Archive for April, 2008

The What to the How

Posted in Uncategorized on April 26, 2008 by uchideshi

We’re all looking for a purpose for our life. A purpose which will guide us, make us happy when we are true to it, reprimand us when we are not, and give a simple, straight answer every morning, especially on those sluggish ones, to the question of “Why should I get out of bed today?”

I didn’t have a clear purpose for a long time. Several times I thought I found it, but inevitably I would slip back into what the vast majority of people are – people being pushed around by life, instead of pushing in the direction of their choice. And because I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about my purpose, I easily become unhappy once I see I’m not doing things because I see how they clearly fit into some bigger Make Things Better (MTB) scheme, but rather ‘cause of circumstances making me do them. You can imagine that this often makes me quite unhappy.

However, for the first time in years, I am, I believe, on the verge of defining my purpose. This is because I am finally merging the two important things in my life: MTB and languages.

Ever since high school I’ve had this urge to help people, to improve the status quo. When I see a problem, my first reaction is not “How do I avoid it?”, but rather “How do I fix it?”. While I believe such an attitude is extremely important and very lacking in today’s societies at large, it can only take you so far when you’re not certain where it is that you want to go. Yes, MTBing is cool, but what does the B look like? What is it a part of?

On the other hand, in the past 5 months or so my motivation to learn languages has been on a strong rise. In January I even postponed my exams in order to spend one month doing nothing but studying Japanese and Spanish. This was also the first time in a long time that I had a clear motivation to improve myself in something.

You see, a lot of the things I’ve been doing in my life in the past 2 or 3 years have been in line with the MTB philosophy and, even better, have given me skills and experience good enough to land me an excellent job practically whenever I want, even while still being a student, which is very atypical for a young person in Serbia. However, all of these things still haven’t given me a clear purpose, a goal to strive for, whether it’s for the next 10, 20 or 40 years, or a whole lifetime. Because of this, all the skills I’ve gained over time are great for my CV, but are not integrated within me in a meaningful way.

So, this newfound motivation for languages was a much needed breath of fresh air for me. Furthermore, besides learning them, I’ve realized through some work I did that I also really enjoy teaching them. However, while I can see myself standing in front of a class teaching languages using a method of my own, I know that this was not anywhere near the maximum I wanted to give in this area.

So, I had the following things to work with: a strong and still growing love for languages, the awareness that the current generally accepted method of language teaching is abysmally inefficient, a lot of ideas about how languages should be taught and learned, a desire to teach, and a strong desire to MTB.

In retrospect, I can only laugh at my inability to connect the glaringly obvious dots.

I want to find a method for easy, effective and fun acquisition of foreign languages. I want this method to be approved by the scientific community at large and to become commonplace in classrooms around the world.

This is the one thing I can now clearly call my purpose, or maybe more precisely my mission. It stems from my basic, firm beliefs that the world can and should be a wonderful place and that people have the capacity to make it even better than any one of us can dare to imagine. I cannot explain the reason behind these beliefs in a few simple words, but I do know that I draw all my strength from them.

As for my mission, well, I know I am not the only one doing this and I know I am not able to achieve it on my own. However, I know that I can contribute to it and that I dearly want to do it. I will still do other things which are important to me but might not fall under this purpose, for they need a purpose of their own, but I now know what my primary focus for a long time will be.

The important thing here is that this mission and its definition puts practically all the things I do, whether small or big, in perspective, simply by asking myself the following question: “How can this help me in making my mission a reality?”. For instance, now I know why I want a PhD in linguistics. It’s not because I want to, say, become intimately familiar with the nuisances of the phonetic characteristics of Anglo-Saxon simply because I’ve got the hots for long extinct vowels. Rather, I’ll learn the fiddly little bastards because they might be a requirement for getting a PhD in linguistics, and the reason I want a PhD in linguistics is to get not only useful knowledge, but also recognition from the scientific community when I present my theory. I won’t be just some guy with what might be a good idea. I’ll be a guy with an excellent idea and a PhD to back it up. Anything else concerning the said knowledge of phonetics, including enjoying it, is nothing less than a lovely bonus.

So, that’s it. I’ve got nothing to add. Time to get back to work.

On a final note though, I failed that Japanese exam. However, when my good friend asked me how it went, I sent him the following message:

I’ve lost the battle, but I’ve finally found my war.

