Is Foreign Language Learning Obsolete?

In three words . . . uh, yeah, kinda. Foreign language learning is quickly moving into the realm of the unnecessary. So like it or not, we can all cross interpreter and translator off our list of career choices, along with elevator operator, taxi driver, doorman, cashier, bank teller, and Latin scholar.

Reading the Japanese Menu

About twelve years ago, I was lined up for a Japanese restaurant. A couple of rather attractive young ladies in short skirts were standing in front of me, and when the proprietor greeted them, they asked “Do you have an English menu?”

“No we don’t,” he replied, in what I thought was surprisingly good English. He offered no further solutions.

The women, whom I assume were Taiwanese or Chinese, looked crushed. They’d been waiting for a good twenty minutes. I considered offering to help, like “Evening, ladies. My name is Ken Seeroi, and please allow me to be of assistance, as I can read Japanese. Why don’t you join me for a delightful dinner?” But then I looked at my girlfriend and thought better of it. Plus, a Japanese menu isn’t an accident. Restaurants don’t provide English menus specifically to avoid having their calm neighborhood establishments overrun by hordes of, you know, “foreigners.” You people, with your loud talking and funny smells. Yeah, and the KKK World Headquarters probably doesn’t hang out a big sign saying “Blacks Welcome” either. Though it might increase their membership. Anyway the young ladies turned and disappeared into the night. It still brings a tiny tear to the corner of my eye, but miniskirts will do that.

Read Japanese Instantly

Those days are gone. Now everyone with a smartphone can fire up Google Translate, snap a picture of Japanese text, and within one second have a grasp of what’s written. Is it perfect? No, it’s pretty awful, but it’ll tell you the difference between a live squid and a basket of fried chicken. Although “buffalo wings” will likely always be a challenge, I’ll give you that.

So the other day, I read an article about electrical stimulation improving memory by 15%, and I was like, Whoa, you mean all those years I spent studying kanji and vocabulary…Man, I’d wear a Pastafarian colander with jumper cables if it meant getting 300 out of 2000 kanji basically for free.

The Future of Language Learning

And just when I’m reading about Skype doing real-time Japanese translation, I come across this. You stuff these uncomfortable Mr. Spock-looking things into your ears and suddenly you can comprehend—holy balls—37 languages. What’s next—understanding women? Anyway, great. I’m so happy I spent fourteen years learning Japanese. How long will it be before Google Glass just renders every billboard and flier into English? When visitors to Japan will be able to look around and say, “See that sign over there? The one that says ‘Starbucks’? Yeah, that’s a Starbucks. And across the street? Now I know it’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and next door, a Domino’s Pizza.” Oh, the future is bright indeed.

But here’s the only problem with predicting stuff: time. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. Will we have self-driving cars and robot bartenders in the future? Probably. But does that mean I have to wait five years or fifty before Tesla drives me home while mixing up a batch of frozen margaritas? I’ve no idea. Everyday I wake up and look outside. Nope. Still no Tesla. But I’m sure of this—barring mankind blowing itself into tiny pieces (another distinct possibility), technology will continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Hell, I still remember typewriters. So I don’t know if it takes AI or quantum computing or just wiring up a bunch of TiVo’s in series, but I’m 100% certain that computers will be able to translate and interpret better than humans. It’s just a matter of when.

Reading Japanese Email

Even today, here’s me at work: Oh boy, a long Japanese email. Okay, let’s read this.

Dear something something,

Thank you for something always something our company. We would like to something and something and require your immediate something.

Okay, Ken, you can do this, let’s work through the kanji…so the first character pair is “Worship” plus “Disclose,” and somehow together that means “Dear Sir or madam.” Wonder why that is? Japanese sure is…ah fuck it, let’s just cut and paste the whole thing into Google Translate. And instantly I know it’s some promotional fluff I can delete and get on to the other hundred Japanese emails in my Inbox.

Navigating Japan

On my first trip to Tokyo, I packed a bunch of maps and a compass. I’m real Boy Scout-y like that. Then after getting utterly lost in the backstreets of Shibuya, I crouched on the ground and unfolded a map on the sidewalk. This is back when maps were these things made of paper. Yeah, Wikipedia it. I was like okay, so we take the compass, rotate the dial, orient the map northward, adjust for 7 degrees of magnetic declination, and yep, sure enough, I’ve no chance of ever finding my hostel again. Thank God I ran into a Japanese high school girl who knew where it was.

That never happens any more. I mean, I still run into high school girls, but that’s a different matter. Now what happens is my smartphone runs out of juice and I have to locate a 7-Eleven to buy a charger. Jeez, it’s always something. But until it does, I just type “Grungy Hostel” into Google Maps and a line of blue dots magically guides my intoxicated ass home. So yeah, in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t invest more time in perfecting my orienteering skills.

