dedicate 45 minutes to an hour before work every day, between 7 and 8 am, and then another 45 minutes to an hour when I get back from work.

First thing in the morning really is ideal. I wake up and my phone has it's internet turned off. I have managed to get into the habit of not even looking at my phone until after I get my work done because as soon as I do, the floodgates open and before I know it 15 minutes are gone.

This leads me to my next point, turn off all distractions.

If you are using a book or physical resource that doesn't require your phone or laptop, then turn them off! Don't even give yourself the opportunity to look at them, just get away from them all together.

If however, like me, you store all your audio on your phone for ease of access, then you can't just lock away your phone. I like to use an app called Speater (Clone replayer works for Android), which sets the audio or track I am listening to or studying on loop. Then once it's on loop, I turn my phone into flight mode and leave the audio playing and don't touch it.

While it's not quite as good as getting rid of your phone altogether, I find that not having to reset the audio track and find the right place every time really makes everything much much easier, and helps me to focus and just get on with things.

 

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique to increase your focus and get more done during your study time.

It works off the principles of the brain operating in two modes, the focused mode and the diffuse mode.

When in the focus mode we can concentrate on problem-solving and getting through complex tasks, and this uses the frontal cortex part of our brain.

However, if you come across a new idea or concept or just get fatigued we can shortly become stuck. This is when the diffuse mode comes into play.

In the diffuse mode, the ideas and concepts we were working on before subconsciously bounce around the rest of our brain forming links with past experiences and memories. This means that when not concentrating our brain is still working in the background the entire time.

Switching between these two modes is the best way to increase your focus and your problem-solving ability and the Pomodoro Technique utilizes this.

Let's take the time frame of one hour as an example.

First, you study for 30 minutes, listening and reading to a difficult text and trying to make heads or tails of it.

Then after 30 minutes are up, have a 5-minute break. The key here is to rest completely, or at least use a different part of your brain to what you were using before. If you turn on twitter or facebook in this time, then not only will this make you lose focus after the 5 minutes is up, but it will also probably take you well over the 5-minute mark.

Sometimes I even just set a 5-minute alarm and take a small nap on my bed while I wait.

Then get back to studying for the remaining of the 25 minutes.

As I said before, the trick is to try and really focus during the study time, clear yourself of distractions. Then during the breaks try and take your mind off it completely and do something unrelated or just relax.

This is where my trick comes in. Usually, around my house, I have lots of 5-minute chores that I put off for way longer than I like to admit. But these are remedial, and can easily be done with little effort, so what I like to do now is to mix in the Pomodoro technique with chores around the house to help me get focused and stop procrastinating in other areas of my life as well.

 

A practical example

 

Let's give an example of me waking up in the morning, just getting out the shower and having eaten my breakfast, and then sitting down to study.

For this example, I will say I am a beginner learner of Spanish and am using a dialogue from my beginner's textbook.

7:00 - 7:10 - Listen to the dialogue's audio many times over and try to understand as much as possible.

7:10 - 7:20 - Listen and read to the text at the same time, try to follow along and pick out the sounds I couldn't with just my ears

7:20 - 7:25 - Wash up my dishes from breakfast

7:25 - 7:45 - Read through the text slowly, look up all of the unknown words in either the glossary of the textbook or in a dictionary. Try to read over a few times.

7:45 - 7:50 - Brush my teeth

7:50 - 8:00 - Read and listen to the text many times over, try and understand everything

8:00 - 8:10 - listen to the audio by itself and see if I can still understand everything. If not refer back to the text.

 

Conclusion

 

Notice how in the last example, not only are we combining the science behind language acquisition (comprehensible input) with the science behind how our brain works to help us concentrate. On top of this, we are adding in small activities or chores in the break time to help free up more time later.

And remember, one of the most important things you can do is to turn off all possible distractions and study at the same time every day.

This will help ingrain habits that will make your learning more and more automatic and sustainable, which will inevitably lead to success in the long term.

