Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wacky Language Learning: Zuiikin' English

Welcome to my first post in a requested series of posts about wacky language learning techniques that people have used over the years.  I can't think of a better one to start with than Zuiikin' English, a wacky language learning system that is so memorable it has quite a cult following on the web.

Zuiikin' English is a series of shorts that showed on Japanese TV during the early 90s.  It was a morning show that aired near the morning news.  In this program, Japanese women dressed in exercise clothing lead the viewer through a series of exercises where they make body movements and say English sentences in time to percussive music, as the sentence is displayed in both English and Japanese on the screen.  The sentences involve topics that would be of interest to a business traveler from Japan, such as how to meet people to date, safety, and getting medical help in an English speaking country.  Many of these videos have made their way to YouTube.  Here is a quintessential example:

The theory: Unfortunately there is very little available about the theory behind Zuiikin' English, so I have to base this whole section on the Wikipedia article on Zuiikin' English and what I remember from reading about it before. Apparently the person who invented this language learning method feels that speakers of different languages use different body parts more in their everyday movements, and thought that practicing certain kinds of body movements would help the language learner to more naturally learn the language of the people who use those body parts more.  I assume this is the reason that the exercises seem to involve a lot of arm movement in comparison to movements of other body parts.

Why it doesn't work: As many language learners know, memorization of a sentence does not mean that you can speak the language of the sentence.  Ignoring the movement part of the video, basically you have an English sentence and a Japanese sentence on the screen at the same time.  The learners aren't really learning English, then; they are just thinking of a sentence in Japanese and then saying a memorized series of sounds associated with that Japanese sentence.  This is the language equivalent of repeating your times tables, being able to spit out an answer that is associated with a question.  You can do this without understanding the meaning behind the English words or grammar in the English sentence at all.  (Any other language learning program that teaches sentences in the target language by glossing them in the learner's native language has the same problem.)  The body movements probably aid the memorization process, but the underlying theory that body movements of certain groups of people are somehow associated with their languages has no research basis that I am aware of.

Another more minor problem with Zuiikin' English is the rhythms associated with the sentences.  There is no doubt that different languages have different rhythms (this is one of my favorite topics on language) and a big part of comprehensibility in English pronunciation is using the rhythm that listeners expect.  In Zuiikin' English
the rhythm of the English sentences is changed to go along with the music.  If learners speak these sentences with this rhythm, it may be more difficult for native speakers to understand them.

If we look at Zuiikin' English as just a fun program rather than a serious language learning methodology I can definitely see the appeal.  Enjoy this list of Zuiikin' videos on YouTube.  And what better way to end this post than this video:


Dan said...

!!!??? That's quite a lesson. Fascinating stuff. I'm looking forward to the rest, though with that weirdness, you've set yourself a pretty high standard to meet.

malkie said...

If we ignore, for the moment, the other deficiencies you point out, isn't "thinking of a sentence in Japanese and then saying a memorized series of sounds associated with that Japanese sentence" similar in some ways to how we learn another language?

I work with a lot of people of Chinese background. One, in particular, has helped me to add a couple of expressions in Mandarin to my meagre store.

When she drills me in how to say "good morning" in Mandarin, I am thinking "Good morning" in English, and saying "zao shang hao" (or some approximation of that). The drill helps to cement the relationship in my brain. I already knew that "hao" means "good", and know that "zao" is morning, but am still looking into "shang", which seems to have many possible meanings, depending on context.

Is this not a valid way to learn?

ww said...

Great question, and one I had not anticipated! My complete answer to your question might be lengthy, so I think I will write a blog post that addresses the issue. But I will give you a partial answer now.

One of the major problems with trying to learn a new language by just glossing words from one language to another is that it is inefficient. Take the example of you saying a basic sentence in Mandarin, like "I love you". (As an aside, I included the period that way just for you.) In order to communicate a thought in Chinese, for example, you have the thought, then you think of what English words and phrasing you would use to express that thought. Then you gloss each word into a Chinese word. So "I" glosses to "wa", "love" glosses to "ai" and "you" glosses to "ni". That's not too difficult.