The Future of Translation

Does this mean learning a foreign language is a waste of time? I honestly don’t know. Hey, I still like riding bicycles and taking the stairs too. On the other hand, if it took me a decade to learn how to walk up and down a flight, I kind of think I’d be using escalators.

So as usual, I was drinking shochu with the old men at the neighborhood center yesterday, listening to stories of their lives. I doubt Spock ears would deliver the same experience. I’m happy I spent the years I did learning Japanese. It’s cool. Not sure I’d recommend it, but when it comes to an impressive skill, it’s clearly on the level of riding a unicycle or knitting a sick quilt. And when one of the old guys said it was his birthday, I quietly ran back to my apartment, grabbed a plastic pack of grilled sardines and placed it in a colorful birthday bag. When I gave it to him, his eyes welled with tears and he stood up and shook my hand, thanking me over and over. He looked like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. I guess he really likes sardines. So yeah, guess I’m glad I knew that’s what they were.

83 Replies to “Is Foreign Language Learning Obsolete?”

  1. There are additional benefits.

    Just last night I walked into one of my local tachinomi’s, and ordered a sizzling ginger highball. There was a couple of other white guys in the bar, and he asked me where I was from, so I told him in Japanese. Turned out he, too, could speak Japanese, so we spent then next 5 minutes having a good old chin-wag in nihongo. I’d always wanted to speak to a guy from California in Japanese, and hey, I did it!

    And, come to think of it, I think he was the only person who talked me in exclusively in Japanese all night.

    1. Oh

      Brain too cold to think…t-t-typing with fingerless gloves on…Japan, why do you hate insulation? For a country known for being technologically advanced, we have yet to discover the double-paned-glass window.

      1. Hokkaido became exempt, due to some magic or another, from the superstitions about rot that keep Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu from using insulation – even in all concrete structures. Japanese south of Hokkaido wax nostalgic for huddling under the family blanket around a hole in the floor of the house. That’s another bizarre thing that didn’t make it to Hokkaido.

  2. Anything’s possible (Just read about this transgender woman breastfeeding.)! Language grows by leaps and bounds every day, though, and it would be challenging for an app or software to translate and interpret every nuance , while considering the nonverbal aspects of language. Still ENVY you, Ken Seeroi! Started reading your older posts yesterday because I didn’t know when I was going to hear from you again. Now, God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world. What a great way to start my day!

    1. Wow, thanks for such a nice comment. The birds would be singing if it wasn’t night.

      I absolutely agree that interpretation/translation is a challenging task. You’ve got to not only understand the words and sentences, but often the entire paragraph, not to mention body language. And yet, I never thought I’d be able to type in an address and see a picture of a place on the other side of the world. But with Google maps, you can even virtually drive down the street looking around. I mean, who’d have thought to try just driving cars down every street on earth taking pictures? That alone is an amazing idea.

      On a slightly different note, I’ve also played the game of Go for a number of years, which is known for being insanely complex. For computers to now beat top humans at Go shows the strength of what can be accomplished.

      So I don’t know, maybe those examples aren’t entirely relevant, but it just seems like technology is doing things we never thought possible only a few years previous, (including enabling this current conversation). So yeah, maybe anything really is possible.

  3. In a way, it is true that you can just get by with non verbal ques, and a lil bit of pointing (kocchi here and there).

    The Google translate part reminded me of a sign in Kyoto tower, where it says “don’t feed tha pigeons”. Got me feeling like Dre / Snoop outta the blue.

  4. It was a fairly crap Sunday, spent mostly cleaning the house, but then I got the notification that a new JRo7 article was up and everything was better :).

    I am fairly optimistic about the future of AI, and I have been working on AI systems long enough to witness the explosion of capabilities in the last ten years. However, between the dark ages and the future utopia of universal basic income and robotic slaves there’s a period of interregnum that nobody knows how long it’s going to be, and whether it’s going to be a time of positive change for everyone.

    In this case, take speech translation in Japan. I have no doubt that at some point in the future we will have an electronic babelfish earbud that will translate in realtime for us, selectively filtering out the speaker’s voice and synthesizing the translation with the same tone in our preferred language (“audio rendering”, so to speak), accurately translating the speaker’s mannerisms, slang and conversation context based on his/her profile and chat history stored on the cloud. This will enable anyone to speak to everyone else, demolishing all barriers of interaction and making the world a place of peace, bunnies and rainbows.

    In the meantime, however, all we’re going to get is a software that translates with 97% accuracy when confronted with fairly standard sentences, which enables people to function in foreign environments, and no more. It will do nothing for our social lives, social integration and cultural enrichment. Yes, we will be able to open bank accounts, buy mobile phones, possibly even a house, but forget about sharing a tin of sardines in a yatai with a man speaking an unintelligible dialect. Especially considering the expat community in Japan, the danger is that more people will come, attracted by the possibility of going about their daily lives without hassle, creating a completely self-referential community that is large enough to not need any interaction with actual Japan outside its own bubble. Mind you, this issue already exists due to the predictability of any kind of transaction in Japan, but I think technology is going to make it worse, at least at first. Sorry about the long comment, I think about this stuff way too much.

