It can safely be said that almost everything I’ve written on this site is backed up by personal experience — and personal success. Certainly, when it comes to methods that I’ve shared, I share them because I have used them myself and gotten great results.
One of the reasons I stopped visiting online forums for Japanese learners early in my path to Japanese is that there is, in a lot of cases, too much talking and whining and not enough doing. Heat and no light. Theorizing without experimentation. It became abundantly clear that if I ever wanted to get anywhere, I would have to shut up and start walking the road, rather than discussing the map, the trip, the territory and whether the journey was even worth taking.
So I hesitate to share something that is still “in development” as it were, but here it is anyway.
As you may know, Japanese was, in a sense, a detour I took on my way to studying Chinese. Of course, because of the intermittency and lack of consistency with which I have studied Chinese, I suck at it (for now). There was a time when I sucked at both Japanese and Chinese simultaneously, until one of my friends, Marcelle, gave me the impetus to “stop sucking at two languages and get good at one”. So I picked Japanese for economic reasons. Japanese speakers were getting sweet-looking jobs; I wanted a sweet-looking job; I should become a Japanese speaker. Very straightforward.
But I still want to be good at Chinese. Every time I see, hear or meet a Chinese person I’m like “Come on, man!!! Look at all the fun they’re having!! They live in a world of all kanji all the time, and here you are still wading in the kanji-kana kiddie pool (no offense to modern Japanese writing intended)! Get on it, dewd!”
Which leads to the idea of laddering languages. It’s kind of a compromise between “learn many languages, perhaps simultaneously” and “stop sucking at two languages and get good at one”. Now, I don’t know about you, but I know people (including myself) who have gotten themselves confused when trying to learn multiple languages. Two of my sisters attempted to learn Spanish and French simultaneously and got so mixed up they nixed the whole project. And after taking almost 10 straight years of French in school and then starting to learn Chinese, I started unintentionally mixing Chinese into my French and vice versa. “Je voudrais 一個…” Hmm…not good.
I wondered why this was and quickly realized the reason. I had used the same “analogies” in my brain that I made for French in order to learn Chinese, so they were overlapping. Kind of like…trying to write on a piece of paper that has been under the previous piece of paper you were writing on, and so has all these pen impressions on it. The problem was that I had used English as a base language for both Chinese and French. Bad.
The idea with laddering languages is to (as far as possible) never use the same “base language” twice. For example, I used English as a springboard (base language) for learning Japanese. But I will not use it as a springboard for future languages. Japanese is now my base language for learning Mandarin Chinese, and Mandarin will be my base language for learning Cantonese…I get the impression that Cantonese may be kind of a dead end in terms of lacking materials for learning other languages. Hopefully I am wrong on that, but if not, I may have to re-use a different language as a base (I would recommend one use the most recent base language available, i.e. not going back all the way to English but just stepping back onto (in my case) Mandarin or Japanese); this is admittedly dangerous, but perhaps unavoidable — unless I bust out a purely monolingual Norsk Experiment. Of course, in each case, as with Japanese, I will eventually switch to only learning in the language in question using the language in question (Autolearning? Monolingual Acquisiton? No idea how to phrase this one…). So, I will go Chinese-Chinese only at some point.
The beauty of laddering is that it requires you to be pretty darn good at the base language before you use it to learn another language. But even if you aren’t perfect, the worst that can happen is that you’ll increase your proficiency in the base language by necessity. Laddering also prevents deterioration of proficiency in the base language, which is always a danger when taking on a new language — you wouldn’t want to start sucking at something you had worked so hard to get good at. So, I am currently using Japanese translations when learning Chinese sentences (my electronic dictionary has Chinese-Japanese-Chinese on it…and a buttload of example sentences — however, my environment is not yet Sinified, so the pace remains slow for now). This way, Japanese remains firmly on my radar, and I even learn some obscure Japanese words, but I also get to spread my wings into Chinese. Very much a win-win situation. I never make reference to English for a Chinese word. And I never find myself getting confused between Japanese and Chinese.
Anyway, that’s about the gist of it. Sorry for discussing something that’s still incomplete, but I thought I might share it with you.