How to Become 'Gifted' at Learning Languages - You're Never too Old (Revisited)

How to Become 'Gifted' at Learning Languages - You're Never too Old (Revisited)

“That’s O.K. for you – you’re ‘gifted’ when it comes to learning languages …. but what about us normal folk? How are we supposed to learn a new language when we don’t have the ability to absorb them by osmosis like you?”

I have been going through hundreds of articles in my archives as I noticed many topics that have been coming up in conversations covered in past pieces.  This is one article that I wrote a few years back in response the the oft heard excuse that people have for not learning languages ‘Languages aren’t my thing’.

I personally don’t believe that I am particularly ‘gifted’ at learning languages.  What I am ‘gifted’ at is enjoying the journey of learning – no matter what it is that I’m learning.  For me it’s really simple.  I’m a JUNKIE!

The Evolution of Stu Jay Raj the Junkie

  • Stu can’t do ‘X’ –>
  • Stu wants to do ‘X’ –>
  • Stu starts learning ‘X’ –>
  • Stu has ‘breakthrough moments’ in learning ‘X’ –>
  • ‘Breakthrough moments’ give Stu a ‘high’ and energize him to want to have more of them –>
  • ‘Stu gets addicted to the highs’ –>
  • The thresh-hold for the ‘highs’ gets higher and higher pushing Stu to NEED to learn more –>
  • Language proficiency is a by-product of Stu’s addiction!

I realised this ‘junkie’ side of my self many years ago… probably around the age of 5 or 6.  I suspect that it was because of my grandfather.  Alcoholics shouldn’t hang around bars if they’re trying to give up drinking.  By logic, that means the opposite is also true – if you want to get ‘hooked’ or ‘addicted’ to something, you physically and mentally put yourself in a place where the ‘substance’ that you’re wanting to be addicted to is easily accessible and in abundance.

(Just for the record, my grandfather God rest his soul was not an alcoholic nor did he abuse any substances … and likewise for yours truly)

Hit’s on Demand

What my grandfather did for me was teach me how to get ‘hits’ on demand.  He taught me systems and ways of managing my mind that meant that my capacity for getting hits was (in my mind at least) unlimited.  Some of the systems that he taught me made it SO easy to memorize and learn new stuff that sometimes, just learning words or getting a ‘WOW’ reaction from native speakers of a language wasn’t enough.  I needed to go the extra mile – I needed to learn things that native speakers DIDN’T know.  I needed to find out what people *thought *was difficult and find a way to make it easy for me.

Everything in this universe can be broken down into binary – 0’s and 1’s. I love to draw the curtain back and reveal the 0’s and 1’s… perhaps we could call this ‘Wizard of Oz’ syndrome – the Wizard is never as scary as he’s made out to be.  It’s those ‘Toto’ moments that bring the biggest breakthroughs and in turn, the biggest highs.

Political Correctness and Semantic Dilution Kill Learning

The more graphic, vivid and non-politically-correct the images, emotions, sounds, actions and words that you use as memory pegs are, the more effective they will be.

The exercise that we’re about to go through is going to change the way you think about everything.

I’ve done this exercise with groups all over the world and in many different languages and it works with everyone… mind you sometimes it has to be culturally and linguistically tweaked.

Just remember – the best systems are ones that are going to plant themselves into the deepest, darkest, most colourful and most fragrant depths of our soul. (You can almost taste that description can’t you!?)

Doing this at an international level like in this blog then provides a bit of a rub, as for many reading this, English isn’t your mother tongue.  My cultural up-bringing is also probably different to yours.  The key is to adapt what I’m doing here and link it into something in your own language and your own culture that sends those big barbed hooks sinking  deep down into the flesh of your soul so that should what you learn ever go missing, it would physically hurt.

The more graphic, vivid and non-politically-correct the images, emotions, sounds, actions and words that you use as memory pegs are, the more effective they will be.

So here’s a system for you!

This initial part was a rhyme I learned as a kid and was reinforced during my days as a Dale Carnegie trainer.  Number ’11’ is a bit funny rhythm, but I think the imagery is very effective … you’ll see what I mean.  There are many other systems out there and many more that I use.  Actually, the more languages and things you learn, the more structures you have in your tool-belt to reach for.

