Learning languages…

Guest post by Mari Yamauchi
(#2 in a series on learning in different contexts)

Mari teaches EFL, phonetics and study skills at a university in Japan.  Interested in how people learn and how technologies can be used in different learning environments, she’s always looking for better ways to help students to become better learners. After reading her post, I think I shall have to teach her Hebrew!

I always love to learn new languages. My first foreign language is English, and I speak some Korean and a bit of Chinese. I love Russian aspect system, and enjoy comparing English with my second foreign languages – German and French (and finding similarities among  Romance languages). I’ve been fascinated by unfamiliar scripts and sound systems of Thai and Arabic. And the list goes on. Maybe I’m just a language ‘freak’. I don’t learn a language for practical reasons. I just can’t stop wanting to get a feel of unfamiliar script, sound system, or syntax of a new language.

Aside from my personal taste, I think there’s one great things about learning new languages for a foreign language teacher. It’s the best way to experience what’s like to be learning a language. I don’t remember how I have learned my mother tongue (like many of you). I don’t remember what it was like when I first met English (maybe I have a very short memory). I don’t remember how I felt at each stage of learning either of the two. But I do remember how I have learned my third languages because I’ve learned to monitor my learning.


When I was a senior at a college of education, my professor told us English majors to read and translate a paper into Russian about foreign language pedagogy, saying: ‘Experience what it’s like to try to read unfamiliar alphabet; Feel how difficult it is even to consult a dictionary. ‘ It WAS tough. I didn’t expect it would be that difficult to just copy a sentence, and I understood how students would feel when they find it hard to tell b from d.  This was my first conscious memory of trying to learn unfamiliar alphabet.  And I enjoyed observing myself gradually getting used to it.

When I first visited Seoul, I was thrilled to find myself surrounded by illegible signs. I knew how to read the letters and Japanese and Korean have a large group of similarly pronounced words using Chinese character, so I was excited to read words I saw letter by letter, just like a little child who has just learned alphabet. Now I speak some Korean, but still feel overwhelmed when I see a page filled with Korean letters. And I notice it when my students seem to be feeling like this.

There’s another interesting memory of learning Korean. For quite a long time I found it difficult to speak Korean while I didn’t have much difficulty understanding spoken Korean. I wondered why and suddenly realized I unconsciously used English word order and sentence patterns when I tried to speak Korean, whose syntax is totally different. And I told myself to use Japanese sentence patterns when making Korean sentences. That worked dramatically. I hadn’t imagined it would be that easy and comfortable to speak a foreign language whose syntax is similar to that of L1. And this was the first time I really understand how Japanese students would feel when they are struggling to make English sentences (since I don’t remember what it was like when I was trying to learn the English word order and sentence patterns).

Keeping learning new languages helps me understand how students feel at different stages of learning (‘She might be feeling like I feel when I try to speak French’, ‘His English seems to be at the level of my Chinese’, etc. ). It helps me to be patient when they’re having difficulty (e.g. I remember how difficult it was to just repeat a sentence in a new language until I was ready), and to think of how I can help them. I just have to keep in mind that students may feel uneasy and even demotivated where a ‘freak’ like me would be thrilled or excited.

Besides, monitoring my learning itself is quite interesting in that I can experiment with different ways of learning a language. I ask myself: Is it good to listen to songs in the target language, and if yes, how? Will I forget what I think I’ve learned if I stay away from it for a long time? How long will it take before I feel used to the sound of this new language if I just listen to it when I commute? How effective it can be to practice speaking to myself? How effective it will be to read or listen to a story I’ve read or watched/listened to in Japanese? How tough it will be to keep ‘reading’ something too advanced?These informal experiments are exiting enough to be worth trying, and help me a lot when I try to advise students, to encourage or relax them when they feel frustrated.

To conclude, I strongly believe it’s useful and quite exciting for a language teacher to keep learning new languages. What do you think? (I know this is not an effective way when you want to master a particular language 😉 )


11 thoughts on “Learning languages…

  1. Hi Mari. I found your post very interesting as a I was a language teacher before I became a classroom teacher about 3 years ago. I, too, love languages and agree that learning another language as a teacher is extremely instructive and helps us to reflect on our learning, our teaching and on the learning experiences of our students. I learnt Italian whilst I was teaching French. I used to come home from a day teaching French and have lessons over the phone for an hour and a half. Sometimes I was tired and just didn’t get it and I’m sure that sometimes that’s how my students felt! :-0 Unlike you I haven’t learnt a language with a different alphabet system, but I can understand the challenges, but immense pleasure and sense of achievement involved in that.

    I think you have a wonderful approach to teaching your students. they are lucky to have someone who is interested in how they are experiencing language learning.


