The Art of Learning & The Road to Mastery

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.

Do You Really Need More Language Learning Resources or Just More Courage?

We’ve all been there. We find ourselves standing in the language section of Barnes and Noble staring lustfully at the colorful rows of shiny new books, thinking naïvely to ourselves, “This is the missing resource. If I just buy this book, I can finally make some real progress!” It’s a perfectly naturally instinct and I admit that I have succumbed to it an embarrassing number of times. I’ve excitedly purchased language learning books that ended up sitting on my shelf unopened. I’ve joined online membership sites, bought apps, or made in-app purchases, only to rarely if ever open the sites or apps. It saddens me to think of how many trips I could now take using the money I have wasted on language learning tools and resources I never ended up using. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now, but the frustrating truth is that I will likely do the same thing again. Why do so many of us fall into this trap again and again?

Do You Have to Move Abroad to Learn a Language Well?

Is it ideal to learn Japanese in Japan and Mandarin in China or Taiwan? Yes. Is it a mandatory condition? Absolutely not. Let me be clear: living in Japan and Taiwan for a number of years was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I go back to visit as often as possible. But while living in a Japanese or Mandarin speaking country can certainly provide learners of these languages many advantages, it’s critical to understand that it’s not a requirement for success. In today’s world, “I can’t learn Japanese or Mandarin because I live in rural Kansas” is an excuse, not a reality. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you really can learn any language, anywhere.

Why Should You Trust My Advice?

I made just about every possible mistake when starting out in languages. I used terribly inefficient methods, slogged through boring materials I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and almost gave up more than a few times. But this is good news for you: struggling so much in the beginning and later correcting course makes me a much better language coach. You never want to learn from a “natural” who picks up new skills easily. As Tim Ferriss points out in the The 4-Hour Chef: “The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule, make up for a lot. Career specialists can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is hard to teach.”

Frequently Asked Questions: What Do I Mean by “Mastery”?

One of the most common questions I receive is, “What do you mean by ‘mastery’?” First of all, “mastery” does not mean “perfection”. Such a thing doesn’t exist in languages. And even if it did, it would not be a “S.M.A.R.T. goal” (covered in detail in my Master Japanese and Master Mandarin guides) and is therefore irrelevant to our purposes as language learners. So if “mastery” does not equal “perfection”, what does it mean? Read on to find out.

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