When studying a foreign language, it’s natural for all sorts of questions to come up––how to pronounce words, how to use grammar correctly, and (perhaps the hardest) how to speak or write natural sounding language. For those taking a formal language class, generally there will be some time either after or during class to ask the teacher to help clarify certain things. But for those of us doing the self-taught route, getting a good answer to our language questions can be a tricky endeavor.
There are two main ways to ask these sorts of questions: on a public internet forum, and to an individual directly (email, phone, or in-person). In this post I’ll focus on giving tips for the latter. This is partially because the former (internet forum posts) is generally easier, although getting answers effectively online has its own set of challenges.
The first step, actually finding people to help, is one of the most difficult steps because there is really no fast track to find great people who will provide useful answers on a frequent basis––except perhaps maybe if you are looking to spend a lot of money. This search process alone may be a significant time investment.
Online, you can try making friends with native or fluent speakers through internet forums, personal blogs, or social sites like Facebook or Twitter. In person, you can try asking people you come across that happen to speak the foreign language you are studying, or find candidates through your existing circle of friends or family.
Even if language assistance is your primary goal, I would make your initial communication more about some shared interest, like the topic of some blog or forum they are participating in. Once you get to know them you can gradually start asking for help with your foreign language problems.
Choose the best medium
If you have more than one option for how to communicate with the other person (email, chat, in-person, etc.), you should consider the pros and cons of each method and choose the best medium to ask your question(s) in. For pronunciation-related questions, naturally face-to-face is best, with a skype/phone call being another option. For questions that you expect to be particularly difficult or involve a lot of context (like explaining the meaning in a certain passage) email is usually better so you can give them time to read and think things over.
Email also has the advantage that you can come back and search for things later, though you can also keep notes from a chat session or in-person conversations in places like Google Docs.
But email isn’t suitable for everything. Besides the fact you can’t really discuss matters of pronunciation, an other disadvantage of email is that it isn’t suitable for extended back-and-forth discussions that need to be done on a certain timescale.
Choose the right language
Often you will have the option to ask your question(s) in the same foreign language or in your native language. If the other person is weak in your native language but stronger in the foreign language, using the foreign language may be best. But it also depends on your ability, since if you are not careful the answer may lead to more questions.
Generally you should choose the language that is the one you feel you communicate best with this person. If you aren’t comfortable enough to form simple questions in the foreign language, just use your native language.
Normally I’m pretty opposed to conversations where each side uses a different language, but language explanation is one case where I’ll make an exception. This works especially well if each person can read/listen well in their non-native language (presumably the native language of the other person), but are less skilled at speaking/reading.
Keep questions laser-focused
Asking questions that are too vague can make it hard for the other person to answer, and there is also a risk they will give you a long answer that is off-topic. That’s why it’s best to ask questions that are as specific and unambiguous as possible.
These are examples of bad questions:
- Can you tell me all the uses of the “no” particle in Japanese? (There are many and require a lot of explaining)
- Why do some Japanese people seem to dislike foreigners? (This is not really a language question and can put the other person in an awkward spot)
- Can you give me some tips for improving my pronunciation? (Too vague and would require a lot of time to gather data and answer)
These are examples of good questions:
- Can you tell me the nuance of the word XXX in this passage?
- Would the “ga” particle or the “wa” particle sound more natural here?
- Does this sentence mean XXX or does it mean YYY?
Note: if you are working with a paid professional tutor or teacher, then some of the above “bad” questions may still be fair game.
Provide sufficient context
Context is very important in any language, especially Japanese where so much can be left unsaid (subjects, objects, even verbs). Make sure you give sufficient information to the other person so they have enough context.
For example, when asking about a literary passage, even if the question is about a single word I generally give at least the entire paragraph that contains it. If the entire text is available online, give them the URL (don’t assume they will search for it themselves).
When asking how to say something in Japanese, make sure you specify who you would be hypothetically speaking with. Is it someone of equal social level (a peer) or someone above you (a teacher)? At minimum this can affect whether you should use desu/masu forms, although there may be other things that can be inappropriate to say depending on who the listener is.
Know the difference between “correct” and “as intended”
If you ask someone to correct you speaking or writing in a foreign language, just because they say your language was grammatically “correct” doesn’t mean it was what you really intended to say or write.
Telling them what you meant to say in your native language may help, but sometimes there are nuances to the foreign languages that can’t be easily captured in other languages. For example, in some cases in Japanese both “to” and “ni” particles can be appropriate, but the nuance changes.
Ultimately you’ll need to gather a lot of information over time about a specific word or grammar construction to understand all of the nuances involved, but you can facilitate the learning process by not thinking of language as being “wrong” or “right”. Even sentences that are grammatically incorrect can be used by native speakers in certain cases.
Finally, languages typically have areas that can’t be easily pigeonholed into well-defined rules, which means that native speakers often rely on intuition as to what sounds natural. As a result, different native speakers can have different opinions about whether a specific phrase sounds natural.
