The chronicles of Burrito's bizarre adventure into Japanese.

Three Years Later

with 3 comments

Has it really been that long?

I can’t remember the exact date, but I’m fairly certain I officially began my studies with RTK sometime in (late?) August or early September of 2008. So, 2009, 2010, 2011… yup, that definitely makes three years. I can still hardly believe it. I’ve been studying this damn language for three full years now.

I’ve come a long, long way, and yet I have a long, long way to go.

I’m no guru, nor do I ever care to be a guru, and I’m certainly not the most qualified person in the world to give my expert opinion on the subject of language learning or the Japanese language in general; thus, my humble, jumbled mess of a blog chronicling my progress. So rather than write a behemoth of a post telling fellow learners what to do lest they fail forever like so many before them as a newly minted Language Guru On The Internet™, here’s a little ol’ collection of things I’d tell to my past-self, were I able to send a D-mail three years into the past (and inevitably end up breaking time-space as we know it).

And by “little”, I mean I had intended for this post to be around 500 words long, not over 2,400. I guess I had a little more to say to my past-self than I thought. Welp, here goes.

  • The concept of fluency

The concept should be the last thing on your mind. Strike the word from your vocabulary immediately. Fluency isn’t memorizing a few dozen phrases, nor is it the native-like perfection many seem to believe it is. It’ll come in time, but until then, so much as contemplating it (or its ever-changing definition) is just a waste of time, energy and motivation.

  • Progress and comparisons

This was actually gonna be one of the major points of this post, until I stalled and Khatz summed it up far more elegantly. I could go into further detail, but lemme simply say that I’ve found few better ways to kill my motivation and momentum than comparing my own progress with that of someone else.

Trust me when I say that it’s always apples and oranges, and that putting in the time and effort will always result in progress.

  • Language learning forums

While a great place for resources and information, it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of spending more time talking about a language than actually learning a language. Take it from me, who felt the need to try every bleeding edge study method I came across on these forums, not to mention spending far too much time reading and discussing about said methods and theories and so forth.

Plus, there’s always a vocal minority (often quite small, but somehow appearing in every single thread) that will stop at nothing to spread their vitriol and discouragement, which is often subtle enough not to be immediately apparent. They’re not pleasant to associate with, and they’re not gonna help you with much of anything.

Sooner or later, those forums have gotta go. You won’t miss out on anything revolutionary, trust me.

  • Focusing on too many things at once

There’s an expression that goes along the lines of, Keep It Simple, Ya Dipshit! I call it KISYD for short. It exists for a good reason.

With few exceptions, I’ve found it far more difficult to spread my time around several different things, than to simply focus on one thing to completion. It’s not even that I’d be spreading an equal amount of time between those several things, and the one thing; consistently, that one thing would end up getting two, three times more time invested. When attempting to focus on those several things, I get overwhelmed and end up doing a whole lotta not much, instead. I don’t know why this is. I guess I just wasn’t made for multitasking.

  • SRS is not the be-all-end-all

Longtime followers are likely well aware of my love/hate relationship with SRS. We’ve had good times and bad, that fickle mistress and I.

I’ve yet to stick with a single deck for longer than a few months (with the exception of my original RTK deck) until ultimately tiring of it, rarely actually restoring an abandoned deck. I believe this is sort of related to my inability to focus on much more than one damn thing at a time; it just becomes bothersome for me, or feels like it’s outlived its usefulness. As I type this, I’m working on a beefy grammar deck which has been pretty successful, but I’m sure that it, too, will go the way of many decks before it, and ultimately meet its fate in SRS Valhalla, where SRS decks do… whatever it is they do in SRS Valhalla.

SRS has been undeniably useful, and even my on-again-off-again habits have gotten me some great results. But for me, lots of reading has had just as great an impact on learning, if not greater, and doesn’t punish me with dozens of expired cards if I dare to miss a day or two.

  • Ignoring grammar

If there’s one particular thing that hardly ever fails to bore me to tears, it’s studying grammar.

To this day, I couldn’t tell you exactly what function を takes and how it interacts with and modifies nouns and verbs and humdingers and what have you; that stuff is pretty meaningless to me. I generally have a good feeling for how it and other grammar points work, but I couldn’t explain the finer details. The same goes for English grammar, quite frankly.

And you know what? That is awesome, and mostly the result of not worrying about reading through grammar books and the like, and simply sitting back and letting the language sort itself out for me.

But just as ditching SRS entirely hasn’t worked very well for me, so has ditching grammar study entirely. I’ve attained a good, natural feel for a sizable chunk of Japanese grammar, but there remains an even larger chunk that I feel will require a bit more deliberate study in order to really get down. Especially in my recent translation escapades (more on that in a week or two) where precise grammar knowledge is vital, my weak points have become all the more apparent.

