Bootstrapping and Finding the Fun in Language Learning

For my language learners and linguistics friends…


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I study and learn language versus how it was and is taught. I’ve been looking at a ton of language study apps (for myself and also my wife), and a lot of them have some of the main keys — learning words through multiple vectors and from different direction, interval training, etc — but they all feel pretty terrible at introducing NEW things.

So as I’ve been thinking about how I study when I make flashcards versus how these apps EXPECT me to study, I’ve come down to what I’m calling “bootstrapping” (term stolen from programming probably). That is, when you have no basis for building understanding, how do you get from there to HAVING understanding and having a foundation for building on more knowledge. It’s this idea of bootstrapping that I think most neglected — at least in the discourse of Japanese pedagogy. (There, I’ve gotten the big academic words out of the way, so I can write like a normal person again.)

Please allow me to start with an example of the problem:

I am an intermediate-level Japanese reader, and possibly an advanced-level speaker. But I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes large, gaping, embarrassing holes (like I only within the last month learned the verb “to guide” and it’s one they use all the time, and now suddenly I hear it EVERYWHERE). So I’ve been trying to fill those holes by starting at the JLPT N5 word list and studying up so I know that I know the whole thing. (N5 is the beginning Japanese proficiency level according to the nationally recognized JLPT system — Japanese Language Proficiency Test. You have to get at least a C on each level to be awarded that level. It goes 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in increasing proficiency. If you are an N1 speaker, you are probably better than most Japanese at speaking the language and could likely teach their kids how to speak it better.)

After completing out my N5 list one afternoon, I excitedly switched over to the N4 list, ready to finally feel like my knowledge of the language was moving forward. I switched to the new list in the app I was using (Sticky Study, one of the better flashcard study apps I’ve found) and started the process of learning some new words. Unlike in the previous list, N4 had a lot of words I just plain didn’t recognize, neither from kanji nor from pronunciation. And I very quickly became frustrated (I’ll get back to the frustration part). It would show me a handful of words, maybe 5 or 6, then it would review some words I had marked as already knowing, and then when it brought me back around to the new words from before, they looked exactly as foreign to me as they did when I first saw them. There were no lingering pronunciations or meanings trying to become attached to these new words. It became disheartening and I gave up for the day.

And this is a problem. When you are handed 5 new things that don’t have any attachment or reference points in your mind, there’s nothing for them to stick to — no memories or ideas for those new words to affix themselves to. I envision knowledge like a web or lattice system: the more similar things a new piece of information has to attach to, the more stable that information becomes. Also, the longer you spend reinforcing the connections, the longer it sticks together (and over time if you never come back, the connections will wither away. I guess they need time to set at each layer before you can apply the next coating or something. It’s not a perfect analogy.)

So these words, all I had was having seen them on the screen and read the meaning once. I had no memories of seeing the characters before, I had no feeling like I’d ever heard people SAYING the words before. There was essentially nothing to attach them to, and so no memory could be formed.

This is where I feel like we need to improve the bootstrapping of new words and grammar. “Bootstrapping” here (which, I mean, I could be wrong), I am using to mean the process of starting something up from nothing. No foundation, no similarities to other things. Functionally nothing. You give people a vocab list, and the words they are most likely to remember are the cognates first, followed by maybe either the really common words they hear all the time or the ones that they’ve come up with fun mnemonics for. But there always seem to be some set of words that people have a hard time with — words that sound nothing like their own language, or whose meanings are more subtly different and difficult to translate. (Japanese has a lot of both, btw.)

I feel like I have, on my own, been able to overcome this problem pretty regularly, but the technique I use doesn’t seem to be represented anywhere in the literature I’ve read (and certainly isn’t present in the tools I’ve tried).

Basically, I take two arbitrary items and compare them to each other. I build up the framework by hand. I look at one crazy character or word, acknowledge its meaning, pronunciation, etc; and then I look at a second one. I see how it looks different, sounds different, and how its meaning is different. Then, before I’ve had a chance to really forget the first one, I go back to it. First, second, first, second. I do that a few times, and then I add in a third. The third isn’t very difficult because I’ve already learned the first two, so at first it’s just “the new one”. And I go through those three for a while before adding a fourth, and then a fifth, and so on. Sometimes I’ll add more than one, but I never add a new word until I’ve got a pretty solid sense of the difference between the last new one and the other ones I’ve already studied. (Sometimes I call them targets, since “word” is maybe not always the best, er, word to use — maybe morpheme would be more accurate here? But “target” in that it’s the thing you’re aiming at to learn, yeah?)

