Inspiring aspiring young writers


Late last year, I was asked to speak to a class of 9 and 10 year olds about being a writer. Their class was running a programme in which they thought about what job they wanted in the future, and the school found someone with that occupation to go and speak to them for an hour. I thought the programme itself was a great idea, as it got the children thinking about their futures. During the years I spent teaching here in Japan, I often asked students what they wanted to do in the future. The overwhelming response, even from university students, was “I don’t know”. So I was impressed with this programme which got the students thinking about their futures from an early age.

The most popular job among the children was “writer”. I had just been featured in the local newspapers for winning the Language Learner Literature Award, and the school got in touch. I live in a rural area, and the school was way out of town, surrounded by rice fields. The children are growing up in farming and fishing communities. I thought that a job in those fields would be the most popular, but no. Over half the children wanted to be writers.

Writing is one of those occupations which is romanticized. I meet so many people who say they want to be a writer, until they actually sit down and try it. It’s tough. I think people are more in love with the idea of being a writer, rather than actually being one. I didn’t want to put the children off, but I didn’t want to give them the wrong impression. I decided to focus on the positives of being a writer, but also point out that it requires a lot of hard work.

The talk, including Q&A, was an hour. I planned to talk for around 25 minutes, show them some of my books, and then answer questions. To be honest, I thought I would have time left over. I was wrong. The sheer number of questions, many often coming from the same children, was overwhelming. There were still around ten children with their hands up to ask a question when class was over.

The questions were insightful and well thought out. One child asked what he could do, as a primary school student, to prepare himself to become a writer. I told him to read, read and then read some more. When I was their age, I was reading three books a week. I practically lived in the library. I also encouraged them to start writing. It’s never too early. I have a ten-year-old niece who is in the middle of writing a novel, and it’s great to see such creativity and discipline at such a young age. I also told them to develop their imaginations. Be creative. Make things. Experience as much as possible. They wrote all this down diligently.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the school. It was full of the children’s thoughts on my talk. Many children said they had started to read more. Others said they had started writing. It had been a long time since I was in a classroom with young children. I found their enthusiasm and interest invigorating. Actually, I was probably just as inspired as them!

Extensive reading – a circular approach to vocabulary acquisition

The benefits of extensive reading are well documented. It improves reading fluency, vocabulary retention, and helps one to absorb the language naturally, while enjoying a story. Ideally, the reader will forget they are reading in a foreign language, and become immersed in the text. One of the principles of extensive reading according to Bamford and Day (Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 14, No. 2, October 2002) is that “the reading material is easy”. “For extensive reading to be possible and for it to have the desired results, texts must be well within the learners’ reading competence in the foreign language.”

At I Talk You Talk Press, we grade our extensive reading materials according to CEFR levels, and encourage our readers to select a book which is one level below their actual linguistic level. This ensures that most of the vocabulary and grammar they encounter is known to them. From time to time, readers will, however, encounter words they don’t know. Using a dictionary in extensive reading is discouraged, so readers should try to understand the meaning from context, and move on. They may not have a clear understanding of the word, but they have encountered it in context, which acts as a primer for them to learn the word more thoroughly later.

This differs from someone who doesn’t practice extensive reading, and just tries to learn vocabulary from lists or vocabulary textbooks. They either know the word or they don’t. They have either learnt the word or they haven’t. When they come across an unfamiliar word, they don’t have the vague memory and vague understanding of it of someone who has seen it while practicing extensive reading. The latter, encountering a word they have seen when reading, is more likely to grasp the meaning of the word, as they have background context. Naturally, the more one reads, the more words one encounters. These words may be unfamiliar, but when encountered in numerous places and numerous contexts, they gradually move from the unfamiliar to the familiar. It is a circular process, one of encountering, and gradual understanding.

I experience this myself. I practice extensive reading in Japanese by reading novels. I enjoy detective stories and mysteries written between the 1950s to the 1970s. Occasionally, I come across words I don’t know. I don’t use a dictionary, because I read for pleasure. As Bamford and Day say, “Reading is its own reward.” I guess the meaning from context, and store these word away in my brain, where they wait to be encountered and recalled again. The more I read, the more I encounter them. I gradually come to understand them and commit them to memory.

The main purpose of extensive reading is not vocabulary acquisition, but it happens. This is an added bonus, and an enjoyable one at that.

New Year, New Language Goals

New Year is traditionally a time when we set goals for the next 12 months. Every year, I make language learning a priority. Up to now, however, my language goals have been vague. “Study every day”, “practice more”, that kind of thing. I usually start off well, but gradually, my study becomes sporadic. This year, I’m trying something different. I’m aiming to take exams in the languages I’m studying.

My goals this year are clear. Pass 3rd grade on the HSK Chinese test, and pass 3rd grade and pre-2nd grade on the French test. Now that I have something to work towards, I know what I have to do, and by when.

The pressure of knowing I have an exam to pass served me well when I was studying Japanese. My goal was to pass level 3, 2 and 1 in consecutive years, which I did. Knowing I had a test in December motivated me throughout the year. I studied even when I didn’t feel like it.

There is the argument about test-taking that you end up studying for the test, and not for practical usage, but I find, at the lower levels anyway, that the test content reflects what I need to learn to get by and communicate.

This year has got off to a good start study-wise. I’ve studied both Chinese and French every day so far. I’m aiming to take 3rd grade on the HSK in April and 3rd grade on the French test in June. The pre-2nd grade French test is in November. I’m planning my study time accordingly.

