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Make the Process Fit the Person

I don’t know about you, but I’m always starting up plans and projects and schemes. There was “the 7 o’-clock bedtime” project (a good book by the way). The “liquid food only project” (would have worked, except for having to clean the stupid blender). And of course, the Japanese immersion project that led to me living in Japan and writing this site.

Have you ever tried to obey someone else’s forced plan or process? If you went to school, your whole life may have been one big forced plan. This is part of why school sucks so hard — you can’t change the way you do things, you don’t even get to decide in the first place, because teacher has made “the syllabus” through the power of the Magical Education Special Sauce that was slowly injected into her bloodstream over several years while at teacher training college and which is now helping her brain to function at “Teacher Level”; she knows better than you, so shut the front door, sit down and do what you are told. Right, and as soon as we get out of school, all we can do is stay up all night playing PlayStation because we’re so violently allergic to scheduling and so-called “discipline” — which, of course, only “proves” that we need school to get us in line.

Have you ever tried to force yourself to obey a plan of your own making? That is, if you can even remember what your plan was — chances are you’ll be wasting so many hours and minutes reading the piece of paper where you wrote down the plan that you’ll have no time left for execution. And, of course, the plan might be so painful that you’ll take the first opportunity to bail. That’s been my experience, at least.

OK, so what is my point? My point is that in all the cases where a project or plan of mine worked, the final version differed (often quite significantly) from the initial idea. As some random Prussian general once said “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” or something like that.

No project plan survives contact with reality. It must either die or evolve. So don’t even try to burden yourself with this idea that you have to follow your original idea to the letter, you will only hurt yourself. It’s not that you’re lazy or incorrigible or undisciplined — you’re not — it’s just that the plan sucks, at least in part. Learn to accept that your good-looking plans may just have a lot of crappy elements to them, and that it is OK to let go of those elements once they are identified.

For example, when I was first entering Chinese sentences into KhatzuMemo, I wanted Chinese, Bopomofo, Pinyin and Japanese on the “cards”. That was the plan. But bopomofo took quite a while to enter, because I had to convert to it from pinyin. No matter, the plan is the plan, and bopomofo is good for you; you need it to use a cellphone in Taiwan.

But you know what? Converting to bopomofo added so many extra keystrokes and mouseclicks that the amount of actual Chinese I could actually learn per unit time was seriously reduced. So, even as the “we must follow the plan” part of my mind resisted, I decided to axe the bopomofo.

Always remember that your goal is not to follow a plan; your goal is not to obey instructions — yours or anyone else’s. Your goal is to become fluent in a language by any means necessary. Including altering and abandoning your original plans. When it comes to fluency in a language, there is no prize for merely spinning your wheels. No one’s going to be like “Hey, Todd, you suck at Japanese, but BOY do you TRY HARD! And that’s what counts!” — because it doesn’t count!

There are no effort points for doing it the hard, boring, painful, not-working-any-more way. All that ultimately counts is winning the game — speaking, reading, writing and understanding the language. So grab the freedom to do what you want by the huevos, and while you’re at it, take the responsibility for your results as well.

Anyway, have fun!

  14 comments for “Make the Process Fit the Person

  1. VGambit
    June 28, 2007 at 03:10

    I know your method says to learn the kanji, kana, then 10000 sentences, but isn’t it generally easier to learn how to speak a language before learning how to read/write it?

  2. khatzumoto
    June 28, 2007 at 05:00

    Hmmm…good question.

    Consider taking a look at the introduction to Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji, Vol 1” to find out why it makes sense to do it this way (available free online–check here and here).

    Let me also add a few things of my own to Heisig’s reasons.

    1. Romaji is the devil. Learning a language using a writing system other than its own is a recipe for catastrophe. At least pronunciationwise. One can pick up awful habits that will take lot of work to correct–if that work is done at all. It’s best to make a clean break from any previous writing system.

    2. There is a very low upper limit to one’s Japanese ability if one chooses to go the non-kanji road. There are some words that a person simply cannot even begin to understand without a knowledge of kanji (yet they are very easy to understand WITH knowledge of kanji in hand). It’s part of the agglutinative (I think this is the right word) nature of kanji words.

    a. The kanji system allows one to both build (encode) and decode new words in a way that no alphabetic system can.

    3. Text allows a learner to control the pace of and analyze the content of the study material in a way that audio does not and cannot.

    4. Non-East Asian non-Japanese people’s illiteracy in the Japanese language is out of control. It’s time to tackle it head on and just have people learn to read. It’s not that hard when you just do it. And the best time to do it is from the beginning–certainly it’s far better than “making do” with illiteracy and then trying to cure it. Heisig’s idea, through learning the meaning and writing of kanji first , is for us non-kanjisphere people to give ourselves the same advantages coming into Japanese as people from the kanjisphere. Since kanji have a logic to them that transcends spoken language, they very much lend themselves to Heisig’s method.

