Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?
Chris Lonsdale’s language learning principles
The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).
The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).
Lonsdale’s approach in a nutshell:
Things that don’t matter in language learning
Immersion (per se)
Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.” (We need comprehensible input)
What does matter is Language modeling
Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition
1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you. We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us. 2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1. 3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about 4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.” 5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.
Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition
Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking” Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.) Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.” Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation. Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language): – What is this? – How do you say? – I don’t understand… – What does that mean? – Repeat that please. Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment. 1. Works hard to understand what you are saying 2. Does not correct mistakes 3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback) 4. Uses words the learner knows Action 6: Copy the Face Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images
First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.
A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:
C1 Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2 Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…
I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learned Chinese (to a very impressive level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.
This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?
Another issue: Lonsdale believes you should start speaking from Day One and use the language as a tool for real communication (no simulation stuff). In a way, I think he’s right about this. It’s the most natural thing to do (in the right environment). BUT many people are extremely uncomfortable with this. It’s a big step out of their comfort zone. Other high profile language learners like Steve Kaufmann argue you should acquire basic vocabulary first and read, read, read, before you can have a meaningful conversation. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with communicating in Mandarin from Day One, so that’s an issue.
On the whole, I really like what he has to say about language learning. He’s got a powerful message that’s all about learning a new language the “hard and uncomfortable” way, telling us to “get out there and do it”. We need people like Lonsdale who develop their own ideas about language acquisition.
Does this method apply to everyone? Well, he overgeneralizes his own learning approach and success a bit, but he knows what he’s talking about. The thing is no learner is the same. Language learning depends on so many personal circumstances and preferences. At the end of the day, I guess you’re free to try his method or parts of it. I personally like the “leave your comfort zone” part as it’s essential to any kind of growth.
By the way, if you want to hear Chris Lonsdale speak Mandarin, check this video from Mandarin Corner where he tells all about his method, covers Chinese characters (what about them, right?) and explains why Mandarin class is a waste of time.
Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.
You’re at intermediate level and want to improve your listening skills, but you haven’t found the right materials yet? Mandarin Corner is a good option for learners that have entered the intermediate stage: no explaining in English, no dumbing down. And because their podcasts are completely subtitled, they’re ideal for slow listening!
You’ve probably heard of different listening modes and developed your own listening strategy. By the way, I distinguish these four listening modes:
Passive listening: play Chinese audio while you’re doing the dishes, fixing your bike or working out. You don’t take in every word, every sentence, but enough to grasp the general topic and some keywords.
Active listening: You turn your full attention towards whatever you’re listening, trying to understand and retain as much as you can.
Slow listening: You listen attentively, playing the audio at a lower speed or stopping the audio from time to time to break down sentences and discover details. You can even pause the audio to study the script.
Re-listening: You keep listening to the same content over a period of time to the point you get so familiar with it you know what the person is going to say next.
It’s actually not a bad strategy to apply the different modes above in this particular order, from passive to more active and then repeating the cycle. It’s what I used to do with a new dialogue or chapter from a textbook. I’d just put the track on repeat while doing other stuff, before turning my full attention towards it and studying each and every sentence. It’s kind of like a mental warming-up, making the training itself a little less tough.
Slow listening with Mandarin Corner
I applied these listening techniques while enjoying the Mandarin Corner podcasts. Not because I’m so cool, but because that’s how things “work out”. Finding time (and using that time!) to listen to comprehensive Mandarin audio comes first – that’s a daily struggle. So if I do manage to make that choice for Mandarin, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, I pat myself on the back. That’s why how I listen comes second. Sometimes I do background listening, sometimes I’m able to be fully focused on the audio content.
In this case, I opened my laptop for some slow listening, studying the subtitles and singling out a bunch of keywords and some vocabulary I was less familiar with. While I was at it, I decided to add a little introduction to each of the five videos as well. I hope you enjoy the discussions in the videos. Here we go:
Main questions: Why is China’s divorce rate so alarmingly high? What are the main reasons for people in China to get divorced?
My thoughts: People from my generation (90’s) seem to think you shouldn’t marry before you’re at least 35 of age and have gained “experience”. And even then it’s probably a stupid thing to do, because you’ll never be free again. But does this lead to a lower divorce rate? It doesn’t look like it. So is the Chinese divorce rate really that high? Do we have reliable Chinese and international statistics to make a solid comparison?
The reasons for Chinese marriages not working out are manifold: some are universal, some are more related to Chinese culture and modern Chinese society like the pressure to marry early (25, 26), if need be with the help of a matchmaker (so the soon to be wed hardly know each other). Other reasons mentioned in this podcast include long-distance marriages, the financial pressure on young couples (家庭压力 – jiātíng yālì), conflicts produced by the couple living together with the (grand)parents and last but not least higher expectations towards marriage, especially by financially independent women.
China’s divorce rate has been increasing since 2003; in 2019, more than 4 million couples decided to end their marriages. These numbers are interpreted as a sign of gradually improving gender equality: Women are becoming more financially independent, and the social views on marriage have changed as China became more and more economically developed in the last two decades.
to bring up children for the purpose of being looked after in old age
relation between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law
mā bǎo nán
zìwǒ dì xìnggé
flash wedding, flash divorce
to be urged to marry soon
matchmaker / blind date marriage
duì hūnyīn de guānniàn
views about marriage
duì hūnyīn de qīwàng
expectations towards marriage
Mandarin Corner: Why is getting a wife so expensive for Chinese men?
