This lecture is long. It's also extremely important. If you really want to build an air-tight, effective system for learning Japanese, please read the whole thing.
Or don't. I'm not the boss of you. ^_^
To maintain progress in your studies, you need to:
- Study consistently long-term.
- Be productive, not active.
- Form study habits.
- Limit willpower depletion.
If you want to learn Japanese, all you have to do is study consistently over a long period of time.
However, doing so requires a huge amount of effort. A huge amount of discipline. A huge amount of motivation.
Sounds horrible, yeah? But it's actually not that bad, if you take the right approach. That is, if you have a good mindset.
Imagine that this wheel is your study system:
Anything that we can call “studying" goes inside of this wheel. Reading textbooks; attending classes; listening to audio lessons; doing flashcards; having conversations with friends, teachers, co-workers — all of these go inside of the wheel.
(As a quick note, reading this study guide does not go inside of the wheel because we are not studying Japanese right now. I'll talk about this in just a moment.)
In my experience, all of the types of productive studying fit into three categories:
- Learning—This is talking about any time we put new language into our brains. A word you hadn't heard before. A new grammar concept. The correct pronunciation of a word.
- Review—This is talking about not forgetting language that we have already learned. There are active forms of review (such as flashcards), and then there are passive forms of review (like hearing words that you've learned in a conversation, or recalling words as you read novels, newspapers, etc.).
- Practice—This is talking about making sentences in Japanese. Talking to teachers and friends, struggling to find the right word, the right way to express yourself. Writing essays, articles, emails, journals. Any time we take the Japanese swirling around in our brains and try to put it out into the world, we are practicing.
So this is what our new wheel looks like:
Every time you turn that wheel, you will get better at Japanese. Days that you don't turn the wheel, you don't get better at Japanese.
It really is that simple.
Let's say that you want to ride your bike across the continental United States. A Zen monk told you that if you rode your bike across the US, you would automatically be super fluent at Japanese. Sweet!
What's the catch?
Well, you have to ride this bike:
N-3000 Super Study Bike
Days you ride this bike are days that you get closer to completing your goals. If you go a day without riding the bike, then that's one more day that you won't be at your destination (=fluency).
Smart studying, which we obsess over at NihongoShark, means that you have a very nice bike. It has gears so that you can get over hills. You can go further by pedaling less. It's less likely to break down. You can ride it much further without getting nearly as worn out.
Consistent studying is like riding this bike every day. Your muscles grow. It gets easier. The first day that you ride a bike, it might be really difficult to go eight miles. But if you rode the bike eight miles every day, then I'm guessing that after a few months it would seem really easy. Because you get stronger. Learning a language is very similar. It gets easier. I promise, it gets easier.
This study system will require a lot of initial effort, but the idea is to get to a level where you enjoy studying Japanese as quickly as possible.
For example, I can watch a TV show, understand it, enjoy it, and I'm passively studying Japanese. But I couldn't do this when I first started studying. I wasn't even close. I can read a novel in Japanese, and it's relaxing and entertaining, much like reading a novel in English is. But I couldn't do this when I first started studying.
I want to help people to get to that level, too. Because there were so many times when I almost gave up (and a few times that I actually did). But it really is possible to reach a level where studying is not a chore. Instead, it becomes integrated into your life, the same way your native language is. You've just got to keep pedaling that bike. Keep going. Turn those wheels 100,000 times if you have to.
Because those wheels will take you somewhere.
Productivity > Activity
Let me know if you've ever had an experience like this:
First, you notice a problem, a goal, something you want to change. Maybe you want to lose weight. Maybe you want to get a six-pack. Maybe you want to save money for a trip to Madagascar! Yay!
…Or maybe you want to learn a language.
But it's so hard to save money and lose weight and learn languages.
So you start making a plan.
If I study French 5 hours a day for one year, that's like 1,800 hours of language study. I'll be so fluent!
If I cut 350 calories per day, then I'll lose 1 pound every ten days, which means I'll lose 10 pounds in ten weeks. Awesome!
If I save $10 per day, that's $3,650 a year. Madagascar here I come!
