“For much of this book I have described my vision of the road to mastery―you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art.” ―Josh Waitzkin

There are many great books about learning out there, but one of my favorites to date is The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. The book shares core learning principles that have allowed Josh to master multiple diverse disciplines, including:

  • Chess. The movie Searching for Bobby Fisher is based on Josh’s childhood, during which time his impressive chess skills led to him being called a “prodigy” (a word he doesn’t particularly care for as it discounts the massive amount of practice, effort, and psychological tactics he relied on to win eight National Chess Championships).
  • Taiji Push Hands (太極推手, tàijí tuīshǒu). Josh has won a number of medals in the sport, the World Champion Title in 2004, and went on to coach others to victory themselves.
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Josh holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which he obtained training under Marcelo Garcia, considered to be one of the world’s best practitioners and teachers of the art.

So what do chess and martial arts have to do with language learning? Quite a bit, actually. Mastering any skill requires that you travel down the same basic road. Whether you are learning the Japanese language or a Japanese martial art, you will encounter many of the same challenges, pitfalls, and joys on your journey. And, many of the same metalearning techniques can be applied. Here are few key learning principles that Josh shares in the book that can be of big help in reaching fluency in a foreign language:

Growth Requires Discomfort

“The key to pursuing excellent is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of comfort or safety.”

One of the most common causes of slow progress in a foreign language is spending too much time on safe, comfortable tasks like reading, flashcards, memorizing rules, etc. and avoiding what many learners find most uncomfortable: communicating with native speakers. The former allows you time to think, look things up, and keep things under control. The latter affords you little time to think, no time to use a dictionary, and little control. But if you want to reach fluency in a Japanese (or any other language), you absolutely must speak. There is no alternative. Passive input activities like listening to podcasts and reading books (albeit it important components of a balanced language diet) will not give you the active communication skills you desire.

This is not to say that all learning will be uncomfortable all the time. You can and should have lots of fun along the way. Do things in the language you enjoy. Discuss topics that interest you. But don’t let fear of discomfort or ambiguity stop you from getting mission critical face-to-face (or at least Skype-to-Skype) communciation practice.

I suggest prescheduling a few weeks worth of tutoring sessions on iTalki so you’re more likely to stick with the habit. As Tim Ferriss puts it in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers:

“Schedule (and if possible, pay for) things in advance to prevent yourself from backing out… Make commitments in a high-energy state so that you can’t back out when you’re in a low-energy state.”

Make Peace With Your Discomfort

“When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.”

Learning a language will entail tolerating lots of ambiguity and uncertainty, making heaps of mistakes, using the wrong word or a given word incorrectly (often leading to much unintended comedy at your expense), accidentally committing social faux pas, etc. But such experiences are only as embarassing and uncomfortable as you let them be. You can instead choose to not take yourself so seriously, laugh at your blunders, and gain valuable (and highly memorable!) lessons about how the language works.

And just as Josh avoids painkillers to mask the discomoft of injuries, I don’t recommend that you use alcohol to drown out the potential awkwardness of communicating with native speakers. Yes, booze is a powerful social lubricant and can indeed help you communicate more smoothly by lowering inhibtion and second guessing. But this is not a crutch you want to rely on in the long run unless you want to be drunk 24-7… Moreover, since alcohol negatively impacts memory, the progress you make under the influence will likely fade away like your memories of the night itself.

Be Present & Don’t Dwell on Mistakes

“When we are present to what is, we are right up front with the expansion of time, but when we make a mistake and get frozen in what was, a layer of detachment builds. Time goes on and we stop. Suddenly we are living, playing chess, crossing the street with eyes closed in memory. And then comes the taxicab.”

A surefire way to slow your Japanese conversations to a crawl, bore your interlocutor to tears, and ultimately hinder your progress in the language is to get caught up in the moment on speaking perfectly and avoiding (or trying to fix) mistakes. Yes, it’s important to constantly refine your language skills and fill in gaps, but the focus in the moment should be on communication and flowing practice, not grammar and vocabulary. If speaking with a tutor, I find it most helpful if they keep track of my mistakes as we talk but then only review them afterwards . This approach helps prevent the “affective filter” from going up (i.e. affects on langauge acquisition caused by negative emotions like fear, embarrassment, etc.) and keeps the conversation flowing more naturally (something that is far more enjoyable for both parties).

Numbers to Leave Numbers & Form to Leave Form

“By numbers to leave numbers or form to leave form, I am describing a process in which technical information is integrated into what feels like natural intelligence. Sometimes there will literally be numbers. Other times there will be principles, patterns, variations, techniques, ideas. A good literal example of this process, one that does in fact involve numbers, is a beginner’s very first chess lesson. All chess players learn that the pieces have numerical equivalents―bishops and knights are worth three pawns, a rook is five pawns, a queen is nine. Novices are counting in their heads or on their fingers before they make exchanges. In time, they will stop counting. The pieces will achieve a more flowing and integrated value system. They will move across the board like fields of force. What was once seen mathematically is now felt intuitively.”

This is precisely like internalizing the syntax, grammar, patterns, and collocations in a foreign language. At first, you will have to consciously decode and produce phrases. It will be a slow, tiresome process. But with enough exposure and practice, you will eventually develop an intuitive, subconscious ability to quickly construct grammatical utterances. This is the stuff fluency is made of.

Play Like a Child While Harnessing Your Adult Advantages

“I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for disocvery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off―no problem, you can just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating. While a child can make the beam a playground, high-stress performers often transform the beam into a tightrope. Any slip becomes a crisis. Suddenly you have everything to lose, the rope is swaying above a crater of fire, increasingly dramatic acrobatics are expected of you but the air feels thick with projectiles aimed to dislodge your balance. What was once light and inspiring can easily mutate into a nightmare. A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness. My chess career ended with me teetering on a string above leaping flames, and in time, through a different medium, I rediscovered a relationship to ambition and art that has allowed me the freedom to create like a child under world championship pressure. This journey, from child back to child again, is at the very core of my understanding of success.”

While the stakes in language learning are rarely as high as they were for Josh in international chess tournaments or martial arts competitions, they can definitely feel that way. I remember feeling an immense amount of pressure (most of which I put on myself looking back) when I was tasked with interpreting for visiting delegations during my work for the Japanese government. I thought that any mistakes or translation blunders would send me straight down into the flames of shame and embarassment. In reality, most of my mistakes were not even noticed. And those that were picked up were easily brushed off with a self-effacing joke. It took me far too long, but I finally learned to have fun while interpreting and translating, even when there were words I didn’t know and concepts I didn’t understand. I learned to play with the language like a child tinkers with Legos. The less I cared about perfection, the better my Japanese became and the more fun I had along the way. I hope you can discover the same realization.