Tae Kim’s Language Studying Tips

Now that I’m studying Chinese from scratch, I’m back to where I was when I started learning Japanese six years ago. (My god, has it been that long already?) It’s great because it really reminds me of what it was like to be completely lost in a new language. In fact, I think foreign language teachers should study a new language every now and then to really see what it’s like to be the student.

Anyway, since this is a blog about Japanese, I thought I’d share with you some common ideas and strategies I found to be effective in learning a new language whether it’s Japanese, Chinese, or any other language. While some of these ideas might seem obvious to those who have studied foreign languages, I mention them here because it is very easy to forget and to fall back into bad habits (including myself).

Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide (TM)

Ok, I didn’t actually trademark anything but that’s how clever I thought the title was. We should spread the phrase by saying it was first said by a wise Chinese monk or something. The conversation would look something like this.

Some Dude: Hey, can you teach me Japanese?

You: I would but “Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide”.

D: Huh?

Y: It means that you must constantly be studying a language in order to learn it. If you stop, it’ll all just fade away.

D: Isn’t that like, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”?

Y: Not exactly. What I said was first said by a wise Chinese monk.

D: Whoa… that’s deep.

Don’t fall for the “Master Japanese in just XX days/weeks” gimmick. Learning a new language is a long-term commitment. It’s different from learning how to ride a bike or how to whistle. No matter what your goal is, whether it’s native level or just some travel phrases, if you don’t keep practicing, you will forget.

You only truly learn a language with continual practice. It’s like biking up a series of hills and plateaus. As soon as you stop learning or practicing, you’ll start to slowly roll back down. Once you’ve reached a plateau (long-term memory), the knowledge will fade less quickly but if you ignore it long enough, you will eventually slide back down, eventually going back all the way to the beginning, leaving all your efforts in vain.

Even native speakers often complain of how they’re forgetting their native language once they stop using it. What chance do you have of retaining a foreign language then? Of course, by now, your native language is deeply rooted in your long-term memory so it’ll soon come back as long as you don’t neglect it for too long. However, new, short-term memory of a foreign language doesn’t stand a chance.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to study every minute of every day. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment just a consistent long-term one. In fact, I would advise going your own pace rather than trying to study too much at once and burning yourself out. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint… a very long marathon that never ends.

In my case, while I had the opportunity and luxury to study and practice Japanese virtually every day with native speakers during college, I’m taking a more conservative pace with Chinese due to the constraints of my full-time job. I usually only study during my commute once every couple of days, probably no more than 2 to 4 hours a week. I also spend about 3 hours every Sunday with a native Chinese speaker practicing for about an hour and a half in exchange for teaching English. Even though I only spend a total of about 3 to 5 hours a week studying Chinese, I am fairly satisfied with my rate of progress. The most important thing is to keep at it with consistent study and practice.

You have to grab language by its horns

During my college days, I spent my first trimester of Japanese doing what every college student is supposed to do: go to classes, do the homework, and study for tests (all at the last minute of course). If you do just that, you might do ok in class (I got a B+), but that doesn’t mean you’re learning the language! No matter how great the teacher might be, the classroom format is simply not enough.

The biggest problem with the classroom format is that you never use the language for your own purposes. You are always being told which grammar to use, what vocabulary to memorize, how to say something, etc., because after all, that’s what teaching is. With homework and tests, you have to come up with the “correct” answers as well. The only difference is that it’s done at home instead. Unfortunately, while there are a whole lot of wrong answers or things that make little to no sense, there are no right answers to good communication. But with classroom material, you never learn how to express your own thoughts and feelings in the way you want to express them. If you never get the chance to make the language your own, it always feels like a language that is… well foreign.

At my school, the Chinese students were required to meet with a language tutor every week, which I think is a great idea. Unfortunately, meeting with a language tutor was optional for us Japanese kids. I did it anyway though. It was great. I got to meet and talk with fellow students who also happened to be Japanese. They got paid, I got practice, learning how to say what I wanted to say, and we had a great time overall (or at least I did). As a bonus, all of my tutors happened to be female and some were even cute! I can’t believe most of my fellow classmates didn’t even sign up. If you would turn down a great opportunity like that, it probably means you’re doomed to fail for reasons I will describe at the end.

