Enjoying authentic Chinese content and overcoming burnout: Mischa Wilmers 

Mischa Wilmers is an Employability & Placements Officer at the University of Leeds. He has taken full advantage of what the Business Confucius Institute has to offer, completing all six levels of our evening courses between 2017 and 2019, joining the China Camp trip in 2018 and working towards HSK exams.  

Mischa’s original blog post for us in 2018 described how he got started and what his early experience of learning Chinese was like. In the first part of this update to his story Mischa described how he made the transition from classroom learning to self-study.  

In this post find out how Mischa started reading authentic content in Mandarin Chinese, and what happened when he experienced burnout and stopped studying altogether.  

Read on to learn what caused this block and whether Mischa managed to get back into his regular Chinese-learning routine.

Over to Mischa…  

Phase 3: Working with simpler native content 

By the autumn of 2019 I had read and listened to almost all of the graded readers I could get my hands on. However, I still felt that reading Chinese websites and articles was very difficult and started searching for a way that I could engage with simpler native content.  

The goal: enjoyable immersion in Mandarin 

At this time I discovered the website and app, LingQ, which has become my main language learning tool ever since. I came across LingQ after watching videos by its founder, the popular internet polyglot Steve Kaufmann, whose basic message when it comes to language learning has always resonated with me.  

To Kaufmann there are almost no problems in language learning that more reading and listening cannot solve. The internet has a tendency to be very negative when it comes to the difficulties of Mandarin. Whether it’s tones, homonyms, grammar or word order there are countless blogs and videos in which learners complain or warn others about just how difficult learning Mandarin is and how much rote memorisation it requires. Kaufmann doesn’t see any value in this and nor do I.  

Rather than worry about it, the task for the intermediate learner is to find comprehensible material and immerse themselves in it whilst enjoying themselves.

Enjoying native content with LingQ 

LingQ facilitates this process by allowing users to read and listen to language content, clicking on unknown words to instantly discover their meaning. As you read through content, the website keeps track of the words you do and don’t know while providing you with statistics to measure your progress, including the total number of words you know and the total number of words you’ve read.  

The idea is that by reading and listening to large amounts of comprehensible content you will be exposed to thousands of words and phrases repeatedly within a natural context. In this way your brain will naturally acquire the vocabulary and a familiarity with sentence structures.  

LingQ is a small family run business and the user interface is not ideal – it took me a week or so to get used to how the website works. Nevertheless, I have found it to be an extremely useful tool which has enabled me to massively expand my vocabulary and character recognition in a largely painless, enjoyable way.  

The website is ideal for intermediate level learners as it has a huge library of native content, from simpler dialogues through to novels.  You can also import content yourself from other websites into LingQ. Most of the content provided by the site has both text and audio versions. Once you complete a reading, the audio version is automatically saved into your playlist which you can then listen to on the go.  

How I used LingQ 

It didn’t take me long to find content on the site that was interesting and appropriate to my level. I started with a series of 15 minute podcasts called Wolfe and Hua Hua in which two friends chat informally about different topics related to their lives in China. I would read the transcript first and then listen to the audio version while walking to work. This input helped me improve my comprehension of conversational Mandarin and expand my vocabulary which in turn enhanced my interactions with Chinese people.  

By the time the first lockdown came around in March, I was ready to use my extra free time to read and listen intensively for several hours a day, including news articles and my first books; translations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  

Phase 4: Burnout and learning through pleasure 

Losing momentum in my Mandarin studies 

Although the large amounts of reading I did on LingQ during the first lockdown had a big impact on my spoken Chinese as well as my listening and reading comprehension, by the end of lockdown I felt burned out. I was spending too many hours a day reading too many articles that didn’t particularly interest me.   

In hindsight I made a lot of progress during that period – probably more than at any other phase – but progress happens slowly and at the time I felt frustrated with myself for not progressing quickly enough – a common frustration of the first time language learner.  

In June I granted myself a week off Chinese. That week turned into two weeks, then a month and before I knew it an entire summer had gone by.

The longer I went without doing any Chinese the harder it became to face it again. Mainly I was terrified that I might have forgotten it all.

In September I finally decided to arrange a one to one class with my tutor and face the music. It was horrible, my speaking level had dipped very noticeably. I assured my tutor that I would work hard to get back to my previous level.  

How I got back on track 

As it turned out it took just one week of daily reading and listening before I felt confident that my Chinese was back where I had left off three months earlier.  

From there I was ready to go again, only this time there was one difference. I promised myself to work exclusively with material and activities that I was genuinely interested in rather than tedious articles about finance or translations of children books.  

By the time of the second lockdown in November my motivation had returned to previous levels.

I downloaded a brilliant language pen pal app called Tandem which I used to exchange texts and practice my written Chinese every day. I continued reading widely recently finishing my first authentic Chinese novel which I imported into LingQ许三观卖血记Chronicles of a Blood Merchant) and am now in the middle of a second, 坏孩子(Bad Kids). Once I’ve read the books I then listen to the audio versions before bed.  

Reading these books is not strenuous as I am familiar with the grammar patterns and can typically recognise over 90% of the vocabulary. On the contrary, they are highly pleasurable to the extent that it no longer feels like I am studying and there is no longer any prospect of burnout because I am doing what I enjoy. This is how I intend to progress into the future.  

What next? 

I occasionally still get frustrated at the things I can’t do in Chinese.

Although I regularly have hour long phone conversations with Chinese friends in which we discuss everything from our daily lives to political events, my tones are imperfect and I cannot yet fluently understand TV dramas, news broadcasts and podcasts on more complex topics like science.  

However, none of this bothers me in the way that it once did.

I am in no rush and know that by spending time with the language every day I am steadily progressing towards these goals. I firmly believe that all aspects of learning Chinese are a matter of patience and time rather than difficulty and pain.  

The goal of any learner should be to build themselves up to a level where they can spend that time purely on pleasurable activities. Once this is achieved everything else will fall into place.  

Further reading

Read more about Mischa and his Mandarin learning on his blog, www.imlearningmandarin.com

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.