Getting Away from SRS (Spaced-Repition) For Vocabulary Learning

Ok. I admit it. I have a problem.

I use spaced-repition software (flashcard software) way too much when studying Chinese.

And, I always have. Ever since I started learning Chinese.

I wasted way too much time on Memrise, Anki, Skitter, Pleco Flashcards, the flashcard/testing feature on FluentU and even the Remember the Hanzi flashcard site.

Way too much time. Much of it useless.

Countless hours. Hours I’ll never get back.

I first fell in love with the notion of spaced repetition software back when I first heard about Memrise before I moved to Japan a little over 3 years ago. I used the Memrise site – basically just a website to aid with mnemonics and spaced repetition – to learn Japanese kana (both hiragana and katakana) in a little under 3 hours.

It felt like a god-send. I never would’ve learned two new alphabets that fast with out it.

I did pretty good then though, at least with that “deck”, or set, of “flashcards”. After I initially “learned” the two kana alphabets, I never reviewed that deck again. I didn’t have too. Kana was everywhere in Japan – I could reinforce it by reading menus at coffee shops, reading Dragonball Z manga, or anytime I looked up, or studied a new Japanese word or vocabulary list.

That was a good use of spaced-reption. I used it to be more efficient, and then no longer used it when it was no longer efficient. That was good. That time. For that set of cards. That “deck”.

After that, I wasn’t so good. And that’s when the inefficiency started. The countless hours of lost time.

I poured through the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) vocabulary list on Memrise until I “planted all the plants”. When I wanted to move more into grammar and sentences, I actually wound up abandoning Memrise for Anki – which was more customizable in what you could do and test yourself on.

When I decided to move to Taiwan and began studying Mandarin in Aug of 2013. I started with Anki, and Anki flashcard decks in Chinese.

Then, I switched to Pleco, then to FluentU, then I read Remember the Hanzi (RTH) and used a website that was an SRS system built for helping you remember your RTH stories/characters. Then, I switched to Skitter.

Then, most-recently, after about a month of being back in Taiwan I realized something. (I came back to Taiwan in November 2015, after being gone for over a year and a half)

I had a deck of cards in there, in Pleco, from the last time I was in Taiwan. A deck of cards I had built from words I came across back then. I looked through that deck and 1.) realized I didn’t know most of those words, and 2.) couldn’t even think of what context I’d come across them in, and couldn’t even think of what context they would even be useful.

So, I just deleted that deck. “If they are useful words, I’ll come across them again.” I thought.

A smart move. A step in the right direction.

The next step in the right direction was the next thought process. “Should I move the card decks I currently have in Skitter over to Pleco? (from Remember the Hanzi, recent ChinesePod lessons, etc.)?” “No, if I need those words, they will surely come up again in my studies.”

But, you know what they say: two steps forward, three steps back.

And, before you know it, I was reaching a point where I had 400+ vocabulary reviews a day again.

And I was saying things to myself like “Alright, I’m going to listen to this new ChinesePod lesson, right after I get these reviews out of the way.”

Only I would go through the reviews – and get a substantially large percentage of words wrong!

That’s not how SRS is supposed to work. You shouldn’t be getting 50% of your words wrong. Some words were just not sticking. Why? I started to dig deeper.

Luckily, I was putting words into different categories based on where I came across them. And, one thing was noticeably clear: words I learned from my girlfriend and her mom were sticking. I learned those words quickly, and tended to know them better when they came up in reviews. Words from other sources (reading material, ChinesePod lessons, even sessions with iTalki teachers) – not so much. Some of the words were sticking – but a lot of them weren’t.

Why is this? The biggest difference is that the words that were sticking were the words that were useful. Ie: they were the words I actually used after learning them. Because, they were words I actually learned. Words I learned in context, understand how to use in context, and then later actually used in similar context.

Other words weren’t. They were just words. Words from a list. A list my iTalki teacher gave me at the end of a session. Or a list of words from a chapter in a book. Even, if I was a list I made myself. It’s still just a list. And, a list is a devoid of a real context.

A vocabulary list is not a language.