There's only one problem with all of this:
Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing something.
- Thinking about studying French is not the same as learning French.
- Thinking about losing weight is not losing weight.
- Thinking about saving money is not saving money.
Don't get me wrong–I think having a plan is a good thing. We're planning our Japanese studies right now.
But plans have their limits. And us humans like imagining that we're going to accomplish things, because it triggers the same sense of accomplishment as if we'd actually done something. Also, fantasizing too much about positive outcomes is scientifically shown to have a negative effect on the actual realization of goals.
This section of the guide that you are reading is not teaching you new Japanese. Yes, you are being active by reading it because you're thinking about your approach to studying. But you're not being productive because you're not putting new Japanese into your brain.
Long story short, we need to be careful to notice when we think we're "studying" but are actually just being active — are doing little more than thinking about learning Japanese.
So, let's download audio loops (more on those later). Read grammar lessons. Schedule a face-to-face meeting with a teacher. Whatever. Just starting interacting with the Japanese language itself.
Productivity > Activity. Always, always, always.
Sometimes people ask me if they should learn two languages at once.
I'm always hesitant to answer this because I can't really say whether or not this is possible. I do know that I have tried this many times, though, and it was always a disaster.
Now, when setting off on a new journey of learning — or any new venture, for that matter — I try to remember to F.O.C.U.S.
In other words, if learning Japanese is not a priority, then you're going to have a very hard time getting through this course. If someone held a gun to your head and said "Learn the meanings of 2,200 kanji in the next 100 days, or you're dead!" ...you'd probably make it happen.
In the process of making it happen, though, a lot of other priorities would fall to the wayside, yeah? Because you would be so laser-focused that someone would come between you and the accomplishment of your life-or-death goal.
Life's not that simple, but it can help to think about that analogy from time to time.
Forming Study Habits
If you learn to change and manage your habits, you can do anything.
And you can do anything without burning yourself out.
Allow me to give you a glimpse into a few of my study habits (I have a lot). Before I start, I should say that (1) I don't stick to habits 100%. I'm not perfect. Sometimes I get lazy, or busy, or hungover. Meh. But! I do stick to my study habits long-term. Also, (2) my habits are always evolving, but they usually change into slightly varying habits with the same target effect. Here are some examples…
Study Habit #1 – Morning Flashcard Extravaganza
From late 2012 to mid 2016, I did the same thing almost every single morning — I woke up and immediately studied my Anki flashcards for Japanese. (I'll talk about Anki later). Sure, I missed some days, but I studied my flashcards over 99% of the days in that several-years period.
So what happened in 2016?
Well, at the end of 2015, Niko's Daily Lessons happened. Rei and I started sending out Japanese lessons by email every single day. Since I prioritized those lessons over my flashcards, they became the first thing I did each morning, and my flashcard stats suffered. I wasn't that worried about it, though, since teaching lessons still teaches me Japanese. Also, now I'm at a high enough level that I don't really need flashcards anymore.
Anyway, this small, simple habit of studying flashcards every morning generated incredible results. Just to give you a rough idea, at last count I had well over 20,000 Japanese flashcards. In other words, I memorized somewhere around 20,000 Japanese words. And all I was doing was waking up in the morning, having a coffee, and studying some flashcards.
When I used to live in California, every morning I went to my favorite coffee shop, had a coffee and a bagel, studied my flashcards, then went to work.
When I lived in Tokyo, every morning I used to go to the convenience store down the street from my house, buy some mixed nuts and a cold canned coffee, then go back home and do my flashcards.
In 2014-2015, when living in Bangkok, then Sapporo, I studied my flashcards in bed every morning before getting up. Sometimes I did them after getting up and having a coffee.
In a little bit, I'll explain how I formed these habits. Because these are things that you can consciously change. For now, though, the point I want to stress is: I formed a habit, and I got thousands of vocab words out of it.
Study Habit #2 – Long Walks
I love walking. It's kind of embarrassing, actually, because my last name is Walker. But, well, it fits. Anyway, yeah, I love walking. But what I really, really, really love is walking in Tokyo.
