Motivation for learning a language

Did you know that in Japan English is a compulsory subject from Junior high school, from around the age of twelve. And soon this will be lowered to from ten years of age, starting at elementary fifth grade. And they continue until high school. Plus they do two years at university, giving students a total of more than six years of English language education.

Yet, without exaggeration, the majority will finish without being able to speak English with any level of proficiency.

But this problem is not unique to the Japanese. Language learners in other countries or even learners of other languages in Japan face the same conundrum.

For a while now I have been trying to learn Norwegian. The motivation for it comes from online friends from Norway that I have made and the desire to learn about their language and culture.

Yet I have no use for Norwegian apart from this one reason. My daily use of it is low – from no use to a handful of greetings at best. There is no real need for Norwegian for me apart from it being a limited-opportunity social connector. So the motivation to spend time learning it is also low.

In some ways this is also the same for the Japanese and their motivation for learning English. The opportunities to use the language are simply not there. Either learners have to make their own opportunities, or the entire society has to change. And the former seems the (much) more feasible.

As I had said if making connections with people is the only motivation then my drive for learning it will not last very long. One reason is I can just go to a translation service like Google Translate or a good old-fashion dictionary, electronic or paper. But if I was interested in one or more aspects of the culture of the target language then I am forced to study it like an ordinary subject, like mathematics, geography, film studies. No longer does this exclusively require only people of the target language/culture but other sources can be relied upon – places, literature, artefacts.

Coming back to my Norwegian, I have yet to discover something of its culture that will motivate me to want to learn the language more. I have more motivation to learn French and German because of interests in its philosophical tradition (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze for French and Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger for German).

So now I must sit and think – what will motivate me to learn Norwegian?

Why syntax over morphology

Over the years of teaching and writing I have noticed how much more emphasis had been given to words (morphology) over sentences (syntax). Perhaps it is because sentences are mistakenly thought of as so much harder to pin down. When people see a sentence of twenty words they think of twenty things. Rarely do they think of the sentence as one thing. In my opinion, a sentence is a unit of complete communication. It is not the only unit to be considered complete. Words, of course, are considered (and taught as) complete units. Fair enough. We can use words out of sentence-context and still get some kind of meaning across, but just not very well. But because of the inaccuracy, it seems logical to work with the unit which best gives a “complete” meaning, instead of working with units which do not make a unit of communication. It is for this reason that I believe that syntax should be given priority in teaching and learning.