Language Exposure is Worth It

Nebel in der Region Rhön 01386

I have story to tell. When we first moved back to the US three years ago from Ireland, my daughter was still about 3 years old. We had purchased some Japanese-language Disney CDs and would play them in the car on repeat. The stories were short, maybe 5-10 minutes, and would narrate famous stories like Aladdin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc. and would play over and over because my daughter liked them so much.

My wife usually drives, and I sit in the backseat with my daughter because she likes being with Daddy (and I drive terrible anyway)1 so for months I would have listen to the same 5-10 minute stories over and over and OVER. If we went on a long drive, such as to my grandmother’s house on Camano Island, I listened to the story many times.

But you know what? Over time, the stories made more sense. At first, it just sounded like a jumble of words to me. I was studying for the JLPT3 (JLPT N4 nowadays) and was just getting familiar with a lot of basic Japanese vocabulary, and that vocabulary appeared in the stories a lot. However, at first I just couldn’t hear it in the stories. But little by little, I would recognize certain words or grammar and the stories made more and more sense. Also, I learned a lot of new words, like 魔法 (mahō magic), 姫さま (hime-sama princess), and other Disney-centric words. 😉

This is how one effectively learns a language. There’s no fast-track or rushing it. It takes a really long time but progress happens slowly, subtly. I wrote an old post about Buddhist practice and Zen meditation and I quoted from the famous teacher Shunryu Suzuki:

After you practice for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know you will get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say “Oh this pace is terrible!” But actually it is not…It is like learning a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master. (page 46)

So, lately, when took up Korean studies, I found myself learning the same lessons again.

As part of my 4-month experiment, I listen to the Iyagi series of lessons at TTMIK and listen to the same ones everyday (lessons 2 through 7 currently), and often more than once a day. As I work through the podcasts, the number of Iyagi lessons keeps growing too.

For example, for Iyagi Lesson 2, they talk about bookstores. At first, I couldn’t really understand any of it, but after listening to it for a week, I started picking out a lot of words and grammar I had studied previously, and learned some new words like 서점 (seojeom bookstore). Or, while listening to Iyagi Lesson 3, I started picking out a lot of conversational words I vaguely knew, and enjoy the teacher Jin Seokjin’s impersonation of a 노래방 (noraebang “karaoke”) singer.

Again, although it doesn’t really feel like I’m making much progress, using Rev. Suzuki’s analogy, it’s like being in a fog. The longer you stand there, the more your clothes absorb the moisture. In the same way, the more you expose yourself to a language, even if the doesn’t make sense, the more you just absorb it. Then you can go back and review what you encountered through structured lessons.

I think the mistake I made in the past was the opposite: study first, then only get exposure “when I felt ready”. Since I started this experiment, I reversed the process (exposure first, review new lessons periodically mixed in), I feel like I am making better progress now. It feels more satisfying.

1 If you see me on the road, RUN!

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Language Exposure is Worth It”

  1. I always enjoy your posts on Language when Iwent to France I crammed for a couple of months when I got to France and face to face with someone I forgot everything but after a week or so I started to understand what was being said even though I couldn’t speak it.

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  2. I’m having the same experiences. As I listen to jpop or watch Japanese films I’m gradually starting to understand more and more of what’s being said. One trick I’ve been doing recently is that if I’m rewatching a Japanese film that I’ve already seen (and so know the plot already) I’m switching off the subtitles and just listen on the dialogue while watching.
    And actually exposure is basically how I learned English as well. I used to suck on it at school, but when my parents bought me a Playstation I gradually got really good at it.

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  3. Great encouraging post as I need to resume my Arabic studies after a three year hiatus. It can feel like little progress is made in language studies, by try we must! 😀

    Pink.

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  4. Hi everyone and sorry for replying late:

    timetales: Glad you enjoy. I went to France for a few days and didn’t learn much myself. :p

    Jan: I remember a friend and co-worker who was Swedish and grew up in a small town way up north, but speaks brilliant English because he watched so much American TV growing up (with Swedish subtitles). It works, that’s for sure. 🙂

    Pink Ninjabi: language study is always a good investment of time. Best of luck in your efforts. 🙂

    Justin M. Smith Yeah, now if only I could follow my own advice more often. 😉

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  5. Exposure is very important! I listened to lots of Japanese anime (un-dubbed) and Japanese music before I started formal lessons my last year of high school. It wasn’t until then I realized how much I had picked up and learned without noticing, just by listening to the language on a consistent basis. I already knew a few words and had a decent knowledge of speech-pacing, etc. It made structured lessons easier.

    Now I’ve added Korean music and dramas to the list of what I often find myself listening to/watching. I have no structured Korean lessons just yet, but over the last 4 or 5 months of listening to the language I’ve already noticed I’m picking up on individual sounds, word breaks, pacing, and accents… even if I can’t translate more than a few words yet. When I first started it was just a jumble of unfamiliar sounds.

    Besides, if you truly love a language enough to want to dedicate the time to learning it, wouldn’t you want to be exposed to it every chance you could get? =)

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    1. Hi Lissa and welcome to the JKLLR!

      Sounds like you’ve been following the same windy path I have for a while. Glad I am not the only one.

      But yeah, I totally agree. Even though I don’t understand the words in Korean much, I find I am getting used to the pace, tones, and those little intuitive bits. I really wish I had done this long ago with Japanese. I would haev started off much better rather than trying to catch up years later. Oh well, it’s all hindsight. 🙂

      P.S. With regard to loving a language, I agree: it sort of becomes effortless when you can combine interests and a language you like.

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