Why I Wish I Was Told about the ‘Top Down View’ Years Ago

In life, time is everything.

If you’ve read a lot of my articles, you can see that i’m very passionate about my research and implementation of what I speak about and i’ve had enough trial, error, massive failure and now some massive success that fuel my viewpoints. To become unusually good at anything first requires an unusual mindset. No one program, strategy or methodology will make a unmotivated person succeed. In the same vein, no super efficient system will work for an inefficient person. But let’s say you are both motivated and efficient, you still will face unusual challenges because of perceptual psychology and pitfalls you may not expect. Language learning is a giant memorization exercise. This means that unless you are a Savant like Daniel Tammet who can learn a language fluently in a week, you have to give yourself room to understand your unusual natural strengths and human limitations.

The reason there is so much “strategy” around learning language is because of the sheer scale of what you are trying to memorize: Thousands of words, hundreds of grammar patterns and these words and grammar patterns spoken with unfamiliar phonetics at native speed. Depending on your language, you may need to learn a new reading or writing system as well. In the case of Japanese at minimum 2,136 characters to read and navigate regular situations. So we know these things are all required, which is why you can feel that tension before you start the process. Your brain says it is too much, I can’t do this, it feels overwhelming. 

This is a merely psychological response, because you must ask yourself, if I get tense at the thought of learning a new language, is there someone who gets excited in the same situation? The answer obviously, is yes. What has been underpinning ALL of my latest research (and gains) is the full understanding that psychology is about 85% of what one needs to make massive gains in your pursuits. You must be able to see the end (or a part of the end) every time you take action towards the goal. Of course I’ve hit massive organizational hurdles (related to data) and also massive hurdles psychologically (perceptual), but once these are out of the way, meaning: I both understand how to reach my goal and know that I can reach it.

Many of my posts really dive into this concept, so I won’t go into it much further. But once you control that side of things, you get to put the majority of your mental energy into action and execution, versus puzzling out the next move.

Balance and High Activity

What must happen first is you must very technically assess what you need to do over the committed period of your goal. You need to figure out what steps help you to achieve your goal in a time frame you are aiming for. But here’s the problem, the internet is chock full of people and websites all talking about various strategies, word lists, popular kanji, colloquialisms, what to do, what not do, etc etc. You can spend months trying to figure out the ‘best way’ ‘best hack’ ‘top word list’ and so on. Instead of focusing on all these things, I focused on what I called “data sets” that cover EVERYTHING. I do approaches in such  way that one major activity covers several, or dozens of smaller activities.

Let me give you an example: For most languages, a knowledge of 5,000 words gives you access to 98% of the written and spoken text (Nation, 1991). This means if a student had one goal to learn just learned 5,000 words they would set themselves up for monstrous comprehension. This overrides a list of 1,000 words, 2,500 words or 3,000 words. By aiming for 5,000 I’m going to learn these high frequency words anyways. I can understand if someone has six weeks to go to a new country and they need to a ‘hack’ to have some speaking ability but generally, the energy i’d put into mastering 1,000 words that ‘give me quick access’ is an illusion. Its like reading a newspaper full of holes. Even 3,000 words doesn’t give you as much ability as you think. So 5,000 is a data set that covers all the potential words to take you to that first rung of advanced ability. 

By aiming for 5,000 words, I’m not thinking about anything because I know that list covers everything I should need up to my target level of grammatical ability. 

With Japanese, the government says people should know 2,136 Kanji to be able to read the papers, take high level exams and so on. Instead of figuring out the ‘top 100 Kanji to learn first’ or the ‘top 500 Kanji to learn’ I just said learn the 2,136 Kanji, because those cover everything up to the N2 (second highest rung of grammar ability). 

So decided to do these two things, saves me any future time or effort researching “methods”, because I know exactly what they will give me. 2,136 Japanese characters allows me to read quite a bit of Japanese (though 3,000 characters is the real goal) and then 5,000 words gives me access to 98% of the language.

Thirdly, to develop a sharp ear in your target language, you need to aim for a minimum of 1,000 listening hours. This process takes at minimum 4.5 months which means it will take about 6 months to hit this point for most people. At this point everything you are aiming to do significantly overlaps and you begin to experience what I call “comprehension leaps” and “comprehension explosions”.

All of these activities must be individually organized, but at a glance allow for a more stress free mental orientation in terms of the ground you need to cover.

Remember irregardless of ‘strategy’ or ‘hacks’ EVERYONE who has success in a language pursuit must do the same thing, some just do it faster and more efficiently. So take solace knowing that everyone has to pretty much reach the finish line the same way. 

Your mission to be to able to put ALL your effort into the various tasks and do so in a way that allows you to operate for 3-6 months at high activity. Having a “top down view” lets you know what you are doing in month 1, and what you should also be doing in month 5. This helps you to not just relax (since you have a timeline) but also get a sense of where you “should be” relative to your efforts.

These three guidelines (for Japanese), which is Kanji list 2,136, Word list 5,000 and listening time 1,000 hours gives you a charted path to your language level. In this case, this roughly equates to an N2 level of Japanese, which is advanced. I don’t think this process should take more than 6 months.

