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.




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.






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.




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?

Comprehensible input from a language learners perspective

"If acquisition is it, the question then becomes how do we acquire?"

According to research on second language acquisition by Stephen Krashen, we acquire language in one and only one way.

Comprehensible input.

But what is comprehensible input?

Comprehensible input, is a fancy way of saying listening and reading to things we understand.

"We acquire language when we understand what people tell us, what is said, not how it's said, but what is said"

Simply put if we expose ourselves to a lot of language, listening and reading to enjoyable and engaging content that we can understand, then we will continue to learn and improve.


But I don't understand anything?


When I listen and read I don't understand anything. How can I acquire language through comprehensible input, if I can't find content that I understand?

Being able to figure out meaning from context, scientists recommend the ideal is somewhere between 90-98% comprehension. We should be able to figure out the rest and fill in the gaps by ourselves.

But how do we choose material at the right level?

LingQ counts our known and unknown words for what we read and listen to. So before you click on an article or lesson, we can see exactly how many unknown words there are.

The more we use the system, the more accurate the figures are. This means we can use it to pretty accurately pick content at the right level for us if we use it a lot.

Of course there is still a big problem.

When we first start out in a new language we are at 100% unknown words, so figuring out completely from context is almost impossible.

So what then? How can I make input comprehensible?


How to get comprehensible input


This might seem like good advice in theory. But in reality it's much harder. It's hard to find content at the right level and when we start off we don't understand anything.

Figuring out from context is only one way we can make input comprehensible.

From the learners point of view, anything we use to understand what is being said, is a form of comprehensible input.

A basic example is like Stephen Krashen demonstrated in the earlier video. If we can show visually what we are saying, as we are saying it. Then students can simply watch and listen, and attach the words to the meaning as we go.

Other ways in which teachers can help you is through the TPRS method (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) and story listening by Beniko Mason.

Both these methods similar to Stephen Krashen's demonstration. They offer a mix of visual and contextual clues to help you understand basic content, and help you to understand what is being said without translation.

Additionally what you can do if you are a bit further along, is engage in a conversation with a teacher or partner over skype. (my favorite place to find a teacher is italki).

While you are speaking, if you come across a word you don't know. You can either ask your teacher to rephrase it in a slightly simpler way, or you can ask them to write it down.

Once they write it down, you can quickly look up what the word is in an online dictionary, and then carry on talking.

All of these methods work, but they all have one thing in common. They rely someone to help you.


What does Comprehensible input mean for an independent language learner?

As I said before, compressible input simply means anything we understand.

So working as an independent language learner, it is our job to use the tools we have available to make things comprehensible.


Dialogues with vocabulary lists


When I first started learning Cantonese all I had was a teachyourself complete cantonese book to work through.

There is no English translation of the dialogues, just vocabulary lists.

What I did was completely ignore all of the explanations and grammar notes in the book and spent all of my time listening to and reading the dialogues.

First I listened many times over to see what I can understand. Once I have done that I listen and read the transliteration at the same time.  This helps me pick out all of the sounds in the dialogue, and helps me to distinguish any words I already know.

Then for the words I don't know I look at the vocabulary list. This time I read through the transliteration slowly, and every time I come across a word I don't know, I check the vocabulary list for the English meaning to make sense of what I am reading.

After I have read through it once or twice, I go back to listening and reading at the same time. When I forget the meaning of a word, I refer to the vocabulary list and keep reading.

Here I am using English definitions of single words to help me grasp the meaning of the entire sentence. Quickly look up the meaning of a single word or phrase then go back to listening and reading in context.

Any beginners course or book will help you do this. LingQ offers a dictionary you can use by clicking on any word or phrase and translating it to help you make sense of what you are reading. You save the phrase and keep reading. It is designed to keep you in the language, listening and reading with as little time as possible spent looking up words and looking for definitions.


English translations


English translations can also be helpful when trying to understand the meaning of a new text or dialogue.

By going through in your target language first, then reading the English and going back to your target language after. You can use the translation as a crutch to get a clear understanding of what the text is saying.

You can then compare the two texts to look and see what words match, and help you gain a good understanding of what you are reading or listening to in your target language.

To go a step further you can try out a technique called "reverse translation" used by people like Polyglot Luca Lampariello.

Here you translate an entire text from your target language into your mother tongue. This can be with aid of a dictionary or word list if you are just starting out.

