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Language Learning and the Dark Arts.

8 Post author: Lemmih 06 April 2015 11:33AM

I've been wanting to learn Mandarin Chinese for years now and just recently I wrote a small website to help me practise.1 All of the exercises are gap sentences that require you to type the correct answer before you can move on. I chose this kind of exercise because of the convincing evidence for the spacing effect and the testing effect.

Knocking through a bunch of exercises every day feels efficient but it's not exactly fun and I put in less time than I should. I've found two things that help with this: setting small and achievable goals, and reading short stories once I'm proficient with the vocabulary. And if there are two ways to make practicing more fun, there gotta be a lot more that I haven't thought about. So, how do I make myself work harder? Are there are any of the so called Dark Arts that are more than hearsay and could work in my favor? How do you people out there learn foreign languages and how do you keep yourself from giving up or slowing down? Do you use the pomodoro technique?

Cheers, David.

[1]: https://talentsrs.com


Edit: more on -> move on.

Comments (32)

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 April 2015 12:01:34PM 7 points [-]

Why do you want to learn Mandarin in the first place? Why is it worth the enormous amount of time to require the language? If you are clear about the reason your prospects for motivating yourself are better.

Comment author: Lemmih 06 April 2015 03:01:01PM 6 points [-]

Hm, I like this. Perhaps an automated email, sent once per week, saying something like:

My goal is to pass the Chinese proficiency exam by 2017. I have X days left. In the last week I've spent X hours practicing.

I want to learn Chinese because:

  • I want to work in Singapore/China/Taiwan after I finish University.
  • I want to prove that I can learn a foreign language.
  • I want to speak with my SO in her native language.

I fear that I would start ignoring the emails after a few weeks. It feels similar to Tony Robbins' advice to keep telling yourself why you do what you do everyday. Sounds good on paper but I can't for the life of me implement it in my daily routine.

I'll give the emails a try and see what happens. Thanks.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 April 2015 03:18:09PM 6 points [-]

Instead of once per week you could send it whenever you drop below X hours of studying.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2015 03:11:36PM 2 points [-]

Those are good reasons (especially the last one). Keep it up.

Comment author: Vaniver 06 April 2015 04:02:05PM 1 point [-]

It feels similar to Tony Robbins' advice to keep telling yourself why you do what you do everyday. Sounds good on paper but I can't for the life of me implement it in my daily routine.

I suspect some of the value of these sorts of affirmations is to identify which goals you get tired of, and which goals actually excite you. (But I also don't seem to like daily habits of that variety, so it may be a personality thing.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 April 2015 12:03:30PM 0 points [-]

I want to speak with my SO in her native language.

Should you be including some work on hearing and speaking Mandarin as well as reading and writing?

Comment author: Lemmih 08 April 2015 07:43:34PM 0 points [-]

I'm heavily constrained by what I can test/grade. Writing code to grade the correctness of my Mandarin pronunciation is hard.

Listening exercises are easier to grade and they are definitely on my TODO list.

Comment author: Aleksander 12 April 2015 05:12:29AM 0 points [-]

Can't you ask her to tutor you?

Comment author: dottedmag 09 April 2015 01:43:57PM 4 points [-]

Duolingo (https://duolingo.com/) makes language learning much more fun by using gamification. Silly, but it works - why would a sound of fanfares and a golden cup picture on a screen would make a learning more enjoyable? But it does.

Comment author: lelf 13 April 2015 01:39:59PM 1 point [-]

Duolingo cannot do Mandarin, but there's very much alike and free http://chinese-skill.com/cs.html [only for android/ios].

Comment author: gudamor 08 April 2015 05:00:31AM 3 points [-]

Is there any way you could give yourself a precommitment? You said you want to pass the Chinese proficiency exam by 2017; can you take the time/money to register for it now, ahead of time? If you know that you are already on the hook to take the test "January 16th at 3pm" you would be motivated to not waste that investment.

I have been using Duolingo to learn Spanish. However, I also struggled with practicing as much/as frequently as I wanted. I started minding it using Beeminder's data integration, which has so far kept me consistent.

