Category: Language Acquisition


Actually, that is a lie. This post is very closely related to the second post, concerning the SRS, in this poorly executed series on my language learning method. There you will find an excellent method to retain information; but how about the first step in the process? How can we effectively learn?

Fact: The human brain does not remember arbitrary information well

Conclusion: We need to convert the information to a form the brain can deal with

Source: The Memory Book; House/Tour Method; Heisig

This might not seem all that much of a fact to most people – all of us remember heaps of completely arbitrary information after all! Be it the last ten years of Soccer World Cup results, phone numbers, names, addresses, values of physical constants, or words in a language. I attribute this to exposure and repetition! Why? Because I only ever remember names of people I encounter often, phone numbers that I have actually dial, addresses that I mail stuff to, etc. If you had to memorise the phone numbers or fifty people and recall them in an hour, could you do it? What if you were only allowed to hear them once? If this is not impossible for you, either you are unable to dress yourself or already know what I am going to tell you.

Believe it or not, this is possible, and YOU can do it! The problem with numbers is that they are the epitome of arbitrariness. If instead of a XX digit number you had to remember the image of “a big breasted blonde jumping up and down” (obviously 979401195163928921182; or possibly even 13867234) it would be cake. What the brain can deal with is silly, unnatural, and preferably perverted images! What you need is a method to change arbitrary information into silly images. In the example above, the first method is based on consonant sounds; you will notice that there number of digits in the number is equal to the number of consonants in the sentence, and that the b’s and p’s all give 9’s. The second is simply the number of letters in each word. Read on if you want to know some of the methods I have used for very different purposes.

Kanji

Good ol' Mr. T; kanji teacher extraordinaire since 2010. And yes, I do realise that 人 looks like a boner; I thought I would prove my point by example. See if you can forget this kanji!

Oh crap, Napoleon dropped the soap in the prison shower! While scrambling along the floor, big black Mr. T loses no time in grabbing the opportunity to have his way with him! Congratulations, you have just learned your first kanji, 「使」, meaning  “use.” See that thing on the left looking like a slanted T? Yeah, you guessed it, that’s Mr. T. The thing on the right is the kanji for “officer”, which Napoleon represents well. I think the meaning of “use” is clear from the image above. To me the right hand side is progressively modified from the kanji for “person” 「人」, obviously a pictograph of a person with legs spread and arms behind his back – perhaps in preparation for a blowjob? Screw morals, if thinking dirty will teach me kanji, so be it! In four months I memorised over two thousand kanji. This is the number of kanji Japanese people have to learn before their high school graduation. This while studying for a master degree in chemical engineering!

Vocabulary

This part will be useful for learning any language, not just Japanese or Chinese! I haven’t been happy with the rate at which I pick up new words, so have been testing out various study methods.

First I tried hardcore rote memorisation with SRS, thinking that exposure had done half the job already. This does not work! You will pick up a lot of vocabulary through exposure, and yes you can speed up the process with an SRS, but either a word is ready for the SRS or it isn’t. This sounds trivial, but if you study a language, you will know what I mean. I guess it is like commercials; smart people say that the average person has to be exposed to a given spot seven times before it takes effect. Somehow, a word can either be triggered in your consciousness and ready for learning, or, well, uhm, not be. Oh eloquence, thy name be Kurisuchan!

Second, I tried Iverson lists, then input into SRS. Certainly it worked better than rote memorisation, but to me the results were less than impressive, and it was boring. Anything boring is not an efficient study method!

Recently, I began following a method similar to kanji learning. Yes, we are back to the silly and perverted images people! But how to link this strangely pronounced unknown word with the dictionary definition? Simple, by the Substitute Word Method (possibly copyrighted by the book I ripped off!)

Example time! The Japanese word for “thank you” is “arigatou”, if I were to learn this word, I would form the image of an alligator saying “thank you”, perhaps after eating my leg or something. Alligator sounds like “arigatou”, which is usually plenty connection to remember the correct Japanese word.

I also use a variation of this method for words whose meaning I can infer from the kanji, but don’t know the reading. For example, the word 「本性」 read ”honshoo” means ”one’s true nature.” Any Japanese student will know the meaning and reading of the first kanji, namely “book” or “origin.” The second kanji bears the meaning of “gender”, yet the reading is not the more common one of “sei.” To learn this other reading, I imagined one’s gender being determined by the shoes that he/she/it is wearing. Voila! “Shoe” and the “shoo” reading sound similar, and this (only slightly) silly image comes to mind when I see the kanji, and I recall the “shoo” reading. This is basically what is done in the movie/town modified Heisig method for learning the meaning, writing, and on-youmi reading of the kanji.

Another variation is linking the pronunciation of the word to the scene described by the SRS sentence containing it. I use this when the meaning of the word is slightly diffuse. For example, 「希望」 read ”kiboo” means ”hope.” I’m not good a visualising “hope,” especially not as distinct from aspiration, ambition, wish, desire or whatever other synonyms you can think of! Luckily the sentence I decided to learn it from was very illustrative of the meaning (actually, so are the kanji, meaning that even a crappy sentence would be fine.) So, I imagined a keyboard thrown into the scene. Keyboard and “kiboo” sound… I’m sure you get the point by now.

