Category Archives: Self-studying

The Ideal Advanced Language Class

When Language Classes Aren’t Challenging Enough

In my previous post I praised my university’s Chinese 101 class, which was both challenging and interesting enough to make me want to study Chinese in the future. I now want to move on to Japanese, which I have been studying now for four and a half years since starting in college. My general thoughts on Japanese study in college are as follows:

The 101/102 level of Japanese, like Chinese, was great. Things were moving fast, I felt challenged everyday, and I was excited to learn. The second year classes were similar, and I struggled a bit in the beginning while trying to keep up (I did two semesters of Japanese in 2 months via an “intensive Japanese” summer program). By my third and fourth years into studying Japanese, however, I started to like Japanese class less and less. Having gotten the basics down, there was less pressure to memorize tons of words or grammar points. I would internally groan every time I had to listen to one of my classmates struggle to discuss something relatively difficult or abstract in class.


All of the textbooks I used in college, taking 1.5 years to go through the first three, and 2.5 years for the following three. Looking back, being intermediate level (books 3~5) is the most frustrating.

1. Nakama 1
2. Nakama 2
3. Tobira
4. 日本への招待
5. 中級から上級への日本語
6. 文化へのまなざし

I didn’t feel challenged in class, and as a result I began to feel that an hour and a half in class was less helpful than an hour and a half of study on my own. In a good class, obviously, this should not happen; if lecture or class is less beneficial or interesting than self-study, then going to class has no purpose.

At this point some people draw the conclusion that classes are only useful up to a certain point, and self-studying and immersion is the only way to go. I agree that both of those things are useful (if not necessary in order to seriously improve), but I don’t want to give up on classes just yet. Surely there must be a way to make an advanced Japanese (or any advanced language class) useful and relevant. I’m nowhere *close* to knowing everything in Japanese, and so if I have the chance, aren’t there things I could still learn in a classroom environment? And if so, what kind of environment would be necessary?

Why I like Job Searching in Japan/at Japanese companies

Actually, the title is wrong. I hate job searching in Japan. In fact, I hate job searching entirely, regardless of country. It’s a soul-sucking, energy-draining, ego-destroying waste of time. But for the language learner doing job searching in their non-native language, it’s perhaps also the biggest motivator to study a language more than anything else. When you’re competing against native speakers as a non-native speaker yourself, it’s essentially a language test ramped up to eleven. You don’t know how terrible you are at a language until you’re being tested as if you were a native-speaker.

And call me masochistic, but I love it.

Last year I attended the Boston Career Forum, where I interviewed for a position at BCG, an international business strategy consulting firm. The interviews I had were completely in Japanese, and not once was my Japanese praised, nor was I told how 上手 (skilled) I was at speaking. It felt great, like I was being treated as an equal. After all, fluent Japanese was excepted for the position, and a company has no time to help you with your ego. If you can’t communicate, then say goodbye to any future interviews. While you can also talk to a Japanese friend in Japanese, it’s generally a low stress situation compared to an interview. With a friend you get the benefit of the doubt both because you both already know each other, and because you’re a non-native speaker. In an interview, this only works against you.

After the career forum I was invited by BCG to partake in a three-day long event in December called a “Winter Job”, which is used at BCG’s Tokyo office in place of final round interviews. When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the only non-Asian person (there was one Chinese student as well, but everyone else was Japanese) out of about 25 or so students at the Winter Job, most of whom were Todai/Kyodai/Keio  level undergraduate and graduate students. All communication before and after the event took place in Japanese, with the three days at the BCG office naturally spent entirely in Japanese as well. I wish I could say I became this badass, completely bilingual speaker overnight for the event, but I did not; over the three days I struggled quite a lot. Keeping up—let alone competing—with everyone else was hard, and I pushed myself to the limits of my Japanese ability.

So what if a class could recreate that same environment?

Being Challenged in a Language

Finding materials to challenge myself with in Japanese is not hard. If I pick up a Japanese book and try to read it, I’ll be challenged. A recent analysis over on Reddit finds that a good 4-5000 kanji may be necessary to fluently read relatively difficult Japanese literature. If I want to challenge myself in listening or speaking, I could listen to or try to recite  NHK news podcasts. If I try to read a couple of articles from Bloomberg Japan, I’ll run into an unknown word before long.

Simply put, there are plenty of Japanese challenges out there for the advanced learner. If anything, being at an “advanced” level makes it easier to find material because basically anything a native speaker would look at becomes fair game. At the same time, however, this proves to be challenging to adapt to the classroom environment. Choose something too difficult and learning slows down. As mentioned in a Language Learning & Technology journal article titled The Development of Advanced Learner Oral Proficiency Using Ipads, the author professor Lys cites that

…exposure [according to linguist Stephen Krashen] to the target language is crucial and that the amount and quality of comprehensible input learners receive—defined as i+1—determines how fast they will learn.

Going right after native materials from the start might be something we want to do, but the reality is that we need comprehensible input as well. But what I found in my advanced Japanese classes was that the input was dumbed down too far. I was understanding everything. Now that sounds fine, of course, but in my Japanese 101/102 classes, that wasn’t the case. If I didn’t study the night before I would be lost in class. After all, starting from zero meant I had no background knowledge of the language to fall back on.

In my advanced classes, there were occasionally words I did not know, but nothing that required advanced studying in order to follow along. And if someone in class didn’t understand a word, the teacher would explain it throughly in class. Again, while that might seem fine at first glance, in 101/102 you were expected to have studied prior to the class because there was so much material being crammed into so little time, limiting any time for explanations. In short, the leisurely pace in the advanced class—while it allowed for deeper discussion of certain tricky words or grammar points—did little to stimulate my interest or get me really excited about facing another challenging class. If I want to look up new words or slowly go through a reading, I can do that by myself. The chance to be challenged to speak quickly, accurately, and sophisticatedly on a difficult subject is something that is hard to recreate without a teacher to be your parter.

Consider this next quote from the Professor Lys’ article:

In a study assessing language gain in Spanish speaking students spending a semester abroad, only 12 of the 22 students were able to improve their proficiency by one level (from Intermediate Low to Intermediate Mid), even though they had reported that they had used Spanish outside of class for more than forty-five hours per week (Segalowitz & Freed, 2004, as cited in Tschirner, 2007, p. 111). Students apparently blamed the repetitive and predictable nature of many exchanges with their host family.

As an intermediate or advanced learner, it’s too easy to cheat using your basic language knowledge. If you get stuck not knowing a certain word, you can talk your way around it and convey the meaning you want. This technique is called circumlocution, and it’s not a bad strategy for the beginning learner with limited vocabulary, but as the following article points out, it can become a bad habit where advanced learners “fail to push themselves to try to remember a particular word or phrase.” The Spanish students in the above example likely fell victim to the same habit: they didn’t push themselves out of their comfort zone to use more difficult vocabulary or phrasing.

The Advanced Classroom should be like a Job Interview

In a video featuring Khatzumoto of AJATT fame, Khatz points out at one point that Japanese learners (post-Japan’s 1990 bubble) are often studying Japanese out of their love of anime and other cultural interests, rather than for any economic reason. Unsurprisingly, my advanced Japanese classes have often revolved around Japanese anime and dramas, simply because most of the learners enjoy those kinds of materials. That’s all well and good—I am not suggesting that we use more dry materials in an attempt to be “serious”—but as a result the atmosphere in the class tends to be very low-stress. “Let’s all discuss this episode” or “What happened to the character in this scene” tend to be the usual discussion points, repeated ad nauseam. And when we do talk about a recent news article in class, it’s basically a “free discussion” time, with students giving their best shot at sounding intelligent. The teacher does not interfere.

This might just be me disagreeing with a certain type of teaching methodology, but I think this style of classroom is setting intermediate and advanced learners up for failure. The teacher needs to be pushing students to speak accurately by making the class a little more stressful. We don’t want students to freeze up and fail completely, but allowing them to struggle freely by themselves out loud for five minutes as they attempt to produce intelligible output is not acceptable in an advanced level classroom.

For example, a roll-playing activity could involve being an interviewee for a large bank, and therefore the role would require memorizing how to use a large number of economic-related vocabulary. If the student is not particularly interested in economics, they could be asked to roll-play describing an abstract concept related to psychology in front of a professor, or be asked to describe a photo or movie in great detail in English, and then be asked to repeat the same description—with the same level of detail and vocabulary—in Japanese. See the following “English Lesson” video from a TV variety show:

The video is comedy, but repeating what you have just said in your native language in a language you are studying (at the same level of vocabulary and fluency) is difficult.

With these examples I am trying to think of ways students could be placed under more stress. I want situations where they would be forced to memorize a great deal more of the language than they already know. With a teacher there to correct mistakes and put pressure on students to be accurate and fast, the advanced class could potentially be just as intense—if not more so—than my intro level language classes. The native-level materials are out there and can be studied on one’s own, but I still believe a well structured class could be added-value for a student, rather than a leisurely waste of time.

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Kanji, Language, Self-studying

The Value of the Beginner Language Class

In my junior year of college I enrolled in two language classes: one for Japanese and one for Chinese. For Japanese I enrolled in something called “Advanced Integrative Japanese”, which was a fancy way of saying “fourth-year Japanese class.” And as a complete beginner in Chinese, I also signed up for the “Chinese 101” class that I’m sure is offered at colleges around the world.

One thing I have noticed is that language classes get a lot of flack on the Internet, perhaps unsurprisingly by the self-studying crowd, which tends to be especially active on online forums and blogs. Traditional classes are often shunned as obsolete relics of the past, and perhaps that’s because of the breadth of material we have at our fingertips. After all, we’re all on the internet now, and we have (especially as a self-studier) more access to native-language material than ever before. Three popular blog posts come to mind that are particularly critical of language classes:

Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (4-hour work week)

Classes Suck (AJATT)

Using AJATT to Pwn Japanese Classes (Which Still Suck) (AJATT, again)

There are a lot of good points in all of these posts, but their messages are similar: classes slow you down, and that the fastest way to learn is through native interaction, either with native speakers or native materials. The post on 4-hour Work Week is especially critical of classes when it claims that classes merely create “the illusion of progress” for students who are too lazy/scared/uninterested in using the language in the real world through interactions with native speakers.

This seems particularly true of most students who are forced to learn a foreign language they’re not really interested in, such as in high school. Often the only real speaking practice that goes on for languages learned in high school classes ends up occurring in the classroom, and as a result the language is merely treated as another academic subject that will be quickly forgotten by the end of the year. I certainly don’t remember every fact that I used to have memorized when I took American History back in high school, and that’s because I don’t constantly place myself in an environment where I would need to recall any of those previously memorized pieces of information. The same goes even more so for foreign languages. If I don’t care about the material enough to study it beyond what is presented in class, then the best teacher in the world is not going make a difference.

That’s why language classes outside of a mandatory curriculum are so much better—that is, classes taken in college by choice—and why I think they deserve more credit. These classes are populated (ideally) by students who, for some reason or another, care about taking the class. That means that even when the class ends, the studying goes on. Especially at the beginner level these students want to learn the language on some level, and are ready to dive in.

The Beginner Language Class – A Time-Wasting Hell of Poor Speakers or A Bastion of Language Learning?

My Chinese language class had the following format: once a day, 5 days a week, about 10 people in the room. The teacher puts a new grammar structure up on the board and asks a question—in Chinese, of course—to one of the students at random. He answers. She asks another person a related question. He stumbles, she starts the sentence for him, he finishes it. She tells another student to ask the person next to him a related question. That person answers. And so on.

The in-class pace is fast, and the content is all speaking. There’s no writing during this class, no worksheets, and no handouts—that’s for your own practice as homework to be done outside of class. The textbook is a collection of ~30 conversations presented in both English and Chinese, with grammar notes explained in English and Chinese on subsequent pages. Homework involves memorizing the current week’s conversation, translating short paragraphs in English to Chinese (there’s your writing practice), memorizing short speeches in Chinese that you’ve written, and being able to transcribe short spoken sentences into Chinese characters. There’s a comprehensive quiz every week.

That was my Chinese Class, and for me it was awesome. I learned a lot, and I probably made as much progress as an average student does in 1-3 years of Chinese in high school. Seriously, it was hardcore.

Study the Language to Study the Language

I’m raving about my Chinese 101 class, but now let’s flash forward 1 year after finishing it. The result? I have forgotten most of what I learned. If I walked into my Chinese 101 final today I know I would surely fail; it has literally been over a year since I studied or engaged in the Chinese language in any serious way.

So does that prove the “class haters” points? After all, I took a class and now have few results to show from it—surely that means classes don’t matter. And if I can’t remember any Chinese, doesn’t that mean I’m in the same place as where I was after finishing my Spanish classes in high school? The answer, however, is no; and it’s because my mindset is quite different. Let me explain.

The Chinese class mattered because I’m still excited about picking up Chinese at some point in the future. Had I not taken the class, I might have had a vague desire to start learning at some point, but no language foundation or starting momentum. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to study Spanish, regardless of how “useful” it is considered. The difference here is that the Chinese class instilled an interest in the Chinese language. I made rapid progress during the class and I feel confident I could do it again. I enjoyed speaking in Chinese and would love to be able to do it again at a higher level. There were very few lessons on “culture” in my Chinese class, but that’s because the class made the language challenging and interesting enough to be worth studying because it was fun. In other words, I studied Chinese because I wanted to become a beast at Chinese.

In my high school Spanish classes, the teachers tried to introduce students to Spanish culture, music, etc, as an attempt to give us reasons to study the language. While I understand the reasoning, I tuned most of it out. I didn’t give a damn about Cinco de Mayo, and it just turned me off to studying if this was supposed the “fun” part of the language. I should first be excited about studying the language because I simply like studying the language. For me, this is the purest and best form of motivation, and it’s something that a good class can do for a student. Cultural/native-language stuff like movies and music can be found on one’s own and can come later once the student has a decent foundation to actually make sense of the material.

Plus, since cultural stuff has to do a lot with personal taste—I would rather have my eyebrows plucked out than be forced to learn about traditional Japanese festivals and ancient shrines—trying to appeal to everyone in a single class is impossible. Classes in the beginner level, therefore, should focus on making the language challenging and interesting. And because an entire language can’t be taught in a single class, the goal should be to provide motivation and basis for further study if the student chooses to do so. Chinese 101 did that well.

Later I want to talk a little more about “Advanced language classes”, something I feel could be done a lot better than what I have experienced so far in my study of the language. Until next time…


Filed under Chinese, Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

New Challenger: Chinese

I’m not good at updating blogs. They’re too easy to ignore and I’m too good at procrastinating. And it’s not just blogs either; emails, Facebook messages, texts—you name it and I’ll be sure to read it and not reply. Oh sure, I’ll think of a brilliant reply in my head, and carefully formulate exactly what it is I want to say, but I won’t write it down. My friends who wonder why I take so long to reply sometimes hate me for it. I swear it’s a curse.

But putting that aside (after all, I’m blogging right now!), I’ve decided to blog today to talk about two things near and dear to my heart:

  • I passed the JLPT N1 (that’s the highest level)
  • I am going to start learning Chinese again more seriously, this time through self-studying.

I have always been a Japanese language focused person, but seeing that I have been able to come pretty far with Japanese gives me hope I’ll be able to something similar with Chinese. Perhaps not to the same level and not at the same rate as Japanese, simply because I actively sought out study-abroad opportunities in Japan throughout college and pursued every one of them and that’s not possible time-wise with Chinese, but I think If I worked hard enough I could get to a level I could be satisfied with. Hopefully.

But let’s start with the good news — the JLPT passing and all that jazziness.


If you’re reading this you probably have a good idea what the JLPT is, but it’s a test designed for foreign speakers of Japanese to test their proficiency in the language. The test only measures reading, grammar and listening skills, with no writing or speaking portions in the test whatsoever. As someone who believes their strongest abilities lie in speaking I think that’s a huge mistake, but it’s a widely recognized test by employers (at least while going to various career forums in Japan and abroad, required Japanese level nearly always tended to be measured in JLPT score, with N1 corresponding to “Native” in many cases, although I wouldn’t agree with that).

So I took the test in July while I was in Japan—I remember quite vividly that it was humid as balls, and that on top of this I was taking the test at a college with a giant campus, meaning even more thick layers of humidity to swim through before I made it to the thankfully air-conditioned testing room.

I also remember that after finishing the test I was 99.999% sure that I did not pass. Because even though I had purchased a few test prep books, namely the Kanzen Master Series, (which I was wary of buying at first because of the massive hype it has online, but it really does live up to it), I barely touched the books due to poor time management up until the day of the test. I had gone through about 1/3 of the Kanji book and 1/2 the grammar book, but don’t ask me if I remembered anything on test day. I simply cursed myself for not having prepared more throughly and walked away from the testing site in what I’m sure was some sort of melancholy daze.

And then I didn’t think too much about the test after that, telling everyone that “yeah, I took it, but will probably take it again because I don’t think I passed.” A total no-confidence answer, which couldn’t have prepared me for what came next:


With the applicant number edited out for security reasons (?)

Result: passed

It floored me. I didn’t check the results until the beginning of September (even though they were released on August 27th), assuming I had failed. I simply checked only because I was preparing to sign up for the December exam and I wanted to see how much more I would need to study.

I should point out one thing about my result, which is of course the ROFLOLOLMAO score of 100/180. Because it’s literally the lowest score you can get on the exam and still pass. One question more wrong and I would have failed. In fact, probably even less than that considering the exam is curved.

But I still passed, bitches.

So what do I do now? Well, as a professor at the University of Kyoto points out in a page on his website about how he passed the TOEIC exam with a perfect score:


Or in English, “people who get perfect scores on the TOEIC are a dime a dozen.” I don’t know about that, but it’s what motivated the guy to get a perfect score on the TOEFL as well. He’s certainly pretty darn badass at English. But what I’m trying to get at is that it’s the same (and probably even worse) for people who pass N1 as well:

People who pass the JLPT (N1) are a dime a dozen. And for me, I’m still not as good as I want to be. There are still so many words to know, and so many more ways in which I could get more fluent at speaking. I don’t consider being able to do Japanese some kind of parlor trick to impress Japanese people—I’m in it to actually learn it, and being at some arbitrary line in skill level as determined by a test doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s time to move on to bigger and better stuff: Novels, newspaper articles, TV shows—anything I can get my grubby foreigner paws on. I didn’t come this far to call it quits just yet.

Learning Chinese: An exercise in motivating myself… again

So I have been wanting to learn Chinese for some time now, and I even started Chinese at college two years back to get myself going. Furthermore, because my school probably offers one of the best Chinese language curriculums in the country, I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say I got a fine introduction to the language at an intense pace unlikely found at many other places.

But then I studied abroad in Japan for a year and have since forgotten almost everything (at least production-wise).

Oh great.

So I find myself in a bit of a crappy position: I am currently in my last year in college and could take the next level of Chinese, but it would require me to play a huge amount of catch-up in terms of material to re-learn, all while trying to keep pace with kids who are more fresh and who have more free time to study. I feel like by not taking Chinese this year I’m turning down a super hot girlfriend who simply is too needy when I don’t have a lot of free time. Or something.

At any rate, this sucks.

So I’ve decided to study Chinese on my own and chronicle my attempts at doing so on this blog assuming I don’t run out of enthusiasm along the way. I think it will also be a good exercise for me to practice various language-learning techniques and programs,  see what really works for me, and discover if there are new ways of studying I should pay attention to. This will be all super beginner stuff, and I’ll be using a Chinese language textbook called “First Step” that I purchased from the Chinese department, as I don’t think it has actually been published yet officially. That makes me cool, by the way.

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Filed under Chinese, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

Maruzen: Japanese Learning Resource Jackpot

For those looking for Japanese resources beyond a few sub-par textbooks and books titled “how to curse in Japanese!” I would suggest looking at the White Rabbit Press, as they carry a large number of Japanese-related books that you won’t find in your average Barnes & Noble.

However, the other day in Japan I just found the Japanese-learning Jackpot. Behold: Maruzen near Tokyo Station in the Marunouchi OAZO shopping complex:

Four floors of Japanese bookstore -- mmmm!

I walked in casually, expecting the usual fair of books that could be found in any small mall bookstore, but soon found myself on the fourth floor, face-to-face with a rather drool-worthy site.

Yeah, there was a lot. Maruzen in Marunouchi OAZO building near Tokyo Station.

For some reason I’ve always had this obsession with collecting Japanese-learning resources and books without actually using those resources. Of course, I always have the intention of using said resources, but something about amassing a huge amount of books on learning Kanji or vocabulary simply makes feel like I’m actually learning, even if I’m not.

Perhaps one day I will be able to learn Japanese through osmosis simply by pressing my face into my Japanese textbooks. Until then!

Lots of grammar books. The fat red and orange one is the Dictionary of Misused Japanese

In any case, to cater to my book collecting habit, seeing multiple shelves of “no use this book to study for the JLPT” was quite a feast. And while there are a ton of books to look through, I unfortunately do not have the infinite time (and money) necessary to look through and consider all of them. Nonetheless, two books did catch my attention:

  1. A Dictionary of Misused Japanese.
  2. New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Japanese

The first, completely in Japanese, goes over common grammar errors and provides correct and incorrect examples of language usage. I liked the comprehensiveness of the book, but I admit I did get a little fatigued looking through it. Perhaps in a perfect world I would go through it, but it’s over 700 pages long — more a reference than anything else. Probably a great supplement for those wanting to cement a new grammar point into their heads.

The second looked especially excellent: it’s a bilingual book in both Japanese and English, with the Japanese text sufficiently furigana’d. Of the stories I quickly browsed through, they seemed sufficiently interesting, and because the English translation is provided, I avoid having input fatigue. Because while I like to think I could just immerse myself in a Japanese book and read, at this point it’s just not something I can do for very long, or very quickly. While English is a crutch, it also keeps me from giving up on reading after a few dragged-out pages, something that would likely happened were I to pick up any Japanese book off the shelf.

Next time I may go over books that Japanese people use to learn English — both how those books work and how they can be used to study Japanese as well (hint: you study the Japanese translations, not the English).

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

Procrastinate on your Studying by Studying

Inspired by a recent AJATT blog post, I have been trying to think of a good way of keeping myself from the inevitable decline into sweet, sweet, procrastination. I think I may have a decent solution, but it goes beyond simply studying Japanese—instead, let’s treat it as an ADD-approach to studying in general.

Keep yourself busy: multi-task like a mother fucker.

I know a lot of people who like to be busy. They’re the kind of people who don’t like sleeping, who need to constantly be on the go, who have full schedules filled with appointments, and who feel guilty whenever they aren’t being productive. I am not one of those people. I like to take things one task at a time, giving myself as much time as necessary for each task. Thinking about tackling multiple assignments at once is not my style. Simply put, I’m not a multitasker.

But I should be. And so should you.

You can cram for tests, but you can’t cram languages.

The reason multitasking is important in language learning is because languages—especially when it comes to speaking and listening—take a long time to learn and acquire. You can’t cram speaking fluency in Japanese, or the ability to quickly reading through a Japanese document the night before a Japanese test the same way you can cram a hundred or so vocabulary words into your head before a PSY 101 test. Being able to actually use a language requires time; even if you try to cram vocab words or kanji into your head quickly, it won’t mean much if you can’t actually do anything that information.

That’s why you should multitask.

How to multi-task: You now have ADD

Studying with ADD means you jump from one task to the next without too much regard for whether you’ve actually finished the specific task you were just working on. The perfectionist in my is always calling out, telling me I need to be done with my English essay before I can move on to my Japanese studying. However, this only leads to inefficiency. I need to simply force myself to stop if I simply am not making progress, or have made sufficient progress in the last few minutes. That way, I never stop being productive.

Step 1: Make a specific list of things you have to do.

This isn’t groundbreaking advice, but it’s extremely important. It keeps you organized, so make the list. Not only that, make the list specific. That means that if you plan on studying Japanese, don’t just write down “study Japanese.” Instead write down exactly what you plan on doing. Your list might look like this:

Japanese: Study 10 vocab words, listen to and repeat 5 shadowing sentences for speaking fluency, write paragraph in Japanese for Lang-8.

English: Find 3 sources for essay, summarize each source’s main points in document, outline introduction of essay

History: Read first 40 pages of the week’s reading, summarize in 3 sentences what you read in notebook

Misc: lift weights for 30 minutes, jog for 30 minutes, sort dirty clothes for laundry, do laundry

And so on. The point is to have specific goals that are not unreasonably difficult or time consuming. If something on your list looks like it may take hours and hours, break it down into smaller chunks.

Heck, you may even list leisure activities on your list—like watching a single episode of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. You keep the tasks on your list short—so you don’t end up watching 10 episodes—and it’s something easy to jump to if you need a break from being efficient, while still being efficient. Win-win.

Step 2: Do the tasks in any order, and jump around as much as necessary

I might be working on my English essay, but I know I’ll get bored rather quickly. Thus, as soon as I finish one of my small tasks that I’ve outlined on my list, I’ll jump to something else less likely to give me a headache, like sorting clothes or laundry.

The point is to stay actively involved in completing goals. When I try to do one painstaking task at a time without stopping I lose interest and end up falling asleep. The next time I crack open that 200-page history reading, I won’t try to do all of it before moving to the next assignment; I’ll stop after 20 pages and study a kanji or two. And then maybe go jogging. And then read another 20 pages. But in the end, I’ll have still gotten everything done.

Why this works for language learning

As I’ve said before, it’s much too difficult to cram using a language into your head—that requires consistant and long-term practice. By returning to Japanese throughout the day—instead of doing it in one multi-hour burst— it’s actually better for retention and studying efficiency.

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Filed under Language, Self-studying

Language Learning Tip: Finding Japanese in Odd Places

I haven’t been updating daily because of a certain absolutely awesome distraction, but today while wandering my home I came across a certain nostalgic item:

Ah, the playstation. So many childhood hours spent on classics like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. And despite all the days spent collecting gems in Spyro—which seemed like months and months to me when I was younger—I fired up the game again about two summers ago, only to find myself easily completing it 100% in no more than two days. Man did I suck at video games.

But putting aside my Spyro skills, on the inside of the lid of the playstation I found the following warning:

Ah ha, Japanese! It reads:


Despite being barely a sentence, it’s the perfect way to practice Japanese without input overload. That is, because the sentence is short, contains no more than three kanji, and has been found in a relatively odd place, remembering comes much more easily.

Breaking down the sentence, I could study:

  • レンズ — The beginner just learning Katakana will be happy to have a common word to practice with, in this case, lens.
  • レンズ [には] — the use of the double particle「には」gives beginners practice with this trickier grammar construction.
  • 絶対(に) — the rather common zettai (not at all) is one of those words I picked up from anime watching, but knowing how to write it never hurts!
  • 触る — the sentence contains the conjugated form of 「触る」(to touch) into its negative command form; practice reading the sentence a few times to practice telling others not to touch things—always a useful thing to know!

Sure, I could pick up an entire in novel in Japanese and start looking up characters one-by-one to get through it, but that’s incredibly time consuming. I like to think I have a lot of self-disciple, but that’s just too much. Rather, single sentences like the one found on my Playstation are sure to be more easily memorized. Blogging about it doesn’t hurt either.

This is the same idea that is used when one does shadowing—find real, but manageable Japanese sentences, understand them completely, and practice the heck out of them. When it comes to language learning, I find being a master-of-one rather than jack-of-all trades is much more useful. That is, instead of trying to study too much at once, really get down and study small chunks of language one-by-one.

One need not be in Japan to come across nuggets of Japanese in their daily interactions; you may just need to dig a little deeper, or look under the lid.

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Japanese Learning Badassery Part II: Watch Anime But Actually Learn Japanese

This post is the second in a series about real Japanese practice out of fun Japanese things. Be sure to check out the first part, about using video games to study Japanese as well.

Anime is fun to watch, but surely it's a cornucopia of Japanese to be learned too, right?

If you’ve read anything on the internet about teenagers and young adults trying to learn Japanese, you’ve probably come across the story of the sad little anime fan—the weeaboo as he is also known—who attempts to learn Japanese, only to fail horribly. His excitement over anime leads him to believe he’d be good at learning Japanese; after all, when he finished watching all 500 episodes of One Piece he feels he has acquired a rather extensive vocabulary, such as the words 仲間 (nakama), 大丈夫 (daijobu), and 海賊 (kaizoku).

This reason this happens is simple: watching (english subtitled) anime will not help you improve your Japanese beyond getting used to hearing Japanese being spoken. Watching subtitled anime requires no effort on the learners part; in other words, there’s no resistance.

As I’ve said before, self-studying requires that you incorporate resistance into your reviews. In other words, you need to challenge yourself.

Watching anime in hard mode (AKA: resistance ON; subtitles OFF)

The first thing I should mention is that complete beginners should not try to learn a lot of Japanese from anime. It’s fun to pick up common words, and useful to learn various 相づち (aizuchi / filler words), but beyond that, I’m going to require the same prerequisites that I stated in my shadowing post:

  • Knowledge of Kana and basic Kanji
  • Decent Japanese grammar skills
  • At least a month or two listening to and understanding beginner-level Japanese. For example, after having gone through a level or two of Pimsleur Japanese.

To learn from anime, you need to set up a consistent study system where in which you’re not just watching anime—you’re learning from it. That means simply watching un-subtitled anime straight through is not particularly helpful: it’s too easy and quick. There’s no way to avoid actually spending the necessary study time.

Watch your anime with Japanese subtitles

Japanese subtitles are great things. You get to read and hear Japanese at the same time without any English interference. As a someone who (supposedly) isn’t completely fluent in Japanese, having the words written down will help with comprehension greatly. There’s a large collection of Japanese subtitles that can be found here. I’ll go with a personal favorite: Death Note.

Now let’s go over how I would go about studying:

1. Write down the Japanese sentence (from the subtitles). It’s important to write the sentence yourself even if you can just copy-paste it from your subtitle file: you’ll end up remembering more.


2. If you want to study vocabulary, follow the same five-side flashcard procedure I’ve detailed before. To refresh your memory, here’s a sample card for 「性格」:

Side 1: 性格

Side 2: せいかく

Side 3: character; personality

Side 4: そんなことしたら、[性格]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

Side 5: そんなことしたら、[せ…]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

3. However, since this is an anime, you can also rip the audio using any recording program of your choice and use it in conjunction with your Japanese text. I used WireTap Anywhere to choose my video player as my input audio source, and recorded the audio to Audacity:


The test of your listening and speaking ability comes when you can repeat the sentence after you hear it without looking at the Japanese text—but you should look in order to see if you get the reading correct. Remember, there is no penalty for being unoriginal when learning Japanese. Even if you’re unoriginal, and are merely repeating, you’re correct. The point is to get yourself speaking in real Japanese rather than a strange mess of incorrect grammar and Japanese-sounding English words that beginners often find themselves using.

4. After you feel you’ve reviewed enough, such as making flashcards for all of the words you didn’t know, and after having gone through a good number of listen-and-repeat sentences as well, test yourself! Go back to the episode after a few days and watch it without subtitles. Hopefully you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll understand.

There’s no secret trick to any of this.

By using anime as your study material, you essentially turn your favorite episodes into your Japanese textbook. You have to create the study material yourself, but you’ll be better served in your learning process by doing so. While the Japanese in a good textbook will be no less valid than the Japanese in an episode of Death Note, hopefully you find anime more interesting so you feel actually interested in studying it.

I know that when I go through textbook sentences, while they’re not bad, they don’t exactly make me super-excited about Japanese either. However, as an anime fan, I’m able to vest more energy into studying because I enjoy it. And frankly, when I study something I enjoy, I’m much more efficient and I enjoy it much more.

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Filed under anime, Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying