Language Learning

Your Brain is a Leaky Sponge


Once again, I managed to completely abandon this blog for a seemingly endless period of time. I have some time on my hands now so I thought I’d write a little bit for old time’s sake (and for the learning pleasure of anyone who cares about what I have to say).

I spent the last year or so living with my girlfriend and we speak Japanese at least half of the time. We watch Japanese TV exclusively (we don’t actually have cable; we just use the internet for Japanese variety shows and dramas). We only listen to Japanese music. We eat a ton of Japanese food. For all intents and purposes, we live a Japanese life (we even have those little Japanese slippers from Mujirushi at the door to our apartment).

I feel guilty saying this, but my Japanese study fell to the back burner during all this… OK fine, I just stopped doing it all together. Lack of motivation? Maybe. I lost steam after passing N2. I know I used to talk a lot about studying like a champion and never losing steam and that having motivation was half the battle and you know what…. I was right about all that. There is no great learning experience quite like being on both ends of your own lesson.

I gave myself permission to slack because I have Japanese flying at me from so many directions that I assumed the fluency would just naturally seep in without rigorous study. I was also right about that. Fluency DOES seep in. Literacy, on the other hand, leaks out.

My girlfriend considers me to be basically fluent in Japanese. But in the past year I lost something important: the ability to read a lot of the more complex kanji. When you don’t look at those kanji every day and feed them, bath them, and nurture them like cute fuzzy little gerbils, they will die…. And then you have to go back to the pet store for new gerbils, and those gerbils are just as expensive as the originals and they take just as much time and energy to raise.

So, in retrospect, I can speak Japanese really well now (if I can take a moment to be a little self-appreciative) and I no longer have to struggle or even concentrate to understand naturally spoken Japanese, but I can’t really read a novel any more. I can read manga (that’s basically just colloquial Japanese written in speech bubbles anyway) and I can read anything that might pop up at the bottom of the screen on a variety show. I know just the right Japanese to live and have fun in a world where reading at a high level is not necessary (don’t get too carried away by my self-depreciation here… it’s not like I CAN’T read…)

To sum it all up, fluency can come to you naturally and comfortably and it will hang around for a while as long as you stay immersed. Literacy on the other hand leaks out of your brain like soapy water out of a sponge that is sitting on the kitchen counter. You have to keep the sponge wet if you want to keep cleaning dishes with it.

Epilogue – I hope this post was as fun for you as some of my old ones. It’s been a while, so I’m rusty. Hopefully more to come!










「パズルは普通に四角だから、北、南、東、西のことなどを集中しながら解決するんだけど、文はそんなに複雑じゃない。文はレシピのように、始めから終わりまで、予算された順番に沿って作る物だ。例えば、ラーメンを作ってるでしょう?ラーメンは、醤油を入れるけど、正しい時に入れなきゃならないでしょう?味噌汁を作った後とか、水を沸いた後とか、豚肉を焼く前とかね。文は同じだ。例えば『I like to eat ramen』という文が『I like to ramen eat』に変わると、意味は一気になくなるよね。だから、『Eat』の順番は『To』を入れる後、『ラーメン』の前だ。醤油と同じように。理由は分からないけど、お前も醤油の順番は化学的に分からないだろう?ただ、これは順番だと分かってるね」話を続いた。色々な話題を含めた。




Study Like a Champion

I mentioned a while back that I’m a private Japanese language tutor, and some of my students are in high school. Well, seeing as it’s now the middle of January, they’re getting ready for final exams. A couple of them are freshmen, so this will be their first time ever experiencing a final exam. Needless to say, they’re anxious.

Japanese is hard at the beginner level, I think everyone would agree. Final exams are also scary for a high school freshmen; a test on five chapters seems like an awful lot of material. Those of us who are in college or beyond are already familiar with it and it no longer seems like that big a deal, but to a high school student, it can be overwhelming.  One of my students actually looked at me before the speaking / listening portion of their final exam and said “I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail this.” Well, if you know me at all by now, I don’t like it when people show me low self-esteem (especially my students, be it in karate or Japanese), and I don’t like it when people give up before they start. It’s time for a pep talk.

“Well buddy, you’re right, with that attitude you’re definitely going to fail, you might as well not even try.”

“Ok, then what are we here for?”

“You think I meant that? Look kid, here’s a little wisdom I picked up in Karate over the years: whether you think you’re going to win, or you think you’re going to lose, you’re right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s put it this way. If you say ‘I’m definitely going to fail this test, I shouldn’t waste my time studying’, then what happens? You don’t study, you won’t know anything as a result, and you’ll fail. No doubt.”