    1. Yeah no, thanks for a good and insightful comment.

      Clearly, the place that technology most lets us down is interpersonal interaction. Talking to the old guy at the yatai through a translator will never be as good as being able to competently speak the language, look into his eyes, and realize you actually have nothing in common.

      On the other hand, the “all we’re going to get” sounds like a lot. Being able to accomplish routine life tasks without hassle will be (and to some extent already is) a true boon to international business and living abroad. Bunny rainbow.

      On the other other hand, the “danger” you describe is real, but let’s make no mistake…it’s already upon us. The number of “foreign” people visiting and living in Japan is astounding. Last weekend I went to a couple of places I’ve been going for years, little traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurants, only to find them packed full of Chinese and Korean people. (Although I suspect most Western tourists wouldn’t have been aware they weren’t surrounded by native Japanese folks.) I may have been the most Japanese person in the place. Nothing wrong with that, but we can forget any fantasy of “Japan staying Japan.”

      It’s cheap airfare, the availability of leisure time, tourist dollars, the ability expand a business overseas, the internet, and yeah, translation software to some extent, but all over the world people are moving around with unprecedented ease. The only real barriers that remain are visa issues and communication. (And a bit of racism.)

      So is it good or bad? I don’t know. But these days, people wanting to visit real Japan don’t need a translator. They need a time machine.

  5. Glad you’re still alive, Ken. Guess apps won’t replace real language knowledge for years to come. Still, they can help your ass in some situations.

  6. I do my part time translation job by c&p ing into Google Translate and then rewriting the output. I know my supervisor checks my work that way so I deliberately make variations.

    1. Me too. I do some translation work as well, and often the first step is just to throw the whole thing into Google Translate and then clean up the bits that remain.

      I’ll also add that I know a number of professional simultaneous interpreters. What looks like magic—being able to instantly rephrase one language into another—often comes after days or weeks of preparation. For an important speech, they’ll get the text in advance, and then go through it looking up unfamiliar terms and practicing how to say difficult bits. Ironically, most of the lookups involve a computer. It’s not hard to spot who the weak link in this chain is.

  7. This probably sounds arrogant, but a professional translator doesn’t use google translate. Japanese studies students do 🙂

    I myself did the whole JLPT1 shebang back in 2007 and since then lived in Japan for more than ten years, speaking Japanese (75%?), English (20%? With European customers.) and my native German (5%?). I also worked extensively in translation / interpreting jobs around 2008 – 2010.
    After 2012 (did a master’s degree in between) I started working in Japanese companies (sales / management) and still do. So translating emails / interpreting conferences is a daily chore for me.
    I am even mulling taking the German national translator / interpreter exam, just so I can brag how cool I am. And I get to use an official stamp too 🙂
    It takes a lot of time and effort though, so.

    Probably things changed in the last few years, but I really don’t quite believe Google translate is “there” yet.
    I do believe AI will give machine-translation / interpreting the edge it needs to be competitive to human “wetware” – just not sure when (so there we agree).

    I strongly believe learning a foreign language is highly beneficial, not only for the primary use of communication but also for extending your cognitive abilities. Learning foreign languages gives you the chance to learn new ways of thinking, new categories, new ideas to express. And the “harder” (= more remote from your native language) a language is to learn, the more you can profit from this.
    (If your Japanese level is even remotely as good as it should be after all these years in Nippon you should very much understand the above.)

    For the primary use of communication learning a language is still useful enough to make a career I think – for this generation. If you are 15 now I would advise against learning a language as your primary money earning skill, as a secondary skill it will always be valuable. I certainly will teach my children. But for people in my age group (I’m 35), I think we will be fine until retirement.

    1. Sounds a little like, “Professional cooks don’t use non-stick pans.” But yeah, it’s all good. I’d never call myself a professional translator. I’m just a dude who gets paid for translatin’ stuff. Smiley face.

      I think you make a great point about language learning being beneficial, and this is an old argument. Does penmanship matter, now that we have keyboards? Why walk when you can ride? Why write a blog if you can’t make money? Personally, I think doing such things are what makes us human. The effort itself, not the result, is what matters. I only hope our robot overlords will think the same.

    2. Hanayagi san, you’ve inspired me to re continue studying nihongo. My J-wife’s been n aging me for years to learn the kanji for her name. Shame on me! We intend to move back to Japan when I fully retire, so unless I want to live in a bank of linguistic fog…….
      Ken sensei, brilliant read. You are providing a global public service. Thank you!

    3. Hanayagi, your native language is German and your English is better than mine…well I feel really deflated, hah!

      I do agree that learning and gaining fluency in languages (i.e. being able to function in a language without first translating in your head to another one) does wonders for your cognitive processes and how you can and do view the world. There have been extensive studies about how being multilingual helps with the executive process…being able to make educated judgments at the right time and context.

