Are You Just Recollecting Japanese?

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 11 Comments |

Have you ever had that feeling of frustration when, having learnt a word one day, the very next it seems to cease to exist inside your head? Spaced Repetition can help you stop this happening. Here’s a look at SRS systems and the ‘forgetting curve’.

Head on over to the Japan Times to read my special feature this week in the Bilingual column: Some space helps a language relationship to grow for a brief look into memory retention. In it I discuss how knowing about the forgetting curve has helped me to change the way I study Japanese and, ultimately, what caused me to pass the JLPT level 1. A big thanks to Marco for his help proofreading the article and for insight into the psychology of memory retention. Go follow him on Twitter!

There was one point that had to be cut from the article due to space that I feel is worth mentioning here however. That has to do with the difference between merely recollecting something and actually knowing it.

Without getting too philosophical then… We learn lots of different things over our lifetime, but not all of it should be called ‘knowledge’. Quite a lot of what we think we know is actually just being recalled by our brains in response to a certain input, like a question. Very often, this requires us to think for a few seconds before the information comes out. Ever felt like something is ‘on the tip of your tongue’? That’s pretty much it – a recollection but not quite knowledge. (Although it is possible that you really do know the information and it’s just a temporary failure to connect to it this time). Imagine this little scenario:

In the Japanese classroom your teacher tells you that: 月 (つき) is moon and 魚 (さかな) is fish. You may not remember these at first, but after a drill session, you are able to say the words back to your teacher when she asks you what they are.

What is happening here is that you are just recollecting the information and making the link between the word and the Japanese character. Chances are that your reply is not yet instantaneous and that you can’t explain why the characters mean what they do. I.e. You still don’t actually ‘know’ them.

Imagine, then, that your teacher explains how 月 looks like a moon and 魚 looks like a fish (they do, in old Japanese script). You also practice the characters much more, including seeing them in sentences, signs and using them when you talk and write. Much better – now you are getting closer to actual knowledge. You don’t have to translate 魚 = さかな = fish consciously any more, the connection in your mind just happens and you understand the character intuitively when you see it.

This is what I take to be real fluency and real knowledge. Merely cramming lots of words or sentences in Japanese, recollecting them and passing a test does not mean you know the language. The real changes happen when you no longer need to think about what things mean when you encounter the language and especially so when speaking or hearing it. It should become like a reflex – almost instant and intrinsic to you.

A quick case-in-point. I was sitting in a Yoshinoya in Osaka’s DenDen electronics town one evening a few years ago enjoying a hearty bowl of rice topped with beef. Not long after I had begun eating, I heard the sound of the door sliding open behind me with a woman and her children entering the place. The next thing I know, I found myself moving to the chair next to me. What had happened?

She’d said: ああ、座らへんね (aa, suwarahen ne) (Ah, there’s nowhere to sit) in Kansai dialect.

Somewhere in my brain I registered the meaning, noted that I was sitting smack-bang in the middle of row of seats and that if I moved over, she and her family could sit down. It was all done in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds as I was munching contently on my gyudon. No thinking at all. I could say for sure that I knew the meaning of ‘suwaru’ that day.

Of course, getting to the stage where 99% of daily conversation and reading material is easy and intrinsic for you takes a long, long time. It would also be silly to stick to a rigid definition of fluency and strive to master every last word and phrase in the language. If that were the case we wouldn’t even be fluent in our native language! No, attaining a level where you are comfortable in daily life and don’t need to translate in your head or think a lot in normal situations is plenty to claim fluency.

That said, I think far too many people are ready to claim fluency before they should. There are still plenty of situations where I stumble on words or have to ask myself what the translation was to something, but I also have lots of moments where the correct Japanese just rolls off my tongue. Those are the moments I revel in because really can feel like I’m moving from merely recollecting to actually knowing the language.

How about you? Any similar experiences you’d had where a foreign language has finally begun to click for you?

11 comments on “Are You Just Recollecting Japanese?
  1. 160chan says:

    Thanks for the post!

    I think I can kinda connect to this when learning 四字熟語 in Chinese (and sometimes Japanese). Being able to remember how to say the idiom and what it means is always difficult until I understand how each character fits in. In the beginning, when I just start “knowing” the idiom, I don’t really understand well enough to be able to incorporate it into my own compositions/conversations.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks for the comment! Idioms are a great example of why having a deep understanding of the characters and how their meanings fit together help information fit into your long-term memory. Nice site yourself, by the way!

  2. Gakuranman says:

    *Nods. Very well put – “without much forethought”. :) That’s exactly what I was getting at and I totally agree with using roundabout phrases to express terms you do not yet know or fully understand. I use the technique a lot myself.Your camera example was excellent, but one thing I would add is that too much of the roundabout way of speaking and especially for basic words like camera can be a warning sign that a person still has a way to go to real fluency. If a person was trying to recall the word for 事業仕分け (cost-cutting/budget-screening) for example or other more technical terms, I’d be much more inclined to say that they are near-fluent.

  3. Ken Murayama says:

    Thank you! This is perfect. I was just telling my friends that so I don’t end up failing the JLPT Lvl 1 test for a fourth time, I need some kind of more effective study method.

  4. I get that feeling of satisfaction every time I realize I did a whole phone call or real-life conversation using only (my limited and crippled, as of now) Japanese. I guess being able to recognize a milestone in my progress encourages me to keep on going!

  5. Gian says:

    The other night I dreamt I was in Japan and tried to speak japanese to some folks there… XD THAT was a first! ; )

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