Butterflyblue

水曜日, 3月 30, 2005

Linguistic Musings

    A couple days ago, I read this excellent article on why people learn languages or fail to do so. I didn't blog about it right away because I figured that it had probably been on the Internet a long time and other people have read it. However, it touches on a lot of issues I often think about, both as an EFL teacher and as a person who wants to be fluent in a second language (Japanese), and perhaps a third (Mandarin). This article explains both why I never get around to learning a fourth or fifth language (I'm interested in learning Thai, Cantonese or Vietnamese but can't seem to spare the time), and why not all of my students are as motivated to learn English as I might hope.
    I tend to naively assume that all non-Japanese living in Japan are as motivated to learn Japanese as I am (not true) and that all people studying English are similarly highly motivated. Some facts support that hypothesis (people who rabidly put themselves and their children in my path to practice English with me) other facts do not (people who go just as far to avoid me). This article was helpful in reminding me that learning a language is a lot of work. More interestingly, it proposes that it's just as much work for native speakers of the language as it is for second language learners. The native speakers just don't remember how much work it was. Because we think in language, we don't remember how hard it was to learn it in the first place.
    (Also, from the same site, this is the funniest thing I've read for awhile; actual search strings people used that led them to his site about linguistics and culture).
    Having an accent when you speak Japanese, or any other language you learn as an adult, is not inevitable. It is hard to learn perfect pronunciation, because it's hard to see what's going on in someone else's mouth. However, native speakers ALL faced the exact same thing as children, and eventually they all learned to do it. We think that children don't have problems mastering the pronunciation of their own language, but you've probably known children who had trouble saying certain words, and every day many children in the U.S. are taken out of class to work with therapists on their "speech impediments". Which leads me to think that perhaps children's mispronounced words and speech impediments are not so different from the mistakes we make when learning to pronounce a new language. That means that we too can overcome all of those problems if we believe that we must.
    With that idea to inspire me, I'm doing some pronunciation exercises with this book, 日本語の発声レッスン. It's a great find because it packages a lot of difficult pronunciation drills conveniently into one volume. Japanese, with its small and predictable number of syllables, isn't terribly hard to pronounce anyway, but how well can you say long strings of meaningless syllables, or pages and pages of tongue-twisters? My Chinese friend U., who has excellent pronunciation in English, told me once that she used to practice English pronunciation drills every day until her throat hurt. Until yesterday I'd never practiced Japanese pronunciation to the point of physical pain, but the exercises in the book made my throat hurt in no time at all. I planned to practice for two hours yesterday, and could only do about twenty minutes. I like the fact that it made me more attentive to variations in Japanese pronunciation around me.
    While I'm on the topic of language, I really benefitted from Language Two, a treatise on language learning I read before coming to Japan. The main point is that people learn a language better if they receive instruction in the language (on another topic they need to understand) rather than about the language (explicitly teaching grammar, for instance). I've used that idea to the extent I could in my own language teaching, structuring communicative lessons wherever possible, but half an hour a week is not enough to give the students the feeling that they NEED to learn to understand spoken English. So in a way this idea combines nicely with the point of Zordist's article, that people won't learn a language unless it's absolutely necessary for them. What makes something "absolutely necessary" differs from person to person though, and the reasons I found it "absolutely necessary" from the age of thirteen to learn Japanese when no one in my family or immediate surroundings spoke it, remains incomprehensible to everyone but me. Still, I believe that psychologically in some strange way it was "absolutely necessary" to me.
    Another interesting thing: I've heard on the news recently that Japan is planning to revise the immigration laws to make it easier for unskilled foreigners and ones with skills besides teaching English to live and work in Japan. For example, the new laws will encourage doctors and nurses from outside Japan to practice in Japan, along with people in the threatened industries of agriculture and forestry. Due to the aging population and declining birth rate, the measure makes a lot of sense. I'm interested to see the future effects. Will it help weaken the perceived wall between "Japanese" and "gaijin" in Japan? I have a personal interest in wanting that wall to come down. My heart gladdens every time people don't assume I only speak English because of my blonde hair. The more foreigners in Japan, the less often we will be automatically stereotyped. I don't want Japan's "cultural uniqueness" to be "subsumed", but I don't think that will happen, as amorphous and illogical as "cultural uniqueness" is. Unless "cultural uniqueness" really is just another word for the wall, in which case it should give way to a more sensible pride in Japan's considerable cultural assets.

17 Comments:

  • At 4:12 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    awesome post. i really want to check out some of these books that you're using, but it'll have to wait until after i graduate.

    keep blogging!

    -awaiting JET decision daniel

     
  • At 4:38 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Thanks & good luck!

     
  • At 7:41 午前, Anonymous Nico said…

    Thanks for the post - I really appreciate your book recommondations! Unfortunately, amazon.co.jp are out of stock of the pronunciation exercises. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it..

