Language learning: Mistakes are so important

I have favorite age groups and levels of ability when it comes to teaching people English. One of them is the ages between 7-9. These are kids who are old enough to know better, but young enough to happily do dumb things with you in class so long as you show actual enthusiasm for it. As students get into the preteen age, you see them slowly and inevitably start to withdraw as they try to figure out what on earth is happening to them. Understandable, we’ve all been there. (Unless you’re five, in which case, I’m amazed at your reading skills.)

But unfortunately, it can cut into their language learning in some ways, especially when a few get hit particularly hard with the need to Play It Cool.

I was this kid; in German class I learned how to say “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know”, and “I don’t speak German” early on so I could deflect any questions the teacher asked me. My teacher at the time was gracious enough not to press the issue. But looking on it, I regret it because of what else I might have been able to learn if I had tried.

I find myself facing the situation as an instructor, and don’t think I’m nearly as gracious.

Teachers appreciate the student who speaks up every time, even if there are mistakes, because then we can help you say what you want to say. If you say nothing, we have no means to help you, and so your skills just… become stagnant.

So, with that in mind, I want to give a shout-out to all the people out there who attend language classes but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable or unwilling to speak up in front of classmates. I’d also like to give a little reassurance/advice:

Mistakes are actually a really important part of learning a language. Think back on when you were a kid. The plural for cat was cats, and for dog was dogs, but for mouse wasn’t mouses, so an adult in your life likely had to correct you on this once or twice before you got it down. It’s normal, and nobody will make fun of you for saying something goofy in a language class.

Saying something, anything, will help you and your teacher more than hiding away. If you don’t get the grammar point, ask for help. If you don’t know the vocabulary, do your best to say a word similar to it, or ask if you can peek at a dictionary. Gesturing, drawing a picture or, at the very end of it all, asking if you can say the word in your native language are all other techniques. Don’t give up until you have the word you’re looking for.

I’d like to share a story from when I was learning Japanese.

We had started with a warm-up question about rules for the road. Don’t drive too fast, wear a seatbelt, etc. I was following along okay with it, or so I thought, as someone described what you shouldn’t do on a sidewalk. Suddenly, the teacher turned to me and asked me a question. Thinking we were still discussing sidewalks, I said something like, “My neighborhood in the States doesn’t have sidewalks, so we had to walk on the road and it was dangerous.”

Everyone started giggling.

I was confused until a friend pulled up her dictionary on her phone and showed me the word I’d used for sidewalk: it was actually the word for sunburn. The teacher had changed the subject earlier and been asking if people in the class easily get sunburn.

WHOOPS.

I tell you what, though, I’m never forgetting either the word for sunburn (日焼け) or sidewalk (歩道)!

What’s your language learning mistake story? What do you wish you’d done more of when you were learning a foreign language? If you’re a teacher, how do you help coax students out of “playing cool”?

When you’re putting the flash cards away, make sure they’re going in the right pile,” I said in my best Japanese. “Sometimes they get mixed up because we have multiples.”

Understood,” the new staff member said, using the polite form, or keigo. “Should I do anything else after that?”

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Doing scary things in another language: the phone call edition

The other day, I received a flyer in my mailbox. This is not unusual as I get all kinds of ads in there all the time–usually for pizza places, the occasional “adult” venue, about condos I will never be able to afford in my life–that kind of thing. But this time I spotted the gas company logo at the top and figured it was important, so I had a second look.

First thing I noticed: the flyer mentioned a mandatory visit from the gas rep.

Second thing I noticed: the flyer listed a date and time I was not available.

In vain, I searched for an option to go online and reschedule. However, I eventually came to the realization that I would have to call and talk to a real, live person to change my appointment time, and it would all have to be in Japanese.

