Forcing students to learn

I often hear teachers say ‘I can’t force the students to learn, all I can do is help them on their way’, and in many ways I agree with this sentiment.

However, as a learner of Japanese and, as of April this year, the piano, I disagree. I want my teachers to ‘force’ me, to establish expectations of what I should be doing between classes, and check to see that I am actually doing it.
If no-one is watching, I find it easy to get distracted by other things.
I am not sure how many of my students feel like I do, but it might be an interesting topic for a survey. Something to come back to once classes start.

Top Five Free Ways to Learn Japanese Online

I know a lot of people who despite living in Japan, just don’t get the exposure to comprehensible input that they would need in order to really make significant progress.

This is a list of five free ways you can get started on increasing your input, and the best thing is that you don’t even have to be in Japan to use them.
1. (or rikaichan plugin for Firefox)
Rikai is a website or app that allows you to read Japanese online by giving you a small pop-up window with the pronunciation and meaning of individual words. Assuming you have a minimal knowledge of Japanese grammar, this is much better than a translation program because it allows you to choose the most appropriate meaning for each word. A few minutes a day reading sites on topics that interest you is sure to boost your vocabulary and reading fluency.
This is not a radio station, but rather a website that allows you to learn vocabulary in context, using a spaced repetition system to help you transfer the words to your long-term memory (something that takes between 20 and 50 exposures to the word in context). Including text, pictures, audio, and a really fun practice system, this site makes it easy to study for just five or ten minutes a day.
I finally got my hands on an iPhone recently, and one of the best things I have been doing with it is listening to all sorts of podcasts in Japanese. There is a huge range of material available for free at all levels, and listening to podcasts while commuting or exercising is one of the easiest ways to improve your listening comprehension (with the added bonus that listening will also help your speaking ability).
4. LingQ (pronounced ‘link’, I think)
LingQ is another website featuring a learning system. It is mostly free (you can pay to practice speaking with a tutor online or to have your writing corrected) and offers an easy way to read texts, listen to audio, and learn vocabulary. I always think of it as the grown-up, more serious version of (see above). It takes more time and effort to use, but you will make more progress.
This is a site made by a friend of mine, and it is one of the best I have seen for learning kanji or vocabulary sets, particularly if you are studying for the JLPT or the Kanji Kentei (which I thoroughly recommend, more on that in a future post). The site is free and well worth looking around. It is not as pretty as some of the others, but the mechanics are solid.
I am very lazy, so I haven’t used these resources as much as I should have, but for anyone with some self-discipline, they should prove very useful to increase that all-important listening and reading input.

Free language courses from FSI

The US Foreign Services Institute has a whole bunch of language courses on their website. From Amharic to Yoruba (no Japanese unfortunately, but they do have Thai and Mandarin) you can find coursebooks and audio downloads. The courses are a bit dated, but they seem thoroughly put together and you can’t beat the price.

Thanks to inZania for the tip, and for a cool iPhone flashcard app that I am using to practice JLPT vocabulary.

The importance of listening

I think the importance of listening input for students cannot be overemphasised, yet it is severely neglected in Japan, in both public and private teaching settings.

I myself have not really focused on teaching listening so far, for the following reasons:
1. graded listening materials are not as common as graded reading
2. it’s hard to categorize listening materials at a glance, like you would with a written text
3. technical issues get in the way: you have to make the materials available to the students, and it’s not as easy as just handing them a book or a handout
However, I have decided to have a go at really boosting my students’ listening practice. I am going to investigate online delivery, lending CDs, and lending mp3 players pre-loaded with content.
I will post on any challenges and successes with the project. Comments on the subject are also most welcome.

Learning a foreign language

Learning a foreign language is not difficult, but it takes time and commitment.

Anyone can master a foreign language, and it does not require studying verb tables, memorising vocabulary, or buying a lot of books and resources. In fact, it doesn’t really involve any of the things we did at school in our foreign language classes. To be honest, many of those things seem as if they were just busy work, things our teachers assigned to us because they are easy to check and evaluate, and give both students and teachers the feeling that they are actually doing something. This is the good news.
The bad news is that it takes a lot of time to master a language. Let’s say you want to be in a position where you can understand pretty much everything people say to you in your daily life, as well as be able to watch TV, read a newspaper, and deal with any paperwork that comes your way. You will need a passive vocabulary of at least 5,000 to 10,000 words, and an active one of around half that.
In order to learn a word so that you know it passively (ie you can understand it when you see it or hear it) you will have to encounter it in text or aural input 20-50 times in context. In order to acquire it so you can use it actively (when speaking or writing), you will have to encounter it even more, as well as start using it yourself.
Doing the math (something I am not good at), you can see that you are going to have to read millions of words, or listen to hundreds or thousands of hours of audio, in order to get the exposure you need to the language.
Before you give up and go and take up a more sensible pursuit, such as counting grains of sand on a beach, however, there is a final piece of good news (I was saving it until the end):
None of this needs to be boring or a chore.
With the proliferation of free content on the internet, it is fairly easy to find interesting audio and text on almost any topic, as well as online translation, vocabulary learning, and grammar explanation websites, without spending a penny. I’ll be introducing some over the next few weeks.
Here’s the first one:
A wonderful online system for delivering graded content that is mostly free (you can pay for tutors to correct your written work or speak to). The founder, Steve Kaufmann, has a blog that is well worth checking out.
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