My Japanese language learning journey has been anything but smooth or linear. Sure, I eventually figured out what works best for me, but it took a lot of trial and error. If there were an Olympic medal for making mistakes, I would have won the gold for following the wrong methods, choosing ineffective materials, and holding onto self-limiting beliefs! Faceplants and facepalms all around! 🤦🏽♂️ If I were to go back and start learning from scratch, I would certainly do things very differently. And I certainly have done exactly that as I’ve started other languages.
At the same time, I am grateful for my missteps as they have proved to be one of the most effective teachers one could ever ask for. As Brazilian Jiu Jitsu legend Carlos Gracie, Jr. put it, “There is no losing . . . You either win or you learn.”
While it may be impossible to avoid all mistakes in language learning, you can at least sidestep some of the most common traps and pitfalls by learning from those who have walked the path before you. My own climb up Japanese Mountain is far from complete (in truth, there is no end to the journey), but I have managed to scale some of the steepest sections, wrestle my way out of some quicksand, and identify some of the most common dead ends.
I’d now like to share my “trail map” with you and point out my five biggest blunders so you can avoid them on your Japanese journey. You can then save your mistakes for practicing the language itself instead of “wasting” them on selecting your methods, materials, or beliefs.
Mistake ①: Trying to “study” my way to fluency
Most people assume that if you want to learn a language, you need to take classes and follow a textbook. While both of these can be useful for some learners, the truth is that:
- Neither are required for learning. People have been mastering languages for well over a hundreds of thousands of years without either.
- This approach often leads learners into the trap of equating studying a language with actually acquiring a language, when the two are in fact very different things.
Conscious study of a language can help a little (it increases metalinguistic awareness, for example), but the real magic only happens when we flood our brains with interesting, meaningful, authentic content and active practice:
- Communicating with other humans in meaningful, real-life contexts.
- Watching a show, movie, documentary, or anime in the target language.
- Reading about a topic that fascinates us or learning a new skill in the language.
So if study is so ineffective, why do so many of us fall into this trap (and stay stuck in it so long)? Fear of discomfort. It’s a lot more comfortable to use learner materials than to take off the “training wheels” and work through authentic content. Completing drills in a book or app feels safer than striking up a conversation with a native speaker.
But the truth is that we cannot study our way to fluency and there is no way around the discomfort. You can’t climb a mountain without walking uphill.
Mistake ②: Learning Indirectly
Similar to the “studying” fallacy above, another big mistake I made was learning indirectly.
Early on in my language learning journey, I wasted a massive amount of time learning about Japanese in English. Was this information interesting? Sure! As a Linguistics major, I found the discussion on Japanese syntax, morphology, and phonetics utterly fascinating. But was it helpful in learning to use or understand the language? Nope.
We get better at what we practice. So if you want to get good at speaking Japanese, then you have to actually speak Japanese!
But again, I know how scary speaking can be, especially in the beginning! So we look for “safe” alternatives:
- We fool ourselves into thinking that textbook exercises will inch us toward fluency. It doesn’t.
- We falsely assume that words we learn in reading will transfer to speaking. They don’t.
Such activities may spare you from discomfort, but they will also spare you from fluency. Whatever skills you want to improve, try to learn them as directly as possible. Practice for real life, not tests. Spend most of your time with humans, not books or apps. Instead of spending 30 minutes flicking through a gamified app, use that time to practice with a tutor on iTalki instead!
Mistake ③: Trying to force words and kanji into my brain with “rote memory”
One of my biggest regrets is that I did not truly learn how to learn until well into college. And even then, the metalearning techniques I picked up came from my own self-guided study outside of the classroom.
If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1992 and give then 12-year-old John a few basic learning principles that would greatly increase the efficiency and efficacy of his study time in junior high school, high school, university, and beyond. Alas, time travel is not yet possible outside of the movies (that I know of), so the next best thing I can do is help you avoid some of the ineffective study methods I used (and most continue to make) when trying to learn languages.
The single most ineffective method happens to be the most common: rote memorization. “Rote memory” refers to the effort to commit something to memory through pure laborious repetition. For example, you may attempt to learn a new kanji by writing out a given character dozens or even hundreds of time on a piece of paper, or drilling a list of words again and again for hours.
While repetition is certainly an essential component of learning, rote repetition misses out on three critical “memory maximizers” that significantly improve one’s retention rate:
- Spacing: Repeating something again and again in quick succession does little to build long-term memories because you can simply repeat what you just did based on the information stored in short-term memory. Instead, you are better off spacing out repetitions in increasingly long intervals. Spaced repetition systems (SRS) are a great tool for doing exactly this, and I wish I had learned about them decades earlier!
