How To Use Videogames To Gauge Ability

ゼルダの伝説 Zelda no Densetsu (Legend of Zelda)

Today was a pretty exciting day for me for super nerdy reasons. I finally received a copy of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that i’d got at a discount on Black Friday. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that one of my goals for this Japanese project was to be able to play Breath of The Wild in Japanese as one of my “high tier goals”, because doing that means I’d probably need to hit that coveted 5,000 word mark and have an N2 level of grammatical awareness at minimum. I’ve greatly emphasized that what carries you through all the hard work these things take has to be a very large goal. A goal that feels well out of reach, but not impossible. So I didn’t say “Become a simultaneous Japanese translator in 6 months” (lol).

Even though I figured out that playing Zelda is not the ultimate goal, that is to say, I realized that I needed other supplementary goals, I got very excited just ordering the game. I know i’m not at the level where I can play the game “smoothly” yet but it still excited me. The game is now a token of sorts, reminding me of what I’m aiming for.

You see the last two weeks have been quite challenging, not because of any personal problems or life stuff really (though they are there), but just the constant demand of a large goal like this eventually can wear down on you. It doesn’t matter how much progress i’ve made, how many words i’m studying, or if my Japanese is improving. You need a way at some point to really ENJOY what you are doing, and find ways to constantly measure rewards.

In this article I talk at length about these types of goals and their importance because you can’t escape the weight of what’s waiting for you. You see, even though I learned all 2,136 Jouyou Kanji and I’m starting the process of learning words, just looking at my list of 5,000 high frequency words day after day sometimes makes me feel a bit stressed out. I know I can do it, I know I have the methodology, but the sheer demand of the work (after a few months of really grinding out the Kanji) is challenging. My mind is saying to me “Do you really want this?” It is this feeling that made me make sure to get Breath of The Wild when I saw it on sale on Amazon. It makes ZERO sense to commit to mastering the Kanji and having anything derail that momentum.

I’ve been here before with other endeavors and this is where the pressure can lead you to stop. It feels like “too much”, there are “too many words”, “how will I learn it all” and so on. But remember. Just three months ago, I said “How can I learn all 2,136 fully memorized? A task that takes a dedicated learner 2-5 years?” Impossible is what I eat for breakfast. (Okay I don’t really say that lol). These questions do no represent doubt to me, (at least not anymore). It is an inevitable call from the body for a little bit of respite. I’ve found that you can’t just go hardcore 24 hours a day (which I ensure NOT to do), but even a very well-balanced schedule and hitting high goals fast requires a little time to blow off steam before another super hardcore endeavor.

I realized I was stuck in a research and implementation loop, but I wasn’t really “enjoying” or “using” my Japanese yet. To give you an idea of what i’m doing, I’m presently, creating what I call a series of “comprehension loops” that allow me to super revise all my target words (per 100) up to the list of 5,000 i’m studying. This takes a lot of energy and is taking far more time and energy than I had anticipated. I really wanted to just dive into my words and hit that next level, but the only way to really test my theory (as I did with the Kanji learning) is to do the research properly. (Note: it’s already working, its just a LOT of data to go through).

The Video Game Gauge

When I studied German, my turning point for getting very comfortable with reading general text (game menus, articles, tweets) was when I crossed the 3,000 word mark. I’m probably at the 2,000 mark now with Japanese, but I haven’t started training these words yet (more on that later), so I know that if I try and play games, I’ll get stuck too often to get value from sitting and translating what i’m reading. Meaning, I can read a lot of what i’m seeing, even understand a good bit of it, but the ratio of words I don’t know or are familiar with to those I don’t is too currently high to fully enjoy the process.

When I decided to play some video games in German, I knew about 4,500 words, which was enough to stay in a comfortable 85-90% comprehension range. I didn’t know everything, because games use weird speech and often make characters say things in a funny way, or use unusually expressive and flowery words to describe places and things. So I know already that you need to be able to “navigate” to “enjoy”. Because I’m doing research, it isn’t always that much fun. To “Switch things up” as a test I set my Nintendo Switch Lite’s system language to Japanese to play some Breath of the Wild in Japanese to really get a sense of where I am.

The home menu read “press A to continue”

After passing the home screen when the game popped up I saw that it read:

ゼルダの伝説 (zeruda no densetsu) – Legend of Zelda

I thought it was pretty cool reading that. I didn’t know what “legend” (伝説)was in Japanese (hadn’t learned it yet), but its very cool to be able to read the word with no issues. Obviously in this case, “ZERUDA NO DENSETSU” would obviously mean legend. So I played the game a bit and saw that the characters were really small near impossible to read. This was a concern of mine (because reading English in games on Nintendo Switch Lite can be a nightmare I couldn’t even begin to fathom the drama that Japanese games would bring) and I saw on the internet there was a “zoom mode”.

So I jumped into the system menu (still in Japanese) and started looking for the zoom mode. The menus are the same from language to language, so I went down to the bottom, seeing “本体” which is hontai, ‘body of a machine’ aka ‘system’ and there saw gamennozumu  画面のズーム ”screen zoom” and enabled the mode.

Then the light bulb went off. I was reminded me that what i was doing was working. It reminded me that the effort was leading somewhere, and that sometimes when we are stuck in the learning phase, we can stray a bit from that mentally. I was reminded that 90 days ago, I could do none of this! 

