Friday, 23 May 2014

Notes on learning a foreign language.

One of my favourite pieces of work turned in by a student. 

As it’s such a major part of my life right now, both personally and professionally, the various ins-and-outs of second language acquisition have been on my mind a lot recently. The following ideas may already be established and uncontroversial to veterans of English language teaching, but it’s important enough to me that I wanted to write about it anyway.

At the moment, I am effectively unable to speak Japanese. I can read and write in Hiragana and Katakana, the major two syllabic alphabets of Japanese, but have only really just begun trying to read – let alone write – in Kanji, the primary, pictographic method of writing Japanese. When listening to spoken Japanese, I can now usually follow roughly the topic of the conversation, but if and when required to respond, I rarely advance beyond rudimentary (and probably rude) answers. As I live and work in Japan, the language barrier is occasionally problematic, although actually not as much as you might imagine. Curiously, many things I imagined would be difficult (like buying a new camera, or getting a haircut) have proven to be very easy, whereas some things I imagined might have been easy (like buying a bucket of fried chicken) can actually be really quite difficult.  

I bombed out of learning languages at high school; at that point in my life I just wasn’t interested in learning a foreign language. However, at university many of my friends were international students. I was impressed by the fact that they were studying at university level in a second language, and that many of them also had a third or even a fourth language (a friend of mine can speak Lithuanian, Russian, French and English, which I find staggering). This certainly went a long way to kindling an interest in language learning in me, and now that I live there, I know for certain that I want to be able to speak Japanese. Consequently, I’m trying to study at least something about Japanese every day, but between the frustrations of language learning and the rigours of daily life, I find that it’s too easy to burn myself out and ruin my motivation for studying.

A close friend of mine and fellow English teacher who speaks excellent Japanese suggests that while studying might be a useful method of accelerating the learning process, I will ultimately learn just as much through what she calls ‘osmosis’; the absorption of information as a result of constant proximity. I don’t yet know enough about the psychology and theory of language learning to offer a valid comment on this idea, but there are days when I feel like I learn more Japanese from getting drunk with my Japanese friends than I do from banging my head against any number of textbooks. With regards to practising my conversational Japanese, I feel the most useful of activities are either a very casual, volunteer run, free Japanese language class or the time I spend with the members of my band. It’s not because either of these offer a carefully structured, scripted and regulated learning environment in which to practise my Japanese, but rather the opposite. I appreciate these environments because they are real; they are natural, unscripted and unforgiving. In this environment I make a lot of mistakes when I talk, but I am also actually communicating with people in Japanese. I don’t doubt the value of textbook study when learning a foreign language – especially at my elementary level – but at the same time I think I get more out of a five minute chat with a friend than I ever could get from an hour with the textbook.

Conversely, I’ve also noticed much the same from teaching English to Japanese students. The Japanese education system places a lot of emphasis on wrote learning and memorisation, and on the students learning the correct way to speak English. A premium is placed on the student’s ability to accurately recall a series set phrases and use the phrases in an appropriate manner to answer a series of set questions. This has its benefits and its downsides. On the one hand, the students have a pretty large English vocabulary – about 950 words – and a fairly comprehensive theoretical comprehension of English grammar by the time leave high school. The downside of this method is that the students are rarely required to employ much creative or lateral thought, and as a result they often struggle to make the connection between the English they are studying and the real life scenarios in why they can use it. Unfortunately, the students rarely get the opportunity to deploy their English naturally, and many of them may never get the chance to. This is a major function of my job as an Assistant Language Teacher – to provide the students an opportunity to interact with a native English speaker, and to provide the English classroom with a model of what good English looks and sounds like (at least as far as a Scotsman can hope to accomplish this…).

The emphasis on accuracy irks me somewhat. Whilst I don’t doubt that major mistakes in the student’s understanding need to be corrected so that their fundamental understanding of the way that English functions is not flawed, I also feel that such a devotion to correctness - and the student’s consequent fear of being ‘wrong’ – mostly serves only to stifle the student’s willingness to experiment and be creative with their English. I think this is unfortunate, because one of the wonderful things about English is how ‘incorrect’ your English can be and still make sense. Just look at the enormous variation in the ways that English is spoken across the globe, and try to tell me that there is one ‘correct’ way to speak English. When my students talk to me in English, they spend a lot of time second guessing and correcting themselves, even though I understood perfectly well what they were trying to communicate (usually asking me if I have a girlfriend and do I like karaoke). Think about it this way: the manner in which we think is directly influenced by our mother language. Japanese is a profoundly different language from English, and consequently, a Japanese person’s train of thought is likely to be very different to that of a native English-speaker(citation needed). Rather than making Japanese students of English jump through hoops, bend over backwards and climb mountains to get them speaking correct (American) English, I think it would be far more productive to accept that Japanese English will always have its own idiosyncrasies. I expect nothing less of my own Japanese, no matter how good I get at it.

To round this post off, here’s a slightly more light-hearted observation that has been fascinating me recently. Learning an entirely new writing system whilst studying Japanese has enabled me to think about the concept of written language much more distantly than I ever could with English and the Roman alphabet.  I’ve been captivated by the way that the written word – arguably this species greatest achievement – is ultimately, objectively, just a series of meaningless squiggles. When I learned my first Hiragana character, , I was struck by the notion that whilst this very simple set of marks (three strokes of the pen) meant nothing more to me than the sound ‘ah’, it formed the first part of extraordinarily complex system of squiggles through which we could record human thought. Considering that I was four or five years old the last time I learned a written language, I think I had just come to accept that the written word was inherently meaningful. In studying Hiragana, I began thinking that writing systems are actually inherently meaningless. A very curious feeling. Although that feeling is starting to fade again now as I make more progress learning to read and write in Japanese, every time I run up against and impenetrable wall of Kanji I am again struck by the notion that while I see a series of very intricate, but otherwise meaningless drawings, the people around me are seeing thoughts and emotions.  

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