The Unexpected Skill You Need to Learn Chinese

Over the course of my six years of Chinese studies, there is one skill that has most contributed to: (1) speeding up my overall language development, (2) making study more enjoyable, and (3) improving my real-world Chinese abilities. That skill is handling ambiguity. What do I mean by this? Let me try to explain with a story.

When I first started learning Chinese, I would learn in a controlled environment familiar to many language learners—where I could force 100% comprehension of the material. For example, while reading a dialogue, I would stop reading to look up any word I didn’t know. While listening to a podcast, I would rewind it and re-listen to any section I hadn’t understood, until I could completely comprehend it.

I made it a habit to understand everything, and, as a perfectionist, this seemed intuitively like the best way to study.

Eventually though, these methods led to serious issues with my real-world comprehension. For example, when I tried to listen to HSK dialogues roughly at my level, my brain would “lock up” whenever I encountered an unknown word, and I would just focus intensely on that word and miss any content that came after. In a twenty-word dialogue, this could cause my comprehension to drop to < 50%, when it could have been as high as 95% had I just skipped over the word. This made it nearly impossible for me to understand Chinese in the real world.

Ultimately, I convinced myself that I did not need to understand every word of the content to catch the basic meaning, and that I needed to actively ignore what I couldn’t immediately understand to focus on what I could.

Specifically, I was able to train my way past this problem by (1) reading extensively without looking up unknown words, (2) listening extensively without rewinding; just focusing on what I could understand. These methods taught me to quickly infer meaning where I could, and skip over content where I couldn’t. As a result, I was suddenly able to make more sense of communications I couldn’t completely understand (most of them, as a learner), which is an invaluable skill when using Chinese in the real world.

I recommend you try it out!

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