"I just know"
"It just feels right"
"I just do it automatically"
Ever had a question answered in that way?
I certainly have.
Many, many times.
You see, I learned French in school, and then lived in France for over fifteen years, even went
to university there. So I am bilingual in the language.
Yet one thing always eluded me.
Can you guess what it is?
Like other romance languages, French follows a system where nouns are either masculine or feminine.
Examples can be:
But for the life of me, apart from some very basic examples, I could never remember which nouns were masculine and which nouns were feminine.
I mean, where was the logic in a chair and a table being feminine and a book and a pencil being masculine?
I could perhaps see the slight irony with cars being feminine and a guys life-long love affair with them! :-)
And then I will never forget how for every assignment I wrote through two Masters degrees in university in Paris, I would spend at least eight to twelve hours just looking up every single noun and highlighting them either salmon coloured for feminine or sky blue for masculine. I wasn't proud of my colour coding, a little too gender specific for my liking, but it was essential for me to then go through my paper and make sure all the grammar structures correlated to those masculine and feminine forms.
Time and again I would ask native French speakers how they could remember which gender each noun was, were there any secrets to remembering, any logic I could apply...
And every single time, almost like a preset recording, they would shrug their shoulders and throw me one of the sentences in the intro.
“I just know”
"It just sounds right"
I mean, how was that supposed to help me?
I felt like I was fighting a losing battle and practically resigned myself to the fact that memorising all the noun genders in French would be my eternal pain point.
(As a side note, if anyone has an amazing technique to learn all the noun genders in French, please let me know!)
Rethinking the concept of intuition in second language learning
And so when it came to learning Chinese, this idea of "just knowing" got me thinking.
Could it in fact be possible to learn a language in a similar way to how we acquire language as children?
Obviously I wasn't looking to use that as an exclusive method of learning Chinese, but could there be elements I could use that would also bring my Chinese to a level where I could also say, "Well it just sounds right"?
How would it be possible to bring intuition into the learning process itself of learning a second language?
And this is what I set out to discover in my challenge to learn Chinese in just one year.
What was key for me was the fact I was learning Chinese completely from scratch.
I had no bad habits to unlearn, and considering for at least 90% of the process I was self-taught, I also could control exactly what I was taking in and how I was processing it.
I wanted to learnt Chinese efficiently right from the very beginning.
But note, that the same techniques can work for you even if you are approaching learning a second language after already learning it for many years. In fact, you could even use them to unlearn some of your acquired bad habits!
The initial foundation to building intuition into Chinese language learning
Intuition is not something that automatically pops up into learning. There needs to be an element of design and a solid foundation needs to be laid in preparation.
These were the specific steps I laid as an initial foundation to building intuition into my Chinese language learning programme:
My first challenge was to overcome the notion that Chinese was a very difficult language to learn. If you see the language you are learning as difficult, go check out this link.
My second challenge was to get my ears used to the sounds and phonetics of the Chinese language. How are your listening skills? Regardless of your level, and whatever the language you are learning, this technique can definitely help you make progress.
My third challenge was to create a learning environment identical to what I would find if I had had the opportunity to learn Chinese in China or Taiwan. This is something you can do too, so find out how here.
My fourth challenge was to start learning the Chinese characters - without the pinyin! Totally a challenge, but definitely one of those cases where that initial bit of extra difficulty makes things much much easier in the long run!
My fifth challenge was to relook at the concept of challenge in learning as a form of motivation. Challenge needs to form a key component of any effective learning programme.
My sixth challenge was to bring in all the senses to optimize learning input and maximise learning output! The more you use the senses to learn a language, the greater the chances that language becomes part of you rather than always being external, always remaining that elusive second language.
My eighth challenge was to increase my memory and find ways to learn vocabulary without memorising a single word. Yes, it's all about developing that ability to naturally absorb language rather than always feel you are forcing it in!
And so already, with all of that, I was making good progress in achieving my goal.
But I wanted to step it up a level.
