Language learning pitfall: Learning similar words at the same time

By | September 17, 2018

There are surely as many techniques to learn languages as there are languages, if not many more. And a majority of the techniques you read about online or in a book will likely provide some benefit for at least a fraction of language learners.

But there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that, while at first seem to be helpful, can be counter-productive techniques. In this article I’d like to talk about one of these dubious techniques, which is related to learning two or more similar words or phrases.

Japanese is pretty well known as a language that has a great number of homophones, where a homophone is two or more words that have the same sound but different meanings. (I wrote an article on some research results I did on this a few years back which you can see here.)

It turns out that Japanese does have two fairly effective ways to distinguish homophones. In writing, sometimes different kanji can be used for different meanings (Ex: 攻める vs. 責める). In speech, Japanese has an intonation accent that can help separate cases like the word hashi, which can mean ‘chopsticks’, ‘bridge’ or ‘edge’ depending on the intonation of that word and the following word.

However, for beginning students who are reading in hiragana/katakana or may not be able to hear or memorize the intonation variations (these change by regional dialect, by the way), it can be tricky to learn such homophones.

As a result, I have seen some teaching resources (especially a certain Twitter feed which will remain unnamed) that try to teach all of the meanings for similar-sounding words at once.

For example, the word kami can have three different meanings:God  (神)

  • Hair(髪)
  • Paper(紙)

But I’ve found that learning homophones in groups like this can be confusing, because every time you hear one you have to go through the entire list in your head to figure out which it is. It turns out that in this case, these three words can typically be picked apart pretty easily from context because of how they are used. For example, kami-sama would generally never refer to “hair” or “paper”, and kami no ke would only refer to “hair”. But nevertheless, I think learning all these at once is an ineffective technique.

Rather, I would suggest learning one of them so that you can use it and understand it well in context, and then introduce a second, and later a third. This way, the mind will learn to automatically pick up the intended meaning instead of tedious list-searching process.

While probably not technically homophones, in Japanese word meanings can change drastically by simply lengthening a vowel, particular in the o vs. ou sound.

A good example of this is the pair 顧問 (komon) vs. 肛門 (koumon). The first means something like “advisor”, and the second…well I’ll just come out and say it: “anus”.

Over 15 years ago I had read a story in a book about these two words where someone had switched them, leading to major embarrassment. While this story itself stuck out and enabled me to remember these two words, learning them together like this didn’t make it easy to tell them apart. At some point I had a (rather crude) memory reference for remembering the difference, but I couldn’t rely on that.

Now, had I first learned komon, gotten comfortable with it, and then eventually come across koumon, I feel I would have been able to better distinguish these.

The author of that book (whose name I don’t recall, unfortunately) did have a good point that making such mistakes can be pretty awkward. But rather than calling attention to such similar words too much, I would just recommend putting in extra effort when listening and speaking to try and detect and reproduce the right number of vowels. If you are not thinking (and speaking) somewhat metronomically, it can be hard to time things correctly in Japanese.

The “unnamed” online resource I alluded to earlier has a tendency to not just show such simple examples, but go to lengths to find other words that (to some people) might seem similar. But what if you didn’t have a problem confusing those words before? In the worst case, I think reading such lists can make you even more confused.

Don’t get me wrong, logically I think that reading a list of easily confused words should be super helpful, and if we were all robots, it would probably be a great way to learn. But after stumbling myself over words like this, I feel that it’s not wise to emphasize homophones in this way.

So hopefully language teachers will try to stay away from this method of teaching vocabulary. As a student, I won’t go as far as saying reading such lists will doom you to decades of confusion, but I will recommend you steer away from focusing on homophones too much. Even if you do get a mental-block about one such word pair or trio, with enough practice listening/reading and speaking/writing them in context, I think you’ll be able to untangle things eventually. (Although in my case, I have almost never come across either komon or koumon, nor had an opportunity to use them in context)

On a side note, I have experienced a related phenomenon when practicing martial arts. I noticed that if I learn several new similar techniques at a time, I am more likely to get confused. But if I learn them one at a time, building on what I learned before, things stick in my head better. I’m not saying it’s evil to point at similarities, but it should be done once the student has some familiarity with enough of the material.

(I realize that in this article I am talking about some specific homophones, which is the very thing I am asking you to avoid––but without a handful of specific examples it’s hard to get the point across. You may have known some of these anyway.)



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