How Many Languages? + Abandoning a Language After Bad Experiences

Comments are posted, questions are asked, responses get long and become articles.

Are you of the school of thought that a person can only learn X languages to complete fluency? Perhaps that was a bad explanation, 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?

Second 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?

Great questions. These are issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a while now, and especially deeply over the past few months. These just my present thoughts, they may well change in the future; I’ve only taught myself one language so far, and so I cannot and do not claim the right to discuss the issues you’ve raised with any authority or particularly deep experience.

How Many Languages?

There’s a lady called KIN Birei, whom I love and hate at the same time. You see her on Japanese TV now and then. Typical fiery, illogical, right-wing, Japanese woman, right? Wrong — she’s Taiwanese, living in Japan in exile since her college days (1958); back then, the government of Taiwan didn’t like it when you said “Taiwan”, because Taiwan = China and cetera. Her Japanese is perfect — at the risk of stating the obvious, just because someone’s East Asian, that doesn’t by any means give them a free pass to other East Asian languages, so her effort is impressive and as praiseworthy as any other learner’s.

Anyway, in one of her recent books, she discusses raising her children here. They were born and raised in Japan by her and her fellow Taiwanese husband, but since Japan doesn’t presently have jus solis, they are Taiwanese. KIN Birei said that she believes, languagewise, it’s “better to have one or a few sharp knives in your kitchen, than many blunt knives“. To the point that she focussed more on teaching her kids Japanese than Mandarin or Taiwanese; I’m not sure how much Chinese her kids know; they may well know some, although it sounds like they might not know ANY. In any case, she said that the most important and useful language in Japan is Japanese, so she thought it crucial that her kids’ Japanese be spot-on, even at the expense of Chinese. I was shocked…To find that I agreed with her. Like I said, I usually hate this woman [she makes baseless and disparaging marks about Chinese people and civilization that feed into the “Chaana’s gon’ git us!” book circuit on the far right: “Chinese people only care about getting the most done for the least effort”, no kidding, it’s called rational thinking]. But I think she’s right about language and kitchen knives.

Too many of us language learners are dabblers, dilettantes, hobbyists. Of course, it depends on one’s goals. But if we really want the maximum benefits of knowing a language, I think those max benefits only come with (native-level) fluency. If you want to be able to actually cut stuff, you need a sharp knife. You want to be able to use your languages to do (cut) ANYTHING. And fast. Understand everything from standard to regional dialects, read fast, speak fast and correctly, write fast and correctly. Otherwise you just have a collection of blunt mental; it looks good on paper, but it doesn’t do anything or it doesn’t do enough. Then there’s the social aspect — again, this is related to language as a social tool — you want to be persuasive. And to be persuasive, it helps to be funny, I think. To be funny takes some cultural plugged-in-edness, and being plugged in takes time — you do have to plug in. Anyway, when I learn a language, I want to know it so well that I would be perfectly OK if it were the only language I knew. Again, it is a matter of goal. At one time, my goal in Japanese was to be able to function completely as an adult in Japanese society, to be comparable to a native speaker in terms of being able to do anything a “typical” Japanese adult could do in terms of language; I reached and passed that goal a long time ago. Now my goal is to be better than most native speakers — to persuade, to amuse and even to linguistically intimidate if necessary for being taken seriously [“how thick is yooour kanji, Mr. Yamaguchi?”]; I plan to live in Japan a long time if not permanently, so this is both my desire and my social responsibility.

Another factor is, personally, I don’t want to spend my whole life learning languages from the bottom up…It takes time and highly focussed energy. I want to spend my time enjoying what I’ve learned, extending what’s already been built. I already get to do that in Japanese; it’s a great feeling just to be able to read or watch anything, talk to anyone, in Japanese. After Cantonese and Mandarin, I’m out of the game, at least for several years…except maybe just enough Russian to travel through Central Asia, if that. Otherwise it’s chill, write, watch, read, talk and just generally “be” — in Japanese and Chinese.

Language skill isn’t only a matter of “get it once, and you’re done”. It’s not catching a ball. The moment you stop using a language, you start losing it. I no longer function in two of the three languages of which I was a native speaker as a child, because of disuse. Last week, after I went for some days without hearing large amounts of Japanese (long story short: hanging out with Americans and their vegetarian Thanksgiving), I knew and my Japanese friends knew — it just took longer to “come out”, and it didn’t come out cleanly. Now, if you are strongly rooted enough in a language, then…you may never experience appreciable loss; I’m sure if I never spoke or read or heard another word of English after today, I’d still be fine. But, such rooting takes time, I think. So, you can get good at other languages, you can acquire several, but neglect may seriously weaken the ones not being focussed on, unless they have deep roots.

So, learning a language is like building and owning a house all by yourself, in that not only do you have to do the construction, but you also have a maintenance burden — a burden that no one else can bear, you can’t get a real estate agent to do if for you — you need to, essentially, live in the house throughout the year, even if not every day. Otherwise, it gets dusty, termites come in and start chewing stuff up, and eventually the house may fall. Technology may one day solve this problem (stimulating the brain directly? I dunno), I think SRSes are a step in that direction, but for now you’re on your own.

I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s impossible, anyone who does is generally asking to be embarrassed by future generations. I’m just saying there’s a price to be paid for everything, including true multiple-language fluency.

Bad Experiences and Abandoning a Language

As for bad experiences, the International Society of Jerks and Richardheads (ISJR) is a worldwide organization. Wherever there is a language or a culture, ISJR members can be found in it now and then. But good people, lots of good people, far more good people than ISJR members are there, too. Be sure to surround yourself with them. Be sure that you’re not letting individual richardheads represent/taint a whole language and culture for you. And if you still don’t like it, then, yeah, drop the language. But be really sure you’re sure, because it is a large investment of time and resources both mental and physical; it’s not something to throw out lightly.

You know, every now and then, here in Japan, I’ll meet someone who’s a jerk, and I’ll think “what am I even doing here? why did I even bother? Japanese people are so X”. But…that’s unfair; it’s unfair of me to slam all of Japan and Japanese people because of the occasional drunken middle-aged man, or housewives who stare, or even the lady at immigration who is, in fact, a retard [you can talk to her in keigo, and she will respond in baby talk; she is clearly a first-degree retard], or whatever. As it turns out, these people are (1) ISJR members and (2) tend to carry out ISJR activities on Japanese people, too. There are entire creative works more or less dedicated to the things Japanese ISJR members do to Japanese people in Japan (Obatarian about selfish old women, Densha Otoko about drunken men in trains). In the vast majority of cases, it seems to me that if someone is a jerk to you [for being a foreigner], they are generally jerks to fellow countrymen, too — this is a fact. When Momoko and I were trying to get married here (looong story), there was this…creature…at city hall, and I had my Japanese friend T-star talk to him to see if City Hall Creature could be tamed, and T-star calls me back after attempting to negotiate with City Hall Creature and says: “Khatz, that guy…he’s…a richardhead; I have never had to deal with someone so unreasonable. Japanese people aren’t supposed to act this way, and don’t take him as an example for the whole country”. ISJR people aren’t picky.

Most of the time here, old women are telling me that I’m a “nice young man”, more than once older guys have randomly said: “Khatz, you can’t leave Japan! You know so much about it now, it would be a huge waste. You should just stay here forever; you’d be a good Japanese person.” One time, a schoolkid came up to me and went “Harro (hello)” and I said “欧米かっ?![stop trying to be American!]” and we had a huge laugh about it. I’ve only bought rice twice since I came to Japan because T-star’s family sends me HUGE bags of fresh rice and vegetables from their fields. People will *thank* me for speaking Japanese because they were worried that they were going to have to use their rusty English. The taxi drivers by my train station always take the time to say hello, and update me on what’s happening in Prison Break. The people at the Japanese Consulate in Denver processed my visa with incredible speed, and then said “good on ya, kid; ganbatte in Japan” to me. The other week, I was pausing from a walk to read manga, and a random man stops his minivan and goes: “[You can read Japanese manga?]” and I’m all “…yes?” and he says: “Good job!” and then drives off. So…if you really put your negative experiences into perspective, you’ll probably find that they are easily cancelled out by the positive. Perhaps it’s time to recall what made you want to learn the language in the first place. No matter how many retards get employed at immigration, one person like T-star trumps them all.

  46 comments for “How Many Languages? + Abandoning a Language After Bad Experiences

  1. quendidil
    November 29, 2007 at 18:19

    I found this article very motivating, especially the 2nd half, but I’m afraid I have to disagree slightly with Kin Birei.

    It might be difficult to maintain a heritage language in a land full of speakers of a different language but it’s not impossible to bring it up to full-blown reading, writing and speaking fluency. Of course it is important to know the language of your surroundings, but with access to native speaking parents, children should not be denied of an opportunity to learn a different language.

    Of course, I might be slightly biased, coming from Singapore where everyone born post-independence is expected to be functionally bilingual in both their ethnic language and English. I do agree that it is far more important to have a few sharp knives in your inventory rather than many blunt ones, but from what you have said Kin Birei seems to have given her children one sharp knife and one blunt one well within reach of a sharpening stone. I’m not arguing out of a desire to “preserve your heritage” or whatever but it just seems to me that she denied her children of an opportunity to achieve fluency in something they could have quite easily could have.

    I do agree however, that knowing a few languages to full-blown fluency where you understand everything without effort and can function if one of those languages were your only tongue is important. As you have said, the number of languages that you can be fluent in is limited by the “maintenance burden”, but IMO, it’s still more than possible to gain full-blown fluency in at least 4 languages and more if they’re closely related.

  2. khatzumoto
    November 29, 2007 at 19:12

    >it’s still more than possible to gain full-blown fluency in at least 4 languages and more if they’re closely related.
    Definitely. You’re absolutely right. My words don’t reflect that, but I agree with you completely. Most Kenyans, for example, are polyglots in the true sense of the word…

    Now that I think about it I bet (hope?) Kin Birei’s kids do know some Chinese, it would be a little tragedy if they didn’t. But whatever the case with them, it is refreshing to have someone say “Japanese is the most important language in Japan”. Too many Japanese people, I feel, don’t even value their own language, at least they don’t seem to; they’re so quick to brand it illogical, “too difficult”, and talk about how great English is. For one thing, I don’t think there should be things like English signs in Japan; you come to Japan, you work your way through in Japanese, end of story…

    …this must all ring quite hollow coming from someone like me who’s dropped 2 languages through neglect. But…there’s a difference between a person neglecting a language due to individual circumstances and a country neglecting a language through a collective inferiority complex.

    Anyway, none of that’s relevant anyway. What I wanted to say is: you made a great point — the local language is important, but there doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between the local language and the heritage language, by any means.

  3. juan
    November 29, 2007 at 21:59

    Thanks again for the motivation. I’m thinking of taking a leave of absence and living with my wife’s folks in Japan for a five month break and to immerse myself in Japanese. I’m not independently wealthy and I have a child so I’ll have to work. I am a high school social studies teacher so I assume it might be relatively easy to get a job teaching English. But there’s the rub. Would I be spending too many hours doing and thinking about English. Should I work the rice harvests instead. 🙂

  4. khatzumoto
    November 29, 2007 at 22:03

    I don’t have all the answers, but…I guess it depends.
    It may be better to spend the travel $$ on materials (movies, books) instead of going to Japan. Since, yeah, teaching English is potentially a distraction. Then again, you do have the family connection going for you.

    Both choices seem equally valid to me from a Japanese standpoint, based on this information. There’s also the matter of where you *want* to be…

  5. juan
    November 29, 2007 at 22:06

    By the way. I lived in Puerto Rico for my early life. Spanish is my first language though my mom is from the South. When we came to Kentucky with my mother, I made a decision to become better at the language than the people around me. I was successful but I obliterated my Spanish and that has had it’s “psychic” costs. Now I will get it back by studying it in Japanese? (and immersing myself, having fun, of course) What an interesting and thrilling prospect.

  6. November 29, 2007 at 22:30

    Hi Khatz,
    let me ask you something…
    Do you think if you stop using japanese for some time, let say some years, you are going to forget it? I mean, I think if you study until you reach a very high fluency level, after that it is very difficult to really forget a language. Dont you think if you stop using japanese for some years, when you go back to japanese, after the initial “rusty” your japanese will come back?

  7. khatzumoto
    November 29, 2007 at 22:44

    >after the initial “rusty” your japanese will come back?
    Yes, definitely. I just don’t like it when that rustiness gets confused for…lack of proficiency. So, I’d prefer it weren’t even an issue. I never want to be in a situation where I’m like “Japanese, yeah…I used to know that language, kid”.

    Some of my Japanese friends at college got pretty rusty at Japanese, I mean, they were clearly still native speakers but the knife certainly wasn’t as sharp as it could be. I’m all “Dude, that’s not keigo, dude”. “Dude 躊躇う is read ‘たまらう'”…I’m the real ISJR member.

    The stronger the foundation, the more it can handle neglect. As I see it right now, my Japanese is really good, but super vulnerable to neglect. If I were to stop my Japanese today, I fear it would sustain much more damage than my native speaker friends’…so, I work to keep growing. That’s all.

  8. Savara
    November 29, 2007 at 23:31

    Hey Katz,

    Great article once again!

    Hmmm… I really need to invest more time in … Japanese things again. Lately I’ve only been doing my reviews (and adding … .. well to be honest 1 or 2 new sentences everyday) and… that’s it. I even stopped watching anime and all (just, … nothing really interests me at the moment.).

    Only thing I do is play FFVII Crisis Core (yeah. Japanese, no US version yet, and the Japanese voices sound way better anyway.) but that only made me realize how much more I need to learn… Kanji really are a problem, 400~500 max just isn’t enough to understand much. *sighs* And more importantly, the scenes that aren’t voiced and have scrolling text. Ouch. I can figure out the basics of the story and all when reading at *my speed*, but if the game decides when to go to the next sentence, I’m usually only able to read the first 1/3 or 1/2 of a sentence – very quickly without understanding much if anything of it.

    What’s really really great about games though, is the combination (if there are voiced parts) of reading, listening and just … FUN, more fun than watching (too passive) or reading only (still too hard). And the fact that you *need* to understand at least a part (in RPGs and all) to make some progress in the game.

    Anyway, question part of this reply.

    Where to find nice sentences with translation to add to Anki? I’m always scared to use sentences I don’t understand 100 %, even if I have a good translation (yahoo Japan dictionary thing) because eh… yeah, I feel I’m just memorizing them without actually understanding it.
    And when I hear/read a sentence I do understand perfectly, well those are too easy to add I imagine, and if I understand everything besides one word, I could look it up but I’d be too scared to use the wrong kanji or whatever – so it isn’t usable either.

  9. khatzumoto
    November 29, 2007 at 23:54


    Hmmm…I don’t know what to say. I’ll just throw some ideas out, numbered but in no particular order.
    0] If you haven’t gone through Heisig — get those kanji sorted out. What about the other 1500? I think this is an important issue. This is top priority. It’s holding you back now when it could free you, if you know what I mean.
    1] Think less, enjoy yourself more! Those games are a great idea. Get more!
    2] Look up the one word you don’t know and find example sentences of THAT.
    3] Within reason, do trust your sense of logical intuition…your ability to make inferences as to what something might mean.
    4] Yahoo J/J is fine, but Yahoo E/J/E frankly isn’t flawless…I showed some of the Japanese to my Japanese friend H-star and…he didn’t like it; it wasn’t natural; it was like “no one SAYS that!”.
    5] Do whatever else you did to get your English to this stage, just in Japanese.
    6] Consider getting an electronic dictionary, and/or trying some other online dictionaries.
    7] Go J-J ASAP. J-E is a crutch, and a bad one.
    8] Get some music. Maybe…rap music? Haha…”compulsory hip-hop”. Get whatever music you want.
    9] Relax…it sounds like you’re worrying and being picky and overanalyzing. Just…find something to enjoy in Japanese, and enjoy it. Being Japanese rather than doing Japanese, remember? If you’re enjoying yourself, you’ll WANT to learn to bridge the gap. Have fun, fun and more fun! I watch Japanese “Star Trek”, comedy shows and “Trick”, because I love those shows…no one has to make me do it. Find something you want to do, not something you have to do. Find a guilty pleasure, not a chore.
    10] Again, KANJI! Kanji is the foundation of Japanese, IMHO.

  10. Savara
    November 30, 2007 at 01:00

    0] If you haven’t gone through Heisig — get those kanji sorted out. What about the other 1500? I think this is an important issue. This is top priority. It’s holding you back now when it could free you, if you know what I mean.

    I have the (downloaded *cough*) book, but I’m still a bit “… what about the actual JAPANESE????” so for the first eh, maybe 100 kanji in there I used the keywords Heisig gives, and added a Japanese keyword (which could very possible be … wrong or not common (that’s the problem? I guess?) to it, using both to practice them. Then I just forgot about it because I was learning kanji as fast without the book (just using new sentences) as with. And I know that reading /= writing… but still.

    But, could it be okay to still use *a* Japanese word which uses that kanji and learn both the keyword and that word? I know this takes more time (you need to find a word, add both etc… but well you’re always working on vocab at the same time, and it will probably keep me more motivated because it’ll make me feel I’m actually doing something Japanese related, instead of ‘just kanji’ related. (stupid? Maybe.)

    7] Go J-J ASAP. J-E is a crutch, and a bad one.

    How. Really, I know it’s important but I do need to at least understand the basics of… whatever really, to make that step.

    Which brings me to…

    The anime I am watching at the moment, I’m watching with subs. Why… Well, I was going to say “Because I’m watching it together with my bf who isn’t learning Japanese.” but even though that is true, I also watch subbed things when I’m alone (oops.). How I watch it though, is the same way as I watch English shows with Dutch subtitles. I listen, I (try to (in the case of Japanese)) make sense of it, THEN read the subs.

    So the subs are a way of checking my understanding. Sometimes you can’t listen –> check because there isn’t enough time to do that, but it usually works.

    But… I know, should get rid of the subs. Because now, even when I do understand most of a certain scene, I’ll read the subs to check it.

    On the other hand, whenever I watch unsubbed things, I feel I’m only pretending I understand what’s going on. So *maybe* I got the meaning of that sentence/scene, but who says it’s right? No way to check it…

    … Hmm, I’m afraid this is getting long… And it all comes down to “What the… Savara just start DOING something, ANYTHING (in Japanese, preferably) instead of whining and worrying.”

  11. Jerry
    November 30, 2007 at 04:26

    This is another inspirational post. So much of it rings true with my personal experiences with Taiwan and Mandarin. Yeah, when I lived there (18 years ago — oh my head!) I met more than one “Richardhead” — particularly when I was doing something as scandalous as holding my girlfriend’s hand IN PUBLIC. (Hey, I did the right thing an married her.) But that was more than off-set by the incredibly warm responses I got when I used my Mandarin. I once got a free lunch from a side-walk noodle vendor because I read him his entire menu. Great things happen when people know you’ve put in the effort to fit in.

    As for the multiple language debate…. I tend to agree that the number of languages you can maintain as a high degree of fluency must be limited. It takes a lot to keep them sharp. I think it depends a lot on one’s goals. Is it better to just have “a few sharp knives?” Depends if you’re doing a lot of knife-work, I guess! I’m with Khatz on the goals, though. I’ve got Mandarin, and after Japanese I’m out as well. Maybe I’ll take a crack at Spanish, since it’ all around me here in Arizona. Almost seems a waste of a good opportunity.

    Finally, I will add my own observation around maintaining a language. With my Mandarin, I’ve gone long stretches without any input beyond whatever “Chinglish” my wife might throw together. I found that I got rusty, but once again dropped into the environment I would get it back fairly quickly. It has been many years (20) since I started learning Mandarin and there’s still a ton for me to learn about it. But in my experience, I’ve been able to keep it in various degrees of good condition even without a lot of focus. I guess even a little daily input over time can help maintain a language.

  12. scout
    November 30, 2007 at 04:28

    Thanks for the great article!

    I made the switch from J-E to J-J a few months back, and have noticed quite a bit of improvement because of it. (If nothing else, it’s very motivating to realize that Japanese has become self-sustaining.) At the same time, I’ve found that for a decent number of entries in my SRS I only have a vague understanding of what the sentences are saying. I don’t fully understand all of the Japanese definitions, but I’m just sortof toughing it out, hoping that as time goes on the pieces will fall into place, and I’ll eventually be able to understand it better.

    My biggest fear right now is that my brain is infering too much meaning by picking up on the parts of the definitions that I do understand, and ignoring the rest. Do you think this is just a natural part of learning this way?

    As a side note, I’ve found manga and other materials with full furigana to be very helpful because it removes any shadow of a doubt that I’m getting the reading wrong when I’m putting them into my SRS. So many of the entries in the Yahoo dictionaries have multiple readings, that I’m hesitant to add sentences from materials that didn’t have furigana for those words. I’ll typically add an example sentence from the dictionary to avoid that problem, but I then find that I’m losing the benefit of context to remember how/when the word was used.

  13. khatzumoto
    November 30, 2007 at 06:23

    I say, finish the kanji first. Just bite the bullet and do it. 50 a day and you’ll be done in a matter of weeks. Even 25 a day and you’ll be done quickly.

    It’s only something you’ll get when you’re done…Again, it’s counterintuitive. But…you’ll be like a Chinese person learning Japanese when you’re finished, and that is a big deal. Yes, I know it’s English keywords, but that IS Japanese, trust me.

    Learning readings and meanings at the same time is the slooooooooooow road. Divide and conquer is the way to go, I think.

    Your life will be so much easier post-Heisig. You can’t run away from those kanji forever (you can, but it’s called illiteracy). Those kanji need to be learned some place and some time. What better place than here? What better time than now?

  14. khatzumoto
    November 30, 2007 at 06:43

    Be sure you understand the definitions as well as sentences…You need to add definitions of definitions as well. If you don’t know the meaning or reading of a word in the definition, look it up and add that to the answer section. Spend the time to figure out what a definition means even if it reduces your # of sentences for a while. So, be careful that you’re not just using the definition as “window dressing”, it’s no good to just say “I have a Japanese definition”, it’s crucial that you understand it.

    If in doubt, start with something simple. Perhaps start by trying to look up J-J defs of words in sentences where you already have a translation of the sentence. You already know where things should be going so it’s hard to stray from the correct path. Let’s say you know that あの人は背が高い means “that person is tall” and is read “あの ひと は せ が たかい”

    せ [背]
    (3) 1 身長.

    しんちょう [身長]

    せたけ 1 [背丈]

    Someone who knows kanji will have had it figured out at 身長, it would be easy to INFER that 背 refers to 身長, it’s the only sub-definition out of the four in the Sanseido Dic that even fits:

    せ [背]
    (1) せなか. (対)腹 (2) 後ろ. (3) 1 身長. (4) 尾根.
    後ろを向く. ∥ そむく.

    Looking up 背丈 and 身長 would be for learning the reading’s sake [just put it in the answer], and we also find that 背丈 is essentially a synonym for 身長. End of lookup story. (These entries are from

    Notice that I ignore the two example sentences in the definition of 背 (the ones delimited by a ▲). If you feel them simple enough, you might add them to your collection (esp. the shorter one, 背を向ける); if the meaning is unclear, you might google for a slightly longer sentence containing 背を向ける (simple enough for you to more or less understand), or even for an image of it. Or you could just skip over it if it just doesn’t quite click, and keep adding sentences (and Japanese definitions of words in those sentences) where you already know basically what’s up. Nothing wrong with picking low-hanging fruit.

    Also, if you’re unsure about a reading, in the majority of cases, you can find out what the reading is USING the definition…readings tend to be nuance- and situation-based, so, (Japanese) dictionary definitions help. But, using full furigana text is a really good idea, too — saves you lots of work.

    So, to recap — you must understand the sentence AND the definition AND definitions of definitions; you must know the readings of all the words in definitions [it’s fine to just put that info in the answer field, those readings aren’t being tested]. Use your judgment to know when to stop recurring. If you still don’t get it, go down to easier sentences where you DO understand the J-definition. Yes, you could perhaps learn a more complex sentence if you had a translation, but I don’t think you’ve truly “learned” it until you can follow definitions of its contents in Japanese; in a sense, your ability to understand Japanese definitions of words in a sentence will coincide with your being prepared to learn such a sentence. In a way, when you’re ready for it, it shouldn’t be a HUGE leap…just a step up.

  15. lloyd
    November 30, 2007 at 10:36

    hey, khatz! i’ve been reading your site for a while now and really like what you have to say and find that you say what i need to hear when i need to hear it quite often. i finally decided to post a comment.

    1) you got me using the srs and i have about 2200 entries. but almost ALL of them are japanese-english. and (forgive me for i knew not what i was doing) many of them aren’t sentences. so now i’m wondering if i should just just scrap it all and start over j-j with new sentences or should i try to go in and edit the existing ones to j-j and full sentences.

    2) how crucial do you think the srs is after a certain point? i mean, after i get my japanese to a certain point i intend to go back and polish off my spanish which is already pretty tight. i can read books in spanish pretty easily and wonder if i should bother with the srs or just go all spanish all the time with movies, books and music. the reasoning being is that the srs just seems like a bit of a hassle sometimes. i’ve been sitting in front of the thing for like 5 or 6 hrs. a day lately for japanese and i’m getting a bit burned out. i am seeing big improvements in vocab. and kanji readings, though. so, would you advise against abandonging the srs after a point?

  16. scout
    November 30, 2007 at 10:54

    Thanks for the detailed reply. I guess I may need to be a bit more selective about the sentences I add. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to let sentences go — you know the contents of the sentence sounds interesting even if you don’t fully grasp it, and by the time you’ve started looking things up in a dictionary, you feel like you’ve already invested time in it.

    I’ve recently been enjoying using dramanote as I watch through various dramas. Reading the description of what you’re seeing on the screen at the same time you see it is highly useful. It seems that for a lot of physical actions, that visual definition is worth its weight in gold. (Now I just have to find a way to add the clips to my SRS…) That definitely seems to have helped me avoid trying to visualize actions based on the definition. I found in several cases I was able to come up with images in my mind that matched the definition, but were not correct. On further reflection, a lot of that may have been my own fault for skipping over an unknown word or two in the definition.

    Here’s one example of a word where I’m not sure which reading to go with: 木の実. The definition for このみ is “木になる実.きのみ.” and the definition for きのみ is “木になる実.このみ.” I’m a bit at a loss when I run into this type of problem — I’m not sure how to pick one, short of going and asking a native speaker. I want everything in my SRS to rock-solid in terms of correctness, so my general approach is to delete the entry and wait until I see it with furigana, or hear it on TV.

  17. khatzumoto
    November 30, 2007 at 14:14

    Yeah…while your understanding of the Japanese language as a whole is allowed to remain incomplete or kind of blurry, your understanding of a single sentence and its accompanying definitions must be clear and rock solid; each sentence makes up the foundation on which your Japanese is built, so to speak.

    木の実 is an interesting one. Usually, in those cases when you have readings A and B, and A has a definition but B only has a link to A (no definition), then you take A. [Also if if B says it’s a 慣用読み, then you definitely want A, 慣用読み are essentially incorrect; they are common misreadings]. But in this case, both do have definitions. That’s when you Google:
    木の実 このみ きのみ

    From what I read here (via here ):

    So このみ is considered the standard today. The article goes on to say that some rare cases might warrant きのみ…I’d say just stick to このみ or throw the sentence out (delete it) altogether. Nice find…I’d have gone with きのみ without thinking…

    If in doubt, delete, skip…keep to sentences that juuust stretch your knowledge, that give you juuust one more piece of information. Too little and you’re not learning, too much and you’re out of your depth at that stage in your learning. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding your middle ground.

  18. khatzumoto
    November 30, 2007 at 14:27

    DO whatever’s easiest. Editing sounds like work…Maybe just delete and add new J-J. Hmmm…that one’s up to you 8)

    As for the SRS, I more or less stopped SRSing for almost my first 6 months or so in Japan. I found it to be a mistake…I didn’t grow a lot without it [I still forget stuff, and despite fluency, Japanese isn’t yet “sticky” for me, like if I look something up once (esp. a reading), it won’t necessarily “stick” in my mind without further conscious review; my Japanese friends have sticky memorize for Japanese; I have a sticky memory for English, but for Japanese I still have to review something…the best way to manage those reviews that I know of is an SRS]. So, I recommend continuing. I plan to continue using an SRS for years to come…I’ll get to learn all kinds of cool stuff AND remember it. Fluency can be reached in a much shorter time than people generally seriously imagine, but I don’t know about stickiness, I don’t know how long that’ll take; it’s a new frontier for me, too.

    The key to making an SRS a daily reality, for me, was to make it mobile. In my case I use it from my cellphone; KhatzuMemo does it, I believe Anki does as well. Before coming to Japan, I tried various mobile devices for using an SRS, but nothing quite panned out, so…I spent a lot of time sitting, haha.

  19. nacest
    November 30, 2007 at 17:27


    the multiple readings thing is exactly my biggest problem right now, too. I often just pick one reading over the others randomly, but I’m always afraid of doing something terribly wrong. Sometimes I realize that I made such a mistake long after having memorized it with my srs…

    Khatz, as expected, gave a good solution for some of these cases (the google lookup, which I’ll certainly try immediately), but not all the problems are solved, in my opinion.
    I’m talking about the cases in which the doubtful compound is not an idiomatic expression or a fixed noun, but has a more grammatical function. I probably wasn’t very clear, so I’ll make a couple of examples:

    ··· 読むことができる上、···
    here, my dictionary tell me that 上 can be pronounced うえ、かみ、じょう and some other less likely stuff. It also tells me that, used as a suffix, it should be うえ or じょう. Now, how do I know which one to use? I don’t think googling it will give anything useful!

    This is something I’ve added to my SRS ages ago, but I recently started having doubts about how to pronounce 等. Used as a suffix, my dic says it can be read とう、など、ら、but it doesn’t say how to choose the correct one!
    So, in these situations, I’m at a loss on what to do… and they’re very frequent lately.

  20. khatzumoto
    November 30, 2007 at 20:14

    At the risk of sounding harsh, the situations you’ve given are PRECISELY where the monolingual dictionary will help you most. The key is that you must go through the definitions — all of them, if necessary. Usually, you can eliminate a definition after only reading a few words of it. And generally, only 1-2 (rarely, 3) definitions will fit. You take these and further eliminate, working out which is the true definition. Context — the meaning of the entire sentence, also helps.

    1) 読むことができる上

    I narrowed down the possibilities to the following two. The top seems most likely, but I can’t tell with 100% certainty without context. The reading is GUARANTEED to be うえ, if you look at the definitions for じょう, かみ, etc. NONE of them fit.




    とう is correct here. I think 等 for など is actually an 当て字 (not sure); I sometimes read 等 as など based on the formality/informality of the document, reading of the preceding kanji, and whether it sounds clearer than とう, but don’t tell anyone I said that; it’s just, something I do more or less based on gut feeling…I think I’m right, although of course I may be wrong. ら is confined to personal pronouns, definitely out in this case.

    So, if in doubt:
    1) READ the defs, all of them if you have to
    If still in doubt
    2) ASK someone
    If you can’t ask someone and you’re STILL in doubt
    3) Google, etc.
    If that doesn’t work
    4) Skip it. You aren’t ready for it. If you cannot figure out the readings using dictionary defs, don’t be afraid to skip it; it is perfectly normal; it is not a bad thing. Consider it a sign that you aren’t ready for the sentence in question yet — even if the sentence seems simple or “important”. You WILL be ready at some point in the future, but for now, leave it out.
    A lot of the example sentences in my dictionary (Super 日本語大辞典 are taken from novels; they usually lacked explanatory context, were somewhat arcane, and just generally way over my head. I almost never used them — and I stopped checking them altogether, in the Super 日本語大辞典, you have to click on an icon and open a separate window to display them [this dictionary has shorter, simpler examples sentences that come with the definition text, and longer examples that come separately; I am discussing the longer examples]. But recently, I started looking at them again out of curiosity, and I’m finding a lot of them really useful. The sentences haven’t changed — I have. I’ve grown to the stage where they click for me. You’ll grow, too.

    Hope that helps…

  21. juan
    November 30, 2007 at 21:56


    I have a lot of single vocabulary words on my srs….i left them there but when I come across them in my reviews, I look them up in my electronic dictionary and copy sample sentences into my srs, especially the words that I don’t fully understand yet

  22. quendidil
    November 30, 2007 at 22:32

    等(など)is a 熟字訓 rather than 当て字,like 黄昏(たそがれ). But anyway that’s not very important :P, just something I learnt from this 漢文 book.

  23. khatzumoto
    December 1, 2007 at 00:41

    Sweet! Thanks for that! 勉強になった!

    Now that I think about it, I might read 等 as など here, because “ちょくしゃにっこうとう” has a run-on sound to it (what’s a にっこうとう?)…but, とう is also correct. It’s something that a lot of native speakers seem to wonder about, if Google is any guide (try googling: 等 とう など 読む). My dictionary only has とう for 等, but more authoritative dictionaries like the 広辞苑 apparently have both. So…it’s up to the reader it seems. According to [not authoritative], a lot of, for example, TV stations arbitrarily fix a reading.
    Maybe @quendidil can give us the, how do you say, 411?

  24. Potemayo
    December 1, 2007 at 04:29

    Great post again!! This blog is like my daily dose of inspiration 🙂
    OK here’s something I’ve been wanting to ask for a while now: should I switch to J-J at once (though I only know how to say if with ‘nara’ and verb+eba and have just 200 SRS sentence entries)? Actually, how do I know when I’m ready to switch to J-J?

  25. khatzumoto
    December 1, 2007 at 04:47

    The sooner the better. You don’t learn Japanese and THEN switch to J-J. You learn Japanese BECAUSE you switch to J-J…

  26. quendidil
    December 1, 2007 at 11:16

    Isn’t 等(とう) here is related to the same use of deng3 in Chinese? Especially considering it’s the 音読み. I personally would use とう here, but the meaning isn’t much different anyway.

    You know in most dictionaries there’s the little triangle thingy next to a kanji to indicate it’s not commonly used? In this case など comes with the triangle next to 等, so I think it’s not that commonly used.

    Anyway, from the google cache of 広辞苑’s former entry on this question.
    「 「~等」は、「とう」と読みます。もし、「など」と読ませるつもりであれば「~など」と平仮名の表記に変えましょう。「~等」は、一般的には法律や条令の文書などで使用されます。その引用であれば、「~等」という表記で問題はありません。しかし、広報紙の記事で使う場合は、住民に対して話しかけるように文章を書くことが望ましいので、「~など」を使ったほうがいいでしょう。」.

    Also, it seems to me that in larger sentences with a few different words in a ‘list’, とう is separated by ・、while など is separated by や or 、

  27. quendidil
    December 1, 2007 at 11:37

    Also, lookie here
    It’s a survey on how often people use 等 for など。

    I know I said 等 for など is a 熟字訓, but it might be more accurately a 義訓 since it’s only 1 character. I believe it’s based on the Chinese usage of the character, which does occur in 漢文. They probably took the kanji originally since it was just about analogous to など in that situation.

  28. khatzumoto
    December 1, 2007 at 13:26

    Good call. Thanks :D. You’re really on the ball!

    You’re right about など in the list, I did read about that somewhere.

  29. nacest
    December 1, 2007 at 17:09

    Thanks for the help!
    I essentially have to be a little more persistent, with the definitions and with my searches on the internet. But it’s slightly comforting to know that with some of those kanji words I have the freedom to choose the reading that I prefer 😛

    As a matter of fact, my doubts with this sentence (at first I had taken とう as reading) were that ちょくしゃにっこうとう didn’t sound very nice. I’d prefer など here for that reason.

  30. Max
    December 3, 2007 at 08:54

    Hey Khatz,
    If you’ve got some time, I think you’d find this entire thread pretty interesting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  31. rich_f
    February 12, 2008 at 04:28

    Just read this entry, and I had to comment– when I was in Japan this past Fall, I met a lot of really nice people, who far outweighed the few ISJR reps on-site. And the thing is, you don’t have to be a high-level Japanese speaker to have those kinds of experiences, you just have to make an effort.

    I managed to have a nice chat with the lady I dealt with in customs– granted, my Japanese is pretty wretched, but I was still able to communicate with her effectively. (Effectively enough, anyway to get me into the country.)

    I had fun talking to a cabdriver in Kyoto. Granted, I wasn’t saying anything deep, but it was fun chit-chatting with someone in his language, and he really appreciated it.

    And then I spent an hour or so talking to an older couple in Hiroshima as I was doing my laundry at their laundromat. (It’s 3-4 blocks from the JR there, by the way.) When my Japanese failed, or their English failed, we’d just try to figure it all out with broken bits of whichever language worked. Very nice people.

    My trip wasn’t all smiles. There were some ISJR incidents, but I try to forget those as a favor to all the nice people I did meet there.

    But it’s amazing how far you can get with just ~お願いします、~下さい、どうもありがとうございました、すみません、これは何ですか?、失礼します… you know, just a few polite phrases. It’s amazing how nice people are when you just treat them politely. (Especially in their own country.)

    Anyway, back to my SRS.

  32. Donbert
    August 8, 2008 at 15:51

    Hey Khatz!

    I know it’s a bit late, but I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. I ran into a member of the ISJR not too long ago. He was an American who learned Korean and Mandarin, and a friend of mine hired him as a Korean tutor not too long ago. I was excited to speak to him, as I always love talking with people who learn languages as a hobby. He already had a vague idea of the method I’m using to learn Japanese (i.e. yours) and, as most people educated in some school system, he found the idea laughable. He was certain that I knew close to nothing. And to test my Japanese skills–get this–he had me try to read some Mandarin. Simplified, nonetheless. Of course, his sentence was filled Chinese exclusive characters, yet he claimed that they were direct cognates in Japanese. I worked out a basic meaning from my kanji knowledge and tried to explain to him why that was an idiotic task, but he just laughed. Anyway, the whole exchange left me feeling embarassed, defeated, and really just pissed.

    I spent hours afterwards just reflecting on the experience thinking pretty nasty thoughts, thinking “what’s the point”, and just getting ready to give up. But then I remembered this article. As soon as I identified this person as just another member of the ISJR, all my negative feelings were replaced with feelings of joy and accomplishment. I actually burst out laughing thinking that this guy’s attitude had any bearing on me whatsoever. Afterall, even if I did have to prove something about my Japanese abilities, it certainly wouldn’t be to an English speaker.

    Thanks again for writing this. You saved me a whole lot of pointless negativity 🙂

  33. James
    August 15, 2008 at 20:54

    Hi Khatz,

    I was having an off day motivation-wise with my language study, but one word in this article completely turned it around:



    Thanks 🙂

  34. arthur
    February 2, 2009 at 10:35

    Hey, Khatz! Amazing arcticle! More motivation than I needed to stop thinking of giving up learning Japanese and living in Japan! Really, thank you, you just showed here that all the hard work we make now, learning, will be worthy someday!

  35. Tyler
    April 12, 2009 at 01:42

    “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

    Bruce Lee. 🙂

  36. Ruan
    July 18, 2009 at 05:26

    If maintenance is getting in your way, get over it! But… how?

    Simultaneous learning replaces maintenance. In other words, if you learn all you need at the same time, you’ll get rid of reviewing. Now, Khatzumoto said he learned Japanese in 18 months. If he had chosen to study Cantonese/Mandarin/Russian/Japanese everyday instead of “All Japanese All The Time”, he would have learned everything he wants in six years…

    …Or maybe not.

    Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin share a lot in common, enough to speed up the process IF they’re learned together. Otherwise, it’s just… maintenance.

    And you can get things done even faster if you use the same material over every language. You’ll hardly find anything but Disney movies and American series, but that’s enough to begin with.

    And, of course, SRS. And maybe some tryptamines ( 4-HO-DMT, N,N-DMT , 5-Meo-DMT ), and that’s all.

  37. Chris B
    September 22, 2010 at 23:21

    “don’t even value their own language, at least they don’t seem to; they’re so quick to brand it illogical, “too difficult”, and talk about how great English is”

    Sub out English for X and you’re spot on about every single person.

    It’s fairly amusing.. Can always tell a foreigner from a native, not from their accent, but by how good their command of the language is. Native will use slang, drop out letters, usually vowels. -.- And so on. A person who has learned the language because they love it however, they’ll structure a sentence properly, use vowels, and very, very quickly pass 95%+ of the speakers in the country they’re in.

    Note: All statistics made up, probably exaggerated. Nothing based on official reports, just a heck of a lot of train hours.

    • Livonor
      February 10, 2014 at 13:42

      In my case, I don’t use slangs (much), nor I pronounce words properly, and yet become the so called native speaker, heck, I even get myself making mistakes far beyond the “natives also do that”-sphere, like changing the gender of the words and such.
      And living with two other twin brothers and talking only with them also gave me some unusual expressions and grammar.
      I’m not saying that mediocrity is good, but as far as my experience tells, being a native speaker has more do to with what you fell and not with what you actually do.

  38. August 22, 2011 at 02:02

    I agree with the gist of this article. It’s better to study a few languages than to study lots of languages. One sharp knife is more useful in case of emergency than a bunch of rubber knives.

  39. Jasmine
    March 16, 2013 at 10:31

    Oh, Katz, you have no idea how many times I have re-read this wicked, brilliant, vaguely psychotic website of yours. There’s no real adequate way to express my gratitude for Your unabashed determination to revel in you own bizarre personality with your own self-referential dialect of…something, is enormously heartening to the rest of us, and I rely on you endlessly for motivation, wisdom, and self provoking thought.

    Also: About sharp and rusty knives. It is entirely possibly to observe this happening, even in your first language, even when you are monolingual. If I spend too much time away from certain books, my speaking patterns change, my vocabulary becomes simpler, and overall, I start sounding like the people I hang out with. I will actually struggle to think of words and phrases.

    Halfway through a Jane Austen novel or Dickens, the complexity of my sentences picks up, I return to sounding like myself, and then end up unintentionally going further, using unnecessarily complex grammatical forms, speaking in incredibly long sentences, and overusing verbiage.

    My point is that all language suffers from disuse, not just languages acquired later in life; if Japanese comes a little slower after spending time around English speakers, I’d guess English would come slower if you went for a month’s vacation in Spain. It’s all immersion, even first languages.

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