How Learning Chinese Is Making Me Less of an Ideologue – Opting Out


The problem is this: When we encounter an appealing new way of thinking about the world, it can easily morph into a possession. Eventually as we learn more about this way of thinking, we can’t help but apply it to multiple things in the world. If we carry on doing this without variation, it becomes the only way in which we can interpret the world.

This is when the interpretive lens takes the wheel, and produces everyone’s least favourite Facebook friend, a bolshy bore who hijacks every discussion with their nonsense.

It’s really easy to see when this has happened in other people. It’s present in kinds of Christian fundamentalists, the “woke” liberal social justice crowd, internet Marxists, and of course, libertarians. And there’s an argument to be made that everybody’s getting worse.

I see it in myself, particularly when I was younger. Even though I’m presenting this as “advice” to a certain kind of person I encounter on the internet, as Zen Master Doshin Roshi says, everything is projection. I wouldn’t be able to elucidate this if everything I’m saying wasn’t also in at least some small way present in me.

There’s lots of arguments against being an ideologue, but I think the most persuasive is that it makes you an unlikeable person. People who don’t share your interpretative lens are first of all baffled by you, and become careful around you. You don’t encourage earnestness when everything is about your thing.

In the end, the only people who can tolerate you are people who are as possessed as you. And even they don’t like you. A true friend is about authenticity, trust and ultimately love. Ideological comrades’ relationships are brittle: The minute one strays from the party line, the other is down their throat. They’d better nip it in the bud lets they’re ostracized.

If you try to talk to ideologically possessed people, you notice things. First of all, everything is about their ideology. Disagreement on sports will be taken as an indication that you’re problematic in some other area. There’s no room for honest preference.

Secondly, if you’re not part of their group, they find your positions inherently preposterous. Even if your point of view is widely accepted by most experts in the field, is fairly reasonable, adheres to common sense, et cetera, the take is interpreted by the ideologue as not just incorrect, but ridiculous.

To the internet Marxist, for example, there is no such thing as “an easy mistake to make.” There’s no room for someone saying, “I didn’t get it before, but now I see what you’re saying. Thanks for helping me understand.” If you’re not an internet Marxist, you are an enemy. You are, at the very least, a useful idiot for capital.

In the end, you realise you can’t actually have a conversation with them. A conversation requires a presumption of the shared goal of mutual understanding. Ideologues don’t perceive that that is possible.

The Multi-Pronged Approach to Learning a Language

So we don’t want to be an ideologue, but it’s an easy thing to fall into. How do we stop it from happening?

This whole idea came to me as I was reading an article by Hugh Grigg about redundancy in language learning (I’m learning Chinese). Bear in mind, this is purely about memory and building up passive vocabulary, not becoming less of an ideologue, but I’m getting there, don’t worry.

He draws on Wozniak’s “Effective learning: 20 steps to formulating knowledge“, emphasizing the need to be redundant in your learning, exposing yourself to the content over and over again. But it doesn’t mean sitting there looking at and repeating the word for “umbrella” for an hour. You need to attack it from multiple directions.

This is because when you encounter knowledge in more than one context, you are exposing greater meaning. In order for any word to be useful to you it has to be meaningful. It just so happens that meaning also helps you remember.

Of all the various proposed methods of vocabulary learning, bearing in mind that I am just a beginner, I am most persuaded by the idea of Comprehensible Input, popularized most fiercely by linguist Stephen Krashen. He is an advocate of free voluntary reading of compelling content as far and away the best way to improve literacy in any language, and general learning.

Using this method, I have found my progress in Chinese improve massively. I believe the reason is precisely because it helps reinforce meaning. Reading a lot helps you encounter the word multiple times, but in different contexts. Divorced of context, words mean very little. But in multiple different contexts, you see how the words relate to ideas, people, stories and other words.

Part of this is because it ties to your emotional states (another one of Wozniak’s steps) and it creates a story around your word. You may remember the word “umbrella” because of, for example, a particularly memorable story about someone smashing an umbrella to bits because it collapsed during a rainstorm.

