Christopher Lonsdale - The Third Ear - You Can Learn Any Language-Bookbaby (2006)

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THE THIRD EAR CHRIS LONSDALE has lived and worked in Asia for a quarter-century. After studying psychology in New Zealand, where he spent the first 20 years of his life, he travelled to Beijing just after China opened to the West. An initial fascination with Chinese language and culture took him on an adventure that included travels all over China, intensive study in the Chinese martial arts, physical injury, and a subsequent reevaluation of life’s priorities. From China Chris moved to Hong Kong, which has been his base for the past 20 years. He currently runs his own business as a senior leadership coach and organisational advisor. This work takes him to many parts of the world, and gives him a privileged position to observe and influence some of the more complex problems faced by people in organisations. In the last 25 years Chris has visited places as diverse as the southern forests of India, the North Pole, and some of the world’s most important industrial and financial centres. Chris is a fluent speaker of English, Mandarin and Cantonese, and has dabbled in a number of other languages. He is married, with one daughter whom he says was, in many ways, the inspiration behind The Third Ear.

THE THIRD EAR Chris Lonsdale

Third Ear Books

THE THIRD EAR ISBN-13: 978-988-19845-24 © 2006 Chris Lonsdale

Third Ear Publishing Ltd. 6/F Tung Hip Commercial Building, 244–248 Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong [email protected] Cover design: Daniel Chui Cartoons: Stephen Roberts Graphics: Andrew Mok Typeset in Minion by Alan Sargent Second printing, 2007

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The right of Chris Lonsdale to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted as have his moral rights with respect to the Work.

Contents Acknowledgements: 1: It’s as difficult as . . . breathing

Section 1 2: Ghost of an unknown language 3: Barrier busting — re-examining ‘common sense’ 4: How do they do that? 5: Thinking like a language learner 6: Meet the audibol

Section 2 7: Perceive patterns, practise details 8: In the beginning was the word 9: Tongue ’n’ ear 10: Tricks of the sound trade 11: Cracking the code — scaffolding in the mind

Section 3 12: Actively using the adult advantage 13: Living in a bigger world 14: The third ear 15: Fitting in 16: Setting yourself up for success

This book is dedicated to all those people who really do want to learn a foreign language, but who have been frustrated in the process. Some have continued to battle on, sometimes successfully, but often with slow results. Others have simply come to believe that it’s too difficult for them. This book has been written to show that, no matter who you are, you can master any language. Not just that. It can be easy and fun. It’s just a matter of knowing how.

Acknowledgements I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the people who have contributed to making this book a reality. Firstly, I’d like to thank Kevin Jones, Allen Dorcas, Michelle Tanmizi, Diane Wilcoxson, Jonathan Harger, Roger Bell, Robert Atter, Jeremy Kidner, Colin Jesse and the many others who gave insights into the language learning process, both from their own experience, and from observing the experience of others. Equally important is the contribution of the core group of testers, who worked with the ideas in the book. Many thanks go to Andrew Mok, Augustine Tan, Marc Mostacci, Steve Udy, Janet Blount, Christian Masset, Panida Tang-sriwong, Thirawit Leetavorn, Mark Michaud, Larry Gaffaney, Philip Jackson, Tina Boe-Hansen, Dirk Rossey, Michael Boddington, Elizabeth Bridgeman, Margaret Leung, Luan Xiuju, Naaz Kazi, James Rynne, Zoe Fitzgerald, Lyn Brewster, Andrea Gutwirth, Carol Wong, Angela Spaxman, Uli Burke and Sayed Gouda. Paul Coffey deserves special mention for putting into action all of the ideas in the book, resulting in him learning to speak Mandarin in just a few short months. Many people helped in the book’s creation, reading various versions and giving useful input that helped to shape the final version, or simply just giving encouragement. Special thanks go to Mark Tier, Michael Guss, Tony Giles, William Courtauld, Huaying Zhang, Chris Robinson, Leon Jakimic, Graham Earnshaw, Simon Chau, Barry Brewster, David Brooks, Maureen Mueller, Gilles Bassi, Mark Powell, Mark Michaud, Cathy Lee, Edith Scott, Daniel Spitzer, Leanne Wang, Sylvain Gauthier, Richard Finn, Andy Boerger, Steve Alexander, Andrew Matthews, Jeremy Blodgett and Manab Chakraborty. Several hundred people contributed to the decision process for the title, weighing in on various options. Thank you all for making your thoughts known. The final inspiration that led to the title The Third Ear came from Tom Masterson and Sarah Monks. Thanks guys.

Help came in many other forms as well. Stephen Roberts did a great job taking some of the key ideas of the book, and turning them into simple, fun cartoons. Magnus Bartlett and Peter Gordon both provided helpful guidance for the whole publishing process. Alan Sargent took what I thought was a well-honed piece of work and honed it even further. His disciplined editing has, I hope, made a definitive impact on the final work. Importantly, I’d like to thank my daughter Michelle for giving me the chance to watch her as she grappled with her first language. In many ways The Third Ear could not have been written without those insights from a first-time beginner. It was almost as if her arrival was necessary for key pieces to fall into place. Thanks Michelle. And finally, my deepest thanks go to my wife, Fengdi, for standing quietly by me for the many years that it took from initial concept to finally completing the book. Chris Lonsdale October, 2005

1 It’s as difficult as . . . breathing ‘Learning Chinese is really difficult,’ she said to me. ‘I worked solid for two years, and even then only had the basics. And, there’s no way a person can learn Chinese faster than that.’ I was at a seminar in Hong Kong, and the young woman really meant it. She had learnt to speak Mandarin Chinese and, quite clearly, it had been a difficult process for her. But it didn’t have to be that way. It certainly didn’t match my own experience, or that of the many other people who have learned a new language easily and effectively. I told her that I thought Chinese can be mastered very quickly by a Westerner — in just a few months, actually. She replied that this was not possible, and looked at me like I was slightly mad. Rather than get into an argument with her, I decided to write this book. This book is about you, and the things that you can do to learn a new language faster and more easily than you ever thought possible. It’s also about me, because it follows the journey that I have taken to learn what many consider, in the West, quite difficult languages — Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese. The lessons about how to learn a language apply equally to languages that could be considered easier. In the pages that follow I will share the personal strategies and techniques that have worked for me, and other successful language learners that I have talked to. I’m writing this book for one simple reason — I want you to discover how to better use your natural language talent more effectively. After all, you’re a language genius anyway — you have to be if you mastered your mother tongue! Remember, you came into the world with no words and no grammar. You had nothing to hook on to and, somehow, you still became fluent.

If you are reading this book you probably want to learn a new language. Maybe you are about to go to a new country to live or work. Possibly you are already there. Maybe you have decided that, for work or some other reason, you need to master another language even if you are staying at home. Or maybe you are just interested in learning a new language. Whatever your reason, I’m sure you want to know how to do it with the greatest ease and the most fun.

But it’s soooooo hard! — NOT I spend most of my time living in Hong Kong, but often travel to other countries in Asia, especially China. Everywhere Westerners are struggling to learn Chinese or Vietnamese or some other Asian language. Many have just given up trying to learn these languages. And I see Asians who want to learn English, or some other foreign language. They too seem to be struggling! True, there are many people who have learned at least one foreign language. Some people do it very well, and many who find it difficult decide that these successful people are naturally gifted at languages. This conclusion is often used as an excuse for not trying. It’s sad because, for every one who has been successful, it seems there are dozens who are finding it either very difficult or impossible. This is especially the case when the languages are as different from each other as English and Chinese, for instance. Just the other day I was on a Hong Kong ferry on my way home. It was late and I was hungry, so I went to the canteen to order some instant egg noodles (fast food, Chinese style). As I finished ordering, a young Englishman asked me how to say ‘egg noodles’ in Cantonese. Most Westerners in Hong Kong don’t even bother to make the effort. They have given up even before they started. So, this was a little novel, but very much welcomed. So, I told the young man how to say egg and noodles: daan meen. He repeated it after me, with the sounds and intonation almost perfect. I nodded and smiled, and said, ‘Yeah! That’s right’. Then I said it for him one more time. He again repeated it accurately.

Inhaling deeply, he turned to the man behind the counter to order his noodles, suddenly allowed his posture to slump, said nervously, ‘I’ll leave it till next time’ and proceeded to order in English. What a let down! This young man had started on the path to successfully learn a new language, and he threw away the first win! He had it, and he let it go! If you only think in terms of quantity, one simple phrase doesn’t seem much. But speaking even a few words and getting a result is critical. When you get over that first hurdle of embarrassment, and start communicating in a new language, you’ve got it made. One word. Two. A few gestures. And you’re away. I’ve not spoken to him since, but I would guess he’s going around thinking that Cantonese is too hard for him to learn, even though he had shown very clearly that he could learn an element of the language correctly! So why did this happen? I believe there is a very simple explanation. Many people in the world today have accepted the myth that a new language is difficult to learn. Ask anyone why they don’t speak another language and they will say that they don’t have the talent for it, or they are tone deaf (a great excuse for not learning Chinese), or that it’s been proven that adults can’t learn a foreign language very easily. Or . . . and I hate this one . . . ‘they speak my language, so why should I bother?’

Reasons to bother There are many reasons for learning a new language. For one thing, it’s fun. And, when you really get into it, you might find that it can expand your world. You get to see the world from angles that you would never have thought of before. Of course, there are practical reasons too. Consider for a moment that many of the problems that we have to deal with in today’s world are caused by poor communication. You’ve probably heard the old joke about the British and Americans being separated by a common language. Even those of us who speak the same tongue have problems communicating! Recently I was given the job of facilitating a meeting of senior managers in a US-Chinese joint venture. There were twelve people on the management team, eight coming from one partner and four from the other.

Eleven of the people were Chinese and one was an American — and he was a fluent Chinese speaker. As the meeting progressed it was clear to me that many of the Chinese people were in conflict (with each other) because they didn’t realise that, while they meant the same thing, they were using different words. They were busy creating what I call ‘ghost conflicts’ — conflicts that happen when you think you disagree when really you agree. To give an example of a ghost conflict, you might have found yourself in a situation where you are trying to agree with someone where to meet at a certain time. You say, ‘It’s the coffee shop to the left of the post office.’ Your friend says, ‘There’s no coffee shop to the left of the post office!’ and looks at you quite strangely. You know you’re right, of course, and insist that ‘Most definitely there is a coffee shop to the left of the post office.’ With neither of you backing down, very soon you find yourself in a heated argument and you’re not quite sure how it started. You are certain there is a coffee shop to the left of the post office. And, your friend is equally certain there is not. If you’re lucky you stop to analyse what is going on before you destroy the friendship. It turns out that you are thinking about the whole situation from the perspective of looking at the post office from across the street. There is a coffee shop beside the post office. As you face the post office, it is on your left-hand side. Your friend thinks about it very differently. She has a perspective of coming out of the post office. The street is in front, and the post office is behind her. From that viewpoint there is a coffee shop just down the street, if she turns right. The argument started because neither of you understood the perspective that the other was using. And, in this example, your friend omitted to mention that in her mind there was a coffee shop to the right. She simply disagreed with you that there was one to the left. So, what happens is that you find yourself arguing but there really is no disagreement. You both know there is a coffee shop. You can both see it in your mind’s eye. And yet you argue about whether or not a coffee shop exists in that location. A problem caused by missing pieces of information

and different perspectives on the same issue. A ghost conflict. When you realise that you are actually thinking the same thing the conflict ends. Now, remember, this sort of thing happens between people speaking the same language! Imagine what can happen when they are speaking different languages. Just as frequently happens when people from different cultures try to work together. That day, as we explored different people’s mental models, and resolved the ‘ghost conflicts’, we were able to begin discussing the more important and difficult areas that existed in the group. As we went deeper and deeper into these, you can imagine that it became somehow obvious how important it is to speak someone else’s language. I noticed that, even though he was a fluent Chinese speaker, the American manager misunderstood the motives of some of the Chinese managers. Clearly, the Chinese managers meant well. But they could not convey what really mattered for them. So they miscommunicated. To understand what was needed for a solution the American manager needed to understand personal histories and cultural limits, as well as some very subtle language distinctions. We did work it out. It took some effort and some back-and-forth discussion about business and personal issues. Today, this joint venture company is operating much more effectively, with a much higher level of cooperation. Later, as I reviewed this case, I wondered whether we could have solved the problems so easily if participants at the meeting were unable to speak a common language (in this case Chinese)? What would have happened if the only means of communicating was through an interpreter? I shudder to think. . . . I have been in meetings with interpreters and they always fail to convey all of the subtlety and the multiple levels of meaning that are present in the original message. It’s not that interpreters don’t understand, it’s just that things do get lost in translation. I know. I have worked as an interpreter. In many cases, to understand what someone means you must first have the cultural ‘stories’ that go to make up the meaning. Without these stories true communication is difficult — sometimes impossible. Of course, you learn these stories as you learn a language but you can’t give all the background to a word or phrase when you are interpreting for someone in real time!

So, to get things done between countries, companies, across cultures and between people who speak different languages it’s important — even critical — to master other people’s language. Even if they already speak yours. Because only then can you truly understand why they say what they say.

Challenging the myth It does not have to be difficult to learn any new language. You can do it in a much shorter time, to a much higher level, than you could ever imagine possible. I know this to be true because I have done it. I have seen others do it. And I don’t have ‘talent’ — at least no more than the average person. I can get really annoyed when people suggest that I speak more than one language because, somehow, I have some special talent. In fact, I probably had less language talent than many of my peers! When I was growing up in New Zealand, I was only average at learning English. I was relatively slow to understand the written word, and I had quite some difficulty with grammar. Actually, I hated — absolutely hated — grammar lessons. What was the point? I wasn’t much better in other ways, either. I was always the last to finish when we had to read a passage for comprehension. I much preferred the science subjects because they required abstract and conceptual thinking. Foreign languages weren’t any better. When I was learning French, I was in the lowest third of my high school class. I just couldn’t quite seem to get it. It didn’t make sense. It was boring. And there was no way I could pronounce the sounds properly. I believed, at the time, that I could never learn the language well. And my interest in it grew weaker and weaker. Then something happened that gave a new spin to my life. I learned French! I found I could converse with French people and have fun at the same time. When I was 15, an exchange student from Tahiti (a French-speaking colony in the South Pacific) came to stay for a few weeks. Then, several months later, I went to Tahiti for a total of six weeks. In that time, I learned to speak fluent French. I could communicate with anyone as necessary, and the language was no longer a mystery to me. Sure, there were words that I

didn’t know, but I could always find out what they meant. And in any case, even today there are words in English that I don’t know. I came across one just recently — semiotics. What does that mean? The day I first saw it I had no idea! I was told that it is the science of how people perceive and relate to symbols. But I still don’t have a full understanding of what it means! Which doesn’t matter. Just like you, I can still communicate effectively in the English language. Not knowing certain words does not stop that. Back to French. What is important is that in just a few weeks I was able to master the structure and functions of the French language. My accent was almost perfect. And I was in the position where I could grow the language naturally like we do with our mother tongue. The best thing was that I sailed through to the end of high school French without having to do any more ‘work’ to speak of. The story might have ended there. But it didn’t. If it had, I wouldn’t be writing this now. As it turned out I went on to major in psychology at university. One of my topics of interest was psycho-linguistics. An influential theory about language learning in vogue at the time said that a second language can only be learnt really well by children. According to the theory, by the time a person gets to adulthood, he or she has lost the ability to easily and readily learn a new language. This theory was easy to accept because of the evidence that we see around us — all those adults out there struggling with, or failing to, learn a foreign language effectively. It was almost too easy to accept the theory. Despite the fact that everyone seemed to believe this, I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t believe it, partly because I didn’t want to believe it. It felt horribly limiting. Did this mean that, because I had not learned other languages as a child, I was now barred from communicating with most of the people in the world? No way! This was something I refused to accept. Something inside me said, ‘If your method of learning is correct you can learn a foreign language at any time. Age is no barrier.’ I even had the audacity to write the idea into a term paper. The professor grading the paper must have agreed, because I got a good pass. Maybe he just rewarded me for being cheeky! Two years later I had the chance to test the theory on myself. I was 22 at the time, and was able to land a two-year scholarship to China. This was in

1981, when China was just opening to the outside world. I had done a few hours of Chinese language during my second year at university, with one outcome — I just managed to scrape through and pass. And I hadn’t enjoyed the classes at all. The teacher at the time was much more skilled at ‘hypnosis’ than at bringing out any language-learning ability in his students. You know, he was one of those teachers who speaks in a soft, almost monotone voice. And, as he droned on, in spite of myself, I would find myself starting to drift off somewhere else. And it is a comfortable, warm, dark place and you know that you should keep your eyes open, if only to be polite, but they feel maybe heavy, maybe sticky, and the muscles in the forehead can’t hold them up any longer — ZZZZZ! Suddenly, through the mist, you hear your name being called. A question. And you can’t even understand the question. . . . As you might imagine, I didn’t learn very much. And the professor never did work out that the sleepiness of his students had very little to do with the temperature in the classroom. By the time I got to go to China I could not speak a word of Mandarin Chinese. I was totally blank. I arrived at the language institute in Beijing in September of 1981. Classes didn’t start for two weeks, so I had a bit of time on my hands. What to do? Well, one thing was for sure, I didn’t like being in an environment where I could not understand what was being said, where I could not communicate with the local people, and where I could not even read simple signs and warnings. I’ve subsequently been to other countries where I haven’t learned the language yet, and the experience is the same. I just don’t like being in a place where I don’t understand the language. It’s so much more fun to understand, to interact, to know what is going on. On my second day in Beijing I met my first friend. He was a slight but lithe and wiry young man from Thailand. He went by the name of ‘Mao’ . . . which is Chinese, and Thai, for cat. It sounds like a cat call. He taught me my first words — zenme yang — how’s it going? And I was off. For the next two days, I said this to just about anyone I met. People were responding and telling me how they felt, admittedly with words that I didn’t yet understand. But I was hearing the words and beginning to notice

patterns. From the looks on their faces, and their body language, I could guess some of the meaning. Very quickly I was able to strike up conversations with people who would tell me the names for things, as well as important and useful words like ‘please’ and ‘thanks’. Within a week I was getting into simple conversations. By this time, I was thinking to myself, ‘This is great . . . I’m getting somewhere.’ I could already read a few signs — CAUTION, MALE, FEMALE (pretty important distinctions when diarrhoea was a frequent reality). And, I could buy things and survive at a basic level on the street. Ten days into my new adventure, a newly made Palestinian friend took me and two New Zealand students off to Beidaihe, a Chinese seaside resort northeast of Beijing. We went by train, spent a couple of days chilling out, then had to head back to Beijing to begin the process of finding out which classes we would be assigned to. At that time, public transport was pretty limited in China — more people wanting to travel than there was vehicle availability. Of course, we had left the purchase of train tickets until far too late. It would be three or four days before we could get seats. There was only one thing for it. We got on the train anyway, paid the price of a ticket and the fine for being on board without one, then camped down in the dining car for the six-hour overnight trip back to Beijing. Ten minutes after we had pulled out of the station a man in an official-looking cap and white jacket approached me. I found out a little later that he was a railway security guard. He sat down, smiled, and began talking. And that is what we did — for six hours straight. Just talked, all in Chinese. All night. One of many all-nighters that I experienced as I grappled with the language. He didn’t understand a word of English. Initially, I didn’t understand much of what he said. But he apparently had nothing important to do, and neither of us was going anywhere, so we stuck with it. He drew pictures, and wrote out Chinese characters for me, and mimed things. As we talked I increasingly got the sense that I understood what he was saying. My notebook was covered in scribbled notes and little pictures. That night, I was probably exposed to over a thousand new words, and most of the commonly used elements of the Chinese language. I couldn’t pin

them all down, but I could sense the patterns that were emerging. An important idea that. Sensing the patterns. A few days after my return to Beijing it was test time. The school I was attending made everyone go through an oral and a written test to check out their understanding of Chinese. When my turn came, the examiners were baffled. I was already able to hold a simple conversation with them. But, my ability to read Chinese was still limited to a few dozen characters. They couldn’t figure this out, but had to stick me in an intermediate class rather than a beginner’s class. I was obviously well on the way to mastering the language. At the end of that train journey I was by no means fluent in Chinese. But it was a turning point. For me, from that night on, learning Chinese was easy and fun. Sure, I had to apply myself. Effort was required. But it was always pleasurable and I learned faster and faster as the days went by. Within two months I was communicating competently in Chinese, having long (often philosophical) conversations with Chinese friends, and handling China easily and naturally. I was already able to read and write at a basic level. By the time I had been in China for six months, I was writing letters in Chinese to communicate with friends I had met, and deal with official business. I even wrote letters to senior government officials in my efforts to get to the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, where I hoped to study Chinese martial arts (an effort that was ultimately successful). Today, I speak fluent Mandarin and Cantonese, and use both of these languages as the medium of interaction in much of the organisational consulting work that I do. I have also been exposed to a number of other Asian languages. On a two-week trip to Japan, after two days getting the basics of the language with the help of some friends, I was able to hitchhike around the country using just Japanese. After two weeks, I could understand about 60 per cent of what was said to me on the street, or in shops, or just in casual conversation. It hasn’t stayed with me, of course, because since then I have had no more contact with Japan or the language. With any language there is a need to use it or lose it. It’s like a muscle. You can even lose your mother tongue if you don’t use it for a long period of time. In 1984, as a 24-year-old, I found that my English had deteriorated to about the level of a 15-year-old

— simply because I had been communicating almost exclusively in Chinese for three years. More recently, I had to do some work in the Philippines. After 48 hours in the country, I was able to start off a workshop using Tagalog (the native tongue for southern Filipinos) and also taught a song in Tagalog. The bulk of the workshop used an interpreter, but I was able to understand about 70 per cent of what was said. And I was having simple but interesting conversations with some of the participants in out-of-class time. I am now at the stage that I can go to any country and, in just a few days, ‘enter into’ the language. I can understand a great deal of what is said in an everyday context, and I can make myself understood in most general situations. Most importantly, when I come across a new language I am very quickly able to have a feel for how it works, and the rules that people use to stick words together to create meaning. These are things that you can master quickly and easily. It is part of your heritage.

The difference that makes the difference When I tell people about this ability to learn a new language so quickly, I get two quite different reactions. Some people simply do not believe that it is possible. Others immediately assume that I am talented, and say something like ‘Some very talented people can learn languages quickly and easily. But this isn’t normal. Most of us don’t have this talent.’ To which I would add: ‘yet. . . .’ Clearly, it is possible to learn new languages quickly. You probably know at least one person who has picked up a new language easily. What is really interesting is that each time you learn a language, it becomes faster and easier. In fact, it appears that the more languages you know the faster you can learn any new language. Now, just for the sake of argument, what if it was possible to ‘inject’ language-learning talent into you? How would that change things for you? What if there was a way to make it easy? Because, learning can be easy. Tennis coach Tim Galway, who wrote the book The Inner Game, was able to take a 55-year-old woman who was very

overweight, and in 20 minutes teach her to play tennis. The process was captured on film as a record of what is possible for people when they do things with appropriate methods. I have spoken to many people who speak more than one language, to try to identify what different people have done to learn a new language easily. The more you discover about the language-learning process, the more certain patterns emerge. A couple of different elements seem to be important. Firstly, the way in which you are exposed to a second language has a major impact. Secondly, the way you choose to think about a new language has important consequences. What is commonly called ‘talent’ is actually the specific mental, emotional and physical strategies that you use to approach a certain task. What is really exciting is that you can learn the strategies that others use to be successful, in any area. Even in language learning. Which is what this book is about. The mental, emotional, physical and practical strategies used by successful language learners. As you learn the language acquisition strategies and approaches of people who speak more than one language, you too will discover that you can pick up a new language faster than you imagined could be possible. In this book I use a lot of examples that are about Chinese or other Asian languages. I have done this deliberately because of the major differences between Asian and non-Asian languages, and also because, in the Western world, Asian languages are perceived as amongst the hardest to learn. Chinese and English differ more than, say, French and English. The principles that are covered in this book can help you learn any language, no matter how different it is from your own. Languages that are much closer to your own will just be that much easier.

Using this book This book is not intended to be scientific or academic. It’s not intended to sum up all of the language research that has ever been done. It is, rather, a practical guide. It’s about simple things that you can do to make your language-learning experience exciting, interesting and successful.

The book is intended, ultimately, to help you learn a new language — any language you choose — easily and effectively. To help you achieve that outcome, I share some insights from both scientific and psychological research, as well as personal insights of real people generating real results with language learning. I will also share my own observations and insights gleaned from 20-plus years of learning languages and thinking about the process. The book is intended to be fun to read and easy to follow. In that spirit, I have taken artistic licence and included many anecdotes and stories. They do have a point. I have also avoided too much detail that a language learner would consider overly technical, or irrelevant. Simplification is my intent, so the more feedback I receive about having missed something from ‘the literature’ the happier I will be! It will mean that my goal to simplify has been achieved. I’ll also be thrilled to learn anything new that I can about the language-learning process from the feedback that I hope you’ll send me. Simply log on to the Third Ear website and send us your comments.

There are three main sections to the book. In the first section we explore how, and why, it is going to be easy for you to learn another language. In the second section, I talk about the basic principles and elements of a model for language learning. These principles work, and you will need to think through how to apply them in your own languagelearning situation. In the third section I give you a set of specific tools and techniques that you can immediately apply in learning your new language. You can read the chapters in any order you choose. If you prefer to understand why you do certain things, then starting at the beginning is probably better for you. If you like to learn by trying things out, and

then review them in your mind, working backwards is probably just as good. Whatever way you choose, I trust you will enjoy the rest of the book and that you will discover, like me, that learning a second language can be a wonderful journey of insight and discovery!

Section 1 In the introduction we talked about why it’s important to learn a new language, and why it might not be nearly as difficult as many myths would have you believe. In this section we explore some of the myths that surround language learning in more depth, and discuss why it’s possible for you to learn a new language more quickly and easily than you might have believed possible. From looking at how humans process language, to exploring your own experience, you will find numerous reasons as to why you can master a new language even if you choose a socalled difficult language. We also look at the idea behind learning from people who have already mastered a particular skill. When you find the patterns that those people have used to be successful, you too can share that success.

2 Ghost of an unknown language Michael was on his fifth day of an accelerated learning course in Mandarin Chinese. Trained as an engineer, and working as CEO of a medium-size operation in Hong Kong, Michael had finally decided it was time for him to take on Mandarin seriously. So, he had enrolled in our two-week accelerated Mandarin course. We were cracking along at quite a pace, and in just a few short days Michael had attained a very good sense of how Mandarin works as a language. He could understand a lot, and his vocabulary was building. But we had a problem — he kept speaking with a strong Cantonese accent, despite the fact that he did not know Cantonese! As we explored this situation we slowly realised that, because he had been living in Hong Kong for many years, he had picked up Cantonese at an unconscious level. He wasn’t the only one. Three people in the class had all lived in Hong Kong for a number of years, and each of them had the same problem. They were mispronouncing many of the Mandarin words, using exactly the same pronunciation that a native Cantonese speaker would use. It was almost as if I was listening to a Hong Kong Chinese person speaking Mandarin for the first time. Strange.

Just can’t stop learning The experience with Michael and some of the other people I was teaching really got me thinking — could it be that we have been asking the wrong question? Could it be that there is actually no way to stop people learning a

second language? There certainly seems to be no way of stopping people from learning a first language! Think about it. People from around the world, from every country, all speak a language. At least one. Go to India, or many different countries in Europe, and you’ll find people speaking two, three or even more different languages. The Dutch, for instance, often speak several languages: Dutch, German, English, French. The more we study language, the more it becomes possible to accept that people are hard-wired to learn language. In the same way that pigeons are programmed to find their way home, we may be born with an inbuilt ability to learn language. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker makes the case that, as children, we are programmed to learn a language. He also states that: ‘The brain can hear speech content in sounds that have only the remotest resemblance to speech . . . because phonetic perception is like a sixth sense.’ Imagine for a moment that you might actually still have the natural ability to learn any language, even if you are an adult. What might happen if you decided to test this possibility? Hmmmmmm. . . . Have you ever noticed how you sometimes hear words, even when no word was intended? Maybe a noise from a machine sounds like a word. Or it could just be the sound of the wind. Certainly, when someone is speaking in a foreign language, we can often hear sounds that seem to be the same as words in our own language. You could, perhaps, imagine being a small child . . . hearing all the sounds and words around you . . . and from that mess of sound, piece-bypiece, discerning the words? Pinker argues that, at least as children, we are wired to hear in that way. In my experience, any person can hear any new language and identify the presence of words, knowing where one begins and another ends. Which seems normal and natural. And it is. Except for the fact that, when you look at the trace of human speech on an oscilloscope, you can’t see exactly where one word ends and the other begins. Just look at the frequency graph for the phrase ‘The cat came home’ in figure 2.1. Can you see exactly where one word begins as the other ends?

And that is why, according to a market research firm, the Kelsey Group, worldwide spending on voice-recognition will reach US$41 billion by 2005. If you’ve ever used a voice recognition system, you’ll know that they are still a long way away from perfect. Up until today computers can still only get 95 per cent accuracy, and to do that they need very clear input, with very little noise. So more and more money gets invested.

You and I were born with the ability to do this same task, somehow, with no training. If we didn’t have this ability we would not be able to understand somebody speaking in the middle of a thunderstorm, or over the noise of traffic, or in a conversation with three other people speaking at the same time. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where somebody said something to you, and you didn’t understand, and so you asked the person to repeat it? Then, when they did you realised that you had understood it the first time? Somehow, we seem to understand the meanings that people communicate without needing to break phrases into words, at least not consciously. This applies equally in situations where a person is in a place where a foreign language is being spoken. Assuming you have had that experience, did you maybe notice that, somehow, you could at least pick words out from what people were saying? Obviously, there was a lot you couldn’t hook on to, but there were still things that stood out and that you heard clearly as distinct words, and you possibly even remembered them. What about listening to distorted messages? A phone message can be very distorted, and we can still understand what is being said. The brain

takes the information, filters out the distortion, and makes sense of the whole thing. Whether or not we are ‘hard-wired’ to learn language, everyday experience points to the amazing ability that people have to decode language and give it meaning. Any language. Any time. We can’t stop ourselves from hearing words in much of the sound that is around us. Especially when the sound is made by human mouths. What happens when parents have young children? The kids are off somewhere in their heads and playing with sounds, saying things like ‘ahh boo’, and ‘peess’, and their parents hear things like ‘apple’ and ‘please’. Wow! Junior is talking! The kid makes a string of sounds, and we hear a string of words. W e just don’t know what they are. The baby does, though. And she’s probably wondering why you don’t understand. So, the brain naturally hears sounds and turns them into words, breaking them up in just the right place. Think about the baby. No grounding. Doesn’t know any language. And is able to hear single words picked from a sentence and play them back immediately. ‘Eess’, ‘du’, ‘pey’; ‘em’, ‘baak’; — ‘is’, ‘to’, ‘play’, ‘them’, ‘back’. A task that computers are only just beginning to come to grips with. Interesting concept, but how can we apply it? What might happen if you just accept the possibility, for a few months, that today you have the ability to learn a language just as you did when you were a baby, naturally and easily. Now . . . what do you think the implications might be?

The adult advantage We have been talking about the ‘wiring’ that children seem to have for learning language. However, there are many people who then go on to say ‘It doesn’t apply to adults because adults haven’t been able to keep the ability to learn language.’ I don’t know about you, but I have seen many people in the world, and the only time they lose the ability to do something is when they either do something different for a while, or when they do nothing and get rusty.

It is true that when a family, with both children and adults, goes to a new country the children seem to learn the local language much faster than their parents. In fact, in just a few months, the children are fluent and the parents are often still struggling with getting directions to the bathroom! Not a state that you would want to be in for very long. . . . Actually, in many countries, probably the first words and phrases that you want to learn are things like: ‘Where is the bathroom? — quick!’ Or, ‘I am starving, can you feed me?’ Real, practical things that you can use immediately to get what you want. The idea that children have a better brain than adults for learning foreign languages is mythical. In the early 1980s when I was first in Beijing, I received a package in the post. It was from one of my professors at the University of Canterbury where I did my first degree in psychology. He had enclosed a couple of research papers. The papers referred to two studies where the researchers had controlled the exposure time to a new language, for both adults and children. This meant that the progress of both the adults and the children in learning a second language was measured against the amount of time they were exposed to the language. The results were fascinating. Essentially, hour for hour, adults learn a foreign language more quickly than children do. If a child from America has 20 hours of exposure to, say, French and her father also has 20 hours of exposure to French, the father will know more by the end of the 20 hours. The implication was that adults learn foreign languages faster than children. How can this be? What about all the stories of expatriate parents struggling when the kids seem to be learning the new language effortlessly? When you think about what happens when people go to another country, it’s easy to understand. Just imagine that you are moving overseas to live. You arrive at your new home, and you have to get yourself set up. You probably have to start working within the same week, and before your feet are even on the ground all hell breaks loose. You have plumbing problems in the new apartment. At the same time, your boss has a crisis on his hands, so you have to work 12 hours per day just to keep up. There are family issues that you have to deal with. And, because you don’t speak the language of the new

country you are relying on people around you to communicate with you in your mother tongue. So, you are in a situation with no time to focus, no energy to learn and no exposure to the language. This is compounded by the fact that, because of all the crises, you develop coping strategies to get around without even needing to learn the new language. After one month you may as well not have left home. Now, while you’re struggling to get the job and the family and everything else under control, your kids are having fun. They are busy meeting other kids. Playing ball. Going places. Exploring. They are doing physical things with the other kids, which helps them with language acquisition. For instance, they have specific things that they can refer to. Bicycle. Ball. Bag. If you recall a scene in the movie Dances With Wolves, a tribe of Indians comes up to the white soldier. They say something, which sounds like total garbage to him. He then replies with something that they totally don’t understand. After this happens a couple of times, the soldier suddenly bends over and uses his fingers to represent buffalo horns, and walks around pawing the ground and saying ‘buffalo’. The Indians are puzzled for a moment, but then realise what he is doing. They say ‘tutunga’. The soldier says ‘buffalo’. Both sides realise that ‘buffalo’ = ‘tutunga’. And the language-learning process has begun. It is all based on having a real object to refer to and to name. When they are learning with their friends, your children are using their bodies, which significantly accelerates their rate of learning. Because many of their senses are engaged, their learning happens on many levels. They are also interacting with the real world of real people, in the context of the language they are mastering. So, they are experiencing different emotions connected to the new language they are learning. They are doing things to the world and getting results. They open their mouths, talk, and something in the world changes as a result. This is rewarding, so they feel powerful and successful. And, possibly most importantly, they have motivation. It is incredibly important for children to have friends. To make and keep friends, they have to be able to communicate. Learning the new language is a major, lifebuilding priority for a child in a new land.