Taking a second language from something we HAVE to something we ARE
You see, too often in learning a second language, that language remains a second language.
Something we have, but never something we are.
Obvious, you may say.
But I say, why should it have to be like that?
Why should we content ourselves with that feeling of never mastering a second language?
That feeling of the words always feeling foreign and external to us?
That feeling that we are not in control of what we want to say because we can never find the exact words to express our meaning?
That feeling we may be able to express sense but never express feeling or emotion?
I mean, when was the last time you truly got angry and fully let it out in a second language?
Understand what I'm talking about?
Are you ready to move past that and take your language skills to the next level?
The truth is, each of the above techniques laid the foundation for what I did next.
TECHNIQUE ONE: Opening your mind to accepting the second language exactly as it is
You see, in rethinking the concept of difficulty in learning, not only was I putting the notion of difficulty to one side, I was also opening my mind to accepting the Chinese language as it was.
This is incredibly important because too often in second language learning we seek to find identity with our first language, the most common way being to always look for equivalent expressions and grammatical structures in our first language followed by always translating word for word when we try to speak.
In trying to find identity we seek to find something familiar, something which makes sense.
And in doing that we often start by translating word-for-word. Because it feels right according to our first language.
The trouble is when we approach learning a second language in this way, we invariably make lots of mistakes and have incredible difficulty making ourselves understood. And that frustration naturally leads us to conclude, yes, learning this language is very difficult!
Simply put, we are setting ourselves up for difficulty.
Contrast this with an alternative approach.
Like I said before, first we need to set the notion of difficulty to one side. And second we need to open our mind to accepting the second language exactly how it is.
So when it came to learning Chinese, I actually did not translate anything word for word.
If I learnt a new word or expression or grammatical structure in Chinese, I only ever gave myself a very approximate sense of what it might mean. Because I knew over time I would build on and add to this depth of meaning.
I didn't look for any notion of logic in relation to my first language, but rather built any notion of logic directly within the Chinese language itself.
TECHNIQUE TWO: Become familiar with intonations, feelings and emotions in the second language
Second to this, I created a context where I was listening to Chinese pretty much every single day.
Not only did this recreate an identical environment to what I would have had if I had learnt Chinese in China or Taiwan, it also created a platform to quickly open my ears to the sounds and phonetics of the Chinese language.
But that was not all.
In hearing Chinese every day, in becoming familiar with the sounds and phonetics, I was also becoming familiar with expressions and grammatical structures and all the intonations and feelings and emotions which accompany them.
Sure, I may not have been tone perfect, but when you have that intonation, feeling and emotion down to a tee, people actually understand you significantly more easily and engage with you so much more readily than if I was repeating everything tone perfect but devoid of the slightest ounce of feeling and emotion, you know, that style we often relate to robots!
I also add to this, that in choosing your source of listening material, please, and I'm asking you this in my nicest voice :) please, go beyond the realm of just listening to the news. Also, go beyond the world of just watching films.
Make sure you are watching real people do and talk about doing real things, showing and expressing their daily range of emotion: excitement, sadness, frustration, boredom, fear, happiness, the list can go on and on.
TECHNIQUE THREE: Never underestimate the power of familiarity in learning a second language
I have always maintained, and I still do, that when it comes to speaking a second language learning, it is always significantly easier to repeat something you have heard rather than something you have seen.
And multiply into this the fact that by listening every single day, you will have heard things many, many times over.
Now if any of you have ever read about or studied the theories of indoctrination or subliminal advertising, you will know that the simple act of hearing the same message over and over again grows familiarity and with it a sense of safety and acceptance, often regardless of the severity or extremeness of the message itself.
You see a same advertisement over and over again, probability is if you are in the store choosing between two products, you will go for the one you have seen in the advertisement.
And if asked why, your answer is most likely be, "It just feels right".
Which takes us exactly back to the opening words of this article!
Because this is exactly the level we want to reach in our second language acquisition journey.
