Learning Languages, Tetsu's Way (cont'd); テツ流言語習得法(つづき)

(...this is the continuation of an article found here) (日本語は下の方へ)

The Fundamentals

In theory, my views are probably not very different from those of many language specialists. I believe that no matter how much you study, you will not speak a new language unless you practice. In fact, too much theory and not much practice is a sure ticket to frustration land. At the same time, I am also not an advocate of No-Study-All-Practice. Well, at least for adults. For example, I do not think that you should simply go to a foreign country without any prior knowledge of the language spoken there and wish that “miraculously” you would pick it up because you will have many people to practice with. You will probably be too embarrassed to even speak one word. So, at the risk of sounding “obvious”, I believe that finding the right balance between theory and practice is what is necessary and sufficient to take you to satisfaction land. Where my approach may differ from conventional techniques is in the implementation. Let me explain by giving you examples and tips, some of which relate to my experience studying Spanish, the fifth language that I speak fluently today.

Tip #1: Studying the Basics
In 1992, I was living in Ottawa, Canada, while my big buddy Greg was doing a 1-year exchange program in Ecuador. So I decided I’d go visit him for two weeks during Christmas vacations. But I figured, if I’m going there, I might as well learn Spanish. But I didn’t take Spanish courses at the university, or sign up for any private lessons, and no I didn’t have any Hispanic friends. My only tools were a pocket dictionary and a set of cassettes to learn some travelers’ Spanish. Pretty much every night I’d read the little grammar book that came with the audio package before going to sleep, and I’d listen to those cassettes all the time (in the car, in my walkman, and even in my sleep (I kept it playing on a loop)). So before the trip, for about 1 month, that’s how I “studied” Spanish. And that was IT in terms of “studies”, and it took care of the very first steps of language acquisition: basic grammar and BREAKING IN YOUR EARS!

After that, I went to Ecuador and had a blast. No, I couldn’t speak much, but I took out every word that I knew and tried to talk to as many people as I could.

Tip #2: Find People to Practice with
During and after acquiring a very basic level of grammar and vocabulary, you should practice, practice, and practice. Yes, I know, this is easier said than done. Since languages schools and trips to foreign countries cost a lot of money, many people can’t afford these things. Then the big question becomes of course, where do you find people to practice with? In my case, I go for language clubs and associations. For example when I got back from my two-week trip to Ecuador, I immediately joined the Ottawa University Spanish Club (called S.A.L.S.A.). In these kinds of clubs there are always local people like yourself who want to learn the foreign language, and there are always the foreign native speakers who want to learn your language. It’s basically a language and culture matching party! I personally think that this is fertile territory where not only language is exchanged, but often times great friendships, too. I still have strong ties with some of my friends that I made at S.A.L.S.A. Today, in Tokyo, I go to various language Meet-Ups and continue to make friends from around the globe.

Tip #3: Keep Studying and Learning Contextually
Next, I would like to talk to you about continuing your language acquisition process using contextual learning. That is, instead of trying to study all the intricacies of any given language, you learn what is most useful to YOUR living context: The things that you see or hear everyday, the things that you like, things that affect your life or work, etc. Anything. Here are three simple exercises.

The first one is easy. I simply translate or transcribe a lot of the stuff that I like: videos, newspapers, magazines, etc. For example, for foreign videos, I would painstakingly watch a few seconds, transcribe or translate what I was able to understand, and repeat. Due to countless play/rewind cycles, at first it takes hours to get through just a few minutes of the video. But this is a HIGHLY effective method for language acquisition. You MUST be patient and appreciate the micro-progress that you make at the beginning, because they will eventually lead to giant steps later. As for printed material, I would simply take an article on something that interests me and just translate it. If you’re working on the Japanese/English language pair, why don’t you try it out with this blog? You can even check your answers!

Making things more challenging and fun, the next exercise consists of taking notes during classes (or seminars, meetings, etc.) using your foreign language. Again, this is very tough at the beginning because the lecture itself is already a burden. But your mind gets used to the pace and your vocabulary builds up at an exponential rate. Furthermore, besides the obvious advantage of improving your new language, this exercise also has two added values: 1) It forces you to listen and understand your class material, and 2) It deters your classmates from borrowing your notes. When they ask you for your biology notes and it says: “…cuando la célula muere por apoptosis…”, they usually hand it right back to you.

Finally, here is the ultimate contextual exercise, which I find is very effective, fun, and somewhat crazy: “Conversing with yourself, out loud or in your head.” I’m not talking about striking up a philosophical debate with your inner you. I mean saying to yourself in a foreign language such simple things as: “I wonder if I should buy this onion or those dill pickles…” Carry your pocket dictionary with you everywhere you go and when you don’t know how to say something (e.g., dill pickles), look it up on the spot. Just at the supermarket you’ll realize how learning up everyday things is challenging, interesting, and most importantly, USEFUL. Think about it: These are things that form part of your life and you use this vocabulary all the time! Why not learn this instead of trying to understand subjunctive conditional present perfect of the future preterit progressive tense in 3rd person plural? Hey, they don’t teach you how to say “dill pickle” in language schools!

Tip #4: Be born to visionary parents
OK, you got me. This last tip is not something that you can apply to yourself. But I wanted to add this one so that you can take some comfort in knowing that I didn’t learn all my languages on my own. I was born to very open-minded and visionary parents who encouraged me to use many languages all the time. But I also want to urge you, if you have children, to become parents with open minds and to think seriously about developing their linguistic capacities for their future.

I say this because I have seen countless second-generation immigrant kids in Canada and in the US who can only speak English because their parents thought that it would be too hard for their children to learn more than one language at a time. So the “parents” actually make an effort to speak English to their children, thinking that they are doing their children a favor, when in reality, they are robbing their children of a bright future. I also see an analogous pattern in Japan, where many parents think that learning a second language, very often English, will confuse their children. Believe me, nothing can be further from the truth.

In my case, I have always lived in multilingual environments ever since I was a kid. Living in Taiwan as a child, I spoke Mandarin with my father, Japanese with my mother (and relatives on her side), Haka (a Taiwanese dialect) with relatives on my father’s side, Taiwanese with my neighbors, and English at school. Then I moved to Quebec, Canada to attend a French high school. So there you go, my parents masterminded a scheme in which I would change environments constantly so that I could absorb all my languages without having to go through the painful process of formal “studying”. I guess that’s why I believe that formal studying, although important, should NOT be the focal point of your language acquisition process. It should only serve as a STARTING point, after which there are countless other “practical” methods that you should pursue. There are many ways to do one thing, and more often than not, a personalized combination of multiple methods yields the best results.

I would definitely love to hear your thoughts and comments on this posting or about any of your experiences in learning a new language! Please click on “Post a Comment” below.



理論上、僕の考え方は言語の専門家たちとはあまり変わらないと思う。練習をしなければ、いくら勉強しても無駄です。勉強のしすぎと練習不足は確実にフラストレションに繋がるだろう。でも、だからと言って、僕は「勉強無用、実戦のみ」とも思わない。最低限大人の場合はね。例えば、現地の言葉を一言も分からずに外国へ行くのは勧めない。話し相手がいっぱいいるからといって、奇跡的に言葉が身に付く訳ではないのだ。むしろ、自分の無力さを意識しざるを得ない罠にはまり、恥ずかしい思いをして一言も話さずに帰ってくるでしょう。だから、やっぱりバランスよく、基本的な文法と単語を覚える事と、適度な練習をする事がいい結果に繋がるやり方だと思う。フーン、、、じゃあ、「テツ流」とはどういった特殊な手法なのかって 。それでは、 いくつかのアドバイスと僕がスペイン語を習った時の例などを挙げながら説明しよう。





最初に紹介するのは至ってシンプル。自分の好きなものを翻訳するだけ。好きなビデオ、新聞、雑誌など、色々あるでしょう。例えば、ビデオなんかを見ながら、セリフをちょっとずつ翻訳して行く。最初は本当にチンプンカンプンな為、再生と巻き戻しの繰り返しで数分間分の翻訳でも数時間はかかる。本当に粘り強さが試されるこの手法は「非常に効果的」だと思う 。でも、ほんの少しの進歩でも意識する事が出来るようになれないと大変辛い。だけど、頑張れば、確実に大きな進歩に繋がる。そして、新聞や雑誌、さらにホームページやブログなどの文章を読みながらも、同じ事ができる。例えば、日本語と英語のペアなら、このブログの記事などで翻訳の練習をするのは如何ですか?答えが合わせられるので、面白いのでは。






いかがでしたでしょうか?良かったら、是非ご意見・ご感想などを聞かせて下さい。また、外国語を習った経験談も大歓迎です!下の「Post a Comment」のとこをクリックして書き込みを残して下さい。


Martin Boulanger said...

Tetsu, Merci de partager tes trucs. I love your idea about talking to yourself, thinking, making decisions in the language you want to learn. I also do this from time to time, but not really willingly, so it fluctuates.

It is also a great idea to learn about the things you like, the things you will be interested to talk about.

For me, meeting new people and drinking alcohol actually helps to practice a third or fourth language while it would be easier to speak english or french. People I know well always tend to talk back to me in english because that is the way we understand each other best.

Tetsu said...

Merci pour tes gentils commentaires Marty!

Happy to know that other people also appreciate the idea of talking to oneself in foreign languages. Just shows that I'm not the ONLY crazy one!

