Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Starting out with learning a language

Starting out with learning a language

It's a question I see a lot in the language communities that I'm part of on Google+ and I think it's a fair question though maybe not as easy to answer as it seems. There are a couple of things that influence what type of learning you need: goal, passive knowledge, learning style.
The post talks mainly about Japanese but this can be applied to learning any language.


What do you want to learn? Do you want to be able to get around during a holiday in Japan? Do you want to be able to understand anime? Do you want to be able to read novels and manga? Newspapers? Do you want to be able to hold conversations on varying topics?
All these goals require different ways of studying. If you want to get around Japan on a holiday you're going to need to know sentences to ask directions, book a hotel and things like that but not as much kanji and other things. If you want to be able to understand hearing Japanese in an anime you're going to need a lot of practice in listening to the language, but also less practice reading the language. To be able to read novels, manga and newspapers you're going to have to learn a lot of kanji and work on your reading skills but you might get away with not knowing kun and on readings of words because you don't have to speak it. To be able to hold full conversations with people you're going to have to know a lot of grammar and a lot of different words so that you can create your own sentences according to the topic, you're probably focusing less on standard sentences and more on intricate of pronunciation and grammar.

The first point of starting to learn a new language is trying to set yourself an end goal, what would you like to be able to do? Keep it simple, focus on the 4 groups: holidays, hearing, reading, speaking.
My own goal is twofold, I want to be able to read manga and novels and also hold full conversations with people. This is a doable goal because of the next topic.

Passive knowledge

Passive knowledge is what you pick up while listening to the language. You might not be able to replicate what you know but you can understand certain parts of the language without subtitles and things.
This can exist in different ways. Some people know a lot of vocabulary, some know sentence structures, some know intonations and subtleties of a language. This is all knowledge that you know but have no way of grasping yet because you miss the tools to do so. Learning is simply creating the tools to unlock what you already have memorised.
I've watched a lot of anime with English subtitles and I know quite a few standard sentences for certain situations. On top of that I have a "feeling" for the language because I've gotten used to certain voice patterns. Without reading subtitles or even watching something I can understand a mood in something I hear because I recognise it from other times.

Passive knowledge is important when you start a new language, and with that I mean understanding how much of it you have. If you've been exposed to a language for years you've probably got a bigger passive knowledge than someone who tries to learn a new language from scratch. This also changes the way you'll approach learning. With a lot of passive knowledge you'll probably be able to pick up sentences early on because you're already used to the language, with less passive knowledge you'll have to focus more and have to learn to create a feeling for the language.

Second point of starting to learn a new language, how much passive knowledge do you have, does this mean you'll have an easier time on some things, or maybe a harder time?
I have quite an excessive passive knowledge of the language. In my case I can understand sentences and structures, I simply can't produce them. Which brings me to the third part.

Learning style

Don't be scared of this. It sounds harder than it actually is. If you've learned a language before you'll probably know you strength and weaknesses. My strength is grammar and my main weakness is my attention span.
If you haven't learned a language yet you've got to figure this out before you'll start buying books upon books upon books. You strength and weaknesses in your mother tongue might not be the same as they are when you're learning a new language. My strength in my mother tongue is that I know a lot of words, my weaknesses are grammar and spelling.
So, how do you figure them out? You can only try. Look around, play around with some different styles of learning on websites. Focus on some grammar, learn some new words, practice them. You'll pretty quickly see what parts you find easier or more interesting than other parts.

What do you like best? Grammar? Vocabulary? Conversations? And what do you hate? Those are the questions of learning style.

Third point of starting to learn a new language, figure out what parts of learning a language you like, hate, find easy or find hard.
I like grammar but I'm always having a hard time learning vocabulary and I bore quickly.

What do your answers mean?

Not a lot unless you actually do something with them.
Someone who wants to simply understand anime, already has a huge passive knowledge and hates grammar might want to look for a method that teaches them lots of vocabulary and simple grammar which might be all they need to start getting a grip on their passive knowledge.
Someone who wants to read manga, who has very little passive knowledge and loves learning and looking stuff up might want to look for a book/series of books that helps them quickly recognise kanji and understanding of sentences without having to be able to speak the language or have too heavy a focus on grammar. Of course, they should also invest in a dictionary and some digital way to quickly look up kanji they don't understand.

I like to be able to read manga/novels and to have interesting conversations with people. I have a huge passive knowledge of the vocal side of Japanese and my strength is grammar and my weakness is vocabulary. My best bet for learning Japanese is a book where I do not just learn Kanji and grammar but also on and kun readings because those help me connect my passive knowledge with my active learning. I did find books that teach me exactly that: grammar, kanji, readings.
This works for me because I can recognise a lot of words when I hear them, just not when I read them, so learning readings as well as kanji at the same time enables me to use my passive knowledge to connect translations to kanji and readings to translations. Translations to kanji is important when reading. Readings to translations is important when speaking. Covering both my goals at the same time.

So, what are your answers? What are your strength and weaknesses? Do you have any other tips for how to figure out your best path when learning a new language?

Study on!


The second post which talks about some methods to go with some of the goals is now up: Choosing the right method to learn