Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Language Acquisition

Moving from Canada to live in Japan exposed me a lot to issues of acquiring and using language.

In Canada, Japanese is considered an exotic, difficult, but cool-to-know language. Often people would stop me while reading Japanese and exclaim "how on earth can you read that?"

In Japan by contrast, Japanese would always complement me on my Japanese, regardless of how poorly I was speaking. The Japanese believe their language is hard to learn (a common enough bias, after all they don't know how they learned it), and they know from experience that English is "hard". They naturally assume its because all language acquisition is hard.

(Aside: a joke among expats: "How can you tell when your Japanese is getting good? When people stop complimenting you on it!")

The problem with Japanese and learning English, is not that English, or any other language, is hard to learn. The problem is with the Japanese and the way they try to learn it.

They approach foreign things as one might approach alien things: with a certain distance born of trepidation; and not without a little touch of fear. Japanese culture teaches that it is polite to be reserved, and that verbal outbursts could land you in real hot water.

They are also taught that since speakers are circumspect, listeners hold the burden of interpreting the meaning of those choice words, and must act without need for further clarification.

The result is an intolerable internal state for many Japanese people; marked by a sensation of stress owing to the conflict between the demands of society, and their individual failure to meet those demands in a foreign language. This angst can be avoided in education by sticking to completely sanitized forms of learning, specifically wrote memorization of vocabulary and grammar being the most common teaching method throughout Asia.

When I was there, I tried to explain this to some of my exasperated Japanese friends when they complained how hard English was. I would say, "No, no; you just have to adjust your strategy to include more human-human practise! Just speak and listen often! And don't care about making mistakes!"

Another problem I found was that Japanese always wanted to learn English in little convenient to chew pieces -- an hour once a week -- after work as part of an involuntary training program at the local English Conversation school. They'd spend .5hr turning their brain to English mode, then just when they'd have succeeded, the next 23.5hrs were spent forgetting all about it.

Another frequent recommendation that was fairly abhorrent to most inquisitors was the suggestion to spend a month overseas. I never understood how one could spend so much time and effort on consistently proven ineffective methods, then balk at such a simple, proven, effective ones. No one had ever heard of "language immersion!"

Now living in Finland, its such a shock to me how it is that so many Northern Europeans are so good at English. One might be able to argue that Swedish and Norwegian are distant relatives of English, and that's why its easy for them. But there is no arguing that Finnish is any way related to English -- and yet the Finns are astoundingly good at it.

If you ask them why it is, they'll tell you, "Because we are only [4] million people. No one is ever going to bother to learn [Finnish], so we learn English. And its not just in the schools. Almost all of our (imported) television is in English, with subtitles."

In other words, from youth they are exposed to a lot of English speaking, with Finnish translations. And in time, probably years, it becomes easier to listen to the (native) English than read the Finnish. Repetitive exposure.

I am not sure how really "revolutionary" this study is, since it just validates what I knew already from experience. However perhaps if it gets more exposure, it will quiet the old-school thinkers who actually think text-books and memorization will ever help. Or that one can learn a language in "X minutes per day!" Or speaking two languages to a (my) child will only "confuse" them (her).

Bottom line: if you don't indent to spend a significant amount of time surrounded by a language, you should not be surprised that its not sticking, or its "hard". That includes the majority of Japan.

What was a bit of a surprise to me, now validated by the above study, is that exposure to a lot of TV-with-subtitles appears to be enough (along with basic grammar in schools) to attain a surprising level of proficiency.

1 comment:

OJ said...

This is exactly the issue I faced when I started learning Mandarin. I knew that it didn't matter how much I studied, practiced, read, spoke, etc, I was always going to struggle to retain it because I wasn't immersed in it.

Having other speakers around you really helps. Having a bombardment from all areas such as radio, tv, etc really helps too.

At the end of the day, don't expect to master a language until it's part of your every day life.

Nice post mate.