"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?