Mar 122010

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.

  18 Responses to “Autodidactic Language Learning”

  1. Your website is awesome and insightful! I love that you are teaching yourself yet another language. You’re amazing!

  2. Well thank you! 🙂

  3. Good resource!

  4. how autodidactic is the language of love?

    ha! try that on for size!

  5. You mean French? haha 😛

  6. no, that’s the language of baguettes.

  7. LOL!! 😀

  8. speak as much as possible in the target language….the only way to learn is to do it, make mistakes, keep at it, and immerse yourself

  9. Can you elaborate on how you use autodidactic principles to learn things other than languages?

  10. LOL at my avatar picture

  11. Lol that’s been your avatar forever! I guess it’s just been forever since you’ve commented (and thus seen it) 😉

    As far as autodidactic learning, all it really means is “self-taught learning,” which is how I’ve learned basically everything I use on a daily basis, most notably, every programming language I know (except C++). An example of how I use it for something other than languages? Well, my dad’s office recently had a job available in Flash, which I didn’t know. So rather than signing up for a class at SMC, I spent a few days reading a Flash CS4 book cover-to-cover and soaking up as many tutorials as I could get my hands on, and took the job.

    Another example (relevant to my most recent post): I’ve wanted a good Facebook Connect solution on this blog for ages. I searched around and all I found were a few plugins that didn’t really do the job right, plus tons of webboards with people complaining about wanting one that does. So rather than posting/complaining about it, I taught myself how to write WordPress plugins and just wrote one 😛

    It may seem obvious, but I’m often shocked at how often people give answers like “I don’t know how”, etc.

  12. more power to 独学!

  13. Of the languages I speak fluently, I still find Chinese to be the easiest. Just because the entire language is character based, I remain fortified on the fact that it’s much easier (as a language) to absorb for an English learner. It’s SVO, pronouns are rampant and very clear. Yet, the language has the flexibility of Japanese while still maintaining some semblance to the English Language order. The language has many idioms but it’s bizarre how many of them seem like direct translations with English ones. I always tell people who are learning Chinese conversation skills that if they get lost, slow down and directly translate every word in English order and I guarantee you almost everyone will know what you’re trying to say. Many times, you’ll actually say the sentence with a good chance of general grammatical acceptance. Oh yeah no conjugations! How great is that?!

    I second that on the image-based learning. Look at how many random kids in class learn Japanese through just watching anime and listening to JPOP. It’s really scary how fast they learn it and get to such a proficient level. Visual and Aural immersion through media still seems to be the 2nd best way to learn a language. However, I still agree that plopping yourself in another country cold turkey with an empty stomach and only a few greens in the wallet is the best way. Stressful, but I’m sure you’ll learn pretty fast.

    I don’t know if you know of this site, but is one amazing language learning resource. It’s absolutely bizarre how it’s actually free. Of course, there’s a premium version. Everyone should definitely check that site out. It’s jaw dropping.

  14. >>Of the languages I speak fluently, I still find Chinese to be the easiest.

    Well, which languages are we talking about – Chinese, Japanese, and Korean? If so, then hell yeah! haha 😛

    >>I second that on the image-based learning. Look at how many random kids in class learn Japanese through just watching anime and listening to JPOP

    Lol yeah, though that’s not QUITE what I meant by visual learning. I guess it’s similar though since it creates a visual context that you can return to and remind yourself of the meaning 🙂

    >>I don’t know if you know of this site

    Yep, I’ve heard of it. Apparently it gets great reviews, though I haven’t looked around enough to find out for myself. Since finishing the JLPT I haven’t really had much time to put into language – aside from trying to keep up with my Anki reviews 😛

  15. Well I speak French, Russian, and Kazakh because of my family upbringing and I think French has slightly easier grammar than English because of a lower flexibility in moving parts complex sentences around. In English the flexibility has some kind of weird attention snatcher. Like, there are sentences which are not wrong but certainly sound awkward. Like,

    “For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care with which the cast is chosen are important.”

    French, if it sounds awkward it’s most likely wrong. You know what I mean? Russian has situational conjugations… which is just the most amount of terrible. Like I gotta conjugate a verb if I’m going into a building, just because the situation calls for entering a building. Chinese, haha awkward sentence structures still maintain good understatement. You don’t usually have to have the sentence repeated and go, “come again?”.

  16. […] blog, you’re probably and autodidact (and you didn’t even know it!!). If you want a good overview on autodidactic language learning, I’d have to recommend Justin Klein’s post. His post also echoes one point I’ve […]

  17. I’m also autodidactic, and I’m currently Japanese teaching myself. It’s funny, because i enjoy learning it by myself…. well because…. i learn it, and when it comes to school topics, at school i have a hard time learning. Guess Being autodidactic means harder time with teacher to student studies, so i generally feel that i’m wasting time at school, if i can learn things by myself, i ask myself, “why do i have to go to school?”…

    And Google helps a lot 🙂

  18. Google IS an amazing resource…though personally, I do think class can be extremely helpful to get a basis in many cases. It really just depends on the individual I guess 🙂

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