Tag Archives: studying

The Value of the Beginner Language Class

In my junior year of college I enrolled in two language classes: one for Japanese and one for Chinese. For Japanese I enrolled in something called “Advanced Integrative Japanese”, which was a fancy way of saying “fourth-year Japanese class.” And as a complete beginner in Chinese, I also signed up for the “Chinese 101” class that I’m sure is offered at colleges around the world.

One thing I have noticed is that language classes get a lot of flack on the Internet, perhaps unsurprisingly by the self-studying crowd, which tends to be especially active on online forums and blogs. Traditional classes are often shunned as obsolete relics of the past, and perhaps that’s because of the breadth of material we have at our fingertips. After all, we’re all on the internet now, and we have (especially as a self-studier) more access to native-language material than ever before. Three popular blog posts come to mind that are particularly critical of language classes:

Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (4-hour work week)

Classes Suck (AJATT)

Using AJATT to Pwn Japanese Classes (Which Still Suck) (AJATT, again)

There are a lot of good points in all of these posts, but their messages are similar: classes slow you down, and that the fastest way to learn is through native interaction, either with native speakers or native materials. The post on 4-hour Work Week is especially critical of classes when it claims that classes merely create “the illusion of progress” for students who are too lazy/scared/uninterested in using the language in the real world through interactions with native speakers.

This seems particularly true of most students who are forced to learn a foreign language they’re not really interested in, such as in high school. Often the only real speaking practice that goes on for languages learned in high school classes ends up occurring in the classroom, and as a result the language is merely treated as another academic subject that will be quickly forgotten by the end of the year. I certainly don’t remember every fact that I used to have memorized when I took American History back in high school, and that’s because I don’t constantly place myself in an environment where I would need to recall any of those previously memorized pieces of information. The same goes even more so for foreign languages. If I don’t care about the material enough to study it beyond what is presented in class, then the best teacher in the world is not going make a difference.

That’s why language classes outside of a mandatory curriculum are so much better—that is, classes taken in college by choice—and why I think they deserve more credit. These classes are populated (ideally) by students who, for some reason or another, care about taking the class. That means that even when the class ends, the studying goes on. Especially at the beginner level these students want to learn the language on some level, and are ready to dive in.

The Beginner Language Class – A Time-Wasting Hell of Poor Speakers or A Bastion of Language Learning?

My Chinese language class had the following format: once a day, 5 days a week, about 10 people in the room. The teacher puts a new grammar structure up on the board and asks a question—in Chinese, of course—to one of the students at random. He answers. She asks another person a related question. He stumbles, she starts the sentence for him, he finishes it. She tells another student to ask the person next to him a related question. That person answers. And so on.

The in-class pace is fast, and the content is all speaking. There’s no writing during this class, no worksheets, and no handouts—that’s for your own practice as homework to be done outside of class. The textbook is a collection of ~30 conversations presented in both English and Chinese, with grammar notes explained in English and Chinese on subsequent pages. Homework involves memorizing the current week’s conversation, translating short paragraphs in English to Chinese (there’s your writing practice), memorizing short speeches in Chinese that you’ve written, and being able to transcribe short spoken sentences into Chinese characters. There’s a comprehensive quiz every week.

That was my Chinese Class, and for me it was awesome. I learned a lot, and I probably made as much progress as an average student does in 1-3 years of Chinese in high school. Seriously, it was hardcore.

Study the Language to Study the Language

I’m raving about my Chinese 101 class, but now let’s flash forward 1 year after finishing it. The result? I have forgotten most of what I learned. If I walked into my Chinese 101 final today I know I would surely fail; it has literally been over a year since I studied or engaged in the Chinese language in any serious way.

So does that prove the “class haters” points? After all, I took a class and now have few results to show from it—surely that means classes don’t matter. And if I can’t remember any Chinese, doesn’t that mean I’m in the same place as where I was after finishing my Spanish classes in high school? The answer, however, is no; and it’s because my mindset is quite different. Let me explain.

