Can learning Mandarin be as easy as learning French?

I started off last week’s blog with some dark confessions about lessons gone past that I have taught; the good, the bad and the absolutely chaotic, and I ended it with some pyscho-babble about sensory references and mental bridges and a promise that I’d explain myself next week. So here goes….

What I mean by a mental bridge is a link between one thing and another in your brain, scientists might call it a neural pathway. Researchers have shown that it is these bridges that are responsible for the process that goes on when you perceive a new piece of information, then store it in your brain, then retrieve it later. That’s the process: Perception, Retention, Retrieval. It’s the effectiveness of this process that is absolutely crucial for a student’s success (or failure) in picking up a new language. Steps one two and three all need to work in order for a language to truly be learnt.

Let's imagine you received an audio clip of 20 random words of me talking in a foreign language, and I asked you to listen to it once then repeat them to me, do you think you would be able to do it? As long as you can hear what’s played clearly then you will be able to perceive the sounds coming out of the speaker, but would you be able to remember them and reproduce them even just a few minutes later? Step 1 of the process (perception) is there, but steps two and three; retention and retrieval, are pretty shaky. If I asked you to play it a number of times, you might have more of a chance of remembering one or two of the twenty words, but your success rate at picking up a new language just by listening and repeating would be pretty low. Especially if all you have is one lousy audio recording, and you can’t even see me when I’m saying them- I haven’t even told you what the words mean!

The reason that this kind of parrot-repetition method is pretty unsuccessful (and I sincerely pray that it is now a thing of the past in the modern language classroom in the UK) is that it doesn’t give you a reference, doesn’t give you anything else to link it to, it doesn’t create a mental bridge! Now in European languages that are relatively close to English, this method may still have some limited success and that’s because the words sound similar enough to English, or are close to other words in English that have a similar meaning for you to make your own mental bridge as you go along.