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When Will I Get Good?

May 28, 2007
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So, there you are. You’ve started learning Japanese. You’ve got your materials, you’re excited, you do your sentences. But you don’t feel that different from yesterday. You wonder, when are you going to get good? How do you know if you’re making progress?

Short answer: You don’t. It’s kind of like growing taller. Oh, it’s happening. Oh, the milk is helping. But it’s not like there’s a percent bar on your elbow that you can look at, really. There’s no green light that flickers to let you know that you’re increasing in height. There’s no bell that rings every millimeter you go up. You only notice after the fact when you start bumping your head on doorways and such.

So this is what I did when I was learning hardcore, and it’s what I still do right now. Here it is — if you have to ask how good you are at Japanese, or when you’ll get good, then either:

1. You still suck (but only for now…remember, sucking is a temporary condition healed through practice), so stop asking — it’ll probably only make you feel bad. Or,

2. You don’t suck. But,

either way:

3. You could be spending this time finding ways to get even better.

In other words, ask not what the language you are learning is doing for you. Ask what more you can do for the language you are learning.

Especially when I lived outside of Japan, I spent a lot of time trying to Japanize every moment possible. I bought a shower radio and a radio transmitter so I could listen to my MiniDisc player’s Japanese music in the bathroom as I washed filth from my body. I put my headphones on almost 24 hours a day (very important to acquire comfy headphones for this purpose; I like the behind-the-head kind). I got rid of all English books on my shelves and replaced them with Japanese ones, some I could understand, some I just wanted to understand. I put Japanese posters on the walls. I talked to cats and dogs in Japanese. I wrote any personal notes in Japanese. And I was constantly acquiring new Japanese shows to watch. What’s another random movie I like? Waterworld? Let’s buy the Japanese version. Hey! That unaccompanied child over there looks like he could collect a few hundred DVDs’ worth of ransom money…

I could go on praising myself for ever, but my point is this: it’s not like I thought up all these things all at once ahead of time. I just looked for gaps and filled them in. Can you get more films or shows to watch? Do you eat with chopsticks? Can you make sure you do your SRS reps first thing every day? Can you improve your daily consistency? Do you have to do whatever it is you still do that isn’t in Japanese? Can you do more sentences per day?

What don’t you know how to say that you want to know how to say? What word do you keep needing but forget to look up (in my case it was “plateau”/高原 (in the sense of a high-altitude flat area of land…not a word you always need, but hard to elegantly do without when you do need it)? Can you discuss the things you care about? The geography of your country? Agriculture? Ancient Rome? ‘Better read up on them in the old Japanese Wikipedia or something…

Spend your time getting better rather than worrying about when and whether or not you will get better. Spend your time filling all the cracks of your life with Japanese. Focus on the little things you do or could do. Some people say that if you take care of the pennies, the pounds take care of themselves — I actually think this isn’t entirely true — but I will say this: every step in the right direction is a step closer to your destination. So, if you take care of the practicing, and the sentences, Japanese will take care of itself. And at the end of the day, what is a language but a collection of sentences? What is being good but being well-practiced?

Anyway, as always, HAVE FUN!

This isn't extortion or anything, but if you donate to AJATT, I promise not to tell people about that thing we talked about.

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22 Responses to When Will I Get Good?

  1. anders on May 30, 2007 at 07:46

    Great article :) This is the first time I’m writing a comment here, but i’ve been reading your articles and using the SRS-method for a couple of months now. Keep up the good work :)

    I’ve got a little off-topic question; I’ve been using mnemosyne for a while now and I’m very pleased with the results. But I’m having trouble finding an efficient way to initially learn new sentences that I’ve just input. What I’ve done up until now is basically just reading slowly through each new sentence while looking at the answer box for reading/meaning. When I’m able to grade a sentence at least 2, it usually means most of the work is done. So I was wondering if you (or anyone reading this) have got any tips on how improve efficiency when initally learning a sentence?

  2. khatzumoto on May 30, 2007 at 19:44

    Thanks for commenting! Hmm…I don’t have much to say on the initial work…what you’re doing seems fine. Plus what matters is long-term recall of the information (readings, meanings) in the sentence. If you stumble a bit at the beginning, that seems OK to me.

    IMHO, it’s really good to *focus*, to *pay attention* the first time you’re learning a sentence, just like you are doing. I don’t remember where it was, but some memory expert type guy I once heard, said something to the effect that a lot of people say they’ve FORGOTTEN something, when in fact they never GOT it in the first place, because they weren’t paying attention…Insofar as you are “getting” to begin with, you’re drastically reducing your chances of forgetting.

  3. james on June 7, 2007 at 05:23

    I know this method prohibits the use english apart from in beginning stages but recently I found a great resource for sentence mining in alc.co.jp . The problem is the sentences always have an accompanying translation and hence I feel guilty about using them. However the English transations really do help my understanding particularly when it comes to colloquialisms and complicated sentences. Hence, do you think it is appropriate to use the english translations to help out on understanding the sentence even if I don’t put the english translations into menmosyne?

    I am around 5000 sentences in to this method

    cheers for your time

  4. khatzumoto on June 7, 2007 at 10:49

    >do you think it is appropriate to use the english translations to help out on understanding the sentence even if I don’t put the english translations into menmosyne?

    Yeah, I used to do that when I was making the transition between J-E and J-J. Not ideal, but okay.

    About alc.jp–which part of it are you using? One of my Japanese friends said that the sentences aren’t always reliable *depending* on the part of alc in question (some parts of alc are fine…)

  5. taijuando on August 18, 2007 at 14:51

    great website–inspirational…it’s gotten me off my duff and using all of the japenese materials I have accumulated and using them in the SRS…you mentioned here that you spoke to your pets in Japanese…when do you start output….even if it’s bad or awkward Japanese…do you still keep trying….I was curious about how you use language partners as well…..

  6. khatzumoto on August 19, 2007 at 22:02

    taijuando

    I followed the advice on AntiMoon. I only said things I knew how to say correctly. In a sense, you don’t go out of your way to “say” something as much as you wait for it to “come out” almost. It will come out correct, if you just keep feeding yourself input. It all sounds very vague and magical, but I’m sure there are some very concrete neurological processes or whatever involved, I just don’t know what they are. I do know, though, that you can keep seeing a commercial over and over (hey, spaced repetitions!) on TV and never go out of your way to remember it, but then one day recite all or part of it correctly. So, you reach this kind of critical mass, I suppose.

    Don’t go out of your way to speak Japanese. Mistakes uncorrected will kill you, and since most mistakes tend to go uncorrected, it’s better not to make them in the first place. Don’t force yourself to speak or write. Don’t do any output, let the output do itself. Just keep inputting.

  7. khatzumoto on August 19, 2007 at 22:03

    When I spoke to the cats and dogs, it was in correct Japanese, and using tone and vocabulary that are often directed towards pets.

  8. khatzumoto on August 19, 2007 at 22:25

    Here is a link to AntiMoon’s advice

  9. Charles on August 22, 2007 at 07:41

    Hi Khatz, taijuando,
    I agree with this, as mystical as it sounds. I still make so many of the same spoken mistakes (after many years of trying to learn Japanese). I think that you may be right in that through LOTS of input, we will just understand the usage.
    The key is patience- I always want to start speaking as soon as I think I know something. Invariably, I mess that up!

  10. Alex on October 3, 2007 at 03:13

    Yo Khatz, great blog and wonderful articles!

    This is exactly how I learned to speak english like a native – and I never visited an english speaking country in my whole life. I can even distinguish different accents, slangs and stuff like that and very often my vocabulary dazzles native speakers. And I never, never touched grammar books or classes. I simply absorbed it through movies, books, comics and videogames. I did exactly what you did – I eliminated every bit of my native language from my life until my very personal notes were written in english – which something that I continue to do just because, well, I like it. Problem is that I am so Anglicized right now that I feel like a stranger in my own country – I can’t even share movies with my friends because I acquire all of them in english. I guess that is the drawback of the immersion effect, lol. :)

    Anyway, made our point, enough rambling. I want to ask you a question if you don’t mind..I don’t quite know where to ask it so I just do it here. Did you rely exclusively on written sources for the phrases entered into your SRS? Or did you also used the phrases that you hear? I am asking because I am currently entering phrases into SuperMemo taken from written sources. I don’t feel confident in transcribing audio (ie. taken from audio courses like Pimsleur which seems good and builds stuff gradually), because I always find myself wondering if the kanji selected by IME is the right one or not. Perhaps it is a nonissue, but I just wanted to check if you have any suggestion on that regard.

    Also, do you exclusively used phrases? I am tempted to enter some word pairs into SuperMemo, but as you correctly said words can have so many meanings – especially in japanese – that I feel it would be a waste of time.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this with the world! :)

  11. Nez on October 7, 2007 at 11:57

    Hey Khatzumoto, this site is really great, thanks a bunch for all the great advice! I’ve started learning Kanji with RTK Heisig and progress is going well! About the immersion environment though – I’m appearing for the IIT college entrance exams next year and I really need to study so I can’t really put my textbooks in a shredder! :( At the same time I wanna devote all of my free time to learning Japanese but even so I won’t be able to devote the whole day to Japanese….maybe around 1/4 of the total time everyday(for whatever time that I’m not studying)? Would that be enough??

  12. khatzumoto on October 7, 2007 at 12:10

    >Would that be enough??
    Hmmm…I don’t know. But try this–listen to Japanese music even while you’re studying. I mean, I had other stuff to do, too, so part of the key is to try to bend that stuff toward Japanese as far as possible, even if it doesn’t seem directly related. You could take notes in Japanese [not even "real" Japanese, but a shorthand using the Japanese writing system], use a computer with a Japanese OS on it…stuff like that.

  13. khatzumoto on October 16, 2007 at 23:51

    @Alex

    Sorry for the delay, I lost track of your comment!

    >Did you rely exclusively on written sources for the phrases entered into your SRS?
    No, I used spoken sources as well. I just made sure I got written confirmation of what was said, either by looking it up online or asking a Japanese friend.

    >I always find myself wondering if the kanji selected by IME is the right one or not.
    Yeah, if you’re unsure, then don’t do it. You’re trying to build your skill, not test it. Stick to things you’re sure about in terms of getting sentences.

    >Also, do you exclusively used phrases?
    Essentially, yes. The only exceptions were/are proper nouns (personal names, placenames, names of organizations), which I learn individually, because name readings tend to be irregular anyway. For example, I would have:
    question: 前畑秀子
    answer: まえはた ひでこ

    >I am tempted to enter some word pairs into SuperMemo, but as you correctly said words can have so many meanings – especially in japanese – that I feel it would be a waste of time.
    It would be. A word without correct usage (context) is nothing but a dangerous weapon :D. If you must learn a word, learn it context. But I’m preaching to the choir, you knew that already.

  14. Tony on November 30, 2008 at 11:43

    when did you begin converting your notes from English to Japanese when you were taking notes in your classes at the college you attended in America

  15. [...] forget everything else. Don’t worry about ETA (estimated time of arrival), i.e. when you will be good; don’t worry about POS (probability [...]

  16. Tyler on January 13, 2009 at 03:17

    Just to add on to the first few comments about things coming to you without realizing it.

    Today I realized something I was doing without having ever thought about it [much like I do in my native English]: 似ている点 and 違う点. I didn’t realize that one had a different verb conjugation than its complement, something I never studied but heard enough in my 討論 class to have picked up. I love this whole input thing.

    P.S. I’m only taking the speaking class because it’s required :/ After being on this site for about a month [and just in time for choosing classes] I immediately chose to take the reading and listening sections of my Japanese program only [at ICU in Tokyo]. Unfortunately, in order to go into the next level for reading and listening, you need to take speaking, which is really not cool.

    P.P.S My iTouch is happy that I actually use him now, even though there’s like NO Wi-Fi in Japan :c

  17. dusmar84 on March 24, 2010 at 00:30

    Hey Khatz. First time poster, long time reader.

    As a recent graduate of RevTK vol.1, I couldn’t wait to get onto the sentences. However, as I cracked Tae Kim’s Intro to grammar and started using his and other textbooks sentences in my SRS I’ve noticed I’ve fallen into a lull. Even after several reviews I find the material isn’t sticking like it had with the RevTK reps and it’s getting a little disconcerting. I don’t feel like I’m maximizing my effort. I put in a lot of hard work but I’m not getting what I would like out of it. I would like to hear what you have to say on the transition period between finishing RevTk and starting sentences. Right now I have each card going from Japanese to English and English to Japanese, making sure I translate it by hand as much as possible. What’s my best bet at this point or am I just getting too demanding. Thanks for all your hard work.

  18. Chagami on February 26, 2011 at 07:38

    This started off as a funny random thought, but then I noticed that it may be helpful:

    For the male AJATTeers, need a way to measure your progress? Grow a beard.

    Hair grows at about a half inch per month, so if you’re just starting out, (and assuming you really AJATT), by the time your beard is 9 inches long, you’ll be fluent.

    You measure your beard and it turns out to be 1 inch? You’re still a beginner. 4.5 inches? Well you must be half way. 8 inches? You’re almost done!

    I know, this is also missing the point of Khatz’ post, but still, I thought it was a good thought to share :)

    • GJ on July 12, 2011 at 17:45

      What an amazing idea! I started growing my beard during the same month as I started learning Japanese. Guess I can’t shave now until I’m fluent. :D

  19. Suisei on January 26, 2012 at 01:51

    Not sure if I should ask this but, um can beginners do sentences in the beginning stage? I don’t think I can because I haven’t even studied much kana. I’m doin Kanji right now. It’s really annoying that I can’t even start yet on sentences. :C

  20. [...] have powerful results. I learned that when I was doing Tai Chi and I’ve been learning that as I learn Japanese through daily moves, self acceptance and fun. Enjoy the power of small, consistent [...]

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