Did you have problems in the past with focus like me? How did you get around them, or are you still dealing with them now? Let me know in the comments below!

Intensive vs extensive reading

Reading, in any language, is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to increase our vocabulary. Even in our own native language, If you think about those with the largest vocabulary it is always the people who read a lot.

Reading is not only good for improving your vocabulary but also helps improve your grammar and solidify existing knowledge.

When reading in a foreign language, most of us do intensive reading. However, in order to progress to a high level, you need to know how to utilise both extensive and intensive reading.

 

What is intensive and extensive reading?

 

Intensive reading, as the name suggests, is short and focused. The goal is to take a short text and understand everything.

This entails picking a difficult text, reading it many times over and looking up every single word. The aim here is to try and understand everything in great detail.

By its very nature, the time spend on intensive reading is very short and very focused. Typically half an hour to an hour. You should be sat upright where you can concentrate, free of distractions, and pick a text short enough so that you can read it many times over and go into great detail.

Extensive reading is the polar opposite of this, reading for pleasure. Pick texts just above your level, and expose yourself to large volumes of content. As the texts will be much simpler and closer to your level, this should require much less mental strain on your part and you should be able to read for longer periods of time.

You can be in whatever position you want, just make sure you are comfortable. Sat on the sofa, laying down on your bed, really anything is fine.

The trick here is finding compelling content at the right level. This allows you to focus on the content itself without having to look up much or any unknown words and then you can try to figure out the rest through context.

 

Choosing a text for extensive reading

 

The biggest obstacle when extensive reading is trying to find material that is both at the right level, and compelling. This is especially true in the beginner stages.

If chosen correctly it should be at the right level to get you totally immersed in the story, while at the same time still having some unknown words. This allows you to figure out the rest through context and expand your vocabulary as you go.

Some experts say you should aim for 90%+ comprehension and others state you should aim as high as 98%! But what does this even look like?

To put this into context, this is only having 1 out of every 50 words unknown.

Lucky for us over at sinoplace, they have texts of English with nonsense words added in to get a feel of what 98, 95 and 80% comprehension actually feels like.

 

98%:

 

"You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, 'I move papers around.' It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…"

 

 

Here you can see a few nonsense words have been added in, but as the percentage is so low, you can take an educated guess at what they might mean. The nonsense words don't affect your overall comprehension and the whole text still reads pretty smoothly.

Next, let's take a look at 95%:

 

 

"In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. 'Where is dowargle?' you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. 'Off the street!' he shouts. 'Go home, lock your door!' 'What? Why?' you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone."

 

Here you can see that you can still get the overall meaning of what is happening but some of the detail is beginning to get lost.

Next, let's look at 80%:

 

"'Bingle for help!' you shout. 'This loopity is dying!' You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. '…if you get this…' Evie says. '…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…' Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. 'Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…' BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…"

 

Now with 80%, you can still get the gist of what is being said, but almost all of the detail is completely lost. Sure, you can guess what "joople" probably means phone, and "bingle" means dial, but it's almost impossible to try and figure out all of the unknown words through context.

 

Different people have different tolerant levels of noise. Some of us hate it, while others can tolerate a higher level of ambiguity to be able to fight your way through interesting content.

Based on the sample texts above you should have a pretty good idea of how much noise you can tolerate.

 

Intensive vs Extensive reading

 

With intensive reading, because the aim is to understand as much as possible, the text is kept short and you have to read over the same passage many times.

As a result of this approach, this means that you can tackle content with a much higher percentage of unknown words. This allows you to tackle much more interesting content at an earlier stage in your learning.

Additionally, when we first start out in a language we are on 100% unknown words apart from a few cognates. This means that the only option we have is intensive reading until we build up our comprehension to a level where extensive reading becomes possible.

The downside to this, is that because you are only reading short texts, you aren't exposed to a lot of language. You go over the same structures many times which is great for when you first start, but the better you get diminishing returns start to kick in.

