Finally: a deliberate practice routine in detail

People have asked me to get down to brass tacks, so here it is. I have several practice routines, but the routine I describe below uses HSK mock test material as grist for the deliberate practice mill. Some people seem a little surprised that I’m using test materials as part of my study, rather than just for test preparation.  But I think the material offers a useful basis for deliberate practice, and I’ve tried to structure it as such.  I’ll be very interested in any feedback with suggestions for improvements or changes.  For more about the practice models, see my previous post or read Talent is Overrated Continue reading

Models for deliberate practice: music, chess, and sports

To structure my practice in more detail, I’m using the deliberate practice models that Geoff Colvin defines in Talent is Overrated. Colvin makes a distinction between practice itself, for which these models apply, and two other related tools for developing expertise: practicing in the work, and deepening knowledge.  I’ll discuss those ideas in future posts.  In the next couple of posts after this one, I’ll outline my actual practice routine and how I apply these models to Chinese.  But for now, I want to describe the models as a reference. Continue reading

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.

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.