I think what is benefiting me is the positive reinforcement of Duolingo's "earning points and leveling up, yay!" plus the threat of losing money if I don't meet my targets in Beeminder (even though I do not yet have money pledged to the goal, I know that I would commit to do so after my first derailment).

Comment author: Terdragon 10 April 2015 05:47:51AM 2 points [-]

Another thing: If you're looking for more text to use for your site, I would certainly enjoy being able to study off of the HPMoR Mandarin Chinese translation. :)

(You should probably ask the authors for permission, though.)

Comment author: Lemmih 10 April 2015 06:37:43AM 1 point [-]

Do you know how I can get in contact with the authors? When I try to send a message on lofter, I'm just redirected to the frontpage.

Comment author: Terdragon 11 April 2015 12:50:55AM 0 points [-]

Yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 06 April 2015 01:47:38PM 2 points [-]

Cool site!

I think you should have a more efficient UI for either skipping a word or showing the hint. For apps where the user is expected to interact intensively with the system, it pays off to have special ways to save even a few seconds of time per interaction. For example if I were going to use the system for five hours, I would guess that I would waste 10-20 minutes in aggregate time moving my hand to the mouse to click on the "show hint" button.

Comment author: Lemmih 06 April 2015 02:38:54PM 1 point [-]

Hitting the 'escape' key is the same as clicking on 'Show Hint'. It isn't explained very well on the site; I will do better.

I agree very much with your sentiment. Once you start practicing, your hands should not leave the keyboard.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 April 2015 07:35:56AM 1 point [-]

What worked for me is simply reading interesting things. You need an intermediate level of proficiency before that. Unfortunately, the language this works best for is English because e.g. if you want to learn about something on Wikipedia, the English article usually contains more info than the others.

This was a problem when I was learning German, I could hardly find anything interesting I could not find three times as much interesting material about in English. Unfortunately I am not much interested in poetry or literature, if I was it would have been much easier. I ended up with fairly desperate choices like 50 Cents autobio in German (Dealer, Rapper, Millionär), which was at least fun because of the complete weirdness of expressing one culture in the language of another.

You probably need to find something that you find interesting and the best sources are in Mandarin. History of gung fu?

Comment author: sdr 08 April 2015 04:56:49PM *  1 point [-]

patio11 on language learning:

"...A lot of people have vague goals like "I want to learn French" or "I want to be fluent in Japanese." There is no defensible definition of the word "fluent." Instead, you should have specific goals which test ability to complete tasks that are representative of the larger set of tasks you need to be good at to achieve metagoals which are important to you.

This is why I care relatively little about "fluency in Japanese" and quite a bit about "what percentage of commercially significant terms in my apartment lease did I understand without having to ask a Japanese speaker to explain them to me?"

That task is roughly representative of many tasks required to achieve my metagoal, which is "being a functioning adult / educated professional in Japanese society."

Now how do I measure progress? Well, I have some notion of groupings of tasks by difficulty level. The "apartment lease" task is in the same grouping and difficulty level as the "employment contract" task was or the "extract the relevant rule for recognizing SaaS revenue from the National Tax Agency's docs" was. Given roughly comparable levels of difficulty, if I start doing better on a task where previously I did poorly, then I'm progressing.

Why don't I just take Japanese tests yearly? Because my metagoal is not becoming the best Japanese test-taker there is. They are good from the perspective of many decisionmakers, since they allow decisionmakers to compare me against other people in a reproducible and cheap-at-the-margin fashion, but that doesn't get anything that I value. I don't care how I compare to Frank or Taro -- being better than Frank will not save me social embarrassment if I have to ask an accountant "Here is my... um, I don't know what the word is, but it's the piece of paper that records the historical prices I purchased by assets at and then their declining present value representing their worth diminishing over time as calculated by the straight line method. There's an accounting word I'm searching for here and I bet it is followed by the word 'schedule.' DEPRECIATION. Yep, that's the one, thanks."


Comment author: Lemmih 08 April 2015 07:34:47PM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure how to use his comment. I do feel that I have sensible goals and I'm pretty good at keeping track of my progress. Achieving my goals requires a significant amount of legwork and I posted here to ask if there were any ways of making it a bit easier.