So far the results are great. However, initially it was difficult to think of good substitute words. Frankly, Japanese words are so different as not to remind me of much, despite being fluent in two languages! But, I realised that a substitute word does not have to sound very similar; like the shoe for “shoo” could just as easily be the also common Japanese “shuu”; yet somehow it is rarely confusing. As my Japanese vocabulary increases, I am increasingly using Japanese substitute words, which are very similar or identical in pronunciation; thus making it very easy to do.

Phew! That was a long read, huh? Sorry for the block of dry text, I tried to keep it relatively short and concise. Please comment and share your methods for learning vocabulary.

クリスチャンちゃん

PS: While writing this post I stumbled upon an excerpt from How to Learn Any Language on the Reviewing the Kanji Forums, which basically describes my experiences. Maybe I do know stuff after all!

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Fact: Forgetting is an exponential decay in time

Conclusion: We need to review

Source: Wikipedia; Anki; Smart.fm

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Green lines are after reviews. Notice the exponentials decaying slower and slower after each review? I bet you did; you're one of those smart ones, aren't you? 😉

Have you ever used flash cards? They are surprisingly useful, but a pain to make. Well, somebody was bound to make an electronic version, thus eliminating the need for printing and cutting etc. On top of that, you get a scientifically derived algorithm for determining exactly WHAT you need to review. Don’t believe me? It’s on Wikipedia dammit! Have you ever found incorrect or un-objective information on Wikipedia!? Thought not.

I use spaced repetition learning for all information I need to retain. Sentences, kanji, notes from university classes, song lyrics, you name it. If you put something in there, you will memorise it, no question. This cuts the time needed to learn a language by years (FYI: 95% of statistics on the internet are made up on the spot.)

Odds are that at this moment you do not realise the true prospects this offers. That graph off to the right should downright arouse you! Take a moment to consider how many things in this world are actually raw memorisation problems at heart. Want to be a filthy rich lawyer? To save lives as a medical professional? All it takes is cash and the need to memorise thousands of pages of disparate information. You say that it also requires good grades in high school? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had an exam before college that tested anything but memorisation. Want to be fluent in Chinese? Well, memorise the characters, words, and grammar. In that graph to the right; your future is on the x-axis, and pure awesomeness on the y-axis!

Do yourself a favour and start using an SRS. It doesn’t matter what you use it for; be it country names, amino acids, or cooking recipes. Once you realise the power it contains, you will find ways of channelling it into achieving greatness; whatever that might mean for you.

The roughly two thousand Daily Use Kanji as well as some other common ones. Each and every one can be found in my SRS program with an average of 85% retention. By the way, I actually owned this poster!

Personally my first experience with flash cards was memorising the Japanese kana (the equivalent of the alphabet) containing some one hundred characters. It took about a week to get perfect retention, but only a few hours of study. Since stumbling across the SRS I have used it to assist in memorising the meaning and writing of over two thousand Chinese characters. I have retention of over 85% and twelve thousand repetitions in the last six months. Anyone that has done Heisig will know that by far most of the failures are caused by the keywords being synonyms, and not actually forgetting the kanji. This was done while studying master level chemical engineering at college! How did I get the time? Simple, just use the SRS for your studies. All I had to do was understand a concept once, input the information to the SRS, and it would be retained. This fully eliminates the need to cram for exams!

At the time of writing there are over one thousand example sentences in my Anki deck – containing over seven hundred kanji – that I can read and use like a native speaker.  About fifty new sentences are added every day, from sources as disperse as books, internet, conversations, billboards, and dictionary definitions. Each of those fifty sentences contains a new word, the kanji of a known word, a new type of grammar, or is something I want to be able to say in my daily life.

There is a catch though; the SRS won’t actually teach you anything. What it does is to take something from your short term memory and put it into long term memory. The information will be as natural part of your world as the sky being blue and Japanese girls being oh-so-cute and cuddly; but you won’t know a twit about Rayleigh scattering or the deceptive powers of make-up. Is this important? Sure it is, even if disregarding owing your kids the best possible genes available.

If you never “learned” the information input into the SRS – i.e. being able to somehow deduce the connection between the front and back side – odds are the card will fail many many times. The SRS will make sure that you don’t forget, but it just isn’t an effective tool for initially remembering! However, there are effective ways to achieve this, which just happens to be the topic of my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

クリスチャンちゃん

It might seem terribly arrogant for me to write about such a topic, but people keep asking me to teach them English, so I’ll write a few posts about my experiences and methods. First of all: I am absolutely not an authority on the subject!* Everything you read here might be ineffective, incorrect, and/or causing global warming. I take absolutely no responsibility. On the flipside, I will take credit for any and all success you achieve. Life isn’t fair, get used to it.