But imagine using this same process to say a sentence like "When I was a young child, my family was poor but honest." By the time you get to figuring out the Chinese word for "honest" you have probably forgotten the word you selected for "when"! And you immediately run into problems, because Chinese doesn't handle time and tense the same way English does, so there is no easy Chinese equivalent for the word "was", for example. In the meantime while you were figuring this out, your conversation partner has long since left due to boredom!

The above example is a little extreme and tongue-in-cheek, but it does point out some potential problems with glossing from one language to another. It's much more efficient, and communicative, if you can learn to use the language independently of other languages, without depending on thinking in English every time you want to speak in Chinese, for example. And I anticipate explaining in my future post(s) how this can be done.

Another problem of trying to gloss between languages is that words and phrases simply don't do the same work in different languages. For example, one of my Korean students once saw me in a hallway at the university and asked me, "Did you eat yet?" As you can imagine, I was a bit surprised because acquaintances don't usually ask each other about their dietary habits when they casually pass in a hallway here in the States. I found out later from another Korean friend that the equivalent question in Korean is often used as a greeting if you see someone you know at midday. So the true meaning of the question is a midday greeting, not an inquiry into their eating habits. In English that question did not have the same casual greeting function. A much more appropriate greeting for that context would have been "hello" or "How are you?"

Thirdly, and this is what I intend to explain in more depth later, the kind of knowledge that you get from memorizing is ultimately not (or only partially) the same store of knowledge that you access when you try to use the new language that you have learned. So if you fill up one bank of knowledge with Chinese words and phrases, but the bank that will be accessed when you try to converse in Chinese is empty, you have wasted a lot of effort.

I'm not saying that memorization doesn't have a place in language learning, especially when you are just trying to get a handle on a few greetings and stock phrases, like you are in Mandarin. But it is not really possible to learn a whole language by memorization alone, and my future blog post will explain more on why.

ww said...

By the way, in my planned upcoming posts on other wacky language learning methods I was planning on including a couple that are wacky, but effective. I don't mean to imply that wackiness necessarily means that it doesn't work. But it was so tempting to write about Zuiikin' English first. And, as I discussed in the previous comment, in another post I am planning to discuss the different banks of knowledge that we fill when we "learn" languages, what those banks are used for, and how you can optimize your language learning so that more knowledge goes into the bank you want to be able to use.

malkie said...

I don't want to be argumentative (well, actually I do, I just don't want to admit it), but let's look at your para that starts with "But imagine using this same process ...".

(btw, thanks for the piece of rational punctuation. It made me smile.)

I think that we need to distinguish language learning along at least 2 axes: child-adult, and beginner-advanced.

And here is where I really start to show my ignorance about linguistics - what follows is mostly not derived from any scientific study, just from observation of myself as an adult language learner.

The sentence "When I was a young child, my family was poor but honest." is one that is suitable for an advanced adult learner only. A child would not likely find herself in circumstances in which she needed to say such a thing, and it is beyond the capabilities of a beginner to say - at least, to say it with any degree of fluency.

The advanced learner, however, would presumably have learned some of the under-the-hood characteristics of the language (handling of tenses, personal relationships, articles, case markers etc), and will have the mental machinery for incorporating these characteristics into speech or writing.

Also (IMO), the advanced adult learner should have got beyond the pure repetition stage, and should be trying to absorb explicitly the rules that children learn implicitly. The child has the advantage of brain plasticity and optimisation for language learning, but the adult can use formal methods that the child is not yet able to understand.