So these lists were quickly becoming similar to the old list I found in Pleco, from two years ago. Lists of words, where I couldn’t even remember the context in which I added the words.

So, then, I abandoned SRS. For two weeks. I still studied Chinese, still spoke Chinese everyday, still did iTalki lessons, still (tried to) read the newspaper. I even still looked up words in Pleco and added them to lists.

I just didn’t study the lists. I didn’t do any flashcard reviews.

And what happened? I forgot everything and my Chinese atrophied to nothingness.

No, not really. Not much happened. My Chinese actually still probably improved. I still learned new words. Remembered some of them, even.

All that really happened was there was a couple of times, maybe three, maybe four. Four times, max, in two weeks, where I heard a word or came across a word in context where I felt like I know that word, but can’t remember what it is. Maybe if I had reviewed my flashcards I would’ve known those three or four words better.

Maybe not. Maybe I still would’ve struggled with them. It’s a toss up, really.

So, I’m getting off of SRS. Getting away from it, really.

Not entirely. It still has it’s use. One particular use case I’ve found, is to review words before and after a session. For example, I’ve noticed that if a review the vocab from a ChinesePod lesson, before listening to the lesson – I’m able to follow along with that whole particularly ChinesePod lesson much better than if I don’t.

So, yeah, SRS is useful in small limited doses.

But, SRS is not language learning.

(Also, see Hacking Chinese’s great post on this: If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong)

Being Excited about Textbooks & Dictionaries (And, a Run-down of the Resources I Use to Study Chinese)

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But, you know something has changed in life when you are excited about new textbooks and dictionaries coming out. Seriously.

I’m excited about the new, updated edition of the Routledge: Comprehensive Chinese Grammar, which just came out in a few months ago – in October. I recently ordered it, just waiting on it to show up in the mail. I’m also super excited about the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters coming out in May this year. These guys raised over $90k on Kickstarter last year. I’ve pre-ordered mine already.

That said, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of everything I use (or have used) to study Mandarin.

What I use now, on an almost daily basis:

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    • Pleco – mobile app. Pleco is probably my number one/ go-to Chinese app. On the surface its a Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary, or really a dictionary portal, where you can add various other supported dictionaries to it (and search multiple dictionaries at once). It has many good free dictionaries, but also several paid add-on dictionaries as well. (Soon to be including the Outlier Dictionary mentioned above, coming in May) It also has a lot of add-ons, some free and some paid, including a pretty comprehensive and customizable flashcard section, an OCR image reader, document and web reader, male and female audio pronunciation, etc. It’s just a great resource for looking up new vocabulary very quickly. I recently made the Taiwan Ministry of Education dictionary my main dictionary on Pleco, which is actually a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. I did this both get away from Chinese-English dictionaries a bit and delve more into Chinese definitions for Chinese words, but also because I trust the Taiwan Ministry of Eduction more on characters, tones, and word choice when it comes to usage in Taiwan than I do some of the other dictionaries which may tend to favor Mainland China usage (There are some noticeable variations here – think British English vs. American English).

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    • ChinesePod – I’ve used ChinesePod before, but I’ve ramped up my ChinesePod usage this time since being back in Taiwan. This is mainly due to a recommendation from my friend Sia – who recommends ChinesePod heavily both on his website and in his book. It’s about $30 a month for full access, but it’s worth it, especially if you can find the time to listen to it everyday. I mainly use the mobile app – which allows you to quickly and easily listen to all of the lessons. Every lesson centers around one short conversation in Mandarin, and then a much longer explanation of the words, grammar, and usage in that conversation. For the first three levels (Newbie, Elementary, and Intermediate) these explanations are mainly in English, with more an more Mandarin being used as you move up in level. By the time you get to Upper Intermediate, the explanations are almost all in Mandarin.