    Of course, you learned your native language (initially) without reference to text. But, (a) you didn’t have any other linguistic baggage going in (see point 1). And, (b) your later efforts in your native language were and are very much informed (and corrected) by text, no doubt. Even if your native language uses a phonetic (rather than logographic) writing system, as I’m assuming it does, text makes a difference. As a non-infant learner, a text-heavy approach seems to me like the way to go. Of course, for audio, the immersion environment also matters; audio does matter; correct pronunciation is crucial.

    Thanks so much for your question. I hope I didn’t say anything offensive to you. But that’s my current position on the matter at hand. I don’t know that many languages, and Japanese is the first one I have taught myself. But…I think that the conventional wisdom about speech first and text later…isn’t an iron-clad rule at all. It’s nothing but an idea masquerading as a written-in-stone law. It is not impossible to learn a language from audio first, but I definitely would not go out there and say that it’s “easier” or “better” (if by “easier” we mean “gets you fluent in a short, direct path”).

    • gankoo
      February 11, 2012 at 03:55

      coming into this conversation 5 years late, but maybe it’ll prove helpful for someone.

      at first, after finding this website, i was trying to just do heisig and not concern myself with the spoken language. it ended up much too boring for me; if there was some place in the world where english was actually represented with kanji then maybe it would have fascinated me, but separating them from the spoken language was, for me, not fun.

      so i threw khatz’s process out, maybe a month ago. now i’m just learning everything at the same time, solely based on the “this looks/sounds interesting/fun/funny/impressive/___ to me.” for example, i find myself looking up a lot of words that end in しい just because they always sound so cool to me in my monolingual dictionary, the one recommended here: (which, by the way, i could hardly use at first, but it really didnt take much time or effort before i found i could learn new words without looking anything up in english. only looked up a small handful in a japanese-english dictionary in the beginning.)

      anyway, perhaps here is the important part of this post: i decided to apply one of the dr. khatzmoto universal laws of language learning to a realm of the language that, as far as i can tell, he hasn’t. i’ve read a lot about input before output; in fact, MASSIVE input before ANY output (proportionally, or at least just letting output come naturally instead of trying to force it when it’s too early). and i love that idea, it’s a lot of fun for me to work/play with, personally.

      so i thought i’d try that out with learning how to read/write as well, and not only listen/speak. i figured, why not just try having massive reading input until the point where output comes naturally? without trying to consciously recall stories, or really conciously doing anything, because to me that was the same as trying to speak using conjugation rules, etc.

      the way i’ve been doing this is by taking the part of heisig i liked the most: recognizing that all kanji are made up of a relatively small number of individual elements. i learn new kanji just by seeing the elements that make them up; it’s not much unlike being able to spell a word in an alphabet language. and the input is so frequent that i just end up accidentally learning new kanji, the same as other people who have used these methods get excited about speaking and using words they didn’t know they knew.

      if it’s a kanji with some element i haven’t seen before, i write the new element down on a little piece of paper and give it a name of some kind (usually these are pictographic, just the first image that comes to my mind when i see the element – but it’s not important to remember the meanings at all, it’s just to sort of mentally identify that element as its own element). then i just keep reading, etc.

      in terms of flash cards, i’ve been using them mostly as an artificial input – where i put things i particularly want to know, so i don’t have to rely on chance encounters in immersion material. as of now they’re all just vocabulary – on the front, a word written with its kanji, and if i’m not too lazy i type in the definition and example sentences from my dictionary, just for exposure purposes. on the back is the hiragana pronunciation, which is the only thing i ask myself to recall – which is never hard to do, for whatever reason.

      i’ve been doing things this way for the past month or so and it’s a lot more fun for me. but it is, in whatever objective sense there can be of such things, far slower in terms of learning sheer numbers of kanji than heisig/lazy kanji/whatever. for me, though, it’s faster, because those methods were so boring i just didn’t do them, and that’s the slowest method of them all. and since i’m having fun, i don’t really care that it might take longer. oh no, i have to spend more time having fun? what a shame.

      i’m gonna stop here before this thing gets any longer. hope it helps someone 😀

      • gankoo
        February 11, 2012 at 03:57

        oh jeez, i seem to have misinterpreted how spacing worked in this little box…needs…editing!