Continue reading “Doing scary things in another language: the phone call edition”

Tenkaradodon: A book review

After reading a novel geared more toward university students and up, my book club friend and I opted to try for a book more aimed for younger audiences. Having a craving for school-related shenanigans, we picked up this book: てんからどどん by 魚住直子。

Meet Karin, a middle school girl who has a bunch of friends, a family who loves bad jokes, and who loves to speak her mind. In some cases, too much; her friends are on her case about comparing people to things. Why, though? Pigs are cute, right? What’s the big deal?

Meet Riko, a middle school girl who barely speaks in class. It’s true the lack of socializing has done wonders for her grades, but being alone has done a number on her self-esteem. She eats snacks for comfort, and as the school trip approaches, she desperately posts a message on the internet: “Someone please come kill me. I don’t want to endure this trip alone.”

The story follows these two girls as they board an elevator at the same time, and something magical happens that will forever change how they see the world around them.

This is a fun tale; picture Freaky Friday in a middle school setting and that’s what you’ll get. There are some darker subjects touched upon in this book- depression, loneliness, one’s “place” in a family-but there are some lighter, fun parts too. Karin takes the unusual situation they’re in very well, and considers it a great opportunity to change; Riko, not having any other ideas, follows along and is grateful for it.

For the most part, it’s set in their school, where their classmates notice something strange is up with the two girls but don’t know what. The reader gets to see each girl’s life, including interactions with their families. Despite the darker themes, it ends on a happy, hopeful note, albeit an abrupt one. I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a writing style choice in Japanese, as I experienced that in my previous read too.

In short:
Geared toward: Junior high schoolers and up. Some kanji, but lots of furigana and casual language.
Level required to read this book: I think you can comfortably read this at N3. I didn’t have to look anything up to understand and enjoy the book, but at N3 or lower you probably will need to.
Good for study: Speaking-wise, sure, it’s got great casual speaking and wordplay. If you’re looking for vocabulary for the JLPT, maybe not.
Length of time to read it: I didn’t keep track, honestly, because I was busy wondering what was going to happen next.
Read it again: Maybe. It’s enjoyable, but I’d prefer to see if the writer has published any other works.

My Language-Learning Weakness: “Good Enough!”

I had a student come to me in tears the other day because of a difficult reading we did in class. While the student had been able to answer the target questions and use the target grammar of the day, they were upset because they hadn’t understood the text 100%…. and to them, that felt like a failure.

Something I repeatedly have to drill into students’ head is the concept of “good enough”–if you understand 75% of a given piece of media, you’re doing pretty good in your non-native language. If you understand 100%, what on earth are you doing in my class?

This also applies to vocabulary. So many of my students, afraid of making a mistake, will simply stop mid-sentence to offer me huge, watery eyes in hope that I’ll magically know the exact word they’re searching for. I’ve had to remind students to use the easier word in order to seek help from their peers (or from me) in discovering the elusive vocabulary of choice. Otherwise, they’ll sit there in distress until the topic is changed.

Unfortunately, while my advice helps them relax and communicate more actively, it turns out that it’s one of my greatest weaknesses in language-learning.

I remember when I first learned about the -て (te) form in Japanese 101. “Oh,” I thought, “so you use this to ask people to do something. Blah blah te kudasai. Awesome, got it.” (I didn’t have it; conjugating verbs are a pain.)

A month or two later, I found myself staring at that very same form again, feeling betrayed.

“What do you mean there’s more than one use for this? And I have to remember it?!”

 It’s something I’ve always struggled with- going past what I’ve got in order to improve.

I can only hope that my attitude, while detrimental to my own learning, can at least help my students realize it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have perfect grammar.

It’s just nice if you do!

Book-buying in another language

…is, all things considered, very similar to purchasing a book in your native tongue.

All right, so, you’ve gotten enough vocabulary, grammar and determination to try reading in your second language of choice. What’s your first step? How do you survive without coming away with a book that a) you don’t understand or, even worse, b) don’t like?

There are some simple things you can do to help yourself out.

