All I know so far

I taught myself Japanese in around 3 years, and am currently doing a master’s course in TESOL. I’m not an expert yet–not by a long shot–but I know a thing or two about picking up a new language. I wish there were a simple, agreed-upon, one-size-fits-all answer, but there isn’t. I can tell you what kinds of things I think are important right now, though.

  • A little bit of study, followed by a lot of input (reading, listening), followed by a lot of practice (speaking, writing). You want to try to go from knowing about the language, to knowing the language, to being able to use it automatically. This is a view espoused by DeKeyser (1997), and it’s far from the only view, but it matches my experience.
  • For learning vocabulary, Spaced Repetition is the most efficient (and boring) method that I know of. If you’re willing to spend about half an hour a day doing flashcards, you can make amazing progress in building your vocabulary. Very few people are actually willing to continue doing this for a long period, but if you’ll commit to doing it for 3 weeks, you’ll have built a habit, and it won’t feel like a chore at all.
  • You will never be a native speaker, and that’s okay. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.
  • A basic course in phonetics will do more to improve your pronunciation than a hundred hours of shadowing practice. Shadowing practice is great, by the way, but learning how adjust your active articulators will make your pronunciation better than 90% of learners.
  • Learning a language is a huge task. Set small goals for yourself, like 10 new words a day, or writing a short diary entry. Focus on the next step, and before you know it, you’ll have made great progress.
  • The best kind of input is something you’re already interested in. That’s why it’s so much easier to learn a language when your SO is a native speaker: you’re interested in the outcome of the fight over who should clean the toilet. Focus on the meaning more than the form, and get your language contact from something you enjoy.
  • Beware of anyone selling you a “scientifically proven method.” All of them are charlatans.

English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Study Habits, Teaching Tips
2 comments on “All I know so far
  1. Do you use paper flash cards or an app such as Anki? I used Anki to reacquaint myself with Spanish after a 20 year layoff. It was great, once I got past the drudgery loading it from high frequency word lists found on the net.

    • gengojeff says:

      I’m a huge believer in Anki. I’ve been using it for about 3 or 4 years now, and I’m sure my vocabulary wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is today without it. It is easy to use it poorly, though, and simple, single-word cards are probably not good enough. I find that full phrases are both easier to retain and more effective, so I put an entire sentence or phrase in Japanese on the Back and put an English translation on the Front. I also have it set up to suspend cards with a “leech” tag after 5 misses. When they get tagged, I add another card that gets at the target from a different angle: a picture, Japanese front/ English back, sound clips, etc. I still keep the original in rotation, and just reset it back to a new card.

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