So, anybody can learn to draw in five days and in the same way, with the same logic, anybody can learn a second language in six months. How? There are five principles and seven actions. There may be a few more but these are absolutely core.
And before I get into those I just want to talk about two myths, I want to dispel two myths. The first is that you need talent. Let me tell you about Zoe. Zoe came from Australia, went to Holland, was trying to learn Dutch, struggling extremely, extremely… a great deal and finally people were saying: “You’re completely useless, you’re not talented, give up, “you’re a waste of time” and she was very, very depressed. And then she came across these five principles, she moved to Brazil and she applied them and in six months she was fluent in Portuguese, so talent doesn’t matter.
People also think that immersion in a new country is the way to learn a language. But look around Hong Kong, look at all the westerners who’ve been here for 10 years, who don’t speak a word of Chinese. Look at all the Chinese living in America, Britain, Australia, Canada have been there 10, 20 years and they don’t speak any English. Immersion per se does not work. Why? Because a drowning man cannot learn to swim.
When you don’t speak a language, you’re like a baby. And if you drop yourself into a context which is all adults talking about stuff over your head, you won’t learn.
So, what are the five principles that you need to pay attention to?
First: the four words, attention, meaning, relevance and memory, and these interconnect in very, very important ways. Especially when you’re talking about learning. Come with me on a journey through a forest. You go on a walk through a forest and you see something like this… Little marks on a tree, maybe you pay attention, maybe you don’t. You go another 50 meters and you see this… You should be paying attention. Another 50 meters, if you haven’t been paying attention, you see this…And at this point, you’re paying attention. And you’ve just learned that this…is important, it’s relevant because it means this, and anything that is related, any information related to your survival is stuff that you’re going to pay attention to and therefore you’re going to remember it.
If it’s related to your personal goals, then you’re going to pay attention to it. If it’s relevant, you’re going to remember it. So, the first rule, first principle for learning a language is focus on language content that is relevant to you. Which brings us to tools.
We master tools by using tools and we learn tools the fastest when they are relevant to us. So let me share a story. A keyboard is a tool. Typing Chinese a certain way, there are methods for this. That’s a tool.
I had a colleague many years ago who went to night school; Tuesday night, Thursday night, two hours each time, practicing at home, she spent nine months, and she did not learn to type Chinese. And one night we had a crisis. We had 48 hours to deliver a training manual in Chinese. And she got the job, and I can guarantee you in 48 hours, she learned to type Chinese because it was relevant, it was meaningful, it was important, she was using a tool to create value.
So the second principle for learning a language is to use your language as a tool to communicate right from day one. As a kid does. When I first arrived in China, I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, and on my second week, I got to take a train ride overnight. I spent eight hours sitting in the dining car talking to one of the guards on the train, he took an interest in me for some reason, and we just chatted all night in Chinese and he was drawing pictures and making movements with his hands and facial expressions and piece by piece by piece I understood more and more.
But what was really cool, was two weeks later, when people were talking Chinese around me, I was understanding some of this and I hadn’t even made any effort to learn that. What had happened, I’d absorbed it that night on the train, which brings us to the third principle.
When you first understand the message, then you will acquire the language unconsciously. And this is really, really well documented now, it’s something called comprehensible input. There’s 20 or 30 years of research on this, Stephen Krashen, a leader in the field, has published all sorts of these different studies and this is just from one of them. The purple bars show the scores on different tests for language. The purple people were people who had learned by grammar and formal study, the green ones are the ones who learned by comprehensible input. So, comprehension works.
Comprehension is key and language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many, many ways it’s about physiological training. A woman I know from Taiwan did great in English at school, she got A grades all the way through, went through college, A grades, went to the US and found she couldn’t understand what people were saying. And people started asking her: “Are you deaf?” And she was. English deaf.
Because we have filters in our brain that filter in the sounds that we are familiar with and they filter out the sounds of languages that we’re not. And if you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, if you can’t understand it, you’re not going to learn it. So you actually have to be able to hear these sounds. And there are ways to do that but it’s physiological training.