Now that I’m out of college, I no longer have such a wonderful opportunity to practice Chinese but I did manage to secure a tutoring session once a week by hanging out at local international events. Although it’s free, I have to teach English in exchange and she is at least over 15 years older than me but she’s a nice lady so I can’t complain. The moral of this story is that you should take advantage of the resources available to you to make opportunities for speaking the language.

Practicing [A] doesn’t improve [B]

The fundamental reason why it’s absolutely necessary to go out and actually use the language for your own means is because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. This may sound obvious but many students learning Japanese are under the illusion that taking tests, answering questions in class, and filling in worksheets will somehow magically enable them to learn how to read, write, speak, and hear Japanese. This is not the case!

If you’re wondering why you can hardly speak Japanese after taking Japanese classes for so many years, ask yourself this, “How many hours did I spend speaking Japanese? How many books have I read? How much Japanese have I written?” You need to ask yourself the same type of question for each aspect of the language because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. It might help but each aspect of the language is only improved by actually practicing and refining it in the real world.

If you want to improve your reading skills, go read some books. If you want to improve your writing, find something to write about. Speaking and listening often go hand in hand so go find somebody to talk to if you want to improve those skills. It seems obvious but many students at my school couldn’t understand why they weren’t improving even though they haven’t spent a single minute outside of class speaking Japanese or even meeting anyone who can speak Japanese. They also haven’t read a single book, magazine, comic, short story, anything, much else write something on their own. All I can say is, “What do you expect, man?!” Of course it’s not completely their fault. After all, none of us were required to do any of those things for class. So, unless you are in an immersed environment such as living in Japan, you have to motivate yourself to go out and use Japanese.

Input before Output

Those who are new to learning languages might be under the mistaken impression that languages make sense. You might think that if you learn the vocabulary and grammar, you can string the vocabulary together with the correct grammar to make sentences. This might work to some degree for some languages, but with Japanese, it’s almost guaranteed to not work. Japanese is not a language you can figure out with logic, which is why finding somebody you can ask questions and learning vocabulary with context is so important. Take a look at what might happen if you try to figure things out for yourself.

Method 1: “Figuring it out”

You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend so let’s see… according to my dictionary, “miss” is 「欠ける」 so “missing” is 「欠けている」. Great, now I just need to make “you” the direct object with 「を」 particle and the verb goes last so “I’m missing you” should be 「私はあなたを欠けている。」 Great!

What a disaster! While the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make any sense and worse, it’s kind of insulting because 「欠ける」 means something is “lacking” with a very negative connotation. Now, let’s see what would have happened if you were smart enough to learn from example.

Method 2: Asking a native speaker

You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend. How do I say that?

Native Speaker) Well, we don’t really say “I miss you,” in Japanese. We usually just say we’re lonely or “I want to meet you”.

Y) Oh, how do you say that?

N) “Lonely” is 「さびしい」 or 「さみしい」. “Wanting to meet” is 「会いたい」.

Y) Great, can you write the kanji for me?

N) Sure.

Awesome. Now that you are able to express your dire need and endless love to your girlfriend, hopefully next time you meet, she’ll be all over you like hot butter and syrup on a pancake. Way to go!

Of course, in real life, things don’t always go so smoothly. You might not know enough of the grammar or vocabulary to understand the answer. You also need to go home, sit down and study the grammar and vocabulary using textbooks, workbooks, dictionaries, the grammar guide, whatever you prefer. But the important thing is to get input first before you try coming up with your own output. And even then, it’s a good idea to get somebody to look at your output to make sure it’s correct.

Learning old material with new material

Now that I talked about what you need to do, let’s look at some ideas on how to go about it.

Generally, you need a lot more input before you can generate output of similar quality. In my case, I usually have to see something about five or six times in completely different contexts before I can internalize it enough to use it myself. Of course, it all depends. Fundamental concepts and conjugations require a lot more exposure and practice than simple vocabulary.

So the best way to internalize material is by running into it here and there over a long time span. You can optimize this by overlapping new material with old material. This is called pipelining in computer chips and is used extensively to increase the performance of your computer. You can do this too by learning new material even if you haven’t completely memorized the old material. When old material shows up in new material, you will start the process of internalizing the new material while you’re reviewing the old material.

