Now that I’m studying Chinese from scratch, I’m back to where I was when I started learning Japanese six years ago. (My god, has it been that long already?) It’s great because it really reminds me of what it was like to be completely lost in a new language. In fact, I think foreign language teachers should study a new language every now and then to really see what it’s like to be the student.
Anyway, since this is a blog about Japanese, I thought I’d share with you some common ideas and strategies I found to be effective in learning a new language whether it’s Japanese, Chinese, or any other language. While some of these ideas might seem obvious to those who have studied foreign languages, I mention them here because it is very easy to forget and to fall back into bad habits (including myself).
Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide (TM)
Ok, I didn’t actually trademark anything but that’s how clever I thought the title was. We should spread the phrase by saying it was first said by a wise Chinese monk or something. The conversation would look something like this.
Some Dude: Hey, can you teach me Japanese?
You: I would but “Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide”.
Y: It means that you must constantly be studying a language in order to learn it. If you stop, it’ll all just fade away.
D: Isn’t that like, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”?
Y: Not exactly. What I said was first said by a wise Chinese monk.
D: Whoa… that’s deep.
Don’t fall for the “Master Japanese in just XX days/weeks” gimmick. Learning a new language is a long-term commitment. It’s different from learning how to ride a bike or how to whistle. No matter what your goal is, whether it’s native level or just some travel phrases, if you don’t keep practicing, you will forget.
You only truly learn a language with continual practice. It’s like biking up a series of hills and plateaus. As soon as you stop learning or practicing, you’ll start to slowly roll back down. Once you’ve reached a plateau (long-term memory), the knowledge will fade less quickly but if you ignore it long enough, you will eventually slide back down, eventually going back all the way to the beginning, leaving all your efforts in vain.
Even native speakers often complain of how they’re forgetting their native language once they stop using it. What chance do you have of retaining a foreign language then? Of course, by now, your native language is deeply rooted in your long-term memory so it’ll soon come back as long as you don’t neglect it for too long. However, new, short-term memory of a foreign language doesn’t stand a chance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to study every minute of every day. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment just a consistent long-term one. In fact, I would advise going your own pace rather than trying to study too much at once and burning yourself out. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint… a very long marathon that never ends.
In my case, while I had the opportunity and luxury to study and practice Japanese virtually every day with native speakers during college, I’m taking a more conservative pace with Chinese due to the constraints of my full-time job. I usually only study during my commute once every couple of days, probably no more than 2 to 4 hours a week. I also spend about 3 hours every Sunday with a native Chinese speaker practicing for about an hour and a half in exchange for teaching English. Even though I only spend a total of about 3 to 5 hours a week studying Chinese, I am fairly satisfied with my rate of progress. The most important thing is to keep at it with consistent study and practice.
You have to grab language by its horns
During my college days, I spent my first trimester of Japanese doing what every college student is supposed to do: go to classes, do the homework, and study for tests (all at the last minute of course). If you do just that, you might do ok in class (I got a B+), but that doesn’t mean you’re learning the language! No matter how great the teacher might be, the classroom format is simply not enough.
The biggest problem with the classroom format is that you never use the language for your own purposes. You are always being told which grammar to use, what vocabulary to memorize, how to say something, etc., because after all, that’s what teaching is. With homework and tests, you have to come up with the “correct” answers as well. The only difference is that it’s done at home instead. Unfortunately, while there are a whole lot of wrong answers or things that make little to no sense, there are no right answers to good communication. But with classroom material, you never learn how to express your own thoughts and feelings in the way you want to express them. If you never get the chance to make the language your own, it always feels like a language that is… well foreign.
At my school, the Chinese students were required to meet with a language tutor every week, which I think is a great idea. Unfortunately, meeting with a language tutor was optional for us Japanese kids. I did it anyway though. It was great. I got to meet and talk with fellow students who also happened to be Japanese. They got paid, I got practice, learning how to say what I wanted to say, and we had a great time overall (or at least I did). As a bonus, all of my tutors happened to be female and some were even cute! I can’t believe most of my fellow classmates didn’t even sign up. If you would turn down a great opportunity like that, it probably means you’re doomed to fail for reasons I will describe at the end.
