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How Is Learning a Language Like Breathing?

Difference matters more than distance.

The distance between nothing and something is small.

But the difference is infinite.

“Cause snobs” often talk about making a difference. They’re especially fond of overly combative, guilt-inducing statements like: “if you’re not part of the solution, part you’re part of the problem”.

Arguably, they’re right. And if they are, that means that your partial solution counts; your more-than-zero counts. Your not-nothing counts.

And so you should never feel small because your contribution is small. Because it’s not about the distance, it’s about the difference.

It’s the difference between having some Japanese playing now and having none.

It’s the difference that counts. Small counts. A little counts. One counts. Half counts. Less than one counts. It’s only zero that doesn’t count. It’s only zero that can’t count.

You take care of the difference; time will erode the distance for you.
Distance is a big girl. She’s a strong, independent woman. Don’t worry about her. She can take care of herself. Take care of the difference. It’s the difference that counts. It’s the difference that needs your attention.

This is what’s amazing about life: all your actions — and inactions — have consequences.

Usually, that idea is used as a threat. And not in a playful way. It’s used as a very venomous, ominous threat.

But we can take the venom out, and when were do, we’re left with the astonishing and deeply fair fact that none of your actions are truly meaningless, because they all cause change in (excuse me for getting unnecessarily cosmic in scale) the Universe. Even one drop in the ocean causes a ripple 1. Everything you do makes a difference, even if its effect is over a small distance, every action, every twitch every blink, every breath in the video game of life gets you XP. Again, there is something curiously and deeply fair about that, a fundamental fairness, in a world where many things are — thankfully — unfair (unfair is good…without it, you couldn’t have machines and levers — literal and figurative — that help us get more out than we put in).

Breath is a good example. You don’t compare your breathing to other people’s (maybe if you’re in music you do, I dunno…and now that I’ve mentioned it, maybe you’re gonna start); you don’t feel jealous because “look at the lungs on that guy”.

More importantly, you don’t go skipping breaths because “this one doesn’t count”, or “I get so little air form each breath, what’s the point?”, or “I don’t have time for these stupid biological function right now; I’m busy; Ill breathe later”.

And you don’t sit back at the end of the day and look back at your breaths and go: “those were sheety breaths I took…gotta work on it…crap; I can’t take the pressure; I’m just gonna stop breathing until I learn how to do it right”.

You don’t look at how much air you’re going to breathe this year, divide it by your lung capacity and despair at the size of the gap. No, because you’re subscribed to breath magazine. You’re not trying to “get it over with” and “get it out of the way” so you can go back to your “real” life. It’s not a punishment and it’s not vacation; it just is. And it’s wonderful. It’s bloody marvelous.

When Japanese becomes like the air you breathe, Grasshopper, it’s just there. Like her hair, it’s everywhere. Screaming infidelities and clogging the sink. You just breathe it in, one little bit at time. You just live it. It’s just part of life. It’s just a part of you. We’re not really separate from the air, although we like to think we are. When we go into space or under water, we have to take it with us, otherwise the trip is short and harsh. It’s a part of us and we’re a part of it. 2

Japanese. Like the air you breathe. And you don’t have to breathe it in all at once. And it’s fine to exhale — to come into contact with things not Japanese — but you inhale again very soon; that’s the critical frequency idea.

Japanese. Like the air you breathe. You don’t binge breathe 3. You don’t quit breathing for six months then do cram-breathing for a week. You’d die. And so would your Japanese, metaphorically. And you’d be starting again more or less from scratch. That’s the boiling water idea.

Breathe. Now. Not later. Not next week. Not when you’ve got everything set up and the new plant arrives. Now. Don’t try to inhale a fortnight’s worth of air in one breath (i.e. do a hundred or a thousand SRS reps in one sitting, or even be doing SRS reps for long enough that you would need to sit down to do them 4 — you want your reps to be in sprints and bursts). Breathe. Comfortably. Leisurely.

Caring about distance over difference is the classic mistake of people who are doing nothing breath-holders and baby-killers who let their projects die. Well-meaning people, I might add. Perfectionists and valedictorians and such-like. They care so much about distance they forget about difference.

A few paragraphs ago I made fun of cause snobs. Now I’m going to take a turn at eating the humble pie I so readily fed them.

People, including me, who make fun of charity and giving and acts of kindness — like the free Thanksgiving meals that Tony Robbins gives out every year — and say things like “it’s a band-aid”; “they’re not solving the systemic problem”; “what about the other 364 days of the year?”…because I have said and thought all those things.

Well, fark. Maybe it is imperfect. Maybe it is temporary. Maybe it is a small distance. And maybe some charitable organizations 5 are unscrupulous or (worse) inefficient and waste contributions on administrative costs 6. Maybe they do use guilt and manipulation. Maybe it does almost all cancel out. But it’s a difference.

Plus, what have I done to help people? Nothing. I’m not a nice person. If you were on a cliff and you needed one f-bomb, and I had a pocketful of them…I wouldn’t give you one. If you were hungry, I would eat a bar of chocolate in front of you and not give you any. No, that’s a lie — I’d do worse: I would throw it away in front of you, so that neither of us could enjoy it! I’m twisted like that. I mean, I do what I can for the hookers and blow industries, but… 😉

My zero people helped for zero days versus Tony Robbins’ hundreds (thousands?) of families helped, for one day. For “only” one day. What other day is there, though? And what about the things you can’t measure, like hope and dignity?

I mean, dang. It’s not enough that he helps people — doing things he has no obligation to do whatsoever — he has to do a perfect job of it, too? And his solution has to work forever? And he isn’t allowed to benefit from it in terms of good publicity and warm fuzzies and stuff? Come on, now…who’s really full of crap now? That’s a clusterhump of crappy rules made up by people who aren’t doing anything at all to help. People like me.

The distance between nothing and something is small, but the difference is infinite. One may be close to zero, but it’s nothing like zero.

It’s enough that you’re doing any Japanese at all. You’re making a difference. Don’t make things complicated by trying to do a good job of it as well. That’s the irony of the process. The more important it is to you, the less you need to care, the less important you need to make each move. Because there are going to be tens of thousands of moves; you can’t get hung up on one or two — like breaths and MCD reps, by the time you’re done with one, you’re already working on the next one. If you would be in control, be unconcerned.


  1. So why begrudge its not being an asteroid?
  2. In fact, we need it more than it needs us.
  3. It’s called hyperventilating and it’s, uh, bad, mmm kay?
  4. Although…I did do I lot of reps in the restroom lately 🙂
  5. Who says you have to work through an organization, though?
  6. American Red Cross and 9/11, anyone?

  5 comments for “How Is Learning a Language Like Breathing?

  1. Amir
    February 6, 2014 at 07:08

    今度はいい記事なんだよ。本当に参考になりました!! σ(≧ε≦o)

  2. Livonor
    February 9, 2014 at 12:34


  3. March 15, 2014 at 22:49

    khatz, your wit, smarts and extremely wide read mind never fail to amaze me, in this age of quick fixes and ipdods you are a true scholar. your deep thoughts insights and philosophies on Language learning are a total inspiration, it reminds us why we started this amazing journey, Ive been doing this for only 8 9 months but i have many hours a day to study so thanks to u and others i am progressing at a rate i am happy wiht, but you remind us to just progress at all, to do something instead of nothing as the famous quote goes.

    Thanks khatz, This site is a beacon and example to all those who not only want to learn, but know how to learn. Mind blowing

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