Category Archives: Learning Japanese and Chinese
I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.
Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?
Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:
Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.
Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.
We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.
Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak. Read the rest of this entry
I am now returning, having received a moment ago a timely reminder from Victor Berrjod, to the discussion on the above diagram, and what it can show us of use to the learners of language.
In the earlier article, I wrote about how in reading and in listening the language user is passive – not having to generate his own grammatically correct language or have the right word at hand. Therefore reading and listening are intrinsically less challenging than writing or speaking. For someone not in an active state with his command of a foreign language, reading and listening creates less of a problem than writing or speaking. If he, or she, knows the word in their passive memory then it should be that they can deal with reading it or listening to it. In order to be able to speak or writing a person must find that word for themselves.
So we have compared the two rows in the diagram. Let us now compare the two columns.
In the leftmost column, the one containing reading as the passive skill or function and writing as the active skill, we can say that the learner is able to exercise more control over timing when reading and writing than when speaking and listening. Read the rest of this entry
I would like to give you today some initial thoughts on the diagram, and to do that I’m going back to a simplified form of the diagram without the flows included as yet.
This is just to get a clearer image of the base ideas before we get onto the various conclusions that can be drawn from it, when we will go back to the diagram including the arrows and boxes showing the auditory and the visual routes of progressing from reading to speaking.
For today I would like to offer for your consideration that whatever we do, whatever applications we use language for, for instance counting, swearing, singing, praying, shopping, skyping, reciting poems, selecting food from menus, asking the waiter what he recommends or chatting up Paul Pimsleur‘s native speaker female on the bus (the way all his courses seem to start), all these various applications and whatever others you can think of, are all based on one or more of the above gerunds: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Therefore every linguistic activity can be reduced to these four functions or skills, and the mastering of each of these skills is essential for a full ability to apply the language in all possible situations.
When we talk about “language”, we refer of course to the tongue – the words language and tongue are connected, and people tend to consider that speaking is the gold standard. “How many languages do you speak?” is the question we hear. Only people who are a bit more thoughtful ask how many languages do you read, write, listen well in and speak, however there are CV formats which do ask precisely that format. If you want to submit a CV in World Bank format, for instance (this is one of the industrial standards when tendering for public sector work, in case any readers haven’t come across it) you are supposed to make mention of reading, writing and speaking, not necessarily listening. If you use the Europass format you’ll see from the CV templates available here, that you are expected to give yourself a grade from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which defines what you’re supposed to be able to do to be an A1, an A2, a B1 or a B2, or in the end a C1 or C2. But you have to grade yourself on “Understanding” which covers both reading and listening, on “Speaking” which is divided into spoken interaction and production, but whichever way you look at that it’s still speaking, and finally on writing, which isn’t broken down further, but of course could be when it comes to languages like Chinese and Japanese – whether a person can only write pinyin or kana or if they can go the whole way and know the characters and word combinations which would be known at a certain level of education in the school curricula of the countries involved.
With the above I hope to have introduced the idea that these basic four functions are common to whatever we do with language and underlie everything we do, even though people commonly talk about “speaking” a language.
What are the relations between these four? We already saw above that the EU’s great minds grouped reading and listening together as “Understanding”. Obviously that’s true, but I don’t prefer to regard it that way. One needs understanding in order to speak and write also, so more strictly the distinction should be drawn that when I listen or read I am the passive recipient of language and when I speak or write I am the active generator of the language, unless I am simply copying what I have just read or heard.
Clearly it is easier to be the passive recipient of language that to generate it actively. If you do not have passive knowledge then even reading or listening with understanding will not be possible, but you don’t need to be in a particularly active state to do it. Also some degree of uncertainty as to which registers of words to use or the grammatical niceties may not necessarily block understanding, as context can be the guide and for listening intonation will guide – in the case of face-to-face listening body language also provides a lot of guidance and still as for reading you have context. Listening despite all that can be harder than just reading since you don’t control the speed of input. Not unless you have a recording with a pause button and privacy to listen (maybe with headphones or alone) so that you can repeat or slow down a listening piece all you need. In this case the degree of difficulty between listening and reading is more blurred. Listening presents issues if you have a speaker with an unusual accent or a speech impediment, just as reading presents difficulties when reading the work of someone partially illiterate, but for the purposes of our discussion here let us consider that all the material we would be dealing with is standard language of an adequate quality.
