Don’t underestimate yourself – stop TRYING to learn and LET your brain do the work

The first part of the title of this post was inspired by one of Steve’s recent blog posts entitled Do language teachers underestimate their students?, and the second part by the essay Learning Languages Like Children which can be found in the archives.

In the same way that many (language) teachers underestimate the abilities and motivation of their students (I can attest to what Steve wrote about from many a discussion in the teacher’s lounge), it seems to me that many learners underestimate the power of their brain and its ability to acquire languages, which in reality are nothing more than highly complicated, audible patterns which your brain is predisposed to acquire.

Dialogues. In my opinion, dialogues constitute the most powerful content for language acquisition, because dialogue is the purpose of all communication and I think our brains respond best to dialogue. All forms of communication (remember that ”communicate” literally means ”to make common/public”, that is, to transmit something to other people), whether spoken or written, have as their objective the transmission of information. That is the origin of language. Why did humans start speaking, except to be able to communicate with their common (wo)man;)? Dialogue. Even poetry, scientific essays and blogs have as their objective to impart some information upon others, to which those individuals could then respond (albeit not in real time). Dialogue. The difference is that spoken dialogues between two individuals in real time is the ‘root form’ of communication and, I think, the one our brains most powerfully respond to (and, for that matter, are able to remember).

The reason our brains so effectively understand and remember dialogues is that they follow a certain progression, a pattern, and they are steeped in context. Context is very important because our brains remember best using what is called ”episodic memory”, that is, memory of episodes, stories or situations. World memory champions (like Dominic O’Brien , for example) use this memory to remember strings of thousands of words and/or numbers, among other things, by creating a story about the words they are trying to remember. That is not to say that you should try to memorize words – in fact, you should never try to ”memorize” anything about the language you’re acquiring, though there’s nothing wrong with memorizing in the language you’re learning. That is to say, once you’ve reached an upper intermediate/advanced level in the language, at which point you not only start acquiring the language through itself (rather than through the conduit of your native language), but also new information about the world, at that point it’s OK to memorize, in the same way that memorization in your native language is an important skill to have to learn new things in school.

People always talk about how ‘difficult’ certain languages are. The entire idea of ”easy” vs. ”difficult” comes from the idea that languages have to be learned (or memorized) and not acquired. From this point of view, the more different the grammar and vocabulary of a language is from those of your own, the more ”difficult” the language is, that is, the more you have to ‘learn’. In reality, this difference only equates to an increase in the amount of time it takes to acquirethe language, which approaches the amount of time it would take a child to acquire a language from scratch, that is, going from knowing nothing. The difference is that adults can acquire faster than children, even if their native language shares nothing in common with the language their acquiring, because adults already have worldy knowledge, that is, they already know the concepts, they just have to associate them with new words (although, of course, it’s not always that simple, as most things cannot be translate 1-to-1, and even if when they can, the connotations are different – confer ) So for me, I don’t look at Mandarin as being a difficult language to acquire, I simply look at it as one that will be more time-consuming than, let’s say, German or Spanish have been, because there are almost no words that are similar in English and Mandarin, whereas there are hundreds or even thousands in English and German or English and Spanish.

So how do you ‘acquire’ a language instead of ‘learning’ it? For that matter, why ‘acquire’ and not ‘learn’? For one simple reason – ‘learning’ is contrived (you have to try to do it), ‘acquisition’ is natural (you let it happen/it happens on its own). When a word or phrase is learned/memorized, you deliberately create a mental path for that item – when you want to access it later, you have to ‘retrace your footsteps’ to do so. This is (and, more importantly, will SOUND) contrived, and will probably always sound that way, even when you get better in the language and the item becomes automatic. When you ‘acquire’ a word or phrase, that is, by hearing and understanding it in context (through ‘language episodes’) many times without trying to learn it, the mental path is created for you, and later access is only a feeling away, rather than through deliberate thought. Think of the many words you had to memorize in English/Spanish/French/etc. in school, especially if since then you’ve done lots of natural listening and now speak the language fluently – do you still have difficulty thinking of/pronouncing the words you ‘learned’? Which words are easier to remember and give you a more powerful feeling of emotion and fluency – the words you ‘learned’ in school, or the words you ‘acquired’ by watching television/listening to interesting audio content/experiencing the language in some real world situation? I speak German fluently and I still occasionally have problems with the words and phrases I ‘learned’ in school, whereas I don’t even have to think about the things I learned while just conversing with my friends or watching T.V. in Germany. Another example – my ex-girlfriend from Estonia speaks very fluent English with very little accent (mostly from watching English T.V. and movies, as they’re not dubbed in Estonia, and listening to English songs), but she still has trouble with the most basic words and phrases, the ones she remembers being forced to ‘learn’ in school.
So why this trend towards contrived ‘learning’ instead of natural ‘acquisition’? In short, watch this video and read this article
Finally, which do you speak more naturally/fluently – your acquired native tongue, or the language you learned in school? When you speak your native tongue, do you have to think about it a lot, or does it just happen? Consider this – when you read a book in your native tongue, do you think you learned most of the words on any page, or did you just acquire them by listening and later learn to read them? The latter is true, of course.
And the most important question for this blog, what does this all amount to for acquiring Mandarin? It means that to acquire Mandarin you’re going to have to spend a lot of time just listening to the language in natural contexts (with reading in pinyin as a necessary aid – I talked about listening versus reading proportions in the post previous to this). But that’s OK, because you’ve fallen in love with Mandarin and you look forward to listening to and reading the same interesting content in Mandarin that you would in your native language. But until you get to the point where you can do that, you need interesting beginner and intermediate content (preferably dialogues) to listen to and read. And that’s where ChinesePod comes in. As this blog post is already quite long, I’ll give you simple instructions for starting out in Mandarin, and go into more detail for beginners and intermediate learners in the next post:

