Living abroad for three years will still only get you half the native speaker vocabulary size

It seems the average non-native speaker of English only has a vocabulary size of about 4,500 words. And over half of these learners will have a vocabulary size of greater than 7,826 words. This is a somewhat depressing picture for language learners considering the worst of native speaker adults still will have a minimum size of 20,000 words with the high end at 35,000 words.

So what is the best way for non-native speakers to increase their vocabulary size? According to these statistics from testyourvocab.com the biggest factor is out-of-class activities. The more you do outside of the classroom the broader your vocabulary. Otherwise three years living abroad will do the trick. Even then the non-native speaker will only have 10,000 words (that is equal to the vocabulary size of an 8 year old native speaker). To reach 18,000 words over 10 years of living abroad is necessary.

Some thoughts on language and culture

Language is culture. So if you want to learn to speak a language you need to understand the culture in which it is spoken.

And it is this that many don’t understand about their first language, that their ability to speak it is from their immersion – being in the midst of the culture – that allows them to speak it so perfectly, nicely.

Their understanding of its culture is so hidden, automatic that they actually have lost the ability to understand it, understand the significance and importance of it to their communicative abilities.

Exposure to Language

“Reading is more important than writing.”

— Roberto Bolaño

Without exposure to a language one will never master it. That exposure can come in many forms but the best form is culture. Culture and language are essentially the same thing. There will be no language if there is no culture the opposite is also true. So to understand a language, its nuances, meaning and usage one needs to be in contact with the very space of it. Otherwise it will ring false, be inauthentic.

Hideo Kageyama Rocks

According to The Japan News (formerly The Daily Yomiuri) renowned Japanese educator Hideo Kageyama (homepage in Japanese) will be release a rock song entitled ‘Benkyo Shiyoze’ (Let’s Study!) on 8 May.

You have to hand it to Prof. Kageyama who is now advisor to the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education. His techniques for motivating students are fun and simple, making you wonder why we didn’t think of that in the first place.

Motivation is one ingredient to learning any language

Just finished participating in a four-person panel talk about learning Japanese.

Here are some points of commonality among panelists:

  1. regularity of study
  2. motviation through some interest in the target language’s culture
  3. enjoying the learning (relates to #2)
  4. authentic material or authentic situations

For me learning is like being the anthropologist Levi-Strauss: you emmerse yourself in the culture. You need to “be there”. Others said as much.
But the biggest thing is motivation I think, something I didn’t focus on explicitly even though I was talking about it. Zen Buddhism has been a focal point for my interest. In Zen one must be no different to the thing that it trying to know. Pure intuition. But Zen or no Zen one still needs to be interested in some aspect of the langauge or culture.

There are so many things which one can discuss about learning that it simply cannot be covered in one’s 15 minutes of alloted time or one’s “fifteen-minutes of fame”.

I will try to flesh out these thoughts here but I truly always get inspired to write after one of these Hiroshima JALT meetings. The fact I don’t write much testifies to the fact I haven’t been getting enough intellectual stimulation lately.

Three ways to improve your use of prepositions

Here are three quick and dirty ways to get to know your prepositions:

Read a Book
There are books out there, like anything else, specifically geared towards learning and understanding prepositions. One that I recommend is English Prepositions Explained by Seth Lindstromberg. It approaches it from a cognitive linguistic perspectives that, in my opinion, works really well. It is also comparative in the sense that it contrasts them against each other.

Make and Do Gap Fills
Get a text into Word and make a gap fill by doing a Search and Replace of your target prepositions and then do them. You can make these for your students or have them make them themselves.

Read a Dictionary
While most people use dictionaries to look up definitions of words they rarely sit down and look at all the various meanings of a word. Not only are the meanings related but they stem from its core meaning or meanings. So it pays to look at all of them to not only reinforce the ones you know but also learn others you may have come across but not intimate with, as well as familiarize yourself with first time encountered meanings.

What has Zen got to do with English language teaching?

Everything.

“Revisiting” my master in Zen on YouTube the other day I was compelled to think about what it means to be a language student and how it relates to Zen.

It seems to me many of the students I teach unnecessarily limit themselves with a psychological barrier – they believe they will never achieve native-like fluency. By thinking so they have effectively placed a limit upon what they can achieve.

Language itself already places limits upon you. So for students to place another one upon themselves, the limits become twofold.

But I am not saying that they will achieve native-like fluency either, but rather they make it harder to even remotely make any headway into acquiring a second language. To truly achieve native-like fluency one must have the years of experience in and exposure to the target language and culture. Nothing can replace that.

But nothing can stop you from trying and that is the essence of believing in being able to acquire some resemblance of a second language which is like native-like.

So the next question is how can I possibly teach my students to not place limits upon what they can achieve. Again, for this I will need to think that it is not impossible.

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?

How many hours do Japanese students have to study in order to master English?

I was told by one of my teachers back in my undergraduate days about twenty years ago that for me to master Japanese it would take me 700 hours of class time.

The number now seems to be 2,200 hours.

Japanese is a language notoriously difficult to learn for native English speakers because of their linguistic differences.

To start with, Japanese has three writing scripts – hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic scripts with, in general, one unit representing one fixed sound where most units are consonant-vowel pairs. Kanji are logograms with each unit representing a word (meaning) but not its pronunciation. Most people know kanji as Chinese characters.

English, in contrast, is based on an alphabetic script where each unit is a representation of a sound be it consonant or vowel. Each letter may represent more than one sound (examples: ‘c’, ‘g’, ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’) and sometimes conbinations represent a single sound (examples: ‘ch’, ‘sh’, and ‘th’). Continue reading