This is very likely the most important post I have written about learning Japanese.
In a 1996 address, Steve Jobs quoted the statement “Good artists copy; Great artists steal” (which he misattributed to Picasso – but that is besides the point).
What Steve Jobs likely meant – and what we will be talking about – is a fundamental habit of people who master a craft….
…. let’s call it “ruthless imitation”
Before we talk about that, let’s define some terms.
Most people starting out on acquiring a second language think in terms of “how do I translate this thought from my native language into my target language?”
Let’s call that approach “creating.”
You have gotten some grammar down and have some vocabulary and you decide you want to piece those together into the thought that is in your head. It will almost inevitably become…
怪しい日本語 (あやし にほんご ayashi nihongo)
Ayashi nihongo is the Japanese language equivalent of EngRish (with a capital R). If you don’t know what EngRish is just look at engrish.com or move to Asia where it exists in spades. Basically it is humorously off-sounding “English” that non-native English speakers “create” when they try to make their own English sentences using grammar they have learnt.
If you are actually trying to communicate, you don’t want to make new and “delicious” Japanese sentences. You don’t want ayashi nihongo.
But the scary truth is, it is not only the beginner students who create this stuff. In fact the best (funniest) EngRish is often created by the best non-native English speakers when they try to translate product labels without the help of a native speaker. For example:
This is very advanced English, unfortunately it is also completely laughable. This is a monkey that has fallen off the tree.
What is the anecdote for ayashi nihongo?
- Copy instead of create.
- The native-check. Have a native speaker look over your sentences.
First let’s talk about the native-check. How can you get a native speaker to correct your work? One solution that I have written a guide on how to use, is HiNative.com
You don’t want to translate. You want to find what a native speaker would say in a given situation and say that. This is copying. It is your first step toward the end goal of “stealing.”
How do you find what a Japanese speaker would say? Google is your friend and this post teaches you how to google in Japanese.
A word in Japanese on “copying”:
I want to say a few words about conveying meaning in conversation.
First off, the goal is to make your words simple so your meaning can be readily understood.
But simple is not always easy. It takes work.
First you will need to think clearly about the meaning that you want to express; “what is my idea at its most basic form?”
And then you want to express that idea in the simple clear vocabulary.
Instead of trying to translate expressions from your mother tongue or use complex language, use the simple words and phrases you know in the target language to get as close to the idea you want to express as possible.
The above is a case-in-point for the message of this post. I wrote the above Japanese after finding a similar statement on a Japanese website related to learning English. I then used it as I crafted my own sentences (the dangerous part). My sentences were good, but – being a humble non-native speaker – I gave them over to a native speaker to check and correct. I didn’t want to be a fallen monkey. If I want to be able to use this type of language on-demand, I would practice text over and over until I was comfortable with it, which brings us to our next step…
After copying, you should proceed to “stealing” – this is the “ruthless imitation” we mentioned at the start.
What is this exactly?
Practicing a piece of language (maybe its a paragraph, or an audio clip, or whatever) so many times and from so many angles that you eventually “own it” as well as the native speaker does.
In other words, mastery.
The most important thing to note here, is that this does not take a high level of language ability. Instead it is something you do at whatever “level” of the language you are at. But the important thing is to practice the material like you are an OCD eighth level black belt. Over, over, over again – before you move on to other material.
Everyone who I have met or seen who is great at language (or anything) has gone through this process. There are no shortcuts.
That said and out of the way, these posts have info on how to practice a piece of material:
how to practice a piece of material in Japanese