Deliberate Chinese practice part 1: breaking it down

Many blog posts and articles on deliberate practice have restated the main characteristics of deliberate practice first elucidated by K. Anders Ericsson and best summarized by Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated.  But in case you don’t want to click the links above, I’ll repeat the basic points. :-)  Deliberate practice, as oppose to ordinary practice:

  1. is designed to improve performance
  2. can be repeated a lot
  3. provides continuous feedback on results
  4. wears your brain out (Colvin says it is “highly taxing mentally”, but I think that  wording is awkward, so I’ll use my own)
  5. is not a lot of fun

Point 5 always strikes me as a kind of warning.  The temptation is to practice what you know well, in order to make practice enjoyable. But that doesn’t work.  While you don’t design a deliberate practice routine in order to be unenjoyable,  an effective practice routine probably will be, at least on its own terms. Effective practice should keep you in that space outside of your comfort zone, keep you moving forward, falling down, getting up, learning, improving.  Not fun, exactly. The payback in improvement, however, can be like crack to the addict.

To be clear, my goal is professional fluency, nothing less.   So if I want to improve performance in my Chinese from where I am towards that goal, how should I break it down in order to design practice for improvement?  For now, I’ve established the following categories, with goals as indicated.

  • Comprehension
    • Listening comprehension (next target: Chinese movies without subtitles)
    • Reading comprehension (next target: daily newspaper, ordinary magazines)
  • Expression
    • Typewritten Chinese (next target: write a 15 minute lecture)
    • Written Chinese (next target: written dictation to 80% of typewritten)
    • Spoken Mandarin (next target: deliver a short lecture and take Q&A)
  • Structure
    • Vocabulary (next target: 3000 words in Anki)
    • Grammar (not sure how to target this)
    • Idiomatic forms, e.g, 成语 (I don’t have a good target here)

For my practice routine, I use a spreadsheet to map each part of the routine to the areas of performance it is designed to improve.  This is important: in my HSK level IV exam, I did slightly worse on the written section than on the reading and listening sections, so I want to make sure I don’t neglect my written expression for level V.  Breaking it down this way allows me to balance my practice time between different areas.

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