Mastery is Mastering the Basics

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Intermediate Angst
This entry is part 2 of 13 in the series Secrets of Speaking

zung1 gwok3 jan4 ge3 sing3 hai6 fong3 hai2 cin4 min6 ge3
Chinese names go surname first.
Source: CantoDict

There it is ↑ . The most important sentence in the entire Cantonese language…slash…dialect.

But why? It’s so simpo! It’s so basic!

Yes. It is.

And that’s exactly the point. This sentence is:

  1. Simple
  2. Basic
  3. (Surprisingly) quite reusable, and
  4. Almost impossible to circumlocute succinctly and unambiguously

“Nonnative speakers usually don’t have a good sense of which kinds of words or phrases are the most useful or common. As a result, they (unintentionally) learn lots of uncommon words and never get around to learning basic words.” ~ Robert Nagle

If you’ve ever tried to speak a “remedial native language1, after a certain intermediate point, you’ll find that it’s not the big things that trip you up. It’s the little things. It’s the small stuff. Prepositions. Tiny verbs for physical actions. Relative descriptions, demonstrative pronouns. You’ll find that you can read the newspaper, but you can’t explain how to tie your shoelaces or play ultimate frisbee or tag or hide-and-seek.

“But Khatzumoto,” you protest, “I’m not a pedophile; I don’t need to know how to play children’s playground games; this GPS ankle bracelet was just for a minor drug violation”.

It’s OK. I believe you. But…how do I put this:

  • Your ability to explain new and/or complex ideas well, is predicated upon your ability to express simple ideas: Ironically, the newer or more complex an idea, the more it requires reference to simple, childlike, playground metaphors.
  • A lot of the conversations we have in ordinary daily life (like asking which train route would be the best to take given certain conditions (price, time, occupancy etc.), or telling a funny story about a recent incident) can:
    • be very complex structurally — nested referencing, multiple simultaneous actors, shifting of narrative perspective (external situation, inner monologue), and
    • require the use of uncircumlocutable words — words that do not readily lend themselves to tidy circumlocution.

“Japanese people have no clue what is difficult for English speakers. Really, with just a lot of book study, I think anyone can learn grammatically correct Japanese by memorizing sentence patterns from textbooks. ‘Pub talking’ in a natural way — that’s the hard part.” ~ Cathryn Mataga

As long as you know the vocabulary, reading an academic paper, newspaper or physics textbook is actually really easy. Person and tense rarely change; most of the sentences are straightforward and declarative “X said Y”, “Q is R”, “A because B”; they are written from a single perspective (“impartial observer”) from which they almost never shift; variables are deliberately limited.

I submit to you that, unless you actively intervene and actively learn “simple” words, you’ll find yourself able to discuss anesthetic with your dentist (and its effect on your duodenum) before you can explain what that drunk guy was doing on the other side of the train.

Don’t assume you know it because it’s simple. Don’t assume you’ll have access to it because you know the individual words. It’s not just the combinations — it’s the permutations as well. Memorize that noise. Memorize those permutations. Memorize those strings. Use MCDs or some other high-redundancy method. Get them firmly into your head — into your active memory. Make them second nature.

Love the small stuff. Learn the small stuff. Mastery isn’t doing the big things well. Even monkeys fall from trees; even masters trip up on the big things. Mastery is doing the little things, the small things, the “easy” things — effortlessly, automatically, “perfectly”. Mastery is mastering the basics.

““One day I was trying to tell him this is how you button your shirt,” he said, switching into Cantonese. “But then I couldn’t say it in English, so I had to ring up a friend and ask.”” ~ A Chinese speaker

Series Navigation<< Speaking: You Don’t Have A Linguistic Problem, You Have A Humanity Problem — Why You Still Suck At Speaking and How to Fix it FastLanguage Is Peeing: The Approximately Top Ten Reasons Why Language Acquisition = Micturition >>
Series Navigation<< How To Speak Like A NativeWhere Not To Learn Japanese From >>


  1. (that’s what I call “foreign” languages…hehe)

  26 comments for “Mastery is Mastering the Basics

  1. Sebastian
    February 12, 2011 at 22:37


  2. Sergiu
    February 13, 2011 at 02:24

    Ok, how DO you button your shirt? My native language is not English so here goes:
    You take both of your hands, make sure they are now at button level, so to speak, then proceed to grab one button while holding the hole of the shirt, which hand does which depends on the position of the buttons. Next, you slide the button through the hole until it stands firmly tight. After you are done with one button, you have to go and do the same thing until there are no more buttons to be buttoned. If you say button enough times you start to think it’s actually the word butt spoken in a Southern accent, something on the lines of you’ve got something up your butt’n. How did I do?

