Today, we have a guest post by Nina Schuyler, author of Translator. Enjoy her insights into learning a second language and don't forget to pick up a copy of her book.
When I was ten years old, my father had business in Japan, and this time the family went with him. When I look back at this experience, I'd say it was fundamental to my sense of the world. I didn't have the words for it as a girl, but now I see that it opened my awareness to culture as a set of assumptions and choices, rather than an absolute. You could live in a house with walls, not made of wood and drywall but paper. You could begin your day by visiting a Shinto shrine, located two houses down from your own, to pray for good health and safe travels. You could have three alphabets, not one. And beauty could be a single cherry blossom branch in a vase.
I was intrigued and enamored, and I wanted to know more about Japan. As a lover of words, I was especially drawn to the Japanese language and the beauty of their letters. In college, I took my first Japanese language class. I'd studied Spanish in middle school, so I was familiar with the methods of learning a language -memorization, listening to the language, writing. Let me say, Japanese is difficult, and despite years of study, I am not fluent. They say you need about 2,000 kanji to read a Japanese newspaper. At the same time, the Japanese language is well-suited for the English tongue; there aren't clusters of consonants or diphthongs to negotiate. It's syllabic-based and all the sounds are familiar to the English speaker.
After I graduated, I wondered how I could retain this language, since I was living in the United States, immersed, not in Japanese, but in English. I knew I'd have to devote time and resources, but why not? I enjoyed Japanese. And all the brain research showed that, despite getting older, the brain could continue to form new neural connections. Some people do crossword puzzles; I'd practice and learn more Japanese.
Here are some things I did to learn and retain this language:
1. Find a Private Teacher: After graduating from college, I found a private teacher, a sensei, who taught Japanese. I live in the Bay Area and we are blessed with many Japanese people living here. For every lesson, my sensei had me write an essay in Japanese. I'd read it out loud and she'd correct my spelling and my punctuation. Then we'd move on to my language workbook -appropriately titled "Japanese for Busy People" published by the Association for Japanese-Language Teaching. Then onto memorizing kanji, using "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig.
2. Take a Class at the Community College: When moved away from my teacher in San Francisco, I took a class at the local community college. With a set structure and a dedicated time, I found it easier to carve out the time to learn.
3. Watch Films or Listen to Music: My language teacher recommended I watch Japanese films to train my ear. In the beginning, it was hard because everyone spoke so fast. But slowly, eventually, I could understand a word, then a sentence, then more. A couple of my friends wanted to learn French and they listened to French music, which, they say, helped them learn new words and the correct punctuation.
4. Online Language Courses: While I haven't taken any online courses, there are a plethora of options.
5. Live in a Foreign Country: I've traveled to Japan several times to immerse myself in the language. In fact, everyone who has learned a foreign language well puts this at the top of their list. Complete immersion. You learn or you starve. Or suffer from intolerable loneliness.
6. Read Children's Books: After several years of study, I found another way to continue learning and practicing Japanese: I taught it to children and teens. Together, we read Japanese children's books, which I purchased at the bookstore. With simple words and syntax, the books helped me learn how to best use a specific word and also word order.
Learning another language has made me aware of language itself, which is a good thing for a writer. Word choice, syntax, rhythm, sounds, these aspects of language are brought to the forefront when you step out of your native tongue.
I'd love to hear your ways of learning and retaining a second language!