A reader recently posted an intriguing comment about foreign sumo wrestlers: “Within a year, they have a command of the language that would take most students years to develop.” Implying that with enough immersion and dedication, it’s possible to speak Japanese well in a short amount of time. Apparently, there’s a Japanese book that popularized this notion.
I’d heard this before. Not just with sumo wrestlers but with, well, everybody. A friend of mine learned the language in a year. Actually, less than a year. Well, actually, a friend of a friend.
The first time I heard it was from a random guy in Columbus, Ohio, who told me: “My daughter went to Japan for a year, and came back speaking fluent Japanese.”
That was all the proof I needed. I’m kind of gullible like that. If she could do it, then damn it, so could I. Nobody beats Ken Seeroi, and certainly nobody from Ohio.
Then once I started learning Japanese, I discovered a small band of internet-famous gurus—-James Heisig, Khatzumoto, Tim Ferris, Benny Lewis—-who all had the same story. They’d learned Japanese in an amazingly short time, using a “hack” no one else had thought of. At one point, I even went out of my way to meet James Heisig and question him in person about this amazing feat.
It all sounded great, and was very encouraging. There was only one problem. Despite following their advice, I wasn’t learning Japanese at the same furious rate they had. in fact, it seemed like a long, slow slog.
I Should’ve Stuck with French
Now, I’ll admit I’m not especially linguistically talented. Looking back on my grades in college French, it’s clear I was a solid B- student. Probably would’ve helped if I’d showed up at class once in a while. But in Japanese, I worked extra hard, several hours a day, every day. I had, ah, what’s that thing where you won’t give up even in the face of overwhelming odds? Tenacity? Nah, that’s not it. Delusions? Yeah, that’s the stuff.
I also met lots of people studying Japanese. That’s like where you buy a red Volkswagen, and suddenly everyone’s driving red Volkswagens. But nobody was making amazing progress either. Me, I did everything—-Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Genki, semesters in college, reading newspapers, Japanese girlfriends, podcasts, CDs, tapes, singing karaoke, and scores of Japanese movies. Actually, I never stopped. I’ve put in at least an hour or two every day, seven days a week, for over eleven years. I tracked my study time for the past few months and it averaged over 35 hours a week, begging the question of why I don’t just get a job at Japanese 7-Eleven and make a few extra yen at the same time. At one point, I honestly tried to quit, and forced myself to stop studying. I lasted four days. That was eight years ago. Eventually, I moved to Japan, turned on the Japanese TV, and never spoke English again, except in my work. Thankfully, I don’t work much any more. More time to study Japanese.
But the magic never happened. It’s still a long, slow slog. But how could that be? How had the sumo wrestlers, girls from Ohio, and internet gurus managed to do what I hadn’t? I narrowed it down to three possibilities.
Why Everyone Else is Better at Japanese
1. They had some secret method I didn’t have. Okay, I’m going to rule this out quick, because I’ve spent enough money over the years on secret methods to conclude that there’s no secret. So unless there’s a way to study that doesn’t involve more hard work—-hello, sleep learning—-then I’m not buying.
2. They’re more talented. This I’m completely willing to concede. Either by birth or upbringing, certain people have advantages others don’t. Just because Usein Bolt can run the hundred meters in 9-odd seconds doesn’t mean lots of folks can. We accept that. But I don’t think Bolt’s telling people it’s easy, or that anyone can do it. Well, maybe if they buy his secret method.
I figure I’m about average when it comes to languages, and that most people who put in the same effort will achieve the same average results. Some people will do a little better, and some a little worse. I’d like to hear that in a sales pitch. Strive, and you will achieve averageness.
3. They’re lying. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Let’s just say, obfuscating the truth.
Khatzumodo, or Khatz, who runs a blog called All Japanese All the Time and sells language-learning advice for hundreds of dollars, claims to have learned Japanese in 18 months. Now, he seems a pleasant enough fellow*, and I only mention him because he’s set himself up as an example of the I-did-it-quick-and-so-can-you phenomenon. (*Edit: I may have been a bit hasty in saying “pleasant enough.” This Ripoff Report complaint paints a different picture.)