    • Shea
      February 13, 2011 at 07:54

      You did great, honestly! There were a few things that seemed a bit “unnatural” but I still understood exactly what you meant. Such as “..until it stands firmly tight.” I know what you mean, but even I as a native speaker can’t really explain how it’s unnatural, it just seems so. It could be stated in many different forms I think, so no certain phrase is correct/incorrect.

      Also, being from the American South I like that little quip you put in there ;)

      By the way, which language is your native language?

    • Kate
      February 13, 2011 at 09:57

      You did wonderfully! Some of your phrases came off a bit weird, but that’s not because they are wrong, but more because it just isn’t usually how people (or at least Americans, I can’t speak for other regions) say things. And the fact that you already have a strong enough grasp on accents to make jokes about them? Phenomenal!

      • Sergiu
        February 14, 2011 at 14:46

        @shea, my native language is Romanian. I thought that sounded wrong too.
        @Kate, thanks, right now my focus is on Swedish, can’t wait to make jokes about that language!

        • Drabant
          February 15, 2011 at 00:53

          Not sure I would bother trying to explain how to button a shirt, not even in Swedish, which is my native language. Just stick the buttons through the holes?

          By the way, I didn’t understand what duodenum meant, so I followed the link, and the kanji explained it to me.

          • Sergiu
            March 9, 2011 at 02:40

            jag har försökt förklara i alla fall.

  3. February 13, 2011 at 06:44

    While we’re on the topic of Cantonese, Surusu doesn’t recognize some Canto characters. I put 冚𠾴唥 in it yesterday (“ham baang laang”), and everything disappeared except the 冚. Weird.

    • khatzumoto
      February 13, 2011 at 07:09

      That’s not Surusu being evil…it’s Google Chrome. (I think)
      What browser are you using?

      • February 14, 2011 at 03:34

        Firefox, whichever version is the latest. Don’t worry about it, though, I’ve got that word memorized.

        • February 21, 2011 at 03:23

          While we’re at it, 𦧲飯應 (loe1 faan6 jing3) also disappears in Surusu. It probably can’t deal with very rare characters.

  4. Patrick
    February 13, 2011 at 10:08

    This made me realize how I’ve been doing this with some things. For example I play piano and learn really hard songs, but I never really learned basics like scales and such. Thanks for this.

  5. hermanblue
    February 13, 2011 at 10:26

    Khats, you just once again neiled it in the head. Such a shame most “academic language learners” seldom realize how lame they seem when they go towards those trivial simple things with the text-book big words.

  6. February 13, 2011 at 11:06

    I’ve been doing only immersion for a few months and I started with videos on how to use the toilet, simple children’s songs, brushing your teeth etc. All stuff aimed at little kids in Japan, I’ve noticed that this stuff shows up a lot in other media, especially the children’s songs seem to be a small number of select famous songs everyone in Japan knows.

    I also noticed that a lot of phrases children use are used by everyone, only not as much (despite hearing that if you learn from children you’ll sound weird and people will laugh at you). Japanese people grew up speaking like that then learned more complex patterns, but they are based on and built upon all the language they used as children. Of course this is different from generation to generation, but I think learning from the ground up building a foundation on simple stuff will definitely help you master the language in the long run. All this by the way was inspired by something khatz said last year about how most learners don’t master the basics and how they were important (thanks khatz!).