    Mata ne

    Nico

     
  • At 1:34 午後, Blogger GaijinBiker said…

    Excellent post. I am one of those lazy gaijin who learned a good chunk of Japanese but never took it to the native level.

    On the question of "weakening the perceived wall" between Japanese and gaijin, I have a post arguing that the wall is comin' down.

     
  • At 1:25 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    I think it is, too. Actually, Kobe has been great that way, and I've gotten much less of the gaijin treatment than I feared. People are generally willing to take me at my word and not judge by appearances (except occasionally when they don't know me at all).

     
  • At 1:55 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    Don't you find that a lot of what is felt as gaijin treatment has more to do with the language barrier than anything else, though? Once they do realize that they can communicate with you, at least by my experience in my tiny little inaka town, you're just like anyone else. Maybe it's worse in the cities, though, since they meet non-Japanese speaking foreigners so much more often...

    Nice blog, by the way.

     
  • At 6:49 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Thanks. Good point. A person who can't speak Japanese well will probably always get more "gaijin treatment" than someone who can. One more argument for learning Japanese well if you live in Japan.

    I don't think it's worse in the cities. I thought it was better. I mean, people in Kobe have seen so many gaijin, I can practically be inconspicuous. I've never heard people gossiping about where I went or what I had for dinner last night (cf Botchan chapter 3). Nice to know you've succeeded in proving yourself in the inaka.

    I guess I thought, and maybe I ought to clarify this, in terms of the changing immigration law, I'm imagining that the foreigners coming here as a result of that will settle in Japan for a long time, learn Japanese well because they will have to use it in their various professions, not spend half the day teaching English, and thus help to explode the myth that foreigners can't speak Japanese.

     
  • At 8:08 午後, Anonymous the auroran sunset said…

    hi, found you page when looking for the english title for 12人の優しい日本人. shame there's no subtitled one i can recommend to my friends: twas a very well done film, in many ways i prefer it to the 12 angry men film.

    i looked around your diary a bit more and found it surprisingly interesting! we appear to be in fairly similar positions in our language learning, so i'm somewhat curious to know what you have done are doing in that regard.

    for context: i came to japan straight after graduating from uni in an unrelated subject. i also started to be interested in japanese at around age 13, but i never found the round tuits to study more than the *very* basics. however, since i arrived two years and seven months ago, i'm been studying pretty seriously. i passed jlpt 1st grade last december and am currently planning to take the kanji kentei 2nd grade at the end of this year, assuming the studies go well. i am not a good speaker, although i can of course be understood, because i'm not the sort of person to go talk to random people, but i probably make up for that in reading and writing. i've pretty much self studied from books and lots of random questions to various people around the place. although officially took some (rather ineffectual) for seven months when i first came here, i did most of my learning from books in my room.

    i'm guessing, as you said you are just starting your third year and from the film watching your japanese seems to be better than mine, that you studied before coming to japan. i find it somewhat amazing that you are a jet that speaks good japanese! i think i first heard of jet went i met a couple of jets after about a month in the country. they had been in japan about two years and yet spoke less japanese than me. my experience since then suggests that jets are particularly bad even compared to the english conversation school lot (geos, nova, etc) for not learning any japanese. i do, however, know one other exception.

    here's hoping you are willing and able to flesh out the picture somewhat.

    regards.
    the auroran sunset.

     
  • At 8:08 午後, Anonymous the auroran sunset said…

    hi, found you page when looking for the english title for 12人の優しい日本人. shame there's no subtitled one i can recommend to my friends: twas a very well done film, in many ways i prefer it to the 12 angry men film.

    i looked around your diary a bit more and found it surprisingly interesting! we appear to be in fairly similar positions in our language learning, so i'm somewhat curious to know what you have done are doing in that regard.

    for context: i came to japan straight after graduating from uni in an unrelated subject. i also started to be interested in japanese at around age 13, but i never found the round tuits to study more than the *very* basics. however, since i arrived two years and seven months ago, i'm been studying pretty seriously. i passed jlpt 1st grade last december and am currently planning to take the kanji kentei 2nd grade at the end of this year, assuming the studies go well. i am not a good speaker, although i can of course be understood, because i'm not the sort of person to go talk to random people, but i probably make up for that in reading and writing. i've pretty much self studied from books and lots of random questions to various people around the place. although officially took some (rather ineffectual) for seven months when i first came here, i did most of my learning from books in my room.

    i'm guessing, as you said you are just starting your third year and from the film watching your japanese seems to be better than mine, that you studied before coming to japan. i find it somewhat amazing that you are a jet that speaks good japanese! i think i first heard of jet went i met a couple of jets after about a month in the country. they had been in japan about two years and yet spoke less japanese than me. my experience since then suggests that jets are particularly bad even compared to the english conversation school lot (geos, nova, etc) for not learning any japanese. i do, however, know one other exception.

    here's hoping you are willing and able to flesh out the picture somewhat.

    regards.
    the auroran sunset.

