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A language is a long way

From the guanxi substack newsletter: If you would like to support this project, please subscribe there.

This is post about working through frustration in language learning… It includes various citations from the Zhuangzi, prompted by a WeChat comment of encouragement from Liz, a language teacher who has been a coach to me ever since she assessed my level, helped me get over my fear of speaking Chinese and placed me on a year long course of Mandarin-learning adventure.

Don’t worry, a language is a long way, but it’s interesting! (Liz)

Teacher/Language Consultant at GoEast Mandarin: Here’s a referral link ( Signing up through the link gives you a free lesson, and gives me a free lesson when I renew with GoEast.

‘Way’ is the perfect word to reflect on when frustrated with anything (much better than the over-used ‘journey’), and Zhuangzi is a master of such reflection, hence all the citations…

The Way cannot be treated as Something, or as Nothing either. ‘‘Way’’ as a name is what we borrow to walk it. (Chuang-Tzu, A.C. Graham – ‘Rationalising the Way: the ‘Great man’)


I’m going through flash cards on a train journey to London. I feel like I have finally turned a corner. I felt frustrated with my progress in July and August. Now I’m enjoying learning Mandarin again.

Without the discipline of two classes per week (pre-paid for a year) with my teacher Dora and the opportunity to ask for additional help from the language consultant who initially assessed my level and got me started (Liz quoted above) I might have been tempted to pause or stop.

If you really want to learn something, you need to set a backstop that will take you through times when the going gets tough.

He who has mastered the true nature of life does not labor over what life cannot do. He who has mastered the true nature of fate does not labor over what knowledge cannot change. (Burton Watson)


Dáshēng zhī qíng zhě, bù wù shēng zhī suǒ wú yǐwéi; dá mìng zhī qíng zhě, bù wù zhīzhī suǒ wúnàihé.

Those who achieve the love of life do nothing if they don’t work for life; those who achieve the love of life do not know what they can’t do. (Google Translate)

I was forcing myself. I was too impatient with my learning, too contracted, too insecure. I wasn’t enjoying the process. You really must see learning as a process. A process accompanies you, becomes part of you. What is there to be frustrated about?

Life is a process of falling. You have to let yourself fall, to be soft like Zhuangzi’s drunken man who doesn’t get injured when he falls because he’s not tense. Complicated elbow injuries happen when people try to stop themselves from falling by extending their arm. No, you have to roll with it.


Fū zuì zhě zhī zhuì chē, suī jí bùsǐ. Gǔjié yǔ rén tóng, ér fàn hài yǔ rén yì, qí shén quán yě, chéng yì bùzhī yě, zhuì yì bùzhī yě, sǐshēng jīng jù bù rù hū qí xiōng zhōng, shì gù è wù ér bù shè. Bǐdé quán yú jiǔ ér yóu ruòshì, érkuàng dé quán yú tiān hū! Shèngrén cáng yú tiān, gù mò zhī néng shāng yě.

A drunk man’s crash, though sick, does not die. The bones and joints are the same as those of people, but the offenses are different from those of others. Their spirits are complete. They don’t know how to ride, and they don’t know when they fall. The fear of death and life does not enter their body, so they are not afraid of things. He is all in wine and as if it were, but he is all in heaven! The sage is hidden in the sky, so nothing can hurt him. (Google Translate)

When a drunken man falls from a cart, despite the speed of the fall he does not die. In his bones and joints he is the same as other men, but in encountering harm he is different, because the daemonic is whole in him. He rides without knowing it, falls without knowing it; death and life, astonishment and fear never enter his breast, so when he collides with other things he does not flinch. If this is the case even when you get your wholeness from wine, how much more when you get it from Heaven! The sage stores away in Heaven, therefore nothing is able to wound him. (A.C Graham)

When I expressed frustration at my progress Dora and Liz coached me on the importance of balancing input and output. I realised I was trying to absorb too much while practicing too little. I had tried to read and understand material beyond my level. I found a course on edX on Intermediate Chinese Grammar that I felt drawn to. Trying to get into that course took time and energy away from revising and learning the material in my course. I was distracting myself with new things, new ideas, new approaches.

There is a ‘certain magic’ in every beginning, but if you look for new beginnings all the time you end up nowhere. Just begin again, but maintain fixed points and markers along the way.

I had more half-baked ideas of how I should be learning. After starting the Intermediate Grammar course I also convinced myself that I should be learning from a standard HSK3 textbook in parallel to the GoEast course. Dora and Liz supported me with this, but I eventually realised that it was much more effective (and fun) to focus on the course materials designed for the classes.