And after you’ve done this for maybe 5 or 10 or 30 words, you start feeling less like you have nothing going for you and more like you have quite a lot going for you. I used this technique every other day in college to memorize (and let’s not kid ourselves, what I’m talking about here is memorization, not quite learning yet) sometimes as many as 60 new words or more to ace the morning’s vocab quiz.

My tactic was also assisted by a kind of defacto interval training. The better I knew the word, the further back I would put it in the list of vocab cards, so words I had trouble with would come back sooner, ones I already knew would recur less frequently.

The thing that I want to emphasize is that the bootstrapping process in learning new words — that route by which you take something completely alien and make it familiar by comparing it to something else completely alien — seem both vitally necessary and severely underrepresented in the work I’ve seen on language learning.

Finding the Fun

In my career as a game designer, there was a mantra that everyone has used: “Find the fun”. If a game mechanic isn’t fun, then you don’t have a good game. Period. End of line. The single most vitally important thing in making fun games is for the designers to “find the fun”. This is both harder and easier than it seems (depending on how you look at it), but for now, I’ll just leave it at this is the most fundamental job that a game designer has. Everything else is predicated upon knowing that fun exists, and where it is and understanding it.

I think that this should apply to how we live our lives, as well. From a personal and professional standpoint, whether dealing with hardships or learning something new.

Remember how I said I would get back to the frustration I felt? If something isn’t fun, we tend to stop doing it. Or we do it begrudgingly. I don’t want to hear any old-person jibber-jabber about “sometimes you have to do stuff that isn’t fun, it just needs to be done.” I think their definition of fun is either too narrow, or they’ve gone about doing things in a way that makes them more miserable. (Which is totally a thing that people do. Maybe another blog post sometime about that one.)

When I was studying and I came back around to the new words, not only could I not remember them, the only thing I DID remember was that there was a set of words, and visually, yeah, maybe this was one of them. I guess. It was frustrating, and also it wasn’t very fun. So sue me if I want to spend my life enjoying the things I do (wow, I must have some repressed something about that fun thing).

Basically, nobody needs to learn a language that isn’t their native language — and native languages are kind of acquired without having to try too hard. That is, little kids try REALLY hard, but they’re at a stage in their life where just learning and making connections at whatever pace works for them is not only fun, it’s also TOTALLY OKAY for them to be having fun. They haven’t had the sense of “it’s okay to have fun” beaten out of them yet, and so they slowly build up their working knowledge. But for the “grown-ups” of us out there, yeah, we probably don’t NEED to learn another language. You can see this all over the world by looking at immigrants and refugees who never learn the language very well for where they are now living: Spanish-speakers in the US, English speakers in Japan, German speakers in Brazil… You can get by with surprisingly little native language understanding.

So when we say we want to learn a language, we should acknowledge that what we’re setting out to do is, functionally, completely optional (even for schools that require it, you can still get a simple job if you fail out of school, it happens all the time). And if something is optional AND unenjoyable (or regularly frustrating), we’re almost certainly going to give up.

So could you go through the list of five new words over and over again and eventually pick them up? Yeah, probably. And you would almost certainly learn one of them first, know which one that was in order, be looking for it, and then learn the others in the context of knowing that one. But in the meantime, you’ll likely be frustrated and (like I did) put it down.

Another thing I learned as a game designer is that once someone puts something down, if there isn’t a strong draw to come back, they won’t. Once the game is off, it’s gone. Once you stop studying, you’re done. Unless the task was REALLY fun, or you want to learn the language SO MUCH that it overcomes how boring and tedious and frustrating the task it, you’ll give up. I can’t tell you how often I’ve given up and come back and given up again.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that language learning should always be fun — ALL learning should be fun — or else you’re going to give up and you may never come back.