Show you’ve made an effort
In school, some teachers will give partial credit when you show an effort has been made to solve a problem. Similarly, if you can show you’ve made an effort to guess what a passage means, the other person is more likely to help you out. If it’s a question about a school assignment, this is even more so.
One good way is to offer one or more guesses about what an answer might be. This can give the other person something to work with instead of having them explain everything from scratch. Even if you are not very sure about your guess(es), it’s probably better than saying you are clueless about what something means.
Foster two-way relationships
Asking a single question is one thing, but maintaining a relationship with someone where you can ask again and again can be difficult, since if they have little to gain the other person is likely to lose interest sooner or later.
One common way to create two-way interest is finding someone who is a native speaker of the foreign language you are learning, but is also studying the language which you are a native speaker of. For example, you could ask him/her questions about Japanese, and that person would ask you questions about English. If they are correcting your language in some capacity, correcting them back may be a natural option. But just make sure you do it with tact to avoid hurting their pride in their language ability.
You can exchange help about a foreign language for other things, like helping with some subject you are strong in. You could also treat the other person to a meal once in a while.
Even if the other person turns down your request to return the favor, I would recommend continuing to try finding ways to keep things fair.
Know strengths and weaknesses
Just because someone is a native speaker doesn’t mean they are good at explaining a certain grammar structure, even if it is something they are comfortable using on a daily basis. (Try to imagine explaining all the nuances of the English articles “the” and “a”.) Most people can eventually figure out a way to explain things, but it may take extra thought they are not used to.
If you’re asking questions about a specific domain, like medical terminology or literature, then there’s a good chance the average person doesn’t have enough knowledge to satisfy all your needs. For example, when asking questions about literature try to find someone who is an avid reader; it is not necessary that they majored in Japanese literature or anything like that (though of course that helps). If, like me, you deal with works that are fairly old (50-100+ years old), you may find that the average person will not be able to provide much insight at all for some of your questions. You’ll need to find someone who is used to reading from that time period.
To give an example from my personal experience, the other day I asked a total of four native Japanese speakers about an expression used in a certain older text. The first three were mostly clueless, but the last person gave a clear, concise explanation after only a few seconds of thought. It turns out she had a hobby of reading historical novels.
Oftentimes you won’t know how helpful a person can be until you actually ask them a question, so don’t be afraid to use trial and error to find what questions are best for which people.
Separate from whether someone is actually good at answering your questions is the matter of whether they enjoy doing so. Depending on the medium you use, you can use facial expressions, tone, and length of responses to gauge this, and refrain from asking people again who seem to show a negative response. One Japanese trait (even more so for older generations) is that often negative things will not be said outright. So just because someone says “Sure, ask me anytime!” doesn’t mean that are genuinely enjoying assisting you.
Get a second (or third) opinion
If you don’t get a satisfying answer from one person, don’t be afraid to ask a second, or third person for a different opinion. I’ve found that sometimes I get very different answers, even when both people are native speakers.
There are two things to watch out for here. The first is to make sure you don’t offend anyone by implying their answer was wrong or hard to understand. If you are working with people who don’t know one another that makes things simple. Also, the more different opinions you get, the more difficult it can be to figure out which is correct (and, as I said above, “correct” is not a good way to look at it anyway). This is a problem that I’ve come across when posting online as well, since it’s common to get multiple responses. The best advice I can give here is to find someone who you trust and rely on them for the more difficult questions.
Don’t ask for translation
I’ve found that many people I speak to are not skilled enough in two languages to be able to translate something reliably, at least for the Japanese/English language pair where finding people who have both as a native language is relatively rare. Even if they are relatively fluent in both languages, translation takes experience to become accustomed to.
That’s why if you are struggling to understand a passage in order to translate it, it’s better to focus on having the meaning explained by the other person as opposed to having them do a full translation. It’s OK if they also give a guess at translation along with a detailed explanation, but it should be only one of several pieces of information that you use.
As a translator, you need to understand all the relevant nuances of the word or passage in question before you can decide what to emphasize or embellish, and you should be have confidence to take responsibility for your judgements. Relying on somebody else’s translation blindly carries major risk unless you know they are an experienced translator or interpreter.
Don’t over-rely on others
While direct one-on-one assistance can resolve many of your foreign language questions, you should be careful to not over-rely on others. A few quick online searches can solve many questions, or at least get you partway there. Also, most people will not have unlimited time to spend with you, so you should value their time wisely and only pick questions you are really stuck on.
Finally, for the longer term you need to learn to make a best guess based on your experience and language intuition. If you think back, you can probably remember a time when you didn’t know a word in your native language but managed to figure out the word’s meaning from context. You’ll need to develop this same skill in a foreign language to become truly fluent.
If you enjoyed the article, please consider buying one of my books containing translations of various works of Japanese literature. A few of them are bilingual English/Japanese to help Japanese learners. You can see them all on Amazon here.