There are two reasons for this: (1) I never run out of new things to see and (2) it's safe enough to wear headphones while walking, unlike some other places I've lived around the world.
So, I got into this habit when I lived in Tokyo. Whenever I had a few hours of free time, I started going for walks. I walked all over that city. Shinjuku to Roppongi. Shimokitazawa all the way to Odaiba! Ueno to Asakusa. I walked for miles and miles.
But walking that far takes a lot of time. Specifically, it takes up a lot of low quality time. So, I started listening to audio lessons from JapanesePod101 every time I went for a walk.
I already listened to these (awesome) lessons from time to time when I went running, but usually it was hard for me to concentrate while exercising.
Walking was different, though. I was taking it easy. I wasn't out of breath. I could concentrate… more than 20% of the time. So I made an effort to listen to these lessons every time I went walking and, as luck (actually, science) would have it, after a while it felt totally natural to put on my audio lessons as I set off on a walk. Or, I should say, it felt unnatural to go for a long walk and NOT listen to lessons.
With this small tweak to something that I loved, I was able to form a study habit that resulted in me listening to hundreds and hours of Japanese audio lessons from JapanesePod101.
Note: I have since branched out with my audio materials, and now I prefer loops of sentences to lessons like the ones I just mentioned. More on that later.
What's Low Quality Time?
I'm actually taking the term “low quality time" from the (very awesome) site HackingChinese.com, which writes:
Low quality time is time when you can study, but only in a limited manner.
A good example would be the time you spend driving your car to work. You could listen to something while doing this, but you can't practise writing characters. This is one kind of low quality time.
Another example would be time you spend alone but away from your computer and phone, so you can't listen to Chinese or look up things on the internet. This is another kind of low quality time.
Using this approach, every second of the day can be considered to be study time of different qualities, albeit sometimes so low that it's impossible to use for studying.
Most of my initial study habits were formed from dumb luck — me gluing Japanese to some other thing that I loved and did all of the time. But later, I finally started taking a closer look at the nature of habits, and the fascinating research into all those things we do without thinking.
One of the first nonfiction books that I ever read in Japanese is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. The Japanese version is called 『習慣の力』 (shuukan no chikara), which is pretty much a direct translation. It's a pretty famous book, so maybe you've heard of it before.
In my opinion, this is one of the best books that a person can read as they prepare to learn a foreign language, as changing habits is perhaps the easiest way to stick to a long-term study plan without burning out.
Duhigg's site explains it as follows:
At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.
Habits aren't destiny.
As Charles Duhigg shows, by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.
Habits make up for about 40% of all that we do (apparently), and according to some fancy MIT researchers, there is a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.
One of the simpler examples of this is brushing your teeth. Sometimes your mouth feels icky (CUE), so then you brush your teeth (ROUTINE), and at the end you feel sparkly fresh (REWARD), so you end up repeating the action again… in other words, it becomes a habit.
But that's a highly simplified example. Sometimes it's not that easy to tell what's going on inside of our ridiculous heads.
I'll give a (somewhat embarrassing) example from my personal life. In early 2014, I was living in Tokyo, working as an English teacher at a conversation school. Since I was teaching mostly adults, I usually worked nights. My lunch break was around 4:30pm. Too early for dinner; too late for lunch. So I would usually only eat something small. Then I'd finish work around 10pm, and by the time I got home, it was usually around 11pm. Too late to cook anything. But I also didn't want to eat a big meal. But I also wanted to eat something.
Well, I fell into the horrible — and yet, wonderful — habit of eating Butter Soy Sauce Popcorn from the convenience store like three nights a week. Yikes.
It's kind of cool knowing that these habits find their way into almost every aspect of our lives, but the truly awesome part of this is that habits are malleable. With a little bit of effort, they can be changed.
How to Change Your Habits
You might think that I'm losing track a bit, but I promise that being able to change habits is most definitely relevant to learning Japanese.
Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.
― Charles Duhigg
The basic explanation for how to change a habit is to keep the Cue and (the nature of) the Reward, but change the Routine.
