Designing deliberate practice for Chinese learning

I’ve become increasingly convinced that careful use of deliberate practice provides a powerful, perhaps unbeatable, framework for self-directed learning.  Advocates argue that deliberate practice is in fact required for true greatness, and is the key distinction between those who attain greatness and those who don’t.  Setting aside the lore of 10,000 hours of practice being required for greatness, deliberate practice is also a rapid on-ramp to “pretty-goodness” in a shorter period of time.  That has certainly been the case every time I’ve undertaken deliberate practice without realizing what it was.

I’m what one might consider an intense hobbyist: I always have an area I’m working on in addition to my obvious responsibilities.  My most recent hobby is Chinese language learning (written and spoken).  Everyone seems to agree that learning Chinese requires an intense commitment, and I won’t disagree with that.  I will disagree with the other common assumption, which is that because I’ve learned to speak and read passably I must have a special talent for language learning. I do not.  My French Canadian mother, who witnessed four years of my miserable scraping through French classes, will back me up on this.

Nobody seems to think that a native English speaker who learns French as a second language must have a special talent, or that a native Chinese speaker who learns English does, but almost everyone — including native Chinese — seems to think a white guy who speaks Chinese has some language mojo denied to ordinary Caucasians.  When people hear me sing Chinese karaoke for the first time, I might as well be a trained monkey.

But I don’t have any special talent. The difference between my failure to learn French and relative success at learning Chinese is dead simple: I bust my hump at Chinese. That’s it. My aversion to Junior High French class was  probably a mix of laziness, bad attitude, and timing.  But the consequences were long lasting: I became convinced I didn’t have what it took to learn another language, and lost a quarter century of opportunity to develop myself as a consequence.

The next milestone

I’m getting geared up for Level V of the new HSK exam, and have started to think about how to design my study as deliberate practice. Learning about the structure of deliberate practice has prompted me to rethink my study habits, and in future posts I’ll outline my methods and welcome feedback.   The actual work of deliberate practice is challenging: it has to be in order to be effective.  But designing a deliberate practice routine is a pretty painstaking activity in its own right.

4 thoughts on “Designing deliberate practice for Chinese learning

  1. Hi Greg, I found your post through G+ and I was curious about what deliberate practice methodology you used based on the post’s title but there are no details. Out of curiosity: would you share some of the details of how you did it?


    • Hi Juan,

      In the next few posts I’ll go into detail on my current practice routines and how they relate to the practice models in Colvin’s book. One of the reasons I decided to write about my experience of deliberate practice in a blog is because it seemed there is very little written by people who are “taking on” deliberate practice for themselves. There’s a lot of cheerleading for it as a concept, but less about the experience, and even less about the design of practice. So if you stick around, I hope I can answer your question. Please let me know of any remaining gaps!

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