Language is not a writing system!

Okay, so this subject has been on my mind recently.  There’s so many simpletons out there that proclaim that Chinese and Japanese are much harder to learn than Korean. Sorry. You’re wrong. Korean is far harder to learn.

Korean does have the simpler writing system. That’s true.

But the reality is, that the sounds of Korean will set you far back than any writing system. Language is about sound and meaning. If you don’t have that covered first, you’re going to have trouble understanding what you read anyways.

Japanese on the other hand is extremely simple to learn. The sounds of Japanese only have a few real trip ups here and there. The Grammar, however is a lot more complex and is very similar to Korean in many respects.

Also, Japanese has many different registers (how you talk, what words you use depending on your relationship to the person you’re speaking to). Korean also has many registers and some verbs change completely (not just morphed) depending on the register. That’s quite tough.

I got really angry one time in my Korean class when a student said in an example that Japanese is much harder to learn than Korean. And while I agree that it’s hard to learn Japanese in Korea, their reasoning was the writing system.

NOPE! That’s not the language! That’s a representation of the language.

If you learn to pronounce the Hangeul in a week, you still won’t be able to understand Curious George in Korean.

A writing system is not a language! A language is a collection of sounds and meaning. Noam Chomsky would also point out that it actually developed through the evolution of human thought, not just for communication.

But, I didn’t want to seem like an old grump and argue with the class or the teacher who agreed with the student. To no fault of her own, she’s not learned Japanese and therefore doesn’t really know. Also, she doesn’t have a point of view from a native English speaker. And most teachers don’t teach phonics or barely remember how the mouth produces sounds from their university courses.

Japanese only looks hard from the characters. But the characters are not the language. Pick your fights, right? One thing I did learn in Korea was not to embarrass people even if they are dead wrong or simply don’t know better.

Did you know that you can teach without a textbook and through speech and context alone?

So why not use that? Learning just like you learned to speak English first (or your other mother tongue). You didn’t learn to write or read first, did you?

Textbooks are far easier on the teacher, and those methods of speech and heavy CI are very intensive for the teacher. With texts and books, the teacher can just say “Do this page for homework.” Speech and CI take lots of preparation.

Pimsleur CD’s took a lot of hours to make and that’s an audio only method. The method is also quite effective.

Now, where was I?

Ah, Chinese!

Yes, Chinese is even harder than Japanese with many more ideograms than Japanese.The Chinese characters fit together logically. But again we are talking about the writing system.

Also, the sounds of the language are more different from English compared to Korean. So in those respects Chinese is harder.

You know why Chinese is easy for English speakers?

The grammar is quite similar to English. More so than Japanese or Korean. And this is a huge help in getting into the greater depths of the language. However it is also different in many areas, so it’s not like Chinese has no grammar learning curve.

Anyways, that’s my venting for the day. Try to calmly explain to people why Japanese and Chinese aren’t really that hard to learn even though they say you can read Korean “In a morning.” That of course is true of a focused student, but you won’t remember how to read it unless you practice for a good month. And you’ll be slow as beans until after another 3 to 6 months. And even then, you won’t have acquired much vocabulary to make sense of most things you’ll see that are longer than a few sentences outside of a textbook.

 

Sitting at the kids table

 

During my short trip to Japan, I realized that my Japanese has gotten much stronger. However, I’m still sitting at the kids table.

sitting at the kid's table

The kid’s table is the difference between being fluent and being bi-lingual. It’s also the foreigner speak. It’s the foreigner mistakes. And honestly, it’s the huge chunk of vocabulary and grammar that is missing.

When I arrived in Japan, I felt a strong pull in my head as I engaged with the language community.

Boom! The gears of my rusty brain clicked and clacked as I started to understand what was going on around me. At times I  put the brakes on to think and grab that long lost word that lives in the deep reaches of my memory. And that caused me to skip over what was being said as the Japanese bursted out in waves into the air.

And then I realized that I still have a long way to go. I need to understand the fine details in Japanese so I can leave the kid’s table. But alas, my Japanese is still half-baked.

On my trip, my Japanese was at its strongest. And even so, I was quite humbled.

I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I looked at the newspaper and said… well… there’s something I can’t do effortlessly yet. Reading an article might take me an hour or two.

Eavesdropping and listening to talk radio…

Yep, I can’t do that yet without intense focus. Even if I focus with all of my might, I couldn’t get any fine details out of it. The processing speed of my Japanese is far too slow right now.

A good solution is more reading of things such as kid’s science books. Explanations in Japanese for children have been helping. But I need to keep going.

