Why dragons and justice are good for your English

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.


2 Responses to “Why dragons and justice are good for your English”

  1. You mentioned you want comments so here it goes, first of all I totally agree with the idea that we let ourselves be influenced by what other people say about language learning, because people say Japanese is difficult then we’ll believe that and make our brains so closed that it’ll be a hundred times harder to get them to catch the information the way they’re supposed to. The other thing about teachers being obsessed with grammar and stuff is a biiiig problem, first of all because they say that grammar is definitely the only and right way to learn and they’re sooo wrong….and you got that point right, experience and practice are the way to master a language eventually, and not getting frustrated too!! and thats a difficult thing to do, at least for me haha. Something that really got me thinking about all the interesting stuff you mentioned above is the fact that having a purpose in a certain language will make things a lot easier not to mention the motivation that it gives you, it sounds like a simple idea but i hadn’t really stoped to think about that, actually people forget that all the time…here we go again with purposes and goals, why do they have to be everywhere?! 😛 another thing that is important to mention is the fact that fear can be a huuuuge obstacle for languages, when people are scared of making mistakes or looking like a complete idiot then they don’t try making words flow so i think you should give some tips or ideas about how to overcome that fear of being stuck in a situation like that. My brain just dried out so i think that i’ll comment a bit more on your next post, keep on doing a great job 🙂

  2. uchideshi Says:

    Thanks for the extensive feedback 🙂

    You’ve mentioned the fear that is present when learning a new language and yes, I think that it’s an important issue that has to be dealt with. However, the answer depends on the situation. I would say that it is generally (especially in typical classes) the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the atmosphere is relaxed and that errors will inevitably be made and thus shouldn’t be a source of frustration and fear (btw, I should maybe look for a better term though, here “teacher” more or less means “a person from whom you are receiving a language”, because it’s not necessarily a university teacher or similiar). Stephen Krashen talks about this in his excellent theory of second language acquisition – http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

    Though so far I have generally agreed with Krashen with the issue of dealing with making mistakes when learning a second language, I’m still not sure how I should perceive it in light of my recent thoughts about languge acquisition, and some thoughts from other people with very good ideas how languages should be learned (check out http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com, http://www.apronus.com/norsk/index.htm, http://www.antimoon.com/)

    So, this issue will definitely be covered in one of the next posts, just give me some time to think about it 🙂

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