when will i be done learning japanese?

There are projects that you can take on that have a clear end point: when you’re done, you’re done. You can build a boat, or write a novel, or take a journey around the world.

Then there are projects that you can take on that you will never ever be done with: rather, they become a part of your daily life; eventually, a part of your identity; you will strive to the end of your days to finish them and you never will. You can train to improve your personal best 40 km cycling time trial, or endeavour to truly express your vision in photography, … or you can learn a language.

There is no such thing as done. There will always be more to learn, more depths to plumb, deeper understanding of grammar, keener intuition of expressing yourself in writing, broader knowledge of literature, more refined sensitivity to connotations, more idioms and sayings to appreciate; and the perfect brush stroke will elude you for a lifetime, just as it has thousands of calligraphy masters before you.

And this is something that I am grateful for, and would never wish to change.

Comments Off on when will i be done learning japanese? Posted in Musings

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!

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.

background looping, floating phrases, and gomes the hitman

There are different points of view on “passive listening”, whether very useful or not at all; and to go with that, different ideas of what it actually is. Olle Linge over at Hacking Chinese has been having a very useful series on listening, and what I’m talking about here is background listening – the sort of thing you turn on and tune out, not paying any serious attention to at all. This is probably what most of us have the most time for, but does it actually do anything for your language learning? Continue reading


The 四字熟語 can often encompass an entire outlook, mindset, philosophy.  Looking back on the previous year, I see much room for improvement.  These, then, are what I would like to define 2012:


A single moment is worth a thousand gold. Time is precious. Waste is unthinkable.


Moving forward day by day, month by month. Whether you’re tending a garden or a mind, neglect will undo months and years of work. Progress need not be quick, but it must be continuous, as inevitable as a natural force.


Cultivating the character by diligent study and application. It is no accident that the last three characters of this expression all mean, more or less, “to polish”. The cut and a single polish can give you an adequate, functional, marketable product. But for the mind and character, that can never be accepted as a sufficient standard.