This article was originally posted on the “Teacher Talk” blog at azargrammar.com.
People often ask me how long it took me to learn Japanese, and I normally tell them that it took me about six months. When they look surprised, I add, “But it took me about two years to learn how to learn it.”
This is not a joke; this is exactly how I feel about the stages I went through when I began learning the language. Of course, I didn’t really learn it in six months, but I did go from not being able to say anything to being able to survive daily life in Japan within that time frame.
The two years prior to that six-month period were not completely unproductive, but they did involve a great deal of frustration and time-wasting because I failed to grasp a number of key concepts about the learning process. The particular misunderstanding I want to focus on today is the idea I had that learning a language should be a “linear” process. In other words, I believed that I would study a particular item, understand it, master it, and then move onto the next. As anyone who has learned a foreign language will know, that is simply not how it works.
One experience that still sticks in my mind is the time when I was taught the expression shika nai, which means “only.” The problem was that I had already learned another word (dake) that also apparently meant “only,” and I couldn’t understand the difference. To be more exact, I couldn’t really understand why there had to be a difference. “English seems to manage okay with just one way of saying ‘only,’” I thought, “so why does Japanese need two?” In the end, I decided to give up trying to work it out and just use the simpler dake.
After that particular lesson, I moved on to other grammar, some of which I understood immediately, and some of which remained a mystery in spite of my teacher’s valiant efforts to explain it. The reason that the dake/shika nai lesson stayed with me was that approximately a year and a half after I had tried and failed to make sense of it, I was standing in a car park in Japan with a friend who commented that it was fairly empty that day. I replied in my best Japanese, So da ne. Kuruma wa nidai shika nai (It is, isn’t it? There are only two cars). I vividly recall being amazed at the words coming out of my mouth and thinking, “When did I learn how to use that!?” (Just in case anyone is interested, the difference is that dake is neutral, whereas shika nai implies that there is/are not enough of something, or less or fewer of something than might normally be expected.)
This and other similar experiences helped me to realise that learning a foreign language is not a like climbing a ladder, and that grammar is not learned one neat step at a time. If someone had tested me on my ability to distinguish between dake and shika nai six months after I had studied it, they may well have concluded that I needed to study it again. As it turned out, however, what I actually needed was time to allow what I had studied to filter through into my database of retrievable knowledge about the language.
When I talk about this topic at presentations, I compare the study of grammar to the art of plate-spinning. For those who have never seen this, it involves balancing a plate on a pole, spinning it, and then trying to repeat the process with other plates while continually coming back to each one and spinning it again so that none fall off. The goal is to have as many plates spinning simultaneously as possible. My experience of learning Japanese grammar was a bit like that: by studying a particular structure, I put it on a pole and started it spinning. I then moved on to other things but kept returning to each point I had learned in order to keep them all spinning.
The problem with this analogy is that there is no endpoint; the plates just keep going round and round. Recently I have been thinking that a better metaphor might be that of planting seeds in a garden. No one would expect to see a seed immediately turn into a flower, but that does not mean that it needs to be replanted; it just needs the right amount of sunshine, water, and, of course, time. If you wanted to create a beautiful garden, it would not be very efficient to plant one seed and then wait until that seed flowered before planting the next. In a similar way, it does not make sense to expect to learn the grammar of a foreign language by mastering one piece of it before moving onto the next. As language learners, we all have a “grammar garden” that is flowering in some parts, still developing in others, and barren in the parts we have not yet touched.
Another important point to think about is what we set out to achieve when we teach grammar. Some teachers may say that their aim is to enable the students to understand or use a particular grammar point, but I prefer to say that my aim is simply to raise their awareness of it. As I wrote in another entry about my “New Car,” theory, the acquisition of new items seems to follow a sequence of “priming” and “triggering.” Teaching grammar points primes those items in the learner’s brain, making it much more likely that they will be noticed, or “triggered” later on by further exposure.
Mastery of complicated structures can only be achieved through a cyclical process of priming and triggering that takes place over time, and the initial teaching of the point is simply the first step in that process. In most cases, we cannot assume that something has been learned just because we have taught it, but that does not necessarily mean that anything the learners fail to master immediately needs to be taught again.
Of course, in the same way that a seed needs sunshine and water in order to grow, grammar will need review and practice in order to develop, but the fact that a seed has not yet flowered should not be taken as proof that it is not growing.