The Chinese class mattered because I’m still excited about picking up Chinese at some point in the future. Had I not taken the class, I might have had a vague desire to start learning at some point, but no language foundation or starting momentum. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to study Spanish, regardless of how “useful” it is considered. The difference here is that the Chinese class instilled an interest in the Chinese language. I made rapid progress during the class and I feel confident I could do it again. I enjoyed speaking in Chinese and would love to be able to do it again at a higher level. There were very few lessons on “culture” in my Chinese class, but that’s because the class made the language challenging and interesting enough to be worth studying because it was fun. In other words, I studied Chinese because I wanted to become a beast at Chinese.

In my high school Spanish classes, the teachers tried to introduce students to Spanish culture, music, etc, as an attempt to give us reasons to study the language. While I understand the reasoning, I tuned most of it out. I didn’t give a damn about Cinco de Mayo, and it just turned me off to studying if this was supposed the “fun” part of the language. I should first be excited about studying the language because I simply like studying the language. For me, this is the purest and best form of motivation, and it’s something that a good class can do for a student. Cultural/native-language stuff like movies and music can be found on one’s own and can come later once the student has a decent foundation to actually make sense of the material.

Plus, since cultural stuff has to do a lot with personal taste—I would rather have my eyebrows plucked out than be forced to learn about traditional Japanese festivals and ancient shrines—trying to appeal to everyone in a single class is impossible. Classes in the beginner level, therefore, should focus on making the language challenging and interesting. And because an entire language can’t be taught in a single class, the goal should be to provide motivation and basis for further study if the student chooses to do so. Chinese 101 did that well.

Later I want to talk a little more about “Advanced language classes”, something I feel could be done a lot better than what I have experienced so far in my study of the language. Until next time…


Filed under Chinese, Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

Maruzen: Japanese Learning Resource Jackpot

For those looking for Japanese resources beyond a few sub-par textbooks and books titled “how to curse in Japanese!” I would suggest looking at the White Rabbit Press, as they carry a large number of Japanese-related books that you won’t find in your average Barnes & Noble.

However, the other day in Japan I just found the Japanese-learning Jackpot. Behold: Maruzen near Tokyo Station in the Marunouchi OAZO shopping complex:

Four floors of Japanese bookstore -- mmmm!

I walked in casually, expecting the usual fair of books that could be found in any small mall bookstore, but soon found myself on the fourth floor, face-to-face with a rather drool-worthy site.

Yeah, there was a lot. Maruzen in Marunouchi OAZO building near Tokyo Station.

For some reason I’ve always had this obsession with collecting Japanese-learning resources and books without actually using those resources. Of course, I always have the intention of using said resources, but something about amassing a huge amount of books on learning Kanji or vocabulary simply makes feel like I’m actually learning, even if I’m not.

Perhaps one day I will be able to learn Japanese through osmosis simply by pressing my face into my Japanese textbooks. Until then!

Lots of grammar books. The fat red and orange one is the Dictionary of Misused Japanese

In any case, to cater to my book collecting habit, seeing multiple shelves of “no use this book to study for the JLPT” was quite a feast. And while there are a ton of books to look through, I unfortunately do not have the infinite time (and money) necessary to look through and consider all of them. Nonetheless, two books did catch my attention:

  1. A Dictionary of Misused Japanese.
  2. New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Japanese

The first, completely in Japanese, goes over common grammar errors and provides correct and incorrect examples of language usage. I liked the comprehensiveness of the book, but I admit I did get a little fatigued looking through it. Perhaps in a perfect world I would go through it, but it’s over 700 pages long — more a reference than anything else. Probably a great supplement for those wanting to cement a new grammar point into their heads.

The second looked especially excellent: it’s a bilingual book in both Japanese and English, with the Japanese text sufficiently furigana’d. Of the stories I quickly browsed through, they seemed sufficiently interesting, and because the English translation is provided, I avoid having input fatigue. Because while I like to think I could just immerse myself in a Japanese book and read, at this point it’s just not something I can do for very long, or very quickly. While English is a crutch, it also keeps me from giving up on reading after a few dragged-out pages, something that would likely happened were I to pick up any Japanese book off the shelf.

Next time I may go over books that Japanese people use to learn English — both how those books work and how they can be used to study Japanese as well (hint: you study the Japanese translations, not the English).

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

Procrastinate on your Studying by Studying

Inspired by a recent AJATT blog post, I have been trying to think of a good way of keeping myself from the inevitable decline into sweet, sweet, procrastination. I think I may have a decent solution, but it goes beyond simply studying Japanese—instead, let’s treat it as an ADD-approach to studying in general.

Keep yourself busy: multi-task like a mother fucker.

I know a lot of people who like to be busy. They’re the kind of people who don’t like sleeping, who need to constantly be on the go, who have full schedules filled with appointments, and who feel guilty whenever they aren’t being productive. I am not one of those people. I like to take things one task at a time, giving myself as much time as necessary for each task. Thinking about tackling multiple assignments at once is not my style. Simply put, I’m not a multitasker.

But I should be. And so should you.

You can cram for tests, but you can’t cram languages.

The reason multitasking is important in language learning is because languages—especially when it comes to speaking and listening—take a long time to learn and acquire. You can’t cram speaking fluency in Japanese, or the ability to quickly reading through a Japanese document the night before a Japanese test the same way you can cram a hundred or so vocabulary words into your head before a PSY 101 test. Being able to actually use a language requires time; even if you try to cram vocab words or kanji into your head quickly, it won’t mean much if you can’t actually do anything that information.

That’s why you should multitask.

How to multi-task: You now have ADD

Studying with ADD means you jump from one task to the next without too much regard for whether you’ve actually finished the specific task you were just working on. The perfectionist in my is always calling out, telling me I need to be done with my English essay before I can move on to my Japanese studying. However, this only leads to inefficiency. I need to simply force myself to stop if I simply am not making progress, or have made sufficient progress in the last few minutes. That way, I never stop being productive.

Step 1: Make a specific list of things you have to do.

This isn’t groundbreaking advice, but it’s extremely important. It keeps you organized, so make the list. Not only that, make the list specific. That means that if you plan on studying Japanese, don’t just write down “study Japanese.” Instead write down exactly what you plan on doing. Your list might look like this:

Japanese: Study 10 vocab words, listen to and repeat 5 shadowing sentences for speaking fluency, write paragraph in Japanese for Lang-8.

English: Find 3 sources for essay, summarize each source’s main points in document, outline introduction of essay

History: Read first 40 pages of the week’s reading, summarize in 3 sentences what you read in notebook

Misc: lift weights for 30 minutes, jog for 30 minutes, sort dirty clothes for laundry, do laundry

And so on. The point is to have specific goals that are not unreasonably difficult or time consuming. If something on your list looks like it may take hours and hours, break it down into smaller chunks.

Heck, you may even list leisure activities on your list—like watching a single episode of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. You keep the tasks on your list short—so you don’t end up watching 10 episodes—and it’s something easy to jump to if you need a break from being efficient, while still being efficient. Win-win.

Step 2: Do the tasks in any order, and jump around as much as necessary

I might be working on my English essay, but I know I’ll get bored rather quickly. Thus, as soon as I finish one of my small tasks that I’ve outlined on my list, I’ll jump to something else less likely to give me a headache, like sorting clothes or laundry.

The point is to stay actively involved in completing goals. When I try to do one painstaking task at a time without stopping I lose interest and end up falling asleep. The next time I crack open that 200-page history reading, I won’t try to do all of it before moving to the next assignment; I’ll stop after 20 pages and study a kanji or two. And then maybe go jogging. And then read another 20 pages. But in the end, I’ll have still gotten everything done.

Why this works for language learning

As I’ve said before, it’s much too difficult to cram using a language into your head—that requires consistant and long-term practice. By returning to Japanese throughout the day—instead of doing it in one multi-hour burst— it’s actually better for retention and studying efficiency.

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Filed under Language, Self-studying