Penname Shawn was an AJATTeer back when that meant something. Back before the violence and the hookers and the blow. Back before telling endless Mom jokes in footnotes became a substitute for content 1. Here, he shares his success and coming-of-age story in his own words:
I signed up for AJATT+ again to check in to see what recent developments have occurred and to also pay my dues. I owe a great deal to you and your website in helping me to develop my skills in second language acquisition and, most importantly, helping me reframe how I understand language learning.
As it stands right now, I am about 2 and a half years into learning Japanese. It took me a full year to get through Heisig. Hypothetically, you could say that I have only been learning Japanese for the last year and a half (obviously this isn’t true, but it sure felt that way at times during Heisig. Even more so when peers would question why I was wasting my time with something like RTK when I couldn’t even string together a correct grammatical sentence in Japanese to save my life).
I have done all of this while finishing my Master’s in English Literature and teaching college courses for the first time. I was also in a long-term committed relationship with someone who was not learning Japanese (which has recently come to an end, sadly). In other words, I was, and still am, living a busy, fulfilling life while teaching myself Japanese effectively. The trick I found, as you have promoted throughout your website, was simply controlling my environment, making Japanese a habit, and being willing to throw out materials that are boring until I find something that is compelling.
For a long time I really doubted whether or not I was making progress, up until I had the opportunity to enter into a Japanese classroom at the University I attend and teach at. It was a 400 level course (also the first Japanese course I had ever taken), so the students were in their fourth year of Japanese courses and some had even done a semester abroad in Japan. At first the learning curve was very high, the entire class was conducted in Japanese and walking into an upper level class really shook my self-confidence. But as time went on, I realized that not only was I on par with the students in the classroom, but I was quickly surpassing them thanks to immersion, Anki, and simply having fun with native materials.
What was disturbing for me was recognizing that the other students, throughout this semester, had simply plateaued. Obviously this is not an objective judgement, but my own impression of what was happening. After talking to a few students after class, I realized how many of them simply did not study outside of class or even use Japanese over breaks. They are spending enormous amounts of money on classes expecting that an undergrad in Japanese will lead to fluency or working knowledge of the language without putting in the time or effort outside of class. It completely boggled my mind.
But then, I started paying more attention to the materials we were using in class. They were incredibly boring and even painful. I remember getting really burnt out with our study materials and I would simply put it down and pick up a MURAKAMI Haruki (村上春樹) novel and pick through it. What I didn’t realize, which is crazy if you think about it, was that the novel I’d pick up would be way beyond my level or the level of the classroom, but it felt like a total pleasure and relief because I was interested.
For the majority of my fellow classmates they didn’t question the classroom itself. They saw it as the only way to gain fluency. They’d burn themselves out on class materials until they hated Japanese and would not look at it again until they were forced to from fear of punishment (i.e. tests). Then when a break came along, they’d simply stop studying entirely.
I always had a resting point for my Japanese, I’d keep interesting materials that supported the boring, hard to do stuff. I’m not saying the class was pointless (it wasn’t, I learned a lot and it pushed me and gave me the opportunity to focus on Japanese in my already busy life), but rather how everyone approached the genre of the classroom was pointless.
The classroom is meant to support and guide you on your own discoveries and studies. It is not a magical purchase that will impart you with skills simply because you paid and show up to class having done the minimum amount of homework.
What really upset me was there was this reinforced culture of mediocrity amongst the students. Some of them almost seemed to brag about how little work they did or they would just complain about the teacher, the language (seriously? writing kanji is an absolute pleasure), or any other excuse they could come up with. I made a point to close myself off from that culture and focus on my own language acquisition process.
You know, if I had taken classes first, before finding AJATT, I think I would be exactly like those students. It is not really anyone’s fault, it’s simply how the system has evolved…the system influences in a large way what you can think and do. That’s why it is so important to have multiple systems. This is getting abstract, so let me try to give an example. Systems or genres influence what we can do or not do, for example the genre of the classroom dictates what is appropriate behavior and not.
If I were a student, taking off my pants and walking to the front of the classroom while the teacher is lecturing, obviously would break the conventions of that genre. In fact, normal, healthy people, would never think of doing something like that because we pick up on the rules of the systems and genres we interact with everyday. A weird example, I know, but you see the point I assume. Your website’s most important feature is simply breaking the power that our assumptions hold over our behaviors when it comes to language learning.
I can’t tell you how many of these students kept pushing textbooks on me to try and help me with my Japanese (yo, seriously? I have been studying Japanese not even half the time you have been and I am at your level already. You want to tell me what I ought to do?). Talk about cognitive dissonance…
What is my point? Well, first I want to tell you how thankful I am that you created this website and that you continue to break down misguided assumptions about language acquisition in entertaining and enlightening ways. Secondly, I want to echo one of your main points that has been the most difficult and important aspect in self-learning. Create your own system and constantly change it.
Don’t allow a rigid system to take over because you think you ought to be doing something. Keep your system healthy by pruning away at the parts that don’t work any more and feed those parts that are working. Be ready to abandon what isn’t working or has stopped working. Always be ready to explore and test. When your system is about to break you, break the system. You’ll move far faster by being pragmatic and allowing your likes and dislikes to guide you.
Because of my life (graduate student/instructor/friend/boyfriend/part-time waiter), I had to make my own system and make it work for me. Anytime I listened to dogma, it would eventually break me and take me away from exposing myself to Japanese. When I stopped being so anal retentive and just focused on what I liked doing and was interested in doing, I would make huge leaps in development without even realizing it.
I hope that my experience might help other people who are struggling with all the internal and external resistance that comes with self-learning.
Keep up the good work, Khatz. You are an inspiration and you have functioned as a kind of guru to me. It has been a pleasure learning from you and being challenged.
You’re the man, Shawn. I humbly accept my metaphorical passing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Take care and stay handsome.
- Your mother is lonely. Let me be the stepfather you need. ↩