Ca serait le fun de se voir hein!

Take care buddy.

クロリン said...




Tetsu said...







それでは。Take care.

Fred (furet'o!!!) Chevrier said...

Oui t'as absolument raison quant à l'apprentissage sur le terrain d'un langage. De plus, ce qu'on constate à prime abord en commençant à pratiquer une nouvelle langue; c'est que la masse critique des locuteurs d'un peuple NE connait bien souvent PAS les rêgles qu'on nous inculquerait en nous l'enseignant à l'école. Ce qui ne les empêchent quand même pas de la parler parfaitement si de plus c'est leur langue maternelle.
Djanné, Fred

TETSU said...

Hé Fred!
Merci pour ton petit message! Effectivement, une bonne communication en une langue étrangère n'implique pas forcément une connaissance approfondie des règles grammaticales de cette langue-là.

Anonymous said...


TETSU said...



ヒロシ said...


patrick said...

hi, it is pretty much like hitting the jackpot when i found your blog through steve kaufmann's blog

i mean, it's pretty easy to find someone who's learning the same language as you do. having the internet means you have the access to the world
but it's also difficult to find someone who's as devoted and passionate about language learning as i am
and of course, i'm talking about you
i'm currently learning french and italian right now and on a student exchange programme in university for foreigners in perugia, italy

i think my italian is satisfactory right now but my french is showing some signs of erosions

so i'm working on my french right now and i swear to myself that i'm coming back to taiwan with fluent and flawless french and italian

and last, i would love to hear and share some language learning experiences with you
here is my id for skype: yeah_ok67
and my msn: yeah_ok66@hotmail.com

hope to hear from you soon!

TETSU said...


Molto bene! Che piacere sapere que c'è altra persona nel mondo che anche sta imparando lengue con modi diferenti. La cosa più importante è l'originalità!

Bonne chance mon ami!

Keep in touch!

hayuru said...



英語の勉強を再開したのは必要に迫られて、なのですがなぜか生まれて初めて楽しいと思えるようになりました。The Linguistのシステムによる所が大きいのですが、「楽しい」と思える気持ちができた分昔と比べてちょっぴり私にも語学の才能が生まれたのだと思っています(^^;)。道はまだまだ長いですけどね(汗)。

TETSU said...






hiroshi said...

Tetsu san, hajimemashite. I happened to find your blog through Steve kaufman sans blog.

wow, I was so impressed by your ability to speak many languages fluently.
I know a lot of people who can handle multiple languages, but I am sure that there are very few who have mastered both oriental and western languages.

it may be true that you have been bought up by your visionary parents. you are in this sense one of the few priviliged ones in the world. Yet, what I do admire about you is great passion running through your blog for languages or life in general. it seems to me that you are the manifestation of the positive energies rarely found among ordinary people like me.
To be honest, after I read your blog, I did feel inspired or even awe inpired by your enthusiasm for life.
It is the great energy that has helped you master a lot of languages, I think.
Since one of my majors at a university in japan was second language acquisition, I heard a lot of academics, reaserchers talk about languages, though most of their theories were not in the least convicing. as you know, most of them do not even master one foreign language. I would often think," do what you preach before you waste time and money on useless reserch".
Only later on, did I realize that after having seen some of my friends with incredible curiosities for learning improve so fast, talking about languages is of no use. what really counts is awaken an intellectual curiosity or great passion like you have. From it springs everything, I believe. that is, real passion has its own voices, creating unique, invidiviual ways to progress and evolve.
Reading your blog reconfirmed my conviction.

a sumimasen, I forgot introducingmyself.since I quit a university in bangkok, I have been traveling the world. I am currently in asuncion, Paraguay. there is not much to do over here, but uuu, onechan maji kawaiidesu.
I am to keep traveling for the next few years and then return? to Japan. I ended up becoming a total social misfit!

keep up your good work.

PS tetsu san, would you mind if you write your blog in spanish? Id like to use it as my spanish study and as something that motivatas me to study.

TETSU said...

Hi Hiroshi,

Thanks for the wonderful comment! It feels great to know that some of the stuff I write reaches people in unexpected places in unexpected ways!

Por lo de escribir en español, hago mi posible. Pero si vez en el sidebar, hay vínculos para articulos en varios idiomas.

Cuidate amigo. Que te vaya bien en Paraguay.

Dale said...

What an inspiring blog entry and full of useful insights I haven't thought about taking a dictionary to the supermarket to help with my studies.

TETSU said...

thanx for ur kind words Dale. hope u come back and visit.

good luck with ur language learning!

Chirodeep said...



P.S: 印度人なのでその「multilingual environments」に住むことを良く感じます!一寸考えれば本当にドキドキしちゃいますね!

Chirodeep said...


TETSU said...