Khatz mentions that he took a Japanese “high-level ‘newspaper reading’ class,” prior to the 18 months, but somehow that time doesn’t count. Not quite sure why. He glosses over the fact he spoke three languages (Dholuo, Swahili, and English) prior to learning Japanese, and that he studied Chinese in high school. Those small things kind of, uh, add up. It doesn’t tarnish your accomplishment to acknowledge the advantages you had, and it might be a useful heads-up to others trying to replicate your results.
So when I hear of sumo wrestlers mastering Japanese in “a year,” I gotta wonder, was that exactly 365 days? Could it have been a year and a month? Maybe a year and six months? When you’re dealing with time periods that small, a 10-, 20-, or 50-percent increase is pretty significant.
And how’s it possible that they didn’t study some Japanese previously? Surely they must have known for months or years that they were going to move to Japan and join sumo stables. I’m assuming they didn’t just wake up kidnapped in the trunk of somebody’s Nissan. I’m where? Japan? Oh shit, guess I better start learning Japanese.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that children entering school half a year later than their peers can garner a lifetime of advantages. Older children are, on average, slightly bigger and more advanced. They can be perceived as a leaders and high performers and thus be more positively rewarded by their teachers, advantages that continue to accumulate throughout their development. Well, read the book.
I believe that’s the case for Japanese as well. A lot of small things can add up to a significant advantage. First of all, bilingualism. The ability to form connections between dissimilar words with identical meanings is a pretty great advantage for language learning. Not to mention the ability to simply hear various words rather than perceive them as noise.
A good memory also helps. A friend of mine who speaks at Japanese at a high level says “I don’t have a good memory,” but I wonder—-how does he know? Most people feel their memory isn’t very good, simply because we all forget things we wish we could remember. Like I wish I could remember how I made it home last night, but oh well, guess I shouldn’t have drunk all that beer. Even if your memory was just slightly better than average, it would provide a huge advantage. I think maybe I took a taxi.
Having musical training, a few more hours of free time per week, being fifteen instead of forty—-there are many small things that combine to make a huge difference in how well a person performs. Which isn’t to say you can’t still be successful without those advantages. But it does mean that you’ll probably take longer than somebody with them, putting in the same effort.
Let’s Talk Testing
Lots of people claim lots of stuff. Tim Ferris proudly describes how he learned Japanese, but after watching far too many hours of his inane videos about the only Japanese he actually says is “domo.” No doubt he was just trying not to show off. Khatz claims he learned Japanese in 18 months. Heisig claims he memorized all the kanji in two. Any proof? Hey man, don’t be a hater. Just be cool; nobody lies on the internet. You know, the truth is, I’m actually a Nigerian prince; I just don’t like to mention it. PayPal me ten thousand dollars and inherit my fortune.
So a man goes on a diet and loses 25 pounds. Hearing this, what’s the first question you gotta ask? No, not What did he eat? The first question is, How much did he weight beforehand? Because a 400-pound man losing that weight is mildly interesting; but 160-pound man doing the same is alarming.
You step on the scale at the start of your diet, and at the end. Ideally, you measure weight, body fat, muscle percentage, your waistline, and take pictures, all of which provide objective data about how well the diet’s going. That’s the way it works. Hopefully this isn’t big news.
I do this with every one of my English students. Put ‘em on a scale, the little fatties. No, I mean, at the start of each semester, I give a short writing and speaking test. Then at the end of the semester, same thing. Oh, Ken Seeroi, you with your metrics and data—-why can’t you just be cool like everyone else? Just let it flow. Don’t be hatin’ on your students.