So while my motivation in exposing myself to hear Chinese every single day may primarily have been to open my ears to the language, it actually opened up the possibility to do much much more and gain a real sense of subconscious familiarity with the language.
How cool is that?
And that is only warming up!
TECHNIQUE FOUR: Create a visual sense of logic directly within the Chinese characters
In challenging myself to learn the Chinese characters without the pinyin, this is where I fully detached the two languages. The very beginning was not easy since I had absolutely nothing to relate the characters to, but within a very short time, this initial difficulty vanished.
By creating a sense of logic within the characters themselves, observing similarities, starting to understand how words were constructed, I was soon able to start growing my knowledge, something impossible if you are following more traditional learning methods and being forced to mindlessly memorise lists of characters day after day.
Here is one great way I did this:
Everyday I would take between five and twenty minutes to "read" one paragraph of Chinese text. My objective was never to understand but rather to absorb the language. And to do this I would take a pen and first underline all the characters I recognised. Then as time progressed I would use different colours to section off which characters were verbs, which characters made up nouns. This in turn soon grew into identifying grammatical structures and even expressions.
What is key here is that within even a few weeks it was possible to do this even without understanding or formally learning many of the characters. Instead of focusing on looking up every word and trying to understand everything, each day I would only allow myself to look up five to ten words or characters. Although this may come across as self-limiting, it actually had the very opposite effect.
First it completely removed the pressure to understand everything.
Second, it redirected my attention always towards what I knew instead of fixating on what I didn't know.
Third, because I had a limit, I would carefully select which words I wanted to look up, and invariably this choice would be given to the words which I was seeing time and again.
Not only did this mean I was learning the most frequent words in the Chinese language, I was also developing a visual sense of how the language was constructed, identifying patterns and grammatical structures before even learning them in a more formal context.
And this is where that sense of instinct in language learning started to develop, both visually and auditorily. A subconscious level of learning where things started to sound right and things started to look right, uniquely developed within the language itself.
In addition, the advantage of working intuitively, of developing our intuition in language learning over taking the short cut of memorising ready made frequency lists, is not much different to going through the process of learning to cook from scratch and going to the market to pick your vegetables in contrast to picking up a jar of ready made sauce at the store to stir through your pasta.
Sure, we all have moments when we might reach for a jar of sauce, there's nothing wrong with that, but remember, while it may serve an immediate need to eat something, it will not do much to add to our long-term understanding and and in-depth knowledge of cooking, food, nutrition and how everything works together.
And it is exactly the same with language.
TECHNIQUE FIVE: Build an innate desire to keep learning even at your busiest moments
My fifth challenge to relook at the concept of challenge in learning as a form of motivation played directly into this because with each of these exercises, I was creating a learning environment of challenge and building up that innate desire to keep learning even when I was at my busiest moments.
The whole concept of motivation is the surprise I'm saving for you for part ten of this series (it's a good one so don't miss it) but in creating challenge we create motivation and this is key in pushing us past those moments of intense difficulty.
Through challenge we create that context where we want to keep learning more and more and more, not only pushing ourselves that little bit higher but also taking our focus away from that nonstop cycle or feeling of failure to a sense of achievement and an intense desire to succeed.
We will no longer be learning because we have to but rather because we want to, and in switching our focus to learning this way, the way we absorb and process knowledge also changes, going from knowledge which remains external, something we have, to something internal, something we are.
In my previous exercise, at the end of the paragraph I chose each day I would make a quick tally of how may characters there were and how many characters I had recognised.
Within just a few months, this number was at around 70, 80, and on good days, even 90%. Just seeing the numbers go up each day made me want to push further. That daily sense of achievement pushed me to challenge myself even more.
It is important to remember, and this is something I will talk about more in depth in future articles and podcasts, that just as listening is not just a question of understanding, reading too is not just a question of comprehension.
