Shortly after taking up Mandarin Chinese early last year, I spent a bit of time reading up on Autodidactism.
I’ve long maintained that one of the most useful things I picked up throughout my formal Japanese language study was not the language itself, but rather how to learn languages in general. Once you understand the general principles of language instruction, advancing your ability – and even teaching yourself new languages from scratch – becomes easier and easier. Now that I’ve finished the Level 1 JLPT, made reasonable headway in Chinese, and taught myself more programming languages than I really care to think about, I’m absolutely convinced that the only true path to mastery of a subject is autodidactic learning.
And the great thing about it is that in today’s Google Age the opportunity to learn everything and anything you could possibly imagine is right at your fingertips. A $300 netbook and free wifi at Starbuck’s is literally all you need to learn anything, from how to speak a foreign language to how to repair a rocket engine. It’s an autodidact’s dream come true. All it you need are the right search terms and sufficient self-motivation to stick with it.
Interestingly enough, the more I’ve read about autodidactism the more I’ve realized that to some extent, it’s always been how I’ve learned – whether aware of it or not. Due to my computer background, for years I’ve been the family’s go-to guy when it comes to anything tech-related…yet nine out of ten times a question is posed to me, I have no idea how to answer it. So I Google it, teach myself, then teach the person who asked for help.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this; maybe because, like the term Digital Nomad, I found it interesting to stumble randomly upon a word that so succinctly describes something about myself. In any case, I hope that aspiring linguists will find these words of advice somehow useful:
“Class can only get you so far.”
You can study a foreign language in school for years and years but still not be able to hold a conversation; the reality is that one-hundred percent of the people I know who are exceptionally fluent in Japanese learned it on their own, never with more than a year or two of formal instruction, and often with none at all.
One more observation I’ll make for aspiring students of Japanese in particular is that virtually every resource I’ve found on how to effectively bring your level from beginner to fluent includes an almost identical set of principles:
- Never, ever use Romaji. The English alphabet is for English and the Japanese alphabet is for Japanese. If you try to force a different phonetic system into your native language’s writing system you’re just shooting yourself (and your pronunciation) in the foot.
- Start with the Heisig method to learn all the kanji (Note: A Chinese version of his book came on the market in 2008!)
- A good SRS program is an absolute must for effective vocab study (I highly recommend Anki)
- Although called by different names, the concept of “sentence mining” is usually referenced – utilizing example sentences pulled from real-world sources (not textbooks). This way you can learn meanings contextually. For beginners who still need translations, ALC is handy for Japanese and NCIKU for Chinese – but it’s best to get away from English as quickly as possible.
- Take advantage of visual memory, not rote memorization. Heisig starts you off with this right off the bat – because with something like Kanji, it’s obvious how using visual cues would help retention of such seemingly abstract characters. But I’ve found that the better you get at applying visual memory the more effective your studies will become in general. I now use it for everything. With a little creativity I devised my own little system of visualization for learning Chinese tones; just because what you’re learning is auditory doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of visualization to learn it.
Here are a couple other interesting links regarding self-taught language study:
- All Japanese All The Time, a wealth of information from a guy who went from zero to fully literate and conversational in eighteen months…without a day of formal education. He goes into great detail about his methods and experiences, all of which I pretty much agree with. You’ll find every point I’ve listed above (and more) on his site.
- The French Revolution, a detailed day-by-day account of a linguist’s attempt to teach himself French in a month.
- Autodidact, an article by the same author that discusses autodidactism in general.
- Debunking the myth that Chinese is the world’s most difficult language, an article by Ben Ross about self-taught Chinese language study and the (mis)-perceived difficulties therein.