Archive for the ‘My Learning Progress’ Category

Starting from scratch / 一からやり直している

in My Learning Progress

It’s been more than half a year since I touched any sort of Japanese. Work got busy and I spent most of my free time renovating my new house.

But to be honest, part of the reason I stopped was because I felt that my learning method was not really working anymore. I had an excellent grasp of the grammatical points, understood most of the nuances, learned new words at the speed of an F1 race car but I could not string sentences quick enough to save my life.

I needed the break to be clear about my learning goals and find a new method that will help me get there.

Getting clarity: why do I want to learn Japanese?
To understand Japanese culture. To be more specific, to learn to see the world as an Eastern person.

Japan, to me, preserved the essence of what it means to be traditionally Eastern—something that modern China has mostly lost, so I have to seek it from a neighboring country.

Since childhood, I have been so Westernised, I have very little inkling of what it’s actually like to be Eastern. And the more I learn about Chinese and Japanese history and culture, the more apparent it became that they see the world very differently from Western people. While Westerners prize values like freedom and independence, Easterners prize 关系 (Chinese for relationships) and 義務・義理 (Japanese for obligation).

The difference in values fundamentally affects how we perceive the world. Westerners see the world as made up of isolated objects, each with its own unique characteristics to analyse, to dissect and ultimately to control if it is to your interest to do so. Easterners see the world as connected whole, where every part is somehow linked to another, so the goal becomes to go about living your life while knowing how to preserve the balance in this interdependent world.

I can theoretically understand this difference but I can’t experience it.

So what I want to achieve is to Easternize myself. Linguistically, this means I need to be able think in Japanese like a Japanese person. When I start thinking and dreaming in fluent, uninterrupted Japanese, I would have reached my goal.

So how do I get there? What is my new method of learning?

I’ve done some research into second language acquisition, reviewed my past experience with language learning and discovered one key point: the road to fluency is not like studying for an algebra exam (like what I’ve been doing), but more like training for sports. There is no need to memorize rules and force yourself to see patterns where they don’t exist.

Language learning is much more like how I practiced shooting the basketball 400 times a day. After months of hard training, making a 3-pointer swish became effortless, almost instinctive in the heat of a game because my body simply remembers what a swish feels like. By the time the ball leaves my finger, I know whether I’ve made the shot or not. There was no need to check the net.

I just know.

Similarly, when you hear and mimic “すみません、ちょっと聞きたいんですが… 炊飯器はどこにありますか” for the 200th time, you will simply know how to say it when you are looking for a rice cooker in Bic Camera. There is no need to worry about sentence construction, whether it is a は or が, whether it’s 自然な日本語 or textbook-like. By then, you’ve heard it and mimicked so much, you just know.

That’s how we all picked up our first language, so why should it be any different for our second language? It’s not like I know what the past participle is in English, but I’m pretty damn sure I know how to correctly use it.

So that’s it. I’ve thrown away everything I learned and re-started using a ready-made spaced repetition system called iKnow. I use it everyday in my commute to work now. I basically listen to bunch of sentences with new words and mindlessly mimic. I don’t try to analyse the sentence. I don’t care whether it’s 自動詞 or 他動詞. If I don’t know the other words in the sentence, I don’t berate myself over it. I just understand it and mimic it as closely as possible — every tone, every inflection.

iKnow Language Learning Website

Let’s see how this goes in a few months. I’m excited to see the results. 頑張ります!

Further Reading
For those of you interested in learning more about the theories of second language acquisition and learning, check out:

About Speaking Japanese

in My Learning Progress

I recorded myself speaking Japanese for the first time over the weekend, and got the nice folks at Ask native speakers anything to give me some feedback on my speaking. Thanks to them, I learned some things about myself and also about speaking the Japanese language in general.

  • Japanese uses a pitch accent system, which is similar but not identical to the Chinese tone system. Pitch accent is relative, whereas tones are absolute. This means you have to pay attention where you stress and where you let go in a sentence. I have to admit, I’ve not paid much attention to the  pitch system at all until after I recorded my voice. I just blindly copied what I have heard. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad technique since I seem to be understood by native speakers.
  • Japanese language is tiring to speak. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense but American English is spoken in the throat, so I could get away with eating my words. But Japanese is spoken almost entirely in the mouth, so there is no way to mumble my way out. Every word requires precise enunciation. If you’re lazy, the only way to cheat is to shorten the words. Now I see why Japanese have a penchant of shortening words like ‘sandwich’ to sando or ‘convenience store’ to conbini.
  • I do have an English accent when I speak Japanese. I used to take pride in the fact that I could emulate most accents with very little exposure but I guess these skills have an expiry date. According to some native speakers, my accent was not obvious but still audible. It’s especially obvious when I said ndesu. I guess you can’t ever let your guard down when it comes to learning.
  • I still speak much slower than a native speaker. I don’t think much can be done about this for now. As I spread my attention thin with reading the kanji, producing the right sounds and learning where to stress, I don’t really have the bandwidth left to increase my speed. It’ll probably come once I have some familiarity with the language.

