The fifteenth rule in 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge is “rely on emotional states”. Let’s see how you can apply this to learning Chinese.

Trying to learn Chinese in a vacuum is difficult. There is very little knowledge that exists independently of the rest of your mind, and that includes your emotions. This isn’t a problem, and you can turn it to your advantage by making conscious use of the fact that emotions lead to stronger memories.

For example, you will easily remember the word 崩溃 if you associate it with that day you missed your flight, lost your phone and then got food poisoning. You really felt 好崩溃. If you then also associate 崩溃 with the recent economic recession and all the effects it had in your country, you’ll have that aspect of the word well-covered too. Using these personal emotional states makes strong memories.

This is how real language works

The reason this works is because it’s a large part of how you use your native language. From the day you were born you’ve been building strong personal associations with all the knowledge you have of your own language. It’s easy to use and recall because it’s so well integrated into your general mental processes and chains of thought.

This is harder to achieve with Chinese because you haven’t had that head-start since the beginning of your life, but by recognising the effect you can speed up your learning by several factors. It’s one reason why immersion and real-life use of Chinese is effective.

You don’t need to use highly personal associations to benefit from this, though. Any emotional image will help. In his write-up, Dr Wozniak describes a 25× improvement in learning speed from incorporating vivid scenes into the learning process. You might be skeptical of the exact figure, but the point to take away is that it makes a significant difference.

Shock yourself

If personal responses and remembered scenes aren’t forthcoming, you can go ahead and make up a vivid image to associate with what you’re learning. The more shocking, obscene or otherwise memorable you can make this, the better. No-one else needs to know.

Try making up dirty or disgusting mnemonics for Chinese character components, and you’ll find that they become far easier to remember (what this says about the human mind is a topic for another post). If that doesn’t suit your sensibilities, there are plenty of other ways to trick your brain into storing the information you want: make things funny, sad, weird, frightening or whatever the flavour of the day is.

We’re stuck using a system that is by default more interested in emotion than dry facts, so work with what you’ve got.

Another example: emotional tones

A quick example of how this can be applied to learning Chinese is a way to start acquiring Mandarin’s tones in the early stages. This is a common stumbling block and it’s hard to get past it when you first start learning the language. Some emotional images will make the tones stick in your mind:

First tone is high and flat, so an image of a robot or a Dalek saying things in first tone makes this easy to recall.
Second tone rises, and that’s easy to associate with your friend who says everything like it’s a question, rising at the end.
Third tone going down then up sounds like a parent beginning a long answer to an awkward question from their child: “well…”
Fourth tone sounds a bit angry and emphatic – you’ll have plenty of scenes you could choose to associate this with.
To be clear, these are not guidelines on how to pronounce the tones. They’re ways to get the tones to stick in your mind with less effort than brute force repetition, letting you learn the language more quickly. Before long, you’ll be able to recall the tones naturally and without this conscious effort. Using vivid images like these lets you get to that stage faster.