My (friend's) wedding / (my) vacation time in Taiwan has come to a close, and while these three weeks have been a lot of fun, they've also been very educational as well. You see, I wanted to attempt to remember what it's like to begin learning a new language from scratch, so I took this opportunity to try out the strategies and ordering that I'm using in the next content version of TextFugu. It's quite replicable to Mandarin (the main language in Taiwan) so it was nice timing. My goal was to validate / invalidate the ideas I was working with and then apply them to (or remove them from) TextFugu.
Before coming to Taiwan, I probably spent close to six hours compiling and preparing "Koichi's Amazing and Unbelievably Sexy Mandarin Learning Method" but then spent only two or so hours actually studying with it. Oops. To say the least, it wasn't enough prep time, but I wasn't terribly worried. These strategies focused on efficiency and getting the most bang for my buck. If anything it would help to focus me even more. I'd say that over these three weeks I didn't become good at Mandarin by any means, but I do have a basic understanding of how most things work and also know how to build upon what I've learned. I'm at the point where learning comes quickly and I can understand why something works the way it does, and probably my biggest weakness is vocabulary.
But, my actual Mandarin level isn't what really matters here. What does matter is what I learned about learning a new language. It's been a while, and it was a good experience since it's sometimes difficult to imagine what it's like to start learning Japanese (which is a terrible thing for teaching). So, let's get started. Here's the stuff I learned about Mandarin that is relevant to starting to learn Japanese as well. I hope it helps you to learn any new language just a little bit better.
The Magic 12 Sentences
The biggest and most overarching idea that I tried on this trip was the concept of the "12 sentences." These twelve sentences are sentences that focus on grammar and when learned they teach you pretty much all of the basic grammar that you need to know. Once you know them all, you can mix and match ideas from each to create your own even more complicated sentences. You can spend two or three hours going through these sentences, breaking them down, understanding how they work (very important step), and then memorizing the patterns.
Of course, by learning these sentences you can grammatically express just most things. In fact, I bet you that 80% or more of the grammar used on a daily basis comes from these twelve sentences. Not too bad for a few hours of study. That being said, the vocabulary in these sentences is repetitive by design (so you can focus on grammar) which means you can pretty much only talk about John's apples and what you want to do with them. More on that in a minute. Using this method, vocabulary does have to be learned separately, but since that's such an important topic it will get its own section(s) later in this article.
In case you're interested, here are the sentences I used:
The apple is red
Zhège píngguǒ shi hóngsè de
This is John's apple
Zhè shì yuēhàn de píngguǒ
I give John the apple
Wǒ gěi yuēhàn zhège píngguǒ
We give him the apple
Wǒmen gěi tā zhège píngguǒ
He gives it to John
Tā bǎ tā gěi yuēhàn
She gives it to him
Tā bǎ tā gěi tā
She gives it to him
Tā bǎ tā gěi tā
Is the apple red?
Zhège píngguǒ shì hóngsè de ma?
The apples are red.
Zhèxiē píngguǒ shì hóngsè de.
I must give it to him.
Wǒ bìxū bǎ tā gěi tā.
I want to give it to her.
Wǒ xiǎng bǎ tā gěi tā.
I'm going to know tomorrow.
Míngtiān wǒ huì zhīdào de.
I can't eat the apple.
Wǒ bùnéng chī zhège píngguǒ
*You'll notice that I made the mistake of using simplified Mandarin, which isn't used in Taiwan (whoops). You'll have to ignore that for me, if you don't mind. Traditional is actually much easier for me anyways because it's what gets used in Japanese.
In order to get these sentences translated, I used Gengo to get a translation, then VoiceBunny to get a recording. Alternatively, I'm sure people on Lang-8, Reddit (find an appropriate subreddit), and Rhinospike would be happy to help, though I needed to make sure the quality was there (and I needed them fast) so I paid for the two services at the top of this paragraph.
If you look at these twelve sentences, you'll begin to notice how they build upon each other. The first sentence "The apple is red" gives you the grammar pattern "The [noun] is [adjective]." Personally, I'd have simplified this down further and built up to the first sentence, but we're on an express train here and there's no time for local stations. In the second sentence, "This is John's Apple," you learn the pattern "This is [noun]'s [noun]." Just with these two sentences, you can also make other sentences as well. Ones you've never learned before! You could figure out how to say "John's apple is red," for example, just by combining what you learned. As each sentence comes up, it teaches you a new bit of grammar that you can also apply to the previous sentences. You're really learning a lot more than meets the eye. Of course, if you learn only these twelve sentences and never mix and match you'd still know a lot too, but I think the potential for greatness comes with the combinations as you build up. As I think you can see, there is a huge amount you can learn just from a few hours of study. Even if you took a long time with these (say a week) you're still learning an immense amount in a very short timespan. I'm pretty sure most Mandarin classes would take three to six months to teach what you could learn in the time it takes to watch a baseball game.
