JLPT BC 89 | I’m not Good at Languages

JLPT BC 89 | I’m not Good at Languages post image
frustrated with Japanese

Languages make my head hurt

I’ve started a regular ‘rinse, wash, and repeat’ review of N1 grammar.  I’m able to understand it all, in context, but I’m a little shaky about being able to choose which grammar point would fit in a particular sentence.  And, of course, that is what you need to be pretty confident with on the test.  My current strategy with it is to kill it dead.  I want to completely over-learn it to the point that I can whip out an N1 grammar point at any time day or night.

I’ve started to increase my listening exposure though.  I’ve started on So-Matome’s N1 Listening Comprehension book.  This book is more designed to ease you into the level of listening that is required at the N1 level.  If the New Kanzen Master N1 book is anything like the N2 book, I have a feeling that it will be a lot more difficult.

I’m also continuing my race through Harry Potter.  This book has turned reading into a bit of a treat at the end of the day.  I guess you have to be a bit of a Harry Potter fan, but it is a lot of fun to go through.  I’m currently at page 100, and getting about 5 pages read a day.  I’ve noticed the translator has changed a lot of the writing and some of the speech patterns of the characters to match who they are.  This makes it a little more difficult for anyone at a lower level (N3, N2), but fairly good practice for some one at the N1 level.

I’m just not Good at Languages

You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot, or you might have actually said it yourself.  I was born and raised in the States, which is, for the most part, monolingual.  You could argue that some parts of the States are in fact quite diverse, like Miami for example.  But in the heartland, let’s face it, we are pretty much monolingual.

I don’t even think I was exposed to someone from a different country until I was maybe 16 and that was a brief encounter with some exchange students from Japan.  I didn’t travel overseas at all, like most Americans.  In fact, the first time I was overseas was when I landed in Kansai airport to start my job teaching English here about 7 years ago.

I almost flunked out of Spanish.  I ended up switching to German last minute to avoid completely ruining my high school GPA. I spent two years with both languages and I can hardly say a sentence in either.  My Spanish is a little better, but mostly because I spent 5 weeks in Spain, not because of class.  This whole experience left me with the feeling that I was just not good at languages.

What makes us an Outlier

Do you ever wonder what separates us normal people from the ‘special’ people.  What makes someone an outlier?  Are they born with it?  Were they raised the right way by their parents?  Is there just something magical about it?

Well, not exactly, I recently read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called ‘Outliers’.   In it, he details what it takes to become an outlier.  He goes over some of the biggest success stories of our era from the Beatles to Bill Gates.  And in a lot of cases, there isn’t anything really all that special or magically about being an outlier.

He hypothesizes that what separates us normal folk from the outliers is one simple rule.  It’s a pretty simple one and easy to remember.

If you spend about 10,000 hours doing something, you will most likely master it.

That’s it, that’s what separates the outliers from everybody else.  Of course, you have to have the passion or the access to do that, but in general, it takes about 10,000 hours.

It’s not all Perspiration Though

I would add one small thing to that though. It isn’t all about perspiration.  Or at least, it doesn’t have to be all about the perspiration.  And it doesn’t have to take 10,000 hours to master Japanese.  It takes a lot less time than that, but not just 3 or 4 months despite what others might try to sell you.

You have to learn how to learn as well.  Learning is something that is different for every body.  Some things work like magic for some, for others those things could be a total waste of time.  It all depends on the individual.

That’s why I can give you a lot of tips on the blog, but I can never give you the silver bullet. The one thing that is going to work for everybody.  For some people, Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) are the way to go, others prefer to learn things through reading.  Either way, make sure you are checking and evaluating what is working for you.

Are you ‘good’ at Languages?

What tactics do you use to learn a language?  Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by Ashlee Martin

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Geckomayhem July 21, 2012, 2:47 am

    That last sentence is key. I think the biggest block to most of us struggling to learn Japanese (or learning anything challenging, which takes a lot of patience and a lot of practice), is the inability to evaluate what is and isn’t working. Most of us can’t simply stuff grammar into our heads and whip it out at an opportune moment; the same is true for vocab, phrases, etc.

    One thing I have noticed, though, is that you never know what is going to stick pretty quickly (or why!) and what is going to take lots and lots of use and repetition before it makes sense. Some kanji I can learn very quickly (not all aspects of them, mind you), but others I struggle to recall after using over and over.

