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: https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

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

Making the most of a language learning partner

Whatever language you are learning, it is now easier than ever to find a language partner with whom to practice. You might pay your language partner, or you might teach them your language in exchange. So how do you get the most out of these practice sessions or lessons?

I have found it important to lead the session. There is a tendency to let the practice partner lead the session, but this does not always work. Say, for example, that you study during the week, and have a practice session on Sundays. You know what you have been studying that week, your practice partner probably does not. So, if you let the practice partner lead, you don’t get to practice what you have studied. Practicing what you have studied is essential. It is by actually using the language studied that we internalize the language and make it our own.

I study Chinese. I have a practice session once a week. To get the most out of this, I write a diary, and/or paragraphs using the words and grammar that I have studied during the week, and once my partner has checked them for accuracy, we use them as the basis of our conversations. This way, I get to practice what I have learned. Essentially, I am in control of the session. I guide it in directions I want to go. I don’t try use that time to acquire new language, although at times, my partner suggests new words and phrases. I can learn new language by myself from textbooks or other resources. Of course, if I come across something I don’t understand during the week, I make sure I ask my partner for help, but I don’t consider the practice time to be a lesson. Using what you have studied, i.e. taking it from the passive stage to the active stage, is essential when learning a language. The time spent with a language partner is precious. Make sure you get the most out of it.

Comprehensible reading material for language learners

Reading is one of the most important elements of language learning. While speaking may be a priority for many, before long, reading ability becomes a necessity, especially if you live in a country where that language is dominant.

When I moved to Japan in 2000, not being able to read was a source of great frustration for me. I made learning to read a priority. This meant mastering three writing systems, two of which are easy, one of which takes quite a long time. I used textbooks to teach myself how to read. However, there came a time when I wanted, and needed, to practice what I had learnt. At that time there was a monthly publication called the Nihongo Journal. This was aimed at learners of Japanese, and the language was manageable. I often came across the words and characters I had learnt in my studies. Reading helped to reinforce what I had learnt. It helped that the content was interesting.

I also started to read newspapers. Well, I tried to read newspapers. I practiced extensive reading – reading without a dictionary, and found that, at the level I was then, the exercise turned into one of “find the characters” rather than “read the article”. It wasn’t fun or informative, and I soon got bored. Now I read newspapers in Japanese, and I enjoy doing so, but before I reached upper-intermediate level, it was a chore.

A learner needs comprehensible reading material. Graded readers meet that need. The learner chooses a book which he or she can read comfortably without a dictionary, and has fun while naturally absorbing the language. When I was learning Japanese, there were no graded readers available, so I relied on the Nihongo Journal. Once I had reached the upper-intermediate level, I found that I was able to read lifestyle magazines, and then as I progressed, newspapers.

If you are learning English, you are lucky. There are thousands of graded readers available, at different levels. If you are learning a lesser-learnt language, then you will probably find there are none. So, what do you do? Start with the reading passages in your textbook, and then as you progress, try reading material on topics which interest you or which you are familiar with. I started with lifestyle magazines because I knew more of the vocabulary. Economic and political articles were beyond my abilities because I just didn’t have the vocabulary in those fields.

One of my goals for I Talk You Talk Press is to make graded readers for learners of lesser-learnt languages. Every learner should have access to comprehensible material, whichever language they are learning. It speeds up the learning process, and it’s fun.

For more information on graded readers, see I Talk You Talk Press https://italkyoutalk.com/

Keep at It – There’s Always More to Learn

Once you have reached a high level in another language, or passed the highest grade of a proficiency test for that language, there is a tendency to ease up on your studies. You think, “I have mastered the language, so I don’t need to study anymore.” I thought like this after I passed first grade on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. After three hard years of study, I was worn out. I thought I had achieved the highest level, so I had no more need to study. I was using the language every day, wasn’t that enough?