  1. Look online for recommendations. Before you even go to the bookstore, think of what you enjoy reading and put your favorite search engine to good use. Let’s say that I’m looking for good Light Novels in Japanese. Well, I could search “recommended Light Novels” in English, or maybe, “ライトノベルおすすめ” or maybe “ライトノベル人気”. Have an author you hear is good? Search for their name on your favorite book or shopping website and see what comes up.
  2. Know what section of the bookstore your novel will be in. I don’t mean look up a map of your bookstore before you go, but make sure you know what the name of the section is. Is it general fiction? A self-help book? An exercise guide? Knowing what category your book falls into will help you (and potentially the staff!) in finding something relevant to your interests.
  3. Look for a cool cover. Okay I know that sounds silly; insert saying about books, judging by their covers, etc., but I fully admit to being drawn to a cool cover. Let yourself have fun choosing books in whatever way works for you once you’re at the bookstore.
  4. Can you read the title? Now you’ve got a book in your hand. Can you read and understand it without having to look anything up? This is a pretty good measure for your level versus what you’re challenging yourself with.
  5. Can you read the first page? This part is a little more flexible. Read the first page. How long does it take you? Can you do it without looking anything up, or can you see a couple words you need to check? At this point, keep in mind that you do not need to understand 100% of what you see on that page. It’s totally fine to notice some things that don’t make sense- that happens in our native languages too, right? What should concern you is if you crack it open and only understand about 50% or less of what you see. If you get around 75% or so of what you’re reading, awesome, you’re at a good level for yourself.

Another possibility is the question “can you read the blurb inside the cover/on the back of the book”, which is a fair enough gauge too, but I find that reading the first page is a great way to see if you like the writing style, as well.

These are just some ways to find what you need in a bookstore; if you  have more ideas, please do share them!

Recovering from your harrowing JLPT experience

Was it the first time you took it, or your tenth? Are you struggling through N5, or did you face down the terror that is N1? Whatever the case, I take off my hat to you and say, お疲れ様でした!Regardless of whether you’re taking it again this December, now is the perfect chance to reflect on your studies, go over questions you think you got wrong, consult with a teacher or a Japanese friend on grammar points…

…If you’re a studying wizard, maybe. While several of you out there indeed go that route, and I applaud you for it, I feel several of us out there are just as keen on going, “Oh thank goodness that’s over!” and avoiding anything to do with Japanese for at least a month, if not more.

Which, admittedly, is not very helpful if you’re looking to improve further.

Still, I get it. You’re sick of studying, and if you look at a practice test one more time you’re going to start wailing, “Not the reading section!” at random in front of startled strangers in public. So what can you do? Is there a happy medium between hitting the books even harder and not touching them at all?

Well, yes.

Here’s what I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to do:

Continue reading “Recovering from your harrowing JLPT experience”

Natural reading practice for Japanese

I’ve been in Japan long enough to have taken the JLPT multiple times; in December 2015 I came away with (barely!) passing the N2. Upon discovering this, students of English end up asking me what my secret is. How do I study?

The honest answer? ….I don’t. I am terrible at studying. I get into ruts where I won’t touch a textbook for months.

What I do do, however, is play.

I’m a bookworm at heart; in America I’ve got multiple boxes of childhood books I hope I’ll never lose. Since my time in Japan I’ve gotten well over a hundred books on my Kindle and multiple bookshelves worth of books, despite my efforts not to buy too many physical paperbacks. I have memories of spending my days at summer day camp in fifth grade curled up in a corner reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

It’s only natural that, upon coming to Japan, I had a goal in mind language-wise: to become literate in the native language.

As I said, I don’t go to textbooks for practicing reading (unless I have a test or am really stumped about a grammar point). Here are some of the things I have done to practice my reading.