What you should never do is stop learning new things because you haven’t completely mastered something else. You might hear people say, “Oh no, I can’t learn the next chapter because I don’t completely understand the last one.” or “I’m not going to learn that because we haven’t gone over it in class yet.” or “Learning that now will just confuse me.” This is pure bollocks because looking at just one thing over and over doesn’t increase comprehension. You need to look at it in different contexts, used in different ways for different purposes. You need to look at all the angles before you can say you really understand the material. And if you can start learning new material at the same time, that’s another bird with the same stone.

You shouldn’t underestimate your brain’s ability to absorb new material. You might hear a word and think, “Oh, I’ll never learn that” but on the contrary, you’re already learning it! If you ever thought, “Hey, this word sounds familiar. Where have I heard it before?” you’re closer to memorizing it than words you’ve never heard before. If you do this often enough, you’ll be remembering words you don’t even remember learning! This is essentially how you learned your native language. Let’s take a look at the continuation of the previous dialog asking how to say, “I miss you”.

Y) Is 「会いたい」 an adjective?

N) It acts like an adjective but it’s the 「たい」 form of the verb 「会う」, which means “to meet”.

Y) Oh yeah, I remember! We learned that form in class last week. What was the conjugation rule again?

N) You change the 「う」 to 「い」 and add 「たい」.

Y) Ok, got it.

See? In that short exchange, you managed to review the 「たい」 form while at the same time learning 「会う」. The next time, you might learn, for instance, 「飲み会」 and you can use that opportunity to review and reinforce 「会う」. Keep repeating the cycle and you’ll start making all sorts of connections and memorizing things left and right in no time.

It’s the attitude that counts!

In the end, the thing that matters the most is your attitude. If studying or practicing Japanese feels like a dreadful chore, you are doomed to failure. I can attest to this because I hated learning Spanish in High School and the only Spanish I know now is, “Donde esta el bano”. But hey, you’re in luck because Japanese is much more interesting than Spanish!

Nevertheless, if you somehow find that learning Japanese is boring or a chore, you need to incorporate things into your study that will make it fun right away! In my case, I enjoy reading, playing games, drinking, and eating so I study by doing those things in a way that incorporates Japanese such as reading Japanese novels. (And all my games are strictly for “educational purposes”. Honest.) I also enjoy hanging out and chatting with friends so making Japanese friends and hanging out with them improved my speaking and listening skills. And if I can get drinks and food into the mix every so often, even better! (Fortunately, many Japanese people love to eat and drink.)

To give you another example, I don’t particularly like watching TV that much but a friend of mine does and that’s how she learned Japanese; by watching a lot of Japanese TV. It must have worked because her Japanese is quite excellent.

Whatever floats your boat, you should incorporate it into your studies to make learning more enjoyable. For example, lots of people on my forum are learning Japanese with anime because that’s what they enjoy. This is great because it often leads them to explore and become interested in other areas of Japanese lifestyle and culture, which in turn increases the incentive to learn more Japanese.

Also, I think it’s pretty much a given that we all enjoy making friends and socializing so that’s one activity we can all do. If there are very few or no Japanese people in your area, you might try finding a conversation partner online, study abroad, or just move! C’mon, get out of that rural backwater and go someplace more international!

If you’re socially inept, making friends while learning a foreign language is perfect for you. It levels the playing field because it’s hard to be suave when you can hardly speak the language. Hey, that’s a great strategy for getting a girl, I bet. Cleverly hide your lack of social skills with your inability to speak the language. I don’t know how wise this is for serious relationships though…

25 thoughts on “Tae Kim’s Language Studying Tips

  1. Wow! Great post. Kinda reminded me why I started learning languages in the first place, and gave me some courage to keep going… Thanks. 🙂

  2. In the “Practicing [A] doesn’t improve [B]” paragraph, don’t you essentially argue that Japanese classes are worthless? (not that I disagree much)

  3. Not at all. Doing anything related to Japanese is always helpful, I’m just saying class by itself is not enough. However, if the teacher and/or textbook is really bad, then yes, Japanese class may do more harm then good. The worst case is when the teacher can’t really speak Japanese. I hear this happens far more often than it should. And if that’s the case, you should drop the class.

  4. I’m at this annoying plateau where I don’t know what to do next. Either the things I do to practice Japanese are too easy, or they are overwhelming. My wife is constantly badgering me on my horrible grammar. (かかる、すごす、たつ Grrrarrrr! Which one was it?) I’m trying to get past this hurdle, but nothing seems to work.

