Systems vs. Goals: Why I am Failing at Learning Japanese

A couple of years ago, I was watching a Morning Musume video and saw lots of strange characters flashing along the screen, along with a bunch of gibberish.  And then I thought to myself, “I would like to learn Japanese”.  And thus, a goal was set.

Two years later, I am wholly unsatisfied with my progress towards this goal, and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been seriously thinking about quitting.  It’s still something I want to do so the odds are that I won’t, but it is currently a miserable process for me and I am pretty sure I’m doing something entirely wrong.

And I think the first thing I did wrong was to set a goal of learning Japanese.  Goals never work.

First of all, it’s an amorphous target.  What does it even mean to learn Japanese anyway?  Does it mean that I want to become fluent?  To what degree of fluency do I want to achieve?  Does it just mean that I want to read manga, or be able to hold an intelligent conversation with a Japanese person?  The honest truth is that I don’t know.  I don’t know why I set that goal other than because it seemed an interesting thing to do, I don’t have a “definition of done”, nor is there a sensible one that is even possible, and I have no idea what the correct way to even achieve this goal is.  So I throw a lot of money at the goal, and make some progress, but at the end of the day I’m entirely unsatisfied – both with myself and with the progress towards the goal.

I have a goal, and I have no system for getting there.

This is complicated by the fact that learning a language is not something that you can realistically achieve by learning.  I mean, you can learn vocabulary, and grammar, and all that stuff, and by learning you can get to the point where you can make sense of what something is saying, and you can say something sensible as well, but it requires a lot of thought, and by learning, it will always require a lot of thought.  Language is not an academic exercise – or at least the fluent execution of a language is not an academic exercise.  You need to get to the point where something just feels wrong, and that is something that cannot be learned.

So it is completely clear to me now that I am approaching this in entirely the wrong way.  I am trying to learn a language, when learning a language is essentially impossible.  I set a goal for myself that I cannot reach, and I failed to create a system for making progress towards that goal that gives me any kind of sense of accomplishment.

Put another way, if I continue just learning for the sake of learning, I may as well stop now, because I’ve already failed.

I must revisit my original motivation for setting this goal, I must unset the goal, and I must instead replace it with a system that will ultimately have a similar result.


Japanese jyukugo fascinate me, because each one tells a story.  Sometimes the story is boring, but sometimes they offer an unwitting insight into the mind of a culture.

I was reminded of this when I learned the jyukugo 電池.  The two kanji together mean “electricity” and “pond”.  But if you put them together, it means “battery”.  It’s a very poetic word, and not really intentionally, I think.  The Japanese people needed to think of a word for electrical storage, and well, why not?

I’ve often been curious as to how these words arise.  The word for “wife”, for example, is “kanai”, or 家内.  The two kanji mean “inside” and “house”.  One could say that this isn’t a very forward thinking jyukugo, but then, the Japanese culture is thousands of years old, of course it’s not.  Sometimes you just have to take a word at face value.  That’s the word.  Trying to demand that an entire country change their language because it offends you is…  well… what seems to happen these days.  But it’s not reasonable.

Jyukugo are one thing about Japanese culture that I’m willing to accept for what they are.  Some are poetic.  Some are not.  Some are disturbing.  And some are beautiful, in their own way.  We don’t have these same kinds of constructions in English for the most part, and in some ways, I kind of wish we did.  It would make my language much more interesting.

In my opinion, Japanese is difficult, incomprehensible, inscrutable, and a whole bunch of other words that start with “in”.  But it’s beautiful.  English is all of those things, and ugly, too.  I guess that’s one reason I like Japanese – for the same reason I collect porcelain dolls.  I like beautiful things in my life.

Working Hard at Japanese Doesn’t Work.

I have been on Wanikani for a few months now.  I am taking the lessons very slowly so that I don’t get overwhelmed.  It’s funny – every time I learn a new kanji or a new pronunciation, I think “how am I going to remember that?”  And then, a month later, I look at it and it pops to mind, completely unbidden, the moment I look at the word.

So I think the harder you work at Japanese, the more you’ll seem to advance, and the quicker you forget.  It seems to me that a slow, steady path of absorption seems to work much better than trying to cram as much into your head as possible.  That certainly seems to be true to me.

I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t take time or effort.  Of course it does.  You’re not going to get anywhere by watching anime with subtitles and never studying the language – you’ll go backwards.  But I’m saying that if you’re struggling, you’re trying too hard.  It does sink in eventually, and things start to seem natural pretty quickly that didn’t seem to before.  You just have to get used to it.

I have told the story before about how I got acquainted with Japanese.  When I first heard the Japanese language spoken it was literally gibberish.  I could not pick a single word, phrase, or meaning out, and even when I started learning greetings, their accent was so different than I was used to that even if I knew a word it was difficult to pick it out of the sentence.  But now, I still have that problem, but much less so.  I still go back to that video every now and then, and I find myself understanding more and more of it.  And the thing is, I’m not really trying.  I’m just working on my Wanikani, practicing it as much as I’m able, and otherwise just letting it sink in.

That seems to work for me.

Study, but not too hard.  Work, but not too hard.  Memorize, but not too much.  Japanese is a language you have to be in for the long haul.

The Intimidation Factor of Kanji

Let’s face it.  As a Japanese learner, Kanji are intimidating.  They are this set of pictographs that really seem to have nothing to do with anything, each of them have a whole bunch of readings, all of which apply only in specific contexts.  There is a sentence:


Where the same kanji appears three times, has two different readings, and two and a half different pronunciations (one of them is in a word that has a reading that only applies across the entire word – there is no specific reading for that kanji in that word).  It means “Tomorrow is Sunday”, btw, and is pronounced “ashita wa nichiyoubi desu“.

It is massively intimidating, particularly to the new learner.

In my opinion, though, it’s a paper tiger.  Here’s why.

First of all, you have to get rid of the idea that there is some kind of a pattern that will help you understand the meaning.  In most cases, there isn’t.  There is a pattern, but it comes from the Chinese the characters come from and was mostly entirely lost in its move to Japanese.  So stop trying, it’s not going to help you all that much.  That would seem to make it more intimidating for the short term, but there’s no use wasting time on things you’re not going to find.

But there are patterns.  The characters, by their very nature, do share characteristics with the Chinese characters they come from – there are specific radicals that make up kanji, and only a finite number of them.  Most kanji are created by sticking these radicals together in weird and unnatural ways.  You do start seeing patterns as you learn them – not in the readings, but in the kanji themselves.  You can build them up from more fundamental building blocks.  This helps make them a bit more manageable.

Another thing to note about kanji is that their on-yomi readings are exclusively Chinese – nearly all jyukugo (there are a few exceptions) are Chinese loan words.  For example, I once wrote the word shinnen (New year, 新年), and a Chinese speaker not only understood the word but my pronunciation (while almost certainly incorrect) was understandable to said Chinese speaker.  So again, you just kind of have to take it for what it is.  Much of your vocabulary is going to have its origins from a different language.

So if you put this all together, you have a path to memorization.

  1. Become familiar with (note I did not say learn) all of the different radicals that can be put together to form a kanji.  Remember that “radical” is a much misused word, but it is misused simply to make the concept easier to understand.  The true definition of radical is much narrower than you’ll find in wanikani, for example.  But don’t worry about things like that.  You’re trying to make kanji less intimidating, not become a Japanese language scholar.  At least to begin with.
  2. Remember that all of the readings have specific origins and uses.  There are exceptions to all of the rules, but if you just remember this, you’re pretty close to where you want to be.  Most of the time, on-yomi are only used in jyukugo.  Most of the time, kun-yomi are only used in native Japanese words with okurigana.  Remember these two rules and you’ll get there about 95% of the time.
  3. There are always exceptions, but don’t dwell on them.  Get to that 95% of where you need to be, and learn the exceptions as you encounter them.  Probably 95% of the jyukugo words you learn have predictable pronunciations.  About 5% of those are variations on the pronunciations, but knowing the rules still make those easier too.
  4. Mnemonics DO help.  They will get you to the point where you associate a character with a sound.  Eventually you won’t need them anymore with a specific character, but use them until you don’t.  In actuality, the more memorable the mnemonic, the better it is for learning.  Personally, I find that mildly offensive ones are the best.
  5. Learn the rules of rendaku.  This is the change of voiced to unvoiced syllables in the second or later syllable (read:  adding tenten, or those two little ticks at the top right).  There are always exception, but it makes some of the more unusually pronounced jyukugo more predictable.  I won’t go into them here, but there are several very simple rules to learn that cover about 95% of the times you’ll encounter it.  For example, there is a reason for the “go” vs. “ko” in the words chuugoku (中国) and beikoku (米国), and it’s actually a highly regular and predictable change.  But I have not found that this is something that is taught in beginner Japanese.  I think it should be.

Kanji is conquerable.  It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, finding the patterns you can discern, letting go of the idea that there should be patterns you can’t, because those were lost a long time ago, and understanding that while there are exceptions, not dwelling on them will help you to not acquire that initial mental block most students do when first seeing that vast array of inscrutable pictograms.  Just take it slowly and methodically, and you will get there eventually.

Don’t expect it to come quickly, though.  Two thousand of anything are hard to memorize, much less kanji.

Education Gaps

Here is a secret about me:  I did not actually go to traditional high school.  I was home-schooled.  My feelings about home-schooling, based upon my experience, are decidedly mixed, and lean negative, but that’s not a discussion I want to get into here.

One of the things that has haunted me through most of my life was the feeling that I had major gaps in my education.  I think perhaps one of the reasons that my interests are so varied and diverse is a subconscious desire to close those gaps.  I do not feel this as strongly as I used to, but I still feel it on occasion.  A haunting sense of inferiority that drives me to always learn more, always study more, and it always feels like there’s something big that I’m missing that is just out of my reach.

This weekend I bought myself a present.  I bought a lego model of the Saturn V rocket.  It stands a meter tall, and has 1,969 pieces in twelve bags.  I spent probably three hours tonight building just the first stage.  I gotta say, props to the designers.  They did an incredible job with the details of those monster Rocketdyne F1 engines.  But, as I was literally putting the final piece on the stage, I discovered that I had put an important brick on backwards.  Worse, it was one of the very first bricks that I had put on the model.  I very easily could have had to dismantle the entire thing to turn that brick around.

But in thinking about it, I realized that I did not need to take that approach.  I realized that the instructions built it the way they did in order to maintain structural integrity – everyone who has put together a lego structure understands that it’s very difficult to create a lego structure that does not come apart at particularly weak spots.  So, instead, I just pulled the engines and farings off, popped the sides out, and got access to the brick from underneath.  I turned it around and had the whole thing fixed in ten minutes.

And as I was solving this problem, I realized that I was teaching myself a life lesson on learning, as well.  Children have to build up their learning as a structure – stacking basic life skills on top of others until at the end they are capable of being functional people in society.  But as adults, we do not have to follow that method of learning.  We can evaluate the problem, find a solution that works for us, pop off the sides, and flip that brick without having to completely dismantle redo the whole structure.

So, thinking about it, I don’t think I feel all that inferior anymore.  I had reason to, once, but I’ve learned much, studied much, and accomplished much.  And although there is nothing I can point to as a crowning achievement of my life, I can still point to quite a bit and say “I can hold my own there”.  I don’t have to feel inferior and I don’t have to allow the pomposity of others to get under my skin.

So let me tie this back in to the topic of this blog.  One of the reasons that I attended a college Japanese course in the first place was that haunting sense of insecurity – feeling like if I didn’t take an actual course the people coming out of the classes would know things I don’t.  Maybe that is true.  I hated the experience, but I can’t deny it helped solidify the hiragana and katakana in my head.  But I know things they don’t, too.  I know the difference between ichidan, godan, and suru verbs – they would have never heard those words, because sensei doesn’t teach them.  They wouldn’t really understand how kanji radicals work, and there have been multiple times where I taught sensei something about her own language because I had incentive to learn it.  These are things you don’t really need to know as a JSL student – but knowing them and using them the right way makes life a whole hell of a lot easier.

Classes are good.  They are a basic starting point.  But there is no substitute for curiosity, having questions, looking up the answers, and going down that rabbithole until your curiosity is assuaged.  I don’t have to feel like there are gaps in my structure.  Because if there are, I have the framework that truly matters – curiosity, and the intelligence to find the patterns if I need to.  I can fill the gaps.  Asking “why” is worth more than all of the college courses in the world, if you get As in every single one and never ask that simple question.

I’ve done okay for myself.  There’s no reason to feel inferior anymore.  And Japanese is going to be what I make of it and what I want it to be, for me. No more, and no less.


I am a computer engineer.  Before I learned Japanese, I have learned about sixteen different computer languages to a degree of proficiency with which I can make production applications out of them.  In doing so, I realized that there are features every language that runs on a procedural basis will have, and each language implements these using a slightly different syntax.  The same thing is essentially true with human languages:  why do all languages have essentially the same underlying conceptual structure, and only differ by means of vocabulary and grammar?  I think the answer to that is pretty obvious.  As someone I asked that question of once told me, “It’s the language of living”.

Out of procedural computer science evolved the idea of “pre-emptive multitasking”.  By which I mean, each process gets its own environment, and is not aware or doesn’t care that it is running on a multitasking operating system.  Sure, it could probably figure out how much time it was being allocated by checking the actual system time (and there are actual processes that do just this, they’re called “watchdog” processes, and they can be implemented in hardware too), but by and large, they’re completely unaware of other processes that are running.

This is one feature that human language has, to my knowledge, never had.  Perhaps for good reason, but I’m not talking about things with good reason.  I’m talking about my thoughts.

Because of the way my mind works, I have often wished there was a feature in language by which you could “save your stack”, in a sense, and then go off on another completely tangential thought, pop the stack again, and continue on like you never said anything.  That would be an interesting linguistic feature to have, and frankly, I’m curious about what kind of culture could use such a language feature.  We have something similar in the usage of parentheses (and hyphens, as I use them), but there’s no way to intermingle multiple separate thoughts together and not lose the cohesiveness of the whole.

I’ve often wondered what such a language would look like, and if most people could even adapt to it.  If I were to do it in Japanese, I would just add a couple of particles.  In English, well, I’d have to use a symbol and probably a really odd pronunciation, or some such.  I don’t know.  I’m not a linguist (and especially not a cunning one), so I wouldn’t know how to create it, and frankly, I’ve probably just caused every single linguist’s head to explode, followed quickly by a loud shout of “What?!  You can’t do that!”.

But maybe the more cunning linguists out there could come up with something that would actually be workable.  I’d really like to be able to hold several different concepts in my head at the same time and work on them all together, with structures similar to mutex locks, semaphores, multithreading, and a whole bunch of other stuff that is very much foreign to the way most people view language.  But I think I’d actually find it rather a challenge.

Oh, by the way, regarding the structure of computer language?  Toss quantum computers into the mix and the whole thing doesn’t apply anymore.  They run on a completely separate model.  I wonder if we could do a similar thing with the human brain, through language.

Why I study Japanese

A previous commenter, as seems to be the case a lot, got me thinking about why I study Japanese.

In all truth, I am somewhat of a misanthrope.  I’m not usually very fond of people.  I am pretty good at interacting with people in a competent way, and I do not dislike everyone, but in most cases I can just take them or leave them.  So the question of why I am studying a different language, especially one as different as Japanese, is a fair one.  And truth be told, I’ve been struggling to answer that question myself.

Because studying a language implies an interest in the culture and people, and by and large, I don’t really have that.  Of course, there are things about the Japanese culture I like and don’t like, and things about the Japanese as a people that I like and don’t like, but truth be told, I have enough problems trying to navigate my own culture.  Adding another into the mix seems like it’s just compounding my problems.  But yet I study it anyway.  As said commenter pointed out, no one’s forcing me, and I continue learning it.


That’s a really fair question, and one I have to ask myself as well.

Here’s the honest truth, at least as far as I’ve figured it out so far:  because it’s hard, because it keeps me busy, and because it allows me to see the world from a different point of view, which I can then integrate with my own point of view and have a more complete view of the world.

That’s really the reason, and I think probably pretty much the only reason.

I’m an extremely intellectually curious person, and I always try to find patterns.  I learned how to play piano (I’m working on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor” now) simply because it was difficult and trained me to look at music in a different way than I would if I simply consumed pop or something far less complex and interesting.  I studied theology for much the same reason – it was the study of something that interested me – and my ultimate conclusion was that it was something that could not be studied directly.  And even that was a very useful discovery.  After all, a God with an agency is not a predictable God.  Studying Japanese and Japanese culture also assisted my other multi-disciplined studies, because their view of God (when they have one) is very different than the view of God in my culture, and I find that extremely interesting.

So, the answer to that question is actually very simple but difficult to arrive at:  I study Japanese because I can.  I don’t really have a particular reason except it’s difficult and it’s different and it provides many different datapoints for shaping how I see life – what we have in common, what we don’t have in common, how the languages have developed similarly, and how the developed differently.  Talking to or interacting with people as part of studying a language is a necessity, of course, but one that I more tolerate than am particularly interested.

Basically, I have never studied a language because of the people, but more as a reflection of language itself, and helps to shape how I see linguistics in general.

I came to this conclusion when I was thinking about the origin of kanji this morning.  The realization came to me that if I want to actually learn about kanji, Japanese is the exact wrong language to study for that purpose.  Sure, I can learn the meanings of kanji, which are, for the most part the same, and I can learn the Japanese readings of kanji, which sometimes bear some resemblance to their origin, but kanji is something that was bolted onto the Japanese language from Chinese hanzi and then evolved separately.  No, if I want to learn why kanji are shaped the way they are and how the developed, I will have to learn Chinese.

Truth be told, I have little to no interest in current Chinese culture.  I am sure that they are individually nice people, but I have no interest in ever visiting China or having anything to do with Chinese people except for those that I might interact with in everyday life here, in America.  But going down the rabbithole, I have realized that if I truly want to understand parts of the Japanese language, that is something I will eventually have to do.  And I will probably do it at some point in the future.

But I’ll learn it for the same reason I’m learning Japanese.  For the sake of learning it.

There are many simpler languages I could learn.  Spanish would actually be a very useful language for me, living in Texas, and by all rights that is the one I should have tackled first.  But I didn’t.  And the primary reason that I didn’t is because it’s not challenging.  It uses roughly the same roman alphabet (with some diacritical marks) as English does, the words are roughly (but not completely) similar, so mostly it comes down to a few grammatical differences and a new vocabulary.  Anyone can do that.  But it’s neither fun nor interesting, so as useful as it is, I just didn’t bother.  And I may never.  I did learn conversational German once.  It took me about nine months and after that I lost interest.  The next class I took would have meant that I would have had to go to Germany (I think), and I had zero interest whatsoever in doing that.  Just as with Japanese, I learned it because I could.  I still remember most of the grammar but lost nearly all of the vocabulary.

And that is why I learn Japanese.  It’s a huge puzzle to solve.  And that’s, essentially, it.  And it’s why I continue to learn Japanese.  I tend to not give up on puzzles.


I’ve been recently learning how to do sudoku puzzles, and it turns out that I’m really good at it with the right hints, and really bad at the harder ones otherwise.  But I can’t help but to find some similarities between sudoku and the Japanese language.

Both of them – particularly the harder sudoku – are incredibly intimidating when you first look at them.  Sudoku has only a few numbers filled in, and you’re thinking “I’m supposed to deduce a solution from this?  But then, you start to learn, and as the basics become more old hat, it’s a little like filling in more of the numbers – the puzzle gets easier the more correct numbers you fill in.  It’s like a harder puzzle becomes a medium puzzle and then becomes an easy puzzle.  It gets easier as you go on.

In some ways, I feel this way about Japanese.  When you first start, you have this intimidating world set out before you – with brand new characters that have nothing to do with our writing system, even when it does, with ambiguous meanings that only make sense in context – it’s just this huge thing that you have no idea how to tackle.

But then you start, and you master one small part of it, then another part of it, and pretty soon you’re competent enough to read simple vocabulary and learn the most common readings of kanji.  And at that point it becomes clear that the common readings of kanji will get you most of the way to where you want to go.

Unlike sudoku, of course, more challenges immediately present themselves as you progress.  It is almost as if you solve one sudoku puzzle, and then it immediately expands to a cube of 729 units, and have to solve that as well.  So the analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy ever is.

But the first step to solving any puzzle – sudoku or otherwise – is to just start and keep going until you solve it.

Japanese is Not a Straightforward Language

Every now and then I’ll hear someone say that Japanese is pretty straightforward.  I’ve said that a couple of times, and in limited contexts, it’s true.  The rules are pretty clear, and most of the time if you follow them you’ll do okay.

See the catch in that sentence?  “Most of the time.”

Let me enumerate the ways in which Japanese is NOT straightforward.

  • Rendaku.  It’s so complicated that a guy made Lyman made a law about it.  That only mostly applies.
  • Yomikata.  Kanji readings are for the most part predictable – there is usually one kun-yomi and one or two mainly used on-yomi.  But most kanji seem to have the occasional exceptional reading that you can only really learn by trial and error.
  • Verb conjugation.  It is rather straightforward in one sense – but there are several verb classes, two irregular verbs, exceptions to one of the classes, and the conjugation for the other class requires a lot of memorization.
  • Modifiers.  There seem to be an endless number of modifiers that you can stick at the end of or in a sentence that change its meaning, sometimes subtly.  These aren’t really particles, there’s modifiers that change the meaning of a sentence.  Speaking of…
  • Particles.  I’m not even sure English has the concept.  In English, the function of particles is performed by context.  Japanese spells it out.  Except for when they don’t.  An entire sentence can be said using one word, if you know the context it’s said in.
  • Politeness language.  There are several levels of politeness language in Japanese, and you are expected to know when and to whom to use it.
  • Pronouns. Here in America there is this huge battle over pronouns – who gets to tell who which ones to use.  I imagine that’s confusing in Japan – most of their pronouns are somewhat rude to one degree or other.  Again, most of the time.  And I wonder what American far-left authoritarian types would do if the language they used didn’t even bother with pronouns most of the time.  On balance, maybe a good thing.  Google translate almost always gets Japanese wrong when it comes to pronouns because it cannot figure out context.

As you get more familiar with the language, these things become… not less of a concern, per se, but you get used to them.  Which, to me, is a tragedy in itself – who in their right mind would get used to this mess?

But then… I can’t really say a whole lot about that, considering English is probably worse in many ways.  At least they have a really robust “alphabet” (in the form of kanji).  We have 26 letters, 15,000 syllables, and are not afraid to use any of them.  And we have quite a few more vowels and they change sounds based upon context, very much like rendaku, I think, just supercharged.  So I guess English isn’t straightforward either.  No less a tragedy that I was raised with it and am used to that, too, I suppose.  Oh, to have a nice, simple language that most people spoke.

I have a mind that is geared towards linguistics and I’m usually pretty good at choosing the right words at the appropriate times.  It is frustrating to be learning a language where not only do I not know the rules, I don’t even know which rules I don’t know.  But I guess that’s what keeps me busy.


The Japanese Devil is in the Details

One of the most fascinating and frustrating things about Japanese is that it is a very precise language.  For example, the word for “husband” and the word for “prisoner” only varies by the length of one vowel.  It is a metered language, it does not have stresses like in English.  The hard part about Japanese is not the vocabulary, though that is hard.  It’s not the grammar, though that is hard.  The hard part is training yourself to pronounce the words correctly.

I have found, anecdotally, that Japanese people are very rigorous about their language, and they have to be because meter is so important.  So if you speak Japanese with a pronounced American accent, then they may not even understand you.  And it is possible to speak with an American accent.  You do so by not saying ‘r’s correctly, and by stressing syllables.  For example, “ha-NA-shi” instead of “ha-na-shi” (and even with the last one it’s all too easy to stress the “shi” instead.  That also leads to incorrect vowels, and considering we have eleven more vowels than they do, then that can lead to incomprehensibility, even if you did everything else right.

I’ve been having to train myself to speak Japanese as neutrally as possible.  I mostly fail, but it’s at least something I’m trying to notice.  There are inflections in the Japanese language, but they tend to affect the entire sentence structure, and not individual words.  They seem to use particles instead to indicate emphasis of meaning (“yo” vs. “ne”, for example.)

The opposite is true too, I think.  Japanese people seem to often speak a pidgin form of English that overlays our words onto their syllabic structure, and makes for something that’s nearly incomprehensible – and the Japanese don’t often seem to be able to figure out why.  It’s because they’re different languages.  You can’t apply the rules for English to Japanese, and similarly, you can’t apply the rules for Japanese to English.  Just a little bit of effort to understand that not every word has to end with a vowel might go a long way.

But it’s hard.  I’m sure that takes about as much effort as it does for me to not stress syllables.

I wonder, sometimes, if I’ll ever get this right.