The adults, on the other hand, often think that learning the new language is a ‘nice to do’. So, it never really gets done. The kids learn. The parents don’t. And the myth expands — ‘Oh, I can’t learn a foreign language, because kids can and adults can’t’. But, when you have motivated adults and children exposed to the language and you measure the progress, making sure that progress is compared for an equivalent number of hours, it is the adults who learn faster. And this makes perfect sense. In most cases, young people don’t know as much about the world as adults do. So, when learning new words, very often they are also trying to master new concepts. Adults know many more of the concepts in the world, and all they have to do is master some new labels for those same/similar concepts. And so they learn faster. This is one absolutely major, fundamental difference between adults and children. It’s a difference that you can realise gives you, as an adult, a leg up, a head start, an ability to leap frog into fluency. It’s really useful to remember that children come into the world with no understanding of any one language, and no understanding of many concepts in the world. They don’t yet know that some words indicate action of some sort, and others indicate ‘things’. Even more so, they can’t even begin to comprehend that there are words they can use to name the different feelings they have. The idea that you can change the form or order or mix of words to express different types of meaning — such as past, present and future — is unknown to them. As an adult, you know all these things. You may not yet know the specifics of how to use them in your new language, but you absolutely do know that there has to be some way of doing it. It’s like coming up to a door, a door with no handle. However, just for a moment, imagine that you have never seen a door before. If it’s closed, and embedded in a wall, you are going to assume that you have reached an impenetrable barrier. The two bits of wall look different, but it’s still a wall. If, on the other hand, you know what a door is, even if you cannot see a door-handle on the door, you are going to start looking for something that works as a handle. Because doors come with handles.

Or, like a bathroom at an airport. These days some airports have taps and no obvious way of turning them on and off. However, since you know what a tap is, you also know that taps turn on and off. All you need to do now is work out how this particular tap gets turned on and off. You push it. That doesn’t work. You put your hands under it. That doesn’t work either. Then you discover a little pedal on the floor beside the basin. You step on it, and the water begins to flow. Problem solved. All because you have a concept in your mind that, in English, is labelled ‘tap’.

As an adult language learner you already know what types of pattern you need to be looking for. There may be patterns that you have not experienced before, but you absolutely know there must be some pattern that will help you communicate things you want to communicate. You have other advantages, too. You know how to write, and you can use this skill to help you organise and memorise materials about the language you are learning. You also have specific tricks that you have learned over the years. For instance, you may have tricks that help you to remember different sorts of things. You can use these skills to support your language learning as well.

Most importantly, you have ways of organising material, and you have ways of both thinking and talking about the structure of language. This means that you are in a position to apply language rules to accelerate your acquisition of any language. So, not only can you use your inheritance as a language learner, you have the added advantage of all the memory tools and tricks that are available to adults and which young children are still unaware of. A great place to start. Of course, it might be a little bit rusty. And that means that you have some cleaning out to do. Recently I was working with a colleague in Hong Kong who is learning Cantonese, and took her through an exercise to turn on the language switch in the brain. As she did the exercise and focused on it, and gave the instruction to rewire, she sensed a shift in her languagelearning ability. Over the following days and weeks she began to find that tuning in to Cantonese, and using that language, became increasingly easy for her. It was as though there really are circuits in our heads that we make use of to learn language, and that all you need to do is remove some of the rust and then you can learn as easily as a child once again.

Worth remembering: The ability to learn a language is natural, and a part of every person. The human brain is a natural language-processing, and learning, machine Once exposed, people cannot not learn a language When it comes to learning a language, adults have many advantages over children. Knowledge of the world, an understanding of how words connect, are all things that young children still have to discover. Adults can use this advantage to learn a new language.

To learn a new language, it can be very useful to switch on the parts of your brain that you used when you learned your first language. Remember, the ability to learn a language is never lost.

3 Barrier busting — re-examining ‘common sense’ Have you ever noticed how, the more you try to avoid something, the more it happens? To give you an example, please follow the instruction below to the letter: Don’t think of a purple elephant with yellow spots. Now. . . . Be honest. Only you will know. And what does it matter? How long did the purple elephant with yellow spots appear in your mind’s eye before you wiped it out? Many years ago I was teaching a friend to drive, and we happened to be on a windy hillside road with a drop of over 1000 feet off to the right. As we approached a tight yet manageable left-hand curve, she suddenly froze and screamed, ‘What do I do?’ Simple. Turn the wheel. And she couldn’t. I kept saying ‘Turn the wheel’, and all she could do was stare ahead at the approaching abyss, almost as though there was a compulsion to drive straight towards that terrible place upon which she was fixated. I’m told that many cars hit trees because people keep looking at the tree when the key to salvation is just to turn the head and look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. So, if you want to avoid some of the key mistakes in learning a new language you might just choose to jump to the next chapter on ‘How do they do that?’ Or you can read on and explore some of these key barriers. As you do so, try to decide whether these are really barriers to your own learning, and what you are going to do about them. Just so you know what you’re getting in to, the three main ideas that I explore in this chapter are: the ‘bad belief barrier’, the ‘school subject

mistake’, and the ‘cultural mythology mistake’. When you’ve understood these barriers, you will already be well on your way to effectively learning a new language.

Bad beliefs and logical traps One day, some time ago, Jonathan came to me with a problem. He complained that he was unable to learn Chinese because he was ‘tone deaf’. You will notice that throughout this book I do make use of many examples from Asian languages. This is done deliberately because these languages are thought to be the most difficult, at least for Westerners. Why’s that? Probably because they seem quite different, at least on the surface. However, the ideas and techniques presented in this book have worked for me and other Westerners learning these difficult languages, so they will work for you no matter which language you are focusing on at the moment. Jonathan was as sincere, as sincere as you can be, and he really did want to learn. But it’s a bit like somebody coming up to you and saying, ‘I can’t learn French, because I can’t purse my lips’, or ‘I can’t speak Hindi because I can’t move my head’, or ‘I can’t learn Italian because I don’t know how to wave my hands around.’ I’m sure you can imagine a perfect response to Jonathan’s comment. It could be something like simply asking, ‘Really?’ Can you hear it now? The slight rising of voice tone to indicate a question. But, is it a truly curious question? Or, is it a slightly surprised and incredulous question? Because they are different. And sound different. ‘Yes ,’ comes the reply. Slightly drawn out with a slight shift to a lower tone, followed by a slight rise in tone. Affirmative, and slightly uncertain. To which you can hear the response. ‘Really!’ A statement, marked with a downward inflection of the voice, almost with a touch of exasperation and disbelief. And, an inkling of understanding begins to emerge in the person who only believed he was tone deaf when, in fact, he responds every day to intonation and speech inflection without any real conscious awareness.

Jonathan was running a bad belief pattern that was preventing him from learning. The pattern was a simple one. He was accepting a belief that his new language was ‘just too difficult’. And, of course, he is an intelligent person who had already overcome many challenges in life. He had learned at least one, and maybe several languages, but Chinese had him stumped. There had to be a reason. Of course, Chinese is thought of as being a ‘tonal language’ so, because English is not a ‘tonal language’, it must be tone-deafness that prevented him learning. You’re stumped, and you can feel better about yourself now because the problem has a name. So it’s okay to not get it. But not really. Such is the nature of non-logic logic. Or, to be f air, emotional logic. Or fairer still, the power of categories and how they limit thinking. Of course, English is also a tonal language in some ways. We express incredible amounts of meaning through intonation. Just think of all the different ways you can say ‘yes’. Write them down. Notice how much detail is required to explain the meaning that was conveyed by the tone, not by the word. Nod your head in different ways to express the different meanings of yes. Notice how those different meanings feel. Notice the subtlety, the nuance. But, the critics say, you don’t have meaning differences flagged using tonal changes in English. To which I answer, think of a continuum, not a discrete system. It looks a bit like figure 3.1 below.

In fact, all languages make use of tones to different degrees, at different times. And tones cannot be the only thing that a person uses to understand a language. A good friend, Mark Tier, told me that he had a Mandarin teacher named Kiriloff (who was once a translator for the 1950s Chinese Premier Chou Enlai). Kiriloff told him that research had shown that telephone lines transmit such a low range of frequencies, cutting off the low and high frequencies, that the tones in Chinese do not come through. Obviously, if Chinese people relied totally on tones, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other over the telephone. Yet, Chinese people use the phone all the time. In fact, no matter which language you speak, you will use many different sources of information to understand what is going on. You will use the words, and word changes, of course. The order in which words appear. The grammar. But there is much more. For a start, context is incredibly important to understanding language, at least fully. You may well have had an experience of overhearing a conversation between husband and wife. The words seem disjointed. They don’t seem to connect to anything, and yet the couple understand each other. We also use the facial expressions, and even the visual signals from people’s mouths, to tell us what word they actually used. When she was two years old, as we were reading a book on shapes, my daughter Michelle got stuck with a word. ‘Trungeewol’, she said. I corrected her: ‘Triangle’. She repeated after me, exactly the way she had said it the first time, ‘Trungeewol’. One more time I repeated: ‘Triangle’. Then she turned to me with an expectant look on her face and fixed her eyes on my lips. I got the message, and repeated: ‘Triangle’. This time, with the additional information from seeing the lips, she got it. ‘Triangle, triangle.’ Two or three times. Then she started saying ‘trungeewol’, followed by ‘triangle’, just exploring the difference. Looking around you’ll find some people who can speak at least two languages in addition to the one they learned as a child. And you’ll find many who speak only one. You’ll also find people who have tried to speak a foreign language and who have not yet succeeded, and maybe even given up. If you explore how these different groups think, you’ll find important differences in what they believe. The people who have mastered more than

one language simply believe they can, and refuse to accept any excuse. Because they know that the myths about ‘difficulty’ or ‘impossibility’ are just that. And these myths can make it seem harder to learn than is really the case.

Remember: What you believe about learning a language will either help you or hinder you. Bad beliefs can create an important barrier to your learning. Most beliefs about language learning are based on myths. Question the myths and do not accept them as a reason for failure.

The ‘school subject mistake’ I was speaking to a friend the other day. A number of years previously Doris had the opportunity to live in Japan with her young son. Both were learning Japanese at the same time. Her son was doing it by immersing himself in an environment of peers, friends and social challenges. Doris was going to class. One particular day the two were out and about together and Mom had an opportunity to embarrass herself and her young son at the same time. Not to be missed, opportunities like those. And you remember them for a lifetime, so it’s best to make use of them. They were in a store and Mom asked for something using the words and language structure she had been taught in class. She did it perfectly, based on what she had been taught. With a look of horror her son blurted out: ‘You don’t say it that way! Nobody says it that way!’ And so the horrible truth became clear — she had

been busy learning Un-Japanese all along. Doris had accurately and competently used what she had learned. Only, real Japanese people didn’t talk that way. At least, not in modern-day Japan. Patricia is an English lady who recently moved to France from Thailand. For many years it has been her dream to live in France. And now she is there, and she has been having difficulty with the language. She was reading the early drafts of this book, and in a note to me she commented on Doris’ experience. Patricia goes to French class, and laments that this seems to be the only time she gets to speak French. And, as with Doris in Japan, in class ‘everything is politically correct’. The class doesn’t seem to be teaching what she needs to know to get out into the community and talk to people. So the dilemma becomes clear. Learning a second language as a subject is fraught with difficulty. Doris’ Japanese experience demonstrates, in part, what must be avoided — a pedantic marriage to structure, grammar and ‘form’. Or, as Patricia puts it, to ‘political correctness’. Language is a living entity, continually morphing and changing just as a culture does, and we need to view it that way if we are to learn it successfully. It is a tool for communication. When you use a language to communicate with other people you learn the language. You can’t help yourself. It just happens. In the case of Doris in Japan, while she had been making logical connections and remembering grammatical structures, her son had been busy acquiring the language. He simply hung out with ‘the guys’ and absorbed the language almost by osmosis. An important distinction, as we will see. I learned the importance of this soon after I arrived in China in 1981. It was, I recall, day 14, or thereabouts. I’d been trying to communicate with people and picking up some words here and there. I was hearing a lot of things repeated in conversations. There was enough to work with. One afternoon two of us, both Kiwis, headed over to the local restaurant to get a meal of jiaozi — a Chinese type of ravioli. Small meatballs wrapped in flour sheaths, kneaded at the edges into a fan-like shape. Arriving at the restaurant, a rough-and-ready place with tables strewn across a coarse concrete floor, we began to face the challenge of getting a decent meal. The beer was the easy bit. Pijiu, two bottles please. Learning

to count with fingers and tongue. Of course, the smile helped. Young and naïve, but it worked. Then came the food. Jiaozi. At least we knew that word. But how much (many?)? Er Hang — two Chinese ounces? Three? And we thought about it. Two ounces was not very much. We needed at least a pound each. The waiter seemed to indicate surprise, and made a faint effort to convince us otherwise, but we insisted. After all, we were the customers. We knew best. And then we learned, as plate after plate of jiaozi arrived, each piled high, over twenty plates in all. Because the weight referred to the dry measure of flour, not the resulting cooked jiaozi. A classic lesson in just how important context can be. As you read this example you may think that it doesn’t really relate to language learning. I would argue differently. Any language is so much more than the words or the grammar. It involves different ways of perceiving the world, different ways of thinking and even different ways of interacting. When you learn all of these things then you are truly learning the language. If you try to learn just words and grammar without learning the thinking and the context you will make the learning process so much more difficult than it needs to be. And, if you try to learn a language conceptually, without a real world to connect to, you make it even harder still. Why? Because that’s how you really learn. You speak and you listen and you run up against reality and discover that what you thought was true was not. You learn what sounds and what concepts are useful in which places and times, and you get a sense of rhythm and timing as well as meaning and flow. And, in all this, you are totally focused on communicating what you want, not on learning a language. Because as you try to get around, your brain is busy remembering the important things at an unconscious level and putting them into just the right places for you to remember and use. Of course, all the while you are immersed in a sea of vibration of the language being used all around you. Whether or not you know it, you are picking up key elements of the language at an unconscious level. Just like Michael when he spoke Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. When you immerse yourself in a new language, your brain is processing the whole language, noticing the patterns that repeat. Which is why most classroom situations are counter-productive. In the classroom you tend to

look at small pieces of the language. The class room situation normally doesn’t provide the ‘ocean’ of information that the brain really needs.

The cultural mythology mistake I don’t know where it comes from, but many people seem to believe that the ability to speak any particular language is somehow linked to genetics. It’s not conscious, of course, but it seems to be quite a pervasive way of thinking. You can imagine that there is a little voice in people’s heads that says: ‘This cannot be possible, because those people don’t have the nervous system for our language.’ It almost gets to a point where the culture as a whole believes that individuals coming from another culture cannot possibly learn their language. An English friend who now lives in Singapore tells of his early travels to France. He had done high-school French and was very keen to get to France and begin speaking with the local people. He soon had cold water poured over that ambition. Every time he opened his mouth the non-verbal attitude from the locals communicated something a bit like: ‘How dare you try to speak this language, worm, it is impossible for you.’ And then the person would speak to him in English, totally ignoring his attempts to speak French. You notice this sort of thing frequently in Asia. Every day I come across a non-Chinese person who will tell me that Chinese is ‘just too complicated’ for a Westerner to learn. Or, whenever I speak in Chinese to someone I am meeting for the first time the reaction is akin to something one would expect if one had broken some fundamental law of physics. True, Chinese people who speak truly fluent English are a rarity, and Westerners who speak truly fluent Chinese are even rarer. Just as it is difficult to find Germans or French people who speak truly perfect, accentless English, and vice versa. But, is it that people from one culture cannot learn the language of another to a level of total fluency? Or does the myth itself create its own outcome?

Imagine for a moment that you have just landed in a new country, with different people, customs and language. You are intelligent, keen and determined to learn as fast as you can. So, you find yourself a teacher, go to a class or two, and begin to try the language. In class you can grasp what things mean, and sense how elements string together but you can’t quite produce words perfectly. At least, not yet. But you are courageous, and you head out into society determined to put your new skills to use. You go to a shop, see something you like, and say with your best effort, ‘How much is that?’ The response is a blank stare that communicates one thing — ‘You stupid foreigner, you will never learn this language, so don’t even try’. And even if that’s not the intent, it can often feel that way. Of course, I never subscribed to the belief that genetics, race or cultural background make it easier for one person to speak any particular language better than any other. This lesson was well taught to me by Caroline. I’m sure that she influenced many people in the same way. She was a big girl, very Oriental in features, with straight black hair down to her shoulders. She looked very Chinese. And then she opened her mouth. ‘Noo, I’m tellin’ yee thut is note the way uet uis!’ Pure Glaswegian! It was almost as if the Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly had just morphed into a Chinese woman right in front of my eyes! Of course, since then, there have been many others. The other day I met a Greek guy who is actually Scots. Or is it a Scots guy who is of Greek origin? It doesn’t much matter. What’s important to stress here is that the ability to learn any particular language is not genetic. So, there is no valid reason in the world why any person of any race cannot learn any language on the planet.

The approach that many people take to learning a foreign language can, in itself, prevent success. There are three major types of mistake that tend to happen. To summarise:

Bad beliefs. The bad belief problem happens when a person thinks that a language is difficult, and then creates a logical reason to support the belief. On the surface, the logical reason makes sense so the belief gets strengthened and the person tends to give up. If you explore how real those beliefs are, you begin to see new windows of opportunity. The school subject mistake. The idea that language can best be learned in school is another important myth that needs to be carefully examined. Once you have realised that you learned your first language long before you went to school you might begin to wonder whether it makes sense to approach a new language in the same way. The cultural mythology mistake. The third major myth that you need to examine is the idea that the ability to learn a given language is driven by genetics. If this were really true, then people of different race born into a new country would never learn the language of that country. This is patently untrue, as you’ll know from meeting someone of one race who unexpectedly speaks a language perfectly.

4 How do they do that? In the 1970s a question was asked. It was a simple question, but it had profound implications, like all good questions. In essence it was: ‘If a person has talent, can we pull out the components of that talent?’ A second question follows naturally from the first. ‘If you understand the components of someone’s talent, can you then replicate it?’ Have you ever considered the idea that if one person, anywhere, can do something, any other person can learn how to do the same thing? What effect might that have on your learning and understanding? In 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Before that time, it was common knowledge that it was not possible for a person to run that fast. Of course, since the barrier was broken, the sub-four-minute mile has been run many, many times. It doesn’t just happen, of course. The runners who break the four-minute mile still train hard, and they add to their training new methods that make it possible to achieve that goal. The same is true for the sport of mountain climbing. It took years before anyone was able to scale the peak of Mount Everest. Then, after it was first accomplished by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, it has subsequently been repeated many times. Since getting to the top of Mount Everest is becoming more common, the bar has been raised. On May 8, 1978, for instance, Reinhold Messner even climbed to the top of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. And he did it again in 1980 just to prove that the first time wasn’t a hoax. Every four years the Olympic Games show us that limits that people once assumed insuperable can be transcended. These limits frequently seem to evaporate into thin air, as a mirage shifts and disappears as you try to focus on it and walk to where it appears to be. You try to touch it, and it is gone. The hallucination of impossibility fades. The point is that barriers to performance in any arena can be surpassed and, once this has happened, the way is open f or others to follow.

Language learning is just one area where such barriers have already been removed by quite a few people. All you need to do is hook into what they did to learn so quickly, and you’ll be able to achieve the same results yourself. After all, learning a language isn’t all that difficult! If all the people in France can speak French, then French can’t be that hard. If a billion or more Chinese people can speak Chinese, then it can’t be that hard, and anyone can learn it. It may take a little time, a little effort, but success will follow. If millions of people around the world can communicate in English then, just maybe, anyone who wants to can learn it. And you don’t just look outside yourself for examples of success. You have them within you. You might recall a time when you did something particularly well. It was quite possibly unplanned, and there you were, performing at a level totally beyond what you had ever achieved before. You may have been playing sport, or playing music, or drawing or just relating with friends. And you did it in a way better than ever before. Now, a wonderful thing about your brain is that once you do something for the first time, a track gets laid down along your nerve pathways so it is easier to do the same thing again the next time. You begin to remember, and then again, and again, until what happened once becomes your normal and natural way of doing things. What’s even better is that the more you have learned already, the more you can learn easily in the future. This happens because your brain learns at two different levels. When you are learning one particular thing, or performing one particular action, you are also learning how to learn similar things in future. So, if you have learned one language, from knowing nothing about the world, and with no words to start with, then you can learn a second language. You have proven to yourself already that you can learn a language. You did it under the most difficult conditions imaginable, and you succeeded. So, you already have the means to succeed within you. Apply yourself, use the tools and approaches that work, and any new language will open itself to you.

Learn to copy; copy to learn Remember how schools stress so much that copying is bad, that you ‘have to do it all by yourself’? Strange, really, since copying is one of the most basic techniques that we have available to us for learning anything new. It’s good to walk around and really observe what happens in the world. You learn a lot that way. I live on a small island, where people walk rather than drive and they actually talk to each other on the street. So, it’s easy to notice how people behave. Just the other day as I was walking in the village I saw a father with his son. The father was walking, feet slightly turned out, with his hands clasped behind his back. His son, who must have been only about four years of age, was walking beside him in exactly the same way. Things like this make you wake up and start to think in different ways, and you start to notice more of what people are really doing. You start to notice how frequently people say ‘yes’ out loud, and shake their head at the same time. It’s very common. On that day, after noticing the first father-and-son pair, I became aware of four or five different examples of young children mimicking, in perfect detail, the movements and postures of one of their parents. If you have children you will have noticed that they mimic you. The things they do that really annoy you are probably the things that you do yourself. You just don’t like being reminded of it! Copying things exactly is how children learn. And, just like a child, whenever you want to learn something new, or just be better at something, it’s really useful to copy. Copy what people who are accomplished in that something are already doing. When people learn art, for instance, they do so first by copying the techniques of the masters. Once they have mastered other people’s styles and techniques, they then go on and develop their own style. What this really means is that, when you copy in this way, you are internalising mental programmes that a master uses, and making them your own, while adapting them flexibly in your own way.

Mental, physical and emotional strategies

Actually, the more you think about it, the more obvious it seems that people learn quickly and effectively when they can copy what it is that other people do. If you want to achieve something extraordinary in your life, the easiest way will be to find someone who has already done it and then begin to copy what they do — which is called ‘modelling’. When you do this, you are observing and identifying exactly what an expert performer does to generate their masterful performance. To do it most effectively you understand and then apply the unconscious steps that experts use to generate their expert performance. What does a master performer do that separates him or her from average or weak performers in any area of endeavour? When you model others, you are really very interested in strategies — the series of actions or events that take place within a person as they generate any behaviour. In other words, what you want to know, so you can model, are the internal programmes — the sequences of pictures, movements, sounds or whatever that masters make use of inside themselves when they are ‘doing their thing’. A fascinating story I came across some time ago concerns a young boy who was playing in a junior baseball team in the US. Apparently this young boy was unable to hit the ball at all. His coach, seeing his distress, decided to teach him a simple trick. The coach taught him to visualise a spot on the ball that was being pitched towards him. He was asked, quite simply, just to focus on the dot, and swing the bat. Armed with this new technique, the young man started to hit the ball more and more frequently until finally he came out at the top of his league. He went on to go to college and in college he played in the senior college baseball team, becoming a star hitter. When asked how he was able to achieve such a powerful performance, he commented that it came to him naturally, and that he had always been able to hit the ball this way. What is truly fascinating is the way in which experts actually become unaware of the very specific mental approaches that underlie their expertise. When you uncover the steps that they actually use, it’s possible for you to start getting similar results.

Modelling language learning Just like baseball, art or any other type of performance, language learning consists of a whole range of beliefs, ‘tricks of the trade’ and both mental and emotional strategies that you can use to make the process interesting, fun and effective. Over the last twenty years I have become increasingly aware of the internal strategies that I use to learn language and, as a consequence, I have been able to learn new languages faster each time. Of course, I’m not the only one who can do this. The people whom I have met that have been successful in learning a new language have strategies of thinking, acting and feeling about the language-learning process that contributes to their success. I’ve discovered that in most cases the success strategies used by these people are very similar, and sometimes identical, to the strategies that I have used in my own language-learning adventures. In the next chapter we look at the very specific ways that great language learners think about the language-learning process. These ways of thinking provide the basis for getting to grips with any new language easily and quickly.

5 Thinking like a language learner Whenever you begin to edge into a new language community, you will inevitably find yourself immersed in a sea of sound, through which you must find a way to communicate. To do that, you will need to make up new sentences, with little or no time for preparation. And you’ll have to learn thousands of words. Not just that. You need to both create and understand literally millions of combinations. Yikes! And then you remember, once again, that you have already done this at least once in your life. Like any large-scale task, to be successful it’s useful to consider the different ways you can break it down into bite-sized pieces. How will you think about this challenge? And how will this new thinking help you to organise your learning? Some months ago, I was coaching Sebastian. Sebastian is about fifty years old and plays in amateur golf competitions. On some days, he’d do great. On other days he had a terrible score. He was plagued by inconsistency. He had asked me to coach him with his mental game, so we started by analysing what was going on. It turned out that on the days when he had a good score he was thinking about just one shot at a time. He said to me, ‘You know , it works when you focus on what’s just in front of you . . . think about what you’re doing as you do it!’ When he was scoring badly, he was using up his energy worrying that he was ‘behind’, or that the other guy would catch up. Worse, he began to talk to himself. ‘Hmmm, I’m four shots down,’ it would begin. It was a quiet voice to start with. Then it got stronger. ‘You’re losing.’ A slight palpitation in the

heart. Fear, maybe? Then, ‘Here we go again. Another bad streak coming on.’ Tension grew in his shoulders. The voice would get even stronger. ‘Oh, man, this is a really tough shot! How am I ever going to make this one?’ Indecision would set in. There were times when Sebastian didn’t even know which club to pick any more! Soon the voice was at full pitch. ‘You ’ll never make that shot! You’re dead!’ Sebastian would swing and, as anticipated, the ball would begin to curve in the air and go in exactly the wrong direction. He was even further behind. Researchers, such as Debbie Crews of Arizona State University and John Milton of the University of Chicago, have been studying patterns of brain activation in golfers. The research shows quite conclusively that, the better a golfer is, the less brain activity he has in the seconds before he makes his shot. The key difference between pros and amateurs is in the left hemisphere of the brain. This is the place that logic, analysis and verbal thinking happen. Quite clearly, the better a golfer is, the less self-talk he has. How you think does matter. Which explains why Sebastian wasn’t hitting the ball where he wanted it to go. We worked together over a couple of sessions, and Sebastian got to a point where he was able to focus in a more productive way and ignore the score. Instead of getting rid of his self-talk, which could be quite difficult, he decided to say more useful things to himself. As he was getting ready to tee off, he’d start saying to himself: ‘I love this game. What a beautiful day. It’s great to be with friends.’ He even got to a point where he was playing friendly games and just totally ignoring the score. Which just made his game get better. A few weeks later I got a call. He was panicking. He’d just completed the first day of a three-day competition and had hit 15 on the last hole. In case you don’t play golf, let’s just say that this was very bad. He was devastated. He’d been doing well and then, on the last hole, his old self-talk came back. Ten minutes later he was in my office, and we began to work on it. He began to complain, saying, ‘I had it under control and I knew how to do what we talked about and then, when I needed it, I just didn’t have the presence of mind!’

Silent, I walked over to my desk, took a blank sheet of paper and wrote something on it. Folding the paper, I went back across the room and handed it to Sebastian. Looking puzzled, he took the folded paper and began to open it. The smile began at the left corner of his mouth, spread to his cheeks and his eyes, and leapt to his belly as he exploded in a great guffaw. From that day on, whenever he plays golf, if his old self-talk even gets started he finds himself smiling and relaxing. Because there is now presence of mind. He had received it as a little gift of words on a piece of paper. On the paper I had written Presence of Mind. And, as I gave it to him I said, ‘Now you have it.’ How you think about things does matter.

Thoughts for the launch pad As with golf, or any area of expertise, good language learners think about language in a special way, in a way different from how others might think. This way of thinking, of facing the challenges of learning a language, helps you to focus — pay attention — in the most effective way. There are just a

few core ideas that provide ongoing guidance for how to think about how you learn. The first, overriding idea applied by people who successfully master a foreign language seems like a paradox. Great language learners do not set out to learn a language. They set out to communicate with people who speak a different language. Simple. You focus on the whole communication, not just on the language of words. This idea has a number of dimensions to it, which are explored in the following sections.

Tool, not subject When she was quite young, my wife and I sometimes got quite frustrated with our young daughter, Michelle. She was continually giving orders. ‘I want the book — Mummy get it.’ ‘Get that.’ ‘Daddy, do it.’ ‘Mummy, pick it up.’ Now, many of the things she wanted us to do she could already do herself. Like picking a pen up off the floor or getting a book from the shelf. For some time her demanding behaviour just didn’t make any sense to us, especially as she was so independent and often wanted to do things by herself. Of course, when you’re tired after a long day, taking orders from a little one can grate the nerves. It was the day I changed the channel on the television that I understood. It just needed a comparison with what adults often do. Why do we use remote controls when we are watching TV? Simple. It takes less energy to push a button than it does to get up, walk across the room and walk back again. It’s the same for a child. He has a choice. He can get up, walk across the room and pick something up, or he can do magic. And you know how much children love things that are magical! Imagine for a moment the power, the sense, the satisfaction of a child. All you have to do is move your mouth, put some sounds together, and wow! Those big people will go and do your work for you! Amazing. This is fun! And you might think, ‘I have to do more of this.’ And they do. It’s much more fun being a manager than a worker! You’ll find children coming up with more and more creative ways to give orders — using more and more words to get the adults around them to do more and more things.

So, you can imagine the first time you get in a taxi and, in your new language say: ‘Take me to the airport.’ This multi-ton pile of steel, rubber and plastic begins to move and, before you know it, you have arrived at your destination. You’ve maybe even learned that the driver is married, is an immigrant from somewhere, and has two children as well. Many taxi drivers love to talk. Or, maybe you discovered that this particular city has two airports — and you’ve arrived at the one you didn’t want, with only 45 minutes until your flight. Instant clarification!

Maybe you are hungry and want to eat some bread. You could, of course, go into the fields, collect some wheat, separate the grain from the grass, take it home, grind it, find some other things with it, and make a loaf of bread. Alternatively, you go to the corner store and use a few muscles in your mouth and throat — ‘A loaf of bread please.’ And then, ‘How much is that?’ Just by making a few sounds, accompanied by appropriate gestures,

and putting them together in a certain way, you are able to get your needs met. Of course, like a child, it starts off simply. ‘Want that.’ ‘Give that.’ ‘How many . . . (money)?’ And, over time, you are able to say more and more, and you can notice you are increasing your power exponentially. Already very satisfying. Expanding your repertoire to be able to make more and more things happen. ‘Sit down’, and that person does sit down, exactly where you want them. Next time, you’ll probably add a ‘please’. ‘I prefer that wine,’ and someone passes the wine to you from the end of the table. All of the great language learners that I have spoken to think of their new language as a tool. Think of it as something to use, not as something to study. This doesn’t mean that they don’t think about it and analyse it — you do find your own ways to think about your new language a lot when you’re learning it, trying to work out which words and which combinations get what results. Finding ways to remember the important pieces. It’s just that you are also acutely aware of the practical nature of what you are doing. You know that language gives you power to get things done. It’s a way of getting your needs met. The ability to interact with people. And, like any tool, the more you use it the better you get.

Only results matter Now you can probably see how, when you think of language as a tool, the learning gets easier. For instance, you get immediate reward for saying something that works. Not necessarily the right thing, but something that works. Something that makes you understood, makes you understand. When you are already watching for what works, you focus your attention much more on the world, rather than just on what is in your head. You’ll find that you forget nervousness when you are curious about what is happening outside yourself! You get feedback that helps you to correct what you are doing. You definitely remember when you have chosen certain words or put them together. Mistakes give you a jolt that makes you remember them for a lifetime.

Kevin, a Welshman who did business in Japan for ten years, speaks Japanese absolutely beautifully. But even when he was already very fluent, he managed to get into situations where mistakes taught him new distinctions. One day, for instance, he went to a meeting with a client when he was working as a consultant in Japan. To get things started with some small talk Kevin quite innocently asked how the structural reorganisation was going. There was absolute, complete silence. The only perceptible movement in the room was the slight rise and fall of the chests of those people who were still breathing. Most people had stopped with the frozen inhale. Kevin’s Japanese colleague, quietly asked, in English: ‘Kebin-san, what did you intend to say?’ As the translation was given, the whole room erupted in laughter. A slight mispronunciation had led the group to hear him say: ‘When is the company funeral?’ The more you notice what happens as a result of what you try to say, the faster you will know what matters and the easier it will be for you to remember, then say, exactly that.

