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Language is Like a Video Game

Specifically, fighting games. You know, Mortal Kombat, Tekken(鉄拳), Soul Calibur — the good ones. Anyone who’s played these before has seen (or experienced first-hand) complete beginners defeat advanced players. Just yesterday a make-up-wearing non-video-gaming girrrrrl ripped me to shreds in Tekken 5 on a friend’s PlayStation 3. I told her it was because the “X” and “O” buttons are inverted on Japanese PlayStations, but that was just an excuse.

So why does this kind of thing happen? Some people put it down to “beginner’s luck”. Really? Is there that much “beginner’s luck” in the world? I think we can do better than some cop-out appeal to “luck”.

The real reason is that beginners know something that the more advanced students (be it of video games or language) have forgotten. And that is this: in order to win at the games of video and of language, you cannot do or say what you want to say. You must do or say what you NEED to say. You can’t pull that cool move or say that cool word that you want to. You have to pull the move and say the word that you have to. Just notice how beginners will tend to win by repeating one ugly but effective move over and over again, while the advanced players try to pull all kinds of “sweet tricks” that leave them open to attack.

This may seem to fly in the face of a lot that’s been said on this website. Surely this contradicts with the idea of having fun, and doing it your own way, and becoming fluent.

But it doesn’t. The key is this. Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of getting things done (real physicists are choking on their donuts right now, but bear with me): You can either get WHERE you want to, or do things HOW you want to, but not both. That is, if you focus on one, you inevitably relinquish control over the other. To put it in a more positive way, you can choose to be uncomprimising on one of where/what, but then you have to be willing to be flexible on the remaining option. You can have either a fixed MEANS or a fixed END, but not both.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have both a satisfying journey and a satisfying destination, just that you have to be open to doing things other than those you may have initially desired or planned in terms of either journey or destination. Fortunately, in any given situation, it’s actually pretty easy to see which matters more — the end or the means — so the choice is a no-brainer, provided you are aware of the choice. In a fighting game, the WHERE is the goal of victory, the HOW are the moves you pull to get there. If you are uncompromising in your moves, you may not win (in fact, you’ll almost certainly lose), but hey, you got to make Cammy shoot that projectile weapon, so good for you.

So, what in heck’s name does this have to do with Japanese or language in general? Just this: if your aim in a conversation is to whip out all the cool words and phrases you know/have just learned, then all well and good. Just be prepared to be misunderstood and/or have a crappy conversation, and/or bore your listener by making her wait until you remember “the right word”. But if your aim is to communicate a meaning, that is if you are fixed on ends rather than means, then you’ll win.

This is why language classes suck. They’re too focussed on means: “you must make sentences using the vocabulary/moves we are learning right now”. In and of itself, that’s not a bad exercise. But as far as teaching you to think and work on your feet, well, forget it; as a philosophy for real life, the typical classroom method of learning languages is utterly bankrupt and only handicaps the student. Native speakers of every language forget words all the freaking time, but no one gives them a failing grade over it, and they don’t sit there having an anxiety attack because they forget the word for “a scheme in which a man and woman trick another man into a compromising situation for blackmail; a badger game” (美人局【つつもたせ】 by the way — and, yes, it’s a very irregular reading). They just talk around it. Work around it. Explain the concept.

In learning Japanese, especially by the method that’s been explained here and on AntiMoon, with its focus on comprehension/input, your passive vocabulary is going to outstrip your active. You’re going to want to say stuff that’s “on the tip of your tongue” but that won’t come out. But that doesn’t mean you’re handicapped. You just have to be flexible. So, the next time you go to a Japanese electronics store and you don’t know the word for “Cable TV signal splitter”, just ask for “a device that allows the television signal from a single wall port to be divided among multiple television units”, and the shop person will go “Oh, a 分配器【ぶんぱいき】”, and you’ll be like “うん、それ (yeah, that)”. Don’t know the word for “thermometer” (体温計【たいおんけい】)? Ask for “a device that measures body temperature” (体温を計る装置【たいおん を はか・る そう・ち】). Don’t know the word for “bicameral legislature”? Say “law-making body made up of two parts, generally with one being a larger, weaker organization and the other a smaller, more powerful one”. This is part of why using a Japanese-Japanese dictionary is so good for you — it helps you develop the ability to discuss Japanese in Japanese.

You see, in language, the MESSAGE you wish to communicate is almost always more important than the actual medium of individual words and structures. I’m not saying “let’s go nuts and be ungrammatical”. Absolutely not. I’m saying “let’s get our our priorities straight”. The end is almost always more important than the means, unless the means themselves are an end, but that’s another story. So let go of saying that cool word, and grab hold of the idea you wanted to get across in the first place, because, more likely than not, that was the whole point of it anyway.

As A.G. Hawke, author of The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast so eloquently put it, we all need to learn to KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Now, you’re not stupid; you’re intelligent. And you want to sound intelligent. But for the sake of time and sanity, focus on understanding, and then on being easy to understand. Finally, as for the being considered intelligent part, that will take care of itself.

  7 comments for “Language is Like a Video Game

  1. Smilax
    April 22, 2008 at 04:37

    I really like this article because I can relate to it so much. Just today I had a speaking (oral) exam in Spanish. I was doing well until I couldn’t remember a verb for the life of me. I swear, I was like, paused for a whole minute with my mouth gaping, trying to think of the verb (esconderse, which means to hide). So I beat around it with adjectives like “scared”, “afraid”, and “shy”, even though they weren’t so direct. I passed with a 95%.

    I’m absolutely shocked to have read something so relevant (and well-written =D) to my incident today that I just had to share.

    Keep up the great articles!

  2. Linkf1
    November 9, 2008 at 03:03

    First of all you must know that I will be posting comments all the time on your site. because is quite interesting.

    Secondly, I am totally agree with you, (and let me tell you that I have only read two pages of the whole web site.
    I am doing a bachelor degree in languages. I am from Mexico and I am learning English and Japanese the latter by my own, and I have been learning this semester about Language Learning Methods in my school ( Facultad de Lenguas-Deparment of Languages)
    All you have said until now is exactly what we, the languages learners think.
    I have to say that the fact that you link the language learning with the Japanese language is pretty interesting.
    Anyway I must say congratulations for such a great site and by the way I really like the part in which you say: ““Well, babies are magical”, people say. Bollocks. Babies are stupid and ignorant.” Because that is what I learnt in Learning and Acquisition of a Second Language.
    So good web site and hope learn more Japanese.

  3. Guest
    November 11, 2008 at 10:45

    Since I popped the bubble let me blow you a new one (O_o).

    Video games (continuing with fighting games) are indeed like language. I have a friend (Friend A) who has played SF3 (Street Fighter 3) since it’s release (all of them). As someone complete new to SF3 I played against him and lost… a lot.

    I have another friend (Friend B) whom has played SF3 for a little while. Playing against him I won around 40% of the time. Significantly better. To become better I went over to Friend As house and played against him (and several other people) once a week for several months.

    I can now win around 7% (better then nothing) of the time against Friend A. However when I play against Friend B (whom has not played during any of this time) I win 90% of the time.

    What was the point of that spill, how is that like language? Like language, you will suck in the beginning, you will. You have to practice to suck less. If you don’t, you get worse.

  4. Ken
    September 28, 2009 at 13:54

    The irony is now a whole bunch of us are going to know “美人局”, and never forget it, all because we read it here.

    Hopefully we can avoid working it into *too* many conversations.

  5. Morticia
    December 24, 2009 at 05:07

    Haha, and I know one of the points was to NOT try to be all fancy and use cool words… but now that I have learned the word 美人局 I, too, am very tempted to use it in a sentence now… or five different sentences… how I would find a way to work that in I do not know!!! XD

  6. nippyon
    October 31, 2010 at 13:59

    lol just like how I’ll never forget “fuinki” from the usage on this site, now i’ll never forget 美人局. Strangely, 不陰気seems to be used all the time in celebrity interviews and on tv these days. Every time I hear it, I go “Ah! IT’S AJATT AGAIN!!” I love using random weird words like that, so I keep on looking them up in the dictionary. Every once in a while, I bust out a completely anti-textbook word in a conversation with my Japanese-class friend and she’ll go “ええ?何それ? What the heck does that mean?” Then I explain to her (in Japanese) and then she’ll say “That’s not in our textbook, is it?” Now she even uses fuinki haha

    Random weird, but very applicable words are so much better than textbooks. I love learning Japanese this way >..<

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