Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Japanese Ladder

Learning Japanese vocabulary (or that of any other language) without going insane

This is completely unrelated to art or animation, but I wanted to write this down somewhere because it’s been mulling in my head for a while now. I’m currently living in Japan and before coming here I took four years of Japanese in college. I am now studying for the level 2 Japanese proficiency test, and the most important thing for the test, by far, is vocabulary.

But there are so many words! It’s very easy to get discouraged. The concept of the “ladder” has helped me deal with studying Japanese without getting frustrated. It goes as follows:

The Japanese Ladder

Maybe you watch a movie, and you look up 30 completely new words while watching the movie. Imagine that your brain has all these tiny ladders in it. All those words form a tidal wave hitting the bottom of the ladders and a small number of those words, maybe 10%, catch on to the very lowest rungs of the ladders.

Those words, clinging to life on the bottom rungs, are those words that, when you see them later, feel familiar even though you can’t read or define them. So, you look them up again. This moves the poor word up the ladder a rung. You notice the word in a few other contexts, like in a video game or a magazine. Each time you look up the word or even just see the word, it makes some progress up the ladder. The ladder represents a gradual progression in the memorization of a word, from barely sounding familiar, to being a permanent fixture in your memory.

Japanese learning ladder

A few rungs from the bottom are those words that you know you’ve looked up a few times, but can’t remember its meaning or reading.

Then a few rungs up from that are those words that you can read, but can’t define. (Or can define, but can’t read.)

Then further up from there are words you can define and read if they are in a familiar context, like if they are in a familiar sentence pattern.

Then even higher are those words that you can recognize in most contexts, but occasionally space out on.
Then at the very top of the ladder are those words so ingrained in your memory that you will never, ever forget their meaning or reading, not for the rest of your life.

The point is this: Don’t get frustrated that you have to look up a word you “think you should know.” There aren’t any words, “you should know.” There are just words on their way up the ladder toward being in the ‘unforgettable’ rung. If you look up a word, whether for the 2nd time or the 50th time, you should feel content that you’re helping that word up the ladder.

A few summers ago, I had tried to study four new words every day, and review past ones every day. I eventually gave up because I was frustrated that I was forgetting the words from even the day before. It’s better to expose yourself to a large volume of new vocabulary, even if most of it doesn’t stick, rather than trying to learn a few words perfectly. Statistically speaking, the greater diversity of words you look up, the more chances that some of those words will pop up in other contexts later. And the more contexts you see a word in, the more it moves up the ladder.

Words on the bottom rung can fall off, and no longer familiar, if they never come up again. That’s why it’s good to have constant and varied exposure to the language. Do a little of everything – Anime, Japanese movies, radio, TV, American movies in Japanese, manga, books, magazines, newspapers, video games in Japanese … I’ve dabbled in it all. And discovering connections between words is like unraveling a great mystery novel. For example, I learned the word for “pirate ship” from playing “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” in Japanese, and then I recognized the ‘ship’ part in the word for ‘balloon,’ the kanji for which literally means, “wind ship.”

In review:

1. There are no words you “should know.” Each time you look up a word you forgot, you are moving that word up the ladder toward long-term memory.

2. Expose yourself to all sorts of sources of information. For Japanese that’s easy, with anime and movies and music and manga and all that. Even if you only do a little bit here and there, make sure you look up new words.

3. The more words you look up, the more chances are that you’ll find and recognize those words in other contexts later. You won’t remember all of them, but a small number is better than zero.

4. Don’t try to force yourself to learn a few words “perfectly.” Seeing the same words over and over in the same context, like in flash-cards, can work in the short term, but you need to see them in other contexts for them to become meaningful and useful.

Sounds like a very bad, cheesy self-help book. I apologize. The important point I’d like to make is that a change in thinking can affect how you study new vocabulary and keep you from getting frustrated.

I just had another thought. This is basically all part of my grand realization that you can’t start off making anything perfect. Everything starts with an imperfect step that gradually gets better. Before you can paint a beautiful painting you have to paint a few less-beautiful ones. Before you can embed a new word in your mind, you have to forget it a few times first.

1 comment:

  1. Love your ladder theory! It is very true. Today I wrote a kanji I hadn't thoroughly studied, but because I had seen it in so many different places I could remember how to write it.

    YAY for the ladder theory. It does help keep me sane... learning Japanese vocabulary (if you want to write and read it) is insane. But worth it!