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What the Art of Juggling can teach us about How to Learn Chinese

Today I learned to juggle. Not well but enough to keep three balls up in the air for a moment or two. Maybe two moments is pushing it. I’m still very much learning and expect to be doing so for some time!

What has this got to do with learning a language and in particular with how to learn Chinese? Quite a lot apparently.

I’m going to borrow heavily from the excellent Lessons from the Art of Juggling by Michael J. Gelb and Tony Buzan as this book introduced me to the juggling as learning metaphor. Definitely pick up a copy if you want a great book about the process of learning or you want to learn to juggle. If both then this book is a (strangely specific) must-have!

What the Art of Juggling can teach us about How to Learn Chinese

The excellent (and unfortunately hard to find) Lessons from the Art of Juggling

A primer on how to juggle

The basic instruction for learning to juggle is “Take these three balls, throw them up in the air and don’t let any of them drop!”

Technically these instructions are correct but they aren’t very helpful for a beginner.

A more progressive method to learn is the following:

-Get into the right position and relax
1 ball
– Throw a single ball up in an arc and let it drop
– Throw a single ball up in an arc and let it fall into the other hand
– Repeat this with one ball until it’s entirely natural
2 balls, one in each hand to start
– Throw two balls, dropping both balls
– Throw two balls, allowing one to be caught
– Throw two balls, allowing two to be caught
– Repeat until comfortable
3 balls, two in one hand, one in the other
-Throw and drop all three balls
-Throw three balls, allow one to be caught
-Throw three balls, allow two to be caught
-Throw three balls, allow three to be caught
– Celebrate- you just juggled. Now repeat pattern with more throws.

What can juggling can teach us about how to learn Chinese?

There are a couple of facets I want to highlight and show how they shed light on how we learn languages. I’ll be using Chinese as the example language here but these ideas are applicable to any language and indeed any skill.

1. Incremental progression
2. Getting feedback
3. Relaxation and focus

1. Incremental progression

If we followed the instruction “Take these three balls, throw them up in the air and don’t let any of them drop” learning to juggle is going to be much harder than if we follow a set of incremental instructions like the list I outlined above.

It’s still possible to push through and learn based on such limited guidance but without supreme levels of willpower or a very strong motivation the normal reaction would be to give up. And the most important thing is to never give up.

What the Art of Juggling can teach us about How to Learn Chinese

Winston Churchill on grit and determination – He probably wasn’t exactly talking about juggling or learning Chinese…

Unfortunately traditional Chinese teaching can be of the “don’t let any of them drop” variety. Pick up any popular textbook and you’ll be introduced to pinyin romanization, the tones and most likely Chinese characters in the first chapter.

So that’s i) a completely new set of sounds to master ii) tones to alter their meaning overlaying these new sounds and iii) crazy looking scribbles to write these sounds. Yikes!

Unless you have an awesome teacher who moves away from the textbook or at least introduces the material in a more gradual and sensible manner you are going to have rough couple of weeks when starting out with Chinese (or any foreign language).

In Chinese the three balls are: pronunciation, tones and characters. In other languages these will be different. In fact we can look at any multi-part skill and work out what the core foundational steps are and the best way to tackle them.

I always recommend people to get a firm grasp on each of these  in turn. First learning the basics on Chinese pinyin and pronunciation and then overlaying the tones is one way to ensure incrementality. I agree that pinyin and tones need to be combined ASAP but it only makes sense to overlay the tones when the student has a basic grasp of pronunciation – otherwise there’s too much to juggle and progress is frustrating.

This is the concept on which I designed the Sensible Pinyin course – quickly teach a basic foundation in pronunciation before complicating the picture with tones. It’s a free course hosted on this blog and worth checking out if you are still in the early stages of learning Chinese.

Only after getting a good grasp of spoken Chinese and being able to communicate to a certain degree should you really get stuck into the characters. Learning the characters requires a lot of isolated self study time and this is time spent not talking in Chinese.

