Learning Languages

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I was reading this article on Tofugu today about the methods of learning Japanese kanji*, or rather “The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Learning Kanji.” Point #4 jumped out at me:

You Learn Kanji Like Japanese School Children (i.e. In The Wrong Order)

It notes that Japanese kids learn kanji progressively, based on simplicity of meaning rather than simplicity of appearance. Just because the kanji looks simple doesn’t mean the meaning it carries is equally simple, and vice versa. This makes sense for them because they’re kids, after all. When you’re seven years old you might not be able to grasp the same abstract concepts a seventeen-year-old or a twenty-seven-year-old would. So you can’t go throwing words that look simple but have complex meanings at kids.

The thing is (says the article), applying the same system to adult learners is rather flawed. Adults can jolly well comprehend all the complex meanings that children cannot. So it would seem to make more sense for an adult to learn kanji based on simplicity of appearance first as the meaning isn’t such a big deal anymore.

I think that is a very accurate observation. One that perhaps also applies in a similar way to adults learning any other language. Think about it. In most language classes, you go through all the basic stuff – pronouns, numbers, colours, greetings… and then you get into simple conversations. “How are you?” “I am fine, thank you.” “What time is it?” “It is three o’clock.” After a while, this begins to get boring. I mean, how interesting is it to spend a whole lesson learning to construct a sentence that is barely anything more than “I woke up at 7am and I had bread for breakfast?” (I’m recalling my Spanish lessons a couple of years back here.) After a while this gets boring, especially when you have no practical application for it. Even when talking to friends, do you really need to tell them that you came back from work, took a bath and then had chicken for dinner? It is unutterably dull.

dictionariesLearning a new language is never easy to begin with unless you are magnificently gifted that way, and having no real use for the things you learn does not help because you will then forget it all. I know this because I have taken Spanish courses twice (once in undergrad, and then again as a sort of refresher course in 2008), and both times I passed happily with an ‘A’. But within 6 months of the course ending, I proceeded to forget nearly everything except how to read simple sentences, numbers and colours. (This was largely due to lack of people to practice with and general lack of continued exposure.)** My Spanish teachers weren’t the boring types – they certainly tried their best to make things interesting for us. But I feel the syllabus was structured such that it couldn’t help becoming boring at some point. Or, if not boring, the sentences we learnt not applicable in any entertaining way that would encourage us to continue using it after lessons were over unless we were absolutely, completely, 100% determined to do so one way or another.

And then there was Japanese. Since I was such a failure at learning Mandarin, one would think I would automatically have an equally vehement dislike of Japanese too – similar pictographic characters, after all. I started watching anime in 2004, and then Japanese dramas and TV shows a year later. Then I rapidly discovered that Japanese would be easier to pick up than Mandarin by virtue of its hiragana and katakana systems* and that was an automatic plus 100 points in its favour.

I can’t say that I’m fluent in Japanese now – far from it. But I can read all hiragana and most katakana (there are some that I tend to confuse still because they look so similar), and I’m more capable of reading simple sentences in Japanese than in Mandarin. Give me a Japanese song and a Mandarin song and I will probably understand about more lyrics in the former than the latter. Put a Japanese talk show on and unless the topic is something I’ve never come across before it is likely that I can comprehend anywhere from a fifth to a third of the conversation. I used to listen to the three-hour Recomen radio show on Thursday nights via Peercast. Live broadcast, mind you, so no subtitles anywhere. And I managed to understand bits and pieces, which is more than I can say for any Mandarin (or Spanish) radio.

My learning progress has stalled somewhat from about two years ago (because doing a Master’s degree and being abroad was mighty distracting), but considering that I was only “studying” the language in an extremely informal manner and without any system whatsoever, my progress and retention of Japanese is considerably better than my progress and retention of Spanish. I began learning both in my early twenties, and had (initially) equal interest in both. But one was in a formal, classroom setting and followed a proper syllabus; words and grammar were learnt in “proper” order – based on simplicity. The other was completely informal affair and subject only to my whim and fancy. Words were learnt based on usage rather than meaning. Though I am nowhere near being fluent in either language, it is the latter approach that seems to have worked better.  (Not comparing it with Mandarin as I learnt Mandarin at a much younger age; so that’s perhaps not such an accurate comparison. My level of interest in Mandarin is also totally different from my interest in Spanish or Japanese.)

So I wonder if there isn’t something in this idea that adult learners of a language should be taught in quite a different way from child learners. You need the basics, of course, so you can’t really run away from learning numbers and colours, time and greetings. But beyond that, I rather think there must be a way of teaching languages to adult students without having to resort to utterly mundane sentences like “I woke up at 6am. I brushed my teeth. I ate breakfast and then I went shopping. Now I am going to sleep. Good night.”



* A note about Japanese writing systems (just in case).
There are three main types – hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana tends to look like this: ひらがな. Katakana looks like this: カタカナ. And kanji is 漢字. Hiragana and katakana are the basic “alphabets” of Japanese, only they don’t represent letters, they represent syllables/sounds. They’re both the same, only used differently – hiragana is the standard, katakana is used for loan words (e.g. コーヒー, ko-hi, “coffee”) or for emphasis, like using italics in English. Kanji are basically Chinese characters which make up most of the words in the Japanese language and serve to terrify everyone trying to learn it. In a way it’s worse than Mandarin because in Japanese, those characters tend to have two different ways of reading them and both can sound toootally different.


** Lack of practice and exposure isn’t everything though. If I think back even further to primary schooldays, there were those after-school Mandarin classes I took that were, if anything, even less successful than my Spanish classes. My Spanish lessons were technically successful – I just wasted them with no practice after the lessons ended. But those Mandarin lessons? I don’t think I ever got more than a C grade. And I can barely speak now or string together a sentence beyond “my name is…” and “how are you?” and “thank you.” Oh, and “goodbye.” I can recognise some individual characters but string them together in a sentence with a bunch of other characters and I might as well have never learnt the language because it makes no difference at all. haha
All my relatives speak Mandarin and there are plenty of Mandarin TV shows and movies and books around. If I’d wanted practice and exposure, it would have been really easy to get. So it really was just pure dislike and extreme frustration. The frustration came from not being able to even make a guess at the words if I didn’t recognise the characters (as opposed to languages based on Roman letters like English, Malay, Spanish, French). You either knew the word/s or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you were doomed. And that sort obstacle seems insurmountable to a kid who doesn’t like the language in the first place. It just makes the whole learning process more hateful in a way. As for the dislike… I simply destested the language. That’s all there is to it. Dislike leads to disinterest and also complete lack of motivation.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s partly a sort of contrary reaction to people constantly telling me I should learn it, in the same manner as “you should eat vegetables; they’re good for you” or “you need to learn math; it’s useful.” The more I’m pushed to something I already dislike, the more I hate the thing I’m pushed to?
I can, however, write beautifully. :P My ex-colleague Cathy hit the nail on the head when she said that I can write Mandarin characters well (and in the correct stroke order too!) because I treat them like little pictures. It’s an art~


One Comment

  1. Reading this post…. reminds me that I need to start revising my Hebrew now.

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