The Japanese balancing act

This blog post has been a long time coming for several reasons. The main reason is that as it relates to balancing the key aspects of Japanese study, its based on the significant entry hurdle Japanese characters scare new learners with. But since my “reawakening” two months or so ago, where I decided to just use some simple systems to work on building up my “Japanese armour” I saw that a large portion of learning Japanese is not necessarily relative to how much you do on a given day, just how consistently you do it. Now, is it fair to write about “balancing Japanese learning” if you don’t actively do it? Of course not, which is why I never wrote about it before. Now, after fiddling with a few new systems and techniques and seeing measurable progress, I can write some thoughts of mine down on balancing.

When I wrote my blog post on learning DNA I wrote it partly as a self-analysis. You must know how you think about yourself before undertaking certain tasks. I remember I knew a guy that wanted to get fit and work out. He spoke to me on and off for months about doing it. He mapped out the system, made plans for what to do, and the first day he ran, he was a little pained up. The next day, he didn’t run again. That was over five years ago. You need to know that you are the person who will keep going after day two.

That said, I have never been as frustrated with any goal as i have been with learning Japanese. There was a long time that nothing relating to Japanese was fun, mostly because I was stressed when I was living in Japan. Secondly, the goal seemed nigh impossible. Me? Reading manga? Me, explaining my thoughts in Japanese? Oh ho! it was a mess. What I also didn’t like was that blogs of very good Japanese speakers were a bit… ‘airy’ if I can call it that. This ended up being annoying to me sometimes, because of course, anyone can talk in platitudes about learning a language if they are already fluent. I don’t mind the guru speak, but anyone who’s read through my blogs for a while will realize I like technical knowledge in high detail… if I can find it. I like to get insights into people’s pitfalls and psychological approaches if they exist. Eventually I found some blogs that “sort of” had the information I liked, but most blogs end up turning into a sort of half teaching, half blogging type deal that feels a bit repetitive. I have nothing against teaching Japanese, but I kept reading the blogs of people explaining Japanese, not explaining their methods. I was supremely annoyed once when I was reading a book of a polygot who can speak 16 languages fluently and 37 functionally. She also spoke Japanese, and I was extremely (did I say ‘extremely’) dissappointed to see what she said about learning Japanese. It was something to the effect of “Oh I just read some Japanese medical textbooks.”


I’ve been meaning to go on a rant about that book for a while, but I’ll continue this blog post : p

Anyhoo, my present journey has taken me to this current place and I think that what really gets the goat of lots of people studying Japanese is the sheer time you need to put in, especially if you are using a technical, self-study approach. There are two things the average person doesn’t possess, and that’s discipline and discipline. I am no stranger to a lack of discipline either, so I’m not standing on a pedestal saying “Oh ye of little grammatical swagger!”

As i’ve probably mentioned somewhere before, despite how annoying or intimidating I found the super fluent bloggers and internet heads to be, I knew they all had one thing in common.

A disctinly strong self-discipline relative to learning Japanese. 

So “balance” I realized was not just a matter of what you were studying and how you break it up into minutes and hours, but how you felt when you were studying. There have been days when I’ve been messing around with Japanese for maybe ten hours because I was in the zone, and then there are days I feel completely lame about Japanese and don’t study at all. I think a big part of balance is the happy medium

where you mostly never feel bad about what you are doing. 

It took me a while to figure this little aspect out… and in another post I had written about my issues with guilting myself over not hitting my goals on time. I try and write about this because I know that people can feel discouraged in language learning, which is normal, but I realized that for me it ran a little deeper into some weird psychological well that screamed back and me whenever I felt like I was doing something wrong. Of course this is not common, and neither is the nature of this blog either.

So back to the idea of balance. So what do we have to balance really? The idea if that you listen to Japanese a lot, read it a lot, try and write it often and speak it often you should be good to go. The four basic tenets of language learning right? But after people see stuff like the AJATT system which talks about 20,000 hours of listening equals fluency, and then you need to be able to read 10,000 sentences to be a boss and blah blah blah, for a lot of new people, they aren’t just balancing what they have to do now, they are attempting to mentally balance what they have to do in the future.