Main questions: Why is getting a wife so expensive for Chinese men? When it comes to finding the right husband, why do most Chinese value financials over personal qualities? How can China’s young men live up to these high standards (buy a house, car, wedding gift, take care of their parents etc.)? How do they deal with the pressure?
My thoughts: Even though gender roles in Chinese society have changed (with more and more working woman becoming financially independent), the dominating ideas about marriage are still very old-fashioned and materialistic. Parents and grandparents have a lot to say in this. Men are traditionally expected to provide a house, car and other things. For the average Chinese guy these things are not easy to come by, so it’s not that hard to imagine that such expectations put immense financial and psychological pressure on even the strongest marriage.
China’s never been short of people, but under such harsh conditions I do have sympathy for those who decide that it’s better not to marry and have children – or at least not rush into it, just because their parents married when they were 23 and think that’s not the only right thing to do. I notice younger generations in the big cities of China having more western, individualistic ideas about marriage and life in general. But in a way these ideas get rolled over by harsh economic realities:
At the same time (2003 – 2019), China’s birth rate fell to the lowest point in seven decades in 2019. While Chinese authorities have attempted several measures in the last decade to ease its one-child policy, established in 1979, including officially announcing an end to the policy in 2015, the country’s birth rate did not see any signs of recovery. The increasingly high cost of raising children, lack of legislation in protecting women’s rights in the workplace, and lack of government-funded family support all contributed to China’s low birth rate and the country’s increasingly imminent issues in taking care of its aging population.
Mandarin Corner: Stereotypes Chinese have of foreigners
Main question: What are some common stereotypes Chinese have about foreigners?
My thoughts: How do Chinese people view “us”? What stunned me: when Chinese people talk about waiguoren, they usually mean “westerners with a white skin”, so they exclude pretty much everyone else, except for white people from America, Canada, Australia, New-Zealand and Europe. Aren’t Koreans and Japanese (to name just a few) foreigners too? Apparently not! Does this mean they’re sort of like China? Or that they are not important enough to be included like Africa? A conversation about stereotypes and ignorance.
nèixiàng de rén
to be good at sports
gēn wǒ de yìnxiàng bùfú de dìfāng
aspects that don’t match my impression
duì wàiguó rén de liǎojiě bǐjiào shǎo
knowledge about foreigners is small
dānyī mínzú de guójiā
fúhé zhōngguó de chuántǒng shěnměi
match Chinese aesthetic standards
yǐqián liú xiàlái de yìnxiàng
an impression from the past
cùjìn wénhuà jiāoliú
to promote cultural exchange
zǒngtǐ de qūshì
Mandarin Corner: 6 cultural aspects you must consider when doing business in China
Main question: What intercultural differences do you need to understand when doing business in China?
My thoughts: I love discussing cultural concepts like guanxi and mianzi! You can talk about them endlessly. To me they are key concepts to understand Chinese culture. A key phrase in this podcast: “Understanding them is one thing, accepting them is another”. Yes, that’s the hard part! Imagine your lazy co-worker getting promoted for maintaining the better guanxi with the top-level management, while you, the hard-working fellow, come out empty-handed. This can happen in a Chinese company. How do you adopt? Are you willing to adopt? Anyway, watch and learn.
to approve, approval
to dampen one’s enthusiasm
to praise (to boast)
to evaluate, assess
to arrange, decorate (decoration)
reject somebody face to face
to miss an opportunity
to lead to / produce misunderstandings
to express respect by referring to somebody’s title
in the workplace
tōngguò bié de fāngshì
by other means
gěi wǒ fànán
give me trouble
dézuì wǒ le
xūnǐ shèjiāo huòbì
virtual social currency
network of relations
establish a relation
Mandarin Corner: the 996 work culture
Main question: Are Chinese workaholics?
My thoughts: Yes, people in China work long hours without complaining. It’s funny, like mentioned in this podcast, that only after some computer programmers (highly qualified workers) started bitching about their long working hours, 996 work culture suddenly became an intensely debated topic. (As if the local laoban selling vegetables doesn’t work 72 hours a week!). I remember working with a Chinese IT-team stationed in Beijing that our side, the European team, would stick to the eight hour working day and complain about any overtime work, while the Beijing people would show up an hour early and even spend their free evenings working in the office. Well, yes “working”, nobody can be productive the whole day. But it was obvious, that we were dealing with completely different work cultures. We’d still have life outside of work, where as our Chinese colleagues practically dedicated all their time to their company jobs. Did they feel “996” is a privilege for young people like Jack Ma said? Are they thankful to have this opportunity? I doubt they have much time to ponder this question…
work from nine to nine, six days a week
working overtime culture
jùdà de fúqi
a major blessing
cháo jiǔ wǎn wǔ
work normal office hours (09:00-17:00)
bùmǎn de qíngxù
dissatisfied state of mind
gāoxīn de zhíyè
lǐsuǒdāngrán de shìqíng
a thing that is regarded as normal
work (overtime) throughout the night
chóngfù xìng de gōngzuò
wǎng dàle yīdiǎn shuō
to speak more generally
jǐnzhāng de zhuàngtài
tense, strained state / condition
xiàn shàng jiābān
work overtime online
That’s it! I hope my notes are not too bad. By the way, if you want better quality notes: the scripts for each podcast can be downloaded if you make a one-time donation. I want to thank Mandarin Corner for creating these great videos and hope that more content will follow in the years to come.
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Hi there, my name is Jorrit, content editor, runner and lifelong language learner from the Netherlands - currently based in Berlin. Here on Kaohongshu, I share my obsession with learning Mandarin.