「悲しい」…Does the word ‘sad’ come to your mind? If so, you might be doing it wrong.
Unemotional Language Learning
People start by making friends with a language.
“Oh, man! It sounds so cool! I wish I could talk like that.”
It’s almost arbitrary, like a friendship. You two were in the right place at the right time. Things blossom. But then something strange happens. Learners don’t apply their love of the language to each word. They focus on understanding rather than feeling. They need to know what x and y mean! Learners often begin putting their phrases into linguistic patterns, thinking of translations and grammar as gospel. This isn’t a terrible way to look at things at first: most language-learners do this. Connecting words to things you find familiar is good. It gives something to hold onto. But I’m going to suggest that most learners are attaching their words to the wrong things.
「悲しい」 to a learner means ‘sad’. That’s how it’s addressed on a quiz in school.
And fine. It’s a place to start. But I’m going to suggest that for the long road (and even the short road), there’s something far better. That’s right: your emotions.
Emotional Language Learning
For the longest time (and indeed, with some words that I learned while I was a beginner), I would translate in my head.
“Oh my Bajeebus! That was an awesome explosion!” Uh…what’s ‘awesome’ again? Ah, right. “やべぇ！”
It was slow, but with enough practice, I would eventually squeak out a やべぇ！ after an explosion without the translation. The process was long and hard though, and I slipped back into translation easily.
Why? The answer was simple. I associated the word “awesome” with the feeling, and やべぇ！ with the word “awesome”. In spite of that full connection in place, it was less efficient. It was less directed. やべぇ！ didn’t have the feeling of awesomeness. I’ve heard others say that this is a natural step in the language-learning process. But I disagree, in part.
The following method change the way I learned new words:
When you learn a new word, don’t just learn that 心配 means “worry”. That’s one connection, but it’s not enough. Think about being worried. Think about someone worrying about something. Most importantly, think about whether or not you like the word.
Everyone associates different things with different words. It’s part of how we recall them. It’s why going to the beach that you used to go to with an old friend can be a happy, sad, nostalgic, etc. experience. It’s just a stupid beach, but you’ve made it something more by attaching more emotions to it.
Let’s break this down:
- Find a new word in context. (Don’t just look at a random vocab list.)
- If possible, assess the situation. (Use your brain! Is this a happy or sad time? Who is saying this word? Where is it written?)
- Optional: Look it up in the dictionary and understand the meaning. (Did it fit with the situation? Does the sentence make sense?)
- Optional: How do you feel about the translation? (Is “worry” a good or bad word? Do you like “worry”?)
- Think about the word in Japanese. (心配. Is it good or bad? If you’re unsure, assign one at random. Just make sure you feel something.)
The Process In Action (1)
So, I’m sitting in the teacher’s room. Context is important. One student’s mother had gone on a business trip to America and brought back a box of Trader Joe’s Ginger Snaps. I love them, but most of the other teachers didn’t care for them. After two weeks, the box is almost empty. I’m sitting at my desk and from across the room the math teacher takes the last one.
「最後なんだべ！」He holds up the empty box of cookies.
「ついにね」The science teacher says, sighing before a laugh.
But what the heck does ついに mean!?
- Done. ついに was said right after someone took the last cookie after the cookies had been around for two weeks, taking up space. They were cookies, sure, but nobody really wanted them.
- It’s a relief. A happy time.
- 「ついに」 means “finally”.
- “Finally” could be good or bad. “Finally, we finished the project!” After all that work, something good. But also, sarcastically, “Finally you did something right!” Depending on how you’ve heard it, it could be entirely positive, or it could be filled with some negative feelings.
- Because of the situation, I assume ついに is generally positive. It’s a long-awaited good thing. Whether or not it’s always positive doesn’t matter right now. I think of it ついに as being a relief.
I might not be able to use ついに right away, but I’m now in a position to better recognize it in the future. After a few more encounters, I’ll be able to use it with ease. This word seems easy enough, and I find good enough context to use it later in the day with confidence.