(note: AJATT was a godsend and I’m not against it at all, this is is in a specific context)

I mean i’m a very technical person, and when I started reading up on thousands of hours of listening (without really understanding much of what I was listening to) it felt stressful to think about. How could I input so many hours of Japanese into my day and not have a clue what was going on? That was thought process numero uno.

Then I wondered how i’d be actively reading Japanese everyday if i couldnt’ read? Then afterwards, I said to myself, how am I going to read manga, speak, write, learn kanji, grammar, idiomatic expressions, and a host of other things at the same time?

Well obviously you can’t do it all at once, and that’s the point of this post. Setting an agenda for learning (as far as I can see ) mostly has to do with setting goals you can hit, and then hitting them as quickly as possible.

Remember, I am not writing this from the perspective as a guru. I am writing from the perspective of someone who’s frustration with Japanese was the reason I experienced a kind of “eureka” moment when I noticed I was learning Japanese passively.  then decided (after many more moons) to take it more seriously.

So I’ve done the not studying for months on end thing and i’ve done the competely giving up on Japanese thing. The only thing which I was fortunate to experience was living in Japan. Currently it definitely gets my goat that in less than one month I learned more words than I did in almost two years in Japan. But again, I wasn’t studying so why guilt trip myself?

So back to the post. What I found out now, is that a big part of balance is mental. The other part is pretty simple. I’ve found that you don’t need to do one specific thing “constantly” to make progress. In other words, I don’t think you need to speak X number of hours of Japanese per week because you feel you have to. It’s more like, X hours of Japanese speaking per week will solidify whatever base you are setting up through your learning system. I’m not talking about “going hardcore” which most people cannot do outside of Japan anyway, I’m just talking about being able to realize you are progressing and feel more “balanced” when you are doing your day to day.


Why am I saying this? Well, there was some point last year living in Japan that I had a skype conversation with a Japanese speaker. I hadn’t spoken much Japanese for a long time, but i was able to “wing it” when speaking to her, for almost an hour. Yes, she was asking me pretty simple questions about my life and what i was doing in Japan, and I had to ask a bunch of times what different words meant, but I was able to hold the conversation to some extent, which by extension meant that I had improved. So when I used to worry about “how am I going to get my speaking time in my schedule” and blah blah blah, I realize it wasn’t a matter of how long I spoke, but just how often.

So if I had even a few ten minute conversations regularly, I’d be making progress, versus worrying about how I’m going to speak for hours each day and become a grammar god in no time flat. So then I said to myself…”Oh okay, so i’m wasting time worrying about long, complex conversations, when tons of little easy conversations are just as good!” (remember I’m weird yeah?)

Because what happens when you speak is that you get faced with very common grammatical challenges, that go away after a while. (I mean many returned for me but that’s another story). When i first went to Japan, I hadn’t experienced much Japan-based stress, and i was going out in the evenings and chatting at bars. I couldn’t speak much, and each night I got hit with the same questions over and over.

Where are you from? What is your name? Why are you in Japan? What is your job? Is Jamaica hot? How tall are you?

etc, etc. So after a week or so, I knew all the answers to these questions, once I knew what they were. Then I also learned a few extra things to add on to each of these answers. So what happened in my first two or three months in Japan, I had a very rough “bar speak” that I could use to get around and have basic conversations. Most bar conversations follow the same direction and have the same questions, so I could somewhat manage. I didn’t know it then, but I was getting a sort of incremental learning through reasonably frequent exposures to context-rich situations.

I mean in a bar, or a restaurant, the people I met (if they didnt’ speak English) tended to ask the same questions over and over and have the same “threads” that attached to them so it wasn’t as bad as going to the post office by myself, or going to the tax office by myself (both things I’ve done at different stages of Japanese exposure).