Communicate, don’t grammarate Leon, Mark and Pamela were in Germany, having dinner with a few people. Pamela was a lady who had spent a number of years at university learning German. She was, by all the measures used in formal language education, quite successful. Leon, on the other hand, came from South Africa and spoke Afrikaans and English. Somewhere along the way, he had learned a few words of German. As the dinner progressed Leon was the one communicating in German with the waiters at the restaurant. Happily, despite making all sorts of different ‘mistakes’, he combined his broken German with pointing, gestures, and whatever it took to get his point across to other guests and the waiters who were serving their table. Pamela, the accomplished student of German, was unable to communicate. It may have been that she was afraid of making a mistake. It might have been that the intense focus on correct, complex structure meant

that she was taking too long to put her thoughts together. What really matters is that she couldn’t communicate. When you think of your new language as a tool you naturally begin to focus on communicating, not ‘grammarating’. Grammarating describes an obsession with language structure and rules rather than a focus on making meaning. When you get down to it, making meaning is more important. Structure only matters if it interferes with meaning. Unfortunately, when someone who has learned to grammarate gets into a conversation with a native speaker of a l anguage , very frequently they find themselves s tuck . Slow. Awkward. Meaning is lost. This happens, quite simply, because communication is much more than language, and language is much more than simply grammar. It’s not that form isn’t useful, but it is secondary to many of the other elements of language. Most of the time, you can get the grammar wrong, and still be understood. These days it can take something between one and two hours for me to get from our house to the local village. When I’m alone it’s about a tenminute walk. However, Michelle is now at that age where she wants to be included, so she gets to come too. The first section of this ten-minute-extended-to-two-hour trip takes something like 45 minutes to accomplish. This requires putting things in the little bag, putting on little socks and shoes, opening the door, and various other simple daily things. And, for each of these things it is, ‘My do it by yourself.’ So Michelle puts her socks on by herself. And then her shoes. And sometimes she gets stuck, and it’s, ‘Daddy, help you.’ But it’s only for that little bit, because a few seconds later we are back to ‘My do it by yourself.’ And, even though the grammar is incorrect, Michelle’s meaning is obvious and clear. She wants to do it by herself. The big people already know how to do it, and she wants another opportunity to practise. ‘My do it by yourself.’ If, as happens on occasion, I don’t understand what she is communicating with words, Michelle is quick to embellish her message using her repertoire of facial expressions, gestures, and grunts. It becomes very obvious when she is communicating, ‘Daddy, you have to listen to me! Pay attention.’ So,

as with all parents and their children, we are able to communicate. Grammar is always secondary. So, in the language learners’ mind, a simple rule of thumb, some useful self-talk, goes like this: ‘Meaning matters more . . . meaning matters more . . . meaning matters more than form ever did.’ Pick the wrong word, of course, and things get interesting. You can get really significant meaning disconnects. Some months ago I had a ‘meaning disconnect’ with Michelle. She was lying on a sofa, and I sat down beside her. She said: ‘Daddy, get down please.’ I asked: ‘Really?’ She replied: ‘Really.’ I did not move for a few seconds, and she suddenly got very agitated and started saying: ‘Wee wee, wee wee!’ upon which I immediately picked her up and rushed to the bathroom. Of course, it only made her more furious, because she had meant that she really wanted me to get off the sofa. She had mispronounced ‘really’, so it sounded like ‘wee wee’, and I got a totally wrong message. The misunderstanding was caused by misreading the sounds of specific words, not by the grammar. I find it quite amusing that, while I speak a number of languages, I really can’t tell you what the labels for the different parts of language are. I do know what verbs and nouns are, and that’s about it. I don’t know what a gerund is, and I couldn’t explain case to you if I tried. If you already know these terms, and are familiar with grammatical descriptions, by all means make use of that knowledge. Anything goes, as long as it helps you learn. Take Romanised forms of Chinese, for example. The Mainland Chinese have developed a Romanised form of the language, mostly to help foreign learners of Chinese. As an English speaker you already know the English alphabet, so it makes sense to use it to help you get started with a new language. Much better than trying to learn a new set of weird squiggles and Chinese characters at the same time. You use an alphabet that you already know to rapidly master the new material, remembering that it’s only approximate and only temporary. The idea that communication is much more important than grammar study was brought home to me recently when I spoke with Helen, a lady from Indonesia who speaks six languages fluently. She was telling me how

she had tried to learn French in a class that focused on the grammar and the written form of the language. She could write things, and read things. In fact, she was quite good at it. Then she went to France. In her words, ‘When I went to France I realised I really didn’t learn much (in my earlier course). All I understood was oui and non. It was embarrassing! ‘Because, in France I was immersed in the sounds of the language. That is when I really began to understand it. I listened to all the intonations and the smallest of details. When I speak French (now) the locals actually think I am French, because I am a parrot. I repeat everything I hear. And, you know what? When it came down to it, the grammar didn’t matter.’

Joining a language community Ultimately, when you focus on communicating you begin to experience the pleasure of becoming part of a new language community. Think about it: would you rather go with a group of Spanish friends to enjoy the running of the bulls, or learn Latin from a textbook? Would you rather get the sounds, feelings, rhythms, textures, colours of your new language, or remain inside the small space that is defined by words on a page? And, it’s important to realise that if you’re ever going to really master a new language, you need to engage face-to-face, one-to-one, with members of that new language community. Talk to them. Listen to them. Watch them. Join them. When you focus on communicating, and join a language community, you begin with daily conversation. You don’t stop there, but it gives you an easy entry into the language. Daily conversation is the basis of the way a language works, and this is where you will build your foundations for fluency.

A wonderful insight comes when you realise that literacy follows fluency. It’s rarely the other way around. Children learn to read only after they are fluent in a language. Why should it be any different for a new language learner? Focusing on daily speech gives you an incredible advantage in learning a language. For one thing, daily conversation in any culture tends to be quite simple with lots of routines. ‘Good morning, how are you?’ ‘Fine, thank you. And you?’ ‘So, so.’ In France, ‘Comment ça va? ‘Oui, ça va bien.’ Or, in China, ‘Have you eaten?’ The reply ‘Yes, I’ve eaten.’ It’s actually bad manners to reply ‘No’, because then the person will feel obliged to

actually cook you some food — as I discovered one day when I arrived at a friend’s house in the middle of the afternoon. Pay attention to what people actually say to each other in the course of normal, daily conversation. You’ll notice many patterns getting repeated, and lots of the same words used over and over again. This makes your task as a learner much easier.

Skill, not concept When you focus on communicating, and think of language as a tool, you very quickly realise that language learning is about skill, not about a conceptual understanding. We don’t know language. We do language. I repeat. We DO language. You know that language is a skill, because you can lose it. When I was in Sichuan Province in the early 1980s, speaking only Chinese every day, I discovered that my English was slowly getting worse. When I tried to write something in English, I found that I couldn’t find certain words. The ones I couldn’t find were those that I had learned later in life, at university. I recently spoke with Jean, an American lady who went from Hong Kong to Brazil for a year to work with a tribe of Amazonian Indians. Initially, she found that whenever she opened her mouth to speak, the words that came out were Chinese. Only after some time did she reprogramme her ‘second language channel’ so that Spanish was the language coming out of her mouth. When she returned to Hong Kong, it was the other way around. She would try to talk to a local Chinese person and found herself speaking in Spanish. It’s like your mind creates grooves that make it easier and easier to speak a new language. Then, it takes a little effort to switch to a different language. A little bit like what happens when you try playing tennis after you’ve played squash for a few years. Chinese people who travel to foreign countries and live in those countries for a number of years, speaking a new language, find that they can’t easily recall and write Chinese characters. Use it or lose it. Use it to gain it. Several years ago I read about an Englishman who had been a soldier in the Second World War. He ended up getting left behind somewhere in the middle of Guangdong Province in China. He was discovered in the late

1980s. At that time, he was fluent in Cantonese and spoke very bad English. He had a strong Chinese accent over his English, and a very limited vocabulary. Fifty years speaking a new language in a new country will do that to you, no matter what your first language might have been. Ultimately, it’s about practice. Practice. Practice. The more you get to practise, the more you dig grooves in your mind that make it easier and easier to use the language.

It’s all relative Clive, now a chief executive of an Internet start-up company, is one of those people who you can imagine, as a child, would totally mess up the teacher’s script. When he was quite young he was in a class where the topic was colours. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘If a colour-blind person looks at green, but doesn’t see the same colour that I do, what happens then?’ Puzzled, the teacher asked him what he meant. ‘Well, if you look at a colour like this and you call it “green” but in your brain you see something that would call red , we can still talk to each other and agree that “this is green”. But, you see it very differently to how I see it. Your green is my red.’ ‘Green is green,’ replied the teacher. ‘Don’t be so silly.’ But Clive’s question was valid, both philosophically and practically, because it is all relative. Relative between people, on an individual basis, and between cultures. I remember a number of years ago how some of my classmates who were learning Mandarin complained regularly about how stupid Chinese is as a language. In the middle of their complaining I would often hear ‘Why is it like this?’ ‘Why don’t they say it this way?’ Unless you’re absolutely certain that knowing the history of a language will help you learn it better, asking ‘why’ is an unnecessary extra burden. One of the big insights about any language is that it is a convention. Over time, people have agreed (mostly unconsciously) that certain ways of saying something will stand for certain meanings. Other people with other languages have agreed on different conventions. The key here is to understand that these are agreements. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Here, now, today we could all agree that ‘sfyualba’ stands for:

And, as long as enough of us agree that this is the case, then so it shall be. If you notice your own language you will realise that these conventions aren’t even fixed. They change over time. Today, in 2000s English, the word ‘actor’ is used to represent both men and women. It wasn’t so long ago that we said ‘actor’ for a man and ‘actress’ for a woman. Most people in the English world today accept that ‘cool’ means some mixture of trendy, good and exciting. How did that happen? A century ago nobody would have understood that usage of the word ‘cool’. Of course, dotcom is a word totally new to the English language and to the world and I would bet that most, if not all, of the people reading this book will understand what a dotcom is. Because we have all agreed that’s what it will mean. Allen, a Canadian friend who is fluent in English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Cantonese, talks about how this realisation came to him. He was about sixteen at the time. ‘You know ,’ he said. ‘It was like you have this sudden, major shift in awareness.’

He went on. ‘I used to be fixed in my view that “this is the way to say things”. I was learning French at the time, struggling with one particular phrase that I can’t remember now, and I realised that there is more than one way to say things, and more than one way to think about things. All of a sudden, I realised that all languages are relative. There is nothing absolute about any language. There are many different ways in which you could choose to put sounds together to communicate meaning. And no one way is any better than any other way, they are just different.’ On reflection, this is incredibly freeing. Things aren’t as important as you used to think they were. It doesn’t matter if you get words out of order, or if they are spelled a little diffirant to what others are doing. I’m sure you catch my drift. Of course, it’s nice to be like other people, to play by the same rules. As with any game, playing by commonly agreed rules makes life smoother. You just need to know which game you are playing. Once you understand that languages, and the rules they use, are all relative, you begin to understand the different implications. First of all, you begin to notice that ‘why?’ is no longer a useful question for you. Why does Chinese only have one way of saying ‘many/much/a lot’? Why are cats masculine in French? Who cares! People in those countries play by those rules. As a learner, your focus very quickly moves to thinking about ‘how’ and ‘what’. A much more practical focus. Basically, you want to know which words do what. By that, I mean, what will happen when you say a certain thing. If you say ‘more’, does the waitress refill your glass, or does she slap you in the face? You want to know how. What steps are required to put across what you want to say? What and how. What will happen when I say this? And how do the natives do it? As you are doing this, you assume that the language you are learning has its own, internal logic. It is a separate system, independent from the language you already speak. Your job as a learner is to identify the logic of the new language, and then use it ‘as-if it makes perfect sense.

There are several key ideas that successful language learners apply when they are learning a new language. The central idea is that to learn a new language you had best focus on communicating before anything else. This has a number of implications for how to think about the language-learning process: Tool, not subject. View any language as a tool for communicating with people. Your job is to master the tools of communicating — the words — that are different from those that you have used in the past (in your own language). Observe the results. Ultimately, when you communicate effectively you get the responses you want. By watching the results you get, you can quickly tailor and change what you are doing and improve your communication. Don’t grammarate. Attention to structure in a language can be useful, but it should never get in the way of communicating effectively. Join a language community. So that you can use a language as a tool it is imperative that you join a language community of some sort. Only in this way do you have enough opportunities to practise, make mistakes, and get better. Skill, not concept. Language isn’t something that you know about — it is something that you do! You learn it by practising it until it is automatic. It’s all relative. All languages are conventions. Because of this, your energy is best spent thinking about how to do what you need to do to communicate. Forget ‘why?’ Attend to ‘how’, and you will succeed.

6 Meet the audibol To think about things in a new way means that you have the opportunity to tackle them in a new way. When you have a new way of thinking, it’s useful to have a new word to capture that new idea. That’s what words are for. A good word makes it easy for us to remember a new way to think. It gives you a tool to analyse things in a new way. To remember what you have read. Remember what has been said. To put a complex idea into a simple packet. Of course, we’re allowed to create new words when we have a new idea we want to express. This new word is a very important for learning language because it makes a distinction that can, quite subtly, change the way that you listen to language. This new word is ‘audibol’. What is it? Let’s first take an excursion into the brain, and explore more about how we understand our worlds. After all, that’s what we use language for — to describe our worlds. At the same time, language is also an important part of our worlds.

Map of a map of a map. . . . Have you wondered, when you were very small, long before you could talk, whether or not you could think about things? And, in what way did you think? Because when you are very small, you come into the world all ready and everything is new. There are sensations in your nose, but you don’t even have a concept for ‘nose’. All you have is something going on inside your brain, and it feels like it is something you want more of, or something you want less of. You don’t have any words for it, and when you see a face over you, you smile. And you don’t know what a smile is, or a face, at least not yet. Not

consciously. At the very least you don’t have a concept for it, and certainly no words. There are sensations in your head, from those things at the side that, as you grow up, you will learn to call ‘ears’. Slowly, over time, you begin to make sense of things. The world comes into focus. You begin to connect things together. You know that when you have that feeling in your chest, and wetness on your face, and you hear yourself yelling, that someone will come to save you. Before too many months are up, you have understood ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. You understand ‘up’ and ‘down’. You say things like ‘Mummy, I want go down.’ You know that when you have a strange feeling that you want or need something, even if you don’t know what it is. And you see things flying in the air, with little flap flap motions of things that look, sort of, like your arms. And they are different. Things go by when you are out with your Dad. They are noisy. They smell bad. You are frightened. And so, you have your first introduction to that which, later, you will come to know as ‘cars’. The process of learning about life is a process of making internal maps of the world. These maps are made up of sounds, pictures, smells, tastes and feelings. Over time, we add more and more layers and levels. As we are layering our maps we are creating meaning. So, we end up with a mental map of the world, made up of many component parts. And we use the map, as we interact with the world, to create moment-by-moment meaning. Think of it visually, as in the diagram in figure 6.1 below. Of course, your internal map of the world is actually a spider web of connections in the brain. Think, for a moment, about ‘coffee’. What comes to mind? It could be a coffee cup — the first coffee cup, a special gift that you once received. Maybe you smell coffee, strong. Or, the sounds of kitchens, cooking and coffee pots may be filtering through the shades of your unconscious. Each of these things that comes into your mind connects to others. Pictures, sounds, feelings, all connected together into an idea. A concept.

Right now, in your head, you also have the concept ‘car’. Have you ever asked yourself, at what point does a car become not a car — become something else? A truck, or a bicycle, or something that is ‘not car’. This idea that you have of ‘car’ didn’t just happen. It has been made up over the years. You have interacted with thousands and thousands of these things, and this has helped to make your idea of ‘car’ very well defined. It’s the same for every concept that you know. Each has a meaning that you have given it, over the years, through many uses. So, you can think of your mind as being an interconnected web of thousands upon thousands of clusters of sensations and memories, all of which you use to make meaning in your world.

Words, audibols and meanings The mental mapping process is, in itself, miraculous. Imagine what it takes for your brain to be able to do this. Now, humans don’t just use internal sensory representations of the outside world. We also use language. Language itself is also an internal map, made up of different parts. We have the sound part of language, which is what we hear. And, for others to hear sounds you have to make them first. This means that you have the physical, feeling part of language. The feeling of using your throat, larynx, cheeks, tongue, lips and teeth. The sounds that we make and hear are used to represent something in the world. The sound is not the thing. The sound represents the thing. The sound stands for the thing. And so, ‘words’ were born. But it’s important to understand that a word is more than just the sound of the word. Long before we ever learned to write visual symbols (i.e., written words), we were using our voice to create different sounds that stood for the different things that we were talking about. So, the sounds that we make with our mouths are symbols for things. Sound symbols. Voiced representations for things, and ideas, in the world. Because ‘symbol’ means something visual to many people, we need a new word. A new word like ... ‘audibol’ — auditory symbol. Audibols are sounds that we make with our mouth, tongue and throat to stand for objects, feelings, ideas and concepts in our world. And, you may well have noticed how it’s very helpful when you already think of audibols as being different from written symbols. In the following pictures, you see visual images of audibols that you would normally hear. These audibols represent one idea — — in various different languages. The images you see are a frequency map of these audibols. The languages are English, French and Chinese.

Now, what you may not have realised already is that we actually store audibols in our brain — both as the sound, and with meaning attached. The storage of the sound part you can best think of as being similar to the way a computer stores sound files. When you hear someone speaking, you can recognise the individual audibols, because you can compare what is in your mind with the sounds you are hearing. When you get a match, you can connect to the meaning of the sounds that you are hearing. I view it pictorially as in figure 6.3 below.

Why use ‘audibol’ to describe what is going on here rather than just say ‘word’? Because, when you have spoken a language for 20 years or more it is easy to think that what you write is the same as what you hear and this combined concept of write/hear is something called ‘word’. Also, many people seem to think, at least unconsciously, that a word and the thing it represents are the same. This barrier to learning a new language is better removed. I actually began to realise the very significant difference between the written form of a language and the spoken form when I was travelling around China by train in the early 1980s. One day I was sitting there, minding my own business. I noticed two people opposite me having a conversation. In the middle of this conversation one of them looked puzzled. The other immediately lifted up his left palm, faced it towards the other person and used the index finger of his right hand to trace out something. The other person smiled, nodded, and the conversation continued. A few minutes later, it happened again, but this time the other way. It slowly dawned that the two men were writing Chinese characters on their

palms — writing, in the sense that the other person could see the strokes of the character. They found this necessary because, as I listened, they came from different parts of China and had very different accents. They did not recognise the audibols that the other person was using, so had to rely on the written symbols of the language to cross the gap. I realised at that time that China is a nation united by one written script, not by one spoken language. It also gave me the opportunity to realise how spoken language and written language are different, yet interconnected, systems. To simply understand this idea, so you can apply it in your learning, you can view the relationship between meaning, written symbols and audibols as in figure 6.4.

You have probably realised that, when we say ‘word’, we are generally referring to the triangle of audibol, symbol and meaning. Remember, as a child, when you learned your first language you were discovering the link between audibols and meaning, not between written symbols and meaning, at least until some time had passed. Learning a human language is about, first and foremost, mapping sounds to meaning. Learning audibols, and the meanings that people give them. The process of adding visual symbols (written words) comes later.

Same audibol, different meaning Of course, it’s important to understand that within any language the same audibol can also represent different things. So, in English for example, we have an audibol that, when analyzed visually, looks like the image in figure 6.5.

This audibol represents three different English ideas — too; two; and to. In the following visual analysis of the sounds of someone speaking, you see short phrases that include the (to; too; two) audibol along with others. See if you can spot the (to; too; two) audibol.

The most important idea to take away from this chapter is that, for the most part, human language is about sound! I stress this point because,

although it may seem obvious to some people, many still seem to think that learning to write words in a new language is the same as speaking the language. While there is a place for reading and writing, it is not the primary thing you need to do when learning to master a new language. In fact, trying to learn to read or write too early can actually get in the way of the language-learning process. This is how it happens. You start with written symbols in the new language, let’s say French. With French, you have virtually the same alphabet as you have with English. The only problem is, these very same letters are spoken very differently from how you speak them in English. A problem arises because your familiarity with the English pronunciation leads you to say them more like an English person than a French person would. You then hear yourself saying the words and tend to remember them the way you have said them. You are not saying them as a native would. You are saying them using the letter-to-sound translations from your own tongue. The more you practise this the more you lock in the wrong pronunciation. What’s worse is that, as you practise, you even train your brain to not notice the difference. This is partly where the foreign accent comes from. A much better way of doing things is to start with the sounds. Listen to them, repeat them, and try to get them as close to native as possible. In my experience you can get 80 to 90 per cent of the sounds quite correct in just a few weeks. Once you have mastered the range of sounds in the language, then it’s time to start looking at the written representation. At that time you learn the written language with a different purpose than if you had started writing on day one. Once you’ve already mastered the sounds you are learning the rules that natives use to connect the visual symbols of the language to the audibols of the language. This is a very different process, with quite different results.

What it all means The ideas in this chapter may seem simple, even obvious. And they are profoundly important. When you master this idea you have a very important tool in your tool-bag.

To summarise, in spoken human language specific ideas are matched with specific sounds. So, it follows that if you are to speak a language well, you will need to also pay particular attention to how the language sounds. You will need to work with audibols. This means that you will learn to recognise them, and connect them to images and meanings in your mind. And you will learn to use your mouth, nose and throat to produce the audibols the same way that a native speaker produces them. As with the other parts of learning a language, both the hearing part and audibol-producing part can also be learned. We deal with strategies for audibol control in Chapter 9 — Tongue ’n’ ear.

Section 2 In the previous section we explored ways of thinking about learning a language that make the learning process easy and natural. As you proceed to learn a new language, using these ideas, you will discover that your learning process is somehow easier, lighter even. In the chapters that follow we will look at more specific approaches that you can use to really help your learning process. For instance, how do you deal with the sheer volume of information? How can you train yourself so that when you speak you will sound more and more and more like a native speaker? These questions and more are addressed in the chapters that follow.

7 Perceive patterns, practise details When you were younger there must have been days when the best thing was just to lie in the grass, look at the clouds forming, and notice the one that looked like a sheep, and the cloud that looked like a car. Or maybe you have had days when you were driving to work, and you noticed something about the traffic and said to yourself: ‘There is going to be a bad traffic jam today.’ From that instant assessment, you took a different route. You heard later on that a big traffic jam did occur. This can only happen because your brain is designed to recognise patterns. It gives you an evolutionary advantage. If you’re out walking on the grasslands of Africa, and you catch a whiff of a certain scent, and hear a particular kind of rustle in the grass, being able to put those things together quickly means that you probably get to have dinner and then live long enough to have babies. If you don’t recognise a pattern in time, you end up as baby food. Baby lions’ food, that is. Every minute of every day your brain is taking in information, and scanning it for patterns. It prioritises, identifies and highlights the important ones, then brings these into conscious awareness. Now, what happens to this ‘pattern recognising machine’ when it doesn’t receive patterns to recognise can be fascinating. Have you ever had to listen to one, monotonous, continuous tone, for hours? Or sit and watch a blank wall? In 1989, I was on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, in the Arctic Circle. At the time I was part of an expedition that had set out to create a story and raise global awareness about various environmental issues. It was early spring, and 24-hour daylight was upon us. It was still well below zero, even during the warmest parts of the sunniest days. One day was beautiful

— clear, cold, dry, and white. No wind. A perfect day for a walk. So I set off. I left the shelter of the weather station at Eureka, made my way down a short slope, and headed out onto the frozen-over ocean. Ice mounds, small and large, rose up around me, and the white terrain, tinged with blue, stretched out for miles in every direction. All I could sense was the uneven texture of the snow, and the muted ‘crunch ... crunch ... crunch’ under my boots. After some time, I decided to stop. Just to look around and appreciate the scenery. As I stood there, motionless, I noticed it. Faint, at first, and then slowly louder. A funny ringing, humming, sort of sound. Coming from inside my ears. It was so absolutely quiet that my brain had no sounds to work with. No cars, no people. No birds or birdsong. No insects, no crickets chirping. There was no wind, so there was no whistling or rustling. So, when I stopped walking, the world became absolutely, totally, silent. My brain had nothing to do, no sound patterns to recognise — so it had to make something up. And my ears began to ring. In order just to live a normal life your brain is constantly recognising and evaluating patterns and, if there is no pattern, we make something up. We use this same skill all the time to understand language. If we couldn’t recognise patterns and separate them from noise, we couldn’t understand someone over a noisy, long-distance telephone line. It’s what makes you human. And it’s what makes language learning that much easier when you recognise and use patterns consciously.

Brain soaking You might realise, and you might not, that you can recognise patterns in a language with little effort. You may not know what the patterns mean — you still need to work that out — but you can still notice those patterns when they happen. Things that repeat. Certain sequences of audibols. Common phrases. David, a friend who works as a consultant, was saying how he learned Mandarin Chinese just by sitting in on meetings. Over time he found that

his comprehension of the new language went from zero to a little, and from a little to a lot. Just by noticing the patterns. Today he is fluent. Don, a businessman who travels around the world and has offices in 20 different countries tells the same story. No matter which country, or which language, just be being exposed over time his understanding of all of those languages has increased significantly. When I was learning Mandarin I made a point of participating in Chinese society. To get from the campus into the city centre, I’d ride the buses. When you ride the buses in China you quickly get to know two phrases — ‘mai piao’ (buy ticket) and ‘wang li bian zou’ (move to the centre). If you’ve been in any place for more than a few days, and become engaged with that society in any way, then you will no doubt have noticed something interesting. Without any conscious effort, you begin to be aware of phrases and expressions that occur repeatedly in simple, everyday contexts. When you choose to do things like riding the buses, or going somewhere on a train, you also get to meet fascinating people. Not to mention the deep insights that you get into a culture. Datong is a coal-mining city, north of Beijing. In winter, it gets really cold. Imagine going there in 1982. Just a few years after China’s decision to open to the outside world. Minus thirty degrees Celsius outside. Not much warmer inside, especially since the window in your hotel room is broken, and looks like it has been that way for a long time. And so you decide to go and see the local attractions — giant Buddha statues in caves that were carved hundreds of years ago. You get on a bus, and head out of town. Of course, the windows on the bus are broken, and everyone has their hat flaps over their ears, and their hands placed inside the opposite sleeve of their coat just to stay warm. Sitting there, freezing in the back of the bus on the way back into town after the excursion, I was invited by two friendly People’s Liberation Army soldiers to join them for lunch. Together, we entered a small, local restaurant where we were served hot jiaozi and fried noodles. This was accompanied by the obligatory alcohol — rough, clear distilled spirits. My new friends made me feel right at home.

The place we were in was clearly a hangout for the troops. There was another table with about six PLA soldiers, and they were drinking too. The same white spirits that we were drinking — or rather, sipping — but by the jug full. It was quite obvious that they wanted to take me on in a drinking competition. For them it was a ‘face’ thing. Westerners drink a lot (or so they believed) so taking one on and winning would prove their manliness. My new friends sensed that I was not going to be any match for the hardened drinkers on the other table, and graciously bowed me out of the race before it had even begun. Luckily, my hosts felt responsible for my welfare. It’s nice when you meet really decent people. Which happens very frequently when you’re actively learning a language. This was also the day when I realised that there are sections within Chinese society where drinking is a virtue. And that there are people who can drink incredible amounts. The soldiers on the other table were downing their spirits by the cattie (500 grammes). Another interesting piece of information. Seemed like the Chinese measured liquids by weight, rather than volume, at least in terms of common speech. It was in situations like this that I learned my Chinese — or, rather, absorbed it. Of course, I did other things. I deliberately memorised phrases.

I read things. I practised writing simple letters to friends. But the most important part of the learning was sitting on buses and trains, listening to conversations around the table in a restaurant or at a friend’s home, and moving around inside of, as part of, the society. This level of exposure makes maximum use of your brain’s patternrecognising ability. Because you are exposing yourself to the whole language, rather than building it up from little bits, your brain has the opportunity to directly perceive how the whole thing hangs together. This does not mean that you can speak fluently immediately. It does mean that once you have a mental record of the patterns of the language, repeated many times over, your own brain can pull the language apart in its own way and at its own pace. And then offer up little bits for you to practise. Or for you to be aware of on the conscious level. As you listen to the language in context, with thousands of repetitions, your brain automatically pulls out the highlights. It helps you to remember words. Remember phrases. Remember things that you didn’t even consciously try to remember, and you discover that you know exactly what to say, and don’t remember where (or how) you learned it. The contextual exposure creates gentle hooks into your mind, and provides something that your brain can get to work on with its patternrecognition power. That word at the end of each sentence that gets stressed so strongly. That funny sound that always seems to be somewhere in the middle. That sound they make with their nose. How can any human being make sounds like that? And it stands out for you. Even more importantly, your brain notices the connections between language patterns and life patterns. The head shake or the frown when a Frenchman says non (no). The red face when somebody, in obvious frustration and anger, says merde! — it’s obviously a curse, probably related to some bodily part or function. The word that goes with pointing at one’s own nose — probably means ‘me’. And you’re noticing differences, at every level, comparing what you already know with the new culture. You might notice that these people point to their nose when they are talking about themselves, and you point to your chest. Not important. Just something to notice and use. A habit of mind and body. A part of the language.

After you’ve recognised a pattern, the next time it becomes easier. And slowly, without even realising it, it has become a familiar old pattern. It has become your friend. Even if you have not yet fully connected a definition to it. And so your attention can move to other things. In 1981 in China the first phrase that you were sure to hear when you went shopping was ‘mei you — ‘don’t have’. Whatever you asked for, they didn’t have it. You wanted some tennis shoes — ‘mei you. You wanted to buy a cooking pot. ‘Mei you.’ It was a standing joke for everyone, including Chinese people. The decade of ‘We don’t have it’.

You wanted a warm, furry, Russian style hat. ‘Mei you!’ Even though you could see what you wanted placed in a rack behind the sales person. And you really wanted to learn how to say: ‘What about that hat on the rack behind you?’ And, just maybe, you wanted to learn a few stronger words as well. A little bit of motivation on the way. Of course, once you could ask that question you got very black looks in response, and something along the lines of, ‘It’s reserved for somebody else.’ Which was probably true, and after a few times you learned about the idea of the ‘back door’ — gaining access to things because your connections were better than other people’s.

What if you don’t have the chance to visit a new language community? Of course, you can always get thousands of hours of exposure by just listening to tapes, or by going over grammar books and lists of words. Watch films and listen to music in that language. All of this will help. And if for a large part of the time you just listen, allowing your brain to notice things, the same pattern-recognising power of your brain will come into play.

Pay attention! Do stuff! At this point you may well be thinking, if exposing yourself to the language is all it takes, why are there so many adults who have been in a new land for 20 years or more and they still can’t speak the language? Many years ago, when I had just arrived in Hong Kong, I spent some time teaching English in an evening school. There are many of these privately run organisations in Hong Kong. At the time I had a number of sessions every day, where I would have conversations with an English learner, and teach where needed. One young lady came to me, and together we were having an incredibly difficult time. She was clearly not learning anything, and no matter how hard I tried I could not get her to actually do something, anything. I would ask her to practise something. She didn’t. I would ask her to organise a grammar point in her mind. She wouldn’t. Finally, in frustration, she said to me very angrily ‘Why are you asking me to do things? You are supposed to be teaching me!’ There’s an old German man who lives in Tasmania, Australia. He travelled there in the 1950s and settled. He’s now in his seventies. Even though he has been in Australia for 50-something years, he speaks Australian with a strong — I mean, strong — German accent. So he gets to have fun. The average age of people in Australia is about 35. When he is asked the question ‘Ow long ’ave you bin ’ere, maite?’ he is able to reply, totally honestly, ‘Longer than you have, mate.’ Of course, this old guy speaks English quite well, except for the accent. He says, ‘You know, the accent doesn’t matter, as long as you can communicate.’

Unfortunately, there are many others who, quite literally, can’t speak a word of the language of their adopted country, though they are surrounded by the language. So, just doing pattern recognition and absorption doesn’t solve the whole language-learning problem. As you begin to get curious about this it becomes useful to turn to children again for a better sense of what might be missing. Have you ever noticed that, when they are learning to stand up and walk, it doesn’t just happen? You can watch them for days, even weeks. You might observe a little boy crawl over to a sofa, then put his left hand up on it. Then put his right hand up. Then do it the other way again. Maybe for days at a time. Or maybe he squats, pushes up a bit, squats, over and over again. What’s he doing? Practising! Putting the components in place so that he can stand, and then walk.

Have you ever wondered why children sleep so much? When they are awake they are working very hard, and they need their rest!

