When studying a foreign language, it’s common to ask a native speaker to correct your spoken or written language, which often involves determining what sort of phrasing sounds natural and correct. Similarly, as a native or at least semi-fluent speaker of some language, you can get into situations where you are answering such questions, or even trying to teach someone the language in question.
In my over two decades of studying Japanese I’ve asked countless such questions, as well as answered a few asked by those studying English or Japanese. When I write articles on this blog I have to go through a similar process that involves thinking about what what phrasing is natural and the reasons behind why. So I think it’s fair to say I’ve gotten a lot of experience on both sides.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned over time is that sometimes native speakers are not able to explain something about language very well, or even if they appear to explain it well, each person may give a different answer.
For very simple questions involving everyday expressions, for example: “Is 「すしに食べたい」correct to express the idea ‘I want to eat sushi’?” native speakers will generally give consistent answers. (Note: the phrase given is incorrect, “すしを食べたい” or “すしが食べたい” would be correct.)
However, if you are asking for why something is correct in a language, even for common expressions you can get a large diversity of answers. Asking a bunch of people verbally is a lot of work, but fortunately it’s pretty easy to gather data quickly using Internet forums. “Oshiete Goo” is my favorite one in Japanese, and I have made many posts there to try and gain more information about this complex language.
Take for example this question, which I asked as part of my research for a book on particles I recently released. To what I thought was a simple question (about a relatively common expression) I got 10 completely different answers, some which were quite long and complex.
If you can ask help from someone who is extra knowledgable about Japanese grammar, you may be able to get a better answer. But just because someone is an expert doesn’t mean they are necessarily good at explaining it in easy-to-understand terms, especially to a non-native speaker. So you can get into an ironic situation where you are spending more time trying to understand the answers than your original question.
It can be interesting to muse about why explaining about language is so difficult. I feel that the main reason is that because a majority of natives learn a language as part of their daily lives, building implicit knowledge over time from a nearly uncountable number of experiences, much of what they do is by intuition as opposed to following a series of logical rules. Surely all languages have some form of predictable patterns (that’s basically what grammar is), but there are often a large number of exceptions to those rules, as well as multiple meanings, and emotional nuances that are hard to quantify. So perhaps it’s not simply that us humans are not very skilled at explaining a language we can fluently speak, it’s also that the entirety of the language is hard to express in words.
This is the very reason that good teachers (and other learning resources, like textbooks) are so valuable, because they can break down the complexity into easy-to-understand bitesize pieces, which even if incomplete can help a language learner take one more step to fluency. And by the same token, it helps to explain why learning a language self-taught can be so difficult. (Note: I use the term “self-taught” to mean without a teacher, but not without important resources like textbooks.)
So what if we keep the simple yes/no questions, as opposed to asking “why” we simply ask if a certain sentence or phrase is natural-sounding or not?
For the person answering the question, even that is not as easy as you might expect. While the great majority of native speakers should be able to generate natural-sounding sentences when they speak and write, being able to tell if someone’s sentence sounds natural (and to rephrase it to be natural) is not always a trivial matter. Keep in mind that neither of these skills are needed for daily life (even for academic life), so some people happen to be good at it while others may struggle. I like to think of this in terms of acting: just because a person can say natural phrases with natural facial expressions and gestures in daily life to express something doesn’t mean they can do it on command for a situation they are not actually experiencing themself. After all, much of language we speak of write is probably coming out instinctually (and perhaps subconsciously), not as a result of a logical series of steps and formulas.
If you have ever done thorough multi-stage proofreading of your own work, you can observe a similar phenomenon. Sometimes a phrase that sounds extremely natural to me one day can sound horrible the next time when I re-read it, and vice-versa––and that’s for my native language (English) that I was brought up with. Going through an editing process that involves a large number of iteration (for me, typically 10-15) does help to improve the quality and reduce errors, but even then having another pair of eyes check out the text often uncovers oversights, sometimes even ones that (in retrospect) seem obvious.
The point of this article is not to say asking (or answering) questions about languages is pointless; for sure, if asked in the right way those questions can provide important knowledge that helps guide one’s language learning. But they are by no means a magic bullet that will give us all the knowledge we need for fluency. Ultimately, we will have to learn to figure out our own answers about language from our own experiences listening and reading to native or fluent speakers, which includes explicit thoughts as well as subconscious stuff that is going on without our direct awareness of it.
Because of this, we need to learn to acknowledge there are times when an explicit question just won’t get us the full understanding we want, and it is wiser to just keep the concern on the back-burner of our mind instead of persistently asking questions. If you can keep a list of such unanswered questions somewhere in your mind (for example, when is a certain grammar pattern used, or what nuance does a certain word have), eventually you should encounter a real situation that gives you some information to help fill in the blanks in a natural way.
Sometimes I’ve persistently tried asking questions to figure out the meaning a certain expression, but over time I’ve discovered that I tend to forget knowledge learned that way, as opposed to things learned through actual interactions using the language in question.
Fortunately, when one is first starting to learn a language, that person is often content with very broad-strokes that color their linguistic knowledge, and this means that we can benefit from very general answers (like saying the verb order in Japanese is “Subject-Object-Verb”, which of course has many exceptions and complications in practice). Much of the complexities I am talking about in this article become more apparent (and more problematic) as you get deeper into your studies and drift to get away from the basics into more advanced areas.
For the teaching side as well, the more explicit knowledge we gather about the language in question (even if it is our native language) and the more practice we get explaining things in easy-to-understand terms, the better we get at teaching that language. Furthermore, if you get used to thinking about language explicitly on a daily basis you’ll eventually start discovering patterns and making connections that you haven’t read in any textbook or other educational resource. That’s when things really get fun because you can become a content creator instead of simply parroting what you have learned from somewhere else. I’m striving to create my own language-learning content in this blog but I still have so much to learn about Japanese, both for myself and to help others learn.