“But if you say ‘I’m definitely going to pass!’, then what happens? You put in way more time studying than you even need to because you take the steps necessary to make your statement a reality. If you don’t put the time or effort in, you don’t stand a fighting chance, but if you fight for what you want like it’s already yours, then you do!”

“Ok, I think I can pass”

“That’s not good enough. It’s too wishy-washy. You’re diluting your spirit! You have to attack this test like your defending your treasure from an onslaught of enemy warriors! You have to approach it with supreme and unshakable confidence that you’re going to pass, no matter what! If you don’t, you’ll only approach it half-hearted, and if half hearted is 50% of your spirit, then it’s also a 50% on your test. You’ll still get an F”

“I see…”

“So what’s the word?”

“I’m going to pass this test”

“That’s better! Look, I don’t care about all your grades leading up to this test or how little you know right now. If you put in the appropriate effort, time, and energy, I promise you, you’ll do great.”

“But how do I know if I’m ready?”

“That’s, believe it or not, the easiest part. Don’t close the text book tonight until you know everything. Simple as that. Just know every word, on every page. If you don’t know something, don’t stop studying until you know it.”

“That sounds hard.”

“It is hard in that it takes time, energy and determination. But when you think about it, the concept isn’t that hard, is it? So many people out there walk into a test without knowing everything, and they hope that they will magically know it when the test is in front of them, or that they’ll get lucky and the stuff they don’t know won’t be on test. Well, that’s a B-student’s way of studying. If you want an A, make sure you never walk into a test without knowing everything.”

“I guess that makes sense”

“Darn right it does. Pound it.”

We pounded fists, drilled Japanese for an hour, and he kept on studying till midnight after I left. He thought he got a B. He got an A.

We never really know how we’ll do on something until the moment to perform comes, but if you want to give yourself the opportunity to achieve what you set out for, you need to settle your stomach, heart and mind. Approach it like you’ve already won. That doesn’t mean don’t try hard because it’s a shoe-in. The greatest athletes on earth, even those who know they’re going to win, approach every game like it’s going to be a dying battle. That’s why they always win.

There’s not that big a difference between preparing for a fight, or a basketball game, or a tennis match and preparing for a Japanese test. Train hard, rest well, and fight for your life.

Success begins and ends with your attitude.

Do you have what it takes?

Learn to Think in Japanese

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is study Japanese for up to an hour. Later, when I eat breakfast, I try to watch NHK or read an article out of the online Asahi Shinbun or the online Japanese Wall Street Journal. On my way to and from work, I listen to Japanese music. I also like to listen to Japanese music at work when I can. During my lunch break, I watch NHK for an hour if I’m in the office. At dinner, when my non-Japanese-speaking family isn’t around, and when I’m not out with my friends, I watch NHK or a rerun of some Japanese variety show (SmapXSmap, Arashi etc) from the Internet or a disk. When I take shorter breaks throughout the day, I flip through Japanese magazines or I’ll read a chapter of some manga (it has to be RAW – in Japanese — or I won’t learn anything) or a Japanese novel. I try to do another hour of intense study (textbook study) before I turn in for the day, but sometimes it’s hard to squeeze that in. Before bed, I like to watch an episode of one of those 11-chapter J Drama’s we all love. If I’m not in the mood for a J Drama though, I’ll read something in Japanese (manga or a novel). Finally, I like to fall asleep to NHK. Now, if you add that all up, it’s somewhere between 3 and 4 hours a day of what I like to call “Relaxed Study” and 2 hours a day of “Intense Study”.

Intense study is pretty straight forward. It’s just memorization of vocab and kanji, practicing or reviewing grammar, or reading out of a text book. It’s the standard kind of study that you find in any good college level Japanese class. The point of Intense Study is to learn more Japanese. Learn more words, learn more Kanji, learn more grammar, and learn how to use it all.

Relaxed Study is, I think, the key to my success in Japanese. In relaxed study, you can’t (and don’t really even try to) learn any new Japanese. The point of relaxed study is to simply encounter Japanese. Let Japanese language surround you, let it push all the English out of your head for a little while. Just enjoy listening to it or reading it. If you don’t know something, just move on. You don’t have to understand everything. The point is not to understand it all in detail, but to simply encounter as much as possible. In Relaxed Study, all I want to do is enjoy recognizing and reinforcing Japanese that I’ve already learned in my Intense Study.

I usually fall asleep to NHK at night. I call this “falling asleep in Japanese.” Well, when I do that, I almost always dream in Japanese. I mean real Japanese. When I wake up in the morning, I am frequently still thinking in Japanese, and this goes on until I get to work. It’s 12 hours (from before sleep to work the next day) of almost complete language immersion.

Make Japanese a backdrop to your day. If you hear Japanese on and off all day, and you allow yourself to forget your English while you do, then your brain will actually start to work in Japanese, even when you’re not studying, and you won’t even notice that you’re doing it.

The Hidden Magic of Singing in Your Car

In modern America, it would seem that there is one place where a person’s true nature comes out with un-compromised purity. In this place people shed their shells of embarrassment and discomfort and behave as the innermost core of their soul dictates, unaware of the reactions of other people and unashamed to behave like idiots. What is this magical place?

The driver’s seat of a car when no one is riding shotgun.

I am not exempt from this pattern.  My car is packed to the brim with Japanese music. I have one American CD (The Killers “Hot Fuss”) and about 20 Japanese CD’s. When I’m driving alone to work in the morning, or home from work at night, I almost always listen to these Japanese CD’s, and at first it is just that: listening. But after a few minutes, a tune will come on that I love so much (let’s just say it’s SMAP: “Dear Woman”) that I start to mouth the words.


I turn up the volume.  I almost can’t help but to blast my speakers.


Before long I’m screaming along with the lyrics, even if I don’t know what every word means, I’ve heard it so many times that it doesn’t matter anymore. I just know the song.


I’m sure I look like a maniac when people are stopped next to me at a red light, but I could care less. The window is closed and I’ll never see them again. So what’s to stop my glorious performance?


きれいだね、君こそ我が誇りDear WOMAN!

Then I move on to Yuzu “Sayonara Bus”, then Hilcrhyme “Daijoubu”, then Mongol 800 “Chiisana Koi no Uta”….

Can you imagine how good this is for my Japanese, and how good it could be for yours?

I listen to the same song over and over again, and if I realize there’s a word I don’t know somewhere in the lyrics, I look it up when I get home. A good website to help with that is 歌マップ, which is listed on my blogroll. You can search for music by artist, then by song, and you’ll find the lyrics to just about any Japanese song. After checking out the lyrics, I listen to the song again. Next time I drive some place, I can really let loose.

A lot of people are embarrassed to speak Japanese in front of real Japanese people because they are afraid their accents won’t be good enough. Well, there’s no fear when you’re driving alone in your car. No one is listening. No one is watching. You can stink to your heart’s content and no one will ever know. It’s unashamed, unrestrained practice. The more you sing, the more you can work to match your voice with those of the singers. Match their tone, match their pitch, match their rhythm. Essentially, mimic their flawlessly natural Japanese accents. And no one can make fun of you.

There’s another way to look at this whole thing. Is there really any fundamental difference between what I’m talking about here and the mundane listening practice your Japanese teacher makes you do in class?


To be perfectly honest, none of us really care about Alice and Tanaka-san, or how much they wish they could get out of the library and just go on a date already.  But we do care about music that we like. Music stirs up emotion. It’s fun. It takes all the study out studying. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who learned Japanese as a second language, and those who listen to Japanese music regularly are among the most skilled.

So next time you get in a car when no one’s around, blast L’arc En Ciel or Yui and be a rock star. You may never get a record label, but you’ll be better at Japanese.

A Little Competition is Healthy

If you’ve been studying Japanese for a substantial amount of time like I have, or if you take your Japanese experience seriously like I do, then you have probably felt on occasion that the other gaijin around you who speak Japanese exist partly for the purpose of challenging your skills. When I say gaijin, I mean people who speak Japanese as a second language. When I encounter a gaijin for the first time, my thought process is always: “How good is this gaijin? Is he better than me?”

All of a sudden, your efforts at Japanese become about matching or even exceeding this new stranger. Now, conventional wisdom would have you believe that this thought pattern is unhealthy. It’s bad for the soul because it breeds animosity and discontent, and it doesn’t foster friendship. It also seems like a rather insecure and weak minded way to go about interacting with the people you meet. Besides, Japanese is a language, not a competition, right?

Well, not always. It’s good to look for people of greater skill than yours, to measure yourself against those people, to recognize a greater level of accomplishment than you’ve achieved, and then to aim higher as a result.  If you don’t do that, you’re missing huge opportunities for improvement.

