30 July 2013

The details of language learning

We are better off focusing our attention on the forest rather than the trees, the big picture rather than the nuts and bolts.

29 July 2013

Language details: How to say “I” in Japanese?

"I" in Japanese

We had a lively discussion at my YouTube channel about how to say “I” in Japanese. In my recent video Learn Japanese an Introduction, I used the following sentence to illustrate how the Japanese language works. 私はカナダ人です.  (I am Canadian) . I pronounced ”私” わたくし rather thanわたし。A  number of people who follow my YouTube channel, all of them non-native speakers, expressed surprise. Some had never heard this pronunciation before. One told me that my use of this pronunciation was “NOT appropriate”, or typical of female speech.

To get some answers, I started a thread on our LingQ Japanese language forum. The replies were very interesting. If you read Japanese I suggest you go there and have a look. It appears that わたくし is much less common than I thought. However it is both appropriate in the context where I used it, and certainly not typical of female speech. It is just a little more formal, and much less common.

However, there are a number of things about this that I find very interesting. First of all, I have been using Japanese with Japanese people, quite successfully, for over 40 years. No one has ever commented on my use of わたくし. Of course, in more familiar circumstances I probably say わたし or 僕, an even more informal way of saying me or I, but in business discussions or more formal encounters I probably use わたくし and it has never ever been brought to my attention. As a result I was left with the understanding that it was the most standard way to say “I”. Apparently it isn’t.

It is interesting, though,  that non-native students of Japanese will comment on, or express surprise at, or even pass judgment on my usage of Japanese whereas for 40 years no native speaker was bothered by it, or at least commented on it.

My reaction to this is that many language details are relatively unimportant. Language is mostly about communicating. Through our exposure to the language, reading, listening and speaking, we will form our own personal way of expressing ourselves. There may be certain non-standard usages that creep in for any number of reasons. These reasons could be an early influence in our language learning, the kind of people we associate with, or the influence of our native language.

I think the fact that so many non-native speakers commented is an indication that many learners of languages are too concerned about these details, these minutiae. I think it is more important to focus on our ability to understand and to communicate.

28 July 2013

Learn Japanese, an introduction

A brief overview of how I learned Japanese and some hints and tips for people learning the language today.

27 July 2013


流暢に外国語を話せるようになった経験はないからです. どうするんでしょうか? 自分を信じると同時に,できるだけ楽しく勉強するしかないです. 多読多聴は特に効果的です. 時間かかるけれども,そうすると英語を流暢に話せるようになります. その後,次の外国語も流暢に話せるようになり可能性があります.

24 July 2013

The Mirage of Linguistics

I recently did a video on the relationship between linguistics and language learning. I am trying to explain that in many ways linguistics contributes to an over complication of language learning and language instruction. I referred to the work of Amorey Geithin. Here is his article called ” The Mirage of Linguistics”.

To give you a taste, here is the table of contents of Geithin’s article. Enjoy!




The importance of understanding the nature of language and thought

Language supposed to be the key to human thought and personality

Chomsky believes the form of language is determined by the form of the human mind – his theory flawed by elementary mistakes

Chomsky’s argument for the existence of ‘universal grammar’

Chomsky’s and Pinker’s mistakes regarding the forming of questions

Intonation is more basic to question meanings than structure

Diversity, not universality, characterize question forms

Identical sequences of words can be both statements and questions

Questions that are completely structure-free

Pinker’s and Chomsky’s double error regarding question formation

Many languages do form questions by mirror-reversal

Reversed pairs can be attached to longer sentences to form questions

Grammatical abstractions cannot exist independently of meaning

The non-existence of grammatical ‘dummies’

The fallacy of the correlation of prepositions with verb-object sequences and postpositions with object-verb sequences

How do you determine whether a language is a VO language or an OV language?

Pinker has not told us the whole truth about VO and OV word orders

Failure to examine foreign languages leads Pinker into a further false assertion about innate knowledge

Demonstration that, contrary to Chomsky, grammatical analysis is impossible without first understanding meaning

Meaning must come before categorization into parts of speech

Further demonstration of Chomsky’s illogicality regarding meaning and grammar

Pinker’s muddled view of the connection between concepts and parts of speech

The square pegs of reality forced into the round holes of language

22 July 2013

The Rational Learning of Foreign Languages


The Internet is a treasure trove of interesting articles and sources of information. Here is a wonderful article on the rational learning of foreign languages. It is written by Amorey Geithin, someone who has taught English as a foreign language for more than 35 years.

The the article begins by laying down the gauntlet. I love it.

Here’s what he says to get things rolling.

