Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 8: Foreign Language Acquisition (July 2007)

Foreign Language Acquisition

There was a lot of intense studying involved.

Very often in conversations, people will say to me, "Japanese is really difficult, isn't it? After all, there's hiragana, katakana, and kanji." (Note: this refers to the three types of characters used in written Japanese.) In truth, for someone like me who comes from a country that only uses characters based on the Latin alphabet, it wasn't easy to study Japanese. However, when it all comes down to it, Japanese is just another language. And like any other language, it has its easy parts and its hard parts. If you have the desire to learn and just put forth a reasonable effort to study, you can learn how to use it.

Since I started studying, I am now in my eleventh year of studying Japanese. Many people often ask me how I was able to pick up the Japanese language. From the first day of classes, I felt like it was something worthwhile for me to study, so whenever I had a free moment, I would use it to study or review Japanese. After we started learning the different characters used in Japanese writing, I would spend my breakfasts after class writing. I would eat cereal with one hand and write with the other. I had a really rough time figuring out the difference between characters like "nu", "me", "wa", "ne, "shi" and "tsu"...

...but with a lot of repetition in writing, I gradually figured out which character was which.

One thing our sensei told us really helped me with learning kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japan: "Learn the radicals." (Note: radicals are certain parts of each kanji At first, kanji only looked like pictures, but with our sensei's help, I was able to look at each character in parts, which made them so much easier to learn and remember.

When it came to learning the different characters used in Japanese, time and repetition helped me finally be able to write.

The real problem was speaking. My pronunciation had a strong American accent. Plus, all of the "ra" sounds (ra, ri, ru, re, ro, rya, ryu, ryo) and "fu", sounds which we don't have in English, really caused me a lot of trouble. I wanted to speak but I couldn't speak. I thought for a long time about what I could do to overcome this, and I finally came up with an answer.

Just get out there and use it.

It's natural to feel like "I don't understand", "I can't speak it", "I can't use it" when you start out in a foreign language. There is no way you can suddenly speak fluently in a language you've never even studied before. It's natural to feel that way, but you can't let yourself lose out to that kind of negative way of thinking. If you do, you'll never be able to use it, or speak it, or understand it.

I went to a university that had a lot of Japanese exchange students, so I was in a great environment to learn the language. I had a lot of opportunities outside of class to use what I'd learned. I made an effort to speak Japanese with exchange students I'd become friends with. Of course, at first my Japanese sucked and I was hardly able to say anything at all, but with my in-class studies at outside-of-class practice, I got to the point where I was able to communicate in Japanese.

There's one more question I often get asked: "What can I do to improve my English?" My answer is always the same:

Just get out there and use it.

If you have a chance to use it, then do so. If you don't have any chances, make some. You may not be good at first, but with time, you'll get better. I can say that from experience.

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