learning Japan instead of Japanese

NOTE: This was supposed to be my theory about (individual) language learning, but I realized I’m still missing some info before I can define all of its aspects. I decided to spend a bit more time looking for some information from my past, trying to find as much English output as possible from when I was a kid. I think that what I’m looking for here is somewhere between what Khatzumoto is talking about in his blog and what I’ve been thinking about lately, but I can’t tell for sure. In any case, this post is not complete, but a lot of the thoughts which will go into the final theory are there.

What I’m beginning to believe more and more strongly in is the thought that possibly the biggest problem, the one that is the source of so many other problems, in language learning is the fact that we call the whole thing language learning.

But it is language learning, you say. You’re learning a language, or acquiring it, or getting used to it or whatever you wanna call it. What’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal is the fact that by choosing to learn a language, you run the risk of focusing on it in such a way that you might be extremely diminishing, and sometimes downright excluding, the context in which it is used. Some people who have gone beyond the grammar-worshiping idiocy that is today’s norm will tell you that if you want to learn a language, you should read as much as you can, listen to as much music as possible, watch movies etc. all in the target language. And while this is loads better than the usual method and can, when taken to extremes, bring amazing results, I think a lot of people will still be missing the following point – by looking at language as the goal of their learning, they are unable to see language as, well, a goal, a part of a whole and a means to achieve something else in it, all rolled into one.

Say wha’? Let me explain. When you’re using a language, you’re using it in a context. When shopping, when chatting, hanging out with friends, watching an action movie… The language is defined by the situation, or context, in which it is used. Context also defines, say, the “feel” of each and every word: is it a word which only kids use, is it slang, slangish but ok to use in certain not-so-formal situations, poetic… A lot of humour is based on words and phrases used out of context in which you’re expected to find them – think of deadpan, for example, or Monty Python.

But it goes beyond just words. For instance, to me and my friends the very idea of a fantasy (or any sort of really epic) movie in Serbian is weird, and even a bit silly. You see, the first one I know of was made some 2 years ago. Previously, the only fantasy stuff we’ve seen and listened to is dubbed, fantasy cartoons like He-Man, and since they’re dubbed cartoons like He-Man, they’re done in those corny, exaggerated for-kids voices. We’re simply not used to hearing serious, epic dialogue in Serbian, and even thinking about it inevitably reminds us of the corny He-Man dialogue.

Context is not just something which helps you learn a language. It is, in fact, the other way around –language is a part of context. Language is something which helps you learn, understand and feel the context. It is a big part, maybe a critical part even, but it is not the whole and primary thing. Taking this to the next level, context is a part of a culture, in its broadest definition – music, art, literature, news, stereotypes, values… everything that is defined in some way in a society and that defines the society itself.

Thus, what I think we should be doing is not learning a language but learning a culture.

My mind is slippery at this point, but I strongly feel that there is something in this idea. Think about it – can you really know a language, really feel a language and the nuisances of so many words and expressions, without also feeling at least a part of the culture it belongs to, without hearing it and using it in numerous different contexts? Just take an example of eating: Your imagination will conjure up very different scenes when you hear “Wanna get some grub?” or “Wanna grab something to eat?” and when you hear “Would you like to join me for dinner tonight?’’ or “Would Madam grant me the pleasure of dining with me this evening?”. All of these contexts are intertwined, influencing one another, defined by the differences between them, and together they form the big fuzzy cloud of associations in your head that is your English Reality.

Yet, someone somewhere decided that the way language should be taught in schools is through heavy focus on grammar and the occasional attempt at uttering a sentence or two. That is sort of like learning football by reading a manual on how the leg should kick the ball, then kicking the ball a few hundred times with kicks 15a and 13c and referring to the manual between every kick, all the while failing to get an actual feel for how the ball should be kicked depending on the circumstances, and, more importantly, forgetting that you’re not alone with the ball. There’s your team, there’s the opposing team, there’s the field and there’s a purpose to why you’re on that field.

So, this is what I think you should do if you want to understand the French lang… No, you see, habits, they’re evil, they make you say and do and think things you don’t want to. Let’s try again.

There is the Reality – a physical area where you have people(s) who have their culture and language and everyday lives in which these things happen, influence one another etc.

