How to recall your Japanese – some anecdotal neuroscience of language learning

“Japanese language mode” – is the name I have for the “setting” my brain has to go into before I can really communicate and remember in Japanese. How to get there is the subject of this post, so if you want to know, read on.

The Short Story

Long story short, if you want to remember Japanese that you have forgotten, my suggestion is: listen to foreigners speaking Japanese or watch video clips of a Japanese language class. Do this especially before any session where you will need to use Japanese. It will help to “set” your brain into “Japanese language mode.” (I know for me, once I am in that mode it’s hard to even get out of it)

There is more to it than that. But that’s the skinny. If you want to know more read on.

The Long Story

“How to recall your Japanese”

So I went to look and see if anyone had posted on this subject before.

And although the topic came up on Reddit and a similar idea came up on Tofugu, it doesn’t seem like anyone has broached this subject in real detail before or offered plausible solutions.

search results found:

https://www.google.com/search?q=how+to+recall+japanese+you+have+forgotten

I’d like to offer a plausible solution.

My solution comes from having studied [a little] the art of mnemonics and having read books on neuroscience subjects, like “How We Think,” “Moonwalking With Einstein,” and “The Information.”

(That said I am by no means an expert on the subject and don’t believe that even an “expert” could give you anything that could be called truth. But anyway, read on.)

These books all delve into how the mind supposedly works (no one really knows though, if they are honest)

In short they compare our memory (/connections in the brain) to a footpath in the forest. If we haven’t walked down that path often the path will not be that distinct. And if we have not walked that path in a long time it will be overgrown with weeds. Nonetheless the path is still there. The trick is to start walking it more frequently.

I would say recall is also very much like using a “heaving line”

What’s a “heaving line?” Let me show you.

In this 30 second video you can see how a heaving line is used to bring a boat in (or into a dock).

How is this similar to our memories and recall?

Being able to recall words in Japanese and speak the way you want to is like “getting your boat to shore.”

For that to happen your brain needs to make connections (the heaving line) that help you pull the information up from the depths of your memory.

Memory technique (of whatever you want to call it) or skills are like the skill that the boater uses to successful throw the heaving line and pull in his boat.

It is not really so much a skill (or even a technique) as it is a habit. You’ve done it so many times that you are “used to it.” You’re not thinking about it, you just subconsciously do it.

As far as I can tell, recall works in much the same way.

It’s a mode (a sub-conscious “setting”) that “turns on” once our brain realizes the “path” we are on.

These things are all very difficult to explain; they are feels, difficult to describe.

But I imagine if you have done more than a few months of Japanese study, you have been in this “Japanese language mode” at least once. At that time (maybe it was in a class) you recalled some words without a struggle and maybe without conscious thought.

It is like the “being in-the-zone” that athletes talk about. Things just flow.

And if you are trilingual (lets say Japanese, Spanish, English) and you are in that mode -speaking Japanese- , and suddenly someone asks you something in Spanish, you probably will stutter to reply.

Why? It’s because your brain is in Japanese-mode not Spanish or any other (at that moment). (Now, I know that as people learn more languages they learn to do something like “separating” them in their mind and can then recall several languages simultaneously without stuttering or mixing. But that is beyond the point of this post.)

The “Japanese-mode” setting

How can you put your mind in that mode? What is the “kickstart?”

Recall seems to happen based on the full spectrum of our experience with a thing.

(that is a horrible attempt at explaining an abstract thought. let me try again)

For example, where were you when you learned the word 便利 (convenient)?

Maybe you were in Japanese class. Maybe you were out in real life in Japan. Maybe you were in a tutoring session.

If you want to remember that and other words the next time you speak Japanese, you need to “re-create the setting” that you learned those words in.

What do I mean? Before you want to speak Japanese (for example, before your next Japanese class/ Japanese meeting/ talking to Japanese friends), listen to something in Japanese.

Before I teach Japanese lessons I often watch videos in Japanese, listen to audio, or skim through Japanese wikipedia pages on a subject I’m curious about.

What this does is “set” my brain into “Japanese-mode.”

How long I need to listen and how long after listening until it sets, varies.

I find that what I listen to usually matters more than how long.

Translated videos (videos originally in English but translated into Japanese) tend to not help that much. And speeches (one person talking about something) are also not that helpful.

Conversations in Japanese are usually the best material.

And recently I discovered something that surprised me.

Conversations between a Japanese person and a non-native speaker (with good Japanese) work the best!

It seems that often it is putting the brain back into an environment similar to the one it was in when we first learnt something, that will give us the greatest recall.

So I find that hearing non-native speakers and Japanese interact jolts my brain back into my Jochi University advanced Japanese class days and I suddenly recall things that I would not recall if I didn’t have that “kickstart.”

On the other hand, if I just try to speak Japanese “cold” (without having listened to Japanese) it is usually more jerky. But if I have a kickstart the Japanese flows.

Here is the video that convinced me of that when I watched it the other day:

First I would like to say about that video that Nick’s Japanese is excellent!

And when I say that I don’t mean just his grammar or pronunciation. I mean everything about the way he interacts in Japanese. His body language. His “aizuchi” (ironically. And the subject of the video). His timing (his timing is amazing) when he says something.

By all of these things you can tell that he spends a lot (a lot!) of time speaking to Japanese people. (sigh… I remember those days…)

It’s not that his Japanese is perfect (prefect is Dogen), but it is excellent.

And more importantly it reminds me of the environment I was in when I was in university in Japan. When I listen to him I am transported.

It’s the perfect kickstart for me. I can listen to half of this video and speak fluid Japanese the rest of the day.

What’s your Kickstart?

So, what’s your kickstart? You’ll have to be the one to find it.

But I would suggest conversations. Natives and non-natives. Things that remind you of when your where in “Japanese-mode” in the past.

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