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.
Let’s see how this goes in a few months. I’m excited to see the results. 頑張ります!
For those of you interested in learning more about the theories of second language acquisition and learning, check out:
- 15-minute YouTube Video by Stephen Krashen on Comprehensible Input
- Wikipedia article on Spaced Repetition
- Fluent Forever – a great book on how to learn a second language with spaced repetition