Language lessons

Learning a second language is never easy. It's doubly difficult when there are three separate writing systems and a set of alphabetical characters that are completely foreign to you. Add to that the cultural aspects of language usage and learning Japanese becomes a seemingly daunting task.

Dr. Abby McMeekin (modern languages) is hoping to make this process a whole lot easier for her students, as she strives to determine the best ways to learn Japanese by integrating a variety of learning strategies in the classroom.

Dr. Abby McMeekin of the Department of Modern Languages.

McMeekin joined the University of Lethbridge in 2007 as an assistant professor of Japanese in the modern languages department, after spending 13 years teaching at the University of Hawaii. She is the only faculty member in her department conducting classroom-based research, which focuses on several key topics related to learning Japanese, such as Kanji learning strategies.

"Kanji are Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system," explains McMeekin. "This past semester, I studied the effectiveness of different strategies for learning Kanji in the classroom."

Kanji characters contain three elements: orthographic (shape), phonetic (sound) and semantic (meaning). Students are frequently taught the orthographic and phonetic elements of a Kanji character, but they aren't always taught the details of semantic elements.

For example, the Kanji character for the word "spring" is comprised of three symbols: the symbol for "three," the symbol for "people," and the symbol for "sun." Put together, you can think of it as "three people under the sun," which in turn means "spring."

These ortho-semantic elements can be exceptionally useful in the understanding of Kanji characters. McMeekin decided to introduce semantic elements in her classes when she noticed that some of her students were struggling with Kanji.

"Students who incorporated all three types of elements into their learning strategies scored best on the post-test," she says.

A new area of interest for McMeekin is computer-assisted language learning. In a classroom environment, students might use web-based exercises, YouTube videos, or computer programs to help them learn the language.

"What tools are available? How effective are they? Do they really help with things like reading comprehension and sociolinguistic competence? These are the types of questions I'd like to answer," she explains.

Ultimately, McMeekin aims to determine what tools work best for students who use computer-assisted learning to learn a second language.

McMeekin's research has significant applications in the classroom.

"As a teacher, it's important to know what the most effective teaching methods are. It's beneficial to try different strategies in order to see how students learn best."