Also, I need to study intensively from vocab and grammar books. There’s really no way around that. There’s too much to know that I must explicitly learn through constant practice and memorisation. I’ve realized the gains from such study before. But it is very tiring and hard work.

I’ve also been reading more and more these past few weeks in Japanese. It’s been quite a treat, and I’ve felt myself improving. It’s quite exciting to discover new things. Each time, I find a new way to express something. And most importantly I understand people speaking. And I get it faster.

Listening and being engaged in the language community will bring a tremendous change in my abilities.  I have to work hard to become an insider, not an outsider.  That means lots of drilling and proper studying in preparation as well as getting out of the books participating in society. With these experiences, I will reach the adult’s table.

photo credit: birthday party at the gymnasium via photopin (license)

Updates and Things I’ve Learned from My Mother-in-Law

What’ve I been up to?

I’ve been off of Extensive reading for quite some time now.

It’s been quite hard. I’ve done a little bit of intensive/extensive reading here and there in Japanese, but I’ve mostly been focused on other things. I got really caught up in playing Magic the Gathering over the past few months, and I did extremely well considering jumping back into it after such a long time of not playing. There are quite a few Korean and foreign players here in Ulsan and Busan. We meet up almost every Saturday and play Commander.

I picked up the special Japanese edition Chandra vs. Jace duel decks. And I’ve learned quite a bit of Japanese by reading through the cards/translating and playing in Japanese. In Japanese I feel the language is much more logical. It’s very similar to Korean Magic cards, but even more logical/step by step.

I’ll do some more postings on MTG here and there on the blog.

Other updates:

I started the Kanji book and Grammar book almost over a year ago, and I haven’t touched them much since the summer. I’ve been mainly trying to keep up with Anki. I don’t know how else I can progress with this unless I just keep on tracking it here on the blog. Those have been the times when I’ve seen the most gains.

Hangeul Type Attack

A few of you have been asking about Hangeul Type Attack, and it’s down for now. I know those of you who’ve been asking for it and who’ve been really sad to see it gone. I’ve been working on learning more Javascript and recently Python. There are plans to make a downloadable cross-platform python version with updated graphics and videos. As I’m still teaching in Korea, I can’t sell this software or have advertising to fund development. So this is just a hobby/project where I can’t sink much money into it. I’ll post progress on this item as well. It could very well be an open source project which could help further development.

YouTube. 

A few years back I tried to do a learning Korean Vlog where I said I’d be fluent in a year. This was mainly to keep me in check so that I could learn Korean with some motivation. But it was hard work keeping up a channel and I was starting to realize that it would take more than a year without significant help from other people and study time. In other words, I just burnt out and spun my wheels. Nowadays I still use Korean in daily life for simple functional things and sometimes in the workplace. I have barely any accent, which is tough because the native speaker thinks I know more vocabulary than I actually do.

I’ve decided to give video making a try again. Over the years, I’ve gotten more confident in my voice and presentation working as a teacher. I have a lot of ideas to share, and I might as well share them on YouTube.

Studying for the JLPT

I’m planning on taking it next December instead of July, but I should aim for being ready by July. That means more vocabulary and grammar drilling with Anki.

I know, this is the opposite of Extensive Reading. Studying vocab involves a lot of translation and takes a lot of time and processing power in my mind. But I’ve seen great gains in my ability by doing this for extended periods of time. I noticed a dramatic increase in my proficiency last spring and summer going to Japan and speaking with my in-laws, and people around in Japan.

Also, I could read a lot more Kanji. The meaning and reading would come up in my head, and I didn’t know how I knew it! Obviously I had studied it (but I didn’t remember explicitly studying it).

That’s what it’s like to progress. You go through so much that you don’t even know that you’re acquiring language. That may also be why I’ve been off and on for so long. I’m just not feeling the fruits of my labor as much. I think it also might be due to the fact that I’ve been involved in other activities and not been into Japanese media as much as I used to be. (but I really want to get back into it!!!)

Back to Basics Extensive Reading

I had a realization the other day while talking to my dear mother-in-law. I talk with her once a week in English so she can get some English conversation practice. She’s been recently following an NHK radio program (or TV program? I don’t remember). It comes with a magazine that you can buy for the program to follow along and study at home.

And you know what? It’s quite difficult!

It’s almost native material with big words and so-called “real” English. Which is fine. But… she takes a long time to read through these things. She said to me (in Japanese) that she knows what each individual word means, and sometimes what each sentence means, but the whole paragraph or article is much harder to understand.