  5. In response to Alex’s comment:

    ‘My wife is constantly badgering me on my horrible grammar.’

    You probably shouldn’t learn Japanese from your wife. I tried learning Japanese from my boyfriend but couldn’t because his approval was so important to me that I hated it when he corrected me. It felt like he was critisizing me and it made me not want to study at all. I would just continue to make the same mistakes and/or freeze-up and be unable to speak Japanese in front of him.

    That’s why you should learn from someone else who isn’t so close to you like your wife. You won’t feel so self-conscious and because you’re relaxed you’ll be able to notice and correct your mistakes yourself. Also, you won’t feel bad when they correct your mistakes for you.

  6. Well, I think it depends on what you mean by badgering. You should try to make things constructive by asking what’s wrong and why, with example sentences. For example, かかる as in 2時間がかかる (It’ll take two hours) vs 2時間がたった (2 hours have passed) If she doesn’t want to bother with explanations and teaching… well, I guess you’ll just have to make do with example sentences from dictionaries.

    For example:
    (def #7 of II)

    Also, remember to be patient. It might seem like you’re not advancing at the intermediate level because you’ve already learned the most common words so a word like “scholarship” doesn’t help as much as learning for instance, the word for, “today”. You are learning but it’s just harder to see it. I think once you pass a certain threshold, you’ll finally begin to feel like you’re finally starting to get it. It just takes a lot of effort to get there.

  7. Well, my case is rather special, in that my wife is Korean and her only second language is Japanese, and I’m American and my only second language is Japanese, so we speak only Japanese to each other, only she mastered the language relatively fast, and I hung out in Tokyo talking in English with all of the other foreign students, and so I understand everything she says, but I can’t respond without lengthy explanations, and my grammar is just plain broken.

    She’s actually a really good teacher, when it comes down to it. It’s also a factor that our new baby leaves a dent in our timetables, which deprives me of study time outside of my full-time job.

    Do you, by the way, have any resources of articles in Japanese that are rather short but sweet? Small readings that I could get through in 30 minutes to an hour a day?

    And, Princess Buttercup – Aaaaas yooooou wiiiiiiiish! 🙂

  8. >And all my games are strictly for “educational purposes”. Honest.
    へぇ どんなゲームだったのかしら。。。
    怪しいね。。。 (^^ );

    BTW, this is a very nice article!

  9. FFXIIとか「龍が如く」とか、くだらないやつばかりですよ。でも、一応全部日本語版なので、すこしは勉強になっているかな~と思ったりしていますが、正直ちょっと微妙ですね。

  10. I used to tell myself that playing games in Japanese was a study tool as well, but, really, how often are you going to be talking about summoning, fire materia, phoenix downs, and mana potions, unless you’re into the whole Akihabara thing. But, actually, the only thing that made me stop playing games at all was my significant other, whose fury I like to keep subdued if at all possible.

  11. I can relate to that. I still try to play though which is why we get into fights. That must be some fury if it managed to stop you playing games totally. My mom is Korean so I can kind of see where you’re coming from though.

    Most of the useless words are in カタカナ so they are easy enough to ignore. My problem is that I’m too busy playing the game to open up a dictionary for words I don’t know. Plus, complicated kanji on the TV screen is hard to decipher.

  12. I think to learn a new language, interest in the language is most important. I started learning Japanese about a year back simply out of interest. Although I can hardly understand 10% of what is said on NHK Radio, I am still pressing on because of interest. I therefore completely agree with your assessment that attitude counts a lot. Good luck to you in learning Chinese. I am conversant in Chinese and though as it may be, it is an interesting language of itw own.

  13. Good article, and I feel quite reassured by what you were saying in the comments about the intermediate level.

    I didn’t really ever practise my conversation before I came to Japan, and so during the first few weeks here I had a dramatic increase from hardly being able to speak/decipher what anyone else was saying, to being able to understand about 80% (it’s generally just a vocabulary problem) and being able to have interesting conversations with people. I think it’s because I already had all of the knowledge from all of the reading/writing which we did in lessons, I just had no idea how to process it so that I could speak.

