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?

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.

A lesson from running

I ran into a retired professor who had taught me during my Masters degree recently. He had taught me about the difference between study and research (let’s leave that one for another post).

Being the teacher that he is he told me about his chance meeting of an old coach of the ekiden (Japanese style marathon) in the famous local high school. The coach said that one should not worry about the final goal when running but focus on the goal he can literally see. He said to focus on the goal of reaching that telegraph post at the top of the hill or the bend in the road, not on the final goal which is a concept in one’s head far beyond the place where you are on your run.

Like running then academic research is similar in that if you think only of the end goal the task will seem overwhelming.

Make your goals small and achievable. This is true not only of research but of everything we do. In some ways it is to focus on immediate tasks rather than long term ones even though we need the over picture, the roadmap so to speak, to get anything big like a thesis done.

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.