I have been studying and praying about taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this December. I was getting super worked up about it, unable to decide which level to take, because there’s this feeling of guilt over what I feel I ought to be able to accomplish that I couldn’t shake, and a fear of regret over spending the money on travel, lodging, study materials and the test itself if I were to fail due to being overambitious.
I have concluded that I ought to spend the money just on studying for right now, and take the test at a later date. I am seeing quite a bit of change in my ability to recall and use the language, and my friends are encouraging me greatly, after only about one month’s worth of studying and speaking with them. My sister-in-law watched all three kids on Friday for me to be able to go to the Japanese Table at ETSU and hear and practice speaking Japanese for two hours. She is such a blessing.
God has brought my friend Mutsumi San back into my life, visiting every Tuesday and talking with me while our children take over the back yard and trampoline for a while. I’m so glad to get to see her more often again. Our mutual friend, Mayako San has come once as well. It was super loud with six children under five running around here, but such a joy!
So, I thought I’d share my carefully pondered advice to a question that I get very often.
“Do you have any advice on learning another language?”
Here are three bits of advice that are hopefully helpful, from someone who is by no means an expert, but has spent several years manipulating unusual sounds and words like a child with play-doh, sometimes capably building a lopsided castle.
- Don’t beat yourself up over minor flaws.
You start learning your first language(s) from inside the womb, and utilizing it at a young age. Just as you couldn’t up and run a marathon at the age of 1, neither could you orate Shakespeare. As adults, we often think that we ought to have a one up on the ability to learn a language, but truly the opposite is correct. Brains are hardwired for learning language early, and it becomes more difficult with each year past the age of 12. When I began learning Spanish, I told my mom, “Yo amor usted,” using English based syntax and a simple word for word lookup in the dictionary. I should have said, “Yo te amo.” I didn’t beat myself up over the incorrectness because I was five years old. The message was conveyed and that’s all that mattered. You will improve over time, and as long as you find a way of communicating, and you are willing to continue learning from your mistakes, you will do just fine. Take it easy on yourself. You can’t remember all the ways you messed up learning your first language, and you speak it just fine now. It takes time, and a LOT of mistakes to learn a language well. Eventually, you move on from play-doh to legos, and castle building becomes easier.
- You cannot learn another language well without being willing to re-learn your first language.
There were two boys from Mexico in my high school Spanish class. They failed. They spoke Spanish fluently, but had no idea what conjugation or even a noun was. You may decide to take up a second language without knowing what conjugation is, yourself, but you will not succeed without learning that it is something you do as second nature in your first language. I understood English so much better after graduating with a degree in Spanish. Don’t assume that other languages are weird/more difficult just because they do things differently. You may find you do them yourself in your mother tongue without realizing it. And conversely…
- You cannot learn another language well without letting go of your first language a little.
You can’t pick up a cello and try to play it like a trombone, or flute. Yes, you can drum on it, but you’ll be missing out on all of it’s beauty until you learn how to put the bow to the strings. Communication does not occur in a word for word, this language to that one, direct translation. I cannot tell someone in Japanese, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” and expect them to get the warning to not be overly ambitious. I have to learn to say, “don’t count tanuki skins before the hunt.” My husband and I are “like two peas in a pod,” but in Spanish, “like two drops of water.” This extends beyond phrases, as well. Did you know that you don’t speak a language in Hungarian? I can’t say “I speak English/Hungarian/Chinese,” as if I own or have mastered them. I must say that “I speak englishly/hungarianly/chinesely” as though I speak under the guidance and influence of the language’s style.
I have tutored so many frustrated students who write their papers first in English and then try to convert them into the second language they are learning. It just doesn’t work. Please stop doing it that way. Think about the concept you want to convey, pondering it as long as you need to, but don’t write anything down in the first language. Then, consider what you know how to say in your second language, and start writing the concepts that you have pondered with the abilities you have mastered. It is much easier to write within your current skill level, than attempt to translate a subjunctive statement when you have no idea how. (Especially if you don’t even realize you’re using the subjunctive, see advice #2 above.)
Now that I have shared, I’ll of course have to take my own advice and not push my own studies too hard. My brain is older, has been literally beaten around a bit, and could use being cut some slack for not remembering things as well as it used to.
Feel free to let me know of any advice, tips, or tricks you have in learning new things, especially languages, in the comments section below!