***Modified on Friday, May 27th, 2011 to reflect the fact that is no longer free to use.

1st Day
Register for a free account on or, and download all of the DIALOGUES for the Elementary (CSLPod)/ Absolute Beginner (ChineseClass101) level. All together you should have a few hours of interesting dialogues entirely in Mandarin (no English content).
Import the tracks into iTunes. Right click on each one of the tracks and go to Properties ->Lyrics, then paste the English translation into the box.
***On CSLPod the translations are listed next to the lessons (use the above link), on ChineseClass101 they are in the Lesson Notes as in here
Once you’ve done this you can listen to the dialogues while reading the translation in English which shows up in the Media Window in Windows Media Player automatically or in iTunes if you download this plugin
Try to listen to and read all of them in one day (It’s OK if you can’t listen to it all at once – you can split it up into multiple listenings over the course one or two days, but try to listen to an hour a day). Don’t try to learn/memorize/remember anything. Just listen to the Mandarin, read the English translation and try to visualize the the setting and characters (the ‘story/episode’) in each dialogue.
2nd Day
Do the same thing the 2nd day – listen to the Mandarin, read the translation and visualize. Done.
3rd Day
Continue doing the same thing on the third day, but now turn on shuffle to mix up the order of the tracks and occasionally look at the pinyin in addition to the translation.
4th Day
On the fourth day you’re going to try to listen to Mandarin without reading the translation for the first time – just play the playlist and sit back to listen. Although you’ll have listened to, read and visualized each of the more than 300 dialogues only 3 times, you’ll find that you already understand most of the dialogues (by ‘understand’ I mean you’ll remember what’s going on in the dialogue [the story/episode], NOT THAT you’ll understand the individual words). Do not worry about the words you don’t understand. If you feel like looking at the translation to check if you understood correctly, go ahead.
5th Day
Same as 3rd day, and pay special attention to the dialogues you did not completely understand on the 4th Day. VISUALIZE.
6th Day
Same as 4th Day but this time turn on ‘shuffle’.
7th and last Day
Same as the 5th and 3rd Day
Don’t underestimate yourself – once you’ve done all this (it may take you longer than 7 days if you can’t spare 2 hours each day, though I recommend doing it as above for maximum intensity/effectiveness), you will already understand hundreds of Mandarin words in context, after only one week. By then you’ll be ready to start listening to the Beginner dialogues on ChineseClass101 and the Intermediate dialogues on CSLPod – while reading the translation of course. You can also lesson to the radio shows on ChineseClass101 for the Beginner and Intermediate levels if you feel like it – they contain too much English content for my taste, but if your native language isn’t English, then these could help you to improve both your English and Mandarin.

For my step-by-step method for getting the most out of each lesson, refer to

P.S. – It took me a long time to write this post because it sat in my Gmail Outbox as a ‘brouillon’ for a long time. Why? Because I’m a perfectionist and I have lots to write about and not enough time to write about it. Although perfectionism has its advantages, it usually just ends up being counterproductive in my case. For more on the subject, confer this article
I look forward to your comments and questions, and thanks for reading!

How to read

This is an excerpt from a great article from copyblogger, a blog from a writer on better writing:

Scanners and Pleasure Seekers

We know that people don’t read well online. They ruthlessly scan for interesting chunks of information rather than digesting the whole, and they want to be entertained in the process. This is the reality that online publishers deal with, so we disguise our nuggets of wisdom with friendly formatting and clever analogies.

But that doesn’t mean you should read that way.

If you’ve been publishing online for even a small amount of time, you’ve seen someone leave a comment that clearly demonstrates they didn’t read or understand the content. Even more painful is when someone writes a responsive post that clearly misses the entire point of the original article.

