The Concept of Strategic Failure (pt.2) Redefining Narrow

My Wednesday Face lol

I’m building a course around learning the Kanji, but I want to make some notes/timestamps on next steps. I understand exactly what to do next to kick things into gear as I will be copying what worked for me with German. Since I’ve spoken at length about Strategic Failure as a concept of forcing your brain to adapt (through failed instances of memorization that force the brain to memorize), what’s also interesting to make a note of is the nature of this strategy relative to what you are trying to achieve.

Strategic Failure or Strategic Training is the practice of setting the conditions that allow you to fail faster and learn more quickly. 

Next Steps (after Kanji)

Many language learners talk about keeping your focused “narrow” in the beginning, because the demand of language is large. This obviously is true, but a big problem with language learning information in general is that it is often falls into three core categories; either it is quite speculative, non-specific or too dense. Speculative information can be agreed or disagreed with and may (or may not) satisfy most audiences with no need to argue too much about the presented topic. Non-specific (general) allows the audience member to decide for themselves what it means and come to their own conclusions. Too dense means that the language explains things in very verbose nomenclature and well cited research but doesn’t really point in a specific and simple direction for someone to start their journey.

My aim is to clearly help others to  navigate past aspects of some of these problems. As I move forward in the next phase of my Japanese I’ll break it down as simply as possible.I will the start with the idea of “narrow learning”, where many successful learners speak about keeping your focus “narrow” (focus on a specific thing you like, e.g scifi, action movies) at the start of your learning journey. But let’s look at this as a concept.

The True Definition of ‘Narrow’

The strongest metric to start measuring one’s language ability is vocabulary. The knowledge of 5000 high frequency words in a target language gives a learner the ability to recognize 98% of written and spoken words (Nation, 1990), and also gives one the ability to figure out the meaning of words in context without looking up new words (Coady et al, 1993, Hirsh & Nation 1992). Therefore, if we could drastically reduce the time for acquiring this data, we can predict fluency or ability to comprehend the language  within a certain timeline. For me this represents the basic requirements of ability for any learner, regardless of whether you like Scifi, J-Dramas, Action movies or just Manga.

But 5,000 words is pretty hefty, so let’s use 3,000 as a base. 3000 (in most romance languages) gives you the ability to recognize about 90% of what you see read and hear, but depending on the language its more or less. Put simply, you need to know 3,000-5,000 words to handle the language at a comfortable level of reading, writing and immersion. 

Since the average native speaker knows tens of thousands of words, by comparison, knowing 3-5,00 words (to me) is considered narrow range of ability. Learning 1,000 common words doesn’t give you access to any of the language really. Everything you read will have gaps, and you’ll be stuck on every sentence and missing tons of word in both speech and reading. In fact “high frequency words” tend to really be best learned at the 3,500+ word number. At that point you’ll really start to find it easier to read things and words you don’t know tend to be “figureoutable” based on the context of the sentence. So there will be no significant results of any kind if we don’t hit the 3-5,000 word mark. Thats’ our narrow band. So this needs to be hit immediately and in a timely fashion. The reality is you can’t focus on anything you like without the ability to process and understand it. I am speaking specifically about vocabulary, not immersive material (which I agree can be narrow relatively speaking, but I find does not have to be but that is another discussion).

Learning Vocabulary teaches tons of Grammar by Proxy 

In learning new vocabulary, regardless of language with apps like Anki, people have easy access to well created word lists with sentence examples. Let us assume that for each word a person learns, they learn an average of 1-3 sentences with common grammar patterns. Learning 3,000 words gives you roughly 3-9,000 sentences of exposure. Add to that your revisions of these words and you now multiply this by a factor of 5-20 (number of times to memorize word) and you’ve now hit 15,000-60,000 sentence exposures. Since each sentence has a variety of grammar, you will have tens of thousands of exposures to common grammar points. 

This means that by the time you hit 3,500 words you will be easily reading most sentences. When you encounter grammar you do not know, it won’t “catch you off guard”, as you have already seen these sentences tens of thousand of times. By the time you hit 5,000 words you may approach viewing common sentences up to 100,000 times. Therefore, once you heavily engage in grammar study after the 3,000 word mark (if you choose that point) you will save yourself quite a bit of stress and actually have already trained thousands of exposures to reading common sentences (which by proxy you will find you are also able to hear and process in the native language if you have been concurrently doing immersion).

How This Fits in Strategic Failure

Since we know that a minimum of 5,000 words gives us roughly 98% of the language, hitting this exposure as quickly as possible guarantees a certain growth ability once reached. I’ve found that it is important that in anything we aim to do, it (a) has a timeline and (b) is trackable. 

