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Reading

~Chinese / 中文
《平如美棠》饶平如

~Japanese / 日本語
「女のいない男たち」村上春樹
「職業は武装解除」瀬谷ルミ子

~English
"Notes on Democracy" Arundhati Roy

~Korean / 한국어
《그렇습니까? 기린입니다》박민규
《소나기》 황순원

~Finished / 読了 / 已读
「コンビニ人間」村田沙耶香
"Factory Girls" Lesley Chang
"Your Republic is Calling You" Kim Young-ha
「色彩を持たない多崎つくると彼の巡礼の年」村上春樹
《裸命》陈冠中
"River Town" Peter Hessler
"Oracle Bones" Peter Hessler
"Country Driving" Peter Hessler
「カンガルー日和」村上春樹
「こころ」夏目漱石
「火の鳥9」 手塚治虫
《呐喊》鲁迅
《娃》莫言
《朋友》余华
"Inside the Kingdom" Robert Lacey
《活着》余华
"A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf
「羊をめぐる冒険」村上春樹
《阿Q正传》鲁迅
《倾城之恋 》张爱玲
《茉莉香片》张爱玲
《金锁记》张爱玲
「深夜特急」(2)沢木耕太郎
「1973年のピンボール」 村上春樹
"One Foot In Eden" Ron Rash
「双子の星」宮沢賢治

Four Phases of Learning a Language

There’s a lot of great writing out there about learning languages (much of it better than mine), but there are some things I’ve learned studying languages that I wish I had known a long time ago. For one, I have found that learning a language may be thought of as divided into four phases. I have only anecdotal evidence, but this has been my experience learning Chinese and Japanese.

 

1. Beginner

 
Assuming you start out with no prior knowledge, in the beginning you know nothing. In reality you almost never know “nothing”—Japanese, for example, is full of English words that are readily understandable, and Spanish is full of Latin cognates—but in the beginning you can’t understand more than a word or two of what you read or hear. The first step is to learn how to pronounce the language you are learning, and how to read and write it in a phonetic script (like Chinese pinyin, Japanese romaji, or the Spanish alphabet). After this stage I would begin to memorize the most frequent words, preferably embedded in short phrases and sentences with English translations. Some people do pictures. I find it’s easier to copy English translations, and the most common words are so common they don’t need much help to remember. In the Beginner stage you need English translations to make heads or tails of most sentences and spend a lot of time sounding out words.

 
2. Intermediate

 
After Beginner you will reach the Intermediate stage. I define intermediate as the point where you can read texts and listen to speech and understand some parts with the aid of a dictionary. There’s no fine line between Beginner and Intermediate. I probably spent more than a year as a Beginner in Japanese, but not more than a week as a Beginner in Spanish.  This was only partly due to differences in the languages themselves, but mostly due to the fact that I made almost no effort to engage with real Japanese (for native speakers, by native speakers) in the first year I learned that language, whereas I began Spanish with Borges and Wikipedia pages. The Intermediate stage is what is usually stretched indefinitely by language courses of all stripes. (Perhaps because by the time you level up, you no longer feel the need to pay them for what you can get for free?)

 
3. Advanced

 
When you are fluent, you are Advanced. I get asked a lot how I define fluency, and the honest answer is: I don’t. At some point I just didn’t need to check the dictionary all that much to read Japanese, and the same thing happened with Chinese. At some point, I didn’t have to keep asking people, “What did you just say?” It’s not that I was suddenly able to understand everything, but that I was able to understand enough. I believe a dedicated learning can skip the Beginner stage in a couple of weeks and make it to Advanced in not more than a year. The key variables are your level of interest and how much input you receive. The former depends upon your ability to know thyself and pick engaging materials, and the latter depends on your consumption.

 
4. “Native Fluency”

 
Like many language learners, I too hope to someday evolve into a “native speaker.” Do the scare quotes betray my skepticism? I have a gut feeling that a native speaker is nothing more than a speaker who is really good at matching patterns in sound to memorized patterns in speech, and at catching high-frequency words while ignoring words they don’t quite understand. In other words, just someone who is Really Advanced because they kept getting better until they were “good enough” at their language to do what they want with it. That is, they have internalized the most frequent patterns of speech and text so as to know what to expect, and how to break those patterns to be “creative.” (Or how to follow the patterns and bore us to death.) I talk a lot about “patterns” because I think they are the key to efficient learning and effective use of language. My teacher Dr. Kretzchmar once said that on the level of language, almost all “creative writing” depends upon the manipulation of expected patterns of language. Grasp the patterns, and you hold the key of the mundane. Open the door to the garden of language delights.

Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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