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Elementary, Watson: The Secret to Language Learning

It only took me 30 months to figure it out.

(Originally published November 22, 2014)

I have read many articles on the subject of second language acquisition. I, like many others before me, am trying to understand the nature of language learning. How come some people can unlock five languages during their lifetime, while others are stuck in a monolingual funk?

The quality of answers found online varies drastically. Many college students and young travel bloggers will write whimsical articles about how you really must “want” to learn the second language (mind blowing, someone pass him a Nobel Peace Prize). On the other end of the spectrum, high-level neurological researchers document the chemical processes that are going on in a brain handling two or more languages (interesting content, but it doesn’t help me memorize my vocabulary lists any faster).

With languages like Chinese and Japanese, the lack of direction can quickly lead to frustration—with no Latin alphabet and no idea where to start, the long road to fluency looks like a snail-paced commute littered with tool booths titled “Unit 32 Vocabulary”, “Pronunciation Practice” and “The Words You Already Forgot.” It’s a mind-numbing journey, and one can easily forget the goal in the process.

I began to give serious thought to this issue. Why is it so much harder to learn the second language? What am I not doing that I did the first time around? Why do I, the kid who grew up reading an excessive amount of books, struggle with language acquisition?

And that’s when it hit me like a light bulb in a cartoon. I wasn’t reading in Chinese.

Sure, I read sections of textbook, reviewed sentence structure and grammar, and occasionally I even tried to decipher newspaper headlines. But I wasn’t reading real books, books with stories and characters that make you interested. When you are interested in a book, you are not actively worrying about grammar or new words or sentence patterns—you just enjoy the book. The accumulation of language is a by-product of experiencing the story. Just like Great Gatsby and Kite Runner built my vocabulary and English competence in high school, so now could I turn to the most basic forms of Chinese stories to begin a more involved, active form of studying.

I started this experiment a week ago. Three books later, the verdict is that books are a much more satisfying, interesting, and helpful way to study Chinese on the intermediate level.

I am using books from two different companies: The Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze Readers. Both companies make books designed for foreign language students. The latter makes original stories; the former adapts literary classics into simple, abridged stories (imagine reading Sherlock Holmes taking place in 1920’s Shanghai, or H.G. Wells’ The Country of the Blind in southern China). Right now I’m working on 300 and 500 character books to test my limits, and if all goes well I’ll move up to a 750-character book next (300-character books are approximately 50 pages, 500 approximately 75-100 pages, et cetera).

What’s great about reading in Chinese is seeing words in context. In classes, new words are learned in isolation from language with only very narrow example application (Dog. My dog. This is my dog. My dog is black and big). In books, you see a variety of applications that makes the word feel much more familiar to you. The human brain, being much more capable than most people realize, is able to pick up all these different usages of nouns, adverbs, grammar, and so on, and apply it to the base of dormant vocabulary words that are hanging out in the long term memory. Synapses fire, neural connections are made, and all the sudden the language starts to make sense.

I have not experienced any rapid gains in language from reading yet—after all, this is the end of week one. But I can already tell that my writing and, oddly enough, my listening are getting a little sharper. I have crossed a major threshold in the language-learning journey. I no longer need to solely drill vocabulary and yearn for the day that I can use it well. I can use my vocabulary to do something that I don’t have to be in China to do—I can experience the pleasure and reward that comes from leveraging what I have learned to do something active and fun. I can read Chinese books.

It’s funny, I spent so much time reading articles, blogs and research on this issue: how do you learn a second language? The answer is right in front of me—whatever worked the first time, do it again. Find what you enjoy doing in English, and do it in Chinese. And for me, this means taking a break from the notecards and curling up with a good book. Goodbye vocabulary drills, hello Sherlock Holmes.

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