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!

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. spanishonly
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 20:09:13

    Interesting article, David. Thanks for the link as well :-).One question about the intensive intro to Mandarin:Do you also collect sentences from the dialogues you’re listening to? I mean, it’s easy to forget these things.Also, do you take in other things besides the ChinesePod dialogues, like real materials?


  2. David Martin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 15:48:14

    Hi RamsesFirst of all let me say that I’m a big fan of your posts and your sentences project, and I admire the fact that you’ve been able to reach out to so many people and help them in their Spanish learning.And although I am a fan of Anki and I always recommend that people learn sentences/phrases rather than individual words, I very rarely use SRS systems before I’m an advanced learner in a language – I prefer to just listen and read and save words for periodic review on LingQ.As of yet I’ve not yet reached a point where I can use authentic materials and get much much out of them, but I hope to get there soon. In the meantime, the ChinesePod dialogues are interesting and entertaining, and I’m content to just use them.


  3. Monwei Yung
    Dec 10, 2010 @ 10:30:13

    I’m learning Mandarin too, and I’ve appreciated reading about your course of study! I’ve been learning Mandarin via Skype/WebEx with a 1-on-1 tutor from Beijing through this online language service called Check it out! You might like it!


  4. knowledgeofasia
    May 02, 2011 @ 06:44:47

    do try my ‘scratch n learn’ chinese app and let me know what you think:


  5. Chris
    Jun 03, 2011 @ 09:26:12

    Have you updated your site? It looks different to the other day.

    Wow, that’s some post. Do you your intensive introduction to Chinese as a separate post too? I think many people would really appreciate this.

    You seem very curious about ‘acquiring’ language too. Have you change any of your ideas about this over the past year?

    I thought that interview with Arkady was very interesting too, especially using the visual mode for language learning.

    Anyway, I’ll have a look around now.


  6. mandarinfromscratch
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 00:58:24

    Hey Chris, thanks for your comment. I’ve actually made a lot of changes recently, and I always appreciate feedback from others:)

    Thanks for your suggestions about doing the intensive intro as a separate post – I think I just might do that. I guess when I originally wrote the post I was more worried about “setting the scene” for the necessity of such intensive listening.

    I’m incredibly interested in the idea of adult “acquisition” of language, and I’d like to think that I’m following the basic principles of Automatic Language Growth in my learning, except that I’m currently learning with podcasts, though I intend to switch over to TV and movies as soon as possible. I’d love to take part in the ALG program some day though!

    I think it’s fascinating what you’re doing in the Netherlands, and I look forward to more updates on your success with Crosstalk.



  7. Trackback: 祝大家新年快樂! Happy Chinese New Year’s Resolutions! « Mandarin From Scratch

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