The diversity and “domainness” of language

By | January 31, 2014

When studying any foreign language, there are many things one has to learn and grow accustomed to: pronunciation, grammar, and characters, to name a few.  In my study of Japanese I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of many of these things, not necessarily to the degree of what I would call ‘fluent’, but with a level of ability that I have some satisfaction with, at least for the short term.

The one thing that catches me off guard again and again, no matter how many years I’ve been learning, is the diversity of language, particularly in vocabulary. Now, if this was merely a case of a large number of words I had to learn and I could expect to come across these new words at a certain frequency in my studies, I could live with that and follow the trend of new words as they gradually lessen.

The problem is more with what I call the ‘domainness’ of Japanese, which while not a proper linguistic term, is the easiest I way I can express it in a single word. To explain via example, imagine I read the Asahi Shimbun (a popular Japanese newspaper) each day for several years, and have a good grasp of the types of words and expressions used. Then I live in Japan and in people’s speech I hear so many unfamiliar phrases. Or I could read a technical manual for my car and again be surprised by the tone and vocabulary of the language used.  Another good example is how I started reading children’s picture books in Japanese to my son, and came across several words I had never seen, after reading several dozen adult-targeted novels.

In my mind I imagine a giant venn chart, with certain words grouped in a certain “domain”, and other shared across other domains.

For a final example, just the other day I was listening to a podcast where several comedians discussed how they make jokes and other related topics. There was a few expressions which I had never heard before, that seemed to be primarily used just for describing jokes.

For someone like me who can appreciate a challenge, and likes epic, lengthy stories rather than short ones, in a way this is a good thing, since it means I won’t get tired of Japanese study anytime soon. But on the other hand, it’s also a source of frustration since I’ll feel great after understanding 80% of a podcast, but then my comprehension of the next one in my playlist drops to 30%.

How can you use this knowledge to inform and improve the efficiency of your language studying? First, accept the fact that words and expressions can clump together like this, and there are a whole universe of words you haven’t seen just hiding around the corner somewhere. (See my post on the depth of meanings in a single word here).

Second, choose your study activities based on your end goal. I can imagine someone saying “I’m planning on living in Japan someday, so I’ll just watch a lot of Naruto and learn Japanese.” Sure, some of the vocab you learn that way can be used in the real world, but if you choose study materials that more closely match what you are targeting, you will learn more useful words. Conversely, picking a certain domain and sticking with that for some time will give more satisfaction in the short term, since you’ll learn the common expressions used quickly and your comprehension rate will gradually rise.


Diagram used for featured image taken from here:

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