The timeline gives you a finite ending point to push towards and the trackability lets you see what you get for your efforts. If I just say “I want to learn Russian in six months” but I don’t track anything, I will have no idea after six months what worked (and why) and worse, what didn’t work (and why). This is wasted time and energy.

Setting the conditions of a robust vocabulary nearly guarantees explosive comprehensive ability and a greater ability to advance in the language. 

By calling the first 3-5,000 words a “narrow” range, I am essentially making that giant hurdle much smaller perceptually. 5,000 words is no easy feat, but it is also not impossible and also does not need to take as long as one thinks. By training these words and strategically working to remember them, you set up all the prime conditions for explosive immersion, reading, recognition and speech proxy.

Speech proxy means your ability to speak will vastly increase (without speaking). It is quite difficult to know 5,000 words and not be able to speak a language, unless you have completely avoided immersion and only read. So if we aim to Strategically Train our first 3-,5000 words, we set up the stage quite strongly for all the other pillars we may focus on individually and not get the same results.

To reiterate something I said in the previous post:

I do not expect massive gains in situations where I have not ensured a lot of constant, strategic failure

Meaning, if i do not know at least 3,000 words I cannot hope to see any gains in my listening comprehension or reading ability because that is the minimum I need to really even go swimming in the language pool. For those who disagree, I’ve been in the situation where I know 1,000 to 1,500 words and i’m totally lost because every other word/expression is unknown to me. I’d like reading a newspaper with holes in it. Sentences don’t make sense and it takes too much effort to keep looking up words/grammar. With my German experiment, after hitting 4,000+ words I found that I could read sentences as a whole and words I didn’t know stuck out clearly, but I wasn’t “lost”. I could “keep moving” with little trouble, which kept me in the language, versus me stopping every second to look up a word I didn’t know. This saves a lot of time and gives you more time to reinforce what you already know, versus learning new material. 

Setting The Conditions

Think of it like this. If i know 1,000 words or if I know 4,000 I will be utilizing the same effort when trying to speak, read or practice listening. The difference is that by learning 4,000, I set myself up to benefit far more from the same effort. The more words I know, is the more time I can spend in the language without looking things up. The more words I know, it the more words will be triggered when I listen to native media (and the faster I will get to processing native speech better). At 1,000 words if i have to pause the video every second i’m wasting time. If i’m looking up words, I’m wasting time. I’m going to fail anyway, I’m going to crash and burn with words, grammar patterns and complex verbal linguistics. I might as well do it with some more body armor on that keeps me in the ring longer.

I am not saying go straight to 4,000 without doing any grammar or other studies, but in terms of war like strategy, vocabulary is king. For me, at a pace of 50 words per day, it takes  8 weeks to hit 3,000 and another 6 to reach 5,000. If this is long, you can go Hercules and do 100 per day, which I did while learning German. At that time I wanted to hit 3,000 as quickly as possible as was committed to only studying vocabulary. This is why I mentioned what happens by proxy. By going after a high number of words, you also start doing a lot of grammar practice by proxy, or seeing sentences with hundreds of common partners (or you can add your own). This isn’t a leisurely activity, it is training. We have to fail at remembering these words to force our brain to prioritize them, and there is no shortcut. 3,000-5,000 gets you “fully” in the game and there is no way around it. But reaching that point accelerates everything else. But it fits into what is called progressive overlap, which means the major goal feeds several minor goals.

Obviously, you can lower the intensity of everything i’ve mentioned and do this work in 6 months if you have the patience. I’ve found that i’d rather push harder in the beginning to force my brian to do what it doesn’t faster. So I probably won’t do 100 words per day, however if my base is 50, i’m guaranteed 1500 per month and 3000 in 8 weeks. But i know 100 is quite doable with the right methods.

Point is, if I “fail strategically forward” with what i’m doing, it puts me in a better place, with the same effort. I get more reward for the same amount of sweating. Now I just have to muster up my energy and mind to get ready for this new leg of the journey. I have about 145 Kanji left and this last leg has been mentally brutal. The Kanji groups are smaller but i’ve been really fatigued on this journey, but consistent! I have shown myself that the true enemy in the mind, and mindset wins each time. I’m posting all these thoughts because these are simple realizations i’ve come to. Everything i’m typing up has worked extremely well  and I’ looking forward to testing it systematically. I’m presently in a “learning/memorizing” phase and I really want to get to “only revision” versus using my memory to learn new Kanji. I want to start hammering away at new words (i’m already at about 1500 by proxy) but I can’t split the focus between Kanji and words presently, so hopefully I’ll wrap up all 145 by next week at my current pace.

Today’s Kanji memorized so far.


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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