Back then I wasn’t “worried” about not learning, I was simply facing challenges and learning as I went along, but that all changed when I started to face severe  culture shock and stuff, but that’s another story.

But the ultimate thing I’ve found about worrying about speaking Japanese is that there are basically only two initial hurdles: one is grammar, the other is vocabulary. If you know tons of words and “ok” vocabulary, you’d be surprised how much you can say, even if you don’t know that many words, and you can somewhat handle grammar, you can wing speech too. Learning how to handle each of these things isn’t as crazy as I used to think. Sure when you start and you know ZERO vocab and ZERO grammar you might be in trouble, but in a few weeks you can learn lots of words and some basic patterns, then if you figure out a way to practice chatting, (even a little bit every now and then) you will hit what I find are “self-speech hurdles”

Meaning… you might have a way of speaking in English that doesn’t translate into Japanese very well, and you might have to learn how to simplify your statements. But after you identify the things that are hard for you to say, when you say them a few times they get easier. Obviously the more often you speak, is the more you reinforce new things you learn, but if you don’t have 100% access to sexy Japanese girls at bars, or cool Salary men that want to get you drunk and ask you loaded questions about your home country, then at the very least a few conversations here and there will get the juices flowing. Once you can do a mixture of “winging it” and getting your point across without being misunderstood, you will personally know in your head that you are making waves. I’m not 100% there yet, but i’ve been in a few situations where I’m chatting Japanese here in Jamaica (super infrequently I might add) and I’m not doing “so bad”. I wish I could chat more, but i can’t blame myself for my environment. But a few chats here and there keep me going until I can get more speech in. So my “balance” is relative to my space, and my place yah?

The obvious difference between Japan and elsewhere are the grammatical challenges you face in your day to day life. BUT even though you might understand that the train is late, or someone tells you how much your change is and you get that, you might not be able to reproduce it all the time… but what I found was those little challenges really add up. When people ask you where would you like to sit, how many people are you eating with, would you like another beer, here are your groceries, are you interested in buying wireless internet? So a person can give themself little speech challenges relative to where they are that allows them to grow as they are learning other stuff…. i’ve found this is how a lot of people operated ( especially those super fluent people) they just mastered a lot of small situations that eventually spread into being able to speak about a lot of things.

kid’s don’t talk rpose about their favourite super heroes. Initially its just

“Spiderman is cool!” “Spiderman is strong!” “Mary Jane is hot!” then… “I think Spinderman is cool!” etc, etc. You’d be surprised how fast you can add on to basic statements once they are easily understood AND you have some new vocab to back it up.


there is no quick way to begin reading Japanese, unless you learn hiragana and spend all your time reading stories written for kids, the only way to start reading is to pick a system of learning Kanji, then make sure not to overthink “how am I going to ever learn how to read 2000 characters”. You cannot input reading without knowing the characters, so at some point you will have to accept that you need 3-6 months to begin “really” reading Japanese depending on what system you use. Once you accept this, you are good to go. I worried so much about the task of learning the characters that I spent less time learning them. I always hit myself with a negative message of “not being able to read it, no matter how much effort I put in” and that affected me for a while. Easiest thing in part of getting balanced with Japanese is to get that hurdle out of the way “reasonably quickly”.


This follows reading. As you learn Kanji & hiragana you will also be able to write them. I personally am at the point where i’m having difficulty feeling motivated to write Japanese on paper because I just… don’t use written Japanese much. I will say it’s good to practice writing sentences and I find that writing a few every now and then isn’t a bad thing. But writing 100 sentences a day (which I have done at some point) makes you feel like you are PWNING Japanese, when all you are doing is writing some sentences you know really, really well… but when you try and write another one that you aren’t sure of…. tsk tsk

The thing is it comes down to practicality and compromises in your learning experience to move forward. This is actually a huge issue for a lot of Japanese learners, because some people want to be able to read and write Japanese, but really being able to write Japanese takes a LOT of effort and I found (for me at least) that the time I spent practicing writing tired me. Eventually I just told myself that I would not be exposed to the same situations as Japanese kids where they had to write Japanese notes everyday at school and trying to recreate that lifestyle as a busy adult might not be mentally healthy for me.

Note, I am NOT against practicing written Japanese. When you get deeper into reading, listening and so on, writing Japanese tends to be more on the computer, but “every now and then” writing some Japanese sentences I find can still keep you sharp, especially if you are beasting reading and typing up words yeah? So it kind of balances out that way. But I found that because I was kind of forcing myself to write Japanese, I didn’t like doing it. Maybe I will get a pen pal or something, but that’s just how I didn’t balance it out. These kinds of things are relative to people yes, but if I am in a conversation, I can probably type hundreds of sentences with less mental stress than writing a hundred. It’s give and take sometimes and the choice has to be made by the student.

Of course the ideal situation for a language learner is simply to just spend 100% of their time learning Japanese. Say, going to a language school is a sure fire way to at the very least have a solid base of Japanese to build on. I wanted to do this in Tokyo, but alas…

The only problem with self-learning i’m assuming are the self-learners. My biggest hurdle in taking on my Japanese journey wasn’t any system I found or “learn Japanese in 10 days” grammar book, it was mostly how I looked on myself as a student, and the assumptions I made on my “supposed future failures” or the difficulty of “supposed future roadblocks” which I hadn’t hit, or even come close to.

But the real question now is…. how have I been doing my own “balancing” act since coming to all these glorious revelations?

Well, I approach my Japanese study relative to two things :

1. My mood

2. My current goals.

I completely understand an aspect of my frustration with Japanese in Japan. I wanted to do all four things at once (reading, writing, listening & speaking) but couldn’t do any. I didn’t necessarily pick one over the other, I just couldnt’ do any of them and after a while I just entered survival mode, learned a few key phrases and toughed it out. I wanted everything at once…. which you can’t get intially, not even as a native Japanese person.

The only thing i’ve done different since being back in Jamaica and being in Japan is approach a specific goal that acts as a buttress for another specific goal

So if I learn words, I can worry less about vocab and focus on grammar. Then if I learn basic grammar, I can start speaking better about my thoughts. Then if i can speak better about my thoughts, I can start tackling tougher grammatical situations and texts… and so on.  I wrote a blog post on this recently where I was able to really dig into an online chat and drudge up the vocab i’d been studying recently to try and explain some stuff about Jamaican culture and some of my film projects.

Now the obvious thing with me is that I had almost two years of exposure to a native Japanese environment, so even if I didn’t really study or anything I would hear words, phrases, see Kanji, have to talk Japanese occassionally and so on. So that is my advantage, I have a sort of “Japanese pillow” i can rest on in terms of going through thousands of hours of listening and existing in a Japanese sphere. My mentality didn’t let me exploit my time as well as I wanted to, but in my current activities I can see that my earlier exposure helps me with some situations or maybe an odd grammar pattern or two, but mostly helps me to just not worry about Japanese.

But that doesn’t matter. I can’t speak fluent Japanese and it wasn’t until starting the Core2000 that I really saw progress in terms of reading and having more words to try and explain my thoughts.

I remember going to a barbecue in the summer of 2009 and I felt horrible because no one spoke English and I couldn’t talk about anything. What’s worse everyone was eating pork and beef (which I don’t eat ) and I was hungry too! Then in early 2011, I remember going to a party in Tokyo in this guy’s super cool 38th floor apartment. I was the only foreigner there and other than the guy I came with his friend who owned the apartment, no one spoke English. I was there for about two hours, chatting a bit, mingling etc, before I realize that I was at a party with all Japanese people  and I was speaking Japanese! I am not sure if this sounds corny to people, but the year before such a situation was incredibly painful for me. I went to Yoga classes, Salsa clubs, film nights, house parties and so many places where I could barely speak to anyone. This was more depressing that motivating. I couldn’t even speak properly to the people at work! So yeah, it was that sort of situation. Plus in early 2011 I didnt’ know nearly the number of words I do now, so I am curious to see what i would be doing with my “new mentality” if I was living in Japan.