The Major memory system is an oldie but a goodie.  It’s much more robust and can potentially cater for memorizing 10’s of 1000’s of items.  For today’s activity though, this one is very effective and easy to learn.  Are you ready?

Part 1 – Erecting the Framework

Start clapping your hands at about 120 beats per minute (120 BPM).  How fast is that?  Look at the second-hand of a clock. You should be clapping or tapping your hand on the table at regular intervals twice a second.

Now read the following table out loud … yes OUT LOUD.  Read it to the rhythm of your clapping / tapping – four beats per phrase.

  1. One Run
  2. Two Zoo
  3. Three Tree
  4. Four Door
  5. Five Hive
  6. Six Sick
  7. Seven Heaven
  8. Eight Gate
  9. Nine Wine
  10. Ten Den
  11. Eleven Ball Eleven
  12. Twelve Shelve

Please note – if the word’s aren’t rhyming, please check that you are speaking English 😉

If the ‘/’ symbol represents one beat, it should be read like this:

/ / / /
One Run
Two Zoo

Now stand up from your computer, go and take a walk around the room and go through the rhymes for about 2 minutes.  Take a nature break if you like.  For the guys, if during your break you need to go and pee, remember – urinals make great white-boards!  Try and pee in the shape of the numbers as you’re saying the rhymes.  If in a public bathroom, please be aware of your pee-radius limits… and it’s probably not advisable to choose a urinal right next to someone else peeing.  If you’re doing this at home and you’re married, please don’t forget to put the seat down after you.

How was that?

Let me test you…

  • What’s ONE?
  • What’s FIVE?
  • What’s NINE?
  • What number is HEAVEN?
  • What number is GATE?
  • What number is DOOR?

Ok – I think you’ve got it.

Now take a seat and let’s start building!

Part 2 – Injecting a bit of Colour

One Run – Imagine Jerry the mouse (from Tom and Jerry) running across the Kalahari Desert.  You’re a camera man starting way up in the crisp blue sky, you see Jerry scurrying across the desert with his feet spinning around a million miles an hour kicking up dust as he runs.  You then zoom right down on him and you can see him puffing and panting with his heart almost thumping outside of his body.  Why? Because Tom’s chasing him of course!

All of a sudden Jerry comes running up at you … but wait, you’re afraid of MICE!… now you start waving your hands about at Jerry saying ‘Shoo Shoo! go away … SHOO!’

**Two Zoo ** – You’re in what looks like a horrible, old smelly prison … but it’s NOT a prison.  It’s a ZOO!  In the zoo, you would normally expect many different animals.  This zoo is different though, there are hundreds upon hundreds of iron-bar zoo cells full of OXEN (plural of ‘Ox’.. no bull!).  The living conditions are horrible.  The bars are pushing up against their heads, their horns are clashing together, there’s stinky Ox poo all over the ground and all the Oxen keep saying is – “We want a NEWWWWW zoo … we want a NEWWWWWWW zoo” – (Note the word ‘New’ is said in a deep questioning kind of way that starts pretty low and then goes up to a long extended ‘OO’ sound like in ‘MOO’)

**Three Tree **– There is a big, grand, glorious tree with a big fat trunk big enough for all the local fluffy animals to play in.  You hear a rustling from the leaves at the top of the tree and then a long, scared quivering voice questions “WHO are you? WHOOOO are you?”

When you look at who it is up in the tree (still keeping in the spirit of the Wizard of Oz), you think at first it’s the Cowardly Lion!… But NO… Wait a minute… it’s the Cowardly TIGER!  Yes, a paranoid, manic depressive cowardly tiger and all he can say is “WHOOOOOOOO?... are you?”

Ok… let’s start to mix it up a bit here.  Linear is so boring!  Pick a number between 4 and 12 ….

Seven? Ok…

Seven Heaven – You’re standing there looking at a big white, shiny set of escalators taking people up to the pearly gates of heaven.  All of a sudden, a big white Pegasus like horse with wings like an eagle swoops up and you jump on-board as this giant white flying horse takes you up to HEAVEN.  As you’re flying up, you see an image of your mum floating out there smiling at you – you say ‘Ma?  Is that you?’ … ‘Maaa? Is that really you?’

Ok – let’s do a little bit of recap here.

