May 23, 2006

Learning language the sumo way

Explaining why foreign sumo wrestlers quickly acquire communicative competence in Japanese while foreign baseball players don't, Satoshi Miyazaki, professor of Linguistics at Waseda University, pinpoints the critical factor in his book (「外国人力士はなぜ日本語がうまいのか」):

Foreign rikishi [wrestlers] are not here to learn Japanese, but to learn sumo. But by learning sumo they have to learn Japanese. That's their motivation. Many students who learn in classroom studies don't know what to do with the language they learn.

Baseball players, on the other hand, come to Japan pretty much as temporary workers, with hopes of returning to the major leagues in the U.S. And though originally an "American" game, you don't need to speak a word of Japanese to hit a home run or catch a pop fly.

The foreign sumo wrestler, Miyazaki notes, has "no prior Japanese study experience before coming to Japan"; is placed in a "total immersion" environment, and "has to learn Japanese to survive." Consequently, he has a "strong motivation to learn" and will use whatever resources are available. As a result of these language acquisition strategies, sumo wrestlers "don't need a teacher or a dictionary. They just learn through osmosis."

This sounds like hocus-pocus, but it jives with my experiences as a missionary a quarter century ago. Before arriving in Japan, I went through a two-month intensive course in Japanese (having never studied it before). My teachers were earnest, but not very well trained, and the curriculum was based on the antiquated audio-lingual method. That was the end of my formal Japanese instruction for two years.

(Actually, I did look up words in the dictionary—all the time—but as the real world wasn't slowing down while I did so, toting around a dictionary did little for my real-time comprehension.)

I floundered the first six months or so, making little headway. Then out of the blue, my language skills jumped several orders of magnitude. Language acquisition does not proceed on a smooth, linear curve, but progresses in a sawtooth fashion (the classic example being the mastery of the past tense by children), which can't be easily scheduled and plotted in a classroom.

Now, full-bore immersion has its problems. A day of intensive instruction every month would have gone a long way toward preventing bad language habits (after two years I still didn't use the personal pronoun correctly, and didn't understand why itte-imasu didn't mean "going.") But I'm talking about a day every month, not 18 credit hours a week.

The second factor Miyazaki points to is perhaps more important, and it applies equally in non-immersion environments: language is the tool, not the objective. Well, it is the objective if you're a linguist. But unless your goal is linguistics, studying language for the sake of language will get you nowhere.

USC linguistic Stephen Krashen makes the same argument quite forcefully. Teachers and students who focus on grammar, he says, are deceiving themselves if they believe that language is learned through the study of grammar. In fact, whatever progress they make "is coming from the medium and not the message. Any subject matter that held their interest would do just as well."

When I returned to Japan to teach English, many of my fellow teachers were there on educational visas, which meant they attended about 20 hours of Japanese classes a week, or the equivalent of a full academic schedule. I couldn't get over how little headway they made, for all their work and classroom time. (About as little headway as our English students made.)

Most language instruction is completely generic and unfocused: a mile wide and an inch deep. But sumo wrestlers, Miyazaki points out, come to Japan "to enter a new profession," one that demands the ability to communicate in Japanese. Like missionaries, in the process, they first acquire the specific vocabulary required to work in that profession.

Of course, the supposed flaw is immediately apparent: outside your narrow field of expertise, you become pretty illiterate. To a certain extent, though, that's true of your first language as well. Jay Leno's "Jay-walking" bits prove that you can be "fluent" in a language, yet dumb as a stump.

It may seem counterintuitive, but such a corpus—a few inches wide and a mile deep—is ultimately far more useful to the language student. That's because the syntactical engine powering human language machine doesn't care what vocabulary it uses as long as it's got a lot of it in what Stephen Krashen terms "comprehensible input."

What Noam Chomsky identified as the Language Acquisition Device, the biological catalyst that enables the automatic acquisition of language by children in a language-rich environment, has in adults gone from a roaring jet engine to a puttering biplane. But it still works. It still flies. It just needs a lot more care and attention.

And attention is key—that focused effort that keeps you hitting the books. As Miyazaki says, the focus isn't the language, it's what you want to do with the language. Large anime and foreign film libraries are available from Netflix and with online bookstores such as Book 1 and Amazon, you can develop a specialty in any subject.

I'm a great fan of studying Japanese through manga. You can start with an elementary title and work your way through the series, concentrating on a single author(s) and genre. The story is ultimately going to matter more than the language or the grammar, and that's why you'll keep reading and studying.

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