Using the language personally and professionally did help to maintain my skills, but the more complicated situations I encountered, the more I realized just how much more there was to learn. When you reach a high level of proficiency in a language, you start to encounter way more of the language than you ever found in your textbooks. Of course, if you have been studying in earnest, you will have been listening to the radio, watching TV, reading newspapers and books – absorbing native speaker-level content, and therefore coming across new expressions or words. You can often guess the meaning of unknown words or phrases from context. You may be able to understand these unknown elements through context, or take an educated guess, but that doesn’t mean you have made them your own, that they are in your active vocabulary. The way to move a word from your passive vocabulary arsenal to your active vocabulary toolbox is to use the word. But if the new words and expressions you come across are fleeting, in a TV show, on the radio or in a newspaper, you might just let them pass you by. It is enough to understand the word in context, so you move on.

The fascinating thing about a language is that there is always something new to learn. No matter what level you may be, advanced, fluent, native-speaker level, there is always something you don’t know. In the case of Japanese, my second language, there are always new characters, new four-character idioms, new expressions, synonyms, proverbs, vocabulary related to specific fields, such as economics, engineering, medicine…learning a language really is a never-ending pursuit.

In addition to translating, reading, listening and using Japanese every day, I try to learn something new every day. It might be an expression I have come across while reading a book, or it might be a proverb someone used when speaking to me. Or it might be a specialist term in a web article I read.

If you truly want to master a language, you need to keep at it. My goal is to reach the proficiency of a native speaker in Japanese. Some might say this is impossible. But I’m not going to lower my goal. When we set high goals, we strive to achieve them. I’m going to keep on studying until I get there.

Cultural context in graded readers

I Talk You Talk Press was founded by two English language teachers. We wanted our students to read more, so we recommended graded readers. We then decided to write our own. The first people we turned to for advice on what to write was our students. After all, they represented the market for our books. One of the questions we asked was about cultural context. Would you like to read a book set in your country with characters with the same background as you? Or would you prefer to read books set in other countries, with characters from diverse backgrounds? We found both to be equally popular. The students who wanted to read books set in their own culture thought that the familiarity would make the books easier to read. Knowing the cultural background of the characters and the setting of the story eased the pressure of reading in a foreign language. Some said they felt like they were able to “live through the character”. It was a kind of “give me me!” approach to reading.

The students who wanted to read books with diverse characters and settings thought that learning new cultures and new ideas would be helpful to their English study. Through the stories, they could naturally acquire cultural and background knowledge. If they were going to read a book in English, they wanted the characters to represent that difference. One student said that she wanted to “know what American women wore, ate, and thought about life and love”, and she expected a graded reader to teach her that.

When we plan our graded readers, we try to strike a balance between these two opinions. We are based in Japan, and this is our main market. So, we write books which feature Japanese protagonists and are set in Japan, and also books which feature a diverse range of characters and are set in other countries (and not only predominantly English-speaking countries.)

Reading graded readers should be like reading in your native language. When we select books, we sometimes read those set in our own cultures, and we sometimes choose those with different settings. We believe that same choice should be available to students.

Which books have you translated?

Whenever I tell someone I am a translator, they often ask me this question. As soon as they hear the word translator, they think of literature. When I tell them I do commercial translation, not literary translation, I often have to explain what it is. I work with translation agencies, businesses and local governments to translate product information, product packaging, websites, tourism guides, museum displays, press releases, manuals, academic papers, and more, from Japanese into English.

Literary translation and commercial translation are two different fields. In my fifteen years working as a translator, I have been asked to translate books on numerous occasions. I accepted three of the requests, two because they were short and I knew the subject matter, and one because I had already translated most of the material that was going in the book. The three books were non-fiction and I could translate them comfortably without too much research.

Once, someone asked me to translate a work of fiction. While the book looked interesting, I knew it would take me a long time, and would require many hours of research, consulting with the author, and checking and rewriting. It would require complete immersion in the story, and an understanding as deep as the author’s. It would have taken me so much time, there was no way I could have done it, and still managed to eat and pay the bills.

