When I first moved to China in 2005, I came across a challenge in learning Chinese.

I quickly realized that the Chinese I was learning from my well-meaning private tutor wasn’t actually the Chinese that I needed on a day-to-day basis.

As I would walk around in Shanghai during the day, I wasn’t able to actually say the things I wanted to communicate, and the things I was learning how to say didn’t apply to my day-to-day use.

I’m usually pretty respectful of my teachers, but I realized pretty quickly that the method by which I was being taught Chinese wasn’t actually helping me.

So, I spent the next couple years trying to understand why that was.

And after a while I came across an understanding of why I wasn’t learning what I needed, and I made a system for myself to make sure I could actually learn Chinese that I would be able to use.

Language teachers don’t teach you how to communicate

The first epiphany I had was that language teachers, at least ones that are trained in teaching languages, don’t actually teach you how to communicate.

They teach you grammar, vocabulary and sentence patterns, sure. But communication? I don’t think a lot of language teachers I met in China actually realize that there is a distinction between studying a language, and learning to communicate.

One is scholastic. Academic. It is an analysis of rules.

You learn ABCD … Present progressive tense … and how to conjugate verbs …

But the other is organic. Fluid. It is a method of use.

You learn “Where is the bathroom?” … “How much does this cost?” … and “Can you give me a lower price?”

In conversations with friends who were quite successful in learning languages and becoming fully functioning polyglots, I developed a method for myself to quickly acclamate and adapt language use in a new environment.

It focuses on essential phrases and sentences that you will use and learn quickly, but not after hours and hours of practice and memorization. It is a passive acquisition method which works best in an environment of immersion.

I call it the Passive-Immersive Method.

Who is this method for?

So, in other words, this method is best for people who live in a new country or location where they don’t speak the local language. Or maybe you know a few words, but you want to develop skill in phrases or expressions that you can use right away.

I realize this doesn’t help those of you who are trying to learn a new language while still in your home country, but I’ll have some tips and techniques for the rest of you soon. Just keep your eyes peeled or sign up for the newsletter to get immediate updates.

Now, keep in mind that I’m no language learning expert. The methods I’ve developed were really meant to just benefit myself and my own learning style.

But if you find them helpful or they provide an avenue for you to learn a new language or some methods of communication, then that is just icing on the cake.

Hong Kong and Cantonese

In the beginning of 2007 when I moved to Hong Kong, I had a chance to test this method with Cantonese.

My method has 3 elements, each which builds on a weekly pattern to quickly allow me to learn the language which I needed to use right away.

Now, before I head to a new location with a new language, I usually try to at least pick up a few of the basics. Pimsleur Courses are a good method for doing this, as it gives you some basic functionality and a good grasp of pronunciation and listening, but without too much detail. They’re a bit pricey though. Another handy resource is the Praxis language learning system. (Here is a link to their well-known ChinesePod courses.)

I don’t try to be conversant in the language before going there, but I at least try to be familiar with some of the sounds and a few basics words or phrases like “hello“, “thank you“, “where is the bathroom?” and my favorite phrase “I don’t understand what you are saying“.

The other thing about this method is that it is a primarily passive method of learning key phrases and expressions. I wanted a system that I could use while working on other things. My schedule in Hong Kong was already pretty full with work or social engagements. So I made this method to help me learn the essentials of Cantonese with a minimum of time commitment.

Okay, enough of the introduction, let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

Element 1: Pay Attention

In the first part of my method, I spent some time paying attention to those phrases and expressions which I needed to use in my day to day life.

For example, when I got in a taxi and wanted to tell the driver where I lived, but I had no clue what to say, then that is a situation in which I needed the language — the specific phrase or vocabulary — which applied directly to that situation in my daily life.

The distinction is that, this isn’t a phrase that I would use if I was at a museum, or trying to buy a block of cheese. This is something I would use in my own life. But not only that, this is an expression that I would find use for on a consistent, almost daily basis.

I had to go home everyday. I had to take a taxi a lot of the time. This is a high-frenquency situation where I needed that specific way to communicate.

