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6/10 Why using all five senses in learning may be a HIDDEN KEY to succeeding in learning Chinese

How many times have you heard people say that the secret to mastering any language is Practice, practice, practice...

And then even more practice.

We hear it so often that we take it for granted that that must be right.

I also agree that practice is important, but in my experience it is not just practice which makes you progress.

Rethinking the concept of practice in language learning

For as many people who successfully practice and become fluent, just as many remain stagnant, year after year at the same level.

I have even seen students spend four years studying abroad at university and still not be fully operational in English.

From the very beginning of the I Learnt Chinese in One Year series How I learnt Chinese in just one year - the ultimate 10-part guide to learning Chinese, getting started, the basics and beyond I knew that more had to be at play than practice and decided to dig deeper and find out what really was at the heart of making progress in a foreign language.

In part 1 I showed you how you could start practicing a Chinese from day 1!

Yes! Day number 1!

At which point all your issues with hearing tones in Chinese will pretty much be a thing of the past.

In part 3 listening came into play again as we analysed in detail what exactly makes a person progress in Chinese ... even when not living in a Chinese speaking country.

And today you are going to see that chances are you still remember what you learnt there!

So if you didn't read part 4 yet, go read it now because you are going to need it for this part now.

And in part 5 we reconsider the concept of challenge: not just the challenge of learning Chinese itself, but the importance of creating an environment of challenge at each step of your learning journey.

I am fully aware in writing this series on learning Chinese that it will be unlike any other you will have read on the subject.

For a start it is considerably longer, so thank you for reading this far!

But as I stated from the outset, my main objective is to help you better understand which language learning methods are the most effective and why so you can discover ways to learn which meet your actual needs and goals.

Simply presenting the standard information is not sufficient to make any impact as it is all things you will have heard time and time again. However in understanding what really goes on the inside when we learn and why certain techniques may be more optimal, that is the information you actually need to make your learning journey a success.

Moving past the four pillars of language learning: reading, writing, speaking and listening

So in giving you secret number #6 Use all your senses you may be thinking I am going to tell you about the four pillars of language learning: reading writing listening and speaking. And tell you how important it is you focus on all four to be successful in mastering a second language.

Because that's what everyone does.

But I think we can move past the obvious. There is no need for me to waste your time telling you to do something you already know!

However, what about if I was to tell you how to do it better? How to listen, read, write and speak a second language more effectively?

And that is what secret number #6 Use all your senses is all about.

Too often in learning things are one directional.

And this is very true in traditional Chinese learning methods.

The teacher says something, the student writes it down.

The teacher asks a question, the student answers it.

The teacher gives an exercise, the students practise it.

Sure, all of that employs reading writing listening and speaking.

So we could clap our hands in applause and say job done.

Mission accomplished.

But how many of you learners are going to wake up the next day and actually spontaneously remember what you wrote down, the questions you answered and the exercises you did?

I would almost put money on the fact that 99% of what you learnt the day before has already disappeared and been forgotten.

Even all those lists of Chinese characters you painstakingly stayed up all night memorising ready for your test the next morning!

One of the reasons for this is it lacks any real form of stimulation.

A second reason is it still represents a passive learning environment, much like being spoonfed.

And thirdly because it doesn't engage you at all levels.

Let's go back for a moment to the exercise I described in part 5.

The one where you unexpectedly learned how to write 1, 2, and 3 in Chinese characters!

I bet you've just whipped a pen and paper out of your pocket just to practice quickly at the recollection or you're already wildly scrolling back up to check your memory has served you well.

And that's wonderful because transfer of knowledge shouldn't just passively transfer knowledge but get you actively involved in the learning even when you didn't expect it or have the slightest intention of learning anything!

That's the magic of learning!

The secret to taking simple exercises in Chinese and elevating them to incorporate the 5 senses

So let's go back to my ridiculously boring little cassette exercise with someone counting from one to ten in Chinese.

In a language class a teacher would probably have played the cassette two or three times and then considered it acquired and moved on to the next exercise.

In adding in the challenge of time stimulation I was able to perfectly memorise and fluently read, write, speak, and hear the Chinese numbers in a very short period of time.

But there was something else I was doing here which I didn't talk about in the previous section.

One of those learning secrets I never tell anyone.

(Today I'm going to reveal it to you!)

Something I call simultaneous learning.

On the surface of what I previously described, I was listening to the speaker on the cassette say the numbers 1 to 10 in Chinese and I was challenging myself to write them at the exact same moment they were being spoken.

Which in itself is already a simple and effective yet very cool exercise.

But I was actually doing much much more.

You see, as I was hearing the number and as I was writing the number, I was also saying the number out loud.

Everything at exactly the same instant.

And this is where the senses and the concept of input comes into play.

Let me explain.

You listen to the recording of the numbers on the cassette.

The input is one time: Through your ears.

You then decide to write the numbers down after you hear them.

Input is again one time: This time through your hands.

Two separate actions one after another.

Now do the two actions completely simultaneously.

By now working simultaneously, you have doubled the input. This is as if you are learning your numbers in two different ways all at the same time.

And that's not all.

Now let's up the stakes.

I add in the challenge to write the Chinese character as I hear it.

Simultaneous input is raised to three:

hearing the numbers through your ears

writing the characters through your hands

seeing the characters through your eyes

This is learning and practice THREE TIMES all at the same time making it possible to learn three times quicker!

Isn't this cool?

And that's only part way there.


Now add in your voice and see what we get:

hearing the numbers spoken on the cassette through your ears

writing the characters through your hands

seeing the characters through your eyes

saying the numbers through your mouth

hearing yourself say the numbers through your ears

All of this all at the same time!

Talk about a bargain deal!

Don't forget, if you have questions, add them to the comments below and I will reply.

And if you would like to experience for yourself this level of learning and this level of reactivity, contact me to set up a custom training session.

You see, learning like this doesn't happen everyday and doesn't happen just like that. It is the product of years of research and testing and fine tuning.

It is also constantly evolving and developing as we learn more and more about how the mind and brain works.

Another angle by which to see the concept of using all five senses in learning is the way that it helps in making the language part of us.

This is incredibly important because when we think about language, in particular our mother language, it is never about words and vocabulary and grammar. Rather it is about life and feeling and emotion and expressing what is on the inside.

By constantly taking in language in an intellectual or theoretical way, that knowledge always remains external to us. It is a key reason why so many of us fail to fully appropriate a second language and make it our own.

And this is even without being fluent.


Bringing all senses into the learning process is a first way to start integrating the language, making it part of us. And while many may feel repeated exercises are boring, by implementing them in this way and insisting on multiplying input simultaneously, all serve to increase that level of familiarity.

This takes the knowledge from being a brief external acquaintance, to almost being a best buddy because we have spent so much time, or rather sometimes a shorter but more intense time, engaging and in each others company.

Using the different senses multiplies the ways we can practice and use the material we are learning without getting bored and feeling like we are just doing the same exercise over and over again.

Another thing to note here, but it is something I will save the detail for a future article of its own, is the fact that using the different senses to learn also stimulates recall of that information through the same format of input. Bookmark this idea because I will give it a whole stage of its own!

We've looked at it here in the context of expanding on a simple listening exercise, however when I was learning Chinese I also expanded it across other areas including reading, writing, learning new verbs and practicing grammar in a lively and spontaneous way.

All added to my Chinese fluency and very quickly I was using what I was learning and using it very spontaneously.

And it can do the same for you!

How would you implement simultaneous learning in your language learning program?


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