The words you encounter become less and less frequent and this sort of focused study becomes less and less useful, unless you have a specific area or niche you want to improve in.

This is where extensive reading comes into play. With extensive reading, you expose yourself to massive amounts of language. Because of this, you are exposed to large amounts of new vocabulary and structures as well as re-consolidating the older ones.

Also, as you are just reading for pleasure this becomes a much more natural and enjoyable way to learn.

One drawback is that reading can be very exhausting and difficult when first starting out in a new language.

If the amount of unknown words is too high, then you can't figure out the rest from context. This means that in order to be successful in extensive reading you need to be at a much higher level. In the start, you simply don't know enough words, so intensive is your only option.

Then the larger the base you have in the language, you can start to shift your focus from intensive towards extensive reading.

 

How to get started with extensive reading

 

As I said before when you first start out intensive reading is the best option, until we have built up a base in the language. But once we reach an intermediate stage what is the best way to get started?

The first thing you could try is to read simple stories. These can be graded readers, short stories, novella with lots of dialogue, or even comic books and manga.

Another great thing you can do is choose something you already know the plot of. For example, if you are learning Japanese and you have watched the anime Dragonball, a good choice would be to read the manga version as you already know the plot.

Another tip is to read online as much as you can. Reading on the computer, especially in languages like Chinese or Japanese, makes looking up new words a lot easier. This keeps you entranced in the story as opposed to being glued to the dictionary, and lets you enjoy more difficult content through extensive reading at an earlier stage.

Another option I have tried before is to read the first few chapters intensively. When you start out you need to get used to the authors writing style, place and character names, and any niche vocabulary. For example, if you were to read Harry Potter, there is a pretty good chance you won't know words like wand, potion or spell.

Going through the first few chapters intensively you will learn a lot of new vocabulary and themes that will keep on recurring for the rest of the series and make the transition into extensive reading much easier.

 

conclusion

 

Both intensive and extensive reading are both vital parts of language learning and you need to know how and when to use both in order to advance quickly in a language.

For intensive reading, this is best used either at the initial stages in your learning when there are simply too many new words, or if there are really specific topics you want to learn about.

Extensive reading starts to come into its stride at the intermediate level and beyond. The better you get, the more useful extensive reading becomes and the more interesting content you can access.

Extensive reading is great because it is the most natural and fun way to read, as well as exposing yourself to a tonne of new vocabulary and grammar structures at the same time.

What have you been doing more of intensive or extensive reading? Which do you prefer, and why? Let me know in the comments below!

Why are the characters so small?

When reading books or manga it can seem like the characters are so small, just a black dot on the page. Any effort to decode what’s actually written can leave our brains scrambled and our eyes sore. So how is it we are even supposed to be able to make out what it looks like, let alone read it.

 

First, before we move onto this I want to take a look at our own native language first, in my case English.

 

Defining the problem

Why is it that when reading characters or letters of a similar size in English it causes us no problems at all?

 

Is this because the letters in the English alphabet are less complex than the characters used in Chinese?

 

This may be part of the reason, but what I found early on is that characters that I struggled to make out, native speakers could read effortlessly and looked at me with a confused expression as they stated how clear everything looks.

 

So this would point the finger at a different underlying problem.

 

First, let’s take a look at this quote from a research paper at Cambridge University:

 

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

 

Notice how the letters are completely jumbled up, yet for native speakers of English, this is still incredibly easy to read. How come?

 

As it states in the quote:

 

“This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole”

 

We have become so accustomed to reading English through thousands of hours of exposure across the entirety of our life, that we don’t need to read every little detail to make out what is being said. All we need is for our eyes to pick up the gist of what is said, and our brain can fill in the rest for us.

 

When it comes to learning a second language, we lack this mass exposure over years and years that we have in our native tongue and this can cause a lot of problems.

 

How does this apply to me as a learner of Chinese?

 

Similar to how our brain can fill in the gaps of jumbled up words in English, with native speakers of Chinese their brains fill in the gaps and details in the characters that are too small for the eye to pick up alone.

