When Less is Much More: Essential Mandarin on One Page

I just finished reading Tim Ferris’ latest book, The 4-Hour Chef. It is a strange read in many ways - a 400-page cookbook written by someone who is not a professional chef, and which includes sections on everything from swimming techniques to how to serve crickets.

In the first ten pages, however, I realized that The 4-Hour Chef is not really a cookbook, but a book on how we learn things, using cooking as an example. Intriguing concept.

As I surfed my way through, I bumped into an old friend that has served me well on many a past project – the one-pager.

A one-pager is exactly what it sounds like - a single sheet of paper. One of the most effective ways to learn any large amount of information is to focus on the 20 percent of the information that is most essential for success. If you give yourself just one page to work with, you have to be disciplined and choose only the most important elements.

Another benefit of a one-pager is that it encourages your mind to remember photographically. We all have the ability to do this to one degree or another. When you study from a one-pager, the placement of the information on the page also helps your brain “see” the information as you remember. Sticking to one page allows you to take a mental snapshot of the material that you reinforce every time you study.

I stumbled on this technique in high school and have used it many times. The first three years I studied Spanish it was piecemeal, as is often the case in the classroom. I began to really retain the material, however, when I started to draw out a funny pyramid of boxes that each contained different pieces of language – nouns, verbs, polite phrases, numbers, etc. This created a visual picture of the language, and it seemed to help my brain categorize information in a way it was already familiar with from English.

In college, this technique saved me in Dr. Mahoney’s dreaded history tests. Dr. Mahoney was a fantastic professor, but he was famous for four-question exams, in which a typical question might be, “Explain the importance of the church and science on the political and economic life of Europe from 500 to 1500 A.D., discussing the most important theories and thinkers leading to the Reformation. Question 2…”

Yikes! I took pages and pages of notes in his class. Too many to study efficiently. The only way to absorb the information was to whittle those pages down to the most condensed format possible, with writing so tiny it would have impressed any Celtic monk, and study my one sheet.

The 4-Hour Chef inspired me to renew my acquaintance with my old friend. I tore a single sheet of paper out of a notebook and began to test it out on the Mandarin I have been trying to learn. It was quite inspiring. (You can see some of the results below – if you can read it!)

Aaron Chinese page[1]

First of all, it showed me how much I have already learned, which was very encouraging. I had no idea I had committed that many words to memory. It was like I could see myself advancing through the grammar. It also helped me pick out connections I had never noticed before, like: (forgive the spelling)

bing guan (hotel), fan guan (restaurant), cha guan (tea house) – see the connection?

dian nao – computer, dian hua – telephone, dian ying – movie (the word dian means electric)

After looking at my one-pager only a few times, I can already begin to see the information on the page when I close my eyes, and by writing it out, I notice the logic in the language’s rules.

Try this trick when you need to recall large amounts of information, or when you simply want to speed up your learning of something new! Less is more.

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