A small thing in the past that still affects me

Very few “modern” people would know what Soroban (the abacus) is. It is a calculating tool with lots of axes, each of which has five beads. By moving those beads, you can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and even extract the square root. I can still do all these. In fact, I passed the exam for the “black belt” (dan, a Japanese word for steps, in this case, grades) back when I was a fifth grader. Just to give you a general idea what I was doing then, below is a question that I solved (usually without Soroban) in a couple of seconds.


I am sure I can do it faster than an (electronic) calculator.

The square root questions were my favorite. Since I was a fifth grader, I didn’t know a thing about the square root. So, when I passed the exam for the first grade and received a new text for higher ranks of “dan” I had no idea what to do with those questions like

√0.000000474552 =

My teacher tried to make me feel better and said, “Oh, that sign is called a “square root” but that is nothing. Don’t be overwhelmed. It’s just like a division…only a little different.” It is true that the extraction of the square root is like a division. √9=3 is only possible when you consider it a sort of division. So for as many as 18 months until I quit the lesson (because I got into Junior High and my baseball club had a priority over anything else), I considered it another type of division. I was very good at it, as it turned out. I solved more than 4,000 questions of that sort, but I don’t remember getting an incorrect answer.

I also participated in the local competition, and won a lot. My parents are still proud of it, which is why I remember it well.

OK, why such an out-of-date calculating tool in this information technology era?  Well, it strongly affects my way of learning English. I had already achieved a certain level of this type of calculation (remember what I was doing then?) when I finally started to learn my ABCs at the age of 13. The very first encounter with the English alphabet reminded me of the first time I attended the abacus lesson. I guessed from this feeling that English would be learned in the same manner. The most important principle by which I calculated was “Why do I calculate? Because I need a correct answer. I don’t spend time on calculation to get the answers wrong.” I hated getting wrong answers, because that meant losing the competition in which I participated. I would always move the beads on the abacus so slowly and and in no uncertain manner so that I would not make mistakes. What happened then? All the other competitors who tried to get answers as quickly as possible couldn’t survive, while I kept getting everything correct.

This is the principle by which I (still now) study English.

Since I know English grammar, I always think of it as irrational to make grammatical errors while I speak or write. When I do, I always stop, get back, and correct them. I forget all about fluency (a.k.a. speed) so that I can minimize the number of errors. To me, making mistakes means losing the competition (although I am not competing with anyone! … well, with me myself!)

Curiously enough, as I did that way for the first few years, the speed was picking up. Now I can read, speak and write English more fluently than most English learners and I make virtually no errors (that does not always mean my English sounds/looks natural, though).

Learners throughout the world, as I assume, tend to focus more on fluency than on accuracy, especially those whose purpose is to receive a required TOEFL score. However, I cannot imagine what is the fluency they think of without being accurate enough. Some (many? most?) experts would argue that there is a trade-off between fluency and accuracy. The faster you speak, the more errors can occur, while the harder you try not to make errors, the slowly you end up speaking. However, that is a phenomenon only to be observed momentarily as learners speak. In the long term, my belief is always the same: fluency is built on accuracy.

And this belief comes from a small thing that I experienced at age 10.



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