5 Ways to Overcome the “The Dip” in Your Chinese Mandarin Journey

You’ve likely been through this before. At the start of learning a new skill, you’re full of excitement, motivation, and eagerness to learn something that could potentially change your life.

In the beginning, you may feel that you’re learning quite fast. Somethings feel natural and others feel easy to learn.

However, at some point, you feel that you’re walking in thick mud and that you’re not progressing as fast as you once did.

Eventually you begin to lose motivation and may have given up.

This is area of sluggishness is what Seth Godin defines as “The Dip”. In his book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When To Quit (and When to Stick), he defines it as:

“the long slog between starting and mastery…The Dip is the difference between the easy ‘beginner’ technique and the more useful ‘expert’ approach…”

Although it’s not a great definition, you may know what he’s referring to. Here’s an illustration that better conveys his meaning:

Photo Credit: https://w5coaching.com/key-concepts-dip/

In the graph, you can see that in the beginning, you probably felt so good at how fast you were progressing. But at some point along the way, you fall into the Dip.

The Dip refers to the area along your journey where you feel stuck. It’s where you feel that despite the amount of time, energy, and effort put into your learning, you’re not progressing like you once did. This area is where you feel that your sense of accomplishment begins to dwindle, almost to a point of nonexistence.

I know this feeling all too well. As someone that loves learning new skills, I’ve experienced the Dip many times.

I’ve been studying Mandarin on and off for the past six years now. My inconsistent learning was primarily due to the Dip’s effects on my motivation and discipline.

However, over the course of the past year and after making a promise to myself that I’m going to get out of this Dip, I’ve been practicing a few methods that have helped me make significant strides towards my goal.

Even though everyone has a different Dip, here are 5 methods that work for me and I hope that you incorporate them to help you get out of your own Dip.

1. Ditch the Pinyin & Focus on the Characters

No, I’m not saying abandon Pinyin altogether. It’s an essential part of your learning process but over reliance on it can be a huge anchor.

Whether you’re taking notes or making flashcards for new vocabulary words, try to avoid writing the pinyin. Instead, focus on the characters.

Learning Chinese characters makes learning Chinese easier. This is because a lot of words use characters from other words.

One thing I realized is that Pinyin only focuses on the pronunciation of the word and tells you little about what the word actually means. However, when you focus on the characters, you may get ideas of what the word may mean. This is a beautiful insight into the mind of a native Chinese speaker.

For example, take the seemingly unrelated words 旅程 (lüˇchéng / “journey, trip”) and 编程 (biānchéng / “programming, coding”). Both words have 程, which means something along the lines of “procedure, rules, order, sequence”.

When I think of a journey as a sequence of events or places traveled to reach a destination, it reminds me a bit about how a program runs. A computer is given step-by-step instructions on how to execute a procedure to get a desired result.

While it may seem confusing at first, once you learn the characters, you’ll begin to see patterns, which will help you immensely in your Mandarin journey.

Here’s another fun example:

Recently I learned the word 豆芽 (dòuyá / “beansprouts”). Intriguingly enough, the character 芽 has the character 牙 (yá / “teeth”) in it. Immediately, I visualized a jaw with teeth made out of beansprouts. While they’re not exactly the same characters, knowing the characters and pronunciation allowed me to create a fun visualization that helped me remember the word for beansprouts.

So in short, while Pinyin is important, over reliance on it can be a detrimental. Learn the characters and they’ll take you a long way.

2. Consume Media with Chinese Audio & Subtitles

As a child, do you remember how you learned your native language? Surely it wasn’t entirely through the use of grammar books and vocabulary lists, right?

Of course not! You learned your native tongue through years of hearing repetitive phrases mixed with body language and social cues. Every time someone pointed and said “there”, you associated the concept of “there” as “somewhere away from me”.

We don’t learn languages in a vacuum and Mandarin is no exception. This means that your grammar and vocabulary books are not enough to help you master this language.