Level Design

When designing content for a game — levels and puzzles and so forth — your main goal is to push the player without frustrating them. You take what they already know and you add some new thing to it to make it just a little bit trickier, or to make it just a little bit newer or different. In this way, you’re always showing them something new and challenging them just a little bit. There’s a sweet spot for video games between making players do the same thing over and over again, they get bored; and forcing them to grow in skill too quickly, and the game becomes hard and many players will give up. But if the game does it just right, then you can start from not knowing how to do anything at all in the game to now pulling off crazy skilled jumps and attacks that, if you’d been asked to do them from the start, would have frustrated you and you would have likely given up.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this one.

I think we should be applying the same tactics to language instruction that we do to level design. Introduce things slowly. Give them some time to play around with that things and become comfortable and good at it. Then, right when they’re starting to get a little bored, you give them something new.

This, in a simple way, is an advantage that I think the system I use on myself has — at least in the sphere of learning new vocabulary targets. You play around in the space that you know until you’re comfortable with how to recognize it against the backdrop of all the other things you already know about. Then you add something new, and play with that. Eventually, you don’t have to do a direct comparison against EVERY other thing because you’ve built up that framework of knowledge. Though sometimes you do get thrown for a loop by targets that are surprisingly similar, or whose meanings get crossed somehow.

(I had that exact problem with the characters for big sister, little sister, and little brother in Japanese — I could easily recognize that each of them was one of the words in that group, and when placed next to each other I could have likely told you which was which; but when seen individually, I was just awful at remembering quickly which one had what meaning.)

A topic for another time (since I’ve written over 2,000 words already and I’m not QUITE done yet) is how we should take what I’m saying here and then train against things that are cognitively similar for whatever reason, to learn to differentiate them from one another.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this section is that, when you introduce topics or new words slowly and give people time to play and understand it, they will feel like they’re GOOD at it all, and they will want to do more. Whereas if you just hand them a huge list and say “go”, they’d probably do it ineffectively and they’ll feel like they’re bad at it and give up and (possibly) think themselves lesser than people who just naturally figure out how to study better for themselves earlier.

Memorization vs. Learning

Lastly, I just want to touch briefly on “learning” versus “memorization”. Obviously, the goal is learning. Learning is what we do with our native languages. It’s that instinctual kind of knowledge where you have a non-verbal thought and the words and grammar just materialize and you say them. Memorizing is more like having a high-speed look-up table. Like a dictionary in your head. And when you have a thought, you have to formalize it into something you understand (words, meta-thoughts, something weird like that) and then “look up” or “figure out” what those things are in the target language.

Memorization can happen very quickly, but it also goes away very quickly. It’s part of why I still got a D in that class where I was rockstar-memorizing over 100 words each week and acing morning quizzes. I did the quizzes, but then by the time class was out, the words were gone. The step I lacked was coming back to what I’d studied later, after a break, and RE-memorizing the ones I’d lost. It’s the classic long-tailed second half of recurrence learning. It’s the part that everyone already has figured out in all of their flashcard apps.

The thing they’re missing is that “getting started” bit right at the beginning.

And that little part is why I’ve started working on a flashcard app of my own. Because I’m tired of having to deal with poor bootstrapping of new vocabulary. Because it’s not fun, and I think it wastes my time.


Figures of Speech

It’s just a fun picture.  There’s no connection.

It’s just a fun picture. There’s no connection.

So, I was thinking this evening (instead of going to sleep, as I should be even now) about some of the differences I’ve experienced in the Japanese culture, especially in social and group cultures, of which I have significantly more experience even these four or five weeks than the whole of last semester.  In joining the Ballroom Dance Club here on campus, I have had the chance to experience a lot of different group dynamics, and it occurred to me this evening a way to compare some of what I have experienced to American life, and how I would explain that to someone here.