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    • iTalki – iTalki is my favorite resource for easily finding one-on-one language tutors. The site also has a language exchange partner section – but I don’t really use it for that. I use it only for the paid teachers (basically I just don’t feel like teaching English, in exchange for someone teaching me Mandarin – I’d rather just pay money and only speak in Mandarin). All of the lesson from iTalki teachers are done over Skype – so I can wake up and have a Chinese class while I’m still in my pajamas. You just can’t beat that kind of convenience. The biggest downside for me is there aren’t really any full-time Taiwanese teachers on the site, so I have to use Mainland China-based teachers and then double-check all the new vocabulary I learned afterwards with Taiwanese friends to see if that word is actually used in Taiwan, or used in the same way. This could actually be a positive though, as I’m getting a deeper understanding of the language, by getting better glimpse at usage and differences on both sides of the Straight. I also use iTalki for the journal feature – where I can write a journal entry in Mandarin and native speakers can help me by correcting my grammar and word usage.

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  • HelloTalk – HelloTalk is an mobile app for finding language exchange partners. I like it because it seems to have a lot of Taiwanese users, so its a good resource for quickly picking up new and useful vocabulary that is actually in common usage. But, mainly I just like the features around the app – you easily translate words or convert characters to Pinyin, and you can easily correct your language partner’s sentences. Mainly because of this sentence correction feature, my girlfriend (who is a native-Mandarin speaker) and I have actually moved to using HelloTalk as our main messaging app (instead of Facebook Messenger, LINE, or WhatsApp), because I can easily correct her English words/grammar and she can easily correct my Mandarin words/grammar right there in the app and doing so doesn’t impede on the conversation at all.

Other resources I use occasionally, or have used before:

Video-based material:

FluentU

  • FluentU – I’ve always been a big fan of FluentU and the concept behind it. They use Youtube videos in the native language to teach you the language – this starts with commercials mainly at the lower levels, some segments from shows aimed at children like Sesame Streets, and then moves up to music videos and later into News programs and TED talks. Great idea. And, great resource. I used to really use it heavily – and still remember a lot a words and phrases because of it. I don’t use it so much anymore, mainly just because I do a lot of my Chinese studying on the go now (on my mobile) – they have a mobile app and it works well – but, honestly, because their platform is based around streaming YouTube videos, it’s really just a battery killer for me. This is also because I have a really old phone. I plan to upgrade to a newer phone soon and when I do so, I hope to be able take another look at the FluentU app and use it more. The other downside to FluentU for me is that they built their platform using simplified characters first, and then somehow converted to traditional for the users who would rather use traditional characters. Because of this, there a lot of errors in the traditional character set. They are good about responding and fixing these errors when you point them out, and I’ve personally helped them fix dozens of them already, but it still is a downside knowing that the traditional character set is not to be trusted and any new word learned must be double-checked using other resources.

 

Spaced-repition Flashcard programs and apps:

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    • Anki – Anki is the popular open-source space repetition flashcard program. I used it initially when I first got to Taiwan. SRS has its uses in language learning – but I’ll get to that more in another post. Anki is great for what it is, but personally I prefer Pleco’s built-in SRS flashcard system more, just because of the easy integration with searching the Pleco dictionary.

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    • Skritter – Skritter is another popular spaced-repition app that I’ve used on and off again over the past couple of years. It focuses on writing Chinese characters particularly, but also has modes for testing for character recognition, definition, and tones as well. I like it, because it really just feels like a game when you use it – they’ve really kind of gamified the writing character experience. It’s also nice because it has a lot of useful vocabulary decks already available – including decks for all of the ChinesePod lessons if you have ChinesePod account. I don’t use it currently, because I’m both pushing myself to get away from SRS and flashcard systems and also because its fairly steep at $14.99 a month, especially if you are not focused on learning to write characters at the moment.

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  • Memrise – Memrise was really my first love when it came to spaced-repition programs. I used it very heavily when I studied Japanese a few years ago. I like it because it combines a game-experience with spaced-repition with mnemonics – and the idea behind it is really heavily on the mnemonics, such that you can use mnemonics created by other users to help you remember things. I used it heavily when I studied Japanese – but with Chinese I really only used it to learn Bopomofo, as I never really liked any of the Chinese vocabulary lists that are already on the platform.

