Eat Your Dessert First: Why Doing the Fun Stuff is the Most Effective Way of Learning Japanese

Throughout our lives, most of us have had the values of postponing what we like drilled into us. Dinner, then dessert. For religious people, good deeds then heaven. One of my favorite teachers at college, tells a story in his student development class about how toddlers who forced themselves to not eat a single marshmallow now, in order to get two marshmallows later, went on to do better in life than those loser toddlers with no self-control.

Deferred compensation is the idea. The carrot and the stick. It’s a beautiful concept.

But it’s also a bunch of crap.

Let me clarify. The idea itself is a good one — yes, it makes sense to give up some good things in order to get something better. The crap comes when people take this concept and get you to do things that, frankly, are guaranteed to be a good thing for them, but may or may not be in your true best interests. Schooling (I mean it) is one example. Your parents probably told you that if you didn’t go through as much schooling as possible, you’d become a hobo out on the street: an economic failure. It’s a pity Richard Branson and Bill Gates weren’t listening, because they could have done so much better for themselves financially; now they’re just drop-out loser hobos. In all probability, however, the real reason your parents told you that was to scare you into willingly going to a glorified children’s prison so that you would be safely out of their hair for anything from a full 8-hour working day (normal school) to a solid 3 months at a time (boarding school). Your parents didn’t do this out of spite; they really did believe it was a good idea at some level; they were as fooled by themselves as you were. Talk about believing your own hype.

So, what I’m trying to say is that you should use deferred compensation as a tool, but that you should be very suspect of people and organizations who tell you to persevere, to stick it out, to bend over and take it, to submit to their holding the carrot and stick. In all likelihood, while you bust your chops seeking that reward in the future, they’re busy enjoying your cooperation right now. And what do you get in return? Bullied? Spat on? And, oh wait, the kicker: a piece of paper with a shiny stamp on it? Come now, something is amiss.

Anyway, much as I enjoy the topic of deferred compensation, I didn’t come here to tell you about how much school sucks. John Taylor Gatto and Paul Graham are two people who do that, and do it in much more beautiful English than this. I came here to tell you about cases where holding off the reward doesn’t work. I came here to tell you that, in most of your work in learning Japanese, you should ignore that concept; you should eat your dessert first; you should not defer your compensation; you should focus on doing fun things. I mean it.

If you’re the kind of person who feels guilty when they’re having fun and only feels like they’re doing good when they’re suffering, then let me help you feel better by hitting you with some knowledge: you’re going to be giving up a lot in learning Japanese. Jurassic 5, New Found Glory, 50 Cent? You can’t listen to that. The O.C.? Not dubbed into Japanese yet. Pride and Prejudice? Sorry, no dice. Your crazy-but-fun friend Brian who doesn’t get why you need to learn “all them Oriental langiges lahk Japanese”, since “everything is in English now”? You can’t hang out with him because he’s a liability. If you move to Japan, you might even be giving up your country. In learning Japanese, you’re giving up (temporarily) your language: the very operating system of your brain, because you’re installing a new one (with kanji support). To wit: over the course of 18 months, I practiced the 4500 kanji that I have so far learned a total of nearly 40,000 times. This is not messing around; this is not Japanese in 10 minutes; this is pounding; this is punching mental wooden blocks with your bare mental fists until your mental knuckles start to bleed…and then trying to use chopsticks. Make no mistake: to learn Japanese to fluency is to sacrifice. You may not sell your soul to learn Japanese, but you will lease it out.

But who wants to wait until some point in the future when you’re officially “fluent” to reap the rewards? That’s too far away. For me, at least. When it comes to rewards and other good things like that, my brain operates on a 5-second time scale: anything good that is more than 5 seconds away is too far away.

So I’m suggesting to you that doing the fun stuff in Japanese is the way to learn. And not just any old fun stuff, but THE fun stuff. You know, the guilty pleasures. The kind of thing you look forward to doing and dread having to stop doing. The books where you’re sad that there are only 10 pages left. The video game that you wake up at 4 o’ clock in the a.m. morning to play. The movies that you stay up all night to watch. The websites that make you grateful for electricity, transistors and the Internet. It’s different for each of us, but we each know what those things are. Why always do the fun stuff? Because it works better.

In what ways does it work better? Only three (that I can think of right now). So, it’s actually really simple. Why, then, do I spend an entire article when I could just tell you? Maybe it’s because we as human beings, need to have that background, the see the chain of reasoning, to hear the story…if we are to believe the moral at the end. At least it seems that way to me. Anyway, so here are the three ways that always doing the fun stuff first in Japanese is the most effective way to learn Japanese.

1. It makes you happy
Do not underestimate the importance of being happy. Have you ever met sad people? They never shower; they sleep all day and whenever they’re awake they blame everything on their parents, the government, the school system — someone else is forever messing up their lives and screwing them over. They can’t have fun because they think the President of the United States took all the fun out of life.

Have fun. Be happy; it’s crucial. I mean it. It’s not fluff.

2. You can do it for longer, and more times
When you do the fun stuff, you have to remember to shower and sleep and feed your cat. It’s that enjoyable. And even if you stop doing the fun stuff for a while because that darn cat needs to be fed and you’re scratching from lack of showering, you start again as soon as possible. You’ll watch that (Japanese) movie, play that (Japanese) video game or listen to that (Japanese) song over and over and over again, because you like it. As Tony Robbins (don’t laugh; he says and does some goofy things, but he’s got a surprisingly high batting average for the profound) says: “repetition is the mother of skill”.

3. It’ll actually enable you to do the boring stuff
Don’t listen to the person who tells you that watching Star Trek in Japanese is irrelevant because “when are you going to need to be able to tell someone to fire photon torpedoes?”. First of all, the US Air Force could decide to develop photon torpedoes to shock and awe more people with, draft you into the new Photon Torpedo Squadron, and then make you its leader. In which case, your friend would have egg on his face or photon torpedo shrapnel lodged in his spine. But even in the unlikely event that that doesn’t happen, doing the fun stuff will, in fact, enable you to do the boring stuff.

Why? Four words: same language same rules.

The Japanese used in Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop and rap music is the very same Japanese used at the post office, the bank and the airport. Put another way: Star Trek, the post office, anime…any field is full of specialist vocabulary. But that specialist vocabulary only accounts for a small fraction of what is actually discussed in any field. Let’s say 10% of the words in Star Trek are trekkie/physics words. That leaves 90% just plain vanilla Japanese. While you learn the apparently useless phrase “launch photon torpedoes“, you will also learn how to use the word “launch”.

The fun stuff is a great foundation for the boring stuff because they both spring from the same soil. The fun stuff is that tasty icing on an otherwise boring sponge cake. Like the 2% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees, the fun stuff has the little something that makes all the difference. It has, built-in, that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. In learning Japanese, you’ll be taking a lot of “medicine”, so you’ll be needing more than a spoonful. You, my friend, will be growing your own little patch of sugar cane. Do fun things!

I myself am a product of this wantonly hedonistic-seeming policy of doing the fun stuff first. So, can I read a newspaper? Can I read bank documents? Can I read end-user license agreements for software? Can I conduct business on the phone? Heck, yes. But the reason I’m able to do these things wasn’t because I busted my chops reading about Sumisu-san going to his first kabuki play. No, it was because I watched enough Star Trek/Gokusen/Tiger & Dragon to choke a horse. You name it, if it was in Japanese and it was fun, I watched/listened to/played it. And because of doing stuff that I wanted to do, I am able to do the occasional thing that I kind of have to do. I can function as an adult in Japanese society despite/because of doing “childish”, fun things whose only virtue (other than that they were fun), was that they were in Japanese.

So don’t be fooled by the seductive image of the hardworking kid who puts her nose into grindstones, burns oil at midnight (at these prices!) and is generally a doormat for teachers and other authority figures who claim, truthfully or falsely, to be acting in her best interests and whose orders she follows. Turn away, and look at the kid who plays Japanese video games all day. When it comes to real life, that lazy video game kid will run/read/write and speak circles around the one who just does what she’s told no matter how boring it is.

There’s enough sadness in the world without you adding to it. Have fun! It’s good for you ;).

  10 comments for “Eat Your Dessert First: Why Doing the Fun Stuff is the Most Effective Way of Learning Japanese

  1. Charles
    November 20, 2006 at 21:40

    Brilliant! Thanks. I’ve been fully inspired by your articles. Keep them coming. I’ve started watching shows and listening to music only in Japanese. Once I get my SRS up and running, I’ll be unstoppable:)

  2. khatzumoto
    November 22, 2006 at 11:21

    Hey Charles,

    Thanks for your encouragement. Congratulations on enjoying yourself! Let’s both keep on keeping on ;).

  3. opaleg
    June 21, 2007 at 21:43

    It makes sense to me, I don’t remember my first few years of life being in an English skills and being drilled. In fact I wouldn’t be so good at english if it isn’t for RPGs and video games.

  4. opaleg
    June 21, 2007 at 21:47

    Sorry, I meant english class, how deliciously ironic.

  5. July 15, 2009 at 10:19

    So, if I am sad I don’t shower, and if I am happy I also don’t shower? My wife won’t quite enjoy this…

    (and yes, put me on the list of people who learned English thanks to RPGs.)

  6. kyoushou
    September 11, 2009 at 17:36

    whoa! i like the Turn away, and look at the kid who plays Japanese video games all day. When it comes to real life, that lazy video game kid will run/read/write and speak circles around the one who just does what she’s told no matter how boring it is.

    am a gamer also too,and in the first place, the reason what i wanted to know / understand japanese is because i wanna play those SUPER ROBOT WARS..

    this article made me aware of the adult function not just the child function..
    most of the time, i function as a child.. .. playing that video games..gundam SEED.. onechanbara..XD

    thanks khatzumoto-senpai

  7. xangelx
    September 5, 2010 at 18:33

    Could I maybe get a list of movies and music that are in Japanese?

  8. Metaldragon
    August 10, 2012 at 04:47

    this website is both positive and negitive for me…                                                                                                                                           i mean its good because it has told me how and what to do… and kept me motivated and kept me working
    however:                                                                                                                                                                                                                its the largest distraction i have ever seen… XD (however i am listerning to japanese music while browsing so its not all bad)
    keep up the amazing posts!

  9. Otani Atsushi
    January 26, 2014 at 06:36

    Brilliant method, I love it! That Kill Bill reference is really what got me though.

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