There are the Parts – all the things which make up the Reality. They can be a word, a phrase, a verse, a song, a love scene from a movie, a good cop/bad cop interrogation scene from a movie, the whole movie, a genre of movies, a pub, a fancy restaurant… you can go as general (music) or as specific (a verse from Blowin’ in the Wind) as you want, you will always be looking at a Part of a Reality.

Now, language is a HUGE Part of a Reality. It is what helps us understand a lot of things and communicate a lot of our thoughts, feelings and desires. However, it is still a Part. There are numerous other ways to communicate ideas: signals, colours, non-verbal gestures, actions, grunts, noises… Otherwise, mimes would be out of business. All these things make up the humongous Part called communication in a certain Reality. However, by focusing too much on learning the language, on its written and oral form, as one normally does (remember, it’s called language learning) you are in a way saying that it is only language that you need to learn in order to understand another Reality, subconsciously stating that cultures are only differentiated by their languages. You are, in fact, wrenching language out of the Reality and saying that it can stand on its own. But it cannot.

Think for a moment why you want to study, say, Japanese. Isn’t one of the most common reasons to understand some aspect of the Japanese culture, like Japanese movies, cartoons or music? Or say you want to be able to talk with Japanese people, because they are just so cool. But what’s the reason why they are so cool? Because they are so mysterious and unusual and different from you? You mean they have different values and views from you? And how do you think you are going to learn about those values and views without learning about the culture, the Reality in which they are expressed and which has shaped them? Or let’s say your reason is “I just like the way Japanese sounds”, that’s not an uncommon one. Well then, isn’t it enough to learn random Japanese phrases or even Japanese gibberish and just enjoy saying them out loud, or just listening to Japanese without trying to understand it? No, I guess you want more than just that, you want to understand. Well, what do you want to understand?

I think it all sooner or later comes back to the desire to understand a Reality. Even if you were firmly set on just the Japanese language itself, you would have to read nothing less than an essay describing how to say I or You depending on who, how old or where you are. So, you really have no choice but to embrace the new Reality, and by truly embracing it the language will come with it. It was more or less like that for me and my English.

Ever since I’ve started thinking about languages more and how to learn them, I was somehow always coming back to the question of how I learned English. I want my other languages to be as good as my English, but for that I first need to know how I achieved this level of English. It was no good just trying to remember – ever since I was a small kid it has been a part of my life; I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know English. After talking with my parents and thinking it through I think a large part of it has finally made sense.

Based on what I’ve written so far, you could say that I know how to use English quite well, but I should tell you two things. First I did not reach fluency in English in the classroom. My parents did enroll me in an English class when I was 11 (at the same time the English classes in my primary school started), but I know that I was already speaking English at the time – the classes at the course were in English and I don’t remember ever having a problem with talking in English; they were simply two 90 minutes segments of my week which were completely in English. Besides, the purpose of the classes was preparation for the ESOL English exams, which meant you already had to know really good English.

Second, my longest stay in an English-speaking country was one month in America when I was 16, but having been to an international public speaking competition the previous year in London, you could conclude that I already knew English quite well.

And how did I learn English well enough to pass the CPE at 16 years old with a very good mark, which puts me at a level of “an educated native speaker of English”? Was I a whiz for languages? Not really, because I learned French in school for 2 years more than English and had good private French teachers (people tell me this is a sign of prestige in Western countries, but a private teacher is a normal thing here), but my French is so rudimentary, it has been visibly overshadowed by just 4 months of learning Spanish. Did I try really hard with English? Nope. The only time I remember not understanding English is when I was like 7 or so, trying to understand the Peanuts comics and asking my parents to translate the words I didn’t know. After that, I more or less stopped asking them, and until a few years ago I never once looked up a definition in a dictionary.

So how did I do it? How did my English reach this level without any real conscious effort on my part (apart from when I was 6 or 7, but even then it never felt like work and you could almost say the same for my native language for that age)?

Easy. Ever since I was a kid I have been subconsciously making my English Reality.