The Story Behind Learning Japanese
But instead of an objective, subjective, or really any measurement of ability before and after the supposed period of Japanese acquisition, instead there’s the story. The story includes elements almost too fantastical to have been made up. Tim Ferris snorted chemicals and woke himself up in the middle of the night to stimulate memory and retention, ultimately riding a horse in Japan while shooting an arrow (or something like that). Benny Lewis learned a handful of Japanese sentences, recited them to a group of confused Chinese girls, then came to Japan, promptly got lost and resorted to English to find his hotel (or something like that). James Heisig dropped out of Japanese school, taught himself kanji using English in a few weeks, then returned to wow a roomful of senseis with his ability to draw every kanji character (or something like that).
When I was a kid, I wanted to learn karate, mostly to keep from getting beaten up. I had a classmate named Curtis, and everybody said, “Curtis knows karate.” And nobody beat him up. That seemed great.
So I took karate lessons, off and on, for a few years. But I never “knew” karate. I quickly came to understand that karate wasn’t some binary thing that you either knew or didn’t know. You just studied it and improved over time. Well, at least I didn’t get beat up any more.
Now, what this has to do with Japanese, I can’t remember. Oh now I’ve got it—-Japanese isn’t something you know or don’t know. You can converse about certain topics, and about others, you’re lost. That’s the way it works. So I’m pretty sure a sumo wrestler can converse about sumo wrestler stuff, and possibly karate. But I’m not sure he can discuss hockey. Just listening to him talk about his field of expertise provides little insight into his overall range of ability. Hey, it’s a complex sport, even for Canadians. But talking about your passion is like me discussing Japanese beer. I’ve had an extensive vocabulary from day one. Let’s see, there’s Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Ebisu, Orion, Suntory . . .
An Interview with James Heisig
I read an interiew with James Heisig where he mentioned learning to speak Japanese by playing with children, somewhere up in the mountains. How could you even make this stuff up? So when I heard the man was in Tokyo, I knew I had to ask him about it.
Because here’s the extent of what I learned from children by teaching grade school in Japan for several years: The word for lunch. How to say “I’m so cold.” How to say “I’m so hot.” How to grab your teacher’s penis and exclaim “bigu sticku.” How to insert your fingers up his butt in a move known as the kancho. Beyond that, children typically ramble about some toy or cartoon or playground game. They’re not going to coach you on how to make hotel reservations or order up another plate of gyoza. The idea that one could learn to speak from them is insane. They can’t even use the language decently themselves. That’s because they’re freaking kids.
I met Heisig at a writer’s workshop. He seemed a pleasant enough fellow, and a fine teller of grandiose stories. After listening to his well-polished tale about single-handedly inventing a way of learning Japanese characters that millions of Japanese folks had never thought of in their thousands of years of history, I finally got a chance to ask him, “How did you learn to speak it?”
“I played baseball with the kids,” was his reply. “Up in the mountains. In Nagano.”
“You played baseball?” I asked. “With children?”
“And that’s how you learned to speak Japanese?”
“Sure. Children are the best teachers.”
Now, that sounds reasonable. Everybody nodded. But it isn’t reasonable. It sounds good, but it’s actually nuts. Children are the worst teachers. They make no damn sense.
You know, over the years, I’ve asked many people how they learned Japanese, and their answers consistently fall into one of two categories. They either describe a systematic method pursued diligently over the course of several years, or they make up some convenient bullshit because they don’t really want to respond to the question. I looked at Heisig, and had my answer.
How Do Sumo Wrestlers Do it?
So do sumo wrestlers learn Japanese faster than everybody else? Well, I’m sure they’re motivated, and that language study is a component of their rigorous training. But without some measure of where they start and finish, it’d be mighty hard to judge. I will say that, in the number of people I’ve known to study Japanese, I’ve never seen any exceptions. The ones with superior language abilities acquire them through a combination of initial advantage (being a bilingual Chinese and English speaker really seems to help) and immense amounts of hard work (usually taking classes).
For my part, I plan to try my own experiment, one where I become a champion sumo wrestler in a year. Of course, I won’t compete in any matches or measure my ability in any way, but trust me, I’ll be the next yokozuna. Buy my secret method.