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

Setting goals for learning Chinese and achieving them are always recommended. They provide good signposts for measuring progress. Over the years, I’ve seen some hard goals, such as:

  • 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

The reason that I consider these goals as “hard” is because 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. 

I believe that learning Chinese should be fun. However, counting 1000 Chinese characters is not really fun, using these characters to write a story is. Reading a novel is not really fun if the story is boring. 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 something quite 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 soft 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 goals are “soft” because they are not dictated by numbers. Achieving these goals is not any easier than achieving those hard goals. The difference is that achieving these goals is more rewarding, more human like, and more fun.

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 signposts. The core of these priceless moments is human interaction. 

You express your preferences, your disappointments, and your emotions through these interactions, having dialogues with strangers, neighbours, and colleagues. These interactions and exchanges will create rich inner wealth that nobody can ever take away from you, and will lead to better and richer learning experiences and life experiences. 

Perhaps, still, the same number of hours have to be spent on learning Chinese, but everything else is changed.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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