Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sticking to rules or 'feeling' when learning a new language

My Japanese classmate Erica (from when I did level 2) always stuck to the rules...

I’ve now taken 2 weeks of the HSK course and I have to say that I am impressed! The teachers are much better than my ’level 5’ teachers (one of them is my old male teacher from level 4 and he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. He explain things so well with so few words –amazing what difference a good/bad teacher makes?!) Also, my classmates are a mix of students from level 4, 5 and 6… and it somehow makes a good combination? The atmosphere in the class is friendly, rather than super competitive. Ah, I love those classes! I wish I had those every day rather than just 2 afternoons/week.

So far the HSK content has been quite OK. I’ve realized that in order to score well on an HSK exam you have to know a lot of characters. Do I do that? No. So I am probably not going to score well. But I think I will learn loads from taking this course, and that’s all that matters.

One thing that have made me thoughtful, however, is when the teachers explain the grammar exercises to us, and tell us how we can, just by just sticking to the Chinese language grammar rules, figure out how each and every sentence should be written even though we might not understand the meaning of the words. Rules, rules, rules… the more we talk about them, the more I realize that I know… ehum, very little about Chinese grammar rules. Sure, I know the basics, but that’s about it… In fact, I don’t even consider rules when I write in Chinese. I always go on feeling, and just put thing together after the way it sounds… When I get a sentence in front of me with an additional character that I have to put into the sentence, I don’t even think about ‘where it should be’ –rather, I just read the sentence, and try to ‘hear’ where the character should fit in…

I’ve been the same with every single language I have learned (English, Spanish, French…). I skip the rules and stick to ‘what sounds right.’ This is obviously a VERY stupid learning method (especially since what I think ‘sounds right’ doesn’t always add up with how it actually is supposed to be) but I don’t know how to change it. Sometimes I think to myself that ‘now I should really just think about the rules rather than what sounds good’ but 20 seconds later I have forgot all about it…

So therefore I’d like to ask you all –when learning a new language, how do you guys do it? Do you follow the grammar rules of the language, or do you just go with what ‘feels/sounds’ right?

I’m the same even in Swedish I have realized. Since my boyfriend is currently learning Swedish he often asks me questions like ‘why is it like this and this and not like that and that?’ and I have no idea what to answer? ‘Eh… because. It just is. You can hear it. Can’t you? Just read it out loud to yourself and you will hear it, right?’

Obviously he can’t (Gosh, I am a terrible ambassador of my native language).

30 comments:

The Taipan said...

I try to avoid grammar, its much better to go by feeling. If you are talking to someone in Chinese, you don't want to be thinking "Ok I should use the verb + 起来 construct, now where was the object supposed to be?". When you talk you go by feeling and that's the way it should be. You want to develop a natural instinct for a language, not slave after rules.

You learn ABOUT a language from grammar (its a tool for discussing it), you don't learn the actual language from it.

Grammar is like a pencil sharpener...you need a pencil (prior knowledge, and lots of it) to put in there, otherwise you'll just end up cutting your fingers.

Bunny said...

I'm just the opposite! I learn the rules before I learn the vocabulary, which sometimes makes class interesting. Once I have the grammar down, though, the meanings of the words just seem to fall into place.

kanmuri said...

Can you still speak Spanish and French?

It is important to understand the rules. Rules are patterns and they help you creating sentences. However just going according to the rule is boring. Native speakers don't always speak in perfect accordance to the rule. I guess a mix of both is important. Personally, I like to know the rules, not to learn them by heart, but to understand the way sentences are built.

It is really hard to explain how one's native language works. Since we learn to speak it before we know the rules, we speak by instinct. I'm often puzzled when comes the time to explain to my husband why things are like this or that in French. Equally, I puzzle him often too with my Japanese questions.

Jackie said...

Well, as an american, I'm a native English speaker and I definitely feel that trying to learn the "rules" of the English language would not work well. I just know how the grammar should be, because it's innate for me. But with English there are more exceptions than followers to the rules. With French though, I feel like I learned the rules and then internalized them. So I don't think about them now, but I used to.

mantse said...

My experience to learn a new language is jnow basic of grammer first. Keep on reading and oral practising, which will help you build a "sense" of that language. Or you may only get Chinglish or European Chinese......

rules or feeling is two foots of learning.

flyingfish said...

Well, Jonna, I don't think it's fair to say you are a terrible ambassador of your own language, since there are lots of people who learn languages as you do -- that is, more through mimicry than through analysis. (My most recent post -- not that recent, really -- on my Chinese blog is sort of about this.) Anyway, I bet you would be a great Swedish teacher for them!

