5/10 The challenge of learning Chinese: Why challenge in learning is a key factor to success

What does the word challenge evoke in your mind?

What do you see? What do you think of?

Does it make you remember past challenges?

Does it make you think about future challenges?

Or does it make you think about something completely different?

When I think of challenge I think of growth.

I think of defeating the odds.

I think of things everyone would consider impossible.

How do you see challenge in language learning?

Ever seen those single blades of grass pushing their way through solid pavement?

We couldn't even push our finger through, yet a tiny blade of grass achieves this, pushing its way to life in what should be a hostile environment. And not only that, it then lays the ground for plants to take root and sometimes even trees.

To say it's impressive would be an understatement.

While I might not personally subscribe to the concept that the Chinese language is difficult, it most definitely is different, and different on almost every level.

This in itself creates a challenge because there is very little, if anything to relate to in connection with our first language.

Creating connections in language learning is essential if we are to make our knowledge grow past that seed stage and start to take root.

This is something I touched on in part 4 of this series: Why learning Chinese characters may actually make learning Chinese EASIER than Pinyin alone, looking at the concept of building those connections and building that growth between the Chinese language itself.

This makes sense if we come back to the image of the small blades of grass establishing themselves in the crack of a pavement. They don't have the luxury of growing extendable roots across the street to get to soil now, do they?

If they are to have any shot at survival, they need to do it within the confines of where it finds itself.

And this is how we need to develop our Chinese language skills as well, building and growing on everything we learn, all within the Chinese language itself.

Looking at challenge in Chinese language learning

It is clear that this presents a challenge, especially if we have never approached language learning in this way, but it is definitely an approach I recommend because it permits us to quickly grow and make progress in the Chinese language, and also reduces to a minimum that feeling of difficulty and complication.

Let me take you through another aspect of my Chinese language journey when I challenged myself to learn Chinese in just one year and show you exactly how we can do that.

In saying that challenge in learning is a key factor to success, I am not directly referring to the challenge itself of learning Chinese.

If you've been following my work for any length of time you have probably noticed me frequently talking about the notion of challenge.

It is no secret that challenge forms an essential part of my day-to-day vocabulary and lifestyle.

I thrive on challenge almost as much as one thrives in a warm climate.

I always have.

I always will.

However, even if I may have a slight bias towards challenge, it should be a key element of any well designed learning protocol, fully embedded within the learning process itself.

The very premise of any learning project is to grow and improve and creating challenge is the very first way to push you beyond your currents limits.

When I set out to learn Chinese over fifteen years ago, I could have let learning Chinese be the challenge. After all, as everyone tried to convince me back then, Chinese is supposed to be a difficult language to learn.

By way of a sneak preview, in a future section I will be talking about language learning goals and how it is very important to set specific goals as it is through these specific goals that the learning becomes measurable. This is also how you get a clear sense of achievement which in turn feeds into your motivation and your desire to keep learning more and more and more.

Which is also a reason why inscribing challenge into learning should also be very specific and very measurable.

And challenge can take many different forms. Especially when you weave an element of challenge into every single learning exercise as I did.

Incorporating challenge in the learning process even at an elementary level

Let me give you an example.

I will always remember one of my very first listening exercises in Chinese. My textbook was all in French and Chinese and with it came a set of cassettes! Yes, when I say tech had not yet hit the world of language learning, I am not lying!

So there I was with my cassette, my Walkman (does anyone even still remember having a Walkman!) which I had actually specifically bought for my Chinese project, and the most elementary of exercises you will ever do: the numbers one to ten in Chinese.

And I listened to them.

Obviously I understood them: they were all in order!

And I could have easily left it at that and moved on.

But I didn't.

I chose to start creating challenge.

Notice how I did this in specific simple stages, and how through it I allowed my Chinese language skills to grow and develop, even on such an elementary topic as the numbers 1 to 10 in Chinese.

So challenge number one:

I wrote the numbers down: 1, 2, 3... as I heard it on the cassette.

And not just once.

I did it repetitively until I was writing the numbers as quickly as they were said on the cassette.

And then at the exact instant they were said on the cassette.

Just the numbers in their numerical form.

And again I could have left it at that.

But then I decided to really challenge myself.

I mean, the first exercise was just a warm up!

So Instead of writing the numbers 1, 2, 3 ... I decided to challenge myself to write the Chinese characters instead: 一 二 三 ...

(Did I let you in on the best kept secret yet? Chinese is not actually that difficult to learn! I bet even you can understand those three characters I just wrote! See what I mean! I can almost guarantee you will go away and tell at least one person you learnt how to write 1, 2 and 3 in Chinese today! Let me know in the comments! Watch out, I'll have you all wanting to learn Chinese before the end of this article!)

And I didn't even stop there.

I then challenged myself to write all ten numbers in character form before the recording finished.

And then to write each one at the exact moment they were spoken.

And if I was even a fraction of a second out I would rewind and start again!

Over and over until I got it spot on.

I even made myself do it backwards.

For most this may feel like overkill. I mean why even bother?

Create challenge in language learning and become fluent at every level

The whole concept of synchronised learning and adding stress into learning, I will leave to a whole article of their own. I will just mention for now how in just an afternoon I was literally fluent in all the Chinese numbers, spoken understood and even written!

And that was at the very beginning of learning Chinese!

So in repeating that level of challenge across many of the basic exercises I was doing, I quickly became very spontaneous, and even fluent with everything I was learning.

I would start conversations with people and they would never believe me when I told them I only knew less than 100 Chinese characters.


Challenge, be it big or small creates a momentum, a drive, an energy and hunger to learn. It's almost instant validation feeds into that sense of achievement which feeds into your sense of motivation which feeds into a near insatiable desire to keep learning day after day after day.

Who wouldn't want to reach such a point in their learning journey?

Isn't that the learning you want to experience too?

Let me know in the comments with #Iwantthistoo

And that is the absolute beauty of adding challenge into your learning path.

But for it to work properly, particularly on a psychological level, it has to be done in a way that captures your interest, captures your rebellious side, your sense of defiance, your sense of "you say I can't do this but I'm going to prove you all wrong!".

It can't be done in a gentle gentle way "oh why don't you have a go" "don't worry if you can't, at least you'll have tried".

That way is no more stimulating to a learner than instant coffee is stimulating to people in France (more commonly referred to among locals as "dishwater"!).

It needs to go much much deeper and capture that inner desire to succeed. That desire we never tell anyone about. That hidden desire to prove ourselves and be a winner.

Don't overlook it.

You will be missing out on the best learning trick ever!

This being said, translating a sense of challenge into a learning app on the level I have described is... let's just say is a challenge in itself.

If any of you reading this are also developers for language learning apps and would like my input on how to optimize the learning elements of your app to achieve this level of engagement and achievement, then please get in touch.

And be sure to subscribe to my newsletter here so you don't miss out on the next five parts of this series, all coming soon!

What ideas do you have for creating challenge in a learning context?