Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Last Emperor

It's 1:00 AM Tuesday. In a little more than 3 days, I finished watching all 28 episodes of The Last Emperor. The original title in Chinese is 末代皇帝. Supposedly 1400 minutes long. I think each episode was about 45 minutes long. I skipped the title and credits when watching.

Anyway, this drama, the 3rd Chinese drama for me, has a LOT of non-verbal time in it. The drama was like a biography of the last emperor of China, so there seemed to be no plot. Because it has so little dialogue, I won't be repeatedly watching this one. I'll either watch it again when I have gotten tired of watching what I already have, or I'll wait until my understanding of Chinese has greatly improved. I may even start watching it and then quit.

It was really surprising to me just how much non-dialogue was in the drama. I kept thinking, maybe it's just the first episode like this. Maybe it's just the first two episodes. Maybe it'll just be this way on the first of 6 discs. But it never changed. Throughout the whole series there was so much just being shown and with actors not speaking.

Next, I'll be watching the first drama again. It is about 30 hours long. With that one, I may be able to tell how much my understanding has improved. When I watched it the first time, I felt that I could only understand about one percent of it. The second time I watched it, I noticed some improvement. Maybe I could understand two percent. Then I watched a 25 hour drama and now this 23 hour drama. That's 108 hours for these 3 dramas that I bought. Before that I was watching online TV as much as I could. I started doing this TV method on October 10th, 2008. I was using online TV, but since November 18th, I have been using TV dramas on DVD. On December 19th, I bought a portable DVD player which has helped me to increase my viewing time. Although, at home I prefer to use my computer to play the dramas on my computer monitor. The computer drive is quiet, while the portable DVD player spins the disc more noisily.

I won't be able to buy a new drama until February. The store I bought these three at, might not have anything in my price range for me to buy come February, so I'll need to check out some other stores. It might be better for me to just buy them from an online store in China, if I can find one. Maybe I'll get some help. I'm sure at least one of my Chinese acquaintances could help me.

All three of the dramas I have bought so far, have been put on DVD and published by a Japanese company called CONNY VIDEO. All of them have had Japanese subtitles on the screen which cannot be hidden or turned off. I'll be glad when I get DVD dramas that are done properly. But for now, this will have to do.

Now it's 2 AM. It's time to publish this post. It takes an hour just to write this short post.

Friday, December 26, 2008


It is 11:13 PM Friday night. I just finished watching my second Chinese drama for the first time. Being packaged and sold in Japan, it has this name: 西太后の紫禁城. It looks like the original Chinese title is 日落紫禁城. There are 30 episodes. Each one runs for 49 minutes. 3 per disc, 10 discs.

This one was set around the late 1800s I think. There was an early camera and an early car in the drama at one point. While most of it took place in the same location as the first one I watched, the story was quite different.

It was much easier to follow than the first drama I watched. There were personal relationships as the main story, so the dialogue had a bit more that I could catch and understand. Whereas the first drama was more about political power struggle, it was harder to tell what was going on.

Since it was a different story, it is hard for me to make a comparison and to be able to tell whether my understanding of Chinese has improved or whether the improved comprehension was due to the more transparent storyline and simpler dialogue. But of course, with all the repetition of basic words, that part of the language which I had previously encountered while studying is sinking in deeper and deeper into my brain.

The more I hear Chinese, the more I feel it is becoming a part of me. When I've watched 5 or more hours (perhaps less) in one day, and then I lie down to sleep at night, anytime that I relax and am not thinking about something, I hear these Chinese sentences in my head. They just pop in there. I'm not making any intentional effort to think about Chinese and suddenly I realize that I'm hearing Chinese in my head. And it just goes on and on. My head is just full of Chinese. Sometimes I just want to speak Chinese and I don't even know why. I know I don't have enough vocabulary right now to get very far. But once I've acquired a significant amount, I know I'm going to speak quite well, and without hesitation.

Even while writing this post, I keep hearing those Chinese sentences or phrases in my head. Dialogue from the drama is so full of emotion. Those strong emotions seem to keep playing back in my head. They are so rich with feeling. I think it is having a strong effect.

I knew I was going to finish that drama tonight, so I bought my next one earlier this evening. My next one precedes the one I just watched. It is called The Last Emperor.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

雍正王朝 2

This morning, on the train home from work, I watched the last episode of the Chinese drama. That completes the second viewing of my first Chinese drama. It looks like it took me 3 weeks for this second round. That's about 3 times as long as the first viewing. I guess some days I was a little busy and some days I didn't feel like watching as much.

I just now discovered their is a discrepancy. The packaging says it is 2200 minutes, but 45 minutes X 44 episodes is only 1980 minutes. Only if the episodes were 50 minutes each would it make 2200 minutes. I wonder if there are some bonus episodes hidden on the disc somewhere.

Well then it only takes 33 hours to view the whole series and so that averages to about 11 hours a week for this second viewing. That's too few hours so I'm disappointed in myself. I want to spend 20 or more hours a week. With my new language acquisition device, I'll make that happen.

When I started on the second viewing, I noticed right away that I was hearing some sentences that I hadn't heard the first time. There was no huge improvement, but just a few here and there. I noticed that there is more that I could have understood the first time around if my brain had been in tune with the language because I had already studied those words but I'm just not processing them automatically. That's when I realized that my brain is being slowly tuned to the language.

When you think about it, this is an important step that any language learner must go through. Most learners do lots of studying and learning before they ever tune in to the language. They may know a vast amount of words and grammar, but the first time they encounter the language in a natural setting, they complain that their hearing is not good. The words and sentences fly right past them and they can't catch much in the beginning.

I feel that I'm coming from the opposite direction. I'm tuning my brain to the language before I know lots of words. Over a period of time, I should come to being able to hear the language quite easily. Once is it easy to hear, then I expect it will be easier to figure out what is being said. As I posted not too long ago, the brain learns on its own. And you would have to agree that there are many words where the meaning is quite obvious from the context, such as crying or laughing. People do say, "what are you laughing at?" or "what are you crying about?" People also say, "what are you doing?" And then people answer, "I'm doing such and such..." And then there are commands of course. "Eat!" "Don't eat!" "Stop whining!"

It amazes me how much language is repeated. The same sentences, words, and phrases are used over and over. Your brain will figure it out. It's not usually obvious the first time you hear it. And no amount of thinking will give you the logical answer. But mysteriously, the meaning suddenly becomes clear. Maybe that's after the fifth exposure or the 50th exposure. And then the next time you will be able to confirm it. And then you keep watching for it and you keep thinking to yourself, "I'm right! I'm right." A while after that, it just becomes one of those words you've known for so long that it feels natural to know what it means.

This highly repetitive language is what I want to learn first. I want to know the obvious and basic language first. Course books don't spend enough time on it. They want to advance you as quickly as possible and so the books start teaching you difficult words that are hard to grasp. I have never seen a course that has a smooth transition. They all go from "hello" to "I'm an electrical engineer specializing in mechanical solar distributions of the sub microscopic level." And so you have to sit there and pull out from memory the meaning of every word in that sentence even though you still are not even used to saying hello.

I feel I'd rather take a natural method with a natural progression and just naturally pick up what I can while naturally building the natural language in my brain. It's just natural. It's also effortless. There's nothing forced with this method. You take as much time as you need.

I'm really enjoying getting the sound of the language into my brain. Hearing the language so much really gives me this natural feeling for it. I guess I've always liked the sound of Chinese. I know that by hearing the words over and over, I am creating a model soundtrack in my brain that I will use subconsciously when I begin to speak. I can use it consciously now for that little amount of the language which I know, but I want to avoid creating a habit of having to think and needing to play my internal sound bites before speaking. When I read the words of other Chinese language learners who have been learning Chinese for quite a number of years and they say that they still make tone mistakes or say in some way that they need to be more careful when speaking, I just feel so bad that everyone falls into the same trap of studying the language. I know what it feels like to have to think about how you can express what you feel. That's why this massive exposure is necessary. In order to make the language natural to you, you need a wide variety of exposure and lots and lots of it. I know I'm not comfortable saying something unless I know and feel that I'm saying it the natural way. And it does take time for a new phrase to feel natural to me. I'm not going to be comfortable with something that was just taught to me which I had never heard before. Given some time and some more exposure I will become comfortable with it. That's why the natural method feels right to me.

What are the objections to the natural method that I always see? Some people seem to think you have to learn everything, that you can't figure things out for yourself. Hmm, thinking about it now, it seems there is this progression of beliefs. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe you have to have a teacher who will teach you the language. Next, there are those who will learn on there own from books and audio. And at the other end of the spectrum, people like me who think the language will just form in your brain given enough exposure.

Another objection is that it can be done but would take way too long to make it practical. This objection is a feeling of the objector. They have not come to a conclusion from a full trial but rather it comes from a worry that a lot of time would be wasted if they were not successful at natural language acquisition. While there are examples that natural language acquisition works quite well for adults, and I have written posts on what I have found, there are no examples where natural language acquisition has failed. If you have links to such failures, feel free to post them here.