And I said, “Yeah, you studied many words individually in school and in other places using the dictionary. You have a great proficiency. But you don’t know the language deeply.”

My father-in-law (who speaks pretty good ‘Business English’) said to me, “Maybe she is a 5 year old in English? Or 4 year old in English?”

And that struck me as being just plain wrong. My mother-in-law is not a 4-year old or 5-year old. If you listen to the speech of a 4 or 5 year old. It’s very fast. It flows. They are fluent. But they don’t use big words like the ones in the NHK English program.

Not only do they not use these words, they don’t understand complex concepts. They don’t even know about the concept of GRAVITY! They are still trying to count to 100 and tie their shoes the right way. I remember when I was very young, I thought that things fell down because they had nothing to support them. I didn’t think there was an invisible force pulling things toward each other. The concept hadn’t even occurred to me at 5 years old.

And yet, they are fluent. Kindergarteners can talk to each other and play house. Some can even read picture books! They know the language deeply and they can process simple language fast. They even make up language! Sure they make mistakes in grammar and understanding, but boy do they quickly learn and grow out of those ‘little kid mistakes.’

My mother-in-law is not fluent. It takes her time to process words and for words to come up in her head. But she knows lots of words and their meaning. She doesn’t always know how to use them. When she comes across a bunch of big words, she still has to process them and translate them in her head. That all takes time and mental effort. By the time she’s done reading and understanding a page of text in English she is exhausted! And she has the right to be! She worked hard!

A little kid will be processing language much faster and simple language at that. They will socialize with adults and peers as well as receive input from media. (usually children’s media).

So I told my mother-in-law all of this. She wants to improve her listening comprehension. And in order to do this, she needs to improve her processing speed. How can we do this?

Simply through extensive reading. Getting a lot of understandable English that is interesting and engaging is crucial to growing the mind. All the stress and hard work by going through these NHK English programs isn’t harmful, but it’s far from optimal. Those are designed for those with a decent ‘business’ fluency who can pick up an English teen novel and read it within a week or two without much use of the dictionary. It’s not suitable for my mother-in-law.

Which is why I did a little more reading up on the research that supports Extensive reading and decided to start and track it here again. Starting over from 1 isn’t a bad idea, either. Also, I’ve acquired many simple readers that I can safely jump into after all of the extensive readers are run through.

That’s the update for now. Check back here soon for more updates.

Why Ajatt is Half Wrong

For those of you who don’t know, there is a wonderful glorious site that I found when I was searching for exactly how to study Japanese. This was way back in 2010 when I figured that I needed to somehow get the perfect path to fluency in Japanese.

It’s a great site with great articles. I suggest you go and read some of them. It really helped me stay motivated and push through RTK1. It also helped me think differently about learning a language.

However, there are a lot of misguided views. These views have good intentions and they will work fine for someone who doesn’t really need to learn Japanese seriously. But, let me just address a few views from Khatzumoto’s (the author) writings:

 1.   “Learn from Anime and whatever you like and you’ll be fine.”

This is all well and good, but how much are you understanding? Sure you will be more motivated to learn from things that you like, but more likely than not it will be frustrating and painful. Unless you are absolutely brainwashed and strong-willed, I don’t see this working much for you by starting with only native materials that you like.

In fact, I tried it myself. Especially with photography books and magazines. And admittedly It’s great! It’s wonderful! I was one of those strong-willed people who could push through the pain. But only up to a certain point. I realized that I was slowly slowly plowing through the vocabulary trying to understand meaning. It was like hiking in shoes that were much too big for me. Sure I could do it, but it took time to climb up the mountain. And it wasn’t the best way.

Learning from native materials really disregards the main point about comprehensible input. You can’t acquire much language without understanding. You can’t stand without a foundation.

An anime that I used to watch almost every day when I was first learning was very hard to understand at first. This is even after I watched it with English dubs. But after a few months of studying I could understand bits and pieces here and there. And I said, “Hey! It’s working! It’s working!” All of that studying had paid off. The textbooks, and the language exchanges, and the sentence-mining. It wasn’t watching just the anime over and over again that was working, though. Did it help? Yeah it did, but it didn’t help that much compared to the other things I was doing. Mostly because I had no foundation to stand on.

Because I was doing things I liked, it made the language that I was learning more important to me. But because it was mostly incomprehensible, I didn’t learn much from it. Only after I learned those bits of Japanese from other places did I begin to understand and acquire the language.