This doesn’t mean I plan to bust open those books explaining all the raw and dirty technical details and functions of this and that, oh heavens no! Simply reviewing grammar-oriented sentences and taking note of the various bits and pieces that cause a sentence to mean such and such is more than good enough. I’ll gladly leave the technical nuts and bolts to the linguists and more grammar-minded learners among us; I’m certainly not one of them. However, I do feel that the occasional review of grammar is necessary to get a really solid handle on some bits I’d completely miss through pure reading.

  • A little English don’t hurt

Touching on a previous post briefly, it’s been my experience that complete and total Japanese immersion isn’t necessary for rapid, efficient language learning; not to mention is a bit impractical. In fact, I’d go so far to say that deliberately introducing some English into my diet has been beneficial. I remember how much I’d stress and beat myself up over bits and pieces of English language stuff, such as movies and news articles, thinking I’d never make true progress without shutting out English completely.

The real problem arises when one gets too comfortable and lazy with their native language stuff, which is so accessible compared to the foreign stuff; that’s how it always worked for me, anyway. In that regard, sticking to as much Japanese as possible while limiting English to a minimum is certainly a good idea.

However, just as keeping one’s foreign language sharp with a steady flow of foreign language material, it’s also super important for someone like me, who writes a lot and aspires to translate professionally, to keep my native language sharp with a trickle of English language material. It’s a difficult balance at times, and something I’m always careful with; I find that, if I get in a certain amount of Japanese reading/watching/etc., it’s fine to reward myself with some English language news articles, or a podcast, or whatever else I’ve been itching at. Balance is key.

  • You don’t need 99.999% comprehension to enjoy stuff

I remember reading, multiple times, on one of aforementioned language forums that one shouldn’t read something unless they understand something like 95% of the vocabulary. That’s knowledge of 19 out of 20 words. If I’d taken their advice rather than diving headfirst into comparatively difficult stuff like Berserk and Umineko (the latter of which I probably had 70~% comprehension on for a good while, now well above 90%), I honestly wonder where the hell I’d be right now.

I’m consistently amazed just how thoroughly I end up enjoying something which has a relatively high amount of unknown vocabulary. Occasionally, I get a feeling of, “man, I really should be reading something easier… I’m gonna miss out on all kinds of stuff and be hella confused!” Yet of all the things I’ve read to completion so far, I’ve yet to run into that situation, and in fact have gotten my mind blown into orbit regularly by the incredible plot twists and turns of masterpieces such as Danganronpa and Steins;Gate.

Of course I miss out on details here and there, but those hardly matter in the grand scheme of things. Enjoyment trumps all, and one should never let an arbitrary number stand in the way of one’s enjoyment.

  • Put down the dictionary

Ditching the dictionary has been one of the most successful changes to my routine. There was a time when I’d use AGTH to look up damn near every unknown word in Umineko, and I began to notice a pattern: I’d be looking up the same word a dozen, two dozen times, sometimes even more, without the damn thing committing to the confines of my brain. As soon as I let up and just focused on reading, not worrying too much about readings and skipping over bits I couldn’t decipher, those words actually began sticking. Furthermore, many words I’d normally have looked up just started making sense. And best of all, no having to interrupt my reading to look stuff up!

There are times when looking up a word or two may be necessary, sure. I’m a fan of looking up anything that jumps out as “interesting” to me, be it a combination of unusual kanji or just something out of the ordinary that piques my curiosity. Perhaps a word comes up that I’m sure is vital to the story. In those cases, I’m perfectly fine taking a minute to look up and jot down a word. But in most cases, it’s just not necessary.

Tying in with “you don’t need 99.999% comprehension,” obviously if you’re not missing out on too many words, that may be a problem. In that case, I’d recommend reading something easier unless you seriously have the will to trudge through difficult material (with or without the use of a dictionary).

  • Keep a decent attitude

I used to be one pessimistic mutha in regards to learning this language. It just doesn’t help; not me, not anyone else.

  • If it sucks, ditch it

That means you, Liar Game TV drama. Dear god, that was terrible. It would be almost a year later that I’d actually watch another live action drama.

Forcing yourself through something you don’t like is NOT a good idea. These are the things that cause people to quit learning a language, completely.

  • Don’t neglect your listening

Now that I really sit down and think hard about it, it doesn’t really make much sense to focus on reading comprehension before listening. Of course, who better to flip the proverbial bird to conventional wisdom (practical as they may be) than me?

On the other hand, reading brings tons of benefits, and is probably the best way to build vocabulary, without which one can only go so far. But even years later, my listening is still pretty damn lousy and I feel like it shouldn’t be that way. Even passive listening, be it from podcasts, audio books or random TV channels going in the background is much, much better than nothing.

