Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How to Learn Japanese With Interactive Audio Lessons

English: Todaiji in Nara, Nara prefecture, Jap...
Todaiji in Nara, Nara prefecture, Japan (Wikipedia)
by Roger F Lake

I first became aware that I was going to need to learn Japanese in the summer of 1975, following a chance encounter in the basement of the Boston Public Library.

She was a Japanese art student, curious about a rehearsal of Bach music that was underway.

I was an American medical student, also interested in the music.

We happened to sit in the same row of the auditorium.

Two years later, we were married. Our relationship suffered from a number of often-comical communication lapses. She really needed to learn English. So we devoted a lot of time to that effort, and she made steady progress.

It wasn't until five years after we met that I was able to start studying Japanese.

I attended a semester course at a community college, and shortly after that she took me to Japan for the first time, where we spent four weeks living with her parents in a small house.

Everyone was very kind to us, but I understood very little of what was being said around me.

As time went on, we continued visiting Japan every year with our kids, and I kept studying Japanese when I could find the time to do so. Unfortunately, Japanese turned out to be a very difficult language to master, and I was not able to make much tangible progress.

Fifteen years after that chance encounter in the library, I signed up for a Berlitz Japanese language course and attended a teaching session with a young Japanese woman.

I quickly realized that simply having conversations with a native Japanese speaker wasn't very different from what I was already doing at home and would not be a practical way for me to learn the language. I didn't go back.

The Berlitz course had come with twelve 30-minute audio cassettes, entirely in Japanese. Probably they were based on an "immersion" theory of language education, according to which students are supposed to learn a language through sheer exposure.

I began listening to them while I walked for exercise, using a portable cassette player, but they weren't teaching me very much, and they made me feel incompetent.

When the iPod was introduced in 2001, I got an idea. With the help of my wife, I translated each of the Japanese sentences in the Berlitz tapes into English and dictated the resulting English sentences.

I then created a hybrid audio file, with an English translation appearing prior to every Japanese sentence from the Berlitz tapes. This was a rather laborious task, but the result was satisfying.

Listening to these audio files while walking, I would pause my iPod after each English "question" and think about how to translate the sentence into Japanese.

Next I would say my "answer" out loud and then release playback to hear the correct Japanese answer as spoken on the Berlitz tape. Finally, if necessary, I would repeat my answer to correct any mistakes that I had made.

This learning method was a revelation. I felt relaxed as I studied, since I could pause the iPod for as long as necessary to formulate my answers. I understood the questions, at least, since they were presented in my own language.

Since the audio file did not contain redundant material, I could review it repeatedly until I had mastered it. Although I often laughed at myself, no one else was present to laugh at my mistakes. I was making noticeable progress and also getting plenty of exercise.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I had stumbled on a learning method known as "active recall testing," the principle underlying educational flashcards. Active recall testing stimulates a student's mind to recall information that he or she may only half-know.

Using the active recall testing method, a student tries to formulate an answer to each question and then "flips the card over" to see the correct answer. If the student's answer is correct, a reward follows, in the form of endorphin hormones.

If the answer is incorrect, the student has a chance to correct his or her answer immediately. Either way, memories are strengthened, and any sense of incompetence is minimized.

For a student, studying while using the active recall testing method is rewarding and can even be described as fun.

In addition, studies have demonstrated that active recall testing is relatively effective for building strong memories, compared to "passive" study methods, like reading textbooks or merely listening to audio material.

After finishing the Berlitz course, I began studying the Pimsleur Japanese course. Professor Paul Pimsleur, who died in 1976, had developed a theory of language learning that combines active recall testing with repetition of new terms at graduated intervals.

The Pimsleur Japanese course is an excellent product, consisting of about 48 hours of audio material. I found it very helpful.

However, having used the Pimsleur method to study Spanish, French and Japanese, I think I can say that the advantages of the Pimsleur learning theory, like those of so many commercial products, are considerably overstated.

It is true that the repetition of new terms at graduated intervals can make a student's first encounter with an unfamiliar language more pleasant. However, one does not truly learn the new material in the Pimsleur lessons after completing them once or twice.

