日曜日, 7月 29, 2007

Needing a new approach to learning languages

The problem that faces the self-driven learner is the usual lack of other people in the study process. Carlie at GoddessCarlie recently wrote a good piece on her approach and learning style, but one interesting feature was that in summarising the skills side of things she neglected to mention speaking - a function of what happens when you don't have too many opportunities for practice.

Learning a language has four areas that need to be addressed equally if it is to be successful:
  • reading (visual input)
  • writing (visual output)
  • listening (auditory input)
  • speaking (auditory output)
Of course, there are lots of different ways of learning a language, but without a concerted focus on all four you end up with odd anomalies:
  • a friend of mine spent his very early years in Japan before moving to the UK until after university. He could speak Japanese fluently but couldn't really read or write, except in hiragana.
  • my son, now in the UK, watches Japanese TV and films, and listens to his mum in Japanese, but hasn't much cause to speak it, so he is receptive to Japanese only. This is common for kids in the UK where one parent comes from a country that doesn't have a strong in-country community (for example Chinese, SE Asian or Muslim).
  • I'm far better at reading and writing Japanese than my dreadful spoken efforts would suggest.
The reason I've been ruminating on this is that I have been considering my language learning in light of the approach to developing training (my day job) advocated by Will Thalhiemer (amongst others, but Will is most passionate about it).

Will argues that any approach to training needs to focus on:
“What do learners need to be able to do, and in what situations do they need to do those things?”
But surely being able to read, write, listen to and speak a language is at the base of any language teaching?

Hmm, not really.

In schools the focus of language teaching is to pass exams. Vocabulary is taught in sets, small tests follow and on you go; group listening tests; paired communication exercises typically read out of a book. Rarely is there any ability to focus on those aspects that might encourage trying to embrace speaking it in a situation where the learner may find themselves.

In evening classes my experience has often been on blindly following a book. The pace will not match the abilities of the class and the learning benefit of in-class time is largely negligible.

My experience of the eikaiwa teaching environment is that the focus is very much on simply entertaining students and maintaining an illusion of progress, as long as the students return each week and pay their dues.

For the lone language learner there are patterns in the training material you are most likely to encounter that lead us away from the ideal:
  • most traditional courses (Mina-no-Nihongo, JBP and so on) are built in precisely the same way, mostly around use of the book, with a variety of additional texts to boost takings (the CDs and practise books). While fans of each will argue the toss on the relative merits, they are mostly talking about the nature of the vocabulary taught, for in learning approach they are essentially equal.
  • the JPod101 model, great though it is, is hit and miss. It offers far greater access to useful listening exercises, and even provides, as its subscriber service, access to written material. But in targeting lone students it excludes speaking practice almost entirely.

So, what's the alternative? Well, I'm going to save that until my next post. In the meantime, don't forget to ask yourself the following question as you learn.
"How will I benefit from studying this and how will I use it in practice?"

If you can't think of a reason for studying it, give yourself a break and try to find something useful to learn. Or else go out and engineer a situation where you can use it.

土曜日, 7月 28, 2007

If you're going to take one holiday this year...

...make it this one: One Life.

Lovely idea - I really hope it works out. I know from experience (cycling to work a couple days a week instead of riding the train) that cycling is about the BEST way to see Japan. These tours would be great. Maybe some day I'll get to join Kevin on one.

土曜日, 7月 21, 2007

New Product from J-Pod101

JapanesePod101, by far the best application of commercial elearning I have come across and simply one of my favourite ways of studying Japanese (when I can be bothered) have launched a new product range: eBook and audio 'study packs'.

In effect the study pack is like an extended lesson of the type you would usually get as part of their daily service as a subscriber. For your USD19.99 you get an 8-part audio set comprising 25 minutes of dialogue, and 8 corresponding eBooks totalling 91 pages of transcripts, key vocab and key grammar.

So far they have one of these 'study packs' available covering the day in the life of a university student - a valid subject I suspect as I'm quite sure JP101 are now on the required listening list of most non-Japan domiciled university students of Japanese (and many in-country too I'm sure).

It sounds like an interesting proposition - with each eBook being longer than the equivalent study guide that accompanies the daily podcast, it sound like you are getting a little more to work with, but given that the cheapest monthly subscription is only USD8, and this gives you access to the ENTIRE back catalogue of PDFs (the podcasts are free anyway), then it is difficult to see how the new product can really be said to offer great value for money.