 

Textbooks/Books

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    • Practical Audio Visual Chinese series This is a five-part textbook series for learning Mandarin used heavily in Taiwan. I went through the first two books in the series with a Chinese tutor a couple of years ago. It was a good foundation. After that, I tried to go through book 3 on my own, but quickly got bored of slogging through a textbook on my own and didn’t get very far. I would recommend the first two books for the basics – they do a great job at introducing basic important vocabulary and grammar. But, after that, I’m not neccassirly sure going through all 5 books is worth the time and investment of slogging through a textbook series.

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  • Remembering the Traditional Hanzi – This is a method of learning Chinese characters, originally introduced by James Heisig for learning Japanese actually, and the Remembering the Kanji books are very popular amongst Japanese students. I of course, first heard about the books when I studied Japanese. The Mandarin version is a two-part series, with book one meant to introduce the most common 1,500 characters and book 2 meant to get you up to 3,000. I made it through book 1 and the first couple of chapters of book 2 a couple of years ago (while using Skitter to supplement). It’s a decent system for what it is – but is has its limitations. For one, the focus is around mapping the characters to an English keyword to understand their meaning. Personally though, as I know more about Chinese and how the language works, I’m actually against this approach. Yes, it may be useful for creating mnemonics and some memorization, but it actually overlooks sound components totally and misses out on a lot of the logic already built-in to the Chinese language by forcing these sometimes rather obscure English keywords onto them. Personally, if you’re looking to get into learning Characters – I’d recommend holding out until May for the Outlier dictionary mentioned above. I think that will ultimately prove to be the much better system.

 

Learning Tones

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  • The Mimic Method: The Flow of Mandarin – tones are best learned through hearing and mimicking native speakers. Idahosa’s Mimic Method course covers all of the ones and all of the sounds in Mandarin and gives a great solid introduction to the flow of the Mandarin language. Coupled with one-on-one feedback and always focusing on the sounds and tones giving you the most trouble: one of the best things I probably ever did for my Mandarin was starting with this course first when I got to Taiwan back in 2013.

 

Conclusion

That’s pretty much all of the resources I use or have used for learning Chinese. I’m still looking for a good resource for reading native material (i.e.: not a textbook), and I’m currently experimenting with reading books by English authors translated into Chinese, and reading both the Chinese book and the English book at the same time. Let me know if you know of anything good for reading Chinese material – preferably something mobile based. If I don’t find anything I like, I may just be forced to create a new app myself.

Being Busy, Daily Practice, and 750 Words

Sometimes I get “so busy” that I forget my own personal goals or habits. I’ll look back and realize I haven’t read a book in months, or I haven’t been to the gym in a couple of weeks.

For me, my personal goals are simple and straight forward, its really the habits I want to build and foster, which there are really 4:

1. Read everyday 
(Always be reading a book. I’m trying to mix in more fiction – I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, ie: authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis)

2. Write everyday
(I try to have a goal to write ‘Morning Pages’ every morning. 3 pages, stream of consciousness, popularized by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. But, I don’t always do it.)

3. Exercise 
(Mainly Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, with occasional yoga to supplement BJJ for flexibility and injuries)

4. Study something
(Whether it’s Mandarin Chinese, coding Python or Swift, or just some random history or philosophy class from HarvardX, I try to always have one skill or something to be working on)

On the writing goal, I just recently found out about this website called 750words. Apparently 750 words = 3 pages. So, it’s just an environment to actually do the ‘Morning Pages’ in. I tried it this morning. What’s cool about is the stats it gives you about your writing as soon as your finished. http://750words.com/entries/share/4970544

It only took me 12 minutes. I really should do this more often.

No More Goals

I Quit: No More Goals

Brighton UK

Take life one day at a time…

I used to always be in a rush.