This Sets up Core Realities

Having this top down view reminds you that if these steps are not achieved, you cannot anticipate the goals you seek. 

It may sound simple, but think about it. Whenever I find myself slacking off a bit, I remind myself that if I don’t aim for these 5,000 words, as challenging as that is, I’m not going to reach that 98% of the language based on research. So every time I don’t add words, don’t revise, or start thinking about ‘strategy’ etc, its meaningless, because the research already shows me what I need to do. I know a huge shift happens at the 3,000 word mark which is what i’m looking forward to hitting now, but aiming for that 5,000 is so big I know it must give me something in return. 

For the Kanji and listening, it is the same. If I don’t know all 2,136 Kanji I can’t read anything, which means I can’t really study vocabulary, which breaks almost everything else down. There are people who emphatically say “don’t learn Kanji learn words” on the internet, which I find interesting because every Japanese person alive has had to learn the Kanji by reading and writing them.

Without 500-1000 hours of listening in my target language, I won’t master the phonetics in my ear, which helps me to then reproduce them in speech and recognize them at speed. These 3 things cover a monstrous portion of the heavy lifting needed to reach an advanced level. Remember, the heavy lifting should always be the work, not thinking about the work.

As a person who has done a lot of research into this, I’ve had to do some heavy lifting in terms of thinking, which is why I share my finding here and why I’m also developing something more comprehensive. Because I have the 3 major goals outline, I was able to easily project forward for my first 6 months of activity.

I’ve developed a way to learn all 2,136 Kanji in 8-10 weeks without too much effort. It took me a month for my first 1,000 or so and I did the rest in 90 days. During this time, I logged about 450 hours of Japanese listening. After another research period, I’m now implementing my vocabulary phase aiming for 5,000 word exposure in 6 weeks.

I know some of you may be asking yourself about Grammar, or speaking (and i’m coming to that), but really understand what i’m saying with these 3 components first.

Without being able to read Kanji, we can’t really train vocabulary. We need 2,136 Kanji to access a large portion of the language. Learning and mastering the Kanji sets up for a very efficient approach to vocabulary memorization as you have no concerns about being able to read the words you are trying to memorize. Listening sharpens your ear and activates the words you are learning. Speech goes from being “blurry nonsense”, to “short logical chains” then “clear speech”. It isn’t about understanding everything you hear, which only happens when you reach a certain word/grammar understanding saturation, but once you can hear everything you set the stage for speaking.

Speaking, Grammar & Energy.

Everything i’ve described so far requires vast amounts of energy. This is why people are constantly looking for hacks, and shortcuts to learn the language in 30 days or 60 days etc. With romance languages, one can learn it to fluency pretty quickly, meaning the ability to construct grammatically complex words and phrases. I was able to reach an advanced level of German in about 4.5 months without much of my current perspective. This is because for Romance languages, there isn’t really much of a barrier to entry learning to read and pronounce the new language. You don’t need more than a week or two to get a hang of a modified alphabet and dive right in in terms of reading new words. This allows you to go “faster” because you don’t have the same barriers. My German project was the research that shifted my belief and understanding of what could be done with Japanese, but it took me around a year to get on it, as language studying is long, extremely intense and you must be devoted to it.

With a language like Japanese, you can’t escape the initial barrier of Japanese characters. There is no way around it, and it adds unavoidable time to your learning journey. I’ve found a way to monstrously shorten it, so you don’t need more than 2 months to get your skin in the game, versus 2-5 years for a lot of people. All this means is that with Japanese, in this world of what is called “Rapid Language Acquisition” you must mentally tell yourself that you are about 2-3 months behind another language due to the Kanji barrier. 

This is why I did so much research into getting past the Kanji hurdle quickly, knowing that once I can master the Kanji quickly, I can handle the other components in good time and not be working of a year or two or three JUST to be able to read new words.

Each Component is Intense

There are people out there, who can work 12-16 hours a day at something every day without fatigue. People like this who study languages tend to have a lot of disposable time, energy and situations that (seem to) not have much personal responsibility. I don’t consider this normal or average, and don’t use these outliers as examples of how to learn quickly. i”ll have my 10 or 12 hour days, but try to keep things in the 2-4 hour range since I have other things I must do with my day.

The thing is, you can’t do everything at once. This is quite possibly the hardest thing to understand as a new learner, because all you want is the end result. You want the speaking ability, you want the reading ability etc. Remember that in trying to learn a language rapidly (3-6 months) you are attempting to shortcut TEN YEARS of staggered learning that children take. Taking a year to get fluent shortens that time span by 90%, 3-6 months puts you in the 94% range. The point is, “fast” depends on how you define it. To me, you can seriously get fluent in a romance language in about 90-120 days (with MONSTROUS effort) and for a language like Japanese (if you can cross the Kanji barrier quickly), you should be able to hit a high point about three to four months after a romance language learning point. Based on my research this mean you can take 2 months to learn the Kanji, and then add 4 months onto that for other components, taking you to six months. 