  • ONE – ??
  • TWO – ?? - What were the Oxen saying?
  • What animal was taking you up to heaven?
  • THREE – ??
  • What were the conditions of the zoo like?
  • What were you saying to Jerry the mouse? - What number was Jerry the mouse?
  • Who is up in the Tree? - What was he saying?

Ok – we’re ready to continue ….

Ten Den – You are like Daniel… you’ve been thrown into the Lion’s den.  When you walk into the den however, you see that it’s no normal den.  These animals are sophisticated – sitting in big-armed chairs smoking pipes and wearing glasses.  You hand them a telephone and give them the home-delivery order for KFC CHICKEN!  They dial and order their CHICKEN and all stand up, link arms and start singing in unison ‘GEE we love CHICKENGEE we love CHICKEN‘.

What numbers haven’t we done yet?  Four?  Ok –

Four Door – You’re in Wonderland and the Rabbit is chasing you frantically out of the rabbit hole into the real world.  You manage to jump through a door leading out and just as the rabbit jumps and hurls himself both feet first through the doorway, you SLAM the door shut on the rabbit’s feet so hard that his feet are severed and SNAP off of the rabbit’s legs.  With the door closed and the footless rabbit on the other side, you pick up his TWO bloody, twitching, fluffy white feet and put his TWO feet in your pocket for good luck.

How many feet did the rabbit have?

Nine Wine – Haiya!… Hooooorrrrr … HUAAAA! … it’s DRUNKEN MONKEY.. doing Bruce Lee impersonations with a big bottle of wine in hand.  This monkey isn’t any ordinary drunken, Bruce Lee impersonating monkey though!… He’s dressed as SANTA CLAUS and with every kick, kung-fu chop and back-flip, he’s singing out a jolly “HO HO HO!  HO HO HO!

NB. There were other images that came to mind that would enable our Drunken Monkey to cry out the words ‘Ho Ho Ho’ but…. but you see what I mean about Political Correctness?  The less PC you are, the MORE you will learn!

**Five Hive **– Picture a giant hive, BUZZZING with activity.  But wait!.. this is no ordinary hive… and they’re not bees flying out of it!  They’re miniature DRAGONS flying out of the hive breathing little fire-balls and all of them have LONNNNGGGG tails swooping upwards almost in the shape of the Nike ‘Swish’.   When you say the word LONNNNG tail, make the pitch of the word start low and follow the swish upward – DRAGONS have LONNNNNG Tails!

Ok – recap time again:

  • What was coming out of the hive?
  • What were you saying to Jerry the mouse?
  • What number was Jerry?
  • SEVEN – ?
  • Who did you see going up to heaven?
  • What were you riding on?
  • Who is in the zoo?
  • What were they saying?
  • Who was impersonating Bruce Lee?
  • What number was he?
  • Who was the monkey dressed as?
  • What was the monkey saying?
  • Why did I choose the Santa Suit for the monkey?
  • Who is up in the tree?
  • What was he saying
  • You’re in the lion’s den – what were they ordering?
  • What did the lions all say after they ordered home delivery?

Twelve Shelve – You’re in Israel minding your own business when all of a sudden you hear police sirens wailing in the street.  You rush in to see what they’re doing.  There SWAT team busts down the door of a Jewish man and finds in his house shelves lining the walls with shelf upon shelf lined with PIGS.  The police shocked look at the man and ask him ‘What kind a JEW are YOU hmmm?’

Six Sick – You’re sick in hospital lying in your hospital bed when your nurse comes in to give you an injection.  This isn’t any ordinary nurse though – and it’s not any ordinary injection!   The nurse is CHER (from Sonny and Cher … If I Could Turn Back Time… you know the one), dressed in that black thing she was wearing as she was sitting on the cannon in the music clip for ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’… but wearing a nurses hat of course.  Instead of a syringe, CHER pulls out a long fanged SNAKE.  It’s fangs are protruding with green venom dripping from them and she plants the fangs – BAM! into you arm. (As you picture CHER placing the snakes fangs in your arm while you’re sick in hospital, hold two fingers up, curl them around like snakes fangs and thrust them into the open side of your other arm.  Let them sink in until you feel pain.  As you think of that pain – of the venom running through your veins, think of CHER).

