Chapter 18 – Learning the Language; Relying on the Sub-Conscious


1. The Power of the Sub-Conscious
2. Creating the Language Computer
3. Free Conversation?
4. Deep Listening
5. Language as a Song
6. MultiLingualism

It is said that some 80 percent of our brain capacity operates sub-consciously.

When we speak our native language, for example, we do not have to think whether verbs follow nouns. We do not worry about conjugations etc.

That is because the language has entered our sub-conscious (or what some call the long-term memory), which tells us automatically how to say what we want to say. 

Automaticity is the technical word for it.

1. The Power of the Sub-Conscious

Perhaps the best analogy is the way we learn to type.

We begin by consciously looking at the keys we want to hit.

But with practice and repetition one day we find we can type freely without even having to look at the keyboard. The fingers seem to know automatically where to move.

Here too our ability to type will have entered the sub-conscious. (In English we call it ‘touch typing’; the Japanese call it ‘blind typing’.)

Language learning is more complicated than learning to type. But the principle is the same – finding a technique that allows words and patterns enter that sub-conscious or longterm memory so that you do not have to rely on the conscious memory.

When that happens correct words and expressions emerge just as naturally as those touch-typing fingers move across the keyboard. You do not have to remember them consciously.

But in both cases getting things right from the start is very important. If you start off with two finger typing you will probably stay that way.

With language it is the same. Mistakes that enter the sub-conscious at the start will stay there, often permanently.

True, with repeated practice the two-finger typist can get to type quite quickly. But it is rather ugly way of typing – rather like the English spoken by Japanese people who learn from textbooks, and have gone on to speak like textbooks. 

2. Creating the Language Computer

With typing or music, repetition is usually enough to guarantee the ability will enter the sub-conscious memory.

With language also. But the volume of what you have to remember far exceeds what is needed to remember typing or music. And you have to make sure that right from the start what you remember is the correct language.

But it can be done – provided you rely on the sub-conscious or long term memory

If you rely solely on your conscious memory to learn a language then almost as fast as you remember a word or expression you will forget another.

Conscious memory learning is rather similar to throwing very soft mud against a wall. It hits, but very little will stick.

You end up like those many Japanese who shake their heads with a wry smile and admit that despite their past efforts, they remember almost nothing of the English they tried for so many years to learn.

3. Free Conversation?

Many see free conversation as the answer to this problem. But contrary to much belief (Japanese especially), just listening to a language does not mean the language will automatically ‘stick’ in the sub-conscious.

Listening can be a very passive affair. 

Some extra and much stronger pressure is needed to make the words ‘stick’. 

True, repeated efforts to converse will help the language to remain in the memory.

But that is time, and often money, consuming. And there is very little guarantee that what you are remembering is correct.

This is a particular problem for Japanese students of foreign languages where speaking is seen as a matter of consciously selecting the words learned from textbooks, and then stringing them together, like Lego blocks.

The result is the very stilted form of spoken English found in Japan.

So the more the students talk, the more that stilted English becomes embedded, like that two-finger typing.

It is crucial that from the beginning you have some way to embed, or imprint, the correct language into the sub-conscious memory. 

That imprinting can best come through what I call concentrated or focussed listening, followed by the chance to say what you have just listened to.

You need to be in a situation where correct remembering is vital for some purpose. 

An analogy can help.

Imagine someone shows you a photo of some streets in a foreign city and tells you to remember all the details. 

No matter how hard you try consciously to remember those details they will quickly fade from the memory.

But now imagine you are lost in a foreign city and are desperate to find your destination.

You consult your maps, ask passers-by etc. and eventually through much effort you find your way.

I am sure that if you are like me the concentration needed to find your way guarantees that you will remember for years the roads, paths and buildings you passed en route.

I find the same thing with mountain climbing. If at some place there was some kind of difficulty in deciding or finding the correct route, I can tell you the details of that place today as if it was yesterday.

Why? Because I was faced with a challenge, and it forced me to concentrate. 

That concentration guaranteed that the details of those routes were pulled into my long-term memory, like steel particles sucked into a magnet.

Similarly with language. The challenge is to find a way to get it sucked into the subconscious memory. 

Concentration is the first condition. But there is another –  making sure the language that you suck in is the correct language.

And this involves not just gaining correct pronunciation. Stress and rhythm are also important.

Some say reading out aloud (rote learning) helps the memory. Tests and quizzes also help. Both can provide the stimulus for needed concentration. But there is no correctness guarantee.

Living the language – being in a situation where you have to use and rely on the language for every day life – also helps, though it is not hard to find migrants living in this situation who cannot speak well even after decades.

Or even intellectuals like Mr Kissinger. Their listening was not sufficiently concentrated or focussed from the beginning. 

They heard what they wanted to hear and then repeated it till it became embedded in the sub-conscious and could not be corrected later.

Some technique is needed to force you to concentrate from the beginning while listening to the correct pronunciations.

Being forced to concentrate on what you are listening to helps sounds penetrate the all-important sub-conscious memory directly, before you have the chance to start hearing what you want to hear.

I call it deep listening, followed by the meaningful conversation needed to embed it in the sub-conscious.

4. Deep Listening

First select some recorded material, the meaning of which you want to understand or that you are required to understand.

You listen carefully, checking with a dictionary or written text the words you do not understand.You are forced to concentrate.

You tell yourself you are in effect trying to decode the secret message coming out of the machine.

That concentrated effort in turn begins to push what you are hearing into the sub-conscious, very much in the way a child listens and remembers.

You can of course rely on text to help you in your de-coding effort. Indeed, for someone like myself who relies heavily on visual memory, seeing words in a text or dictionary AFTER I have made that listening effort is a big help in memorising.

But it should be secondary – somewhat like using a map when you find yourself lost.

