STICKING WITH IT When Studying a Foreign Language

– Paul Grieve (ILAC Teacher)

Learning a new language can be difficult, especially when the language is English; inconsistent grammar, ridiculous spellings, strange combinations of sounds, synonyms, homonyms and enough idioms to sink a battleship. Sometimes, it might seem that in spite of the hours spent in class, diligent completion of homework, frustrating attempts to understand the voices on the radio and the actors on television, you’re just not making progress.  Sure, you’re learning words and expressions and your ability to recognize those words in reading and listening materials is improving, but merely identifying words and phrases is small consolation when you can’t figure out the meaning.

Take heart, because if you keep at it, the breakthrough you’re hoping for is on its way.  I know this from experience, because I’ve studied foreign languages and felt all the same frustrations.  I’ve also experienced breakthroughs that make all the efforts worthwhile.

One breakthrough I want to talk about happened when I was living in Tokyo, teaching English and studying Japanese.  Since my schedule as a teacher was unpredictable, I found it impossible to take classes.  However, this didn’t stop me.  I bought textbooks and CD’s, which I used every day, and made a point of carrying my electronic dictionary everywhere I went.  What I lacked in formal training, I made up for in determination.  I studied when I woke up, I studied on the train between classes and I studied before going to bed. I made lists of all the words I knew, dividing them into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, particles and other categories.  I tried to understand every advertisement I saw and every word people said around me. I watched Japanese television, listened to Japanese radio and insisted that all my Japanese friends spend at least some time speaking to me in Japanese.

I could feel myself improving, but the progress was very slow and could only understand less than 10%.  It was almost embarrassing that I worked so hard to make so little progress, especially when many of my non-Japanese friends seemed much more fluent than me (admittedly, many of them had been in Japan longer than I had).  After countless failed attempts to be able to keep up my end of a conversation, I became so frustrated that I almost gave up.

What stopped me?  One day before class I was eating dinner in a ramen shop in Osaki Station looking out the window as at a beautiful sunset, letting my mind wander as I took a break from studying.  A Japanese businessman stumbled in, chatting on his cell phone.  He told the person at the other end that he was going to wait at the restaurant until 6:30, then go to a meeting at Kamiyacho station.  Taking his coat off, he dropped his newspaper on the table in front of me and I noted the headline read “Economy picks up for third quarter”. On the radio, after a song finished, the announcer gave the weather report and began chatting with a guest about the latest trends in Japanese cinema.

I put on my coat, picked up my bag and walked out of the restaurant toward the train.  To my left, I passed an old man asking a storekeeper the price of a pair of dress shoes. To my right was a woman giving directions to a medical clinic.  A shop attendant told a customer an item would be reduced to half price after 8pm.  A police officer asked a pedestrian to stay off the road.

Taking my train pass out of my pocket as I approached the station, I stopped dead in my tracks. I realized something had changed. I’d understood these things without any effort. Sounds that would have seemed like gibberish to me before now had meaning. I didn’t get every word, but somehow I’d understood.

I was so excited I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down (which would have looked strange for a guy in a suit and dress coat).  I raced to my lesson brimming with a new enthusiasm for learning Japanese and even told my student about my newfound ability (speaking English of course).  Picking up on my enthusiasm, my student was thrilled at my breakthrough and, more importantly, felt inspired to keep up his efforts.  Before too long, he came in and reported that he too was beginning to understand a lot more of what he heard and read. What’s more, his test scores took a giant leap.  Finally, his hard work and perseverance were paying off.

If you are studying at ILAC, or even thinking of doing so, you’ve probably had similar experiences.  If you find you’re struggling in your quest to learn English, just remember that progress is not linear.  Rather, it comes in bursts.  The moral of the story is, if you put in the effort and stick with it long enough, you will reap the rewards.


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