Jamaican and Canadian talk Japanese

Paul Nogas from Canadian learning Japanese left me quite an interesting comment recently and mentioned me in an blog post critiquing different methods of learning Japanese. There are literally hundreds of forums talking about different methods, particulary the AJATT ( All Japanese All the Time ) method, versus other more traditional ways of learning to read, write and speak Japanese. This is my response to his post about my blog. It started out as a comment but got way too long : )

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First things first Paul, I GREATLY appreciate you suggesting to people they visit my site. I’ve been flagging lately and I haven’t posted anything new in a while. I am happy to see that you visited my site and read through some of blog posts.

I’ll just pick out a few things from your blog and then write my opinions on them.

From what I have read it seems that our Jamaican friend is learning the whole 2,045 jooyoo Kanji. And if I am correct, he is focusing on their meaning and how to write them only.

This is correct to an extent… because I live in Japan. Like a lot of  people, initially I thought that doing the Heisig Method was a waste of time. After finding the AJATT site when trolling through forums looking  for an explanation of how to transition from learning Kanji from English-only meanings, I knew I had my method. Here’s why:

1. When you live in Japan, you have NO choice when it comes to being exposed to the language (and subsequently, being frustrated by your infant-level knowledge of it as well).

After you have a bad episode at the bank, the post office, can’t read your mail, have no idea how to keep up a conversation at a bar with a cute Japanese girl, get frightened when police are trying to help you and you think they are trying to arrest you, then you realize you have one of 2 choices.

a)    Leave Japan  or

b)    Get a handle on the language.

Now I have to say that I learned a lot of Japanese passively through listening. I mention this because like a baby, if you hear people say “chotto matte” enough times you’ll know it means “wait”, etc etc. However, in terms of reading Kanji I didn’t really have time to learn passively. When I used to think of learning Japanese before it was either you:

i) go to a language school and do rote memorization and other methods for an extended period of time (which I couldn’t afford or have time for)

ii) use an alternate method that can take you there (i.e Heisig, AJATT, other).

iii) be Japanese and be happy in your fluency

This is where my idea of TIME became essential. I had already started Heisig once or twice before and gave up (because I didn’t know how to transition). The difference now? I had a foreseeable END POINT. Meaning, something told me in my head that Kanji wouldn’t just be noise in my head. So I thought about it, within my means of time and resources, what was the best method? School? Heisig? I chose Heisig.

AJATT seems difficult and brings your focus away from the actual comprehension of the langauage (ie: speaking, reading full sentences and knowing in which context to use words). This became apparent when he posted sentences he would figure out which I found were fairly simple. Granted this post was early in his journey but he claimed to know 330 kanji before this which is more than I probably know right now. Also the pictures he posts of the Kanji he knows proves he is MUCH more knowledgeable than I am in that department. I think what happens with the AJATT is that after you hit a certain critical point and get to a certain number of kanji it will just snowball. You’ll know almost all the kanji you see and you won’t have to waste time looking up the kanji you don’t know. You can make connections using your own logic.

I’ll break this up into parts with my answers.

AJATT seems difficult and brings your focus away from the actual comprehension of the langauage (ie: speaking, reading full sentences and knowing in which context to use words). This became apparent when he posted sentences he would figure out which I found were fairly simple.

I’m eventually going to post some videos about this and give a smoother answer. I think what is misleading about AJATT is the fact that the guy (Khatz) tells you that you have to develop a lot of mental strength to learn Japanese as an adult. We live in an age where people want to do things in a way that is easy, but I personally don’t think language is “easy” or “hard” is think its just based on exposure. As adults we are aware of stuff like failure, stress, time constraints, etc, which hamper our desire to study or put a lot of time into a new language.

Back to babies. Babies don’t know what “past participles” “dangling modifiers” and “run-on sentences” are. They learn through listening, reading and so on for tens of thousands of hours, and learn naturally in an immersive environment. The AJATT site wasn’t the first place I saw that talked about immersion as a tool to learn a language, but it was the first place that I saw that had a guy talking about Japanese specificially who developed fluency in the language using his methods. That said, I paid attention.

The AJATT method was IMPOSSIBLE for me early on. My mind couldn’t handle “extra Japanese” or “forced immersion” even though I was living in Japan. For me to go 100% Japanese with listening and reading was too stressful. I mentioned this in my motivation hurdles.  But the thing is, it works. I think AJATT is quite different( and requires more effort) if a person is living in another country, but if you are living in Japan, then you will be hearing, reading and listening to Japanese almost everyday anyway. This means while you are learning Kanji (whatever the method) you will have instances to see them regularly on a day to day basis and stuff will stick into your mind more. The MAJOR difference between me and other people trying ot use AJATT is one thing.

Location, location, location.