Despite getting drained a bit by doing “research” and “going off the path a bit”, true innovation is always challenging, but you need a way to see where you are relative to where you were. The huge side benefit of spending  2 hours a day making little essays (as part of my current research) creates an astonishing ease and familiarity with written Japanese. I used to get very tense when I saw Japanese words and menus, because again, I thought “this is impossible”, but when you can easily read through them, or read the words (even if you don’t know them) you have a very powerful psychological advantage. You “see” where you are going and you “see” what your efforts (and future efforts) will give you once you continue. I hadn’t set my Switch to Japanese this entire time (I hadn’t really been playing it either way) and I had no issues reading the menu items. My main concern was that because I have a Nintendo Switch Lite, I’d struggle with reading the characters.

I played through some of the game, and didn’t really have a ton of issues reading through some stuff, but I was stuck at lots of words I didn’t know (which I predicted). My mission isn’t to slog through Zelda with a dictionary in my hand inch by inch. I want to be able to start figuring out words in context and enjoy both the game and the learning. So I know that’s probably another five to six weeks away, but its still a pretty cool feeling. As soon as I started playing the game, I just said to myself you are encountered words and grammar patterns you’ve never seen or read before, so you can’t expect to know them.

I can slowly read the words i’m seeing, but i’d still have to look them up. So it is obviously AWESOME that I can read the words, but I knew from day one that learning to read the words was the first step to training vocabulary. Playing through this video game at my current word level would not serve me. My time would be better spend training thousands of words and coming back with a bit more vocabulary muscle. In other words, if I was to spend 2 hours playing Zelda and learn maybe 30 random words, these would be words that I wouldn’t be able to know if they are antiquated (rarely used), or common (high frequency). This means that net benefit of this activity at this level has a lower value.  There is no value (for me at this stage) spending 2 hours learning words that relate to Fantasy and beasts and lore when those 2 hours could be spent exposing myself to 100 high frequency words in a list i’m working through, words that take me bit by bit to that 5,000 word exposure mark, which results in 98% comprehension of all written and spoken text (Nation, 1991).

You might think i’m being nitpicky, saying “just play the game! enjoy yourself!” In reality, I’m not being picky at all. Playing a game like Zelda in Japanese is NOT EASY or FUN if you have difficulty progressing through the game. Remember that for me, Zelda is one of my end goals. I set the parameters. I set the bar pretty high. I said “To play this game, I’ll probably need N2 grammatical awareness at minimum.” How do I know this? I made a rough guessitmation based on normal data:

I know that an N2 level Japanese requires the following:

A knowledge of around 6,000 words, 500 grammar points and 1,000 Kanji. At the time of this writing, I’m familiar with about 2,000 words, know 2,136 Kanji, 200+ grammar patterns and I’ve had about 500+ hours of listening immersion with native material. At an N2 level, it would be a bit impossible for me not to be able to play this game comfortably. Aiming this “high” also sets up by proxy, the potential for sharp conversational skills, advanced reading ability and so on.

You might ask, well why not just aim for N1 level then?

Why not N1?  and Final Thoughts

I’m not studying here to take an exam, which is a completely different process and approach. As well know there are people who pass these high level exams that can’t even speak Japanese properly (or at the N1) level. My approach is based on data sets, and I just used these levels to be able to guage where I will “most likely be” ability wise within a certain time frame. My personal timeline was to see where I could reach in 4.5-6 months (with time for research in between). Based on the numbers I said N2 looked doable. N1 requires a knowledge of around 10,000 words and another 200 grammar points, so I just set N2 as the primary gauge. Also, depending on how you study, there are aspects of these “tests” that you may already possess. For example, I know 2,136 Kanji, which is an N1 requirement. After learning 5,000 words and all the grammar patterns I might actually be closer to ‘N1’, than ‘N2’. To me it doesn’t really matter, because its just data. My approach is looking at this like ‘training, and it is a LOT of data to train.

In this process we have to work on memorization, production and recognition in such a way that it all coalesces into our advanced comprehension of the language. This only comes from exposure and efficient methodologies. Research has shown me that once you are familiar with thousands of words, the grammar part kind of starts to organize itself and takes MUCH less time to learn. So aiming for N1 is possible but just looking at the data and what it requires, i’ll have to see. What’s interesting about grammar that i’ve learned is that it isn’t usually ‘hard’ in the sense that most of the time it is just a work placed somewhere to convey something else. Sometimes you have to do certain conjugations and what not, but these partners mirror over time and become easy to add to new data. Mastering things incrementally setups up faster mastery at higher levels. If you really lock down N3 and N2, N1 isn’t going to be impossible, it will just take time and practice. Eventually I’ll write a post about ‘N1 level’ and what it really represents. But for this last part of the post, Let me remind you:

I learned 2,136 Kanji in 90 days and am now preparing to expose myself to 5,000 words (with some new methods) in 6 weeks. During this 6 weeks I also will be working to expose myself to around an N2 level of grammar by embedding the grammar in my study materials. This means the overall process to N2 (excluding research time) is about 4.5 months. Giving a little leeway of 1.5 months for incidental stuff (life) a 6 months stretch to super ability isn’t too far away.

There is no massive shortcut to these first 5,000 words. There is no real shortcut to N2 or N1. I’m creating a system to train everything I encounter, but I can’t ‘shortcut it’ or ‘hack it’ because its just tons and tons of data i’ve never seen. It is TIRING and also exciting and a true test of mental grit and ability. You need to want this, badly. You have to wake up wanting it, wanting those new words, wanting that recognition. You have to want it like water. 

Okay that’s it for today! Cheers

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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