Thursday, February 25, 2010

should I ask advanced learners?

If you visit language forums, you will often see topics posted as questions about the foreign language. There are posts and discussions asking things like, "What does this word mean?" and "What's the difference between (this word) and (that word)?"

Sadly, these questions could all be resolved by the learner himself, if he would just be patient and get more exposure to the language. What's scary, though, is that the answers given can be wrong or give you the wrong idea. There's a word in English for this. It's called misinformation. These answers are often given by very confident-sounding advanced learners.

I bring this topic up now because today I was reminded of an experience I had.  This morning I was reading a training tutorial for MS Excel in Japanese. Almost 5 years ago, not long after I had started to work for a Japanese company and in a Japanese work environment, I had to write some kind of a user manual in Japanese. I don't remember if it was for an application that I had coded or not, but I think it was.

It was my first time writing such a document in Japanese. I had used in it, a certain grammatical form (-たり…-たりする). My coworkers who were Chinese checked the document I had written and said that this was not a structure which could be used in this kind of document. There were 2 of them saying this, and 1 was the team-leader who had been working at that location for over 4 years already. They were both way better than I was at Japanese. In fact, they were chuckling about the fact that I had written a sentence like that in the document. Apparently, they thought this was some kind of casual-only structure. I, however, couldn't see anything wrong with it and I was a little offended by their laughter. I argued that they were wrong and there was no reason it couldn't be used in a software manual.

But how would I know? I hadn't read any software books in Japanese. I didn't have any experience to recall upon. I hadn't any examples to show them. They were the advanced learners. They knew more than I did.

So, the next thing we did, we had the supervisor read my document to see what he would say. He was a native Japanese speaker. And guess what? He didn't laugh at the structure. He didn't point it out. He didn't say anything about it. There was nothing wrong with using that in the document.

Since that time I have seen this structure used in published software books. And today I saw it again in the training manual. It was a reminder to me. A reminder never to listen to what another language learner says about the language. You can do all of your learning right in the language itself. There are examples of the language everywhere, although it's best to use published books because they will have been proof-read.


  1. Good post. I think one of my weak points in learning Korean is that I get a little discouraged from native speakers. Some have a habit of chuckling when I speak Korea, despite clear pronunciation. Ironically, it's usually older Koreans who understand me perfectly well and younger people who chuckle and laugh sometimes.

  2. I think that's a very good point. On a few forums, I've seen things said by people -way- beyond me that are immediately contradicted by another person way beyond me or a native speaker.

    Whenever I come across things like that I file them in my head as 'someone thought it was this way' instead of filing them as facts. That means the person's learning experience isn't totally useless to me and even if they made a mistake, I can probably learn something from it.

  3. Interesting becouse it happen to me too. patient and learn step by step is the key to break the "code".

  4. I try to stay away from other learners as much as possible. If I happen to come across a discussion on Thai vocabulary or grammar (that's the language I'm learning), I immediately navigate away. I think there's nothing to be gained from such discussions; even worse: it's likely to inflict harm on my own learning. I want to have as little exposure to language analysis as possible.

  5. Congratulations for your 1000 hours!

  6. Yes, congratulations on your 1000 hours of Chinese TV! How is your Chinese, by the way?

  7. You're absolutely right, Keith. That's why non-native language teachers can be such a threat to ones language development.

    I'm a Spanish major, and we used to have conversational Spanish classes. And I used to skip them. Why? Because even though some were really advanced learners, they were still making mistakes and correcting stuff that wasn't incorrect.

    When I receive e-mails or comments asking me the meaning of some word of expression, I often try to ignore them or not to sound like an expert. Although I speak Spanish really well, I'm not an expert. People should put more work in it themselves, and not rely on a person that speaks the language well (let it be an advanced learner or a native speaker).

  8. Even most native speakers should simply be observed and interacted with rather than questioned about language usage.

  9. I understand where you are coming from, but I don't entirely agree. It can be useful to interact with and ask questions of advanced learners of the language. For one thing, learners often have a better grasp of the language's grammar than the native speaker does and can explain rules to you in cases where a typical native speaker might only be able to tell you what their intuition is.


No profanity. Please be considerate of others. Thank you.