I plan to progress from my current ultra-low understanding of Chinese to an ultra-high level of acquisition through my TV method. By ultra-high, I don't necessarily mean that I will be able to understand more than the average layman. I just hope and expect that I will have a fully functional vocabulary and native-like ability in the language. And if I should ask other Chinese people what such-and-such means, I will be able to learn that way until I get to the point where most of them don't even know what it means and they refer me to someone who is more educated or specialized. And then I will get a sense for what the average person is going to be able to tell me and I'll know when I need to ask an educated person. I expect to sound like a native speaker of the language at some point and to get different reactions or no reaction at all. I imagine some people will do a double-take and some will try to pinch themselves to see if they wake up from a dream. I don't know how long it will take me to get to that level, and maybe by the time I do get there, it will already be quite normal to see non-Chinese speaking Chinese so well.

Why do I have such high expectations? Frankly, I see no reason why I can't reach that level. As long as I don't stop doing what I'm doing, I expect to keep progressing. In 2011, I will switch from watching Chinese TV to watching Japanese TV and try to overcome my bad habit of thinking about the Japanese language. I will give Japanese TV 2 years and then I will go back to Chinese if I feel I need more Chinese exposure. I will keep blogging about what I'm doing and what obstacles I run into. I will refrain from trying to persuade anyone to use the TV method until I have found it to be successful. Until then, I just want to document my progress.

In the middle of writing this post, I had to go out and buy my next drama. The next one is the same genre as the first one. It says it is number 4 in this series of Chin Dynasty China. The first one was number 2 in the series. Next time, I will buy number 3. This new one has 10 discs with 3 episodes per disc. It says it is 1500 minutes all together. I think I will be able to finish watching it in 6 days. I will let you know when I've completed my first viewing of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

language acquisition device acquired

Today, I bought a language acquisition device! I'm so excited! This device will help me acquire languages. As you probably know, I am acquiring language through the TV method, so the language acquisition device of choice for me is a portable DVD player. With this little player, I'll be able to watch TV dramas while commuting on the train to work. Each episode of what I currently am watching is 45 minutes long and my train time is about 50 minutes one-way, so I figure I'll be able to watch one episode each way. That matches up pretty well! Also, my workload is pretty light on the night shifts and weekends, so I plan to make better use of my time there. The new notebook computers at work don't even have CD drives, and the old ones had disabled drives. By bringing my new portable DVD player with me, I'll be able to bring my language acquisition hours to a whole new level!

In case you would like to know, I bought a BLUEDOT 1725. Here's a picture of it from the manufacturer. It can also play DivX from a SD memory card. The monitor is 7 inches and the resolution is 480 x 234. The best thing about this and newer BLUEDOT models is the 5 hour playback battery life. I could have purchased the 2705WD which has higher resolution at 800 x 480, but I didn't think that alone is worth paying 25% more. I think most of what I'll be watching will be TV dramas which won't be widescreen and high res. I couldn't identify any other significant improvements either, so I decided to save the extra 5,000 yen so that I can purchase a new used TV drama set.

Perhaps you are wondering where I got the extra money to buy this luxury device. Well, I'll tell you. Today I was paid to be interviewed for some product research. A consulting company is doing this research for a manufacturer who will make products for overseas markets and they were looking for people to interview from certain countries to get their opinions. That probably wouldn't be too hard to find here in Tokyo, but there was also a requirement of having previously been an owner of a certain product. So with all of those stringent requirements, they offered attractive compensation which was just the right amount for me to be able to buy this portable DVD player. The whole interview lasted 2 hours and was conducted entirely in Japanese. There were 3 Japanese men interviewing me.

I received the money at the end of the interview and then I headed straight over to Akihabara. For those of you not familiar, Akihabara is an area in Tokyo with a high concentration of electronics stores and many tourists will go there to buy cool gadgets from Japan. Consequently, there are Duty Free items that can be bought there. I went there for the purpose of buying my portable DVD player because I wanted a region-free model. I ended up purchasing from Akky International. Looking at the selection, I could find no where that it stated they were actually region free, and this with everything being written in English. So I had to ask the sales clerk about it to make sure. And then when I got home, of course, I put in my only region 1 DVD to check it and it was alright. I only had to go to the second floor of that narrow building and after I got there I heard the sales clerk phone somebody and I believe he must have been talking to someone who could come to translate because he was telling the person on the other end of the phone that there was someone on another floor (I don't remember which) and there was someone on the 2nd floor. I was the only customer on the second floor so I'm pretty sure he was talking about customers since he himself could not possibly be on 2 different floors at the same time. Of course, I only spoke to him in Japanese and didn't need a translator. When I went to the counter to pay for my purchase, it was then that I could clearly see who had come. To me it was obvious that she was the person who could translate, and a person who could speak at least 3 languages, for she had a Chinese name. It ran through my mind to say hello in Chinese to her, but I successfully restrained myself. I shall be content to wait until I can actually speak Chinese. Saying hello in Chinese could be dangerous. I wouldn't want to surprise the Japanese sales clerk that I was just speaking to in Japanese! He would probably get the wrong idea and think that I can speak Chinese too. There's no reason to give someone a heart attack under false pretenses. But come 6 months from now, or maybe a year, look out!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

don't use a dictionary!

If you are learning a language, you should not use a dictionary to learn words. It is a colossal waste of time. You look up a word and then proceed to forget what it means and so you have to look it up again. This process repeats itself over and over again. What does it mean when you have to re-look up a word? Well, it means you didn't learn anything the first time, doesn't it. It also means you wasted your time.

Instead of using the dictionary, let yourself wonder what the word means. Let your brain try to figure it out. Give it some time. This is what you did when you were 2 years old. It must be the natural way.

There was a study done on memory that is known as the "Zeigarnik effect." A quote from the article where I discovered this:
it was shown that tasks that are interrupted are remembered by adults approximately 90% better than those that are fully completed, and that children, in general, remember only interrupted tasks.
You see, when you look up a word in the dictionary, the task is completed. That is why you don't remember the meaning. Your brain is spending no more time thinking about the word or trying to figure it out. You're satisfied, it's over, done, and forgotten about.

Let's look for some other ways in language acquisition that we can apply what Zeigarnik discovered. Perhaps, if you read a story in your target language and never find out how it ends, you will be able to remember the details of the story better. You might recall certain phrases or words that were used in the story. If you are really curious about how it ends, you might end up dreaming about it which means that your brain is processing that story.

Does anyone have any other ideas or comments on the Zeigarnik effect?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

the brain will learn on its own

Steve Kaufmann has just posted a summary of a book about the brain and learning by somebody named Manfred Spitzer. Who is he? I don't know. The book is in German so I guess I won't be reading it, but here is what I found to be interesting from the summary.

Under point 2, The brain controls what it is going learn, it says this:
The brain does most of its learning on its own. With the right input, the brain is quite capable of creating the necessary labels and rules required to organize the information it has received and stored. It is not always necessary, and is sometimes counterproductive, to teach rules explicitly. It is often more effective to let the brain develop its own rules, from the observation of the information received. We all learn to speak our own language and yet most of us are unable to provide rules to explain how the language works. We just know how to speak our language.
This basically means that we need not try to teach ourselves anything. Our brain will just learn! If we sit in front of the Chinese TV all the time, we'll learn Chinese! Sure it takes lots of input. A huge variety of input is best, I believe. You must also have patience, which is what most people don't have.

Just stating that last sentence reminds me of those contests where the person who holds out the longest wins a big prize. Sometimes they are roller coaster rides, sometimes they are just sitting in a lounge chair, and sometimes they have to keep a hand on a vehicle. They begin with a dozen or more people and soon, participants start dropping out. Probably after about a day there are only 3 or 4 people left. Out of those, only 2 will be so patient and willing to continue the wait for days and days on end. Unfortunately, those endurance contests sometimes end tragically.

But for language acquisition, you can go at your own pace. You can go to the bathroom whenever you want! You can take breaks and eat or sleep. Just have patience and don't give up. Get the language input and be patient.

Trying to memorize words is a bad way to go. Here's what you do when you try to memorize words: You look at the foreign word and then to check if you know it, you think of the meaning in your own language. You look at the word in your language and then try to remember the word in the foreign language. That's the only way you can check yourself. But this kind of connection is what slows us down. It becomes a habit. If we get enough input, I believe we overcome this habit one by one, for each word. But some habits, like incorrect grammar, are much harder to break. Speaking slowly is also hard to overcome for myself.

But I think this can all be fixed through exposure. However, it is much harder to fix what's broken than to build something correctly the first time.

And if the brain will learn on its own, then why should we get in the way of that?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I've just finished watching my first complete Chinese TV drama for the first time. It's very interesting to wonder why someone is getting mad and what they are saying. I want to know why this or that person was stripped of their status and taken away. Not being able to understand 99 percent (or more) of the dialogue, but being able to see what is going on makes you wonder why. Why? Why? Why?