Of course, I can’t neglect my Japanese while I study these other languages. I use Japanese daily in my work as a translator, but I am also planning to take an exam in business psychology and two exams regarding mental health at the end of the year. These exams are all in Japanese. I also plan to read novels in Japanese for relaxation.

So, it will be a year of languages and learning for me. How about you? Do you have any language goals for the year ahead?

If you are thinking about learning Japanese, you can see how I did it in the book “How I Learnt Japanese, and How You Can Too: 60 Tips to Guarantee Success“.

Good luck with your studies!

Translator – so you can work anywhere, right?

I was chatting to a new acquaintance the other day and we got on to the subject of my work as a translator. He said that being a translator must give me freedom. This is true, I said. I pretty much choose when to work and how much I want to work.

And you can choose where to work too, he said. You can spend a few hours in Starbucks translating. This seems to be a common misconception among people I talk to about translating. While it would be nice to settle into a comfortable chair at my local coffee shop and spend the morning working and sipping a cafe latte, I never actually do it.

The work I handle is confidential. I have signed NDA with my clients, and I take this confidentiality seriously. If I worked in a coffee shop, the files open on my computer could be seen. Public WI-FI is not secure. I would be constantly worried about the lack of privacy and information leakage. The risk is too great, so no, I told my acquaintance, the “digital nomad” work from anywhere life is not compatible with the work I actually do. I need to be in my office, which is accessible only to me, to do my work.

My writing business is a different story. I write graded readers for my own publishing house, so confidentiality is not so much of a concern. It doesn’t matter if someone looks over my shoulder an glimpses a few sentences of my latest thriller. But when I’m translating? That’s when I’m shut away in my office for a morning or afternoon. The downside is that I have to make my own coffee, but it’s more than worth it for the peace of mind it brings.

Diversifying study materials in language learning

Woman reading a few books on the floor

I have been studying Chinese on and off for many years, but in the past year, I decided to take my study seriously. I am aiming to pass the 3rd grade on the HSK test next year. This is the lower-intermediate level. I aim to get 4th grade (upper-intermediate) later in the year.

I have bought a range of books and study materials, including the official test handbook and practice tests, but just studying those will not raise my Chinese proficiency to a satisfactory level. When learning a language, it is important to have quality comprehensible input from a range of sources. Each one feeds off the other. Words or phrases which I see in a textbook one day appear in a different textbook the next. The sentences which I couldn’t understand in my listening materials suddenly make sense when I start to catch words I have learnt elsewhere.

I am a believer in having one main study text, and a range of peripheral materials when learning a language. When I was learning Japanese, I had my main textbook, which grounded my studies in an organised way, and many other materials including test texts, reading materials and listening materials. I am doing the same for Chinese, and it is working well. I have finished my main text, and in the other materials I have, I find words and phrases from my main text which I thought I had forgotten. The secondary materials jog my memory and help reinforce what I had previously learnt.

Language learning is a circular process, not a linear one. For learning to be effective, it requires the constant movement back and forth between materials to reinforce what you have learnt, and to learn new things. I am now at the stage where things are starting to make sense. I attribute my progress to consistent reviewing of previously studied material and exposure to a wide range of supplementary material. It feels like pieces of the jigsaw are finally starting to fit.

FSI Language Difficulty Ranking – Don’t Let it Put You Off

The Foreign Services Institute (FSI) has developed a difficulty ranking of languages based on the time it will take an English speaker to learn the different languages. You can see the ranking here:

It ranks the languages on their similarity to English. For example, Spanish and Swedish are in category 1, requiring an average study time of 24 weeks. At the other end of the scale are Chinese and Japanese, ranked category 4, and requiring a study time of 88 weeks.

Of course, there are variables – does the language learner live in the country where the language is spoken? Is the language learner a “natural”? Does he or she pick up languages easily? How much opportunity does the learner have to practice the language?

Over the years, I have studied a number of languages. My language learning experiences do not correlate to the ranking. For example, I spent five years studying German in school. German is category 2, which should take approximately 36 weeks to learn. I struggled with the grammar, and didn’t get beyond the most basic level, even though I enjoyed learning it and spent much longer than 36 weeks studying it. I found Japanese to be much easier to learn. For me, the grammar was a lot easier than German. I think it is ranked so highly because of its writing systems. There are three to learn – two can be learnt in a few days, one takes considerably longer. Another reason it is ranked as the most difficult is its honorifics, although if you live in Japan, you get used to these pretty quickly.

I am now studying Mandarin Chinese, another language ranked category 4. Having a background in Japanese is really helpful, and I am progressing at a satisfactory pace. In fact, I am finding it a lot easier than I find French, which I have been trying to learn for a while. French is category 1, and should be easy for me. For some reason, it isn’t. Maybe I just don’t dedicate enough time to it. Maybe I’m just not a natural when it comes to European languages. I also want to learn Russian and Korean. Russian is category 3, and Korean category 4. I have dabbled in both, and in the few hours I have spent on both languages, I have made much more progress in Korean, despite already being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, and only having a basic grasp of the Korean characters.

Everyone learns differently. Everyone has different motivations for learning a language. Don’t let the difficulty ranking put you off learning a language you really want to master. If you have struggled with an “easy” language like me, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to find a “difficult” language impossible. You might be suited to the more difficult languages. Try it and