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Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

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Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby furrykef » Fri 02.29.2008 6:19 pm

Continued from (roughly) here

(Not sure if this thread belongs here or in the off-topic section. Of course, the mods may move the thread if I put it in the wrong place.)

I think the evidence of that a native speaker of one language can become fully native-like in another language is everywhere. I can't think of any obvious mainstream examples right now -- although I'm sure someone can -- but Mila Kunis (voice of Meg on Family Guy and actress of Jackie on That '70s Show), a Ukrainian, didn't start learning English until she was about 10, and sounds perfectly natural to me. I'd never have guessed that she was a foreign speaker. Kaz Hirai, now president of Sony Computer Entertainment, also sounds perfectly natural, but I don't know when he started learning English and I've heard much less of his speech.

Yudan Taiteki wrote:I'm not sure what you mean by a study of native level speaking ability -- there is loads of research into language acquisition that indicates that once you pass the "critical period", you are no longer capable of learning a language like a native speaker. I imagine any introductory linguistics textbook or a beginning book on language acquisition would cover this.


It is important to distinguish between the critical period for first language acquisition and for foreign language acquisition. These are entirely separate matters, and the idea of a critical period for second language acquisition is much less accepted than it is for first language acquisition.

Yudan Taiteki wrote:But speaking practically, the issue of whether it's possible to gain the language ability of a native speaker is irrelevant, since most people will never come close.


True, for most of us here, it's irrelevant anyway, but I still like to try to get to the bottom of such matters. (Translation: it's fun to debate!)

Anyway, I think anybody who wants to dedicate themselves can do it. Most people, including probably most people who think they want to, actually don't want to do that. It's a crazy amount of work and it's not really worth the effort (unless you'll experience constant discrimination if you don't or something).

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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby jt » Fri 02.29.2008 9:28 pm

First, I'm not sure how relevant your examples are. At ten years old, you may be past the age when children acquire their first language, but it's probably still early enough to acquire near-native ability with immersion. I doubt many of the people struggling with Japanese on these forums are ten years old and living in Japan. And according to his Wikipedia page, Kaz Hirai was the son of a wealthy businessman and apparently spent a not-insignificant amount of time in the US when he growing up.

So I'm not exactly sure where you're going with your question. If you're asking if it's possible for the typical foreign language learner (who usually starts learning the language in high school or university, and typically through a couple hours of classes a week, not by full-time immersion in the second language/culture)... I would say probably not. That being said, I'd say there's nothing wrong with assuming that it _is_ possible, and working your ass off to achieve it. Even if you never quite get to "native" level -- and you almost certainly won't -- you'll be a lot closer than the people who never really put serious effort into it because they assumed it was unreachable from the beginning.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby keatonatron » Fri 02.29.2008 11:50 pm

It's also important to define this "like a native". Do you mean have a vocabulary the size of a native speakers? Be able to pronounce words perfectly so that on the phone you're indistinguishable from a native speaker?

It's definitely possible to acquire a vocabulary big enough to understand just everything that's said to you (I'm almost there), but there're tons of words that people "absorb" through childhood that they never use themselves. Of course those words occasionally come up, which could be one difference between a native and a non-native speaker.

Pronunciation is difficult, but it is possible to be good enough to fool people. Heck, there are plenty of Japanese people with horrible pronunciation.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Fri 02.29.2008 11:54 pm

10 years old is still within the critical period.

Near-native proficiency is definitely possible. Native is not. That's why the term "native speaker" exists; it represents a level that a foreign language learner cannot reach.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby furrykef » Sun 03.02.2008 12:13 am

Yudan Taiteki wrote:That's why the term "native speaker" exists; it represents a level that a foreign language learner cannot reach.


Disagree. A four-year-old is a "native speaker", but it's not hard to have a greater level of proficiency than a four-year-old native speaker. Clearly, the term "native speaker" doesn't exist solely as a measure of proficiency.

In fact, I dislike the use of "native speaker" as a level of proficiency, but comparing ourselves to natives is really the only way we can measure; it's the only way proficiency has any real meaning. But you seem to be suggesting that a native is by definition more proficient than a non-native, and I don't think that's true.