 

But as learners of Chinese we don’t have this advantage, so what can we do?

The first thing may seem obvious but just read more. We all get caught up in intensive reading and trying to understand every little detail. Extensive reading, mass exposure to the language for pleasure, helps our brain slowly get used to the language and the more we read the easier it will become.

 

Not only will this help the characters become clearer, it will also massively improve your grammar and vocabulary as well.

 

However, this is a catch 22, we need to read more so we can make out the characters clearly, but we struggle to read because we can’t make out the characters clearly. So what can we do?

 

How to read as a beginner

 

The biggest advice I can give you on how to read Chinese extensively as a beginner is to make it as easy as possible for yourself. In order to do this, avoid hard copies of books and do as much reading as possible on your computer.

 

This is for two reasons. Firstly, if the characters are too small to make out you can simply zoom in or increase the font size. Then, as you get more accustomed to reading in Chinese you can decrease the size of the font incrementally as you go.

 

The second reason for this is that it gives you access to online dictionaries. Using a program like LingQ, or by using popup dictionaries on your web browser this makes looking up new words incredibly quick and allows you to manage more difficult content at a much earlier stage in your learning.

 

One thing I like to do is to save chapters of my book into an app called Pleco on my phone. This way I can use the Chinese reader in the app to easily read Chinese on my phone wherever I go.

How can we speed up the process?

 

The reason native speakers don’t have this problem and we as learners do is that their brain knows what the characters are saying just by the first glimpse. We as learners don’t have this advantage while we are reading in general. However, if we know what the characters are before we read them then our brain can do a lot of the legwork for us and we can get used to reading smaller characters.

 

First read through with an increased font size on the computer looking up the words you don’t know. When you come back to read the same text, this time at a normal size, as you already know what is being said you are able to fill in the gaps a lot easier.

 

I have even known learners when using hard copies use a magnifying glass on their first read. Then going back over it again, without the magnifying glass, is a lot easier as you already know what you are reading.

Another solution you can try is to take a clear picture of the word or phrase you am struggling with on your phone or tablet, and then zoom in on the picture so see what is being said.

 

However, one of my favourite solutions is to take advantage of the settings in Anki to get used to reading smaller and smaller texts. Anki is an SRS flashcards app. If you take my approach of sentence mining you will have a bank of sentences inside Anki which you can practice reading every day.

 

The font scale ranges from 0.1 times right the way up to 2 times the normal font size. You can change this in the settings from the flashcard viewer on your device as shown by the pictures below:

When I first started this process I found it so difficult to read anything, so I had the font scale maxed out all the way at x2. Then as I got more accustomed to reading I slowly decreased the scale lower and lower in my daily flashcards and eventually now I do my daily reviews with a font scale of 0.8.

 

The great thing about this approach is because the sentences are in your SRS, you are seeing the same characters over and over again giving your brain lots of opportunities for the repeated exposure it needs in order to fill in the gaps when reading.

 

Additionally, you can alter the font size in a matter of seconds whenever you want to allow easy adaptations if we suddenly decide it's too difficult to make out.

 

Conclusion

 

All of these methods are to help our brain figure out what is being said without having to read every single detail. However, the main underlying factor as to why we have so much trouble with a new script as opposed to our native language is just that, it's new.

 

In the beginning, reading will be very alien and difficult to you, and that's completely normal. This is why I would recommend starting out with more intensive reading in the early stages. Read over the same page or article many times and each time you go through it will get easier and easier.

 

Still, do some extensive reading to simple and short stories, and make sure to read on an electronic device so you can easily look up new words and enjoy the story.

 

Gradually as you get more comfortable reading Chinese you can shift your focus away from intensive reading and more onto extensive reading. Read large volumes of material for pleasure using electronic aids to make things as easy as possible.

 

This way you can enjoy your study and keep your attention on the story or book you are reading.

 

If you stick with it what seemed fuzzy and bizarre before long will start to become familiar and comfortable, and your reading will progress as you go.

