How do you know if your Chinese study methods are good ones? It’s a simple question, and there are some intuitive answers. You might ask any of the following to gauge how effective your learning methods are:

Do your study methods improve your Chinese?
Are you doing well on tests and exams?
Is your Chinese vocabulary / fluency / pronunciation etc. improving?
These questions might let you assess the quality of your Chinese learning methods. Note that what we’re looking at here isn’t how to assess your Chinese, but how to assess your approach to learning Chinese.

Thinking critically about learning methods is always worthwhile. It’s common to focus entirely on the language itself to exclusion of wider reflection on learning.

Whilst it’s clearly necessary to actually put the hours in and learn Chinese, by improving your approach you can more than make up the time spent, and you’ll continue to collect the benefits for the rest of your learning career.

Slow checks

Whilst the questions above can give you some idea of how well you’re doing with learning Chinese, the main problem they have is that they’re slow. You don’t really know if your approach is good or not until you’ve been trying it for some time.

They also fail to capture any of the essence of what an effective study method is. That is, they check for the results rather than anything that conceptually makes a good method for improving your Chinese.

Checking for results and getting feedback in that way is also essential, but it’s only one part of thinking about your approach.

Can you be wrong?

So is there a simple and instantaneous way to check if a study method is a good one?

Yes. Ask yourself this question: “Can I be wrong whilst using this study method?”

This doesn’t tell you everything about a study method – far from it – but it does identify one very important part of effective learning.

To learn well, you have to have the opportunity to fail. If there’s the potential to be wrong, it means you’re engaging in a genuine mental task that requires active thought.

If you can’t be wrong, then you’re not doing something that makes you put the material to use. If there’s no opportunity to fail, the study method isn’t forcing you to purposefully process the information you’re learning.

As an example, consider the difference between just listening to Chinese audio, or trying to fill in gaps in a transcript of what you’re hearing, or having to describe the key points after you’ve finished listening.

Just listening is good for your Chinese, but it can’t compare to the benefit of having to correctly identify all or part of what’s being said.

When you’ve got to note down or remember what you’re hearing, it’s clear when you get it wrong, and there’s no way round that. You’ve got no choice but to actively process what you’re hearing.

This is part of what makes flash cards and spaced repetition system so essential to learning a language effectively. Every card is a miniature test in which you have the chance to be wrong. You can’t skirt round this, and the process of retrieving a good response from memory is what strengthens your learning.

Where this doesn’t apply

Asking “can I be wrong?” is great because it is so simple. You can immediately apply it to any study method you’re using.

However, just because a particular study method doesn’t fulfill this criterion, it doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

For example, passive listening is better than no listening at all. Passive study methods are not as effective as active ones, but they’re much easier to fit into your day.

In other words, study methods may have advantages other than raw learning effectiveness. They might be easier to get yourself motivated for when you don’t have much energy, or they may be easier to use at different times during your day.

How to make this work for you

What I’m hoping to convey here isn’t actually a way to rate every study method you might use. It’s a way to highlight an important part of effective learning: active engagement.

Bearing that concept in mind is helpful in getting the most out of your study time. It also explains why flashcards are so effective, and why actually going out and using your Chinese in real situations is the most powerful way to get better.

You can get it wrong, so you have to learn to get it right.