    I have however now reached a sort of lull in how much I’m improving, and I quite often feel frustrated when I know that I want to say something, but can’t work out the grammar or I don’t know the vocabulary required to say it. The problem is I think that there’s only so much preparation you can do for conversation, in that I almost never have any idea what I’m going to end up talking about on a certain day, so sometimes I am able to say everything that I want to, and sometimes I can’t say anything at all.

    Do you have any advice on what to do to improve this? I’m trying to hang around with Japanese people as often as possible, I’m reading a novel in Japanese, I read my friend’s blogs on mixi, I write things occasionally (this is the one thing which I’m not doing a lot of focusing on because it’s not that important to me right now), but I feel like I’m missing out on doing something which would help me to retain stuff more easily.

    Hmm! I really like your blog though, it’s always an interesting read.

  14. Thanks, I’m glad you like the blog. Sometimes I worry that I’m the only one that finds this stuff interesting.

    I think you are currently doing all the right things in order to improve your Japanese in general. Regarding the problem of focus and not being able to say specifically what you want to say, might I suggest trying anyway perhaps in simpler terms and seeing if the other person can help you out with the necessary vocabulary and/or grammar? For instance, if you don’t know how to say “alimony”, you might ask 「離婚した後、離婚した人に毎月払わないといけないお金を何というの?」 (I don’t even know if they have anything like alimony in Japan, which I think is different from 慰謝料, so it’s an interesting question.) If possible, it would be even better to have the person write down the things you didn’t know so that you can take it home or you can punch it into an electronic dictionary and have it in the history function. (I usually always carry one around in my bag.)

  15. Tae Kim, fantastic post. I always appreciate the way you take the tough love approach because I think it helps people immensely to know from the outset what kind of work is involved in learning a foreign language. Kudos.


  16. 本当に、ありがとう。最近、僕の進歩がとまったように感じ始めたのに、心配し始めてしまいました。このポストを読んで、ちょっと安心しました。書いてくれて、ありがとうございました。頑張ります。

    I’m quite fond of your blog, by the way.

  17. I know its difficult to learn a language, but its distressing to hear about just how hard it actually is. Especially since I harbor dreams of fluency in a secound language, and familarity with Chinese, Japanese and Korean. (I’m actially thinking about taking courses in Chinese and Japanese simultaenously next semester.) 怖いですね?

  18. I think Kim-san forgot to add 1 more tip.

    For those who are in college, finish all your core requirements and the core requirements for your degree before you take foreign language class. Foreign language class does eat a lot of your study time. Take the pressure off your back by finishing your core requirements.

  19. That was nice.! I was clicking around the internet to help me get a headstart on my Japanese classes (I’ve been studying it for one semester at uni so far) — I’ve been trying to watch Japanese television without subtitles and it’s usually their grammar that stumps me — and I stumbled across your site/blog. I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese culture (but now Korea is slowly inching its way up, I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t take Korean instead)… but I was beginning to get a little discouraged with all the…dissonance between your guide and what I’m learning in class. Nonetheless, I do wish my school system did have a structure that is more conducive to learning an Asiatic language (most of the tutoring classes are for the Romantic or Anglo languages)… but I do thank you for all your tips! And I heartily agree about the practice thing. I’m a native Chinese and English speaker (fluent in both, semi-literate in Chinese)… and well, I know plenty of people like me who’s Chinese just plain sucks because they don’t practice it anymore (I speak it at home with my mother who knows virtually no English at all). And personally, from what I’ve heard… after you’ve taken a year (or even just a semester) or a language… try your hardest to see if you can get into a language immersion course abroad. I had a friend who did that in China (he’s Caucasian and knew no Chinese whatsoever), and when he came back from Beijing he could understand me perfectly and even spoke to me with relative ease (of course, this is taking into account the fact that Chinese is very similar to English).

  20. Posts like this one, that makes ourselves more confident! This thing about drawing a line in sand near the tide, in my opinion, reports exactly what learning a language is. I’ll try to spread these words here in brazil, to motivate my friends too. If just with you Guide to Japanese Material, i was your fan, after this post, just increase my admiration. Congratulations!

  21. Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide (TM)

    This is deep. If I truly understood this statement, I would not be who I am now. This statement applies to every study or discipline in life.

    One thing that I might add is that drawing a line in the sand is extremely fun. You don’t even think about the tide because you are so immersed in the activity.

Comments are closed.