What numbers are left?

That’s right – 8 and 11.  Pick one? … ok .. gottit.

Eleven Ball Eleven – You’re at an American football game (if you don’t understand American football… or haven’t ever watched it before, don’t worry…. either have I!… but you’ve seen the movies right?… ok… just follow me on this one).

The number 11 footballer (Football 11) is throwing HOT DOGS up into the crowds just like they throw the football.  These **HOT DOGS **have a twist though … they’re REAL DOGS inside!  Little yapping chihuahuas are flying through the air between two buns covered in ketchup!

As the dogs are flying through the air, the crowds roar ‘GO GO GO!’

Football 11 throwing hot DOGS saying GO GO GO!

and finally…….

Eight Gate – You’re in a big green meadow / paddock in New Zealand.  All of a sudden, you hear the railway crossing gate bells start to ring – DING DING DING DING DING …   As the train comes closer, you can’t believe your eyes!  Instead of all the sheep normally stopping at the gate to let the train pass, this time, as the GATES go down, the train that’s passing is being driven and also packed to the brim with SHEEP!  Big sheep, little sheep, some with train engineer caps on, some with sun-glasses on, and some sporting some pretty impressive bling.

Just as this sheep-laden train goes past while the gates go down, a young New Zealand gentleman says to you quite matter-of-factly “My My… they’re very YOUNG sheep now aren’t they? **YOUNG **sheep indeed!

GATE comes down for a train full of YOUNG SHEEP.

What have we learned?

Aside from the fact that I have a frighteningly active imagination, we have indeed learned the animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Not only have we learned the animals, but we have learned the correct order and also the pronunciation of the characters.  Well – we’ve learned a ‘guide’ to the pronunciation of the characters – enough to get our minds and our mouths in the right place.  We can refine them down afterwards.

**Why did I choose the Chinese zodiac (生肖 shēngxiào)? **

In my Cracking Thai Fundamentals programme, I will often mention to students that if they feel that they are starting to become confident with their Thai, it’s time to enter the ‘shut up’ stage.  Many people jump into learning a language because they want to express ‘themselves’ in that language.

I remember a few years back, I was sitting with a bunch of friends who worked at an particular embassy in Bangkok that will remain nameless.  Being an embassy, there are foreigners in there that speak fluent Thai – they’ve done their training both while back in their home country and then more language training on the ground once they were in the country.  The complaint of the Thai embassy workers was that they said that they’d often be having a really fun conversation about some topic or other – maybe what soap-opera they were watching the night before on Channel 7, or about some member in their family who was going to become a monk, or what lucky number they saw on a car’s license plate that ran into them on the way to work and in turn needed to urgently buy a lottery ticket with that number as the final 2 digits because it was already the 1st or 16th day of the month.. you know.. ‘Thai’ kinds of things.

They said that every time a particular foreigner (that spoke perfect Thai) came into the room, the happy raucous atmosphere that was going on just died.  The foreigner would want be part of the conversation and join in the fun.  He would come in and say something like ‘Can you believe what they’re doing in Iran at the moment?’ , or ‘What do you think about the UN’s role in Thailand?’.  These kinds of comments had the same effect as a fart in an elevator.  Not just a normal fart – but one of those … you know … those silent, seepy ones that get past the firewall and glide out after eating Indian food for lunch.  The ones that make all the people in the elevator start to contort their their face hoping that the contortions would close at least one nostril up and stop the pain.

Needless to say, the mood in the room died and the fun raucous conversation was but a memory of something that once was.

Ok, ok – I might be getting a little melodramatic at the moment, but I hope I’ve demonstrated my point.  I don’t like learning a language to express ‘myself’ in the language.  I learn it so that I can learn about the people who use it, learn what they like and don’t like and learn how to render myself in their language and culture in a way that won’t come across like a fart in an elevator.  Language is a social thing.

That’s why the Chinese zodiac or ‘生肖 shēngxiào‘ is so cool.  It’s a fantastic ice-breaker and rapport builder.

Starbucks - The Game and Language

The intersection of language, mind-skills and dating opens up a whole new dimension of possibilities for Neil Strauss fans giving you an unfair advantage on most of your peers. I’ll save that for my next book.