For my money, I think the error lies in making these new packs story focused. That's what all the other content is. This is great for daily exposure, but the language covered tends to be very hit and miss.

I think that they could make more out of this approach if in the study packs they focused on one aspect of language - say a pack that dealt with mixed family so it covered all the family members, household vocab, events like weddings, births and so on. Or another could deal with getting about and cover this in all its aspects - navigation, landmarks, asking for directions, buying tickets and so on. This way, at the end of a work set you would really feel like you have mastered a linguistic area, and would open up a new area of conversation for you.

At present, because of the ad-hoc way in which language is covered simply to support the stories, you might learn the word 'river' and 'bridge' but not, say, the words that describe different sizes of river, the terrain that accompanies it and so on.

Alternatively, the theme could be built around language skills - for example introducing new grammatical structures, perhaps with alternatives, and drilling them. Perhaps they could do a study pack that dealt with exclusively with describing things, so adjective behaviours and lots of example vocab so you could build up through each study set.

I realise that this is not an approach that suits everyone - I particularly like the idea of covering language in themed sets - but I would suggest it as it is fundamentally different to the regular approach, so it would offer an alternative to complement the existing product range, rather than repeating it in a different way.

金曜日, 7月 06, 2007

Commercial de ja vous

When you go anywhere or do anything in Japan you get this strange feeling of "seen that before" whenever you look at ANYTHING. Seriously. The same names crop up time and time again. It's not that there aren't many names in Japan mind you - it just probably is the same name.

A zaibatsu was an single company that covered many fields. They sprang up, for the most part, during the peace of the Tokugawa period (1600-1853). These entities became enormous and a handful dominated the Japanese economy.

They were dismantled by the occupation powers following the occupation of Japan after the war, but they reappeared as a cluster of smaller companies still bearing the same name of their parent companies, usually sharing a common bank. The crucial factor in this is that all the companies tend to own shares in one another and so still share a common bond. They might even integrate themselves in a supply chain, so the mining company supplies the smelting company supplies the materials to the manufacturer. In other cases, individual parts may have gone independant in legal terms, but they still share a common heritage.

Sumitomo, a name still recognisable on the streets of Japan is a typical example. Founded in 1630 as a shop selling medicines and books, it branched out in to metallurgy (naturally) and nowadays, as a keiretsu, can be found in forestry, mining, armaments, consumer electronics and, of course, banking.

Here are the main players, their banks and a few of their headline brands:
Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ
Mitsubishi Corporation, Kirin Brewery, Mitsubishi Electric, Mitsubishi Fuso, Mitsubishi Motors, Nippon Yusen, Shin-Nippon Petroleum, Tokio Marine and Fire Insurance, Nikon

Sumitomo Mitsui Bank
Fuji Photo Film, Mitsui Real Estate, Mitsukoshi, Suntory, Toshiba, Toyota

Sumitomo Mitsui Bank
Asahi Breweries, Hanshin Railway, Keihan Railway, Mazda, Nankai Railway, NEC, Sumitomo Real Estate

Mizuho Bank
Canon, Hitachi, Marubeni, Matsuya, Nissan, Ricoh, Tobu Railway, Yamaha

Dai-Ichi Kangyo
Mizuho Bank
Fujitsu, Hitachi, Isuzu, Itochu, Tokyo Electric Power

Sanwa ("Midorikai")
Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ
Hankyu Railway, Keisei Railway, Kobe Steel, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Orix, Shin-Maywa, Takashimaya, Toho
I must stress, the zaibatsu do not necessarily OWN the companies in the family, but they may still have close ties and more than likely a mutual shared ownership of shares. The leaders may get together to bond from time to time. In the case of Sumitomo, for example, it is said that they still all obey the rules laid out by the founder 350 years ago.

Another interesting feature of all this is that the people who worked for these companies would follow the line. So, again using Sumitomo as an example, if you were a worker for NEC (you assembled stereos), you might ride to work on the Keihan railway, living in a commuter town on that line build largely by Sumitomo real estate. You would bank with Sumitomo, who may have lent you the money to buy your Mazda and when you get home in the evening you would be most likely to unwind with a nice Asahi.

Sounds a bit fuedal really.