The Internet has blessed modern language learners with unprecedented access to foreign language tools, materials, and native speakers. Assuming they can get online, even a farmhand in rural Kansas can learn Japanese for free using Skype, YouTube, and Lang-8. But language learning luddites and technophobes scoff at these modern miracles. Like Charleton Heston clutching his proverbial rifle, they desperately cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, criticizing these modern tools—and the modern methods they enable—from their offline hideouts. Communicating via messenger pigeon and smoke signals no doubt.
“Technology is for for lazy learners!” they exclaim. “Real language learners,” they insist, use the classroom-based, textbook-driven, rote-memory-laden techniques of old.
I call bullshit.
Given how ineffective these traditional methods and materials tend to be for most learners, I can only assume supporters do so from a place of masochism, not efficacy. Perhaps they feel that the more difficult their task, the more bad-ass they become if they manage to succeed despite less-than-optimal methods, materials, and tools.
These voices seem to be loudest in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese language learning circles, which should come as no surprise since these two languages are often considered “extremely difficult” and teachers of these languages tend to be most stuck in tradition and unwilling to embrace change. Personally, I don’t consider any languages difficult per se. Just different. This may be mere semantics, but one’s attitude toward a language plays a major role in one’s ability to stick with it long enough to reach fluency. Think about it: even supposedly “difficult” languages like Japanese, for example, pose many advantages for native speakers of English, including:
- A massive head start in vocabulary acquisition. Japanese contains a mother lode of English loan words. When in doubt, just pronounce an English word with Japanese pronunciation and changes are good you will be understood. If that fails, just write down the English word on a piece of paper and they are likely to recognize it. Why? Throughout middle school, high school, and university, Japanese students must memorize thousands of English words, but the focus is on reading and spelling, not spoken English. So most folks can recognize English words when written down but probably won’t register the same word spoken aloud. Yet another reason why traditional language education approaches fail…
- Few new sounds & one-to-one pronunciation. English speakers already know how to make nearly all the sounds in Japanese. You just have to learn the Japanese ‘r’ and ‘ts’ sounds. Also, each kana in Japanese can only be read one way, unlike English letters—for example, English’s notorious ‘e’—that can represent numerous sounds.
- No need to change verbs based on the subject. Unlike most European languages, Japanese does not inflect verbs to agree with the subject pronoun. “I go,” “You go,” “We go,” “They go,” “He goes,” and “She goes” are all ikimasu (行きます・いきます).
But the linguistic masochists of the world don’t want to talk about such advantages because it threatens their egos and their “I study hard therefore I am” ethos.
There’s nothing wrong with studying your butt off. But make sure your efforts are applied to methods that actually work like spaced repetition systems, imaginative memory, and materials you truly enjoy like podcasts, YouTube, blogs, anime, and manga. Why cling to expensive, outdated methods when free, modern options exist?