This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.
Why learn Chinese? Specifically, why are you learning Chinese? Do you have a good reason?
Starting to learn Chinese without a good reason to do will likely end in failure. Take 5-10 minutes right now to work out why you want to learn Chinese. Write it down. Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason on a daily basis to help give you momentum.
My First Attempt
Learning Chinese is not as hard as you might think. However, it does take a long time to get to a level where you can communicate competently and even longer to get to anywhere near approaching fluency. It’s a long-haul language for sure, primarily because of the sheer number of characters that need to be learned.
The first time I tried to learn Chinese was when I was travelling and visited Hong Kong back when I was 18 – I picked up a textbook and gave a totally half-assed effort in trying to learn. Needless to say this attempt soon faltered. The reason, I know now, was that I had no great reason – no drive to learn – Chinese at the time. I just thought it would be “cool,” which is nowhere near enough.
So What Are Your Reasons?
Because learning Chinese is a big project that will take a considerable amount of your time it’s important to know why you are learning Chinese.
This sounds simplistic – you want to learn Chinese so you can talk to Chinese people or perhaps do business in China in the future. China is about to become the world’s largest economy so learning Chinese just makes sense right?
These kind of general reasons sound fine but will not be sufficient to get you through the challenges that learning Chinese will present. You’re going to need something much more concrete and definite.
Write it Down
Take a moment away from your screen with a pen and paper and write down your reason for wanting to learn Chinese. It can be more than one but one good reason is far superior to 10 weak reasons.
The simple act of writing down your reason forces you to define your reasons much more clearly than if you keep the reason in your head. Translating your thoughts onto paper forces you to think about the particulars. Just externalizing the reason onto paper will therefore be a huge step in the right direction.
Now you’ve got the basic idea on paper take a step back and have a look at your reason. There are a couple of ways to make it better.
1. Make it Definite
First is to make it definite. Does your reason have a definable end point? A time at which you could potentially say “OK, I’ve done it”?
A non-definite reason is something like “I want to be able to talk to Chinese people”. A definite reason of the same ilk would be “I want to be able to talk to my in-laws parents in Chinese for 20 minutes without consulting a dictionary”.
One of Mark Zuckerberg’s reasons for learning Chinese was to be able to ask his girlfriend’s grandparents for permission to marry. That’s a definite reason.
2. Reasonable Time to Attainment
Second, the period of attainment. It’s important to have a reason that is attainable in the medium-term. Too short and you’ll achieve the target without having really got into Chinese properly.
An example of “too attainable” would be “learn to order food at the local Chinese restaurant”. Once you’ve learned “这个” you’ve pretty much achieved this one as you can just stab items in the menu and grunt “this one”. Job done!
Conversely, if you set a target like “be able to read the Four Classic Books of Chinese literature in classical script” when you’ve only just learned 你好 you’re in for a rough time.
That target will take a couple of years at least for most people, if not much longer. In the meantime you’ll likely run out of steam and give up on Chinese.
As such it’s a good idea to pick something reasonable that will take 6-12 months to achieve.
At this point you’ll be immersed in learning Chinese enough to want to keep going and can set some new targets now that you know a lot more about the language.
3. Keep Reminding Yourself
Third, make sure you are reminded of your reason for learning Chinese on a daily basis. Write your reason on paper and stick it on your wall. Set a phone reminder with your reason as the reminder text. Set your desktop wallpaper to an image containing your reason.
Whatever it takes make sure that you are reminded on a regular basis, do it.
This will also be helpful in the “dark times” when you are wondering why on earth you ever took up Chinese. Being able to see the reason written down in more rational times will help get you out of the rut and keep moving forward. 好好学习，天天向上！
To do now:
Starting to learn Chinese without a good reason to do so likely lead to failure. Take 5-10 minutes right now to work out why you want to learn Chinese. Write it down. Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason on a daily basis to help give you momentum.