Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing my best to get a head start on learning some Japanese for our upcoming move. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t really get started quite so early (after all, we’re not moving until August), but I am a little bit nervous about not being able to read anything in Japanese right when we arrive. And, given the fact that I’ve shown basically no aptitude for picking up Thai over the past three years, I figured a super-early head start might be a good idea.
So, during the last week of our semester break, I opened up one of my Christmas presents: a set of flashcards. Though I was wary about this “old school” method of learning the Japanese characters, they were a gift from my husband, so I wanted to at least give it a shot. Amazingly (and so completely unexpectedly), I basically learned the simplest set of characters, katakana, in one afternoon, and then, on the next day, I learned the entire second set of characters, hiragana.
As I mentioned above, I am certainly no expert at languages, so this was quite a pleasant surprise. I definitely did not expect to be able to read the syllabic alphabets in a weekend. And, clearly, neither did Alex, since he began eyeing me with suspicion and perhaps a touch of wonder as if he was wondering who this genius was, and what she’d done with his wife.
If I had been handed a list of all these characters without any context except their meaning, and told to memorize them, I’d have given up after five or ten. So what made the task of quickly memorizing over a hundred completely unknown symbols so easy?
I think the most important factor in the flashcards’ success was the links they encouraged my brain to build between these new characters and pictures of things I recognized – my prior visual knowledge. Each flashcard has a single character paired with a cartoon picture that represents that character. The cartoon pictures usually echo the shape of their character as well as hint at the sound the character makes (you can see ki as a picture of a key above).
This kind of mnemonic device is something we’re all familiar with (“K for Kangaroo” with the animal posing in the shape of the letter, etc.), but this experience really highlighted the difference that these mental anchors can make. With the pictures, I learned over 100 characters in a very short time – and without them, I probably wouldn’t have managed a tenth as many.
Another factor was probably the speaking, the reinforcement that the flash cards encouraged between the visual form of the characters and their sound. We were constantly repeating the sounds as I looked at the pictures, and together they stuck in my head. Needless to say, simply staring quietly at a list of characters would have been a much less effective learning method for me.
Similarly, flashcards have a primitive interactivity that makes them different from looking at a page, and a little bit more like a game. There is a challenging task – guessing the identity of the character on each card before flipping them over – and the random element that shuffling the cards adds, the moment of uncertainty between the guess and the moment the card’s turned over – I think all of these mildly game-like elements helped the process succeed.
Maybe this is always how people learn Japanese, but those visual clues were so perfectly matched to each sound, and made each character completely individual in my mind, that it really was a breeze to identify them all. In fact, later that afternoon we went out for dinner and I spent most of the meal proudly reading the menu items written in Japanese out loud to Alex (who had already memorized the characters).
All of these elements are also integral parts of Rosetta Stone, the next step in my Japanese language learning adventure. It’s amazing how quickly I have begun to learn basic grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, just through the introduction and repetition of pictures, target-language words and sounds.
It is absolutely fascinating to me that I can’t specifically identify exactly what the purpose of each lesson is, but as I move through the stages I seem to just “know” new words, phrases and grammar. There is no point where the program tells you what you’re about to learn, there’s no English, and there’s really no directions. You just kind of figure it out as you go, listening, matching and repeating. As a teacher, it’s seems quite odd to me that I could so quickly go through the process of learning something new, yet have absolutely no idea what I’m learning as it’s happening – suddenly things just start to “sound right” even though I really have no idea why.
The combination of media, the specific progression of lessons, and the challenge of “passing” a unit, make for an astoundingly effective language-learning experience. I want to “play” because it’s fun, challenging at just the right level, completely engaging, and I experience success immediately.
When I think about a technology-rich experience, clicking away at multiple-choice questions alone doesn’t immediately come to mind, but clearly, if it’s done well, like Rosetta Stone, it can be extremely powerful. What if we could make all of our classes this engaging, this customized, and this effective all the time?
In addition to my flashcards (now I’m moving on to kanji) and Rosetta Stone, I’ve also been taking advantage of the wealth of free iPhone applications dedicated to learning Japanese. None of these programs really have the combination of features of the flashcards or Rosetta Stone, so I don’t think I would have been as successful if I had started with just these applications. But now that I have a foundation to work from, these are great for frequent practice (on the bus back and forth to work, waiting in line, on the plane, etc).
Of course, the most important factor in all of this learning is my own personal motivation and the fact that it’s relevant to my life, right now. I certainly haven’t bothered learning any other random languages over the last five years, but now that I actually want to learn Japanese, I’m going to learn Japanese. It’s a good reminder of how important context, authenticity and motivation is in the classroom.
Going through this experience has helped me reflect on what the future of education might possibly look like. This experience has been specifically tailored to my personal needs, organized by myself, conducted at my own pace, available whenever I’m ready to learn, and ideally matched to my exact learning goals. What if we could make all of our classes this engaging, this customized, and this effective all the time?
Have you ever learned a foreign language? What was the experience like for you? What made it effective (or not)?