I will probably start watching it all over again tomorrow. I am tired of trying to avoid the Japanese subtitles. I hope the other dramas for sale are not permanently subtitled like this. Sometimes I accidentally look at the subtitles.

I was able to pick up the meaning of a few words. I think every time I watch I will acquire more and more words. The more I am exposed to those words, the deeper my knowledge of them becomes. As I gain more and more exposure to the language, I will be able to acquire words faster. The less I have to think about the words, the more I am able to hear. The less I think about what I am hearing, the more I understand.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

TV method goes DVD

As I noted earlier, I have been watching Chinese TV online. However, given the reliability, quality, and continuity problems of online TV, I will be using DVDs as much as possible for the TV method. I will still call it the TV method. You can watch anything on TV, including movies so I won't call it the movie method. Also, I won't call it the DVD method because I'm not restricting myself to DVDs. I will still watch online TV whenever I want. DVDs are more convenient. I can watch whenever I want. I also don't have to miss any episodes if I own the whole series. That is why yesterday I bought a TV drama series in Chinese. I bought it used, so it was not expensive. I bought the longest one that was available. It is 2200 minutes and has 44 episodes. It's set in the 18th century. I can understand only about 1 percent of it. Since I bought it here in Japan, it has Japanese subtitles which I cannot turn off, so I try not to look at those. Yesterday, I watched all of disc 1 which has 5 episodes. There is less that I can understand compared to a drama set in the present day. But at my level, it really doesn't make much difference, now does it? The other Chinese dramas at the store are also of this type, so as long as they don't sell, there will be more that I can buy. There were some shorter, modern dramas in Chinese but I suspect they are from Taiwan. On those, the language is stated as Chinese, whereas the dramas like the one I bought, the language is stated as Peking or Beijing-language. I hope I can buy one of these box-sets once a month. They are a really good value.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why the comprehensibility of input is unimportant... and why it is important

I have stated in an earlier post that I do not believe (just speculation, no data to back it up) that comprehensible input is important in second language acquisition. I am not aware of any evidence to back up the idea that input must be comprehensible in order for it to be useful to the language acquisition process. I think most people are just willing to accept that idea without questioning it. If it makes sense, why question it? Right? Nor have I come across anybody else who disagrees with the necessity for the input to be comprehensible. (I live in a small, small world) So let me be the first, if I may or if I need to, to disagree with the whole "comprehensible" thing.

If anybody is going to actually prove or disprove it, they need to have two experiments going on. One where the learner receives comprehensible input and one where the learner does not, with all else being equal. For the study, I would suggest using the same learner in both experiments. First show me that the learner could not acquire a language through incomprehensible input, and then show the same learner could acquire a different language through comprehensible input. For example, first the learner tries to acquire Japanese, and then Korean. They are both similarly structured languages and would make a good comparison. You could not use the same language for the second experiment as the first because you would prove nothing since the learner received all the exposure to the language in the first experiment, so you must use a different but similar language for the second experiment on the same learner. But you could not use Portuguese and Spanish because they are way too similar with vocabulary coming from the same Latin roots.

Anyway, enough of that. Nobody is going to do their SLA thesis based on my experimental guidelines! So let me tell you what I do think is important about comprehensible input.

The importance of comprehension is that it encourages the learner to pay attention and to continue the process of receiving input. In other words, they don't quit when they are enjoying what they are getting. It can be evidenced from the ALG World classes, that when learners get to level 3 and the comprehension drops, the students get frustrated and drop out. The props and drawings are taken away and learners go into shock.

Quotes from AJ:
At level three things get much worse at AUA. Other students had warned me about the “level 3 shock” but I was still surprised by it....

My rough guess is that the Level 3 input at AUA is only 35-50% comprehensible (to me and most new arrivals). Sometimes the comprehension level is much lower-- and I have no clue what’s going on. Input that is not comprehensible is wasted...

More from AJ:
Through levels 1 and 2 I was laser focused in class. I was not understanding everything...maybe 70-80%... but usually the major points of what was going on....

But when I hit level three my superb concentration and focus vanished. Suddenly I was drifting off in class... daydreaming.... looking at the cute girls in class... thinking about what to do when class was over. I became bored. Not that I didn’t try. I made heroic efforts to keep focused, but could not sustain them. I just reached level 4-- I understand more but am still often confused. My motivation has plummeted. I’m skipping class constantly.

So what happened... what changed? AUA’s classes were never 90%+ comprehensible, but I did OK in the first two levels. Why? Because in levels 1 and 2 the teachers were encouraged to use a wealth of drawings and props and charades and games-- in other words-- aids to comprehension.

At levels 3 and up, the teachers/managers inexplicably decided that comprehension aids were no longer desirable. No more games. No more drawings. No more charades.....

Faced with two stationary talking heads, my understanding plummeted. And, as in the TV experiments, so did my attention. Occasionally I’d get drawn back if I heard something I understood... but quickly tuned out again once confused.

So what makes comprehensible input important is the fact that you stay focused on the input and don't feel like giving up! That's why it is good to have. But is it really necessary? I say that for what is going on inside your head, it is not necessary.

Here's why.

First of all, for the most part, that which is done to create comprehensibility is not the language itself. Drawings, gestures, props, and everything else is a visual aid to comprehension, not a language aid. The communication can be made comprehensible, but still the actual language used is not yet learned. So comprehension does not equal acquisition. Comprehension can be quick, but acquisition takes time.

Second, Dr. Brown said that students should not think about the language. So if we are not thinking about the language but yet we can still acquire the language, then acquisition must happen regardless of the comprehension.

Basically, comprehension is something you do, but language acquisition is not something you do, rather it is something that happens to you. How does it happen to you? Through lots of input that you let into your head.

A language is not a randomly used set of words. All languages are used in patterned ways. These patterns are studied by linguists and then classified into grammar rules. Then, teachers teach these grammar rules to native students and to language learners. The rules help keep people using the same set of patterns in the language.

Through massive amounts of input, our brains will organize the patterns of the new language and create firm paths for us to access our new language. We can't do this consciously. By studying the language, learning the grammar, memorizing words, and so on, we create a habit of thinking about the language and we try to reproduce the language before we have enough exposure to it.

1,500 hours of study may create a person who is very skilled at reproducing the language. But 1,500 hours of natural language acquisition produces a person who thinks like a native in the language. 1500 hours of thinking vs. 1500 hours of not thinking.

The "thinking vs. not thinking" is the important difference in the speed of further and further acquisition. Thinking is a habit! How hard it is to break reinforced habits! The reason ALG World doesn't allow you to speak during the first 800 hours is because they don't want you to develop the habit of thinking. If you know only 500 words of Thai, and you go around practicing it, you're going to find yourself in situations where you need words that you don't know. Or you'll know some words that you think are correct and you'll think of a way to string together what you mean with them. The point is that you're creating a habit of thinking about how to say what you feel. You also end up saying things that you don't know if it is the natural way to say it or not. People will not correct you. You'll develop a habit. You'll be understood but you won't be correct. Maybe somebody will finally correct you and then you'll have to stop and think and remember what you were taught so you can fix your bad habit. I believe that's called a language monitor! You'll have to monitor yourself to make sure you don't slip up. ...And so you slip into the downward spiral of mediocrity.

OK, I think I've gone further than what I wanted to say. So let me summarize what the most important thing in this post was. That is, our brain can do all the work of acquiring the language. Given enough volume and variety of input, the brain organizes the language and makes the connections which in turn creates the ability to comprehend the language.

Can we expect this to happen with just 100 or 400 hours of input? Definitely not with only 100 hours. And you certainly cannot finish at the half-way point and come to a valid conclusion.

I do recommend that you be interested in the input. Listening to only audio input that you don't understand would probably not be interesting which, in turn, would make you drift off into thinking about something else, which may or may not affect the effectiveness of the language that you are trying to let into your head. So, if you're not into it, you'll most likely not keep up with it. You'll forget to watch or listen to whatever it is that you were using.

So by all means, find something interesting and if you think that makes it comprehensible for you, that's fine. When I can figure out what is going on in a TV drama story, I find it interesting even though I admit that I am not actually comprehending 99 percent of it. What I do understand about the plot of the story is mostly from my imagination backed up by how I saw the characters interact. I can see that the girl's parents don't approve of her boyfriend and I imagine that somewhere in that dialogue they are telling her she can't see him anymore. I don't know that for a fact but I can stay interested in the story and keep watching and keep listening to the incomprehensible language.

I think I've just come up with a new term. Interesting Input!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I have read the story of Armando before and just now came across it again. The article was written by Stephen Krashen and is about how Armando acquired Hebrew. It's not very long, so I urge you to read it if you haven't read it before.

