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When learning Chinese, it’s better to set soft goals

Nobody sets out with a goal of “mediocre Chinese” , “choppy but functional conversations” or “get some ideas of what I’m reading”. 

It’s a pity because these goals are much better than the following goals, which people generally start with:

  • I want to read Chinese newspapers and novels
  • I want to speak Chinese fluently
  • I want to use Chinese professionally at work

If people have a detailed and long term plan to support these ambitious goals, that would be nice. But they usually don’t, because they are led by false promises, such as “fluent Chinese in 30 days”, or “learn these 2000 characters you will read newspapers”. 

The following goals are slightly better: 

  • Learn 1,000 Chinese characters
  • Learn 2,000 Chinese characters
  • Learn 5,000 words
  • Learn 10,000 words
  • Learn 100 Chinese idioms
  • Pass HSK4
  • Pass HSK5
  • Read a novel with or without a dictionary

These are hard goals. They all have a number in them. Numbers can be measured, counted, or judged by someone or anyone. These goals are indisputable. 

The only problem is that I see no fun in achieving these goals. 

Learning Chinese should be a fun and eye opening experience. However, counting 1000 Chinese characters is not fun, using these characters to write a story is. Reading a novel is not fun, enjoy the story is. Passing HSK is not fun. It can be gruesome, and all you get is a piece of paper, which often becomes a source for depression.

Although these goals seem grand and ambitious, they are also rigid. They encourage students to work on Chinese day and night, asking them to memorise one more character, one more word, one more idiom, or to read one more line……, which naturally lead to an experience and a conclusion that learning Chinese is hard, test is hard, idiom is hard, life is hard, everything is so damn hard.

Fortunately, there are other set of goals for learning Chinese, such as:

  • Talk about weather with a Chinese person on a bus
  • Order some food in a local Chinese restaurant
  • Buy a train ticket in a small town in China
  • Write a story for the Chinese Writing Contest
  • Do a self introduction in Chinese at a meeting
  • Chat with a stall owner in a market
  • Teach a Chinese friend how to cook your favourite dish
  • Have an argument about economic policies
  • Quote some historical events to prove a point
  • Learn new ideas from reading a book
  • Have a good laugh watching a Chinese movie or a TV drama

These are soft goals because they are not dictated by numbers. Nevertheless, achieving these goals is not any easier than achieving those hard ones. The difference is that achieving these goals is more rewarding, more human like, and more enjoyable.

These soft goals encourage students to look outside of HSK, outside of Chinese characters, outside of those “hard” numbers, and to look inside themselves, inside other human beings, and inside some of the best things life can offer.

The best part is that these goals can be set as soon as you start learning Chinese. You don’t have to wait until you’re fluent in Chinese to have a brief exchange with someone on a bus about the weather. You don’t have to wait until you’ve learned 2000 Chinese characters to write a story in Chinese. These are part of the many small things you can do, small achievements you can have, which give you a big boost both mentally and physically.

I remember great stories told by my beginner students, and their sparkling eyes when they were telling the stories:

  • “I told the taxi driver to go to the train station.” 
  • “I ordered scrambled eggs with tomatoes in a restaurant.” 
  • “I set up a meeting using only Chinese. I was nervous at the beginning. But they understood me with no problems.” 
  • “I helped a Chinese person on the airplane to fill up the entry card. And later we had dinner with his friends. They couldn’t speak English.”

These moments are priceless, and they are true milestones. The core of these priceless moments is human interactions, which create rich inner wealth that nobody can ever take away from you, and will lead to better and richer learning experiences and life experiences.

We are all humans after all. And we live in the same small world. Languages are one way for us to communicate and to have dialogues with each other, either strangers, neighbours or colleagues. That’s how we get to understand each other’s preferences, disappointments or emotions. 

So, set some soft goals and enjoy that moment when you reach each of them. 

April Zhang

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