Like I keep saying, I am forced to see and read Japanese almost everyday. I hear it when shopkeepers ask me if I want change, or if I need to get directions somewhere. Train announcements, TV commercials, Japanese radio, people on the streets, in clubs, bars, everywhere, it’s almost always Japanese. This means I am in the environment where my mind is constantly processing the language. A lot of language comprehension is massive input, which is the “difficult” side of AJATT. 99.9% of people (including me ) cannot listen to ONLY Japanese music, ONLY read Japanese comics and books and ONLY watch Japanese media. But since I live here, I have to hear, read and watch Japanese media on some level all the time, which links back to my writing studies in a different way than someone outside Japan trying to learn the language. This is HUGE. If I was in another country, I doubt I’d keep going if I wasn’t around Japanese stuff all the time.

This became apparent when he posted sentences he would figure out which I found were fairly simple.

I like this observation. You are correct, many of the sentences I posted were VERY simple, but it wasn’t the sentence I was concerned about as much as the Kanji. My Japanese speaking ability is o-k. I learned  a lot through passive listening but I couldn’t read ANY Kanji. For me to figure out a few Kanji in context blew my mind. It also gave me a direct connection to the meaning of the word if I knew it.  This reminds me of a memory I had as a child. I was reading the paper one day, and I saw the number 10,000. At that point I hadn’t learn what “ten thousand” was, and I didn’t know to read it. Years later, I remember that moment, and laughed. As simple as it sounds, the little learning points are huge when you think big picture about learning more things down the road. For an adult who couldn’t read any Kanji prior to restarting the Heisig method, I was quite happy to see that there was some connection to writing and then reading the Kanji, regardless of how simple the sentences were. Especially only after a few weeks.

I think what happens with the AJATT is that after you hit a certain critical point and get to a certain number of kanji it will just snowball. You’ll know almost all the kanji you see and you won’t have to waste time looking up the kanji you don’t know. You can make connections using your own logic.

First thing I have to say is that you MUST look up Japanese you don’t know. This is the cool part. I made a post about a friend and I trying to figure out a Kanji from a Japanese playstation game which had no English mode.


What’s amazing is that I currently have this “English-Japanese” lexicon in my head of about 1,050 Kanji. So if I see the Kanji for “tenderness” and I need to use it, trust me, I will be looking it up on my Iphone with my Kotoba Japanese dictionary app. Knowing the Kanji meanings in some way is a spectacular first step, but trust me, I never look at Kanji and just think I can “figure out” what its saying and don’t look up the Japanese word for that Kanji.

I will say this now, I am NOT the best Japanese student by any means. I keep starting and stopping Heisig like nobody’s business because I am quite busy. However, a lot of times I am reading stuff on the subway, in malls, or maybe I flip through a brochure and I start recognizing dozens of Kanji, which I could learn the meanings of pretty easily through the “sentence phase” of AJATT, which I will mention soon. The fact is this:

If you READ, WRITE, LISTEN to and WATCH any kind of media constantly, you MUST learn it. The only thing with AJATT is that it relates to Japanese, but it can work with any language. What’s the difference between Spanish and Japanese? Well, Spanish only requires you to know 26 things called letters to start learning it! Japanese? Three character sets and a few thousand Kanji! So the question is, do you REALLY want to learn Japanese? That’s what I ask myself all the time, because it isn’t easy (I think whatever method you use) because of this:

Every person who speaks Japanese, (including Japanese people ) had to do the same thing I’m doing; i.e, Read, Write, Listen and Watch Japanese media for thousands of hours, period. There is no getting around it. Every Spanish, Russian, etc person had to learn the same way, but without the Chinese characters.

Just like how a baby goes from reading silly coloring books with one sentence per page, to simple short stories, to more complex young children’s books and then story-driven comics and then novels with heavy plots, this is how we learn Japanese. Methods of learning just make stuff more “palatable” so you don’t feel crazy. If I can learn 2,045 Kanji in 3 months and then spend the next 6 months studying grammar, vocab, etc (and if I like that method) then I still achieve the same goal. If I want to learn 10 Kanji a month for 10 years, then that’s cool too. But living here, in Japan, I found that Kanji was VERY frustrating in many ways. Frustrating in believing I could learn it, that it was too difficult, too foreign, too pointless etc. ANY method that made me know words like “constancy”, “tax”, “draft”, “municipality”, etc made my appreciation of the learning process easier. So faster for me is much better.

I will never say to ANYONE that learning Japanese is easy. It takes time and effort, and systems like AJATT or Smart.Fm or LiveMohca just break the process into slices that you can digest at your own pace. Some people like cheese pizza, some love anchovies.

The last thing I would like to talk about it how jamaicanlearningjapanese talks about stories using things like Homer to help learn the kanji. In my opinion one should be very careful with these stories as they can use a lot more brain power to think up but provide only a little more retention. Also if you’re not careful making your stories they could hold you back (ie: if two are too similar and you mix them up). It reminds me of a site I found with stories for hiragana. I found some of the stories there so unnatural that I would expect they would hinder me more than they would help. (would appreciate other people’s comments on this)

I can’t agree with you here. It has to do with my ideas of learning and then living here and seeing Kanji each day. As I said before, there are many people who do different things. Some people come here and go to language schools where they do rote memorization and get a certain grasp of the language in a different way, but they are NOT Japanese, so they never spent 10+ years of their early life reading and memorizing Kanji. This is where i see the power in the Heisig method as a tool for remember writing Kanji.