I had to graduate college in 4 years (I even picked a major I didn’t care about and went to Summer school a bit to make that happen), I had to put out a CD by X date, I had to be a profitable trader within 6 months, I had to go to a 1 year MBA program – because 2 years was just way to long, and I had to go NOW, I couldn’t put it off for another year.. I wanted to be a millionaire by 30, etc, etc. All of these time constraints and goals on everything…

We’re told growing up, or at least led to believe, that you grow up, you turn 18, go to college, graduate in 4 years and then get a job… and then you’re done. You’re grown up now. Or maybe, it’s get a spouse, a house, a few kids… now you’re done.. now you’re grown. Like that’s a goal… we just want to grow up, in a race to grow up before X date….

Why though? Does growth stop at 18? at 25? No? Maybe at 30?

My thinking has slowly started to evolve on this. When we’re young, we look forward to these ages 18, 30, like everything stops at that point. We can’t see past that. But, really there is no rush.

I started to realize this when I would meet with professionals in Singapore, people who had lived all around the world, in the midsts of their careers, marketing managers and MDs, CEOs, and managing partners at consulting firms, and they would give me career advice, they would tell me: “Your career is a long road. You’re still young, you have plenty of time to make mistakes…” Man, what are you talking about? I’m still young? You don’t even know how old I am! I was 26 then. I thought I was old. I wasn’t some 22 year old college grad any more…

Or maybe its some of the books I’ve read lately that have changed my thinking and long-term perspective: Radical Honesty: “everything is futile”; George Valiant’s work around adult development and the Harvard Grant studies: “Why is it we know so much about childhood development, but hardly anything about adult development? Does development stop once you hit adulthood?” The answer is a resounding “NO” by the way; Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to Be Rich: short-term saving plans, long-term investing, “just get started”, what you do doesn’t matter so much, 85% of it is just getting started.

But… really I think it was the last 8.5 months I spent in Taiwan: where I started to really take studying Chinese and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seriously. And, I had to give up goals, because I couldn’t see them. It was just too far out, too impossible to predict. In order to take these things seriously, you just have to imbed them into your life, make them a part of your everyday. What am I supposed to say? “I’m going to be fluent in X amount of months/years”? But actually what does “fluency” even mean? I’m fluent in English and I’m currently in the UK and I don’t understand what the British are talking about approximately 20-30% of the time. And, once you reach “fluency”, then what? You stop with Chinese? Because, you’re done? Or, for BJJ “I’m going to be a blackbelt in X number of years” Man, who can predict that? It may take 7 years, it might take 20. What if you get an injury?  What does it even matter? Oh, and when you get a blackbelt, then what? That’s the goal. Now you’re done, you can stop training. Plus, when you start to take up these long endeavours like BJJ or Mandarin Chinese, you realize this whole “I’m going achieve X by date Y” is so laughable that only complete newbs really say things like this.

I’m trying to wean myself away from goals.

Not just in BJJ or Mandarin, but in everything: career, finances,…. Life.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m not still working at all of them everyday.

You get better at something through constant work, constant reassessment, constant refocus.

In fact, I’m probably working more at all of it now, because I’m learning to enjoy and experience the pursuit and process. Not chasing some end goal.

Pursuit and process.

“Goals are for losers.” – Scott Adams

 

Prioritize Your Fears

I remember a long time ago when I started my record label and started selling CDs. One of the first things my “mentor” at the time told me was:

Just go out there and talk to people, it’s the only way you’re going to get sales. You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

He used to say that all of the time:

You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

It hit home with me, and I excelled. I had no worries about approaching people to make sales and therefore, I sold a lot. I outsold all of my peers, my teammates, and when I looked around at them, they just weren’t doing it – they weren’t talking to people. They made excuses.

They’re scared of the word “no”.

Is what my mentor said about them. Maybe it was true.

I never understood why, or what they were scared of, why they didn’t just do it.

When I was in China, I saw something similar with learning Chinese. I was studying ad-hoc, downloading Chinese character apps, talking to random Chinese girls I met in the street and really just trying to pick up as much of the language as I could…. for free.

I knew another Westerner who was in town. She was paying a shit ton of money for a private tutor to learn Chinese. She was learning “all the right things”, but I never heard her.

I never heard her speak the language. Not once. I know she had a private tutor and went to lessons everyday. But she wouldn’t speak the language. Not in front of me anyway.