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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 03.02.2008 12:37 am

Maybe we're just speaking too vaguely.

A native speaker who has passed the language acquisition stage (i.e. age 5-7) has an innate understanding of the grammatical structures of the language that can never be equalled by a second-language learner. A native speaker is also able to pronounce the language in a way that the majority of second-language learners will not be able to (within the range of dialectical variation). Of course you can become better than a native speaker in certain areas; for instance, I can probably read classical Japanese better than a good number of native Japanese speakers. Native speakers also do not have any innate advantage in learning the writing system.

Now, you do have to be careful with "native speaker" authority. Native speakers are not well equipped to give detailed explanations of grammatical structures, or of the intricacies of the differences between two close patterns (unless they have received linguistic/pedagogy training). Native speakers will often answer questions about language in a very prescriptive manner. Native speakers do not necessarily know about things that are external to the language itself like linguistic theories about the language, writing system, language acquisition, etc.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby Shirasagi » Wed 03.05.2008 8:03 am

I take no pride in speaking Japanese better than a 4 year old, nor in absolutely kicking a 3rd grader's ass in kanji (and ooh, they really hate that). To me, "native speaker" doesn't mean any native speaker. It means, "a native speaker of roughly the same age and education".
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby furrykef » Thu 03.06.2008 3:49 pm

Right. I was just pointing out that "native speaker" isn't defined as a measure of proficiency, although we often use it that way.

Anyway, the "critical period" hypothesis (especially for foreign language acquisition) is a hypothesis -- it cannot be cited as though it were fact. So the critical period hypothesis could be a reason that one cannot speak like a native, but it is still far from definitively establishing that speaking like a native is impossible, let alone that the critical period is why.

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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby bamboo4 » Fri 03.07.2008 12:52 am

Before you apply the yartstick of "speaks like a native" you have to determine if the guy looks like a gaijin, walks like a gaijin and quacks like a gaijin - when all of these questions are answered in the afifrmative, then you are dealing with a gaijin and that is only when the proposition of whether or not the guy speaks like a native becomes relevant.

As such it is a non-specific, generalized term and deals in comparative terms. The term "he speaks like a native" does not mean that his fluency of Japanese is equal to or comparable with that of Japanese, but the expression is used in case you encounter a gaijin who passes the above-mentioned tests with flying colors but still you find yourself spontaneously uttering "Nihongo ga o-jouzu desuneee!"

Lurking in the darkness of that utterance is a sine qua none, to wit: No gaijin would ever be able to speak like a native, factually or theoretically. and the term in question is calculatingly adulatory in that sense.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby yukamina » Fri 03.07.2008 1:22 pm

Hm, there was a guy who studied intensively and became fluent in Chinese before he went to China. I'm not Chinese, so I can't tell, but people say he has no accent and speaks like a native(at a native level? But again, I can't tell myself).

Studying a couple hours a week certainly won't get you to a level like that, but I wouldn't say it's impossible for someone who studies intensively in the right ways.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Fri 03.07.2008 11:35 pm

Well, don't be too quick to believe the 日本語お上手ですね, from anyone. I had several people in Japan tell me that my Japanese was 日本人みたい and that's a blatantly obvious lie; my Japanese (spoken Japanese in particular) is nowhere near a native speaker's level.

The other thing that you have to remember is the very important cultural component to speaking a language -- you can learn some culture, but nothing substitutes for growing up in the target culture.
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby bamboo4 » Sat 03.08.2008 10:20 am

Read carefully before you shoot from your hip. When I said "calculatingly adulatory," I was referring to such exclamatory remarks eitted by native Japanese as - 日本語がお上手ですねー. :)
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Re: Can a foreign student learn to speak Japanese like a native?

Postby skrhgh3b » Mon 03.17.2008 1:50 pm

I'm a linguistics minor, and I've had a phonetics professor who is a native Dutch speaker and a phonology professor who is a native Chinese speaker. I don't know when they began studying English as a second language, but both of them are incredibly fluent - not only grammatically, but their pronunciation of the General American English dialect is very close to native. My point is, what I do know is they have an encyclopedic knowledge of the sound system of American English, and that knowledge has obviously benefited their pronunciation enormously.
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