As I went through my week, I identified those situations where this sort of thing came up the most often. I noticed those expressions of phrases that, if I was able to say them in Cantonese, I would probably use them all the time.

I carried around a small pad of paper and whenever I came across another high-frequency phrase I jotted it down. But not only that — and this is important — each time I came across that situation I would put a tally mark next to that phrase. That way I knew which phrases were of the highest frequency and which ones I would needed the most.

You can almost think of this like building your own personalized phrase book. Instead of Lonely Planet coming up with your phrases, you build them up yourself.

Now, you don’t have to get them translated or look them up in a dictionary. At this stage you just focus on writing them down and note which ones are the most in demand.

When you’ve done this for a week (or two), then it is time for the second part of this method.

Element 2: Tutor Sessions

I then scheduled a 30 minute session with a friend who was bilingual and able to help me out. If I couldn’t find a friend then I could ask around or look online for a tutor. You could even find someone on Skype to help you out.

The only requirement is that you find someone who is bilingual in your native language and the new language. Fortunately I had a friend who could speak both Cantonese and English and so I met with her for a 30 minute session.

And this method only requires a 30 minute session.

No more, no less.

I know the initial impulse for a lot of people (including myself) is to schedule an hour or more to meet and get as much of the language as you can, but at this point, I’m focusing on quality, not quantity. This 30 minute session gives me plenty to focus on anyway.

Besides — this is a “passive” method of learning, so spending hours and hours with a tutor or teacher isn’t going to help with our goal or learning essential phrases easily.

Plus, who has time for that?

Before meeting with my “tutor”, I selected the top 3 phrases or expressions which had the most tally marks next to them — the “highest frequency” ones. Those are the ones that I would master in the first week.

The other thing I prepared before meeting with my friend was a recording device. A smart phone works great for this — or even a digital recorder or tape recorder. The only requirement is that you are able to record the full 30 minutes and you can import it to whatever audio listening device you use all the time, such as an iPod or similar device.

Okay, so with my 3 phrases and audio recorder in hand, I was ready. it was time to meet my friend.

The schedule I ended up finding to be the most useful was to spend 10 minutes on each phrase. For the first 5 minutes of each 10 minute section I would have them say the phrase 6 times.

The first two times they would say it E.X.T.R.E.M.E.L.Y. slowly and deliberately. Each phonetic element had to be pronounced carefully. In fact, most native speakers will find this difficult because it is so much slower than they normally talk. So I usually have to be pretty adamant about it and make sure it is done super slow.

So, if the phrase is “What time is dinner?” you would have them say it like …

Whaaaaat … tiiiimmmee … iiiiiiiis … diiiiiiiin … nnnnner” with each part taking a full 3 seconds per sound.

The second two times I have them say it somewhat slowly. Basically, like a newscaster’s speed, where they enunciate well, but they don’t really say it conversationally.

The last two times they say it conversationally. Just like they would say it to their friends or family.

After they have said the phrase/expression I would go through each sound with them and have them fix my pronunciation. After 5 minutes of going through the phrase I was able to replicate the sounds pretty well.

Now, my goal at this stage isn’t to say it perfectly or have it memorized. That comes later. Right now I just worry about making sure I have the ability to say the sounds correctly. I focus on reproducing the phonetic parts of the phrases so that, during the week, I’m confident in my ability to not sounds like a total goober.

So, 10 minutes of that for each phrase is 30 minutes in total.

It’s key for me to really focus during those 30 minutes. This isn’t a conversation — it is a focused time for me to really get down the right way to say these things. After finishing then it’s okay to have a pleasant conversation about the weather or how much I enjoyed Pacific Rim. But this is the money time, so keep your eye on the prize.

So, where are we at now?

Each time you write a phrase down or put a tally mark on your paper during the week is probably just a few seconds each. Maybe if you have a ton of phrases it would have taken you a total of 15 – 30 minutes to get those all down on paper. Add that to your 30 seconds with the tutor and you’ve invested a grand total of 1 hour so far.

Not too bad.

Element 3: Listening and Speaking

In the next part of this method I work on the (more or less) “passive” part of the process.

