Stuff I Say

Some Thoughts on Learning, The Brain, and Why AJATT Isn’t ALLTHAT Without Any Work

Posted in Japanese Language by 51future on June 25, 2009

There are really only two or three things I do in my spare time anymore: study Japanese, play Halo 3 on Xbox Live!, and take pictures. I would like to say that I’m adequate at all of these things. I possess a functional level of Japanese, I typically fall within the top three in any given Halo match, and my pictures aren’t always total shit.

Now recently on Twitter I’ve been getting into arguments concerning ways to study Japanese and I feel I’m qualified to talk about studying Japanese because I’ve been doing it for a while now and I’ve tried all sorts of things. I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. What is effective and what isn’t. I think that while studying is very personal, learning isn’t. Learning happens pretty much the same way in most brains and studying is really a question of how best to cram information into your mind now so that you’ll know it later.

This is all very non-scientific, but I think that the majority of things we learn are internalized in basically the same way. Think of drawers or compartments in your brain. Before you can learn anything, you need a place to put it. If it helps to have a word for this, let’s call it context. Now, when you’re a kid you spend lots of time constructing that infrastructure. I think learning language learning is so effective then because absolutely everything you do is intrinsically connected to learning your native language. Every time you turn on the TV or fight with your parents, crack open a book or fail a test, all of these situations and the feelings associated with them become a framework for knowledge. I’m picturing a sort of mental beehive– perhaps just the wrinkled surface of the cortex is a tantalizing enough memory.

Think of the word “fail” or maybe “unsatisfactory” for instance. When I think of these words, I feel a renewed connection to childhood and my grade school education– unsatisfactory particularly, has a certain strong connotation for me. I was an honor roll student for most of my life, but I remember once in grade school when I got a U on my report card for behavior and my teacher told me that U meant “unsatisfactory”. That day that teacher basically traumatized me and my mind, in response to that stress, hollowed out a cavity in the hive and cemented that word with that connotation in there, resulting in a very strong image of just what it feels like to be “unsatisfactory”. I don’t feel physcially sick when I hear it, like I did that day in school, but the meaning of the word and better yet, the exact circumstances where I believe the word accurately describes the situation are crystal clear. There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind with regards to what is and isn’t “unsatisfactory.”

Now for the meat of my thoughts: AKA, “Foundation, Foundation, Foundation.”

First, I don’t think that immersion-based learning for adults works the same way for adults as it does for children. Now, when I say this, I’m not referring to effectiveness. Children pick up language more quickly than adults do– that much is clear. As to why, I think it’s because as a child, words and experience are often one and the same. The brain, in its frenzied desire to communicate, interweaves the two such that your experiences shape your perception of meaning to a great degree, but as you learn more, your words begin to shape your experiences. The younger you are, the less robust your library of context is, and thus, when you have a new experience, you tend to internalize that experience so that you can apply words (and therefore meaning) to it later. However, as an adult, your working lexicon far exceeds your propensity to experience new sensation and therefore, when you experience something, you tend to label it with words, rather than the other way around. Picture a chest of drawers, OK? As a kid, each experience becomes a sort of drawer that you stuff words into later, adults on the other hand tend to see and experience things and then go rummaging through their existing drawers in order to look for applicable words. So what does all this mean for immersion-based learning like AJATT? That, I’ll get into in a moment, but for now it’s important to understand that I’m saying that the young brain spends time internalizing context, whereas the elder brain dedicates itself to sorting and applying labels (aka. words) to that context.

Now, these rules are not hard and fast, and while you’ve probably experienced a majority of all the stimuli you’ll run into growing up by a certain age somewhere in the midst of the terrible teens, as an adult there will be things you experience that are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before and those expereiences will likely trigger the same sort of context-mapping you did as a child– HOWEVER, and this is important, the majority of context you run into as an adult will be context you’ve already experienced. Even context in a place as fantastic and terrible as Japan.

The reason why Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji is so effective, I think, is that it forces you to use imaginative memory to sculpt out new containers for each and every kanji BEFORE you begin to incorporate those characters into Japanese words. These new containers, combined with Heisig’s “keywords” are tenuously linked to existing context (namely: words in your native tongue) so that these links can later be strengthened and easily incorporated into the greater mass that is your greater understanding.

