Monday, October 22, 2007

How many words?

How many words do you know in your native language? Not really sure, are you? A coworker of mine had a dictionary of the 20,000 most common words in English. I thought this sounded like way too many words and I thought that surely there would be some obscure words in there. Being at work, I couldn't take much time to look, but I did a quick flip-through figuring I could quickly spot some words that he wouldn't need to learn. However, all the words I laid my eyes on were really common. I did not find any strange words so easily.

There is a test to determine how many words you know in Japanese. It is intended for native speakers, so you will not find any English on the page. I took the test sometime last year. It said I knew 8,000 words. There are actually 3 tests, but I only did the first one. The interesting thing is on the results page, it says how many words a Japanese student knows, and it is divided by schools. It looks like this:

Elementary School (grades 1~6): 5,000 to 20,000 words
Middle School (grades 7~9): 20,000 to 40,000 words
High School (grades 10~12): 40,000 to 45,000 words
University/College level: 45,000 to 50,000 words

Now compare this to how many words you need to know for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
Level 4: 800 words
Level 3: 1,500 words
Level 2: 6,000 words
Level 1: 10,000 words

In Steve's Oct. 9th post, he mentions that kids learn 1,000 words per year. I can't imagine learning a thousand words a year. That is about 90 a month. If this is true, I think it must be that kids are exposed to 1,000 new words a year, and they learn some right away but others take more exposure to really learn them. I'll tell you, there are a lot of words in English that I'm familiar with and have seen many times but I still don't really know what they mean. I know the kind of situation they are used in, but not knowing the precise meaning does not hinder my understanding the rest of the story. But I just cannot figure out the actual meaning.

Lately, I've noticed a few new words (to me) in news articles on Yahoo! News. And I think to myself, "What is this word? I have never seen it before!" Why on earth do journalists have to use uncommon words? They should be making their reports clear and easy to understand. I've also noticed editing errors! Why do they have errors? That is unacceptable and unprofessional. Can they not read over their work carefully before releasing it? Are they working alone? There should be another person who can proof-read it.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Japanese Time Capsule 02

Here is my second recording speaking Japanese. But can we really call this speaking?!! I'm not very good at speaking in Japanese. I used to think my Japanese pronunciation was really good, but now I know it's not. At least I never fooled myself into thinking that I could speak Japanese.

Maybe I will do this more often since I need the practice. The problem is that I don't know what to talk about and even if I do want to say something I don't know the best way to say it. But I think I might be getting better!

I'm not afraid of making mistakes! I am afraid about ingraining them. But mostly, I just don't know how to speak. Oh well, someday, someday I'll get there.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Milestone: first 1000 plays

I have finally hit the 1000 mark on the first dialogue of Chinese with Ease. Today marks the half-way point of this "listening ony" step. Here is a screen capture to show the play count in iTunes.

Total hours to date: 386.5 hours

Monday, October 08, 2007

Japanese makes Mandarin Chinese look easy

People tend to think that Japanese and Chinese are at about the same difficulty when it comes to English speakers learning them. I disagree. English and Chinese word order are more similar to each other than Japanese word order. Chinese grammar is much easier than either English or Japanese. Chinese words, such as verbs, never change shape. Japanese verbs are like transformers! Japanese characteristics are more round about, but Chinese are more straight forward like English. Since Japanese borrowed the Chinese characters, they also borrowed Chinese words. So there are many duplicate words in Japanese and the writing system is a mess. The only thing that is easier in Japanese is pronunciation. For everything else, you will need tons upon tons of exposure to get used to Japanese.

I am not yet an expert in Chinese, so I like to cite this article which clearly shows a difference. Keep in mind that the author learned both languages at DLI. That is the Defense Language Institute. He studied Mandarin before Japanese, so he was an experienced language learner when he studied Japanese. He was put through an intensive course and he didn't find that to be particularly difficult. Then he spent over 7 years in Japan and still didn't feel comfortable with the language. And he was not the only one who felt that way.

Japanese is hard to get used to. People keep changing their speech so you don't get enough exposure to it. The writing system can write things in different ways, so again you are robbed of exposure. You always stop to think about the verb form even though the meaning doesn't change. Well, you don't always stop to think, and then you end up not saying it the way that you know is better.

Anway, I'm going to paste that article in here because I'm afraid that one day it will no longer be available through the link. Please read the whole article. It is quite interesting. So, here it is:

Chinese Mandarin is Easy

Comparing Its Difficulty with Japanese, German, and Spanish

by Mike Wright

"The biggest impediment to learning Mandarin seems to be fear--sometimes caused by the teachers. I've studied quite a few languages, and none of them were as easy for me as Mandarin."

What I came to believe is that Mandarin is pretty easy for native English speakers, while Japanese is one of the most difficult. Mandarin syntax is easy to teach using pattern drills. Furthermore, Mandarin sentence order is similar to English--but simpler, having no inflections (thus no irregularities) and with gender, number, tense, etc. being optional, whereas they are obligatory for most of the world's languages. The only difficult part of spoken Mandarin is the tone system. Even that isn't a big problem for practical use. I know that my tones have always been weak, but when I was using the language regularly, I had no problem communicating. What turned out to be more important was to adapt to the basic pronunciation and vocabulary used by the average Hokkien speaker when speaking Mandarin. Of course, I never got to go to China. I do remember how wonderful it was to run across a native of Beijing or Tianjin in Taiwan--it was so clear.

The biggest impediment to learning Mandarin seems to be fear--sometimes caused by the teachers. I've studied quite a few languages, and none of them were as easy for me as Mandarin.

Mandarin was my first serious language, after some Spanish and German in high school and college, and it was the easiest by far.

Comparison with Japanese

I didn't find Japanese too difficult while studying it at Defense Language Institute, but when I arrived in Japan, I found that I had a lot of trouble communicating. This was very different from my experience with Mandarin. When I arrived in Taiwan, I could pretty much discuss any topic. On the other hand, I spent a total of 7.5 years in Japan, much of it associating with people who spoke little or no English, yet I never felt confident in the language. It's not so much the syntax--the conjugation of verbs and adjectives is quite regular--but the way the language is used. In many respects, it seems to be as much a problem of culture as of language per se.

Japanese syntax, as usually taught in schools, covers about 25 percent of the syntax. Even Defense Language Institute probably wasn't able to cover more than about 60 percent. It's not that it's so difficult--there's just so much of it. Compared with conversational Mandarin, there seem to be many more common ways of expressing any particular idea. The Japanese seem to be more fond of synonyms, too, leading to the need for more vocabulary items. Japanese culture adds to the burden. The Japanese don't like to just come right out and make blunt statements. They talk around the subject. By comparison, Chinese speakers and English speakers are very much alike. They tend to be direct and precise. Although this is a matter of culture, it has a big impact on the ease or difficulty of learning the language of a particular culture.

So, I'd say that what made Japanese difficult for me (and for all of my fellow Defense Language Institute graduates) is that there seems to be so much of it, and that it's spoken by people who are living in the Japanese culture.

Many of my friends had similar experiences, including one who graduated from the Japanese course with a 98 average--the highest on record. He was quite angry when he arrived in Japan and found that he couldn't get around in the language as he had been able to do with Mandarin in Taiwan.

Comparison with German and Spanish

In comparison, German and Spanish are difficult because of inflection and gender. Although many people consider these languages easy because of the large number of English cognates, my personal experience is that vocabulary is nothing. You will pick up as much as you need--as you need it. The really tricky part is the syntax. If you don't have that down, no amount of vocabulary will save you.