      I have been thinking about doing the JLPT N1 as well…not necessarily to check the box, but I do think I need something to keep my Japanese from deteriorating further now that I no longer live in Japan…

  8. We grew up within a secular religion where the gods are technology and progress. They have defined and redefined our world repeatedly, continuously.
    But if you look at remaining mineral and energy resources (for a pretty view to soften the blow, Google “Information is Beautiful” global resources stock check), that story may not be true for much longer. Even the economics of progress seem to have peaked.
    We have big changes of one kind or another ahead. I hope that human values will win out. (Like, clean air. Am I a dreamer?)
    So ironic, so tragic, that automation was sold to people as technology that would reduce the workload and increase human leisure, rather than forcing humans to compete with tireless workers.
    Yet technology connects humans worldwide in a way that we have never achieved before, bypassing governments and official representatives, and thereby may provide a path to world peace. (Let me dream.)

    1. You’ve perfectly captured the joint blessing and curse of technology and progress.

      We’ve trapped ourselves into a love-hate relationship. Light, heat, entertainment, communication, hot coffee, cold beer…all good things. We could say “no” at any time, turn our backs and live a life more connected with nature. Wake up with the dawn, go for a walk, cook healthy food. Nobody’s making us use smartphones, TVs, or fall asleep watching YouTube with a mouthful of Doritos. But like greedy children, we keep doing what we know is bad for us.

      And it keeps progressing, until we’re more and more reliant upon technology. To the point it feels indispensable. How will we even survive without Amazon Alexa?

      What would it take to unplug? Better google that.

  9. I know it doesn’t really have much to do with the topic but I thought I’d ask you anyway…

    How bad is it to have long hair when it comes to work in Japan, Ken?

    I’ve worked in Germany and here in Brazil in very large companies in business settings and never had any problems with that (my hair goes down to my waist).

    I imagine that’d be a problem in Japan though….

    1. “Business settings” huh? I’ve never really asked, but I assume you’re a guy. If so, then yeah, we got a problem.

      Of course, you’ll probably get some leeway depending upon job and industry. If you’re a crackerjack programmer and they’re gonna stick you in the back corner of the IT department, then it’s probably not a show-stopper.

      On the other hand, if you’re going to have any customer-facing role, or even interact with other employees on a regular basis, then it could well work against you getting hired.

      If you’re a woman, however, then I wouldn’t see it as a major problem. I’d probably advise you to cut it shorter (mid-back) prior to an interview. That would be okay with many companies, considering you’re a “foreigner” and all. We expect those people to be somewhat, uh, unique.

  10. man i’ve been so busy with school i haven’t done my wanikani reps in a week, i’ve been having a hard time getting the hang of java and i’ve had little to no motivation to practice my moonrunes

    this is not the motivational post i needed ken

    1. No, no, definitely devote more time to studying Japanese. Studying for school? Learning a programming language? Clearly your priorities are all mixed up. Forget that craziness and spend more time practicing kanji. It’s all the rage nowadays.

  11. Being in the tech world, you’re right with it being a question of “when”. Most people forget prior to 2007 (iPhone came out), we were using flip phones. In 2001, people were still using pagers. Now we have palm-size computers competing with the average laptop. I’m definitely going to be the neighborhood grandpa telling stories to the kids about driving cars manually and which ran off of gasoline; of course going uphill in snow both ways. Technology changes so rapidly it’s crazy.

    And technology will definitely be a double-edged sword and it makes me worried about relationship skills. My friend did a study on social media effects and told me of two friends having an argument over text…while they sat across from each other in their dorm room. However, I think it will balance out with trends. There’s a huge movement of people looking towards healthier eating, minimalism, and simplistic living nowadays.

    Maybe for Japan the translators will help more with the economy from tourism.

    1. That’s right, and I think the “it” isn’t so much a single breakthrough event as a long, steady progression, where translation and translators become increasingly less necessary. If there is a tipping point, where technology is relied upon more than humans, I’d say we’re near or past it.

      I think most people would agree with you that technology is a double-edged sword, although again I see it not so much as a 50/50 trade-off where things balance out, but rather more of a see-saw. No matter how much healthy eating and simplicity we aspire toward, it’s becoming almost impossible to avoid technology encroaching into every aspect of our lives. What was once a wristwatch is now a way to track steps and sleep, to make phone calls and view maps. Your purchases are tracked, the news you view is tracked, the things you “like” are tracked, so now both off- and on-line you’re presented with things that you’re more likely to be interested in. Including minimalism.

      Technology makes things easy. It’s good. I like my microwave. I’d love if my car could drive itself. I’m glad there are apps that read kanji for me. I’m happy I can chat with people all over the world. And yet…I sometimes wish I could unplug from it all. I understand I still have a choice. But the internet has gotten so delicious that it’s hard to not feast at its buffet.