Supposing you were at Starbucks and you saw some cute Chinese girl sitting at the table next to you. (I’m saying this as though it would be me – you can choose the gender and sexual orientation of the imaginary Chinese starbucks person to suit your own preferences 🙂 )

Let’s superimpose all the 12 animals onto their corresponding numbers on a clock face.  The animals 4 hours to your left and 4 hours to your right are the animals that best suit being your spouse.  (These are called the 4 animal trines).

Now, you know that your own zodiac animal is the Horse.  You think that she must be about 4 years younger than you – you’re a Dog!.  Dog = 11.  Stand on 11 on the clock and walk clockwise 4 years. 11 to 12, 1, 2, 3.  What’s 3? RIGHT – She’s the year of the Tiger! (Which just happens to be my year!).

Engaging the Mark

So now you introduce yourself to the cute Chinese girl and say “You weren’t born in the year of the tiger were you?”  She says “No”.  Bummer! … All your plans and dreams are shattered … but not to worry, you can still salvage yourself.  You say “Oh.. it just looked like you were the strong, leader type.  I was convinced that you had to be a tiger”.  Now she’s interested in hearing more about herself and intrigued that you know about her culture and probably more about the Chinese zodiac than she does.  You sit, sip on your cappucino’s and laugh on into the evening sharing anecdotes of paranoid tigers and young sheep.

A few dates went by, her clothes started appearing in your cupboards and drawers, she moves in officially, you end up marrying, you learn to speak fluent Mandarin as well as her family’s own dialect,  her mother hates you, she leaves you and takes the kids and you find yourself sitting in Starbucks one day commiserating your existence when suddenly… sitting at the table next to you is…..

Ok – you get the picture! Learning language is about learning ‘people’. Learning what drives them – what makes them laugh … and what makes them wince their face up as though they’ve just been on the receiving end of a fart in an elevator. If you set this as your goal, the motivation to learn drives itself.

The Chinese Zodiac is a perfect social ‘tool’ to use to get into the people’s hearts right across Asia.  It allows you to peak their interest, get them speaking about themselves, what they like, how they perceive the world, who they like, who they hate, why they hate them and you might even get onto famous identities in their pop culture and history that are a particular zodiac sign.  It can lead you down many rabbit holes indeed.

(Side Note – what number was the rabbit? How many feet? – Good 🙂 )

The zodiac animals and traits and words vary a little between different countries in Asia – Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan are all slightly different.  Again, the differences act as memory points – and knowing about them makes you a much more interesting person!

Indeed the intersection of language, mind-skills and dating opens up a whole new dimension of possibilities for Neil Strauss fans giving you an unfair advantage on most of your peers.  I’ll save that for my next book.

Take a break!

This is a great time to go and take a break – go for a walk down the street… or better still, take a nap.   Find somewhere nice and quiet, close your eyes and take yourself into the scary fantasy land that we just painted with the numbers from one to twelve.

Notice how we didn’t learn them in order?  We didn’t need to.  Once the ‘system’ had been laid down properly in the beginning, we could learn in any order we like.  The items just ‘slot’ into place.  Plug and play vocab items.

If possible, try not to look at the following table first.  Try and recall the vivid non-politically-correct images that we conjured up.  Just in case though, here’s a summary to help you:

**1 **(One) Run Mouse (Rat) Shoo!
**2 **(Two) Zoo Ox New (zoo)
**3 **(Three) Tree Tiger Who?
**4 **(Four) Door Rabbit Two! (feet)
**5 **(Five) Hive Dragon Long (tails)
**6 **(Six) Sick Snake Cher
**7 **(Seven) Heaven Horse Ma (is that you?)
**8 **(Eight) Gate Sheep Young (sheep)
**9 **(Nine) Wine Monkey Ho!
**10 **(Ten) Den Chicken (Rooster) Gee! (we love chicken)
**11 **(Eleven) Ball Eleven Dog Go Go Go!
**12 **(Twelve) Shelve Pig What kind of JEW are you?