That’s all for today. For those of you who are interested in learning about Japanese pitch system, check out this awesome video below:

One Week Later

in My Learning Progress, Site Updates

It’s been a little more than a week since I started this blog, and it’s been absolutely amazing that I’m already seeing some progress:

  • I occasionally think in Japanese: I realize that not all my thoughts are in English anymore. I do catch myself thinking in Japanese sometimes now — especially when I’m very tired.
  • I take less time to switch between English and Japanese: Before I go to my weekly Japanese lessons, I used to make myself listen to Japanese music/dialogue, read Japanese manga or whatever to basically immerse myself in the language for about 15-30 minutes before arriving class. If I didn’t, I just wouldn’t be able to smoothly transition my mind from English to Japanese, and the effects would be pretty obvious in class.

    Since I started my daily blog, I can now switch between Japanese and English more more quickly. It’s still not instant, but the warm-up period is under 5 minutes now.

On a semi-related note, this blog has become something bigger than I originally envisioned. I had just wanted a place to help me form a daily habit to write and hence think in Japanese. But as I wrote these entries, I could start to see how some of this could benefit other learners as well.

So I am making a few changes:

  • Bilingual Japanese and English Entries: With both languages, these entries could become reading material for English native speakers learning Japanese or Japanese native speakers learning English. The downside is that these entries were originally thought in Japanese, so the translation to English is a bit awkward. The other downside is, of course, that my Japanese language ability is still error-prone. I hope these get better over time.
  • Language Learning Resources and Book Reviews: Over time, I’ll be adding some learning resources that I like and use. I’m starting out with Japanese first, and eventually add English resources for Japanese native speakers. I’ll also be looking to review some of the study resources I’ve been using so far.
  • List of Linguists, Learners, Language Lovers: And finally, I’m looking out for other cool language blogs out there that are regularly updated. It’s always reassuring and motivating to know there others on the same quest as us! So if you own a blog and would like to exchange links, leave me a comment below or drop me an email!

それじゃ またね!

Input vs Output in Second Language Acquisition – Part 1

in My Learning Progress

I’ve studied Japanese pretty constantly the last year and a half and here’s my progress report:

Listening: JLPT N2~N1 level for daily conversations. News and specialised topics like economics/politics are still a stretch though. As an anime fan, I have also clocked over 2,000 hours of watching anime (and hence listening to conversations), so this is unusual for the amount of time I’ve spent learning.
Reading: JLPT N4~N3 level, my reading speed has picked significantly compared to 6 months ago. I can whiz through a page in less than 5 minutes, when it used to take me at least 30 minutes. This is the result of learning new vocab and kanji through spaced repetition methods like Anki.

Writing: Daily life stuff is alright, but I struggle with more abstract things like books and thought. I still have some serious problems with the particles.
Speaking: Absolutely crap. Basic introduction and basic things like what my hobbies are is alright. Anything that has less than 10 syllables is usually manageable. Anything longer, and I start to stumble. Either I am trying to recall the grammatical rules or my mind just temporarily goes blank.

As you can see, I suffer from a huge gap between input and output. And the gap seems to be widening everyday.

There are two schools of thought about how to fix this. Some, like Stephen Krashen, say that I gotta load up on input. I don’t have enough input or enough usable input, so I can’t possibly produce good enough output. The other school of thought says I gotta force myself to speak and write more often — that the only way to speak well is to um… speak.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to believe at this point, seeing that I’m going nowhere with my efforts so far. But these are some of my observations of my (failed) attempts to improve output.

  • I can’t speak naturally by memorising grammar. At one point, I was fanatical about memorising the grammatical rules for every new expression I had learned. This was great for scoring well in exams, but became pretty useless when I tried to speak with natives. I spent so much time trying to remember which particles go where, that I simply took too much time to respond and my fluency suffered as a result. I also translated directly from English sometimes, which obviously came out really wrong in Japanese.
  • I speak most naturally when I have heard the precise or related phrase from somewhere before. When speaking to natives, my most natural responses come from phrases I heard from anime or conversations. A lot of times, I surprise myself because I don’t even know where it came from. And I even speak it in exactly the same tone and manner I heard it. I guess, in a way, it’s very similar to first language acquisition by children. It’s as if Japanese resides somewhere in my unconscious and my mind just automatically draws upon it when needed. I guess, this lends some truth to the “more input” school of thought, but I wonder how many times I have to hear something before it seeps into my subconscious. It works wonders but it doesn’t seem like a very efficient way of language learning.
  • If I don’t practice new expressions, I forget how to use them quickly. I wouldn’t forget what they mean though. When I read it or hear it, I know precisely what it means, but I’m just unable to use them after a while because I’d forgotten the grammatical rules that come with it.
  • If I don’t produce output, I won’t notice gaps in my knowledge. When I read something, I somehow assume I would be able to produce it at the same level. But it’s not until I try to write or speak that I realize I’m unable to. So in a way, forced output is forcing me to learn as well.

That’s all the observations for now. I’ll revisit this topic again once I have switched up my learning styles. For now, I’m increasing output by forcing myself to write something simple in Japanese every day.