It’s the same with children learning language. We might not see much happening, but on the inside those little brains are working overtime. It’s not just the brains. They are working their little mouths and tongues and throats all at the same time, trying to master this funny behaviour of making sounds to communicate. And, if you ever get to wonder why they work so hard, you can imagine what life would be like without language for them. They already know that yelling, screaming, crying and wriggling only goes so far. Because it’s so important, you work at it. Every day. Watch closely. Observe. When you pay attention to children you will see that they actually think about the language. They pick on small bits, from the overall pattern that they have been hearing, and they practise those bits. Over and over again. They make up little tunes to sing to themselves to practise some words. They take words that they know and use those words in places that communicate a meaning, even though an adult would have chosen a different, more socially acceptable, word to communicate the same thing. My daughter, Michelle, is a goldmine of examples. When she was about two-and-a-half, my wife was squeezing a lemon over a salad, and my daughter blurted out: ‘The lemon is wee-weeing.’ A great example of using a word that she knows, and using a metaphorical linkage to express something that she wants to say. Another great example was when she said, as I was reading aloud to her, ‘Daddy is talking to the book.’ When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The book is an object, I’m holding it, I’m talking out loud with my attention directed towards the book. Clearly, I’m talking to the book! Oh, to have the mind of a child. . . . Some months ago, as I was writing this, my helper cooked lunch. When I had finished, I said: ‘Thanks, Lori.’ My daughter immediately echoed what I had said. Over the next few minutes we heard her saying ‘Thanks, Lori’ in half-a-dozen different ways, with different intonations. Definitely paying attention. Noticing different bits of the language in context. Then, focusing in on one piece, and starting to practise it. Just like the daughter of a friend in Delhi, who, on one particular day, discovered the phrase ‘Oh, My God!’ Over the course of a couple of hours she must have repeated it out loud several hundred times. And, each time

she explored a slightly different way of saying it, stressing different syllables, using different rhythms. For most of one afternoon the sound of ‘Oh, My God’ could be heard coming from different parts of the house. Practice, practice, practice. Play with the language. Pay attention. Do stuff. When you realise how much children actually practise language, one piece at a time, it’s no longer much of a mystery why they are actually able to master it. If you approach it in the same way, just imagine. . . . Children will manipulate the language to explore different parts of the grammar. When you listen to them, you’ll hear sequences like: ‘Give money for Daddy.’ ‘Peter has two monies.’ ‘Don’t have money here.’ — Deliberately practising word substitution in sentences. Or, on another occasion: ‘Broken already.’ ‘Can’t take it out already.’ ‘Finished it already.’ — Looking for and taking any and every opportunity to use the word‘already’. They don’t just practise randomly. Children really do think about what they are doing. Walking in the hills one day we spotted a millipede on the pathway, quietly making its way across. I squatted down with Michelle, pointed to the insect, and said: ‘This is a millipede.’ She watched for a while, then indicated (by wriggling) that she had seen enough and wanted to keep moving. A few minutes later she started to talk. ‘Minipede,’ she said. Then, after a pause ... ‘Millipede!’ A few seconds later she said, out loud, talking to herself, ‘Milli not mini!’ And then she began practising over and over again: ‘Millipede, millipede.’ As clear an example as you could want of making mental notes, and actually thinking about the structure of one’s mother tongue. Paying attention. Doing things. As an adult, learning a new language, this is all you need to focus on. It doesn’t really matter which activities you do. What does matter is that you, as a learner, are very actively involved — that you are paying attention, and doing things. It could be anything. Going over grammar notes. Making up

sentences in your head. Trying to say something, anything, to the person at the corner store. Just doing something. Why is this the case? It has a lot to do with memory. There’s actually a lot to say about memory. For now, suffice it to say that memory is greatly enhanced by ‘deep processing’. Which means, the more ‘work’ that you do with a word or an idea or a new piece of information, the more likely you will be to remember it. Truly effective adult language learners are just like children in their approach. Aileen, who was learning Japanese, created an arrangement with a local Japanese couple. Every weekend she would spend half a day at their home, speaking Japanese half the time, and English the other half of the time. She had created a language community that she could be a part of and, at the same time, had developed her own special language resource. This context provided the chance for her to be active. One of her strategies for learning was to take a piece of the language that she was interested in and consciously work on it. She would identify a structure, such as a word ending, and she would actively find excuses to use it. Emily, who was learning Arabic very quickly, also took a very active approach. She would deliberately walk around her house, talking to herself in Arabic. Imagine walking around the house saying ‘door’, ‘shoe’, ‘fork’, out loud in your new language, whenever you lay eyes on a different object. That’s what she was doing. The key, then, is to understand that in addition to perceiving a pattern you need to actively work at practising it. If you can do it for patterns that you have identified yourself, so much the better. So, as a basic rule, actively pay attention to what is going on. Then, take pieces of the language that interest you and practise them one by one until you’ve got them mastered. It’s much better to master small chunks very well, than struggle with great volumes of vocabulary that would overwhelm almost anyone. This is because, when you have the right small chunks, you will be able to communicate quite effectively (if not elegantly) in a very short space of time.

In this chapter we’ve looked at the importance of getting deeply immersed in a language group if you want to learn the language. There are strong reasons for this: The human brain naturally excels in discovering patterns. Once patterns are discovered, you can recognise them again with increasing ease on a conscious level. Language learning is a pattern recognition exercise. To recognise patterns in language you need large amounts of information. You can’t recognise patterns from fragments. Getting immersed in a culture and a language community is the best way to get the large amounts of information required for recognising patterns. You can make use of tapes, TV shows and other language sources to do pattern recognition. Once you’ve started hearing patterns, of course, it’s time to practise. Pick on just a few things and do them over and over again until they feel totally natural to you. Then move on and start practising the next piece.

8 In the beginning was the word ‘Me, you together eat go,’ says the man with the hat. You’ve just arrived. He’s one of those people who has found that it’s exciting, or maybe it’s just fun, to connect with people from other places. He’s found a way to make the effort to learn some words — just a few — and string them together. And so, it’s off to lunch you go. And you realise that something interesting is happening. You’re communicating, though the English grammar certainly doesn’t follow the rules that you’ve grown accustomed to during your life! Which demonstrates one key thing — knowing words is far more important than knowing grammar. Especially when you’re just getting started. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be with a person who is learning your language, you’ll maybe recall that you never really bothered to correct their grammar, unless you really didn’t understand what they were saying. So, in a real sense it wasn’t even a correction. It was merely an enquiry for clarification. An enquiry that the other person would have naturally and easily used to improve understanding and accuracy. To give a sense of the importance of words, even in the face of ‘inaccurate’ grammar, I’ve included a paragraph from a letter sent to me by a Chinese man with whom I occasionally correspond. He has aspirations to become a personal coach and counsellor. Now the girl says that her life is bad, and wants to communicate with me. Now I will play a role as a consultant. I am glad that I have make the desicion that her growing is the prior thing so I can communicate with her more reasonable (as a consultant, maybe I should only focus on her problem and growing. Now I am easy to change to it). But only after a

half night of sleepless after that evening I talked with her I made sure this point and wrote it down. I’ve rewritten it as I have understood it: Now, the girl says that her life is in a mess, so she wants to communicate with me. I’ve now decided to play a role as her personal consultant. I’m glad that I have been able to take the decision to make her growth my priority. This means that I can communicate with her more reasonably (as a consultant, I think that maybe I should only focus on her problem and her growth. It’s easy for me now to get to that way of thinking). However, I only got to this understanding after a sleepless night. This happened the evening after I talked with her, confirmed this point, and wrote it down. Among other things, you’ll notice that when a word is misspelled, you can generally understand the intent of the communication. The same is true for grammatical issues. Of course, wrong word order, the wrong tense, and other ‘problems’ mean that you, as the reader or listener, need to work harder. In those cases where the meaning is truly ambiguous it’s generally because of a wrong word (e.g., prior instead of priority, reasonable rather than reasonably/ rationally, made sure this point for confirmed). In the face of such ambiguity, you would need to check with the writer or speaker. And that is where they would get their feedback. Ultimately, words matter most. You can communicate a great deal of meaning with just one or two words. This happens because words are the little packets that open the scented picture boxes in your mind, and allow images, sensations and feelings to flow inside you as somebody talks or as you read words on a page. So to be successful at learning your new language, you need to master words. You learn to tame those units of meaning that you can throw to others across time and space. Little encapsulated ‘thought balls’, wrapped in a bundle of frequencies and shapes.

You can begin to imagine moving into a new culture, surrounded by people who are different. They may look the same, but when they open their mouths they sound different. Maybe a little different. Maybe very different. The world around you might seem totally awash in sounds that you don’t understand. Or, you might have chosen to make things silent, so that you can go through life filtering in such a way that you do not notice everything. Even so, you know that sooner or later the noises and expressions of this place will come to be part of the playground in your mind until, sooner than you think, you have mastered the meanings, sculpted the sounds, and morphed into the culture.

Things to remember: Words are the primary carriers of meaning in any language. Wrong words can lead to misunderstanding. Wrong grammar leads to a loss of ease and elegance for the listener, but meaning can still be communicated. To succeed in a new language, first pay attention to learning the words of the language.

Building your ice raft — using what you’ve got You’ve understood that words are important. You’ve decided to focus on the words of your new language, to learn them and begin communicating. You’re excited. You want to really get moving, learning, talking. Then reality begins to sink in. The size of the task seems to be unlimited. How many words, actually, do you need to learn? In 1999 the Encyclopedia Americana stated that there are between 650,000 and 750,000 words in an unabridged modern English dictionary.

No native speaker will have mastered all of those words, and most native speakers have probably never even heard of a significant proportion. German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 words. French has fewer than 100,000 words. Much easier than English! And still, it’s a lot of words to learn. In China, there are only 6763 standard written characters. These are the characters (zi) that are recognised by the Chinese government for use by schools, publishers and other institutions. By combining the characters together, of course, you can form many more ‘words’ than that. Now, you could be excused for thinking, since a language has literally hundreds of thousands of words, how are you ever going to learn them? It could seem overwhelming, until you realize… It was 1981 and I was but a few weeks into my Mandarin learning in Beijing. I was in class. While I got full exposure to the language outside the classroom, class-based activities were useful for identifying new patterns to practise. The classroom was a place where I could fully leverage my adult advantage. On this particular day, we had to do an essay as part of an in-class assignment. We were allowed to use dictionaries, because it wasn’t a test, but an exercise in using the language. It started slowly, as composition frequently does. As we got into the exercise, I noticed many fellow students struggling. I stopped writing for a while to observe what was happening. You could see people start to think about what they wanted to write, then move to looking into the English-Chinese dictionary, or the Italian-Chinese dictionary, or the French-Chinese dictionary to find the words that they wanted. It dawned that they were constructing the essay in their first language, and then trying to find the words to translate into Chinese. They were doomed to difficulty and frustration. When you try to communicate too far beyond the tools (words) that you have available you will very quickly get stuck. It’s better to spread your wings a little more slowly and surely. Kevin, the international business consultant that we met a little earlier in this story, is actually a fluent speaker of many languages. He has a wonderful metaphor for the language-learning process. As he puts it, when you start learning a new language you feel like you are standing on a little piece of frozen ice, in the middle of a very large, cold ocean. The ice is the

language that you can already use. The ocean is what you don’t yet know about the language. When you’re getting started, whichever direction you go you quickly fall off the ice into the water. And it’s cold. Except it’s like a cartoon, and you can immediately bounce back onto the ice floe, all dry and comfy again. Now, you can see out over this water. You can see nice islands that beckon you. Experiences that you can have. People you can meet. And they are way over there . . . over the water. And it was so tempting to try and just get there. To be sitting in a coffee house, or someone’s home, discussing literature, politics, or whatever it is that you like to talk about. There’s such an attraction just to get out there, over that big ocean of the other language, and start playing as you do in your mother tongue.

So, you charge right off the ice, into the water. It’s cold. With the shock of the sudden cold, it was so easy to reach for a life-saver. Your own language. It’s familiar. You know how to express yourself. You can understand. And you know that this is not helping you. Like the young man buying noodles on the ferry that I mentioned in Chapter 1. Asking how to say it right, mimicking beautifully, and finally grasping for a life jacket of English words even though he was still on safe ice. Now, of course, you can understand that the metaphorical ice upon which you stand has a particular quality to it. It attracts water from the surrounding ocean, turns that water into ice, and so your platform grows

ever larger. It’s useful to think about how the speed of ice formation around your little platform depends on the strength and thickness of the block you are standing on. It’s important to notice that the more ice you add around the edges of your platform, the stronger the centre of the platform becomes as well. Everything compacts towards the middle, allowing more and more stability for things to grow outwards.

There’s also something strange about the ice upon which you stand. You will discover that the more you walk on it the stronger and thicker it becomes. And the thicker it becomes, the more new ice it can attract. Deeper and wider. A bigger slab attracts more to itself, partly because it has a bigger surface area. Which leads to more attraction, which leads to an even greater surface area. Of course, when the core is small, there is not much surface area to attach new things to. So, at the beginning, it grows very slowly. As your word platform grows, the bigger it is the faster it will grow, because there is more area to attach new things to. As you enter into your new language and culture, at first you may be curious about how quickly or slowly you seem to get new words. And you

are laying down important foundations. One word doesn’t give you much ‘surface area’ to work with. Two words are better. Four better still. You get to eight, and notice that it seems to be getting easier, even if only a little. Until very soon you can have a nice core from which to begin your building. And as your core grows, your learning accelerates even further.

Build from the core In 1982 I was lucky enough to be admitted to the Beijing Sports College (officially known as the Beijing Institute of Physical Education), to study martial arts on a full-time basis. Exciting times. It was something that, several months before, had seemed totally impossible. When I had initially applied to go to this school I had been turned down. Of course, when you’re doing anything worthwhile, ‘no’ has no meaning. Faced with defeat I began to work on ways of getting to the school of my choice. I visited the Ministry of Education to plead, persuade and just plain cajole. I pestered the New Zealand Embassy. And I wrote letters to Deng Xiaoping — China’s supreme leader at the time. Many letters. All in Chinese. At that time I had only been in China for six months, so the language was six-months new. It’s amazing what a little bit of motivation can do. Through every avenue open to me I was communicating that I was serious, and I wasn’t going to disappear, no matter how many times I was rejected. As many have said before, ‘Never, never, ever give up!’ Somehow, somewhere along the way, something worked. I was accepted by the Sports College. I was excited. I had images of rapidly mastering the impressive stunts that I had seen performed in shows and on the street. My teachers would have none of it. I was asked to focus solely on ‘the basics’ — stretching, strengthening, and very basic, simple movements. Horror! I wanted to be in the thick of it. Learning the stunts. Learning the moves. I could work on the basics as I went along. And it’s amazing how you can change your mind in the face of new information. I realised later how wise it is to get the foundation right. One day I watched as a young lady started doing high kicks, jumps, and mid-air spins. We learned later that she had not warmed up properly.

It was a cold day in Beijing, very early in the morning, and sound echoed around the gymnasium where we were training. You could almost hear the ‘pop’ as her Achilles tendon snapped, sending her now free calf muscle into a little ball behind the knee. The first sound triggering the beginning of a scream that seemed to last for an eternity of at least ten seconds. Things like this teach you how to relearn old wisdom. Getting the basics right matters. In sport, if you have strong legs and good balance and good flexibility, you can play anything. Pretty techniques without the core tend to end in trouble. And our minds come back to language, and we wonder, what does this mean? While you’re exposing yourself to the whole language in as many ways and places as possible, soaking your brain in the sea of the language, at the same time you’re focusing your attention to practise and master just a few things. It’s better to do less, and do it well, than to try and cram too much in at one time. Build a solid core, and allow yourself to expand it naturally. The solid core of any language is, first and foremost, the ability to go directly from your internal images into your new language. No translation. To think in your new language, with phrases and intonation that are as close as possible to native speech. And, to be using the words and phrases that are most commonly used in your new language. For the bits that you are actively practising, it’s much more important to become as smooth as you can with a small amount, than to be quite ‘scrappy’ with lots and lots of new material. Even if you only have eight words, or 16 words, or 32 words to think and talk with, you are still already thinking in your new language. Much better than having 100 words, or 200 words, that you can only use by translating in your head all the time. You build the core by using it over and over again. Drilling yourself until it’s automatic. Looking for opportunities to say what you know how to say. Ed, a young American military officer who had served in Korea and Rumania, was interviewed by Earl Stevick in a research project on successful language learners. Ed was highly competent in Korean and Rumanian and at the time of his interview he was learning Swahili. One reason for Ed’s success was his ability to ‘pay attention; do stuff ’. He was a very active language learner.

He was also a stickler for grammar drills. He even seemed to enjoy doing them. He was motivated to keep at it because his goal was to become practiced and automatic at a very specific pattern. Then get a new pattern, and make that automatic, before moving on to the next. He was working on the core. Derek was a middle-aged executive who had already been highly successful with German and Russian. At the time of his interview with Stevick he was learning Finnish. He too worked with the core, and is quoted as saying: ‘If you can’t learn to say what you want to say, learn to want to say what you can say.’ Build your platform. Take what you can say, and use it over and over again. Say very simple things just to say them. Practise from the core. Then grow. The politics and philosophy can come later. Remember, we are talking about what you practise, not what you listen to. Your brain is never doing just one thing. While you’re practising a small core, you are still listening to as much of the language as you can, allowing yourself to sense and recognise the patterns that repeat. Then recognising which bits fit into your ever-expanding core. Bits that you can move easily from recognising to using. That means you can add just a few words, or patterns, each day. And you remember that a whole pattern (such as ‘no way, dude’ or ‘excuse me!’) is as easy to learn as a single word. Three words or patterns a day, for seven days is 21. That’s 90, on average, every month. Over one thousand words, or patterns, in one year. Patterns that you know how to use flexibly to create new meaning. With that many pieces you can create an almost infinite number of different phrases, especially if you have learned core words and patterns that are highly efficient. How does that compare with native speech? If you go looking to find out how many words an average speaker knows in a language, estimates will vary. A linguist, by the name of David Crystal, has suggested that, in English, an average 16-year-old only knows about 14,000 words. This means that a person learns roughly 870 words per year in the first 16 years of life. An average university graduate is estimated to know about 25,000 words. You might find that fact fascinating. It means that, of the many hundreds of thousands of documented words in a language, you only need to know a

small proportion to be at the same level as an average, educated native speaker. A much easier task than you at first imagined. Secondly, just looking at the numbers above, it’s possible to estimate the average speed that a person learns words within a ten-year period from the teenage years to becoming an educated adult. From 16 to 22 (roughly the age when a person would graduate from university) a person learns about 11,000 words, which is about 1,500 words per year, just about four words per day. So, setting a target of only four words per day, you are already learning at the rate of a native speaker who is simply going about the business of living and learning. Which we all do constantly anyway. For all intents and purposes, once you get beyond a very small core of words, you are developing a second language along the same pathway as you did for your first language. This will happen just by engaging in day-today life. You just have to listen, with the intent of learning. Of course, it is possible to learn at a much faster rate. To use memory tricks, and other techniques like rhythmic entrainment, triangulation, and contextual listening. For now, just notice how, and in what ways, the scale of the challenge seems more and more manageable.

Things to remember: Your goal is to build fluency and automaticity in your new language. You get fluency by using something, over and over, hundreds of times. Less is more — for practise, you need to focus on getting a few things right, and using them well. Start with a small core, and practise it over and over. Make the core meaningful.

Build from there — a few words every day will make a real difference, very quickly.

‘Four ounces tips one thousand pounds’ And then, we come back to what happens from day one. When you get off that plane, or drive across that border, you very quickly become aware that people don’t speak your language. Swimming in a sea of new words and meanings, though you’ve decided already that you will not clutch the life jacket of your mother tongue, you need something to hold on to. Because, early on, very quickly, you will run out of platform, run out of words upon which to stand. You’ll be left with pure thought and the safety of your mother tongue. You need words, and you need them fast. And you need efficient words that will give you the leverage that you need. Sooner or later, the question comes — where best to focus? So many words to learn. So much to do. Seems . . . time for a metaphor.

In any language, you’ll find metaphors and turns of phrase that sum up concepts beautifully. Simple little things that encapsulate a slice of reality,

that make it easy to remember, and maybe make you smile. Take buses for instance. In many countries buses are labelled by route numbers. So you take the number 22 bus. Or the number 17 bus. And you can always find a way to play with words. So, someone asks you how do you get home (meaning, what mode of transport) and you answer, quite simply, with a sweet little smile on your face, the number 11 bus. If you’re a foreigner in China and you say this, people will take you quite literally, and ask you which stop it leaves from. You smile. A slow pause ensues. Then, almost as if by accident, it slips into mind that you are using a common Chinese metaphor. The number 11. Oh, how funny! You really do understand our culture! Eleven; two vertical lines, two legs walking. You’ve slipped quietly and unobtrusively into using a mix of visual and language metaphor. You are playing with the communication. Making a visual/verbal pun. Thinking like they do. Another step forward. The metaphors in any language help you to understand the language, the culture and, ultimately, yourself. Every metaphor is really an attempt to throw light on the human condition. It can help you to understand a new concept, or a new way of doing things. And, for each new metaphor that you understand, your world gets bigger. A wonderful idea that comes out of Chinese martial arts is that of ‘four ounces redirecting one thousand pounds’. It refers to a kung fu master fighting with someone many times larger and physically more powerful. The master knows how to move and how to touch the larger person in such a way that the power is redirected, the master is unharmed, and the assailant is defeated. The Japanese call it aikido. The Chinese talk of tai chi. The same principles apply. That’s leverage. Efficiency. Multiplication. Minimal effort for maximum gain. The point is, as you learn your new language, always look for words and phrases in the language that are ‘efficient’ and that give you ‘leverage’. Something that’s efficient is a part of the language that gets you a lot in return for a minimal amount of effort. Start by finding the one or two words that you can use many times in a day. Eh? What’s that you say? Yes . . . you can probably begin to get a sense of what we’re thinking about here, words like ‘what’, ‘you’, ‘say’, ‘eh’.

Certain words get used over and over again, 10, 20, 100 times a day. Some words you might only come across once in a blue moon — infrequently. What’s easier to say? ‘Infrequently’? Or ‘once’, ‘blue’, ‘moon’, ‘in’, ‘a’? Which of the words are more likely to be common and basic in a language? When you go for words that are used frequently, you get many advantages. You will have a great many opportunities to hear and recognise these words. It means that, if you’re like me, and keep forgetting words that you’ve just heard, you get many second chances. Over time you just won’t be able to help yourself. You will have come across a word, and decided it’s important, and decided to remember it. An hour or two later, you want to use the word but can’t quite remember it. Just then, someone else uses it. And you recognise it, which means that you’re over half way to remembering it for good. And you repeat it out loud, under your breath to yourself, and start looking for another opportunity to use it — soon. Thus, words are learned. Another advantage of focusing on frequently used words is that, when you speak, you will sound like a common, everyday citizen. No big words. Nothing fancy. Nothing pretentious. You just quietly slip and glide into the everyday life of the world that you have just joined. Many of the efficient words that you will focus on initially have an extra, added advantage. They get you lots of feedback. You say a little something, and you get a torrent of speech in return. You ask a question, and you get an answer. So, like a child you could learn: ‘this one is... ?’ And begin to use it every five minutes. ‘This one is... ?’ ‘Cup,’ comes the answer. ‘This one is... ?’ ‘Tree,’ is the reply. And so on. Hundreds of times in a day. And, you might only ask for five things, and then work with them all day until they are a core part of what you can use. You will know that you know, because you would have tested yourself. Seen an object, and told yourself, quietly out loud, what it is. See tree — think tree. See cup — think cup. Repeat to self this is a cup, that is a cup, that is not a cup’, ‘that is not a cup’ ... quietly practising to make every little piece automatic.

And then, of course, there are the social graces. Things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You get to hear them over and over and when you use them they will create rapport with other people, and encourage them to talk with you. Even if it’s just to say things like ‘you’re welcome’. Or, ‘don’t mention it’. If you’re interacting with people you’ll have lots of opportunities to use these words and phrases. At least for three meals a day, several times at each meal. You’ll notice it with children quite frequently. Around age two, Michelle learned ‘excuse me’. So, we would be on the stairs and wanting to get past she would really emphasise ‘excuse me’. I would be sitting on a sofa, and she wanted to sit where I was: ‘excuse me’. Dozens of times a day, in many different situations, making maximum use of the opportunities that you create or that present themselves. Question words clearly give you a lot of leverage. ‘When’, ‘what’, ‘where’, can be used all day, every day, for just about anything. ‘When are you coming over?’ ‘When is the next meeting?’ ‘Where is my coffee cup?’ ‘Where is the tape recorder?’ Endless possibilities. Finally, you have ‘pointer’ words. Words like ‘thing’, ‘there’, ‘that’. These are highly efficient. You can point to something, talk about ‘that’ and be understood. This will also lead to the other person talking more to you, because they’re likely to say: ‘What? Oh, that! We call that a _____’. You generate rapport, you communicate, you get feedback, and you get elaboration. All helping you to build upon your core. There aren’t that many of these to learn, and you can use them all over the place, all the time, every day. Four words, a thousand meanings. Four ounces tips over one thousand pounds.

To remember: A word gives you leverage if it helps generate interaction with other people, if it can be used in many different places, and if it leads to other people talking a lot (which in turn allows you to get more exposure to the language).

To get much practise, and much communication, for minimum effort, remember to look for the following types of word: Words that get a reaction. Words that can be used all over the place, many times a day. Words that get native speakers to tell you new words. Words and phrases to communicate politeness.

Use the language to learn the language Have you ever noticed how somebody will be doing credibly well in a new language, then they’ll get stuck trying to find a word? Suddenly, they drop back into their mother tongue with something like: ‘How do you say that in____?’ Even though it’s such a natural thing to happen, this is probably the single most unhelpful thing you can do when you’re learning a language. You may remember Michael, the CEO in Hong Kong who was learning Mandarin. On one particular day, Michael held up his necktie and said, in perfect Mandarin, ‘Wo de ling dai’ (my necktie). We all heard it. Then, something happened. He looked a little red in the face, turned, and asked, in English, ‘What’s necktie in Chinese?’ Silently, his own mouth answered the question. You could see the lips forming the shapes, and mouthing out the audibols ‘ling dai’. Clearly, he knew what to say in Chinese. He said it out loud once, and silently once. His conscious mind hadn’t caught up with the fact. Slipping back into English to ask about the Chinese was doing himself a massive disservice. He lost a chance to practise one simple phrase in his new language that would help to dig the memory grooves in his mind and to become more automatic in his use of ‘skeleton key’ phrases and words. To master the new language, you need to remember, over and over again, until it is already second nature, that your goal is to direct connect. To m o v e from thought to words to thought, all in the new language. No first-

language mediation. And, like any new skill, you practise with the performance that you want. Using the language to learn the language can make a major difference in the speed and ease with which you accelerate towards fluency. When you do this, you lay down pathways in the brain. You emphasise the importance of the new language, and your determination to learn. You build memory. And you train the mental and physical muscles that you need for a seamless performance.

Week 1 starter kit When you already have some foundation it is, of course, easier to use the language to learn the language. But what happens on your first day? You’ve just parachuted into a new country, and you’re fully determined to use the language. And you are starting from a base of zero. Right at the beginning, you need to focus in a very specific way. In the first week you need to learn maybe one dozen phrases that will get you launched into the language. There are really only two categories: basic politeness phrases and questions about the language. You start with questions about the language, because these will help you ask about other things, including the politeness phrases. Beginning with these core phrases really kick-starts you into the language. Your brain ‘gets’ that it has to focus here, and must deliver immediate results, albeit in a very narrow area. Essentially, even using a very simple starter kit is like priming a pump. One thing that I noticed when I was learning Chinese was the degree to which I became sensitive to aspects of the English language. I noticed just how much Chinese people made use of physical metaphors to communicate. Many times a day some physical object or process would be used to describe some more abstract concept. Then, I began to realise how much English does the same thing. Take ‘prime the pump’ as an example. This is a very physical metaphor. If you’ve ever worked with a water pump, you’ll know what I mean. With many water pumps, in the old days, the pump would not work when it was

dry. Too much air leaked between the plunger and the tube in which the plunger has to move.

In order to get the pump to work, you needed to put a little bit of water into the tube. This did two things. It made the plunger expand a little as it took on water, and it filled air gaps with water, helping to create a vacuum. Then the pump would work. This action of putting a little water in a pump so it would work, and then pump water, was called priming the pump. Today , we say ‘prime the pump’ to mean doing a little something to make a much bigger thing happen. ‘Kick-start’ is another example. When you think about this one, you begin to realise how ubiquitous motor-vehicle metaphors are within modern English. Kick-start comes from starting a motorcycle, no doubt. Going ‘flat out’ (very quickly) probably comes from having the accelerator of a car pushed flat to the floorboards. A thought worth keeping in mind is that, whatever language you are learning, when you focus on the metaphors and use very concrete, everyday words, you communicate a great deal very effectively. By learning metaphors you also learn much more about how people think about life and

the world. This is because their metaphors tell you a lot about the tools and technologies that have been important to them and so they help you to focus in on key elements of a culture. But before you can get there, you have to prime your pump. Learn the skeleton words and phrases. Kick-start your learning. At the same time, even a few skeleton phrases that you have learned already give you a lift into the language. They make you worthy of attention. This is important. Even just a few words and phrases, spoken with intent to communicate, can make you more accessible to native speakers of a language. These phrases communicate more general messages about your intent. They communicate that you respect the people that you are with. It’s guaranteed there’s nothing that demonstrates respect quite as convincingly as making a true, honest effort to speak someone’s language. Even with just a few words. When I visited Vietnam to run a workshop in the late 1990s, I only had 24 hours in the country before the workshop. I used this time to master some skeleton key phrases. I got maybe five or six under my belt (another metaphor — notice how physical metaphors are peppered throughout a language) before the workshop began. One entire set phrase that I memorised went something like: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a few days, so I don’t speak Vietnamese.’ Actually, when you say something like this to people you get a fascinating response. The content of what you are saying communicates ‘I don’t speak your language.’ The fact that you are using the language, albeit only a couple of phrases, communicates ‘I do speak your language.’ The increase in closeness is palpable. So, what are the Week 1 starter kit phrases? The ones that are useful to gravitate towards are: What do you call that? How do you say (or write) that? Please repeat that. Please speak more slowly.

Can you help me please? I have just started learning your language. I’m sorry, I don’t understand that. My brain hurts; I want to go home! You can, of course, work out your own phrases. Just visualise the situations that you are likely to find yourself in, think what you would want to ask, or say, and start from there. The starter phrases that you begin with will initiate you into your new language. Pick the right ones, and you’ll have lots to say, and your brain will get used to using a new language to say it. You’re on your way. Of course, you don’t want to be saying ‘please repeat that’ as your only phrase for the rest of your life. The question of how to build beyond these very basic phrases is dealt with in the next chapter.

This chapter has introduced the very important idea that words are more important than grammar. As you master more words, you will be able to communicate more widely. This is because the act of combining words is what makes language so effective. To apply this idea, you should pay attention to the following things: Start with a core — Initially, you need to begin with a core of words. It’s like standing on an ice raft, and then building more ice outwards to support you. Build from the core — You practise the core words and phrases over and over, and add new ones quite slowly. Paying attention to making the core solid while you build is part of the secret for learning successfully. High-leverage words — Because you are focusing initially on a small number of words, it makes sense for these words to be

highly efficient. This means that they communicate a lot, that they are used frequently, and they allow you to further expand your practise of the language. Use the language to learn the language — You get more practice and you signal to your brain that your new language is a tool of communication, not a subject of study. Starter kit — Begin with a series of phrases that will allow you to communicate and get useful information back about the language you are learning.

9 Tongue ’n’ ear Eerie. Three people walking down the main street deeply engaged in animated conversation. Clearly disagreeing. Expressions shifting, contorting, the momentary smile, the look of frustration, suddenly moving to anger, then relief. Slow understanding, apparent agreement. All done in total silence. ‘Words’ exchanged, meanings contemplated, and not a sound. Eerie. You may have come across a similar scene, especially if you live in a place where people still walk around on the streets, and interact with each other face-to-face. You may even be one of these people, exquisitely skilled in communicating with two totally different forms of visual symbol. Words on a page, and the rapid flicking of fingers in animated conversation. The world of sign language. Language communities that share an important experience — the experience of being unable to make verbal sounds, or being unable to hear them, or both. Or you may have come across people from another land who, on their own, by dint of sheer will, have learned your language from books. They can write something that you understand. They can read a book, or a note that you give them, yet they can’t communicate verbally. It’s actually a real problem for many people in China who have learned English mostly from textbooks. They can write a credible piece of English prose, and respond to correspondence with little or no difficulty. Yet making a phone call incapacitates them and if you ask them about how well they speak English, they will honestly tell you that they are next to helpless. My Indonesian friend, in talking about her experience learning French, made the point very strongly. She initially learned French in Singapore, and then in America. She could read it and write it. But, when she went to France she felt totally helpless. She could only understand oui’ and ‘non. The rest was totally beyond her.

Clearly, it is possible to have language without speech — without the sound part — because you can think of language as being simply the stringing together of symbols, using some form of rule structure (called grammar or syntax) to create a larger meaning. Yet, for most people in the world, to have language without speech is viewed as being handicapped. Think of any foreigner whom you know that speaks your language. Evaluate in your mind where, on a scale of one to ten, that person falls in terms of their level of competence in your language. Now, for those who are eight and above, what is it about their communication with you that makes you think they are so good? Is it the words that they use? Their breadth of vocabulary? What about grammar? Or is it something else? Is it that they pronounce words just like they should in your language? Is it that they seem to understand everything that you say?

