Dealing With Inevitable Stress pt.1

“Is this really worth it?”

Hey guys, definitely need to make a note here. I’ve finally crossed a barrier of what I call “perceptual stress” . This is specifically:

the state where despite all goals achieved thus far, the sheer demands of the language appear to be ‘too much’ for you to learn and your motivation starts to waver. 

Its a challenge i’ve faced before, but understand exactly how to overcome it and am making a note in realtime for these purposes.

Language Acquisition and General Stress

What i’ve learned over time that in life, a lot of stress is just simply that. Stress. It generally has nothing to do with your learning ability or the supposed ‘likelihood of your success’. Sometimes we are stressed because of work, personal problems, family issues and a world of other things that have nothing to do with learning our target language. You see, language acquisition is quite possibly the most intense task one can undertake, even casually. When your general stress is high, often language learning becomes “harder”, because its baseline requirements are high amounts of energy, attention, time, organization and focus. These activities are not necessarily stressful, but have their own levels of ‘stress’ (physical, mental, etc).  So if your general stress level is very high, your routine with language learning can also by proxy get quite high. When your stress gets nuclear, this is when you might start to think everything is “not worth it” and stop, despite all the gains you’ve made. What i’ve done to get past this is below:

Three Steps to Restart Your Brain when Stressed

  1. Take A Breath

I take a breath. I assess my present reality and really gauge my day to day activities, what’s bothering me and how i’m feeling in my spirit. Am I feeling lonely? Bored, isolated or are certain tasks and projects uninspiring and draining? What’s my general outlook? Once I get a sense of that I usually identify how i’m feeling generally, and most of the time whatever is bothering me is either physical (health issues) or life stuff (family, personal). Once I’ve figured out the basic issue I make some simple modifications in my day to day and ensure to plan a few out of the norm activities, call a friend, plan to go somewhere, just anything to break the cycle i’m mentally in.


2. Re-assess Your TRUE progress

I go back to my “top down view” and re-asses where I am and remind myself of what I’ve actually done. In this case, sometimes what gets tough for me specifically, is going through grammar patterns. I don’t have any issue perceptually believing I can learn thousands of words, but my mind always struggles with grammar because I know it requires training yourself to not just memorize these patterns on paper, but hear them in speech. Grammar is also very context heavy, so when my brain does the math it starts to try its best to avoid another intense, stressful task. However there are a few things in my mind now that activate when this happens. We can call them “motivation backup systems”. Firstly, I’ve already crossed this barrier with another language (German). I remember being at the exact perceptual hurdle point thinking it was “too much grammar” and my brain started to hurt etc. So I know this isn’t impossible. I remind myself of exactly what the process is, which only has two components, time and consistent effort. This effort doesn’t have to be “extreme”, just consistent. On a subconscious level, I’ve always struggled believing that getting really, really good at Japanese wasn’t something I could do, (obviously I don’t think that now) but a lot of those old feelings can get triggered by high stress.

Put this this way: At minimum for this process I need to learn: 2,136 Kanji, 600+ grammar  patterns (which have their own contexts etc) and a minimum of 5,000 words. Taking each of these as 1 items to story in memory, these are 7,736 items to store in the brain in a short period of time. Short I define as 4.5 to 6 months. As I’ve demonstrated, massive amounts of data can be learned in very short periods (2,136 Kanji in 8-10 weeks) so there isn’t an issue with data, but the perception of the data. I expected this to happen and knew i’d have to mentally navigate the space (as this type of feeling doesn’t last long). So looking at where I really am:

I’ve memorized 2,136 Kanji and I know about 2,000 words. I’ve learned N5 and about 50% of N4 grammar so about 170 patterns. I’ve had a delay because I have to build a database to test  a new method(I think this was worrying me because I feared ‘being to slow’), but generally speaking i’m doing well.

My total goal is: 7,736 data points to memorize. I’m currently at: 4,306. That’s 55% of my overall goal in around 4 months. So even though I’ve hit a major stress point, my progress generally speaking is incredible, particularly because during this time i’ve been dealing with significant health challenges. 

TRUE progress pt. 2

I then took a look at my ability relative to where I was in August. in August whatever I watched was “mostly noise”, I couldn’t read any Kanji and I just knew a handful of grammar expressions and common phrases. Last night before going to sleep I watched an episode on this YouTube channel called “SeikinTV” where these two really interesting guys bought a ton of expensive stuff on Amazon and gave it one of the guy’s mother as a christmas gift. These are native speakers, speaking rapidly, joking around and so on. I followed the episode pretty well and generally knew what was going on and what they were talking about. A lot of words, expressions and phrases were very clear and a lot I could figure out from context. Any words that came on screen I could read. I can’t read these words that quickly (yet) but I didn’t pause the video when words flashed up, but I knew the Kanji and some words I could read quickly, some I couldn’t’. Here’s the thing, I couldn’t do this just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be able to sit and “handle” two native speakers chatting and Joking etc. In the same way I remember watching a German TV series and almost having a panic attack because of my lack of comprehension, I was so shocked when I moved from that state, to being able to understand rapidly spoken speech (which comes from hundreds of hours of listening). The process is the same from language to language. You can set your watch to it. It is very challenging, but doable. It doesn’t take much longer at this point, to study a few thousand words and then experience what I called a “comprehension quantum leap”. Right now i’m at that point where i’m following what people talk about and things feel “2 or 3 steps ahead” (this is a great place to be). Once you start ‘catching up’ as it were, you’ve gone to a new level. The fact that I can sort of “dip into” Japnase Youtube without too much trouble shows where my brain has reached, as least from a phonetic saturation point. It has no issues with the syllables and prosody of speech, I just don’t know that many words yet. But knowing my “TRUE progress” allowed me to take another breath and realize that my efforts were leading somewhere, and that in another 6-8 weeks I’d have such an explosion of ability it would all be worth it.

Once I made this reassessment, I went to my third step, goal revision.

Working through grammar, doing immersion and keeping things together.

3. Revise Your Overall Goal

What really happens during a process like this is that you get challenged not just by the language, but by your spirit. Why do you want this? I’ve found out a few things on my journeys studying five languages with varying success:

you need to REALLY, REALLY, REALLY want it. 

A casual attitude won’t get you to fluency or through the hundreds or thousands of hours of listening you need to do, or all the practice to master hundreds of grammar patterns and so on. The more you want it, the easier the repetitive tasks get. The more you get excited with small wins. The more your leaps begin to excite you for the final destination. My original goal was “to be able to play Zelda: Breath of The Wild” in Japanese, but I quickly realized that goal wasn’t large enough by any stretch of the imagination. Being able to play that game in Japanese would me I definitely had advanced ability, but its just one game. Japanese is a language with literally thousand of applications.

I’ve barely done Youtube for the last 2 years (wasn’t into it) but say I wanted to make videos here in Jamaica speaking Japanese, or German if the vibe hit me. That might be unique and interesting. Imagine reviewing places in Japanese in Jamaica. That’s trippy! Obviously my spoken Japanese would need to be pretty good or at least functional to start that process but more importantly it might be fun. Another one is what if I tried to visit Tokyo (if the world ever opens up again lol) and I could go to Japan, this time armed with fluent Japanese? It would probably be a mind-blowing experience relative to where I was when I lived there previously (with no significant Japanese language ability). There are many other goals that can guide this process, but I’ve found the more vivid and fantastical it becomes, the easier the process is to go through. When I wanted to study German (for my third attempt) I had a huge epiphany. In my article How To do ‘Impossible’ Things in ‘Impossible’ Timeframes I go through what got me really primed to learn German and handle everything psychologically. Instead of just “wanting to learn German” what happened was I had this fantasy (who knows where it came from) about living and being in Germany. I saw myself in Berlin, chatting German, enjoying the countryside and exploring a different side of the language. 2020 came and derailed those plans, but I remember it was so vivid and clear that it guided me through quite a few months of heavy work (until inevitable frustration kicked in). But this core idea, fantasy or dream that is vast, expansive and colorful with many moving parts is one of the best things to guide you. The more you can see it and feel it, the more your process and small wins, growth and steps forward become more real to you and the goal feels closer and closer.

So questions like: What if I went back to Tokyo speaking fluent Japanese? What if i could comfortably play video games in Japanese? What if I made some Jamaican based vlogs in Japanese? What if I made some music in Japanese (I’m wear a musician’s hat also). These three things alone have dozens of components that can all give me ‘legs’ so to speak that support the overall goal.

I’ll break that down in the next article, to build the visual world of the goal:


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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