  2. Thanks for writing this, Mari. It’s an interesting take on language learning. As a language teacher myself, I have always found that the fact that Hebrew is my second language is an advantage when it comes to teaching. As you said, I know what it feels like from their point of view. I understand the mistakes students make as they are often translating directly from English in their heads. Keep up the great work!


  3. Thank you Edna for hosting Mari’s excellent post and thank you Mari for writing it.
    Reading your post reminded me of my early experiences as a language learner. The second language I studied was French, because I’m an Anglophone Canadian. Next I studied Greek. My part-time job was in a family restaurant and many of my colleagues were Greek Canadian, so I heard Greek spoken often. This was the first time I struggled to learn a new alphabet. Now of course I’m struggling to learn Japanese. While many of my students find reading and writing English easier than listening and speaking English, I’m the opposite with Japanese. I find reading and writing Japanese very difficult. I think that Japanese must be the only language in the world that uses 4 separate writing systems – Kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana and katakana (the syllabaries), and romaji (The roman alphabet used to transcribe the syllabaries and to write some foreign loan words). As you know, these writing systems interact with each other, and it’s possible to see all 4 used in the same sentence. Therefore, I, like you, can empathise with my students. I’ve experienced the joy and pain of trying to learn a foreign writing system.
    You and I are very different in one sense though Mari. You are a successful language learner, and I am not. Perhaps the learners you teach are successful language learners like you. Most of my learners, at present are more like me. I understand them.


    1. Pam, Edna, and Michael – thank you very much for your comments!!

      Pam, sometimes students may be in no mood for learning a foreign language, as you said, and it’s good for us teachers to remember the same thing does happen to ourselves. And it’d be fun to experiment on ourselves to see what could change the mood. (Most of the time I don’t feel like doing something, I just don’t do that, though ;-))

      Edna, many Japanese students, at a beginner level, do make mistakes resulting from direct translation, as Michael would know well. In my opinion, pattern practice or substitution drill (if it’s not too mechanical) is helpful for those who are learning L2 whose grammar and word order are totally different from their L1. Do you have some good ideas of how to enhance automaticity of grammar processing?

      Michael, I can imagine how hard it would be to master written Japanese – I feel lucky to have learned Japanese as my L1!  Using 4 different writing systems together may look “crazy” 😉 But, as you may have noticed, kanji – ideograms – are really convenient in that you can picture what a new word means – if it consists of some characters you already know – even if you don’t know how to pronounce it 🙂

      I’m not sure if I could call myself a successful language learner since I’m far from fluent in most of the languages I’ve started to learn 😉 But if I’m successful in some way, then it may mean I’ve learned not to discourage myself. And it’s very easy. Just be proud of what I can or have improved, and not to be too unhappy about what I can’t do or how slow I’m learning something. Many Japanese students tend to see what they can’t do after studying English in school for a long time, just to be unhappy. So, for example, sometimes I have them listen to a language definitely unfamiliar to them (say Finnish), and Chinese or Korean – a language more familiar to them, and then English, so that they may realize how much English they can already understand. This is also a nice way to have them think about what it’s like to have learned some of a language.

      Thanks again to you all for your comments and encouragements, and I really appreciate Edna for hosting my post.


  4. I have been reading your blog for the last 3 days and find so much interesting topics here. I’ve bookmarked your site hoping that I can take much more benefits from you. Thank you.


  5. Thank you for your interesting post Mari, unlike you and all your previous commentators though, I struggled through school girl french and gave up learning it as soon as possible. I can speak it moderately well but I certainly cant read or write it or any other language. I know I have read interesting statistics on the number of hours a student needs to spend in order to master a language, with Mandarin being one of the hardest I believe. Sometimes I wish I had persisted at school and was able to converse fluently in just one other language but I guess I will just have to save that idea for when I have some spare time!!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Henrietta. I wish I could go back to meet me 30 years ago and tell the school girl not just to do listening, but also to read as many easier books as possible, write book reports – no matter how short, etc. But it’s never too late to try something new or restart something! Actually I’m not very hard-working language learner (and we are busy, aren’t we?). I did stay away from French or Spanish (or else) for a quite long time (10 years? 20 years?), but I restarted to meet those “old friends” after I got my iPod Touch, and I found it enjoyable to remember what I thought I’ve forgotten & to learn a bit of new things. I’m amazed there’s a huge collection of language learning podcasts! I’m quite positive you’ll remember a lot of French you learned before 😉


  6. Mari, what a beautiful post and a beautiful gift for languages! I love that you want to continue learning and practicing languages so that you can relate better to your students. I believe every teacher should be constantly learning something, it is important for us to remember the joys and struggles of learning. Your love of languages and syntax is an inspiration!


    1. Thanks ktenkely for such kind words! I’m in line with you that “every teacher should be constantly learning something”. I believe that if students see how the teacher is enjoying learning something, they’ll want to try doing it themselves – if not soon 😉


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