Then after that you translate back from your mother tongue into your target language, and compare to find the gaps in your knowledge.

Here is a video by Olly Richards explaining how this works, and exactly why it is useful:



A lot of the time when we think of flashcards, we think about learning single pieces of information or words out of context.

So how can this help us get comprehensible input?

Flashcards are user generated, so we can pick and choose exactly what we learn from and exactly how we set them up.

In my post on SRS flashcards one of the methods I listed was sentence mining.

Basically what this means, is to create lots of flashcards with your target language on side 1, and an explanation in your mother tongue along with audio on side 2.

You look at the flashcard and try to read the front of the card. Then use the audio and translation to check your answer.

If you get it wrong, check the words you don't know by comparing and then try again next time the card comes up.

Here you can see how we are combining the theory of comprehensible input with spaced repetition to help put new information into our long term memory.


Reading with an online dictionary


Reading is an excellent way to boost your vocabulary and learn new words, even at the beginner stages.

The only problem is it can be hard to find stuff at our level.

When we start reading, we can be easily overwhelmed with new words and lose the entire meaning of the text.

However, when we are first starting out it can be hard to find texts simple enough where we know 90% of all of the words.

So we can use online tools and resources to help us understand the meaning and keep going.

I have already mentioned LingQ, and other resources include readlang and popup dictionaries.

With online popup dictionaries installed on your web browser, you only need to activate them and then hover your mouse above a word to get it's meaning.

This can be a great way to enjoy reading at an early stage. Come across a word you don't know? Simply hover your mouse above the word, get the meaning instantly and then keep reading.

With modern online tools, this lets us tackle a much greater volume of unknown words and expose ourselves to much more language and learn even faster.

At an early stage all of the most common vocabulary you will see again and again until it starts to stick.

And at the more advanced stages, you will see targeted vocabulary come up again and again depending on the genre.

For example, I am reading a horror story right now in Cantonese. The main character gets caught in a storm while out at sea, and gets washed up on a deserted island.

Even in the first chapter, the word  荒島 (fong1 dou2), meaning barren or uninhabited island, came up at least 5 times! I had to look it up the first two or three times but because it kept on coming up, I quickly remembered how to read this word and all by just enjoying the story!




In short, comprehensible input is anything that helps you understand the meaning behind what is being said.

We should focus on meaning. Focus on what is being said, and not how it is said.

This works especially good if we are engaged in fun and interesting content.

Our brain is incredibly good at picking up patterns, so if we expose ourselves to enough language the grammar will come naturally, we just have to give it time.

This is incredibly consistent with my own experience.

When I first started learning Cantonese I made a lot of mistakes. I made little to no progress listening to podcasts using English to explain short dialogues. I spend about 15 minutes listening to the explanation of a thirty second dialogue!

You could spend years learning like this and never get anywhere. That's exactly what happened to me in school.

When I made the shift to focus on the dialogues themselves, listen and read many times using the vocabulary list to help me understand, my progress started to soar.

Aim to understand the meaning behind what is being said, and not to micro analyse every tiny aspect of the language.

Now I realize this is down to a concept known as comprehensible input.

How do you inject comprehensible input into your learning? Leave a comment and let me know!

How to learn a language like Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee is probably the most iconic person ever to come out of Hong Kong. His lightning fast moves are legendary all across the world, and so is his philosophy.

Across his career, he always strove to be better and pushed himself.

He developed not only a way of fighting, but a philosophy and a way of living as well. He believed in the acquisition of knowledge.

Because of this there are countless quotes and inspiration to be taken from Bruce Lee. So today I want to take a look at a few of the things he said, and how they relate to us, the language learner.

Don't think. FEEL


“Don't think. FEEL. It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”

This is one of his most famous quotes, and rightly so. In language learning it is all too easy to want to look up every single word we don't know. Try to micro analyse every detail and grammar rule until our heads explode.

This is how we learnt at school, and it's ingrained in us. If that's not how we learn, then how?

Language learning is as much about feel than it is science. If we simply expose ourselves to a lot of content, and focus on getting the general feel and meaning of what is being said, not micro analysing every small detail, we will find our progress soar.

To become fluent in a language we need to expose ourselves to a lot of content. And it we focus on every little detail, we will never put enough pieces together to see the whole picture.


