Remembering Japanese: the Funnel Theory

funnel-theory-japaneseI recently discovered the Funnel Theory of language learning.

It came about when I was advising some beginners on learning hiragana. However, in this case learning hiragana works as a microcosm of all language learning.

The only way to learn hiragana is to plunge in and isshokenmei (with all your might) just learn it. It should take about a week. Two weeks at a maximum.

I have seen people pick at hiragana for months. They learn three one week and three the next week. By the fourth week they have half‐forgotten what they learned in the first week. These people may be shy of working at it, but they are in fact making a lot of unnecessary work for themselves. Learning hiragana is going to take far more work hours this way.

The thing to do is tackle it, bring it down, and then start using it. Because what you don’t use, you lose.

Here is the funnel theory in a nutshell. Think of learning hiragana – and this applies to language as a whole, as we shall see – as trying to fill a funnel with water. The fundamental rule of filling a funnel with water is this:

If you aren’t pouring it in faster than it is running out, you are wasting your time.

Hiragana is a small funnel, so we can see this at work. The pick‐at‐the‐edges learner is spending as much time re‐learning as learning.

Bigger learning tasks are bigger funnels. An entire language is a huge funnel. But the same principle applies.

Even with one’s native language, if one stops pouring in (using it regularly) one starts to notice the loss. It is subtle because the funnel is huge and the drainage is small. But the longer one stays completely out of contact with one’s native language the more one finds that when one does try to use it one constructs sentences in ways more appropriate to one’s everyday language, and sometimes gropes for everyday words.

In terms of actually learning a new language I would say that Funnel Theory, while always important, is most critical at two points. Early beginner and Intermediate.

In the early beginner stage if one is learning too slowly the funnel will never start to fill at all. It is draining as quickly as it is being filled and no water really accumulates. The funnel just gets wet.

Beginner stage is a danger point for learning and a lot of people drop out early on. They say “It is impossible”, or “I am not cut out for learning languages”.

And it is impossible. Impossible to fill a funnel at that rate of flow.

However, serious learners keep the flow high and learn quickly. We all have weak and strong points in language (learning a language is not one skill but several), but overcoming the funnel problem at beginner level is not difficult if one is serious about learning.

Intermediate level is the next major point at which Funnel Theory presents problems.

Intermediate can be difficult, especially for lone learners.

At beginner level, up to upper beginner, learning is very straightforward. There are certain things you need to know and lots of places that will tell you exactly what they are. You learn basic vocabulary which is again straightforward. No question that you need all the basic words in a language.

At intermediate it becomes much trickier. You know all the basic grammar, conjugations etc. Intermediate books (even upper beginner past a certain level) are collections of “grammar points”, ways of expressing different things, presented in no particular order other than roughly decreasing order of frequency in regular use. Vocabulary becomes more specialized. A lot depends what you need, what you are intending to use it for.

At this point, as at the beginning, it is easy for language to start draining faster than it runs in.

A serious student of Japanese told me before I even started that this stage is “grueling”. You just have to work, work, work till it hurts or you will fall back faster than you move forward.

Is this true? Yes, if that’s how you go about things. It isn’t how I go about things and it isn’t the way I recommend you do.

My serious student friend was just that: a serious student. To her, Japanese was an academic subject. One she was very serious about.

To me, Japanese is a language. My language. Not the one I was born with, but the one I love.

So let me say this. Intermediate is wonderful!

Funnel and all, it is wonderful.

Because at intermediate level you can really start using Japanese* and as long as you are using it extensively, that funnel is filling. I am not saying one should stop studying, but I would say that at this stage study becomes secondary.

In fact I would go further and say that if you are only studying, then unless you are doing it to grueling levels (like my friend), the funnel will start emptying faster than it fills.

But if you are using it. Playing games in it. Watching anime in it (with or without Japanese subtitles, but not with English ones). Reading books or manga in it. Holding regular conversations in it. If you are doing this then the funnel keeps filling. You also have some structure for learning. You learn the vocabulary and grammar you actually encounter.

You probably want some explicit study to help the funnel fill faster.

But (big, big but)

• If you have plenty of real use without the study, at this stage, the funnel will keep filling.

• If you have study without the real use, it is in serious danger of starting to drain.

This is bad news if your intentions with Japanese are not honorable. If you are merely dallying with her, your chances of retaining her are small.

But if you truly love her and mean to make her yours, it is very good news indeed.


* My fellow Cures and I forced real usage by pure ganbari long before we were really ready, and it did a lot of good. But intermediate is still wonderful because that is when it really starts to come into its own.

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