Let me explain. Japanese is hard. No one denies that. It’s ranked at most colleges as the most difficult language for American English speakers to learn. Naturally, once we’ve come a certain distance in our Japanese abilities (far enough to converse with native Japanese easily) we are going to feel proud. Japanese custom calls for self-humbling in situations like this, but, even though we say “Oh no, I’m not fluent, I’m just trying my best”, deep down we’re thinking: “I want you to recognize my progress in Japanese! And this is OK. If we don’t allow ourselves pride in our work, why would we ever work hard? We should be proud when we do well, and it should motivate us to do better.

I met a guy this weekend who has a nearly perfect Japanese accent and has studied in Japan. When I heard how good his accent was, I immediately felt competitive. I tried harder to speak correct and fluent Japanese than I have in a while. I strained the muscles in my mouth to create a natural sounding accent. I tried to speak quickly. Basically I pushed myself. Now, I know that real fluency comes when you relax, stop trying and just enjoy yourself while you speak. But sometimes in order to improve you need to focus on things you wouldn’t normally focus on. The sense of competition made me push through certain difficult situations and fight through the exhaustion that comes from hours of such concentration. It was good for me.

I’m not saying that you should always walk around angry and glaring at every other gaijin as if you want to behead them with your perfect Japanese. That’s not nice, you won’t make any friends that way, and it won’t even make you fluent (don’t forget, a certain portion of fluency comes from just enjoying yourself). Besides, a lot of these gaijin make great friends; after all, they’re interested in the same things you are. So don’t take the notion of competition too literally. I just wanted to challenge myself to learn more and get better.

So feel free to compete with and learn from other people in the spirit of friendship. And know that other people will be doing the same thing with you, and you should feel good about it.

A New Year’s Resolution for Japanese Learners: Have a Plan

Happy New Year’s Eve! Or New Years day depending upon where you are in the world.

I’m thinking about my New Year’s resolution to make a plan and carry it out to study Japanese for a year, with the goal in mind of getting ready for another JLPT. I want to figure out a good system of self checks and balances to make sure I don’t let myself down in the accomplishment of this resolution.

I suspect I just barely either passed or failed N2. I doubt that I can be ready for N1 in a year. So my plan is to study for N1 and take N2 again even if I passed it. I’ll know my year was worthwhile if I do significantly better next year on N2 than I did this year. And who knows, maybe I’ll surprise myself and think I’m ready for N1, but I’m not counting on it.

I’m motivated right now, but I could lose that motivation. How do we keep from losing our motivation, if we don’t have a naturally un-diminishing energy source like the world’s most successful people? We need to keep ourselves accountable. The best way to stay accountable to yourself (meaning you don’t have a boss or a teacher to make you work or study) is to have a plan and a way of measuring yourself against it. So I put together a rather large stack of study materials and a dynamic, multilayered plan that includes vocab, kanji, grammar and reading (I practice listening and speaking on a daily basis with friends and by watching Japanese TV programs).  My plan is almost 20 pages, so I can’t really show you the whole thing, but I’ll show you a couple screen shots so you can get an idea.

These are some of the books I’ll be using for reading practice in the order I’ll be using them:

「完全マスター読解問題対策 1級」

And for grammar:

「完全マスター文法問題対策 2級」

As far as vocab goes, I’ll study the vocab that applies to the reading at hand until I reach JLPT specific reading books, at which time I’ll start using:

「完全マスター2級/1級文字語彙 (the purple book)」

So, now you have an Idea of how I plan to study Japanese for the next 300 and some odd days. What’s important here is that you think about your own skill level, think about what skill level is required for you to pass the test your aiming for (or what skill level you need to be at to accomplish whatever you’re trying to accomplish next year) and then figure out what you need to do to get there. My plan increases in difficulty as the year progresses, until by the end of next year I’ll be dealing entirely with N1 level material.

Of course, all plans are subject to change. I don’t know what my circumstances will be 6 or 9 months from now, so it’s hard to plan in detail that far ahead. You need to try though, and if things need to change, that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just let the plan change, but make sure the changes don’t wreck your year and become your next excuse for failing N2.

Always measure yourself against your plan. There’s no point in making a plan if you can’t stick to it and actually learn what’s on it. Every day, every week and every month, check yourself and make sure you’re on target. If you’re not, figure out why. Maybe it’s a bad plan. Or maybe you are not living up to your promises to yourself. Either way, something is going wrong, and it needs to be fixed.

Your plan won’t accomplish itself, and Japanese won’t learn itself. 頑張れよ~!

Happy New Year, see you all in 2011.