Comments are posted, questions are asked, responses get long and become articles.
Are you of the school of thought that a person can only learn X languages to complete fluency? Perhaps that was a bad explanation, but I guess would you say that you can use your method multiple times for different languages or would you advise a student to just concentrate on learning, say only Japanese, to complete fluency instead of learning a lot of language to a pretty good fluency?
Second question is, what would you advise someone to do if they studied a language for a good amount of time but they are reluctant to continue because of… whatever. Bad experiences with the culture and/or people of the language? Or perhaps that is an issue for a psychoanalyst, who knows?
Great questions. These are issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a while now, and especially deeply over the past few months. These just my present thoughts, they may well change in the future; I’ve only taught myself one language so far, and so I cannot and do not claim the right to discuss the issues you’ve raised with any authority or particularly deep experience.
How Many Languages?
There’s a lady called KIN Birei, whom I love and hate at the same time. You see her on Japanese TV now and then. Typical fiery, illogical, right-wing, Japanese woman, right? Wrong — she’s Taiwanese, living in Japan in exile since her college days (1958); back then, the government of Taiwan didn’t like it when you said “Taiwan”, because Taiwan = China and cetera. Her Japanese is perfect — at the risk of stating the obvious, just because someone’s East Asian, that doesn’t by any means give them a free pass to other East Asian languages, so her effort is impressive and as praiseworthy as any other learner’s.
Anyway, in one of her recent books, she discusses raising her children here. They were born and raised in Japan by her and her fellow Taiwanese husband, but since Japan doesn’t presently have jus solis, they are Taiwanese. KIN Birei said that she believes, languagewise, it’s “better to have one or a few sharp knives in your kitchen, than many blunt knives“. To the point that she focussed more on teaching her kids Japanese than Mandarin or Taiwanese; I’m not sure how much Chinese her kids know; they may well know some, although it sounds like they might not know ANY. In any case, she said that the most important and useful language in Japan is Japanese, so she thought it crucial that her kids’ Japanese be spot-on, even at the expense of Chinese. I was shocked…To find that I agreed with her. Like I said, I usually hate this woman [she makes baseless and disparaging marks about Chinese people and civilization that feed into the “Chaana’s gon’ git us!” book circuit on the far right: “Chinese people only care about getting the most done for the least effort”, no kidding, it’s called rational thinking]. But I think she’s right about language and kitchen knives.
Too many of us language learners are dabblers, dilettantes, hobbyists. Of course, it depends on one’s goals. But if we really want the maximum benefits of knowing a language, I think those max benefits only come with (native-level) fluency. If you want to be able to actually cut stuff, you need a sharp knife. You want to be able to use your languages to do (cut) ANYTHING. And fast. Understand everything from standard to regional dialects, read fast, speak fast and correctly, write fast and correctly. Otherwise you just have a collection of blunt mental; it looks good on paper, but it doesn’t do anything or it doesn’t do enough. Then there’s the social aspect — again, this is related to language as a social tool — you want to be persuasive. And to be persuasive, it helps to be funny, I think. To be funny takes some cultural plugged-in-edness, and being plugged in takes time — you do have to plug in. Anyway, when I learn a language, I want to know it so well that I would be perfectly OK if it were the only language I knew. Again, it is a matter of goal. At one time, my goal in Japanese was to be able to function completely as an adult in Japanese society, to be comparable to a native speaker in terms of being able to do anything a “typical” Japanese adult could do in terms of language; I reached and passed that goal a long time ago. Now my goal is to be better than most native speakers — to persuade, to amuse and even to linguistically intimidate if necessary for being taken seriously [“how thick is yooour kanji, Mr. Yamaguchi?”]; I plan to live in Japan a long time if not permanently, so this is both my desire and my social responsibility.
Another factor is, personally, I don’t want to spend my whole life learning languages from the bottom up…It takes time and highly focussed energy. I want to spend my time enjoying what I’ve learned, extending what’s already been built. I already get to do that in Japanese; it’s a great feeling just to be able to read or watch anything, talk to anyone, in Japanese. After Cantonese and Mandarin, I’m out of the game, at least for several years…except maybe just enough Russian to travel through Central Asia, if that. Otherwise it’s chill, write, watch, read, talk and just generally “be” — in Japanese and Chinese.
