A Chinese Revolution in My Mind

China books edited

Hello! How are you doing? Have you had a good week? I am AOK. I discovered something AMAZING this week. Something that could REVOLUTIONISE our attempts to learn foreign languages. Are you excited? I sure am.

It all started when I read this blog post. Which got me on to this interview with Timothy Ferriss, author of best-selling book The 4 Hour Work Week. Which led me to this awesome guy called Gabriel Wyner, author of Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. How amazing is the internet? Very.

Fluent Forever edited

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am usually uber sceptical about American whiz kids like Ferriss and Wyner. My Australian sensibility says ‘Right, so you’re 30 years old, you speak four languages, and you reckon you taught yourself fluent French in 5 months by practicing on the subway.’

Tear that tall poppy DOWN!

BUT. As someone who is about to take on the daunting task of learning Mandarin Chinese  – encouragingly ranked at Level 5: Languages Which Are Exceptionally Difficult for Native English Speakers on this list, along with Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Cantonese – I am open to new ways of doing things. And Gabriel Wyner’s method seems to make SUCH GOOD SENSE.

After reading his website and watching his videos on fluent-forever.com for an afternoon, I was inspired to rush out and buy the book from Readings St Kilda. NO OTHER Readings stores in Melbourne had a copy EXCEPT my local St Kilda store. AND when I got there, the nice lady and I had to search down the back of the shelf where it had FALLEN DOWN and was COVERED IN DUST, hiding there and waiting for me to come in and buy it. I call that fate 🙂

Fluent Forever’s theory in a nutshell:

  1. Learn the sounds of your new language first. If you get the pronunciation right at the very start, you’ll be in a winning position.

I found this example from Wyner’s book fascinating.

In Japanese, the sound we know as ‘R’ sits in between the English ‘R’ and ‘L’. When a group of Japanese adults was tested on the difference between Rock and Lock, the results showed that they could not pick the difference between the two words.

rock photo

lock photo
Rock and lock – definitely not the same thing

This did not improve with continued practice and testing. Even when the ‘R’ was exaggerated to ‘Rrrrrrrrock’, the results weren’t much better. BUT. When the routine was repeated with FEEDBACK, everything changed. If the participants chose ‘Rock’ and they were correct, the computer would go ‘Ding! Correct!’ In three 20-minute sessions of THIS type of practice, receiving positive or negative feedback for each answer, participants were permanently able to hear the difference between ‘R’ and ‘L’.

Isn’t that amazing?

In Chinese, I have great trouble hearing the difference between Chī  吃 – to eat

And  chē 车 – car, vehicle

Can you hear the difference?

I am going to use the above method of ear training, playing pairs of words that sound the same to my ears, but are actually not, and receiving feedback each time. I hope it works. Thanks Gabriel!

  1. Use a Spaced Repetition System, and start by learning the most important vocabulary and grammar first

Who knew that there is a free program called Anki that allows you to create your own digital flashcards with words, pictures and sounds? And then knows how often to show you these cards to embed them in your brain?

You can look up the character for ‘rock’ in Chinese: 石

Copy and paste this photo into your flash card (yes, it’s Wilson’s Promontory): rocks at the prom edited

And use this free website to download a sound file of a native speaker saying the word in Chinese:

Using a list of the most common words, you can create a deck of personalised flash cards with sounds and pictures, and never need to use the English word ‘rock’ in your learning process. Out with translation for good! Apparently even the process of searching through Google Images for a picture that best represents the word to YOU AND ONLY YOU is a BIG PART OF THE PROCESS –  the new foreign word is already worming its way into your brain. I am only half way through Fluent Forever, but I reckon this method is going to be a winner! My recent efforts at learning Chinese, both at university and for a couple of weeks in Shanghai last year, left me frustrated at the number of new words that went into my head only to rush out again within a week. I don’t want that to happen this time. Wish me luck!

Have you tried to learn a language before? What was your experience like? What do you think is the best way to stop yourself forgetting new words?

I would love to know.

xx Iz

Chinese soldier photo credit from here First rock photo credit from here Lock photo credit from here

4 thoughts on “A Chinese Revolution in My Mind

  1. I really liked reading your latest BLOG POST . . . A Chinese Revolution in My Mind

    In answer to your questions:

    Q- HAVE YOU TRIED TO LEARN A LANGUAGE BEFORE?

    At high school, between 1960 and 1963, when I was 13 to 16, you HAD TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE!
    At my school there was one foreign language on offer: French.
    Mr Slazenger ( a Swiss), and Mrs Juravic ( who was French ) were my teachers during these 4 years.

    Q – WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE?

    Nearly all the kids played up in class, it was bedlam, and I just managed to pass my exams.
    I dropped French as soon as I was allowed.

    Q – WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST WAY TO STOP YOURSELF FORGETTING NEW WORDS?

    Practice using the words in different ways and associate the words with images.
    Your brain establishes connections that “stick” by repetition and association.
    55 années plus tard, je comprends toujours un peu le français.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dad 🙂 I am sorry that Mr Slazenger and Mrs Juravic didn’t inspire you to learn French. I agree that in general, most languages are not taught well at school. Even the nice expensive school you sent me to – I only had one good language teacher and she left after a year. I’m impressed you remember even un peu le francais!

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  2. Great post, Isabel! I found this method using modern aids fascinating. My own experience of “becoming fluent” (or feeling more confident using the language) usually comes from having to construct sentences and hearing and doing it over and over until I feel I understand the structure of the language. I usually find individual words not that hard to learn (but admittedly have never tried to learn Mandarin, or Arabic or Korean).I have pictures of the verb groups and noun endings in my head and until you get fluent it is a matter (for me) of needing to “see” that picture and choose the right word. So maybe the structure of the particular language makes a difference to how one learns it? (and its relationship to the structure of one’s mother tongue).

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    1. Yes, repetition is key. And I think the structure of the new language is also important. I read in Fluent Forever that ‘English vocabulary is 28 percent French and 28 percent Latin. As soon as an English speaker learns proper French pronunciation, she already knows thousands of words’. Which is very handy if you are learning French! So in French, if you are trying to find the word ‘elevation’ which is élévation, you just need to know how the pronunciation differs from English. Whereas in Chinese your brain is not going to learn that the word for elevation is 海拔 pronounced ‘haiba’ without first putting that new word in your brain somehow.

      Also interesting in the book was the importance of ‘searching’ your brain for the right word. If you are in a conversation in your new language, and your brain is desperately scanning around to find the word for ‘development’ for example, allow it to do this rather than immediately looking up the word. Apparently this is an important part of the memorisation process. And apparently the widely held fact that children learn faster than adults is not true. Adults just learn differently, and don’t have the luxury that children enjoy, of thousands of hours of free language teaching by adults speaking at them all day long 🙂

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