For example, if you're trying to stop eating junk food, you might find a new, healthier food that feels like an indulgence, then you'd eat that every time you craved junk food, and eventually this would become a habit.
Old CUE: Craving something delicious.
Old ROUTINE: Eating junk food.
Old REWARD: Tasting delicious food.
New CUE: Craving something delicious.
New ROUTINE: Eating healthy but delicious alternative.
New REWARD: Tasting delicious food.
Okay, that's great. People can change habits. Awesome.
But the real question is: How can I use this for learning Japanese?
Why, I thought you'd never ask...
Habit Tagging—How to Develop Study Habits for Japanese
I think that changing habits is really, really hard. Most of the time people talk about changing habits, they're trying to stop eating delicious food or quit smoking or something. But we're not trying to get rid of a bad habit; we're trying to gain a good habit. And creating a new, good habit is much easier than changing an old, bad habit.
I have a very complex system for doing this:
- Pick a habit that you already have.
- Link it with Japanese.
Yeah, I was joking. It's not complex at all. It's really simple, and it's something that I like to call it habit tagging… but that's just a phrase I made up.
Habit tagging refers to taking a deeply ingrained habit that you already have and sticking a new, awesome routine on top of it.
For example, for several years, I studied Japanese every morning right after waking up. I used to think that the cue for this habit was waking up, but after reading The Power of Habit, I realized that the real cue was my deeply ingrained — and deeply enjoyed — habit of having a coffee every morning.
I took something that I really loved (my morning coffee), and I made a rule that I had to study my Japanese flashcards every time I did that thing (or before I was allowed to do it). This is the same thing that I did when I started listening to JapanesePod101 lessons every time I went for a walk in Tokyo.
Established Habit That I Enjoy
CUE: Having free time.
ROUTINE: Going for a long walk.
REWARD: Feeling healthy and adventurous and seeing lots of cool things.
Enjoyable Habit Version 2.0
CUE: Having free time.
ROUTINE: Going for a long walk and listening to Japanese lessons.
REWARD: = Feeling healthy and adventurous and seeing lots of cool things... and learning.
Study Habit Assignment:
- Write down a list of your deeply ingrained, enjoyable habits.
- Put stars by the ones that you do every day.
Whenever possible, we want to avoid using willpower. Because using willpower drains us. Most importantly, constantly relying on willpower and effort to study Japanese will set you up for failure.
I'll let the experts explain. Here is a quote from an article by James Clear…
The Willpower Muscle
Decades of research have discovered that willpower is not something you have or don't have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up and restored. Like tired muscles at the end of a workout, your willpower can become depleted if you use it too much.
...a classic example can be found by looking at college students. During finals week, students use all of their willpower to study and everything else collapses as a result. People eat whatever they can find, students who haven't smoked all semester start lighting up outside the library, and many people can't even muster the strength to change out of their sweatpants. There is only so much willpower to go around.
We don't typically think about willpower and motivation as a finite resource that is impacted by all of the things we do throughout the day, but that's exactly how it works.
A few ways you can limit your willpower consumption:
Make studying easy.Your study content should be effortless to access. If you have to print grammar lessons and leave them on your kitchen table so you don't have to go searching for them, do that.
I took the cover off of my Kindle because — embarrassingly, perhaps — flipping it open with one hand always felt like too much work while I was brushing my teeth, and I was looking at my phone instead of reading Japanese books as a result.
Have the audio lessons and Japanese sentence loops on your phone and ready to go. Get some bluetooth headphones and have them hanging around your neck all day, just waiting for that moment you can listen to some Japanese.
Stop making unimportant decisions. They are draining your willpower reserves.
Don't read restaurant menus for longer than ten seconds. Make all of your clothes match so it doesn't matter what you grab to wear each day.
Do these suggestions sound ridiculous to you? These are taken from my real life. My energy is precious, and I don't like wasting it on everyday decisions. I save the energy for those big things that are deeply important to me.
↑ Well, these are the things that have helped me to successfully pursue major goals. I hope you found some useful nuggets in there, too... though I'm guessing your ideal life setup will be quite different from mine. ^_^