Advice from an Infidel

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I've been studying Japanese for well over 14 years now and for all that I've not made the progress I should have. In my many attempts to take short-cuts and try different methods, I often set my self back three steps for every step I took forward. Sometimes in searching for a better way, I would find one, but then I would be dissatisfied and drop a good thing in search of something even better. In short, I'm an expert on what not to do. What I'm going to do here is dedicate this page for all new students of Japanese in hopes of getting them to benefit and learn from my mistakes so you don't spend more time and effort learning Japanese than necessary.

It will probably take me a few weeks to get this page fully fleshed out. I've a lot to say on this subject. I'll also be adding stuff as it occurs to me, or as I discover something new.

Contents

Don't be an Infidel

Follow good study habits

While everyone thinks they know what consists of good habits, there are a few not-so-well-known points, and studying a language requires a few specialized habits as well.

The three month rule

Studies have shown that it takes about 3 months to create a new habit. Once something--in this case studying--becomes habitual, it is much easier to continue even when some other activity or change of attitude would distract you or cause you to give up. So make 3 months of habitual study your first goal.

Many short term goals are better than few long term goals

One of the most common mistakes a new Japanese student makes is to make memorizing the 1950 jouyou kanji a high priority. While this is a good long term goal, and the new students do at least realize it is a long term goal, they fail to see the big picture. Even if you do use a program like Heisig's Remembering the Kanji it won't save you from having to look up just about every new word you encounter. The truth is, you don't need to learn 1950 kanji before you can start reading productively, so setting a goal like this can actually set you back contrary to how it may first appear. expand on this on another page

Instead, set up a basic short term goal. Study a minimum of 15 minutes a day, with at least five minutes of review. This is what you would do if some activity came up, like a family reunion that would prevent normal study.

Let your textbook determine the rest of your short term goals for a while. Generally, I try to do one set of workbook exercises a day with 10-15 minutes of review. If you keep plugging away at your textbook, you will find yourself achieving many of your long term goals when you look back and consider how much you accomplished.

The breaks are as important as the effort

Like a sponge, even though we can ultimately manipulate a practically unlimited amount of information, the rate we can absorb information is limited. For most people, this is about 15-30 minutes of uninterrupted study. Ideally, after 30 minutes of study, take an hour break, then come back later for another 30 minutes. This allows you to take advantage of active breaking.

Active Breaking

Active breaking is different from passive breaking. In an Active Break, you keep your reference materials close at hand and allow yourself to essentially daydream about the stuff you just studied.

When you break off in this way, you will notice yourself thinking over the material just studied but without effort because of your daydream-like state. Don't try to direct your thoughts too much, although if you find yourself thinking how difficult something is, it is better to put that thought behind you. When you daydream, your brain is attempting to assimilate the information you daydream about and is an important function of Active Breaking. Allow your brain to do its thing by going along with it. For example, if your brain decides to start repeating a certain word or drawing a kanji in your mind, then repeat the word aloud and imagine drawing the kanji in your head. In general, this will involve zero strain, if you do find yourself straining--just a little--to remember something, so that you feel that remembering is just at the edge of your conscious thought. If possible, go back to your reference material immediately and look it up, close the book, and try to remember it again. At this point, you've usually assimilated the info into long term memory. Then go back to your daydreaming.

Active breaking doesn't do much for emptying the short term memory to learn new information, but it does dramatically increase the speed that short term memory is absorbed into long term memory. It can also help relive the "cram" headache.

Passive Breaking

Passive breaking is what most people think of when they think of breaking. Generally the material sits forgotten or unavailable, and no effort is made to review. This includes sleep time or time spent doing other activities and not thinking about your subject material at all. Passive Breaking converts only a small percentage of short term memory into long term; however, the main advantage of Passive Breaking is emptying the reservoir of short term memory to allow new information to be learned. This is why it is much better to study after a full night's rest than on a day of insufficient sleep.