  1. NHK’s Easy News. For those of you wanting to read current events and practice reading short essays, this is a good bet. All of the kanji have furigana and are easy to look up, the stories are short and simple, and many of the stories have audio you can listen to while you read. They also have an app version of the site for Android gadgets.
  2. 児童書、 or children’s books. The kids here have to learn how to read all of those crazy kanji too, y’know! Walking into a bookstore or library, the staff should be able to help point you to the right corner. Go for elementary school books if you want to get a feel for your actual level. If you’re N3 or higher, you should be able to tackle a junior high school level book. Many foreign books have been translated into Japanese, from Matilda to Lord of the Rings, so you can start off with something familiar to you before you dive into something entirely new.
  3. Comic books. If you enjoy reading manga or western comics, this is a great place to start. You get the pictures, of course, to help you with the context of whatever’s going on, and just like with regular books there’s a crazy amount of options out there depending on your interests/reading levels. I was working on the new Sailor Moon when I was around N4 level, but I feel like as long as you have a grasp on hiragana and katakana you should be able to settle in and work your way through. Please do note that for more “adult” comics they won’t use furigana as much, though, so check your comic before you buy/borrow! Again, starting with a series you’re already familiar with can help a lot.

If you’re actively studying Japanese in school, ask your teacher(s) if they have more resources to check out. I recall struggling through the Hiragana Times when I was in university and it helping me, as well.

Best of luck in reading!

What’s a second language worth? — Part 1

In elementary school my parents signed me up for this after-class Spanish lesson that took place at least once a week. My memory on the whole thing is fairly hazy–I can’t remember if I asked them to sign me up, how long it was precisely, or even how often it was, but I can remember feeling baffled about the idea of foreign languages in general. I mean, what was the point of them? I already knew English, and learning how to understand that had been tough enough.

While I do recall enjoying the small get-together where we sang songs to learn the days of the week and whatnot in Spanish, I also can remember feeling relieved the day I left, with a little Spanish-English dictionary as a present from the teacher for completing the program. There, I learned another language, I don’t have to do that again.

Middle school arrived with all of its inherent confusion; along with the fear that I would never learn how to handle lockers came the looming prospect of having to learn a foreign language. Again. But I already did it, I thought to myself as the language teacher at my school came to speak to the class.

“You don’t have to learn one yet,” she’d told us, as we squirmed impatiently in our tiny desk-chair combination seats. “But we offer foreign languages starting from eighth grade, so if you want to get a jumpstart on learning something that’s the time!”

Pffft yeah right! I’ll worry about it when I have to take one in high school.

I did my research; at my particular high school (which had grades from 9-12, for reference), we could either do one language for three years, or two different languages for two years in order to graduate. I opted for the former, thinking it would be less work.

My adventures in German are worth another post entirely; let’s just say I was the smart-alec in the back of the class who, when she was called, would smugly answer, “Es tut mir leid, Ich weiss nicht. Ich kann nicht verstanden.*”

Yeah. Total jerk. I know.

Three years passed, and I spent my senior year in high school enjoying the fact that I was done. I was all set for graduation. Despite being a rude brat to the German teacher, particularly in junior year, I had somehow managed a B+ average. I never needed to worry about taking a foreign language class again.

Then college came.

“Oh, you’re going to be an English major? Here’s the list of the required general education courses you need,” I was told. Upon perusing the list, I was utterly dismayed to find…

“I need four semesters of a foreign language?!” I demanded.

The man explaining the requirements smiled, either not noticing my distress or not caring. “Well, of course if you studied an AP course in a language in high school, we can count that toward your requirement,” he said.

I sat there, defeated for a moment, mulling over my options. Then, grimly, I went to the course listing to see what my choices were.

In middle school, we had only been offered Spanish, perhaps French. In high school, our options were those two in addition to German, Latin, and American Sign Language. College offered more than double that in options, including Asian languages.

Well, rather than feeling stupid for taking a beginner class in a language I already studied, let’s try something new.

Enter Japanese class.

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*I’m sorry I don’t know. I can’t understand.