A reader named X-star sent me an email today. Here it is, slightly abridged, and with sections added to ease referencing.
Hey. I found your site very motivating, but slightly confusing at times. I’ve dabbled in a bit of Japanese, learned the kana/a very small amount of kanji, picked up words here and there, textbooks and classes (which I agree, suck). I’m now highly considering your method, though I have some uncertainties with it that I’d like you to clear up if you don’t mind.
(A) Learning general use kanji first. I’d understand if it was learning the readings, but if you’re only learning the meaning, I don’t see how it could be much help without knowing how to read them. By the time you could actually put your knowledge to practise, wouldn’t you just completely forget the kanji? The kana seem hard-wired into my brain now, but that’s only because I spent a lot of time on each letter – just one gyo a day, if I tried to do 25+ a day, of an even more complex writing system with a lot more strokes, I don’t think I could keep it in my long-term memory. Maybe I just have a bad memory, though. 😛
(B) No English subtitles. I suppose it sounds logical. I watch a lot of anime, and even if I say “I’ll try to actually LISTEN this time” I usually forget in a few minutes and just stare at the subtitles, though I’ve picked up a little of the shorter phrases/words that are repeated a lot, maybe I’d pick up even morefrom discarding subtitles. My only problem with it is, I don’t see how it’d be much fun watching something and not understanding what is going on most of the time, and like you say, you should always be enjoying yourself. Even something you’ve watched before would seem quite stale. Wouldn’t it be better to just put more of an effort into actually listening to the dialogue while reading subtitles? Also, I’ve heard, albeit from an unreliable source (Internet forum know-it-alls), that learning from anime and such is a bad way to learn Japanese. I can see why it could be true though, if a foreigner was learning English completely from media, with little actual contact with English-speakers, they might sound a little dramatic and out of place. For example, “temee” and “kisama” are supposed to be very rarely used, though they’re used a lot in anime, even among friends (love/hate friendships?). Though that’s probably obvious as there is a lot more drama and hatred in anime than real life. I don’t know. What are your thoughts on it?
(C) Hypnopaedia. Were you serious about listening to Japanese when sleeping? “Sleep learning”, I’veheard, is a theory that has been debunked for years now. Do you feel it actually helps? Or do you just mean listen to Japanese in the little time between while you’re trying to sleep, and until you’re sleeping?
(D) Oh and one last thing, if I follow your methods to the letter, completely immersing myself in Japanese while doing a significant amount of SRS, how long on average should it take me to be semi-fluent? As in, just know enough to understand enough sentences to say, understand the basic plot in an anime/manga/whatever? I think if I could get to the point where I can read/comprehend a decent amount of sentences, I’ll find it infinitely harder to quit than I will to keep going.
I actually found his questions quite difficult to answer in a way that would be satisfying to a complete beginner. I’ve been doing this Japanese thing for a while now, so a lot of it seems blindingly obvious to me. That, and, I tend to go with “the justification is in the results” style of thinking. But these are legitimate questions, and it would be nice to get an answer. Some of you who read this site have just finished Heisig, others have been working on sentences/phrases for a short time, perhaps a few months. It is to you who have just finished “Phase 2” or just started “Phase 4” that I make this request: could you answer some or all of X-star’s questions, from your personal experience?
Thanks for your help!
For my part, I did attempt to answer X-star’s questions, but I feel like my answers have the air of someone removed from the process and who’s forgotten what it was like for him, and keeps wondering why people’s questions even keep coming up in the first place. So, I would very much appreciate any help you can give!
I don’t think I could keep it in my long-term memory. Maybe I just have a bad memory, though. 😛
Short answer is: “You can. Use an SRS”.
Long answer: You don’t have a bad memory, you simply lack memory tools and techniques. If you’ve never ever read and applied something like The Memory Book, then you can’t blame it on your memory any more than a farmer who’s never planted a single seed can honestly say: “the soil isn’t fertile”. Well, try planting a freaking seed, farmer! No water? Live in the desert? Build a canal and irrigate the mother! OK, that’s kind of preachy.
I don’t see how it could be much help without knowing how to read them.
A lot of people don’t before they do it.
Short answer: Try it first, and you’ll understand.
Long answer: kanji primarily have meaning. That’s why Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Korean…all can use the very same kanji despite pronouncing them completely differently. That’s why a single kanji in Japanese can have multiple readings. Because the meaning is the same. You can understand so much through “only” knowing the meaning and writing. For example:
machine-type-name: model name
transport-send-machine: transport plane
head-writing-character: initial (letter)
self-ego duplicate-manufacture: self-replication
Parts of this example were taken from here.
When you know and understand the parts, a logical composite whole is often much easier to understand. When you don’t know the parts, you’re just lost. But what about readings, you say? I’d learn those later…Seriously. There is not enough un-fuzzy logic there, see for yourself:
For more on kanji, get it from the horse’s mouth. Read the intro and “note to the 4th edition”. Pay particular attention to this:
One only has to look at the progress of non-Japanese raised with kanji to see the logic of [this] approach. When Chinese adult students come to the study of Japanese, they already know what the [individual] kanji mean and how to write them. They have only to learn how to read them. The progress they make in comparison with their Western counterparts is usually attributed to their being “Oriental”. In fact, Chinese grammar and pronunciation have about as much to do with Japanese and English does [Khatz: no, really…this is not an exaggeration]. It is their knowledge of the meaning and writing of the kanji that gives the Chinese the decisive edge. My idea was simply to learn from this common experience and give the kanji an English reading. Having learned to write the kanji in this way — which, I repeat, is the most logical and rational part of the study of Japanese — one is in a much better position to concentrate on the often irrational and unprincipled problem of learning to pronounce them. [Emphasis and silly side comments added].
Another thing I will add is that there are plenty of words you simply cannot grasp if you don’t know the kanji; the author of the book The Kanji Way to Japanese Language Power refers to it as a sort of glass ceiling. Not only that, but a lot of times in conversations in Japanese (and Chinese), when people hear a word they don’t understand, they will ask “what’s the kanji for that?”. Kanji is the foundation of Japanese. Kana themselves are nothing but kanji mutant children. Returning to your questions:
though I have some uncertainties with it that I’d like you to clear up if you don’t mind.
I don’t know if I can clear up your uncertainties for you…what you are asking me to do is to demonstrate my powers of persuasion, and that may not work out well. Even if you remain uncertain after reading what I have to say, which you may, I would recommend you get to work, rather than stand around thinking about it. Quite often the worst crime isn’t doing it “wrong”, it’s not doing it at all. As I discuss in the FAQ section and in this article, your time should never be wasted attempting to believe or not believe in a method; your time should be spent getting results. Belief and opinion are irrelevant. Japanese is the goal. So just do something, try something.
I’ve heard, albeit from an unreliable source (Internet forum know-it-alls)
Well, there you go. You already know those guys are idiots only writing to inflate their egos.
What are your thoughts on it?
Anime’s fine. Just do what you enjoy. Sure, there is some “specialist vocabulary” and usage unique to anime — every field has its tropes. I mean, it’s like saying you should never read academic papers because you’ll end up starting all your sentences with “近年” and saying “著しい発展を遂げている” several times a day and qualifying your speech with “と考えられる” — wives’ tales are great until their wrong. The fact is, despite the presence specialist patterns, the remaining 90-95% [rough stat] of the vocab and structure in any genre, whether anime or even a period drama, is still so-called “standard”/”normal” modern Japanese. The specialist topping is just icing on the selfsame cake.
Were you serious about listening to Japanese when sleeping?
Do you feel it actually helps?
I do. At the very least, it kept me doing Japanese all the time — from first thing in the morning to last thing at night with no time wastage (even an extra 20 – 120 minutes per day really adds up over 6 months or 1 year), it also sometimes helped me dream in it or be thinking about/in it, especially in those half-asleep half-awake states.
how long on average should it take me to be semi-fluent?
Hard to answer…It depends on how much work you put it. I’m not sure because I don’t remember when it was for me…And I don’t really know what “on average” means. Plus it doesn’t take much knowledge to understand the basic plot of anything. Besides, it’s never ignorance of the basic plot that trips you up, it’s those little twists and nuances — the things that actually make the story unique and different and interesting. Cop-out answer?
I don’t see how it’d be much fun watching something and not understanding what is going on most of the time, and like you say, you should always be enjoying yourself
Again, best to try it first. I can’t really explain it to you fully. The best I can come up with is: you still learn sounds, rhythm and other non-lexical patterns. Also, you put yourself in a position to learn incidental vocabulary. Your powers of inference are greater than you might assume. For example, I forced my English-teacher friends who want to learn Japanese to watch Japanese TV one morning, and they kept hearing the word “ほかほか” used on TV. Someone would be advertising longjohns — winter underwear — and talk about how “ほかほか” things were, and then there would be a food commercial and there’d be this piping hot rice and that word “ほかほか” would come up again. This all happened in the space of like half an hour, and these guys pretty quickly figured out the meaning and of ほかほか. But, yeah, I do recommend movies you’ve seen before.
People are always whining about how “if only I’d been raised in Japan”, or “if I lived in Japan I would be immersed in it and it would be so much easier and quicker to learn it”, right? Now, I don’t know any of the theory behind language immersion, but I decided to simply take that excuse out of the equation — I would put myself in a Japanese environment all the time, no exceptions, no excuses. What I discovered was a confirmation of both my hunch at the beginning of the process and my personal life experience up until that time: getting good at a language is not only the cause of doing stuff only in that language, it is also the effect. You will be able to do stuff in Japanese because you did stuff in Japanese, rather than the other way around. Anyway, what worked when and how much is an interesting topic…for a linguist…but I am not a linguist, I’m just a guy who wanted to know a language so well that there would be zero language barrier between me and a native speaker, so that I could control the language at will, like the finely tuned machine that it is, like a musical instrument or a program, manipulating people’s feelings and perceptions with razor-sharp precision, pushing just the buttons I wanted when I wanted, all based on what I said or did not say, and how I said it.
My intuition tells me that there may be more to it than that, but I do not know for a fact whether or not that is the case. Whether or not I have read the law I will continue to avoid killing people, whether or not I understand electromagnetics I will continue to watch my TV. Research both inside and outside linguistics, is a moving target; it is a living organism. For one thing, people are always disagreeing with each other. Textbooks would lead us to believe that the truth is all cut and dry; what’s known is known and set it stone that’s all there is to it forever and ever amen. If you go out and read some actual academic papers in any field, you’ll find that everyone’s disagreeing with each other on everything, even on some of the fundamentals — virtually nothing is sacred; nothing is not up for question. Not only that, but new information is coming out all the time. All the time. Your best bet, at least in language learning, is to ignore anything that tells you what you can’t do, and just keep running experiments for and on yourself, usually using “common sense” — but sometimes going directly and deliberately against common sense. Try. Do. Always remember that Arthur C. Clarke quote: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” If you live anything resembling an interesting life, you will quite likely find yourself doing things that no one’s ever done before. It may take some time for the rest of the world (and for you) to catch up and figure out just what you did and just how you did and why it worked, but that shouldn’t stop you doing it. We — humanity — simply do not know everything yet, so as long as you don’t do something stoopid like do drugs and/or join a cult and/or kill yourself, then you’re pretty much good to go, I say.
Even something you’ve watched before would seem quite stale.
1. Have you tried it?
2. It’s not only a matter of having seen it before, it’s also helps if you enjoyed it at some level.
Wouldn’t it be better to just put more of an effort into actually listening to the dialogue while reading subtitles?
In my experience, the subs always took over.
And now, I open the floor to everybody’s comments, suggestions and advice 🙂 .