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Managing Greed: How To Deal With Your Language Lust

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Language And Society

This is the third and probably final post in a multi-part series on Language and Society. Here is the first post.


It is a disease.

It is contagious.

And you have it.

People who learn a language other than their original “native” language are like man-eating dogs and abusive husbands — once they’ve crossed the line, they’re very likely to cross it again. I know because I used to watch Oprah in the early 1990s, back when abusive relationships were all the rage, and expert guests invariably, psychiatrists would say these kinds of things all the time. They’ve got PhDs, baby, you know theys is good for it.

So, despite our love for our L2, we all aspire to go further. All of us who have extended ourselves beyond the language set of the society in which we were originally born and raised. We want it. More. More. More. We want that rush(?) again.

The problem is that this greed, followed blindly, can lead to a trail of tears, broken promises and half-eaten languages, which, as we know, aren’t very useful economically, and aren’t nearly as much fun as they could be. For one thing, it takes some time to be able to produce and consume an unbridled variety of comedy in a given language…I mean, I don’t know about you, but I want to laugh and cause laughter. And think of the limits on friendships when there is a language barrier; you can still have great friendships, but the signal is far, far weaker than it could be.

What to do?

I propose a simple “solution” of sorts. Scheduling. Due to the time spans involved, I haven’t quite fully “tested” this idea myself. But I can say that it is already, at this early stage, giving me that most precious of things — peace of mind, and the ability to focus on what and where I am right now.

As we discussed in the previous post in this series, there are a lot of forces and voices out there pushing us to learn the “right” language. And there’s also our own curiosity pulling us toward new horizons.

But those voices, forces and urges are best not acted upon in their raw form. They need to be channeled and managed and manipulated. Like beans, they need to be cooked. Raw, they will lead to burn-out, disappointment and half-buttockedness. We want ownage. And what gets ownage is diligence and discipline.

Oh, snap, he busted out the “d” words! Who does this guy think he is? Has Khatzumoto gone all cranky old man? Not quite, because the way we define diligence and discipline, or “D&D”, as we’re going to call them now, is different from the painful, sucky way the rest of the world typically uses these words.

[1] Diligence is, to borrow the words of Steve Martin: “effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits”

[2] Discipline is, “remembering what you want”. Apparently the source of this quote is a guy called David Campbell. I’ve never heard of him, but his quote is awesome.

D&D is all about memory and exclusion. Now, I am a lazy, lazy, man. I want things done for me. I want to chill, and I generally do. That’s why scheduling languages in multi-year blocks is so powerful.

[1] First of all, it gives you permission to be diligent; it gives you permission to exclude; it gives you permission to be lazy; it tells you it’s okay to ignore other things because you’re going to get to them eventually, so you can just lose yourself in the (music, the moment) thing you’re doing right here, right now. Thus we see that diligence is not “hard work”. Diligence is deliberate neglect; it is highly directed laziness. It is greed with a purpose — a deep, focussed greed, rather than a shallow, wavering, ADHD-addled one. Laser-greed.

[2] Secondly, it gives you the discipline you need, because it does the “remembering” for you. If you have your multi-year language schedule somewhere easily visible, you can see that “yes, I want language Z, but I also want language X, and I want it first! Thanks for reminding me, oh dear schedule of mine!”

[3] Thirdly, it turns destructive desires (“I wanna know EVERTHING!!!”) into constructive passions (“we’re doing this right now”), not by denial, but by regulation. This concept has had success in society at large.

Let me elaborate. I personally think that alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, Gilmore Girls and season 4 of Prison Break are things best kept far out of one’s life. But American history has dramatically demonstrated that enforcing this for/on other people does not work. Even though banning these things across the board seems like such a great idea (drunk driving alone offers proof that these things are not just personal choices that “don’t hurt anyone else”), prohibition of substances like alcohol has clearly tended to increase secondary negative externalities (you try reading the WSJ every day and not have this phrase crop up involuntarily! I’m not even sure if I’m using it correctly; it just comes out! “Hey Khatz, how was your day?”, “Dude, I was at Stacy’s house, and dude…secondary negative externalities everywhere“) rather than decrease them.

Whether it’s pot or prostitution [I know you’re having a WTF? moment right now] the answer seems clear: either give the cat a litterbox, or the entire house becomes a litterbox. Either give your languages a place (a schedule), or they all try to take first place at once; they all want to be everywhere, all the time. And that is the very definition of stress — and not the good kind of stress, but the circular-hair-loss-and-ulcer kind.

So, we see that scheduling will take your D&D, and make it feel even more like R&R than usual.