“In two previous editorial articles I have criticized the powerful vested interests of the global English-teaching industry (The Fraud of the Global English-Teaching Industry) and the false assumption that the various organizations and institutions associated with that industry ensure high standards of teaching (The Illusion of Global English-Teaching Standards). In this editorial I want to question in more detail some of the accepted beliefs about methods of teaching English (and other foreign languages).”

The Main sections of this article are as follows.


Research into foreign-language learning must always be defective  Lessons should do what students cannot do by themselves
What can teachers do? Explain grammar? Explain words?  Teachers should answer and ask questions; and ‘know their stuff’
‘Student participation’  The problem of exercises
Using a language does not teach it to you  Other ways of wasting students’ time
Gaining confidence 10 Notes


The article is full of common sense such as the following paragraphs.

“Let us consider realistically what a teacher can do, as a teacher of a class. She, or he, can explain rules of grammar. But she is unlikely to do this better than a reasonably well-thought-out grammar book. note 1  The author is likely to have worked out the explanations just as carefully as most teachers, if not more so. It is much better for the student to study the grammar by herself at home, where she can go at her own individual pace and think about problems at leisure. It is a terrible waste of time for the teacher to do this work in class, and any notes students make will probably mostly be inadequate at best. The only grammar that it is really worth a teacher talking about to a whole class is either points the teacher thinks are neglected or badly explained in the books the students are using, or questions on grammar raised by individual students.”

“It is difficult to believe that things like group and pair work and role play are really recommended because teachers truly think and have actually found that they are better and more effective ways of teaching languages. Reason, too, suggests that they are not sound methods.”

I recommend you read the article. Remember this is from a very experienced teacher of English as a foreign language.

21 July 2013

Dificuldades na aprendizagem de línguas

Here is a recent video I did in Portuguese about the various difficulties people experience in learning a language.

Por que algumas pessoas têm dificuldade em aprender línguas?

18 July 2013

The power of listening


Two evenings ago I had dinner with a Brazilian couple and we spoke Portuguese. Last night I had dinner with a Chinese person and we spoke Mandarin. I just finished a Skype conversation in Czech with a person in Prague, who is a member of a political party there. In all cases I was able to hear directly from native speakers about issues in their countries. What I take away from these discussions is not so much what I had to say, but what I heard them say in their languages. I derive immense pleasure and satisfaction from the fact that I’m able to understand what people say in a variety of languages.

I listen to podcasts and audiobooks to learn languages. This not only helps me to learn these languages, but introduces me to a wonderful world where words conjure up images in my mind about countries and cultures far away, in space or time. I usually have access to texts or transcripts to help me understand what I’m listening to. The written language is just a record or representation of the spoken language. In a way, reading is also a form of listening since I usually find myself sub vocalizing when I read in a foreign language.

Many people, when they study languages, are motivated to speak as soon as possible. In my case, I prefer to listen before I speak. A large part of my motivation in learning the language is to learn more about the history and culture connected with that language. I know that if I pursue my interest in listening and reading I will eventually be able to speak. In the meantime, however, the enjoyment of listening is its own reward.

17 July 2013

Noticing in language learning

How do we get better at noticing when we learn languages? Here are some examples from my current experience with Portuguese.

15 July 2013

Many kinds of literacy?


We have literacy proliferation these days. I just googled emotional literacy, physical literacy, health literacy, social literacy, and different kinds of literacy. I was amazed at what I found.

To me literacy means the ability to read. The invention of writing is one of mankind’s most useful creations. With writing, we can record things. Writing is at the heart of the development of civilization and science. What is more, reading is an essential skill in today’s society. People who read well, do better professionally and academically. Children’s success in school depends on their ability to read well. As this video points out, listening is closely related to reading. Children who read well also listen well. Children who read poorly have trouble listening in class. It is a vicious circle, since the ability to listen and to understand the spoken word, is extremely important in the development of reading skills.

For people who read well, the written word provides instant meaning. If we see something written, we cannot help but read it and understand it, assuming we know that language. People who don’t read, or read poorly, are missing out on a major opportunity to learn and discover things about their world.

Once people read well they can read about health, politics, or any other subject that interests them. As to terms like physical or emotional literacy, these concepts have nothing to do with reading, and represent a misuse of the word literacy, in my view.

Reading is a powerful way to improve one’s vocabulary and familiarity with a new language. I mostly listen when learning another language because I can do so while engaged in other tasks. However if I have dedicated time to devote to language learning, my favorite activity is reading. Someone who is a poor reader in his or her own language, will probably have difficulty reading in a second language.

Many jobs require the ability to read fairly difficult texts. Safety manuals, operating manuals, or even instructions on products that we buy, are often written in very difficult to understand language. People who have trouble reading are at a significant disadvantage.

So I think it would be a good idea if educators and social scientist stopped confusing the issue of literacy with other forms of knowledge, social skills, or physical training.