Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Memory boost

About two months ago I signed up with Duolingo to study Japanese.

I've been fascinated with Japan and the Japanese culture pretty much all my life, but I'm a total novice with the language, so I started out from "complete beginner" status.  I'm doing okay so far, although the fact that it's got three writing systems is a challenge, to put it mildly.  Like most Japanese programs, it's beginning with the hiragana system -- a syllabic script that allows you to work out the pronunciation of words -- but I've already seen a bit of katakana (used primarily for words borrowed from other languages) and even a couple of kanji (the ideographic script, where a character represents an entire word or concept).

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons 663highland, 140405 Tsu Castle Tsu MIe pref Japan01s, CC BY-SA 3.0]

While Duolingo focuses on getting you listening to spoken Japanese right away, my linguistics training has me already looking for patterns -- such as the fact that wa after a noun seems to act as a subject marker, and ka at the end of a sentence turns it into a question.  I'm still perplexed by some of the pronunciation patterns -- why, for example, vowel sounds sometimes don't get pronounced.  The first case of this I noticed is that the family name of the brilliant author Akutagawa RyĆ«nosuke is pronounced /ak'tagawa/ -- the /u/ in the second syllable virtually disappears.  I hear it happening fairly commonly in spoken Japanese, but I haven't been able to deduce what the pattern is.  (If there is one.  If there's one thing my linguistics studies have taught me, it's that all languages have quirks.  Try explaining to someone new to English why, for instance, the -ough combination in cough, rough, through, bough, and thorough are all pronounced differently.) 

Still and all, I'm coming along.  I've learned some useful phrases like "Sushi and water, please" (Sushi to mizu, kudasai) and "Excuse me, where is the train station?" (Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka?), as well as less useful ones like "Naomi Yamaguchi is cute" (Yamaguchi Naomi-san wa kawaii desu), which is only critical to know if you have a cute friend who happens to be named Naomi Yamaguchi.

The memorization, however, is often taxing to my 63-year-old brain.  Good for it, I have no doubt -- a recent study found that being bi- or multi-lingual can delay the onset of dementia by four years or more -- but it definitely is a challenge.  I go through my hiragana flash cards at least once a day, and have copious notes for what words mean and for any grammatical oddness I happen to notice.  Just the sheer amount of memorization, though, is kind of daunting.

Maybe what I should do is find a way to change the context in which I have to remember particular words, phrases, or characters.  That seems to be the upshot of a study I ran into a couple of days ago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about a study by a group from Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh about how to improve retention.

I'm sure all of us have experienced the effects of cramming for a test -- studying like hell the night before, and then you do okay on the test but a week later barely remember any of it.  This practice does two things wrong; not only stuffing all the studying into a single session, but doing it all the same way.

What this study showed was two factors that significantly improved long-term memory.  One was spacing out study sessions -- doing shorter sessions more often definitely helped.  I'm already approaching Duolingo this way, usually doing a lesson or two over my morning coffee, then hitting it again for a few more after dinner.  But the other interesting variable they looked at was that test subjects' memories improved substantially when the context was changed -- when, for example, you're trying to remember as much as you can of what a specific person is wearing, but instead of being shown the same photograph over and over, you're given photographs of the person wearing the same clothes but in a different setting each time.

"We were able to ask how memory is impacted both by what is being learned -- whether that is an exact repetition or instead, contains variations or changes -- as well as when it is learned over repeated study opportunities," said Emily Cowan, lead author of the study.  "In other words... we could examine how having material that more closely resembles our experiences of repetition in the real world -- where some aspects stay the same but others differ -- impacts memory if you are exposed to that information in quick succession versus over longer intervals, from seconds to minutes, or hours to days."

I can say that this is one of the things Duolingo does right.  Words are repeated, but in different combinations and in different ways -- spoken, spelled out using the English transliteration, or in hiragana only.  Rather than always seeing the same word in the same context, there's a balance between the repetition we all need when learning a new language and pushing your brain to generalize to slightly different usages or contexts.

So all things considered, Duolingo had it figured out even before the latest research came out.  I'm hoping it pays off, because my son and I would like to take a trip to Japan at some point and be able to get along, even if we don't meet anyone cute named Naomi Yamaguchi.  But I should wind this up, so for now I'll say ja ane, mata ashita (goodbye, see you tomorrow).


1 comment:

  1. I disregard the 'u' and treat those syllables as a stand-alone consonant. For example, how would you "spell" the word "school" in kana? They write out 'su' and 'ku' because that is how their "alphabet" is structured, but the sounds are simply 's' followed by 'k'. SuKu-uru (and even the L at the end is written with that 'ru' in Romanji, but isn't pronounced). My theory is that the charts for hirigana and katakana impose the 'u' for symmetry.