    Had a conversation with someone saying that they didn’t like graded readers (for Japanese children) because they contain little to no kanji and therefor it’s hard to know what the words are, so they preferred more adult (or as they put it Authentic Japanese material lol). I remarked that how silly it was to try to read something for adults if you can’t understand something for a 2nd grader. Children learn to understand first by mastering the basics, we forget that and skip them thinking that if we get the complex stuff we’ll be ok, will we?

    sorry for the long comment ;)

  7. salem
    February 13, 2011 at 11:17

    Hmm, I don’t think it’s Chrome… at first I figured it was a Unicode problem (setting Unicode to work flawlessly on any web page is essentially impossible due to the thousands of different client-side protocols) but even on CantoDict it shows the same error.

  8. Eastwood
    February 14, 2011 at 11:21

    Mkay, so, bearing this in mind (I think I know the answer but I’ll ask anyway…), can you recommend any good sources for this kind of Japanese for new sentence rep material? :) If not, then don’t dignify this with a response, I guess.

  9. February 14, 2011 at 13:48

    Great post. Just came across your site and am impressed and excited to keep coming back (and read back). In thinking about how to access the basics, it seems the best and only place to start is with your life. If we can base our learning in our daily, going about our business life, the simple stuff will necessarily be there. And then doing things like the example that Sergiu gave above about buttoning his shirt can really give us an opportunity to work the simple stuff out. Anyway, love the post and am excited to keep getting back to the basics as I learn Turkish.

  10. Rob
    February 14, 2011 at 16:37

    This is very true. I lived in Thailand for a few years previously, but while there I never actively studied the Thai language. By actively I mean I never sat down with learning materials, made flash cards, listened to mp3s, or anything that would be in line with “normal” language learning.

    All I did was carry a tiny dictionary in my pocket, paid attention when people spoke, and tried to always speak Thai even if I fumbled through the words in the beginning.

    Flash forward to now after years of active Japanese study. Even though my Japanese vocabulary probably triples my Thai, it still can’t come anywhere close to my Thai in terms of having regular everyday conversations.

    I was totally clueless as to why it was effective when I was in Thailand, but now I realize it was because I unknowingly forced myself to focus in on only what I heard face to face and what I wanted to say in everyday life. I never cared to watch the news or read the newspaper at that time (later on I learned to read), and I think that was a very good thing. I only did the basics over and over and nothing more.

    I was so clueless that when I started Japanese I did the exact opposite for the most part. I only got adult-level reading material, listened to a lot of news and adult targeted shows. I scoffed at anything “basic” thinking that would only slow me down in getting to my goal of native fluency. How wrong was I…..

  11. triplej
    February 15, 2011 at 00:42

    It’s true. Also, it’s this kind of stuff that gets the biggest response from native speakers.

    I think I went through three phases (so far) with my Japanese, the first phase was crappy, but got loads of praise from native speakers. The second I was at a higher level but often got salty looks from people, like as if I was close to expressing stuff but actually everything was wrong. The third was at a higher level and I got more praise from Japanese people again, but at this third phase I was always like “why is that impressive? All I told you was where I met this one dude.”

    And when you think of it, it’s the people who can do “pub talk” or just gossip, rather than the people who can describe some international crisis that really seem natural. I mean who talks like a newspaper anyway? A-holes thats who.

  12. Jamison
    March 4, 2011 at 00:14

    Thanks for this article. It was like a pat on the back for what I’m doing now.

  13. Drack
    July 10, 2011 at 08:35

    Interesting anecdotes, Rob and triplej.

    I’ve been playing the Japanese version of Monster Hunter 3 (an online game with chat capabilities) and have been enjoying chatting more than playing the actual game… but anyway, the responses I’ve been getting from the 日本人 are typically nothing short of admiration with “上手!” at every turn … but I don’t feel like I’ve been doing anything impressive. Kanji in particular they find astonishing that I can understand, where in reality that’s one of the easiest parts of the language. None of this happens if I don’t introduce myself as an American, as they just assume I’m another Japanese. I don’t consider myself fluent yet though, even though they keep telling me I’d be fine if I moved to Japan today.

    The important thing is that I’m in direct conversations with people, which I can’t ignore. Nothing bad happens if I put down a textbook or passively ignore a podcast. When I HAVE to respond to chat aimed at me to communicate, that’s great incentive to pay attention and learn.

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