There’s a saying in Japan that goes, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”  (Some of us like to rephrase it, “the nail that sticks up will ultimately gash someone’s foot open and make them swear and bleed,” but that’s not really related, unless you talk about foreigners here being nails sticking up. ^_^)  This phrase is generally taken to mean that everyone must do what they are told, and live in their place without trying to move, and to a great extent that holds true even today.  But you can also look at it a bit differently, in that it’s saying that there is an order to everything, a place for everything, and it’s not good to screw with that.  I call it Japanese bureaucracy, and generally I dislike it, but it works here.  I don’t see a lot of Japanese people complaining that things aren’t moving fast enough, or they want to do more.  If they want to do more, they add things they do, not complain about things moving too slowly.

See, for me, having dance experience, I have already picked up the beginning step-pattern that they teach all of the newbies here.  The first-year students will be working on these patterns for the next several months, and will eventually become pretty good at them.  I’m already as good as a second or third-year at these patterns, or so I’ve been told.  Somehow I tend to think that’s not one of those “exaggerate to make the foreigner feel successful” moments, either, because dance isn’t really about what language you speak with your mouth.  This increased pace has also frustrated me, however, as I know I can learn MORE, faster, and still improve, but getting someone to teach me, well, is like asking the mountains to move.*  And I think that this is a prime example of the nail being hammered back down.  They see me and perceive that I’m a new student to the club, and so call me a first-year, despite the fact that I’m soon to graduate, and am at least three years older than even their seniors.  They see me as a nail, and even though I’m a nail of exceptional quality, I have a place to be, and that place has not yet gotten to the point where it’s time to learn more.

Along with this, however, is the fact that if other nails are weaker, they get don’t get left behind.  It matters more that you are a nail, or a plank, or a screw, or whatever, than how well you were crafted, or how well you fulfill your role.

*Incidentally, I have gotten word that if, outside of sanctioned practices, I ask someone to show me more, I can probably get that, seeing as how I won’t be here for the normal time of a first year student.

On the flip side of this, I think the appropriate figure of speech for American group dynamic is “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  Usually this means that if you have someone really weak in a group, the whole group is weak, and it’s the basis for having tryouts for team sports, etc…  However if you look at it from another perspective, then it provides incentive for everybody to a) try their best so as not the BE the weakest link, and b) the people who are better to always be helping those below them to become better.  This doesn’t mean that they just help their technique, however, this means that every link should strive to be as strong as the strongest, if not more so.  And that the stronger links should all fall in to help the weaker ones to be at least as strong as they.  So then, even if you’re a newbie, if you’re as good as a third year, you generally get grouped with them, and people below you will look to you for help.  Perhaps you even MORE so because you’re ALSO new, which makes you part of their group, thus a bit more approachable, but still higher on the link-strength scale.  Were I to join a similar dance team in America, I feel fairly strongly that I would rapidly become one of the primary dancers, because people would show me what they could, and I would pick it up and get better at it almost as fast as they could teach it to me.  Even if it was my first semester there, they wouldn’t hold me back just because I was new, assuming I had the skills.

Furthermore, if one link breaks, then all of the others (or at least the strongest, most important) gather around it to help it back up, and help it to become strong again, because you cannot have weaknesses in your chain.  However if a nail is sticking up, it’s up the the carpenter to come and hammer it back down.  The other nails would only upset things by trying to fix the situation themselves.

Does this make any sense?  Do you guys see it being this way?  Do you have better phrases to use?  Leave a comment or send me an email and let me know! ^_^

Let Me Count the Ways

Have I already used this picture?  I’m too lazy to go back and check. ^_^

Have I already used this picture? I’m too lazy to go back and check. ^_^

I just want to take this moment to say that I love my Mac.  Specifically, I love the software that comes WITH my Mac.

First off, it can play all of my Windows games pretty darn well, under Windows, so that’s the first liberating factor.

Second, it has a lot of built-in support for a lot of international “stuff.”  This “stuff” includes a whole lot of Japanese.  I can use basically all of the default programs in Japanese (were I to so desire, and I don’t right now), I can also natively view any website in Japanese without having to install special fonts, etc…  Actually, this may have just been an option that I could have chosen on install…  Anyway, the installation of international input is also easier than on Windows.  (Note: I haven’t installed Vista on anything, so this may be better now.)