In a sense then we can look at reading as the passive partner of writing, writing being understood as either handwriting or on a keyboard, or on any of the input methods on a mobile device – maybe even voice recognition which blurs the distinction between speaking and writing, but I would class it for our purposes as writing rather than speaking.
Likewise speaking and listening are an active/passive pairing. They have in common that they don’t involve the written word, and that someone with no literacy who is a native speaker of the language could also take part. Normally conversations take place in which people take turns in speaking and listening, or in chatrooms in reading and writing. The very term “chatroom” shows how readily we can transfer the idea of speaking and listening to writing and reading respectively. We think of ourselves as “chatting” to people when not a decibel is heard in terms of auditory noise beyond the clicking of the keys on our keyboards. It’s also not uncommon given today’s technology to find one’sself in conversations with people who are sorting out their microphones where one side is talking and the other writing. This is not unusual in conventional settings either if someone is mute or has lost their voice, but can hear. People proficient in all four skills can naturally feel reading coming in as an automatic substitute for listening and writing for speaking, where the sound-based pair are not available. These days, when someone in an online exchange tells us some bad or good news, we might naturally say “I am sorry/glad to hear that”, even though we only read it, and if the other person were to even raise an eyebrow it would be either taken as an attempt at humour or as an excess of pedantry.
Allow me to bring in one spiritual dimension just for one paragraph – those not liking it can skip to the next one. The Bible (Romans 10:17) says “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” – this clearly shows that the hearing is something that is read. So the Bible itself puts hearing and reading on a parity. When we consider the phrase “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5 v 7) the fact that reading does involve sight rather than the sense of hearing is not conflicting, because the act of reading is like listening or hearing but by using our eyes. The “sight” which the Bible places in apposition to faith in many places is the “seeing” of experimenting. Instead of taking a promise from the Divine revelation on trust needing to probe it and see if it the case by means of experimentation. That’s not the same as testing one scripture against other scriptures, which is generally shown in the Bible itself to be the correct way to understand scriptures.
So we have two active/passive pairs, one involving an aural/oral convention and the other eyes and hands with symbols. However, these things are heavily interconnected, and can cross over. A person reading in a foreign language on their own will usually “hear” what they are saying with a kind of “inner ear” – when we are young we start out by reading aloud and are led gradually to “read in our heads” at which point we are invited to allow our voice to continue in the head, but unuttered by the organs of speech. In due course this may become a voice doing accents or having a quality that we cannot even imitate with our own voice, as we imagine the voice of the speaker. However in the main one is limited to the voices which one might be able to make a fair attempt at imitating oneself, those of us who are at all inclined to do imitations.
In this way, the act of reading and the development of that inner voice can directly influence speaking, although on my diagram I have not drawn or even allowed for a direct route between reading and speaking, as one will never develop this inner voice from reading alone without the opportunity to listen, and I have come more and more to the view that the more one “front loads”the listening aspects in a language learning programme, the better this effect works. That’s one of the reasons I now recommend doing audio-only, listening based courses prior to any of the reading and writing required by the Goldlist method. There may be only 10% of the material you need, but it makes perfect sense to do this part right at the start, and that’s also consistent with the way we learn the first language – we have heard it all before we ever try to write it or read it.
That’s all I’ve prepared for today’s article, but I have more to say and we’ll get onto that during the week. In the meantime your comments are as ever most welcome.
Reader Jarad Mayers wrote the following very good question:
I want to learn Mandarin. I am not sure how to go about it. This is the very first language I am attempting to learn. I have not done anything yet. I am on very tight budget and currently not employed. I tried to access the free material on Mandarin (http://fsi-language-courses.org/ )but it is no longer accessible . I was wondering if I could use your experince and if possible sort of outline the steps I need to follow.