This is easily applicable to Japanese as well. Going through these sentences in Mandarin made me find the parts that were a little more difficult to understand. I can see where these sentences need to be broken down further, and where I need to build up the explanations and lessons to get people to learn and understand how these sentences work. You will definitely see a modified version of this method in TextFugu in the future as I (correctly) thought it would be very effective for new learners. This trip only solidified my belief that these sentences truly are a kind of magic trick… It's not a trick, Michael, it's an illlusssion.
Vocabulary is the bread and butter of language learning. Even if you don't know a lick of grammar, you can get by with words and body motions. "Food. Hungry. Eat. Good." You get the idea.
Since I failed to prepare and was learning Mandarin on the fly, I tried to make things as efficient as possible. I found and compiled various sources listing out the "most frequently used Mandarin words." I then went through that list and categorized things by type (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, particle, etc). I found that these lists really lacked nouns, and the more I thought about it the more it made sense. There are so many nouns out there. So, of course they get spread out on the frequency charts. You can "to eat" a lot of things, but there's only one time you use "tomato" and that's when you're talking about a tomato. At first I was a little worried about this, but then I had another epiphany. Every single noun can be replaced with the word "this" or "that." In the long term nouns are important… but when it comes to learning a language and being able to communicate right away, it's the adjectives and verbs that really say the things you want to say. I then cut my list down to focus on verbs and adjectives making my study even more efficient.
Cutting down what I had to learn and also learning words in order of frequency helped a lot. I was able to say and understand a lot more (thank you "context") and I found that the nouns I did need to learn just sort of learned themselves. If I needed to talk about a tomato I just looked up how to say tomato. After using it a few times I new it and could use it in the future. Naturally, the more common (or more useful in the situation) nouns came up more often, which means I was learning the nouns via a natural IRL frequency chart / SRS, but more on that later.
In terms of what I learned from this experience, I think it's a multi-parter. First, vocabulary is super important. Second, verbs and adjectives are the most important vocabulary to know if you want to communicate with as few words as possible. Third, nouns will come naturally. Of course, with a textbook or something like that, the nouns have to be injected in a way that makes them appear in a "natural" order, but that's good for me to think about as well. In terms of your own Japanese learning, just be sure to focus on verbs and adjectives and really solidify your knowledge with those and build from there. It will help you to learn your grammar and nouns more quickly and effectively over the long term.
Natural SRS Of Immersion
Speaking of learning vocabulary, I found myself thinking more and more about SRS, though not so much the kind that's found in resources like Anki (mechanical, scheduled, etc). Instead, I was thinking about "natural SRS," which relates to how you learn a new language when you're in an immersed environment. It's not as scientific and probably not as efficient, though it is still very effective. Sometimes the timings will be good, sometimes they'll be off, but the most common words will make their way into your long term memory over multiple repetitions and over a long period of time until it gets into your long term memory. It doesn't involve flashcards but it does really work. This is why immersion is the greatest way to learn a language.
So, as I thought about this I thought about how this idea could be applied to learning resources. Of course, we have an SRS in WaniKani, though that's not quite the same since it's man made. In TextFugu, for example, I could introduce and then reintroduce vocabulary at set intervals throughout the text, effectively putting an SRS into the content and material without you even noticing it was an SRS. It would be a lot more natural this way and you'd find yourself learning without having to try nearly as much. Gone would be the time spent looking through flashcards because you'd be getting your repetitions in without knowing it. It would be a much more efficient way to put something in your head, compared to just saying "hey, learn this, ok, moving on." This is definitely something you'll be seeing in some of our future stuff.
Kanji Is Boss
This one I did know. Kanji is amazing. Everyone should learn kanji if they're going to be learning Japanese, hands down, right from the start. Not learning kanji is why people take so long to learn the Japanese language. It's like trying to learn English without learning the alphabet. Why should you learn kanji? Let me list the reasons:
- Kanji meanings will help you to understand the meanings of words you don't know. It also means you can associate new words to something (kanji) already in your head which is way better for memory. Associations are the grease that keep the wheels turning.
- By learning the kanji readings, you'll be able to read most words even if you don't know the word. This makes it way easier to learn a word, since the sounds aren't just random sounds, they're sounds you've associated to kanji and already know. You start off knowing things you don't know, if that makes sense. It would be like if you knew the words "account" and "ability" already, then learned the word "accountability." You're putting together only two things instead of fifteen things (the number of letters in the word "accountability").