You need learner materials to get up to an intermediate-advanced level before you can really advance onto native materials. Sorry, Khatz. You have to crawl before you can run in a marathon.

2. “Textbooks and classes suck. The real world is your classroom/textbook.”

This goes along with number one. A few hours studying from a textbook will give you better results than a few hours watching a Japanese drama without subtitles (or even with subtitles.)

When I was working in Boston, I belonged to a Japanese-English language exchange club. This is a great place to meet people and truly learn things. When we talked to each other we used simple language. Learner language. The way your mother would talk to you when you were 3. This isn’t full native language from a newscaster. This is CI. Comprehensible input.

It’s hard to get CI as an adult because most people don’t have the time or patience for you. Who does have the time and patience? Teachers, tutors, and also some people at language exchanges. 🙂

On some weeks I wouldn’t go to the language exchange, because I knew that I could gain more by going home and studying so I would have something to say at the meetups.

Sometimes I would go to the meetup with questions and books that I was trying to translate. But you can only ask for help so many times. Not everyone wants to be a free tutor.  And you just have to respect that. That’s why, often times the langauge exchange turns into free talking. And unless you’re better at Japanese than they are at English, it’s going to turn into a free talking English meet-up.

Here’s the thing. Ajatt is half right about learning from the real world. The real world tells the brain it’s more important to know and retain. So when  you’re learning from people or the real world, it may be slower, but it will be stronger. That’s why I think classes are still great. It’s people that you learn from.

And again, most language classes are taught poorly with little to no regard for CI techniques. Mostly, you’ll see some form of grammar translation, or even worse, a communicative approach based “learn this dialog and practice with your partner.” What nonsense.

It’s also hard to find good textbooks to learn from on your own. Even with a good textbook it’s far better to have a tutor or teacher helping you. Otherwise you’ll likely morph things like pronunciation, or grammatical things to fit your own English grammar.

So classes and textbooks don’t suck. Bad classes and bad textbooks suck.

If you find a good class and good textbook, then it will help you understand and learn from the real world much better. A good class and good textbook helps you tear down that wall of the outside world.

How do I know all this?

Because that’s what’s been happening to me. I started out watching things without subs, and just reading things without understanding anything and doing whatever I wanted all Ajatt style. But you know what? It sucked. It was slow and painful. It was like running a marathon without training.

And now, I’ve been training with learner materials. Drilling vocabulary and soon drilling grammar.

I’ll also read easy graded things for myself too. I have a huge set of graded readers. And lots of manga and other books.

And also, I talk to people. In Japanese.

Even though I’m here in Korea, I’ve built up my ability to hold a conversation for a few hours in Japanese with very little help. I can’t say the same for my Korean, though. My Korean is barely functional at best.

Other Suggestions?

During my time here in Korea, I have learned some excellent methods for learning languages.

1. German Volume Method.

Do a Youtube search for it. It’s very intensive and takes a while, but it’s great for studying with a tutor or by yourself. It focuses on really building a strong foundation. It is very “left-brained” and based on over-learning, but there are ways to add “right-brained” learning.

2. TPRS. Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling

It’s great if you can find a class or a tutor who can do this with you. It really focuses on being fluent first. I had the pleasure of taking 12 Mandarin Chinese classes with an excellent tutor. You start out with simple grammar and words, and build a foundation piece by piece with compelling stories that the teacher/tutor creates with you.

3. WAYK/Langauge Hunting.

This was developed to help revitalize endangered languages. It’s not really taught as much as it is “played”. I want to say it’s almost how a mother plays with a baby and teaches it language.  It’s very good for learning functional language. And there is very little translation so it is very “right-brained.”

Final thoughts

Now just to be clear, occasionally I’ll watch YouTube videos that are semi-comprehensible and fun to watch. I’m not saying don’t watch anime, or if you watch funny YouTube videos in Japanese you’re doing it wrong. Not at all. Enjoy Japanese. But if you do serious study, you give yourself the opportunity to enjoy those funny videos even more. And I can tell you that’s the truth of it from my first hand experience.

You remember that anime that I mentioned? The one that I watched everyday for months over and over again? Well, after going through vocab books, tutoring, textbooks, and other learner materials, I can say that I understand a whole lot more. There are many little phrases in the anime here and there that I don’t understand.

But that’s okay. The thing is I didn’t realize I didn’t understand it. Before when I was first learning Japanese I just kind of blocked those things out. But now I know what I don’t understand. And I know those things will come to me with more studying from learner materials, tutoring and talking to people in Japanese.

Okay, time for some more studying.