But I do think it's a very good idea to use more than one approach in learning, even if some of those approaches don't come naturally to you. I think of it as setting up multiple backup filing systems in your head. As you pointed out, when you only know something on one level, such as whether it "sounds right," you may not be able to correct it if you turn out to be wrong. If you know something from a lot of different angles, you are more likely to be able to avoid mistakes.

If I ever succeed in becoming a Chinese teacher, I think I would like to teach Chinese characters both in the traditional way (i.e., though lessons with linked themes, like vocabulary related to "Visiting a Friend," "Going to the Bank" and so on) and in categories based on their phonophoric components. For instance, I'd take 白 as a base and have the students learn every other (or almost every other)character that uses 白 as a sound signifier: 百 柏 伯 泊 箔 帛 舶 怕 帕 and so on. Not every student will find that particular method very useful, but I bet some will, and in any case it will (I think) be helpful to have an additional, different matrix for the words they learn.

I think lots of people feel they don't know much Chinese grammar, so don't feel too discouraged or alone! It's great that your HSK class is picking up some of the slack in this area. Keep up the great work and enjoy!

Michael Williams said...

I'm exactly the same as you when it comes to learning Chinese. Whenever I practice for the HSK I never think of the rules, I just think where the character sounds 'right' in the sentence, sometimes I'm correct and other times not. I should really learn the rules though so I can be more confident I'm doing it right.

Anonymous said...

As a Chinese lived in Canada for 7 years, I think my English is quite decent. But I know little rules. Just like you, I rely on "feelings". This doesn't always work, but well enough for me.

Everyone may have their own preference when it comes to learning methods. So, I say stick to what you feel comfortable with. After all, language is not science. I don't think there is such universal law that can dictate how people speak. The rules always come after actual language, and are subject to change. You just need to make sure you are not completely ignorant of the rules. They'll come handy when you write. But there is no sense learning solely by rules. I have seen enough grammar A students who can't speak English at all in China. In fact, our schools emphasize grammar too much in China. We call what they teach "dumb-mute English".

Jono said...

Your method is actually the best way to learn a language in my opinion. Whilst you may feel that you are guessing, you are actually constructing sentences based on your language experiences (without even realising it) so the longer you stay in China and the more Chinese you hear every day, the fewer mistakes you will make and the more natural your Chinese will be. Learning by rules = learning by rote and is painfully slow, boring and ultimately will never allow you to speak fluently. Like you mentioned, native speakers never learn their own language by rules - its simply a matter of building up experience and in terms of chinese, writing the characters in the order that feels right! I think I can talk from experience as I have learnt fairly fluent French and Chinese - both without learning any rules whatsoever!

Diane said...

Perhaps you have internalized the rules by instinct. There are different learning styles and going with your gut feeling or what sounds right can be good. In the U.S. children learn "Daily Oral Language." This is just hearing the proper grammar over and over on a daily basis, because what one learns at home "sounds" right and is more comfortable to use even if it's bad grammar. So maybe use a combination of rules and what sounds right. Some rules I never have to think about but I'm glad I memorized some others.

I think you have a good attitude about learning and you're a good writer. I enjoy reading all of your posts.

Sam said...

Damn, I never got that attention in Suzhou :p

incognito said...

hi Jonna:

Remember these quotes:

“Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind”
and "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men."

Jonna Wibelius said...

Wow!! It's really interesting to read about everybody's different learning language experiences! I agree that grammar is important although I am not gonna lie and say that it doesn't feel good to hear that many of you have learned new languages simply by relying on 'feeling'... I think I'll just go on like I do then, and not stress about that I don't know ALL the small rules...

Kanmuri -The French I have pretty much forgotten, Spanish I still understand OK, but ask me to speak some and I probably wouldn't have a clue?! Since I (once upon a time) knew how to speak it quite OK I am planning to start learning at again at some point (although not quite sure when. Finnish is next in line for me... gah, it's apparently one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, and still only spoken by 5 million people!! But I have to learn it since my bf is learning Swedish).

0carina said...

From my experience, it is all about learning the rules a language has and of course the exceptions. Some things need to be learn by heart while some of them go well in by means of exercising. If you skip the "by heart" part, you will never know it, thus you will never be able to explain why it is like that. Is the same with the exercising part: if you don't exercise, then you will not know. I believe this goes for all the languages not just for a specific one. The feeling, as you call it and as you already admitted, is not always somethig to be trusted (evethough it does has its role, no doubt about it).

taurie said...

I think knowing the rules are important, specially when you're writing an essay and stuff. When speaking it should also be, but in that case I find that communicating is the most important thing, no matter if you don't express yourself really well as long as people understand you.
However when you've been studying a language for a long time I believe you tend to rely more on the "feeling".