Why dragons and justice are good for your English

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2008 by uchideshi

Secondary language teaching and acquisition, although arguably one of the most important things that should be done properly in the world today, are the ones being done in quite possibly the most wrong, inefficient way ever.

You might imagine things are not any better here in Serbia, and you’d be right. I won’t go into much detail; I’d rather simply give you the sum of my experience: I do not know of one person, nor someone who knows of someone else, who, after 10 years of learning a secondary language in our primary and secondary school (French, Russian or German, depending on the class/school), is able to confidently carry out a decent conversation in that language, a decent conversation being one about favorite movies, how to get to the theater etc. Not one.

Things are even worse-off for those studying Japanese, both here and practically anywhere else in the world (though we have some problems you really wouldn’t even dream of. Just trust me on that one), because the very things which should make Japanese easy and fun to study are, in a way, being used against it.

As you know, Japanese, being from a far away ,,mystical” country, is thought of as also being very “mystical”. “They have thousands of those signs that all look the same”, “They have too many levels of politeness”, “the roots of all the words are completely different from our language” are only some of the common complaints that paint a picture of Japanese as being something us mere 外人can begin to comprehend only after, it seems, years and years of painful study. One of the ideas being spread around by my friggin professors is that Japanese actually takes four times the time to learn than what a “normal” language would (whatever that is).


But we’re pretending to be scientific here, so let’s see, on the other hand, what the situation is like with English in Serbia. From my personal experience, I have noticed that there is a significant number of young people here that can speak English on a decent level OR, at the very least, on a level higher than that of the other three mentioned languages, even though we learn English for 8 years, as opposed to 10 for F/G/R. Why?

Movies. Music. MTV. Cartoon Network. PC games. All in English.

In one word, exposure.

If you’re ever in Belgrade and you go to a club for people who love RPG games, you’ll be quite impressed by their competence in English. Most of them have never been to an English-speaking country, much less lived in one. However, they speak good English, and with confidence. Why?

Because all the game rulebooks are in English.

Well, that’s the short answer, but you probably see now where this is going. Apart from all the exposure to the things I’ve just mentioned, they had a very strong motivation to know English – they wanted to play RPG games. This has made them look at English as not an obstacle or Something We Must Learn At Great Pains, but simply a part of the whole RPG package. Wanna play RPG games in Serbia? You gotta learn English to understand the rules.

But you’re not only learning the rules, you’re reading about magical worlds and universes dreamed up by someone else in which you play by those rules; all in English. All of a sudden, you’re interested in Fantasy and Sci-Fi books, and although there are translations available, since you’ve been able to go through all those rulebooks, why not read the books in their original language, the way they were meant to be read? And why not listen to some power metal while you’re at it, which is mostly in English and which has so many cool songs about dragons, chivalry, love and so many simply goddamn cool stuff?

Nobody I personally know who’s been doing these and similar things and is competent in English (and I can name 10 such people right off the bat) has ever complained that English is difficult or that they’ve learned English in a class. Heck, it’s not even something brought up for discussion. Knowing English has for years been, simply put, a part of our everyday reality.

All of this brings me to one conclusion:

A language is not properly and easily acquired because you just want to learn that language. A language is properly and easily acquired because you want to do or experience something in that language.

Sounds obvious, but is it? I think this is one of the things that everyone is most confused about. Those who have trouble with learning a new language (i.e. almost everyone) think that they are not making progress in that language because they are not learning enough grammar rules or doing enough grammar practice or going through the textbook dialogues enough times. Even people who are vaguely aware of the notions I’ve previously discussed seem to subconsciously quickly slip into the “gimme grammar and vocabulary lists” mode (which is probably also because of the general opinion that that’s how you should learn a language). In my opinion, they are all making the following mistake:

They perceive their language learning as a goal, and not as the means to achieve another goal.

I would like to now bring up another important issue, which is the so called difference in difficulty between various foreign languages, and this is especially important when taking into account the power of the myth of Japanese being an extremely difficult language.

English is the second most spoken language in the world and I think I can safely say that it’s way ahead of Mandarin when it comes to the diversity of nations where it is widely spoken. However, in Spain, for example, people generally have a very, very limited, often practically non-existing, knowledge of English. Why?

The simple answer would be: All the movies are dubbed.