      1. Can you elaborate?
        I haven’t looked any Kanji up by stroke number in years, because I usually know at least one reading of any Kanji I encounter.
        But the general method is still in use, right? Or has there been some breakthrough technological advance?
        Or are you just referring to Rikai-chan/kun? It doesn’t always help, so ….


        Ah, looking up Kanji by stroke number. Taking a whole goddamn hour to just look up all the Kanji and figuring out the appropriate reading for a one page text. Getting nostalgic here 🙂

        1. Heh, yeah, I think for anyone coming new to the sport of learning Japanese, those days are pretty much ancient history.

          So of course for anything online,there’s Rikai-chan or Yomichan (my new favorite) and the like. (For those who don’t know, these are browser plug-ins that help you read kanji on websites.)

          Another option for computer-based text is to just cut and paste the offending kanji into something like

          Finally, there’s Google Translate on the smartphone, which uses the phone’s camera to capture the kanji, enabling a lookup. That works for most paper-based and non-text screen images.

          Once you have a reading, of course, you can look up the meaning in any dictionary you like, and ditch Google Translate, which is junk (but probably not for long).

          Between those 3 methods, you can decipher a great amount of kanji, with the exception of handwritten stuff. Good luck with that.

          Even the method you describe—which Japanese people use too—can involve testing out several readings. I remember doing that with a paper dictionary. Now you just try out readings in a phone or browser and presto, problem solved.

          Of course, for those <1% kanji where you're really stuck, you might be down to counting strokes or looking up by radical---but even then, it's still worlds easier online. The only time I can imagine using a paper dictionary would be during a power failure.

  12. I’m living in the USA and I started seriously studying Japanese back in January 2017, beginning with RTK and progressing to online tools, mostly Memrise. I also watch some Japanese TV to try to understand the language in context. Memrise counts my words learned so far at about 9600, but I suspect it’s more like a quarter of that because of overlap between courses, sentences counted as words, and the fact that you have to learn a word several ways: English to Kana, Kana to English, Kana to Kanji, Kanji to Kana, etc.

    I drill in Memrise for a couple of hours nearly every day. So what do I have to show for my 13 months of effort? I know Hiragana, I mostly know Katakana, I can recognize individual kanji match to English keyword in multiple choice. I can pick out a few words here and there listening to Japanese TV (with English subtitles). I recognize some (emphasis on “some”) written kanji and understand its meaning


    I cannot speak the language in sentences. I cannot understand a Japanese spoken sentence in its entirety. The word order, use of particles, and grammar still baffle me. If I use IME or Google Translate to write in Japanese, I mostly cannot read what I just wrote.

    This all makes me feel less intelligent than a Japanese toddler. (Serious study for over a year vs. a two year old who speaks better Japanese with no effort.) Quite frustrating indeed.

    I’m not giving up though because it’s something I want to do and I find Japanese culture endlessly fascinating. Hopefully in a couple more years I’ll know and understand it well enough to get by at a basic level when I go to Japan.

    …Or I can just google it.

    1. You sound like me (and a million other people studying Japanese).

      There’s certainly virtue in persistence, so for that reason alone I salute you for keeping going. Of course, you know you can “get by” just fine in Japan with virtually no Japanese at all. Hordes of tourists do so every day. In fact, knowing the various procedures is what you really need. The language is almost an afterthought.

      If you want to get deeper and more closely connected to Japanese people, then Japanese is definitely helpful, although you might not find what you’re expecting to.

    2. Mark, I dunno how many languages you’ve studied, but what always worked best for me is going for kind of a basic grammar ‘framework’ and then filling things in with vocabulary after looking at the basic structures, syntax etc. It’s basically how I was able to test into 4th/3rd year Japanese and German courses in college right out of high school, but your mileage may vary with that approach.

      Also, if you just want to be able to speak conversationally not bothering with kanji will probably save you a lot of time. I honestly wish I hadn’t wasted so much time on it since I only go to Japan to visit family.

    3. “This all makes me feel less intelligent than a Japanese toddler. (Serious study for over a year vs. a two year old who speaks better Japanese with no effort.) Quite frustrating indeed.”

      Many years ago my (Japanese) wife once said, after listening to me speaking English with someone: “You sound so much more intelligent when you speak English.”*
      As a matter of course anyone will sound “stupid” or at least more stupid when speaking a foreign language as remote from English as Japanese for a very long time.
      Even now I’m not sure I sound quite as intelligent when communicating in Japanese, although my Japanese is really, really good.
      By the way, with languages as similar as German and English I think this difference is small enough to be neglectable or arguably nonexistent given high proficiency.

      “I’m not giving up though because it’s something I want to do and I find Japanese culture endlessly fascinating.”

      I always recommend setting goals when learning Japanese, if you want to keep going.
      Each respective next level of JLPT is a great goal 🙂
      Also, as with any language it is much better to learn 8 hours every day for a year than learning 2 hours everyday for five years. Need to have the time for that of course.

