Language Learning

Although this site is primarily focused on photography, I find it a bit funny that I have essentially not even mentioned language learning, which is an even bigger interest/hobby of mine than photography and has impacted my life in major ways. As usual, I don’t really have a clear outline of what I’ll write here, but my intent is to talk about a bit of my history with language learning and then go into my present experiences regarding it. As this is about language learning, I will also write a Chinese version of this blog post, since many of my readers are located in Taiwan. Although, the Chinese version will be a slightly simplified version due to linguistic limitations.

I have had contact with foreign languages all my life. My mom studied Spanish as a second language and tried to expose my brother and me to Spanish from a young age. My entire family lived in the Philippines for several years when I was around the ages of 8-11 years old. Aside from that time, the majority of my childhood and adolescence was spent in California, which is relatively linguistically and culturally diverse.

In high school I studied Spanish for two years, and after that, as a result of playing World of Warcraft on a server with many Brazilians, I started studying Portuguese in my free time and interacting with Brazilians online. When I was 17 I attended a summer exchange program in Japan and learned a little Japanese at that time. I also must have studied 10-15 other languages for varying lengths of time, most of which I am no longer able to speak or understand now. The first time I really learned any language beyond the intermediate level was when I learned Chinese, starting from around the age of 21.

The circumstances that led to me learning Chinese are a bit unusual, since I actually didn’t choose to learn Chinese and had little interest in Chinese language or culture prior to that. It was because when joined the army I selected a job related to languages, and was assigned to learn Chinese. At the military language school we studied around 8 hours every day for 1.5 years, and had to balance that with our military trainings and obligations. Even though it was basically my dream to be getting paid to learn a language, I was not super enthusiastic about learning while I was at that school because by the time I finished classes and did the mandatory homework, I was basically so tired that I wanted nothing to do with any Chinese stuff for the rest of the day. At the time, I was not a very dedicated or hardworking student, and my grades were generally around the average in the class (although the class average was probably like 90%).

In the years following, I only occasionally used Chinese besides the 3 years when I worked as a document translator, and my Chinese level mostly stayed the same until I was 29 years old and moved to Taiwan (where I live now).

In Taiwan, I live in a place that would be considered somewhat countryside, and where not many people speak English compared to in the bigger cities, so I find myself speaking exclusively Chinese with people outside of work. At work I speak English with the few other English teachers, but with my supervisor and most of the other teachers and faculty I primarily use Chinese. Aside from the difficulty of making friends in this area, I enjoy the overall circumstances of my life here, and am glad to have so many opportunities to speak Chinese on a daily basis.

Interestingly, it took a very long time before I started really noticing that my Chinese had improved after moving here. The first 6-9 months I knew I had learned a bunch of new words, but my overall ability to understand and communicate didn’t feel like it had changed that much. It’s hard to notice very small incremental changes, but after about a year of living here I really started to realize that 90% of the time I can really just immediately reply to people and understand things without really having to think at all, which is definitely much better than I was prior to moving here. Maybe one of these days I’ll try to take a Chinese test or something to determined my level.

I have basically not seriously studied Chinese at all since I moved here, probably for the same reason I didn’t study that hard in language school – at the end of the day, I’m usually quite tired from using Chinese all day and don’t feel like continuing to push myself by consuming Chinese-language media or studying. Although, sometimes after work I spend my free time studying Vietnamese for fun, but can’t find the energy to study Chinese.

My primary reasons for language learning throughout my life have been mostly related to personal interest or having fun, I never really had any ambition or intention to use these languages for work, although I did always dream of living abroad again ever since my experience living in the Philippines. I think of language learning somewhat like a fun game, like I’m figuring out a puzzle that has the added benefit of allowing me to communicate and connect with new people.

Since my reason for studying languages is usually personal interest (intrinsic motivation), it can be very hard for me to maintain motivation in my studies beyond the first 3-6 months, which is the time when the language is fresh and new; this initial, high motivation stage is also when people usually make the most progress – from understanding nothing to understanding some things. It somewhat makes sense why the only language I have reached a high level in is Chinese, since it’s the only language I ever had a specific goal or external use for (extrinsic motivation in the form of avoiding punishment in the army and qualifying for my job).