Armando became a near-native speaker of Hebrew without classes, books, or studying. He was simply employed in a family-owned restaurant where the owners were Hebrew speakers. Armando said (quote from the article),
...it was two or three years until he was comfortable in conversation even though he heard Hebrew all day on the job. He said that he never forced or pushed himself with Hebrew, that his approach was relaxed.
In a job, you may hear Hebrew all day long, but it wouldn't be as much as in a class at ALG World. In a restaurant, when it gets busy (assuming his restaurant had busy times) people may be shouting orders but they won't be having conversations. When a restaurant is slow, the workers are talking and conversing a lot. So each day and each hour would vary. That is why it may have taken him longer than an ALG World class. But at least he didn't give up like many students do.
Armando told me that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew grammar, had no idea of what the rules of Hebrew grammar were, and certainly did not think about grammar when speaking. He said that he received about five corrections a day, but none of these were aimed at grammar; it was all vocabulary.
So we see he never studied the grammar. He never spent time reading either. His acquisition was all through the ear.

It's very interesting to see how the judges came to different conclusions about the speaker they heard (Armando.) While 2 of the 4 said that he was not a native speaker, 1 of them explicitly stated that he thought Armando was a native speaker. I don't know what that says about Armando, but it says a lot about the people who judge you.

Krashen also states the following in the article:
Of course, Hebrew was not comprehensible for him right away. His great accomplishment was due to patience, being willing to acquire slowly and gradually with a long silent period (or period of reduced output). With a "natural approach" language class Armando would have had comprehensible input right away and would moved through the beginning stages more quickly, and real conversational Hebrew would have been comprehensible earlier.
I note that "Hebrew was not comprehensible for him right away." This, to me, clearly means that comprehension became the result of the input.

It also interesting that Krashen changed the name of the input hypothesis to the comprehension hypothesis. I have not looked at everything Krashen has written. I mean, I have not read the vast majority of his works. So I do not know for sure, but I suspect that he has never done a study on incomprehensible input. I think it is just being taken as a given that incomprehensible input is of no value. For most people, that makes sense.

But not to me. That's like saying that incomprehensible language just bounces off of you and has no effect. This simply cannot be true. I will write about why I disagree in another post.

Monday, October 20, 2008

50 words

This article states:
By 24 months, children will usually have a vocabulary of around 50 words and have begun combining those words in two or three word sentences.
At 36 months, the child has a vocabulary of 300 to 1,000 words!

How does the child learn all these words? Does a child look them up in the dictionary? Do the little toddlers ask for a translation? "Now, what would that be in baby talk?" Or perhaps they do a Google search?

They just look, listen, and guess. Can adults learn the same way or do we need a dictionary and must try to memorize lists of words? ALG World has already proven that adults can learn the same way. We don't need translations. We don't need explanations of how the language works. We don't need to think about the language. We just need the exposure to the language. An hour a week is not going to be enough. You're going to have to give it a try, but do not tell me that you tried for 200 hours. That's not enough. With a language close to your own, it should not take as long as a completely different language.

Too bad there are not that many people in the world who are willing to try this. We need more testimonials from those who learned a language without studying. I guess if this type of language acquisition became the norm, a lot of publishers would lose sales.

your brain predicts words

Your brain is doing a lot of work without you telling it to do so. So why do we think we must tell it what to do for a second language? Your brain can do so much at lightening speed, so why would you want to get in the way of that? Trying to learn a language is like getting in the way. There is an article which tells us this:
ScienceDaily (Sep. 15, 2008) — Scientists at the University of Rochester have shown for the first time that our brains automatically consider many possible words and their meanings before we've even heard the final sound of the word.
Without the proper amount of exposure to a new language, your brain will not have enough data to do this processing. I think the article shows us how much it is that our brain will do. We don't need to force it. Just give yourself the exposure and let your new language build up inside of your brain.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

what can we do?

If you've been reading my blog, you can tell that I've become convinced that the ALG method (automatic language growth) is the best way to acquire a language. It is the only method that gets you to native proficiency in 2 to 3 years. And there are many reasons why and how it works, which I won't go into in this post.

So what can we do if we cannot go to Thailand or if ALG World does not offer the language that we want to learn? The way I see it, there are 2 choices. The first is to go with the other methods of learning a language where you use dictionaries and look up everything you don't understand. In the end, you'll have to be satisfied with whatever ceiling you reach.

The second choice is to try to create our own Automatic Language Growth. The way I'm going to do this is to use online TV. In fact, I began about a week ago. I don't remember exactly which day it was. I'm not going to document how many hours I've watched or any statistics like that. I know it's much easier to watch 10 hours of TV than to listen to an hour of limited content.

As you might be aware, I have been trying to learn Chinese. From now on, in accordance with ALG principles, I'm no longer going to try. I'm simply going to bathe in the language and let the language into my brain. If there was ever anyone who was good at not trying, that would be me!

As I have already learned a little bit of the language, I hear many of the words that I have learned. I am experiencing first-hand the crippling effect of my learning. Whenever I hear something familiar, the meaning just won't come. I have to associate it with the English and then I understand the meaning. There is some kind of barrier. But I know I can get over this, because these already-learned words are so frequent and common that I eventually won't feel the need to translate them.

When I watched the first day, the language was very much like a blur. I tried to hear every word, but I could only hear 2 or 3 words in a sentence. I think the words that I could catch triggered something that made me not able to catch the other parts of the sentences. After a few days, I noticed that I could hear much more and it was much clearer. It was a big difference. Although I still don't know most of the language, it comes through more clearly now.

All of the Chinese TV shows and movies have subtitles in Chinese. With the help of seeing the word, I was able to figure out the meaning of a new word last night. When I saw it at first, I couldn't figure out what it meant. The word was 姐夫. I knew each character but was not able to understand what the word meant. After figuring out the relationship of the people in the drama and then finally seeing this word used in a context of only two people, I could finally figure out who 姐夫 was and of course what the word is. I don't think this is the intended way to acquire the language, but anyway, this is the first word I learned or figured out from watching TV.

There's another effect of watching many hours of TV in a foreign language. There's something happening inside my head because of all that input that is pouring in. There are times when I am not watching or thinking about the language at all, and I hear or feel something in the back of my head. Bits of phrases, or a word from the language is playing or repeating in my head. It's not me trying to do anything. But I hear this echo. I guess it is similar to a song you just can't get out of your head. But in this case, it's only partial language. My only guess is that my brain is processing the language. It's doing something in the background.

I believe the amount and variation of the language input is the most important thing to consider in regards to your exposure to the language. Without enough variation, your brain may not be able to work out the meaning. But with lots of variation, it all begins to make sense. Plus, I think you need to be overwhelmed by the language. Massive amounts of language input will really get your brain working. While Krashen states that it needs to be comprehensible, I do not. I believe that comprehension of the language is the by-product of the input. I will get more into this idea in another post. And finally, I believe that you shouldn't try or make any effort. Just relax and let the language flow in.

Friday, October 17, 2008

learn a language by watching TV

Can you learn a language by just watching TV? A member of the how-to-learn-any-language forum, user-named reineke, learned Italian by watching TV. His native language is Croatian. I would like to paste some of his posts from that thread where he revealed this information. The thread started with a question about learning a language by only listening. Reineke's was the first reply and soon after, the discussion turned to the ALG method (automatic language growth). That thread began in April 2007, so I'm not sure if Dr. Brown's book was available online at that time. I think it really is necessary to read the book in order to understand the method. From the thread we can see that forum members did not have a full grasp of the ALG method and the reasoning behind it.

While I'm not sure what Dr. Brown would have said about using TV as your input to learning a language, I am thinking it is possible and these comments from reineke back up that idea.

I did that for Italian as a kid. I liked watching cartoons so it wasn't really a "method". I took forced breaks during winter or whenever the weather was bad. One day someone asked me what the heck am I staring at something I don't understand, and I told them the gist of the plot. I frankly do not know when I started understanding, as I was too much into the stories. It was a massive amount of tv time but it's still the language I know the best, I'm near-native, kinda like a native speaker that's been away for very long and needs some refreshing, if you know what I mean. That's mostly due to my laziness though heh.

I forgot to mention that this is also exactly how I learned German. I bought my first satellite dish in 1990 and German channels were the most numerous. I spent a frightful amount of time on it. I did finish three years of elementary school German on my own and I stopped there (lazy bum). My German is lacking. I can understand just about everything (written and spoken) unless it's too technical but I'm at the point where I need to do a lot of reading (like I did for English and Italian) and grammar study or I won't progress any further. Compared to Italian, when I try to pronounce things I'm obviously foreign. I can fake it real well but I trip easily. I was relatively young when I started but not young enough. My advice is, yes it's possible but after "only" 800 hours you might be a little disappointed with your results. It might be different though if you try learning a related language. Another thing to think about is that you need massive amounts of material. And when I say massive I'm not kidding. You need several tv channels, access to a few thousand dvd's and many interesting radio channels. Boring material will cut you in the bud. No one has the spine to take 1000's of hours of boring material with this type of method. That's also one of the problems I'm currently facing with languages that are seemingly rather rich in multimedia material, namely Russian and Portuguese.

