the small boy principle

A long time ago, I read an account of an explorer’s solo ski adventure across Labrador. It must have made quite an impression on me since I still remember much of it; but one of the things I remember most was his eating system, which he called the “small boy principle” — eat first what you like most! Pulling a sled across the snow all day takes so many calories that it didn’t matter much what you ate, as long as you got enough of it. His stash of chocolate was gone first, as I recall. Lunch was massive peanut butter and jam sandwiches, over 1000 calories each. I’m not sure what else he carried, but he’d made sure it was all stuff he liked, since he’d have to be eating it by the trainload.

I think the tie-in to learning Japanese should be fairly self-evident. You’re going to need a huge amount of input — you’re after all trying to catch up with people who have had Japanese input and nothing else from the day they were born — so you’d better be sure you enjoy it, and not try too hard to eat your broccoli, as it were. Luckily even the junk food is good for you! That ridiculous game show? That eye-roll-inducing drama? That laughably juvenile shounen manga? All of it just packed with nutritious Japanese.

Sure this isn’t going to teach you business Japanese, or academic Japanese. But until your language skills are at least equal to the average Japanese teenager’s, what are you doing trying to learn that stuff anyway? And I assure you you’ll learn more from ten hours of romance manga than you will from twenty minutes of Serious Study of dreadfully boring stuff picked out for you by dreadfully boring people. (And if business or academic language is your box of truffles, have at it!)

There’s no chance of any shortage of the material you like most, either — Japan produces more media of all kinds than anywhere else in the world (or so I’ve heard. Anyway, there’s lots.). No chance, then, of any need to study something you’re not interested in, or feel that you “should” study, because you’ve run out of the junk food.

So eat your chocolate, it’s good for you!

to go faster, go slow longer

I am a laughably bad runner. Absolutely terrible in fact. Because of this, I keep running.

I’m training for my first half marathon now (time goal: finish same day I start) so Monday I ran the longest I ever have in my life so far – 15km. Today, two days later, calves still sore, I did 5km in the fastest time I’ve clocked in several months.

When learning Japanese, the time it takes to comprehend things is one of the biggest sources of frustration there is. Even once you can get through a short story or a manga chapter in reasonable time, it might take months before some of the details snap into focus and you finally understand the points that were beyond you the first time.

But the mind and the body are built much the same. If you want to run fast, you have to put in a lot of distance. If you want to read fast, fully understand fast spoken dialogue, speak without hesitation – you have to plod through characters in the tens of thousands at whatever pace you can manage, listen to days and weeks and months of audio, and practice conversing until even the fencepost gets tired of you. And if you do that, the fluency will come, the speed will come, that feeling of effortlessly flying along with your favourite author will come.

Physical or mental, there’s no shortcut, but the proven path is well proven, if you will only stick with it long enough.

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it’s not the method, it’s the madness

Once upon a time there was a wealthy old tortoise who had a large garden. The garden was very beautiful, and at the end of it there was an enormous wall. On the other side of the wall was the sea. One day the tortoise decided that it was time to change the view and that he would like to be able to see the sea behind his garden.

He called his four gardeners, the rabbit, the bear, the dog, and the tanuki, and said, “This wall must come down. I want to see the sea. I know it is a very large wall so I will give you as much time as you need, but eventually, the wall must go.”

None of the gardeners knew anything about demolition, so they were not sure at first what to do. They read a little here and there, and got some advice from the other animals, some of whom sounded like they knew something about the subject.

The rabbit was very clever, and decided that he had to understand the structure of the wall in order to break it down most effectively. He studied for a long time until he knew exactly how each brick and post and pin was put together. Then he got some good but simple tools, and once he finally got started, the demolition went smoothly. It still took a while, but after two years of steady work his section of the wall was down.

The bear wasn’t especially smart at all, but he was very very strong. He tried to do what the rabbit did, but gave up after a few days of puzzlement, and set to work furiously with his enormous paws. The wall came down in no particular order, but after two years hard graft his part was cleared, and he was also stronger than ever.

The dog thought the best way would be to get the very best tools he could find and learn to use them as effectively as he could. No one spent more on equipment than the dog did, and no one was better at blasting, disassembling, bulldozing, and so on. He also had to work every day for two years, partly because it took him a while to master his formidable arsenal, but his part of the wall came down neatly and steadily.

The tanuki had no great inclination for work, but needed to at least look busy, so he also began studying how the wall was put together, and started collecting tools, and started a little manual labour, but his study was never good enough to satisfy him so he kept getting different books and plans, his tools didn’t seem to suit him quite right so he kept changing them, and as for grunt work with the sledgehammer, he didn’t like that at all at all, so never lasted more than a few minutes. He discussed the work at great length with the other animals, and understood it perfectly (from the standpoint of several different theories), and frequently mustered up some fresh resolve and began work again, but after two years his wall was a little dented and scratched but just as high and thick as ever.

1 is a negative number

Khatzumoto today repeats the dictums that “1 is infinitely larger than 0” and “just do one”.

These are good and valid points, and frequently helpful, especially for the chronically lazy (yr.hmbl.srvt. raises his hand) who often have issues leaving the parking lot of sloth.

However: it can be a blinkered view in a way because 1 is not really infinitely greater than zero, when you set about to learn a language.  And if you’ve ever forgotten a word, or kanji, or anything else; you will understand this.

1 is, in fact, infinitely and tragically less than zero.  You are on a moving sidewalk going against the flow.  Your brain is only too happy to discard items that haven’t been accessed in too long.  You must make more progress than regress.

Now if you view “0” as that quantity of exposure (let’s leave out the nasty “w” or “s” words for now) that will keep you stationary with respect to the surroundings, that will move you precisely in the opposite vector to that moving sidewalk, then yes, 1 is all you need for progress.  And 1 and 1 and 1 is more progress.

So what speed is that sidewalk going exactly?  Do you feel lucky enough to know?  And anyway don’t you want to get to that goal faster – understanding that amazing movie in six months is better than a year, right?

Then why not add up 1 on top of 1 on top of 1 until you get a stupendously large number and have spent your day in, well,

one could even say all Japanese, all the time …

in fact

this is English, why are you even reading this

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give yourself a project

If you’ve been learning a language for any length of time you’ve surely come to realize how amorphous and hard to measure your progress actually is.  Sometimes you get a bunch of notable insights in a row but just as often, probably more often, you can go weeks without noticing all that much difference in your skills.

This is where it might be time to take focus off your creeping language XP bar and focus on some quest chains – er I mean projects!

I have found this to be notably useful.  For me, a good project is something with a very clear end point, and a time span of around three months.  That’s short enough that you can see measurable progress every day and feel that your goal is inexorably drawing near, while being long enough to give a big shot of satisfaction at finishing it.

Going through Remembering the Kanji volume 1 is maybe the first such project that many people start with, and it’s a great example.  Averaging a very doable 30 or so a day, this will take a little over three months, and once you’re at the end you have laid a tremendously useful foundation for reading and writing.

Another project I benefited from was taking Naoko Chino’s All About Particles, mining all the sentences, and SRSing them until I knew those particles cold.  You can do this with a lot of different grammar books, or even phrase books, shadowing example books, etc.

Right now I’m about a month away from “finishing” (that is, having no more unseen words) the JLPT 1 list on readthekanji.com.  Again, an easily measurable, highly defined and structured activity that will take a few months but well under a year.  I think a year is too long for this sort of thing to be really motivating.  If you want, you can define a long term goal – “I want to read Heian poetry” – and break that down into several sub-projects, each of which will take you a large part of the way through.  Think of it as timeboxing on a very long scale.

The next project on my list is an incremental reading deck with audio, made from Miki’s audio blog on japanesepod101.com.  I think this will bring a lot of things together and greatly aid listening comprehension. (I do have this Anki deck available for download as I mentioned before.)  There are about a hundred cards, so if I add two a day I can get through in a bit less than two months.  Perfect.

In a way language learning is like the easiest MMORPG ever.  As long as you stay logged in and doing something, anything, you’ll level up and get rewards.  The time put in is the single biggest factor in your language skill, so as long as your method(s) makes even remotely some kind of sense, if you just keep at it you’ll win, no need to worry about your eventual success.  However, the process can easily start to feel endlessly long, and that way lies burnout.  Giving yourself concrete objectives that you can finish gives you that sense of progress, and gives you things you can point to and say “I did that, so I can do more”.

you are a cat

There is absolutely no way to train a cat.

However, you can simulate it.  A cat lives by one single rule only: to do what is most enjoyable at any given time.  So if you can make the desired activities enjoyable, the battle is won.

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an early influence

I don’t know how many times I read Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was growing up, but it was quite a few. Even then, long before the idea of learning Japanese had ever occurred to me, this passage describing the library aboard the Nautilus always made an impression:

Strange to say, all these books were irregularly arranged, in whatever language they were written; and this medley proved that the Captain of the Nautilus must have read indiscriminately the books which he took up by chance.

I think knowing Japanese so effortlessly that my library had no need for any particular “Japanese section” (or for that matter German, French, or Italian, since those are all waiting in the queue), would be an excellent goal marker to work toward.