Study Smart, Not Hard

In Chinese, Japanese by Jeremy Arns

Most who start studying foreign languages become infatuated with learning new words and expressions, and seeing the differences and similarities compared to their native language. Unfortunately after time though, sometimes these exciting feelings begin to dwindle, and in some cases they might even lose all interest because it doesn’t seem as new or interesting as it first might have. They might claim to have the feeling of “not learning any more” or “not having the time” to maintain what they’ve already learned.

The feeling of “not learning anymore” reminds me of the comparison of shaving a head bald. Starting off with zero hair whatsoever, then going to bed and waking up the next morning with a head full of stubble seems like a drastic difference, (the largest difference there actually will be in the hair regrowing process).It’s sort of like starting off with no words in a language (a bald head), and then learning your first 10 words (gaining some stubble). You then learn your next 10 words, doubling your vocabulary which seems like another big change, just like how the second day of hair growth doubles the length of your total hair. Eventually you get to the point where you have so much vocabulary, or so much hair, more doesn’t seem to add any length.

However the rate is still consistent of course, it’s just that compared to 1000 words learned, adding 10 more words doesn’t seem like a such an amazing feat anymore, or when having 2 feet of hair, adding another inch isn’t even noticeable and it seems like your hair stopped growing.

Some “study habits” I like to keep have kept Japanese just as exciting, and I’m sure can be applied to any language. The key is you shouldn’t really be “studying”, instead activities you like to do anyway can be in Japanese. If you’re not ready for that step, then it should be increasingly Japanese, replacing what you can and learning the vocabulary.

If you prefer your activities in English and think it’s overboard to replace your activities in Japanese where possible, then it’s a good chance you don’t want to be learning Japanese anyway! (Or at least get to a proficient level). It’s a thinking platform for the brain after all, it can be used at any point in time, any point in the day… for anything!

Here are a few tips I’ve learned:

  • Do any reviews you would normally do in the day first thing in the morning, and very last thing at night— even if it’s only 5-10 minutes each. Keeping it fresh in your mind first thing and getting it out of the way is a good tactic. It also seems the mind is most creative in the morning and fades as you start to fully wake up. A lot of musicians believe in this theory and practice right as soon as they wake up. It’s recommended to do this as soon as possible right after waking up, as in, stay in bed and don’t get out until you finish.

We all have obligations that interfere with things we actually want to be doing, like learning Japanese if you’re required to use English throughout your day– so bust out some reviews (…wow) in the morning and what you studied will stay with you throughout the day. That way when you go back to review and study more at night, you’re solidifying any information remembered from that morning.

It’s an easy to form a habit which really boosts retention. I don’t recommend pushing it with the reviews though, reviewing words in a spaced repetition system is very important, but after using the same “study method” hours on end day after day, you might not want to go back the next, which defeats spaced repetition systems’ efficiency. It’s best to keep it short and sweet everyday, opposed to doing a long day and then missing a few days, even if you are averaging the same overall amount of time.

  • Don’t study component characters— a component character on Skritter is kanji that contains every reading and meaning for that specific character. Studying words gives you context of when that kanji is actually used and how it is pronounced in the word. You still can learn the individual meaning through the detailed information screen or in the context of the actual word. It’s great to learn kanji and know every associated reading and meaning like an 生き字引き, but it’s also really great to actually know Japanese words, and which characters are frequently used.
  • Avoid studying! Watch shows, listen to music, read a news article, book, or manga, anything interesting to you, and pick out words you don’t know and write them down (or even better quick add them to a list on Skritter, which both looks up the definition and saves it to a list to study). Think of it as being a little kid again, and rediscovering all of the things you had once before with your native language. I imagine a lot of kids read comic books and may not understand all the expressions and words, but it’s through reading or listening anyway and doing fun things that you learn, not by cramming a bunch of words out of context and sitting at a desk. I would add them to Skritter or where ever and study them, but also be sure they are coming from fun sources. Chances are you are going to hear those words again and quite frequently, so why not learn them now?
  • Try not to rely on furigana. If you are reading something give yourself a chance before hovering over the word with Rikaisama (or whatever popup dictionary you use) . You might surprise yourself! Try to guess the pronunciation and meaning before you check, you might be able to decipher it if you keep thinking before immediately grabbing the answer, and it’s a good feeling to figure out a word you didn’t know by context alone.
  • Don’t use subtitles. Never use English subtitles, and if you must, use Japanese subtitles instead, but eventually you don’t want to use Japanese subtitles either. If you are reading subtitles in English but “listening” in Japanese, (which doesn’t really work), you may indeed catch more words in Japanese that you wouldn’t normally hear without any, since there’s more catchable context, it may make you feel like you’re reenforcing memory or understanding more, however it’s actually a very bad habit which should be avoided.

It’s along the lines of flash card or dictionary syndrome, where someone can gain the ability to memorize 20,000 words if presented with flash cards, but phenomenally won’t recall them when presented in the wild. The only exception would be if you aren’t yet at the level to enjoy watching without English subtitles enough to continue watching, in which case watch with them on if you must opposed to not watching at all, but don’t use it as an excuse to not work towards the level where you can start watching without!

I recommend trying to get to the point where you can switch to Japanese subtitles and look up all the words you don’t know. Appropriate difficulty level is important, if you are watching a bunch of investigator shows you might learn technical words you aren’t “ready” for, so I would go for movies and shows that don’t seem like they would use a bunch of advanced vocabulary. After you watch through them with subtitles, you’ll likely remember much of the plot and what people said, so try to give it a go without any subtitles. Repetition is unfortunately the key to mastery with things, as annoying as it may be it’s extremely effective.

Once you get to the point where you can regularly understand most of everything being read in Japanese subtitles, it would be time to remove the subtitles and resort to backing up the video every time you don’t understand something, and if you still can’t grasp it to look at the spot in the Japanese subtitles.

  • Ban leeches— if you constantly keep getting a word wrong but it keeps popping up, just ban the word and then unban it after time passes. Sometimes it seems like there is some self sabotage on any chance to remember specific words or writings, which usually passes with time.
  • Learn sentences and memorize them, of course making sure they are from reliable sources. Try to memorize 20 sentences a day ideally and also at max, using mostly words and grammar points you already know but adding a few new things here and there. It’s especially helpful to write them out by hand. It’s great if you have a study partner you could practice with verbally, where you can quiz each other by either reading the sentence in Japanese and quiz for the English, or recall the Japanese by hearing the English first.

Studying with a partner of course makes it feel less like studying. I said avoid studying, but you still have to do it of course! As a note, if you do use English sentences first trying to recall the Japanese equivalent, it can be a bit annoying to memorize the exact Japanese sentence, especially when you get to the point where you naturally learn to state things in different ways. (That becomes more like memorizing a line from a script, and less like learning Japanese).

The exception would be if your study partner “grading” you was a Japanese native also fluent in English that could verify your version was the same meaning and nuance as the English definition. This is why hearing the Japanese, saying what it means in English, then repeating the Japanese is recommended as a good start. If you are fortunate enough to study with someone fluent in Japanese and English, it’s much more effective to do English to Japanese, while trying not to “memorize” a sentence (if that makes sense!).

  • Read like crazy— you should read everyday, but at the appropriate difficulty level. If it’s too difficult to read at your Japanese level, you could start off by memorizing stories, breaking apart the words and grammar sentence by sentence, word by word, starting from the very beginning, and then re-read them everyday until you’re absolutely sick of them, then advance farther along in the story. It’s very helpful in the beginning stages to reread material over and over again until you understand it, which usually comes with the unfortunate ability to blindly recite it. Once you’re fairly proficient you may not want to read over the same thing again since it can be a bit tedious, and instead pick something that isn’t too difficult to read and progress through it.

There are a lot of fairy tales which aren’t too hard, (though may have some expressions in them that aren’t typically used outside of writing) over at: If you go to the world stories area (世界の昔話), you can find stories you’re likely already familiar with, which can be helpful for context so you aren’t completely lost if it’s difficult to read or comprehend.

If you don’t have a popup dictionary allowing you to hover over words on the web giving you the definition, you should give it a go and install one. I personally think that Rikaisama for Firefox is the best bet, but there are other versions like Rikaichan and Rikaikun as well.

Another great tip is to use Skritter’s bookmarklet tool which lets you highlight a word on the web and add it to a lists, which you should do for words you don’t know. You can add the bookmarlet via the right hand lower corner of the home page at:

  • Have conversations! If you don’t know anyone that is native (because it’s backwards progress to have conversations in broken Japanese),  try meeting people from websites like Lang-8 or Japan-Guide. You will find so many people wanting to learn your native language and willing to help you learn theirs. The idea on Lang-8 is, you write something in the language you are learning and native speakers of that language will either correct your mistakes, or even better, give you another way to phrase what you are trying to say to better match the nuance of what you meant, or to sound more native. A lot of the time what others write is in their native language in addition to the language they’re learning, which gives the chance to learn by reading something a native wrote, and at the same time sharing a good deed by correcting theirs. People seem to be super friendly on Lang-8 and it’s fun to read what others write about. Make sure you actually read and correct others work though, not only is common courtesy but they will likely return the favor! A lot of Lang-8 users are interested in video chats on Skype if you’re looking to practice real time conversation.

Just try to remember to have fun learning the language you want to and you’ll keep progressing. If you have any good tips please be sure to mention them in the comments!

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