Learning languages: the importance of motivation, repetition, authenticity, proportion of time

Yesterday’s Hiroshima JALT monthly meet was a good one.

Four non-native speakers of English talked about their experience and how they went about learning the language. One point was common to all four speakers: motivation. And three of the speakers had repetition and authentic material use as a commonality.

Motivation is ultimately a most factor to the success of acquisition. Whether this be intrinsic (for personal reasons) or extrinsic (for reasons of more concrete gain) motivation, I believe, is the factor cited most by learners. It certainly was my own when it came to learning Japanese. Mine was of the intrinsic kind.

Repetition is also an important factor. Like the speakers I also used repetition. For me it was movies, books and music. In my estimate I watched Tampopo at least 50 times. What was important, I believe, was not watching lots of different films (a common mistake by many language learners) but watching one film lots of times. Repetition meant I got to know particular phrases and pragmatics very well. I had aimed to say what I can say like a native. After all, there were a small number of things I wanted to convey. Conveying what I wanted to convey well was more of a priority than being able to convey many different things that I did not mean, or am disinterested in.

Authenticity of the material was therefore important. There is nothing more motivating than reading what native speakers are reading, to ultimately approach the reading level of native speakers.

None of the speakers had spent any substantial time in an English speaking country yet were able to communicate effectively. What was also common to all four speakers was the proportion of time they had spent learning a language. I do not mean the total amount of time but how concentrated the time was. Two hours a day was a figure being thrown around.

I think all these factors are all linked together. The more motivated one is the more time one spends on it. The more one spends on time on something the more one realizes that they don’t fully know what some things being said mean. The more one realizes they know less than they thought the more they see the need to be in contact with authentic material. The more one reads authentic material the more one gains motivation.

This is a nice feedback loop, isn’t it.

Do Japanese really need compulsory English?

In today’s Daily Yomiuri there was an article about the results from a survey of 3,225 middle school students on their perception about English.

The survey conducted by the National Institute for educational Policy Research found only eleven percent of students want to find work which requires English. But seventy percent also said they believed knowledge of English will help them get work in the same survey.

How to interpret these results?

It seems while there are pressures to learn English from companies and society the reality is most people don’t feel they really need it for work. In all likelihood most students will go on to work for companies which will continue to look at their English abilities all the while not really requiring them to use that knowledge in the workplace for any great length of time.

Do we really need to teach English in schools? The short answer is ‘yes’. This is obvious but it is not clear how we should teach it. Of course it should be compulsory BUT it should not be tested, if the survey results are any indication.

Since the bulk of students do require English in their work English should be taught not for passing tests but for practical communicative skills. If English is taught has a non-tested subject then teachers will have more freedom to teach these practical skills rather than grammar and vocabulary far removed from actual usage.

But because teachers are obliged to get students pass tests they focus on the things which are peripheral to actual communication. I have rarely met an English teacher who is truly interested in some aspect of English culture and so few teachers who ask questions about the pragmatics of language. So how do we expect our students to gain this knowledge when teachers are not interested themselves?

Thinking about writing an etextbook

Thinking about writing a textbook? Then why not write an etextbook. Apple has released iBook Author to help people write their own books for the iBook and iPad. Haven’t tried it yet but will in the near future to give an update.

Three things Tokyo University students have in common

I was reminded by Stephen Krashen’s post on reading, access to books, and school performance about the three things Tokyo University students have that help them get into the University – bookshelves (with books of course, and the more the better), a globe (to help them see the world differently (or is it correctly)), and a piano (music is softens the mind for original and abstract thinking).

I don’t remember where the source for this is but it was in conversation with my wife and friends.

Occupy – the trek from a verb to a compound proper noun

One of the key words of 2011 was ‘occupy’, or to be exact Occupy X. It is said to have begun in New York in September but was inspired by the Arab Spring and camp protests in Spain in May.

Words have the ability to fill a space in a language’s lexicon if one is not there as in this case. Theoretically there is no difference between these protests and others of the traditional line. But once it is given a status of difference it becomes an entity separate from the rest.

The difference is not so much a material one as one which is cognitive.