Language skill isn’t only a matter of “get it once, and you’re done”. It’s not catching a ball. The moment you stop using a language, you start losing it. I no longer function in two of the three languages of which I was a native speaker as a child, because of disuse. Last week, after I went for some days without hearing large amounts of Japanese (long story short: hanging out with Americans and their vegetarian Thanksgiving), I knew and my Japanese friends knew — it just took longer to “come out”, and it didn’t come out cleanly. Now, if you are strongly rooted enough in a language, then…you may never experience appreciable loss; I’m sure if I never spoke or read or heard another word of English after today, I’d still be fine. But, such rooting takes time, I think. So, you can get good at other languages, you can acquire several, but neglect may seriously weaken the ones not being focussed on, unless they have deep roots.
So, learning a language is like building and owning a house all by yourself, in that not only do you have to do the construction, but you also have a maintenance burden — a burden that no one else can bear, you can’t get a real estate agent to do if for you — you need to, essentially, live in the house throughout the year, even if not every day. Otherwise, it gets dusty, termites come in and start chewing stuff up, and eventually the house may fall. Technology may one day solve this problem (stimulating the brain directly? I dunno), I think SRSes are a step in that direction, but for now you’re on your own.
I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s impossible, anyone who does is generally asking to be embarrassed by future generations. I’m just saying there’s a price to be paid for everything, including true multiple-language fluency.
Bad Experiences and Abandoning a Language
As for bad experiences, the International Society of Jerks and Richardheads (ISJR) is a worldwide organization. Wherever there is a language or a culture, ISJR members can be found in it now and then. But good people, lots of good people, far more good people than ISJR members are there, too. Be sure to surround yourself with them. Be sure that you’re not letting individual richardheads represent/taint a whole language and culture for you. And if you still don’t like it, then, yeah, drop the language. But be really sure you’re sure, because it is a large investment of time and resources both mental and physical; it’s not something to throw out lightly.
You know, every now and then, here in Japan, I’ll meet someone who’s a jerk, and I’ll think “what am I even doing here? why did I even bother? Japanese people are so X”. But…that’s unfair; it’s unfair of me to slam all of Japan and Japanese people because of the occasional drunken middle-aged man, or housewives who stare, or even the lady at immigration who is, in fact, a retard [you can talk to her in keigo, and she will respond in baby talk; she is clearly a first-degree retard], or whatever. As it turns out, these people are (1) ISJR members and (2) tend to carry out ISJR activities on Japanese people, too. There are entire creative works more or less dedicated to the things Japanese ISJR members do to Japanese people in Japan (Obatarian about selfish old women, Densha Otoko about drunken men in trains). In the vast majority of cases, it seems to me that if someone is a jerk to you [for being a foreigner], they are generally jerks to fellow countrymen, too — this is a fact. When Momoko and I were trying to get married here (looong story), there was this…creature…at city hall, and I had my Japanese friend T-star talk to him to see if City Hall Creature could be tamed, and T-star calls me back after attempting to negotiate with City Hall Creature and says: “Khatz, that guy…he’s…a richardhead; I have never had to deal with someone so unreasonable. Japanese people aren’t supposed to act this way, and don’t take him as an example for the whole country”. ISJR people aren’t picky.
Most of the time here, old women are telling me that I’m a “nice young man”, more than once older guys have randomly said: “Khatz, you can’t leave Japan! You know so much about it now, it would be a huge waste. You should just stay here forever; you’d be a good Japanese person.” One time, a schoolkid came up to me and went “Harro (hello)” and I said “欧米かっ？！[stop trying to be American!]” and we had a huge laugh about it. I’ve only bought rice twice since I came to Japan because T-star’s family sends me HUGE bags of fresh rice and vegetables from their fields. People will *thank* me for speaking Japanese because they were worried that they were going to have to use their rusty English. The taxi drivers by my train station always take the time to say hello, and update me on what’s happening in Prison Break. The people at the Japanese Consulate in Denver processed my visa with incredible speed, and then said “good on ya, kid; ganbatte in Japan” to me. The other week, I was pausing from a walk to read manga, and a random man stops his minivan and goes: “[You can read Japanese manga?]” and I’m all “…yes?” and he says: “Good job!” and then drives off. So…if you really put your negative experiences into perspective, you’ll probably find that they are easily cancelled out by the positive. Perhaps it’s time to recall what made you want to learn the language in the first place. No matter how many retards get employed at immigration, one person like T-star trumps them all.