There’s only so much time in a day. Is your learning habit robust to a time of stress? Can you keep going in a period when you have less time for learning? Do you start going through the motions just to finish? Does learning feel like a chore more often than not, or does it energise you more often than not?

A two-week period of revision after finishing the first of two HSK3 sections of the course finally got me through the funk. The revision recalibrated my sense of progress. Going back through material reminded me of how enjoyable repetition is. You’ve only scratched the surface. Go deeper, again and again. It’s satisfying to see what you’ve learnt and to recognise and fill in gaps.

My approach to learning is adapting to three principles outlined in a book called Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget it. The book is by Gabriel Wyner, an opera singer who outlines the lessons he learned while working to learn languages efficiently for his singing career.

A random LinkedIn pop-up leading to a book on language learning (center)

New perspectives can pop up in the most unexpected ways. I came across the Fluent Forever book via LinkedIn. Someone posted a picture of China-related books. The slim volume in the middle caught my eye while browsing my LinkedIn feed. (Browsing LinkedIn is a bad habit that I am trying to limit to a minimum while at the same time making it more useful by tailoring the feed e.g. to China/Mandarin related content.)

The picture popped up because it was ‘liked’ by Thomas Derksen (‘Afu Thomas’, 阿福). He’s a German influencer in Shanghai. I’ve been following him since his breakthrough video (which remains his best, in my opinion).

The book focuses on three principles:

1.) Learn pronunciation first

2.) Don’t translate

3.) Use spaced repetition systems

I mention how I found the book because ‘Afu Thomas’ is an interesting reference point for Chinese language learning and Principle 1. His Chinese is very fluent, but his pronunciation is noticeably ‘German.’ He doesn’t care, or at least he doesn’t seem to care, and mocks himself frequently. Perhaps that’s all part of his brand and style. It’s encouraging in a sense: you can make yourself understood without good pronunciation. On the other hand, there may be a trap to be wary of: Once you can make yourself understood, what’s the incentive to work on your sounds?

Gabriel Wyner’s take on the question is inspiring.

…I find that working with sound is deeply satisfying and fun, and I don’t believe that’s just because I’m a singer. I think it’s the other way around. Sound is the way we connect our thoughts to our bodies. We see an eagle in the sky, we turn to a companion, and our tongue flies up and forward, our lips fly open, and our vocal cords engage. “Eagle!” To paraphrase Rousseau, when we learn an accent, we are taking on the soul of that language. This isn’t work; it’s communication.

Fluent Forever, Chapter 4: “Do This Now: Learn Your Language’s Sound System”

Sound is personal. I feel this from experience. I feel much more frustrated when I can’t get the sound right than when I can’t get the shape of a character or forget the meaning of a word. Part of the reason I feel frustrated by sound-system mistakes is that I haven’t got a system for feedback and practice.

So I haven’t engaged with the sound system of Mandarin nearly enough.

I have found 车(car, che1) or say 火车(train,huo3che1) particularly difficult. I came across the IPA system before, but couldn’t see how it’d be helpful to learn. I now see how identifying the e sound as [ɤ] is helpful for my particular 车 challenge.

I can now take the basic sound and practice it with the tones. The layers of the sound system begin to make sense. A current exercise is to pronounce shi4zhi3 (associates to the character for index finger) versus shi4zhe3 (侍者 – attendant/servant/waiter). The exercise is in turn motivated by an attempt to get through a ‘beginner’s’ version of 红楼梦, where an immortal being (仙人) named 神瑛侍者 (shen2ying1shi4zhe3) is introduced.

Fluent Forever also prompted me to build a spaced repetition habit. I read about spaced repetition many years ago, probably in an article by Piotr Wozniak or about him. The idea of spaced repetition was pioneered by Hermann Ebbinghaus who spent his life learning nonsense phrases and investigating his ability to retain them as he varied the timings between prompts. Ebbinghaus was clearly fascinated by the way the mind worked. I think his self-experimentation is an inspiration for language learning. To learn a language is to explore how we are what we are.

I’ve implemented a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) on Pleco, where flashcards can incorporate sounds and link to beginner’s texts that I’m trying to read.


‘Saying is not blowing breath, saying says something; the only trouble is that what it says is never fixed. Do we really say something? Or have we never said anything? If you think it different from the twitter of fledgelings, is there proof of the distinction? Or is there any proof?’13 Yet words do order themselves in speech, not according to any rules of disputation, but by that unanalysable knack…at the bottom of all successful behaviour… (A.C Graham, Chuang-Tzu, Chapter 2: Language)

(A.C Graham, Chuang-Tzu, Chapter 2: Language)

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