How to Find Your Motivation to Learn Chinese

How to Find Your Motivation to Learn Chinese

Why are you studying Chinese? It seems that everyone has different reasons to learn Chinese, but your reason is critical to your success in learning Chinese. Without motivation to learn Chinese, your efforts will likely flounder.

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Here, Jared and John discuss the importance of having a personal reason to learn Chinese and cultivating existing and new motivations. If you don’t have a reason to learn, you wont get far with the language.

Listen to the full episode on Mandarin Companion’s podcast, You Can Learn Chinese. How to Find Your Motivation to Learn Chinese.

How important is motivation in learning of a second language?

Today, the topic that we’re discussing: Why do people want to learn Mandarin? This was something that was brought up to us, so we’re going to talk a little bit today about some of the motivations to learn Chinese. Like, why are you learning Mandarin? Anyone who’s been listening to our podcast for any length of time knows that when I interview someone, I always lead out with this question:

Hey, why did you start learning Chinese?

What prompted that whole big decision of your life?

After interviewing all these people, do we have a sense that the answers tend to be all different, or is there a trend?

In short: Everyone has to have their own individual motivation and everyone’s motivation to learn Chinese seems a little bit different, but you’ve got to have it because if you don’t have it, you’ll never progress towards any level of proficiency or fluency.

It’s interesting to think about what kind of motivations work and what don’t. About 10 years ago, there was a big spike in the amount of people learning Chinese. And it became like this big, hot thing, like, Oh, Chinese, “language of the future,” you got to learn it. Then you see all these new products flooding into the market and they confuse us. Promoting Chinese became very active in the United States especially.

But, because it’s “hot” and because maybe I’ll need it in the future, is usually not a good enough motivator for most people. So the result was…

A lot of people started, but not many people followed through.

The good news is, if you look at the overall trend, even compensating for that spike, learning Chinese is going up because Chinese is getting more and more important in the world. And not because maybe it’ll be useful for the job, but because more and more people are coming into contact with Chinese and Chinese people. More and more people are feeling a new motivation to get started.

Jared’s motivations for learning Chinese

I think it might be good to share a little bit of my story.

John’s like story about how he started learning Chinese, you can look at the third episode. I have no idea what I’ve said. We need someone to catalog that for us, right? It’s going to be a broken record here.

He moved to China without knowing Mandarin

Well, anyway, my story was is that I hadn’t learned any Chinese at all. China was never even on my map, not even in my wildest dreams, 2009, I was finishing a graduate degree at Purdue University, shout out to Purdue Boilermakers, and I had a couple job offers. It was a tough economy at the time, but my wife and I, we just really, I don’t know.

It sounds crazy to tell the story now, but we just really felt like, maybe we wanted to move abroad. And it’s kind of funny when I go back and think about this.,I wasn’t even thinking about learning another language I was thinking about, Hey, it’d be cool to go live overseas.

So we just kind of said, it’s kind of now or never. So I just burned the ships and it took a little time, but I just moved to China. I moved to Shanghai. I’d had no job or anything. I just moved there before I went though. I remember thinking that I’m going to learn Chinese. And I thought like, I’ll take me about a year.

learn chinese quickly

I’ll learn Chinese. And I didn’t get so serious about it. And it was one night I had a dream and it was just like, I am this guy, my dream was like, are you studying Chinese? And I said, no. And he said, well, you better try. And I woke up thinking: OK!

So I got some CDs. It was kind of this multimedia program where I was learning that as done. No, it wasn’t Rosetta Stone. I think it was Fluenz. So I got this, a program and I started learning Chinese a little bit. And when I got to China, uh, I actually had some roundabouts, some connections with a guy who I lived with there.

Jared’s key motivators

Finding a job

I went out there by myself. First. I left my wife and kid here and he spoke really good Chinese during the first three months I was there. I would just was like, on the streets, just trying to practice Chinese, but I was really trying hard because I didn’t have a job. I needed to start to learn some Chinese and I needed to communicate and I knew it was going to help me.

I eventually did get a job, but one thing I realized and I think going back, one of the key motivations for me to really continue on and try to really build my Chinese proficiency was that I was working for small Chinese companies there in Shanghai.

And later on, I started some of my own businesses and my kids when we got to China, they were not in school yet, and I knew that it was not likely that I was going to be in a situation to pay for them to go to like an international school.

His kids and family (and how $$$$ international schools can be abroad)

is chinese easy to learn

If anyone who’s looking at international schools in China, Shanghai, specifically, you’re looking at like $25,000 a year for tuition. And I knew that was going to be a little beyond our means.