While we’re at it, here’s a fictional example schedule:

  • 2005 — 2010: Japanese
  • 2010 — 2015: Mandarin
  • 2015 — 2020: Klingon
  • 2020 — 2025: Cantonese
  • 2025 — 2030: Teenage Slang
  • 2035  — 2040: The Language Of Love

Et cetera. Why five years? It’s just a round number. Two highly-focussed years is enough to get good, but then we also want to leave time for actually using our good once we’ve gotten it. In any case, it’s just a number; it doesn’t matter too much. Keeping to the schedule religiously doesn’t matter either; there is room for alteration and transposition — as always, you are the boss.

In any case, as I’ve hinted at before, I’m not such a big fan of “trophy-collecting” style language learning. While I have the deepest respect for all the polyglots out there (and they all have cool ideas and techniques worthy of imitation) I do also think that many of them could benefit from sacrificing breadth for some more depth. The whole “learning N number of foreign languages but ultimately doing all my significant activities in English” thing seems to be missing the point — and I say this with full awareness of the hypocrisy it entails, given the current content base of this blog.

Any language that has enough people [that you care about] and/or media [that you care about] is worth sticking with for a long time. Not just for return on investment, but also for pure enjoyment. A language is for living in, not just passing through — more a home than a hotel. Move house if you want, but don’t just do it because everyone else is saying or doing so.

When you use Y-year scheduling blocks, even when Y is a number like three or five or ten, you start to realize that there is plenty of time in our lives to “get it all in”, or at least a lot of it in, and there’s no need to go breathlessly and desperately dilettanting from one hot language to another. It’s fine to remain calm.

We can still have fun; we can still be spontaneous; we just need to direct our ever-flowing fun and spontaneity into “cups” where they can steadily accumulate value for us, and also be easier to drink from.

For example, I have leanings towards couch potato behavior. I can sit there in my sweatpants, watching TV and movies for days on end. Doing this in English (as a native speaker) is just considered sloth. Doing this in Japanese is dedication; it is an act of intellectual heroism worthy of, like, a website. All I had to do was swivel my couch potato tap into the cup called Japanese.

The same behavior, reprehensible in one sphere/language, becomes a demonstration of discipline and diligence in another. This is the power of directing, channeling, managing our greed, our “flaws”: If possible, why bother overcome them, why bother destroy them, when we can just recycle, reuse and redirect them? Violent sociopath in one place is courageous soldier in another (I am again being very cruel to military people, but they’re tough enough to take it 😉 ).

Thus concludes my two or three yen on the somewhat vague topic of “Language and Society” — for now, at least. Sorry for going so…preachy on you. Hopefully this has been somewhat useful. But you know what’s even more useful — your comments. Feel free to share any insight you have on this issue…I want to be enlightened, too 🙂 .



Series Navigation<< Language As An Investment

  22 comments for “Managing Greed: How To Deal With Your Language Lust

  1. dmh
    October 18, 2009 at 14:16

    You’re spot on in the article…except…the Gilmore Girls are awesome.

  2. Colby
    October 18, 2009 at 14:40

    “If possible, why bother overcome them, why bother destroy them, when we can just recycle, reuse and redirect them?”

    This really got me thinking. How else can I focus my bad habits rather than try and beat them down?

  3. アメド
    October 18, 2009 at 15:08

    “Let me elaborate. I personally think that alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, Gilmore Girls and season 4 of Prison Break are things best kept far out of one’s life.” haha i love how you used “Season 4 of Prison Break”. Yea when it comes to languages personally everyone wants to know so much. For me it’s japanese in 1-2 years . Then going onto mandarin then Cantonese. Personally i think this is enough for me. I already got two languages that i know i.e. english and my native language. So if i somehow mange to learn these extra 3 within the next 6 years time then i’ll be set for a long long time lol. By the way i’m 20 years of age. So 26? lol anyhow all depends on dedication i personally think 1 full year of this will get me close to fluent cuz already know i can understand 70% anime/drama’s nowadays and only at 1500 sentences.

  4. Chuck
    October 18, 2009 at 15:12

    The only thing that I’m using Spanish for right now is my addiction to online forum sites. Prior to Spanish I used teenage slang. I’m glad I’ve made the switch.

    Outside of school, everything else is Japanese now. Just like you, I’m a diligent couch potato. I hope to someday be able to transition from couch potato to book worm, but I have to learn more kanji first.

    Also, for some reason I highly enjoy trying to stuff 60 vocabulary words into my head in a day. Why is that?

  5. Griff
    October 18, 2009 at 23:56

    Diligent couch potato, that’s me!

    Most of my Japanese input comes from my laptop (i.e. Japanese radio, music, news podcasts, SRSing, etc) so I sit on the couch till my rear is numb without any guilt of being lazy!

    @Chuck. You probably like trying to learn 60 words because it’s a nice, hard earned victory. I think giving yourself small victories is one of the best ways to prevent burn out.

