Trust Your Brain pt.2 – Lag Time Is Perceptual

Illustration of perceptual ‘Lag Time’

In part one of this Trust Your Brain series of articles I spoke about how data organizes over time in a specific way with a specific type of exposure, and that your brain automatically starts to process and organize this data on its own with the right inputs. Now i’m going to expand on a concept that can also affect a language learner, that they can mentally prepare for as they take on large tasks.

The expression “lag”, comes from the word “lag” as in “to lag behind”, “to be slow” etc. It was made popular particularly in the 90s, when the Internet was pretty slow, and “lag” (slowdowns due a lack of bandwidth) was the norm for everyone using the Internet or playing games online. Lag is the difference in time between what you are supposed to be seeing/experiencing and what you are actually experiencing. 

In video game terms this is called “Latency”. For example, if I was playing say, Super Mario and I press the A button to jump, if Mario jumps two seconds after I press a, then the game has really bag “latency”. This overall bad latency while make the game “laggy” and unplayable.

We don’t want to perceive our actions in the same way. You see, when we start to make serious gains in our language studies, because fo the sheer amount of data we are memorizing and absorbing, there is going to be some natural lag time between where we are and where we want to be, even after making massive gains. 

Here is an example. I knew that after learning all 2,136 of the Jouyou Kanji, which is no small feat, I would still not be able to read Japanese text fluidly. This is because there is a different between recognizing the Kanji and being able to read them individually, versus reading complete sentences at a comfortable speed. I will remind you that it took many, many, many hours of intense study, revision and discipline to learn these Kanji. It would be easy to delude myself and think I can “read Kanji” or “I know the Kanji now i’ve made it!” when that isn’t the case.

Once I’ve learned all these Kanji, my next task is to get thousands and thousands of exposures to words and short sentences to build familiarity with reading. This process doesn’t need to take very long to bear great fruit, but the absolute danger is to not know this hurdle awaits you. 

Lag and Perception

You see, in our minds like you see in the diagram, we might believe that after completing the process of learning the Kanji, we can now read Kanji and dive into playing games and reading manga. Technically you can, but you’d be moving extremely slow because you don’t know words yet. The gap between what you ‘think you know’ and ‘what you actually know’ has the potential to completely derail you. This has happened to me before, where I overestimated what i’d be able to do after completing a very large task. In my mind the scale of the first task was supposed to equate to significant ability upon completion. 

Here’s the trick. the large task actually gives you significant ability, but there is a ‘lag time’ that exists you must be aware of before your new powers fully manifest. 

Learning 3,000 words in a month does not mean you will have mastered 3,000 words in a month, but after using these words for another month you’ll be shocked at how everything changes. Some people expect 8 weeks of results in 4 weeks and often stop, feeling they have “failed” when they just didn’t give the data enough time to process.

Think like a programmer being told to fix Mario’s jump time in our previous example. We want to press the A button and Mario jumps instantly. We want the latency to be zero.

In the same way, we want to have zero latency with our reading and speaking. We want to think of something and say it, or see a word and read it very quickly. This process only happens with practice and exposure. Since we are working with thousands of words, there is a lag time that you cannot change until your exposures get very high. Thankfully, this process doesn’t take long.

Trust Your Brain, Again

Because of this “lag time” it may seem that after climbing a giant mountain, you are right at the foot of an even taller mountain. In actuality you are not. You need to trust your brain and see yourself operating with far less ‘lag time’ because it has the ability to do so, with the right number of exposures. Because I’m already aware of this lag time (usually two to three weeks), I prepared myself mentally. I knew when I finished spending months learning 2,136 Kanji that afterwards I wouldn’t immediately be able to read at speed. I would however, be able to ready anything I see, albeit slowly (initially). I also knew that I can easily expose myself to a thousand (or more) exposures per day to words and short sentences, which rapidly builds my reading ability. The “lag time” decreases significantly, and our “latency” begins to approach zero. Eventually you’ll be able to blast through sentences like a bad 80’s action movie.

Patience is King

Even for those learners trying to go “quickly” in their journey, you must be incredibly, incredibly patient. Most of what you do will not show real results for about 90 days depending on the language you are learning. As I’ve said, our brain needs time to organize the data, process is and then “do its thing” to allow to increased comprehension and language ability. The brain needs this time and exposure and you need to compensate for that in your own mind. Don’t say to yourself “Godammit, I learned all these Kanji and I’m reading so slowly”.

You are reading slowly because you’ve never read Japanese before. There is no one who starts out speaking rapidly, or reading rapidly. It just doesn’t happen. What can happen, is that you take a breather after learning the Kanji, and then go hardcore on learning thousands of words in short, quickly readable sentences, and get excited as you being to say words faster and faster with more exposure. This type of exposure is conscious, and over 2-3 weeks your reading speed will double or triple. If we can expect this, then we are at a great psychological advantage. 

Fun with Lag

What’s better, since we think like champions, the fun part of the process is now that we are aware of this lag time, we can really try and cut down our ‘latency’ by consciously doing as much work as possible. Learning as many words as you can and reviewing them only takes you to the top of the next mountain faster. This idea of “lag” relates to speaking as well, where instead of learning word, which I also call “word shapes” you are learning to produce pre-memorized “sonic patterns” or “sonic shapes”. Your progress is anything and the speed with which you achieve it is limited only by your personal determination. I won’t tell anyone how to use their time, my only advice is to always have operating minimums that keep you consistent. Some people want to study for six hours per day and have issues doing thirty minutes per day. But daily exposure trumps one day of heavy learning, as neurons are built in a compound manner and it is triggering information daily (not just in one sitting) that builds long-term memory. So it is better for a hypothetical person named John to do one hour of revision daily, versus Jack, who does six in one day and takes a three day break. In those four days, John get four hours of quality revision and the benefit of compound memorization. Jack feels excited about his long day of work, but won’t remember most of what he studied on his one productive day because he hasn’t consistently triggered these new memories.

Attacking Lag time and Lag Time Minimum

Lag time exists at all phases of our learning journey. I’ve identified three: Phase I (Kanji acquisition, which allows us to read), Phase II Vocabulary, which sets up speech and reading and Phase III, speaking, which is the final course.I don’t think lag time (in our context) needs to exceed two weeks. So there’s about a two week gap between your ability once you learn certain things and then your comfort with using it (after putting a lot of effort into getting used to the new information).

So this would mean: Learning 2,136 Kanji — two weeks to getting a lot comfortable reading words and sentences with increased speed (of course if you put the time in for exposure)

Speaking – two weeks to start speaking a little faster after getting a robust vocabulary as you get used to many common patterns.


So once we understand that this lag time exists (and is normal), we can Trust Our Brain and know that our improved ability will come the brain just needs a period of time to organize the new data and use it faster.

Awareness of this will make moving from phase to phase much smoother and you’ll give yourself space to relax, recharge and put your efforts at a high level into the next phase, until your godlike language powers truly manifest.





About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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