However, I digress; we’re here to talk about why so many different people know how to speak it, not why some people don’t. Well, following up on my previous thoughts, I would say that it is because of their massive exposure to English. However, before you call me Captain Obvious, here’s the second part of my idea: Being consistently exposed to so much English and knowing that so many people all over the world speak it gives the people who are learning English an additional boost – a confident, relaxed attitude towards it. Basically, it also makes them believe that English is easy and logical, or at least that it isn’t all that difficult. After all, how can something you hear every day not sooner or later become familiar? However, for some reason you can always hear so many discussions about French being more difficult than Spanish and, of course, Japanese being impossible to learn etc. So, all of a sudden, some languages are, for some reason, easier or more difficult than others.

Here we come to the crux of the matter:

Every language is easy. Every language is logical. However, it is only logical from its own point of view.

Languages from the same language family are thought of as being easier to learn, but I would say that a way bigger part of what makes that thought, from one point of view, true is the confidence that arises from knowing that there are similar patterns and word roots in the languages. This confidence sometimes becomes a part of the “general public opinion” of that language, which then becomes so strong that it overcomes other illogical parts of that language which would otherwise scare a learner, and of which there are, as we say in Serbian, a little million. Even when looking at minuscule similarities, confidence is found in the fact that on some level they are similarities.

This is why, when you stumble upon “me gusta” in Spanish, you are more likely to think about it like this:

Oh, I know that one, it means “I like” something. Like in that song from Manu Chao, “Me gustas tu”. Oh wait, so “I like you” is “me gustas tu”, but “I like the book” is “Me gusta el libro”. So, I guess gusta and gustas is sort of like a verb or something, like saying something pleases me instead of saying I like something. Anyways, “me gusta el libro” means “I like the book”.

Rather than thinking about it like this:

“Hmmm, let’s see, me gusta el libro. So, “el libro” is “the book”. “Me gusta” is a verb, probably. Let’s google it.

5 minutes of Google and verb tables later

Ok, so gustar is an –ar verb, which means that it’s third person singular is –a. However, the verb means to like, to please, to enjoy,to appreciate, to taste, to sample, which kind of confuses me. If I am correct, the “me” in “me gusta el libre” is the direct object pronoun, which would logically mean that the book likes me. How can a book like me? Let’s google it again.

Ok, so that’s the literal translation, the less literal translation would be “I like the book”. But that makes no sense, why do they use the first person direct object pronoun, instead of how we do it, which is “I like the book”? Damn, Spanish is hard.

You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking “who would learn something so simple in that way?” Well, most people, actually. At least, I think I can safely say that most people learn Japanese that way.

Most of the basic concepts people talk about and think about every day are pretty much the same all over the world – liking things, not liking things, wanting to do this or that, comparing these two things, people etc. However, the way people think and talk about those concepts differs from language to language. Of course, there are lots of nuisances and a number of things which can only be expressed in this or that language, but that’s the very thing which should make that language more fascinating to learn, rather than more difficult.

There are so many things which are “strange” in English that you could make a list to dissuade even the most passionate classroom grammar-muncher. You talk about a pack of dogs, but wait a sec, a school of fish or a murder of crows (please convince me that you knew half of these)? Or the huge difference in meaning between the innumerous seemingly similar phrasal verbs, such as to put, to put up, to put up with etc.? These things are nigh impossible to learn if you’re learning them as a list, as part of a class, where today’s lesson is “phrasal verbs” and the only time you’ll see them again is on the final test. However, to you and me and everyone else who actually uses English every day, the differences are obvious. If you’d want to confuse them, you’d have try to do it on purpose, because you know which phrasal verb means what.

Ok, so phrasal verbs might not be the sexiest of things one can think about (though there’s that one,“to put down”, mhmmmmm, mmhhh), but you and I still know them. Why do you know them? Well, you’ve seen them and used them hundreds of thousands of times. Why do I, whose English is a secondary language, know them? For the very same reason you do.

So, instead of freaking out from every difference in a language we’re learning, a different attitude should be had. Instead of being confused and frightened by the differences, let’s embrace them. “What, in Japanese they don’t say I miss you, they more or less say I want to meet up with you? Sweet!”. “They have different ways of saying you or me, depending on the social context and the nuisance they want to add to it? Awesome!”, “They have a writing system with thousands of characters which are all made from a group of basic parts? Radical!”

It’s right time that we sum up this talk with a reiteration of the three main ideas I’ve talked about:

  • A language is not properly and easily acquired because you just want to learn that language. A language is properly and easily acquired because you want to do or experience something in that language.