We would go somewhere – even in the taxi cab, I would look at her and say, “”tell them where we’re going.”

She’d look at me with fear in her eyes, “Nooo!” she’d say, “you tell them.”

So I would. In my butchering awful Chinese I would tell them. Sometimes the taxicab drivers would laugh at me and repeat what I said laughing hysterically. Then guess what they would do?

They would pronounce it correctly and try to get me to repeat it.

They would help me say it correctly.

They would help me learn.

This motivated me tremendously and I tried speaking Chinese to plenty of more people in China… with similar results. Yes, a lot of times they laughed – but that never bothered me.

Should it? I don’t see why. It’s not my native language and I’d only been looking at it for a few weeks… plus, it’s a language everybody considers to be fairly difficult. The fact that I said things that were funny to native speakers didn’t bother me a bit or make me feel stupid. It actually made me laugh as well, cuz I knew that shit must be funny, especially with my accent.

When I look at it, a lot of people have similar fears. Across platforms. In various fields/interests. If you get past it easily, you look at other people who struggle with it and think “dude, what is wrong with you? Just do it!”

But fears are real and everybody has them. You don’t get through them just through willpower alone. You have to find ways around them, tricks to help you out.. and most importantly you have to prioritize them.

I’ve been studying a lot on focus and energy lately. If there’s something stopping you because of a fear, I honestly think you have to determine how bad you want to overcome it. If you do decide you want to overcome this fear – prioritize it.

Make it your main focus. Your main priority.

Put everything else aside. 

I mean it.

Too many focuses will stretch you thin and you’ll never do it. If it is your main focus, act like it. Make it your only focus for a set period of time and tackle it.

Or don’t, but then don’t be surprised that you never beat it.

no fear

Face the world with NO FEAR…

 

 

On Day One, I Got My Ass Kicked

Not really.

I didn’t really do anything.

But, I didn’t know anything. So, I probably looked awful. Or at least I looked like the guy who didn’t know what he was doing.

But, I don’t care.

It was wonderful.

I quoted Nick on this before – when I wrote my “slapped by reality” post. I’ll drop the exact same quote in again here:

“Our local (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) club had an horrific churn rate as new guys would come in to class and not come back. It was easy to know who would stick around – the unassuming guys who had come to learn. It was equally easy to predict the first day dropouts. They’d be wearing some tough guy clothes, perhaps insisting on wearing a coloured belt they’d picked up in a sports centre grading mill. They’d certainly have a stiff pride about them. Then one of our scrawny blue belts would wipe the mat with them. The ego death was simply too much to take. Their buffer had been overrun and their self-image could not take the real-world evidence that they simply weren’t as tough as they thought they were.”

That’s right. In case you didn’t figure it out yet – I decided to get into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Partly inspired by Nick’s and Masa’s assessments that training BJJ has given them discipline that has carried over into other ventures of their life.

Partly inspired by the inspiration of two of my best friends from my previous career Texas who are both heavily into BJJ nowadays. They’ve both gotten into much better shape than our days of sitting around an office all day and then heading to a happy hour to pound beers.

That applies to me as well. I was quite fat back then. In the worst shape of my life. At the age of 23.

I plan to keep it that way. I’ll never be that overweight again. I never have been since. And I never will be. Ever again.

The age of 23 – most people’s physical peak, is/will be my trough.

Anyway, back on topic.

Adding In New Habits Each Month

Who else inspired me?  Oh yeah, the other bloggers – Niall  has posted a lot about functional fitness : i.e.: being a man and not training for your “figure” or how you look in the mirror, but training for a functional skill set. In that sense – any martial art applies here. Any form of sports training really. Looking good should be a side benefit, not the main focus.

Niall also recently talked about focus, and how his current focus is on business and training (for him it was training Krav Manga while in Hong Kong).

And, Maneesh recently wrote about habits. He talks about building one new habit a month, and reinforcing last month’s habit.

What was my habit in August?  Practicing Mandarin.

If there was one thing I did everyday during the month of August, it was practicing Mandarin. Mostly pronunciation.