As an adult, I cannot simply absorb language from my environment: I need to build an extensible rule-driven conceptual framework into which I can place new pieces of language information as I find them. I cannot hope to learn what I need to know from listening to native speakers without that framework. I need to learn how to extend what I hear by learning the conjugations and declensions, and by learning what patterns are used. e.g., if I want to converse in Mandarin, I had better know that there is no real equivalent of the "Are you X?" questions in English; rather, Mandarin speakers use a "X bu X" pattern (not "are you busy?", but "busy not busy?").

btw, thanks - I'm really enjoying your linguistics posts. I hope you don't mind, but I'll probaly have a look at some of your older posts and pepper you with comments and/or questions about them.

ww said...

About child vs. adult -- you are right, children and adults bring different cognitive abilities to the table of language learning. I guess I assume that adults will mostly be reading this blog, and I am mostly interested in adult second language learning, so I write from that perspective.

About your claim that advanced learners have the "machinery" to translate on the fly -- they usually don't. I've never been able to do it; can you? Speech happens so fast and you don't have an opportunity to edit the things that have just come out of your mouth. So translation from native language to target language is not an ideal solution if you want to speak well.

About your claim that you are unable to pick up language from the environment -- I submit you don't know that. You are not aware of yourself doing it, but that does not mean you are not doing it. You believe that translating and memorizing grammar patterns works for you, so that's what you do. But actually, you don't know if some other method would be more effective because you have never had the experience of learning Chinese twice in two different ways. In the meantime that all your hard thinking work is going on, other processes and other types of exposure to Chinese are going on too. I plan to talk more about the conscious and unconscious aspects of language learning (and which ones help us meet which goals) in my upcoming post on input.

Feel free to comment on any of my posts! I am much more motivated to write when I know someone is reading. And I enjoyed the hug!

malkie said...

Hmmm, it looks like I've been a little less that clear on a couple of issues here.

"About your claim that advanced learners have the "machinery" to translate on the fly -- they usually don't. I've never been able to do it; can you?"

My reference to "mental machinery" was about the idea that an adult learner is capable of building an explicit framework, and incorporating into it the concepts of of tenses, relationships, articles, case markers etc.

I certainly cannot translate "on the fly", but I know a couple of people who seem to have that ability.

When I said "As an adult, I cannot simply absorb language from my environment ...", perhaps I overstated the case. I could perhaps do so, but I think that, compared to an orderly study (involving the mental machinery) it would be a very slow process.

For example, considering learning Spanish verbs, present indicative. Should it not be much easier for me to learn that there are 3 regular conjugations in Spanish, and practice them, than to infer, from conversations I hear around me (assuming I can find a suitable environment) which words are verbs, which tenses are being used, which person & number, and how I can incorporate them in my own unique utterances?

Anyway, I just wanted to clarify a couple of things I said before.

Please continue with the interesting "stuff".

ww said...

Don't worry; I think I understood your position before. While orderly study of grammar rules seems logical, it doesn't actually result in high levels of language speaking proficiency for most learners, as evidenced by generations of people up until about the mid 1970s who studied languages by orderly study of grammar patterns with little success. Methods that encourage people to "absorb" language (and I will be giving you more technical information on that, of course) are much more successful at building speaking ability. So I would argue that, while you are spending so much time on memorizing grammar patterns, it is probably the inadvertent absorption you are doing in the meantime that is doing your speaking ability the most benefit.

Some people are pretty good at incorporating memorized grammar rules into speaking. In fact, I am pretty good at it myself, and I can get a certain distance in Swedish, for example, by logically cooking up a sentence based on the patterns that I know. But it is not a long-term solution for learning to speak a new language because (1) you often just can't do it fast enough to keep up with the demands of the speaking context and (2) when you can manage to do it, sometimes you sound like a bad machine translation.

In contrast to your idea, language learners often find that they make errors in speaking that go against the grammar rules they already know. I am a master of the grammar patterns of Spanish, for example, but for the longest time I would overuse the subjunctive mood in speech, despite the fact that I knew better. The reason for this is that speech is generated out of a different bank of knowledge than the bank the grammar rules are stored in. More on that later.

You may find my most recent post on fallacies about language learning interesting.

I was sick for a while and I am still catching up on work, but I will continue to post as I can. I find writing these posts quite fun!