I just reread your post. I don't understand the part about not "focusing too hard" or "trying to figure things out". If you mean conscious effort, I don't think it's a problem with interesting material as it will draw you in. I did even as a kid occasionally peek in the dictionary though. I also sometimes pronounced things aloud for the heck of it. Doppio maglio perforante! Hahahaha. I think it's a silly rule.

So this can be compared to a sort of a spoken sentence method. A movie can have less than a half hour's worth of conversation (unless you're into real touchy feely stuff and even then there's a lot of "significant" silence). What is more important, perhaps, is the number of hours you'll be listening with little to no comprehension. We're talking going cold turkey here, listening to a language until you start understanding things and once you start collecting bonus points for "understood listening" you can do the math to see how long it will take you to finish. Right? Well, I did a lot of that with and without previous knowledge and I can tell you that previous formal training accelerated my comprehension. I still needed to do a large number of hours of listening, but having some sort of a grammatical skeleton on which to slap some flesh did help tremendously.

I do not believe in witchdoctor talk that you should only follow their method and nothing else.

The "critique" explains their method somewhat. A lot of the input comes directly from the teacher and is tailored to student's knowledge. It progressively gets harder, perhaps too fast (and therefore the critique). A second teacher helps by interacting with the first one. I am sure they use movies etc but it seems that their teachers are the main source of spoken language. How early they start with movies I don't know but all their content has method behind it. My "method" from the input perspective was very natural (and slow). The upside was that I was never bored. I basically just stared at all sorts of content meant for children and adults that I wanted to see. I was exclusively interested in the content and not in the process itself. I was in no hurry to ace the test. I believe it took a long while to say hey, I understand this and after that first Eureka my progress went incredibly fast. Way too fast perhaps and this leads me to believe that the hours spent listening to incomprehensible gibberish were paying a golden dividend. Some of the input I received over and over again may have rubbed off and bits may have been sleeping and waiting for the right key to unlock parts of the "system". I think way too much attention is being paid nowadays on trying to develop speaking skills from the very start. Everyone wants to be able to speak ASAP (even when they have no pressing need) and the schools are trying to oblige. Shorter courses for busy people who need to travel and hopefully make themselves understood in foreign lands are a completely different ball game.

I believe 1600-800 implies 50% comprehension on average. The first number depends on the shortcuts devised by the teachers (gestures, pictures etc.), on the course material and on your own individual progress. Mine was probably 4000-800. The second number depends on the difficulty of the language and is nothing else than an ideal number of hours of comprehensible input needed to reach a certain level of competence. Good pronunciation was a natural outcome of the process but not the main goal in itself. In any case the first number is always significantly higher than the second one. If I got something wrong someone please correct me.

If I'm using Pimsleur and there's a silence, I don't see why I can't open my yap and pronounce things as my voice is not directly interfering with the input.

Ahh that's interesting. But children do not keep their yaps shut that long. They do make attempts at words and sentences and usually they suck real bad in the beginning. They're natural at it though and that was my point. They don't force themselves either to speak or to keep their pieholes shut all the time. I've heard a couple of theories disputing the "critical period" and even that it's been refuted altogether (from an old psychology teacher). I haven't researched it but I'd certainly like to believe it.

It's interesting how you find having to keep quiet a burden. I've always found being forced to repeat after the teacher and having fake practice conversations a real pain. This theory suits me.

Now, what about the languages where we were forced to speak for a long time? Are our brains "polluted" forever? What about long periods without much input and no attempts at speaking? Would a renewed effort at 800 hrs of comprehensible input and no talk work effectively? Would previous imperfect efforts at speaking be overwritten or refreshed together with other knowledge? :)

The last bit is most relevant, I think, as they bothered to find out who studied language actively and who had poor knowledge of it. The desired result for us, language geeks er enthusiasts is to see the same parts of the brain fire up as those of a native speaker. This seems to be the case with the people who had good knowledge of the language. I doubt they all followed the same method. They did mention one caveat though: all subjects spoke two related languages. The most important sentence:

"attained proficiency is more important than age of acquisition"

The listening approach requires a lot of listening. You cannot really "try it" to see if it works, you have to finish it. I wouldn't use children as the only guideline for language learning. The problems with bilingual children are complex. Often kids will refuse to speak in the "inferior" language as it makes no sense talking to daddy in Polish when he perfectly well understands English. Such children are overwhelmingly more exposed to English (TV, mom, school, friends) than the other language (dad). Often they're embarrassed to speak in the language. I am not sure that the chorus method is the only method to guarantee a native accent. I am not sure that any method "guarantees" a native accent for adult learners. If you keep at it long enough and under favorable circumstances it might. So could the listening method or a combination thereof. What are the disadvantages of the chorus method? I see one of practicality.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

from the outside in

There are some documents worth reading over at ALG World. Among them, I highly recommend Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book, From the Outside In. By reading this book, you will understand the background and proof of Automatic Language Growth. You see, a lot of people who are aware of ALG do not realize that this is a proven method. To everybody, including myself, who have just heard about AUA Thai in the last two years, it seems that this is a new approach, but in reality, AUA has been teaching Thai this way for over 20 years now! So it's not just theory. It has been tested, verified, and implemented. When they say that speaking is not necessary and will hurt your ability to acquire the language, they know what they are talking about!

Here are the things you must not do while acquiring a new language as stated in the book:
  1. Don't Speak!
  2. Don't Ask!
  3. Don't Look Up Words!
  4. Don't Take Notes!
  5. Don't Think!
All of this means, don't analyze the language. We all do this naturally as adults to some degree, and if you look at the worst language learners, you will see this over analyzing. I have worked with ESL students as a teacher or conversation partner, so I have run into these people who analyze and think about the language more than anyone else, and let me tell you, they drive me nuts! They will start thinking about the language and trying to figure out how to construct a sentence and totally ignore their teacher. It's like, hey I'm going to tell you how to say it. Would you just stop thinking and start listening! But, of course, it's the system's fault. Everybody is expected to speak and everybody expects the quiet person is not getting anywhere.

A little background on Dr. Brown will show you that he had been there and done that. He had been through the FSI drilling and "practicing until it becomes automatic" type of learning. In fact, he learned Chinese through the Navy in the 1940's and was the guinea pig for the Army Method in the 50's. He is the one who proved that their methods "worked." And in 1980, he again set out to prove that practice makes perfect:

I was excited as I walked into the Japanese class that fall quarter of 1980. I had never been less than number one in a language class—and that was without trying. This time I was going to knock myself out. Getting an “A” wouldn’t be enough. Being the best in the class wouldn’t be enough. I was going to be the best the world had ever seen. You wouldn’t believe the extremes I went to.
I practiced until I could deliver it with perfect pronunciation and without a single hesitation. Then I practiced up to double speed without a hesitation.
I did this sort of thing with daily drills and quarterly speeches for three years. It didn’t work. And I could see that it never would. Not a single sentence was ever triggered by a thought. And this had been one of my requirements for success. I had set out to prove the success of practice. I proved, instead, its failure.
So, as you can see, Dr. Brown went from a motto of practice, practice, practice to a motto of don't practice! Another thing to point out is that Dr. Brown had created Thai language programs in the traditional way. He had many years of experience in revising the program and trying to improve it the traditional way. He had left AUA and when he came back is when he started the ALG way. With the old methods of teaching Thai, in 30 years he never had a single student pass his own abilities in Thai. And he wrote that after 10 years with the ALG method, he saw students passing him up all the time.

First, we need an understanding of how advanced Dr. Brown was in Thai. He studied Thai for 4 years and was immersed in Thailand for 40 years.
Now what was my own language preparation? I had studied Thai for 2 years at Cal at 3 hours a week and 2 years at Cornell at 6 hours a week. ... So when I arrived in Thailand I had been through almost 500 hours of classroom study by the Army Method. I could make near-perfect sounds once I had assembled a sentence for delivery, but I couldn’t even begin to ‘carry on a conversation’.
Where was the guinea pig after 32 years? I told you that by 1960 I thought I had arrived. Well I kept getting better and better through the 60’s ... People described my Thai as ‘legendary’ and I tended to believe them. When I gave lectures to Thai schools, the teachers would later tell me that my Thai was better than theirs. Now I knew full well how damning this comment can be, but I still lapped it up. More convincing were things like this. I phoned to speak to an American friend, and the servant who answered the phone later told him that a Thai man had called -- and swore by it. “Are you sure it wasn’t a foreigner with perfect Thai?” (he had been expecting me to call). “No. It was a Thai. I’m 100% certain.” I could see through this too, but I was succumbing to something I said earlier: ‘Short term satisfaction tends to blind us to long term goals.’
Now, the point that I am making here is that when your language skill is that much advanced and you recognize that someone else is even bettter, then that "better" person must be really, really good!
But what were the long-term goals of the guinea pig? I had set out to prove that the Army method could produce perfect speakers. Then, I thought I had proved the method right. Now, I can see that I had proved it wrong. The difference is hiding in the word ‘speak’. Then, I was thinking of ‘delivery’ (how the speaking comes out). Since my delivery was near perfect, I had proved it right. Now, I’m thinking of ‘production’ (how I get from thought to sentence). Since my production of Thai is very different from my production of English, I must have proved it wrong. Let me put it this way. When I speak Thai, I think in Thai. When I speak English, I think only in thought--I pay no attention to English.
A mif is a mental image flash. There is an article on it by David Long at the ALG World archive page. For now, I just needed to tell you what 'mif' stands for so when you read the next quote, you won't be wondering so much.
I found long ago that whenever I was in a Thai-speaking group together with other foreigners, I could easily tell whether they were better or worse than me. When I could see what they were trying to say, I would be flashing my own internal speaking (mifs), and I could easily see how my mifs compared to theirs. Was I faster or slower than them? Better or worse? Of course anyone could do the same thing for their own range. We’ve all got such a meter.
So, how long does it take for a successful student of the ALG method to pass up Dr. Brown at speaking Thai?
Our first success story came in 1988 when our course had grown to a full year. He was the first ‘student’ to pass me up. It took him about 5 years (one year of class plus 4 years of partial immersion). The most recent success story that I noticed was in 2001--after our course had reached new heights. It took her 2½ years (1½ years of class plus 1 year of partial immersion). And this is the current state of the art: 2½ years.

