Saturday, December 15, 2007

Language Learning without translation

Today, I would like to write a post about a conundrum I have. That is, is it possible to learn a language without looking up any words at all? Is it better to just stay in the target language? Would you learn better that way?

In today's world, everybody wants the answer NOW. "What does it mean? Tell me now!" Let's look at what happens when you get the answer right away. You look up the L2 word and get an L1 word. The same L2 word shows up again and you've trained yourself to recall the corresponding L1 word. In your book you've got L2, in your mind you've got L1. In this manner you will not be able to think in L2 because you will concentrate more on that which is familiar to you, which is L1. This has two more side effects. When you see the L2 word, you cannot remember the L1 word. Why? Because previously you only thought about the L1 word. So now you still don't know what the L2 word means and you have to look it up again. The symptom: constantly looking up the same words over and over again. The other side effect is that you can't recall the L2 word. You remember looking up an L2 word that had the meaning of the L1 word, but you can't remember what that L2 word was. Therefor, you haven't learned it yet.

Based on my preceding examples, I question whether or not we are learning any faster by using translations. In the beginning, the translation method feels faster. We feel like we are understanding and we feel like we are learning. Sure enough, it slowly starts to sink in and we can recall some of what we thought we had learned. Through some hard work and solid effort, we force ourselves to be able to use some of the language. Unfortunately however, going through the intermediate and advanced stages is just as much work and just as painfully slow as the beginner stages.

Next, I look at a hypothetical example of a learner who doesn't translate. In the beginning, he doesn't feel like he is learning anything at all (and this is where most people would give up and quit.) He hears the language and reads the language but he has absolutely no idea of what is going on. The advantage, however, is that he can concentrate on the sound of the language. With audio and transcribed text, he can match the sound to the writing system. He learns to read the language before he even understands a word of it. He attains a perfect ear for the language. Next he moves on to video, something like dramas or maybe just preschool shows. He hears every word that is spoken. He catches on quickly to what is going on and suddenly words have meanings and things are making sense. The language is alive and exciting! His attention is drawn to every little detail and he doesn't miss a beat because his brain is already tuned to the sounds of the language. His learning explodes and he is moving through the stages of progression faster than a rocket to the moon. And since he has never used L1, at this point he has nothing to slow him down. When he begins speaking, at first he is a little tongue tied because he knows what he wants to say but his mouth cannot keep up with his brain. But shortly thereafter, he is speaking without a hindrance. He does not slow down or stop to think about how to say something. He uses what he knows and it comes to him quickly and naturally.

So what do you think? Would it work? Does it work? I will have to give it a try. It will be fun.


  1. I am not there yet but I am much nearer this approach than most learners it seems, and it appears to work. Yes it is fun.

    We had a brief conversation in comments about pronounciation on Edwins blog (the Kevin Rudd thread).

    I have little interest in hearing about pronounciation, hearing it described technically or analysed, I just trust to the fact that if I immerse myself it will get better and eventually there won't be an issue to question (I will just do/know what I need).

    It waxes and wanes, sometimes my study is more formal, but not very.

    As an example, I wish to learn Japanese one day, I am interested but not really studying, just preparing to study by listening and looking at the odd word. I was talking with a couple of Japanese learners (one who has done two years at night-school) and was quickly corrected on a number of points that I am convinced they are wrong about.

    1. the use of 'ne' (sorry I don't know how to romanise Japanese) the girl I was talking to insisted that it just had a kind of polite suggestive useage and indeed I hear Japanese girls especially use sordis ne this way stretching out the neeeeah in a similar cutsy way that Taiwanese girls do with the Mandarin dui ahhhhh. It seems that ne is also used in a much more emphatic way though (a kind of verbal exclamation mark) especially by males. Not according to the learners I was talking to.

    2. Even in ultra polite mode there are no situations where Japanese end with dozo iroshiku onagai ishimas. onagai ishimas is only ever used in politlely requesting something. Yet my ears tell me different. In fact what is so illogical about politly suggesting mutual kindness (I think that is what it means)?

    3. unsurety about me using watashi mo for "me too" yet I have heard the mo watashi mo (and anata mo I think) used this way. It seems pretty basic.

    These other 'learners', didn't try and learn from real Japanese yet because it is "too fast and confusing" hmmmm. Yeah some little snippets of Japanese I have picked up from English subs, some from Chinese subs (or kanji that have enough similarity to a Chinese meaning to hit me with a clue stick), but a few times I have just listened to Japanese radio or watched a film and just the odd word I understood, I just pay attention to the sounds and try to enjoy it.

    I am convinced that when I come to study Japanease at the very least it will not seem fast (even if I don't understand it) and at best I will already be familiar with a lot of the boilerplate stuff.

    I am sure that the issues I pointed out are more complicated and will be extended further as I learn more, but I am convinced I had a better grasp of them than the people I was talking to.

    Drat sorry if this comment is submitted more than once, and the last one, blogger is telling me if the comment has been submitted for moderation or not

  2. Chris, thanks for commenting!

    About your 3 Japanese points:
    1. 'ne' is neither polite nor non-polite. It can be used in a polite sentence or a plain sentence. It is more often heard in "casual speech" than in "formal speech." Its sole purpose is to elicit an agreement from your partners. We do the same thing sometimes in English by tacking on "isn't it" to our sentences, but 'ne' is used hundreds of times more often in Japanese.

    2. "dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" is a complete sentence. The fact that "dozo" is on the front makes it 'ultra polite Japanese.' Otherwise it can just be "yoroshiku onegaishimasu." Either one is used at the end of a self-introduction or at the end of an email. "onegaishimasu" is best translated as "please." It more literally means "I make a request." But the absolutely best thing to do is to NOT TRANSLATE it at all. Just learn which situations to use "onegaishimasu" in and then say it. I say this because if you think about the meaning, you might feel a little weird using it in some situations. I think stock phrases like this have no meaning to those of us who are learning Japanese. Just use it and forget about attaching any meaning to it. The meaning does not matter because it is not you who decides when to use it. It is the situation that determines when to use it.

    3. I too had questions about whether "watashi mo" could be used the same way in Japanese as it is in English. Perhaps because it never shows up in a textbook and you rarely, if ever, hear it used. However, I've concluded that it can be used whenever you want to say "me too." If someone says, "I like Keith," you can say, "watashi mo!"

    I can tell you that your friends are not ready to learn from real Japanese. But then again, nobody ever reaches the point where they are ready to learn from real Japanese. So, the only thing to do is to take the plunge and jump right in. I can tell you that is exactly how I felt when I had to be immersed in Japanese. I remember the "drowning" and "splashing" feeling and just desperately wanting to come up for air. It is literally that difficult. For me, the only way to learn how to swim was to just put myself in a situation that I could not escape from.

  3. I forgot one thing. You can make the "shimasu" formal by changing it to "itashimasu." So you could say, "dozo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." → どうぞよろしくおねがいいたします。But that is a little long winded!


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