  6. October 19, 2009 at 03:48

    Darn straight. I only wanted to play Japanese video games earlier (without waiting for all the localization nonsense). That’s why/how I’m learning/learned Japanese. 🙂

    Being able to enjoy the awesome movies, dramas, manga, music, and anime was/is just an added bonus. 😉

    I never wanted to learn Hungarian. That happened on accident. And I’m still not sure what to do with it 😛

  7. Santiago
    October 19, 2009 at 13:01

    I agree with you… Season 4 of Prison Break should be erased from mankind collective memory. And thanks… now I realize I’m not wasting time in front of the screen watching obscure series instead of studying for my final exams, I’m LEARNING.

  8. Rob
    October 19, 2009 at 22:46

    I think 5 years is a pretty good estimate to begin with, but what I did is tack on another 1-2 years to each language after that, because while you’re trying to get fluent in L3, you still have to maintain fluency in L2.

    One thing I think you might need to be a teeeeny bit careful of Khatz is playing up the couch potato thing. It could be lead to people thinking they can just sit and watch anime all day and the fluency will just magically appear. Of course anyone is welcome to try that, but I bet they’ll be in for a big disappointment later on.

    A problem that I don’t think you’ve fully addressed (I could be wrong here) is the definition of fun. The thing that is stressed most on this site is indeed having fun. However, each person’s definition of fun is going to be different, and the resulting activities from this “fun” will invariably differ in terms of how beneficial they are to actual language learning.

    For example, in your (Khatz) case, I’m guessing that on top of just watching tv or playing video games, you also enjoy reading and acquiring knowledge. So reading through a manga or book, looking up words, picking out sentences, is a pleasurable thing for you. But what about the people who don’t find that fun at all? How about the kid that only likes to what American movies? Ok, so he finds them dubbed in Japanese. This is his idea of fun. Reading and sentence picking are not anywhere on his list of fun. Where will his Japanese be after a year? This is where trouble arises in blindly following the fun trail. There should be certain core elements (activities?) of language acquisition that can based on what one thinks of as fun, while the elements or activities themselves might not be considered as such.

  9. Daniel
    October 19, 2009 at 23:56

    Thanks Khatz! Even though I’ve since convinced myself to stick to just Japanese (for now), this part 3 in particular has helped me! Especially the turning our flaws into helpful habits thing.

  10. Rochella
    October 20, 2009 at 00:23

    I agree with Rob in the sense that everyone’s got a different definition for fun. For one, I’m not a couch potato. I actually don’t own cable as I truly despise commercials/advertisements/most all shows. Watching these things in Japanese is actually only more exciting because of the language, however I’ll burn out really fast, due to my not liking that activity to begin with.
    Instead I read, I read a lot of stuff (and cook 🙂 ), and that’s my idea of fun. So if i stuck only to that, I think my learning wouldn’t be all that great. Lets face it, I’d never really hear much of anything and my ability to speak it would suck monkeys too.

    I only add SRSs, media, RTK, and that like because I know I want to pwn Japanese just as much! I think however if you make sure to balance a lot of what you enjoy into the activities you don’t, you wont feel burnt out. I think that’s the key.

    You know, the whole, spoonful of sugar with your medicine adage. Also, I’ve met a lot of people who claim to speak multiple languages, though they really don’t know how to do much more than communicate on a basic level. That may be useful if you’re traveling all over the place with no real destination, but to me, the whole point of learning a language is to be able to live in the language and evolve. Some people don’t even do that with their native languages anymore (like Grammar Nazism and old folks who say groovy).

  11. Chiro-kun
    October 20, 2009 at 02:00

    Likewise, I’m sure there are people who just don’t see the *point* in learning more than one language to native-like proficiency which just might not give them enough benefits to fuel their motivation.

    To cite an example, I believe most Indians are bilingual (if not trilingual). As far as most “big cities” are concerned, everybody can read, write and speak English. Of course they also speak their mother tongue(Bengali/Punjabi/Gujarati/Tamil/Malayalam etc) and the national language (i.e. Hindi) [in most cases]. There are very few people I know from english-medium trained backgrounds who are “literate” (in the native-level sense of the term) in their mother tongue/Hindi.

    Well so what? My point is that such people can still have “deep” and “meaningful” friendships with people who speak their language even though they may barely be able to read a newspaper. IMHO I don’t think it’s all about knowing every word of every sentence or “mere” spoken fluency being functionally useless. There are plenty of words I don’t know in my mother tongue (Bengali) but I can communicate in it just fine. In the end, its all upto individual discretion. I still can’t fathom *why* somebody who doesn’t care about moving to Japan would ever *have* to watch Japanese news (unless he enjoys it of course 🙂 ).

    Of course, there’s no real point in learning a few well-chosen phrases either. If there does exist a lower limit for proficiency in a given language, I’d certainly like to know about it.