So what does that have to do with immersion then? Well, we function well in our own country, because no matter what the situation, we have words in these spaces I’ve been talking about. If, at a business dinner, someone says, “Hey, get up and give a little speech about your latest project,” your brain processes that request at a very high level. You might weigh the pros and cons of lying about it, or of laughing the request off and/or if you do decide to grant that request, you’ll then start considering exactly how long you should be doing what you’re doing and what’s on the line. Language comes into play only at the moment you open your mouth and thinking about the words and sentences themselves, depending on what brand of psychosis you subscribe to, is often the least of your worries, because while it may be hard for some of us to figure out what words in what order might be best, the brain faces no situation where every drawer (the lexicon, in this case) it opens is empty or lacking, as it often does when you asked to produce foreign language on the spot.

What all this means is that when a kid sits down and watches a drama on TV, or gets into a fight with a friend, or fails a test, that experiences shapes the vessel that related words will eventually occupy, whereas when you, an adult, sits down and tries to learn from immersion, you spend more time rummaging through your existing words and meaning trying to classify and label than you do err.. sculpting out new places to put all the new words you’re hearing. Because of this fundamental difference in the way the brain deals with incoming information, it’s my humble opinion that a foundation in the target language– namely words and meaning is all but necessary for dealing with immersion-related information overload in a way that facilitates long-term learning. If every language learner came to the table with 8000 lexical items and started to immerse themselves, I hypothesize that they could become fluent in absolutely no time at all, complicated grammar notwithstanding.

Now, I realize that this all sounds very easy to swallow, after all, if you know 8000 words, wouldn’t you be 90% of the way to fluency anyway? And what is fluency, after all? Isn’t it just being able to say things– sentences, words, phrases correctly? No, I consider fluency as a measure of your ability to properly navigate complex social interactions using appropriate language in a grammatically consistent manner. So no, knowing 8000 words, just like saying you know 2000 kanji, really has nothing to do with fluency, per say. Without these words, most people are likely to revert back to their native language when processing new, foreign stimuli. However, people who possess a large vocabulary but lack the proper experience can use their adult brain’s habits to their advantage– they can focus on the context and use their superior ability to sort, list and label to apply the right words to their new containers, rather than trying to stuff a bunch of foreign words into their preexisting hierarchy.

With that said, I don’t proclaim that you should abandon all that prime real estate you already have sitting around in your brain completely. Far from it. It’s actually incredibly effective to use those existing spaces as temporary receptacles for vocabulary you can easily learn now and catagorize later. (That’s another article for another day, but for now, just know that I’m talking about learning Japanese words and associating them with their native English counterparts by studying them a certain way.)

The point of this article, I guess, boils down to a few simple facts:

1. Yes, immersion works. So that means things like AJATT, watching dramas on TV, and reading newspapers are effective exercises. However…

2. Immersion without a proper lexicon is inefficient. Unless you’re a child, your brain is actively sabotaging each and every effort you make to immerse yourself, slowing down your progress.

3. SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) make it easy to fortify your existing lexicon, and with the proper amount of determination, one can streamline the process of learning vocabulary, such that future immersion results in a different sort of learning that is far more conducive to fluency than simply immersing yourself and waiting for epiphany.

Ultimately, given an infinite amount of time, one can do pretty much anything, however, for myself, at least, I don’t have an infinite amount of time and for me, efficiency is key. Sitting around and reading a story in Japanese, or watching a movie is only fun if I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what it is that I’m missing. In fact, I stopped mining compounds and sentences from the books I was reading and instead began to skip over words I didn’t know, simply to streamline the experience and make it more fun– and I can do that because I’m also going through Kanji in Context and I know that I’ll see the words I didn’t bother looking up at some point in my systematic study. And I’ve since postponed the other books I was planning on reading until I get through a good bit of KiC in order to maximize their impact and get the most out of them.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I study, as my methodology will cast some more light on some of the things I’ve talked about in this article– namely, the methods the succeeded vs. the methods that failed, and what all that experience has contributed to my hypothesis presented here.