Either way I think the reason I write so much about this is because of how deeply I had believe I couldn’t do it. I mean sometimes I still feel pretty lame about learning Japanese but now its for differnet reasons. Now its because I don’t have easy access to Japanese speakers, or I don’t have access to interesting Japanese media etc. It’s not so much about “Japanese is impossible” anymore… it’s more like… “I need more time and exposure” type thing.

So my idea of balance is relative to how much you want to do it and your investment in it. For me right now, it doesn’t make sense for me to put too much pressure on immersion, writing and reading endless volumes of Japanese if I don’t have much output. The way I personally think, it makes my learning process feel somewhat pointless… so I turn it down a bit, focus more on vocab and little grammar points and if i feel like, I’ll read some manga etc. The idea is not to be stressed out, or feel lame about your progress… i mean i’ve made insane strides in the last few weeks and I haven’t been doing insane levels of immersion or anything. Even if I am just learning 50 words a day, I am spending about 45 minutes reading sentences, writing new Kanji words and listening to Japanese. On another day I might watch a movie or read some manga, but everything feeds into everything else. When I make more Japanese friends in Jamaica, or head back to Japan, my “balancing act” will be a litlte different because I will have more language demands on me… but at the end of the day I have to feel good about it… which is the point yeah?


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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8 Responses to The Japanese balancing act

  1. Paul Nogas says:

    A long post, but a good one with lots of good points. This has actually inspired me to write a post on my dusty blog and I though I’m stealing the “where you mostly never feel bad about what you are doing.” line.

    Back in Canada I would say that my writing and reading were always equal since I was only using RTK. But recently I’ve just started to notice my reading is advancing and my writing is declining. I’ve probably picked up another ~250 kanji on top of RTK’s 2042 since coming to Japan, but the vocab has gone up by thousands. At the same time, there’s a few kanji from RTH that I know I haven’t seen since Dec 2010 since they are so rarely used. But anyways, VERY rarely I can’t remember how to write a word but I know one of the RTK primitives is in it, so I’ll just write every kanji with that type of primitive until it looks / feels right. I do that too with English. I might get stuck if you ask me to say how to spell something like “personalities”. I need to write it down, maybe try it with one “t” or two “t”s, and just by looking at them I know one of them just looks right and the other doesn’t. It’s like a gut feeling…lol, I can’t remember how this related to your post in regards to writing and reading, but I’ve already spent the time typing it so I’ll post it anyways. Let me know if you if the same thing happens to you.

  2. marcusbird says:

    I’m finding that with certain Kanji, knowing how to write them help me to recognize them more than reproduce them. For example, I wrote about 影響 which is “influence” and if I wanted to write it, I think I know the story well enough to reproduce it in handwriting. Or stuff like 機械 for “machine”. My experience so far is that like most people my reading ability is better than my writing ability in the sense that it takes a little more time to write stuff, but it heavily depends on what I want to write, and why.

    I think a lot of people seem to forget that many Japanese people cannot write everything they can read or type. For me personally, i’m finding that writing (for now) is more of me developing an initial familiarity with a word to reinforce the Heisig story and new meaning better in my mind. So for example 書類 (shorui) and 種類 (shuurui) sound and even look a little similar, but I never get them confused. But if I wanted to write “種類” I would probably forget how to, because I’ve only written it a few times and i don’t know how often I will ever have to write the word “species” for any reason. But I might have to put 重要書類 “important document” on something one day… so I am not sure.

    But that is just how I perceive certain words. The reality is that for now, I am simply not in an environment that requires Japanese handwriting and as such, writing it doesn’t feel normal right now. This causes an issue with me when practicing (because I want to) but don’t really need to. If you read other blogs of people studying Japanese, you’ll find that tons of people say they dont’ focus on how well they write until much further down for one reason…. it eats into learning time that is more “practically beneficial” for their goals to speak and read.

