So, the other day, I’m eating spinach, and I get this email from a kid we’ll call Amphy, because that’s her online name:
Your recent posts, adapted from a IM conversation with you friend Maddie, really struck a chord, especially how she said she always gets sidetracked and fails. That’s I guess the position I’m in at the moment: I wanted to and indeed was learning Japanese (would never even have dared start if not for your blog, so thank you for that), but health problems got in the way — I’ve been pretty much useless for anything for the last few months, but would now like to get back into it, just don’t know where to start (again).
I’d done RTK (thanks for recommending that, btw, all those squiggles suddenly looked like writing), and was assembling a SRS deck based mainly on sentences from Tae Kim’s guide, as well as odd ones I found and liked (桜の樹の下には屍体（したい）が埋まっている！ :D).
I was still a sucky beginner, couldn’t even read children’s stories, but I was at least learning consistently. Now I’m left with a deck, much of which I no longer understand, and kanji I no longer recognise. So, I guess what I’m wondering is, where would you start from? If anything, it feels more overwhelming than when I first started.
Any pointers would be much appreciated, and thank you again for AJATT,
Amphy (in England)
To which I wrote the following reply:
Wow, so you finished RTK? Nice.
Start there. Start at the beginning. Start with the basics.
That’s where we always start and it’s where we always return.
No one’s ever too good or too smart or too dumb or too inexperienced or too advanced or too young or too old for the basics. Except dead people. Dead people suck. They can’t do jack.
You live in England, Amphy. There are foreigners there. Some of them have shaky English. Why? What is it that’s shaky about their English? Is it their lack of knowledge of Chaucer? Is it their inability to handle Cockney rhyming slang?
No…they make basic errors; they get basic things wrong. They wake up “on” the morning; they get “upon” the bus; they “haved the lunch” today. They are messing up the basics, things that a “native” speaker toddler has had drummed into his ears for 40k+ hours. Native speakers make plenty of mistakes, too — they “tow the line” and do things “irregardless of the consequences” and get fooled by “slight of hand”, but they don’t really make those habitual basic errors.
In fundamental ways, B-star, the world is very simple. We make it complex. But think about health. What does it come down to, really? Eat fruits and vegetables. Get enough sleep. Take brisk walks. Easy on the crisps and pies. These are things that your mother and her mother and her foremothers could have told you without a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. They are things that mothers have most toddlers do. The basics. The Jansport backpacks and the Nike shoes and the Garmin GPS pedometers are all great fun, useful even. But they cannot replace the basics.
So what do adults do? They never sleep because there’s “no time”. They eat junk food because they’re “busy” and “on the go”. They consume the maximum amount of legal and illegal drugs — ciggies, alchohol, weed, whatever — that their economic activity will allow. They’ll watch bad TV before they’ll read a useful book. And they actively seek to exchange vital fluids with total strangers. And that’s just weekdays. Then they wonder why their bodies are falling apart.
We all forget about the basics all the time: we need to have them repeated to us our entire lives. I sound like a crusty old man. But I’m 27…I drink a lot of mango juice; I shower infrequently and irregularly and I wear dark clothes to mask this fact — so I’m not really one to talk.
We all lose track of the basics — of so-called “common sense” — a lot. By the time we’re in our late teens, so much BS has piled up that it’s easy to lose track. But the basics are always there and they will always help you. Revisit them now and every day and you’ll enjoy yourself a lot.
So what about learning Japanese? What are the basics there? Listen to music. Watch cartoons and dramas. Do your SRS. Go one kanji at a time, one primitive at a time. That’s all there is to it. Forget? Relearn. Fall? Stand up. Stop? Start.
So pick up the SRS and take one step. Then another. When you’re tired, rest (cartoons, music, movies, comics). When you’re bored, change the channel (do something else in Japanese). When you’re hungry, eat (go for more of that other Japanese thing). When you’re full…stop (change Japanese activities again).
The more time you spend with Japanese, the more used to Japanese you get. And being used to something is being good at it.
It’s so easy it’s almost anticlimactic.
The basics. The fundamentals. These things that are, to paraphrase the late Jim Rohn, so easy to do that they’re easy not to do — easy to overlook.
Easy. Do whatever you can and want to in Japanese that is easy and fun for you right now. Do easy things that move you forward with your Japanese. The more you do them, the further and faster forward you move. But it’s never hard. Always easy.
Begin again. You’re not a total beginner so I imagine this will all actually go faster than before. Either way, there’s no shame in being a beginner (or even a serial beginner). Begin as many times as you need to. It wasn’t until my 4th or 5th attempt at kanji that I even got through, so…I speak from experience.
Begin again. There’s no level you’re “supposed” to be at right now; if you were supposed to be there, you’d be there. It’s simple cause and effect. There is no “would” or “could” or “should” — those things don’t exist: what exists is “are” “is” and “am”. You are here now. Begin here. Begin now. Don’t worry about where you are (position), just focus on where you’re headed (direction). Begin again. Begin as many times as you need to.
Everyone knows how to get back on the horse. You just do the same things you did the last time you were on her — foot in one stirrup, hands on mane, hop up and bring the other leg over. The thing is, we wonder: “is it worth it any more?”. Well…Japanese is here, you’re here, and the time is going to pass anyway. Might as well go for it.
Finally…don’t try to learn Japanese. It won’t work. Instead, let yourself get used to it. Get used to Japanese. Come into frequent contact with Japanese. Frequent. Every couple of minutes, something Japanese is happening.
But, now that I think about it, my reply kind of sucked. Too abstract. Having said that, there are a couple of good reasons why I like to give vague, high-level advice:
- It makes me sound deep and smart
- Whenever I give concrete advice, people on either side of the middle ground die. People who are against the advice freak out about how “hardcore” it is, and people who are in favor of the advice kill themselves trying to follow it to the letter, even if it has parts they don’t need or like. It is this latter group — the people who will hurt themselves before they’ll break some “rule” because it’s supposedly “canon” — for whom I fear most. A lot of smart, serious, perfectionistic people are in this group, and I have to protect them from themselves (!)
So, anyway…do you guys have any more concrete advice for Amphy? Anyone out there with experience making a comeback? Please share your stories and pointers down there in the comments section! 😉
You like how I say “down there”? Very…上から目線.