While it happens to us all from time to time, you do not want to consistently be one of these people. Credibility is hard enough to establish without routinely demonstrating that you fail to grasp a topic you’ve chosen to write about, whether in an article or a comment.

Plus, if you’re doing nothing but scanning hundreds of RSS feeds and reading purely to be entertained, you’re at a disadvantage. Someone in your niche or industry is likely reading books and reading deeper to become the higher authority.

Or they will after they read this article.

You can read the rest of the article here:

Metaphor, simile, and analogy – What’s the difference?

Here are some tips on how to differentiate between these seemingly very similar concepts:’s-the-difference/

Both sites are also worth checking out for the tips they give on writing in general.

Fado and the Portuguese concept of ‘saudade’

Portuguese has a concept known as ‘saudade’ which, so I’ve been told, cannot be properly translated into English without lengthy explanation. This sentiment is often expressed in a music genre particular to Portugal called Fado (pronounced /’fadu/), which you can read about here

One of the most famous Fado singers is Mariza, one of whose most famous songs, called ‘Ó Gente da Minha Terra’, can be read and listened to here

If you know Spanish, Italian or French you should be able to understand at least some of the song reading. I first heard Mariza’s music in a city tour bus when I was in Oporto in spring of 2008, and I was blown away. As the title of the YouTube video suggests, ‘Fabuloso e Arrepiante!’

Listening from different ‘angles’ to raise your awareness

***Modified on Friday, May 27, 2011 to reflect new resources

To maximize your learning when interacting with any given text (referring to both the audio and the script), it’s important to listen to and read it a number of times, paying attention to different aspects of it each time.

To this end, when I listen to a dialogue from CSLPod, ChineseClass101, ChinesePOD, ChineseLearnOnline, or LingQ, I adhere to the following sequence:

1) I listen to the dialogue without reading to attune my brain to the text aurally first.

2) I listen to the text while reading along in English

3) I listen to the text while reading the pinyin and occasionally looking at the English translation

4) I listen to the text while only looking at the words in the vocabulary list

5) I listen to the text again without reading

6) *I repeat any of the above steps as necessary, time and interest permitting

Because the dialogues, as opposed to the full-length lessons, are relatively short in length (even at upper levels, depending on the site), you can do all of these steps in relatively little time. When you want to listen for a long time and simply expose yourself to a lot of vocab, you just load up your media player with a few hundred dialogues and listen without repeating while reading the English and pinyin script, which you can paste from the lesson notes on the website you’re using into iTunes (refer to

Once you’ve added the lyrics to the audio lessons, you can also view the lyrics on any Apple device (iPod, iPhone, iPad, iDon’tKnow) automatically, or on Android devices using Astro Player.

By following the above steps, you give your brain the chance to interact with the text from many different ‘angles’, thus greatly improving the learning experience.

The first three to four months – my Mandarin-learning methods and how they’ve evolved

My methods have changed quite a bit since I started learning Mandarin in September, and if I had known then what I know now I would’ve learned a lot more in the last three months, and had an easier time doing it. However, as always, I consider such experiences to be necessary for becoming a better a language learner, and I do not regret them, as they empower me with knowledge that I can use to help others avoid the same ‘hardships’.

When I first started out with Mandarin, I had full intentions of learning the spoken and written languages at the same time. Or better said, I thought my ability to learn the spoken language was dependent upon my ability to read it, because text is what allows you to ‘access’ the meaning of audio recordings and learn words and phrases. To clarify, this means that I usually adhere to the following learning sequence on LingQ

1) I choose a new text on LingQ and listen to it once or twice without reading. I may or may not understand any of what I hear, but even if I don’t, I still get a feel for the text.
2) I listen to and read the text once through without worrying about what I don’t understand.
3) I listen to and read the text again, pausing the audio to LingQ words and phrases. I almost never read without listening, even at more advanced levels.
4) I listen to the text many times, trying to understand more than I did in step 1 and listening out for my saved word and phrases. 

The number of times I listen depends on my interest, the difficulty of the text, and the amount of time I have on any day. If I don’t understand 80% of the text, I go back and read and listen, then listen again without reading. I do this as many times as is needed to understand as much as possible of the text without reading, time permitting. After this intensive interaction with the text, I put it on my mp3 player and listen to it (sometimes actively, sometimes in the background) whenever I get the chance as many times as I can until I get bored with it. As long as the amount of listening I do far outweighs the amount of reading (L 90% / R 10%), my pronunciation will not suffer, as my brain is acquiring the spoken language and not what it thinks the written language sounds like.