Remember now, I’m talking about a level above me. Her 2½ years had overtaken my 40! Notice also that my ‘bell test’ could only come at some time after a student had finished our course; that is, after a certain amount of immersion. It just so happened that the two people mentioned above worked in our department after their course and we were thus able to observe their immersion.
So, the proof is there. The concept has been proven. To sum it up, I'll state it this way. Not thinking about the language while acquiring it is far superior to drilling, practicing, and learning the language.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

learn a language without translation

Here's something for you to try if you enjoy extreme methods in language learning. Learn a language without any materials from your native language or any other language. Don't use a dictionary unless it is a monolingual dictionary in the language you are learning. Don't make any notes either. Keep all the info you learn in your head.

Do you think it would be impossible to learn anything this way? You would have to start out by just guessing at what words mean. Do you think no one could make heads or tails out of the language? But this is what Michal Ryszard Wojcik did in the Norsk Experiment when he started learning Norwegian in May 2001. He was able to figure out what a lot of words mean just by reading and re-reading in the language. He had learned English and German previously and was able to transfer his knowledge from those two languages to learn Norwegian. According to the how-to-learn-any-language website, there is a 30% overlap of vocabulary between English and Norwegian and a 60% overlap between German and Norwegian.

You should also read his report from another person who learned Norwegian the same way. This person is American and doesn't mention whether or not she has studied German.

ALG Crosstalk

Crosstalk is where two languages are used to communicate. Each person uses his own native language so that only perfect model language is heard. Non-verbal methods are utilized to facilitate communication as well. This Crosstalk method allows for longer discussions because each person can fully participate. If one person had to use a second language that they were limited in, then that person wouldn't be able to say as much and the conversation might be over sooner.

Crosstalk was further developed by AUA to allow it to be used in lower level classes. They also recommend students to use Crosstalk outside of the class. In Part 6, David Long explains crosstalk. And there is a video of crosstalk in action for you to see what it is like and how well it works.

I think this video demo showing people communicating but speaking only their own native language illustrates the fact that you CAN continue to think in your own language even though you are engaged in a conversation where another language is being used. And that is why I said in a previous post that just listening to conversations in Japanese is not going to help me to start thinking in Japanese. It is totally not necessary to think in the language you are hearing to understand what you are hearing, and yet you are not translating either. They are just two separate skills.

While crosstalk is a good way to get input in your target language before you are ready to speak it, it will not turn you into a speaker of your target language. Nor will you learn to think in the target language. But with it, you can show the other person or people that you do understand what they are saying. I've had many experiences where I was spoken to in Japanese and since I thought it was pointless to speak English, I couldn't respond very well in Japanese and so of course the other person doubted how well I could understand them. That was a 4 or 5 years ago, so today I can respond quite well.

Normally, if you respond to someone in English they won't be able to understand you and even if they do, they will think you don't understand Japanese. 99 percent of people are not going to speak to you in their language if you are approaching them with English, so I think you have to set it up first. I think that crosstalk might work best in your own country. If you are in the US, for example, you might find a speaker of the language and ask them to speak to you in their language and let you respond in English. But you should tell them not to translate anything for you. Translating is really the lazy way out. What you want is for them to explain things to you in their language. When someone explains something, they use the most basic words and concepts in their language. Hearing those explanations is really good practice for you.

I was speaking with an acquaintance of mine in Japanese on Skype a couple of weeks ago and at the end she ask that next time I speak English and she will just speak Japanese. At first I laughed, but actually I have thought of that before so I was quite open to it. If she ever comes back online on Skype, we'll see how it goes. We'll see if she really sticks to speaking Japanese while I am speaking English or if she tries to practice speaking English.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

the ALG method

At ALG World, the basis for Speaking, Reading, and Writing starts with a foundation of understanding. But how do you gain understanding? By listening, looking, and guessing. Listening is how you develop your ear. With a well developed ear, you will be able to know whether your own pronunciation is correct or not. You will be able to self-correct. Some people believe that children can pick up pronunciation better than adults. I, however, notice that they don't do it any better. In fact, some 6-year olds still have trouble with certain sounds. It is not uncommon either. In English, "th" is difficult to pronounce as well as "r" sounds. Japanese also has sounds that some children will take longer to get right. So, the simple fact is, that children do not just produce the sounds of their native language correctly right off the bat. They take time and every child is different. Adults just need to learn to do more listening. At ALG World, students are not expected to start speaking until after 700 hours of class. They won't be allowed to speak Thai in the first 3 levels. So, at least 600 hours of listening!

David Long says that visual information is important to learning. I guess it would be like if you heard somebody say, "トイレに行きます" and every time they said that you saw them go into the bathroom (or toilet-room), you would make a connection with the sound to the action that you saw. Probably the first couple of times you would not be able to remember the words that were said as they would just whiz right by you. But soon you would start to recognize the words and after you heard them you would start to expect that action. As you get used to the sounds of the language the words would start to stick in your short recall memory. And later when you suddenly need to go, those words or that phrase would just pop into your mind. When you hear something and see something, that is an experience. Experiences create stronger bonds to the language than other methods.

The third key to learning was guessing. David Long says it is important to guess and then move on. Trying to hone in on the exact meaning will slow down your progress. If you were taking Thai at ALG World, you might be sitting there thinking in English because you haven't got any Thai yet. But if you try to connect every Thai word to something in English, you're going to be missing out on everything else going on. By using your ability to guess, you are learning intuitively. Adults want to be exact and have the "right" answer. But in reality, we don't need to be right to learn a foreign language. If someone said to you, "Do you want !#$%&?" and then handed you a banana, you would guess that the word you didn't know means "banana." So you would spend some time thinking that word meant "banana," so what? Then one day they say the same thing to you, but this time they hand you an apple. You might go into shock for a half a minute, but you would just readjust your understanding of that word. Do you dare make the mistake of thinking that the word means "fruit?" Or will you be more open-minded? Who knows what they'll hand you next time? Maybe a potato. But in the end, you'll get the correct understanding through all of your experiences.

Another thing said by David Long is that you learn through collecting experiences. The more experiences you collect the more you'll learn. Just a few minutes ago, I let a man from the Co-op in. We have an intercom that he rang from downstairs, and because the speaker is not clear enough for me, I couldn't understand where he was from or why he wanted to greet me and give me a present, but I let him come up anyway because I knew I could collect another experience for my Japanese learning. ALG World is the only place in the world where you can start out at zero and be given enough experiences to learn another language. You could spend 6 hours or 12 hours (if you skip lunch) a day experiencing the Thai language. Unfortunately, unless you are a kid being put into a school system, you cannot just go out into the real world and get that kind of experience.

If you come to Japan, as soon as you display a lack of understanding, communication will be shut off unless the other person can muster up some English. If you came to learn Japanese, then English is not what you want to hear. People are not interested in trying to help you learn their language when it is one of the most difficult languages on the planet. They've already tried learning yours and failed. They spent 6 years studying English, so they do not expect you to pick up Japanese in a million years. They are older than you too. That means they are wiser than you. You are just naive.

Just two days ago, I was complemented for being fluent in Japanese after only 5 and a half years in Japan. Well, opinions differ, but it's not polite to argue and luckily the remark was not said directly to me. People judge quickly and have low expectations, but I have high standards. Now I am at a level where I can go out there and collect my experiences myself. I'm not lost. I can follow just about anything in general. But still I don't have any friends. That is what I need to pile up the experiences and to keep learning.

So, the whole ALG method is really about collecting experiences. It's not about translating, looking words up, memorizing rules, or testing. Just experiencing. We learn through our experiences by Listening, Looking, and Guessing.

