Do you ever go blank when someone speaks to you in a foreign language?

This is hardly surprising among newcomers or tourists interacting with locals. But what if you have studied that language — for years even — and no words come to mind when the native speaker stands waiting for your response? Nothing. It can make you question all the effort and progress you’ve made in learning the language up to this alarming “nothing” moment.

What if I told you that the blanking and second-guessing scenarios are both natural and normal … possibly a good sign? It happens to most of us, and the reason is simple. More than likely we’ve been conditioned to learn through repetition — the act of creating chunks or patterns of new information and reviewing them enough times to stick.

This so-called focused mode of learning has traditionally been preferred by most schools, including for language instruction. We learn how to conjugate in various tenses, and how to use some pronouns and smatterings of vocabulary. These focused tasks leave bits and pieces of information free-floating in our language memory bank.

But without connections between them, applying what we’ve learned in the real world remains a challenge. Recall is one of the more powerful tools in your cerebral backpack. The diffused mode of learning is the new big thing in education. It involves higher-level thinking skills and the ability to see the big picture.

Two famous innovators, Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison, practiced diffused learning to tap into their inspirational powers. They were known to sit in an armchair with their hands dangling over the edge, holding a small object.

When they entered sleep, the object would drop and they would awaken in a diffused state. From there came many of the inventions and masterpieces they left as legacies to the world. You can tap into your own diffused mind during exercise, meditation, listening to music, or even sleep.

Engaging “mindlessly” after focused learning enables your brain to take in everything you have learned and reorganize it into something cohesive and connected. Interestingly, it’s when we are “leveling up” in our language learning through this synthesization process that we tend to go blank.

This blanking leads to the “impostor syndrome” — the “who were you kidding to even attempt something new?” line of questioning and self-doubt. Instead of sinking you in a high-stress situation, your brain is actually trying to diffuse-think. If you stop and look, that is what happens when you are dealing with English as well.

The mind makes sense of things by making as many connections as it can in a second. When we listen to a foreign language we tend to not trust ourselves, thinking the only path to understanding is in words. If you try the experiment above you may find you will start understanding what people are talking about, without many details.

This is the first step in real learning.