Comment author: Emile 07 April 2015 04:33:26PM 1 point [-]

Pretty neat website you got there!

Knocking through a bunch of exercises every day feels efficient but it's not exactly fun and I put in less time than I should.

I've been reviewing Anki pretty much daily for the past couple of years, and I put in enough time to have all my cards reviewed. What helps:

  • Doing it on my smartphones at times were I can't do much else anyway (in public transport, waiting in a queue); the most "productive" thing I could be doing with that time is reading a book, and even then, reading a book standing up is more of a hassle than looking at my smarphone.
  • All the stuff in it is stuff I added myself and considered worth learning, and if I have doubts about something (a card or a whole deck), i'll often suspend or delete it
  • "Finish today's cards" is a reachable, definite, objective (more so than "a bunch of exercises") but I still don't put big pressure on myself, since if I'm too busy to review today, I'll review a bit more tomorrow, and eventually catch up (I don't need to explicitly decide "I'll review some more to compensate", I just will have more due cards tomorrow).
  • I only add new cards if I don't feel overwhelmed by the daily review schedule

(and yes, I've been using this to learn Japanese and to review my Mandarin and German)

Comment author: FiftyTwo 07 April 2015 02:35:01PM 1 point [-]

Having just moved to China I am interested in this

Comment author: Lemmih 07 April 2015 05:09:32PM 0 points [-]

If there's anything I can do to make your experience better, let me know.

Comment author: garabik 06 April 2015 04:50:15PM 1 point [-]

How do you people out there learn foreign languages and how do you keep yourself from giving up or slowing down?

Watch a lot of TV (once you acquire enough basic vocabulary), preferably with subtitles (in that language). The subtitles might be of much less help in the case of Chinese than in other languages, though.

Comment author: Plasmon 06 April 2015 02:29:50PM 1 point [-]


I like the minimalist UI - compare with far more cluttered sites like memrise and fluentu .

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 06 April 2015 01:51:35PM 1 point [-]

I agree that there is a limit to how much benefit you can achieve from pure computer-based learning. For me there are two relevant bottlenecks: the amount of time I can endure sitting in front of a computer is limited, as is the amount of "grinding" (computer based memorization drills) I can do.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 01 January 2017 05:14:24AM 0 points [-]

Hello! Just rediscovered this thread. The website doesn't seem to be up anymore. How did it go in the end? Where are you at with learning mandarin?

Comment author: Lemmih 26 January 2018 05:08:51PM 0 points [-]

Site moved to https://clozecards.com/

My attention has mostly been elsewhere but my vocabulary is slowly growing.

Comment author: Terdragon 21 February 2016 05:46:23AM 0 points [-]

I am still super, super grateful for the existence of this website. I have noticed tangible improvement over the last month alone; one of my friends has described my current level of Chinese literacy as "terrifying".

Comment author: Terdragon 27 May 2015 07:39:11AM 0 points [-]

This continues to be by far the most effective (for me) Chinese study tool I have come across. Nice work, and thanks for sharing it with us!

Comment author: Terdragon 10 April 2015 05:33:59AM 0 points [-]

Awesome, thank you! I'm in the same boat, wanting to learn Chinese.

I'm waiting impatiently for Duolingo to support Mandarin, but in the meantime, I've been doing spaced repetition practice for reading and vocabulary via Memrise (https://www.memrise.com/). Memrise also contains a whole bunch of flashcard sets about pretty much everything, and allows you to create your own.

Comment author: skeptical_lurker 06 April 2015 11:57:21AM 0 points [-]

Doesn't dark arts refer to manipulating other people using cognitive biases, and so can't be used to affect yourself?

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 April 2015 12:06:14PM 1 point [-]

Doesn't dark arts refer to manipulating other people using cognitive biases, and so can't be used to affect yourself?

Dark arts generally refers to techniques, where there are tradeoffs.

Holding false beliefs to motivate yourself would be seen by many people as dark arts even when it's just targeted at yourself.