Now that I’m out of college, I no longer have such a wonderful opportunity to practice Chinese but I did manage to secure a tutoring session once a week by hanging out at local international events. Although it’s free, I have to teach English in exchange and she is at least over 15 years older than me but she’s a nice lady so I can’t complain. The moral of this story is that you should take advantage of the resources available to you to make opportunities for speaking the language.
Practicing [A] doesn’t improve [B]
The fundamental reason why it’s absolutely necessary to go out and actually use the language for your own means is because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. This may sound obvious but many Japanese students are under the illusion that taking tests, answering questions in class, and filling in worksheets will somehow magically enable them to learn how to read, write, speak, and hear Japanese. This is not the case!
If you’re wondering why you can hardly speak Japanese after taking Japanese classes for so many years, ask yourself this, “How many hours did I spend speaking Japanese? How many books have I read? How much Japanese have I written?” You need to ask yourself the same type of question for each aspect of the language because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. It might help but each aspect of the language is only improved by actually practicing and refining it in the real world.
If you want to improve your reading skills, go read some books. If you want to improve your writing, find something to write about. Speaking and listening often go hand in hand so go find somebody to talk to if you want to improve those skills. It seems obvious but many students at my school couldn’t understand why they weren’t improving even though they haven’t spent a single minute outside of class speaking Japanese or even meeting anyone who can speak Japanese. They also haven’t read a single book, magazine, comic, short story, anything, much else write something on their own. All I can say is, “What do you expect, man?!” Of course it’s not completely their fault. After all, none of us were required to do any of those things for class. So, unless you are in an immersed environment such as living in Japan, you have to motivate yourself to go out and use Japanese.
Input before Output
Those who are new to learning languages might be under the mistaken impression that languages make sense. You might think that if you learn the vocabulary and grammar, you can string the vocabulary together with the correct grammar to make sentences. This might work to some degree for some languages, but with Japanese, it’s almost guaranteed to not work. Japanese is not a language you can figure out with logic, which is why finding somebody you can ask questions and learning vocabulary with context is so important. Take a look at what might happen if you try to figure things out for yourself.
Method 1: “Figuring it out”
You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend so let’s see… according to my dictionary, “miss” is 「欠ける」 so “missing” is 「欠けている」. Great, now I just need to make “you” the direct object with 「を」 particle and the verb goes last so “I’m missing you” should be 「私はあなたを欠けている。」 Great!
What a disaster! While the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make any sense and worse, it’s kind of insulting because 「欠ける」 means something is “lacking” with a very negative connotation. Now, let’s see what would have happened if you were smart enough to learn from example.
Method 2: Asking a native speaker
You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend. How do I say that?
Native Speaker) Well, we don’t really say “I miss you,” in Japanese. We usually just say we’re lonely or “I want to meet you”.
Y) Oh, how do you say that?
N) “Lonely” is 「さびしい」 or 「さみしい」. “Wanting to meet” is 「会いたい」.
Y) Great, can you write the kanji for me?
Awesome, now that you are able to express your dire need and endless love to your girlfriend, hopefully, next time you meet, she’ll be all over you like hot butter and syrup on a pancake. Way to go!
Of course, in real life, things don’t always go so smoothly. You might not know enough of the grammar or vocabulary to understand the answer. You also need to go home, sit down and study the grammar and vocabulary using textbooks, workbooks, dictionaries, the grammar guide, whatever you prefer. But the important thing is to get input first before you try coming up with your own output. And even then, it’s a good idea to get somebody to look at your output to make sure it’s correct.
Learning old material with new material
Now that I talked about what you need to do, let’s look at some ideas on how to go about it.
Generally, you need a lot more input before you can generate output of similar quality. In my case, I usually have to see something about five or six times in completely different contexts before I can internalize it enough to use it myself. Of course, it all depends. Fundamental concepts and conjugations require a lot more exposure and practice than simple vocabulary.
