In another place and time [the other day], I came to make the acquaintance of a young gentleman with looks so sharp that Johnny Depp is yet to recover from the blow to his ego. The young man’s name was T-star [not to be confused with the Japanese T-star], and this is his story.
I’ve been working with your method for almost six months now, and although I’m doing the things you talk about on your website, and putting a lot of time into studying, it still seems like something’s not quite right. I can’t put my finger on it, and it seems like everyday after I’ve finished my reps i have a feeling like there’s “something not quite right” and “I wish I could ask Khatzumoto x…” Well, I guess I have made progress in this six months, I mean, I certainly can write more kanji than I could; I can use a J-J dictionary, even if its still a bit clunky, and I’ve probably read more now than I had in the previous year I had been in Japan, but I can’t help feeling that this method isn’t working as well as it could be. Or maybe, I’m not working as well as I could be.
The other reason I’m looking for a bit of guidance is that, now having come into the belief that “classes suck,” I’m considering turning down a chance to attend to the “most prestigious/famous/well-known/full of academic wankers” Japanese school…in favor of taking a job here (doing sound engineering) and continuing to study AJATT style. Basically, I’ve got a lot riding on your belief that I can do it on my own, but maybe I need a little help getting myself to that point.
To which I responded as follows, but in Japanese:
My dearest, most precious T-star,
The situation you’re in right now is what you might call the “uncanny valley” (yes, this is an extension of the original usage of this term, but it makes sense here). Meaning that you’re at this point where you’re not a beginner and you’re not advanced; you’re in a “half-boiled”, in-between stage.
Have you ever eaten a half-boiled potato? Have you noticed how they almost taste worse than raw ones? In the uncanny valley stage, it’s common to feel like a half-boiled potato — to think that “Dude, I’ve been boiling all this time — am I EVER going to soften up and taste good?! Or, am I just driving up the gas bill or what?! What the truck, already?!” In fact, people who depend on school to learn a language almost never graduate from being a half-boiled potato, although many of them are convinced they’re the tastiest freedom fries this side of the Romulan Empire. That is, until they actually meet with their target language in its unadulterated form, at which point they decide that either they themselves are stupid or the target language is stupid (funnily enough, no one ever seems to find a problem with learning methods).
It’s not like you can’t read characters, but you still can’t breeze through them effortlessly. It’s not like you can’t say stuff, but you frequently find yourself tongue-tied. When you’re intermediate, it’s almost always like that. That’s what sucks about being intermediate.
And to make things worse, you’ve somewhat forgotten about “having fun” and discovery and the sheer beauty of the sound of Japanese, and become obsessed with “competition,” “progress,” “goals”, sentences, retention rates.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for breaking out of this valley. Well, no…there is, but it is simply this: “continue”. Even though you are definitely improving during this stage, it’s normal to feel like you can’t see the results, so there is no need to worry or give up.
Why is it like that when you’re an intermediate learner? I have a hard time understanding it myself, but let me venture a “Khatzumoto hypothesis”. Be aware that I’m just throwing out ideas, and I’m not sure if any of this is actually correct or not. With that disclaimer in mind…
It seems to me that all intellectual improvement actually progresses at a roughly linear rate. In monetary terms, it would be like increasing your savings by exactly $10 every day with (almost) no interest. So then, what happens is, even though the absolute rate of improvement doesn’t change, the relative rate inevitably declines to very near zero — to the point that it is completely imperceptible on small time scales.
Let me illustrate: when $10 one day becomes $20 the next day, you get all excited, like: “Whoa! It’s doubled!” But when $10,010 becomes $10,020, you paradoxically feel all let down instead, like: “What the chump change! Still not enough to do jack shWindows ME.” You have four orders of magnitude more money, yet you feel worse rather than better.
In fact, there may be a biological reason for this. It’s been said that humans are quite sensitive to acceleration (change in speed), but have a very poor grasp of fixed speed 1…The thing is, you don’t even need a biologist to lay it all out for you. Anyone who’s flown on a plane with or without snakes has experienced this first-hand. On a passenger plane flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, the most exciting (terrifying?) part is the acceleration during takeoff. When you’re up in the air traveling over the Pacific Ocean, though, the speed feels no different than it would if you were riding in the family Ford Taurus. Even though the plane is moving the fastest during the middle of the flight (at about Mach 0.8 — that’s almost the speed of sound, be arch!), it’s always the middle of the flight that is the most boring part. We are faced with the most amazing of ironies: the fastest part of the flight seems the slowest.
My point being, learn to distinguish between “speed” and “acceleration” already!