And so I was expecting that we were going to have to send our kids to a local Chinese school. And so one of the key things and motivations for me was that in order to survive and allow my kids to get education, that they’re going to have to go to the local school. And if that was going to happen, I was going to have to be able to support them in a way in their education.

I took it upon myself to really focus on learning Chinese, to be able to help and support them. No, that doesn’t go into real story, how I got proficiency, but that for me was a motivator, which really kept me trying to improve and progress along my Chinese.

His personal values, like curiosity, especially for other cultures

We wanted to be in China at the time, but we have moved back to the United States since a couple of years ago. I wanted my kids to have that experience of growing up in another culture and learning another language. All these things pulled together to really give me some motivation to learn Chinese and continue to progress.

His business’ success

I ended up starting some of my own businesses in China. I opened a bakery. It’s still running for you, listeners. Yes. I have a bakery. It’s a cinnamon roll bakery in Shanghai. It’s in the heart of Jin district there near the Jin temple. We do cinnamon rolls. That’s it. And in order to do that, my Chinese became much more important because I was just trying to open the business by myself.

I had to go through all the health licensing process by myself. I even set up the business by myself and I had some Chinese at, at some point to help with some of these things, but largely, I had to do a lot of this by myself. So my Chinese became very important for me functioning and for my also livelihood there when I was in Shanghai.

It sounds like you kind of put yourself in a sink or swim situation. Yeah. And so I had to swim.

John’s motivations for learning Chinese


When people ask John about his motivation, “I feel like I don’t have anything. That’s really impressive. It’s like you studied to such a high level, like you must be super motivated and have some kind of really deep, interesting motivations.”

His main motivators

“I like it”

And it’s more like, Oh, I like it. And I think it’s interesting because I like it so much. I also chose a career path, which was completely intertwined with learning Chinese. Even now when I have advanced clients and they’re focused on things like digital media marketing or finance, or the psychology of child rearing, they’re going into these pretty difficult topics in Chinese and are managing their studies.

Career path and prospects

Then of course, I’m reading a bunch of stuff about these topics myself. I don’t know. It’s just interest and combined with my career because I kind of engineered it that way. They kind of keep each other going. This kind of gets back to, you have to have some sort of motivation to learn Chinese and continue learning the language.

Other common motivators for learning Chinese

Let’s talk about a handful of other common or popular motives / reasons to learn Chinese.

To connect deeply to the culture

Now I think it would go through some other stories of people that I’ve heard and maybe we haven’t even covered it on a show. I did an article on our Mandarin Companion blog of a guy. He was in his sixties and he had started learning Chinese because he wanted to read about Tai Chi in Chinese. It was his obsession.

And now you can find some books in English, but for him, he wanted to connect with the deep cultural roots of Tai Chi, and in order to do that, he said, “I need to learn Chinese.” And so, when I had gotten in touch with him, he’d been studying for a couple of years, and he had actually read through all of our graded readers and he was moving on to higher level stuff.

one motivation to learn chinese is food
Another motivator to stick it out and learn Chinese? THE FOOD

Communication goals

I find that if you want really fluent Mandarin, it’s often most useful to have a goal related to communication. More than even an interest in Chinese history or Chinese medicine or whatever. Then you can just immerse yourself in books, get good at reading, and never really talk to anybody. But most of the learners I encounter really want to be a fluent speaker.

In this case, it’s good to have a motivation that relates to communication.

To learn about new cultures

This reminds me of Steve Kaufman, who we had on the podcast a few episodes ago (episode here).

If anyone doesn’t know Steve Kaufman, he is a famous polyglot. He speaks a roughly 20 languages, but his real motivation for learning languages was to be able to communicate and connect with new cultures. And that was like, I mean, if you think about it, Like, why are you going to go out and learn 20 languages?

He’s in the seventies and he’s still learning new languages.

But his motivation to learn Chinese now is, like I said, go out there, experience new cultures and connect with them in a way that you can’t through translation. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. You don’t realize that they really want to make that connection with another culture. But, um, I think for a lot of us, we kind of have this inherent interest.

Genuine curiosity

curiosity to learn chinese

It’s, it’s probably just curiosity. A lot of us know deep down that if you don’t learn another language, you can’t truly connect with another culture and some kind of deep, meaningful way. If you just think about it, if there was no way to communicate, if you don’t speak their language or they don’t speak yours, I mean, how can you really connect?

