Thursday 11 January 2024

Life Altering: ChatGPT As A Language Learning Tool


What's The Holdup?:
     Recently, someone asked why my latest novel is taking so long to write. (The Queen of all Colors was published at the start of it's been 3 years!)
     The short explanation is that it's a more complicated plot which has led to a larger-than-usual book; might even end up being two books. But also, when it takes a man 3 years to write 100K words, it almost invites Life to get in the way. And Life created ChatGPT, and that is now in the way.

Writing Update:
     The novel's rough draft is finished, but I don't want to release it because it's truly a cliffhanger. I hate when part one of something is released though part two is still under development. This aversion goes way back to the 80's when an animated version of The Lord of the Rings was released. I saw it. It was great, but suddenly ended in the middle of the story. Unfortunately, the sequel was never made. Sometimes, I still worry about the fate of animated-Bilbo.
     So, I need to finish part two.
     Anyway, the next novel may be called "Conjured Property" or "Weatherglass" or both, depending upon how I publish it (ie: in one volume, or two). It's the last in my Joe Sault Detective series. In the rough draft, the central crime has been wrapped up, but a larger, related criminal is still at large and how that unfolds may expose issues that need changing, earlier in the story. As well, I want to tie up all the loose personal stories, and to do that, I need all the major events to have run their course.
     Last April, I was intent on just moving forward with the thought of completing by mid-2025, but then ChatGPT arrived, quite literally altering the course of my life.
     I'm married to a Japanese woman and, when we were newlyweds, I tried to learn the language. My wife found me a teacher whom I saw once a week and, over a 5-year period, I acquired a decent vocabulary and learned the very basics. But eventually, I became discouraged by the slow pace of my progress and the long, long distance yet to cover. I stopped going to lessons. In the ten years since, I've tried, now and again, to continue on my own but the online tools only took me so far. Perhaps, I am just not disciplined enough.

Enter: ChatGPT.
    Just for fun, I tried out my Japanese baby-talk on ChatGPT and was astounded that it understood me and replied at a level that I could understand—in mere seconds. Then, when I asked it some hair-splitting grammatical questions, it replied like an Asian Studies scholar; precise and in-depth. 

     ChatGPT gives me 2 things I've never had before: 1) a compatible conversation partner and 2) a full-time tutor. 
     As a conversation partner, it has the advantage of not being an actual person so there is no shame in making mistakes and you can take chances with words and grammar that you'd never risk doing in real life. I hate embarrassment or causing embarrassment and am, thus, too shy to try my Japanese in public. But ChatGPT and I can talk! (It's like having one of my invisible friends back!)
     ChatGPT is not as perfect as a tutor, but plenty good enough to provide translations and solid answers to complex grammatical and cultural questions you might have between sessions with a flesh and blood teacher. And, it can do it instantly, whenever I want. I find that getting direct answers to questions the moment they occur to me is very powerful. And getting answers between lessons prevents me from getting stuck, or misunderstanding something and having to wait a week to find out I've mislearned. It massively shortens the cycle of getting information, applying it, and confirming you've done it correctly.   

Caveat: ChatGPT is about 90% perfect, not perfectly perfect. Occasionally, it "hallucinates,"—the developer's euphemism for "it lies." It seems like it is so eager to please that sometimes it says that you're right even when you are clearly wrong. Japanese is highly contextual, so a single sentence can mean both "they did it" and "they didn't do it," depending upon the circumstance. This makes it a little tricky to know when ChatGPT is wrong. But I'm advanced enough in the subject to view ferreting out those instances as also educational.

As adept and convenient as ChatGPT is, it can not replace a real, live expert who can stick to a learning plan, assign homework, and help with analog skills like writing and pronunciation. I contacted my old teacher and was very happy that she had a slot for me. (This was a true stroke of good luck because she is an absolutely amazing teacher.)
     So now, I have a first-rate teacher I see once a week, and a ChatGPT on standby, 24/7, in between. It's been about 8 months, and I couldn't be more pleased with my progress.
     There is a downside, though...

The Downside:
     It seems that while I'm immersed in Japanese, I can't also keep a whole novel's worth of details in my head. After two months of agonizing through writing sessions, I was forced to make a choice between writing and Japanese.

     It wasn't much of a choice. 
     Right now, Japanese is a much higher priority in my personal life than writing novels. 
     So, for all of 2024 I won't be writing. This will add another year's delay to the final books in the Joe Sault series. 
     It's quite frustrating for me to leave a novel half-done. I'm hoping there will come a time when Japanese will not require so much of my energy. But, worst case, I'll restart work on the story in January of 2025, hoping to have it available by December.

In the Meantime:
     Learning Japanese has not dulled my urge to write, so you can probably expect more blog posts from me, starting with: why Japanese is such a challenging language to learn!

     Happy New Year!

(Yes, I know that I may regret this post a year from now 
 when I don't have a finished novel and still can't speak Japanese...
and still haven't written any other blog posts.)