Learning another language is an important part of many exchange students’ time abroad. In my case, part of the reason why I’m here is to improve my ability to read and write academic papers in Japanese. I have a history with the Japanese language: I started learning its writing system in middle school, and took formal classes in high school. In my senior year, I had the opportunity to study for a year in Hiroshima as a Rotary exchange student. In this post, I’ll share some of the language learning strategies that I’ve discovered over the past few years. Hopefully they’ll be helpful to students on exchange and at U of T
First, let’s tackle vocabulary.
Consistency is a crucial part of learning a language. Cramming might allow us to memorize vocabulary just long enough to regurgitate it on an exam, but it won’t grant long-term memory or fluency. Simple arithmetic shows how effective studying a small amount each day can be. For instance, 15 words per day x approx 30 days in a month x 12 months = 5400 words in a year—A significant and sustainable step towards fluency. There is a Japanese proverb that summarizes this idea: 「塵も積もれば山となる」 (chiri mo tsumoreba, yama to naru). “Even dust, when piled, forms a mountain.” A small effort every day leads to a great outcome.
Of course, there is the question of how one should approach vocabulary to begin with. Staring at words on a page isn’t an effective way of remembering. Writing words out over and over can be a serviceable means for memorizing, but it’s pretty mundane. Moreover, it doesn’t offer a clear system for reviewing old words. Anki offers a great system for learning and reviewing vocabulary. It’s a simple program for organizing digital flashcards. When answering a flashcard, Anki prompts users to gauge the card’s difficulty. The program will then reschedule the card’s appearance depending on your answer. For instance, an easy card might not resurface for twenty days. Meanwhile, a particularly challenging card might resurface within two days. Users can also view statistics about which cards have been most difficult, in order to target particularly troublesome words. Anki’s flashcard decks synchronize between its desktop and mobile apps, which is great for studying on the go.
Next, let’s talk about communication.
Immersion is key for improving verbal communication. Exchange students have the privilege of being able to immerse themselves at their convenience. Students at U of T also have lots of opportunities to practice speaking— they just require a little more investigation. You can find speakers of almost any language in Toronto. Eating at a restaurant where the staff speaks your language of choice can be a great way to practice. For a more affordable option, there are lots of organizations on campus that offer free language tables, in which learners and native speakers gather to practice each other’s languages. For instance, the Department of East Asian Studies and the University Toronto Japan Association have both offered Japanese language tables in the past. The Centre for International Experience (CIE) also recently started organizing language exchanges.
Lang-8 offers a great platform for practicing written communication. It’s a blogging site premised on mutual help. All users write in a language they’re studying, and native speakers correct posts written in their native language(s). In my case, I write posts in Japanese, and Japanese speakers correct them. I then correct posts written in English. Once my ego got over other users’ criticisms of my Japanese, Lang-8 became an incredibly useful tool for me to improve my language skills.
Lastly, remember to have fun with your new language! Your ability to communicate will only enrich your time abroad.
That’s all for this week. If you have any questions about learning Japanese, or languages in general, please comment below!