Be adventurous and consume other forms of media to help you get accustomed to real-spoken Chinese. This may include watching Chinese shows or videos of real native speakers.

Luckily, these aren’t hard to find. If you’re like me and have streaming services such as Netflix or Disney+, a significant number of shows have Mandarin voice overs. Sure, there may be a difference in body language due to cultural differences but it’s enough to help condition your brain and ears to understand the context of the scenes.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not important to understand everything word for word. While it’s daunting at first, focus on doing your best to understand the context of the situation.

In addition, watch these shows with as much Chinese subtitles as possible. Remember, it’s important to learn the characters because they give insight into what the words mean and ultimately what the scene is about. This is also a great way to fully immerse yourself in the language.

Recently, I’ve been watching Chinese dramas using nothing but Chinese subtitles. I don’t understand everything but I get so excited every time I realize that I understand about 80% of the story.

In addition, this is why I avoid listening to podcasts and audio logs because I can’t see the body language associated with the words. Our brains have the incredible ability to subconsciously help us understand foreign languages when there’s associated context and body language.

Context is what matters the most right now. Trust that your brain will subconsciously figure out the words over time.

3. Read Out Loud to Practice Speaking

Whether you’re reading a grammar book, a novel, or just a simple sign, get into the habit of reading out loud.

I realized that reading out loud automatically engages my other senses beyond my mind.

Many of us think that language learning only requires training our brains. But that’s false. We also need to train our mouths, ears, and our body as a whole to learn a language.

When you read out loud, you’re training your mouth to say something that it’s not used to saying. This may even require the use of certain muscles to form certain sounds.

And when you read out loud, you’re suddenly able to catch your mistakes because you’re training your ears to hear real sounds coming from you.

In time you may even imitate gestures from other people to help convey meaning beyond your words.

By speaking, you’re training your mouth to be accustomed to new words and movement. In doing so, you’ll learn immediately whether or not you’re pronouncing a word correctly. Then your ears will catch those words and tell your brain to adjust and suddenly it becomes a cyclical feedback loop.

Your whole body is essential to mastery, so engage more than just your mind.

4. Find a Teacher That Fits Your Needs

Self learning can only take you so far. Remember that learning a language is not done in a vacuum. Feedback is essential and having someone that helps you towards your goals is vital.

I’ve been using italki for the past year now and I’m fortunate to have found an amazing teacher that understands my goals and adjusts her lessons to fit my needs. This includes focusing less on vocabulary and more on speaking and listening. From our conversations, I naturally learn vocabulary words when I’m struggling to express an idea.

Whether or not you already have a teacher, find someone that understands what you want to focus on and adjusts their lessons accordingly. Having someone that provides feedback and explanations plays a crucial role in your success.

5. Play With the Language

Learning Mandarin is hard. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fun. Regardless of your reason to learn a language, you should strive to make the process as enjoyable as possible.

This includes reading or watching things that interest you because if it doesn’t, you’ll have a harder time finding motivation and discipline to push through.

One thing that I’ve been doing is word play.

For example, I've been struggling with learning how to express “even if”. This is different from “even though” because “even if” concerns hypotheticals or unknown events.

So one structure would be:即使 + hypothetical, 也 + unchanged result

From here, I just start playing with words even if the grammar isn’t entirely correct:

  • 即使我迟到了,我也把女儿送到学校.

Even if I’m late (implying it hasn’t happened yet), I’ll still take my daughter to school.

  • 即使她让我生气,我也爱她.

Even if she makes me mad, I still love her.

So have fun and play with the words! With this method, the learning process feels less like work and more like play.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that Mandarin can be a difficult language to learn. But just like any skill, you have a personal Dip that demands a lot out of you.

While perseverance and grit are important, they’re not the only things that will get you out of your Dip.

Everyone’s Dip is different but I hope that these methods will help you get out of yours.

And don’t forget to be consistent, reflect on what you’ve already achieve, and celebrate your small wins.

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