Use What You Know Already

The idea printed in The Third Ear is different to traditional ideas of language learning, which say that a person who has to memorize many words in order to be able to speak a language. It says that A language learner should  focus attention on what he/she knows already.

Why is this the case? Kevin, the international business consultant that we met in The Third Ear, 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 that 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.

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 the things to grow outwards.There’s also somethings 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 slab grows, the bigger it is the faster it will grow, because there’s 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.

This process is much more different to the traditional language learning. Remember that almost all of the English teachers I’ve met taught me that ‘ You’d better memorize as many words as possible. And I know recently that there are hundreds of thousands of written words in English language. Horror! It’s impossible for me to remember all of them, even a native speaker. Most of the people who want to master the English language have been overwhelmed by the large volumes of vocabulary. If people have tried their best and crossed this hurdle, then maybe he/she haven’t yet been familiar with the accurate or specific usages of the words which are used in common speech. However, almost everyone in China spends more energy on trying to memorize so many new words, rather than using what he/she knows already. People always want to learn things more quickly, and old wisdom says that ‘if you want to do things quickly, then you will not to be a master.  If someone wants to do something difficult, then he/she needs to work on something easy; If someone wants to do something huge, then he/she needs to work on something tiny.’ In my experience, I’ve found the advantage of repetition. Repetitions have brought an exponentially increasing improvement to me. When I repeat the words, the sentences, or the paragraphs, I’ll feel more familiar with them every time. Lighter. Easier. It dawned that there’s nothing difficult, if you repeat it more and more. Through the repetitions your brain will recognize patterns for you, and you’ll discover certain tricks of the trade, and then do it, practice more and more.You will master it sooner or later.

Even though we can notice that almost all the Chinese students who were or are learning English have not yet mastered it, or aren’t able to strick even a conversation with a foreigner in English, there are still more and more people take this approach to learn English.

Now we are aware of the truth that we can do it better in a better way. Why not to do it immediately?

Leave a Reply