Language and memorization

More on the subject of language, as taught by that wise movie, Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:

Years ago I had a real strong interest in Latin and picked up an excellent introduction by Professor Peter Jones at a bookstore and went through all 20 lessons. If you ever want to get an introduction to Latin, this is the book to do it. After completing the book and its exercises, I could recite the conjugations for common verbs, know what “nominative”, “accusative”, “dative” (minus the sword) and “locative” meant. Just like Brian above. When reading Latin texts I wasn’t familiar with, I found it really help to have practiced the conjugation of a word well enough to run it through my head as I encountered the same word in practice. Later, I heard that learning Latin helps people learn languages that don’t even have a relation, because you get used to think of language as a series of grammatical formulas, and learn the “terms”.

While my Latin is now very rusty, it is fun to revisit another completely different language that has its own formulas, complex conjugation, and so on: Japanese. :)

Taking a standard Japanese verb, to get familiar with the basics, you have to know things like:

  • Type I vs. Type II vs. Type III verbs
  • dictionary-form
  • transitive vs. in-transitive
  • the “te-form” of the verb
  • formal, past and present
  • informal past
  • potential form (can do X)
  • volitional form (let’s do, will do X)
  • conditional form (if you can do X)
  • passive form (X was done)
  • causitive form (make Y do X, let Y do X)
  • causitive passive (Y was made to do X by Z)

…among others. That doesn’t take adjectives into consideration either. Japanese is very much the “Latin” of Asian languages. Arguably so is Korean since they share nearly identical grammar.1

For students of Japanese, it really helps to take the time to learn the “vocabulary” of Japanese grammar as much as it does the language itself. Because it really helps when you learn new grammatical structures such as volitional + と思う (I think I will do X), that you can quickly conjugate whatever verb you know into the volitional form. As you practice this, it becomes natural. Lately, I’ve been spending extra time with numbers, such as minutes, days of the calendar and so on. Because Japanese numbers have lots of little exceptions, it really helps to spend the extra time practicing so you always say the number correctly in the context. Speaking from experience, if you get even a little bit off, your listener will get confused.

If you don’t use the right forms of course, you end up making nonsensical statements as “Brian” did above (People called “Romanes” they go house). Of course, people learning language probably know all this, but I just want to bring home the fact that practice really does make perfect. It’s boring, and time-consuming, but don’t make the mistake Brian did, or you’ll end up punishing yourself before long! :)

P.S. Tae Kim has an excellent overview of Japanese grammar. A good supplement for all us JLPT students. Speaking of JLPT, if you’re a student of the JLPT in the US, this is a reminder, that registration is now open!. I already reserved my place. :D

1 A Korean friend I knew in college studied Japanese in the same class as me, and said it was super-easy for him because the grammar was the same, so he just had to learn the words. This is not related to the borrowing of Japanese loan-words by Korea during Japan’s Colonial Era. Instead, it speaks to a much older, more deeply interwoven relationship between the languages. Words can be borrowed, but much less so grammar. Obviously a common ancestral language once existed. Researchers believe that Ryukyu language (e.g. Okinawan) is part of the same family.

By contrast, I studied Vietnamese, Mandarin and Thai at various points of life, and grammatically they were much simpler and with little or no conjugation. Instead stress was on tones, a wide array of vowel sounds that don’t exist in English, and at least with Mandarin a vastly complex but descriptive pictographic writing system. These are clearly a differerent language family entirely.

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2 Comments on “Language and memorization”

  1. johnl says:

    Here are the irregular imperatives in Latin, for the verbs say, lead, do, carry (singular and plural):

    dic, duc, fac, fer
    dicite, ducite, facite, ferte

    in our ‘school Latin’ pronunciation, this came out as ‘dick, dook, fock, fehr, dickity, dookity, fockity, fehr tay.

    Always good for a chuckle. (I think you have to say it out loud.)

  2. Doug says:

    Don’t forget the famous phrase: veni, vidi, vici. In the Peter Jones book I mentioned above, he had a good laugh at that one because in Latin pronunciation its actually more like weni, widi, wiki. ;)

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