    BUT heheh, the obvious benefit of writing is muscle memory, and in fact, certain words are easier to remember, or certain kanji are easier to remember if you have written them many times so Japanese has this weird catch 22 you know? It’s like a person can really learn how to read type and speak without being able to write well, but there is a nagging part of people that tells them that if they practiced some writing it would reinforce some stuff a lot.
    But at what cost?

    I too might revisit this in a post because I am by no means being a “good student” and i cannot do everything I want to each day, but when I was actually writing about 50 sentences a day I noticed that it just made me tired and i was moving slower. Probably this was because I had just started doing SRS. I think I might do a thing where “every other day” I write some Kanji to keep them fresh, but we will see….

    glad you liked the post!

    • Eric West says:

      You would be surprised, but 種類 shows up ALL the time, because though it often gets defined as “species,” its actual meaning is far broader and can also mean “type, sort, kind, variety, etc” basically its used to discuss specification and general, not just living species. So it might be a “type” of car, a “kind” of cookie, a “sort” of person, a “variety” of the many flavors of ice cream, etc. So it is certainly a word of some importance, But having discussed it, you will probably have it etched into your brain forever now, no need to painfully write it out a million times.

      I enjoyed your post. You made a lot of good points, and I certainly agree that while I’m positive writing Japanese really helps cement things, is good because natives can do it (so I should learn to also), and so on, when it comes to practicing writing on a regular basis it always ends up being the thing that I drop because it just takes so much damn time and energy. One thing I DO try to do often, though not every rep or anything, is to trace my SRS answers out on my palm. Japanese children practice this way, and I’ve found that as far as memorization goes and creating muscle memory, it is every bit as effective as pen and paper, but is far faster and less tedious. In fact, for a long time I WAS using it for every SRS rep, but discovered that by cutting way back on that I could quadruple the number of new cards I added a day. So gaining new vocab and sentence patterns faster won, and writing practice got sacrificed again, lol. Keep trying to make things as fun and painless as possible, and you’ll eventually get exactly where you want to go.

      • marcusbird says:

        I like that. I think it makes sense that muscle memory might not require a full-on pencil and paper battle. I’ll see what I end up doing as time passes. My recognitiion is getting a lot better, but I haven’t been writing so much, so I’ll have to see if maybe I can write my weekly goals in Japanese, maybe stuff like that.

  3. John says:

    As always, much of what you write strikes home with me, and matches my own experience.

    One thing that I’ve found helpful in Balancing what I’m doing is keeping a journal of everything I do. If nothing else, this helps me keep things organized in my head and see how to adjust things as they get ‘out of balance’.

    But it also feels like it helps motivate me and keep me on track as well.

    I made a decision to not do any original production, right now. But I’m still spread really thin between Kanji and Vocab, and reading and listening, and grammar, etc. Again, the journal helps keep track of what I’m doing, make sure I don’t miss things and helps me re-prioritize, to it’s been a big help.

    • marcusbird says:

      That’s a good idea. I guess you could call this blog my journal, hehe.

      The more I get deeper into the analysis of tackling this language, is the more I learn how a huge percentage of learning it has nothing to do with books or software, it’s will power and a positive attitude that you must maintain. Language learning is brutally painful if you are always frustrated or tired or unhappy with your progress. I think this is really what i’ve learned with Japanese… is that a lot of huge mental blocks I had erected in my mind regarding Japanese were false, and slowly as I met really fluent people, or people a few steps ahead of me, or making my own insights the blocks started to break a bit because I saw that I could do what they had done. I am planning to tackle French next and I do not have the same feeling about languages anymore. If I can use SRS to learn/become familiar with 1000 Japanese words in a month, I could duplicate that for French as well. What’s better, French has no character-based entry hurdle! So we will see what time brings.

      thanks for the comment!

  4. Agent J says:

    Hey Marcus. I’m an African-American currently studying the same way you are (Still in RTK for me).

    Just wanted to say hi. Your posts are awfully in-depth and I love that.

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