Thursday, June 27, 2013

Guest Post: Meeting the Challenge of Adult Language Learning

My friend and fellow blogger Joan Lambert Bailey is doing the 2013 Blogathon from Japan! Once upon a time, however, she lived in Ann Arbor. Joan blogs about Japanese farmers and farmers' markets (read her blog, Japan Farmers Markets!), and I've been curious about how she communicates with the farmers. I myself am quite interested in language learning, so as part of a guest post swap, I asked her to address how she is teaching herself Japanese. About the pictures she has shared, Joan says, "I think the pictures pretty much capture why I study Japanese as much as I do." --Ruth

As an adult I've studied three languages seriously: Kazakh, Russian, and Japanese. Each time I was living in a particular country for an extended period of time and needed the language to go about my daily life. Kazakh and Russian came about when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, living in a small city in the flattest landscape I've ever known. Three months of intensive language training followed by tw
o years of daily life and regular meetings with a tutor brought me to an intermediate level.
Talking with Mita-san in his greenhouse during a visit to his farm in Okayama.

Now I live in Tokyo where, technically, I don't need to speak Japanese. English is everywhere - on signs, in shops, on the trains - and I could get by. But that's not really my style, and for the things I'm really interested in learning more about - food, farming, and farmer's markets - I need Japanese to ask questions and understand the answers. It is gratifying, but to say that it is challenging is an understatement.

As a writer I spend most of my time in English, alone, in front of a computer or a notebook. There are emails to editors, to friends and family. There are articles, blogs, and books to read. There are household chores, although by the small herd of dust bunnies that just went by it would be fair to say I'm starting to make excuses. Throw in weekday mornings spent at a local organic farm, a few private classes, sleep, and talking to my husband and I'm out of hours in the day. Where is the time to study?

As an adult learner I have responsibilities that I did not have as a student. There is no one, save my tutor and occasionally my husband, to hold my linguistic feet to the fire. I have to consciously choose to study, to make the time. If I don't a window that I've managed to pry open a tiny bit these last four years will slam shut.

Japanese, though, is hard, really hard. There are three alphabets - Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana - that are used all the time and often simultaneously. It looks nothing like anything I know except something, perhaps, from a Rorshach test. Japanese people often don't use a subject, because it's understood from context. Verbs come at the end of sentences. There are polite and casual forms. I could go on, but it would continue to sound like the whining that it is.

Here are my strategies to keep that window open, to keep studying.

Anki - A spaced repetition software (SRS) program, Anki only shows me the flashcards I need to see when I need to see them. Interview questions, new vocabulary from my tutor, the farmers, and the farmers markets all get added in for eventual study. Daily study on my iPhone while I ride the train, go for walks to buy vegetables or working out means I build and reinforce my language abilities. [Ed. Note: Anki is useful for any project for which you need flashcards, not just Japanese language.]

A Tutor - I meet with a tutor once a week to read, to talk, to practice. Our rule is no English unless I'm bleeding or there's a really big earthquake. (The latter, of course, is a distinct possibility.) The investment in time and money is worth every yen I give her and then some. She corrects me, challenges my abilities, and makes learning fun. I practice interviews with her, record them, and listen to them over and over. Plus, she makes a mean edamame sweet bread.

After hours bonding with Mita-san during a visit to his farm in Okayama.
From left to right, Mita-san, Joan Bailey, Richard Bailey.
Podcasts - My weekday mornings are spent working at a local organic farm weeding, harvesting, planting, and helping get vegetables ready for sale that day. If I end up working alone as the three of us go about our respective duties. I plug one ear into the podcast of a Tokyo radio show while I work. At first, I catch just a few things here and there. Multiple listens later I'm understanding the conversation, learning new vocabulary, getting the drift of syntax and pronunciation.

Farmer's Markets - Tokyo has six major western-style farmers markets and I make a point of visiting at least one every weekend. If we're on a trip, I search out a market in that city. It is excellent speaking and listening practice, and there is nothing so wonderful as a chat with a farmer to motivate me to study more.

Farm Stays - Farmers often invite me to visit their farms when I meet them at the markets. Sometimes i take them up on their offer because they seem super nice or something they're doing, like natural farming, is of particular interest. (Usually it's both.) The stays end up being anywhere from three days to a full week. I'm exhausted at the end of each day as much from farming as I am from wrapping my brain around Japanese. And maybe from the homemade sake, too, but that's another story.

What are your strategies as an adult learner? I'm all ears!

Joan Lambert Bailey currently lives in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm. You can follow her adventures in food and farming at

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