I enjoy reading and writing fiction. Another job of mine is writing graded readers for learners of English. So far, I have written around thirty books. While these works are short, I understand just how much time, thought and energy goes into creating a work of fiction. I imagine literary translation would be like writing the book from scratch. There are linguistic and cultural differences to consider. The book must be accessible and comprehensible to its target audience, and must read like it was written for them. That takes considerable time. I know some literary translators. All of them have other jobs which pay the bills, and they work on the translations in their spare time. They can take up to a year to complete a book, sometimes longer, if edits and rewrites are required. Most of my jobs are completed in a day or two, or sometimes a week, depending on the length. It is rare that I get a job lasting longer than a week or so. I like getting work done and out the door quickly. It gives me more time to write my own fiction, and it pays my bills.

Need motivation? Try taking a test

After the initial novelty of learning a new language wears off, you might find yourself opening your textbooks fewer times than you used to, or not maintaining your daily streak on Duolingo. It happens to even the most dedicated language learners. When learning a language, you soar to plateaus and plummet to depths (or hit brick walls) as you progress. The language slowly starts to show itself to you, and sometimes it makes sense, other times it doesn’t. It is in those times when it doesn’t make sense, when you come up against the wall, that your motivation can start to waver.

You need something to pull you through those tough times. For me, having a clear goal helps. When I learn languages, I make passing tests my goal. Of course, there is the argument that studying for a test will result in you studying to the test, at the expense of other areas of language not tested, but I have found that, at the lower levels anyway, the language elements which are tested are essential to mastering the language.

Most languages have tests for non-native speakers. In Japan, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is the most well-known. When I studied Japanese, it was the goal of getting 1st grade that got me through the tough times. That was 16 years ago. Once I passed that, I started to study Chinese. However, I didn’t aim to take a test. I remain at the elementary level after all these years, during which I have opened and closed my textbooks numerous times. Now, I’ve decided to take 3rd grade (intermediate level) on the HSK, and I am studying every day. I also want to master Korean and French, and plan to take tests in those languages too.

The added benefit of taking a test is that you get a qualification. JLPT 1 is required by many companies for positions in Japan in which you need an excellent command of Japanese. Getting the qualification opened up the world of translation to me. In the early days, I doubt many companies would have hired me without it. Some even specified it as a requirement in their job postings.

If you are trying to learn a language, and finding it hard to motivate yourself to open your textbooks or learning apps, set yourself a goal. Take a test, and get yourself a qualification to bolster your CV in the process.

Extensive reading – Who chooses the books? Teacher? Or Student?

Extensive reading, in which one reads books graded to one’s level, is an important element of foreign language study. Students should be able to read the book easily without a dictionary.

One of the ten principles of extensive reading (Day and Bamford – Reading in a Foreign Language, Volume 14, No. 2 October 2002) is that “learners choose what they want to read”. What the students want to read, and what the teacher wants them to read can differ.

I have been teaching university and college level students, and adults students on a full-time and part-time basis for 19 years. During that time, I have recommended extensive reading to my students, and very often, they have asked me what kind of books I recommend. Early on in my teaching career I used to recommend classics by Dickens, Shakespeare, and Austen. When I followed up with the students to see how their reading was going, I found that in some cases, it wasn’t going well. “I just can’t get into it”. “It’s just not my type of book”, and “Even in Japanese I don’t read old classics”, were some of the comments I received as feedback. So I told them to do as Day and Bamford say, “choose what you want to read”. This had a much more positive outcome, and showed me that what we as teachers want our students to read is not necessarily what our students want to read. We often think that, as teachers, we are responsible for our students’ learning, and we are, up to a point. We plan the curriculum, we choose the class textbooks, we conduct the classes. However, there comes a time when the student must take responsibility for his or her own learning. Extensive reading is one of those times. As the phrase implies, students must read extensively to get the benefits of graded reading. Thus, they have to enjoy what they are reading. If they don’t, it becomes a chore, and the benefits are lost.

When I started publishing graded readers, I did some market research. Students, rather than teachers, were the first people I approached. They told me what they wanted to read. We started out writing books for our students, with an awareness of what they would enjoy. We have since made our books available to the general public and to other universities and institutions. The kind of books ordered gives us insights into what is popular and what is not. For any company, when planning a new product, the end user’s desires are of great importance. It is, after all, those who will buy and use the product. Graded readers are no different.