Saturday, December 29, 2012

new year revolutions

This year (2012), I didn't accomplish much in the way of achievements.  I have no achievements to brag about.  I didn't watch much Chinese TV.  I didn't take any language tests.  I did, however, start a new job where I am working in an English bubble.  I used to work in a Japanese office.  Yes, I am still in Japan, but now I work where there are very few Japanese people and English is pretty much the only language spoken.

But for 2013, I have a number of things I want to accomplish and so it's going to be a year of revolutions.

First of all, I am studying for some more Oracle database certification exams.  I'm going to take two exams and I'm going to take them in Japanese.  I did this before when I got certified on Oracle PL/SQL.  I don't have to take them in Japanese.  I could go to the testing center and take the English version of the tests.  I choose to take them in Japanese.  I have already bought a study book for the first exam and have read more than half of it.  After I pass those two exams, then I'm going to study for and take the Java programmer certification exam.  I'll do that in Japanese as well.

After I finish those exams in Japanese, I will continue to study in Japanese.  I want to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1 exam in December 2013.  For that, I need to do a lot of reading of articles of the type that will appear on the exam.  Reading comprehension is very important for the exam.

At the same time, I would like to take my Chinese to the next level.  By the end of the year, I would like to be able to hold a conversation in Chinese without too much trouble.  For that, I am going back to Assimil Chinese with Ease to make sure I know every word and phrase in the course.  I am also going to write out every lesson so that I will be sure to reinforce some of the words that are not used very often in the course as well as be able to read and hopefully write Chinese characters.

I am not too worried about any of the usual hiccups that come with using textbook lessons since I have already spent a lot of time with Chinese.  I seem to already have acquired pretty good pronunciation and I know I'm at a point where I can really take off.  Either before or after I finish Assimil, I will practice speaking by engaging in some conversations.  That will allow me to gauge where I am at with the language. To date, I have only spent 6.8 hours speaking Chinese, and only once this year.  This year, I watched Chinese TV dramas for about 140 hours.  I will try to watch some next year too, but I have not set any target hours.

I will be really excited when I can carry on a conversation in Chinese well.

Good luck to everybody in 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

language learning methods do not matter

The theme of the year in the polyglot community seems to be that the method doesn't matter when it comes to learning a language. And from what I gather, the reasoning behind that statement goes something like this: Polyglot A likes to translate, while Polyglot B likes to talk to people, and Polyglot C does lots of reading but no translation exercises. Since Polyglots A, B and C have all learned multiple languages using different approaches, we can therefore conclude that there is no key method to learning a language.

Although I do think you can go about learning a language in different ways, and if you keep up with lots of hard work, yes, you will make progress. And then at some point you may decide to declare that you can speak the language. However, will you be happy with the point you have reached?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

you are thinking too much

This is a blog where I post my views about learning languages.  My views are not main-stream, and there are plenty who would disagree with me. Plenty of those people are also better language learners than I am, however, I do not automatically assume that those people know more than I do. In fact, I think that very very few people know how languages are actually learned. Even if they are able to call themselves fluent in foreign languages, it does not mean they recognize how they learned those languages.

One point is grammar.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

making mistakes is bad or good?

A comment on Steve's blog says:
The essence of learning is making mistakes, that's HOW you learn to do it right!

I have to say, I don't agree with this. We learn to do it right by doing it right, not by doing it wrong. When you do something wrong, it means you haven't learned how to do it right yet.

Is it impossible for someone to do something right without doing it wrong first? No, I don't think so. Getting it wrong is not a prerequisite for getting it right.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

no English, none of the time, never!

Have you heard of "No English, None of the Time, Never!" before? Maybe we can shorten it to NENTN! I think I don't even have to explain what this means. 99% of readers probably understand what it's all about. For that one percent who are totally clueless, here's an explanation:

Sunday, June 03, 2012

reading like a native

I know many people have the notion that you'll never be as good as a native speaker in a foreign language. A few of us have the audacity to aspire to native-equivalent performance in our second languages and even fewer strive for native-sounding pronunciation. Even if we are delusional, I think for those that really want to be extremely good in another language, there is no reason that we can't expect to be able to read like a native.

For languages with alphabetic scripts or even phonetic scripts, reading as well as a native may not sound like something that would be questionable. All you need to do is put in the time and even if you don't feel like looking up unknown words, eventually you'll get a pretty good idea of what most of the words mean.

But for Chinese and Japanese (any others?), reading is quite a challenge even at the advanced stages of learning. I haven't much experience with reading Chinese, but I do for Japanese. So let me just talk about reading Japanese.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

example sentences

One feature of modern dictionaries is the "example sentence." If you go to, you can find example sentences with the definition of a word. For example, here's an example sentence from the entry for "hamburger."

  • That's a sad fact for hamburger lovers, but it's true.
Unfortunately, all of the example sentences for hamburger, and most other entries, are useless. My guess is, though, they didn't waste any time writing these sentences. They most likely use some code to pull them from a large corpus.

What's the problem with this and most other example sentences you get from dictionaries? These sentences are not really good examples of how to use the word. The sentences also don't give you any hint or idea as to what the word means. That means you can take the word in the sentence that's supposed to be the most important word and replace it with about a hundred other words.  For instance, "hamburger" in the above sentence could be replaced with any of the following: pizza, language, ocean, animal, young, paid, forgotten, new, old, lost.  The list goes on and on.

There's nothing about that sentence that tells you this must be talking about a hamburger. Basically, if hamburger were an unknown word to you in English, but you knew what a hamburger is, you would not be able to make any connections from what you know about hamburgers to the word in this sentence.

The best example sentences would be ones where you could fill in the blank.  In the example sentence above, if I left it blank, nobody, not even a native speaker would know what the original word was. But with an ideal example sentence, the blank could only be filled in by one word. And that word would be obvious to any native speaker from looking at the rest of the sentence.