Japanese New Plan Tracking: Day 6

Today was busy,  so I got a late start. 

Reading

2 hours. Extensive reading only.

3 of the level 2 books, and 1 of the level three books. I read a few pages of another level 3 book before the timer went off.

Grammar

Finished Anki. 20 minutes. This was the first thing I did this morning. Then I fell back asleep because it was like 6am.

Vocabulary

Wrote out the vocab words, but I didn’t study any cards cuz… way too late and tired tonight. ZZzz ZZzz

  • Summary
  • Reading: 2 hours
  • Grammar: 20 minutes
  • Vocabulary: 40 minutes

Total 3 hours

Not my best day. It doesn’t matter. Momma said there’d be days like these.

Onto the next day!

Japanese Tracking New Plan: Day 5

Day FIVE! ROAR!

Today was a normal working day.

Vocabulary

Took longer than I thought to write out the cards. But the review took just as long. In total I spent an hour with vocabulary.

Grammar

Finished all of my Anki cards. Wasn’t much. Maybe 38. About 20 minutes.

Reading

I did do 2 hours of extensive reading. The two hours was fun. I got through six of the level two books. I’ve read these ones before, but this time I understood everything. It actually took 2 hours and 10 minutes, cuz I just had to finish the last book that I was on. Once I start I have to just keep on going. Wish I started earlier with the reading.

The intensive reading was only 30 minutes. But It was good. I got halfway through one of the stories in the red book. I was pretty tired at this point but still had a lot of momentum from the extensive reading.

Video

I watched some anime I’ve seen over and over. I used a dictionary to pick out words I didn’t know and then I replayed it. 🙂 Just an hour this time.

Summary

  • Vocab: 1 hour
  • Grammar: 20 minutes
  • Reading: 2 hours 40 minutes
  • Video: 1 hour

Total: 5 hours… ZZzz Zzz Zzz

Not bad for a working day. I’ve been consistent and on track.

Tomorrow I will try to read an article on the NHK Web Easy site.

No English videos again. Today I did watch one short vid in English.

I want to keep the Extensive reading and the tiny bit of Intensive reading. Vocab must be studied steadily. Can’t rush it.

 

Japanese Tracking New Plan: Day 1

Today I watched 2 hours of intermediate level Japanese videos. “Nihongo de kurasou”

My brain is kinda fried right now from watching so many of those. The Japanese is fast. And sometimes I can’t understand the Korean girl. The Sensei speaks pretty fast. I have to pause and go back a lot. But, I understand most of it. That’s the important thing. These videos are pretty cool, and it’s really helping me speed up and learn polite Japanese. Very useful for living in Japan kind of Japanese.

My concentration was a the max. I can only concentrate for so long until burnout. This is good in a way. However, unlike a person, it’s not going to lower the level of language to help me not burn out so much.

I also studied Vocab from the book. I went over the JLPT N5 nouns that I didn’t know. And by don’t know, I mean I don’t know the meaning right away. If I have to take some time to come up with the meaning, I don’t know it. It needs to be lightening quick.

Then after, I wrote all of the N5 verbs that I didn’t know on flashcards and looked them up. I took my time to get the right stroke order from some of the Kanji I wasn’t sure of.

Tomorrow I will review all of the cards and test myself on them in addition to the previous ones.

Also, I finished the first red book and it’s stories, and I’m onto the first story of the second red book.

The stories at the end of the first red book got extremely more difficult as there were totally new words thrown at me in every sentence. Too many for me to read without a dictionary. I guess that’s not for Extensive reading after all. But It’s not so intense. Also the grammar isn’t for beginners. There was a little repetition in the stories, but not much. It was a bit hard. たくさん時間が掛かりましたね。

I listened to a few stories from the first book on the audio CD’s too.

I found myself taking lots of little breaks here and there. Perhaps because I’m not used to doing all of this, I get tired and burned out easily. But I know that I’m on track. My brain is telling me now that I need some sleep.

I still feel I could have done more. With time, I’ll get faster at all of this and will be able to handle more. I didn’t review the Anki cards today. Oh well. I’ll have to do that tomorrow. No big deal because I set it to 10 new cards a day. I can handle it.

In summary:

  • 2 Hours of easy videos
  • 15 minutes of 3 stories from Audio CD’s
  • 1.5 hours of testing, reviewing and learning new vocabulary.
  • 1.5 hours of semi-intensive reading.

5 hours 15 minutes throughout the day. Not bad. I can do more. Tomorrow I will stick to a tighter schedule to get in more reading and listening as well as a few more videos. 😀