Time to make noise An English friend who today lives in Singapore was telling me how, a number of years ago, he was touring Italy. He claims that he is not good at languages. Yet, on that trip, he was frequently mistaken for the tour guide. And all he was doing was saying his few Italian words as perfectly as he could, with the right sounds, the right pitch, the rhythms, and the intonation. On a recent trip to the city of Tianjin, in northern China, I went to visit a factory managed by a very interesting man from America. I knew from earlier conversations with him that he was learning Mandarin. When I arrived at the plant, we chatted for a while, and then the tour began. In the next room we met up with one of his staff, a bright young engineer. I greeted him with the customary ‘Ni hao’ — the Chinese equivalent of ‘How’s it go in’.’ ‘Wow!’ came the reply. ‘Your Mandarin is excellent!’ Upon which the American manager burst out with: ‘That’s not fair! I know how to say that, and you never say my Mandarin is excellent!’ You may have seen at least one Hollywood Western in your time. In these movies, it is very common for a stranger (normally the hero) to arrive in a town, and then have some interaction with the locals. Sooner or later this

stranger is confronted by one of the locals, who always says something like: ‘Howdy, pardna. Yew ain’t frum ’roun deez parts, are yew?’ It’s probably fair to say that most people think of the social world in terms of three different groups. One of us; maybe one of us; definitely not one of us. There could be finer distinctions on the continuum, but these three points pretty much define it. If you’re ‘one of us’, then you’re safe. People understand you (or think they do) and expect you to understand them. If ‘yew ain’t frum ’roun ’ere’ then you’re worthy of suspicion, or maybe of just being ignored. Datong, 1982. Walking around the city in sub-zero temperatures, a little lost, trying to find my way back to the hotel with the broken windows and the terrible food. A saviour is spotted. On the other side of the road, an old lady walking along the road. So, I cross over, in a beeline for this little old lady. Two hundred pounds of bearded foreign devil. In my best Mandarin, as politely as I can, I begin: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me. . . .’ Before I’ve finished even asking the question, the reply comes blasting back at me. ‘Don’t know!’ she rasps. And then scurries off. The Cultural Revolution in China had ended, but people still believed that talking to someone ‘not from here’, especially a foreigner, was a dangerous proposition. This little old lady wasn’t about to test the boundaries. There is, of course, always the flip side. You could end up being that strange animal that everyone wants to have a look at. Just to see if the stories are true. The city of Wuhan, 1982, on the Yangtze River, a day’s sail upriver from Shanghai. We’ve just gotten off the river-boat after a two-day journey from Chongqing, the industrial giant in the heart of Sichuan Province. Standing on a street corner, getting our bearings. A man, early twenties, wearing the customary blue Mao jacket, blue cotton trousers, matching blue peaked cap, and black cloth shoes with stitched, white, cloth soles is walking around and around, looking me up and down. From head to toe. Almost as uncomfortable as being mobbed by 20 or 30 people who want to touch your hair to find out if it’s real. Taking the only way out, I circle the man in the cotton outfit, looking him up and down too, in the same way that he is examining me, until he

cancontain himself no longer. ‘What are you doing?’ A plaintive, slightly confused query. ‘You are looking at me, I’m looking at you, we are sharing our experience of getting to know each other.’ An expletive, understood more by gesture than by sound, and h e goes away. When you are in a new country, how you dress, how you move, and how you sound define for others whether you’re ‘one of us’ or a stranger, to be observed up close, at a distance, or avoided. To truly fit in, you need to master all these elements. In this chapter, we’ll look at sounds. How you sound in any language, and how quickly you respond, are the benchmarks used to evaluate competence, at least for most common, dayto-day interactions. When you sound right, and respond quickly and naturally with everyday words, you signal that you are fluent already in the language. Remembering lots of words, when they are spoken with a heavy accent, or slow response times, signals struggle. Not fluent. Not from around here. So, having decided that mastering the sounds of a language is important, what do you need to be able to do? It’s simple, really. You have to make the right sounds, distinguish between sounds (even sounds that are very close to each other), do this as you think about meaning, do it really quickly, in real time, without any preparation. Easy, eh! And, you’ve done it before, at least once. As with every other element of learning a language, you need to think about the task in different ways, and practise different skills.

Why don’t the natives understand? If you’ve ever tried to use a second language in a real setting with real people, you will know the blank stare. It communicates ‘Huh? What planet are you from? I have no idea of what you are saying.’ So, knowing that miscommunication is a common and frequent part of communication, you try again. Fearless. Knowing that if you just talk a little louder, and give the other person a bit of time to adjust, they’ll

understand. Nothing. Blank stare. Then, the raised hands, raised eyebrows, and the shrug of the shoulders. Should you keep trying? Maybe once or twice until you decide to pause for thought and reflection. You’ll try again another day. You wonder, why didn’t the other person understand? You’re certain that you were saying it right. Hopelessness starts to well up. Helplessness. You might, for a short moment, begin to dwell on the question — ‘Will I ever learn this language?’ Then, you get a grip on things. See the larger picture, and understand all the different ways that the communication could have failed. Some years ago in Singapore I went to a restaurant for lunch on my own. As I finished, I asked for the bill in Mandarin. The young, ethnic Chinese waitress went totally blank. That vacant stare, desperately searching for some connection to what she had heard. But I knew that it was spoken perfectly. Time to help out. I repeated my request, again in Chinese. ‘Could I have the bill, please.’ This time with the obligatory hand motion mimicking the signing of a credit card chit. Slowly, ever so slowly, understanding began to spread across her face until she mumbled in English: ‘Do you want the bill?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. Then continued, in English: ‘Don’t you understand Chinese?’ A fair question for Singapore, because there are ethnic Chinese people in Singapore and Malaysia who do not speak Chinese. She told me that she did. What happened was that, because she didn’t expect a foreigner to speak Chinese she was listening for English. So, when Chinese was spoken she didn’t understand it. Her mind was ‘tuned’ to English. Kevin, our fluent Japanese speaker, used to play a game when he was in Japan. He would get into a taxi, and ensure that he sat on the side of the car where he couldn’t be seen in the mirror by the driver. He’d then proceed to have a long and involved conversation with the driver about politics, the world economy, life in Japan, or whatever topic the driver wanted to follow. At the end of the trip, Kevin would get out of the cab and walk to the driver’s door to pay. He would ask, quite innocently, ‘How much?’ The driver would look up to answer the question, and freeze. Not knowing how to react. In his mind his passenger was Japanese, but here’s this gaijin

(foreigner) wanting to pay the fare. Rapidly losing his grip on reality, only to be saved by the solid feel of the steering wheel under his hands. Then more fluent Japanese coming out of the white face, apologising for giving him such a surprise. We all rely on context to understand what is being said. If you suddenly come out with a language that another person doesn’t expect, even if it’s their own language, and you are fluent, the other person will not easily understand what you are saying. It happens to everyone. Many times I’ve heard someone speaking to me, and thought ‘I have no idea what that Chinese word is,’ only to then realise that they were talking to me in English. A simple matter of trying to match the wrong set of patterns. When you think about it, how often do people misunderstand things in their own language? Times when somebody spoke to you, and you immediately reacted with ‘Huh?’. Then they repeated it, maybe saying it a little differently, and you understood. You might even have realised that you understood it, in part and maybe in full, the first time. But you weren’t absolutely certain, so you asked for a repeat. Or you might have experienced that really weird situation when you can understand somebody perfectly well when you speak to them face-to-face, but over the phone you just can’t understand. Now, to put this in a new light, just remember a child you have known and think back to when he or she was tr ying to get the pronunciation of a word correct. Did you notice the intensity with which that child looked at an adult’s face while trying to master the new sound of that new word? Michelle was trying to say a new word. She said it, and I repeated it for her. Again, she said it, and it wasn’t quite right, so I repeated. And by the third repetition she moved around in front of me and stared at my face. Well, at my mouth, to be precise. As I said the word for her, you could see her deliberately moving her lips to copy the exact movements that were needed to make the word sound just right. Because it’s important to make words sound just right. Actually, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of information that we get from people’s faces when we are talking. Often, if you’re not looking at someone, you might find that misunderstanding increases because you, or they, miss the visual information. It’s the same when you’re speaking a new language. Sometimes, just because of the way spoken communication

works, a native speaker will not quite understand what you say. It does not reflect on how well you are speaking.

Boneheads and frozen audibols I found myself struggling up through the dark mists of the unconscious, slowly becoming aware that the droning had stopped. Others in the room had also regained consciousness, and there was movement as people’s muscles reengaged. 1978. Another Chinese ‘lesson’ was over. Life returning to leaden limbs, I struggled to my feet and headed for the door. Somehow I had to get enough life back into my brain to handle the psychology lecture on sampling techniques that was coming next. Half way through the next lesson, held in the seminar room, I spotted a Chinese-looking guy. Even though my mind was still dull from the previous hour’s sensory deprivation experience, I decided to try out the two words of Chinese that I could remember: Ni hao! I didn’t have anything to follow up with, but found a thought circling in my mind, ‘hey, know two words, use two words. After-all, what’s the worst that could happen?’ And so out it came: ‘Ni hao!’ Augustine, as I later discovered was his name, looked at me with a strange, partly aggrieved partly angry expression, muttered something that sounded like ‘Ni hao,’ and then scurried off to another corner of the room. Upon later reflection, his response seemed to communicate something like ‘What the hell are you trying to do!?’ Luckily, over the next year, we became great friends. We studied and explored things together throughout university years, and even today we stay connected. It turned out that Augustine was actually Malaysian Chinese, and could only speak a couple of words of Mandarin. His first language was, and is, English and he’s probably more widely read in the English language than I am. He told me later that his first reaction was that I was teasing him. Maybe even trying to insult him. Then he realised that I was honestly trying to speak Chinese, so he relaxed a little. At the end of the class, after he had thought about things, he came back over to my side of the room and started a conversation with me.

Years later, when I was in China, and he had returned to Malaysia, I got a letter from him. He was sharing with me a recent experience when he had attended a company training programme in Britain. He was the only Asian at the seminar, and everyone else there was from somewhere in the Englishspeaking world. There were Scots people, Irish people, people from London, the very south of England, Australia, New Zealand and America. In his letter, Augustine could not hide his amusement at what was going on. Apparently, he was able to understand, and could be understood by, everyone at the seminar. However, many of the other people at the seminar were not able to understand each other. They were all native English speakers. A wonderful example of being divided by a common tongue. How does something like this happen? To understand this we need, once again, to return to the idea of audibols. And, more importantly, to a concept most easily described as the ‘analog-digital divide’. Words (at the concept level) are digital. Black and white. Either one thing or another. A word either is what it is, or it is something else. ‘Play’ is a totally different word from ‘pay’. ‘Work’ and ‘word’ are different. ‘Whey’ and ‘why’ are different. It’s a black-and-white distinction. You can view it graphically as in figure 9.1, below. Speech is different. We use muscles and mouth positions to change the sounds that we make. So what happens when you get really tired? You begin to slur your words a little, or you find yourself saying something that sounds different to what you intended. You’re tripping over your own tongue. Or what about when someone has a cold? You can still understand them, though they sound very different to how they normally sound. If their cold is bad enough, there comes a point where we begin to hear something very different from what the speaker intended. The sounds get ‘fuzzed’ into something else.

Intuitively, you know that because we can’t use our muscles exactly the same every time, there will always be some variation in the sounds that we make. Look at figure 9.2 for a visual representation of what is going on.

On the left we have audibol 1. Let’s say it represents the concept ‘words’. On the right we have audibol 2. It represents the concept ‘worst’. The

pronunciation for both audibols can vary within a certain range, and still be understood by a native speaker. There is an area between the two where the sound that you hear could be representing either ‘words’ or ‘worst’ or even ‘what is’. This happens because, just by changing the shape of our mouth, or the position of the tongue, even slightly, we can change the sounds that come out. Thinking about it simply, audibols have fuzzy edges. They are not absolute. A range of sounds can represent the same audibol — within limits. It’s actually the same with letters, or other visual symbols. At what point does an ‘a’ become ‘not a’? To go further, at what point does ‘not a’ become ‘d’? Or, when does ‘e’ become ‘not e’, and ‘not e’ become ‘c’? Or, what about ‘f’ and ‘t’? At what point does one morph into the other? Anyone who’s had the pleasure of trying to decipher untidy handwriting has pondered this.

As you understand the sliding, fuzzy nature of audibols, many things begin to fall into pl ace. You begin to understand how it is that a native speaker might not understand the efforts of a language learner. How a Malaysian Chinese guy could understand all English accents, when native English speakers could not understand each other. Why a Chinese person

from Sichuan has to sketch characters on the palm of his hand so that somebody from Beijing can understand what is being communicated. Now, you can begin to imagine how you can use this understanding in your own learning of a new language. How you can use it to make yourself more easily understood, and how you can understand accents and dialects of a new language when even native speakers have difficulty. As a person learns their first language, they are actually learning to be rigid. To narrow the variability in what they say so that ‘white’ is white and ‘black’ is black. No sliding. No variation. Each time it sounds exactly the same as last time. So, when people speak, they know for certain that what they are hearing is a particular word, and not some other word. Only sounds that fall within a certain range can be a given word, and that’s just the way life is. Think about it metaphorically. As babies we are born with soft skulls. They have to be soft so we can squeeze our heads through the birth canal. Then, as we grow up, our heads harden as the bone becomes more and more immovable. We literally become boneheads. The sad part is if we allow the same thing to happen to our hearing. It’s as if we become auditory boneheads, unable to understand something outside of a very narrow range of sound. Of course, narrowing down our perception of audibols makes life easy, and makes communication efficient. You don’t have to think too hard, and you don’t have to wonder a lot. When you hear speech outside of the range that you expect, in the best case it’s simply a matter of ‘Yee arrrrent frum dees parts, are yee’. In the worst case, understanding fails. Another friend never made. If somebody has a regional accent, or is learning your language and hasn’t fully mastered the sounds yet, you may well not understand what they are trying to say. Shame, really. There are people in the world who have mastered the skill of listening beyond the boundaries. When you do this, you broaden your perception to include context. Even if something doesn’t sound exactly like a certain word, you assume that it just might be. You assume loose lips, sloppy tongues and imperfection. And you work from there. People who listen beyond the boundaries are actually great as helpers when you are learning a new language, because they’ll understand you even

when others don’t. These are the people you want to choose to be your ‘language parents’. More on this later.

Create a soundstat system As language learners we are all faced with a challenge. We are entering a world where a great number of people will be ‘auditory boneheads’. If we make sounds within a certain narrow range, they will understand us. If we make our range of sounds even narrower, they will think that we come from their group, rather than from some other group (e.g., from Glasgow not Edinburgh; from Paris not Marseille). Pronunciation and accent are used by people everywhere to decide whether other people belong to the ‘in group’ or if they are outsiders. As a language learner, you need to decide if you want to be seen as an outsider who is understood, or as a fully integrated member of the language community that you are joining. An important choice you are making. Now, for every language I have ever learned, the goal has always been to sound indistinguishable from a native speaker. Most of the accomplished language learners that I know have the same goal. Planning on getting it absolutely perfect actually focuses your mind, and it has other rewards. It can, at times, even be very amusing. In 1989 I was working on a public relations project in Hong Kong. I was frequently on the phone to a Hong Kong Chinese client, named Cathy, with whom I spoke Cantonese. One day, after we had been talking for a couple of months, we got to have our first face-to-face meeting. We were introduced by a third person. As Cathy turned to look at me her jaw dropped, then it began to oscillate slowly up and down, a bit like a fish gulping water to push through its gills. The Cantonese phrase ‘chee seen’ (‘crazy’) popped into my mind. ‘Chee seen’ actually means ‘crossed wires’ (which is, in itself, a lovely metaphor). Her wires were crossed. From the many weeks of conversation on the telephone, Cathy knew I could speak fluent Cantonese, and she certainly had had a mental image of a Chinese person. So, the part of her brain with this knowledge wanted to speak Cantonese.

However, her eyes were seeing a white face with a beard. And when you see white faces with beards you speak English — at least when you live in Hong Kong. That part of her brain wanted to speak English. Two languages wanting to express in the same mouth at the same time. Verbal traffic jam. Fish-gulping paralysis. Just this scene made hours of practice on getting the sounds just right worth every minute. Setting yourself the goal of sounding perfectly native is more challenging than aiming to simply be understood, but the principles are the same. Essentially, you need to speak so that every word you bite off comes out of your mouth with the sounds in an acceptable range. You can visualise it as in figure 9.4.

However, because you are learning this new language, and it requires you to use your mouth, tongue, nose, throat in ways that you may have never done before, you end up doing something like the first illustration in figure 9.4. As you can see, while you sometimes manage to get the sounds within the range needed to be understood, you will tend to be all over the place. Sometimes you will be way off. Sometimes you will be close enough. Sometimes you will be perfect. And, initially at least, you will be very inconsistent.

Obviously, because of your inconsistency, there will be times when native speakers don’t understand what you are saying. Natural. Normal. To be expected. And, just to be understood, you have to get better. More accurate. Until you, finally, achieve ‘perfection’ — you sound like a native speaker. With practice, you will arrive at a situation where the sounds you produce fit right within the audibol range expected of you in the new culture, something like the second illustration in the figure. So, how do you move from making sounds in a somewhat random way, where your pronunciation is all over the place, to a situation where your speech is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker? The answer is something very simple — a ‘soundstat’ system — an ‘auditory thermostat’. Your action-reaction-connect loop applied to pronouncing things correctly. You need a feedback system in your head. Just as a thermostat senses room temperature, ‘decides’ whether the temperature is within the acceptable range, and then turns on either hot or cold air, you want to do the same in your head. Except you are doing it with sound. You have a goal of what you want to sound like — say the goal is ‘perfect native pronunciation’. You then say something, compare how you did with your goal, and notice if you’re within acceptable limits or not. If not, you try again, making small changes, and noticing whether or not you have gotten closer to your goal or not. An example. You are tired. You want to sleep. So, you say to the person you are with ‘I want to go to bad.’ You hear it. You notice it sounds slightly wrong. You try again. ‘Bad ... bead ... bade ... bed! Bed! I want to go to bed!’ Got it! Yeah!

The wide road to perfection As you play with all the sounds and variations in a new language, you will find yourself at times close to your goal, and at other times a long way off. You’re on the wide road to perfection. Like riding a bike for the first time. Unskilled, you will wobble all over the place. Sometimes into the path of

oncoming traffic. Then, because you have your wits about you, you always correct. Over time, the wobbling stops and you are in control. Some sounds you will find easy to master, because they are, or they are very close to, sounds that exist in your own language. Others may be sounds that you have never heard before. These will take more time. Like ‘xue’ in Chinese. The ‘x’ sounds more like an English ‘s’, but not quite. There’s nothing like it in the English language. Beijing, 1981. Sitting in a classroom, listening to the teacher, I became acutely aware of the role that the ‘x’ sound plays in Mandarin. That thin, tongue-curled-upwards-into-the-front-of-the-mouth-almost-‘s-like’-sound. I decided that I was going to master it. It probably took about six months to finally get that sound just right. I was, of course, able to be understood very quickly. Within a few weeks, in fact. But I personally wasn’t satisfied with that. When it came out of my mouth it had to sound absolutely and convincingly like a native would say it before satisfaction could come. I worked at it. Sometimes every day. Sometimes every other day. But always coming back to it. Always being aware of it. Knowing that it was sitting in the back of the mind, wanting attention. Just a little. Attention every day. Practise every day. And then it was there. The perfect sound. When you get there, you can hear it and you finally understand exactly what you need to be doing with your mouth to make that sound.

To remember: In this chapter we have focused on the importance of sounds in a language. While it may seem obvious, it’s important to realise that most people in the world equate language with spoken language. Technically, this is not correct but it is how most people view things. So, quite simply, to truly master a new language you need to master the sounds of that language. The better you do this the more fluent you will become. Some key points to remember to help you do this are:

Native speakers often don’t understand what you are saying, not because you are wrong, but because they don’t expect a foreigner to speak their language. The second reason natives don’t understand is that they have a very narrow band in their minds for how given audibols should sound. If you stray too far outside those limits you are not understood by most natives. You can be understood by native speakers who don’t have such rigid boundaries about how words should sound. Because you will want to communicate with all native speakers of a language, not just those with a flexible hearing system, you will need to hone the sounds that you make in the language. This means that you will have to build what I call a soundstat system. Learn to hear yourself as you speak, and immediately correct the sounds coming out of your mouth. Be like a thermostat which keeps the room temperature just right. When you begin learning a language it will be natural for the sounds you make to swing wildly all over the place. As you practise the sounds, your variation will become less until finally each audibol fits neatly inside the range that will be understood easily by a native speaker.

10 Tricks of the sound trade Robert is an engineer, working for a successful manufacturing company in Hong Kong. He comes from the UK, and has truly settled into Hong Kong life. He’s very good at his job. He’s not only respected for his technical skills, but also for the fact that he has made an effort to get close to the people that he manages. He gets respect, and when he’s speaking Cantonese you could swear that he is almost a local. Robert is one of a new breed. Very different to the old colonialists who used to inhabit Hong Kong and who, after having lived there for more than twenty years, could still not put two words together in Chinese. Part of the problem, of course, were the invisible barriers set up by the local language community. Not impenetrable, of course, but they did present obstacles for a person wanting to learn the language. I was recently chatting with John, an Englishman who lives nearby. As frequently happens, the conversation strayed to language. Now, I don’t know why, but over the last twenty years it has seemed to me that people talk about language all the time. Every time a group of people comes together, sooner or later some part of the conversation will be about language. About a certain word, about how certain people talk, or some other language-related topic. Maybe, language is just fascinating. In any case, the conversation with John turned to the topic of Cantonese. I explained my view that, in order to learn any language well, it’s critical that you focus on the sounds, and on sounding absolutely like the people whose language you are learning. John’s response astounded me. He said that it’s totally impossible for an English person to sound like a Cantonese person, or to even want to sound that way. He explained that, in the British view, the Cantonese people were underlings to the British bosses and, as he stressed, ‘Why on earth would you want to sound like your underlings?’

I say almost, because John is a great one for dry humour. Saying something in all seriousness, with facial expressions to match, and meaning the exact opposite. So, it wasn’t that he believed what he said. It was more that he sees many Westerners in Asia not learning an Asian language, especially Chinese, because of this sort of attitude. Jeremy is a global citizen. Today, he lives in Hong Kong and his family is in Australia. He speaks English with a very clear Standard British accent, and he also speaks credible Cantonese. He grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in the tail-end years of British influence in Africa. His first language was Swahili but he has white skin. When he was quite young, he recalls, his aunt had come to visit. Members of the family were sharing a meal together and one of those conversations about language just happened to take place. Jeremy recalls how his father and his aunt had a somewhat heated discussion about the appropriate pronunciation of English. As both had pure ‘BBC accents’, it’s reasonable to assume that the shared view was that anything other than a pure BBC accent was less than proper and less than British. And then something strange happened. During the meal, Jeremy’s aunt turned to one of the servants and asked him, using Swahili words, to get the plates. With a perfect BBC Oxford accent. It appeared that the BBC accent had to be applied to all languages! Upon hearing the utterance from this sophisticated lady, the black boy froze in total incomprehension. He knew he had been spoken to. He knew he should understand. He just couldn’t get the meaning because it just didn’t sound Swahili to him. The sounds weren’t words to him because the audibols were wrong.

Use the ritual patterns As I mentioned in the last chapter, the sounds of a language are absolutely critical to the communication of meaning. They are even more critical to the communication of relationship. Sounds define a language community, if not an entire language. Think about the rolled ‘r’s that define Scots. The pursed lip sounds, and the vibrating in the back of the throat of the French. The clicking sounds used by the Kalahari Bushmen. The rolled tongue sounds of

the people of Beijing. These are the signals that tell you which language or dialect is being spoken. And they can be much more obvious than just the words. What you can discover as you dive deeper into your new language is that getting the sounds right opens doors. In 1983 I found myself on a train travelling to Guangzhou. I was departing Mainland China to visit Hong Kong. Not a pleasant visit, for I needed to go to hospital for arthroscopic surgery on my knees. As usual, the trip itself was fascinating, and full of learning. Those train trips through China were absolutely wonderful. You could meet all sorts of people, from all sorts of places. Really get into the culture, and understand the language, the psyche, and the lives of the people. On this trip, I met ‘Teacher Wen’. She lived in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province. We got to talking. We used the fairly ritualised form that such conversations follow. Question 1. ‘Where are you from?’ After hearing this question literally tens of thousands of times, and being prone to boredom after about the tenth time, my preferred answer came to be ‘Earth’. Simple, true, gives away very little, and sorts out the openminded from those who require a box in which to put other people. Teacher Wen smiled. She liked the answer. It made her think. ‘You speak wonderful Chinese.’ In the 1980s in China this was actually one of the first three things that someone would say to you. It really helped. Tons of positive reinforcement for just making the effort. You respond, of course, by graciously saying, ‘Nali, nali.’ (Literally: ‘Where? Where?’, means: not at all.) Later, as idioms become more familiar, the response is more like ‘I’m simply an apprentice before your greatness.’ Which, of course, communicates the opposite of what the words say. Question 2 follows quickly. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Hong Kong.’ Then the kicker. You’ve been waiting for it. Question 3. ‘How much money do you make?’ Not related to anything you had been discussing, but you knew that you would get it within the first few minutes of conversation with a new person.

This was probably one of the most common questions that foreigners got during the 1980s in China. As with all questions of this nature, you’ve got to understand the context. At that time, most Chinese people had the same salary, or something very close. Between 100 and 140 yuan, around US$15, per month. Also, it was common for people to disclose their salaries to each other — because the differences really didn’t matter. Added to that was the real curiosity that Chinese people had about foreigners, coupled with the belief that foreigners were unbelievably rich in comparison to themselves. The question about how much money you make was really about confirming the assumptions that Westerners were actually very rich. Which made it quite wonderful to be able to say ‘I only make as much as you — I’m on a Chinese government scholarship.’ Upon which the conversation would turn to other matters. The ritual of ‘mutual sniffing’ and of finding out who somebody is happens in every culture. In every language. You can pretty much predict which questions and comments to expect in the first few minutes of conversation. Which means that you can prepare yourself very well in advance. Learn the phrases. Think about your responses. Prepare them. Kevin, our Japanese-speaking Welshman made a point of planning how to handle different situations. The classic one is the phone call. There has to be a way to say ‘hello’. When you’ve got that mastered, you can begin a phone conversation. Of course, it can be very embarrassing to realise, right in the middle of a phone conversation, that you want to get off the line and you don’t know how to end the call. You never make that mistake again. You learn how to do the close as well. Michelle, at two years and two months, was learning the telephone. She had got the opening words right. ‘Hello, Daddy’. Then, ‘hello, hello’. With the occasional ‘wei’ (Chinese telephone greeting). With just the word ‘hello’, she had the necessary vocabulary for an entire five-minute telephone conversation. Not much meaning got transferred, of course, but she had fun. She got the other piece too. When she got bored with talking about the same old thing, she simply said ‘bye bye’. Then hung up the phone. Many interactions are as ritualised as the phone call. There is a set piece of some sort to get started, and a set piece to end. And often there are set

pieces in the middle, too. ‘Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh.’ Once you get beyond the ritual greetings and mutual sniffing, the conversation generally then turns to something of mutual interest. When you find a shared interest, the conversation will unfold. Otherwise you’ll end up sitting quietly looking at each other across the aisle — for 30 or 40 hours, if you happen to be riding a train across a continent. For situations like this it pays to learn how to be interested in absolutely everything. If you’re travelling to a place, you’ll talk about that place for a while. If you’re interested in art, then that’s what you’ll talk about. If you have an injury, and you train in the martial arts, you’ll end up talking about anatomy, pain, doctors, and the martial arts. And so it was. I learned that Teacher Wen was intensely interested in tai chi, and that she ran a tai chi class in Nanchang. She also personally knew a bone doctor who, apparently, had a great track record for curing serious bone-related injuries. Since I was having problems with the cartilage under my kneecaps, obviously a ‘bone’ sort of thing, she invited me to go to Nanchang and try the treatments offered by her bone doctor acquaintance. Several months later, accompanied by a good friend from Hong Kong, I arrived in Nanchang. Teacher Wen’s house was too small for us to stay, but she arranged for us to get a room in a local guesthouse. This was, of course, unheard of because foreigners were all supposed to stay in the expensive foreign hotels. But, as far as Teacher Wen was concerned I sounded like a local, and I was her friend, so strings could be pulled and back doors could be opened. It was a pleasant enough little room. Steel-framed bunks on concrete floors. Freshly whitewashed walls and new mosquito nets. A nice little space for the two of us. And no revolving door. Even though there were four bunks in the room, we didn’t get the through-traffic of occasional tourists that I later experienced in Sichuan. In Nanchang, the occasional tourists ended up at the foreign hotel. For the month or so that we were in Nanchang, the room turned out to be our sleeping quarters only. We were expected to arrive at the Wen’s house in the morning for breakfast, to eat lunch there, and dinner as well. To truly experience life as the locals lived it. Eating on a table outside the front door because it was just too hot to be inside. Showering, if it can be called that,

from a bucket of well water, hauled on shoulder poles from a quarter mile away. ‘Self-come-water’ hadn’t quite made it to Nanchang in those days. An invitation to look through the window, and then enter through the door, of real Chinese life. All because I sounded like a Chinese and so could safely be included in things, just like a Chinese friend would be included in things.

Getting physical Making the right sounds in any language is a totally physical activity. It’s not abstract. It’s not intellectual. It’s muscle bound. Speech is totally dictated by how we use our muscles, so it is limited by the range within which our muscles can move. Have you ever had the experience of playing a sport well, getting quite fit at that sport, and then taking on a similar sport? For instance, maybe you’ve played squash or racket-ball and then you decide to take up tennis. The day of your first game arrives. Just a social game, and not too much pressure. You’re looking forward to it. You feel confident. You’ve never played before, but you’re sure it will be easy. After all, both games are almost the same, aren’t they? They’re both just about whacking a little ball all over the place with catgut strung over a wooden frame. Sure, there are differences. But they shouldn’t be that important. Should they? That night as you sit in a hot bath you reflect on the thrashing you received, and how different the game is. You wonder why you hurt so much. You also know that, the next morning, it’s probably going to feel worse. Yes, the two games look similar. You’re hitting a ball with a racket. But they place different demands on the body in terms of which muscles you use, when you use them, and even subtle distinctions such as the angle at which you use the muscles. Just like your language. About my third week in Beijing, in 1981, I woke up one morning with a dull ache in my cheeks and throat. It even went into the very root of my tongue. I couldn’t figure it out, but I felt like I’d been lifting weights with my tongue, and that I’d been trying to open a door with my jaw. For the next several weeks it was a matter of living with the constant background

sensation of muscles that you didn’t know that you had, and of having done exercise that you weren’t used to. The realisation slowly came that my face and jaw were hurting because I was literally using the muscles in a different way. Chinese sounds different to English, so the muscles get used differently. Speaking one language requires you to use muscles that you don’t even engage when you’re speaking a different language. Allen, my Canadian friend who lives in Hong Kong, is fluent in several languages. He told me that when he was learning German his throat hurt for weeks as he worked to master some of the more guttural sounds. Kevin literally drops the pitch of his voice, and begins making guttural sounds from his throat when speaking Japanese. It’s the ‘samurai sound’. The sound that virile males in Japan make when facing off in ritual combat in the boardroom. It took months, and continued muscle practice, for him to master. Learning to pronounce a new language well is, more than anything, a physical training challenge. You are learning to re-pattern the way you use muscles in your mouth, face and throat. It’s like learning any new physical activity. This idea is so important that you can be sure that, if you’re not feeling muscles that you didn’t know you had, then you are probably not getting the sounds right in your new language. Simple, really.

To remember: Learning to pronounce a new language is a very physical activity. When you are being successful at ‘getting’ a new language you will literally feel it in your face and mouth. The slight aches and pains are your feedback to tell you that you are improving. To master speech in any language, treat it like a physical discipline. Practise, many times over. In many different contexts.

11 Cracking the code — scaffolding in the mind ‘Michelle give Daddy,’ says Michelle as she holds out her hand for the cup of water that I am carrying. Of course, she means ‘Daddy, please give me the cup.’ She doesn’t yet know how to use all of the words, and she has just worked out what ‘give’ means. I’m guessing that, in her mind, because she is the one who wants it, her name comes first. Then comes ‘give’ — the instruction. The person being instructed comes last. It makes perfect sense, despite being the exact opposite of how a fully fluent speaker of English would say it. Remember, language is a string of sounds, a line of audibols stacked up in a row. This sequence is used to communicate ideas that, by their nature, have many dimensions. Size, location, colours, relationships between things. We can get all of that information as one flash from an image in mind, but the audibols alone cannot hope to communicate all of the complexity of the ideas in a person’s head. And so we turn to ‘structure’ — the rules of a language that allow us to communicate beyond the words themselves. We are, of course, talking about grammar. The invisible rules that help us take a string of sounds and make meaning that is far more complex than meaning conveyed by the sounds themselves.

The rules of the code Patrick sat opposite me on the chair. Responding to my question, his eyes became soft and his hand moved slightly in front of him, as though he were holding something. Which, in his mind, he was. Because, the question that I asked him was: ‘What, exactly, do you do when you are flying a plane?’

Patrick was a US Navy test pilot, rated to fly more than sixteen different types of aircraft, including fixed wing and helicopters. On that particular evening he told of how, some years ago, he got to test an F-16 fighter jet. For the test in question he had to fly the plane 50 feet above the runway at just under the speed of sound, and then make a vertical ascent while radioing back measurements from various flight instruments. As you might imagine, this was a pretty dangerous maneuver. In fact, a normal F-16 pilot would never do such a thing. Patrick was a test pilot. It was his job.