 So the next time you think, "I need to see an example sentence," don't even bother.


Friday, March 16, 2012

what is fluency?

I'd like to take another look at what fluency is and is not.  Fluency is easy to define, easy to confuse, but difficult to achieve.

Fluency is, essentially, the ability to speak like a native speaker.  But that does not mean exactly the same as a native speaker. Speaking exactly the same as a native speaker is language mastery.  So, a fluent speaker need not be perfect, nor have as large of a vocabulary as a native speaker.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

this is fluency in Japanese

I found a new hero for Japanese language learners. Watch this video! This guy is fluent in Japanese. His speed of speaking matches the speed of native Japanese. It is really impressive. In this, his first video on YouTube, he is speaking without a script. He pauses to think about what he wants to say, not how to say it, nor does he pause to recall any words. The second video he posted is much more impressive, however it is longer and is audio-only, with him and two other people. But if you listen to that one, you will think it is a Japanese guy speaking. Here is a link to that video.

So, what did you think?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

does time-boxing work for language learners?

Do you use time-boxing for language learning? Does it work for you? I wonder how many language learners are time-boxing.

Time-boxing means to set certain lengths of time for working on tasks. You might have 30 minutes for your French and 20 minutes to work on another language and so on. You manage your time so you are able to work on all of the things you want to do instead of getting carried away with one and not having time for the next one.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

number of known words

In English, it seems the average native speaker knows about 17,000 word families. A study of vocabulary comparing Dutch students entering university to non-native Dutch students found that the average vocabulary size of the Dutch was approximately 18,800 words.

The Common European Framework for Reference of languages (CEFR), appears to cover the most frequent 5,000 words at the C2 level, which is the top level of the test. You can check here on page 186. To pass C2 in English, one needs a vocabulary of around 4,000 or more words. For French, the learner should know 3,300 - 3,700 words to pass C2. These figures are a far cry from what the native speaker knows but apparently enough to perform well on the most advanced level of the CEFR test. So I wouldn't quite call C2 mastery of the language, nor equivalent to a native speaker.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

dedication to language learning

I think one of the most important requirements to learning any language successfully is dedication. Without dedication, there can be no success. The best method doesn't work without dedication. That's really where the off-the-shelf language courses fail. Courses like Pimsleur probably do a great job until the course ends. After that, you can't really apply the Pimsleur method any more. And you certainly aren't finished learning. So you're left to your own devices trying to figure out what to do next. For experienced language learners, this isn't a problem. But I think the average language learner doesn't know what to do.

Monday, January 09, 2012

speaking fluently vs. being fluent

Guess what?! They are different. That's right! In case you have never thought about it before, "being able to speak fluently" and "being fluent" are 2 different things. You have probably never seen this argued before, so I hope to clearly explain this as well as to cover what fluency really is.

Speaking fluently is something that every fluent speaker should be able to do, but every person speaking a foreign language fluently is not necessarily fluent in the foreign language. Speaking fluently can be accomplished with practice speaking. That means that from the beginning, you could be speaking fluently even if you only know a little of your target language. But a person with an extremely limited knowledge of the target language could not be considered fluent in the language even if he speaks very fluently.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

words vs. sentences

If you review your newly learned items in a foreign language by use of flashcards, what is the best way? Should you put a target word on the one side and a translation word on the other? Should you use whole sentences instead of individual words? If so, then what do you put on the back side of the card? A translation of the whole sentence?

Here's an idea. Put a target word on the front and a sentence using the word on the back. This way, both sides are in the target language. When you test yourself, look at the target word and recall the sentence written on the back. If you can do that, you will be able to remember how to use the word in a sentence. When you don't remember the sentence, you just look at the back side, of course, but seeing the sentence should remind you of what the word means. Assuming, of course, that you understood the sentence before putting it on the back of the card.

I believe it is much easier to remember the meaning of an entire sentence than an individual word. The individual word has no context; nothing to clue you in to what it means. The sentence, however, can remind you of the entire situation that it came from, thereby making a translation on the card obsolete.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

how many hours are in 3 months?

If you were going to try to achieve some kind of significant level in a new language in 3 months, how many hours would you put in? What could you accomplish in 3 months? What kind of fluency would you have, if any, after 3 months?

I'm asking the questions here, so feel free to give me your ideas. I won't be answering my own questions today, but I'd like to think about it for a moment.

Let's break it down into some different hypothetical situations. Three months is usually about 91 and 1/4 days. That makes a full 13 weeks.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

your language level assessment

Have you ever noticed how quickly people are able to judge your level in a foreign language?  Even people who can't speak a foreign language have this incredible ability to classify your linguistic skills.  I once had a cat with a Japanese name and when my landlord heard me call the cat she remarked with surprise how good my Japanese was becoming.  All I had said was the cat's name!  And no, the woman didn't know any of the Japanese language herself.

Most people seem capable of certifying your language proficiency after you've only spoken one sentence.  I've had that happen to me many times here in Japan.  So what am I supposed to say to them? "Oh, well you're the native speaker so I guess you would know, wouldn't you?"

If you can write your own address in Japanese you are sure to wow them.  This is my address, for crying-out-loud! I live here! I'm not a visitor. Do they expect me to be forever illiterate? Have so many of the other foreigners made such a poor impression?  It's just a bunch of squiggly lines, so get over it.

Of course, the evaluations will not always be good ones.  People who will not be relying on you in any way may rate you extremely high, but those who are thinking about using you are going to be a lot more critical. Whichever the case may be, they are always wrong!

You'll be appraised too high and appraised too low.  Your value may be up one day and then completely drop the next.  They can't all be right.