Don’t Do The Language, BE The Language

I can read your mind.

“Oh my gosh, I only did X reps today!”. “Oh my gosh, more sentences, more sentences”. “Oh my gosh, I don’t even know how to order tempura yet!”. “Oh my gosh, I don’t know all the varieties of ramen yet”.

Chill. The heck. Out.

“Oh, Deity! Japanese has N thousand kanji, each with R number of readings!”. “By Jupiter, Cantonese has NINE tones!”. “Heavens above! Mandarin is full of homophones!”. “Ancestors, watch over me, German has CASES, just like Latin!”.

Calm. The heck. Down.

Dude. It’s not a race. Honestly, it isn’t. At least, not in the way you think it is. That crap about your statistics? The numbers are, to use a hackneyed phrase, a great servant, but a teeeeeerible master. The numbers are just a form of adjective. That is, they describe the noun that is your progress. They provide a way to explain your progress in more detail than actual adjectives (words). Nothing more.

The features of the language? Cows have four stomachs. So phorking what? Just feed them grass. Do you get what I mean? Dissecting a language into its parts and examining the results is just that — dissection. Taxonomy. Classification. It is almost completely irrelevant to acquiring the language itself. My friend, every natural language on this little blue planet works the same way — text in eyes, sounds in ear, sounds out of mouth, text out of writing implement. The end.

Don’t fall for the numbers game. Don’t fall for the classification fetish. It’s just a stinking language. People learn it all the time, without knowing what the heck they’re doing. Do you really think cows know what’s going on inside their stomachs? No, they just eat the hay, or (in much of Europe and North America) the ground-up remains of their fellow cows — *ouch* that agricultural humor stings, doesn’t it? They don’t get up in the morning and go “oh dung, are my hooves cleft or not and if so how does this affect how I should be walking? Wait, so, I’m a ruminant? How should I chew this grass? Is cud-chewing a form of vomiting, and if so, doesn’t that make me bulimic? What about, hold on, so, ‘Moo’ first tone? Where’s the accent on the moo?”.

Does this make sense? STOP ANALYZING. STOP THINKING. START DOING. No, in fact, don’t do. Don’t even do. Just BE.

Don’t “do” your language (i.e. the language you are wanting to learn). Don’t think ABOUT your language. Don’t analyze your language. Just BE it. BECOME it. Don’t…compartmentalize it and cage it and poke it and prod it and measure the pH of its saliva and kill it and stuff it. You may think you’re being smart or helping yourself, but you’re not (I know; I’ve walked that road). Don’t make it a segment of your life — make it your life. Just ENTER INTO IT. And don’t ever leave it again. Swim in it, wash in it, breathe it, eat it, sleep it. Let it take over, every day, everywhere you go, every thought you have, your memories, your friendships, important things, trivial things.

Find out what that chick is saying in that scene. Find out how to say what you want to say. What and how are now. Why is later.

Forget about how many verbs or conjugations you know. Forget about the pluperfect effing subjunctive. Forget about time. Forget about how long it’s going or not going to take. Just chill out. In the language. All the time.

You can’t analyze your way into your language. You can only analyze your way into an analysis of the language — which has very little to do with the language itself. The language is a living, breathing organism, and you need to see it alive if you’re to really learn about it. A stuffed version won’t do. A cut-away anatomical diagram will not help you. You don’t need to know the kingdom, phylum and class. You don’t need to know the pixel coordinates of your mouse; just use your eyes and click on the icon. You don’t need to calculate the force normal on your left toe to walk to the supermarket; just walk there. How much aluminium is in a 100 yen coin? Who cares!! Just use it to buy stuff!!!!!

Remember that kid who bugged you in school? Why didn’t you kill him? …What? Because it’s immoral? Because it’s illegal? No kidding, and are you a lawyer? No? Then how the heck do you know? Because common sense is your friend. You don’t need to become a grammatician or study grammar to use language grammatically any more than you need become a lawyer to obey laws, or a chemist to cook food, or a microbiologist to use handsoap.

No one is saying not to analyze, no one is saying that knowledge is a bad thing. But there’s a time and place for that kind of knowledge and analysis — not now, not here. [N.B. Learning kanji by the Heisig method is, I think, a great example of systematic analysis being used in an appropriate context].

Focus on having fun, on filling your life with fun IN the language you want to learn. And let the rest more or less take care of itself. Watch videos, listen to rap music (the only kind of music you should be listening to), surf the Internet, read books, calmly, in joy. Enjoy the process. You can look at the results later, and take them to the lab and read up on related work, but right now, just sit down and keep squeezing.


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  21 comments for “Don’t Do The Language, BE The Language

  1. Kia
    November 26, 2007 at 15:25

    Awesome post. Thanks!

  2. Savara
    November 26, 2007 at 16:49

    Thanks for the wonderful post~

  3. nacest
    November 26, 2007 at 16:57

    Nice post 😉
    Haha, cowish pitches must be a pain in the ass to learn!

    I’m interested in the part in which you say that rap music is the only kind one should listen to. I don’t remember reading you say that so categorically. Do you have a link to a post in which you elaborate on this?

  4. khatzumoto
    November 26, 2007 at 16:59

    I was being facetious with the rap music…it’s just my personal preference. Listen to whatever musical style you like. Just know that all the cool kids are listening to hip-hop.

  5. James
    November 26, 2007 at 17:20

    yo.. whats some good mandarin rap? did you find any yet? MC hot dog is OK, but he’s the only one i know

  6. khatzumoto
    November 26, 2007 at 18:10

    周杰倫 (Jay Chou), 潘瑋柏 (Wilber Pan)..that’s about all I know.

  7. nomadicsiren
    November 26, 2007 at 20:33

    Heard some amazing Japanese rap in the hyaku-en the other day. Unfortuantely, the lady at the counter had no idea what was playing, let alone that music was being broadcast over the speakers. Any suggestions re: kickin japanese rap?

  8. quendidil
    November 26, 2007 at 21:16

    I believe in one of Khatz’s old posts, he said that because of rap’s fast pace, it’s ideal learning to understand fast speech. Or something like that.

    Here’s the link to the list of bands. www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/japanese-bands-the-list

    Jay Chou does songwriting for many other singers as well, prominently Jolin Tsai. Lee-Hom Wang (王力宏) and Energy (and its former members) do some rap as well, though I can’t vouch for the quality myself. The Chinese music circle is unfortunately more limited than the Japanese however, (with a large amount of songs being covers of Western, Japanese and Korean songs) unless you look to the Mainland (which is little known in other parts of the Sinosphere) and Hong Kong (which is mainly Cantonese). The main genres of Chinese music seem to be pop, R&B and rock, in that order.

  9. November 27, 2007 at 00:54

    Great post again, thanks.

    In response to nomadicsiren, check out the Japanese group “Kick the Can Crew”; some of the only rap I’ve really ever liked in any language. =)

  10. James
    November 27, 2007 at 01:55

    Yeah i know 周杰倫 and 潘瑋柏… but they arent really the types I am looking for. (by the way Jay’s pronunciation is borderline horrible). If you haven’t listened to MC Hotdog, check him out, he’s not bad. I’ll keep looking.

  11. Potemayo
    November 27, 2007 at 04:02

    Wonderful post! I have (or rather, had 😀 ) that problem when it comes to studies…

  12. Madamada
    November 27, 2007 at 08:26

    Just a quick question regarding rap. In my experience as a 38 year old native speaker of English the speech in rap music bears little relation to the English I use in everyday life. Consequently I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that someone trying to learn English should listen to rap music. OK so finaly I get to my question… is Japanese rap closer to everyday Japanese speech than English rap is to conversational English?

    Oh and by the way, our bovine buddies do 3 years of cowlege to learn that stuff.

  13. khatzumoto
    November 27, 2007 at 09:24

    >is Japanese rap closer to everyday Japanese speech than English rap is to conversational English?
    I would say yes, IMHO. I mean, it is still poetry with elliptical allusions and allowances made for rhyme, like all music.

    It seems that it would take a lot of knowledge of either language to understand the lyrics of a song. For example. if one learns to read and understand a verse like this by K DUB SHINE:

    まず一つの情報 耳から進入 頭に新種 ウィルスインプット
    人間の知的な部分刺激 細胞に利益生む 奇跡
    今自然に自分の興味に より呼び起こされてゆく 好奇心
    高める 情報処理能力 データ元に分析 高速
    脳全体に均等に浸透 少し時間差で届く心臓
    つぎ思考回路の核に到達 前より広角 開く網膜
    定めるフォーカス 見通す両面 出来るだけ望遠に合う焦点
    また洗練重ねていき鋭敏 高い臭覚で得る収穫
    頭蓋骨内部での革命 自覚しはじめてる 本来の役目
    ヴァージョンアップする本物のセンサー 肉眼で瞬時にすぐ検査
    一点差まで 徹底比較 新たな視覚で見抜く死角

    that seems, to me, like something of great intellectual value…all those words, all those readings (btw this is essentially standard Japanese). It all deepens and reinforces the connection to the language both directly and indirectly…building vocabulary, expanding usage, seeing new patterns, and just generally enjoying oneself — playing with the language.

    I mean, every part of a language is its own little world, right? Newscasters talk like newscasters. Newspapers have the newspaper tone. Academic papers have the academic voice. Older women talk like older women. Novels like to sound novel. Men mumble, women speed up into a giddy frenzy of reflexively repeating each other’s sentences. Country people talk country.

    It’s all part of the tapestry of the language. Just drink it all in piece by piece, choosing each piece according to your preference; it’s all good for you. At its core, it’s all the same, just with different topping. This pizza has mushrooms; this pizza was made by psychopaths and therefore has pineapple on it, but the pizza of Japanese all shares the basis of flour, water, salt, cheese and tomatoes — grammar, structure, vocab show only the slightest variance (numerically) between styles and so something you learn eating one pizza will probably come up in and will help you with the next pizza. For example:

    もういいかい もういいよで
    広がる世界は予想以上にハード
    それでもパニくらず 立ち向かう 新たなカリキュラム
    何食わぬ顔で 虎視眈々と
    (常に狙ってる)ONE CHANCEを
    難関を越えても すぐ次を当然探そうぜ
    常に前向いて挑戦また挑戦
    少年時代が過去に変化しても ただ夢中に遊びてえんだ
    大人へとかたむきつつ まだ無傷じゃ得られないカタルシス
    行くか行かないかの判断材料
    自分で決めたなら ガンガン採用
    突っ走ってもいいんだぜ 常に見せてけ自分の進化形

    This is a verse by KICK THE CAN CREW. Among other things, I learned cool sayings/structures/proverbs like 何食わぬ顔 and 虎視眈々, words like 難関, 新た and 無傷. When I later, in other reading, came across the construction 前向き, I was easily able to infer what it meant due to my previous experience with the 常に前向いて挑戦また挑戦 part of this verse.

    For me, I feel like rap gave me an appreciation for the beauty and expressive power of Japanese (“wow! Japanese you can DO that???”), perhaps because very little knowledge of a language is required to appreciate a beautiful song. It gave me a desire to learn more, if only to be able to understand and sing along. Maybe all those rapid-fire verses helped me to speak better, read and think quicker in Japanese (having said that, I’m still working on that speed, and when I’m tired or nervous the words “試着室で試着する(shichakushitsu de shichaku suru)” seem to take a lot of concentration for me to say without fumbling 8) ). As it is, I mostly sing along to rap songs, so when faced with other styles of music, they seem slow and really easy for me to follow by comparison (“come on, let’s finish this verse t-t-today, junior!!”).

    Anyway, don’t feel like you HAVE to listen to hip-hop, really, don’t — only if you want to be cool (j/k). Only if you like it; only do what you like, in Japanese. If someone went and told me I had to listen to j-pop that I wasn’t into, it would KILL my Japanese.

  14. Madamada
    November 27, 2007 at 11:12

    Thank you, that’s a very thoughtful reply. It actully reminds me of another question but I’ll save that for another time.

  15. quendidil
    November 27, 2007 at 11:59

    What aspect of Jay’s pronunciation do you find horrible? If you mean the q/ch/c, x/sh/s , zh/z confusion, most people outside of the area around Beijing and Heilongjiang speak like this, unless they went to a school where pronunciation was enforced or they are in the entertainment industry. In fact, I once had a teacher from Jiangnan who mixed up l/r, even though the Chinese R is essentially the same as the English, along with another wushu teacher I had from Jiangnan, they both mixed up (q)/ch/c, x/sh/s zh/z. Though “q” is less confused most of the time, however, words like qiang1 can still get confused.

    Although of course, it is possible the younger generation are shifting their pronunciation to be aligned more with the standard pronunciation. I do have friends from Guangzhou who do take note of the aforementioned consonantal distinctions.

    Try listening to Chen A-Bian, he’s far worse (IMNSHO) than Jay.

  16. Sutebun
    November 27, 2007 at 12:17

    Khatz, much <3.

    Much more than just a learning method itself, your posts usually describe a certain attitude about learning.

    What’s that common saying? Life is attitude? Something like that. Your ideas demonstrate it well. Being in college and taking language courses (besides Japanese, also having done 2/3 of a year of Chinese) I’ve gotten used to the apathetic attitude of many learners.

    It’s not my problem if someone in a class doesn’t care to learn the material well (as a whole, I don’t necessarily mean what the class covers). But I’m tired of the people who seem to think that they should be able to become adept at something half-assedly. People complain about something being hard or how they wish they were better at it but don’t put in the effort to do so.

    Stop worrying, and just do it.

  17. Silvestris
    November 28, 2007 at 08:32

    Hey Khatzumoto!

    I am so glad once again that someone on the language forums pointed me to your blog. It’s such a nice change from the “Well first learn the verbs and memorize the grammar and read the dictionary about the cases and tones” etc. You’ve almost made me want to take up Japanese just for the fun of it (who knows?).

    I have a question though; are you of the school of thought that a person can only learn X langauges to complete fluency? Perhaps that was a bad explaination, but I guess would you say that you can use your method multiple times for different languages or would you advise a student to just concentrate on learning, say only Japanese, to complete fluency instead of learning a lot of language to a pretty good fluency?

    Secnd question is, what would you advise someone to do if they studied a language for a good amount of time but they are reluctant to continue because of… whatever. Bad experiences with the culture and/or people of the language? Or perhaps that is an issue for a psychoanalyst, who knows?

    Thanks Khatzumoto for maintaining the single most useful and comprehensive language blog on the net!

  18. Silvestris
    November 28, 2007 at 08:36

    With the possible exception of AntiMoon. Forgot that one!

  19. quendidil
    November 29, 2007 at 01:18

    Off topic, but I find wikiquote in Japanese an excellent source for sentences too; a large number of them are taken from translations of English or German sources so many people would probably already understand the original.

  20. Wenwang
    March 20, 2008 at 06:40

    “Heavens above! Mandarin is full of homophones!”

    Which makes it amazingly easy to rhyme, and pun, in lyrically.

    For people looking for more Mandarin (+ Taiwanese) rap, check out Dog G 大支 and Witness 黄崇旭.

    Anyone have recommendations for Mainland rap, contemporary or otherwise?

  21. May 5, 2008 at 22:51

    Just wondering, what do you think of speeding up songs or recorded speeches using soft that makes it all faster without affecting the pitch? There’s an extension for older versions of winamp (v2.x afaik) called chronotrome or something like that. Most popular audio editors (like Cool Edit) also have that feature.

    I used that quite a lot in the past and it can make slow radio auditions and songs a bit more interesting. 🙂

    One can speed up anything to rap-speed with that, and it may be a good listening exercise.

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