As people continue learning a language, the progress becomes less and less noticeable because the 1000 most common words in a language make up a high percentage of overall language usage, while all the other words (waaay more than 1000) make up the remaining smaller percentage. You can probably get to a low-intermediate level in a language in a few hundred hours, but it may take a few thousand hours before reaching an advanced level, and many more thousands of hours before reaching anything that could be considered almost ‘native-like’. This steep slope for learning really makes it hard to get past the initial stages of language learning without having a clear goal or some form of extrinsic motivation, hence me having studied more than a dozen languages to the beginner-intermediate level and then switching to learn new languages. On the other hand, if you have no intrinsic motivation, the process of learning may be boring and you’ll likely burn out. The most ideal situation is to have both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed regarding my perceptions of myself and my Chinese learning is that when I lived in the US, I felt my Chinese was decent, since I could understand and communicate a lot of things, and I was more advanced than almost every other Chinese learner I had met. But after moving to Taiwan I started thinking my Chinese was bad since I had difficulties even communicating basic things sometimes, and also because almost everyone I know here are native speakers of Chinese, so they are my natural point of comparison. I have to try to remember not to compare myself to native speakers, since it’s not really a useful comparison.

Due to living in Taiwan and using Chinese every day, I am able to much more easily remember new words and expressions than I was in the US, since they are now relevant to my life. I often think about this and feel that I should try to spend more time actually studying, since it’s likely that it would be much more effective now than it was in the past. It’s just hard to find any form of motivation to ‘study’ in traditional boring ways like reading textbooks, using flashcards, or doing other things like this. My preferred method of study is texting or speaking with people in the language, and learning through the interaction, but I know that this is not the most time-efficient method, even if it’s more fun. Another difficulty is that I started learning Chinese almost a decade ago, so any excitement and newness that I once felt is now long gone.

Looking at this essay I’ve just written, I am somewhat not looking forward to translating it into Chinese! But maybe this will be a good exercise for me in my Chinese learning haha.

語言學習

雖然這個部落格主要是關於攝影,但我覺得好笑的是我根本沒有提到語言學習。我覺得是因為跟攝影相比語言學習是我更大的興趣/愛好,並且對我的生活有很大的影響。我現在還沒想好我在這個文章裡要寫什麼,但我可能會談談我的語言學習的歷史和我目前的經驗。由於這個文章跟語言學有關,我在下面也會寫一個中文版,因為很多看我的網站的人位於台灣。但是因為我的中文能力有限,我會把中文版寫得簡單一點。

我從小就接觸過外語。我的媽媽學了西班牙語,然後讓我和我弟弟從小接觸西班牙語。當從8-11歲的時候我的全家在菲律賓住了幾年。除此之外,我主要在加州長大了,那邊的語言和文化也蠻多元。

高中的時候我學西班牙語學了兩年,然後我玩WoW(魔獸世界)的時候遇到很多住在巴西的人,所以我開始自學葡萄牙語讓我跟這些人互動與溝通。我十七歲的時候參加了日本的暑期交流的項目,當時學了一點點日文。在我的生活中,我也學了10-15其他語言,但是因為那些語言我沒有學那麼久,所以現在忘記了。我唯一學的超過中級程度的語言是中文,大約從21歲開始。

我開始學中文的情況不尋常,因為我其實沒有選擇學中文,還有在此之前我沒有對中文或中華文化有興趣。我開始學中文就是因為我從軍的時候選了一個跟語言有關的工作,被軍隊要求去學中文。在那個軍隊語言學院我們每天學中文學了八個小時,總共學了一年半。當時我們也需要平衡我們的軍事訓練和別的事情。雖然賺錢學語言是我的最理想的工作,因為那個學校的生活太累了,下課做作業之後我沒有精力做什麼別的跟中文有關的事。當時因為太累,我沒有那麼努力的學習。

之後的幾年,除了做文章翻譯工作的三年以外,我只偶爾用中文。因此直到我搬來台灣時(29歲)我的中文都沒有進步。

在台灣我住在一個有點像鄉下的地方。在這裏(跟大城市相比)沒有那麼多會說英文的人,所以我每天有機會說中文。上班的時候我經常跟別的英文老師說英文,可是跟我的主任和大部分的別的老師我主要用中文。除了在這裏有點難交朋友,我覺得我的生活的情況很不錯。我也很高興有機會天天練習用中文。

我搬來這裡之後花了很多時間才意識到我的中文進步了。最初的6-9個月我知道我學到了很多新的單字,可是我的整體理解和溝通的能力沒有很明顯的改變。我覺得很小慢慢的改變有點難意識到,可是我住在這裡一年之後發現我通常可以很容易聽得懂別人說的,也可以不想太多就直接回覆,所以當時我才發現我的中文一定進步了。我還不知道我的中文程度怎麼樣,有一天我可能會考TOCFL。

我搬來這裡以後,基本上都沒有認真學中文。原因可能是跟我在語言學院沒有那麼認真學中文的原因一樣吧,因為我每天用這麼多中文讓我很累,不想用我休閒時繼續用中文。但好笑的是我有的時候還用我的休閒時學越南語!