Accept your brain has its own agenda

The brain is designed to absorb information and correlate it, but not in any particular order. When we study a list of 20 words, we have no control over the order those 20 words are learned. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely eliminate the tedium of studying word lists. Sometimes, all you can do is fall back on Active Breaking and rote repition.

Follow the 80% rule

This applies more for the self study, because someone taking a course will have no control over the pace.

The rule is simple, when you feel that you know 80% of the material in any one lesson, move on to the next one. Don't wait until you know all of the material 100% before moving on.

There are two reasons for this:

  • Diminishing returns
  • Later reinforcement

Basically, the extra time and effort spent straining over that last 20% of material would be more efficiently spent learning new material in the next chapter. For example, spending 5 hours in an attempt to learn say 5 difficult words, would be better spent learning 20 new easier words and learning new grammar in the next chapter. Also, textbooks are designed to build on each previous lesson. A word you had difficulty with before will be represented later, maybe not the next chapter, but it will re-surface again. When it does, your brain will find learning the word much easier once you see it in a new context. In other words, you can spend an hour stressing over a word now, or wait a few weeks until it comes up again and learn it in maybe 5 minutes or instantly which seems to be more often the case for me.

Don't insist on understanding everything

One of the greatest advantages of having a brain is it is designed to learn. Sure there are some things that you have to force-feed it, but if you present information to it in the right way, your mind will gobble it up like dessert. Some study methods even focus exclusively on utilizing this native function of the brain, but there is no need to concentrate on this ability to the exclusion of others. All we have to do is activate it and keep it engaged.

This is actually two functions of the brain we want to use. The first is active curiosity and the second is pattern recognition. We activate both of these by deliberately exposing ourselves to Japanese on a constant basis.

Active Curiosity
Pattern Recognition

Don't be afraid of mistakes

Ten is better than a hundred

The gist of this rule is this: It is better to study something once a day, for 10 days, than 100 times in one day.

One reason is that we have little control over what we absorb from short term memory, so it's more efficient to fill it up with more words, than it is to fill it with a few words, over and over again, for a slightly increased chance of remembering. The time factor alone is significant, it takes 10 times longer to study something 100 times than 10 times. Also, only a very small percentage of stuff learned in one day translates to long term memory. It is the repetition over several days that triggers the brain's reflex to store something in long term memory. By training once a day over several days, you work with the brains natural abilities instead of attempting to force it to do something it wasn't designed to do well. Probably best of all, doing reducing your workload by a factor of 10 should go a long way to reducing your chances of burning out.

Protect your privacy

This is an extra advice we learned from Infidel-san.

Even though we use anonymous user names, there are still some risks on the Internet. ^^;

Save some money

Another mistake many new students make is to go on a spending spree and buy every type of reference book available except a textbook. Not only is this counterproductive by dividing your limited study between many different reference works and increasing your chances of burning out from overwork, it really is a waste of money.

In the beginning, all you need is a textbook.

Your textbook will be a grammar guide, a dictionary, a particle guide and just about every other kind of guide you need for a while. Eventually, these other books might come in handy, but they will be of little help, and a bit of a hindrance in the very beginning. This is a somewhat arbitrary number, but consider waiting at least until you reach lesson 10-15 in a college level course or lesson 25-30 in a high school level course before spending money on secondary references. Although a beginners Kanji dictionary like Kodansha's is great because it gives stroke order diagrams.

When we tell a new student to get a textbook, they often complain that they already spent all their money on references, so they ask for a cheap textbook. While, expense is not necessarily an indication of value, some of the better courses are a bit more than $40, and once all the components are bought they are worth well over $100. It can be better to buy a textbook one month, the work book the next month, and the sound files the last month, than buy a bunch of references and then settle for an all-in-one course that is within budget.

The most important book in your library is your textbook. For now, consider everything else a condiment. Nice to have, but you can do without it. A bunch of reference books without a textbook is like setting a table with salt, pepper, ketchup, and Tabasco sauce, but forgetting the meat and vegetables.

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