The Details of Language Learning has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The original video was published on July 30. 2013


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann, today I want to talk a little bit about the details of languages. The reason this comes up is because of the discussion we had when I put up my video on learning Japanese and I used as an example of Japanese word order or structure the sentence ‘Watashi wa Canadajin desu’. So I used the word ‘Watashi’ for ‘I’ and that generated a fair amount of response amongst my viewers. From what I could tell, they were all non-native speakers. Some had never heard the word ‘Watashi’ before and someone suggested that the use of ‘Watashi’ was not appropriate and, of course, capitalized not, so it was very not appropriate.


This was very interesting because I lived in Japan. I lived there for 9 years and I have spoken Japanese since 1971. I think, mostly, if I’m speaking formally I say ‘Watashi’ for whatever reason. Probably if I’m speaking more informally I might say ‘watashi’. More of than not, if I’m speaking with friends I say ‘Boku’ because there are, in fact, a variety of ways of saying ‘I’ in Japanese.


First of all, I then went to my forum at LingQ and asked some of our native speakers there and I got some very interesting replies. Essentially, the reply was that ‘watashi’ is by far the most common form used in Japan, but that it’s not inappropriate to use ‘Watashi’, which is a little more formal than ‘watashi’, but it’s not very common. You can get into more detail. They quoted various sources and so forth. If you want to go our Japanese language blog or at least forum over at LingQ, you can go and have a look in more detail.


What interested me in this was that here was a very small detail of the Japanese language, one that in 40 years no Japanese person, friend, business contact, whatever, and I have spoken a lot of Japanese, no one has ever commented on. Generally, the reaction on our Japanese language forum was that there was nothing much wrong in using ‘Watashi’, but it is less common. However, people who have been studying Japanese have been taught certain rules. So whether or not these people are able to communicate in Japanese, whether they understand a lot of Japanese or not I don’t know, immediately they tune in on the fact that this rule they were given, this is how the language is, somehow here I didn’t follow that convention, so this became a bit of a fuss.


My view is that in language learning there is the forest and the trees. There are the details, the nut and bolts, and then there is the big picture. In my opinion, successful language learning depends on seeing the forest, the big picture, and not being overly preoccupied with the details. It’s not just the ‘Watashi’ in Japanese. Even things like _____ and _____ in Spanish, which sometimes are difficult to get the hang of, you’re not entirely confident when you start just by having read the explanations umpteen times. This doesn’t prevent you from understanding. It doesn’t prevent you from communicating.


Similarly with the subjunctive in some of the romance languages, some of the cases where you use the subjunctive are obvious, some are less obvious, but it doesn’t you from communicating. I know that in the Canadian Public Service where people get a bilingual bonus for being bilingual, native speakers of English are tested on their French to see if they qualify for this bilingual bonus and they’re marked down for getting the subjunctive wrong, which to me is absolutely ridiculous.


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The issue should be, if that public servant sits in a meeting and everyone is speaking in French, does he or she understand. Can that public servant express an opinion and get their views across in French and I can assure that it’s possible to do both those things without being right all the time on the subjunctive. It’s also true that in language a lot of this detail we get it right sometimes and wrong sometimes. We might get it wrong and get it right the next time or get it right one time and get it wrong the next time so that constantly looking for where people have their shirttail hanging out to me is not very constructive.


I, personally, don’t care. In Japanese I will continue to say ‘Watashi’. It hasn’t offended anyone so far in 40 years, any native speaker, so to me it’s not a big deal. Part of it is the way languages are taught, very often, the details are put up front. Again, I had the discussion somewhere when someone said Japanese is an SVO or an SOV language (subject, verb, object; subject, object, verb). I never think of a language in those terms. I don’t find it helpful. All I want to know is how they say this in their language.


You will soon discover in Japanese that the verb ends up at the end a lot of the time. Sometimes there’s only a verb or sometimes there’s no subject. There are a whole lot of situations that you have to get used to, so being thrown this SOV, SVO at the beginning to me doesn’t enlighten the learner at all. It just makes them feel that there’s a lot of special rules and technical stuff they have to get into in order to speak the language, which I don’t think is the case at all.


I mentioned that I Googled Japanese grammar on the Internet and the first thing that pops us, as usual, is Wikipedia. I quoted it in my last video and I’ll do it again because to my mind it’s so outrageous. The article begins with “The Japanese language has a regular agglutinative verb morphology. In language typology, it has many features divergent from most European languages. Its phrases are exclusively head-final and compound sentences are exclusively left-branching.” Blah, blah, blah, I mean all this kind of stuff.grus


Now, granted, the average person starting into Japanese doesn’t get hit with that, but there are a lot of people who might want to hit them with that. I think that you first have to get the big picture, the sense of the language, increase your vocabulary, how do they say this in their language. Someone mentioned on one of our forums at LingQ and he quoted an article, which I don’t have in front of me, that said prior to the 18th century languages were taught primarily through translation. In other words, this is how they say this in their language and then the whole grammar movement took over, the nuts and bolts people took over. I think that’s a disadvantage. People get totally hung up on the nuts and bolts and end up having a very limited vocabulary.


Again, this article this person quoted pointed out that with the arrival of these fast computer-generated corpora, all of a sudden language experts have discovered that you need a very, very large vocabulary in order to read meaningful text in another language. Well, yeah, tell me about it. I have quite a large vocabulary in Russian, but if I move on to Dostoyevsky there’s going to be a lot of words that I don’t know because I’ve read more of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky has a somewhat different vocabulary. My day-to-day interviews on Echo Moskvy are not a problem. So, yeah, you need a lot of words. It’s all about words. It’s not about the niceties of these details.


Again, I’ve said before I’m very forgiving of people who speak English. I do business with people from many different countries and Germans are going to say ‘since many years I’ve been speaking English’, whereas we don’t say that. We say ‘for many years’. A Swedish person will say ‘it is many people in China’ instead of ‘there are’. These are things just come from their language and they haven’t been able to get rid of these habits. It doesn’t really matter, unless you’re a legal translator or something.


This is the other thing, too, that makes language learning different from say engineering or some of these other sciences. If you’re an engineer and you’re building a bridge, you’ve got to have your details down or that bridge is going to fall down. I mean that’s a completely different situation from learning a language where really all you have to do is communicate. A few mistakes here and there are not going to impede communication. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t work on improving and I do.


I’m having a fine old time now going back to my Russian grammar books for the seventh, eighth, ninth time reading the same rules and every time it just seems that much more meaningful and every time I’m able to take that back to my listening and reading and identify some of those things that were described in those grammar rules. But if you hit with the nuts and bolts up front or if you’re overly concerned about the nuts and bolts, overly concerned about the details, it will, I think, impede your learning of the language.


Get the big picture in and then you can go back in later and clean up some of the bits and pieces and if some of them don’t get cleaned up like my ‘Watashi’, then so be it. I’ve enjoyed 40 years of very successful communication in Japanese and I am quite sure that that’s not the only peculiarity I have in my Japanese. But if I go forward and I want to improve my Japanese, I am more interested in increasing my vocabulary so I can read Japanese literature so that I can express myself better than worrying about the few loose threads or shirttails hanging out that are to be found, undoubtedly, in all of the languages that I speak.


So, thank you for listening and we look forward to your comments. Bye for now.