  • Don’t let fear mongering scare you away from speaking and writing

Gotta admit, me and Antimoon disagree pretty strongly on some things, and this is one of them.

The theory is that speaking too early will reinforce incorrect language to the point that said mistakes become incredibly difficult to get rid of. There may be some truth to this, but this hasn’t been the case in my experience.

“Avoid mistakes,” they say. “Mistakes are bad,” they emphasize. Okay, but speaking is a skill very much independent of comprehension and requires practice and use to strengthen; and, yes, mistakes are inevitable, especially for a native English speaker learning such a fundamentally different language as Japanese. However: those mistakes are not a big deal, and I guarantee that a learner with an input-based approach to language learning will overcome those mistakes.

Plus, not only will writing and speaking will shine a bright spotlight on pretty much every weak point in your language (that you can then focus more time on), but in my experience, output is one of the major things that cements the language and truly moves it toward the realm of fluent and natural. Speak when you want to, and don’t let any fear mongering prevent you from it.

I think that’s just about it for that.

But ah, I had much to tell my past-self, but what of my future-self? Actually, not a whole lot; I’d rather focus on the present and work with what I got right now.

I would like to be in a position to pass the JLPT N1 by around this time next year (having made a similar vague goal last year to be near N2 by this time now, I believe, which I’m damn near, if not at, or beyond), but whether I’ll actually take said test with the closest test center being a good 8-hour drive away in Atlanta (seriously, nothing in that big ol’ mass of land called Texas?)… well, we’ll see. N1 is something I’m set on passing eventually, and I can honestly foresee a day in the not-all-that-distant future where such a reality will be a thing.

As for words to my present-self? Keep reading, keep listening, keep writing tweets in questionable otaku-flavored Japanese, stick to a bit of SRSing regularly because it will pay off, and ditto with translation even if it’s difficult now. That’s really about it.


Written by ritobito

August 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Posted in opinion, status report, tips

3 Responses

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  1. Great post! You’ve definitely provided some interesting points in reflection of your studies, from a experienced perspective.

    Grammar is a tricky thing, not because its difficult to learn or anything but because its boring. I’ve spent the first year of my AJATT/Japanese mission obsessing over grammar far too much, so I think I can help you.

    One area of difficulty I think learners face is poor materials, here’s a small list:

    -Basic Japanese connections: A lot of people recommend this book, but I have no idea why! Its boring the grammar explanations are too big and there are far too few examples. I haven’t once picked off the library shelf without feeling infuriated.

    -Genki textbooks: Proceed at a snail’s pace hence why they are only suitable for classrooms.

    Here’s a few materials I do like:

    -All about particles
    -Japanese sentence patterns for effective communication
    -The handbook of Japanese verbs
    -Tae kim’s grammar guide

    All packed full of examples and short explanations for each grammar point. I’ve yet to find (and believe me
    I’ve looked) another grammar book/source/site I would recommend and could say “its worth your time” at all!
    I would add Google to that list for looking up archaic grammar like taru and naru adjective but hell that’s just a
    search engine.

    The second problem I believe people face is how they actually learn the grammar, and in all honesty
    simplicity is the best way! it’s the best way to learn anything! Just take the grammar point put in your SRS
    like so:

    Question: 主人は東京に転勤する[Decided by others…]
    Answer: 主人は東京に転勤することになった
    Translation (Optional): It has been decided that my husband will be transferred to Tokyo
    Explanation (Keep it small): The dictionary form of a verb, followed by ことになる (“it will be decided that…”),
    expresses some decision or arrangement made by others, rather than by the speaker.

    That’s pretty much it for any grammar point you don’t understand. I’ve tried a couple of different format/methods
    but ultimately this proved to be the best.

    Anyway that’s it for me keep up the good work (play)!


    August 28, 2011 at 5:04 am

    • Thanks a bunch for the reply!

      I think you brought up some really good points – grammar study is usually boring, but it doesn’t NEED to be boring.

      I’ve definitely gotten the best grammar study experience from Tae Kim’s guide, which explains things so effectively without having to go into the nuts and bolts. I’ve still yet to come across a grammar book I’m 100% satisfied with, but I am a big fan of the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar books, which cover things to an almost ridiculous degree, including tons of example sentences for each grammar point. Those are the sentences my latest grammar SRS deck is based on, and it’s going nicely so far!

      Also, that’s very close to how I have my grammar deck(s…) set up. Nothing too fancy, but it works out great! Between that and the amount of reading I do, grammar is becoming less and less of a problem.


      August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm

  2. Well said. I find the point about language forums particularly true. I have spent tons of hours in the past ‘discussing’ rather than spending those hours on language learning. Now I have quit for a while, and you are right. I have not missed anything!


    August 28, 2011 at 4:06 pm

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