“The minimum effective dose (MED) is defined simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome… To boil water, the MED is 212° F (100° C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled.’ Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.” ―Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body. What does boiling water have to do with learning kanji? Simple: just as you only need a certain temperature to boil water, you only need to know a finite number of high-frequency kanji to read blogs, manga, books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Though there are approximately 50,000 Chinese characters listed in the dai kan-wa jiten (大漢和辞典, だいかんわじてん, “The Great Han–Japanese Dictionary”), the Japanese Ministry of Education limits the number of “common use” characters, jouyou kanji (常用漢字, じょうようかんじ), to only 2,136. Most publications limit themselves to just these characters, using kana instead of kanji for any word with characters outside the list. This means that the Japanese learner’s “Kanji MED” is 2,136, not 50,000! Phew!
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 (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), and 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.
Mattias Ribbing is a Swedish author, lecturer, and Grandmaster of Memory. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the 2016 Bulletproof Conference and was blown away by his highly effective methods and positive attitude. Contrary to what most people would assume, Mattias isn’t a savant and wasn’t born with extraordinary cognitive skills. He had average grades at school and struggled to remember what he had studied like almost everyone else. It wasn’t until he was 29 that he developed his impressive ability to remember. The secret, he discovered, was thinking in images. By visualizing specific 3-D images during a lecture, reading a book, or learning a new language, he created a memorable visual context that his brain could then attach the information to and more easily recall. In the interview, Mattias shares how to apply his powerful memory techniques to language learning, Japanese kanji, and even daily life.
Want to learn Japanese but don’t think you have enough time? Even the busiest person has chunks of time hidden in their day that can be applied toward Japanese study. Renowned polyglot Barry M. Farber calls these chunks “hidden moments”: tiny scraps of otherwise unproductive time you can apply to language learning. Though each individual hidden moment might be minuscule and seemingly insignificant on its own, over the course of a day, week, or month, they can add up to a meaningful amount of language study that you might otherwise never get around to. So where can you find your hidden moments? It will ultimately depend on your age, job, schedule, lifestyle, marital status, etc., but read on for some suggested places to look.
Most learners mistake “studying” a language for actually “acquiring” a language. The two are very different beasts, which is one of the major reasons why most adult language learners fail despite years of effort: they spend all their time reading about Japanese instead of spending the requisite time in Japanese. This is like trying to learn how to drive by reading the car’s owner’s manual. Obviously not a good recipe for success.
Repetition is a fundamental part of successful language learning. Until you hear or read the same vocabulary or structures again and again enough times within meaningful contexts, they just won’t commit to long-term, procedural memory no matter how much you may want to remember. A love for repetition is perhaps one of the biggest advantages children have when learning their first language. I am simply amazed how my nephews can watch the same Sesame Street video or read the same Dr. Seuss book a zillion times without getting bored. We adults aren’t quite so patient. We tend to view such repetition as punishment, not pleasure. Fortunately, there are two ways to eat our “repetition cake” without having to eat the “boredom broccoli”. Read on to see what they are.