I hope you are doing well, that you are succeeding in whatever it is you are pursuing and that you are having a good time along the way. I have been casually and very slowly teaching myself Japanese, mainly for fun, over the last two years. Since coming back from the retreat, I have been taking things a little more seriously, learning and remembering a few characters and words each day.
I have been wondering how much of this is also applicable to learning any language, and how much of this even applicable to learning anything at all. What are the mistakes we all tend to make when learning, and how is it that we can overcome them?
In this letter, I want to share with you some of the fruits of this line of thinking.
A tale of three alphabets
One thing that helps keep me driven towards a goal is seeing how that the amount of effort I need to put in is finite. The author Tim Ferris used to feel this way about learning Japanese, and arguably for good reason; it's no easy task. Japanese has two phonetic alphabets; Hiragana and Katakana. Each of these have 46 characters, making a combined count of 92.
"Hi-ra-ga-na" in Hiragana
"Ka-ta-ka-na" in Katakana
Either one of these alphabets is longer than our familiar roman one, and both of them together are not enough.
In addition to these, there is Kanji. These are ideographs.
Kanji written in Kanji
- A phonetic alphabet by the way means that each letter — also known as a graph — refers to a sound that we make. Our alphabet works like this.
- Ideographs, like Kanji, mean that each character corresponds with an idea. A consequence of this, is that there no one way to pronounce them
When you read this on a sign, you can only say "exit"; you can't read it as "way out" or "go this way to leave". We call these letters phonographs, as they refer to the sounds they make. This is what I mean by phonetic.
If you read this as "exit", you would be right. You would be just as correct to read it as "way out" or "go this way to leave". This is what I mean by an ideograph. The graphic here refers to an idea. Japanese Kanji is just like this.
Back to our friend Tim Ferris. He had a monumental task ahead of him. There are too many Kanji for any of us to learn, the average Japanese adult doesn't even know them all. The comprehensive list used in Japan is about fifty thousand. To be a fluent in Japanese, the measure of which is being able to read a newspaper, you only need to read a tiny amount of them. The sum total comes up to about two thousand five hundred characters, known as the "regular use" kanji, or the Jōyō kanji (常用漢字.) This is still more than a little scary.
Tim painfully worked his way through these characters but couldn't feel himself progressing. One day he solved this problem. He bought a poster of all two thousand of them and put it up on his wall. They were all in sight. Despite being a monumental task, he could see clearly that it was a finite one. The end was in sight. Rather than one massive challenge, there were now two thousand manageable ones. When you can see the that the effort you have to put in is finite, that is; when we know we can progress, we can work more enthusiastically towards our goal. When we see the problems as tractable, we do not freeze in their wake.
Reasons for learning Japanese
For the past year or so, I have very slowly and very casually been learning Japanese. Recently I've started to take it a little more seriously and followed the footsteps of Tim Ferris in putting up a poster of all the Joyo Kanji on my wall.
For the time being, when I look up at it, I barely understand a thing...
I gave some thought as to what my reasons are for learning Japanese.
1. To untether my thinking from conventions of the English Language
In George Orwell's iconic masterpiece 1984, the ruling English Social Party created the language Newspeak to control its residents. It achieved this by limiting the vocabulary of the language, thereby barring the populace from expressing themselves properly or even thinking freely. All of this was intentionally designed to the benefit of the party. By inhibiting speech, they inhibited minds.
Even though our existing languages are tools that we have created to serve us, the thought came to mind, could there be similar limitations that arose by chance? Are there ways of thinking inaccessible to us simply because of how our language is structured?
Is everyone that is monolingual limited in this way? In their thinking and their expression? Are there concepts I have trouble with because they cannot be expressed in English, or at the very least cannot be conveyed well?
A part of the reason I am learning a language is to uncover blindspots in my thinking that may be due to the conventions of the English language. Japanese is perfect for this (at least for me) because it is as different from English as you can get.
This is also a kind of experiment on my mind. What will happen to it when I install the software of another language?
