Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stepping outside the comfort zone

When I was learning Japanese, I made a huge leap forward when one day, I decided to not take it all so seriously.  I was sitting at a “kotatsu(1) table on a mountain in Nagano, Japan.  I was surrounded by Japanese colleagues and was a little bit frustrated when they corrected my pronunciation.  So I imitated them. 

In the beginning, I did it in a slightly malicious way which I am not proud of but my colleagues’ reaction was very positive. So, I continued doing it in a joking and less malicious way.  Soon, I was building up my courage to use this new voice in serious situations.  I stopped hearing “your Japanese is so good” (which is only heard to encourage beginners in Japanese, when it actually is good, it goes unnoticed).

When I look back on this now, I believe that what I had done was childish in more than one way.  I had lost my inhibitions and gotten a little playful with the language.  And it helped me to create a whole new identity from which I was speaking with much better pronunciation . 

The identity that I had created was like me but he was Japanese.  No longer was I approaching problems with the disposition of a foreigner learning English, no longer did I resort to using my “outsider” status as an excuse for not understanding or doing things the way that Japanese people did them.  I started taking off my shoes when I entered my own apartment instead of thinking that this is a “Kiwi” household.

Complete adoption of Japanese culture helped me to learn the things which did not translate easily.  A “kotatsu” was now just a kotatsu, not an unwieldy explanation of what it is because there is no direct translation. We do not have “kotatsu” tables in New Zealand so we have no word for them.  The Japanese culture is rich and built on a long history so there are many such examples of things and concepts that only exist in Japanese.

Taking the language less seriously also meant that I was filtering less (from Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, 1982).  I was happy to make mistakes and laugh about them rather than slow the conversation down by over-using my filter.  I started to use grammar as an autopsy tool instead of a construction tool.  I didn’t use grammar to build a sentence, only to examine it afterwards.  If it was not correct, I would correct it and try to remember for next time.  I would make sure that there were plenty of “next times”.

If I were asked now if adults can learn languages well, I would have to say that the limitations we face as adults are self-imposed because of how we think we are expected to act in society.   Our inhibitions are from our own fears and learning a language means conquering your doubts.  Children are just lucky enough to learn before the pressures of society’s influence have taken hold.  As a second language teacher it is my hope and belief that the biological benefits that children have in learning during the peak acquisition time are outweighed by the cognitive benefits of learning as an adult. 

My challenge as a teacher now is how we get people to understand that in order to learn a language you may need to not just take in vast amounts of information but also assume a new identity .  Seeing yourself as a native-speaker is the first step to being a native-like speaker.

(1) A knee-high table covered in a blanket with a heat-lamp underneath

Krashen, Stephen D. (1981). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. English Language Teaching series. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK) Ltd. 202 pages.

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