By the way, if you want more information on the school that has the ALG Thai program, you'll need to click on Programs at the ALG World home page and then click on AUA Thai Program.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

ALG experiences

Here are some links to stories that people have written about their experiences at ALG World.

Listening to Thai in Bangkok

Comprehension is King

(read more from this website by doing this search)

A YouTube video from a student.

Learning to Speak Thai - a student who quit the program.

There was one more blog that I had read months ago but I cannot find it.

ALG World

I might consider ALG World the ultimate in extreme language learning and seems by far the best method there is. ALG stands for Automatic Language Growth. This is total immersion and no translation. So you start at Level 1 with no knowledge of the language and the teachers only speak in the target language. Notice that they have 2 teachers, not just one. I think that it is best to have 2 teachers in the classroom. 2 native speaking teachers. Since you start out not knowing the language, the teachers use more than just speaking in order to communicate to you. So you are understanding. You are not trying to remember words and not being asked to speak in the target language. You are just acquiring the language. Your ability to guess is what facilitates your acquisition of the language. This natural acquisition gets you native fluency. That means you speak with the facility and pronunciation of someone who grew up speaking the language.

In a way, this seems similar to an English lesson at a conversation school in Japan because the native English speaking teachers here (in Japan) cannot all be expected to be able to speak Japanese so therefor the lessons that students take at one of these "schools" is all in English. Therefor I would like to point out what some of the differences are. First and foremost, here in Japan, you get only one teacher teaching a lesson. At ALG World there are 2 teachers in the classroom. Having 2 teachers provides natural interaction and dialog for the students. With only 1 teacher, the teacher has a much bigger challenge to display the natural language. The next point is that at ALG World, the students are not under any pressure to produce output. In Japan, progress is measured by output. The pressure and stress to speak is quite counter productive. I know I can perform better and remember things more easily when I am not under any pressure. The last major difference I would like to point out is the number of hours. At ALG World, the students take class for 6 hours a day. So that would be 1500 hours in a year and could be 3000 in 2 years. The average student may take 1 or 2 hours a week of lessons in Japan. So it could all just be the number of hours. But the difference between the approaches shows up in pronunciation and facility in the language, not just the number of years it takes.

There are some videos on YouTube. This one is a Japanese lesson at ALG World.
I don't know which level that class is, but I can understand it 100%.

Here is a level 1 Thai lesson. Very interesting. It seems to me that in Thai some sounds are made with the whole mouth. It's like the sound is not just being pushed out but it is being held in the mouth. Obviously I can't describe what I mean or what I hear. But it just feels like the sounds are produced in a totally different way. Maybe it's not just some, but maybe all the sounds. I noticed this also in the movie Ong Bak. I bought this movie in May or June this year here in Japan so I've got the original Thai as well as a Japanese dub and Japanese subtitles.

If you want to know more about the ALG method, there is a presentation on YouTube divided into six parts. The first part is here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stuart's awesome new video!

You have got to check out Stuart's latest post! He's got a two-part video where you can hear him speak in many of his languages. It sounds like he's starting a series of videos.
Behind the Curtain - Stuart Jay Raj: Polyglot Stuart Jay Raj “Language Secrets From a Linguistic Junkie" Multilingual Video Post Episode 1 (2 Parts)

Monday, September 29, 2008

All I need to do - part 2

I wrote a post one month ago entitled, All I need to do is.... In that post I gave away the secret to becoming fluent in a foreign language. But like I said, it is really hard to do.

What do I need to do to put this secret into action? I thought maybe I need to listen to lots of Japanese and that would make it easier for me to make the switch. But that does not work. Just listening to Japanese does not make me think in Japanese. I can listen to Japanese all day long and still think in English about what is being said. I guess I am using different parts of my brain at the same time.

Also, I realize that in that previous post, I didn't make clear what I meant about thinking in the language. I'm not talking about getting past the translating before being able to speak phase. People talk about that a lot. They probably think that anyone who has difficulty speaking is translating from one language to the other before speaking. But that's not my problem. When I speak Japanese I create only Japanese sentences in my head. Because Japanese word order is almost the reverse of English, it would be impossible for anyone to translate on the fly.

So when I say, think in the language all the time, I mean use the language as your thinking language always. That will give you 10+ hours a day of using the language. So if you can do it, you will become unbelievably good in the language. Obviously because of all that practice of thinking in the language! (Now I'm just repeating myself.)

OK, so we know what we need to do, but HOW? I don't have that figured out yet. I'm sure that listening or watching TV shows a lot would help to give you the phrases and way of saying things that you need to know in order to think natural sentences. But in and by itself, I don't think it will change my habit of thinking in English. Anyway, I don't like watching TV because it just feels like a colossal waste of time. I have better ways to waste my time!

Right now, the only way I can think of to make the change is by force. I would have to force myself to think in Japanese. I would have to keep close tabs on myself. I would have to become a "thought policeman."

It's not easy to do. Especially when I'm spending a lot of time studying Chinese. Japanese has no place in my Chinese studies. Since Japanese uses a subset of the Chinese characters, it would be dangerous to mix the two. When I'm reading Chinese, I don't want to accidentally read a word as a Japanese word, which does happen.

Well anyway, this is just a follow-up report to say that I haven't been able to make the transition yet. There is quite a bit of resistance to it. Doing something that feels artificial is no fun.

Maybe I need to act as if there will be some great penalty if I don't do it. Jimmymac wrote a great post called, Motivating yourself more effectively, where he said:

3)Write down all the negative things that would become of you or that you would miss out on should you fail with your goal. My personal motivator is the fear of failure in the eyes of the people I care about.

And a few people attacked him on this point as well as others. But I think it has merit. When it is difficult to make yourself do something and you know that you don't have to do it, then you are, of course, not going to do it. Like I said, there were others who took the point the wrong way. But sometimes you have to do what it takes. If you give yourself a good reason to do it, then you will be motivated to actually do it. You know you are not going to whip yourself or throw yourself in jail, so something like not letting yourself buy a new computer until you reach your goal is a perfectly legitimate motivator. I'm not sure what that something would be for me since I can't buy anything anyway! But maybe I'll think of something. Something concrete works best.

What are you willing to give up if you don't become fluent in your target language?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Polyglots online

A person who can speak many languages is called a polyglot. Polyglots are everywhere! No they're not. Your next-door neighbor is probably a polyglot! Highly unlikely. It's easy to become a polyglot! Yeah right. It takes many years of dedication and determination.

I know of only 3 polyglots online. They are:
All three have English as a native language.

The professor is the most erudite of the three. He is fully capable in German, French, and Spanish. He is able to speak at least 7 more languages with Korean being the best of those other 7. He lived in Korea for 8 or 9 years. Then he moved to Lebanon for two years until bombs started falling. He also has knowledge of dozens of more languages and a huge library of learning materials for all of those languages. His YouTube channel is ProfASAr.

Stuart is an extraordinary polyglot and has made using languages his business. He is a consultant to large corporations and bridges language and cultural barriers for them. He has been living in Thailand for probably 10 years and is super fluent in Thai, a tonal language. He can speak 10 to 15 languages. His YouTube channel is stujaystujay.

Steve is the eldest of the three. He is a former Canadian diplomat turned wood/lumber exporter. He has used languages to bolster his wood business and now has created an online language-learning website. His website, LingQ, is quite useful and I, a member, certainly do recommend it. Steve can speak 10 languages including Chinese and Japanese. His Youtube channel is lingosteve.

If you know of any other polyglots with an online presence, won't you please let me know?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Not for Beginners!

If you are well on your way in one of the following languages:
Mandarin, Cantonese, Burmese, Korean, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Tibetan, Uyghur

You might be interested in Radio Free Asia. If you're a beginner, then just bookmark it and come back later.

Interestingly enough, my computer and browser are displaying the Lao, Vietnamese, and Uyghur correctly, but not Burmese, Khmer, or Tibetan. I know, though, that I have installed fonts for Lao and Vietnamese, but not for the other 3. I think Uyghur might be using the Arabic script. I know nothing about it though, but it looks like Arabic to me.

My browser (Firefox 2) does not display Thai though. And I did have trouble with one Lao site, so that is why I was surprised to see that I had no problem with the RFA site in Lao.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sri Lanka Festival 2008

I went to the Sri Lanka Festival today in Tokyo at Yoyogi. It was very exciting with lots of traditional dances performed for us and there was good food too.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Insomniacs can learn languages too!

It's about 4 am. Let's face it, I'm an insomniac. What am I doing up so late? I went to bed a long time ago but never fell deep asleep. I need some sleep management help. I'm tired. I'm going back to bed. I'm going to fall asleep. That works. If you ever can't sleep, just write a blog post saying that you're going to fall asleep. That kind of suggestion helps hypnotize you into falling asleep. Goodnight everybody!

Monday, September 08, 2008

I upgraded at LingQ

I am no longer a Free member at LingQ. I am now a Basic member. I just upgraded to Basic. I bought a 6-month membership. I received 500 points for upgrading too.