     
  • At 12:47 午前, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    I found it funny that you said it was "surprisingly interesting - " I mean, OF COURSE my diary is interesting! :)
    Isn't everyone's? I looked at yours and found it interesting as well; thank you for mentioning me.

    Oh, about my Japanese study, if you're just guessing about how long I've studied Japanese, you don't know the half of it. I started when I was 13, and now I'm 30. That means I've been studying Japanese for almost 17 years, longer than my teenage students have been alive. Mindblowing. But there were a few years in there when I wasn't actively studying. I studied Japanese for 4 years in high school, 4 years of college, 3 years of graduate school (Japanese lit, though I never finished my degree), skipping a few intervening years when more pressing concerns took the fore, then a couple months of studying for JLPT 2級, then moving to Japan, passing JLPT 1級 last December (same as you!) and starting this blog with diverse and half-baked study plans always afoot as you can read about on these pages. Within a year I want to pass the kanken 2級, but first I need to pass 3級, so that's my immediate goal now. Are you taking 3 or shooting straight for 2?

    I would like to encourage everyone studying Japanese at an advanced level to MAKE A LIST of any books, movies, manga, whatever that they enjoyed and were able to learn from, and post it somewhere that other Japanese language learners can see it (For example, Amazon.co.jp is a good place to create lists). I don't have enough real-life friends who have passed 1級 in order to ask them for recommendations, but if we pool our knowledge we could come up with an awesome list.

    In order to keep improving post-1級 you have to keep pushing yourself to improve, no one is going to tell you you need to study more, since basic communication is no longer a problem. Classes and textbooks are also no longer so useful, except textbooks for Japanese speakers on Japanese language use. As I've mentioned elsewhere I'm taking two correspondence courses in Japanese-for-native-speakers-of-Japanese through U-Can University. One is for kanken and the other is general knowledge. There is a wealth of resources out there for Japanese people who want to improve their Japanese, and that stuff can help us too once we've outgrown the traditional courses and textbooks.

    I want to read more novels in Japanese but so far I've had less success with that. I buy them frequently, but usually lose interest, and have only finished reading a handful since coming to Japan. I admire the fact that No-Sword seems to finish reading novels in Japanese a lot more often than me. Other things I learn from: my friends, video games, any unknown words I encounter. I don't use an electronic dictionary. I don't think I'm philosophically opposed to them, but I like the feel and interior logic of various paper dictionaries, the low price of them, and when I go out I feel confident I can rely on my memory rather than the dictionary. I mean when we learned our first language we didn't carry dictionaries around with us everywhere, so it can't be an indispensible part of learning.

    Hope that answers your questions about me, and I look forward to hearing more from you in the future,

    BBlue

     
  • At 1:09 午後, Anonymous the auroran sunset said…

    ^_^ no, the vast majority of diaries i come across are eminently snore-worthy. one that i actually enjoy reading, rather than feel like i should, are rare indeed. i don't mention people unless i think they are worth it, so you are most welcome.

    ah! your age explains somewhat why you don't seem illiterate! still you are probably far and away the oldest jet i have come across.

    that's a hell of a lot of study! which country are you from? i've never heard of a british high school giving japanese classes, but it appears to be pretty common in new zealand and around in the us..

    this u-can university thing sounds interesting. after i passed first grade, i was thinking of doing a correspondence basic translation course, but they all seem to be aimed at japanese people so are in effect teaching english! i also decided that getting proof that i'm actually literate, rather than can just communicate, was a more useful next step.

    i generally study best when i have a definite purpose and am left alone to get on with - taking classes tends to frustrate/get in the way.. but i'm still interested to know a bit more about this u-can thing, especially the general japanese course.

    i'm intending to go straight for second grade kanken. for me the kanji is not the problem: understanding the vocabulary in the questions is, so it makes little difference which of the two i take once have enough vocab.

    the book list thing is something i have also thought about. i've no idea when i'll actually get round to it though. i don't like amazon lists: they are very nice for the reader, but a right pain for the maker. i'll probably just put something on my site.. when i do it!

    i haven't read even one japanese novel. i'm currently reading the world's top violin maker's autobiography and i have lots of books about japanese which are all in japanese. i guess it depends what interests you: i've always found trying to read japanese novels and comics both more difficult and less interesting that information books.

    with the dictionary thing: i've always found paper dictionaries a right pain: too heavy to carry around, not enough words and i never remember to look things up later. that said, i seem to be in a minority on this. obviously carrying a dictionary is not essential to learning a language, by it has definitely made *me* significantly more efficient. that all said, i do like encyclopaedia-alike dictionaries. for example, dictionaries of word origins, or dictionaries dedicated to small areas of a language. i recently bought three: a dictionary of japanese word origins for japanese people to go naruhodo to, a dictionary of gitaigo and giseigo for the same purpose and a dictionary of the jouyou kanji and their origins. i already had most of those in english, but the japanese ones are more interesting, more detailed and contain more entries. as you said, there is a wealth of great books in japanese about japanese language.

    regards.
    the auroran sunset

     
  • At 11:59 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    I'm from the U.S.
    The U-Can webpage is www.u-can.co.jp. Here is their index of courses and here is the page for Kokugo no Joshiki. Good luck with your studies.

     
  • At 9:34 午前, Anonymous the auroran sunset said…

    thank you for all the answers.

    that u-can course looks most interesting. maybe in a month or three.

    regards.
    the auroran sunset.

     
  • At 2:39 午前, Blogger Al Hoang said…

    Interesting post on language learning. What you wrote rings quite true. These days I still have a need for a dictionary but usually it is due to needing a finer-grained explanation of a word I'm coming across that I need to know in a very short amount of time. I can't wait for satori to hit me on what the word means days or weeks later. However, for stuff that I read for fun I tend to do that.

    One thing I have found a little sad in trying to get to deeper understanding of technical Japanese is that...
    for better or for worse, English is the International Language of communication in many specialized fields (especially science). So there's pressure to pick up English for many in the field science & technology in order to be able to communicate on an international scale. This is not exactly an aid to the learner of Japanese if your specialty is in any of these particular fields.

    And once you get to a level where you can communicate rather well, I have found it's better to just start doing activities in Japanese rather than focusing on deeper knowledge of grammar since you start moving to those obscure fringe areas of Japanese if you focus on grammar and rules. Sure it's useful to a degree however since most Japanese don't deal with obscure rules about Japanese usage, I don't think it's a great thing to concentrate on in terms of economics of time.
    I think you should start working on this notion of 'intuition' that almost anyone has in their native language. From what I've seen of your postings, it seems you have done an excellent job of working on this intuition aspect and it will only get better over time. I'm still working on mine. I'm not sure about you, but there have been days where I've misunderstood something I THOUGHT it understood for many months. But I try to take those mistakes as an opportunity to refine my intuition.

    On another note, I believe Alaric has a good idea on how to strengthen reading and your skills in general. The idea is to intermix hard stuff with easy stuff. You need the hard stuff to move forward sometimes. What's hard? Depends where you are on the path to learning a foreign language. But for the advanced learner, it tends to be this vague beast that keeps wandering about. Although I will make one haphazard guess and mention composition skills. Composition skills take the longest to develop even for native speakers so I imagine that still plagues even advanced level learners.

    Cheers

     
  • At 12:50 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Quite true. We need both easy stuff and hard stuff. I like what you said about the hard stuff being "this vague beast that keeps wandering about". I certainly relate to that. I have these short spurts of enthusiasm for different language challenges, and they seem so exciting at first, but after just a short time they run their course and I get interested in pursuing some completely different goal. Anyway, this constant circulation of priorities is part of what keeps language learning interesting after you've been doing it for several years. It's so nice to be able to share ideas about this on the Internet with other people in similar situations. I liked Alaric's article too, thanks for the link! It was very interesting to see how people can improve their reading fluency in Chinese. I studied Chinese myself, but I never read for fun in Chinese the way I have in Japanese. I guess I always thought reading in Chinese was too hard, because the readings they give you in Chinese classes (as Alaric said) are so difficult. However, not reading for fun in Chinese impoverished my Chinese vocabulary, so if I decide to study Chinese further in the future, I know I'll have to learn to enjoy reading in Chinese.

    You mentioned intuition. I think it develops naturally as you expose yourself to the language more and more. I haven't consciously tried to improve my intuition per se, but I've been delighted at times to notice when I had it. I can almost always guess what unfamiliar words are from the context when I'm reading, and then if I decide to look them up anyway, I usually find that I was right, which is satisfying. Or if I come to the end of a page and I know what the next word in the sentence will be, and I turn the page and it's the same as I thought, I get a thrill. I guess that is intuition. Also, proofreading what I've written and being able to fix mistakes myself is a kind of intuition, and I'm not perfect at that yet, but I'm trying to work on it by posting in Japanese on the Internet more.

    Reading easy things in your target language is a kind of "comprehensible input", and having a lot of comprehensible input is the key to developing natural speaking and writing skills. You may or may not also want to challenge yourself with difficult readings, but easy reading is more fun and also, I believe, more important.

     
  • At 4:13 午前, Blogger Tom Naka said…

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  • At 12:56 午前, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    Your blog is excellent - keep it up! Don't miss visiting this site about food poisoning. It pretty much covers food poisoning related stuff.

     

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