I went to go visit a friend of mine in the hospital. I’ve never actually been inside a Japanese hospital before and was actually pleasantly surprised how well organized and orderly it was. I also had the opportunity to use Japanese and help translate a bit for my friend that still needs to sharpen up his Japanese skills.
I also just got off the phone, or Skype?, with the good people at memrise.com. We spent the morning talking about some exciting new things that are going on with that site. I don’t want to give away too much at the moment, but they will be making some great changes to that site and I’ve been playing a small role in that, so I’m excited to see that site grow.
Why? – The World’s Most Difficult Question
I’m currently teaching English about 6 days a week. Needless to say, I get a lot of teaching experience this way and of the most dreaded questions I encounter is ‘why?’ For example, why is this wrong? Why can’t I say this? And students will often times look at me as if I should instantly now the answer to this question. As if I can spout forth a string of clearly defined rules that they will be able to later apply to the grammar or phrase to be absolutely sure they are speaking or writing the correct English.
But, if you are a native speaker of English, you probably can’t really answer that question very quickly. If someone asked you why do we use the past perfect in this sentence? You’d probably answer, ‘because it sounds right’. That’s because we’ve learned from experimenting and listening to other speakers of the language and have gradually accumulated a consensus in our head of how to use a particular phrase or grammar point.
We don’t know grammar rules. We didn’t study the proper use of the past participle in school. Chances are you don’t even know what a past participle is. And that’s fine! Your still able to read and function in the language right?
But, as a learner of another language we always seek rules for that other language. We’d like to tie it up and put a neat little bow on it to make sure it’s correct. Especially, if we are going to be tested on it! I don’t know about you, but I want to be really sure of how to use the phrases and grammar so I can A) ace the JLPT and B) use it quickly and smoothly without hesitation in conversation.
In other words, I want to be so confident in that grammar/phrase that I can use it at a moment’s notice, no thinking, no hee-ing and haw-ing, just spit it out with utmost confidence.
Test Out the Grammar Point or Phrase
So, in order to get this confidence you need to experiment with the language. Instead, asking why? to a native speaker, try out a few sentences with your own ideas and see if they sound right to a native speaker or not. Make the sentences your own and not some sentences from a grammar textbook.
Let me give you an example, I seem to have problems with that wacky わけ. There are two phrases/grammar points in particular that used to always cause me fits – わけがない and わけではない. To me, initially, these pretty much sounded like the same thing. Both start with わけ and both end in ない. But, the particle in the middle changes the meaning completely.
~わけがない means there is no way that ~. Whereas ～わけではない means something like that doesn’t necessarily mean ~. So instead of pouring over some example sentences that didn’t really apply to me or asking why can’t I say this? I tried out a few sentences:
(I eat natto every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it.)
(There is no way I can buy a car like that.)
Now, both of these sentences actually apply to me. I do eat natto every day, but I wouldn’t exactly call it dessert. And there are a lot of cars, which I simply can’t afford. This makes the grammar more personal and more for me and not some lifeless sentence on the page. Also, I can check my understanding by simply asking my native friend – 正しいの？or if you are feeling polite – 正しいですか？
This is a lot simpler than trying to get someone to explain to you why you can’t use a particular phrase in a particular way. Also, I believe, the language processing center in your brain is forming the rules naturally so you don’t have to check a laundry list of rules every time you make a sentence. This will help you speak faster and more importantly answer questions on the test faster, too.
Are you ready to take action?
Next time you stumble upon a grammar point that you don’t quite understand. Don’t ask why, instead try to puzzle out the rules for yourself. Experiment making sentences until you are comfortable with the grammar point.
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