Memorisation will be much more effective if from the beginning you feel you have done all you can through listening to understand.

I call it ‘deep listening.’ In Japanese (and in the book I had published in Japan on the topic) it becomes ‘ango kaidoku kooka’ – the de-coding or de-cyphering effect.

Using in conversation the words you have just de-cyphered  helps greatly. Writing out what you have decoded also helps.

Yet another hint: use tapes or CD’s for the listening. Audio-visual is distracting, as is the presence of the other speaker in free conversation lessons

Be in a position where you can just close your eyes and concentrate on the sound trying to enter your mind. That way the impact is much stronger.

CD’s and tapes also allow you to work at your own pace – to study when you want to and when you feel your mind is receptive.

This process of feeling that you are in control – that from the beginning you have wanted strongly to listen to and understand some recorded material – is crucial.

You do not get that in the classroom where the hearing practice is superficial, i.e. it does not enter the sub-conscious..

As I mentioned earlier, once when studying Chinese in Hong Kong I had to record and ‘de-cypher’ immediately an important Beijing broadcast at the height of an early sixties Taiwan Straits crisis.

The new words I learned, when under the pressure to complete the ‘de-cyphering’ process, remained with me for years. They had stuck firmly in the sub-conscious.

5. Language as a Song

Ever wonder why we can remember songs – nursery songs especially – so easily and for so long? Poems also.

Because rhythm opens the gates almost directly to the sub-conscious.

Unfortunately we cannot turn that mess of nouns, verbs, conjunctives etc. called a language into something as luring and attractive as a song or poem. 

But we can to do something to make it somewhat more attractive.

For example, I find it very useful to listen to recordings by someone with an attractive voice.

I was once involved with the Japanese language materials company that produced the very successful language learning set of taped recordings called ‘Chase.’

They took my advice to tape sections a mystery story that would be of interest to Japanese – for example, with a Japanese as the leading figure. 

So they hired Sydney Sheldon to write the story. That helped their sales. 

But helping the sales even more was their idea of hiring Orson Welles to record the story. His voice is very penetrating.

When the voice is attractive you can almost feel the sub-conscious reaching out to take in what it is hearing. That is why we remember songs so well.

When you speak a language fluently you also have the sensation of repeating the words of a long familiar song.

6. Multilingualism

People sometimes ask me whether you get confused with languages – whether knowing Chinese interferes with Japanese, for example.

The short answer is, no, although there can be a brief mental confusion when you switch from a well-embedded language to one less so (for example in my case, from Chinese to Japanese).

It is like asking whether I have a problem singing ‘My Fair Lady’ if I know ‘Doing it my Way.’

Remembering a variety of languages should be no harder than remembering a variety of songs,  provided we can push them all into that sub-conscious memory.

Watch some mid-Eastern traders switching easily from one language to another to do their business and you will understand.

The brain is a house with many rooms. When you move from one language to another it is like moving from one room to another, taking care to close the door behind you.

True, I sometimes have a problem closing the door when I switch from Chinese to Japanese.

The fact of learning Chinese when I was younger (22) – and maybe because grammatically it is closer to English – has embedded it more deeply in my sub-conscious than Japanese, even though I have been speaking Japanese for many years.

So when I return to Japanese after speaking Chinese the mind can go into semi-seizure for a few seconds as I try to sort out what language I am speaking

But that is all.

The other surprise when speaking Chinese is the ease with which words and expressions learned as long as 40 years ago, together with correct tonal  pronunciations, all jump out of my sub-conscious naturally as if I had been using them just yesterday – yet another proof of the power of that sub-conscious memory.

But then again, if you learned Jack and Jill in your childhood and I asked you to sing it now I guess most would be able to do so almost without thinking.

A language is like a set of those nursery room songs, long and complicated, but not impossible to remember if you go about it the right way.

7. Reading Japanese – ‘Listen’ to what you read.

As already mentioned, when I set out to do my post-graduate research on Japan both I and my mentors assumed my knowledge of Chinese would make it fairly easy for me to read research materials in Japanese.

We were both wrong. Like the spoken language, the written Japanese language also has the Devil’s fingerprints all over it.

It is a major obstacle preventing progress in learning the language.

Reading Difficulties

By now the reader should understand my difficulties when I set out blithely, back in 1965, to rely on texts for my doctorate research into Japanese overseas investments.

I still did not have the listening ability needed to decode the script. 

I could pick out the kanji in the texts, but could not relate them to the kana scattered before and after.

True, particles can often tell you where a ‘word’ begins and ends in the jumble of script before you.

Then with the help of a Japanese dictionary, you can try to discover the meaning of each of those separated-out words and particles.

But even after you have checked a dictionary and worked out the meaning of all the words, you still have to battle the back-to-front grammar and try to string those words together into some kind of meaning.

You feel as if you are juggling a bunch of words and particles and hope by accident they will all come together.

For me, just reading two or three pages of text would take the best part of an hour.

Reading by Listening

But once I got to know the spoken language everything changed.

That ugly and messed up collection of scribble and pictures in front of me (both kanji and kana) could automatically be turned into sound.

The meaning of the sentence would then emerge as quickly and as naturally as if I was listening to someone saying the same thing to me.

That is why I realised that my first priority on arriving in Japan would be to master the spoken language.

Which I did eventually, but only after the best part to two years of concentrated listening, mainly to radio programs with subtitles.

(Without subtitles I would be in trouble, unless the speaking was unusually slow.)

Only then could I begin the still painful business of reading the Japanese documents I needed for my study and research….

Explaining all these problems to my mentors back in Canberra was not easy.

In fact, I think they still do not understand, judging from the way they still send people without Japanese to Japan for serious research, and then assume that the mere fact these people have spent a year or so in Japan means they are able easily to handle readings in academic Japanese.