Understanding the Study Curve of Second Language Learning

I want to share my observations and perspectives on how to identify the stage of your second language learning. My observations are currently based on Chinese students studying English. I am also excited to receive constructive feedback from you after you finish this book, in order to improve my understanding of teaching Chinese as a second language and my bilingual system so that more and more English-speaking people can benefit from it.

I believe that a person’s language-learning capacity is stable until it expands to another level. Let’s say that before I studied English, my Chinese capacity was at 100% with 0% of English capacity. We call this the initial stage of second language learning capacity.

As I started learning a second language, my original learning capacity stayed the same before it underwent a quality change. My English learning capacity occupied some part of my Chinese learning capacity, and my total capacity was still the same. The reverse relation indicates an increasing English capacity with a decreasing Chinese capacity. We call this the honeymoon stage of language learning capacity. Remember that the "honeymoon stage" is referred to my second language, English learning, rather than my first language, Chinese learning. But for you, it is the opposite because Chinese is your second language learning. 

When my total learning capacity reaches a point where my first language no longer shrinks, my old language learning capacity has to be broken and rebuilt. Therefore, the only way to enlarge my learning capacity in my second language (English) is to enlarge my original learning capacity. For example, let’s say that my total capacity is 1 with 100% Chinese. And let’s assume that the ratio needed to break my original capacity is when my Chinese capacity is 60% and English capacity is 40%. The only way to enlarge my English capacity is not through continuing shrinking my Chinese capacity, but through enlarging the total pie from 1 to 1.2 (an assumed number) so that my new Chinese capacity is 72% and my new English capacity is 48%. It will continue growing until it reaches another breaking point, and we call this the growing stage of second language learning capacity.

The same philosophy also applies in the business world, if one only thinks of competing resources and markets continually without expanding the "original pie" which we call self-centered business model, eventually everyone inside the market shall reach at a point of little growth even to no growth. But if people start growing more opportunities for the current market to expand the pie, everyone shall benefit from the entire growth and we call this others-oriented business model. There is a Chinese proverb saying that there are no undamaged eggs after the whole nest collapsed.

For a long time, I felt like my Chinese was worse than most Chinese-speaking people, and my English was definitely worse than most English-speaking people after I started intensively studying English as my second language. As I got more and more excited about gaining another language, it seemed that the opportunity cost was losing my own language. That was when my “initial stage” had been gradually moving toward the “honeymoon stage.” In order to study another language, we have to temporarily give up our own language by incorporating a new thinking pattern in our brain, which takes the form of grammar in our new language. In other words, if we do not choose to give up our own language during the initial stage, we would not be able to reach the honeymoon stage. That is probably what hinders most people in their second language learning. Overcoming this bottleneck brings hope for the next phase, which is accomplished by stepping out of the comfort zone of your first language and jumping into the promised land of your second language. With that being said, whenever you see an English commercial, translate it into Chinese; whenever you learn a new argument, try to add a Chinese thinking pattern to that argument; whenever you see a familiar word, find its Chinese meaning using your dictionary app.

As we reach the end of our “honeymoon stage,” we will be confronted by what we call “the next bottleneck.” That means we need to start inputting both English and Chinese materials to welcome the quality change. The absence of either language would cause us to be paralyzed. During that stage of my own learning, I found myself dreaming in English. My translation of Chinese into English happened so fast that I did not even realize it was happening. From the initial stage to the honeymoon stage, I made sure that my control of the linguistic foundation was firm, and then I started enhancing my English vocabulary. Later, I started reading college-level books in English, pretending I was a normal American student. At the same time, I devoted myself to ancient Chinese classical readings, challenging myself to translate between English and Chinese frequently and making sure that both my English and Chinese could grow together and become “one language.”

As my language learning capacity continues to grow, I believe I need to attentively set goals to break the original circle, and each stage should have a different strategy and focus. So, where are you right now?

Note: The above post is extracted from Shuang's book Self-study Chinese. Please do not use this post for commercial purposes. You are welcome to use it for academic and personal purposes.