I may have accidentally written more than I was planning to, but this is something I feel so passionately about, that even if only one person reads it in its entirety I will be happy enough. For those who want a single sentence summary though: be an intelligent learner, not a fast one.
Self-Reflection and Intelligent Learning
Yesterday was a special day for me; I had finally reached my first anniversary of using WaniKani, and which coincidentally also happened to be the same day I reached level 24
It’s not an understatement to say that finding WaniKani had played a significant part in helping me move from hopelessly trying to learn Japanese without learning any kanji, to now me being able to read NHK easy articles and a fair amount of manga, and being able to hold somewhat meaningful conversations on HelloTalk.
Who would have though learning kanji would be so helpful. The answer might seem obvious to other people, but to me, at the time, it seemed like a reasonable way to approach the language; “kanji is difficult, so I’ll leave that until I’ve learned some grammar and vocab”, was the idea. Of course, for me, that was futile. Sure, I learnt some grammar from Genki I, and a knew some words, but I couldn’t read anything, and that was very frustrating. Far worse, I wasn’t having any fun. I wanted to learn Japanese, it just wasn’t very fun. At all. This leads me onto the main topic for this thread; self-reflection and intelligent learning.
During my time here I haven’t posted much, but I do often check the forums to see what the current hot topics are, which undoubtedly includes a thread about wanting to go faster or how to level up in those oh so precious 7 days. This irks me to no end. I have only ever leveled up in ~7 days twice, my first and my most recent levels (for those wonder why I have only reached level 24 after one year):
Why do these topics infuriate me, you might ask. Personally - and you might disagree - I think it is a very single-minded approach. Studying, itself, is a skill; it can’t simply be defined as either you are studying or you are not. We all study in different ways, for varying amounts of time, and with varying amounts of success. Some can focus with Godly intent, and others - myself included - get distracted very easily.
I don’t doubt that I am an intelligent person; I did fairly well at school and was in the top 5 on my course at university. I have even published a legitimate research paper (though to my own admission it wasn’t particularly good). However, I’m not a quick learner - I often struggle to process large amounts of information quickly; I simply don’t have the processing power. There were plenty of people on my course who I thought were far more intelligent than me. They could go to a lecture and absorb the information as if it were child’s play. Yet, somehow, I always came out on top. I think this is due to a few reason - partly because I was more dedicate, partly because I cared more, but most prominently because I a took the time to look at myself and see what I was doing that was either helping my studies or hampering them.
This ability to be open and honest with myself isn’t a trait I always had. Through determination and consistent effort I learned how to analyse myself. It enabled me to asking questions like “what can I possibly do to improve” but also “what am I willing to do”. This is something I applied to my studies at university, but can also be applied to life in general, and of course, Japanese studies.
As previously stated, I began learning Japanese with the intention of first learning grammar and vocab, and only dealing with kanji after that. This, of course, didn’t work; I had reached my first hurdle. Rather than giving in to frustration and quitting, I opted to analyse my studies and see what could be done. The answer was fairly simple - learn kanji. The reality - and I’m sure most of you will agree - is that learning kanji isn’t easy. Spurred on by my enthusiasm to tackle this obstacle, I purchased a book containing 2000 core kanji and planned to go through each kanji one by one and learn all the meanings and readings and stroke order… I almost immediately gave up on this solution. It was impossible for me to memorize all of this, a statement no one will be shocked to read.
However, I didn’t give up - I sought another solution instead. I began using Memrise, with which I had a notable increase in success learning vocab. Sure, I learned the readings for some kanji, but many have multiple meanings and readings, and I would quickly forget one reading as I learnt another. An improvement, but not near good enough if I wanted meaningful progress.
At this point I was feeling fairly defeated. I was a sore loser and I don’t take defeat lightly. I had spent many months attempting to learn Japanese, but had almost nothing to show for it. Although I still didn’t give up, my studies had declined dramatically for almost a year to the point where I was only studying enough to not forget what I had already learned, but made no additional progress.
It was then, a year ago, I happened across WaniKani. I don’t remember how, but I did, and it gave me a lifeline I desperately needed. I dropped all existing grammar studies and focused entirely on my reviews and lessons. For the first 14 levels, I personally think everything went fairly well. Sure there were a few long levels, but I was at university at the time, so my time needed to be appropriately divided. Levels 15 to 19, however, on the surface, might seem abysmal. How could someone claiming to be intelligent take so long to level up? The answer is 42.
Around level 15 I had just left university, had moved into my own flat and had started my first job (games programming, for those who are interested). Naturally, my Japanese took a significant hit, as starting a new job is tiring and having to look after yourself takes up a lot of time (washing, cleaning, shopping, and all the other things adults are supposed to do), especially when you live alone and have no one else to rely on. Furthermore, due to the near perpetual anxiety I suffer from, I am frequently left fatigued. All in all, during this particular time I was feeling rather drained, and forcing myself to studying in spite of the fatigue was a sure way to total burnout.
Of course, I didn’t give up. What else were you expecting? During the Christmas period just gone, I took some time to yet again analyse myself. What could I possibly do to keep my Japanese studies going? The solution might not be entirely what you expected it to be.
I became more efficient at work.
I didn’t originally use WaniKani at work because I was always busy with deadlines every other week. Programming and Japanese together were very strenuous for me and I couldn’t do both without affecting my work; I didn’t want to get fired or produce unsatisfactory work. After work, however, I would often go to the gym, then go shopping, and then finally when I arrived home I would cook my dinner. Only then could I begin my studies, and honestly, I just didn’t want to. My brain wouldn’t remember a thing because I was so tired; I had returned to my original state of not finding Japanese fun, and yet, I had made so much progress this time.
The only solution seemed to be getting through some reviews whilst at work, so when I returned home I could do some reading or study some grammar, instead of facing a wall of reviews which we all fear. To do this, I started incorporating the Pomodoro Technique at work. For 25 minutes I would focus entirely on the work at hand, and then for 5 minutes I would do 5 - 10 reviews, as well as taking a small break for food, or drinks, or just a little rest, before repeating the process. The Pomodoro Technique is popular for studying, and I had used it quite a lot during my time at university, but this time I was using it for my everyday work instead. Surprisingly - or perhaps not so surprisingly - it worked quite well. So much so, that my work has maintained, if not, improved, since incorporating it, and I have been able to do around 100 reviews whilst at work, allowing more more time to start integrating more grammar studies and reading into my schedule, all without feeling burnt out. I even managed to get my first ~7 day level up since starting WaniKani.
But I didn’t get to this state because I tried to get through reviews as soon as they appeared. I couldn’t personally do it. I got here because I took the time to find out what worked best for me, given my circumstances. I may have been studying Japanese for over two years now, and only just made my “breakthrough” a year ago - and some people may mock me for taking so long to get to the state I am at now - but I know that even if it takes me 10 more years to become fluent, I will not give up. I wholeheartedly refuse to become another mark on tally of people who gave up learning Japanese - or any language or skill for that matter - and I don’t doubt that there are many others who are just as determined.
I know that at some point I will reach another hurdle again; but I also know that if I don’t give up, if I give myself time to find what works for me, that I will overcome it, and as a result, develop myself further.
I therefore invite you to no longer be a fast learner, but an intelligent one.