Another means of input to create meaning is to create some kind of visual trigger. One aspect of Chinese characters that oddly isn’t maddening is that, unlike the phonetic Latin alphabet, the imagery of the characters are meant to be meaningful.

Sometimes if I’m struggling to remember a character that I know I have seen multiple times, I try to tie the character’s appearance into its real meaning. For example, the character for “morning” is

(zao / zăo)

For phonetic language people uninitiated with pictographic languages, this probably just looks like a bunch of lines. The way I remember this character is imagining it’s a person getting up in the morning and stretching their arms out with an enormous yawn.

Then there’s the sound. With this one I have to admit I can’t help but remember the sound because I happened to watch a video about proper Chinese greetings in which it played an integral part.

In the video, the hosts talk about how natives actually greet each other in real life, rather than what is taught in schools. One example is how to say “Good morning.” The “official” way is to say “zao an,” but it turns out nobody actually says this. They are much more likely when coming into the office to just say “zao.”

I’ll always remember it for the amusing way in which the video participants imitate the way natives say “zao,” with a comically exaggerated concave tone. I will now never forget that word.

So to recap: We have meaning created through lots of reading, through story, through imagery and through sound. What we’re doing here is a multi-pronged approach. Use whatever metaphor you want: death by a thousand cuts, sitting in every seat in the Globe Theatre. The point is, looking at the same thing from multiple different angles will help you understand and remember more.

In contradistinction to the Comprehensible Input + Multiple Context Redundancy method, the Ideological Method has a solitary hammer, and is hammering the same nails ad infinitum. Ideologues perceive they have found the One True Theory of Everything, and interpret everything through that One True Theory. They neither try to at least empathize with other interpretative lenses, nor seek other contexts.

Now is a good time to say that that doesn’t mean that ideologues cannot be right about some things. A broken fishing net, after sufficient time swiping away, will catch some fish. You’re not short of ideologues pointing to things that they are right about to defend their entire worldview.

An ideology is one lens through which you might be able to perceive at least some truth, but no guarantee of all truths.

It’s also a mistake to confuse ideological with principled. You can have principles without having all the insufferable personal elements as described at the beginning of this article

Let’s switch back to language learning quickly. The character 对, on its own, and in most contexts, means “correct” or “yes.” So when I eventually encountered 对 in seemingly random places within sentences, I kept wondering why Chinese people had a penchant for saying “correct” at inappropriate times as if they have Tourette’s.

Obviously I was missing something. I jumped on Google, and found the blog by the aforementioned Grigg. I discovered that the same character can also mean “with,” as in, “I spoke with my teacher.”

Heavens, that was a lightbulb moment. Not only did I now understand those sentences, it allowed me to understand the character with a greater level of depth than I did before. Now I’m thinking about “with” in connection with “correct,” bringing things together, making the previously one-dimensional subject a beautiful prism.

Kind of like what we’re trying to do here. Isn’t the point of all this ideology business to make the world easier to understand? Surely part of that means bringing things together rather than isolating oneself in a box. Get out of the box, climb a tree and look at the whole street.

Don’t just look at things from one point of view.

Some practical applications:

Read. Henry Hazlitt in Thinking as a Science lays out a whole program for understanding some subject with which you are little acquainted. Read a lot, but deliberately. Read lots of books on the same subject, but from slightly different angles.

You will encounter familiar material but in a different context that will add dimensions and meaning. You will not only remember more, but your worldview will be that little more subtle.

Read people you disagree with. Even if every word infuriates you, it’s better that you know people are out there that have these views. You then can’t help but empathize with them.

Have other interests. There will be something in your life that doesn’t revolve around your pet ideology. Hang out with them in real life. Get to know them.

Talk about the ideas with people not of your generation. If you hang around with elderly people for any length of time, you will be amazed. They seem to live in an entirely different world that you, apart from the fact that you’re sitting there next to them. They have fundamentally different values, and are therefore looking for, and will perceive, different things.

Oh, and learn another language. Foreign languages make you more clever, because they offer you a whole new means of expressing things that you didn’t know were possible. It also naturally exposes you to another culture and the way they think. Can’t be bad.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.