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ESL Materials: The Bilingual Secret Weapon

In my personal experience, by far the best bilingual material for someone approaching an L2, is L1 learning materials for L2 speakers. 1 So, in your case, that’ll be ESL (English as a Second Language) materials for Japanese and Chinese speakers.

Why? Well, because, Grasshopper;

  • There’s always way too much L2 material. ESL books for Japanese people contain more Japanese explanation and commentary than English.
  • You realize that most grammar explanations are ex post facto realizations of a pattern that is best acquired unconsciously (and can only be realized by someone who has already acquired them unconsciously); you realize that they are unnecessary and almost always succeed in producing fear and confusion rather than comprehension.
  • The English gives you a massive context cue: you always know what’s being talked about.
  • You learn how to discuss the L2 in the L2 — how to explain words and ideas and grammar and stuff…with words: the reason this is valuable is because once you can explain words well, you can basically explain anything. Ever notice how accomplished linguists like Stevie Pinker and Noam van den Chomsky range so far outside of linguistics? Yeah, that’s why.
  • The L2 (Japanese/Chinese) is almost always very natural, real, uncondescending, FUNBUN (for native by native). Sometimes there’s “translatese” (Japanese as it sounds translated from English), but this is mmm….relatively rare and not to be feared too badly.
  • It’s a major confidence boost to realize that Japanese and Chinese L1 speakers are as depressed, brow-beaten, neurotic, erratic and generally sad about their English as you are about your Chinese/Japanese/whatever. And you already know English, so…you must be awesome in some way.
  • It re-humanizes all people and languages, as you realize it’s not that Chinese or Japanese is hard (neither is), it’s just that the method is hard. There are no hard languages, only hard methods. There are no hard steaks, only blunt knives. Think of how ridiculous English spelling is. Yet we’re not about to change it and nor should we. All that needs changing is how it’s taught. Similarly, kanji doesn’t need “simplifying” or character reduction or any of that stupidity; the steak doesn’t need changing, only the knife.
  • If it doesn’t suck (i.e. isn’t a school textbook), it’ll often cover very real, idiomatic, English-specific phrases and ideas that you’re gonna want to know how to express in the L2 anyhow.
  • Conversely, if it does suck it’ll show you just how bad textbooks are and how stilted and unnatural and anachronistic the things they have you learn are.
    • People new to Japanese always think I’m exaggerating about how much JSL textbooks suck until I show them an ESL textbook. If you want to know how bad the Japanese in a typical JSL textbook is, just look at the English in an ESL textbook.
    • To be fair, not all ESL books that suck are textbooks, but most ESL textbooks, most language textbooks, do suck. I could draw you a Venn diagram, but then I’d have to upload it and that would be work and we can’t have that: I think it’s against my religion. 2

Finally, here are some links to the ESL material in question:


  1. The one exception is any and every product I make. Har har har.
    • Just checked. It’s official: hard work is against my religion 😛 .
      • “What religion is that, Khatz?”
        • I’d tell ya, but I can’t be bothered.
          • “It sounds to me like you’re just making it up.”
            • Oh yeah, of course, because all the other ones weren’t made up either.
              • “Oh. Oh, zing. Wonders will never cease — sarcasm on the Internet, Khatz? By Jupiter, your courage knows no bounds.”
                • By Jupiter? What, have you been watching Rome again? What is this, Asterix?
                  • “I put my Ast*rix into your Mom last night…”
                    • Yeah, and she said it was soft and floppy, like a French comic book…
                      • “Ohhhhh!”
                      • Ohhhhh!

  6 comments for “ESL Materials: The Bilingual Secret Weapon

  1. ninjaq
    February 21, 2013 at 01:04

    Thanks for that Asahi-press link, hadn’t come across that before.
    Do these examples of 熟語や連語 look legit? I’m STILL working on the kanji.

  2. FN
    February 21, 2013 at 18:15

    Don’t forget podcasts- I like the BBC Learning English podcasts aimed at Chinese learners of English. The older version of the podcasts (was called ‘Ask About Britain’; don’t think they’re the same anymore) have clips of English people answering questions, with lots of natural Chinese translations and explanations.

    Books in China are really cheap and I have lots of learning English ones- the English is terrible and I feel sorry for the people learning from them, but the Chinese is great for me!

  3. February 23, 2013 at 23:50

    Heh, I had a look at some IELTS books for Japanese speakers at university, a few days ago; and some of the “break questions” seemed to have been designed to drive anyone reading them up the wall. (If I remember correctly, you had to read a wall of text consisting mostly of “cat”, with the occasional “bat”, or some other word thrown in, and either read it aloud, or write it out by hand).

    I’m sure that some of the example sentences were also pretty dull/stupid, by most standards.

  4. grant
    February 25, 2013 at 08:58

    Signed up for several ESL weekly email things. This may only be motivational for me because I’m an asshole, but seeing these lists with hundreds of thousands of subscribers getting the most basic english things terribly wrong makes me feel better about making mistakes in japanese.

  5. Rou
    February 28, 2013 at 21:25

    Textbooks are dangerous, man, I got two paper-cuts from mine today!

    Seriously though, everyone in my class is bored out of their minds during English. The teacher’s solution? MOAR EXCERCISES. We got 18 A4 pages of fill-the-gap exercises today. I wish I was kidding. Then again, our teacher explicitly stated that he is not trying to teach us actual, real-life English, he is focusing on preparing us for our exams.

    /rant over

    This is an interesting suggestion, though. I can still remember the feeling of “I wish I could speak English already”. It would be interesting to take a look at how they learn this language in countries other than mine. And learn some Japanese in the process!

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