A goal is not always meant to be reached


I have wrote before about setting goals that actually work, in order to keep you motivated and on the right track with your language learning.

But what about setting goals so over the top, so ambitious that there is no way we can possibly reach them.

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” - Norman Vincent Peale

This really comes down to what type of person you are.

Sometimes setting ourselves ridiculously high goals is incredibly motivating.

Thinking how rewarding and good it will be to reach them.

Then when we sprint off at 100 miles an hour towards that goal, in the end when we don't reach it, we still come a hell of a lot further than if we hadn't set one in the first place.

“A goal is not something always meant to be reached, simply as something to aim at”


Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them


I think when we start out doing something new, we are always scared of making mistakes.

Even when we look at sports, all of the greats made a lot of mistakes. They made so many mistakes because they were pushing themselves, and learnt from every single one. This is what made them great.

Language learning is no different.

When we start learning we will make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes about how to study, mistakes about what materials we use, and mistakes using the language.

I have made more mistakes than I can count.

This is inevitable. What matters is that we push ourselves, and we learn from these mistakes.

If we push outside of our comfort zone, use and speak the language regularly, we will make a ton of mistakes, but we will make even more progress.

"Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them"


Become like water

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

When we are learning something new, we need to be open minded. Especially when learning a language, everything can seem so alien, weird and outright wrong from the get go.

It can go against our natural idiosyncrasies and instincts.

Here Bruce teaches us that you need to be mentally agile, and accept new concepts when they come your way. He always said he was a master of no martial arts, and rather he studied all of them. He made his own way from what he learned.

Language learning is no different.

Every time we come across a new structure or difference in the language you are learning, we need to accept it for what it is and move on.

"You must be shapeless, formless, like water."


Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own


I like this analogy for two reasons.

First off, the word absorb. We don't learn or study languages, we get used to them. It's what happened with our first language, and it will happen with our second and third if we give it time.

Go through lots of content, let it wash over your brain, listen and read to lots of content you can understand and you will keep progressing.

The second reason I like this is, is because he mentions discarding what isn't useful.

A lot of the time, when I hear people going through a language course, they want to meticulously go through every tiny little detail and learn absolutely everything.

But a massive chunk of what's in there just won't be useful or relevant to you in the slightest.

I was trying out duolingo the other day, and one of the first lessons takes you to the zoo. It forced me to learn words like Lion, and Penguin before I can even introduce myself. It just doesn't make any sense!

We need to take what's relevant, add our own bits, and customize it to make it relevant to us.

For example, if I learn how to say "I am a Doctor", from my beginners textbook.

I can take that structure, take out the word doctor, and add in what my actual job is.

"Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own"


To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities


It can be all to easy to blame our lack of progress on the situation rather than ourselves.

"If I could just fly to where my target language is spoken, I would be fluent by now."

"If I had more money I could buy more lessons on italki."

"If I didn't live in such a desolate small town, I would have so many more opportunities to practice!"

Do any of these found familiar?

The fact of the matter is, we all encounter the same problems. Language learning is as much about creating opportunities, than it is having them.

If you are living in a big city there are tons of ways to meet native speakers. You can use couchsurfing, facebook, meetups and more.

I even emailed the Guangzhou bureau in my city to pair me up with a language partner so we can practice together.

Even if you don't live in a big city and don't have enough money to buy a teacher, there is always a work around.

Go on website like italki, or hellotalk and do language exchanges.

If you want to you can create all of the opportunities you need, it's just about getting out there and making them happen.

"To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities"


Knowing is not enough, we need to apply

I always emphasize the importance of listening and reading on my blog, and I still maintain this at the cornerstone of how we learn languages.

However, if we want to speak good, we need to speak a lot.

If your goal is to speak, then it's not use spending hours and hours building up your listening and reading comprehension but never actually saying a word!

You need to take what you've learned from your input activities and then apply it in conversation.

This is how we activate our vocabulary, and become more confident and comfortable speaking our target language.

Also, one thing that I am guilty of, as i'm sure a lot of you are, is spending hours of time reading through blogs and articles of how to learn a language, without actually getting out there and applying what you've read!

It's all well and good wanting to look into how to learn, and trying to streamline your method, but it's not going to learn itself!

All this reading won't help you unless you apply what you have learned!

"Knowing is not enough, we need to apply"


Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end


This is probably one of my favourite quotes because it perfectly sums up one of the biggest misconceptions in language learning.