It’s a very difficult, you can’t understand someone’s emotions, what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking or what you even trying to do. Yeah.

To gain “access” to more people

If you only ever communicate with really well-educated speakers of another language, then there’s this whole other section of society that you have no contact with.

You have no idea what they think about what they, what they talk about. What they know about your country. And so I always find it super interesting to just talk to everyday people, people that don’t speak any English and have no hope of ever really gaining proficiency in it, and maybe thought that they’d never in their life even be able to communicate directly with a foreigner. Those kinds of conversations are super rewarding.

“Bad” motivators to learn Chinese

john and jared mandarin companion

So I kind of want to flip it on its head a little bit here. What are somethings that I’ve seen are maybe not good motivations, or maybe not sustainable motivations to learn the language?

To prove someone wrong

Motivation is short lived when people are learning a language just to prove someone wrong. Sometimes you can carry you through, but I have seen some people like I’m going to learn language cause they said I can’t write. Well, once that person may be out of your life or you just get over that, you need to find some times like a better motivation to learn Chinese.

Because it’s hard

And I had talked to someone who said they started learning Chinese because someone said it was so hard and you couldn’t learn it.

I mean, I did find other motivations, but the challenge aspect was a part of it in the beginning.

Definitely, but ultimately you’re gonna need to find some other motivations along the way because the appetite for challenge isn’t going to see you all the way through to a high level of proficiency.

Because you “should”

Another thing I’ve seen too, is learning a language because someone else is expecting you to do it.

Now, this goes into a lot of other things too, is that maybe you set an own your own expectation that I should be able to learn this. Or if someone says, I want you to learn this, I’ve seen this sometimes with parents towards kids, but, maybe that child, or maybe you, you don’t have your own intrinsic reason or motivation to do it so you can remain disciplined and you can remain studying and focusing on it and memorizing things.

But if you never really find that own spark and that own real reason to learn, then you’re really not going to get far.

I mean, I’ve seen people and some of those situations and they’re not quite conversational because it’s not really their interest. It’s not something they really want to do.

So I’m just kinda throwing out that, that you, you also, even if you’re very disciplined and so on, even as half as high expect expectations for you to learn the language, you’re going to still need to find your own steps along the way. If you really want to put that together and really connect with the language.

interest in learning chinese

Because you feel bad or guilty

I’ve seen two different kinds learners. One is the Chinese heritage learners. Their family insists that they learn it. And in some cases, they don’t even want to, but they feel like they have to. I sympathize with those types of learners, but there’s another guy which is really interesting that I’ve come into contact with maybe once or twice in Shanghai through my business.

And it’s non-Chinese, the foreigners who come to China to live and work in China and they don’t really want to learn Chinese. Like they don’t have a strong interest, but they realize that they “should.” And so they study out of guilt. And so like, that’s the only reason they’re trying to learn Chinese because, well, I’ve lived here for five years.

The “I should learn it” folks are focusing on the absolute worst motivation. Those people make the slowest progress. I support them in their goal of learning Chinese, but

It’s really a good idea to work beyond the guilt and find other things that interest you about the language, people aspects of the culture or whatever, because relaying on guilt as a motivating force is just not going to work.

How to find YOUR reason to learn Chinese

So, John, let’s talk about how to find your purpose, how to find your reason and your motivation to learn Chinese.

Focus on what’s useful

Well remember that a lot of my experience is working with learners here in Shanghai. And so it’s a different situation because they’re in China and they can actually go out and use it. So what we always do with our personalized curriculum here in Shanghai. We find something that they can learn, which ideally immediately after their lesson, they can go and use.

So you don’t study something that you’re not going to use and you do study stuff that you’re going to use immediately. You focus on high-frequency language. Even if it’s not the most exciting thing, if it’s something that, you can immediately use and see the results. That is super motivating.

friends in china
You might feel motivated to learn Chinese so you can make new friends or find a new romantic interest

And by the same token, I’ve found that some people, they come all the way to Shanghai. They’re super pumped about learning Chinese and they just go to some random schools, sign up for a Chinese course, everything seems fine. And they find that after, two or three months or so, their motivation to learn Chinese is really lagging and they blame themselves.

Then they suddenly think “I don’t actually want to learn Chinese anymore. I remember I used to want to, but now there must be something wrong with me. I’m losing interest even though they’re blaming themselves.”

If you just look at their textbook and you’ll see that it’s a horrible, horrible textbook, chapter one, going to the post office, etc. which nobody actually uses stuff like that.

