The True Cost of Language Acquisition (Pt. 2)


The internet loves sexy. Sexy is the end result of any major endeavor. Sexy is the moment when a man who spent thirty years working at building a company sells it for a billion dollars at age 50. Sexy is seeing  a fluent speaker of a language flirt with girls or “surprise” people at restaurants by ordering in the language. This is the appeal of success, when we see the “sexy” of the end result, but the sexy comes at great personal and mental cost. The hundreds or thousands of hours that come with training your mind to acquire large amounts of data and managing the extreme physical demands this puts on your body, mind and life is definitely not sexy.

Sexy can’t drive you, because sexy is way into the future.

My “sexy” system LOL. It takes far too much effort to focus on the sexy. Sure I can sit and fantasize sometimes about the day a language i’m working on will suddenly become “comprehensible”, but I know there is no shortcut to hundreds of hours of listening, learning hundreds of grammar partners and also thousands of words. I don’t care who you are, there is literally NO WAY around the mental and physical requirements for this. Elite learners are elite athletes in the realm of data acquisition. I suffer from fatigue problems which have plagued me for as long as I can remember, so I must be a ninja with both my time and energy to ensure I hit my daily goals as I work towards a new language acquisition. The cost is high when you wake up at 5 A.M to study a new language. The cost is high when you have to memorize and create thousands of stories and organize thousands of bits of data. This cost is always the same and never changes. You can attempt to work through it faster, but the costs never wavers. There is no real “shortcut” to five thousand or ten thousand words. There is no real “shortcut” fifteen hundred listening hours. There is not real “shortcut” to writing and practicing Kanji for over 100,000 repetitions as I have. I can do it faster, I can tweak a few things, but the cost is the same and this more than anything, is what I emphasize you internalize on your journey.

Sexy is the end point. Sexy is reading Japanese manga without references. Sexy is chatting Japanese after your brain gave up battling with you and did its thing that allows you to process the language. Sexy is realizing you can play a game in Japanese and sexy is flexing your skills a bit in situations that you’d normally be petrified to speak int. That is sexy, but just like building a sculpted physical with “Bratt Pitt in Fight Club abs”, you gotta put in the work.

My “sexy” learning system LOL

We are all different but we are all human and there are significant limits on our time and energy, especially as we pursue these types of ventures. As I develop a course around the structure of what I’ve been doing. I will ridiculously emphasize that this is not easy by any means. When I say it is not ‘easy’ i don’t mean relative to methodology. it is not ‘easy’ relative to execution. Your biggest requirement on this journey will not be the perfect Anki deck or flashcard system or the perfect mnemonics. Your biggest requirement will be a greatly enhanced psychology that  supports monstrous discipline and consistency.

The common man cannot wake up at 5 a.m each day (regardless of what is happening in his or her life) to consistently do their revisions, or early morning practice. A common man will find it hard to do the work required to get to the next level because it appears to be “too much”. I agree with the common man, it is “too much” for him because such desire are not common. Learning 2,136 Kanji is not a common goal. Learning thousands of words, writing a book, training to run a marathon or developing a host of other skillsets that requires extreme time and dedication is not a common desire and will not support a common psychology. 

Those who get stuck on fantasizing about the sexy (i.e the end result) will find out very quickly that such thoughts will not sustain your efforts for very long. It’s cool to think about chatting with girls in Japanese until you start watching Japanese media and realize you don’t understand ONE word anyone is saying and that it will be months before you start to really break the surface.  You can relish the thought of playing video games in your target language until you realize you need a minimum of 3,500-5,000 words to navigate daily life. Your psychology must be powerful and significant so that it can support the weight of all the effort you put in. 

I say this from the perspective from someone who definitely had aspects of the psychology, but not all of them. I didn’t understand this “true cost” and 99% of my failures were due to frustration, not understanding what to do and when, being overwhelmed by all the data I needed to learn and then thinking something was wrong with me (cognitive bias).

You see, if you just want to “chat a little German”, or “read a little bit of French”, then this article does not apply to you. Casual learners of a language in my opinion will never gain any true ability in it, because the cost is simply too high with a casual attitude. I’ve spoken on this site before about learning versus mastery and the more you lean towards mastery (as a mindset) the better equipped you are for the inevitable pitfalls (burnout, frustration, lack of belief) that are bound to come. All language learners hit these hurdles, the elite ones hit the hurdle, drop, get back up and jump over the next one. They don’t lay on the ground in a daze and worry about the next hurdle. Their psychology won’t allow them to. They understood the cost of what they were attempting going in, and expected bumps and bruises, a sprain here and there and days of fatigue and stress.

The mastery mindset, in this context, does not relate to what some would call absolute mastery, meaning you try to master everything you encounter. Mastery is relative to your mental approach and belief system towards the goal and the level and quality of actions you take in this regard. One does not “casually” learn 5,000 words of a native language. It also doesn’t matter if you are aiming for 1,000 words or 3,000, it isn’t a “casual activity”. Even if you use an Anki deck, that does not ensure that you will be able to recall these words in speech. You need to learn the words, use them, train them, fail at remembering until you don’t any more. This has to be done thousands and thousand of times. Impossible? No. Doable. Certainly. Does it require ninja like planning and focus? Definitely.

Such journeys are very isolating. On this path you will spend a significant amount of time  alone by yourself, using apps, or flashcards, reading, listening and training your brain. Your world (when you are studying) will be mostly solitude, isolation and working to master and memorize ginormous amounts of data.This does not mean it cannot be fun. Training for an activity of any kind can be made to be extremely fun, but training is training and training is arduous because training must be done consistently and not everyday does one want to wake up and run in the snow, or go to the gym when you feel like crap.

Going into any massive undertaking requires a very explicit knowledge of what to expect. In fact, what i realize is that knowing what to expect is what has allowed me to be so consistent with certain goals i’ve set over the last few years. With this Japanese experiment,  I went into it knowing i’d hit several perceptual pitfalls, suffer potential fatigue and burnout,  get threatened to be derailed by “life stuff”, I knew at some point question what i was attempting to do(it always happens in the face of so much information), I knew that i’d get trigger while doing immersion thinking “I’ll never understand this”. I knew these things because I’d already had these feelings in previous attempts at other languages. I’d already gone through those dark psychological places of self-questioning, feeling like a failure, thinking I didn’t have the ability and I was missing the language gene. I also learned it was all a lie. 

Once I learned that expecting those feelings is quite normal, it became far easier to navigate the territory and be more consistent. I would say to myself several times, “I know I won’t really understand much of the language at a certain level for up to four months, but I know it takes that amount of time for everything to start kicking in and to physically acquire a large portion of the data i need to understand and process the language at a higher level.”

So we see that the “cost” is not just relative to our time or methods. Possibly the largest “true cost” is understanding these roadblocks and how to deal with them psychologically so you don’t get kicked off the train. I say it is possibly the largest costs because this is what makes 99.9% of people stop the process. The success of most major tasks is said to be relative to  80% psychological factors, and 20% activity oriented factors. 

For me, waking up at 5 a.m writing 300+ Kanji, learning 25-35 a day and then doing another 300-500 written repetitions in the evening (while maintaining a daily minimum of 2-3 hours immersion with a high end of 7 hours) requires a very disciplined psychology. Some days I don’t want to listen to anything (which is why I have my minimum), sometimes there is life stress and sometimes I’m in Godmode and i learn 50 Kanji in a day without breaking a sweat, write 2000 reps of Kanji and listening to 10 hours of native material. But each step of the way, I know what I am attempting to do. I know it may seem ludicrous to some and I know it may overwhelm others. I know the time it will take for certain things to kick in and I know that my efforts will “seem” to not be working at certain points (when they actually are). Knowing this information quiets my brain, allows me to keep going and make progress, instead of hopping on Youtube watching videos of people talking about ‘How I learned X language in 2 days’ and feeling like crap.

We must always know the TRUE COST of what we are attempting to do. In the past I didn’t understand this. I thought you could just use some anki decks, listen to a few audio programs and you’d “acquire” the language. I looked for shortcuts (and found them) but learn that shortcuts only serve to shorten the time required to learn the language, but proportionately increases the demand on you mentally and physically relative to what you are trying to achieve. 

Don’t get me wrong. I went hardcore with my studies in the past. I put in hundreds of hours with what I now consider inefficient methodology. I tested everything under the sun to the best of my knowledge and because I didn’t get the results I wanted, at times Itruly believed this goal of language learning was ‘impossible’ until I  understood that it was not how much effort you put in, but how efficient the effort you put in is, and how prepared you are for the demands of this effort. 

We as learners can get discouraged because whenever we cross on major mountains in language learning, it  gives you clear a view of the next mountain which is far away. It will seem that each point has ridiculous demands on time and energy and only takes you me to another point that requires even more ridiculous demands on time and energy.

It was in this journey I realized that people who are proficient at learning multiple languages are fundamentally crazy. Crazy in the sense that knowing what you have to do to get to a certain level in a language and willingly do it over and over requires such discipline, rock solid psychology and self-belief. You can put everything you have mentally and physically into learning a language and not scratch the surface. Or you can put everything you have into a great system and realize it didn’t take you as close to the promised land as you thought.

However, what if you knew each step? What if you knew that you had all these mountains to cross and charted your course specifically? The journey would still be long and challenging, but you’d know where you would end up. Such processes as these require the highest form of intellectual strategy, a military-like perspective on each goal and an elite athlete’s mental fortitude. I will say this: I do not consider language learning to be ‘hard’. In fact, I hate going to websites and the first thing people do it talk about how hard and tough it is (without providing any psychological context for their reader to understand what this means). We already have within us the software to learn languages in a staggered manner as a child.  As adults we pivot and strategize to accelerate this process and with this comes extreme demands which require extreme discipline and mental fortitude, mores than raw methodology. What is ‘hard’ is dealing with the discipline you must develop, to quiet your mind when you ‘want it now’ and you keep looking for ‘shortcuts’ and ‘hacks’ and trying to ‘skip ahead of the line’. There is no skipping. Monstrous gains can be achieved in quite a short time, ‘short’ being 3.5-6 months of intense work.

Whether you go faster or slower is relative to how you percieve time, but ultimately, the biggest cost to you is not being aware of the things that might stop you fully in your tracks.  I’m not an impatient person, because 4-5 months of intense study is a lot of time to me and i’d rather spent 4-5 months taking myself to where I could be in 1 to 1.5 years. Who knows how much time they have left in this world? I for one don’t like to guess, so I’ve always been big on going faster if possible.

In summary, always know the true cost of your task before you go into the undertaking.  Be guided by the previous failures and insights of others and prepare heavily and set everything up to ensure you are as consistent as possible, with the least amount of effort. I cannot describe the feeling that comes when you suddenly realize your comprehension of a language has increased by 300%. All the work and struggle lead to something. But conversely it is a terrible feeling to not experience that, because you underestimated the costs of the journey and got left by the wayside. IT is a constant navigation, but once you have the right map, you are good to go.

Happy trails

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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