- With kanji knowledge you can read more, which means the things you can use to study and get better at Japanese really expand, which means you have many more avenues to learn with. It just gives you options. Not knowing kanji gives you very few options.
With Mandarin it's the same thing, though I found that Japanese kanji is a lot more broken and confusing. Even for things I couldn't read out loud in Mandarin (because the readings are different most of the time… not to mention tones!) I could still understand the meanings. Watching the news, I knew that fruit prices were going up due to too much rain fall in Taiwan (random!). I could also figure out that a food place we stopped at required you to bus your own table. The list goes on and on. Things that I have no right understanding were understandable, all thanks to knowing kanji meanings. I knew things I didn't know, which is a pretty amazing feeling. Kanji can give you that feeling in Japanese too. And, should you be interested in learning Mandarin in the future, it will help with that as well. It also will help you to envision new words and grammar in your head. Learning becomes easier. It's just that simple. Put in the time, your future self won't regret it.
You Learn A Lot More Being There
You probably already knew this, but being in a country that speaks the language you're learning helps a ton. Immersion is good. That's an obvious statement.
But, I started to think about what part of it was good. While watching a lot of television and listening to people speak is nice in huge quantities, the real learning and memorization didn't come from this… it came from forcing myself to recall information I had learned. I've touched on in the past how recalling information (not stuffing it into your brain) is how memories are formed. That's the reason why a lot of people feel like they know the content of an exam better after the test rather than before it. You're forced to recall information during the test for the first time ever (what bad study habits you have!). In immersion situations, if you want to communicate you have to recall and pull out vocabulary and grammar from your brain and you have to do it a lot. Even though recalling shaky information is naturally an uncomfortable thing, the necessity of recall in a foreign place makes you do it more than you would if you were just sitting around in your home country watching television all day long.
In fact, that brings up another point: the necessity. Necessity is a huge motivator. In fact, it's not too different from procrastinating on a big school essay. For the first seven days, you don't work on your paper. Then, for the last twelve hours you go gangbusters and finish it all up at the last minute. Being at home in your home country is like those first seven days. Being in another country that speaks the language that you're learning is like the final twelve hours before the essay is due. Except instead of being just twelve hours it's all the time. You will learn a lot this way.
This is why I've said in the past that flying to a country for two weeks instead of joining and paying for a six month language class can often be more effective. It's also sometimes less expensive, depending on which language class you're looking at, and you'll surely have a lot of fun. There's something to say about the power of necessity when paired with recall. The intensity is just so hard to replicate.
Lastly, I want to point out that immersion is great for all these reasons, but it only gets better with study. It's not like you can be using the language you're learning all the time, even if you're in Taiwan or Japan or wherever. Use your off time to do some actual study. In high school in Japan they made me do Kumon. And while I hated it, I learned a lot more because of it. Things you study while you're in an immersive language environment seem to magically pop up. You notice them, and then you recall what you studied, and then you use it. Things that would normally go over your head suddenly become familiar, and by pairing regular study with this you'll learn much, much faster. In fact, I'd say it's a necessity to do regular study while being immersed. A lot of people will rely solely on immersion. You can look back on these people as you leave them in your dust. Studying just puts more things into your natural SRS queue.
I'm glad I was reminded about all this because it's going to make me think a lot more about these ideas for TextFugu. I've already focused on straight-up motivation over there, but attempting to replicate the feeling of "necessity to learn" and focusing on forcing recall within that necessity is going to be a big goal of mine. I don't know if I've figured out the best way to do it just yet, but it's something I'm thinking about a lot right now.
New Languages = Intelligence
Whatever happens, learning a new language means a lot of other non-language learning as well. They say that the more languages kids know the more intelligent they become. I want to believe that this is because you have to learn new concepts that are unlearnable in certain languages, meaning you expand your mind to concepts that the people around you just can't comprehend, making you a more "complete" person. I also feel like more things in your brain just gives your brain a lot more items you can associate new things with. The more that's recallable in your brain the easier it will become to add even more into it.
Whether it's Japanese or another language, I hope you think about language learning. It's one of the most rewarding things you can do. You get smarter, you can travel to new places, you can meet new people, and you just become a better person overall. Hopefully the things I learned these three weeks and shared just now will allow me to help you to achieve your goals with learning Japanese more in the future. Or, perhaps they will help you to learn Spanish, Mandarin, or even Gaelic. I look forward to applying this new knowledge soon on my end, but feel free to get started yourself right now!