- Context: Most rote memory activities involve learning fragmented bits of information in isolation, away from the real-word contexts in which the words or structures are actually used. Such reductionist learning may help you pass a test, but it certainly won’t help prepare you for understanding or using the information when communicating with native speakers. Again, we get better at what we practice. So our learning contexts should reflect the communication contexts in which we intend to use the language. So instead of reviewing a list of non-contextual words, consider instead rewatching the same episode of a show you love, reading a few blog posts on the same topic, or asking the same set of questions to a few different tutors. For more on this, see my post Use Narrow Listening & Reading to Get Repetition Without the Boredom.
- Interest, emotion, and imagination: The most significant downside of rote methods is that they tend to be boring as hell! Since they lack context, they also lack an emotional connection to the language or culture (which is the whole point of learning a language for most people). Also, they fail to leverage the adult brain’s ability to create vivid mental stories, clever mnemonics, and personalized associations, all of which help new information stick and greatly increase our ability to actively produce words, kanji, etc. from memory (as opposed to simply reinforcing passive recognition). Pro Tip: The book Remembering the Kanji guides learners through how to learn 2,200 kanji through imagination and stories instead of rote memory (what the author James Heisig calls imaginative memory.
Mistake ④: Waiting for the “perfect” time & materials
As the French philosopher Voltaire put it, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” Unfortunately, I thought perfection was ally for far too long:
- I foolishly waited to start learning projects until timing and conditions were “just right.”
- I put off immersing myself in languages until I found the “ideal resources.”
- I procrastinated on practicing with native speakers because I didn’t feel “ready” yet.
All of these justifications felt rational in the moment, but in hindsight, I know they were just fear. Fear of starting. Fear of making mistakes. Fear―as I detailed in Mistake 1 above―of discomfort.
I now know that there is no perfect time to start a language learning adventure, no perfect time of the day or week to practice, and no perfect resource. Waiting for perfection means waiting forever. And while the fearful perfectionist is standing still, the progress-minded pragmatist is moving forward, learning from mistakes, and having a hell of a lot more fun.
Mistake ⑤: Learning in intense, sporadic bursts instead of consistent daily practice.
I’ve always been envious of people who can “half-ass” things. Seriously! I think this is a superpower that leads to far better outcomes in the long run than those like me who struggle with perfectionism, “All-or-Nothing Thinking,” and the procrastination and paralysis these thought patterns usually generate.
Whether in language learning, writing, or red wine, I’ve tended to whole-ass or zero-ass:
- I would spend an entire day here and there frantically studying Japanese, and then go many days without spending any time with the language.
- When writing a new book, I would bang out 5,000 words one day in a feverish burst of inspiration, and then not type a single sentence for the following five.
- With red wine, I came to accept the fact that it’s easier for me to have no glasses than try to just have one. (“Wait, a bottle is not a serving size?!”)
I still struggle with consistency and moderation, but I’m getting better. For one thing, I now understand that not being able to moderate most things is not a moral failing but part of my psychological makeup (see Gretchen Rubin’s Abstainer vs. Moderator Quiz for more on this concept). But I’ve also learned that there are few effective ways to engineer in consistent practice each day even for those of us who tend to be all on or all off:
- Gamification and chains: Use a habit tracker app (I currently use Streaks) or a physical calendar on the wall to track how many days in a row you complete a given habit (e.g. practicing kanji, speaking with a tutor, etc.). As Jerry Seinfeld put it when giving advice to an aspiring comic:
“The way to be a better comic is to create better jokes, and the way to create better jokes is to write every day . . . After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
- Competition and accountability: Set friendly wagers with a group of friends or use a “commitment contract” site like Stickk. Interestingly, fear of losing money or tarnishing your reputation tend to be stronger motivators than the desire to acquire money or improve one’s social standing. (Cognitive psychologists call this phenomenon loss aversion, and it guides a surprising percentage of our behavior.)
“People who put stakes―either their money or their reputation―on the table are far more likely to actually achieve a goal they set for themselves.” ―stickK
I hope you have found this post helpful and can leverage the lessons above to avoid the same mistakes I made earlier on in my Japanese journey. But realize that there is no way to avoid all mistakes in any learning adventure, and that missteps are not proof of “failure.” They are in fact, proof of progress. Above all, never let mistakes justify self-limiting beliefs such as “I guess I’m just not good at languages.” Even the most successful hyperpolyglots who can converse in dozens of languages have made―and continue to make―mistakes. The difference between them and aspiring polyglots is that they:
- Are honest with themselves about what is working and what isn’t.
- Learn from their mistakes and try not repeat them twice.
- Greet mistakes with a smile, knowing they are an inevitable part of the path to mastery.