Going along with that, there’s this wicked cool program which comes with every installation of the Mac OS: Dictionary.  Yes, that’s right, I called the Dictionary program “wicked-cool.”  And it is.  I can set which dictionaries I want to look a word up in, and select them for any word or set of characters that I type.  Specifically, I have now set up to be have available a standard dictionary, a thesaurus, Apple’s dictionary (which I assume lets you look of definitions of the terminology used with your computer and software), a Japanese dictionary (defines Japanese words IN Japanese), a Japanese-English Dictionary (which actually goes BOTH ways), and a Japanese Synonyms dictionary, for when you just can’t stand to use the same word 7 times in a row. ^_^

Let me now provide an example.  The little boy at my house here in Tokyo (where I’m living in a home-stay, remember?) was in here rifling through my drawers because I haven’t the gonads to tell him to stop, nor the conviction that I could do so in a kind and gentle manner.  I would probably either scare him or make him think that he continued his intrusions at risk of life-and-limb, which isn’t the case, so I let him enjoy himself.  It’s just stuff after all.  And I keep my valuable things hidden away. ^_^  Back to the subject, he was sifting through a drawer and happened upon my tuner – this for music, not for radio waves.  He picks it up and says, “What’s this?”

Well, it wasn’t my DS, so I really wanted to answer him.  (Lately he’s been asking about my DS at least thrice a day.  I should have never let him see that I had one, let alone that I had a Pokemon game for it! >.<  you live and learn, I suppose.  And here I was just trying to be more forthcoming and honest…)  However, I found that I simply could not answer his question.  I didn’t know the Japanese words for “pitch,” “sharp,” “flat,” “to tune,” or “analyze.”  (The latter, I thought I could maybe use to say “It’s a machine that analyzes sound.”  But even then I’d have wanted to say ‘sound frequencies,’ and I don’t know how to say “frequency” either.)  So I whip out my dictionary program here, look up the word “tuner,” expecting to get a bevy of useless words and arcane instances of those five letters in that configuration throughout the English language, translated into Japanese.

Lo and behold, I get two words.  One deals with music and has crazy looking kanji (調律師), the other deals with radios, and is the katakana letters for “chuunaa,” which is nothing more than the Japanesification of the English word.  So I click on the crazy kanji and I get the word “chouritsu,” meaning “tuning,” the noun.  Unfortunately, that’s only the first two of the three total kanji.  So I click the extended word (Dicitonary often gives a list of related, derived words below the definition you’re currently looking at) which highlighted the word I was searching for, but ALSO put that word in my search box.

Finally, I got to execute a wonderful trick I learned recently, that if you are in a text editor and you have a Japanese word highlighted, you can press Ctrl+Shift+R to do a reverse lookup on the kanji, and select “Transliteration” in a popup menu, and it will show you how to pronounce it!  The answer, finally, was “chouritsu-shi.”  I used this, and got blank stares from both him and my host parents.  Then my host mom looked at me and was like, “You mean like for a guitar?”

Success!  I successfully communicated something new in Japanese!  Thank you, Apple, for making this (and many other, less immediately pertinent things) possible. ^_^

Sitting in Cali

Here, I’ve only been in America for a few hours and already I miss Dancing Johan!  T_T

Here, I’ve only been in America for a few hours and already I miss Dancing Johan! T_T

Much as with going, it seems returning holds a lot of interesting thing for you that you may only be able to learn by experiencing them.  For instance, I sit here, people chatting away all around in my native language (er, English), and I find myself feeling a certain degree of sadness that I won’t be ABLE to speak Japanese to anyone for a while and be understood.  Somehow, despite the fact that I was (in my humble opinion) really bad at it, it seems that I had come to enjoy having Japanese to speak… and sometimes to hate to have to speak.  But now that, were I to speak it, nobody would have the slightest idea what I mean, I feel like I’ve lost a favorite toy, or like a family member has left and not told me where they went or something.

Something else, while passing through customs, was more or less the first time I’ve had someone I didn’t know speak to me in English in almost five months, and I was speechless for what I’m sure was not nearly as long as it felt.  He looked at me and said, “How was your trip?”  And I had to sit and think for a moment to come up with the response, “It was good.”  And that was weird.  ^_^  And he asked the purpose of my trip, to which I responded, “Exchange student… study… um… school.”  He smiled and laughed and said gingerly, “Welcome back!”  I’m not going to try to claim any degree of look-I’m-so-fluent-I-forgot-English, because that’s pretty far-fetched in any regard, perhaps barring isolation from anyone who MIGHT understand your language for a period of many years…  But it did feel strange conversing with employees in English.