This is particularly true for a language like Japanese, which has a grammatical structure fundamentally different from the ones found in Western languages.

A person who hopes to master a new language, and especially a language with a grammatical structure profoundly different from that of his or her own native language, must be prepared to review audio lessons many times.

It is only through repeated review that the brain can begin to internalize unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar and start thinking in the target language.

Somehow the good people who were responsible for applying the Pimsleur method to a variety of different languages seem to have overlooked the necessity of review.

About 90% of the Pimsleur Japanese lessons consists of superfluous material, from the point of view of a student who needs to review them. When I tried to review those lessons, I realized that I was wasting a great deal of precious time and became frustrated.

After trying to review the Pimsleur Japanese lessons a couple of times, I took the rather extreme step of typing up all of the non-redundant material in the lessons, with the exception of material that was too basic for me at that point in my studies.

I then used the sentences and phrases that I had typed to dictate my own interactive audio lessons, using my own voice for both the English questions and the Japanese answers. The result was about four hours of lessons which I reviewed repeatedly.

I have two additional criticisms of the Pimsleur Japanese course:

1) The publishers fail to include a transcript. Therefore it's necessary to rewind the audio lesson when one fails to hear something correctly. Of course, the lack of a transcript is another barrier to the review process.

2) The publishers make very little effort to teach Japanese grammar. Instead, they teach memorization of phrases, often with little attention to the meaning of individual words in those phrases or to the logical reasons that they are combined in the way they are.

After completing the material in the Pimsleur Japanese course, I discovered another Japanese audio course based on the principle of active recall testing.

This is the "Learn in Your Car" (LIYC) course. The packaging for the course claims nine hours of audio lessons, but in reality there are only about four hours, after eliminating redundant material.

The LIYC course was relatively inexpensive when I bought it. Obviously it was thrown together rather quickly, without much structure or organization, and it contains a number of errors. However, for someone who already knows some Japanese, it isn't a bad choice.

It teaches about as much vocabulary as the Pimsleur course, but not the same vocabulary. In addition, it includes a transcript, written in English and in Japanese.

Like the Pimsleur course, the LIYC course is ill-suited for students who want to review its lessons.

This is due to the fact that the publisher inexplicably chose to have the Japanese speakers repeat all of the answers, i.e., to say all of them twice. This becomes a serious annoyance during the review process.

However, it was relatively easy to edit all of the redundant answers out of the LIYC lessons. The result was a set of interactive audio lessons totaling about four hours in length, and I reviewed these lessons a number of times until I felt that they had served their purpose.

In summary, I believe that interactive audio lessons, based on the principle of active recall testing, are an excellent way to internalize Japanese vocabulary and grammar. Such lessons make efficient use of time, they are relaxing, and they can be exhilarating when one gets a number of answers right.

However, it's usually necessary to review a lesson ten times or more before one starts to get a sense of mastery over the material. Therefore it's critical that interactive audio language lessons be kept relatively free of redundant material, to make them suitable for review.

Alternatively, if a publisher wishes to include redundant material for students hearing lessons for the first time, he or she should include a second set of lessons designed for review.

Finally, it's extremely helpful when a publisher of audio language lessons provides a full transcript of the lessons.

A transcript allows students to keep track of their progress, makes it easy for them to look up words, minimizes the need to rewind lessons when they fail to hear what has been said, and greatly facilitates the review process.

After I had completed the three interactive Japanese audio courses described in this article, my wife and I spent more than five years developing our own Japanese audio lessons, based on the principle of active recall testing. We are calling them "Japanese Audio Flashcard Lessons."

These lessons are FREE. They consist of 22 hours of audio lessons, including more than 6,000 "questions" in English followed by "answers" vocalized by a native Japanese speaker.

They contain very little redundant material and are designed to be reviewed as many times as needed. They include a complete customizable transcript (212 pages), a Japanese Grammar Guide (40 pages) and other explanatory material. All of our downloads are FREE.

Please visit us at http://www.japaneseaudiolessons.com/.

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