[ skip to content ]

More Information about this image

Batten Arts and Letters Bldg 15

Lead with Language Stories

My Experience in Learning Foreign Languages in College

My name is Amy Ferris, and I have studied both German and Japanese for three years at Old Dominion University. My training in these two languages has been extensive, and my skill is now considered to be somewhere in the intermediate level in both languages. I am writing this to provide some insight into my experiences learning foreign language for teachers, students, and those who may be considering future studies in foreign language learning. For all intensive purposes, I am going to focus on my experience learning Japanese in this paper, and any tactics or advice certainly also applies to German or any other foreign language study.

In the beginning, Japanese 101 started off by refining my ability to read and write in Japanese alphabets Hiragana and Katakana. I had studied those two alphabets before going to college, but during class I quickly realized that I had never tried writing it by hand or on a computer. So, I had a very tiny advantage when I started my training, but this advantage only lasted approximately one or two weeks before our class moved onward to bigger and better things. By knowing the alphabets well, I was then able to better understand how Japanese pronunciation worked and started gaining skill in spelling. I think this is one of the very first and most important steps to take when learning a new language, because like in grade school, learning the alphabet starts the foundation to continued comprehension of the target language.

After getting settled into the realization of my goals of learning Japanese, class time became my golden opportunity to open up my ears and listen. My teacher, Marken Sensei, would instruct my class in simple Japanese phrases and sentences. I quickly realized that the more I heard the same phrases each class, the more I could understand other words and ideas being conveyed, even though I hadn't ever used or looked up what they meant. I think that Sensei's use of instruction in Japanese and limited use of English forced me to be mentally present and focused during class. After a while of hearing Japanese on a regular basis and thinking in very limited Japanese, we started repeating phrases ourselves and were encouraged to formulate our own sentences and answer questions in class in Japanese. This leads me to another point about actually utilizing what I was learning, coming up soon.

I am not sure how to express this concept, but having our classes set up and instructed in Japanese has trained my brain in an unexpected way. If you have ever seen any, you'll notice that foreign language websites, directories, books, instruction manuals, proofreading/correction habits, instructions, and things of this nature are somehow set up differently. The use of different fonts and shapes for things along with the walls of foreign script can be very disorienting. Even things like "fill in the blank" boxes might not fall into the position on the page that you think they will be on. For me as time went on though, I started to adapt to the way things like Canvas looked in all Japanese, and how X's O'x and triangles were used for corrections on our assignments. I am now a lot more skilled at being able to just comprehend what's going on when I'm looking at documents and websites in Japanese. I think that learning these styles will give me an advantage and less headaches when I am working in Japan.

Utilization of the new language was so very important for me. In class, I felt very motivated to answer questions and ask questions in Japanese in order to get in the practice of making my brain and mouth work together. It sounds easy, but when you're trying to retain a thought while getting the grammar, rhythm, vocabulary, sentence endings, conjugations, and intonations correct- it can be a challenge to say the least. This is where patience from your teacher, your classmates, and especially yourself comes in. It's ok to go slow, it's ok to make mistakes and to forget words! During our class times, I was never once talked over or made to feel rushed to hurry up and spit out my thoughts. For me, being rushed or even rushing myself doesn't facilitate learning. Another hugely influential aspect of learning new language has also been repetition. Repetition repetition repetition! Learn it, use it, forget about it for a little bit, then challenge yourself to remember it. Repeated recall is essential until that word or grammar structure has become a part of you.

On the subject of embarrassment and difficulty, I found that knowing how to say, "I'm not sure", or "say that again one more time please" is such a saving grace. Instead of shutting down and panicking when I don't understand something or didn't hear something, I know that all I have to do is say so. Simple as that. Being able to admit that you didn't understand something keeps communication channels open between you and others, and decreases the likelihood that they think you are being rude. Through my lessons and practice and experiences so far, there has been little more valuable than being able to say "sorry, I didn't get that". When people know you are still learning a language, they are more likely to go a little slower for you and possibly even use circumlocution with you as well.

During almost every single class, my classmates and I would turn to each other for speaking exercises. We would go over some grammar points, vocabulary, and whatever the lesson for the day was, then practice with each other. In the beginning, everyone is shy to speak -maybe in fear of embarrassment- but this practice soon became more comfortable and we all got to know each other while we were at it. Since we were all on the same level, it was useful to put that language to use and make sentences and express our thoughts in Japanese together. For me, verbally practicing really helps me remember and recall what I have learned. We could openly ask questions and self-correct while practicing, and since there was so much chatter no one felt like they were in the spotlight. We soon began speaking with Japanese exchange students as well, which I will talk about next as a continuation of the topic of utilization.

Japanese exchange students came to our school, and we were fortunate enough to be able to schedule interviews and classroom conversation time with them. This was a golden opportunity for me, even though I knew barely enough Japanese to squeak out a thought. In the classroom conversation time, we had an open forum and got to test our knowledge and skill with them. For me, it was such a glorious feeling when the student I was speaking with understood what I had said! Right after that, I understood what she said! Fantastic! My motivation to keep learning shot through the roof, and after that experience it was no longer scary to try. After that time in class, I also ended up making friends with a girl names Haruka. We ended up spending a few days together during the summer, and I showed her around Norfolk and we spent a day with my friends at the beach. We even cooked at her dorm and my house a couple of times, it was great! When we spent time together, she would practice English and I would practice Japanese. I learned a lot of natural speech from her those times too, as did she from me. These experiences lead me to choose the homestay option for when I spend this Fall semester in Osaka at Kansai Gaidai.