I take that audio recording, stick it on my mp3 player (or whatever you might use to listen to music or podcasts) and make sure it is ready to go.

During the day while I’m at work, or any time I’m walking around, taking the bus, sitting in line, or something like that — basically any time when I’m not talking to someone or listening to something “actively”, I have this 30-minute recording repeating over and over again in my ear.

I don’t actually pay full attention to the recording. I just let it keep playing on repeat so that I’m always listening to the sounds.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that, by virtue of it being my own voice learning the pronunciation on the recording, I find myself sort of subconsciously practicing the phrasing and pronunciation without really trying.

Every once in a while I’ll try to practice along with the native speaker too, but I don’t go out of my way to do it. I just sort of find myself doing it without intending to.

Of course, while I’m at my desk at work I wouldn’t do that as much, but when I’d be putzing around my apartment and listening to the audio while no one was around, it would happen.

My goal was to listen to the audio recording at least 6 to 10 times during the day. That is a total of 3 to 5 hours of semi-passive listening. Most of us can fit that in, especially if we work at a desk or computer (which I do).

Obviously this is more conducive to certain types of people than others, but since I’m a computer worker, this was a great method for me. You might have to adapt it a bit if your lifestyle is different.

Putting it in to practice

Now, where this really came in to play was the fact that, since these are phrases or expressions that I would find myself needing to use almost every day, and since I’m listening to these phrases all day long, I would try to actually use them when those situations came up.

And that is the key.

It isn’t enough to just listen, but you have to use what you are absorbing. Use of the phrases is where true learning happens.

The first one or two times that I needed to use the phrases I found that it was tricky to remember them exactly right (but being exactly right isn’t the focus anyway, so why would I need to worry about being “perfect”?) but I could sort of hack my way through the underbrush of the phrase and get it mostly out.

Or, when I knew I was about to be in that situation (like if I was getting in to a taxi on my way home) I would listen to the phrase a couple times to review it quickly.

Then when I used the phrase it was more about trying to make sure I said it correctly and that the person knew what I was trying to say.

But the whole benefit of this method is that, by trying to recall the phrase in the situation where it is needed — that emotional urgency you feel in those situations — is what really forces the phrase quickly into your memory.

It creates an almost automatic response to those situations where you use the phrase almost without thinking.

By the end of the week I found the phrase would just come out without even really trying.

It was pretty cool.

And today, even though I never use Cantonese and I haven’t been to Hong Kong in a while, I can still easily recall the phrases that I learned through this method. It really was quite powerful.

The next week and beyond

During the week after meeting with the tutor I was still adding to the list of phrases in my notebook. Whenever I was in one of those “man, i wish i knew how to say this” moments, I would jot it down or add a tally mark.

By the time I met with the tutor the next week I would know exactly which phrases I needed to learn. They were the ones with the most tally marks next to them! Easy peasy.

The other thing I found helpful was sending the list of phrases or expressions to the tutor the day before I met them. That way they can make sure they know the context or how to express that sentiment correctly in the target language. After all, there are cultural nuances in some situations that need to be understood too.

Maintaining this method of passive immersion for a year means you can end up with around 150 essential phrases and expressions which you will be able to use in all of the most important situations you come across.

In fact, after a year you’d probably be hard-pressed to come up with a situation where you can’t at least express your thoughts to come degree or another.

I would say that, after a year of this, you are probably ready to go to a more advanced language acquisition technique.

It’s been really helpful for me to write this down and get these thoughts organized in my head. If you’ve found this method the least bit helpful, let me know. Just comment below.

Or, if you have suggestions on ways to improve it, let me know. I’m always looking to fine-tune and tweak my methods for optimal efficiency and efficacy.


Writer Mark Moran started training wushu with Hao Zhi Hua on March 12,1995 in Berkeley, California. He was Jet Li’s designer and occasional assistant for 10 years, lived and trained in China and Hong Kong for 8 years and has been blogging on wushu-related topics since 1998. Currently he resides on the island of Moloka’i in Hawai’i with his wife, Ruhi.

Read more of his work at WushuAdventures.com.


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