Tuesday, January 20, 2009

don't cut off your own feet!

A man without feet walks funnily,
but a man who has feet can run.
This proverb, authored by me, is about language learning vs. language acquisition. I've learned Japanese through studying, not through input. Consequently, speaking Japanese does not come naturally to me. It does not feel natural. My ability to speak Japanese is probably like the man without feet. I stumble around and sometimes fall flat on my face. I have to think too much which is as bad as thinking about how to walk. Have you ever thought about the way you are walking while you walk? Suddenly walking feels odd. Your feet don't reach the floor when you expect them to. I've experienced this when I was a teenager walking in the mall while being self-conscious. I thought, "oh girls are probably looking at me. How's my walk?" Suddenly I wouldn't be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I knew my rhythm was off just because I was focusing attention on it. If I didn't think about walking I'd be fine.

Now let's turn that last statement into one related to languages. If I didn't think about talking, I'd be fine. Just like walking is something we shouldn't have to think about, so is talking. Language study puts too much attention on the language. Speaking a language is a natural thing. We do it naturally after receiving an extremely large amount of input.

But we must take care to not try running too early. If you need to think about the language, then you don't have enough input yet. Remember, thinking about the language is like thinking about walking. How could you expect to run when you would still need to think about walking?

There are many simple things that we learn to do and then later are able to do them without thinking. They become second nature to us. But language is not a simple thing. Computer programmers are able to write very complex programs that do wonderful things. Those complex computer programs are actually broken down into very simple instructions. If human language were so simple we would have translation programs that produce high-quality translations from Japanese to English. Unfortunately, the programs we have today do not recognize how awful their results are. How can you create a program that can get a feel for the language? That is what is needed. People have to get a feel for the language. That is why most of us cannot explain why some sentence in our native language is correct or incorrect but we just know it.

Once you have that feel for the language, you'll be running. Thinking about the language does not give you that feel for the language. As long as you keep thinking about the language, you'll never get the feel. The longer you think about the language, the more ingrained the habit of thinking becomes.

I'm going to trust my brain's natural ability to acquire human languages and I'm going to stop thinking about Chinese while I'm watching dramas and listening to it. I don't care what the words mean. Dr. Brown wrote:
"The words don't carry the meaning -- the meaning carries the words."
So from now on I'm not going to be able to tell you if I learned any new words or not. I want to do this the right way; the natural way. I'll try my best to clear the English language out of my head. I'll see if I can adapt a relaxed state of mind.

In summary, the act of language study is like cutting off your feet. If you don't speak naturally then you are just practicing a funny walk and you'll never be able to run. Thinking about pronunciation and how to say something is not natural. Studying a language is not natural. Receiving input and just letting the language into your brain is natural.


  1. Hi, I'm very interested in how your method goes. I'm in a full Japanese media immersion but not as purely as you. I use a kokugo dictionary often and an SRS.

    Question: Do you currently spend much time with Japanese media? Or do you consider Japanese a lost cause for you now. From the analogy it sounds like you think your feet wouldn't grow back even if you spent 15 hours a day listening to Japanese.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on "fixing" a badly learnt language.

  2. I believe I can still improve my Japanese tremendously and I hope that all damage can be fixed. I will be trying it in the future. Specifically, in 2011 I will focus on Japanese for up to 2 years. Currently and previously I have spent very very little time watching Japanese. That is one of the reasons I know I don't have enough Japanese input. I would like to record myself speaking Japanese again to document my current abilities. I'm not a very talkative person so I need to practice first otherwise there will be too many pauses while I wonder what I should say.


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