You’re gonna need a way bigger hat
All my life goals come from the internet. And so somewhere, in the ten minutes a day I spend surfing sites that don’t need to be immediately cleared from my browser, I stumbled upon the notion that studying 10,000 sentences was the one true path to learning Japanese. Next time, remind me to stick with porn. Hey, if it’s a question of going blind, I figure you’re much better off with a few pictures of enormous asses than two thousand tiny characters.
But anyway, here’s the idea: you pack your skull so full of vocabulary that one day it comes leaking out your ears and you flop on the ground mumbling in tongues. Tha Spirit! Lawd A’mighty, I’ma cured! I kn see! I kn see! Only you’d say it in Japanese. And frankly, yeah, it’d be an actual miracle if you could see after all that kanji.
One way to Study Japanese
And with that guidance, and not much else, this then was my approach:
First, I learned the 2,136 Joyo kanji using the Heisig method. Which is basically the equivalent of memorizing the 26-letter English alphabet, only you do it eighty-two times, with different letters each time. It takes about six months, and by the end you can’t remember the beginning. So that’s a pretty wonderful use of your time. Actually, “learned” isn’t even accurate, since kanji have a plethora of meanings and pronunciations, depending on how they’re used. But anyway, eventually I had some idea what some of them meant. Occasionally.
Next, I downloaded an Anki flashcard deck with 10,000 sentences. Each sentence featured a unique Japanese word. Then I set about studying, reading the kanji, deciphering how words were constructed and pronounced. This has all the attraction of eating your way through an enormous bag of stale CostCo tortilla chips. You can chew through a few at first if you’re hungry enough, but by the end you’ll be choked with barfing regrets.
Then, after a year and a few thousand flash cards, the creeping doubts set in. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? Why 10,000? Malcolm Gladwell argued it took that many hours to become an expert. AntiMoon mentioned 10,000 sentences in passing and AJATT latched onto it, as did about ten thousand internet language-learning forums. But how accurate was the original number? I went out for a run to ponder the question. That’s what I do when I need to think and the bars aren’t open yet.
And after about 6.2 miles, it dawned on me. A thousand—-of anything—-is kinda too easy, while 100,000’s way too hard. Like, lots of folks can run a kilometer, but nobody runs 100,000. Get a bike already, jeez. But 10K? Somehow that feels right—-pretty challenging, but achievable.
The problem, though, lies in the margin of error. Like, what if you need 7,000 to be an expert? What if it’s really 18,520? That’s equivalent to tooling along at 55 MPH, then getting ticketed for a screaming 102. So 10,000? Please just admit you pulled that out of your ass because it was a nice, round number.
Still, I kept going. It took about two years, maybe. It was just a really long slog, and then one day, suddenly, it was over. Like the Grinch, my brain grew three sizes that day. I bought a tiny orange cupcake and lit a wee candle on top. Then I had a party all for myself with some confetti and two liters of grape Fanta.
Sorry, fell asleep mid-sentence and dreamed I was eight again. The reality’s more like I slammed a sixer of Suntory Malt Liquor and chowed a bag of Wasabi-flavored Calbee’s, since that’s what I do every day. I really gotta reform my diet, although anything beats those damn CostCo chips, which so wreck the roof of your mouth. I don’t really remember, however, which leads me to believe that indeed, booze was involved.
Conclusions from Studying 10,000 Sentences
- Ten Thousand’s not nearly enough. I mean, not even close. I’m sure I’ve studied a good 15,000 unique sentences at this point, and it’s barely enough to communicate. And no, I don’t mean just ordering two large pizzas or going to the ophthalmologist. I’m talking about a command of the language that approximates human-like speech. You’d be laughed out of the fourth grade with a 15,000 word vocabulary.
- It gives you a really good perspective on just what language learning entails. Once in a while I read how “easy” Japanese is. Like, “I learned Japanese in three months!” Shuur you did. Want to know how long it actually takes to learn Japanese? Just do the math. Exactly as long as you’d need to memorize 2,136 convoluted characters and then study their combinations in over 15 thousand sentences. You might want to clear your social calendar for the next few years.
- Studying a massive amount of sentences is really, really useful. I absolutely recommend it to anyone serious about learning Japanese. Of course, it’s not a substitute for reading the Japanese newspaper, watching Japanese TV, listening to Japanese radio, taking Japanese classes, chatting up old Japanese men and young Japanese ladies in bars and then explaining to your Japanese significant other why you came home late. All that’s necessary too. You gotta be like Bubba Gump on this language. Studying vocabulary is just a supplement, something to do while you’re riding the escalator or lying on the beach. All those spare minutes a day you used to spend wondering what your life’s purpose was? Hey, apparently it was to learn a freakishly hard language that’s gonna take over your existence. Hooray.
- The more you do it, the better you get. It gets better. So it’s like being gay. Sorry, that didn’t come out quite right. I mean, you’re gonna suck at first, but eventually you’ll suck less. Bugger it, let’s just skip to the next point.
- Expect to forget. You can’t just study architectural phrases for a few days and then two years later meet a guy who builds bridges and you bust out “civil engineer?” And he’s all, “Well, yes I am, and props to you for knowing that term.” You have to constantly review, or things start getting fuzzy. It’s merely repeated exposure, over and over, that finally sinks the language into your brain. Probably having a fantastic memory would help a lot too, I wouldn’t know. I did try not drinking for a couple months, thinking that would be beneficial. Mostly I was just terribly thirsty and distracted by delicious thoughts of beer. Didn’t do much for my memory, though, as I recall.
- While it improves your reading considerably, it doesn’t help speaking and listening all that much. There isn’t a great amount of crossover. Even if you practice vocabulary out loud, practical recall remains context-dependent, like the difference between singing karaoke and fronting a band. It’s easy think you know all the words to the song until you get on stage. Sure found that out the hard way. Damn Marvin Gaye.
But if you’re set on learning Japanese, then Ken Seeroi’s all for it. And hey, no time like the present, since Japanese folks have a several-thousand-words-of-English head start. The language of red-haired devils is devouring this nation of like a swarm of locusts—from storefronts and menus to movies and conversations—and won’t stop till it’s chewed clear through the culture. But if you hurry, you might still master Japanese. Just about the time everyone else masters English.