On Delayed Language Acquisition

JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:

> Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.

> I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.

> Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.

Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!

The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.

No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.

For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?

Pork Chops Are Marinating

Mmmm, nuance. (photo by Merelymel13)

The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.

To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. This is interesting. I have noticed once in a while that I’ll learn a new grammar point or phrase but can’t seem to put it into words in everyday life. Then suddenly one day it just pops out of my mouth without any conscious effort behind it.

    It also reminds me of physical training, such as getting in shape for a marathon. You don’t see the benefits of a 20 mile training run until weeks after you actually do it, but even then only if you’ve stuck with it during those few weeks and haven’t slacked off.

  2. Fabulous! This is documented by Second Language Acquisition research. I have read similar things by Stephen Krashen, for example, and by language teachers who allow students this ‘silent period’ as they acquire new language.

    For my own experience, I have improved more at Chinese when I relaxed about what I was doing to learn. Rather than push myself to produce language that I didn’t find natural to use, I made sure to hear and read Chinese with a little challenge to it, and mainly focus my attention on understanding and enjoying it. (Reading the Bible and recently, The Hobbit, work great for me.) I mostly notice improvement when Chinese friends read my writing after a gap of some months.

  3. This observation also indicates the S model of learning and retention. The S in this case symbolizes how a student makes progress. The flat parts of the S are periods of slow progress where the progress made is very difficult to measure or observe. In fact, it seems like a period where a student plateaus. However, on the flip side, the sharper curve of the S indicates a period of intense progress and a sudden increase in level, which is both obvious to the learner and to those who observe the learner.

  4. This is an interesting post. I think the marinating meat is an interesting illustrating.

    One thing is for sure. Learning a language takes time. Without reliving the past, although things like Benny and his “3 months” to fluency make good buzz and chatter through the community… it does little to address the core issue… time + effort = progress.

    All too often it seems everyone is too focused on “fast” vs. “slow and steady”. Lets not forget our bed time stories, who won that race? The hare or the turtle?

    Language is so that way… although I’m but a “newbie” in comparison to others, in the last 5 years I spent learning Chinese, so many have come and gone. Some honestly, in the first year or so had way better Chinese than me. They would study like a mad man, daily for hours on end, and then… well, all too many times the “thrill” wears off, and the long term commitment isn’t there. Therefore after 3 years, 5 years or longer, they aren’t even studying Chinese any more, and have totally given up the race to true “fluency” or “competency” with the language.

    Good things take time. Especially learning Chinese.

    So, as the above post reveals, often we do need time to digest, process, and assimilate the new things we learn. The key, the goal… is simply to stick around long enough that as the “delayed learning” happens, we get the joy associated with the effort we put forth. This would be like investing money and then never going back to collect the interest it earned.

    Bottom time, don’t give up too soon. Even if you do some “immersion” experience so as to give yourself a boost in your language ability, don’t be depressed if immediately afterward or in the short term your progress isn’t as noticeable as you had hoped.

    Just stay with it, keep putting in the time and effort… and progressive will come.

  5. I’ve found this to be very true, I’ve stopped actively studying Chinese for about a year now and I still find myself blurting out words, sentences and phrases I had no idea I knew let alone knew how to use. Those moments are rare and satisfying, it’s like getting something for doing nothing at all. But that’s of course not true, I was listening.

  6. David Lloyd-Jones Says: January 16, 2014 at 1:22 am


    Just a general thank-you-ish sort of post. I’m at last buckling down to Chinese. I used to manufacture bicycles in Taipei for the Japanese market — but for that you only need a bank reference, so the guys know they’re going to get paid. After that it’s all in English and pointing at parts and plans.

    This time I’m aiming for university in China, so it’s for real. I’m about HSK 2.5 or so, and need to be a deep nd solid 4++, so, down to work.

    Anyway I’m “advanced” enough that I’m starting to worry seriously about my accent, while continuing to worry about my mere pronunciation, and googling round I ran across your good pronunciation pages.

    A pleasure to run into somebody who writes sense!

    Thank you.


  7. Lantian Says: July 7, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Nuance – it’s so sparkly, detailed, and superlative inside my own head. What comes out of my mouth, that’s another thing! Over the last few years, several long-time friends after prolonged gaps in not seeing me, say my Chinese has gotten better. It’s always hard to tell whether this is a real observation or just encouragement, but I do think I’m probably more nuanced now in how I say some things in Chinese. It’s hard for me to tell on my own, because the original idea has always been perfectly nuanced in my meta-language, but probably used to come out of my mouth like (1) I go home 我回家, versus now, where it sounds more like (2) I’m tired, I’m going home now. 我累了,我先回家。

  8. JimmyJones Says: July 22, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Hi I read the above post with great interest. I started studying Chinese at evening class in the UK but only covered the absolute basics. I decided to take the plunge and for the past 5 months have been studying at a 1 to 1 school in Harbin. I have tried to follow an input based approach with my teachers using our time together to have basic conversations and for them to talk to me about different subjects. I have tried to keep the grammar study to a minimum (only when I am very confused) and try and do as much as reading as possible.

    I have found this approach helpful but I have noticed my listening ability now exceeds my spoken Chinese by a fair way. During conversation I can understand nearly all of what my teachers are talking about (still at a pretty basic level) but I find if I have to repeat back the sentence I cannot form it in my head correctly. I know the words but I just cant put them together myself. I wondered if anyone has had a similar experience? Is this natural as I have only been studying for 5 months? Should I be more patient and eventually the speaking will come out or are there are any steps I can take to try and encourage my speaking to get to the same level as my listening?

    Any help most appreciated!

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