So the best way to internalize material is by running into it here and there over a long time span. You can optimize this by overlapping new material with old material. This is called pipelining in computer chips and is used extensively to increase the performance of your computer. You can do this too by learning new material even if you haven’t completely memorized the old material. When old material shows up in new material, you will start the process of internalizing the new material while you’re reviewing the old material.
What you should never do is stop learning new things because you haven’t completely mastered something else. You might hear people say, “Oh no, I can’t learn the next chapter because I don’t completely understand the last one.” or “I’m not going to learn that because we haven’t gone over it in class yet.” or “Learning that now will just confuse me.” This is the wrong approach because looking at just one thing over and over doesn’t increase comprehension. You need to look at it in different contexts, used in different ways for different purposes. You need to look at all the angles before you can say you really understand the material. And if you can start learning new material at the same time, that’s another bird with the same stone.
You shouldn’t underestimate your brain’s ability to absorb new material. You might hear a word and think, “Oh, I’ll never learn that” but on the contrary, you’re already learning it! If you ever thought, “Hey, this word sounds familiar. Where have I heard it before?” you’re closer to memorizing it than words you’ve never heard before. If you do this often enough, you’ll be remembering words you don’t even remember learning! This is essentially how you learned your native language. Let’s take a look at the continuation of the previous dialog asking how to say, “I miss you”.
Y) Is 「会いたい」 an adjective?
N) It acts like an adjective but it’s the 「たい」 form of the verb 「会う」, which means “to meet”.
Y) Oh yeah, I remember! We learned that form in class last week. What was the conjugation rule again?
N) You change the 「う」 to 「い」 and add 「たい」.
Y) Ok, got it.
See? In that short exchange, you managed to review the 「たい」 form while at the same time learning 「会う」. The next time, you might learn, for instance, 「飲み会」 and you can use that opportunity to review and reinforce 「会う」. Keep repeating the cycle and you’ll start making all sorts of connections and memorizing things left and right in no time.
It’s the attitude that counts!
In the end, the thing that matters the most is your attitude. If studying or practicing Japanese feels like a dreadful chore, you are doomed to failure. I can attest to this because I hated learning Spanish in High School and the only Spanish I know now is, “Donde esta el bano”. But hey, you’re in luck because Japanese is much more interesting than Spanish!
Nevertheless, if you somehow find that learning Japanese is boring or a chore, you need to incorporate things into your study that will make it fun right away! In my case, I enjoy reading, playing games, drinking, and eating so I study by doing those things in a way that incorporates Japanese such as reading Japanese novels. (And all my games are strictly for “educational purposes”. Honest.) I also enjoy hanging out and chatting with friends so making Japanese friends and hanging out with them improved my speaking and listening skills. And if I can get drinks and food into the mix every so often, even better! (Fortunately, many Japanese people love to eat and drink.)
To give you another example, I don’t particularly like watching TV that much but a friend of mine does and that’s how she learned Japanese; by watching a lot of Japanese TV. It must have worked because her Japanese is quite excellent.
Whatever floats your boat, you should incorporate it into your studies to make learning more enjoyable. For example, lots of people on my forum are learning Japanese with anime because that’s what they enjoy. This is great because it often leads them to explore and become interested in other areas of Japanese lifestyle and culture, which in turn increases the incentive to learn more Japanese.
Also, I think it’s pretty much a given that we all enjoy making friends and socializing so that’s one activity we can all do. If there are very few or no Japanese people in your area, you might try finding a conversation partner online, study abroad, or just move! C’mon, get out of that rural backwater and go someplace more international!
If you’re socially inept, making friends while learning a foreign language is perfect for you. It levels the playing field because it’s hard to be suave when you can hardly speak the language. Hey, that’s a great strategy for getting a girl, I bet. Cleverly hide your lack of social skills with your inability to speak the language. I don’t know how wise this is for serious relationships though…