The third rule in 20 Rules For Formulating Knowledge is “build upon the basics”. This is an interesting rule when it comes to learning Chinese, because it is fundamental to the learning process, but it’s not the only approach we should incorporate into our studies.

This article first goes over the reasons why building upon the basics is so crucial to mastering Chinese. It may seem like an obvious aspect of learning, but we are here to build upon the basics, after all. The final part of the article looks at why you also need to take the opposite strategy from time to time.

The Lego brick approach

The most well-known aspect of building up from the basics is a “Lego brick” or “bite-size” approach. If each thing you learn pushes you only slightly beyond your current ability, there is less friction in the learning process. By moving up in small increments, you can improve your Chinese with less perceived effort. This is sometimes described as i+1. Along with this approach, memorisation can step in to make sure you’re keeping all your knowledge bricks securely in place.

Small details are valuable

Seemingly insignificant items of knowledge are often essential to learning and building wider knowledge. This is blatantly true with languages: you must acquire basic vocabulary and sentence structures to have any hope of using the language.

The idea gets more interesting later on as your Chinese becomes more advanced, though. It’s tempting to overlook basic materials at that stage, but you’ll often find that using low-level materials is still helpful. One reason for this is that low-level materials make fewer assumptions about what you know, and because of that may reveal new aspects of the language you weren’t previously aware of, or even reveal gaps in your learning.

Another benefit of keeping basic material in your studies is that it is motivating to deal with easy material on a regular basis. It establishes a baseline level of confidence in your Chinese ability. Varying the difficulty level also keeps things fresh. Finally, being able to resort to more basic material is a useful option to have when your energy levels are low and you don’t feel like engaging with something too challenging.

Cheap to gain, expensive to lose

An important quality of basic knowledge is that it is cheap to gain but expensive to lose. For example, acquiring basic vocabulary is one of the easier parts of learning a language. But if you forget that basic vocabulary at a crucial moment, it can be quite a bad experience!

In other words, losing or lacking basic knowledge is usually more damaging than losing or lacking advanced knowledge. That’s why it makes sense to focus on the basics first and to ensure that you keep them well-reinforced as your learning progresses.

The kata concept

A lot of martial arts have a concept like the kata (型 is the Han character for it). In English, the term has come to mean the long-term repetition of basic forms in order to acquire mastery. That is, advanced mastery can be achieved by rehearsing the basic building blocks of the knowledge.

The kata concept has become quite popular in the world of programming, and it can be applied just as well to language learning. A lot of benefit comes from repetition, both in the short term and the long term. For example, repeatedly attempting to match a native voice over several minutes is an effective exercise for improving your prounciation. In the long term, consistent repetition of things you have previously learned maintains your active skill in Chinese.

Lego bricks vs diving in at the deep end

This last section of the article looks at why you need to mix in the opposite approach to building upon the basics.

Language learning is unlike the acquisition of many other forms of knowledge. It’s not just a combination of skill and knowledge, but of many separate skills and several different kinds of knowledge, all of which must be put together on- the-fly to effectively consume and produce the language.

Because of this, you need to give your brain opportunities to practice the overall meta-skill of using the language. Building upon the basics is necessary and useful, but you also need to devote time to putting it all together.

Your use of Chinese overall is a very holistic skill. I often use the word “synergistic” here. Being an effective language user is more than the some of all the parts involved. A lot goes on in the “gaps” between the building blocks, and you need to get good at the gaps too.

To do that, you might take a “diving in at the deep end” approach. That means that you go ahead and attempt to perform the whole piece: speak a complete sentence, read a whole book, have a full conversation, write a finished thesis, or whatever it is that is somewhat difficult at your level of Chinese.

The great thing is that what was once a dive into the deep end will soon become just another basic building block that lets your ability in Chinese climb even higher.