Recently I had a conversation in Beijing with an adult Chinese friend who was complaining how difficult it is to study English. No surprises there. It is a difficult language to master, just like Chinese.
I made a few suggestions based on my own experience. One involved a very valuable fact which I learned from my high school Latin and Greek teacher. He was a Jesuit priest, a gifted linguist, and had an amazing ability to memorize things, like poetry, essays, speeches, etc.
His advice to us students was that for memorization purposes, there are forty minutes each day in which our memory is vastly more receptive than it is during the other 23 hours and 20 minutes. This 40-minute “super memory” period is divided into two parts: the 20 minutes before we sleep, and the 20 minutes after we first awake.
The theory supporting this is pretty simple. First, the last information you input into your brain before a good night’s sleep has a better chance of taking root than information acquired during the hustle bustle of normal daily routine; and, second, your mind is free of distraction when you first awake in the morning — so more receptive to inputs, like a blank slate.
I took the advice to heart and it served me well in my school years. In my university days, our Chinese teacher would assign us 200 new vocabulary words each day, on which we would be quizzed the following day. Without the “magic” forty minute technique, there’s no way I would have passed those daily quizzes.
The technique really works, but like many things, it takes practice and discipline to hone and perfect it.
As far as language study goes, it’s not only useful for memorizing vocabulary. It’s also a very useful window of time in which to listen to the language you’re studying, even as background noise, and even if it’s at a level you find difficult to comprehend. It might be audio language study aids, or just radio, TV or whatever.
Beyond our years of formal education, memory skills are hugely important in any career.
How many times have you heard a speaker read their speech from a prepared text, or read the word-by-word content of a powerpoint presentation as they present each slide?
These are annoying, distracting, boring, and ineffective ways of communicating. They are almost guaranteed to lose the audience’s close attention and interest, let alone persuade or inspire anyone to do anything. And yet lots of people still make this mistake.
If you use the “forty minute” technique, you may not succeed in memorizing your presentation contents on a 100% word-by-word basis, but you’ll be familiar enough that you can spend much more time making eye contact with your audience. You will engage them in the process, while glancing at your text instead of staring at it. This will also free up your hands and arms to add some emphasis through gesture.
Memory is of course a big challenge for any language learner, especially as we grow older. Possibly an even bigger challenge, which starts around the pre-teen years for most people and gets progressively worse, is the fear of looking or sounding stupid.
Younger children are generally uninhibited by this kind of self-consciousness when among their peers, and that’s one reason they learn language so quickly. They are not afraid to mimic, even if they get it wrong. Mimicry and imitation are core elements of the natural process of language learning.
So, for young adults learning English or any second language, my advice would be threefold: 1) seize the forty-minute learning window; 2) slay the dragon of self-consciousness associated with mis-pronunciation or sounding funny; and 3) find ways to use the language outside of the classroom, as regularly and frequently as possible.
One fundamental rule of language learning is: “Use it, or lose it.”
The paybacks of success are enormous and life-long.
Likewise, the cost of failure is high. It includes all the money spent on tuition and associated expenses, plus a huge amount of time poorly spent. Not necessarily wasted, but poorly spent because the results could have been so much better.