BTW, I am not sure where to post my question. I am sorry if this the wrong place for posting it.
I’ve prepared the answer as a table – it is a whole programme to 80% of Chinese that you’d need to get your degree, read newspapers, live an everyday life in China. The rest after that comes down to vocabulary building for which I’d recommend the goldlisting of dictionaries or of bilingual literature. You could spend four times as much time getting from 80% Chinese to 100% Chinese (ask Vilf “the Gilf” Pareto, he’ll tell you why, or might have done, until 1923 – now you’ll have to look up what he thought in order to know why, or simply accept it).
Real Chinese philologists like Victor Berrjod might give you other useful sources better than the ones I have listed. All of the ones I have listed are available on Amazon. The audio courses are expensive so it will pay you to shop around a bit.
Someone (sic) wrote to me recently suggesting that the Goldlist was not for them as they had tried to do a distillation and only remembered 2 of 25 words.
Now I am someone who has just discovered that there is more than one metabolic type, that a good 45% of people are Matebolism B types as opposed to Metabolism A types, and that’s why the traditional diets based just on calories and not concerned with the whole sugar question don’t do the job but actually made me worse. Given that fact, I’m perfectly open to the idea that just as there is more than one type of metabolism, there may be another type of memory and that really not everyone will benefit from the Goldlist method – yes it is perfectly possible. I have an open mind on that question.
However, given that the Goldlist Method has indeed helped the overwhelming majority of people who have tried it, including some who could never learn languages using other methods and now can, as well as some others who were already successful polyglots with their own tried and tested methods who nevertheless saw enough merit in the Method to add it to their armoury of tools, I would be reluctant to give up on it just after not having a great result on the first distillation. Instead I would look at the reasons why a person could find that they distil a headlist and only manage to throw out 2 of the 25 and not something like 6, 8, 10, 12 or even 14 as is the experience of most people using the method. Read the rest of this entry
I don’t hold with using mnemonics usually in language learning, but with Japanese there is so much going on at once in a word – the various readings, the shape of the kanji, etc, that sometimes odd wordgames and things like that can help. It’s a waste of time to try and do it for every word, but here are some of mine which I already shared (to greater or lesser levels of appreciation) on http://www.readthekanji.com.
Here’s just ten to be going on with. I probably have done about a hundred, but to see them you need to join http://www.readthekanji.com!
1. To Deliver
That square head by the basket is like *Todo the dog with the square head in the Wizard of Oz in Dorothy’s cycle basket. That’s the moment when he jumps out, so he can’t be *delivered to the interfering neighbour.
If you get *sand inside your ear, the *suna you get it out, the better.
(Another, less polite one, is based on the reading of “suna” backwards, given the fact that if you slide along a beach backwards you’ll probably get some sand in there. But I didn’t put that one up, at least not yet.)
If the *circumstances in the company worsen, the boss le-*ts-u-gou..
4. Or less than, not more than
*Ika-rus was NOT able to get HIGHER THAN other people for long. Is the symbol on the left a bit like his broken wings falling with him the spot in the middle tumbling to the ground?
The prisoner warders are issued with new *keysets every *season
“That’s a nice *kuukou clock, where did you buy it?”
“That’s a nice *kuukou clock, where did you buy it?”
“At Geneva *Airport.”
*Fukai didn’t realise it was going to be that *deep!
“Dad, Justin Bieber’s so *famous even *yuu may have heard of him!”
9. Preparation / setup / arrangements
He had made all the *arrangements and *preparations, but, being of a nervous disposition, he was still very *”junbi” (jumpy) before the event…
10. To bring up
Looking at the kanji, you might see the frowning face of a very strict upbringer. He’s a right “sod at err”-ors made by his students.
- Kanji wear it? (ask.metafilter.com)
- How to learn hiragana in one hour or less (boingboing.net)
- Kanji for gold named year’s best (japantimes.co.jp)