Passion for language learning is often prompted by other interests and activities we engage in. When I started dancing salsa, my interest in Spanish sky-rocketed! Jose has similar experiences and in this interview he shares his story of games, karate and how fostering your interests is a sure way to help you master a foreign language.
Jose, after 9 months of chats and emails we can finally hear each other’s voices. I will drill into your language routines later, but let’s start with something more general. What’s your experience with learning languages?
I was born in Mexico, so had to learn English. It was natural for me to learn it when I was growing up.
What do you mean by natural?
In Mexico, most of the movies, video games and popular culture was in English. In order to understand it, you simply had to learn. We also had a lot of English classes at school, but it wasn’t only school work that motivated me to study, I was also interested myself. When I was little I didn’t of course plan to move to Canada, but when I was in high school I realised it could be a possibility. By that point I was more less fluent in the language.
Looking back at it now, you could say that my main motivation to learn was to be able to understand movies and video games.
As for other languages, I had French classes in highschool, but I only learned the basics. Then, when I moved to Canada, where French is one of the official languages, I decided to start teaching myself using Duolingo and then LinguaLift. I have never been particularly interested in French, the main reason for this decision was that I thought it would increase my job prospects in Canada. As I ended up living in Vancouver—the English speaking part of Canada—I don’t really need it and I stopped learning.
I see, so it turned out there was no tangible benefit to learning French. Which makes me wonder what was the incentive to start studying Japanese?
Still back in Mexico we used to get a lot of Japanese culture, like manga, anime and games. This has sparked my curiosity. Started to training karate in high school has fuelled my interest even more. It was already then that I taught myself the basics of the language—hiragana, katakana and beginner’s grammar. I had to suspend learning when I started university as I had to focus on studying, but when I graduated and moved to Canada, I decided to pick it up again.
I’m interested in the connection between karate and Japanese. Would you say that training has in some ways deepened your connection with the Japanese culture?
Yes, there are many ways in which training brought me closer to Japan. In karate the name of every movement is in Japanese, and so is every commandment from the instructor. There is also a big emphasis on the formal elements that all originate from the Japanese culture. We have to bow in a specific way, say appropriate greetings and observe other formalities. I think learning the language and understanding the culture helps you find yourself in karate a bit better—it provides you with a better context of what you are doing and how.
I like martial arts; right now I am training taekwondo. But I really want to go back to karate.
Let’s go back to Japanese then, you mentioned you learned the basics on your own.
Yes, I did some research online and found many websites for learning. Most of the resources were just lists of characters and rough grammar, there was nothing with a clear structure, the materials were all over the place. But that was all I could find, so I just learned by repeating and making notes.
It was only when I found LinguaLift that I started learning in a structured way.
How does using LinguaLift compare to the methods you used previously?
LinguaLift is way better and a lot of it is down to the fact that the course follows a clear structure. Each lesson prepares you for the next grammatical point.
I also think the system of learning kanji is very cleverly organised. Learning kanji following the same order in which the Japanese learn it makes less sense, because some of the ones you’d have to learn early are used much less frequently. On LinguaLift you are learning the most important ones first, even if they aren’t considered “basic” according to the Japanese system.
I really appreciate the structural approach of LinguaLift. It saves me a lot of time and effort I would have to put into researching the materials and my approach is no longer dependent on random blogs.
Yup, we did our best to make the structure easy to follow! And if you have any questions you can always contact your tutor. Do you speak to our native tutors a lot?
The fact there are a native speakers to talk to is very helpful as it actually makes you use the language. It’s really very different then when you have to speak to someone rather than just memorise words and phrases. What I like is that they also ask questions about what you said making the conversation more natural. I usually don’t ask for grammatical explanations, but aim to have a more casual conversation about random things, or about what happened during the day.
What would you do if you encountered a tough grammatical issue? Do you use any other resources for learning Japanese?
If I found a grammatical point hard I would research it. I would re-read the LinguaLift lesson and then other books just to see different points of view and different explanations about it. I think if I still had doubts after that I would ask my LinguaLift tutor.
At the moment I am also using the website iknow.jp—the only thing it does is vocabulary and I does it really well. They divide the vocabulary into lists by levels of difficulty. Each level has 100 words and the program simply shows you the words asking you to type or choose the right answer.
It’s data driven, using a spaced repetition algorithm similar to the one in LinguaLift. Depending on how well you remember the words it will decide when to show them to you again, and hence it stops asking you to review words that you already know. Just like the vocabulary camp on LinguaLift it means you don’t have to keep track yourself of which words you have to review. I like this organised manner of learning. Using two sources of vocabulary training is very helpful and works really well as a compliment to my lessons on LinguaLift.
It looks like expanding and practising your vocabulary are quite important to you. What other aspects of learning do you think are most significant?
I think understanding the culture contained in the language is very important. Some people get very focused on translating everything literally, rather than understanding the differences between the systems. When you start learning more languages you start seeing that it’s really not so much about just translating words. For example, in Japanese you also have to learn about new concepts standing behind the words.
The key to learning is being consistent and interested and for that you need to have a reason to learn. Studying just “for the sake of it” won’t motivate you to get fluent. I have seen people who would study two hours in one day and then not at all for a week. That’s really bad.
Think about how we learn our mother tongues—we engage with them every day! Even if you don’t have much time, just reviewing or learning one character a day will keep the language fresh in your mind.
That’s very true! Do you have any study tips you could share with us?
One tip would be to find an interest that you can explore via the language. For example, if you like reading news, you can just access them on Japanese news site. It may be really overwhelming at first, but you will slowly start getting used to the words and the way in which the articles are written. It helps a lot as it prompts you to learn words that will be useful for you and related to your interests.
Then, other than being consistent, I would encourage to try to use the language in your daily life. If you have to write down a “to-do” list at work try to write it in the language you are studying. It merges your daily life with what you’re learning, it’s also a very natural way of using the language. I personally really like to make the language a part of my daily life— after all, that’s pretty much the point of learning it.
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It was a pleasure to chat to you Jose!
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