Question: What do boiling water and learning kanji have in common? Answer: 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. This is the minimum effective dose (MED), a powerful tool to save you lots of time and effort in your Japanese language 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 (and you can, too!) thanks to what I learned reading “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin.
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.
Chad Fowler’s “Harajuku Moment”: How Honest Self-Reflection and a Strong Enough “Why” Create Lasting Motivation
To succeed in any long-term endeavor, may it be learning a language or transforming your body, you need to have a strong enough “why.” “I kinda want to learn Japanese” or “It would be nice to lose 20 pounds of body fat” won’t cut it. Your objective must be a “need,” not a “want.” This concept is illustrated beautifully in a section of The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss titled “The Harajuku Moment.” Tim shares the inspring story of Chad Fowler―a CTO, programmer, author, and co-organizer of the RubyConf and RailsConf conferences―who lost over 70 pounds in less than a year! While his specific story is health related, you can apply the exact same wisdom to language learning.
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.