Part 3 – Now Let’s do some Magic

Now because I’m not with you at the moment to point at different characters, let’s use a referencing system – like reading an Excel Spreadsheet:

A B C – Column Headings

1234 – Row Headings

So the order

1     5     9

2    6    10

3    7    11

4    8    12

will be referred to as

A1  B1  C1

A2  B2  C2

A3  B3  C3

A4  B4  C4

Mind Yoga

Now it’s time to stretch those synapses.  This exercise works best if the chart of 12 characters that I’ve just given you takes up your full visual field.  That’s why I suggested printing out the PDF version of the chart and sit it on the table in front of you – or better still, stick it on a wall.   Even better still, print out giant size versions of the characters and re-create the table on a white-board.  Physically engaging yourself like that when learning vocab helps to embed the new words into ‘you’.

Notice how I haven’t placed numbers next to each one.  You don’t need them.  The system 1-run, 2-zoo etc.. means that you don’t need this anymore.  The numbers are inherently there from the platform that we laid down first.

Now point at any character in the chart and just relax. Your mind will figure out what number it is. Just think of the rhyme. Think of the story.  What is the animal associated with the story? What is the key ‘sound word’ to associate with that animal? – E.g. 3 – Tree – (paranoid) Tiger – Who?(are you).

Sit and do this for about 5 minutes. Just keep going over and over again at random.

As you’re drilling yourself, change your mind’s activity around.  For example, after you’ve started to get a little more confident with the stories, animals etc, practice just thinking of the ‘picture’ of the animal only when you point at each character.   That means when you point at location ‘B1’ the only thing that you are seeing in your mind is a picture of a fire-breathing dragon with a LONGG tail.

After about 2 minutes of just thinking of the ‘animal pictures’, do the same drill but this time round just think of the words associated with them.  E.g. when you point at location B4 you are thinking ‘YOUNG?’.

Spend the next five minutes drilling yourself.

Okay – Break time again!

Let me highlight a few points of interest about the characters we’ve just learned.

  • Look at the character 牛 for Ok – you can kind of see the ears, the horn sticking up and it’s face … picture the bottom tip as the tip of the Ox’s nose.

  • Similarly, look at 羊 the symbol for ‘sheep’ or ‘ram’. You can see the little horns, hears running down again to the nose.

  • The character 馬 (ma) – ‘horse’ .. picture the 4 dots as it’s mane flowing as it runs.. the top part is the head.

  • Look at these three characters 猴 (hou), 狗(gou), 猪(zhu) – the component on the left represents a fuzzy or curly tail.

  • The character 蛇 (she) – pronounced like ‘Cher’  – rhymes with ‘her’ but no ‘r’ sound at the end. The component on the left 虫 represents ‘creepy crawly’ things.

I won’t get into the whole tone system of Chinese too deeply hear.  Just try and imagine the pictures and the emotions.. the tones will come from your emotional experience. Have a search around the internet after you get through this to read up on the tones and ‘pin yin’ which is the amazingly simple and accurate romanization system of the Mandarin sound system.

Part 4 – Mix and Match

Now let’s look at these two tables.  The first is the table that you’ve already learned. The second is a table of the same characters, but in random order.

See if you can work out which one is which by referencing the original table.  You will find that soon enough you will start recognising the characters for what they are and your references to the original table will be minimal. Don’t forget to (in your mind) always link the symbols to the numbers as you’re recalling them.  This is extremely helpful to have on call when you’re in that Starbucks scenario we spoke about earlier!

Original Table

Random Table

Chinese currently uses two sets of characters depending on what country you’re in.  You have the Traditional Characters – 繁体字 ‘fan ti zi’ (translated directly as complicated body characters) and Simplified Characters – 简体字 ‘jian ti zi’ (translated directly as simple body characters).  Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia all use the simplified characters.  Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters.  I personally prefer the aesthetics of the traditional characters, though for efficiency’s sake, the Simplified Characters are in most cases faster to write.  I recommend when learning Chinese that you learn both of them.  Once again, the differences between the characters work to reinforce them in your memory.

Here is the original chart with the Simplified Characters next to the Traditional Character where one exists.  As you can see, they are in most cases modifications of the original design.

龍 龙
雞 鸡
馬 马

So What Have We Just Done?

How’s your brain feeling? Excited?

Hopefully during the time you spent reading this article, you have at some point had an ‘AHA’ or an ‘OH WOW!’ moment. If we break it down, we have covered a LOT of ground and I have thrown many different disciplines / skill set training in there that you may not have even noticed.