One of the things I get asked most is "Luke, are you fluent yet?"

It's not quite that simple.

We are constantly improving and growing in all of our languages, even our natives ones.

People like to assume language learning is a one time thing, complete it and your done, your fluent.

But it isn't like that. You can be perfectly fluent on some topics, talk about politics, history, linguistics and then still not know how to order a drink at a bar.

This is because in language learning we become comfortable with the things we expose ourselves to, and not with the things we don't.

If you never exposed yourself to that specific vocabulary, you won't of learned it before. We come from a much smaller base than from the years and years of exposure growing up in our native language.

Language learning is not a process to complete. Instead, we get up to a level where we can enjoy and engage in interesting content, and from there on it is a slow gradual process of continual improvement.

"Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end"




Bruce Lee was a great man and probably the most iconic person ever to come out of Hong Kong.

He was a martial artist, but also a philosopher.

He prided himself on learning, and always striving for better. Never limiting himself to one method or way. And mixing everything to create his own path.

So much of what he talked about is incredibly applicable in our own lives, especially for us as language learners.

What do you think? Have you got any Bruce Lee quotes you think I missed?

Who has been an inspiration for you in your life?

Leave a comment and let me know!

The single most important thing – Motivation

Motivation is the most important thing in language learning. It is what drives us, keeps us going when things get hard, and makes us put in the time.

If we are motivated, and spend time with the language, everything else almost doesn't matter. If we keep going, we will learn.

So for such an important thing, why is it so fickle?

How can we keep our motivation high, and make sure we become fluent in our target language?


Why are you learning?

First off, we need to know why we want to learn.

This can be anything. Do you have friends or family that speak the language? A group of people in your local community?

Perhaps you are interested in the culture, food, music, of cinema in this language?

Whatever the reason, it really doesn't matter. As long as you know why you want to learn, and keep this in mind when you are learning.

This will allow you to do two things. Firstly, it keeps you motivated. Think about everything you will be able to do once you are fluent. All of the people you can meet, all of the places you can go, and all of the things you can do.

The other bonus to this of course is it lets you target your learning.

For example, if you were learning Mandarin Chinese, and you wanted to speak to a small group of people in your village. This would need a completely different approach to if you were interested in Chinese history and literature.

Knowing why you are learning, allows you to break down what you need to do into steps, and allows you to set appropriate goals.

Another reason I mention this, is that one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when choosing a new language, is to learn the language they think will be easy, as opposed to the one they are actually interested in.

If you are fascinated by Chinese culture and history, you want to learn more about the country, you love the food, and you are fascinated by the Chinese writing system, but you think it will just be too hard.

But because you want to learn a new language you choose to learn Spanish, because you think it will be easier, and you studied it in school. This is a big mistake.

When you realize, learning Spanish isn't quite as easy as you originally thought, and things start to get more difficult, you will lose motivation.

This is why it's important to know why you want to learn, so you can stay motivated, and set goals that actually work.


Surround yourself with a community

This is a huge thing for motivation. The more people you include in your learning, the more motivation you will have, and the more fun it will be.

This is the essence of the add1challenge, and the community is why people manage to achieve such breakthrough results in just 90 days.

Participating online is a great way to meet new people. Join facebook groups, go onto the language learning sub-reddit, language specific reddit, or join a discord channel.

There are a ton of things you can do to meet people online, but there are also lots of things you can do to meet people in real life as well.

The first thing you can do is join local meetups. You can filter to "language & culture", and meet other language learners, and language exchange partners alike.

The other thing I would recommend is going to a big conference or gathering, such as langfest in Montreal, or the polyglot conference, held this year in Slovenia.


Track your progress

Another great way to keep your motivation and momentum is to track your progress.

Language learning is a long process. So inevitably there are going to be plateaus and points where you just feel like you aren't progressing.

Of course the key thing to bear in mind here, is that you are progressing and learning new things just as fast as before, the only difference is diminishing returns are in play.

Once we know all of the most common words, everything we learn after that has less and less value, so our overall progress feels a lot slower.

So how can we track our progress and remind ourselves of how far we have actually come?

There are a few ways to do this and the first is to take metrics.

Use some form of capturing how many words or characters you know, and when you feel like you aren't progressing you can check the number and see just how much it has gone up.