2. To learn more about learning itself
A child emerges from their mother's womb new to the world and thoroughly confused at the noises everyone around them makes. Within a few years they will join them in making those noises, in becoming fully endowed with at least spoken language, and therefore being a part of our culture. How does this happen? How do we learn things at all? As I learn Japanese, I want to pay attention to what things work, when I get stuck, which parts I enjoy and if all of these can be applied to other languages and indeed other domains. I have already mentioned one finding, that you can make an immense task tractable by dividing into manageable parts.
Other questions on my mind are, what is the relationship between understanding and mere memorisation? How much do we need to learn before diving in and learning-by-doing? How important is the order in what we learn? Where does fun play into this? What is the overlap between the best and most enjoyable ways of learning? What is it that keeps what we have learned in our long term memory? Is the only thing that prevents us from forgetting English our constant use of it? When learning in one field, how much extra knowledge from others inevitably "comes along for the ride"? How can we best
Needless to say, I have been playing with various experimental ways of learning. Using numerous apps, trying to talk to native speakers, trying to learn how to sing Japanese songs I like, and watching content with and without subtitles.
I have a feeling with language learning, and indeed, with any domain, the best way isn't to follow one set path from start to finish but to change what one is doing based on one's present problems and interests.
3. To understand more about our culture
When you learn about a language, it seems to me that knowledge about its culture and history inevitably come along for the ride. This is a welcome and indeed enjoyable part of it all.
Did you know that Kanji originated in ancient china? They used to burn the letters into the backs of dried out turtle shells. Written language was a very esoteric practice, known only to the higher classes of the time. A bleeding-edge technology compared to the age-old tradition of oral communication.
Click here to read a little about the history of Kanji
The Japanese only had oral language, for the longest of times. It was only around 500 AD did this begin to change with Chinese Immigrants bringing their written characters with them: that is; Kanji. The Japanese simply took it from them. The characters are the same, and they also mean the same thing. However, the Japanese already had their own spoken language, so they mapped all of the Chinese characters to their words. They retained the original Chinese meaning, but were pronounced in the Japanese language.
The world we live in is getting increasingly more multicultural. It is all-too-easy to encounter Kanji here in the west, in Asian stores and districts, on products throughout the home, on people's clothing (or even tattooed to their skin), and in films and television. We have all already encountered these characters — which mean something — time and time again. It may have never occurred to you that understanding them was even an option. Recognising it out in the wild; it feels like unlocking new content in this video game that is life (生).
4. To read One Piece in Japanese (actual reason)
The Japanese create a lot of content. Most of it is available in English, but I feel there is always something lost in translation. I remember a scene from my favourite anime/manga One Piece.
In short, it is a story set in a fantasy world where all the powers of the world have unified into a single World Government. Yet the conflict in the world is far from over; the sea is now its stage. The ongoing struggle between order and chaos manifests itself as the fighting between marines and pirates.
Wait, that's too deceptive. It is a children's action and adventure show about pirates with superpowers.
If you haven't heard of it, you'll probably recognise its art...
I mean One Piece is the reason why Eichiro Oda is the twelfth best-selling author of all time, sandwiched in between Dr Seuss and Leo Tolstoy.
In the scene Robin — one of the main characters — was captured by the World Government. The rest of the crew are on a desperate chase to save her. In a long shot, the crew is able to gather up a plethora of allies who were also wronged by the government and pursue them — on a sea-train of all things, that is; one that has tracks over the surface of the ocean.
Everything seems to be going well, when Luffy — the main character and pirate captain — yells out:
This means return or go back.
Everyone inside the train was confused. They had beat the odds time and time again, it was as if the planets had aligned for them to get this far. Why on earth would they turn back?
But once again, they heard a yell from above: かえる!!!!!!
When they started climbing to the top, they realised what was happening.
A giant frog stood in the way of the train. かえる can mean "return", but it can also mean "frog". There are many words like this, and it is almost never an issue as it is obvious in context what the person meant. This was an example where it wasn't.
If the translator didn't add notes and explain this well, this is easily a little bit that I could have missed. I'm sure that when watching or reading content in a foreign language that there are little bits like this peppered in all the way through. That unless you knew the nuances of the language, you would miss entirely. I look forward to one day understanding all of this and catching all these things.
