By Richard Carrigan
Many years ago in Japan, when I was studying the language, I remember thinking to myself that no one could really speak this language at home. Certainly they must speak English when they relax. After all, for me English was my mother tongue and came easily, but this Japanese was hard. So certainly, this also must be true for them. Well, after many years of studying, practicing, and struggling with this new language, I slowly begin to discover that Japanese really wasn’t that difficult. What had been difficult at the beginning of the journey, had slowly become more workable and even manageable with practice.
In the end (if there is an end to language learning), I learned more than a language; I learned what I believe to be the basic principles to language acquisition, which I will share with you here.
First, I learned that language cannot be memorize. When I first started to learn Japanese I tried this, but could never find a situation that matched a dialog. I learned that language is absorbed through meaningful listening and reading, in reality, becoming part of a community.
Second, language must be spontaneous. If I tried to translate words or grammar when communicating, the conversation would not go very far. Even if errors are made, the language must be spontaneous.
Third, language is best learned in meaningful interactions with native speakers. As I used the language that I knew, I found that I could begin to understand the language that I didn’t know.
The forth thing that I learned was the value of reading. I found that when I read material that was both interesting and easy to understand, that language then begin to become part of my thinking. Reading develops a natural flow of words.
Now I can hear someone saying, “What about grammar?” In my own experience, I found that if I studied a grammar book, one grammar point at a time, I soon became bored, discouraged and ready to give up. But if I used the grammar book as a reference when I heard or read something new, then the new grammar became meaningful in real-life communicate.
As I look back now on my Japanese learning experience, it proved to be very helpful in developing my own methods and classroom curriculum. Now when students come with their language struggles and frustrations, I am able to give them a new perspective and help them in their journey. After all, learning a new language is only difficult when we think it to be so. We may not all be native speakers, but we all can learn to communicate.