      As for “fascinating” Japan: Meh. (Sorry for being jaded :))

      *Lady Gaga to Sarah Palin via ERB: “I sound more intelligent than you – when I fart.”

    1. Google translate app on android can do real time voice translation these days…

      You were right, Ken Seeroi. The bot overlords are taking over.

  13. Yet your readers are here for the human touches.
    Your photo juxtapositions require nuanced translation (unless they’re a baby in a big hat).
    It doesn’t matter if the robots can’t value anything that doesn’t have a numerical value, so long as we know how to value things that can’t be named.
    yes drunk
    always drunk
    but it’s a pubic holiday here

    1. Thank you. I am forever grateful for readers who value the humanity in things.

      I’d be happy if we could go back to a time when friends weren’t a number on a screen. When we had to chop wood and knew where our food came from.

      But progress, such as it is, isn’t going to stop. Like it or not, we are witnessing the dawn of the horseless carriage. Now is not a good time to invest in horseshoes.

  14. Hey ken, I have a question. When you were learning japanese, how much time did you devote each day to learning? I’ve seen some people say you can get by with only 20 minutes a day, while i’ve seen other people say that you need at least 2 hours of intense studying. what’s your thought on this idea?

    1. I’d say every waking hour of every day would be a good start.

      You certainly ask a worthy question, but unfortunately I can’t use the past tense when it comes to learning Japanese. I still study daily. I guess it’s been about 14 years now. Japanese is like going to the gym for your mind—a few days off and the whole thing starts reverting back into a pile of jello.

      In terms of how long it takes to master something, the phrase “10,000 hours” gets bandied about a fair bit. I don’t know how accurate that actually is, but just for argument’s sake, let’s assume it is.

      So if it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in Japanese, that would be about 2 hours a day for about 13 and a half years, or 4 hours a day for a little under 7 years.

      Okay, a few things to consider there. One is whether 1 hour a day for 7 days = 7 hours in 1 day. Probably not. I suspect you’d get more benefit from studying longer per day. But the flip side of that is: How long can you practically study per day without burning out? Again, like going to the gym, it’s easy to be all gung-ho for a few weeks, but if you can’t sustain the effort long-term, it won’t amount to a hill of beans. A moderate, steady pace would be a good idea.

      Finally, it’s worth asking what actually constitutes “studying.” I spent half an hour going over my contract at the cell phone store last weekend, and half an hour at the doctor’s office. I must have gotten something out of it, but was that “learning,” “studying,” or “practice”? When I read a book in Japanese, or watch TV, am I studying, or just screwing off? I’m not even sure.

      Even now, I probably devote between 45 minutes and an hour and a half per day to actual studying (reviewing flashcards, doing book exercises, or video classes). So to answer your question—finally—I’d recommend about an hour a day for a really, really long time. That’d probably just about do it.

      1. Hi Ken. I’ve been reading your blog for about a year and think I’ve read every post at this point, definitely every “Learning Japanese” post. I am 6 years into learning Cantonese and identify a lot with your journey. I was wondering if you were still actively learning and reviewing and based on your previous comment I see that you are.

        Are you still using Anki? Where would a (presumably) advanced learner like you source video lessons? I myself still learn lots of stuff from intermediate level lessons even though I dabble in advanced and native level material.

        I do about 1.5 hrs of Anki each day. I try to read for 30 min and talk to a language partner for 45 min to an hour on weekdays. Then I am working my way through a 40 episode tv series watching each episode twice (w/o subs then with subtitles) and average 2 episodes (ie 4 viewings) a week. Oh yeah, I have a job and girlfriend too so life is busy.

        1. Man, you’re really serious. Props to you.

          I was on a similar program a few years ago, but I’ve backed off these days. I still do Anki, but only about 30 cards a day, just whenever I’m riding the escalator on in line at the post office. To be fair, I do mail a lot of letters.

          There’s a fantastic Youtube channel called Nihongo no Mori. They offer heaps of Japanese lessons pitched at different levels. All for free. It’s one of the greatest resources anyone could wish for for learning Japanese. I watch a couple of lessons a week.

          Other than that, I read books and newspapers, get talked at by my girlfriend, hang out with old Japanese guys in bars, and use the language intermittently at work. All that helps to keep from losing what I’ve learned, but I’m certainly not working as hard as I should to improve. Discipline and all that.

          Keep going with Cantonese. You’re an inspiration.

        2. Blake,
          Check out Memrise d o t c o m. I like it better than Anki because most courses I’ve used include audio, which of course helps a lot with pronunciation. Also users can create their own courses so there are a lot, with various focus and degrees of quality. I don’t know about Cantonese, but for Japanese there are literally hundreds of user-submitted courses, not unlike Anki. And you and add your own mnemonics or pick one from a list of user-submitted mnemonics.