You are 100% correct that it takes a lot of brain power sometimes. I think that’s the point. What happens after a while is that your natural speed of thought makes remembering the story automatic. This can be bolstered with stuff like Spaced Reptition Systems. It’s like the Kanji for “Love” 愛” Window” 窓 or say… ” Recruit”募る. They can be as abstract or specific as you want them to be. Using characters like Homer Simpson being chased by a vulture down a mountain creek, or Mr.T (my “person” Kanji) “gluing a set of RULES” to his chest often take more visual memory initially, but have a lasting impression when its time to revise the Kanji later. With certain Kanji that use a similar character, I just change the stories. Homer simpson being chased by a vulture is very different from him in an underwater sub with Ned Flanders (the Kanji for Submerged) etc. But more than sounding like I am trying to prove myself right, I will say that it makes learning the Kanji FUN.

Most adults do not have the loose, relaxed vibe that young kids do. We can’t watch TV we don’t understand for hours on end. We don’t want to read simple stories hundreds of times to grasp basic grammar patterns. We are effectively “language learning lazy”. So in relation to Japanese, learning using cool characters  as memory devices is fun and solidifies a lot of the memories in my mind. This helps going from Kanji to Kanji less stressful.

Also, I have researched many memory methods and know how good using visual stories are for long-term retention. Now this is where Heisig takes WORK. Who wants to sit down and take 2-6 minutes to learn over two thousand Kanji one at a time? That’s where your own personal drive comes into play. A child isn’t thinking about the years it will take him or her to reach fluency. The child just learns. We as adults immediately focus on the time requirements, the difficulty scale, etc. So did I for a long time, and I still do! The point is to try and do it anyway.

I found some of the stories there so unnatural that I would expect they would hinder me more than they would help. (would appreciate other people’s comments on this)

I have to mention here that there are many Kanji with very abstract meanings. I mean its like the English word “poignant”. How would a person explain that? Or say  the word “rend”?

For most native speakers, you might get an image of a stuffy Englishman in a black tweed coat or something using “Poignant” in a sentence while sipping a cup of Earl Grey with his pinky finger extended horizontally. For “rend” you might remember something like “rend flesh from bone” and get a grisly image of an arm with some of the flesh torn off, exposing white bone. Usually what pops up in your mind is a powerful and unusual image, or something that is memorable for you.  This is particularly true with words that you don’t use often.

Now, as it relates to Heisig, I have to say that after a while, when you learn all the primitives that are used to construct all the Kanji you will see, writing the Kanji is no longer a process of remembering stroke order. It becomes a process of remembering stories.

So just like English, there are Kanji that are hard to make a good context for. These are the Kanji I always forget when I am doing revisions because I have no real “root” that solidifies the memory. For example, Kanji like:

“prostrated”, “outlook”, or “responsibility” to remember them require:

i) An everyday exposure to a variety of Japanese words over a long period of time (i.e the way Japanese people learn from birth)

ii)  Or creative stories that allow a fast recall. (better for non-native speakers)

For example

責任 – responsibility

My story is: Mr. T is a porter that works at the Hilton hotel. His RESPONSIBILITY is to make sure people pay for their rooms. I “pity the foo’ that don’t pay for the room!”

This might seem silly, but creates an instant recall for me as it relates to that Kanji. Sometimes the more outrageous, even unnatural the story the easier it is to remember, especially when you are thinking about thousands of Kanji. What people underestimate is the power of their own minds. Our brain can theoretically store unlimited information. It processes over a billion functions at once, each second. Learning a few hundred or thousand stories with simple images isn’t so bad. I’m not sure how else to remember the Kanji, unless I spent years and years reading Japanese books, newspapers, magazines, comics, watching Japanese movies (of all varities and genres) and chatting to Japanese people, which of course, I didn’t do, since I didn’t grow up in Japan.  You see where this is going, it falls back to context. For us foreign learners it is about creating the best context that allows us to learn from what we know already.

Most Japanese people would probably be stunned to learn that I learned over 1,000 Kanji only three months part-time. Most would also think it impossible for a foreigner to be able to read magazines after a year or two (since the Japanese schools teach Kanji in a staggered manner that leaves 15 year olds unable to read the newspaper). So I think that whatever works for you, do it. But if its smarter, faster and even a little weird, I think its okay.

Okay! I think I’ve rambled  enough. I really like this creative dialogue! Checkout

Paul at Canadian Learning Japanese and keep the journey going!


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
This entry was posted in Heisig Method, learning Japanese and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Jamaican and Canadian talk Japanese

  1. Paul Nogas says:

    sorry for the delay, but I have a reply for you on my blog as well. check it out.

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