So what i’ve found is that if you focus ONLY on a component for a period of time and then move on, it is of far more benefit. Once I crossed the 4,500 word mark in German and started listening to podcasts, I found I could speak a lot better (without doing extra grammar practice). When I started doing more grammar practice, I spoke better, despite having not spoken to anyone personally. So I understand that it was actually NOT trying to speak too early that gave me more of an advantage later. 

Remember: Kanji — sets up reading vocabulary — Vocabulary — sets up better listening immersion, reading and grammar — Speaking — trained through grammar and vocabulary .

Since my focus here is not wasting time on excess research and trying to be as efficient as possible, I know that I can only train my speaking effectively if I am able to train grammar properly. Grammar is best trained with a robust vocabulary, because your focus will always be a sentence’s meaning not trying to read and understand the sentence. 

You see, since each component is intense you don’t want to have too much overlap that makes things harder when they can be done advantageously in a sequence (that is not too far apart). I don’t want to be trying to learn tons of grammar and vocabulary at the same time, it gets confusing at scale. Better to learn a few thousands words (giving you tons of grammar by proxy) and then when you read a sentence, the grammar ‘stands out’.

If I can read 98% of sentences I see, I am now focused on the sentence for meaning. This allows me to “train” the grammar, since it is my only focus, not the words around it. This translates into speaking, which is attempting to produce the entire construct from memory, vocally.

So EVERYTHING links to this point and modifications can be made to get to certain points faster (prioritizing speaking for example).

Why I’m Doing It This Way

Simple. Let’s say I learn 3,000 words, go heavily into grammar and speaking, I’ll still have to come back at learn the other 2,000 words to give me more strength in the language. If I only learn 1,000 Kanji (N2 requirement), I’ll still at some point have to learn the remaining 1,136, or remaining 1,936 if you aim for knowing 3,000 characters (what a standard adult knows). If I don’t listen to enough Japanese, I’m gonna have to listen to Japanese at some point to level up what I can hear. So if I listen to 300 hours, i’m gonna have to log those 700 hours at some point to take me to that 1,000.

You see, all 3 components will keep coming back in some shape or form. So you can make quick gains in one and be weak in another, or you can choose to gradually (in a not very long period of time) build a lot more robustness. This isn’t about being a maser of everything, I just really don’t want to have to keep hopping around. This is a path once charted that anyone can map and execute. It just takes some more patience.

A lot of people can spend a very intense month and memorize a lot of basic grammar and words and speak “fluently” while LITERALLY not understanding the language, but just “sounding good”. It is really their next 3-6 months that takes them into a new stratosphere. They still need to hit those 1,000+ hours of listening, learn thousands more words and hundreds of grammar patterns. There is NO shortcut to this type of mastery, except exposure and consistent and intense study until you hit a “saturation point” where you get a very strong feel for what’s going on and everything beings to self-reinforce.

The “top down view” allows us to project when that should happen, so we really keep the flames burning in our engine to go towards that point because once we reach there, we are guaranteed certain results.

For example, I’m in my “vocabulary phase” now. It presently takes all my focus and energy relative to my overall goals. It would be a waste to do what i’m doing now and try to learn grammar AND speaking, particularly when I know that a robust vocabulary makes learning grammar exponentially less difficult. What makes practicing anything hard is how efficient the method is. If I know 500 words and 50 grammar points and I’m trying to explain my feelings, that’s rough territory. If I know 3,000 words, say, 300 grammar points and I’ve have 500 hours of listening under my belt, i’m in a much better position to “train” more effectively. This is why I mention the pitfalls of the “30 day fluency” conundrum. You can’t get exposed (in literal time) to everything you need to learn to process the language based on the hundreds and hundreds of hours of exposure you need to internalize certain patterns. What people really do with this “30 day fluency” is parrot a lot of basic phrases within a very narrow range of words and grammar, that they say is fluent, which is technically not wrong. I can memorize a one minute speech in French with proper pronunciation and say “Here’s how I learned to speak fluent French in 30 days” or some madness, when I know that I wouldn’t be able to understand any French person I met beyond very basic conversation, nor would I be able to process or understand pretty much all French media I attempt to watch in month 1. Your brain just cannot memorize all that data in 30 days (unless you are a Savant of course).

4-6 months is BLINDINGLY FAST to learn a language, so I ignore the “30 day conundrum” and work in sections within a certain time span with predictors that I hit with certain data. This is called “working sectionally”. Doing things sectionally also gives me set time limits for each section I train. Kanji (2,136) 8-12 weeks. Vocabulary (first 5,000 6 weeks), then (speaking and grammar training, 8 weeks). What this means is I have a few months of no speaking, but loads of reading writing and listening training, which sets up the last phase pretty well.

The ‘Top Down View’ makes this clear and direct. So as I press through, I’ll keep updating my progress and views. The complexity of these tasks and the effort required for each component really makes me sympathize with so many who try to undertake this task. It isn’t as much genius as much as genius level focus, time management and task prioritization. Anyone who tries to learn a new language with all their heart and soul is already a hero in my book.

More to come! Cheers

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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