You’ve been adding to your Japanese knowledge bank word by word, and your “savings” will keep growing word by word. It’s just that you’ve gotten to where it’s hard to feel your growth — more accurately, it’s hard to feel your acceleration, because you are essentially not accelerating; you are moving at constant velocity. But you are growing. You are flying. And if you just keep flying, you’ll eventually land in Tokyo. So K-E-E-P F-L-Y-I-N-G, O-K-A-Y? Stay in the air.
At the same time, simply being told to “continue” despite mind-numbing boredom isn’t exactly going to psyche you up or boost morale, or even result in learning. Indeed, there’s one more thing you’re going to need to follow through with this kind of self-study program.
That is, to “lose yourself in it”. In other words, completely forget the “self,” forget the reason you’re studying Japanese, forget what other people think — everything — and immerse yourself wholly in “having fun” — call it intellectual hedonism if you want. Forget why you are doing Japanese. Do Japanese because you are Japanese. Do Japanese because Japanese is fun. Do Japanese because it’s there. Do Japanese because it’s what you would be doing anyway (think about it — you’re learning Japanese so you can do stuff in Japanese, so you might as well do stuff in Japanese, because that’s what the Japanese is for in the first place! The cause is the effect is the cause. The means is the end is the means.)
Beware especially of caring what other people think. And stop comparing yourself to other people, starting today [not that you are, but…various forces can sometimes bias people towards feeling the need to prove themselves to the world]. No good can come of it. As anyone who has spent time observing children — regular, garden-variety children who grow into regular, garden-variety adults — understands, each person grows according to their own unique schedule. Some children can already talk up a storm by the age of 2, while some don’t get beyond baby gibberish until they are 4. Some girls have their menarche when they’re 8 years old and some have to wait for it until they’re 16.
When babies learn to walk, they don’t have everybody and their dog giving them advice on posture, telling them “you don’t need to learn to walk any more because we have cars, electric wheelchairs and Segways”, telling them “only Japanese babies can walk, because they have a lower center of gravity and live close to sea level”. They are largely left alone; they grow when they grow. You need to make it so that you are left alone, too.
I could fill a whole website with stories of how slow I am on the uptake. Slow, that is, if you were to insist on comparing me to other people. For example, my voice didn’t break until I was almost 17. Pretty late when compared to all the hairy English kids I was surrounded by at the time. Years late. But, ultimately, these variations are nothing to work oneself up over. And there will come a day when no one but you even remembers this time. Today, no one ever comes to me and goes: “Whatever, Khatzumoto, you talk a good game, but I heard your voice didn’t even break until you were 17, Mr. pre-op castrato!” In fact, As long as I don’t bring it up, no one is any the wiser. Babies walking, toddlers speaking, girls menstruating, boys’ voices changing — everyone gets there at their own pace.
So why not scrap this whole “self” vs. “others” thing and get down to having some serious fun. That might sound stupid at first, but if you go ahead and approach it that way, your brain will naturally work better, as it tends to do when you’re enjoying something (or whatever the brain does…I dunno…I just use it), ensuring substantial improvement. You will learn far more having fun than not having fun. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that you will only learn when having fun.
Rather than asking “Mommy, are we there yet?” the whole way through this road trip called acquiring Japanese, start doing stuff like singing songs, playing on your PSP, reading manga or enjoying the scenery. It’ll make the time pass by so quickly that you’ll almost be upset when you “get there”. You will actually feel this loss…this void…this nostalgia for when attaining proficiency was such a wonderful, clear-cut destination for you.
Long journeys are not the only places where we can experience the phenomenon of the-middle-seeming-worse-than-the-beginning. When you get a haircut, your head is messier mid-way than when you first entered the barber shop. When you tidy a room, there soon comes a point in the tidying where the place is more chaotic than when you started. And these are the only examples that come to mind right now…feel that depth of life experience!
Some people might write all this off as “obvious” or “self-evident”…but it is these obvious things that are the easiest to forget. Often, the more something “goes without saying”, the more it seems to need saying.
It’s been a long time since I was an mid-journey acquirer of Japanese, though I am one of Cantonese now. Let she who is with intermediate experience also cast a commentary stone this way and give T-star some more advice.[P.S.
but I can’t help feeling that this method isn’t working as well as it could be. Or maybe, I’m not working as well as I could be.
Just what is it that would need to happen in order for you to stop feeling this way? I have a feeling of my own: nothing short of being Perfect Right Now would satisfy this desire. And the only way that that’s going to happen, is if you continue. In the absence of overwhelming external force, the only thing that’s going to get you to continue is the pull-in power of fun. So you might as well go have fun 😀 ]
- I saw a professor say that on this documentary: 爆笑問題のニッポンの教養 | 過去放送記錄 | FILE006:「教授が造ったスーパーカー」 | 清水浩（しみずひろし） | ２００７年７月６日放送分 ↩