Thoughts on Language Study

There are various ways to study a foreign language.  I’m’na ramble a bit about some ideas that just occurred to me.  Hope y’all don’t mind.

There are various ways to study a foreign language. I’m’na ramble a bit about some ideas that just occurred to me. Hope y’all don’t mind.

Something very troubling just occurred to me with regard to language study in schools, and it’s very closely related to the fact that language study goes on in schools.  See, when we were all very young children learning to speak, we heard sounds made by parents and those around us, and eventually made connections of sounds to meanings, and began to understand.  Then we tried to make the sounds ourselves to be understood, first with easy sound/idea combinations (“No!” anyone?), then with more complicated ones (“I don’t want to say precocious…”). We were often told what to say in various situations and thus repeated it over and over, spoken correctly (well, correctly enough…  terms like “I should of” and “I’d just assume” and “I could care less” notwithstanding), and we said correct, understandable things.  All of this largely through imitation.  Then we got to school and learned to “created” rules about speech being “correct” (which the descriptivist will tell you is a waste of time) or not, and we choose to use or remember those rules based on interest, capacity, etc…

But when we made mistakes in speech growing up, there was always someone there to correct our speech.  “I juice please” is not a sentence, but the mother knowing the correct way will likely correct saying either, “I want juice,” or “You want juice?”, but likely emphasizing the forgotten word.

In school, we are taught words to memorize, and grammar principles to use, told to study them, and then tested on our understanding.  This fails.  We may occasionally be corrected on our improper use of grammar, but we are not constantly asked to say correct things once we’ve made a mistake.  In fact, almost every day, we are told to speak to one-another in the language we’re learning, with the hopes that we will somehow magically figure out how Japanese people speak Japanese if we attempt to speak it to an American (or German, or Russian, etc… in my local classes) who is ALSO learning.  Thus far, I see that we have a very strong potential for reinforcing bad grammatical skills.  I will very often better understand something said by a student in “Japanese” than will the teacher who has to say, “Wait, what was he TRYING to say?”  See, because I know English, and thus the Enlish way of thinking about things, thus I can easily say, “Oh, he was trying to say _____ in English!”

Okay so problem #1 is reinforced errors.  That is, a lack of correction in as many times as possible.

Number two, which I think is a much bigger problem, is that we are tested.  It is expected that through study you can become useful in a language to the point where you can fill in small words around a sentence.  Look at the English words “in”, “at”, and “on”.  Now try explaining those words to someone who’s learning English.  Now let’s say you test them.  How can you even test to see if they can use the words correctly?  Well, you could have them memorize sentences with the words and regurgitate those sentences, but that’s not really “learning”, then, is it?  You could have them create sentences on their own that use them, which could work.  You could give them a sentence with all words but the one they need to choose written, and they fill in the plank.  (The last is what they do in my classes.)  How could you possibly expect someone to know the difference between “I went home on the bus” and “I went home in the bus”.  The first is the obvious choice for a native speaker, while the second makes no sense at all.  “What, so you were in the bus when you went home?  What are you trying to say?  What’s your point?”  And “by bus” works, but it’s just weird.

Now you maybe know how it feels to be studying Japanese for me.  Every time I think I understand something, I find out I’m wrong in at least some case, and when I ask the teachers why, all they have to say to me is, “It’s the rule in this case.”  They can’t even explain it any better in their own language, often saying, “I wonder why…” or “I don’t really know why.”  You just do.

So now we have a situation where the student has to remember something arbitrary for a test wherein they aren’t given the exact same sentences to regurgitate.  How on earth can you expect them to succeed?  There’s SO much extra work to overcome that was built up by their previous language as well, that you just cannot give them flat-out rules with the expectation that in studying, somehow, they will manage to integrate those rules into their own understanding of the language!

I think the missionaries have it easy, because they find themselves often saying the same things over and over again in teaching lessons, and so they are more likely to become good at them.  We don’t really practice useful phrases in an environment where it’s useful to know them so much as create very fictitious scenarios and memorize words for a test, not because we may need to know them in the future.  I think the very nature of language learning is that you do it because it is necessary, and it can be easy because it is important to you.  But you can’t overflow someone with words and expect them to remember even the important ones very well.

Why, I can memorize the kanji (recognizing them) for upwards of almost 100 words a day for a single test.  But then, right after the test give me a practical reading in it, and it takes still a decent length of time to see the words and remember, “Oh, that was one of the words I studied this morning.”  ANd of course by the time I’ve studied the next set of words (usually more like 20-40 than 100, of course) for the next day, I will have forgotten most, if not all, of the previous day’s words.

So roundabout-ly, problem #2 is being tested on something that is most naturally gained through use rather than study.  And believe me, I’m positive that use it the better way to learn the words…  From experience.  At best, I can say to myself, “Well, we studied the word I want to use recently, but I honestly have no idea what it was anymore because we’ve had three other chapters since then.”  (Okay, at absolute best, it’s one of those few words that I just seem to remember somehow, but that’s incredibly rare…  I think.  Compared to the flood of new vocabulary we need to use almost every day.)

Lack of helpful, nurturing correction and a malformed focus of import and learning are two major issues that I would like to tackle through graduate studies, assuming I still manage to pass the Japanese class somehow (I’m convinced it’s no in my hands, nor was it likely ever, how my grade will be.  The class is that crazy.) and graduate from my university without having to do some weird academic probation or something terrible and unfortunate like that…

Ah, but I’m saying worrisome things again.  Please keep in mind that when reading my blogs, as with reading most anything I write (or hearing things I say) that I am rather prone to make the truth sound more dramatic than it really is.  Partially because I probably perceive it as more dramatic than would most people…  Maybe it’s a defense mechanism to make my life feel more interesting or something. ^_^  No sense in seriously freaking out over something you’ve no control, eh?  Besides, school isn’t NEARLY the most important thing going on over here.  I’ve learned far more outside of school than could be understood probably in ten-times the classes I’ve attended.  So good things.  Just life as I would LIKE to live it being frustrated by the System.  And let’s be honest: when has my life NOT been frustrated by the System?  Right, so I’m used to it.  I just love bitching about it SO gosh-darn much…  It’s really a hobby of mine.  I honestly think that I somewhat actively strive to “bitch better” about things, as it were.  So please, do not stress yourself over my stress, as my stress only exists in the specific situations or when recounting it to others…  (Though recounting is much more entertaining for me, I promise!)

If you’re worried about me, ask my older brother if you have any real reason to be.  And he’ll tell you ‘no’.  Or maybe, ‘probably not’.  In any case, his answer won’t be anything like ‘yes’.  Unless it includes the word ‘guess’ in it… but it still won’t indicate an affirmation of your fear, regardless of the verbiage he chooses.

Do you all even know how to contact my brother?  Meh, I suppose it may be better that way.