  12. amelia
    October 20, 2009 at 11:50

    So here’s the thing. I’m working on a dissertation on Chinese religious history, and my sources are in modern Chinese, classical Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. I read all of these but Japanese, which I’m working on (and my classical Chinese sucks, but that’s fixable). So learning languages is not just a frivolous pursuit for me. There are literally scholars around the world, living and dead, who have written on this topic, and I don’t have a phalanx of translators to put them all into English. A few works get translated (luckily the Dutch tend to), but I actually need a lot more than anyone’s willing to hand to me for free.

    Sometimes, you just have to be a polyglot to get a job done. Now, my European languages may not be as good as my Chinese, since I only need to read them and I have to do actual fieldwork in China, but I’m really glad I half-assed those languages when I was a teenager to get them to the point where I can read academic papers.

    That being said, I love you Khaz and all that you do.

  13. maaku
    October 20, 2009 at 14:15

    Following on @amelia, I’m somewhat disappointed at the lack of consideration true polyglots get in this article. If your goal is dominating and totally kicking ass truly-native-like in one single language, then Khatz-style immersion is the path for you. But with the polyglot methods a dozen languages in a decade (to near-native level) is not unheard of.

    I have a half-dozen language I need to learn and use… but I can’t wait 30 years to reap the benefits. I need something faster.

  14. Terence
    October 21, 2009 at 09:07

    You have no clue how helpful these last three posts have been.

    I don’t think I need to go into to much detail, I can basically some it up by saying, *”Japanese is my cocaine, and Chinese(Mandarin, Cantonese) is my speed”*. And its taking more effort then it should to cut this speed addiction ;_;

  15. アメド
    October 21, 2009 at 14:01

    Hey khatz i got a suggestion although you don’t really have to listen to me at all cuz of you’re site i;m getting good in my japanese skills now. But what if you did some demo video on some parts of the AJATT way. The confusing parts i mean such as monlingual sentences and for beginners kanji itself and what to do exactly. I know everything and all the information is already provided on your site but this could help some people out. And alot of people want to see more of you on speaking japanese and explaining in general so couldn’t hurt i guess?lol anyhow thanks for all the information and the site i’m sure i can easily get fluent like this.

  16. Peter
    October 22, 2009 at 03:54

    Hi, just found this blog today, I have to say this article is on the money. I’ve just started learning Japanese, and I’m fully aware of the immense undertaking that is, but it doesn’t stress me at all, mainly because the undertaking in itself is fun. Anyway, glad i found this blog and added to my reader, thanks.

  17. Ken
    October 22, 2009 at 14:40

    In retrospect, we can see now that the real problem with the 18th Amendment was that they didn’t have cell phones back then. If they had, they would have realized that the problem of drunken driving (the *other* other D&D) wasn’t unique to alcohol. They should have banned cars.

    Just think how many lives could have been saved over the years if our late night city streets had only drunks trying to ride unicycles!

  18. Emese
    September 23, 2010 at 23:32

    Wow that helped a bit. Most people say that you’re stupid if you learn from anime/manga etc. at all, and you should go to classes (bleh) or something like that to really learn Japanese. I was a bit suspicious about this since I learned English almost entirely by reading books, watching films and so on, and still native speakers feel an urge to tell me that I’m pretty good at it. (Yeah, I do make sentences that look/sound funny, but that’s just how I am.)
    I had this problem for quite a long time… Which language should I learn now? I already have German, Dutch, French and of course, Japanese stuff heaping up in my head. (English is not on the “problems” side, it’s pretty much became something like a habit – I study Japanese almost exclusively in English, as there are really few studying materials in my native language, Hungarian. *sigh*) Now, I feel a bit more relaxed. I’ll just study Japanese for some more years before moving on to something else. Hey, compared to med school, even the worst bits of Japanese feel fun! 😀

  19. Koneko
    October 22, 2010 at 01:00

    Earlier in the week, my mom asked if I planned on learning any languages after Japanese, and this post immidiately came to mind. I had to try so hard not to accidentally say ‘language lust’ XD And with that, I realized I dont acctually have another language that’s captured my heart, so to speak. Japanese is /my/ language. I may not even be done with RTK, but I already feel the language is as much mine as English, my only task it to decode it and get used to it.

    Also, I have a friend who’s been in Japanese classes for 2 years, and I know a good ammount of kanji more than her. She says she can understand Japanese in bits and peices, but cant really understand everything. At hearing this, I (kindly) told her I would pass her up, and went back to doing reviews. She insists I’ll never do it. Im gonna prove her wrong~ ;D

  20. 星空
    December 14, 2010 at 10:38

    “the chief cause of failure & unhappiness is trading
    what you want the most for what you want now.”~Zig Ziglar

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