Learning a language requires time, patience and consistent learning. It is particularly true when taking up the challenge to master an East Asian language. As for me, I decided to immerse myself in Japanese. I still have a long way to go until fluency, yet I do have some useful tools and advice which might help you on your language learning journey.
Learning East Asian languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean are getting more and more attention. We all know that acquiring any language requires a fair amount of persistence. However, according to the Foreign Service Institute`s ranking, the languages mentioned before seem to cause the most struggle for English speakers. Indeed, all of them are considered to be “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” with an estimated 2200 hours of study to reach General Proficiency.
Of course, everyone has different motivations, and therefore one might learn faster or slower. However, one thing is sure: you have to put the time in. But is learning an East Asian language really “exceptionally difficult”? I do not think so. For me, success in language learning depends on two important factors: attitude and learning tools. If they are right, reaching your goal is only a matter of time.
Some time ago, I heard a Japanese proverb that pretty much sums up language learning and actually every kind of effort we make in life in order to achieve something: “Even dust, if gathered, can become a mountain.” (ちりも積もれば山となる) It teaches us that small efforts, built up over time, can lead to success. However, many people get frustrated or bored when learning a language. In order to avoid these, I often remind myself of the following 5 points:
- I often hear people struggling or even giving up on a language because they tend to forget what they have learned. But forgetting is part of the game. It sounds obvious but there is even scientific evidence for it: the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Forgetting is exponential, meaning that in the first period after learning something new, we forget the most of it. It`s natural – just accept it.
- Learning a language is a long process. Therefore, it is important to stay motivated. Breaking down your ultimate goal of fluency into smaller goals definitely helps. This way you can avoid frustration and have the positive feeling of regularly achieving something. For example, when I started learning Japanese, not sounding natural did not bother me at all. What I focused on instead is that I am able to introduce myself in two weeks’ time. Then being able to hold a 15-20-minute conversation in two to three months’ time. Having such goals accelerates the learning process. Currently I can hold up an hour long conversation about a variety of topics but I do not sound natural. So working on this is my current goal until this summer.
- Try to make so many mistakes as you can. Although the word mistake has a negative connotation, in case of language learning I find them essential. In order to get your brain used to actively produce the language, you will have to recall what you have learned but you will also need to experiment how to express your thoughts. I often get corrected while trying to express myself in Japanese and if my conversation partner points out a word or grammatical structure I used incorrectly, I tend to remember much better than studying them alone. The reason for that is that I can connect my mistake to an experience: I often remember about what, where and to whom I tried to express myself.
- Make language learning a habit. I find that learning every day a little bit is more efficient than spending hours on it a few times a week. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts or revising words and phrases during commuting time, coffee breaks, while waiting in a queue and so on. These activities typically add up to a fair amount of time that I can spend on learning each day.
- Just enjoy learning it. Of course, grammar is important but it does not make any sense to study it all the time. Try to read or discuss about something you would be interested in your mother tongue as well.
When it comes to learning tools, everybody has different preferences. What I prefer using may not fit for you and vice versa. Therefore, I think it`s important to figure out the most effective methods in order to make the most out of your time. As for me, I use the following tools for Japanese:
Lingq: The main idea of this website is that people learn languages through a lot of input. It means reading about things you find interesting and listening to them. When you start out with a language, each word will be marked with blue. While reading you can save words and phrases with their translations and these will turn yellow. Later, if you continue reading, you will encounter fewer blue words which you have not looked up yet and more yellow words which are familiar. After a while, if you feel that you know the meaning of some yellow words you can mark them as “known” and the colour disappears.
On the one hand, Lingq provides a huge amount of material, such as interviews, podcasts, articles about a great variety of topics. On the other hand, you can also import your own material. Personally, I really like to import Japanese news articles from NHK about business, economics, politics and culture. It became one of the most important tools I use for Japanese. It keeps me motivated, since I read about topics that fit my interests and provides an easy-to-use platform for acquiring vocabulary through context. Another great advantage is that you can automatically save words with their correct readings which is especially useful for Chinese and Japanese.
Italki: On this website you can find both language teachers and exchange partners for different languages. Teachers can decide on their hourly rates. The platform only provides a transparent payment system and the teacher`s profiles with feedbacks given by students. Usually, you can choose from different teaching formats according to your level and interests. Once you have scheduled a lesson, it will be confirmed by your teacher. Then the lesson will probably be held on Skype.
I almost only speak about random topics with my teachers and by doing so, I can practice real life conversations. No textbooks, no homeworks. I have already spoken to several Japanese people around the globe: from Japan, the US, France and even Serbia. There is always something interesting in their stories which makes the lesson not only from a language learning perspective but also as life experience valuable.
HelloTalk: This is a mobile application that also connects language learners with native speakers but its focus is on texting rather than speaking. I find it very useful because it includes a grammar correction feature. It enables the native speaker to easily correct your text and send it back to you while chatting. Also, you can share so-called “moments” with everyone learning and speaking your target language. You can express your thoughts, pose a question or whatever you want. You will get an answer, a reaction or correction within minutes by a lot people. Sometimes I just wonder how I could express a certain thing, so I share a moment and wait if I have got it right. It`s really powerful.
I highly prefer these tools over a textbook or a language course. On the one hand, they provide platforms for improving your reading, speaking and writing. On the other hand, they let you connect with people from all over the world and to immerse yourself in a country`s everyday happenings and culture. I think this is what language learning is about.