Here are just a handful:

  • Set up a memory filing system based on something we know
  • Took away the scaffolding of what we knew and were left with a solid structure not based on language that we could file new words, meanings, pictures etc. in
  • Used rhythm / music to help get our minds into state (120 bpm) to prepare it to be programmed
  • Used rhyme, mnemonics and big, colourful, emotional and politically incorrect imagery to help us memorize stuff (no-one needs to know what actually goes on in your mind!… all they see is what’s rendered in the end when it comes out of your mouth)
  • Learned cultural points about Chinese Culture / Asia in General – Chinese Zodiac
  • Picked up powerful ‘pick up’ techniques that can be instantly applied to your next trip to Starbucks
  • Learned how to be a more interesting person
  • Associated similar sounds in our language to help remember new words / sounds in a new language
  • Once the new characters were in place, we could shuffle them up and revert to our original filing system as a reference.  As the brain references back to the original table to look for similarities, we’re learning more and more about the characters and they’re being embedded into us
  • Learned about the difference between Traditional Characters and Simplified Characters in Chinese
  • Found out the scary things that go through Stuart Jay Raj’s mind!

One important thing to note is that if you go over everything that I’ve just gone through, you might think that it’s a convoluted way just to learn12 characters.  When running this activity, I normally do it in around 30min – 45min … including all my commentary and the drills.  The fact is though, that once you get the fundamental skill down of making pictures, word associations and inserting them into your mental filing system, all of the above processes happen internally within the space of a few seconds.  Our brains can process things at lightening fast speeds.  The trick is not to try to analyse it too much… and sometimes you just have to put your head down and plough into something and just have faith that your brain is going to make sense of it.  Our brains can link two totally unrelated things quite easily – both a blessing and a curse. It only starts backfiring when our socially learned logic gets in the way and we start telling ourselves ‘I can’t do that’ .. or ‘that can’t be done’ … or ‘I’m doing all this just to learn THAT!??’ … In brain terms, the ‘all this’ isn’t really all that much.  It’ll be over before you know it.

Finally, for your reference, here is an overall table of the Zodiac animals taken from  I have tweaked the table a little.

Make sure you bookmark this article and / or print it out.  It’s going to be something you will keep coming back to as a reference and just know that you’re going to want to pass it on to your friends, employees and students to get them inspired about learning again!

As for the full debriefing – let’s leave that for the comments section.  I would like all of my readers out there to be part of the discussion about what actually went on in this article, the learnings that we can take from it and how it can be adapted to learning other languages – and other stuff in general.

Get as much input and inspiration as you can.  Visit blogs and sign-up for newsletters from people like Benny the Irish Polyglot , Steve Kaufman the Italian Polyglot , Moses McCormick and other inspirational polyglots out there.  I think that many of these people are like me – they love the buzz of learning and focus that on learning languages.

Stay tuned for many more resources to come from my site – .   I’m re-working everything at the moment and in the next few weeks you will see a lot of changes.  There will be a members area full of resources and downloads to help get your motivation up, share learning secrets and take your languages to the next level.

Appendix 1 – The Chinese Zodiac

Animal Characters Simplified - Traditional Japanese Romaji (Romanized Japanese) Various forms of Hanyu-Pinyin (Romanized Chinese)
Rat 鼠 - 鼠 nezumi shǔ shu shu3 shu
Ox / Bull / Cow 牛 / 牛 ushi niú niu niu2 niu
Tiger 虎 / 虎 tora hǔ hu hu3 hu
Rabbit / Hare 兔 / 兔 usagi tù tu tu4 tu
Dragon 龙 / 龍 ryuu / tatsu lóng long long2 long
Snake / Serpent 蛇 / 蛇 hebi shé she she2 she
Horse 马 / 馬 uma mǎ ma ma3 ma
Goat / Sheep 羊 / 羊 hitsuji yáng yang yang2 yang
Monkey 猴 / 猴 saru hóu hou hou2 hou
Chicken / Rooster 鸡 / 鶏 niwatori jī jim ji1 ji
Dog 狗 / 狗 inu / ku gǒu gou gou3 gou
Boar / Pig 猪 / 豬 inoshishi zhū zhu zhu1 zhu


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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj