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Let Go, But Don’t Let Go: The Learning Paradox

To get used to language, you have to kind of embrace a paradox, whereby you:

  • Let go of perfectionism, but you
  • Don’t let go of improvement

The way you do that is by picking low-hanging fruit. You let go of things that are too hard for you to figure out right now, but you don’t let go of easy wins, easy gains, easy improvement. You don’t let go of picking up what you can pick up right now, of doing what you can do right now.

And you grow bigger and stronger, so that eventually what was difficult to get at isn’t any more. Eventually, you can “fly”. But before that, you have to remember that even eagles are born flightless. Birds suck at flying. Initially.

In more concrete, Japanese/SRS terms, this means that you need to be:

  1. Adamant about learning a new word/words every day, but…
  2. Completely relaxed, laidback and lackadaisical with regard to specific words

Learn a word, but don’t bother learn that word. Learn new things, but don’t get hung up about anything in particular. Don’t get stuck on a specific word; don’t have one-itis for any specific word. Screw it. Pick an easier word. Pick a word that’s…I dunno…”giving it up” easier, as it were. That’s “putting out”, if you will. Again, low-hanging fruit. We’re taking the PUA metaphor a little bit too far here. Whatever, you like it when I’m sexist 😛 .


There’s no heroism in struggle. There are no extra points for doing it the hard way. The heroism is in making progress. Don’t be a struggler, be a mover, be a player, be a progressor…er…that’s not even a word. Flow through it. You can’t afford to waste energy being tense.

  18 comments for “Let Go, But Don’t Let Go: The Learning Paradox

  1. Wekub
    March 29, 2012 at 21:16

    If only AJATT worked on flying as well. :[ 
    Ah, well, I’ll just make sure to do some reps the next time I’m in one o’ those huge farting metal birds. That way I can at least pretend to pretend to possess AJATT-flight. 
    At 1575 kanji now, huzzah! :]

    • March 30, 2012 at 22:12

      “Ah, well, I’ll just make sure to do some reps the next time I’m in one o’ those huge farting metal birds.”
      That’s got to be the most unique metaphor for an airplane I’ve ever heard. 🙂

    • JermJus
      June 21, 2012 at 12:37

      You mean becoming a good pilot? I think the same learning methods apply, but I guess the point is there’s less memorization with flying than there is with acquiring a language–more simple repetitive experience necessary. 

  2. March 31, 2012 at 20:26

    Yes, I hear you. It was similar for me when I started learning German: I didn’t want to speak or use my new language in the beginning because I was so worried about making mistakes or it being imperfect. Know what? Just because it’s imperfect doesn’t mean it can’t be used & improved. 

  3. March 31, 2012 at 21:03

    I just got an iphone after clinging to my prehistoric palm pilot.   I use the Midori app which lets you draw kanji to look up words and make flashcards out of them.    When I’m on the subway and out of internet reach and it’s too crowded or there is not enough time to go through my book I go through the flashcards.   When I get bored I stop.   I’m also at the point where I can somewhat read books.   There’s an App called Skybooks that lets you download old books for free.   Farting around in Japanese motivates me when I get to my flashcards.    Just thought I’d keep the gas metaphor going. 

  4. April 1, 2012 at 23:07

    I try to learn at least one new word every day in my L1, English. Here’s a recent example card:
    Front Side: As with Navajo and Chinese, a favorite form of Iroquois humor derives from cases in which the language happens to offer two words or phrases with identical or nearly identical sounds. In a typical situation of this kind, one interpretation of a certain sound is innocuous whereas the other evokes something sexual or […].
    Back Side: scatological, here meaning dealing pruriently with excrement and excretory functions
    Source: The Importance of Not Being Earnest, Wallace Chafe
    Proof that you can use AJATT for more than just Asian languages.

  5. April 2, 2012 at 08:17

    This has been a very timely post for me – I had been in a bit of a tailspin throughout March, so I found this to be very helpful and inspiring for getting back on track!

  6. Routine
    April 5, 2012 at 00:48

    “Birds suck at flying, initially.” Ha, this sentence reminded me of a book I read not too long ago, “Guardians of Ga’Hoole”. The two protagonists, Soren and Gylfie are young owls that at one point in the book are learning to fly.

    “Grimble demonstrated. He pressed forward just a bit, extended his head and lifted his wings. And that was it – he was suddenly airborne. Twice Soren’s size or more, yet Grimble seemed to float up effortlessly. Would they ever learn? Have they even improved?”

    The last bit struck me when I was reading through these passages recently. I (and I believe I’m not the only one) often feel this way about things I am learning, or used to be learning – be it Japanese, rollerblading, riding a bike or speaking English. There was a point in time when I looked at people who could do seemingly effortlessly what I was trying so hard to learn. I too though: “will I ever learn? will I ever be this good?”

    But as it’s mentioned several times in the book – to fly, you must believe. If you don’t believe, you won’t fly no matter how much you learn about the theory of flying. But if you believe, you’ll eventually fly, as long as you keep trying. 

    There was a time when I confused “have” with “heaven” and when I needed a dictionary to construct a half-assed paragraph in English. There was a time when I would think: “man, it would be so great to know English already”. And here I am now. So I believe there will come a time when I stop confusing kanji, when I can read more than a few Japanese sentences without a dictionary and when I know which particle to use at a given time.

    And I believe that you too should believe :p

  7. April 5, 2012 at 12:24

    This is a great visual “The way you do that is by picking low-hanging fruit.”. People, by nature, would always choose the path of least resistance. And if you know the path is to put out so much effort just to learn a new word, chances are that path will be abandoned.

    This concept really will help guide a language learner to view languages not as an epic struggle but a neat little hobby that fits well in their lives.  

    “There’s no heroism in struggle. There are no extra points for doing it the hard way. The heroism is in making progress” –  well said. 

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