 

Have you had to deal with a new writing system where you just couldn't make out what was being said? How did you deal with this problem? Let me know in the comments below!

Do you need to simplify your learning?

When I first started learning a language my routine started off pretty simple. But then as I progressed I added one thing after another.

This happened to me with sentence mining on Anki, I spent hours going through material on paper, going through making flashcards and then studying them throughout the day.

Complicating things to an unnecessary level I found myself losing depth of focus, always making cards or studying, but never intensely.

The hours I spent researching resources, making and organizing flashcards, researching the best method was all time I wasn't using to actually learn.

As I kept it up, I found myself more worried about passing my daily quota on Anki than actually learning what was on the cards.

My flashcards started to get out of control, the reviews kept on getting more and more, eventually it got up to around 300 reps per day, spending over two hours just reviewing. This doesn’t even include the time taken to make and organize the cards!

I was trying to come up with clever strategies and ways to learn so that I keep recycling old content on a regular basis and keep adding onto the pile.

 

But here is the thing, we can’t remember everything.

 

This is why I decided to take a break from adding to my flashcards and simplify my learning.

Since that decision my reading, listening and speaking have all gone up drastically and I have managed to re inject fun back into my learning.

 

How to simplify your routine

The biggest decision I made was to stop worrying too much, stop trying to come up with complicated solutions and just to enjoy as much content as I can.

I switched from reading paper based books to reading on my computer and switched from intensive to extensive reading.

Utilizing an online dictionary I can look a word up in seconds and by reading a story over a long period of time a lot of recurring words get natural built in repetition based.

 

Think about it.

 

Any author has a given writing style, particular connecting words and phrases they like to use. Combined with a particular genre of the book, the main characters, the locations and so on. Some words are going to come up again and again.

 

This means throughout the length of the whole book, I saw some of these words so many times they didn’t just go into my passive vocabulary, they ended up in my active vocabulary. And all by just enjoying the story!

 

This type of learning is much more natural and interesting then heavily relying on SRS software such as anki.

 

And on top of that, you get exposed to so much more language you could never get with just intensive study alone. You learn lots of new words, new structures and new grammar.

 

And the fact that I was covering much more ground meant I got much more into the story than I ever did before, and before I knew it I was only a few chapters before the end wanting to desperately find out how the book would end.

 

As soon as you start doing activities where the focus shifts away from language learning, your progress will begin to soar.

 

This might sound odd at first, but think about it. When you were a kid did you worry about how well you were speaking, or if your grammar was right?

 

Of course not!

You just wanted to understand that cartoon, or be able to speak enough to get your point across or ask your parents for an ice cream.

 

And it should be no different for adults either.

 

The fact that you want to watch that TV program,read that book, order a drink at a bar, communicate with your friends suddenly everything seems to come naturally and this does wonders for your learning.

 

Stripping back all of the unnecessary work, and making things as easy and enjoyable as possible while still retaining my focus from before has been the perfect balance for me.

 

Why it’s hard to get this level of exposure and enjoyment from the language at the beginner stages, from intermediate and into advanced this type of learning is not only more efficient, but it’s just all round more fun and enjoyable too.

 

My current routine

 

Every morning I read a chapter from the novel or book I am reading at the time. The fact that I am reading online on my pc means I can use a pop up dictionary to understand the meaning, focus on the story as opposed to the learning process and in doing so, take the strain away and cover a lot more content.

 

It is important to keep engaged in the story as this helps boost focus, make learning more fun and boosts your retention.

 

Then when I get back from work, I read the same chapter again. Like magic even though I didn't make any effort to commit words to memory, I find myself looking up significantly less words the second time around.

Going through a chapter a day over the course of a book, some vocabulary is naturally repeated a lot depending on the witters style and the genre of the book.

 

After the first few chapters these quickly become part of my vocabulary, so the further I get through the book the less and less words I need to look up.

Of course, reading is just one aspect of language learning and to really improve we need to keep improving all of the four core skills.

If audio is available for what I am reading, I make sure to put all of the tracks on my phone in a playlist. This way whenever I have some spare time, walking to meet friends, going to the shops, or even just washing the dishes I can listen to this audio and recycle the vocabulary I read earlier.

 

I usually watch quite a bit of TV over the course of an entire day. Usually somewhere between 1 and 2 hours.

Switching to make sure I get my daily dose of TV in the language again is a great way to boost your skills.

Subtitles are ok in your target language, but avoid English subtitles.If you do this you will find yourself just reading the English and completely ignoring everything that is actually being said.

If you are still a beginner and can’t understand very much then using English subtitles is ok, the trick here is to not think of it as learning. Just enjoy the show and use it as an opportunity to learn more about the culture or country where it is from.

Then when you do get to the stage where you can start watching without English subtitles, rewatching the show with the context of already knowing the entire plot is a great way to boost your comprehension of the show and keep you engaged without having to understand every word that’s being said.

 

I still use flashcards as well, but I spend no time adding or creating new cards to add to my deck. Instead I just keep my old cards, solidify old content and study them throughout the day.

 

After about a month of not adding any cards I have found my daily reps drop from 300 to around 100 per day.

 

The fact that the number is so much lower, I can actually focus on learning what’s in front of me instead of trying to rush through panicking if I am going to hit the daily quota or not.

 

Also I have been lucky enough to meet a few friends in my local city happy to practice speaking Cantonese with me.

 

We go out for food, watch movies, go to the pub. In general just enjoy ourselves, hang out and speak.

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

Notice the big difference in attitude from the beginner stages to the later stages past the intermediate and into the advanced levels.

 

In the beginner level we are so focused on learning the language. What new words have I learn? Did I make a grammar mistake? Was my pronunciation correct?

 

Past the intermediate stages I have found this type of intensive focused study with short bits of material less and less effective.

 

Now I find it better to simply forget about the language all together! Don't focus on the learning aspect.

 

As you get better and better you can focus on more and more interesting content.

Read books for the story, watch movies and TV for the fun of it, hang out with friends to socialize.

 

This much broader approach not only simplifies everything and takes a lot of the pressure off you the learner, but allows you to enjoy and expose yourself to significantly more content.

 

This type of approach might not feel like you are learning, but believe me you are taking in a lot more than you think.

 

Don’t get me wrong, Intensive study does still have its place. But to truly get to the advanced stages, intensive study needs to only make up a small part of what we do. Take a step now and simplify your learning, engage with interesting content, improve more than you thought you could and have an all round kick ass time while you do so.

How to deal with a new writing system

When learning a new language that's very different to English, a lot of the time you will have to contest with a new writing system.

It can be confusing to know the best time to learn the writing system or even if you should learn it at all.

If we choose to not learn the new script we can save time and build up our listening and speaking ability much quicker, but if we do learn then a plethora of native material becomes available that we can use to learn with.

So which is better?

When taking into account the best way forward, it is important to take a few things into consideration.

The main two factors in my opinion that affect this decision are your time frame, and your goals. What I mean by this is how high a level you are aiming for in the language, and when you want to try and achieve this by.

 

What is your timeline and goals?

If you are just learning over the space of a few months or even weeks in preparation for something specific like a holiday, then learning the script can slow you down considerably and draw your speaking progress to a halt.

Bypassing the stumbling block, and practicing a lot of listening and speaking right from the start is sure to give you the fastest possible route to basic conversational fluency.

If however you have more time, then the initial time investment to learn a new writing system can be well worth the effort.

Not learning the writing system of a new language can be incredibly frustrating. Putting in all that time into learning a new language and the end result being illiterate.

Never seeming to be able to break away from the intermediate level and being torn between learners materials which are too boring, and native material like TV and movies are just way too complicated.

In the long run, not knowing the writing system of the language you are learning is incredibly crippling, and it can leave you feeling frustrated, disheartened and like you are hitting a brick wall.