The more time you spend not using and enjoying the language the more opportunities there are for getting disheartened and giving up. By learning to communicate first you’ll make Chinese friends and begin to enjoy the language enough to get through the process that is learning the characters. And don’t worry – you’ll have plenty of time studying characters later!

The three balls to juggle in Chinese are pronunciation, tones and characters. Learn to juggle incrementally – you can only juggle two balls once you’ve learned to juggle one. You can only juggle three balls once you’ve learned to juggle two. 

2. Getting feedback

After a couple of hours hurling balls around the living room I was able to keep three balls up in the air for a couple of tosses at least. On the 4th throw I’d always drop a ball and everything would collapse.

Fortunately, I have a friend who can juggle who I could call on. Not just a friend who can juggle but a friend who can juggle knives and various other dangerous objects. The kind of juggler who would make me embarrassed to refer to myself as a juggler!

I explained my problem and sent a video of me botching the throw. He could tell instantly that I was throwing too far from my body with the left hand and therefore having to reach with my right to make the catch – instead I should have been aiming the left hand toss so that it would effortlessly land where my right hand was waiting.

More than simply telling me what the problem was my friend told me how to fix it: go back to practicing one handed juggling using the left hand. The problem was that I hadn’t got this foundational skill mastered before moving onto two and three balls. If you like, I’d jumped from pronunciation and tones up to characters too fast and was still messing up pronunciation.

Knowing this my juggling friend sent me all the way back to the beginning to fix up that left hand toss until it became natural. The result? I was able to break through the problem area and increase my record.

In language learning we too often hole ourselves up and focusing on “studying” the language. This might be doing textbook exercises, reading about grammar or playing some language learning game on our phone. The problem with this sort of study is that we rarely get feedback. Even when we do (from the answer key or the game telling us we are wrong) it’s very easy to ignore this feedback – there’s very little consequence.

If we really want to learn a language we need to put ourselves in situations where we can fail and get expert feedback on our mistakes. The best way to do this? Talking to a native speaker. As someone who doesn’t speak the foreign language we are unable to give ourselves feedback. We need someone outside of us to observe and provide corrections.

I could have kept trying to catch that 4th ball and eventually I may have succeeded. Alternatively I may have got so frustrated that I chucked the juggling balls off my balcony. By instead swallowing my pride and sending a video to someone who can juggle for their advice I was able to diagnose and fix the problem in minutes.

A native speaker is the equivalent to a knife-juggler. They intuitively know what they are doing and can help you fix your problems fast.

3. Relaxation and focus

The more I dropped the balls the more frustrated and tense I got. I started worrying about my neighbour downstairs and the noise I was making. I started thinking I should be working instead of spending the afternoon learning to  juggle. All of this tension started to change how I stood, making my shoulders rise towards my ears and my neck tense up. A couple of times I caught myself not breathing.

Did this help my juggling? Not in the slightest. And it almost caused more than a little harm to a nearby flower vase.

One method recommended to relieve tension whilst juggling is just to let the balls fall. It’s surprisingly cathartic – let them arc up and… hit the ground. Thump, thump, thump! (Sorry downstairs neighbour!).

Not having to catch the balls relieves so much tension. So what if they fall? Big deal. Just pick them up and try again. Feeling tense again? Let the balls hit the floor, take a breathe and try again. No big deal.

In language learning we get paralyzed by making mistakes. What if I’m not understood? What if I get the tones wrong? What’s the verb for “to drive” again? Is this the right sentence structure? I can’t possibly make mistakes in front of a native speaker – I’d die of embarrassment! I’d better study a few more years before trying to talk to human being in a foreign language!

Next time you start having these kind of thoughts whilst using a foreign language take a moment to reflect on how your body is reacting. Tense shoulders? Jaw clenched? Out of breath? Take a moment to relax. If you make a mistake guess what? It doesn’t matter. You can get corrected on that mistake and learn. The main thing is you keep speaking. In fact if you don’t make a mistake then you can’t receive feedback and you cannot learn!

Throw the balls up in the air and let them come crashing down. Make a massive language mistake and laugh about it with your foreign speaking partner. Have fun and relax a little bit. If you don’t you’ll only end up breaking the flower vase…