The problem with this approach when applied to the learning of Chinese, however, is that if you don’t know the characters, your brain has no frame of reference for remembering the progression of the text and picking out individual words and phrases when reading. And this was the problem I was faced with when I tried to start learning Chinese in September on LingQ – although I could look up each individual word and see the meaning and transliteration, I had no way to see the language at the sentence level and to then isolate individual words. I knew exactly what I needed to start out though, as I had seen it in Spain at a book fair before I came back to the States – an audio book with short, transliterated dialogues and vocabulary lists on the side (this was before I knew about I knew that with such a resource I would quickly be able to learn to understand a lot of words and phrases in the context of dialogues without having to look up lots of words or know the characters. The book was Zhang Peng Peng’s ‘Intensive Spoken Chinese’ – I describe my method for using the book here  

Originally my plan was to learn the spoken language and the characters at the same time using Zhang Peng Peng’s book combined with ‘Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters’ as an introduction, but the ‘problem’ with the Tuttle book is that it very effectively helps you to memorize the meaning and pronunciation of the characters using mnemonic devices and archetypes which represent the tones. So I found myself memorizing the pronunciation and tones of words I had never heard before, and I’ve had enough experience with English learners who learned from books with very little audio for most of their lives to realize that that was not the way to learn to speak Mandarin well, not to mention that I quickly became bored with the monotiny of memorization, even though the authors go out of their way to make the learning method fun and engaging, and the book is one of a kind and will be among the books I use to learn the characters down the road.

So about one month in I stopped learning the characters and started to concentrate entirely on the spoken language. I still didn’t know about ChinesePOD at that point, and besides the ‘Who is she’ and ‘Eating out’ series which I had listened to many times and become bored with, there wasn’t very much on LingQ for my level, so I started to translate the LingQ Chinese podcasts (which are for advanced students) into English using Google Translate and listen to the podcasts while reading along in English. I think doing this is the main reason why I was so quickly able to reach an intermediate level of comprehension, and why I do not feel at all uncomfortable listening to more quickly spoken Chinese. The only problem with this method is that it is difficult to ‘pick out’ individual words, and though I’m sure that if I had listened to them long enough, I would have eventually been able to, I felt that reading along in pinyin would be the quickest way for me to pinpoint and learn new vocabulary. Since the pinyin of the LingQ Chinese podcasts was not available, I used PopUpChinese to transliterate the podcasts and read along – I started doing this in November, about two months in, and I describe my method here

Although I benefited from the transliteration method, I quickly became tired of it because I had to look up a lot of words to be able to interact with the text, and in some cases the LingQ Chinese podcasts were simply too quickly spoken for my ears to pick up on the pronunciation of certain words, despite the fact that I was reading along. At that point I had the false impression that my Chinese comprehension had already reached a general intermediate level, and though that was the case for the texts I had use the transliteration method described above with, I knew that I was still missing a lot of basic vocabulary, so I looked back at the ChinesePOD podcasts that I had had for a while but hadn’t done anything with. I soon realized that they would provide exactly the structural base I needed, so about mid-December I jumped in and started listening to the Intermediate podcasts (which are half in Chinese and half in English) supplemented by just the dialogues from the Newbie and Elementary levels, as the podcasts at those levels are mostly in English.

The great thing about ChinesePOD is that you can download the podcast, an audio extract of just the dialogue, an audio vocabulary review of the new vocab in the dialogues with the English and Chinese terms (which I use for the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate dialogues to isolate all the new vocabulary before and after listening to the dialogues), and of course the transcripts, which include the written dialogues with Chinese characters, pinyin, and the English translation, all stacked on top of each other, as well as a word list of the new vocab (which is recorded in the audio vocabulary review) at then end. This is very convenient, as it allows you to listen to the dialogues and read along in English while conferring the pinyin, and then later listen while looking at the vocab list to ‘listen out’ for individual vocab terms, with the objective of eventually listening and comprehending without reading at all.

Up to now I have listened to about 75 hours of Mandarin, and I was suprised the other day by how much I could understand when I listened to a Shanghai radio station I hadn’t listened to in a month, and how much clearer and natural the language sounded. 

In the next entry I will talk about how I currently use ChinesePOD on a daily basis, why dialogues are such a powerful learning tool, and how I could have reached the level I’m at now as much as twice as fast as I did.

Blogging on Bilingualism podcast / (

“Another link to the Australian radio show Lingua Franca, this podcast shares the story of a James Panichi who moved from Australia to Italy with his family at the age of nine. His comments shed light on the way language and culture affect personality. Moving from Australia to Italy introduced him to his father in a new way. His father had always been there, but his full personality was hidden by his immigrant’s (unschooled) English. When James also spoke Italian fluently after living in Italy, his relationship with his father changed for the better. He also discusses his perspective of bilingualism and biculturalism from his personal experiences as an Italian-Australian.

Listen to the podcast “Daddy, I almost never knew you!” here ( at the Lingua Franca site.

See previous post for a link to a podcast on Lingua Franca ( by a German-Australian on his relationship with is bilingual daughter.”