      2. I suppose that, at some point, you discover that Japanese people don’t mean a thing they actually say. There go your 14 years. Tatamae…

  15. Ah Ken sensei, I’ve always disagreed with your doom & gloom take on learning languages. Humbly, of course.
    I mean, if you’re a businessman who just needs to survive a week in Japan, yeah, the company can save money by just giving him a smartphone instead of a personal interpreter guide. In that sense, demand has certainly dropped for bilingual services.
    However, there will always be a need for true understanding. And I don’t mean just language. As I’m sure you know, Japanese culture is quite a handful, even in the best of times. I think it’s impossible to know how they think, and why they think that way, without knowing their language. In Japanese, there often isn’t a 1 to 1 translation, and lots of cultural nuances to account for. But hey, I don’t need to tell you that!
    Anyway, as long as people want to exist harmoniously and cooperate economically with Japan, we will absolutely need people who are able to think like Japanese and speak like them unaided. Bicultural people. I will close with a Japanese term very dear to me that brings so many blurred images and happy memories to mind: 花見. A very loaded term indeed, with deep significance. Load up the Google, and what do you get? “Flower viewing.” How much of the true essence of 花見 is the average American going to grasp from that translation?

    1. I certainly agree that to understand any nation, you need to speak the language and interact with others on their terms. Although I’m not sure that Japanese culture is any more of a handful, or more nuanced, than any other.

      As for 花見 (flower viewing), you know, I’d say it’s about on par with “county fair” or “block party.” How’s a Japanese person going to grasp the deep significance and subtle cultural cues of festivals that millions of Americans take for granted?

      But okay, we’re getting a bit far afield…

      Because what I’m really saying is that technology is changing how humans approach language just as it changed our approach to food (to take one example). For millions of years, we hunted animals, gathered roots and vegetables, and when we wanted to cook, started a fire. When we needed water, we carried it from a spring. Now? Ya just pop a frozen burrito into the microwave and boom, dinner in 90 seconds. For water, open the tap and like magic, there’s a seemingly endless supply.

      Is that better? Yeah, in some ways no, in some ways yes. If you want to raise your own chickens and plant wheat and olive trees, knock yourself out. But the point is now we don’t have to. Technology (as in the entire supply chain) has made it unnecessary, so that the vast majority of folks just drive to the supermarket, see a chicken part wrapped in plastic, pick up a jar of olives and a pack of pasta, then go home, turn on the gas, and whip up something to eat. Probably help if you’d raised some herbs while you were at it.

      And that’s what’s happening with languages.

      What’s the impact? Now we can choose where to invest our effort.

      If you want to spend time learning Japanese, yeah you can, because you don’t have to plow the field all day long. Or if you do want to raise your own cucumbers, you can do that, because you don’t have to ride a horse to town to get seeds. You just drive.

      We don’t have to build our own houses, fashion pelts into clothing, milk cows, or fell trees to craft boats to sail to Japan. All that frees up time.

      Learning Japanese is a massive luxury. It’s enabled by the thousands of technologies we already use, that give us time to study. And very soon, technology is going to catch up with languages, so that anyone who doesn’t want to invest time studying Japanese won’t have to. It won’t be as good as a human, just as a frozen dinner isn’t as good as a homemade meal, but for many people, it’ll be good enough.

      I think it’s quite possible that this will bring nations closer together. So rather than being worried about traveling overseas, spending years trying to master a foreign language, more people will simply travel and interact with each other. Then instead of trying to memorize what 花見 means, they’ll just go and see for themselves.

      1. Just realized I never had actually responded to this, but yeah, the luxury of it all is a very good point to make. I may just have to say “touche” on this one. I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but we’ll probably get there in my lifetime. I could see that, by the end of my life, learning a language could become like all the hipster film photographers today who want to shoot on film because… just because, even though it’s totally unnecessary. Still though, the less people we have who actually become bicultural, the worse off humanity will be imo.

    2. I agree. English translations only go so far, and there’s always something lost in the translating. Part of my motivation for learning the language is that I want to get inside the Japanese mind and learn how they think. The cultural subtleties reside in the minds of the native citizens of any culture. So to really understand the culture, you have to understand the language, because language is how one thinks.

      1. And you’ll have accomplished your goal when you can say “learn how we think” instead of “they.”

  16. Hello Ken,

    I have read your posts for a while and love them. I will be in Tokyo from 3/23-3/26. Are you interested in a night of free drinks? Consider it the Patreon contribution I should have made long ago.

    1. Ah thanks. Although I’m a sucker for free booze, I don’t live in Tokyo any more. Still, I’d love to hear how your trip goes.

      1. That’s what I get for binge reading and screwing up my accuracy . The trip has been great but we simply drop by every year or two for all the fun stuff and to visit my wife’s family in Niigata-ken.

        If you don’t mind me asking, what region do you live in these days? Perhaps in future years I could drop by and share a bottle of Yamazaki whiskey with you.