Throughout my childhood I had an unhealthy obsession with Peanuts comics and I’ve looked at them, and eventually read them, literally hundreds of times (my parents had a collection of some 60 Peanuts books, the small soft-cover ones, all in English). I’ve spent countless hours watched Cartoon Network with two friends with whom I more or less grew up (who incidentally also speak English on my level). I’ve had a computer since I was 6 and I spent even more time playing games on it than I did watching TV. I’ve read and reread dozens, if not hundreds of books in English (e.g. over 30 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, when I last counted, and most of them I’ve read at least 3 or 4 times), seen countless movies, commercials, cartoons, all in English. When the internet came, I couldn’t get enough of it, and guess in which language the surfing was done. Also, and I think this is very important, I talked with the two friends in English so often (I have no idea why – we loved to reproduce dialogue from the cartoons, but we also just talked in English a lot) that I distinctly remember my mom telling me, when I was 11 or 12, that I should speak in Serbian more often. Nobody corrected us, nobody told us how to speak English; we just did it. Today, our conversations regularly and effortlessly switch between English and Serbian, usually in mid-sentence, depending on what we want to say. Yes, we do get funny looks on the street sometimes when we talk like Pinky and the Brain, but it would feel strange not to do it. It’s the most normal thing for us. It is our Reality.

Incidentally, when my mom was telling me about what I read in English when I was a kid, she also remarked: “But you never touched the French comics. You loved Asterix in Serbian, so we got you some Asterix comics in French, but you never grew fond of them.” Well, I guess that explains my disastrous French.

But let’s leave memory lane before I go all mushy-mushy and see how we can use this theory in practice. I’ve sort of grouped my thoughts into several bold statements. They are also italicized. Har har.

Open yourself fully to your new Reality.

Whatever the reason for choosing your new Reality, you should broaden your interest in it as much as possible. That shouldn’t be that hard, because everything will be at least slightly different – the language, the values, the popular culture, the high culture, kitsch, music, clothes, stereotypes… Everything is up for contemplation, investigation, scrutiny and plain old enjoyment.

What this should mean is that nothing should be off-limits in your Reality building. Everything is interesting, everything is important, because every new Part makes your target Reality richer. While this means that you will also be exposed to some stuff considered trash by most of the population, you should nevertheless expose yourself to it without feeling bad about yourself. After all, you are coming from a different Reality, with different ideas of what is good, bad, tasteful or horrible, and you cannot still have a clear view of where that Part fits in the great scheme of Taste. Yes, watching cartoons might on one hand be considered childish, but you’re a child in your new Reality and you’re allowed to watch them! Aren’t cartoons, by the way, an excellent example of simple stories that present in a very clear way the values, ideas and often the basic sense of humour of a certain society? So, embrace them, and when you outgrow them, discard them as childish if you wish, or keep a soft spot for some of them, like some of us do (Saaabeeeer Riiideeeer!). Anyways, only with time, when you are exposed to enough Parts, will you slowly (and more and more subconsciously, I guess) start to form your own sense of taste, what you like and what you don’t, and this sense will always be growing, changing, evolving and expanding, as does your sense of taste in your base Reality.

– You are not studying. You are accustoming yourself.

You can have the best logical reasoning, the highest IQ ever, but is that what will make you the best sharpshooter, the fastest runner or the most agile aikido practitioner? Do you approach learning these things by studying about them? No. You do them. Over and over again. There might be a manual with the rules, but like with the football metaphor, that can be the starting point and/or the occasional point of reference, but not the destination or something to constantly cling to.

The same is true for when creating a Reality: You don’t want to simply study about it. You want to get “accustomed” to it. You want the Reality to become normal to you, familiar to you; you want to be able to understand it without overthinking it, but still be able to overthink it if necessary. You don’t have the time to always remind yourself about categorical data about what you’re seeing; you’re not Robocop. When you understand a joke from Simpsons, you understand it instantly, without having to write a treatise to yourself, analyzing why you actually understood it. You could write it if you wanted to, but it is not necessary to understand the joke. The same should be one day true for your target Reality.

– Relax. Be prepared not to understand.

Immersion in a new Reality can be overwhelming. “Everything is different, I don’t understand what’s going on, there’s just so much goddamn stuff out there!” Yes, and remember, as I said, in your new Reality you’re a child accustoming to its new surroundings. A smart one that will learn really fast, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything is different and new. So, relax and just let yourself float and sort of get lost in it. Look at things over and over again, see the connections between them, think about them but don’t overrationalize it. Remember, you are not studying, you are adapting yourself to a new Reality, getting good at getting it, so to say. Out of the chaos of all the new impressions, the ways people say the same word in different situations, how they react and laugh and cry, patterns will slowly but surely emerge.

Parts are like onions.