Damn tones pairs. Tricky bastards.

So – now what? I’ll follow Maneesh’s idea here. In September, I’ll reinforce last month’s habit – so I’ll continue to practice Mandarin everyday.

And then I’ll add something new.

But what?

Fitness was an easy place to look. I’ve been itching to get back into the gym. I haven’t worked out seriously in quite a long time. I did P90x a bit back when I was living in London, and then in Tokyo – I joined a gym. But, I half-assed it. I didn’t have a solid plan, so I just went to the gym to go.

The last time I really had a solid workout program was when I lived in Boston. And that seems so long ago.

So, when I got back to Taipei, I considered getting back in the gym. I considered joining a gym and getting a personal trainer and getting back on the weights.

Then, I had a change of heart.

Why? Well, I guess partly due to the inspiration of those mentioned above: AJ, David, Nick, Masa and their love of BJJ.

Oh, and I remember another friend of mine back in Texas ranting about how the Gracie’s were the best fighters ever and no other fighting style can beat BJJ and when you look at mixed martial arts, anybody who’s anybody has solid knowledge of at least one good grappling discipline.

There’s also one other big reason for

Choosing Sports Training over Weightlifting.

There’s the social aspect of it.

Training with and against other people – you make friends. It’s a social sport, even though it’s an individual sport. That’s only natural.

I’m a very social person – I ranked as an ENTP last time I took the Myers-Briggs and that E is very telling. I talked to the counselor at UT (where I took the Myers-Briggs) and her notion of extrovert was very important to me and stuck with me, “somebody who gets energy from other people”. When her and I talked about that I recalled when I worked as a trader – a job mostly full of introverts – and I just always had to get up from my computer and walk around and talk to people. Mostly the other extroverts. The same guys mentioned above – who are coincidentally all into BJJ now.

So, I need people in my life. I need social activity. If I were to spend all of my time writing, reading, and working on the internet – I would go insane.

Weightlifting is too easy to do individually. You show up to the gym with headphones in and lift. For that reason, it’s too boring. I have enough individual things going on in my life. I need something that requires constant interaction with other people.

Preferably something besides drinking, which is just too easy to fall into as a main social activity. That winds up being costly: time-wise and money-wise. Health-wise as well. Losing whole days to hangovers sucks. Getting drunk and hooking up with random girls is fun, but I’ve done enough of that in recent years. I need something more productive to focus on.

So, I guess these recollections hit me and I remembered Masa knew of solid place to train here in Taipei, so I hit him up and sent me the info of the gym.

I hit up my boys in Texas too to get their thoughts on BJJ and getting started in it.

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is: Getting Started & Getting Dedicated

I popped over to the gym.

Then came the next day to sit in on a class. The only idiot in the class without a gi.

I bought a 6-month membership.

6 moths? For a couple of reasons:

  1. Well, I’ve decided to settle down and stay in Taipei for at least the next 6 months (this inspired more by my quest to speak Mandarin than anything else. But, also because I quite like it here.)
  2. You get a discount for signing up for 6 months rather than doing month-to-month.
  3. And – the biggest reason is: I’ve been down this road before. Not with BJJ, but with boxing. I got all hype and into boxing and joined a boxing gym. Went 3 times a week for a month – was sore as hell at work everyday the next day. But, then when the month ended, I didn’t renew the membership. Why? “Too expensive” and “I didn’t have the money”. Playing basketball was cheaper. I was going to come back and re-join the boxing gym again when I had the funds to do so. But… I never did.

I’m determined to not make the same mistake with BJJ. This one needs a longer commitment.

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Time to Work

Watch Me Rap In Chinese

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— Note: If you just want to watch the video of me rapping in Chinese, scroll to the bottom —

I tried to start studying Mandarin similar to the way I learned Japanese.

I downloaded some Anki decks and started to studying them. Then, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to work.

Or I was going to go crazy.

See, with Japanese – I just studied the most commonly used 1,000 or 1,500 words in the language, skimmed through one book on grammar, and then spent a lot of time doing language exchanges, trying to piece together sentences.