I am also interested in reading the Zen Poetry by Matsuo Basho and Issa Kobayashi. I am keen to read Haikus in their original language, in their original form but a friend of mine tells me that this is rather ambitious. I remember attending a talk and the beginning of the year by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche where he said that to understand the Buddhist truth of emptiness or non-duality poetry is much more potent than analytical thought.
Learning a language: A tractable problem
I have been thinking about learning in general, as well as learning languages for quite some time. When you dive deep into learning one skill, it seems that many others inevitably come along for the ride. All knowlege appears related in this way. When you learn to speak, you improve your writing. If you learn how to programming or make art or play music, new parts of your brain are used and new ways of thinking become available to you. How much of what I am learning in Japanese can be applied to other domains? I would like to believe that not only can I improve in the language, but also at learning languages and even at learning in general.
Just like Tim Ferris, I am getting in tune with the tractibility of it all. There may be a lot to do, but there are only so many things that need to be done. The large task can be divided into a plethora of managable ones. This is one thing that would apply to any language, and perhaps almost any domain. To gain profiency, there are only so many things you need to do.
Let's look at language.
For any given language you need to know:
- The Alphabet(s) and Syllabary(s): The symbols used and how they sound
- The Vocabulary: Words and what they mean
- The Grammar: How to put these words together to communicate ideas
Each of these can be divided into pieces and learned in different ways. Generally, to spend all of one's time memorising is a mistake — you want to put things into practice as soon as you can — so as to cement these into long term memory.
Tim talks about being agnostic to the method used. How you learn it is not the point. It's that you learn the material, there's only so much of it.
I am not so agnostic here, the best way in my mind is to learn-by-doing. To jump straight into being immersed by the language and its culture. Why are you learning a language in the first place? What is it you want to do? A friend of mine, who knows multiple languages, talks about how he never really was interested in language. He was really interested in culture; in the ideas, the philosophy, music, film and art. Why not engage directly with all of these directly? When you have trouble, when you get stuck it reveals what you need to work on before you come back. It will always be a matter of learning characteres, vocabulary or grammar — and there is only so much you need to learn.
When you know enough of each of these pieces to use the language, to read and write simple things, or to engage in very simple conversation then you can apply them, practising them concurrently with learning the theory, continually getting closer to fluency.
Whenever you practice and get stuck, it will then be a matter of tracking down the letters, words or grammar you are missing. By diving into applying your learning as soon as possible, holes are revealed.
Simply find fun and interesting ways to familiarise yourself with all of the components of the language, and practice them and you're all set.
Tim Ferris' TED Talk on learning anything .
Tandem an app that lets you chat with native speakers of your target language.
WaniKani, a remarkably well-designed tool to learn Kanji and Japanese vocabulary. Uses chunking, mnemonics and spaced repetition to teach radically faster than any formal course.
- Fun Fact: Wani is Japanese for alligator, Kani is Japanese for Crab
Anki: Intelligent flashcards.
- If you want to memorise anything using our best memory science. This is the definitive software to use if you want to learn with Spaced Repetition Flashcards. There are premade decks that you can download on almost any topic including languages, sciences, maths, music and law.
History of Japan by Bill Wurtz. This is an extremely entertaining video and you should definitely watch it.
I wrote today about the efforts I'm making to slowly learn Japanese while having fun along the way, but I hope some of this is applicable to learning almost anything. Finding interest in what you are doing, then dividing it into manageable pieces is the key here. The whole process can feel very productive and rewarding, the struggles that we tend to have are really the uncertainty; "will I ever be able to learn this?"
I have also been learning the programming language Rust, I have been working my way through an online course and applying the knowledge to practice problems in a similar vein to my language learning. I intend to partake in the Advent of Code challenge in December. It's an event that happens every year and usually involves a story where you save Santa from a series of highly improbable sounding events. Instead of a chocolate, you get a coding puzzle to solve every day until Christmas.
Earlier I was talking about how knowing more than a single language may open your mind to thinking about the world in different ways — maybe learning how to code does something similar?
Do any of you have an experience like this? Do you feel like you know things in one language that cannot be known easily in another? Or that your understanding of a single area has affected the way you view others? Does the knowledge "leak" into other aspects of your life?
I would love to hear your answers to these questions, please reply to this email.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to read all the way to the end of another letter.