The upside is that if you do learn, even complicated and advanced material like TV and movies become much more accessible through subtitles, not to even mention the opportunities to broaden your vocabulary through reading.

You can engage in much more interesting and meaningful content, and really get the input you need to bring your language to the next level.

 

How complicated is the writing system?

A lot of people imagine learning a new alphabet to be a monumental task, one that would take years to master.

But in most cases it is a lot easier than you might think!

Where the script is particularly simple and eloquent, for example the Korean Hangul,  students have been known to learn how to write and remember the entire alphabet in a single day.

However some systems are much more complex, for example Chinese characters.

As they represent meaning and not sound words are typically made up of one or two characters, which means having to learn a few thousand to be able to achieve a comfortable level.

Therefore in such a short time frame of trying to speak as good as you can in half a year or even a year, learning Chinese characters will cut into your progress massively and slow you down a lot.

In contrast if you had a year to learn Korean, with a much simpler writing system in place, then learning the writing system at the start can be much more beneficial for you even over a relatively short time frame of one year.

 

Other major pitfalls in the language?

One of the most important keys to success in any task is not getting overwhelmed. This means being able to break the task down into smaller and more manageable tasks.

If you are learning an incredibly different language from English, for example Japanese. Then trying to tackle all of these new concepts at the same time can start to get very tricky vert fast.

Dealing with the Kana, varying levels of politeness, syntax very different from our own, new cultural concepts and etiquette, and then 2000 Chinese characters on top of all that!

This is a recipe to leave you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, which can ultimately lead to you giving up.

If this is the case, then it can be better to break the task down into much more manageable steps.

Forget the Kanji to begin with!

Start off by learning just the Kana. Then practice reading along with short dialogues to get used to the sounds off the language while learning bits about the culture too.

Then once you have built up your conversation and speaking ability you can tackle Kanji further down the line to help you get passed the intermediate level.

While it's debatable whether or not you should learn Kanji right from the start, one thing is certain.

If you get overwhelmed and give up, then you won't learn.

Breaking it down and keeping it manageable, while helping you feel like you are making fast progress can give massive boosts to your motivation and be extremely beneficial in the long run.

 

What is the best way to learn a new script?

 

Usually learning how to write out all of the new symbols and attaching them to roman spelling of each one can be done over a relatively short space of time. But to be able to string them together while reading to form words is a lot more obscure for our brain to get used to and takes a bit longer.

For example, if I was learning Japanese Hiragana I could learn all the symbols, if I saw the prompt "Ko" I would write "こ".

But then to be able to read it in context, for example こんにちは as "konnichiwa" is a lot more difficult.

The key steps here are once you have the basics of writing down, you need to spend a lot of time reading to content that you have the audio for.

Either practice reading and when you don't know a word rely on some text-to-speech software, like on LingQ, or read the transcript while listening to the audio at the same time.

Taking very simple and short dialogues and reading and listening to the same thing over many times is a great natural way to get your brain to match-up all of the sounds of the language to the new script.

 

Conclusion

 

You need to factor in what your goals are and when you want to achieve them by.

If you want to reach a high level and are learning for the long term then it is definitely better to learn the writing system, and for alphabet based languages the earlier the better. The longer you put this off the less reading practice you are getting in the long run.

However with a more complicated system like Chinese, as well as many other stumbling blocks to deal with, I would recommend putting off characters for the first few months while you solely focus on listening and speaking.

This way when you come to learn the characters you are attaching them to words you already know how to use and understand in context.

And from then on consume lots of native content, such as books and media with subtitles or a transcript to help you get past the intermediate plateau.

If your goal is to get conversational in as short a time as possible then it is best to bypass the new script entirely and rely on learning aids to get to a conversational level. The only downside here, is it becomes harder and harder to progress past the beginner and intermediate stages if you cannot read.

Have you learnt a language with a different writing system before? How did you deal with it, did you learn the script straight away, wait until later, or did you get by fine without it?