You can learn Japanese that way. It’s hard work. But its possible.

Mandarin Chinese?

I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone crazy doing it like that.

I tried it for a couple of weeks – but I quickly realized that wasn’t the way to do things in this language.

This is mainly because the difficulties in the two languages are much different.

The difficulty in speaking Japanese is in its grammar and honorifics. NOT its pronunciation. Japanese pronunciation is fairly easy. The only sound that’s really different from English is their ‘r’ sound.

However, in Mandarin, the difficulty is NOT the grammar. It’s all pronunciation. There’s at least a dozen sounds that don’t exist in English at all. And another dozen that almost sound like English sounds, but are a bit different. Then, there’s tones. Say “ma” a certain way and it means “mother”. Say it in a different tone and its “horse”. Say it in a different tone, and it signifies that you’re asking a question.

There’s five of these tones. And, they change based on the tones around them.

For a quick introduction to Mandarin tones – here just watch this video. It’s hilarious. It’s also spot-on.

Yeah, studying “vocab” in Mandarin is a tough way to get started in the language.

But, then what? What to do, what to do…

I got lucky.

Right when I was just getting started in taking Mandarin seriously, I stumbled upon Idahosa Ness and his Flow Series and Flow Methodology of learning a new language… through rap music.

At first it sounded a bit gimmicky to me. Learning to rap in another language? Why is that beneficial?

But, then I took Idahosa’s free 5-day course on the introduction to flow and I realized he was spot on, and he has science on his side.

See, Idahosa reckons that every language has its own flow: its own rhythm and sounds. As native-speakers of whatever language we start learning first, we internalize the flow and rhythm of it.

And this Flow is key.

It’s why we can listen to song, watch a movie, hear a sentence, etc in our native language and despite regional accent differences, still understand all of it. We know the flow.

This also has implications for any accent we have difficulty understanding – they are usually using a different flow.

Once you’ve really internalized the flow of a language, you can easily add new vocabulary as well. Think about it: do you learn new vocabulary in your native language from reading definitions or from hearing the word used in a sentence?

Yeah, it’s the latter.

So, the flow may be the most important thing to get down in a new language – yet, it’s something most language learners don’t focus on at all. They, like me when I studied Japanese, focus on vocabulary and grammar.

But, vocabulary and grammar come natural to native speakers. Or at least it seems so.

And, the idea behind this whole flow thing it that once you’ve really internalized the flow of a new language you don’t need to study vocabulary or grammar – you can add those things in naturally through the proper flow.

Look, here’s a video to try to show you what I’m talking about: what English sounds like to non-native speakers. Check out this video, it’s pretty funny. It’s gibberish spoken in the flow of English – in that sense it’s almost intelligible to English speakers.

Actually, here’s another good example from Russell Peters – he’s pretty good at getting the flow of other languages down and it works well in his act.

And, this flow stuff is especially important in Chinese. Where if your tones are incorrect, you’re unintelligible.

This has implications across languages really. Where the age-old adage holds: you don’t learn a language from a textbook, you learn it from actually speaking it.

With his flow series, courses Idahosa aims to teach the flow of a language through music, first you learn the new sounds, then you learn the tones, then you learn some songs in order to put it all together and add the rhythm of the language in.

It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam.

For the record, this isn’t easy – have you ever tried to learn to dance? Or even just watched something like Dancing with the Stars?

Then, you know what kind of work is involved in learning entirely new rhythms and being able to perform then fluidly.

That’s what language is.

It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam. Well, at least it should be anyway.

Like Idahosa says himself (here, where he raps in 8 languages):

“if language is sound, and sound is music, well that must mean that music is language.”

So, I gave it a shot. Memorizing a 16 bar rap verse in English is a piece of cake… especially compared to what it took to memorize this: a 16 bar rap verse in Mandarin.

Weeks and weeks of Idahosa hammering me on my tones. Lots of re-dos and what-the-fucks.

It’s anything but easy…. but here it is: me rapping in Mandarin Chinese.

(For the record, the song is Beijing Wanbao 北京晚报 by Yin san er 阴三儿)