As he went on with his story, Patrick told us that he only had a few hours to prepare himself before he made that test flight with the F-16. The controls were totally different from other aircraft that he had flown. Instead of the normal joy-stick and rudder pedals, the plane had a side-stick controller on the right of the pilot’s seat and a throttle on the left. Initially, we were amazed at how he could do such a crazy manoeuvre in a jet fighter on his first flight. So he explained it to us. Every aircraft has to have certain functions. It needs some form of forward power. It needs something to change the flow of air over the wings. It needs something to push the tail one way so the nose points where you

want to go. Patrick first looked for the specific ways in which the F-16 allowed a pilot to control those functions, and he was half-way there. For the rest, he moved things around and felt how they worked, and he imagined how the plane would respond to his touch. Then he took off, and did his ‘crazy stunt’. The same principle applies to language. Within language, there are certain functions that will always be there. Functions to communicate the relationships between words. Ways to express ownership, or who did what to whom. Ways to talk about time and distance. Ways to express direction. For instance, ‘I give the book to you’ and ‘You give the book to me’ have almost the same words, but the action described is different. In English, the key pieces that communicate the full meaning are ‘to’, the change from ‘I’ to ‘me’, and the word order. Different languages use different techniques to communicate additional meaning. For instance, in English, word order is an important technique. In Italian, word order is much looser so other cues are more important. In Mandarin Chinese word order is quite important, but it is less so in Cantonese. As you get into any new language you quickly get a sense of which cues are more important and which less so. And what is important is that you understand how the different communication functions are achieved in each language. There will be ways to communicate about time, for instance. In English we make use of a rule that says, ‘modify verbs to indicate whether something is taking place in the past or present or future’. So ‘go’ becomes ‘went’, or ‘going’, or ‘will go’. In Chinese, it’s ‘add another time-marker audibol before or after the verb’. ‘Qu’ becomes ‘qu le’ for the past. ‘Yao qu’ (‘want go’) is the future. How do we communicate intensity? In English someone is not just happy they are very happy, or extremely happy. In Cantonese however, someone is not just hoi sum (literally ‘open’ + ‘heart’), they are hoi hoi sum sum. Repetition of audibols is one important mechanism for communicating intensity in Cantonese. There are other ways of doing it, but this technique is quite favoured as a part of daily conversation. In Mandarin, the preference is to say feichang kai xin (‘not’+ ‘normal’ + ‘open’ + ‘heart’) to communicate the same idea. So you can see that each language has the following: the idea of ‘happy’ (an emotion), the idea of

varying levels of an emotion, and some way of expressing those ideas in combination. So, as you go into any new language situation, you find yourself starting to search, to ask yourself, ‘How to express happy?’ ‘How to express level of happiness?’ As a working rule, no matter what language you are learning, you can assume that the language will have some way of expressing the meaning that you want to communicate. The trick, of course, is to find out how. To do this, and to master the code of a new language, you can approach the task in very much the same way that Patrick approached his test flight in the F-16. Start with a sense of the ideas that you want to communicate, then begin searching for how to do this in your new language. As you are doing this, listen continuously to how others speak and notice what seems to stay the same and what seems variable. What matters most? Do native speakers keep the same word order, or does it seem to change in some random way? If you think that it’s random, then you really need to ask the question — do these people value that aspect of language to communicate meaning? So, for example, do Italians care about word order? You then start noticing things such as whether or not verbs seem to change from one form to another. If they do, what are the patterns behind the changes? Notice the cues that people respond to, and identify which of these are most important. Learn them by heart. Use them. Then build. To give a specific example, let’s assume that you have decided to learn Turkish. You want to be able to say ‘I know (something)’. And you also want to say ‘you know (something)’ and ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ know something. Because you are an adult, you already know that there must be some way to indicate different ‘positions’ in relationships. ‘I’ is different to ‘you’ is different to ‘they’. You already have that adult advantage. Children do not yet know that ‘I’ is different to ‘you’, and they need time to work that out. You may have noticed, for instance, that a child might say: ‘Milk, give you!’ What she means is ‘Milk, give it to me!’ She has heard you say: ‘Do you want me to give it to you?’ You were pointing at her at the time, so she thinks that ‘you’ is a different name for herself. So, she refers to herself as ‘you’.

So, here you are learning Turkish, for instance. You can try to discover the rules of the language, by listening and patterning, and you will arrive at your destination. Slowly building up a map of the language in your mind. Or you can ask someone who will give you an overview. This overview is like a high level map of the language, a map that you can use as your guide. Your ‘language parent’ might tell you that, in Turkish, you change the end of the verb ‘know’ in order to indicate ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘they’ know. This person might even write out a table in Turkish to show you what they mean, something like the following:

I have never learned Turkish, so I can’t explain the grammar in any technical sense. However, if you observe closely the words above you can notice a core pattern — biliyor. So, you might assume that this core audibol is equivalent to your understanding of ‘know’ in English. Then you notice that this core gets bits added to it. The bits that get added help you to understand who is doing the knowing. So, um attached to biliyor means that ‘I’ am knowing, and attaching sunuz means that you (plural) are knowing.

Why is it done this way? Again, because it is. Over time people have agreed on this convention, and it works because if it didn’t they would probably have changed it. If you were learning Chinese, your helper might map out the following for you:

Since I know Chinese, as your Chinese guide I can explain the logical concepts behind the map. So, for instance, wo means ‘I’ and ‘me’. It’s always the same sound. It never changes, unlike in English. Also, zhidao (to know) never changes, no matter who is knowing. You don’t change verbs in Chinese. Simple. The third rule for Chinese is that, if you want to talk about people in the plural, you add men. So, ni (you) + men (plural) means ‘ya’all’ (you all). Again, simple. Ya’all now have some very simple building blocks that allow ya’all to say many different things. It is these patterns of changes and relationships that make up the code of any given language. As you learn a new language, you pay attention to

these patterns. You can just get a sense of what they are, and build up your understanding over time. Or, if you have someone (or a book) to work from, you can even draw up tables. When you do this, it is simply as a memory aid to help you see the whole pattern in one place at one time. If you decide to map out the different rules of the language code, you can then use this to practise specific patterns. In this way, you will be able to use those specific patterns much more quickly than if you had to figure everything out. It doesn’t mean that you will be perfect. It does mean that you’ll remember to use the rules some times. Then, with practice, it’ll become easier and easier for you.

Many audibols, one idea In putting this book together I have communicated with many people. A number of people have actively used the ideas in these chapters, and have begun to notice the changes in how they learn language. Many have given useful and interesting feedback just as I’ve gotten to a point in the writing where that feedback is most useful. Just this morning, Nancy called. Born in northern China, she has lived and worked outside China for a number of years and is fluent in English and Mandarin. Based in Shanghai and working for a multinational corporation, she has many chances to travel. Recently, she returned to Japan for a short stint. Armed with an early draft of this book, she was determined to put it to the test. ‘I’ve been reading the chapters you sent me,’ she said, and I’ve been in Japan for a few weeks and I dived in just the way you suggested. I was paying attention to audibols, and noticing things, and I felt like I was learning a lot.’ Even though she couldn’t see it, I smiled. It’s always nice to get good reports. She went on. ‘But, I suddenly got to the point where it was too much! It became overwhelming, and I couldn’t remember anything. I started to feel, more and more, that I needed structure.’ I smiled even more. Another piece falls into place. If you only know a few audibols in a language, then there isn’t really any nee d fo r ‘st ructure’. However, as you become aware of more and more

audib ol s, you rapidly exceed the ability of your conscious mind to follow what is going on. So many different sounds, with no seeming order, and how do you keep track? Experiments have shown that if lists of random words are given to people they are very hard to remember. Our minds don’t work that way. Our minds need some method to structure knowledge into categories, very much like how we organise books in a library. Nancy had discovered this. Grammar is the scaffolding in our minds that helps us keep track of all the different audibols in a language, and the relationships between those audibols. Grammar is a memory tool, a trick of the mind for keeping track. When people talk in terms of formal grammar, they talk about things like modifying pronouns, and conjugating verbs. It sounds complicated. But if you look at it from a slightly different angle, it makes absolutely perfect sense. Let’s take an example in English. The irregular verb ‘to be’. Notice how this represents an idea. It’s an idea about existing. We use different audibols to describe the concept, depending both on who is doing the talking, and the relationship to time. T he audibols are be, being, am, are, was, were, and ‘will be’. And this is where the critical insight comes. We have ONE idea and MANY audibols. As soon as we find a way to link those audibols with the one idea, they all become easier to remember. You create a mental structure to remind yourself that there is one idea, and different ways of expressing that idea based on who and when. With the regular verbs it’s even easier. Take the idea of learning, for example. Here we have a number of different audibols — ‘learn’, ‘learned’, ‘learning’ — to express this idea. Rather than thinking of many audibols, however, it’s easier to think of one audibol (‘learn’), with bits added to signal who is doing the learning, and when. Once again, a simple mental structure for keeping track. That structure in your mind has been labelled ‘grammar’. When people pull that structure out of their minds, try to describe it and write it down, then it is called ‘formal grammar’. As someone learning a new language, you should choose how much (or little) formal grammar you need. Only bother when it’s helping you.

You may remember the key coding ideas for a language as simple rules, or as two-dimensional tables in your mind (like the ones earlier in this chapter). Or you might prefer rhythmic sequences, with changes in the beat that you use to keep track. And what is really interesting is how the same structures and their audibols are used to keep track of many different ideas. It’s so much easier to remember just a few rules than to try and keep track of all the audibols. So, in English, we use the audibol ‘_ __ed’ after other audibols to indicate past tense, and we say the audibol ‘will_ __’ before to indicate the future. ‘Learned’, ‘will learn’; ‘played’, ‘will play’. Simple ideas, with just a few audibols to distinguish them, and you have a structure that simplifies everything even further. Since putting structure around your learning is something that you do to help you remember, it doesn’t matter if you get the grammar technically ‘wrong’. Because, ultimately, it’s just an idea that you use to help you remember other ideas. The structure is there to help you. You are not there to be tested on the structure, though if you like to test yourself just to enhance your memory, that’s fine too.

Layers of meaning Michelle looked at me with that mischievous, almost wicked glint in her eye, and said: ‘Take it here ... now.’ I was holding her yellow bunny which, as you might imagine, was not appreciated. For a short instant I didn’t move, choosing to misunderstand the command. She looked me in the eye, the intensity of her gaze increasing moment by moment. I decided to teach her a new distinction. ‘Bring it here,’ I corrected. Michelle clearly didn’t care for my input, at least not at that very moment. ‘Bring’ . . . ‘take’ . . . she really didn’t care. It was the bunny she was after. And, in her mind, she had already communicated enough for me to get the message. A simple message, really. Physically transport one bunny from there to here. ‘It’s mine! I want it!’ she said urgently, followed, very shortly, by the faint hint of tears that threatened crying could soon follow. I handed over the bunny.

That Michelle had confused ‘give’ and ‘take’ really didn’t matter. In just a few months she had first understood the difference between ‘give’ and ‘take’ and, with a little more time, she was already in the habit of using the two words appropriately. Actually, she had communicated very well. She had already mastered most of the distinctions in the phrase that she was using. To be complete, the message needed to have several different pieces in it. One piece is the final location of the bunny. In this case, it is with Michelle which, from her perspective, is ‘here’. For the bunny to end up with Michelle it needs to move through space. Because it’s a cuddly toy bunny it can’t walk on its own, so needs to be carried by somebody. Both ‘bring’ and ‘take’ have, within them, the idea that something is carried by someone. In her statement, Michelle had managed to communicate ‘carry’ and ‘here’. I had to carry the bunny, and it had to arrive in her hands — ‘here’. Although she said ‘take’ rather than ‘bring’, the directional idea wasn’t absolutely necessary because her body language, and the situation itself, removed all ambiguity. I never used to think about how the words ‘bring’ and ‘take’ actually carry two meaning components — the ‘carry’ component and the ‘direction’ component. It was only after I learned Mandarin that this distinction became obvious to me. In Chinese ‘bring’ is actually two characters — ‘dai lai meaning, literally, ‘carry come’. ‘Take’ is ‘dai qu — literally ‘carry go’. Simple insights like this lead to you realising that grammar and structure aren’t just about providing memory hooks. Grammar also helps us communicate abstract concepts. You can use this method to actively help you learn any new language. As you find yourself wanting to communicate certain things you can start to ask yourself, and then others, how different concepts are organised in your new language. You will be searching for abstract concepts such as ownership, relationships to time, relationships between people, the direction of movement and the like. These concepts seem to be those most frequently encoded into the grammar of any language. As with anything else in this book, of course, this is not an absolute. It is just an idea that you can use to guide your attention. To help you focus on

specific parts of a language so you can tease out the reasons for changes and patterns. Tease out the underlying ideas.

In this chapter we have explored new ways of thinking about grammar and structure, and how to use this thinking to support your learning process. Grammar communicates abstract ideas. Language is made up not just of audibols but of relationships between them. Often, it is the more abstract ideas that are communicated by the relationships between audibols. Mental structure for organising patterns. Grammar also provides a mental structure for remembering the relationships between audibols. ‘Running’ is different to ‘ran’. We remember that the different audibols refer to the same core idea, because ‘grammar’ is the memory structure that helps us to organise such information.

Section 3 In the previous section we explored some of the ways of becoming more skillful at learning some of the basics of any language. In this chapter we go further. If you can pronounce words well, you can hear the sounds, and you have learned how to work with ritualised patterns, you will already be well on the way to fluency. But there is even more that you can do to make the learning process even easier. Even more elegant. More fun. In just a few days, you can be understanding more than you ever thought possible.

12 Actively using the adult advantage Each of us, at some time in our lives, has had the experience of misreading a situation, of confusing one thing with another. When I was at university I was training very hard in tae kwon do, the Korean martial art. There was another student on campus whom I would frequently spar with. Often, just for fun, we would trade mock blows with each other in passing. One afternoon, as I moved along the winding path between classrooms I saw him coming along the path the other way. He didn’t seem to have noticed me. Maybe his thoughts were somewhere else. I decided to surprise him. Walking forward as though my thoughts, too, were somewhere else I steeled myself and coiled my muscles like a cat ready to pounce. He was about six feet away as I let loose. My left foot lifted off the ground and curved rapidly towards his right cheek in a powerful round-house kick. I stopped, my foot hovering about two inches from the side of his head. Ilooked at the totally surprised, shocked look on his face. A shock that I rapidlyshared. He looked like my friend ... then, as I examined him in finer detail, itbecame apparent it was not. Oh ... s_ __! Wrong guy. In situations like this, it’s important to recover very quickly. To retrieve as much face and poise as you possibly can. To look ‘cool’. So I said, in my best airline-representative–‘sorry sir, we lost your child’–voice, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.’ With the gracious smile, of course. Obligatory. His face still white, with a high-pitched voice tinted with surprise and fear, he said: ‘You must have’ And, before another word could be spoken, he got out of there as fast as he could. He was probably thinking that, now we were introduced, I might treat him as a friend and show my friendship in the customary way. A kick to the head, maybe, or something much worse.

More same than different Mistakes like this are caused by one quite simple fact. Have you ever noticed how, in many ways, we are actually very similar? It is very easy to see one person and think they are another. You move to greet them (hopefully not in as extreme a way as I did on this occasion), and then realise that it was a case of mistaken identity. You may, for instance, have seen someone on the street, who looks exactly like someone you know. You could swear that it really is that person. But it can’t be because the person you know is dead already. Or they’re old, grey and fat. You are simply seeing a younger replica. There are narrow faces with high noses, even in China and other parts of Asia. Blond-haired, almost round Oriental faces in many parts of Europe. Darken the skin or the hair, and you have someone who looks totally Chinese. Lighten the skin and hair of someone in Japan, and they look almost Norwegian. It’s almost as though there are categories of face that can be found in every country, on every continent. Of course, we can tell the difference between people, often because of the clothes they wear, the jewellery, or the haircut. But, underneath the coverings and trapping, in many important ways, we are more similar than we are different. While the differences, as far as learning a new language is concerned, are important, it’s the similarities that matter more — at least in the beginning. People everywhere share a common, physical reality. We walk. We talk. We eat. We drink. We have the consequences of eating and drinking. We sleep. We perceive colour. We sense distance. Weight. Heat. Cold. Despite the differences you will discover between your culture and all others, you can be sure that many things will be the same. ‘Me hungry, want eat’ might not be elegant, but you’ll get fed. Because of our common experience of physical reality, from the outset you can focus your attention on what is the same rather than what is different. You get to actively use the knowledge that you already have. I’ve mentioned this very briefly several times. In this chapter I want to go a lot deeper, and help you really make use of the advantages that you have as an adult. To make maximum use of your adult advantage, it’s useful to understand and use three different ideas. I call them ‘chunks’, ‘world categories’ and


Chunks and lumps One of the interesting things that you discover in a language-learning journey is that every language carves up reality into very different sized pieces. Some of these pieces are very broad and very general. Some are very specific. Some are in the middle. Take ‘thing’, for instance. Now, I don’t know quite what it is, but I think that the thing off to your right, slightly behind you, might be very interesting. Or, it could be very uninteresting. And, only you can decide just how interested you are becoming. You realise, of course, that the above paragraph could apply to just about anything. To make sense of it, you probably looked around, or thought about what was behind you, and added your own labels. If we were in the same space together you might even say: ‘That thing is called a television’, or whatever it might be. And I might just have learned another word. Now, we could have talked about the bronze picture hook on the wall. Much more specific. But if you don’t have a bronze picture hook on the wall, then the communication becomes less meaningful even though it’s more specific. We decide how specific we need to be depending on the situation, and depending upon what we want to communicate. Fortunately, when we can’t think of a specific word, we frequently can get by with a general one. We don’t just talk about the world in general terms and specific terms, we even think about it that way. This helps us to organise our thinking and simplifies the process of remembering things. A classic psychology experiment presents people with a list of words, selected randomly. They get to look at the list for a few seconds, then the list is taken away. The people have to remember what the words were on the list. They generally manage five or six words out of 20. But it gets more interesting. Different lists get presented, but now organised into categories. On a list you might have: chair, table, sofa, lamp, orange, apple, pear, television, radio, stereo, tape-recorder, etc. With this

sort of list, people remember a lot more of the words. Why? Because they are able to organise them into categories — in this case: furniture, fruit, electronic appliances. The process of organising the world into big categories, and smaller categories, and even smaller categories inside other categories is called ‘chunking’. We do it naturally. Easily. It’s part of how we think, and of how we talk. In figure 12.1 (below) I’ve drawn a simple diagram to illustrate the chunking process. Notice that we can talk about the universe, which encompasses all objects, all processes, and all concepts. Or we can talk about things. Or furniture. Or people. Or chairs. Or men, women, and children. Or legs, arms, eyes and brains. Or cells. And so it goes on, up and down, and sideways.

We ’re always deciding, moment by moment, what chunk size we want to think in and, by extension, what chunk size we want to talk in. Are we

going to talk about that thing that is moving up behind you, or the butterfly that landed on the leg of your chair? It really does depend. . . . The chunking process is incredibly important to how we think, and to how we communicate. It’s also a very important element in how you learn language. Working with chunks gives you leverage. It helps you find the multiplier words that you need. Because it’s the multiplier words that will get you communicating effectively in the shortest possible time.

Glue, string and things in between Aggregating the world into larger and larger chunks, until the very universe stares out through your eyes, looking back in again, from the other side. But, enough of that. It’s easy to think of chunking being about just the physical world. Plants. Flowers. Petals. Wheels. Cars. Vehicles. The examples I’ve given so far are all about just one part of language. The naming part. We name everything. Every single physical thing in our experience has a name, sometimes more than one. Non-physical things have names too. Thoughts. Feelings. Ideas. Concepts. Abstractions. We have also named activities. Walking. Sleeping. Running. Talking. Eating. You can think of many more. In English we call them verbs. In addition to names for objects, actions and ideas, we also have a few other categories of word. These are the ‘glue’ words. Words that connect name words together in useful ways, that modify the name words, and that do certain things that name words can’t. Descriptions, for ins tance. The long scarf . The red dre ss. The heavy book. Running fast. Sleeping slowly. Misty thinking. Tinkling laughter. Ways of making distinctions between objects, or actions, that have the same name. If you think of any language being made up of ‘name’ words and ‘glue’ words, you get a simplified diagram like figure 12.2 below.

Now, this is where your adult advantage really comes into play. A short cut to fluency! There are just a few categories of ‘glue’ word. Let’s look at them. In any language we can find connectors, descriptors, modals, question words, marker words, and reference words. Six main categories. Or, there might be eight. Or five. It’s partly a matter of preference. A matter of how you choose to chunk the world. What is important is that you do chunk, and think about how you chunk and then use that knowledge to target what you want to learn. In the table below, I’ve listed the key categories with examples of the important words in those categories. There may be a few more words in each category. And it will vary by language.

The only category that needs any description is probably the ‘markers’ category. In any language, there are certain audibols that modify others. In English, we have ‘-ing’, and ‘-ed’ as examples. Every language has them. They fit in different places. What is important is that there are not many of them, and they have a multiplying effect in your ability to communicate. Now, just for a moment, you can think that each category has between five and 15 words, let’s say ten on average. There are six main categories. That’s 60 words. At four words per day that’s 15 days to master the glue of a language. They separate, join, and modify all of the objects and ideas that have names. Like a human skeleton, what is the same far outweighs what is different. Looking at the table above you can see how much you could communicate just by knowing the words listed in each of the categories and how they provide the structure, the scaffolding, within which the named words — objects and ideas — can fit. You will discover that because we can chunk in infinite ways, there is no limit to the number of objects, or actions, or ideas, or things that we can name. So, for as long as you live, you will be picking up new words. Words like cool, dotcom, audibol. With each new idea a new word comes into being. A never-ending creative process, generated by millions upon millions of people. Thousands of new words in a year, perhaps. How can you keep track of it all? Simply by knowing the glue words. So when you hear somebody say: ‘I found three of the long xxxxx and two blue yyyyy,’ you automatically know that ‘xxxxx’ and ‘yyyyy’ refer to objects of some sort. And, with your newness filter operating at full strength, you find your ears pricking up and, before you know it, you are asking: ‘What is a “xxxxx”?’

Skeleton keys and multipliers Chunks. Glue. Categories of different types of word. Interesting, but the question is bubbling, ‘How does this help me to learn a language?’

Consider again a little, two-year-old girl walking around the house, or out and about with her parents, asking questions. ‘This one is?’ Pointing. Then, a minute later, ‘This one is?’ Different object. Same question. You might begin to sense how a child uses multipliers to communicate, and to learn more language. You realise how working with chunks and glue words can help you into your new language faster than you had ever thought possible. To get going really quickly, you consciously seek out the words in each of the main glue categories. You might choose to learn colours on one day. You find someone to tell you the colours. Or get them from a book. Then, for the next 24 hours you are out there, in the world, noticing the colours, talking to yourself, practising the colours until you see a colour and name it automatically in your new language. To stretch yourself, you go to buy something. Just so you can practise saying ‘The blue one,’ or ‘No . . . make it the green one.’ The next day you go for the modals: can, can’t, always, never. You make up phrases in your mind. Practising out loud, on the wall, or to anyone who is there, whether or not they are listening. ‘I can’t eat that.’ ‘I can’t find it.’ ‘I never play tennis.’ ‘I always read books.’ The choices of sentence are infinite, open to the spread of your own creativity, but always including that core of words that you have decided you are going to practise on that particular day. You see, these types of word are not just the skeleton of a language. They are also your skeleton key. These few words give you access to hundreds of meanings. To communicate. But what about all the objects in the world? All the name words? Clearly, you can’t practise them all, at least not in a short period of time. This is where you use chunking. It’s a simple trick, really. You need to find words that describe a category, so you can use one word to talk about five, ten, twenty different objects. For instance, you’re going to be at a canteen or a restaurant. You’ll need to talk about cutlery: knives, forks, spoons. Or crockery: plates, bowls, glasses, cups, saucers. You might think that you should learn how to say ‘crockery’ or ‘cutlery’. That’s one solution. Of course, you don’t normally hear native speakers saying: ‘Please give me the crockery.’

You could say, ‘Give me one of those flat things to put my food on.’ ‘Flat’, ‘thing’, ‘on’, ‘of’, ‘one’ are all glue words. You are able to communicate, even if inelegantly. You may not be able to remember all of the names of the different objects within any one category, but you can remember one or two. So the solution is simple. Pick one, and use it to represent the others. Again, like a child: ‘Look, Daddy has a knife’ (Daddy is holding a fork). ‘I have a knife, too!’ (the child is holding a spoon). Because, when you pick one word that is at least partially representative of a category, and you add a bit of body language, you’ll often get what you want, along with some correction about the name of the object. ‘Can I have a cup of beer please.’ The waiter comes to your table, ‘Your glass of beer, sir.’ Of course, sometimes it can be a little difficult to decide which object names are the ones that you really should be starting with. This is where all the work that you have been doing with noticing patterns begins to pay off. The people around you will tend to use certain words much more frequently than others. They’ll say ‘bowl’ much more frequently than ‘plate’, for instance. So, it’s already in your mind, and you know that you can get away with using ‘bowl’ to talk about different sorts of plate. Of course, over time you become very practised at the one word you have learned to represent the category, and get more and more adventurous about trying some of the others, and your vocabulary grows upon a solid base of practice and confidence.

To remember: All languages break down into some simple categories, made up of ‘glue’ words — words that tie the language together. Knowing ‘glue’ words gives you a lot of power to multiply your communication.

People ‘chunk’ reality into different sizes, with each chunk size represented by different words. To accelerate your learning, pick representative words to stand for all the words in a group. Using representative words from a chunked group exposes you to feedback and the opportunity to identify new patterns. You get to practise and communicate at the same time.

13 Living in a bigger world Within about two weeks of arriving in Beijing I met a man who would change my life. His influence was not to be direct, but the indirect consequences have led to me doing what I am doing in life today. He was the starting point of a fundamental change of mind. He approached me one afternoon in the yard when I was practising some high kicks. At that time I hadn’t studied Chinese martial arts , so I was practising the tae kwon do that I had learned in New Zealand. Through sign language, and what bits of spoken language I could understand, he indicated that he wanted me to teach him tae kwon do. And so we began. Some weeks later, when I could understand enough for him to communicate to me, he indicated that he knew of a Chinese kung fu master who he thought I might like to meet. This man was looking for a foreigner to whom he could teach his own form of Chinese martial art. My friend suggested he should arrange a meeting, and I agreed. The three of us met together a couple of weeks later. It took that long because my friend couldn’t just pick up the phone and call this guy. He had to make a special trip. In 1981, there was approximately one telephone per street, or per apartment block, in Beijing. So, when you called someone, the guard in the local guard box would pick up the call and then go off down the street or into the apartment complex, looking for the person who had been called. If you wanted to contact someone, it was easier to get on your bike, or on a bus, and go look for them yourself. The meeting did, eventually, get arranged. When he arrived, The Teacher, as I came to cal l him , sized me up for a couple of hours, asking me to show my stuff. Then he showed me some simple things, to see if I could comprehend some of his ideas. And then, he asked if I wanted to become his student. Eagerly, I agreed. And so began a journey that involved excitement, great learning, injury, despair and many friendships.

The Teacher began by telling me what I could and could not do. Very quickly he told me that most, if not all, sexual activity was to be curtailed in order to support my training regimen. He said that only married people should have sex, and then only once every three weeks at the most. Otherwise, it would interfere with development of the practitioner’s chi — vital, life force. I was immediately put into a quandary. I had always seen people as being basically the same. In my mind, it didn’t matter what race or sex someone was, or where they were from, I had always assumed that we were pretty much alike — which meant, like me. That outlook had helped me very quickly master a lot of Chinese very quickly. Now, here, right in front of me, was evidence that the surface might be very similar, while what is going on inside the head can be very different. What The Teacher was telling me conflicted with all that I had learned within a Western environment. As I grew up and went to school, and university, it had always been common knowledge that sex was good, and the more you got the happier and healthier you would be. After this shock, I spent days wondering who was right. Is my Western education and way of thinking or the Chinese martial artist’s way the right one?’ After several weeks I came out of my funk, but I hadn’t yet resolved my dilemma. In fact, reaching that resolution took many years, much study and many different experiences. At the time, however, I took what turned out to be a very useful short cut. I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to get anything out of this you better play the “as-if” game.’ In the ‘as-if’ game, you consciously decide to accept at face value all of the ideas and assumptions held by the group of people you are learning from. The fun part is that you have the wonderful opportunity to begin thinking about the world, and life, the way that those other people do. You discover that there is a whole new system of thought that people are living by. One that, within itself, is elegant, logical, self-contained and complete. Your world gets bigger as you absorb entire concepts and ideas that you have probably never encountered before. One of the earliest examples of this that came to mind for me concerns distance. Not long after I arrived in China I became restless, and wanted to begin seeing places. Of course,

when you want to go places, you generally want an idea of how far somewhere is from where you are. Growing up in New Zealand, we used to always talk about distance in terms of miles. So, I knew that it was six miles from my home to my high school in one direction, and seven miles to the city centre in the other direction. In Beijing, I remember going to one of my newly found friends and asking ‘How far is it into the city?’ Of course, before asking the question I had prepared myself for the answer. I actually spent a couple of hours working out what words to use, and checking words for things like ‘kilometre’ and ‘mile’, as well as numbers. So, when the answer came back I would be able to understand it — or so I thought. So, I asked the question. I got my answer. And I didn’t understand. In answer to: ‘How far is it to the centre of Beijing?’ I got something that sounded like ‘45 . . .’ and missed the rest. My mind began racing madly, thinking ‘It can’t possibly by 45 miles, or even kilometres, to the city centre!’ I was lucky. The friend I had asked was one of those people who will take time to slow down, think, and help you work it out. He explained to me that, in China, people never talked about distance. They would always talk about time. Initially, it didn’t make any sense to me at all! Distance was the only thing that made sense! Then it clicked again. Play the ‘as-if’ game. Let’s assume that talking in terms of time rather than distance actually does make sense. So I did. The more I talked in terms of time to get somewhere, the more comfortable I became with the idea. Even today I remember that it’s 76 hours from Beijing to Urumqi, and 55 hours from the city of Xi’an to Beijing. It’s 33 hours from Beijing to Guangzhou. Of course, all of these times suggest that there is only one form of transport. And, when I was learning my Chinese there was only one common form of long-distance transport — the train. If you are a person who flies a lot, then you will understand this idea. You probably don’t know how many miles it is from one city to another. At the same time, you will know flying time, and time on the ground.

Practically, this knowledge makes more sense to you, because you can literally plan your life using this way of thinking. If something is 100 miles away but you have the ability to teleport, the distance has very little impact on how you organise your life and your time. If you have to walk the distance, however, you probably have to dedicate a week to do that. The important thing to remember is that, to be effective, the way you think about the world needs to take into account the context in which you find yourself. I recently got caught out with my assumptions around time versus distance when I was in Los Angeles. I was staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills, attending a seminar, and decided that I wanted to buy some software. I asked somebody on the hotel staff where the nearest store was and he gave me an address. When I asked him how far that was, he said: ‘Ten minutes.’ I thought to myself: ‘That’s really close,’ and I set off with my friend to walk to the store. Big mistake. In LA nobody walks. Everybody drives. Which meant that the store was something between four and eight miles away — a walking time for me of between one and two hours. I never did find what I was looking for, although the need to be sensitive to the context I was in was something I clearly relearned at that point! Today, I live on an island within the territory of Hong Kong. How far is my island from the business district called ‘Central’? I don’t know how many miles, but I can tell you that it is 30 minutes from ferry pier to ferry pier. Plenty of time to read a newspaper, have a cool beer, chat with a friend, or even get a bit of shut-eye. The key idea here is that every group of people thinks about the world in ways that make sense and are convenient for their practical, daily living. You may have heard that, whereas English only has one word for snow, the Inuit (Eskimos) have many. These words reflect knowledge about different types of snow that they have acquired over generations. This does not mean that a speaker of English cannot perceive different qualities of snow, but it does mean that different qualities of snow are probably irrelevant to most English speakers living in cities. If you live in the Arctic, and you use this ‘snow’ stuff as building material, then having names for different types of it does matter, a lot, daily.

You could also assume that Inuits don’t distinguish between particle board, plywood, veneer and other types of wood. If you are a home builder in North America, then these distinctions do matter. The importance of such distinctions became clear to me when I started to learn how to use a sword in my martial arts training. There are many different, subtle motions that one can do with a sword. To use a sword well, you need to understand these differences. For instance, there is pi, a motion wherein the sword hacks downwards. Similar to pi is dian (literally ‘point’) where you start by hacking downwards with the whole blade, then change the motion so that the handle raises up, and the point continues downwards. This is a useful trick to help you get a cut in on an opponent when he is trying to block you. I like to think of the different ways that different people have conceptualised the world by using different diagrams (below).

Small world in a bigger world The first situation is one in which people in the new culture that you are interacting with share a central concept with you. However, at the same time, they think of it in a somewhat bigger way and have many different distinctions within that bigger ‘universe’.

An example might be the difference between Yiddish and English. Yiddish apparently has many different words and ideas that describe very subtle differences in relationships between people. So, for instance, you have schlemiel and schlemozzle. In the dictionary, a schlemiel is ‘an ineffective, inoffensive person who bumbles through life’. Very straightforward. The way it has been described to me by a friend who has been intimately connected to Yiddish is that a schlemiel is a person who accidentally tips soup on someone else at a dinner table and the schlemozzle is the recipient of the schlemiel’s bumbling. It’s the only language I know of that gives names to characters on both sides of a bumble. There’s another Yiddish word pair that is equally enlightening. The word maven means somebody who is deeply knowledgeable about something. Then, as a schlemiel has a schlemozzle, so a maven has a canucknussle. A canucknussle is somebody who thinks they are really knowledgeable about something. So you can imagine a conversation which goes something like: John: ‘You know Bill, he’s a real maven when it comes to aircraft!’ Peter: ‘Yeah, right! He’s more like a canucknussle, really.’

