March 24, 2019

Fluency staccato

What I call Fluency staccato is a phenomenon where due to constant back checking and constant active concentration on the most elementary parts of speech you loose focus and are unable to form natural longer sentences which would still make sense. The reason is that you run out of 'attention currency' (for more information on this topic watch the wonderful TED talk by Apollo Robbins as there's only a limited amount of things you can concentrate on consciously at the same time.

Anything you concentrate on consciously (like grammar rules, sentence structure, pronunciation etc.) costs you a certain amount of Attention currency and your budget is limited. If you, as will be the case in this article, spend too much of it on individual morphemes, while at the same time you have to concentrate on pronunciation, syntax, the vocabulary you want to use etc. you very quickly run out of cash and you have nothing left for other very important things like: the actual thought you want to convey. Your sentences will at best not connect to one another, at worst, what you say will only be natural on a sub-sentence level.

I was inspired to write this article because a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese left the following comment under one of my videos, and reminded me how destructive it is to learn a distant language starting from it's most elementary parts (tones for Mandarin learners, articles for learners of English, case endings for learners of Russian etc.):

As a native speaker, my advice is that you'd better start off with individual characters rather than words. Although starting with learning a bunch of words helps you put up sentences easier you will get confused soon after passing the beginner level because the Chinese language at its core is the meaning for each individual character. Though nowadays characters usually appear combining with other characters forming into words the meaning of a word is still defined by the characters within. Words with the same character can carry drastically different meaning but the meaning of that particular character may stay the same. For example, in the following two words contain the same character "所" but they have different meanings. 场所:a place ; 厕所:restroom ;  if you try to remember all the words with a "所" it is quite confusing and when a "所" pops out in a sentence it causes problem. However, if you know that the character "所" generally speaking means "a place" it will be much easier. for “场所” since both of the characters mean "a place" the word means 'a place'. for "厕所" the first character means the things you would do in a restroom combining with "a place" therefore this word means restroom. Then whenever you run into a "所" you can guess it is talking about a place except for one occasion that I can think of "所以" which means 'so' or 'therefore'.

I answered the comment and a few interesting things came out of it:

Hello. You are a native speaker of Mandarin and never had to learn Mandarin and without a lot of teaching experience you unfortunately cannot understand what problems foreigners learning Mandarin face and in what order they have to tackle them. It's the same situation when foreigners are trying to learn my native language. I have no idea what they need to know and in what order simply because I never had to learn my own language.

Your method would lead to poor results in my opinion because of this:

I'm not saying that learning the meaning of 電 will no help you understand 電視、電腦、電話、電梯、電子、發電站 and then knowing those morphemes will not help you understand 視力、腦子、扶手梯、子宮、出發、車站 etc. but you yourself have to see that this is a very wrong thing to do if you are a beginner, intermediate or even an advanced student. It's just too overwhelming and confusing and will lead nowhere. I tried it myself as a beginner and I know several people who have done so as well and we all abandoned the approach. The reason is that it's just too confusing and too overwhelming.

Instead of letting your brain remember a word like 電視 as one solid indivisible chunk, you force it to divide 電視 into two pieces and learn it as a compound made of two parts that are freely interchangeable to form new words. When you learn only a couple of words this way it's not a problem of course, but when you have to learn thousands you will get quite confused, will make a lot of mistakes frequently and will be very tired when speaking because you will have to pause to check whether the morphemes you chose for every word you said are correct. The reason for this is that you learned that the individual parts of words are interchangeable instead of learning that the words are one solid block. The checking takes milliseconds, but happens many times with each sentence and this along with what I wrote above is very tiring. Many words you learn this way will eventually be transferred to your long-term automatic memory so the back-ckecking will not be an issue anymore, but many will not or it will take them a very long time.

The most destructive habit here is the development of back-checking of words and as a consequence a general sub-conscious lack of confidence you build for your brain. If Chinese were a phonetically and structurally closer language to our western languages (in other words, if it were 'easier'), meaning that you don't have to spend too much brainpower thinking about pronunciation and syntax, then your system would be a nice hack but with all of the above, it is just an additional burden to an already very difficult thing to learn.

Western students are trained to back-check their pronunciation because of Mandarin tones already (they have to force themselves to pause their focus with every syllable and make sure they pronounce every tone correctly) and to develop another back-checking habit for individual words would be a total disaster and would never leave to fluency I think.

Moreover, not all words in Chinese are formed as easily as 電視、電腦、電梯 , many are of Japanese, Indian or Western origin or come from older versions of Chinese (Classical Chinese or even older) or Chinese dialects depending on where you live and the logical 電視、電腦、電梯 word forming rules do not work or are difficult to isolate. Even though there are relatively not that many words that do not conform the Chinese word-forming rules, they exist a lot of them are frequent and it thus adds to the confusion.

In addition, I now see you mentioned learning characters specifically. I don't know whether you meant morphemes or characters, but if you specifically meant learning characters, that is making the situation even worse. You now not only have to deal with the burden of all of the above, you also have to deal with the burden of learning thousands of characters as a beginner (not just the pronunciation of the given word and its meaning) which is just too much friction and will not lead to fluency.

Knowing what words are made of is interesting and helps you remember them passively better but for Westerners learning Chinese it is not very effective or productive.

But let's be scientific:) You can make an experiment. Choose a random western friend and tell him or her to learn 1000 Chinese words your way and see how that person does. I'm confident that if the person is motivated he or she will learn how to recall individual words quite well but will have great problems transferring them into long-term automatic memory which is what my comment it all about. Language is about automatic fluency and not about passive information stored in one's brain (which is something that works great for history or geography, but not for dynamic tasks such as language). Simple indivisible chunks of information, like I mentioned earlier, are easier for the brain to 'automatize' which is what you need to reach fluency. Learning the whole vocabulary system through morphemes, like you suggest, will lead to a 'fluency staccato'.


  1. In Japanese the character for car (i think its che in chinese) kuruma has the sinojapanes pronunciation sha in densha (electric car= train) what do Ou think about onyomi and kunyomi? Reading based on context.

    1. Hi. Not sure if I understand your question. What do I think about onyomi and knuyomi in general or in the case of 車 specifically? I also don't understand what you meant by 'reading based on context'.

  2. I meant that a certain character is read differently depending on the context.

    人 - hito, jin, bito etc.
    一 - ichi, hitotsu (i think), tsuitachi when referring to days of the montH etc.

    1. I still don't understand your question:) It's just a fact. Characters are read differently in some cases in Japanese. I am not an expert in Japanese, but there must be a lot of books written about the topic, and it is quite complex actually.

    2. What is your opinion on its difficuly compared to Chinese?

    3. Chinese is more difficult in my opinion.

    4. Considering the honorific system? I'm not saying it isn't more difficult, but I have a hard time learning 5+ ways to say one thing using different verbs each time.

    5. Hello again. I said everything about what I think about Chinese and Japanese and how difficult they are for Westerners to learn in the video that is in this article and in the comments beneath it. I was talking a lot about honorifics in the comments as well. Have a look if you like.