  • The reason why those people who are not succeeding in learning a language even though they are struggling for years with it is because they perceive their language learning as a goal, and not as the means to achieve another goal.

  • Every language is easy. Every language is logical. However, it is only logical from its own point of view.

You might be asking, and rightfully so, where is all of this taking us. Well, let’s say that this is a part of my quest to set up some ground rules for how to easily and successfully acquire a new language. But that’s just a part of it. I’ve gots me some plans, and I’ve wanted to do the whole Big Picture thing first and show you where I want to take this little endeavor of mine, but to tell you the truth, I’m still not really sure where this thing can and should go. So, I’ll simply let my inspiration guide my writing and we’ll see what happens.

To conclude this (not so) little talk, the three main ideas I’ve laid out here can, should and will be further changed and improved, based on the discussions which will hopefully develop around them. I’ll have two, maybe three more essays like this one at most, and then when I feel that we’ve covered all the ground that should be covered and that we’ve spent enough time discussing it all, we’ll take this thing to the next, practical level.

So, though it should be obvious, I’ll state it here clearly: I’m very looking forward to your comments! The more people contribute, the better the final form of this project will be. Feel free to argue, suggest, shoot down and simply play around with the ideas I’ve talked about.

Damn you, Tolstoy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 10, 2008 by uchideshi

I am 12 hours away from my Japanese exam. My very boring, very hideously out-of-touch-with-reality and, of course, very very very important Japanese exam. One would be expected at this time to be found making his hand painstakingly spill out hundreds of kanji and fervently parroting the numerous grammar rules, not starting a blog about, er… stuff. However, I couldn’t now pick up the grammar book even if every rule in it were with example sentences from Death Note and Brianna loves Jenna. Yes, it’s that bad.

Because I am. Fucking. Pissed.

Writing about all the reasons why I’m pissed at the moment would not only take too much of both your time and mine, it would make me even more angry, so I’ll just give you the latest one:

The afore-mentioned grammar book is in fact a bad photocopy of an English-Japanese grammar book that accompanies an at least 2 decade old textbook where the sole interesting thing is my imagination’s relentless urge to see the vast suppressed homo-erotic potential in Tanaka-san’s and Kobayashi-san’s undying love for merry picnics in the woods and goddamn taking pictures of goddamn Mt. Fuji every goddamn fucking day, like there’s nothing else to do in Japan ever.

I’ve ignored the scandalous fact that it’s in English, and not in Serbian, since mine is good enough, but that is not the case with most of the students. I’m not even touching the question of the quality of the content, or the complete lack of it. No, the thing that made me so angry I actually started a blog about it is the fact that it’s a bad photocopy.

They couldn’t have bothered with making a good, modern, Serbian-Japanese grammar, and we couldn’t have bothered with complaining enough to make a difference, because, barring the final years of the 90s, that would be too un-Serbian-like. But, they could have at least sold us a photocopy where the pages are not so fucking faded because some idiot couldn’t have fucking bothered checking the photocopy ink supply, so that you can now hardly, if at all, discern the kanji and only dream of reading the furigana.

On the sunnier side of things, I must say that although I still feel like a novice, I am very happy with my current progress in Japanese because, thanks to reading the thinking of some great people on the web and doing some of my own, I’ve devised a good method to actually learn that supposedly scary, alien thing. I’ve wanted to share my thoughts with the rest of You Out There and see what you think, and maybe we can all become a bit wiser without previously being angry.

So, here we are. This is the place where I’ll post my thoughts and ideas on learning Japanese, language learning in general, learning in general, life (in general, of course) and so on and so off. I have some ideas about how this thing could work and where I’d like to take it, but I’ll leave them on the stove a bit more ’till they’re ready for serving.

Until then, I’ll give you one quote that, were i the sort of person who makes Top-5 lists of everything relevant in their life, would be on the top of my list. And my prove-that-while-it’s-so-goddamn- true-it’s-not-true-for-me list. And my forehead, etched with a rusty nail in reverse, so that I can see… you get the idea.

It seldom happens that a man changes his life through his habitual reasoning. No matter how fully he may sense the new plans and aims revealed to him by reason, he continues to plod along in old paths until his life becomes frustrating and unbearable – he finally makes the change only when his usual life can no longer be tolerated.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy