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Moving Backwards Can Be The Beginning of Progress

You put things in your brain, you keep reviewing them. They stick in your brain. This is how we tend to think of learning.

While not in any way incorrect, viewing the learning process in such simple terms can be rather detrimental to your success when it comes to execution. That way lies frustration, boredom, time-waste, inefficiency and, in the worst case, outright failure.

Your brain, not learning.

The problem is something we all understand to some extent, whether intuitively, from experience, academically or a combination of the three. You can only learn so much. More especially, you can only learn so much at a time. None of us can put a precise figure on it, but we understand that our brains struggle to retain information the more quantity we throw in to it at once, and the more complexity the information in question has (which can really be regarded as more volume per unit, or even an unnecessary abstraction from information quantity). We’ve ALL experienced the late-night cram before an exam, drilling facts in to our brains until the mental exertion is almost manifest in physical symptoms, only to turn up 5 hours later to the test and remember nothing, or, best case scenario, promptly forget everything mere days, hours, or even minutes after its completion.

Having said all that, it is surprising how many, including myself, seem to believe that we can fight upstream against this fact, or rather (given this IS technically the case), how many, including myself, can often behave as if this seems a good idea!

Our brains are complex organs, very poorly understood, but one thing we can be sure of is that trying to cram too much information inna that big ol’ head of yours risks retaining less than if you’d taken but a measure of it. Compound that with our knowledge regarding the effects of stress on memory (hint: it doesn’t help), and fighting up the metaphorical stream becomes something of a fruitless, yet exhausting task. It was with a shard of ice-cold clarity that I reminded myself of this the previous week, flailing around, attempting in vain to commit Kanji to memory.

Now Kanji. What can I say about Kanji..? Well, there’s a lot of them. Thousands actually. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like Kanji. I really LOVE Kanji actually. I’m probably one of the few Japanese learners out there who not only regard Kanji as anything less than an abomination, but consider them my friend and ally.

My love of Kanji however, is not what I wish to talk about, so much as the labour of love, in which yours truly is currently engaged in. That is, actually learning them.

Sometimes, love wanes. Sometimes, waning love recovers. And so it was with my love for learning Kanji, a task I do genuinely enjoy (though not as much as I enjoy knowing them).

After a “small” (read “bigger than I’d like to admit”) hiatus from studying them, my Anki deck was starting to back up. It was starting to back up a lot. I had over 600 reviews that needed doing. Good God that’s a lot of Kanji. Well, I did what any gung-ho fool like myself would do. I decided I could knock them all down in a couple days and be back on track before I knew it.

I was not back on track, in fact, I have only just, over a month later, gotten back on track. It didn’t take me a month to get back, it took me a month to realise I needed to be sensible if I was ever going to do so. I had made the mistake of taking on far too much at once, and in doing so, had failed to manage much at all.

Every day, another 100 reviews, and every day, I failed miserably to recall or recognise any of the characters. It didn’t matter that I was relearning 100 a day, because I wasn’t even recalling 10 consistently.

Finally, as if in some admission of defeat, I suspended all “Due” cards in my deck, and unsuspended them at a rate of 50 every two days. This allowed Anki to show me cards it felt I needed to review the very next day, the actual next day. Rather than these cards queuing up behind another 500, and not making it back to me within the week.

Once I did this, the insurmountable task which has hounded me for over a month, with no progress whatsoever, was conquered in under two weeks. Two, comfortable, leisurely, confident weeks. Doing half the work had gotten me a better result, faster!

I had learned a good lesson, an invaluable lesson, an invaluable lesson too often forgotten. Sometimes a step back, perhaps many, is the first step forward.

Which Languages Do I Want to Know?

All of them. No really, that’s not even remotely facetious. I want to know every language perfectly. I purposely titled this post poorly just to insert this small (but valuable) drop of wisdom I’ve learned both from attempting to learn languages and watching others do the same.

The fact is, except for the most vehement and Nationalistic among us, we ALL want to KNOW “a bagillion” different languages. NOBODY ever fails to be impressed by those who know more than one language, particularly if their second language isn’t English. Even the “Speak English or Die” crowd are probably deep down upset they don’t understand other languages, after all, half of them struggle with their native language to say the least.

This is getting off topic… The point is, everybody wants to KNOW a foreign language, many, and if totally honest, ALL. But there is a world of difference between wanting to KNOW and wanting to LEARN. The former obviously affects the latter in a positive or negative fashion, but they are not even remotely close enough to justify the conflation most people give them.

Recently, while witnessing my Japanese studies, my younger cousin (or rather, cousin’s son) expressed an interest in learning Russian. Thrilled but sceptical  I equipped him with the knowledge I had gained regarding language study, which I felt could be reasonably adapted to a language I had and have no knowledge of: We set up Anki with a deck of Alphabet cards for his study, I grabbed him a few eBooks that came highly recommended by Russian learners, we set out a plan of attack, motivational techniques such as short term goals, recording his daily study and a long term goal of playing Pokemon in Russian by a date set in stone; I regularly went to his house to remind and encourage him regarding his goals and offer to share study time for mutual support. From day one however, I knew he was a lost cause. Sure he SAID he wanted to learn, but in reality, he just wanted to KNOW. He didn’t want to put in the hard (but rewarding) yards to learn another language. One day, I gave him an ultimatum which spelled his whole problem out to him; did he want to LEARN or did he want to KNOW and I explained the differences as I saw them.

Unfortunately, just as I figured, he came to the conclusion himself that all he really wanted was to know Russian, not learn it.

There is nothing WRONG with this. We as humans have a finite lifetime and finite attention spans. Nobody can ever come close to knowing or doing everything and so, humans prioritise, based on the utility or disutility that different individuals find in certain tasks and/or their results. When we are thirsty, a jug of water may be worth more to us than a chocolate bar, while once this high-level desire is satiated (the need to not be dehydrated) we can begin concentrating on others such as the desire for yummy food (like chocolate, although I myself do not like chocolate) and the chocolate may become more valuable than any glass of water. This is the concept of Marginal Utility developed by Carl Menger (and oversimplified by me) and elaborated upon by those in the Austrian School of Economics, and is well worth reading up on for a better understanding of how humans (and the economies they constitute) function. All my cousin had done was come to the realisation that playing Borderlands 16 hours a day was more valuable use of his time than learning Russian. Whether his decision was “right” is a nonsense question, as it is “right” in the very act of him making that choice based on his priorities. Will he regret his decision? Who knows.

I too have decided that languages are not worth learning, just as my cousin did.

“WHAT?” You might think, though most probably understand where this is going. “Then what is this post, nay, whole blog supposed to be about?!”

It’s true, there are more important things to me than studying languages! Even right now there are!

That is to say, there is a constant struggle between learning certain languages, learning other things and doing a whole host of other things with my life.

Just like my cousin, sometimes, learning a language is worth less to me than playing Borderlands.

Just like my cousin, learning one language is worth more to me than learning another.

Just like my cousin, I must sacrifice or postpone the achievement of some of my goals, for others. Every time my cousin was learning Russian it meant not playing Black Ops, and every time I learn one language, it means not learning another. So how do I decide?

Well… I dunno. No really, I don’t know. There are so many different languages that I want to learn, and it seems every single one, I want to learn for a whole host of exclusive as well as overlapping purposes. The one that unites them all however is that they will interest me (enough) for the actual act of learning.

In this post, I won’t try and outline the languages I plan on learning over the course of my lifetime, what I really wish to do is go over four or five languages which I plan on concentrating on to a level where native material can be used as my main learning method. Two of these I’m already learning, and I will pick one which I plan on doing next. The leftovers have no time frame on when I will pick it/them up, but it will be relatively shortly, that is to say, a few years, determined by how proficient I have become in the others.

So now, after much delay, I present to you the languages the one and only 任剣堂 plans on learning over the coming years.

#1: Japanese

This is, without a doubt, the language I’ve wanted to learn for the longest. Before you ask, yes I got in to it because of Anime and Manga and there’s not shame in that either, even if that were still the only reason I still wished to pursue it. But what now? These days, anime has gone from almost the entirety of my viewing habits to a more reasonable chunk and manga has diminished even further. A large chunk of my interest is still based mostly around pop-culture such a Dorama, Movies, Music, etc, but I’ve grown ever more interested in the land behind the language both historically and in contemporary context. The written language too has captured my heart with its complexity, beauty and outright foreign nature. Learning Kanji (Chinese characters as used in Japanese) is one of life great pleasure for me at this point, and this love affair will likely continue.

At this time of writing, it is hard to say exactly where upon the scale I sit, but I would still label myself as being mostly beginner. Many who take more formal classes are able to measure their progress surprisingly well via how many kanji they know, given the structure of such teaching, however the techniques I use for learning Kanji have allowed me to learn over 1,000 while being well below the typical level of a student able to read and write the same amount.

Japanese, being in the top spot, and as I already mentioned, is one of the languages I am currently engaged in learning and by far the language I am most accomplished in. It receives priority above all other languages, including the second language I’m currently engaged with.

#2: Vietnamese

First off, something I want to address for Vietnamese readers of this blog… Yes, I know the North’s flag is a symbol of terrible, lasting oppression and past slaughter of your people. No I do not condone that acts of the North Vietnamese during the war, nor their actions since then, ruling the whole Vietnamese Nation. I also don’t agree with many of the policies of the Japanese Government, or the policies of ANY of the regimes who’s flags are going to appear here, I am so far removed from mainstream political opinion, esspecially in my own country, that there isn’t a Nation State today which comes close to reflecting my values. This flag IS however the flag of Vietnam, just as the previous was the flag of Japan, and is strongly associated with the language, particularly since most of my materials are Northern accent. As such, I understand the cultural issues involved here, and am sorry if it offends you to have this flag associated with a language you’re probably proud of, but I will NOT replace it with a Southern flag, which would be even more inflammatory politically and still fail to reflect my political opinions. I will also NOT leave this blank as that will look UGLY and UNFINISHED. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m being a dick to Vietnamese people, or insinuating that they’re all overly sensitive to this stuff, but it’s something I need to get out of the way right off the bat, because as you probably figured, I’ve run in to complaints about this before….

Thanks for your patience…

NOW, why Vietnamese? Well, because my University offered it… Not even kidding. It’s the ONLY language my University offers. That’s how I got to learning it. Why stick with it? Well, it’s an interesting language. I enjoy the challenge of the tones, I enjoy the challenge of comprehension given the rapid fire speech. Furthermore  I go to University in an area overflowing with Vietnamese, so natural practice is abundant, it’d be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t try and learn this language now, rather than later, so why not?

My only complaint is that it no longer uses Chữ nho (Chinese characters as used previously in Vietnamese) but rather a Romanised script (called Quốc Ngữ) I find thoroughly misleading and generally confusing. For somebody already learning Kanji and planning on learning Hanzi (Chinese characters as used in Chinese) the Chữ nho would be less of an obstacle they might be for others, and more added incentive, as well as removing the confusion I feel about how to read the Quốc Ngữ, which are not intuitively equivalent to sounds in other languages using the same script.

#3: Standard Chinese

Here I’ve included both the flag of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China not for political sensitivity, but because I wish to learn both forms. As far as I know, there are not huge differences between the two, meaning you should be mostly communicable using one with somebody using the other. I have friends who live in Taiwan, as well as purely Internet friends from the Mainland and wish to competently communicate both verbally and textually with them. This is where we find a larger difference between the two; that is, in the writing system.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Communist regime in China attempted to rectify literacy issues among the general populace, as part of the wider societal transformation they were attempting. In pursuit of this, they began “promoting” a new writing system which consisted of characters both much simplified in terms of stroke per character, and in terms of quantity of characters overall. As such, the general writing system used in Mainland China apparently differs from that used elsewhere, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. I’m not entirely sure how difficult a task it will be to learn the simplified characters, but I can only assume that compared to learning traditional characters, the effort should be relatively painless, especially with the experience and knowledge gained from already doing the formerly mentioned task.

So when do I plan on taking up Chinese? The plan is to begin as soon as I’m able to comprehend basic, native Vietnamese content to a level where I’m able to begin using context for language acquisition. This won’t be for a while, but I’m hoping to start Chinese some time in late 2013-2014. That might sound a bit too ambitious, but I will mostly be dipping my toes in to Chinese Only Hanzi and the Simplified Hanzi, and my Kanji practice becomes a smaller aspect of my Japanese. Proper study of Standard Chinese probably won’t commence until some time in to 2014.

As a side note, I’ve come to enjoy the writing system of Chinese much more than that of Japanese on aesthetic grounds, both in the sense of elegance as a written language for practical purposes and in the sense of it being… Well… Cooler looking. The look of Hanzi against Hanzi, without any Kana (another Japanese writing system which functions as a syllabary) intermingled has a much more attractive quality to it. I still love how Japanese looks, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to liking it as much as I once thought I did, Chinese has opened my eyes to the joy of all Hanzi and there ain’t no goin’ back.

#4: Ainu

“What the hell is Ainu?” Yeah, damn good question. In short, Ainu is an indigenous Japanese language with absolutely no connection to Japanese other than using an adaptation of one of the three Japanese writing systems (in this case Katakana) and modifying it for its own system of writing.

The flag you see there is that for the region of Hokkaido, in the North of Japan, where the Ainu people inhabited, and where their descendants often still reside. It is also the only area where an Ainu language is still spoken or known, all other Ainu languages having died out, while this one remains moribund and in danger of the same fate.

So why should I learn a language completely useless to me? After all, any Ainu speaker will know Japanese, and I’m already studying Japanese, which has many, MANY more speakers.

Well, the answer is that I’m curious. It’s a rather interesting language in that nobody really know how it fits in to the genealogy of other languages, and as such there’s not anything else quite like it to my knowledge. Since I’m going to go to Japan anyway, and I wish to learn at least one obscure language just to the hell of it, I figured “Hey, why not Ainu.” I’d sure have dug myself a good niche as far as language proficiency goes.

#5: Latin

Because I made a promise to myself as a young kid, before my first romance with learning languages was crushed, that I would learn this language, and I wish to hold to that.

Besides that, it should be fairly easy to learn relatively speaking, and it should help with my further attempts at language acquisition if and when I move on to romance languages. Truly win/win.

Purpose of this Blog

Well, here I am making another blog, another failed blog, or a success? I guess we’ll find out together. In fact, chances are, if you’re reading this now, three outcomes are likely: A) I succeeded in making this an engaging blog, that people visit. B) I made this singular post, or perhaps two or three, and this post stares at you from a blog mostly bereft of content. C) Your name is Michael.

In this post I’d like to throw my hat in the ring by giving an introduction about myself, and why I created this blog.

Where to start. Well, my name is Kenneth, born in 1991, making me 21 at the time of this posting, I grew up in Sydney; NSW, before my family moved interstate to Victoria shortly after my mother’s death when I was around 15.

Picture of statue holding head in right hand in an exasperated manner.

Me, failing to learn Japanese repeatedly.

I’ve made numerous attempts, going all the way back to my life in Sydney, to learn languages, particularly Japanese, and always failed miserably. Scraping along, giving up, starting over.

Well, this past year, things have improved. I’ve acquired more self-discipline (though I have a long way to go) and the language learning materials and techniques I’m now familiar with are more effective and more enjoyable than those I used previously.

As a motivational tool, I’m making this blog to track my progress towars polyglottery. I have a lot of interests outside languages, so I will probably never be the kind of mindblowing, knows a billion languages polyglots you see on YouTube from time to time, but I hope to be fluent in many languages across my lifetime.

Here you will see, and I will post, my victories, my defeats, my struggles and lessons I learn (or don’t learn) along the way. I hope this blog is valuable to somebody else one day, but either way, I think I will get something out of it.

In my next post I will talk about what languages I want to learn and perhaps why.