“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!
In this excerpt from my Master Japanese guide, I answer a number of frequently asked questions about why and how to learn Japanese kana. Even if you only want to learn to speak Japanese, I highly recommend investing the time to learn hiragana and katakana as they will help you improve your pronunciation and significantly expand the number of language resources available to you on your learning journey.
I almost didn’t write this blog post. Why? Because I am currently driving with my wife back up to Seattle from LA and only have about 30 minutes available to write. My inner perfectionist almost talked me out of posting anything at all, arguing that it’s better to do nothing than do something less than perfect. Fortunately, I’ve learned to resist the siren call of such irrational perfectionism (well, most of the time). I now believe that done is better than perfect and that the habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself (hat tip to Gretchen Rubin). In other words, it’s more important that I stick to my weekly goal of publishing at least one blog post on Language Mastery, even if it is a short post like this one. The exact same lesson applies to language learning. How many times do we put off practicing Japanese because we don’t have enough time to put in a complete study session? How often do we procrastinate because we don’t have our preferred resources on hand or are not in the ideal environment?
I thought it would be timely to speak about language related bigotry on the same day that a bigoted demagogue has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. “Linguistic discrimination”, also known as “linguicism”, is one of the darkest corners of sociolinguistics, but also one of the most fascinating. Though it’s a complex and highly controversial topic, in simple terms, linguicism is defined as: The unfair treatment of an individual based on their native language, dialect, accent, vocabulary, word choice, syntax, etc. Sadly, this form of discrimination can be found in every corner of the globe. As I’ve traveled the world—and even different pockets of my home country—I have witnessed countless cases of people being treated better or worse based on their native tongue or regional dialect.
As a teacher, blogger, and coach in language learning, I’ve heard just about every excuse there is for why one can’t learn a foreign language. Here are the most common, limiting, and ultimately untrue beliefs: 1) “Learning languages is really difficult, especially non-Romance languages like Japanese.” 2) “I don’t have enough time, money, or language ability to learn a language.” 3) “I don’t live where the language is spoken.” 4) “I’m too old to learn a language.” While learning to speak a new tongue might be easier or more convenient for some people (e.g. those who have hours of free time available each day, deep financial resources, the freedom to travel frequently or move abroad, etc.), it is imperative to understand that anyone can learn a language well if they: 1) Prioritize language learning in their lives. 2) Do the right things consistently (heaps of listening and reading input and heaps of active speaking and writing output). 3) Change their beliefs about language learning.