We often forget how we learnt things as children and expect ourselves to jump into a new language at the same level as our first language. And reading is no exception. As children, we had to start from the very beginning learning our ABC'c, then our groups of sounds followed by our basic words, average words, bigger words. In fact, many times we were able to read without actually understanding what we were reading, and this is because that stage of recognition always comes before comprehension and understanding.
And so challenging myself day-by-day to build my recognition of characters, I was pretty stoked to see how quickly I progressed. And really, there was no need to worry about comprehension, because I knew that as my vocabulary progressed, my reading comprehension would naturally follow.
Which is exactly what it did.
And the same can be true for you.
TECHNIQUE SIX: Use your senses in second language learning to create pathways you will automatically revisit every single day
In bringing in all the senses to optimize learning input to maximise learning output, I learnt how to truly internalise knowledge.
Too often in language learning knowledge remains external and connected through a simple translation to its counterpart in our first language. To access it we need to go through our first language.
And the main reason for this being down to the way we learnt it in the first place.
Analyse for a moment how children learn their first language.
How you also learnt your first language as a child.
How your children learnt their first language.
Think about it.
The first words a baby speaks are most often the words around him and her.
And gradually as more items are brought into the world of the child, his or her vocabulary increases.
But it is always the words he or she is in contact with first on a sensory level that he or she starts using first.
If you want to learn more about this, go check out the amazing Ted talk by researcher Deb Roy The Birth of a Word where he wired up his house and recorded everything for the first three years of his child's life to study in detail how a child acquires language.
By getting out there and getting our hands dirty metaphorically speaking, not only do we use our senses, but we create pathways directly through them to the the new words we are learning.
This means when we automatically revisit those pathways through our day to day activities, very often you will find the language you learnt through those pathways naturally reappearing in your mind, even unwittedly coming out of your mouth.
So the more you use the senses to learn a language, the greater the chances that language becomes part of you rather than always being external, always that second language. The more quickly it becomes part of your everyday, and that without even having to think about it.
Pretty magical, heh?
TECHNIQUE SEVEN: Build up linguistic flexibility at all levels
I'm definitely not someone who likes to waste time. I don't mind taking time, I just like to always be sure I am making the best use of that time and getting the best results possible.
What do I mean by that?
Many times in second language learning we will learn things through memorisation, be it word lists, flash cards, post-it notes, recopying or something similar.
In a classroom setting this may be accompanied by a few role play exercises and followed by a test to check acquisition. And if you pass the test you consider the knowledge 'acquired', end of story.
However, if you read my article 7/10 A handful of seeds or a forest of trees? A KEY secret to quickly gaining fluency in Chinese or listen to my podcast One tiny seed, One giant tree: The secret to building your knowledge, the secret to making it grow you will discover that for knowledge to take real value, you need to create connection, because in creating connection you give knowledge sense, you give it a distinct place instead of constantly learning things in a relatively abstract and isolated way.
This learning technique on its own is already very powerful, as it creates strong, easily usable connections. However, creating connections is like creating pathways and regardless of how great an initial pathway we make is, over time if we do not step foot on it, then soon enough it will get overgrown and disappear from existence.
So in creating flexibility, we need to be talking not just creating great pathways, we need to be talking usability at a level which leaves role plays and end of week test completely in the dust.
And one ultra simple technique I used was real life reenactment ... but in my head!
What do I mean by that?
Let me give you a personal story.
While I was learning Chinese in a year I was also living in Paris. And part of my day-to-day life revolved around taking public transport. I didn't have a lot of time to learn so I wanted to maximise the time I did have.
So every time I got on a bus or took a metro, I would look around me and imagine having simple conversations with the people around me using the scenarios I would have recently learnt in my Chinese textbook.
And I remember this one day I learnt the expression in Chinese 小朋友 along with the expression 可爱, the first frequently used to address little kids and literally means little friend and the second being the term for cute.
So every time I was on public transport and I saw a little kid I would think in my head 啊小朋友，你很可爱 oh little friend, you're so cute.
Then I would vary things with, for example, imagining myself addressing the parents and saying oh your child is really cute