Definitely the easiest way to do this is to track your known words on LingQ. By simply using the system to learn, it keeps track of all known and unknown words, without you having to do a thing.

This is good for the reasons mentioned above but also another reason. When selecting new articles or lessons to read, it gives you the percentage of new words in the lesson.

This means that without even opening it, if you see only 20% known words for a text, you know that it is way above your level.

You can choose from 16 languages in LingQ, with another 11 in beta.

Unfortunately Cantonese is not one of those languages, so that leads me to what I have been using.

Sentence mining. Using SRS flashcard apps, one can add sentences and characters and track exactly how many they know by looking in the app.

Because I use Anki to learn new characters, it means I can see exactly how many are in my deck, and to what degree I have learnt them.

Another great way to track your progress is to create videos in your target language. You can post this on Youtube as an unlisted or private video if you don't want to make it completely public.

Going unlisted gives you the option to watch the video only if you have the link. So it's a good way to easily share content with your friends without putting it out to a wider audience.

If you feel like you have plateaued recently, then go back and watch an earlier video and notice just how much you have improved.


Make it easy for yourself

We are incredibly lazy by nature, so it can be difficult to get going and build up momentum.

The best thing I recommend for this, is to start small, and as you build up momentum slowly expand out from there.

When I first started learning I only set 30 mins a day core study time and didn't do anything else.

Once I was comfortable with that I upped it to an hour a day, and added in SRS flashcards as well.

The other point is to make things as easy as possible for yourself.

When I got into my car for work, I had a free Cantonese Pimsleur CD I picked up from my local library. So when I got in the car and turned the engine on, it started playing automatically.

The fact that all I did, was get in my car and go to drive to work and I was already learning Cantonese. The fact that I don't even think about it, just turn on my car and go, helps build an easy to keep, solid routine.

Another thing to do is to download all of the audio from your dialogues and CD's and put it on your phone.

Make the information as easy to access as possible, so when you have a minute here or there you can put it on for a few seconds, and before you know you will have spent the past 10-20 mins studying.

Have you ever thought you need to clean your room and put it off for hours or even days without doing much. Then sometimes you notice one thing that's out of place, pick it up, and before you realize, you have already cleaned your entire room.

This is the same principle. You start without thinking and you won't put it off. If you start off just to review one flashcard in that spare few minutes you have, I guarantee you won't only review just one.

That is what will lead you to learn the language. Make small habits that you do without even thinking. Make it as easy as possible.

Go to the toilet, check your flashcards. Get back from work, open your textbook before you even have time to think.


Mix it up

Even the most diligent student has dips in their motivation, and I find this is usually for the same reason. I am bored of my learning material.

Nothing will kill your motivation faster than doing the same thing, day after day for months on end with zero variety.

Make sure you vary your activities, and vary the material you study with.

Mix it up between easy and hard, reading and speaking, fast and slow.

The variety helps bring novelty to the whole process and keeps everything enjoyable and fresh.

Of course, you don't want to change resource every day, otherwise you will never get anything done.

So my favourite way to get the right balance is to set goals for myself, and usually end up changing resource once every month or so.


Fun gets done

Who said language learning has to be boring? By actually doing activities you enjoy in order to learn, you don't need motivation.

You simply do it for the pleasure of the activity rather than to learn.

Are you a social butterfly? Then speak from day 1.

Are you a bookworm? Grab some short stories and get reading.

Are you a gamer? Why not check the steam library, to see what games have been dubbed into your target language.

When those times come that you really can't be bothered to do anything else, this is the perfect solution.

I remember when I was having a dip in my Cantonese motivation one week just at the late beginner stages.

So what I did was book an italki lesson every day that week, and spend the nights' binge watching Hong Kong Dramas and Stephen Chow movies.

Not only was it an all round kick ass week, but the concentrated amount of speaking actually gave me a huge boost.

The confidence I gained gave me the momentum and second wind I needed to get back into my listening practice even more energized than before.




Motivation is the single most important thing in language learning. If you have it, then you will learn. Everything else is just a matter of time.

Peaks and troughs are normal for any long term project, and language learning is no different.

If you follow the advice from this post, you will not let the dips in your motivation stop you.

The most important thing is that you keep going, because once you come out the other side, you will feel more energized and motivated than before.

Do you struggle with motivation in your learning? Which one of these points did you find particularly useful? and what do you do when you are just feeling like there is no point?