Va Va Black Sheep – difficult sounds for Japanese learners of English

The ‘v’ sound is perhaps one of the hardest sounds for my Japanese learners of English to master. It doesn’t exist in the Japanese language. And it is approximated with the ‘b’ phoneme.

Recent research has found that if the sound ‘va’ is matched with a video showing another sound made in the similar region like ‘ba’ the visual cues overrides auditory cue to register the “visual” sound. This is, according to the paper’s authors, a confirmation of the McGurk Effect which until now could not be explained.

So my students obviously haven’t been paying attention to my lips. It doesn’t help that I have forty students to teach which is why I use my iPhone camera and projector to show them how I am producing the ‘v’ and ‘b’ sounds. Now if only I can figure out how to show them the how I produce the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds which are produced in the back of my mouth!

Is there such a thing as a camera which fits into my mouth? Are they called MouthCams? On second thought, gross.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Literature, second language, authenticity, passion

I have fond memories of my undergraduate days as a Japanese major.

To me they were exciting times. The world was seemingly spinning at a furious pace. The people I met were doing things, going places. My future was ahead of me.

My future now, of course, is still ahead of me (metaphorically, can it be nothing other than ‘ahead’). But it is different, still exciting, perhaps a little more focused and a little less uncertain. Twenty years down the road and I have made more progress (alas! a little slower than I would have liked) towards my goal as an academic. Continue reading

If you can’t even get your Japanese right how are you expected to get your English correct

My kids watch this show on NHK called Cooking Idol Ai My Mine. Great show about a girl who is a real live cooking show host. Shows like these truly give kids imagination and creativity.

But I was really disappointed in the looseness of their script writing in this dialogue shown the other day:

Child: “Are there truly angels in the world, Mine?”
Mine: “Yes, there are … Probably.”

So which is it, Mine – yes or maybe?

Were they (the script writers) afraid to take sides on this issue? Afterall, Japan is not a Christian nation (there is no concept of angel in Buddhism). Japanese Children are indecisive like this. Perhaps the writers were only a mirror for society. Or are they wearing rose tinted glasses?

Either way it is troubling.

This is one instant I can think of right now but there are many others I have come across over the years.

Speaking isn’t the key

… most students learn how to speak English by actually speaking it.

This comment original made in a letter to a Taiwanese newspaper about how teachers should make sure students produce a lot of L2 language while in classroom echoes the sentiment and attitude of many teachers in Japan. It could well have been a letter in a Japanese newspaper.

Here Stephen Krashen, a leading researcher in language acquisition (LA) and co-author of an important study Language Two, gives a concise explanation as to why the belief that increased speaking of L2 will promote language acquisition is ultimately a mistake.

The best hypothesis is that the ability to speak is the result of language acquisition, not the cause. If this is true, forcing students to speak before they are ready is not only useless, but counterproductive.

The italics are mine. He continues by suggesting the way to develop spoken fluency is “to provide lots of interesting and comprehensible input” instead. In other words, rich reception or input, is better and more logical. And I agree with this.

But because input is predominately a passive activity it is often equated, both by the teachers and students, to low language acquisition. It is avoided by both groups because the language gains are not seen immediately in a world that demands immediate results. More often than not more effective methods, like rich input, simply take the backseat in ELT because of profitability, and students suffer for this linguistically as well as financially. Students pay large sums of money only to have poor results. Their language foundation is weak and bad habits form that later become hard to change; all the while the teachers and language schools are laughing all the way to the bank.