You can often spot a new language learner by the scale of their language learning goals and daily habits. When we first start out in a new language, the excitement makes it easy to commit to big, hairy, audacious language learning goals and herculean daily routines. Perhaps we commit to listening to three hours of foreign language audio a day, reading one foreign language novel a week, or speaking with a language tutor for an hour every single day. We might keep this up for a few days, or even a few weeks, but eventually, our motivation will run out and we’ll fall off the pace. Perhaps we have a bad day at work, and cancel our tutor session. Or we have a fight with our spouse and don’t feel like studying any flashcards. Or maybe we get sick and opt to binge watch Narcos instead of listening to language podcasts. One missed day turns into two, and then three, and then weeks or months of zero language study. Most people (especially perfectionists like me) will then think, “Well, since I can’t do it all, I guess I will do nothing.” Fortunately, we can avoid this all-or-nothing-perfectionist trap by committing instead to a “minimum effective dose” of daily language study: a tiny, tiny amount of time and effort that we will hit each and every day no matter what.
Does this sound familiar? You stare at a given kanji (漢字・かんじ, “Chinese character”) for a few minutes, trying to will the strokes into memory. You write the kanji out a few dozen times, hoping the muscle memory and repetition will help it stick in your head. You move on to the next kanji, and repeat the same process. You flip the page over and try to write the first kanji again without looking at the model. What the heck! Where did it go!? At this point, most learners then blame themselves, assuming they simply “have a bad memory” or “aren’t studying hard enough.” The truth is that the problem lies not with your memory or motivation but with your method. Unless you have a photographic memory, this “visual memory” approach is simply not an effective way to learn highly complex information like kanji. So how should we learn then? The answer is “imaginative memory.” Read the article to see what it is and how to use it.
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.
Mind maps are a powerful language learning tool that can help you better learn (and remember!) vocabulary, see connections between related terms, organize complex information, improve retention, and have more effective study or tutor sessions.
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.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder is the first book I’ve read by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it will certainly not be the last. The book is actually the fourth in a four-volume series on uncertainty the author calls “Incerto”, which also includes the previous works Fooled by Randomness (2001), The Black Swan (2007–2010), and The Bed of Procrustes (2010). Taleb sums up the basic premise of the book as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” This is definitely true of language acquisition. The safe, predictable, highly structured nature of classroom-based academic language study does not prepare one for the messy interactions that one will encounter in the real world. To reach fluency in a foreign language, one needs randomness, not a lesson plan. Read on for a few of the best language learning lessons from Antifragile.