      • February 12, 2012 at 04:02

        My opinion is that you don’t “need” to go through Heisig’s book to learn kanji, as long as you freaking learn ze kanji. I’ve found the general principle of the book to be true; that it’s easiest to learn kanji from their simplest components. But the rest of it, the keywords and mnemonic stories, are only tools. Their usefulness depends on who uses them.
        Some people may do better by taking the scenic route, so to speak.It may not be as efficient, but if it gets you there when another way would cause you to give up, then it’s the best way.

  3. July 1, 2007 at 19:01

    Hey man, incredible! I can’t believe I just discovered this blog.

    You’re hardcore, props to ya!

    I’ve been in Japan for 5 years now, and work as a technical J-E translator at the moment. Your site is right on. I have thought of a lot of the things you mention to help with learning Japanese, but of course knowing and doing are two different things huh. Great that you’ve been able to put it all together!

    Will be stopping back from time to time!

    – Harvey

  4. Brent
    July 2, 2007 at 13:27

    Hey, I’ve been reading your site for a few weeks now and I think your ideas are great. I’ve been interested in languages for a couple years but never put in adequate time to reach any real level of proficiency in any. I’ll spare you my life story and just say that I’ve just graduated college and I’ll be heading to Japan in August with the JET program.

    I have Heisig and I truly believe it to work, having gone through about 200 characters in virtually no time about a year ago, but I’m extremely busy with my preparations at the moment and don’t feel I can really devote myself to it until I get over there. What would you do if you knew basically no Japanese and had just a few weeks to attempt to reach a survival level before heading over? I currently know the kana in the sense that I can read them, at least slowly, and I’ve done a few audio tapes but not made much progress.

    Thanks for your site–it’s very motivating.

  5. khatzumoto
    July 2, 2007 at 13:33

    Hey Brent

    >What would you do if you knew basically no Japanese and had just a few weeks to attempt to reach a survival level before heading over?

    Well, a lot of JET kids don’t know any Japanese at all, right? And they’re hiring you for your knowledge of English, not for your knowledge of Japanese. So, I would do one of the following.

    a) Do what Heisig did–focus on the kanji for now. Ignore everything else.
    b) Pick up a book like “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast” and apply it to Japanese.

    My favorite would be option (a). If you’re going to learn Japanese, you might as well learn it properly. And since, I imagine, the JET program will be taking care of your work, housing and social interactions (i.e. “survival”), just focus on becoming good at Japanese since you don’t have to worry so much about surviving.

    You see, my problem with learning the “bare minimum” of a language is that it (probably) won’t really enable someone to have that meaningful of interactions; it seems like it would be next to useless. For one thing, it doesn’t solve the problem that you will have to understand people’s responses. You may only know one way of saying something, but you have to understand 10 different other ways of it being said…especially in Japanese, where it won’t necessarily do to simply imitate the speech of the other person, since they may be speaking at a different politeness level from you.

    Having said that, a few basic words certainly won’t hurt. Especially demonstrative pronouns (check this post)–これ それ あれ どれ; greetings, yes, no, thank you, how much–these kinds of words can take you far. On the other hand, I wouldn’t bother learning how to ask directions, because…no one knows directions, at least in the Tokyo area, no one has a freaking clue where anything is–your best bet is to learn to read and use a GPS unit, honestly.

    So to summarize. Learn some very basic, high-mileage words and phrases, but put most of your effort onto kanji. That’s what I would do.

  6. July 2, 2007 at 14:12

    I can confirm that on the JET programme you really don’t need to know any Japanese really. I know of some people who have been here for two years on it and still can’t put a basic sentence together.
    In shops you can just look at the till to see how much the total is. In restaurants you can just point at the pictures of what you want in the menu. It’s actually scary how little Japanese you need to get by on a daily basis.
    Evidently you want to learn Japanese, but just because you’re moving to Japan doesn’t mean you need it now. Start Heisig yesterday (I recommend ) and even if you can only do 5 a day, it’s little but often that wins the race. Also, if you don’t start until you get here, you might not start for weeks after arriving. Your first weeks are going to be whirlwinds of socialising, teaching etc… If you’re not in the habit before you come, you might find it hard to get into one…

    Oh, and what really helped my kana was just reading anything I could when I arrived here. I’d be like ‘kanji kanji を, kanji ました。’

    So in essense I agree with Kats. Don’t worry about the short term ‘I’m arriving in a month’ panic. Look for the long term – and open that Heisig again!

  7. khatzumoto
    July 2, 2007 at 14:16

    Hey Brent,

    I totally agree with Matt there. Forget the short-term panic and focus on the long-term. And yeah, get in the habit of doing kanji–don’t let it be swept aside by your first few whirlwind weeks!

  8. Ro
    January 23, 2011 at 18:43

    In 1871, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder wrote: “The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.” Or as Mike Tyson used to say: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

  9. juxz90
    April 21, 2014 at 07:12

    Nice article!

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