I understand you when you talk about Swedish. For me it's very difficult to explain the rules when talking about Spanish, cause you know what's wrong or right instinctively, the rules are already somehow in your mind.

Jo-Anna said...

I think once you get to a certain level, you definitely go on feeling. Even at basic levels you can kind of feel some things out. I speak spanish, and I haven't studied the rules in such a long time. I just go with what sounds right to me, and it's right probably 80% of the time. I do the same with Korean verb conjugations now... because depending on the vowel sound you change it slightly. I never really bothered to learn the rules, I just go by sound... and it's right about 80% of the time. But I can't do that for making sentences usually.....

konichiwa, bitches. said...

learning German is freakin' easy, I can't understand any single person whose native tongue is a European language, who claims that German is hard to learn. The rules ARE ALWAYS THE SAME. Period. As an English teacher myself, I am all too aware that English has rules for the sole purpose of breaking them, but in German, that just isn't so. As a result it is fairly easy for anyone who pays a minute amount of attention (which unfortunately is a minority of English-speakers in Berlin, as they all skate by on their English, and are almost offended that someone would believe they should attempt to learn German) to get the right "feel" or "sound" of the language. Of course that takes time, so the longer you've lived in a country the more probable it is that what "feels" or "sounds" right actually is right--your mind subconsciously organizes word order and grammar structures.

you will be fine!!!! :)

Chocolatesa said...

It's the same for me with both french and english, I can tell if it sounds right, but not why.

Bill said...

Did you know that Chinese were never taught grammar of the Chinese language ? They only learn them in college when they learn teaching of Chinese.

Mark's Blog said...

I think it's better by actully "feel" the grammar, rather than merely remembering it.

Like sayings from Kung Fu novel,
remember the move when you are fresh
ignore the move you are experienced
forget the move when you are master

there is no need to consciously follow the rules, as rules are internalized, they are within us. It just feels right

afritzse said...

I'm more grammar-oriented, I always try to recognize what I learned in grammar when I read a Chinese sentence.

Since lesson texts usually give you lots of examples of the grammar taught in a particular lesson, my little tip would be to read the grammar of a lesson carefully, then go to the lesson text and sentences and try to find all the sentences that use whatever grammar you just learned, and repeat them. This should "burn" it in your brain, at the end it is like now, it just turns into (grammar) feeling, maybe with the difference that you can explain it.

Anonymous said...

Your photo of Erica is out of focus.

Adrian

froovy-josie said...

While I take a good long look at grammar rules and try to remember them, "hearing" it makes it easier for me =D
And it clearly works for you, because your English is flawless.
I also think communication is more important... I mean, my native language is English, but sometimes nothing I say seems to make sense, even though everyone understands what I'm trying to say. Probably because English grammar is a load of gobbledegook.
I find the same with French and Japanese too.. "hearing" what sounds right is easier and quicker than going over all the rules :D
Nice post!

Little Tiger said...

In my opinion, if you learn the language as a child, you can rely on the 'feeling' of the language. In my experience, though, learning a language as an adult I have to learn the rules first and then rely on the 'feeling' afterwards.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Bill -really?!?! No I had no idea? I'd like a Chinese person to confirm that...

Adrian -yup -it's taken by a mobile camera. No Nikon focus here no.

Everyone else -learning a new language while relying on a mix of rules and feeling seems to be the best way. I guess that means I have to open my grammar book again. Aoooch! Oh well. For my own best.

Don said...

As A Comment We write our opinion But i wanna give by talking to u.

chen1 said...

A Chinese person here to comment on the "Chinese don't learn grammar" thing: unfortunately, untrue.

We learn grammar in our Chinese classes in high school. What makes it easier is that Chinese is not as strict about rules as English. But you still get a big ugly X when you answer a question wrong.

As I said before(as anonymous), grammar is usually required for proper writing. So I don't think anyone can neglect it completely in any language.

Vivingca said...

I guess the more reading you do the more you can rely on your 'feeling'..esp when you read a lot of newspapers or books by good publishers where the grammar is supposed to be near perfect! It'll be too confusing to remember all the rules of grammar by itself but when you read more it comes easier..

Anonymous said...

>Since my boyfriend is currently learning Swedish

Where is he from?

Lan Yang said...

I hate grammar. As a chinese,I am pretty bad in grammar,that's why my Swedish husband always complain that I am a bad teacher.But Erik also not a good teacher in Swedish,he always tell me "that's the way it is,I don't know why blabla..."
I just pass the A level exam,still need to work hard hard hard in Swedish!