        1. It’s all good. I really should make a trip back to Tokyo soon.

          Given that I’m one of the few white guys who speaks Japanese where I live, if I so much as said the prefecture, people would probably be able to track me down to my apartment. For that reason, I’m a bit wary of putting too much personal information out there. Although that bottle of Yamazaki does sound tempting. Maybe in the future.

          1. That’s cool Ken. I would never want to jeopardize your position. For what it’s worth I have never seen another white guy in the small village my wife’s family lives in. I feel like a member of the blue man group when I visit but small town life in Japan has a certain allure to it. Sometimes I call it the commune for all the shared farm land and vegetable trading that goes on. The local temple still accepts payment in rice for the land it rents out. If your life has any of those elements l truly envy you Ken.

            I look forward to reading more of your entertaining and inciteful posts later.


            1. Some of those elements. And yet somehow I find ways to envy the lives of others. Damn human condition.

              But seriously, thanks for the offer. I do hope the day will come when we can form our own Blue Man group. Gotta work on my drumming.

  17. The story of the old man receiving the gift of sardines nearly moved ME to tears. As far as I’m concerned, being able to chat with old folks is a good enough incentive to learn Japanese.

    Ever since I was a small child, I’ve enjoyed the company of “elderly people,” a term I once used to describe a room full of 50-something-year-old women who were doting on me, much to their collective indignation. Hey, I was told that elderly is the polite term to use rather than “old.”

    I’m sure the old timers in Japan have some interesting life experiences to share. Or maybe they simply squandered five decades of their life in a dreary office. Either way, I’d like to hear about it.

  18. Fresh Gaijin Meat, Domestics are another great incentive to learn Japanese. I gave up studying Japanese 34 years ago, but now after nearly 3 decades of marraige to J-Wife, she now demands equality in our relationship, in that she expects all Domestic Disputes to be conducted soley in Japanese! I can’t afford a divorce, and in any case I’d starve to death, so …….

  19. Translation technology is still far away from making language acquisition obsolete.

    In Japanese, there are too many circumstances where different meanings can be interpreted.

    Do you know the sound “koushou” has 50 different meanings in Japanese? No matter how good software is at picking up the context, it’s still going to be difficult.

    Human interpreters and translators will be the preferred method for a long time. And even when they do become obsolete, there would still be translator proofreaders.

    1. “Human interpreters and translators will be the preferred method for a long time.”

      I tend to agree, although I’m getting stuck on the word “preferred.” Maybe it depends on what you’re trying to do. If I get a long email in Japanese, I prefer to just slam the whole thing into a translation program, rather than ask the person sitting next to me.

      Similarly, I could easily see a company preferring to use software over people in order to save money. There are a lot of cases where the translation doesn’t need to be perfect—just good enough. And we are quickly approaching good enough.

  20. I realized something the other day during my J-Benkyou. When I (attempt to) read Japanese, I have to really concentrate to ferret out any meaning. It’s almost as if the characters are trying to be inscrutable and make me work at it. By comparison, when I switch to (actually) reading English, rather than me reading the text, the text seems to talk to me. I don’t have to think about what it means, I can see the meaning just looking at it.

    That in a nutshell shows me the vast gulf I must cross in order to reach the same level of competency in reading Japanese.

    1. That’s it. This happens a lot with posters for me. When I see a poster in English, I immediately know everything it says, without even consciously reading. It’s instantaneous. In Japanese, I have to work out every word, one character at a time. It’s laborious.

      I’ve found this gets a little better over time, but not much.

      1. Somehow I don’t think the difficulty is the same for native Japanese when they try to read in English!

        1. Heh, not even close. And while we’re at it, let me add another one.

          Learning the spoken language is also miles easier for Japanese folks, because English speakers actually, uh, speak. Let me just limit this to Americans for now…but every time I go to the U.S., people are jabbering 24-7. Blah blah blah blah blah. They never shut up. And loudly. And I’m like, man, it must be great to learn English here! In Japan, people talk so little, and so softly, that you can barely catch what anybody’s saying. Then to cover up the silence, they play English music in the background. While I appreciate the quiet, it’s hell for language learning.

          And you wonder why foreign people live here for years and speak zero Japanese.

          1. “And you wonder why foreign people live here for years and speak zero Japanese.”

            Nah, that’s because they don’t have the time and / or willpower to learn properly 🙂

            1. Or the need.I quite liked living in a vacuum.Didn’t effect my business,was blissfully unaware of the nonsense going on around me and could successfully order beer and food.Good times.

        2. …and for a real ball shrinker. I was playing an JRPG with my son, and he kept telling me that I was too slow reading all the text. I challenged in him that he wasn’t reading it…and then he recited the previous text for me word for word. I’m pretty sure he can read faster than me in English…guess there is a point where it really becomes instantaneous particularly with the kanji, but we may never get there having learned Japanese later in life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *