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.

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:

明日は日曜日です

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.

Sudoku

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.

What I Hate About Most Online “Learn Japanese” Sites

I’ve been using Wanikani lately  I’ve gotten to level 5, and it’s actually a little frustrating.  You have to get the radicals/kanji/vocabulary right a specific number of times, spaced out over months, before they consider the item “burned”, and you don’t have to see it again.  And they dole out the lessons sparingly.  You can’t binge on them.  A cynic might make the argument that they’re just doing that to stretch out the amount of money you need to pay them to complete the program, but while that may be a consideration, I don’t think I agree with that.  They’re doing the right thing.  They have mnemonics, and sometimes I find those useful, but most of the time I don’t.  I think, though, that’s primarily because we haven’t yet gotten to kanji I don’t know on some level.

This is unique amongst online “Learn Japanese” sites.  I have used several in the past, and they promise to teach you Japanese quickly, and they make it possible for one to rocket through their courses as fast as you want to.  They sell “quick”.  Rosetta Stone, for example, promises you can learn conversational Japanese quickly, but the argument could (and has been) made that it will harm your efforts in the long run.  I’ve found probably ten to twenty sites who promise to teach you Japanese, and they don’t and really can’t.  It’s just too big.  I could see learning German in a year (I became conversational in it in nine months years ago, but I forgot most of it), and other languages that might have some commonalities with English.  But Japanese just has too much to learn, too much to memorize, too many kanji, too many yomikata, too many vocabulary words.  The grammar takes some getting used to but isn’t too bad, but it’s so different from English that it’s nearly impossible to find any commonalities whatsoever.

Japanese can’t be forced in.  It has to sink in.

So this is why I don’t like most online Japanese courses.  They don’t teach patience.  Because when learning Japanese, that’s about the best advice that you can be given, to be patient.  But they sell based on learning fast, and they’re selling snake oil.  Some learn Japanese quicker than others, but I don’t think anyone who is not from either China or Korea will ever learn it quickly.  It takes a lot of time to even figure out the basics, it has thousands of kanji, even more vocabulary words, and no similarities whatsoever with English.

I’m not trying to advertise for Wanikani.  There are some aspects I don’t like.  They teach recognition of kanji and vocabulary, but they don’t teach how to write the kanji.  That’s a rather important thing, and something you’ll have to study outside of them, perhaps using “kanji tree” or something similar.  But they’re the only site I’ve found, so far, that actually incorporates patience into their model.  There are some similar sites, such as Jalup, that offer a similar service, but they don’t dole out the lessons as carefully – you can get overwhelmed.  And that’s why I use them, and none of the others.  They may be able to deliver what they sell, but they don’t tell you the most important thing.  It’s going to be a long, long ride, and you’re going to have to be extremely committed.

Two Years In

I don’t remember the exact day that I decided to study Japanese, but I think I’m approaching the two year anniversary at some point in the next couple of months.  It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, a lot of “I don’t know if I can do this” and a lot of “hey, this is starting to make a little sense now”.  To be frank, I’m not entirely sure where I am at the moment.  I think I could probably pass the JLPT N5 if I chose to take it, but I want to keep studying for right now.

If I had to go back to the beginning and tell myself what the most important thing about learning Japanese is, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say.  I’d say that certain parts of it are deceptively simple, but in Japanese, the devil is always in the details.  I’d say that trying to self-teach is a fool’s errand but that learning in a classroom setting may not be the best of ideas either.  I’d say that most people who claim to be able to teach Japanese don’t have the slightest idea how to teach it – even if they can speak it and promise up and down that they do.  I’d say there are zillions of online resources out there that claim to teach you Japanese and 99% of them absolutely suck.  It’s not that they’re bad, or wrong, or anything like that.  It’s just that they’re not good at teaching.  I’d say that you have to find all sorts of different resources and mesh everything together to even start to get a good grasp on how the language works.  And first and foremost, I’d say “do you really want to do this?”

Learning Japanese can be a “cool” thing.  It’s almost always an interesting topic of conversation.  It can also broaden one’s mind as to how language works, how culture shapes language and vice versa, and also how much of my own views of the world are constrained by language.  It is also a very difficult thing to which there is no easy solution, and the only way to really succeed is to find a way to learn that works for you and keep doing it until it sinks in.  Eventually it kinda does, but never immediately.

The logographs, or kanji, can actually be really pretty, and some can tell an interesting story on their own.  Once you understand the symbology, some kanji are striking in the stories they tell, such as 桜 or 休み.  But two years in, is it really worth it?

To be frank, I’m still not entirely sure.  It really hasn’t opened new worlds for me, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will.  And isn’t that kind of the point?  But I still learn.

 

Thinking in Japanese

Over the past week or two, I have found something happening, and I am not sure what to make of it.  On multiple occasions, I have found myself nearly responding in Japanese to an English question – and I have to consciously correct myself.  Sometimes that’s before it comes out of my mouth, and sometimes it’s not.

Yesterday, I was at a Sushi restaurant, and the waitress came up to ask what I wanted to drink.  I replied “Mi-er, I mean, Water, please”.  I very nearly said “Mizu kudasai”.

I’m not entirely sure why that happens, but it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.  Maybe it means I’m starting on a long road to fluency.  Or maybe I just have an identity crisis.

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.