Really, I don’t know anything about learning a language. Every method I’ve used up to this point has been shamelessly ripped off from other people. I spent some time researching what people were doing, evaluated according to my own experiences, and copied whoever seemed successful. Hell, even this method I ripped off from Tony Robbins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did the same to some other poor fellow. Life is too short to figure out everything for yourself; so learn to emulate people successful at what you want to achieve. In some way people probably already know this, but for some reason don’t take it to its logical conclusion. First decide on your goals, and then seek out successful people. Most people seem to have goals – although often indefinite, but this is another discussion – but don’t act on them. Waiting around for a foreigner to ask to teach you a language isn’t a strategy, it is lack thereof. Besides, language isn’t taught, it is absorbed.

This book is great, if you want to speak sucky Gaijin Japanese for the rest of your life that is. Instead you could go to this site and download thousands of hours of Japanese TV. Which do you prefer?

Maybe, just maybe, people ask me because they actually think that I am successful. Somehow this seems unlikely; despite all my confidence, my present Japanese is very very far from fluent*. Many people seem to be impressed by my being fluent in English, but this is hardly something that raises eyebrows in Europe. Anyway, I will tell you about my “study” methods; if you think I’m worth modelling (hopefully Tony Robbins didn’t copyright the term…) feel free to do so. There will be a lot more information about the methods in the links, these posts will focus on the only original piece of information I can add; namely my experience with using them.

So, let’s get on with it! What does this fake polyglot think is the absolutely essential thing that will propel you to ultimate language power? It’s in the title of the post people: Immersion! No, wait! Exposure, EXPOSURE, dammit! That other guy I ripped off calls it immersion…

Fact: Learning a language, like anything else, takes time.

Conclusion: Spend all your time in language X

Source: AJATT

People over here seem to think that it takes a genius to become fluent in a second language. No such thing, any idiot can do it. Really, think about it, it is fact that even morons are fluent in their native tongue, no? Everybody knows that a sure-fire way to become good at a language is to study abroad. If you spend 24/7 in your target language, there is absolutely no way you won’t become fluent. I doubt that many will argue against the logic here, but you may very well dislike the consequences.

People say that I have superhuman self-discipline, and tend to envy that I can spend hours totally focused on a single task. So, did I put Japanese in front of my eyes and turned on super powers? No, I tried and failed. I made it through the first book of Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese and quit less than half way through the second volume. Want to learn a horrible unfair truth about this world? The most diligent students of a language suck the most. Obviously this is a lie, but it is true enough to make my point. The people who are fluent are the ones who spend their time watching TV, movies, playing games, chatting, reading cartoons; but all in their target language. Why? Because fun gets done. Raw exposure beats intensive study any day of the week. I have yet to meet a fluent speaker of any language that learned by studying.

How did I study English? Well, I didn’t! As a kid I loved watching movies and TV. I had my bed time postponed so that I could watch Fresh Prince in Bel Air (Carlton was such a geek…) I wet my bed because of the X-files, and probably watched every episode of the first twelve seasons of The Simpsons an average of ten times each. To date I have never played a computer game in anything but English (or Japanese,) yet own every Nintendo platform as well as a PS1 and 2.

When did I become fluent? Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t remember ever having difficulties understanding something in English. Probably my comprehension was the level of fluency before my tenth birthday. Speaking lacked slightly behind since it was all input, little output.

I’ll stop stroking my e-peen now and try to get back to that one objection that has probably formed in your mind. “But I can’t spend 24/7 in my target language!” you say. “I have work, friends, family, women that need seducing and my cat to feed!” All of those things are true, it is a question of priorities my friend. I couldn’t go all the way, but took up all Japanese music, television, and movies. I would read Japanese manga – or at least try to – instead of English literature until it got boring, then switch or watch television instead. I have never admitted this before, but also deliberately spent less time with friends and family in order to get in more Japanese time. On average I could cram in maybe 12 hours of Japanese a day. We are talking hundreds of movies and probably more than thirty TV dramas (usually ten hours a pop) over a two year period. Obviously, this would not be possible if I did not enjoy it. I cannot stress this enough; if it’s boring, chuck it and find something more interesting. Fun means you come back without the need for coercion by a bad conscience! Want proof? I didn’t stumble upon the AJATT site advocating this strategy until six months ago. Yeah, that’s right, I watched loads of movies and Japanese drama before I realised it was study. At that point I ramped up the frequency and killed the subtitles; that’s pretty much it.

There are many other things to say about this subject, and many other things I do besides immersion. Please leave a comment if you’re interested. As much as I enjoy writing this, it is time spent not reading manga and light novels; if there is no interest, I won’t be posting much.

クリスチャンちゃん

*Honestly. In my elementary level Japanese class I have by far the worst speaking ability and comprehension. Maybe they studied much longer, or maybe their methods are much better. At the time of writing, I just don’t know; time will tell.