Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Going Native: How (Not) to Study a Foreign Language

They say that everyone goes through a honeymoon period when they begin learning a foreign language. During the first few weeks–or maybe months if you’re lucky–you feel a sense of euphoria and wonder with every new word and phrase that you pick up. The possibilities seem endless. You’re actually communicating in a language that isn’t your own, even if all you can say is “How’s the weather?” or “This is a potholder.”  It’s a bit like walking on the moon–every step is a giant leap, nearly weightless with ease.

And then the honeymoon period ends, and suddenly it’s just hard. 

The “hard” period doesn’t really end–at least it hasn’t for me.  Being fluent in a foreign language is a fairly important prerequisite to my line of academic study, and it’s definitely the one that has caused me the most grief.  No matter how fluent I become in Japanese, it seems it will never be enough.  I will never read, speak, or listen at a native level, and that will always frustrate me, though the logical half of my brain knows that this is a foolish height to aspire to.  For every new word that I learn I seem to forget a dozen.  Days when I feel a sense of exhilaration at being able to communicate are coupled with weeks when I want to cry in frustration at everything that I will never know. 

As a teacher of English to mostly Japanese students for the past nine years, I am often asked what the best way is to study.  This question always reminds me that, despite spending six years or more studying English in school, the average Japanese student isn’t capable of having an English conversation about the weather.  They know exactly how NOT to study–what they’re doing in school clearly isn’t working–but no one’s ever told them how to do it right.  The same is probably true for plenty of native English speakers who studied Spanish or French in high school but never moved beyond the basics.   

I don’t claim to know all the answers about language learning, but after nine years of studying and teaching I think I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Here, then, are my own pointers, and a few harsh truths about language learning:

1. You’ll never be native.  Accept it and move on.   This isn’t the case for those who came to their foreign language early (say, before the age of twelve), or who are forced to communicate solely in their foreign language for a great length of time.  Or who are simply linguistic wonders, like the guy I read about who passed the grueling Level 1 Japanese Proficiency Test after only four months of study.  But for the rest of us native level fluency will always be out of reach.  We can become fluent enough to be translators, interpreters, teachers.  But we need to give up on unrealistic goals, and accept the fact that disappointment and dissatisfaction will be constant companions.  My students struggle with this one.  They ask me why I can always tell the difference between “Call me a taxi” and “Call me the taxi,” and I can only tell them that it’s because I’m a native speaker.

2. Get out of your house and your school.  If your only communication in your foreign language happens in your classroom or between you and your textbook, you’re not only going to be bored out of your mind, you’re not going to learn a thing.  Join a club.  See a play in the language.  Take a cooking class.  Do SOMETHING that gets you out and about, talking and experiencing.  And please don’t approach speakers of your foreign language with the “I want to be your friend so I can practice my Italian” line.  It’s creepy, and it makes them feel used.  Get yourself into situations where you can use the language naturally. 

3. Necessity is essential.  If you need your foreign language for work, daily survival, research, or communicating with friends/family, you’re going to learn fast.  If you’re just doing it for fun, you probably won’t make it past the honeymoon period.  Don’t despair, though–you can always CREATE a need for your language (see #2). 

4. Stop translating.  I’m guilty of this just as much as my students, who always ask me for a direct Japanese translation of the English phrase I’ve just taught them.  Translating wears out your brain (that’s why simultaneous interpreters have to take breaks every twenty minutes or so).  Think in the language, speak in the language, write in the language.  Banish your native language from your head as much as possible when you study. 

5. Stop memorizing.  Here’s the thing–most Japanese students agree that the methods used by their junior high and high school English programs (memorizing long lists of grammatical terms and vocabulary words, translating lengthy passages of literature, and diagramming English sentences) don’t work.  But they still can’t stop studying that way.  The number of language study books with titles like “1000 English Idioms” and “Learn 50 New Vocabulary Words a Day” boggles my mind.  Memorizing long lists of verbs and expressions will get you nowhere.  Those books are good reference materials, but don’t use them as your primary study guides.  Your brain isn’t a turkey–don’t stuff it.   

6. Do a little every day.  Don’t cram.  Set aside an hour, maybe two, each day for study, with at least a day or two off per week.  Be patient–language learning is a lifelong process.

7. Set clear, specific goals.  Not “I want to improve my Chinese,” but “I want to pass level 3 of the Chinese Proficiency Test by November 2009.”  Purchase textbooks and study materials that will allow you to reach this goal.  Make a schedule and give yourself practice tests.  Having something to study FOR will make your studying a lot more focused and productive. 

8. Variety is key.   Don’t spent two straight hours on listening practice.  Divide your study time into reading, writing, listening, and speaking (obviously with somewhat more focus on the area that’s most important for you). 

9. Spend money.  Language learning is not free.  If you’re serious about it you’re going to need to invest in it.  Pay for lessons, pay for textbooks, pay for tickets to cultural events.  It’s an investment that usually pays off. 

10.  Have fun.  If language learning makes you truly miserable after a significant length of time and effort, don’t do it.  It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and it’s labor-intensive, so if you’re not getting anything out of it you really should spend your time on more enjoyable pursuits.  Sure, it frustrates me much of the time, but it also brings me a lot of joy to be able to communicate in Japanese, so I’m not giving up yet.


One comment on “Going Native: How (Not) to Study a Foreign Language

  1. Pingback: Daily News About English : A few links about English - Friday, 24 April 2009 11:07

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2009 by in (post) Grad life, Japan, Uncategorized and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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