PS:  This chair is gi-normous!  I mean, I’m sitting in it comfortably enjoying the space I have with it… but it’s freakin’ HUGE.  I wonder if the chair is big or if I’m just THAT used to small spaces now…?

Well, now I’m back off to find yet another something to do.  This has only really killed about 30 minutes of time writing this, and I unfortunately need something more like sour or six times that amount.  *sigh*  Well, I didn’t bring a fully charged PSP and DS for nothing, I suppose! ^_^

Thoughts on Linguistics

Hey, it’s words!  Yay, words! ^_^  And lately, “Yay, English words!”  Even if they are strange, and amusingly wrong...

Hey, it’s words! Yay, words! ^_^ And lately, “Yay, English words!” Even if they are strange, and amusingly wrong…

So I’m sure some linguist at the dawn of linguistics (Babylon?) already long since figured this out, but I’ve determined that understanding spoken language has two very distinct, yet important parts.  The first part is what the person speaking says, which is comprised of knowing the language and how words sound and what words are appropriate to use in which contexts, etc…  The second part is the listener hearing a sound made and attaching that to a meaning/context/sound that they understand.  It’s a guessing game, really.  Or perhaps more accurately, “real-life” Telephone.  I refer here, of course to the game played where someone whispers a word or phrase into someone’s ear, say, “Flies can ruin your soup,” and each person passes it around to the end, where it comes out something like, “Care bears are totally freaking awesome.”  That’s how communication works!  Isn’t it great?!?  This is why the Japanese phrase “dou-itashimashite” is (much to my chagrin) often referred to by English speakers as “Don’t touch my mustache,” due to similar sounds in a coherent sentence.

Has anyone ever experienced this?  You say something, the listener says, “What?” and then proceeds with answering or responding correctly to your question/statement.  That’s the search time.  You have a wide set of things you know and understand and have experienced.  You use that to choose the words which make the most sense to you regarding what you’re trying to say.  Then whoever is listening has to take the sounds you make and look for any matches in what they know and have experienced.  This can often be assisted by things such as context clues, or the current topic, or things you know about the speaker.  But if your mind doesn’t find a connection, various things can happen… though that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The problem is that when you learn a new language, you don’t have any kind of background at all for how the words are used, and which forms of speech are appropriate.  You don’t even REALLY know how the words are supposed to sound, so when you HEAR them, you probably won’t even recognize them for what they are.  I can’t count how many times I’ve had this happen since I’ve been in this country!  (I’d probably run out of fingers and toes if I tried…!)  Why just the other day, we were talking about games (Go versus Shogi) in Japanese culture, and my host mom says that she’s always preferred “O-sero”.  (Putting the emphasis on the’o’, so OH-se-ro.)  And I was like, “Well, gee, what’s that game like?” And they both (my host parents) turn at me surprised, saying, “You don’t know it?  I thought it was an American game!”  At which point my mind had wandered into the realm of American games, and happened upon one called “Othello”, played with black and white pieces.  I’m sure you know the game.  But we pronounce it “o-THEH-low”.  The th/s sound isn’t a problem, but it was the emphasis that confused me!

So now I’m convinced of the necessity for listening to native speech when learning a foreign language, but at the same time it should be an exercise in learning how the language sounds, not in “let’s see if you can hear what they’re saying”.  I think that listening should be taught rather than practiced.  You see, we have the ability to be told things that would make learning easier.  It’s taken me now 24 years to get where I am in English, and while there’s been a severe flattening off these past several years, you just can’t get good at things like language without being taught or spending a dozen or more years practicing in a native environment.  But if you could TEACH it, say “This is how the word sounds in Japanese; now lets hear it in context.”  And practice picking out the sounds, and how sounds get squished together, then maybe you’d have something useful.

Until then, please cease all “listening” skills-based tests.  Kthxby.