And it’s just a bunch of useless, outdated stuff and they’re just. Spending hours every day learning this stuff, and they’re not learning the stuff that they could actually use in their daily lives, which they would enjoy using. And they would benefit from like, that is a motivation killer. So you have good motivations and then you have ways of killing your motivations that you really need to avoid.

Be mindful of the difficulty level of you’re learning

We talk about comprehensible input and making sure you like what you’re reading at the right level. There are three stages of reading: 1) there’s extensive reading, 2) intensive reading, and 3) reading pain. Something that can kill that motivation to learn Chinese in when you get in that reading pain category and trying to read below 90% comprehension.

chinese language difficulties

Oh man. And I’ve seen this on sometimes polyglot Reddits. Threads people saying, Oh, I’m going to start learning Chinese. And they have like, you know, some classical Chinese book in the dictionary. I’m like, Oh my gosh, you’re not going to get very far. Cause that stuff that’ll, that’ll beat you down.

In a lot of interviews, Chinese learners talk about how they went through really difficult times learning Chinese, or they had a very difficult teacher professor. I’m like, Whoa, how did you get through that? And sometimes people got through just by sheer will, but you gotta remember for any one person who got through that just by sheer will, there’s probably 10 others that just ditched out.

Keep at it

Motivation is actually something that can be cultivated. And I think that’s often forgotten.

So sometimes you find that an initial motivation, something as stupid as you say, I can’t do it. Well, also you, but if you can find other motivations and then cultivate them or bridge to new motivations, It can be really effective. So what do I mean by cultivating motivations? If, uh, maybe realistically speaking, you need Chinese for your future career and you can’t use it at all until it’s advanced, it’s pretty hard to just commit to years and years of study to eventually get fluent enough to use it for your job. Right.

You have to find the aspects of the language that you’re actually interested in that can start working your way up and fluency and proficiency.

To give an example. I have a client, he works in finance for a long time, his Chinese was too low to have any kinds of conversations in the office better than, you know, nihao. So rather than just working for years at finance, he would find stuff that he was interested in and it turned out he was really interested in certain Chinese TV programs. And so he’d focus on that, knowing that it wasn’t directly applicable to his work, but he was making overall progress, and once he got to a certain point, it was much easier to start plugging in a work-related vocabulary and then making the relevant progress towards his career.

Celebrate little wins

chinese wins

Think about maintaining your motivation and finding the motivation to continue on. Have little wins along the way.

At Mandarin Companion, we try to create books that are easy for people to read. And I can’t count the number of emails and comments we have from people that like, Oh, “I read this book and I never thought I could do it!”

And that just became the huge motivation to learn the Chinese continually. That breakthrough moment for a lot of people.

That can be some significant motivation to learn Chinese to continue on, but sometimes it’s that either you finally connect with someone in the language, you got to get out there and you got to use it. Cause that is one of the key things are about finding your motivation.

Ultimately at the end of the day, you’re going to need to use your language in an effective way. And by doing so and connecting either with something written, spoken, audio, visual, whatever that is going to create experiences and moments that are memorable to you and are motivating. To help you continue learning Chinese.

Reward yourself

And it’s not just about wins, but also about rewards. If you’re in a course of study where all you ever get is feedback about what mistakes you’re making, then, uh, yeah, you can make progress, but it’s super de-motivating. And just like someone who’s on a diet occasionally lets them cheat, have a little dessert, you also need rewards.

reward yourself when you make progress in chinese
Boba, party of 1

You need to give yourself something in Chinese, which you legitimately enjoy, in the cleverest way you can. Some way that it’s somehow related to your main goal, but even if it isn’t a Chinese girlfriend, that’s the number one joke. I always says, like it trying to like, you know how to learn Chinese, get a Chinese girlfriend.

Reward yourself with things that you really find interesting that are somehow also related to your ultimate goal. But even if it’s not, it’s better to do something which you enjoy that’s in Chinese and keeps you going then just burning out and quitting.

If your goal is to be able to talk about finance and Chinese, but you really enjoy reading Level Two: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Mandarin Companion then there’s nothing wrong with that. ? Nothing wrong at all. So the point is guys find your motivation and keep finding new things that will motivate you.

Where have you found motivation to learn Chinese?

Those things are going to help you continue to learn a language and advance to higher levels of proficiency. So get out there and do it. You can do it. You can do it guys. There’s no one answer and it’s a very personal thing, but it’s definitely possible.

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