The Process In Action (2)
LIVE: So, I’m playing Tales of Vesperia. And we encounter this guy who’s been sneaking around a lot. And now he wants to join our group. Nobody’s sure what to make of him, but we’re pretty sure he’s dangerous. This is coming from a party leader who’s not exactly the most stand-up of people either. Both characters speak a little roughly. When the stranger suggests coming along, one party member mentions that he’d best watch his back. He responds:
And my leader shoots back:「ああ、うさん臭さが、全身からにじみ出てるな」
To which he responds: 「どれどれ……」
- Done. にじみ（出る？）
- The guy’s suspicious. The sentence as I know it is, translated, “Yeah, your suspiciousness, from your whole body, [???].” な could either mean “don’t” do the verb before, or it could be a matter of emphasis. When he responds with どれどれ, he sounds confused. My guess: it’s something not flattering. There’s an obvious, visible reason he’s not to be trusted. At this point, I could skip to part 5. I have my feeling.
- But because I have time: my dictionary spits out “to exude, to ooze, to seep out”. Bam!
- “to ooze” strikes me about right. Doesn’t seem like a good thing. But all three of the above make sense. The point is, this is something very obvious to the characters, and the stranger didn’t realize it was so obvious. In fact, he wasn’t happy that it was so easy to see.
- にじみ出る. Bad feeling. Like someone discovering your weak point and exploiting it. Like losing face.
Is This The End? Is It Fully Learned?
Heck no! You’re going to encounter the word tens and hundreds and thousands more times, and each time, it’ll build your feeling of the word. Build an emotional word web in your head.
Happy words (for me):
Sad words (for me):
Fun words (for me):
And so on…
The words should have an emotion, even if they’re basic words like 水 (freedom?) or 休み (relaxing?) or parts of speech like より(weakness?) and それとしても (speed?). Honestly, the emotions don’t even have to make sense. I’m not sure why anything up there is in that category specifically. And it doesn’t have to be in a single category. But it needs to be somewhere. The word 寒い is a good word in the summer but bad in the winter. Oh, it means “cold”, does it? That almost doesn’t even matter.
Yeah, I said it. The translation is less important than the emotion.
Don’t let a word just be its translation, especially if you feel strongly about a word in another language. Maybe you don’t hate all bosses, but if you hate your boss, then maybe the word 部長 should fill you with rage. Or, slight something.
When you see 悲しい, I hope you think of a dying kitten or a woman crying into her blanket. If you think of the word ‘sad’, cool, but that’s only useful for translation purposes. Were’re here to learn a language, yeah, not learn how to translate?
Guess I’m Not Alone…
Funny, this blog post was sitting in my “ideas for blog posts” backlog for a few days and in the meantime, I see this great comment string on ajatt. The main point being argued originally is essentially thus: If you see a word, without a translation, you’re not equipped to use it. I recommend the whole string, but these comments struck home for me (emphasis added):
Jeremy on February 12, 2014 at 05:11
[…] Think about the words you know in English, they’re stored more as feelings, and every time you hear/see a word in a new context, you’ve just added another layer to that feeling. Dictionary lookups and SRS are all about helping you better establish that “feeling.” The more you see a word in more and more contexts, the stronger this feeling gets. […]
When’s the last time you sat down and learned a word “as a word” anyways? Words only exist because of their function.
Livonor on February 12, 2014 at 09:22
That’s no big deal, learning word forms, even if you don’t have any insight about their meanings counts, and by “word forms” I mean actually knowing that those words exist, once you know the form of the word you can spot it, and pay attention to it. And eventually figure it out, get a gradual understand of it from a superficial guess, or look it up.
Or do you think that when you [were] learning English you instantly knew every meaning of every word in the first time you found them?
Btw, many words in your native language stay in this state forever, like “exfoliate”, the only thing I know about that word is that it have something do to with cosmetics.
Another great point. Do I need to know what “kneeding” is, aside from its relation to bread? Or the direct meaning of “partisan”, other than the fact it’s political. Actually, I guess I should know the meaning of that, given that I studied history. Eh… *shrugs*
Don’t worry about meanings. One problem with the testing system is that they test translations. To hell with that. You aren’t a translator (yet).
Worry about feelings.