在我的生活中,我主要學外語的原因就是自己的興趣,我從來沒有打算用這些語言找工作之類的。我覺得學語言有點像一個遊戲或解決一個謎題,可是之後還可以讓我跟人溝通。

由於我學外語的原因通常是自己的興趣(內在的動機)所以最初3-6個月之後,我覺得保持那麼多動力有點難。這個最初,比較高動力的階段也通常是可以學得最快的時候。這算是我為什麼學了那麼多語言可是中文是我唯一達成比較高級的,因為我學中文的時候有外在的動機(不想被懲罰,還有想通過語言考試)。

每一個語言的最常用的1000個單字在整體語言使用中佔比較大的比例,同時另外好幾千個單詞佔比較小的比例,所以我們越學一個語言,我們會感覺我們進步速度變得越慢。你可能可以花幾百個小時學一個新的語言就達成初中級的程度,但是你可能會需要花幾千個小時達成高級程度,然後再花好幾千個小時之後才能靠近母語者的能力。因為我們學語言的時候,我們可能會覺得我們進步越來越慢,所以如果沒有什麼外在的動機的話可能會創造一點困難,但是如果沒有內在的動機也可能會讓你學語言的過程很無聊,所以也會造成一些問題。最理想的模式好像是內在外在動機都有。

我覺得一個很有趣的事情是我住在美國時我覺得我的中文不錯,但搬來這裡以後開始覺得我的中文很差。我覺得是因為我在美國的時候會把自己跟別的中文學生相比,可是在台灣是跟母語中文的人相比。我覺得這是因為我在台灣沒有認識很多的學中文的人,因為在這邊認識的人大部分是台灣人。

因為我現在住在台灣,每天用中文,我可以很容易的記得住新的生詞或說法,在美國不是這樣。我覺得這是因為現在這些詞跟我的生活有關係,所以它們感覺跟重要一點。我經常想到這個的時候覺得我應該利用這個機會開始認真學中文。可是我覺得很難找到這樣的認真學習的動力因為我覺得大部分的傳統學習的方法有點無聊。我更喜歡的學語言的方法是跟別人互動和聊天,可是我知道這不一定是最快或最省時的方法。另一個難點是我大約10年前開始學中文,所以我之前有的興奮和新鮮感很久以前不見了。中文有點像我的老婆,不像令人興奮的新女友。

看到我剛剛寫的文章,我不期待把它翻成中文。可是這可能會是一個很好的中文學習的活動!

我累了!哈哈

3 replies to “Language Learning

  1. Not sure how to respond on the site – Glad you are getting better at the language – I wish I had learned my Spanish better.

    Yes – being exposed to languages at a young age is great for the brain. They now have many dual-language schools. 2 in Hemet and then a couple in San Jacinto. There are waiting lists for English speakers who want their kids to learn another language.

    You cousin Stephan (sp) went to a French immersion school in Wisconsin when he was young.

    Enjoy the ability to converse and get around. Amazing the writing in Mandarin – even though I don’t know what it says! LOL

    >

    1. You don’t have to say “I wish I had learned my Spanish better”! You still have plenty of time, and research shows that the age when you start learning a language isn’t as important as is often thought. I think the age thing is more an issue if you have never studied a foreign language before and/or may impact your accent, but since you can already speak Spanish, I don’t think age is any reason to not continue studying and improving.

      It could be fun to just try reading some Spanish books instead of English books and/or try to watch some movies in Spanish – it seems like Netflix has more and more Spanish language content these days. I often think about trying to improve my Spanish as well, since I still have a reasonable understanding of Spanish due to studying for 2 years in high school and having a lot of common roots with other Romance languages (and English), but I’m always indecisive since I also want to improve many other languages haha.

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