Partly overlapping worlds In the second situation, it is almost like you and your new culture have equally large and complex views of something. However, while there are times the views seem to be the same, and there is overlap, there are also large areas of difference. It’s almost as if you are thinking about two different universes that have something in common.

An example might help to explain this. China, historically, has been a country with a long history of developing fighting skills. Not everybody knows these martial arts by any means, but the stories and myths that have grown up around them are very much a part of popular culture. There are books about historical heroes, fictional heroes, and increasing numbers of martial arts movies. China has even begun to export martial arts movie stars, like Jet Li. Many people practise some form of martial art in China, and some do so very seriously. A subset of practitioners practise what is known as qigong. Qi (pronounced ‘chee’ as in cheese, and sometimes written as ‘chi’) literally means ‘air’ and, in this context, refers to ‘life force’. ‘Gong’ means ‘skill developed over time through practice’. Qigong, therefore, means ‘the skills of conscious use of one’s qi’. Some qigong

practitioners regularly travel around, putting on shows in which they lie on beds of nails, or break sharpened spears against their throats. Once I was walking through the centre of Beijing and came across a street sideshow performed by a small, out-of-town, qigong troupe. As I watched, one young man gathered his qi, held up a steel ball the size of a large grapefruit, and swallowed it! It was definitely for real, because he proceeded to prance around, showing the lump sticking out from his stomach and tapping it. After a couple of minutes of this, he suddenly convulsed his body, put his head back, and the steel ball shot up from his stomach, out through his mouth and about ten feet into the air! This sort off eat can be explained either by the idea of qigong or, if you prefer a Western view, by theories around skilful levels of muscle control. However, there are qigong exploits that appear to extend beyond the realm of the simply physical. For instance, in the early 1990s, one particular master was claimed to be able to safely hold live electrical wires. There are now centres in China where qigong is being used to treat many different forms of cancer. Another qigong master I met personally was able to move a compass needle just by sending the qi from the palm of his hand. I observed him do this on numerous occasions. He could also sense the state of somebody’s internal organs, and positively influence them. On one occasion, I watched from the side as he successfully pushed over my friend, from behind, with a distance of more than six feet separating them. What is happening when things like this occur? Most Westerners will start looking for scientific explanations. Most Chinese will simply say ‘Oh, he was using his qi.’ And between these you can see the essence of what I mean about very significant differences in worldviews, though often involving some degree of overlap. To more easily understand the sort of phenomena I’m describing here, you may need to have some philosophical or theoretical structure to fall back on. The idea of qi in Chinese provides this. It is, of course, also called by different names in different languages. The Indians call it prana.

This is where playing the as-if game becomes very interesting. Accept for a minute that qi exists, and that anyone, including you, can practise it. What would you do first if you wanted to learn qigong? Maybe you’d read a bit about it. Next maybe you’d learn some exercises, and start to practise, and begin to look for any differences that you might feel. Then, you’d learn more and more concepts to describe the different things that you are experiencing. Before long, you will have a whole new set of ideas about how the world works, that are quite outside what you ever thought before. This does not mean that any of the ideas are ‘correct’ in an absolute sense — just that you now have an interesting shorthand way of organising your experience, and communicating about it with others, because they communicate about it, naturally, in the same way. The more you play the as-if game, the more you will find that new things are now possible for you to do. You have new concepts to help you understand what you are doing, even though these concepts might be quite foreign to other ideas that you used before. Your world has expanded.

Same ideas; different cut

Less challenging than the situation I’ve just described is one where you and the people you are learning from have the same view of what the world is like, and you tend to ‘cut it up’ in different ways. For example, in English, we have an idea for ‘here’ and an idea for ‘there’. We can also perceive something that I would call ‘way over there’. However, we don’t think of breaking up ‘there’ and ‘way over there’ into different concepts that need different words. There are some languages, however, that make the distinction very clearly. They have ‘here’ as an idea, ‘there’ as a different idea, and ‘over there’ as yet another idea, represented by its own audibol/word. Thai does this. Also, in English, we have a number of different distinctions about amount. We say ‘many’, ‘much’, ‘a lot’. In Chinese, these different ideas are represented by one audibol/character/idea — duo. There’s another interesting difference between Chinese and English, reflected in the languages themselves. In English, we talk about ‘words’. Just one concept. The Chinese talk about zi and ci to refer to ‘words’. A zi is one character, which has a meaning and which is always only one syllable in length. A ci, on the other hand, is also a ‘unit of meaning’. However, it is made up of two or more zi. A zi on its own can carry meaning, just like a singlesyllable word in English. It can also act something like a syllable in that, when you combine them together, you get different meanings than of the parts separately.

Kevin, our Welshman who is fluent in Japanese, Chinese, German and a number of other languages, talks about this relationship between languages as ‘many-to-one’ or ‘one-to-many’. When he’s learning a new language, he says that you automatically find yourself looking for these sorts of relationships, asking yourself if the language you are learning ‘cuts’ reality into pieces differently from the language(s) you already speak. You may be wondering how all this stuff about different ways of thinking relates to learning a new language. Actually, this is a critical part of language learning. Many people had difficulty learning a new language because, in their minds, the world they were describing had to be the same as the world in the other people’s minds. Therefore, their starting point was ‘It’s easy to talk!’ mixed with ‘I don’t need to change anything’. I remember some years ago knowing a man from Beijing (let’s call him Mr Zhang) who had moved to Hong Kong and was living there for a number of years. One day some of his friends from Mainland China came to visit him. I joined them that day for lunch. In the middle of the conversation, one of his friends said to me: ‘Mr Zhang’s Cantonese is very good, because we can understand it!’ The irony is, of course, that none of them could speak Cantonese. Mr Zhang had essentially made no effort to

speak Cantonese, but rather chose to change the accent of his Mandarin to sound something like Cantonese. Clearly, such an approach is unlikely to lead to fluency in a new language, or even a new dialect.

To remember: Language, in a very real sense, reflects the ways in which the people of a particular culture think about the world. Language reflects the concepts that people use to understand and explain their world, and the ways in which they carve those concepts up to communicate effectively with each other. Sometimes, the concepts are simply used for a level of convenience, such as in the example with many/much above, and sometimes the concepts describe elements of reality that are not addressed within a different culture or language community. As a language learner you need to always be aware of the fact that when we talk to somebody, we are taking a multidimensional mental picture that is in our minds and turning that into a sequence of audibols. The choices of audibols represent both how we chop up and how we describe reality.

14 The third ear It was the middle of the last decade of the last century, and I was running a two-week accelerated Mandarin course for Westerners in Beijing. On day 10 of the 14-day course Ray, a 50-year-old Australian, came up to me and said: ‘You know what I’ve just discovered?’ He was really excited, and the discovery was clearly a real big deal for him. I was curious. He went on: ‘I’ve just worked out that you can’t speak Mandarin with an Australian accent!’ Obvious, really. But it goes much further and deeper than that. It reminded me of the journey I had been on, and the dawning of an understanding about the non-verbal aspects of any language.

More than just words Roger was one of the most annoying people you could meet, and also one of the most inspiring. He must have been ten years old at the time, and we struck up a relationship that became a life-long friendship. We spent many years together, going through primary school, and then high school. Later we went separate ways, but still connect from time to time. One of the things about Roger that impressed me the most back then, and that gave everyone years of entertainment, was his ability to mimic voices and sounds. He was, veritably, ‘a one-boy TV cartoon show’. He could take any show that was on, and perform all of the voices of all of the different characters. He could also produce most of the sound effects that were used on various different shows. What was even funnier was his ability to caricature the voices and mannerisms of different teachers. I found this the most frustrating thing in the world. I could not, for the life of me, mimic sounds or voices in the way that he did. What came out of

me was some awful distortion that bore no resemblance to the original. Infuriating! At the time, of course, it was just an annoyance. I didn’t really put that much effort into it, and I did not recognise how important this skill was going to be for language learning later on. When I was in my early twenties, just before I went to China, I did have a breakthrough. Having picked up a couple of audiotapes of the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, I found myself drawn into his particular brand of humour — earthy, raunchy, and very witty. Billy Connolly’s style at the time was to tell lengthy stories, with small humorous twists all along, until at the end there would be a really big twist for the punch line. These stories were very funny indeed. So funny that I remembered them all in word-forword detail after hearing them only once, and I even felt compelled to tell the stories to others. There was just one problem. The stories didn’t work unless they were told with the accent. I realised that if I was ever to use these stories, and get any sort of laugh, I had to be able to speak with a Scottish accent. And then I really began to practise. Over time, it dawned on me that the ‘accent’ was much more than what it seemed. Accent wasn’t just sounds, it was a whole personality. Facial expressions, body movements, muscle tension patterns. The whole caboodle. This point was reinforced for me when, many years later, I watched the animated movie Shrek. Shrek, the main character, an ogre, speaks with a Scottish accent. Rumour has it that Mike Meyers, the ‘voice’ who played Shrek, was three-quarters of the way through doing the voice in a different accent when he realised that it was not going to work, and approached the directors to discuss changing the accent. Even though this was going to cost a lot of money, the directors agreed. And, in my mind, it is Shrek’s Scottish ‘personality’ that really carries the film. Have you ever been in a place where you noticed a group of people in the distance and you knew immediately that they weren’t speaking your language? Maybe you could even tell what language they were speaking, even though you couldn’t hear a word of it. How does this happen?

I like to think that the whole process of non-verbal communication has an ‘envelope’ to it — a shape and a texture. This shape and texture is different for each different language. Mimics and comedians use this difference in shape and texture to caricature different language personalities. Think, for a moment, of the various cultural caricatures that you have been witness to. Maybe you’ve seen the British aristocracy caricatured. What was it that made the caricature work? Maybe it was stiff necks, straight backs, a very serious look on the face, a setting of the lips in that very ‘British’ way. Or maybe it was a French caricature. What made that so obvious? Exaggerated pursing of the lips, accompanied by that little frown? Or, perhaps, it was the movement of the hands? Other cultures may, for some, be even easier to caricature. Take the Indian head waggle, for example, or the Japanese bow. In 1982 as I worked on filming a movie in Beijing, I was introduced over lunch to a young lady. I was fairly sure that she was Japanese, but she insisted that she was from Mainland China. Being young, playful and quite determined I set out to test my guess. First, I pointed out that her Mandarin was too perfect, with choice of words and articulation so much better than one would expect from a native speaker. She countered by saying that she was in broadcasting, and so had to pay careful attention to her speech. I then pointed out that she was somewhat shorter than the average Beijing native, to which she replied that she was of southern stock, and that she had grown up in Beijing. I wasn’t going to give up, so I pointed out that she hadn’t eaten much of her rice and that I believed this to be due to the fact that Japanese people didn’t much care for the varieties of rice eaten by the Chinese. She insisted that she was simply watching her weight, and did not feel particularly hungry. By the end of lunch I was no further forward, and almost beginning to believe that she was, in fact, from China. But, we had one more opportunity to play. After lunch we all adjourned to a friend’s room to hang out until we were called for filming. I was there two or three minutes ahead of this young lady. Without really thinking about it, when she walked into the room I bowed to her in greeting, Japanese-style, hands by the sides, a

sudden bend forward from the waist. Chinese people do not bow to each other in this way. Her eyes widened just a little and a strangely conflicted look appeared on her face. The automatic programme that made her bow whenever anyone bowed to her was kicking in. She knew it, and she consciously tried to stop it. It looked like there was a hand on the back of her head, about to push her down. She fought it, but succeeded only for a split second or so. Then she dropped into the bow. She came up out of the bow position, and tore across the room, her fists swinging. She then stopped and jumped up and down a couple of times in a gesture of total frustration before both of us burst into hysterical laughter. All the work she had done trying to convince me that she was Chinese had been undone. Clearly, language was more than just words. Her words were, indeed, perfect. Her pronunciation was perfect. Just some non-verbal parts gave her away. The point of all this is that any language is so much more than just words. It is, ultimately, a way of being in the world. Any language includes a certain pace and rhythm. It has a sense of timing, with different gestures and expressions. There are different postures, different intensities, different ways of using your eyebrows. And, believe it or not, it is these things, along with your pronunciation, that people use to determine whether you are an outsider or part of the in-group. Communication at this level is incredibly powerful.

The importance of non-verbal communication If you are a user of e-mail, you will have personal experience of just how problematic communication can be. You may have received an e-mail that made you absolutely boil, leading you to retaliate and then get into an email war. Or, you may have sent an e-mail message that, in your mind, was very neutral. Next thing you knew, you were under fire for being insensitive, rude, or something worse. You might have even gone back to review your

e-mail to find out what it was that you said that was so bad, and still you couldn’t understand where the problem was. The problem was, of course, caused by the medium, not your message. E-mail is, by its nature, a ‘limited channel’. When you communicate with someone face-to-face you can see their movements, their expressions, the way they pause, even the colour changes in their face. You can tell if they are joking with you, or making a statement that is really a question. You can sense many different messages just from the slight change in tone or rhythm that someone chooses to use. E-mail transmits none of this information, so when someone receives an e-mail from you, for instance, they have to fill in the overtones and context from their own heads. So, basically, you have very little control over how someone will perceive your written message, no matter how positive your intentions might have been. Research has shown that something like 90 per cent of communication between people is non-verbal. In figure 14.2, you see what is described as the ‘communication iceberg’. Words make up the top 10 per cent — that part which is visible above the water. The part under the water is made up of non-verbal communication. Some 75 per cent of a communication comes through body language, and 15 per cent comes through changes in the voice.

Have you ever been in a situation where, somehow, you just can’t ‘connect’ with someone else? You try very hard. You think that you are saying, and doing, the right things but it just doesn’t seem to work. In this sort of situation, frequently your ‘icebergs’ are bumping into each other below the surface of the water. You and the other person are actually communicating non-verbally, and the message is very different from what you think you are saying. It’s hard to spot because this level of communication is outside the conscious awareness of both people. The usual way of describing the result is ‘we didn’t click’, or ‘the chemistry was wrong’. The idea that non-verbal communication is so important is logical to accept. After all, non-verbal communication is all that animals have, and it’s not hard to imagine that, for much of our evolutionary history we, too, had to rely mostly on non-verbal forms of communication. Some years ago I was walking quietly on a tree-lined path, returning home from an afternoon swim. It was early spring, and very warm. For some reason, I looked up and noticed two black birds sitting on the branch of a tree. One faced in one direction, and the other faced in the other

direction. All of a sudden, one of the birds flicked its tail. A split second later, the second bird followed suit. The first bird then tilted forward just a little, and flicked its tail twice in quick succession. This was followed almost immediately by an exact copy of the performance by the second bird. The first bird then jumped up, spun around, and landed on the branch facing the same way as the other bird. The other bird followed, and they ended up facing in opposite directions again. By this time, there was almost no gap between one bird moving and the second following. As I watched, they got to a point of coordination where they would move in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time. Two flicks of the tail, another jump and spin to face the other way, a short crow, another tail flick, another jump, and then they both launched off the branch at exactly the same time as they flew off. I stood, mesmerised, through the entire performance. The two of them were communicating, like dancers, at a very deep but non-verbal level. Beginning in the 1960s, William Condon pioneered the study of what, today, is called ‘cultural micro-rhythms’. He spent months studying, frameby -frame, a short movie clip in which a woman says to a man and a child ‘You all should come around every night. We never have had a dinnertime like this in months.’ He watched, and he watched, frame by frame until he saw it — ‘the wife turning her head exactly as the husband’s hands came up’. Then he began to see more. Micro-movements between people who were communicating, with different movements, but with the same pattern of starting and stopping, perfectly coordinated. In effect, speakers were dancing to their own speech, and listeners were following along. Children growing up pay a lot of attention to the non-verbal aspects of communication. For instance, you will most likely have observed children mimicking the facial expressions and the movements of their parents and relatives. What they are learning is the non-verbal communication patterns of their in-group. Given the importance of non-verbals, it makes sense to pay a lot of attention to this when we are learning a foreign language. In fact, to really accelerate your learning of any language, you might like to consider the approach of consciously learning the non-verbals of the language as an integral part of the whole language. As I reflect back on my own language-

learning journeys, I recall how I consciously and deliberately used body language as a way to help accelerate my language-learning process.

The art of reflection — working with body language We sat opposite each other at the meeting-room table. This was Jenny’s third coaching session, and we were getting into the importance of body language. I had just explained to her that other people tend to like you more from what happens non-verbally than for what happens verbally. I was beginning to explain to her that a very powerful way to develop rapport with somebody is to pay a lot of attention to posture and gestures. I told her that the more your body language matches the other person, the more the other person will like you. In effect, the more you become like a mirror image of the other person, the more they will like you and engage with you, even if they don’t know why. She began to protest. I uncrossed my legs, and crossed them the other way. She immediately followed. I pointed this out to her, and she argued, saying that she had moved her legs because they were tired. So I scratched my nose. Ten seconds later she scratched her nose and, because this was a learning session, I pointed out how she had followed me almost immediately with that movement. She still wanted to argue, and was formulating the next rebuttal when I gently lifted one eyebrow in a look of puzzlement. As her own eyebrow followed suit, I gently pointed out how she was matching me step by step, movement for movement, almost perfectly. And it was mostly outside conscious awareness. Capitulation was not far away. Anne was being interviewed about her own learning style and she began to talk about how she listens to a language, and gets into its rhythm. She insisted that, even though she had never learned a language before, she was somehow able to understand a lot of what was going on. She went on to claim that she was once at a zoo, and somehow got into a non-verbal interaction with a zebra. She swore that, somehow, at some level, they were communicating. It is entirely possible that she did, indeed.

Monty Roberts, a horse whisperer, is able to read and respond to the subtle communications that horses use. As he says:‘A good trainer can hear a horse speak to him. A great trainer can hear him whisper.’ I would extend this to: When you are learning a language well you can hear someone speaking beyond the words, and when your learning is outstanding, you can hear a person totally without words. When you start to learn language by relying on our deeper and older senses, allowing the words to form but a thin film on top of something much more fundamental, you are using what I call the ‘Third Ear’. It’s the combination of your body language sense, and your intuitive sense about the exchange of meaning. Maureen grew up in Hong Kong and speaks fluent English. She is married to a German man, but never really learned German. ‘When Paul and I met his relatives,’ she wrote recently, ‘I was able to get the drift of what they were saying. Paul would query that, as they speak little English and I speak little German. Upon reflection, it was the strangest thing. It was like I could understand about 50 per cent of what they were saying, but I just couldn’t define which 50 per cent.’ Another example of knowing, somehow, what is being said without being conscious of how this knowing happens. An example of using the Third Ear.

Become the mirror So, what can you do about this? How can you actually use it? There are a couple of entry points to help you start using these ideas. The first thing that you can do is simply match the postures, movements, and rhythms of the people whose language you are trying to master. As Peter said when I interviewed him about his language-learning experience, ‘When people go to Italy, they just can’t stop using their hands!’ It’s almost like Italian needs the hand motions in order for the language to even work. Without the gestures there is something fundamental missing, and it just feels totally wrong. You might be able to copy everything at once, and it may be easier for you to do it step by step, one piece at a time. You begin by deciding what

you are going to focus on, day by day. For one day you might just focus on how people are moving their hands. Then you copy that. The next day you might practise those very particular head movements that seem to only happen in this culture. The third day, you pick something different again. Your goal is always to expand the repertoire of what you can comfortably do yourself, while at the same time making your brain look for and respond to the movements and rhythms of the new culture. As you practise these things you will soon discover that, totally naturally and very unconsciously, you have taken on the mannerisms of the culture that you are learning to like and to emulate. The question remains, of course, if you try to learn a language with just the words, and don’t pay attention to the body language, can you still learn? The answer is — yes. But why make things any harder than they really need to be? If mirroring body language makes the learning easier, why not just do it? Even if it didn’t make sense, at least not at the beginning.

Exclamation excavation Non-verbals are not just the movements and rhythms of the body. Grunts, groans, sighs and exclamations are all legitimate parts of any language. And they are parts that we need to pay attention to. It is quite possible to have a meaningful exchange in Japanese using just grunts and exclamations, with no real ‘words’. Paying attention to the noises of a language outside the words is an important part of the language learner’s repertoire. So, you begin to notice those elements of the interaction between people which are clearly more exclamation than word. You can generally tell, because these sounds can be very frequent, and they are often accompanied by quite noticeable physical movements and expressions. As you notice one, you begin to repeat out loud, quietly to yourself at first, tasting and feeling how it rolls around inside your mouth. You can even play a game with yourself, imagining that you are the other person, and feeling how it is to express sounds in that way. What emotions seem to go with it? Does it feel weak, or powerful, or something else? Of course, as you are doing all of this work inside nobody really needs to know. All they will notice is that, for some strange reason, you actually

sound quite native. They might then speak to you in fully formed sentences that, most likely, will be beyond your immediate level. So you smile sweetly, and pull out the toolbox ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak very well. Can you repeat please.’ And the next little dialogue begins. Another chance to practise and interact.

Ritual greetings Another rich vein from which to mine the basics of a language is what I call the ritual greeting — you know, ‘Mornin’!’, ‘How are you going?’ Those little things that get used everywhere, every day. It’s interesting to note that these sorts of phrases carry very little real meaning as words. They’re more about sounds that allow people to acknowledge each other than they are about talking. The phrases are social lubrication, and people use them this way. When you think about it, when you ask somebody ‘How are you today?’ you really don’t want to know the answer. Rather, you expect ‘Fine. And you?’ You’re ‘tickling the network’, using speech as a way to maintain some degree of social closeness. And this is why you want to practise these things. You get to hear them a lot, so you have lots of models. You can’t get into much trouble, because the likely responses are fairly limited, and you get to work with expected results, which becomes comforting. Very soon you’re on automatic, and it’s time to expand into areas where you can’t quite know what to expect. And so it was when I first arrived in Beijing. On day two when I met ‘Mao’, my ‘cat’ friend from Bangkok, he taught me ‘Zenme yang?’ — ‘Howz’it goin’?’ Simple enough, and for the first week I must have used it hundreds of times. ‘Zenme yang?’ I would ask Mao every time I saw him. He would respond with ‘Zenme yang,’ and we’d both smile. We had greeted each other in Chinese, and that was all that mattered. ‘Zenme yang?’ I would say to a Chinese friend. ‘Hao’ (fine), would be the answer. 'M neV (and you?) Or sometimes it was something else, which I didn’t understand but nobody seemed to notice. We were making noises, smiling and nodding, and that’s all that really mattered. That’s the nature of such greetings.

When I was learning Cantonese I had a slightly different approach. I got to use a friend’s office to work out of, and all day long the girls who worked in the office would be using the phone to discuss business. It didn’t take long to realise that wai meant hello. Then, after a while, that ‘uh ... uh ... uh ...’ meant ‘aha ... aha ... aha’. So I started to practise. When my phone rang, I’d say, quite proudly, ‘Wai!’ And, when I was listening politely to someone I’d say ‘uh ... uh ... uh.’ It definitely seemed to make a difference!

They’ve got rhythm The first reason for learning through the non-verbals is that they provide the shortest route to mastering the rhythms of a new language. Every language encodes meaning using different mechanisms, and rhythm is one of them. You will know that you can spot a non-native speaker very often, not by the words that are used, but by the rhythm of the language. They pause at the wrong place. They stress the wrong things. It’s a bit like a man walking with his left arm swinging forward at the same time as his left leg. It is just not quite right, and you notice it. When you practise the non-verbals, the movements, the exclamations you actually get to practise rhythm as well. You end up practising the same phrases over and over again. This means that you quickly master the words, and then you get to play. You work with the movements. You pause. You speak quickly, stressing things in different places. You increasingly get to feel how it sounds to be native. You feel the rhythms of speech in your new language. And you know that, at a certain point, even though you might not have all of the words, something has clicked inside you. The language, in its basic form, is now part of you.

The safety factor There is another, very important, reason for diligently learning how to interact at the non-verbal level. Quite simply, you become ‘safe’. When you seem too different to the people that you are trying to talk to, they will maintain a distance. They won’t really want to talk to you. This puts you at

a disadvantage. The only way to really learn fast is to get to hear the language — a lot. To get to hear the language a lot, you need to be accepted by the people who are speaking that language. And that is up to you. As my friend Roger pointed out, when he was in Japan he committed himself to really learning the language. And that meant, among other things, just engaging with people. ‘They don’t care about you,’ he said. ‘The people aren’t going to make the effort to get to know you first. You have to make the effort. You have to engage with them. Then they’ll start to talk with you.’ You start to engage by using non-verbals as much as you can. The more you match at the level of gesture, posture, rhythm, and sounds the more the ‘natives’ will feel like you are one of them — a bit retarded, maybe, but one of them. Then they will respond to you. They’ll talk to you. And this will give you what you need — hours and hours of exposure to the language, being used by the people whose language it is. Until it becomes yours, too. The whole thing then becomes a positive spiral, working in your favour. The more you make the right noises and movements the more you are accepted. And, the more you are accepted the more you get to practise — both hearing and speaking. Learning happens on the basis of effective communication. The more you communicate effectively with your Third Ear (your body), the more you are given the chance to communicate with words.

You are a tuning fork At this point we get into what you might call a ‘useful fiction’. Imagine for a moment that your brain can somehow ‘tune’ itself to the vibrations in a particular environment. And, then, imagine that the sounds and rhythms and words of a language make up a world of vibration, a world of vibration that you are immersed in fully from head to toe. Also think for a moment about how your own brain is exquisitely built to notice patterns in the world around you. Even when you close your eyes you see patterns, because that’s what the brain does.

Part of the experience of learning a language in a country where it is spoken is the sudden realisation, sometimes creeping up on you, that the whole culture has a certain rhythm and energy and vibration to it. It’s like a massive energy field that you have just walked into. Your brain is perfectly capable of ‘tuning into’ that field. The more you ‘tune in’, the easier it is to understand what is going on around you. When you consciously work with body language, sounds, and the rhythms of the language, you are deliberately giving your brain instructions to go faster, do more, than it was already doing. Your brain starts unconsciously connecting the movements and the sounds and the words of the language into one complete, whole ‘thing’. The more you play with the non-verbal aspects of the language the more the brain plays along, and picks up the subtle nuances of the new language without you even being aware of it. Soon you are speaking with an almost native accent. You are already starting to get yourself into interesting situations because people just feel that you are already fluent, even if you consciously only know a few words. This ‘entrainment’ into a new language can be a very important tool to help you master things quickly and easily. It’s even possible that this has a deep physiological basis to it. After all, non-verbal communication even seems to extend to the level of single cells. Some years ago, scientists did a very interesting experiment. They placed a single, live, heart cell into a Petri dish in a lab. This lonely little cell was beating for a while then, slowly, the strength of the beat declined, getting slower and weaker, until it finally stopped. Dead. They then put two heart cells into the same Petri dish. The cells were separated by a significant distance and they were both beating, but at different rhythms. Slowly, however, the beating came together until both were beating with the same rhythm, and they continued to beat. Unlike the lone cell that very quickly ran out of energy and died, these cells together lived and somehow coordinated what they were doing. Clearly, there is something going on with communication that is beyond verbal language. This non-verbal level of communication is probably more fundamental than any of us really credit. If you choose to think about the possibility, it may even be that when we learn a new language, some part of us is tuning in even at this level.

Putting it all together It was summer, and Cyprus was definitely very warm. Diane had only been there a few days, and she was visiting friends. There was a little Greek Cypriot girl there, who was not really interacting with anyone, even her parents. All the adults, in their wisdom, told Diane that the little girl seldom said a word. The insinuation was almost that she was somehow dumb. Being tired, Diane decided not to join in the adult conversation. After all, it was in Greek which is a language she does not yet speak. So, she started to play with the little girl. It began, at first, with just the most subtle of movements. The little girl would shift a finger, and Diane would follow. Diane would then tilt her head, and the little girl would follow. One little step at a time. A little more each time. Before long the two of them were engaged in active play, and the little girl who didn’t speak was talking as fast as she could, explaining all sorts of things to Diane. In kind, in the spirit of the game, Diane was responding in ‘Greek’—or at least with some sounds and patterns that she was hearing from thelittle girl. The short cut to getting engaged. Nineteen-ninety-five, Germany. My wife and I were visiting some friends for dinner. Their friends were there, and the conversation soon got into German. There was only one thing for it. Listen to the rhythms and sounds, begin to mimic, and when it felt right just jump in and say something. At one point Hartmut said something to his wife, and all the sounds were crystal clear. I jumped on it, and blurted out the same phrase as I had just heard—and the room collapsed in laughter. The people around the table were fallingover themselves with mirth. I had, of course, just greeted Hartmut’s wife witha very intimate greeting. Not quite appropriate, but very entertaining for allconcerned. As the evening wore on, and as I continued to listen, and match, and flow with the sounds the feeling started coming over me that I sort of understood what was going on. Words began to drift out of the mist, and I could put meaning onto certain audibols. And it was all coming from just allowing the brain and the body to entrain to the rhythms of the language. The more the entrainment, the more understanding formed. It felt good, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t pass a written exam in German that night. The point was that, with no background in the language, I was still able to really enjoy

an evening with friends and to get a very strong sense, deep in the belly, about how the German language is put together. Whatever language you might be learning, that is a great place to start.

In this chapter we have explored language beyond simply the words. When learning a new language, the more you can work with the nonverbal aspects the faster and easier your learning will become. Working with body language supports the language-learning process in a number of ways: Rhythm Rhythm is an important part of any language, and when you master that part of a language you are that much closer to fluency. Focusing on non-verbals very quickly helps you to become aware of rhythms in the language, and then master those rhythms. Safety People everywhere evaluate others in terms of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. You’re either ‘one of us’ or you’re not. The accent with which you speak, along with the other non-verbal behaviour you use, are the best indicator of whether you can be considered as friend, foe, or be ignored. By mastering body language as a first step you rapidly break down the barriers between you and the people who speak the language you are learning. This creates a closeness that helps you immensely on your learning journey. Tuning fork Using body language helps with your overall language learning because of one other factor — it helps to ‘tune’ your brain. This act of tuning makes the language sounds and structure more accessible to you.

There are many techniques for working with body language. As a beginner, some of the things you can practice include: Become the mirror Use your body to mirror the postures and movements of other people. This will teach you the non-verbal elements of the language while simultaneously building high levels of rapport. Exclamation excavation By focusing on the exclamations of a language you can quickly get to the essential sounds of that language. From there you can quickly move to the words. Ritual greetings When people greet each other on a daily basis, the act is more ritual than real language. Therefore, I classify this as body language. The more you can pick up on and use ritualistic greetings, the faster people will accept you. At the same time, this practice will also help to tune your brain and body to the sounds and rhythms of the whole language.

15 Fitting in A major idea in this book is that you can learn a new language while dealing with real people in real situations. You will not always be with friends, or even people you know. This brings with it unique challenges. When you learn in this way, you are not just dealing with language. You are also dealing with relationships, different perspectives on the world, cultures, and group issues. When I say ‘group issues’, I mean that you will have to understand things about group membership, and whether you have been accepted into a group or are still seen as an outsider. You w ill need to understand regional differences, and the relative status of different groups of people. This is important because status is reflected in language, so the way you speak will influence your perceived status. For instance, if you are a man and you learn Thai from communicating only with women, you will quite likely end up speaking the feminine form of the language. This is much more ‘cute’ than the male form, and would position you with a gender orientation that might not accurately reflect what you wanted to project. I recently heard a story of a Western man who learned Cantonese from mixing only with a very rough class of people in Hong Kong and Southern China. He spoke the language fluently, but you couldn’t take him anywhere in polite society, because each time he opened his mouth there issued forth a stream of obscenity. This was not really the most ideal outcome. If you learn a language by immersing yourself in real-life contexts there are a number of things that you need to pay attention to. This chapter explores the main situations that you might expect to face. We look at how to handle making a ‘social mistake’, and how to deal with the problem of being ‘too fluent and not fluent enough’, both at the same time.

