The “Language Learning Tips” series taps into the rich knowledge of learning and recall experts to help you learn Chinese faster.
As a child, Jim Kwik was known as the boy with the broken brain. A head injury at age five left him struggling in school. He recounts that:
As the years wore on, I undertook a journey to learn about my brain – why it was broken and what I could do to fix it. That journey led me to discovering different learning habits, including accelerated learning systems and tactics. I discovered that, no matter the circumstances, we can rebuild our brains. And after working on myself, I realized my brain was not broken…it just needed a better owner’s manual. This shattered my own limiting beliefs – and over time, it became my passion to help others do the same.
Now Jim is a highly sought-after international speaker and coach on memory and learning. Fortunately for us Chinese learners, Jim has some useful tips for improving our recall skills.
THE F.A.S.T. LEARNING TECHNIQUE
One of the techniques Jim developed for fast learning is conveniently called “F.A.S.T.”, which stands for Forget, Active, State, Teach. Let’s expand on each one.
Forget everything you have learned
Jim explains that many people often don’t fully absorb information when they think they already know it. Have you experienced that when you learn Chinese in China ? I have plenty of times. I remember having a poster of vegetables names on my wall, and I assumed I knew all the words because I passively glanced at it every day. However, when I tried to order food at a restaurant, I had difficulty actively recalling the names for what I wanted to eat. This was ultimately due to the fact that every time I looked at my vegetable chart, I didn’t approach it with a beginner’s mindset. With a beginner’s mindset, you have the chance to absorb information like a sponge. So, the trick is, whenever you are revising, pretend you are actually learning the content for the very first time.
You can’t passively learn, you can only actively learn
Jim says that many of us grew up with a 20th-century education that prepared us for a 20th-century world. He means that our schools have trained us to learn passively by sitting quietly, being lectured to, and consuming information. But learning is not a spectator sport; you learn through creation, not consumption. You have to get involved, take notes, ask questions, and solve problems. You need teachers that will create communicative scenarios that force you to use what you’ve learned, so your brain sees it as useful. This is why it is so important to have a Chinese teacher who will cultivate your curiosity and encourage your participation and questions. I have first-hand experience of how important this is: I once attended a Chinese school that specifically instructed me to not ask questions and to not participate in the design of my learning. I was required to sit quietly, listen to the teacher, and repeat what she said. I didn’t learn much as a result and I was miserable in classes, which brings me to our next point.
Your emotional state matters
When you study Chinese, how do you feel? Refreshed and energised? or tired and bored? If it’s the latter, beware, because Jim says:
Information + Emotion = Long Term Memory
The second part of that equation is highly dependent on positive emotions, so you need to control your emotional state when studying. Jim recommends being a thermostat, not a thermometer. A thermostat sets the bar, making the environment rise to that standard. A thermometer, on the other hand, reacts to the environment. One way to control your learning environment is to be visibly enthusiastic in class. As a language teacher myself, I know that even when I have just one student who enjoys engaging with me, is easily excitable, and is eagerly competitive, I feed off that energy and raise my standard of teaching. When I’m faced with a class of students who lack in spirit and show no reaction, I get bored and do the minimum needed to get by.
It’s also important to have a teacher that creates a positive learning environment. In China, you need to be careful when choosing a language school because some teachers still hold on to the old way of thinking that putting down their students will motivate them to improve. This technique may work on some Eastern students, but it rarely works on Western students.
Learn as if you are going to teach what you’ve learned to someone else
When you think this way, you end up paying attention to the small details and also learn how to simplify what you’ve learned to make it easier to remember. When you teach something, you get to learn it twice.
THE T.I.P. LEARNING TECHNIQUE
“T.I.P.”, which stands for Turn Into a Picture, is a practical learning technique for building vocabulary. Jim explains that you tend to remember the things you see more than the things you hear, so you should try seeing things you want to remember through the following steps:
Step 1: Turn the word you want to learn into a picture.
Step 2: Turn the definition into a “sound-a-like” picture.
Step 3: Connect the pictures in a memorable story.
This process is a means to an end. Once you know what the word means, the picture disappears. It also helps you overcome 6-second syndrome: when you learn something you need to remember, you have 6 seconds to do something with it so you remember it.
Here are some examples of how I’ve used this technique:
Fēng Mì 蜂蜜 VS Mì Fēng 蜜蜂 (Honey VS Bee)
I used to mix up the words for honey and bee due their similarities until I came up with the following T.I.P. : I pictured someone handing me a jar of honey, and as I took it, I said “For me?” which sounds a little like “Fēng Mì”.
Lèi Sì 类似 (Similar)
The first time I heard this word, I thought it sounded like “lace”. So, I came up with a picture of an old woman comparing the similarities of a silk lace doily with a cotton lace doily.
Mén Wèi 门卫 (Entrance guard)
If you live in the English-speaking world, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ve seen Fawlty Towers. In that series, there is a concierge and waiter called Manuel, which sounds a bit like “mén wèi”. When recalling the word for “entrance guard” I would picture Manuel in a guard’s uniform
If you are looking for more brain hacks to learning Chinese, Jim Kwik has a module devoted to memorizing foreign languages. It goes into much more advanced and extremely fun ways to quickly learn another language. Just go to his website – jimkwik.com – to learn more.