I am getting kind of addicted to LingQ. It needs more Chinese content though, and it still does not parse spaceless languages correctly. We must insert spaces between words so that our saved lingqs will be highlighted. So Chinese and Japanese, the ones I use, are still in beta. Anyways, it needs more content so I uploaded some.

Here is a link to LingQ: http://www.lingq.com/

Friday, August 29, 2008

All I need to do is...

For quite a while now, I've been thinking about how I can go from intermediate to fluent. As is quite common for learners like me, speaking skills lag way behind. Nobody knows how much actual knowledge I have in my head, so they can only evaluate my Japanese by listening to me speak.

Some people are quite lenient. They recognize that I have a high degree of understanding. Other people seem to think that my speaking skill is the mirror image of my knowledge of the language. And I've always known that if I could speak as well I understand, then things would be alright.

I now know without a doubt what I can do to bring my speaking ability up. I need to stop using English as my thinking language and start using only Japanese to think. I once tried to do this about 4 or 5 years ago but I was so limited that I couldn't complete my thoughts and it hurt to not be able to think. But now I have sufficient knowledge and I need to put it into practice. Once I get used to thinking in Japanese and make it a natural habit that I don't have to force upon myself, then I will really be able to speak the language.

About 3 years ago, I met a Chinese guy at a volunteer Japanese class. We were working with the same tutor that day. I was still studying for Level 2 of the JLPT. He had already passed it and was studying for Level 1. He had been in Japan for a year longer than I. His Japanese ability was unbelievable. His pronunciation sounded native-like. He spoke so easily. We were asked what language we usually think in. His answer was "Japanese."

Friday, August 01, 2008

How is my Chinese?

Maybe you would like to know the answer to the question. I have decided to begin to learn to speak Chinese. Until now I have just listened. But now I need to start practicing so that I will be able to actually converse.

I'm attaching a sample to this post. It's really just a bit of encouragement. I was practicing a sentence. Anyway, this audio clip is only 10 seconds long.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Today, the third and final class in the introduction to JSL (Japanese Sign Language) took place. I was present and accounted for.

The first thing we did was to review the finger-spelling signs. Then the deaf members introduced themselves. And then one of them lectured for a while. After that, we played some games. The first was Bingo. A learner would act out one of the words and then we could circle it on our Bingo card. Our cards were blank and we had to fill in the words ourselves. So everybody had the same words but in different places. I put all the Katakana words at the bottom and I almost got Bingo.

The next game played was with writing in the air. About 10 people were lined up and starting from the back passed on the message by writing the word in the air. That game was done twice and I was in the second group. I got to be the last in the line and luckily it was easier than the word the first group did. They had めがね (glasses) and we had くるま (car).

The final game was similar using charades instead of writing in the air. The last two groups lined up and passed the message on one by one. Then there was time for one more round, so all the men were selected for it. This time I was second to last. The person before me didn't know it was "skydiving" so I only understood "parachuting" from him. So that's the message I passed on.

That about sums up what we did today. We didn't learn any new signs or practice any sign language. So all together from the whole course (all 3 classes), we learned greetings, how to tell your name (self introduction), and finger-spelling the syllables and the numbers.

The Beginners' course or Elementary course starts next week. It will go until next March. I guess I will join it although I'll be doing all my learning outside of the class. The class is going to proceed too slowly. But I haven't established a person to learn from yet, so I still need to make some contacts. I can attend next week, but the following two weeks I can't because of work.

In other JSL news, I bought a DVD book yesterday from the bookstore. It is supposed to cover the Basic JSL signs. It was only 1500 yen + tax (1575 total).

Friday, June 27, 2008


This week we had the 2nd class in the introductory JSL course. We reviewed the previous signs we had learned and then got a lesson in pantomiming. Basically, it's OK to act out what you are trying to convey because the deaf person will be able to understand which is better than giving up and leaving them in silence. So we had some deaf people and JSL Circle members doing some charades and then the students also got a chance. At first some volunteered, but then later volunteers were drafted. I ended up having to do "rabbit." After that, we all learned the Japanese syllabary in finger-spelling followed by numbers. It hurts holding your hands in those shapes. Here is a picture from the actual class in a blog post.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Today was the first of three classes in Japanese Sign Language. First we heard from the deaf people. They cannot talk but the volunteers translated. We heard about the difficulties they face. Then we learned to sign Good Morning, Good Day, Good Evening, Nice to meet you, Thank you, and Please. Then in smaller groups we learned to introduce ourselves. My name is... Nice to meet you. Next week they will teach the hand signs and What is your name?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Japanese handwriting sample

I got this advertisement package from a house builder today. In it, there was this page with handwritten Japanese. So I decided to scan it in and post it here so you can see what Japanese handwriting looks like.

(file size: 476 K)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Today I attended, for the first time, a meeting of the 手話 (shuwa) Circle. 手話 is Japanese sign language. Everybody practiced by doing 紙芝居 (kami shibai). That is where a story is told by a person holding big picture cards and the story is read on the back. There were 2 deaf people (聴覚障害者) there who gave feedback at the end of the performance. 紙 means paper and 芝居 means performance.

Next week, an introductory (入門) 3-lesson course will begin and I have signed up for it. After the meeting, I went to the 図書館 (library) and checked out a book on 手話. From the handbook, I have learned 挨拶 (greeting). Morning + 挨拶 (aisatsu) = Good Morning. Day Time + 挨拶 = Good Day. Night + 挨拶 = Good Evening. Sleep + 挨拶 = Good Night.

今日、初めて手話サークルの会に見学しました。日本手話は英語で「Japanese sign language」と言います。皆さんが紙芝居で練習しました。紙芝居は大きい紙を持ちながら、裏面から物語を読んで います。聴覚障害者二人が居て、芝居が終わった後にフィードバックを上げました。


Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Iversen Method

The Iversen Method is a wordlist method for tackling vocabulary acquisition in language-learning.

I am working on the modified Iversen method for Japanese. As a trial run, here is what I have done.

First of all, the paper. I used printed paper with squares neatly arranged like graphing paper. The squares are 5 millimeters. It's really small and I did not think I would be able to write in the complex characters in them, but somehow I managed. The paper has 44 rows and 30 columns.

Without getting too detailed, I put one entry per line which ended up in the following order: Kanji, Kana, English, Kanji.

The first day, I did 6 at a time. I felt I had to do some memorizing before writing them on the paper because when I do write them down the first time, that is when I need to make my mental notes about the characters so that later, I can recall those notes and reproduce the Kanji in the final column. Without doing some work to memorize the reading and meaning before writing the words in the initial column, I would have nothing to attach it to in my brain.

So I went through the list before writing them down until I knew the readings and the meanings. Then I wrote the Kanji words by first carefully looking at them and then trying to write them from memory. If I could not do it, then I knew which part to give more attention to and I made mental notes. I also repeated the reading and meaning once when finished with each word.

By the time I finished writing the 6 words, I could still remember all the readings. I did a quick run through in my mind to make sure and then I proceeded to write down the readings in hiragana for each word.

After that, I would check my recall of the English translations. Usually, no problem. So then I wrote down all of the English translations. After that, I double checked to make sure I hadn't left anything out.

Finally, the fourth and last column. This was the challenging part because I had written down the readings and the English since having written the actual Kanji words. Just glancing at Kanji is not enough of a review to be able to write them. So it felt like some time had passed since I had written them. I covered up the first two columns and went through the English column. I traced the Kanji with my pen but no ink as I reconstructed them from my memory. Many times I closed my eyes to get a better look at them. This helps to remove any visual distractions from sight so that I can concentrate on the characters from memory. I recalled my mental notes that I had made about which characters were used and what those characters consisted of. If I got stuck, I tried my hardest to remember it. Only when I had felt that that wasn't working would I finally resort to looking at the answer. If I failed any one word, I would repeat the run through again. Once I could go through the list with no problem, then I would actually write them down in that fourth column.

Like I said, the first day I had done 6 at a time (42 total). I felt that this was too easy and that the exercise was over too quickly.

So the second day I did 11 at a time. Naturally, this was more challenging but still easily attainable. The less familiar I was with a particular Kanji the more difficult it was. On the final two sets, I noted the time it took. Each set of 11 took about 32 minutes. Both times, the first 6 minutes were spent learning the words before I wrote that initial column.

So to fill up a page with 44 words took me 2 hours plus rest time in between sets.

I'm thinking if I use a dictionary or vocabulary book, I can leave out the 2nd column which has the readings. I could look them up easily later if I reviewed them a month down the road and forgot some. This would allow me to get twice as many words on a page. Plus, it would be easier to review since the readings wouldn't be on the page. I would know for sure that I had learned the readings if I can still read them with out having to worry about covering up the readings before I accidently see them.

Each night was a lot of work. I'm not sure I could keep this up. I was exhausted when I finished. I would have liked to have done more. But it was tiring so I could not. I suppose I will try with the 3-column version instead of four columns.

Follow these links if you want to see images of the pages I wrote.

(1.5 MB each)
page 1
page 2