So, hearing Marken Sensei and Haruka's natural speech, I started gaining a better understanding of the intricacies of pronunciation as time went on. This is the reason I know how to pronounce things like the Japanese "R" sounds and "D" sounds, which are different from the English versions. In another more advanced course in Japanese, my class started using commercials from Japan for our studies. First of all, the commercials were very entertaining, especially the funny ones and cute ones. By deciphering what the narrators and characters were saying though, I was able to listen over and over again to rapid natural speech in order to understand what was being said. It was difficult, but I think that was important to do. In daily life in other countries, you're going to hear this natural speech, not a slowed-down classroom version, so it is essential to start understanding in a fluent way even if you cannot speak fluently. Our class did the same thing with real Japanese newspapers as well, which I will talk about later. After the course with these types of assignments, I actually took a trip to Tokyo with my friends. My previous experience in those learning and translation activities set me up for success when we hit the ground running in Japan. I even got my friends and I into a restaurant in Tokyo by proving I could speak Japanese! The staff was nervous because they didn't speak any English at all, and I am sure they were afraid they couldn't serve us well because of that. But a few friendly words between the staff and I proved that we could communicate, and that it would be fine. Bragging here a little, but my friends and the restaurant staff were very impressed. I felt very proud of that.

Something I had never encountered before was the premise of circumlocution. I honestly though that word was a type-o! Nonetheless, we worked on this technique in class and in homework and it became a very useful skill. At any level of proficiency, I think that everyone can use this tactic to get points across if they don't know a specific word, or if they've forgotten the word. Circumlocution is a good way to get someone to understand what you mean, and also they will usually say the word you're looking for if you use circumlocution with them. For instance, I forgot how to say "this morning" once, so I asked Haruka what you call today's morning, so she told me the word I was looking for, and I haven't forgotten it since.

So I will now group a couple of things together, as they kind of play into the whole "keep it interesting" aspect of learning a new language. First off- thank you Sensei for avoiding an overuse of workbook activities. We did have them for homework, which was a great way to recall the lessons from the previous class and practice handwriting, but by no means did we overdo it with those. We had such a colorful array of assignment styles that I never got bored and I learned so much more than just Japanese language itself. For instance, the commercial assignments I mentioned earlier not only exposed me to natural speech, but also to the concept of what a commercial is comprised of in Japan. How long they usually are, what kind of ideas they convey, what kind of people they choose for them... really too many indicators of cultural aspects to elaborate on. If you take a look at television from your target language's country, I am sure you will see what I mean how it can clue you into the culture there.

Using television was only one factor of our exploration of technology and its potential to learn Japanese. One of the most prominent memories of using technology was completing interview and podcast assignments with native Japanese speakers. I thought these assignments were scary at first, as I am not very "tech savvy", but the continued use of meetings with others on platforms such as WebEx and Talk Abroad really turned me around. I think that meeting people over the internet like that is a great way to practice speaking of course, but it is also a good way to break you in to the possibility of using these systems for real life activities. If I am at work in the future and I need to speak with someone for a meeting or interview, I won't be scared to go for it. The same premise applies to taking phone calls in Japanese, I am not scared of that idea anymore. We have also used Google Drive for a lot of assignments, which is another platform I had never used before. I think Google Drive is so very useful now, as you can have other people anytime anywhere on the same document as you are in real time. Without having to email documents, you can share them and work together efficiently.

Lastly, I have to mention writing skill. At first, I didn't have a lot of writing assignments to do, and actually kind of feared them. Writing out a whole paragraph of thoughts seemed almost impossible up until very recently in my senior year. At first, I struggled to understand how topic flows in Japanese writing, and often found myself trying to express things that were too deep for my skill level. I felt like a child again trying to write out things like "I like the guitar-playing person at the café.", but the more I learned about writing styles, topic flow, grammar structures, culture, and connecting sentences, I became better at expressing more adult subjects and complex thoughts. Writing in Japanese all this time has also helped me use computer keyboards, because like a lot of other languages on an English keyboard it can be a challenge to get used to.

My experiences so far learning foreign languages has been quite challenging. I knew it would be a lot of work before I started, but that difficulty has been subverted by the sheer joy of progression. I can't express how many doors my new skill can open for me, and most of all how proud of myself I am for keeping at it. To me, there are few greater joys than being able to connect and share conversation with people around the globe. Sharing our thoughts and wishes is a key to knowing each other better, which in turn promotes understanding and unity between all of us.

Site Navigation

Experience Guaranteed

Enhance your college career by gaining relevant experience with the skills and knowledge needed for your future career. Discover our experiential learning opportunities.

First Fridays

Get an inside look into your major of interest when you speak to professors and current students at our monthly First Friday events.

Spring Open Houses

Explore our beautiful campus and its community! Join us for our Spring Open House events in February and March.