How To Recognize Word Patterns In A Foreign Language

Pattern recognition

Have you ever thought about what's actually going on in your mind when you listen to someone talking? If so, you may have already noticed that your brain is guessing at the words to come next before you even hear them!

It works with reading too. If I write "six of one", I can guarantee that the majority of you are already thinking "half a dozen of the other." And if I write "when it rains" you're already thinking "it pours."


This is pattern recognition, and it's a product of great amounts of exposure to language. It's the reason people laugh when you say "Get to the chopper!" in a bad German accent, and it's the reason games shows like Super Password were able to be so popular for so long.

In many ways, our brains are nothing more than elaborate pattern matching machines, evolved to recognize faces, landmarks, predators, smells, food sources. And it is thanks to this elaborate pattern-matching that we remember funny movie lines, or famous song lyrics, or catchy advertisements, or sports slogans.

Naturally, these patterns grow stronger with exposure. It's hard to get the birthday song out of your head after you hum a few bars. If I ask "who let the dogs out," it's almost impossible for you not to think of that song.

This is vital to fluency

Pattern matching is the very essence of fluency. You can learn all the grammar and pronunciation, and memorize every single known word in a language, and still not be fluent. Sure, you'd be able to slowly, and correctly, work out the way to say anything you wanted, and interpret anything you heard or read. But it would be too slow to be useful.

I'll bet a number of you are reading this right now and thinking, "yeah, that sounds like where I'm at." You're not alone. As I write this right now, that's how I feel about Italian. I know a lot, but I'm not fluent.

The key to fluency is giving your brain enough source material to build those patterns. And that means using the language. A lot. And from as many diverse sources as possible.

The importance of immersion

Conversations are a great way to do this, because you will get a lot of data from the other person's side of the conversation. Especially slang. But conversations can be a very frustrating way to pick up vocabulary, because it's hard to learn while also trying participate and respond.

It is for this reason that I believe so strongly in listening to lots of music in your target language: often enough that key phrases become burned into your brain.

Watch lots of movies, and when you find one you like, watch it two or three times. Let those key lines etch themselves into your vocabulary.

Read as much as possible. Books are fine. Blogs are better. The news is also very good. The more you see a group of words formed into a particular phrase, the more likely you are to remember that phrase.

If you want to get to fluency, you need to fill your head with strings of thoughts and phrases that come out together by nature, idioms and expressions and common ideas that come out instictively, rather than by deduction and grammatical construction. And that means spending lots of time gathering data and letting your brain do what it does best. The more time you spend doing it, the faster you'll reach fluency.

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  • When I was first learning French 20 years ago, I saw 'A bout de souffle'. I liked it so much that I have seen it about 10 times. The amount I learned from just that one film is unbelievable and the watching it over and over helped a lot.

  • I'm totally in agreement with you!
    The keys to my language study are precisely:
    1) read a lot (and read aloud!), starting with the simplest material
    2) listen a lot and what you like! This is the reason why you'll be better find your preferred music in the language you're studing
    3) try to think some simple sentences (to write them or also only to think them)

  • Yes I think a lot about what is going on in my mind.... maybe too much sometimes. I will be doing a number of posts myself about this area.I have to agree with the patterns, another example of patterns is "pepper and salt, butter and bread" etc, whilst it is not actually wrong to say these things it sounds wrong to a native speaker, ruins their pattern matching and causes them to think briefly about what you said leaving them with a vague impression that your speaking is awkward (if you had said "salt and pepper" or "bread and butter" then no problem).Diversity is a problem, related to the problem is that you have to be able to understand and recognize many more patterns than you need to output. I don't need to be able to talk like a 60yr old Beijinger but if I want to talk to one smoothly I need to recognize the patterns, I can however use more standard patterns when I talk to him (he should be used to them).Assuming that you really could not stomach the music (or rather the type of music that had meaningful lyrics). Wouldn't listening to conversations or stories in the target language serve a similar purpose even during those times when you might listen to music (just about anytime). Perhaps it is personal thing, I remember when I was studying there was a clear divide between those that found it helpful to listen to music or radio when revising and those that found it distracting and unhelpful.

  • Just re-read your Use music to learn a new language post.It seems I do exactly the same thing but with conversations and stories (amongst other things). it takes a little getting used to but it is highly effective (imho). I would think that conversations and stories streaming in would be more useful in those moments when you could pay more attention but more difficult to cope with when paying less attention (you need strong control over your concentration).I have tried one variation that I discovered Khaz (AJATT) has also used, I took some low bassey music with no lyrics (digital laptop reggae works great for this) and ran the conversation or radio chat shows over the top. you just filter out whichever is appropriate at the time depending what you are doing. It does require too much effort to put the tracks together usually though.I do know for sure though that I have vocab and some patterns in Thai now that I have no conscious recollection of having "learned" have used them successfully in the Thai restaurant also :)

  • That's the kind of recommendation that get a film moved to the top of my "to see" list!

  • The missing detail is "repeat".1) Read a lot.
    2) Write a lot, using what you've read.
    3) Listen a lot.
    4) Speak a lot, using what you've heard.You have to use the language for it to stick.

  • Excellent examples!And more interesting, those are patterns with penalties for incorrectness, but with no rewards for correctness. What I mean by that is, with most expressions, the phrase is worth more than the sum of its parts... you express additional feelings or connotations by using the idiom or expression. But with "salt and pepper", there is no additional information conveyed... yet saying it wrong has a stiff penalty to the conversation.Wow, my mind is running with this!I'm getting the impression, based on your last paragraph, that I place music above conversations. I don't. Conversations are perhaps the beset place to learn these things, but the problem with learning from conversations is that it's hard to do while you're involved in the conversation, because your attention is no listening and responding, not on learning word order or grammar or expressions.So, listening to conversations sounds like a pretty good solution to that. The key to that, though, is don't listen to the same conversation over and over. You need a lot of conversations, involving a lot of different people, so you can pick up a broad sample of how the language is used. (For example, imagine if someone learned English by listening to Paris Hilton conversations.) Without a broad sampling, you're likely to pick up an annoying personality in addition to language!

  • It's a pretty interesting idea. My initial impression is that if you're going to the work of adding a music track, this is probably something you're listening to over and over... and every time you listen to the same conversation, it's a missed opportunity to listen to a new one. But, I'm going to have to refrain from further comment until I try it.Stories is a good additional detail that I've somehow forgotten to include in this post. I do like to listen to spoken stories, because it's like the advantages of reading stacked with the advantages of listening.

  • Yes! you took my example and extended it (now I have stuff to think about!).

  • actually that is the problem, occasionally I do it but it takes quite some effort, perhaps one day I will think of way to automate it somewhat rather than just doing it manually in Audacity. I have acheived a similar effect occaisionally at work though just by running two music player instances simultaneously on my PC.

  • For conversations, I just listen to news or opinion shows. Saves the work of creating things.

  • Or perhaps the worst offender in English: "one".
    I can't have "a one", but I can have "this one".
    "Another one" can be yours, but it can't be "your one".
    "Anyone" is a completely "different one" than "these ones".
    You can really only ever get that by assimilating the patterns, because there's seemingly no logic to it at all!

  • Absolutely agreed, couldn't have said it better. You were talking about patterns and I was thinking "Music!! Mention music, this is why it works so well to help you learn foreign languages!" and sure enough, that's the next section that popped up!I also agree with you on how important actually speaking to native speakers is, it's why I'm such a champion of those language exchange sites, they really are a life-saver when it comes time to actually start conversing with natives.Cheers,

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