Recently I have been thinking of how best to go about improving my Chinese abilities. You see, after studying the language intensely in Beijing from 2014-2016, I haven’t actively studied the language much since then.
The reason for this is mostly just life circumstances. After returning home from Beijing I had to focus my time on other studies, work and health.
Anyway, the point is that I would like to begin actively studying Chinese again to push my level to where I can really and truly call myself fluent.
I have been doing a lot of reading about various language learning techniques for achieving a high-level of fluency and one that I found really fascinating is called ‘overlearning’.
So, that’s what I want to focus on in this post.
Let’s get into it.
So, What is Overlearning?
Essentially, overlearning is the process of practicing a new skill, long after you have gotten the hang of it. Overlearning implies continuing to study something even when you no-longer continue to improve.
It’s fairly self-explanatory really and the technique can be applied to anything you want to learn. In this case, I’m interesting in how it applies to learning languages, and, more specifically, learning Chinese.
So how would overlearning apply to learning Chinese? Well, you know how textbooks have those activities that help you master a new word or grammar point? Instead of doing those once, you would do them, let’s say, ten times.
You might think it’s a waste of time to do that but according to the principle of overlearning, this will help your brain solidify the new word or grammar point and you wouldn’t be prone to forgetting it in the future. Overlearning helps you to ‘lock-in’ the new information so that it’s readily available when you need it.
Overlearning not only helps your brain to ‘lock-in’ the new information but, in the context of language learning, it allows for rapid recall of the new word or grammar structure, meaning more fluent speech in conversation.
Improve Your Chinese with Overlearning
I first heard of the principle of overlearning when I was doing research into ways to improve my Chinese. One of the things I struggle with is forgetting certain grammar structures, especially when I haven’t spoken the language for a while.
I was wondering why this happens and how I could prevent it. I am sure many of you sympathise with this. You spend countless hours learning a language and then life happens and you have to focus on other things for a while. However, when you get back into speaking the language again, you find you’ve forgotten so much and you feel demotivated.
Well, this is entirely normal.
There’s a common saying in the language learning community – if you don’t use it, you lose it.
It’s not entirely true, however. If you have studied the language enough to build up a solid foundation, you’ll never truly lose it all.
With overlearning, you theoretically shouldn’t forget! You see, if you do enough repetitions and write out those words and grammar patterns enough times, even long-after you have internalised them, you won’t forget them again.
How to Overlearn Your Way to Fluency
Overlearning can also help you improve your fluency in Chinese. Like I said before, having overlearned the vocabulary and structures, they will be available for rapid recall when you need them in conversation. This means no more awkward ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ while you try to remember the word.
If you want to try out overlearning, then here’s a quick outline I put together after doing some research into the principle.
First of all, you’ll need textbooks and a lot of them. Textbooks form the core of most people’s language learning strategy as they are filled with new words, sentences and grammatical notes.
Most people start out with one, maybe two textbooks and then transition into other materials such as graded readers, TV shows, podcasts or lessons with a tutor.
Overlearning, however, advocates for the use of textbooks right up to the more advanced stages, and I’m beginning to think that this makes sense. The structure and consistency that textbooks provide is unbeatable.
Let’s discuss my strategy for implementing overlearning in order to learn or improve your Chinese.
Okay, so you’re going to need a lot of textbooks.
Remember, these need to be quality textbooks, not badly written textbooks. There is a huge difference between good and bad textbooks (i’ve had my fair share).
If you’re super-duper serious about achieving fluency through overlearning then this is what I would recommend:
Get yourself 6-10 really good quality texbooks. These should be a mix of ‘overall’ language books (i.e. textbooks that don’t focus on any one thing but take you through the whole language), grammar books and other, more specific books of your choosing.
If you go with six books, then two should be overall language books (one beginner, one intermediate), two should be grammar books (again, one beginner and one intermediate) and two should be books of your choosing such as business Chinese, or readers of some sort, again one beginner and one intermediate.
You will work sequentially through each of the textbooks. The study sequence is as follows:
1. Beginner overall language book, 2. beginner grammar book, 3. beginner book of your choice (and then repeat with the intermediate versions).
You should aim to do every single exercise in the book (provided there is an answer key to check and correct your answers, if not then you’ll need a tutor to check that for you). You will do every single exercsie at least 10 times. Remember, you’re overlearning!
If you’re really serious about this approach you can add a further three-four textbooks of the upper-intermediate to advanced range and continue on.
I myself have found it really necessary to go back to using textbooks in order to plug certain holes in my Chinese which were missed during the beginner/early intermediate stages. Not only that, but working through textbooks actually allows you to identify holes in your abilities.
So, which textbooks should you choose? While I haven’t used every Chinese textbook on Earth, I have certainly used a lot of them. I’ll try to provide a list of quality books that I recommend below.
Best Chinese Textbooks
Here are some of my favourite textbooks for Chinese. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Basic Spoken Chinese (C. Kubler)
Basic Written Chinese (C. Kubler)
New Concept Chinese
New Practical Chinese Reader (Volumes 1-3)
Intermediate Spoken Chinese (C. Kubler)
Intermediate Written Chinese (C. Kubler)
Intermediate Short-term Spoken Chinese
New Practical Chinese Reader (Volumes 4-6)
A New China
Reading and Writing Chinese Characters (Tuttle) (only for character learning)
If you’re a beginner I would highly recommend starting out with the Basic Spoken/Written Chinese books by Cornelius Kubler!
Overlearning is a powerful technique for building fluency in a language or rapidly improving your current skills. It may be painful, but it’s worthwile for the serious language learner who aims to be functionally fluent in the language or wants to dramatically improve his/her existing abilities.
I’m going to do a more in-depth post on Chinese textbooks soon as I am beginning to use textbooks again for my own learning and would like to spare you from wasting time on poorly written books!
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