Layered like onions, before you give me the eyebrow-raising look. For example, when I heard the song Blame Canada, from the South Park movie, I distinctly remember not understanding why my parents were laughing at the “Blame Canada” verse or the “They’re not a real country anyway” one. I could understand the words themselves, but I didn’t understand the context. A couple of years later I saw it again, and I understood it and laughed, as I was then aware of how some Americans perceive Canada and “taking” responsibility. I was 13 when I saw the movie the first time, so it was normal that I couldn’t have understood the true meaning of the song, but, and here’s the important part, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. Reading Pratchett is sort of like that – I am again and again rereading some of the Discworld novels and noticing lots of details I missed the previous time, but once when I found a website that has a list of references, I was thoroughly baffled by the amount references to literature, poetry and popular British culture that I’ve never read or heard of. This only makes every new reread all the more fun.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of rereading and repetition in general…

Be prepared to repeat. A lot.

This is directly connected to the studying/accustoming point. Again, can you learn basketball without practising? No. And if you wanna be a pro, you’re gonna have to shoot hoops till you can’t feel your arms. And don’t tell me about stuff like talent – without going in my personal view on the subject, let’s just say that I can’t think of one person who was a master of something and who achieved mastery without an enormous amount of time and effort invested in it. Accustoming yourself to a Reality is no different; it doesn’t take the muscle-straining type of effort, but it does take A LOT of time and, well, the effort to make that time happen.

– Find an obsession in your new Reality

I remember when I was looking for interesting Japanese music, and I found some pretty cool stuff. I enjoyed it, but not in that throwing-underwear-at-the-stage fanatical kind of way. I was consciously trying to remember the lyrics, and I did remember a few verses, but nothing much. Then I heard 僕ら (bokura) by 小田和正 (Oda Kazumasa), and I was completely mesmerized by the song. I didn’t care about remembering it, I just wanted to listen to it all goddamn day long. After like the 80th time, I realized I was singing along to most of the song, and I didn’t even try to remember the lyrics. I didn’t understand even half of them, but I didn’t care – the song was just that cool to me. I would listen to it over and over and over again and, of course, understanding slowly began to happen.

Now you can guess that I’m looking for more stuff by Oda, and you’d be right, but what I’m also looking for is awesome stuff in general. Remember, I was obsessed with Peanuts. My parents had serious problems keeping me away from the computer. I would happily watch Cartoon Network with my friends for countless hours, even if at one point we knew by heart practically every word of everything on air. Well, it’s time for you and me to reawaken that child-like fascination and obsession with things. If there’s a type of music in your target Reality that’s similar to what you love, then look for songs and bands which are awesome. Every Reality has its own unique and beautiful Parts. Search them out and open up to them; there’s a fine chance you’ll go mad about them.

Remember, you are acquiring a Reality and its Parts, not just a language

I’ve talked a lot about this one, but there’s another reason why I think learning Parts is better than learning just the language – you are constantly making progress, with lots of small, but visible successes, and thus additional motivation. Saying to yourself that you’re learning a language makes it sort of difficult to gauge your progress. However, learning how to understand these 3 books, those 30 songs and that one cool movie means that you can track your progress in each and every one of those Parts, both in your understanding of the language and of the cultural context of those Parts. You can even make a list of all the stuff you understand, which should also motivate you to want to add to it just that one more song.

And here I stopped writing. As I said, I realized I still have some thinking to do and I have to dig up some of my output from the past. I have yet to decide how early you can switch completely to building a Reality using only its own Parts (i.e. using only books, movies, music etc. in that language), what are the exact methods of learning to understand Parts, and some other details (like the role of grammar in the learning process 🙂 ). I am currently focused on the experimental workshop and some other stuff, so a revision of this theory will have to wait a few weeks, before I define it’s first version and do some intensive beta testing during the summer. You are, of course, encouraged to give your comments and suggestions.

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3 Responses to “learning Japan instead of Japanese”

  1. Grenouille Says:

    I warmly suggest bringing some sushi dainties or those kinky Japanese amuse-bouches to language classes/workshops 🙂
    If that doesn’t boost student moral I honestly don’t know what would!

  2. uchideshi Says:

    being a student of Japanese, you might imagine that the food choice will be somewhat biased 🙂

    Though there will be also British cuisine. If you have any ideas what kind there should be, shoot!

  3. Grenouille Says:

    I guess some standard Yorkshire pudding, mince pies, and fish&chips would clog thier blood vessels just perfectly 🙂

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