Managing misunderstandings If you are trying to become fluent in a new language it is guaranteed that you will have to deal with misunderstanding. You might be in a restaurant, for example, and end up with something quite different from what you thought you asked for. Or, you could crack a joke, but people don’t laugh. They might respond to you as if you are totally weird. When this happens you know that you are making real progress. Why? Because people will only think you are weird when they expect native behaviour from you, and you say or do something that a native speaker wouldn’t. It shows you are fluent enough for them to believe you understand all the rules and expectations of native behaviour. Mistakes help you get better. Whenever you make a mistake that creates a strange reaction in other people around you, you should be happy. Because you can only realise that you have made a mistake, or created a misunderstanding, if two things have happened. The first is that you will have spoken, which means you are actively engaged in using the language. The second is that your focus of attention is outside yourself. This means that you are noticing how people around you are responding. Your feedback loop is working. This, in itself, is a powerful tool to support your learning. When you see people misunderstanding you, how should you respond? I like to look at the way children react. Frequently, when she was around 18 month s old, if Michelle s aid something and people didn’t understand her, she would just turn her back and walk away. It was almost as if nothing had happened. At other times she would scream, start pointing, jump up and down, and do whatever it took for us to understand her. Clearly, there were two levels of importance. In her mind, some things just weren’t worth worrying about. She said it, you didn’t get it, so what? Move on. Other things were important! She wanted something, and she was going to get it. If words weren’t working, then she would just have to try something else. As an adult, you can’t kick and scream if you’re misunderstood (well, maybe not). If it’s really important, both sides will work at it and find a way

to make sure that understanding happens. They will start drawing pictures, make gestures, pause and then try again. If needed, they’ll find someone who can interpret the message. If you are looking for some place, and you go to the wrong place because you misunderstood the directions, you’ll either ask someone else and get what you wanted, or you’ll decide to go for the ride and explore things that you would otherwise not have been aware of. If you get food that you didn’t order you can complain, or you can try something new and you might even discover that you like it. I recall the first time I came to Hong Kong for an extended stay. I was sleeping on the floor of my friend’s art studio in downtown Hong Kong. It was 7:00 pm, and I was hungry. He was working and didn’t want to eat, so I decided to go out for some fast food. He gave me some directions and I headed out the door. I searched and searched, but I couldn’t find the fast food place that he had told me about. Then, across the road, I saw a restaurant. ‘That must be it!’ I thought to myself. I crossed the road and went inside. It was nicely appointed, with antique looking chairs and nice white tablecloths. A waitress motioned me to a table and handed me a menu. We struck up a conversation in Chinese, and the banter began. She was excited that I spoke Chinese, and so wanted to talk more to me. After some time, I looked down at the menu. I tried to keep a straight face as the prices worked their way into my brain. The food was expensive. I had clearly wandered into a high-class restaurant, rather than the fast-food place that I had been looking for. What to do? I could leave, but that was a bit embarrassing. And, after all, I was having such a nice conversation with the waitress. I began to work my way slowly through the Chinese menu, trying to work out what each dish was. Most of the names were poetic, so I frequently had to ask the waitress exactly what the food was. After 10 or 15 minutes I finally settled on one item — a relatively inexpensive vegetable dish — and a bowl of white rice. And that was it. I had broken the bank, at least for that day. Clearly, I had gotten my directions wrong. I didn’t get what I was after. Instead, I met a new friend, got to learn the fancy names for some Chinese dishes, and ate in a place that I never would have chosen in most

circumstances. Not bad for one little ‘misunderstanding’. How much more fun could a person have with even more ‘misunderstandings?’

Not much really matters Even though misunderstandings and language mistakes can lead to new adventures, when you think about it, in most social situations the accuracy of the content really doesn’t matter that much. In the late 1980s I was at the train station in Kowloon, Hong Kong, waiting for a train to Guangzhou. Off to my left I spotted two people — an American businessman and his Chinese ‘side kick’. The Chinese man was younger, and it looked like he was to be the businessman’s guide as they went into China. I couldn’t help noticing the conversation. The American man was talking, quite quickly, about all sorts of things. Social things, of the type that you talk about when just making conversation. He talked about the NFL, little pieces of gossip related to his home town, smattering his speech with American colloquialisms. The young Chinese man smiled and, every so often, nodded encouragingly. The more he smiled and the more he nodded, the more the American businessman talked. I’m sure the American guy felt that the conversation was going very well. To me, the situation looked quite different. Unless the Chinese man had studied in America, it would have been almost impossible for him to understand some 40 per cent of what was being said. It’s not that his English was bad. However, unless you had lived in America you would not understand the cultural references. From his accent, it seemed like the Chinese man had learned his English at school in Hong Kong. This meant that it was unlikely he was understanding very much. Yet he smiled, and nodded, and the conversation continued. And, it probably didn’t matter. I’m sure that the two of them had a very fruitful trip into China. I’m sure that the American thought the young Chinese man was charming and helpful. And the young Chinese man most surely improved his English, and his understanding of American culture. I’m sure that if I were to meet that young man today he would be in a senior

position somewhere, and be very fluent in English. He would also be very knowledgeable about different aspects of Western/American culture. If you say something that other people don’t get, like Michelle you’ll just let it pass and chalk it up to experience. If you’re on the other side of the situation, with people saying things that you don’t quite get, most of the time that doesn’t matter either. You can just be like that young Chinese man, and smile sweetly and nod.

Play the naïveté card In my consulting we do a great deal o f work around the subject of communication. Communication, in so many ways, is at the root of both success and failure in organisations. A simple concept that I frequently use is the difference between intentions and behaviour. Your intentions for others are probably, on balance, positive. That means that you do not consciously intend to harm others, and frequently would intend for good things to happen to others. The problem with intentions is that you are the only person who knows what your intentions are. To others they are invisible. Behaviours are very different. Other people can see the behaviours we use and often others notice our behaviours even more than we notice them ourselves. Not only do other people see our behaviours, they tend to assume that these are caused by a deliberate underlying intent. This brings us to a simple rule: ‘We judge ourselves based on our intentions, and we judge others based on their behaviour’. This has profound implications. It is very common for people to assume that problems are caused by bad intent of the other party. This leads to lack of trust so that future actions are viewed even more as being caused by bad intent. Soon, people are shooting at each other. When you are learning a language, especially in the early stages, you can deliberately use your lack of experience with the language to avoid this situation. Play up the fact that you are a learner, and that you aren’t very good yet. When it is clear to other people that you are learning their language they actually expect you to make mistakes and they give you a lot more latitude. You can say things that would be ‘fighting words’ if a native

speaker said them to someone, but people will just think, ‘Oh, she is learning our language and doesn’t realise what she just said.’ For instance, in Cantonese the expression for ‘turkey’ and the expression for ‘waiter’ are quite close in terms of pronunciation. As a learner of Cantonese you can even say ‘Oh turkey, turkey, could I have a menu please?’ and still not have a problem. You’ll get some strange looks, and the waiter will realise that you are learning Cantonese so let it pass. If a native speaker said this, however, they might not like what came in the food. If there ever is a problem, make sure that you know how to say ‘I’m sorry, I’m just learning your language. I must have made a mistake. Can you help me out here?’

Cash in your laughing stock During the process of writing this book, I have spoken to many different people about their experiences learning language. Maureen grew up in Hong Kong, but was blocked somehow from learning Cantonese. Recently, she had some real breakthroughs and realised how important had been her discomfort with people laughing at her. ‘What I discovered recently is that it was suddenly easier to learn to say Cantonese words after I realised that ‘present’ (gift) and ‘present’ (to give a lecture, etc) are tones in English. My emotional barrier is that as a teenager I would say it right (or close) but people would laugh at me or just make it difficult if I did not get it exactly right. ‘I remember one time being in a shop and pointing at the sugar while asking “How much”, and the people in the store telling me they had no soup!’ (Soup and sugar have almost the same sound in Cantonese.) While it might be painful if people laugh at you, you can also use this to your advantage. Some years ago I was delivering a presentation to a group of about 30 people in Hong Kong. The presentation was being delivered in Cantonese. Somewhere in the middle I said something that was clearly off beam. I knew this to be the case because of the broad smiles spreading across the faces in my audience. I chose, at the moment, to cash in on what was being offered. I immediately asked the audience for clarification of the pronunciation,

which they were delighted to provide. This interaction built rapport with the audience, and also used the emotional energy of being ‘laughed at in public’ to rapidly strengthen my memory for the correct way to say the word that I had used. Giles is an Australian living in Hong Kong. He used to be a member of the Hong Kong police force, and speaks Cantonese very well. Even though he’s very good, he still has a bit of a ‘foreign’ accent. Today he works as a corporate trainer, and he does the majority of his training using Cantonese as the medium for delivery. He actually uses the fact that his pronunciation is not perfect to get better results in his work. He knows that the people he is talking to are just waiting for him to make a mistake, listening very hard for that slight slip of the tongue. As people’s attention level increases, waiting for an error, Giles carefully delivers the messages that he needs people to remember. Because they are listening to him so intently the message slides right in, making his job much easier over the longer term. Clearly, if you choose the wrong words, or pronounce things badly, there is a potential for people to laugh at you. Some places are worse than others for this. But this can be very positive for you. It can help to create memory hooks for you; it can actually help you to build relationships with other people; and it provides both the motivation and the state changes that can really help you to learn.

Remember that, as you learn a new language, it’s hard to make any mistake that really matters. The only person who will really remember your ‘mistakes’ is yourself, and you want that memory because it’s memory for the language. By playing naïve, and stressing that you are learning, you can get away with lots of things that a native speaker never would. That reduces the complexity of things a lot. And, if people laugh at you, remember it’s an opportunity for you to cash in on. Sooner rather than later, you will begin to understand

why it is so funny. At which point you will be well on your way. Ultimately, growing slightly thicker skin will be of enormous benefit to you.

16 Setting yourself up for success Throughout this book I have presented some tools and techniques, and a number of ways of thinking that can help you learn any language more easily and more effectively. And, as with anything that you may wish to achieve in life, there is no magic pill. There are two basic mindsets that seem to consistently get in the way of learning a second language. One of them we’ve already talked about — the mistaken belief that it is just too hard. I say it is a mistaken belief because if an illiterate girl from Nepal can learn to speak English when she goes to work as a maid in a foreign country then, brain damage aside, anybody can learn any language. The other mindset is that, somehow, magically, the language learning will just happen without any effort on your part whatsoever. I know an American guy living in Hong Kong who was trying to learn Cantonese simply by (occasionally) exposing himself to the language. He did improve, but the last time I saw him, he was a long way away from fluency. Nothing worthwhile is ever totally effortless. You can learn a second language quickly, elegantly, easily and enjoyably. But some effort is required. I’m sure that you enjoy walking, and there was a time in your life where you had to use some effort to learn how to walk. The effort was both mental and physical. As a small baby, chances are you exhausted yourself with your efforts to stand, and had to sleep several hours in the middle of each day just to recover your strength. It’s the same with language learning. You will need to make some level of effort, and be consistent in that effort. There are other things that you can do to set yourself up to be successful. This chapter provides some simple guidelines as to ways in which you can best prepare yourself and ensure success in your language-learning adventures.

One, two, three — set your priority I can’t count the number of Westerners who have come up to me over the years and said: ‘Oh, it’s wonderful that you speak Mandarin. I’d like to speak Chinese too! Can you teach me?’ The first thing I ask them is how serious they are. They always tell me that they are very serious. So, I have to ask the next question. I ask them to think about all of the things that are important for them to achieve in their lives. Then I ask them to list these in terms of highest to lowest priority. I then ask where Chinese falls on the list. Usually, it comes somewhere between item ten and item twenty, at which point I usually tell them not to bother. If it’s not one, two or three it probably won’t happen. I went through a phase in life where I watched every Chinese martial arts movie that came along. First, there was Bruce Lee. Then, when I went to China, I watched Jet Li’s first movie — The Shaolin Monastery. Later, there were many very good Jacky Chan movies, and lots of badly made, cult-type movies. Why watch all these movies? Partly it was my interest in the martial arts. Partly, it was another opportunity to expose myself to the whole pattern in its entirety, to allow the unconscious mind to learn the important things so that they could be analysed later. I even got to be in a movie — The Annals of Wulin. Of course, being the Westerner, I had to be the bad guy who made the mistake of picking on Chinese people on their own turf. In a Chinese martial arts movie, almost without fail you have a young man who is unhappy in life, often bullied, and is looking for a solution. He finds a shi fu (master) and asks to be taken on as a student disciple. Of course, the shi fu always rejects the student-to-be, often by totally ignoring him (or her). The student-to-be must then begin the process of proving himself worthy of the shi fus attention. He will camp on the doorstep of the shi fu, bringing gifts, cleaning up rubbish, doing anything to prove that he is, in fact, determined to learn from the master. After some time the shi fu will decide to give the student-to-be a series of what appear to be meaningless tasks. Only after the student-to-be has worked diligently at these tasks, without complaint, will the shi fu finally accept this person as a disciple. The word disciple is important. It implies discipline, and the ability to persist in the face of all sorts of difficulties.

When I first arrived in China and was exposed to this idea I got incredibly annoyed, and found myself thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you, old man! Can’t you see this person wants to learn? Why do you make his life so hard?’ The benefits of a liberal education, I suppose. Then, I began to get a different perspective. On a number of occasions young people came to me to learn something. Sometimes English. Sometimes, tae kwon do. Without question, I would take them on and begin to teach. Some were truly determined to learn, and put in the necessary effort. Others were simply wishful and, at the end of the day, wasted a lot of my time as well as their own. Life is valuable and, ultimately, much too short. There is not enough time to waste. As this understanding became increasingly obvious to me I found myself behaving more and more like the old shi fu in the martial arts movies. I would start testing people to see how serious they were before I would even begin to spend any effort on them. Ultimately, as a teacher of anything, you need to feel that your effort will be met with at least equal effort on the part of the learner. From the point of view of a learner, if a skill that you want to learn is not one of your top three priorities, most likely you will consistently choose to do other things instead. For instance, if you want to learn a second language, you may well sign up for a class twice a week. Many people do that. You will probably go to your language class the first week, and maybe even the second. If work, family, and exercise are more important, then ‘things’ will start cropping up. You have a project to finish at work, so you skip one of your classes. Your boss sends you on a trip, so you miss another week. Then, there is a family commitment so you skip another class. Soon, you are skipping one out of two classes every week. As you get further and further behind, suddenly it just makes sense to drop the course totally. It seems to you that the whole thing has gotten too hard. You have just successfully proven to yourself that the language you wanted to learn is too difficult, and you can add your voice to the myth perpetrated by all those who successfully created failure before you. Or you can do it very differently and succeed. The first simple rule is — decide if you really want to learn the language. Make sure that you are serious. Serious and determined. Very

committed. You will need reasons to learn the language. Ask yourself, ‘Why do I really want to learn this language?’ Is it because you are living in a new country, and you feel very deeply that it is a sign of respect to your hosts? Or, do you really want to know what is going on at work so that you no longer have to rely on translations that always miss at least 30 per cent of the key information? Or, do you want to travel and really understand what happens along the way? Or are you just totally fascinated? You will know your reasons, and you must have them, because if there’s no burning desire to learn, then you probably won’t. Young children learn their first language because they have to. They discover very early on that if they want to be taken seriously, and get their needs met, they have to be able to communicate using the language that is around them. It is not something that is just nice to do. It is a burning desire, driven by a sense that survival depends upon it. Imagine being in an environment where nobody understands you, and you understand nobody and you will quickly get a sense of urgency — of desperation even — you just have to learn this language. Once you have set the priority, you can move on to the next step — setting an effective goal.

Setting a worthy goal Over the years I have met so many people who have been trying to learn some language, and for some reason they can still barely speak a few sentences. They can get by — find their way home in a taxi, get change when they buy things, simple things like that. They have been at that level for years, and sometimes decades. Normally, I try to avoid language-related conversation with such people because I am liable to be a little more direct with them than is good for the relationship. I have a very strong view that, when in a foreign country, it is a simple matter of respect to learn the local language and learn it well. When I hear the words ‘Oh, Japanese, (or Italian, English, Chinese or whatever) is really too difficult, so I only speak a few phrases’, or something to that effect, I find it pretty unacceptable. This is especially true

when the comment comes from someone who has been living in a place for one or two decades. Luckily, on a number of occasions I have resisted the temptation to criticise and have enquired into what was happening with that person. In most, if not all, of these cases the reason for failing to master the language was something that I have come to call ‘goal overshoot’. Have you ever found yourself at a phase in your life where you are demotivated and feel that you are not making any sort of progress at all? Life just feels wrong, but you can’t figure out why. You have all the money you ever wanted, you are living where you want, you are doing the sort of job that you always wanted. So, what is going on? About a year ago I found myself getting stagnant. For a while I couldn’t work it out. Then, slowly, it dawned on me that I actually had achieved all the goals that I had set myself. A number of years previously I had decided that I wanted to generate a certain level of revenue in my consulting business. I had achieved that already. I had decided that I should have clients all around Asia, not just in Hong Kong. I had achieved that, too. I didn’t realise it, but unconsciously I felt I was ‘there’ so I didn’t need to focus any more. Increasingly, I found myself wasting time on meaningless activity that wasn’t moving me in any particular direction. Of course, I didn’t have a direction. I had arrived. It’s so easy to lose your way when you achieve your goals, and the lower you set your goals the more quickly you get lost because you arrive at the goal and then have nowhere to go. Many people who are at a plateau in their language learning originally set their goal as ‘being able to get around, and handle some basic daily conversation’. And, they can get around, and handle things like buying something or finding their way. They have already overshot their goal, so their brain has moved on to other things. Learning the language is no longer a priority. Interestingly, the more somebody believes that a language is difficult to learn, the more conservative they tend to be in setting goals. The more conservative the goals, the more quickly they overshoot and therefore lose momentum and motivation. I believe it was Vince Lombardi, the coach for the Greenbay Packers, who said: ‘The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their

commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavour.’ I could reword that to say: ‘Your ability in a foreign language is in direct proportion to your commitment to excellence and fluency, regardless of the language that you choose.’ In every part of life, the results we achieve are in proportion to the size of the goals we set. Henry Ford set out to ‘democratise the automobile’. Today, partly because of that dream, almost everybody in the world has ridden a car or a bus, and increasing numbers of people own a car. When a relatively small but successful Japanese firm, named Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, set a goal to ‘change the image (around the world) of Japanese products as poor in quality’ many people thought they were crazy. Today Sony, as they are now called, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-quality electronic products. They achieved a monster goal that, at the time, must have looked insurmountable. In 1945 Sam Walton set out to ‘make my little Newport store the best, most profitable variety store in Arkansas within five years’. So began Walmart, one of the largest, most successful retailing operations of all time. Time after time, if you examine people or organisations that have been very successful, you will discover an underlying commitment to excellence and the presence of very big goals. When I started learning Chinese my goal was to be totally fluent, to the point that I could move effortlessly in Chinese society and be accepted as a local. Anything less would not do. It was not ‘get by’, or ‘speak some Chinese’. It was to be so good that I could communicate like a native speaker. By 1984 I believe that I had achieved my goal. I was sitting in Sichuan Province drinking tea with the coach of the provincial martial arts team. His name is Deng Changli. It was coming up to Chinese New Year, and he really wanted to get some high-quality white spirits as a gift for his shi fu. The brand he wanted is called Wu Liang Ye (Five Grains Liquid). It is made in Sichuan and is famous throughout China. He had looked all over Chengdu city (the provincial capital) and could not find even one bottle anywhere. I said: ‘There is some in the Jin Jiang Hotel.’ This was the only hotel in the city where foreigners could stay. He told me that he knew this, but that he couldn’t go there. In the early 1980s in China there were many restrictions on Chinese people. One was that Chinese people could not go

into certain ‘high class’ establishments without having appropriate documents or authority. This included the top hotels in any city, the Friendship Stores, and a few other places. He did not have the appropriate documents or clearance, so could not go into the hotel. Knowing this, I offered to get the spirits from the hotel for him. Deep in thought, he responded: ‘No, that won’t work, they won’t let you in.’ I looked at him in some surprise and told him it was not a problem. We argued back and forth for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, it dawned on us both — he was seeing me as a local Chinese person who would be stopped at the gate. Actually, at the time I was even living at the Jin Jiang Hotel. However, in his mind, I was Chinese. I had achieved my goal of being viewed as a local person, at least among a circle of good friends. Remember that small distinctions, such as how you think about something, can make a difference in your performance. This is why setting your language goals very high will make such a dramatic difference to your ability to communicate in your new language.

Structure your environment for success Once you have decided you are committed to learning the language, and set a goal worthy of you, the most important thing you can do next is to structure your environment. By this I mean that you make it so you have to learn how to speak. There is no other choice. A friend in Hong Kong told me that when he was going out with his girlfriend he would often go to her home for dinner. Her mother had made it very clear that she would not support the relationship becoming at all serious unless my friend learned to speak Cantonese — fluently. Quite a motivation, I would say. He now speaks Cantonese better than 90 per cent of Westerners in Hong Kong. He still has some way to go, of course, because his goal is total fluency. If you hang out with friends who speak your own tongue, when you get tired, or it gets too difficult, you can just slip back into the language you know. Everyone will want to be ‘nice’ to you, so will support that.

However, that is the one thing that will slow down your language learning immensely. If, on the other hand, you put yourself into a situation where nobody can come to your rescue, no matter how hard it is, or how tired you are, you will still have to use your new language. Even if you make mistakes. Even if you struggle. You will have to use your new language. It’s like weight lifting, or any other physical activity. As you probably know, when you are doing physical exercise it is the last few minutes where most of the really important developmental work gets done. It’s right at the end of a workout, when you’re feeling so very, very tired, but you keep going just that one little bit more, that you really get the gains.

Become part of a speech community The first and most obvious thing you can do to structure your environment is to join a ‘speech community’. When you are part of a speech community you get simultaneous exposure to sounds and meanings, you are forced to use your whole nervous system to communicate, and you have to make connections between what you see, hear and feel. In other words, the environment helps you to make a ‘direct connect’. In order to join a speech community you may need to go to the country where the language you want to learn is spoken, but that is not the only way. All you really need is to find a group of people who speak the language and where you will be in the minority — preferably a minority of one. This then forces you to respond immediately without translation, and you also get to hear the language used when the others are speaking to each other. It is this sort of situation that provides the opportunity for you to just absorb the patterns of the language as the others are speaking it. Within a speech community you have ample opportunity to focus your attention on comprehension first, which helps you to develop your confidence very quickly. If you can’t live in another country the next best thing will be for you to find a group in your own country whose native tongue is the one you want to learn. For instance, if you want to learn Spanish you could befriend a Spanish family in your neighbourhood and visit them regularly. If they choose to speak Spanish inside their own home, then visiting their home every week would provide great help for your learning.

Look for meaningful exchanges Another basic part of your language-learning environment is that you must find opportunities to have meaningful exchanges. This means that you are communicating with somebody about something that is important to both of you. It does not mean that you are talking about the language all the time, rather you need to be using the language to communicate about life.

I was extremely lucky when I arrived in China, because all the Chinese friends I made were unable to speak English, and they were all interested in communicating about other topics that I was interested in as well. When I met Xiao Xiao and began to teach him tae kwon do we accidentally set up the ideal environment for me to learn Mandarin. We were forced to communicate using any tool that we had available, and this signalled my brain to start picking up the Chinese that I needed to communicate with him. We did not talk about Chinese, other than in passing when I asked him to put a word to a movement or something that I had just demonstrated to him. Obviously, meaningful exchanges will happen easily and naturally when you join a speech community. If you are not able to join a native speech community, the next best thing is to join a group of peers who are also learning the language that you are learning. This could be people who also speak your mother tongue, but it’s even better if you find people who speak another language entirely and you all must use the ‘target language’ to communicate. Again, accidentally, this happened to me. In China the people I gravitated to as friends, both because of the martial-arts connection and some other factors, were all non-English speakers. There was Mao, my Thai friend; Yutaka, my Japanese friend; Maria, the lady from Finland; and a number of others from the Arab world. Because I couldn’t speak their languages, and because they couldn’t speak English, we naturally chose to use Mandarin as the medium of communication. Interestingly, this use of a common third language to communicate has massive advantages. As long as you also have some exposure to native speech, the opportunity to have meaningful communications with other learners is an incredibly powerful learning tool. Why? Because you are all learning at the same time, you will speak more slowly than a native would. You will tend to use shorter sentences, with lots of fragmentation, which makes it easier for others to follow you especially when they are learning as well. Thirdly, you also tend to not really notice ‘mistakes’, focusing instead on getting your meaning across. This leads to positive reinforcement of your efforts, which in turn encourages more effort.

Finding a language ‘parent’ Throughout this book I have frequently talked about the ways in which young children go about learning a language. When examining the language learning of a child, it’s also important to understand the environment in which the child finds itself. An important part of this learning environment is the way in which a child’s parents will understand what a child is saying, even when less familiar adults have little or no idea of what has been said. What is happening is that the parents and the child share a common understanding, and they have a shared history together. The parents will remember the time that the child pointed at the bath and said ‘bot’. The next time the child says ‘My nah wint bot’ the parents will know that she means ‘Me no want bath’, i.e., ‘I don’t want a bath’. In most cases, the parent will then reply to the child, saying: ‘You don’t want a bath? I know you don’t want a bath, but you have to have one! You’re dirty.’ And the child might say: ‘Nah dorta’ (‘not dirty’). And so it will go on. Notice that the parent doesn’t explicitly teach the child how to speak. The relationship is subtler and more powerful than that. In the first place, more importantly than anything, the parent’s role is to understand what the child is communicating. This act of understanding, even when the child is way off the mark, helps to build confidence in the child and teaches that the speech act can get real results in the real world. The child speaks and is understood, so is more likely to want to speak again. Secondly, the parent’s role is one of gently giving corrective feedback to the child. Simply by repeating what you think a child said helps the child hear, over and over again, the socially acceptable way of saying something. Beyond the simple feedback, you will often have additional elaboration. So, for instance, the parent might say several things, all related to the theme of the moment — in the example here it is ‘bathing’. The father might talk about the hot water, and about getting undressed, and about the bubbles that the child can play with in the bath. All of this provides new input for the child as well, allowing the child to understand the situation while practising some very simple parts of the language. You can recreate a child-like language-learning environment for yourself by finding a ‘language parent’. A language parent is someone who will

engage you in conversation in the language you are learning, but who will not try to be your teacher. This is an important distinction. A teacher will tell you you’ve made a mistake, often very frequently. A language parent will choose to understand you, even when you are miles away from what a native speaker would usually be able to understand. This acceptance, of course, coupled with immediate feedback on how to say what you want to say provides you with the ideal environment in which to learn. There are a number of criteria for finding a good language parent. For a start, the person will be someone who is interested in you as a person. Often he or she will be somebody who is slightly on the margin of their own society, who is comfortable dealing with people who come from a different culture. This person will be able to handle ambiguity, and understand things without the words or grammar being perfect. And, more often than not, the person will be quite talkative. My Chinese friends who helped me to learn Mandarin all had these characteristics. The most important person for me, I think, was, Zhang Zhizhong. At the time he was a struggling artist, exploring the boundaries of traditional Chinese painting. His exploratory nature led him to build a friendship with me, and we spent many hours talking with each other about every possible subject that one could imagine. He talked a lot, and he also listened. I’m sure that, in the early days, my Mandarin was almost unintelligible to him. But he persevered, and frequently repeated things once he had grasped my meaning. That way I got to hear how I should sound. I think that his feedback and support, more than any other thing, provided the launching pad for my rapid learning of Mandarin. Of course, I didn’t just talk to him, though I did meet with him almost every day. But just as a child has friends and relatives and strangers to talk to, he also has the parent to whom he can turn for encouragement and support and understanding. That is the sort of relationship that I had with Zhang.

Any excuse to practise You will by now have realised that the language-learning process is definitely not passive. While you can rely on your brain to do a lot of

processing and remembering away from the oversight of your conscious mind, you still need to be doing some work. That means practice. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. Any chance that you have to practise is to be valued and made use of. The three main ideas that I use to guide my own practice are: Look for places to use the language. Use idle moments. Focus on composition. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Find places to use what you know Recently I made a trip to Thailand, and went to visit a group of people who are located on the island of Koh Samui. I was picked up from the airport by the company driver, and we got to spend thirty minutes or so in the van together. He didn’t speak much English, so I got to play with my Thai. Not just that, the situation gave a wonderful excuse for small talk. Whenever you have a chance to engage in small talk, grab it with both hands. This was my lucky day. The air conditioning in the van had broken down so we had a topic that was just perfect for small talk. The first thing I did was pull out the phrase I learned during my last visit to Thailand — ‘How do you say xxx?’ Because he was indicating to me in broken English that he thought it was hot in the van, I used my wellrehearsed Thai phrase and said to the driver ‘How do you say hot in Thai?’ He said something that sounded like ‘Ron. I immediately went into phase two of the practice routine. I repeated ron to myself a few times, and then said it out loud for him. He understood. I then asked, ‘How do you say very?’ He gave me the words, and I immediately used them to say, ‘It’s very hot.’ He agreed, showing that agreement with a big toothy smile. I then asked, ‘How do you say hungry?’ He told me, and I immediately said ‘I’m very hungry,’ using the two words that I had just learned, putting

them together in the order that I had noticed the first time he answered my question about ‘very’. He was delighted. And that’s all it takes. Just hold the intention to practise, and then use what you know every single chance that you get.

Use the idle moments If there is no one to talk to, you can still practise on your own. I like to make use of walking time. When I’m walking from one place to another in the city, either on the way to work or to a meeting somewhere, I will repeat things over and over to myself. This is done with the conscious effort to use my mouth properly, and I speak in a voice that is not audible more than a foot away. The five-minute stroll from one meeting to the next is a perfect opportunity to practise some phrases that you have just heard, or that you feel need more practice so that they can slip off the tongue just right. Sometimes during my idle moments I use the unlabelling technique that I learned from Michelle. With this technique you simply look around at anything you can see in your environment, keep in mind the word that you want to work with (in this example I use ‘car’), and then proceed to say to yourself ‘That is not a car, that is not a car, that is not a car’. If you feel like it, you can make up your own word substitution exercises as you walk along. You might find yourself saying, ‘It’s hot today. It’s very hot today. It’s cold today. It’s very cold today. It was hot yesterday. It was very cold yesterday.’ And so on. The key, once again, is to practise using the words that you already have, but combining them in as many ways as you can think of to make different statements. Use your ‘down time’. Every opportunity you have, practise one small component of the language that you are mastering. If you add it up over the course of a few months, these small moments make up hours and hours of practice. And, it doesn’t really interfere with other thinking that you need to do. While you are doing this you can also be thinking about other things. The self-talk and the sub-vocal practice is almost like a form of meditation. Repeating just one phrase, almost with no thought, leaves plenty of mental space to work on other things at the same time.

Start writing Once you have begun to communicate in your new language, no matter how basic your level, you can begin to use the language to write things. Writing helps with your learning in a number of ways. For a start, it further trains your memory, and helps you to connect the written word to the audibols in your head that make up the spoken language. It also provides for more rehearsal of words that you already know. When you are writing, the trick is to write what you already know how to say. This will make your writing somewhat colloquial, but that is fine because your goal is to rehearse what you already know. You might like to write a diary, but I would suggest that real communication with other people is even better. Pen pals provide a great opportunity for practising in your new language. It’s much more productive and fun than trying to do written drills in a language class. The secret, of course, is to find a pen pal who is capable of being a ‘language parent’ through the written word. I had only been in China for about six months when I started writing letters in Chinese. Within a short period I was actually writing to lots of friends. The first one, however, was a cute young lady from Sichuan Province whom I had met on a boat trip down the Yangtze River. We became pen pals, and exchanged a letter every couple of weeks. This was great practice, because I got to write what I could. She was really helpful, because she managed to understand everything that I wrote. Occasionally she even commented and sent me corrections. The whole process meant that I learned a lot more new words, and also learned how to decipher Chinese handwriting (not just printed characters, but the script used by Chinese people when they write quickly). When I received letters from her I had to ask my local friends about the pieces that I could not decipher myself, which meant even more practice because these questions led to extended conversations with my other friends as well.

Control your own learning

A theme that you may have noticed running through this book is that, at the end of the day, it is up to you whether or not you master a new language. How well you master it, how quickly, how easily, is also up to you. You can attend classes, or ‘parachute’ into a new country, or explore any combination in between. You can make use of language-learning materials that have been prepared by others, or create your own as you go along. Howe ver, no matte r what approach you use make s ure of one thing. Make sure that it is you in control. No teacher can ever know when your brain is ready to take on something new, just as a teacher cannot know when your brain refuses to remember something because it ‘just isn’t ready’. You are on the inside, and you know what you need at any given moment in time. If you feel that something needs more practice, then practise. If you understand and remember something immediately, notice that and then move on. There’s no point flogging a horse that has already arrived! Some years ago I met someone who was studying Mandarin at a school in Hong Kong that claimed to have a method for accelerating the learning process. I met him in the elevator lobby one day and asked him, ‘Zenme yang?’ (‘How’s it going?’). He looked at me blankly. It was as if he had learned absolutely nothing in his two weeks on the course. Later I had an insight as to what was really going on. Another student in the same class had been doing very well, and in one lesson had started to say things that were quite ‘advanced’. Actually, he just started substituting things that he already knew, used some simple logic, and created some more complex phrases. His teacher was quite angry with him and said: ‘You can’t say that because we haven’t covered it in the lesson yet.’ Immediately his confidence was crushed. One could blame the teacher, but the real issue is that you, as the learner, must take life in your stride. If you are in class and want to say things beyond the lesson, go ahead. It is your right. If you want to say the same old things over and over until they are totally automatic to you, go ahead. One thing that you will discover when you talk to any person who has learned a foreign language relatively easily is that they were in control. They wanted to learn, for their own reasons. And they focused on learning what was important for them. If that happened to overlap what was being taught by

others, that was simply a bonus. At the end of the day, though, they were in control and they took responsibility.

On to the launch pad This book gives the key thoughts and approaches and are used by at least some successful language learners. I’m certain that what is written here is not exhaustive of the many different ways that different people have mastered new languages. And I’m equally certain that, when you actively make use of the ideas presented here, you will surprise yourself with just how easy, and just how much fun, it can be to learn a new language. I have deliberately dealt with some of the ‘bigger picture’ ideas here. There are many other, finer details that are very useful to someone deeply engaged in learning a new language. Those details are to be published in Volume 2 of The Third Ear. The Third Ear website,, will also carry materials and ideas that can support you on your language-learning journey. Whether you are just beginning to learn a new language, or you are already well on the way with learning a language, I challenge you to explore the ideas in this book and put at least some of them into practice. I also challenge you to tell me, and others, how the techniques work for you. You might change the techniques, and get even better results. Or, you might even invent new ones. Remember, the world is an open-ended place, and creativity has no limit. Enjoy the journey, and be prepared for just a little magic. Now, it’s up to you. Until next time. . . . Adieu. . . . Bye bye. . . . Zai jian. . . .

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