    Finally, as Mac mentioned, you have to have both access and enough passion for something to go through with it to the point of at least confidence, if not mastery. I imagined that after spending three years in Japan, “immersed” in the language, that I’d be able to think in Japanese and my learning would skyrocket; but another part of me dreaded exactly what this post was about: that I was unable to learn languages, and therefore Japanese would prove to be insurmountable. Well, neither was true, but after four years in Japan I am still a very long way from not having to translate back and forth between English, and I can’t watch TV without wondering about 90% of what is being said. However, posts like this are encouraging in that I need to dispel the myth in my own sub-conscious that Japanese fluency is unreachable; but it’s also discouraging in that it’s a reminder that you do need to spend time working on things — and a lot of that time is figuring out just what works for you, and finding things that make learning the language enjoyable. Time that a lot of us simply don’t have to dedicate to study, unfortunately.

    So, what it boils down to is that yes, I agree that everyone who wants to enough can learn another language. Everyone has different levels of motivation and desire to do so, which is a big factor in rate of progress.

    • Mac July 22, 2012, 3:31 pm

      I’ve shared a lot of those same experiences. I once thought I could just ‘absorb’ the language through osmosis. I think you can do that after I while (when you are at a much higher level), but at the lower levels there is a lot of perspiration.

      I hope you find the time to practice, you can always squeeze things in here and there, and every little bit helps!

      Good luck!

  • Hilary July 24, 2012, 2:09 am

    My dealings with Harry Potter have proven to be too difficult for me right now, but I’m glad I gave it a shot and I’m still going to collect the books. I want to be able to read them so it’ll be a good goal for me to keep pushing through the JLPT levels.

    I’m finding the same problem you’re having with choosing a grammar point for a particular sentence and I’m also finding that the grammar isn’t sticking in my head so well. I decided to move from just studying grammar points to reading the reading comprehension textbook (from the Quick Mastery series) and it’s proving to be a challenge. The first drill I did, I scored 16/30 and then 18/30 and 10/20 on the first attempt at the short passages. I’m realizing that my vocabulary needs to be spot on and that these passages can be so tricky! There is a difference between spoken Japanese and written Japanese, using more formal vocabulary in the latter. I also made a grammar poster that I can look at everyday and I made some flash cards so I can play some games and hopefully make the grammar stick.

    Because Harry Potter is proving to be too great a challenge right now, I’m reading lower level, furigana laced manga (Hikaru no Go) and that is going so much better! I’m seeing the vocabulary I’m studying being used and I can understand the context quite easily.

    It’s interesting you talk about your experiences with second languages as a high school student. I grew up in Canada and we’re a very multilingual country. I started learning French from grade 4 and took it all the way up to grade 12, but I stopped after that to focus on Japanese. I can do a very basic self introduction, ask someone to sleep with me and I can read quite well in French but I’ve forgotten most of it. Getting further and further in Japanese makes me want to re-learn French, something I might do when I go back to Canada.

    My mother, on the other hand, is a self-described “bone head” at second languages. She can’t speak or understand French in any form and my grandmother spoke to my mother in Swedish and Norwegian when my mother was a child but my mother can’t remember a single word of it, where as I, can speak to my grandmother using a very basic level of Swedish. My mother wants to come to Japan next year and visit but is very worried about her inability to pick up another language. I told her not to worry and that my Japanese will be even better in a year’s time but still, she’s determined to pick up a few phrases and be able to say please and thank you. I’m hoping motivation will prove to be a positive influence for her. 🙂

    • Mac July 27, 2012, 3:07 pm

      Yeah, America is a pretty monolingual place. I think the biggest problem I had growing up is that I didn’t ‘realize’ people spoke other languages. That sounds a bit strange, but I never left the country until I came to Japan 8 years ago. (Yes, I’m a dirty American.)

      After that of course, my eyes were opened and I wanted to absorb as much as possible.

      Anyway, yeah, Harry Potter is probably a little too tough for N3. It seems like such an easy book, but it was actually fairly well translated, which means it is more difficult 🙂 Reading passages are especially difficult at that level because there aren’t a lot of books easy enough that contain essays. You are kind of stuck between manga and more difficult literature. That’s where the drill books do come in handy. But, I think any reading will help things become more automatic.

      Good to hear about your mother. I worked all week once just to get my mom to say yoroshiku onegaishimasu for my wedding and she still screwed it up. She also kept mispronouncing our friend’s name that was translating for her 🙂 Ohh, parents. 🙂

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