A Friend of Mine Learned Japanese in 1 Year

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.

Small Advantages

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).

Learning Karate

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.

92 Replies to “A Friend of Mine Learned Japanese in 1 Year”

  1. You just need a few old Batman TV expletives, like “Bif, Bam, Kablooie” and this piece is damn near perfect. Loved the CM edginess too! I hope you feel better now Ken, this was a cathartic type message you laid out and I believe it with all my heart! Great Work Sensei!

    1. I wonder if all writing isn’t, at it’s core, motivated by catharsis. Just something you feel the need to express greatly enough that it forces you to go through the process of getting it out. Eh, probably not. There’s plenty of folks writing for money and fame, and certainly those are better motivations.

      Note to self: write for money and fame, and stop being so damn mopey.

  2. Ken, when I was 18 I moved from Italy to London, where I ended up living for 12 years. After two and a half years, my accent was indistinguishable from an authentic Londoner (whatever that is), and whenever I revealed my origins I got all the familiar 英語が上手ですねー, but from people in top hats instead of samurai. Now I would consider my English level on par with my Italian. So, did it take me two and a half years to become fluent? Absolutely, if we conveniently omit the fact that I studied English in kindergarten, elementary and high school, plus private lessons for five years plus boarding school for two years where all the subjects were taught in English and where I got together with an English speaking girl whom I stayed with for two years. And yet, when I got to London I had trouble understanding the accent or having a long conversation, not to mention sounding distinctly like super Mario. So, when now I feel like a not particularly gifted primate despite my first japanniversary fast approaching and two years of studying it prior to my arrival, I remind myself of the countless hours spent “all English all the time”, smile a little and move on

  3. That “bigu sticku” part was so funny Ken! Great article… I’m still studying Japanese, but lately I’ve been having doubts. I actually got up to the 1650+ kanji in the Heisig book, but I’ve put stopped it because it wasn’t giving me time to do my Japanese vocabulary and assignments for my Japanese class. Is that bad? Should I press on and finish Heisig? Keep up the great work!

    1. I “finished” Heisig, and I’m not sure that it matters. I use “quotes” because that’s like saying you’re “finished” with the alphabet after learning the ABCs. I mean, you still gotta learn how to combine those characters into thousands of words.

      No matter which path you choose—as long as you continue to use kanji—you’re going in the right direction. Every single thing you learn contributes a piece to a giant puzzle. Heisig helps you remember the characters, and that’s a pretty big help, but you can also get there simply through reading.

      Let’s say you do finish Heisig, here’s what’ll happen: You’ll mis-remember a certain percentage of the characters. Another percentage, you’ll encounter only very rarely. And you’ll encounter a certain percentage of characters that weren’t in Heisig at all.

      Still, it doesn’t mean the approach isn’t worth it. Because everything you learn helps round out that puzzle. The key is really to do a ton of everything. Heisig, vocab, assignments, reading…everything helps.

  4. Heh, I’m honoured that you thought my comment deserved a blog post. I’ll clarify that in my comment, I wasn’t suggesting that sumo wrestlers achieved “fluency” within a year nor that immersion by itself is enough to learn a language. I only wanted to point out that they seemed to acquire language skills (spoken language, I make no comment on acquiring written language) faster than someone who isn’t studying in that environment, say someone like me learning through self-study only. I watched an interview with Oosunaarashi a couple years back. I believe at that time, he had been in Japan for just under two years. I’m reaching the two-year mark on my studies, and my spoken Japanese is not even close to where his was. 🙁

    Anyway, I’m sure they are taking language classes as part of their training, and are likely also mentored by the older wrestlers in the stable. Having a language mentor who will help you every day goes a long way to learning, I think. But their environment is different than “regular” immersion environments, and I don’t think it’s accurate to compare them. In a regular immersion environment, say high school or university, you’re not cut off from the rest of the world and your own native language. As a foreign student, you can talk/e-mail your friends and family every day in your native language, you’re free to read internet articles in your native language, etc. In a sumo stable, the wrestlers are not permitted that type of freedom. They’re only allowed to communicate with their families back home once a while. They’re only allowed to leave the stable with permission. It’s almost like being in prison… which actually reminds me of what you said in one of your earlier posts. 🙂

    1. Seriously, thanks for letting me use your quote. Yeah I know, I wasn’t trying to take what you said too far out of context. I just used it for inspiration, since it’s a perfect example of that stuff everybody says about, well, everything, including learning Japanese. Everything always looks easier than it really is. Don’t get me started on my years of trying to play guitar.

      Actually, I agree with the point you make above. I’m a hundred percent sure the best way to learn Japanese is to have someone beat the living crap out of you while you study. In fact, that’s how the Japanese themselves do it.

      1. Hmm, I never thought about it that way, but you have a great point. The threat of being pounded by a 300-pound dude in a mawashi is great incentive for learning! Ken, why don’t you try that method and let us know how it goes? 😉

  5. I love it when people’s parents or casual acquaintances tell other people they’re fluent in Japanese. When it’s coming from someone who knows little to no Japanese, it just means they have no idea what fluency sounds like, but they’re impressed. When it comes from a Japanese person, it means they’re flattering you and you’re pretty far from fluent. So that leaves very few people to objectively measure fluency. Even the JLPT doesn’t cut it. I passed N1 but I’m definitely not fluent. Maybe if you get to Kanken level 2, that’s a good sign, but that only covers writing and reading.

    You hit the nail on the head–if you can’t measure start and finish, you have no correlation.

  6. Steven Seagull learned Japanese in six month while shooting a film in Tokyo. He said it on a talk show about 20 years ago. I guffawed my zarusoba onto the TV screen.

    The thing with languages, especially Japanese, is that if you know 10 percent more than the guy studying next to you, you can claim it’s more like 200 percent. How is he to know? I lived in Japan for 15 years and studied Japanese at uni for four. Now, when I try to speak Japanese, my brain goes into meltdown.

    1. I really wonder what motivates people to do that with Japanese. Like, do people do that with Math? Oh, I can solve quadratic equations—how ’bout you? Metorology? Well, if you notice the shape of these cumulus clouds, you’ll see that rain is in our forecast.

      Or even Spanish? I’ve never heard anybody brag about how quickly they learned Spanish. Or quote their test scores. For Japanese, that’s like every day.

      1. Lack of self confidence, I guess.
        I went to a Japanese high school, and I didnt see many of the students bragging about their scores in Japanese or any subjects.

  7. Hahaha.. I really enjoy reading your love hate relationship with the language. It felt like you are unable to leave your sexy but very abusive wife/partner. At lease from my perspective. Anyway just wanted to say thank you for the post. And I do hope you would write either fiction or non fiction book someday. It’s fun reading your article. Cheers! 😉

    1. I do have a sexy and abusive partner—how’d you know? And yeah, Japanese is the same way. But I’m sure if I just give it one more chance, it’ll finally love me back.

  8. Wow, really great post! Reminded me of quite a few stories too; a couple in particular.

    About a year ago I was in Japan doing some technical research (Computer Science), and I had the chance to spend the evening with a Japanese host family. I was more-less able to follow the conversation on familiar topics. You know, the one you always practice on classes: where I was from, how much I’d like Japan so far and that kind of stuff. Then they asked me how long I had been studying. -“About 3 years, I guess” -“Oh, really? We had this Chinese girl a few months ago. She only had studied for about a year and a half and was able to speak it perfectly!” I knew she had an advantage, but it was a direct hit on the ego…

    The other one was a few months ago. I presented and barely failed the JLPT-N3 exam in December. By February I went to try the Kanken for the first time (8級; also failed…) and I met a guy who was saying that he passed the N1 in December. -“So, how long have you been studying to be able to pass the N1?” -“Close to 7 months.” -“No, not how much you studied just for the N1, from scratch, how long did it took?” -“Yeah, about 7 months. Take into account that I do consulting, so I manage my own time. Some days I would even study for about 14-15 hours!” I don’t recall exactly what we talked about next, but he kind of wasn’t very comfortable mentioning how exactly he learned Japanese and changed the topic. For a while I was thinking “man, I really need to get serious with my Japanese, I could have already passed the N1 by now”. Then I started to crunch some numbers, based on averages I found on Wikipedia and some other sites I thought of as reliable. It turns out that an average person would have to study 12-15 hours a day, every day, to be able to pull that. No days off. So, he would have been extraordinary in terms of memory, endurance and dedication, plus not having any other responsibility for 7 months, or he could have been lying. Sorry, obfuscating the truth. I cannot really say which, but I know how likely each is…

    So, after 11 years, at what level do you think you’re at? What are you able to do with the language and what to you still wish to improve? Have you taken any certification exams? If so, how long did it take you to pass them? My goal with Japanese is to be as proficient as I am with English, where I know I don’t ‘sound’ exactly native and I might feel limited at times, but I’ve been able to take college classes and jobs in English without a problem (I’m from Mexico, by the way).

    Also, the 35 hours a week you mentioned, how did you employ them? Is that taking into account any activity where you use the language or just reading textbooks, doing exercises and such? I once had a small argument with a friend over how “he almost didn’t study any Japanese besides the classes we both were taking, because hanging out with Japanese people or using the language in hobbies doesn’t really count.”

    1. Passing JLPT1 in 7 months?—Look, I just hope that someone with that kind of talent, focus, and free time uses it for something better than studying damn Japanese. Get a Ph.d in 7 months. Become a surgeon the next 7 months. After that, pass the bar exam. Then become a commercial airline pilot. If you’ve got such an ability and you’re only learning Japanese, sorry, you’re an idiot.

      So about me, lotta questions…that 35 hours is basically contact hours with Japanese, and I’m being pretty conservative. Let’s see, I’ve got a Japanese girlfriend, so I figure we speak together 2 hours a day, some of which is nothing more enlightening that “Ken, pick up your socks!” I also use Japanese a fair bit at work, so figure that’s an hour. Not like an hour of straight reading and speaking, but rather if I took the amount of interaction I had in 8 hours and took out all the silences, etc., it would probably be an hour. Actually, that’s probably low-balling it a bit, but whatever.

      For actual studying, I’ve made it a point for several years to read five NHK News articles every day. Let’s say that’s 30-45 minutes, tops. I also drill vocabulary with Anki for about 30 minutes. And I listen to the radio, watch TV, and essentially just exist in this environment 24/7, so I figure round everything to 5 hours a day. There are days I actually spend more like 8 or 10 hours and do more focused studying. Those are called Sundays. But most days, I’m not sure where the line between “studying” and simply using the language even is.

      So where am I at? Honestly, I’d say about 40% of where I want to be. To get where you are in English, I bet that if I enrolled full-time in a language school, I could be there in two years. The way I’m going (full-time job, living in Japan), probably more like ten. That’s just the way it is, and for the amount of discrimination you get speaking Japanese in this country, it’s of dubious value. English only is the key to living a happy life in Japan. You may not want to do what I do.

      1. “Why not become a surgeon in 7 months?”

        But we can distinguish between learning declarative knowledge (not that surgery isn’t also a skill), and acquisition of a skill like a language. At Antimoon they also point out that: “Few people realize that learning a language fluently is a much more memory-intensive task than, say, learning organic chemistry or the history of Europe at an expert level…” http://www.antimoon.com/how/input-howmuch.htm

        Yet they go on to argue in that article that we can compare our ability to acquire language with our ability to recognize a human face. All kinds of things are at work beneath the hood that help with acquisition, but we don’t actually need to -know- those rules in the same way that say a surgeon needs to know human anatomy. If I had known that from the beginning I think it would have made the journey a lot shorter, regardless of how long it may or may not take in general.

        1. Okay sure, I know I’m comparing apples and oranges. My only point—facetious though it may be—is that both things require years and years of study. You really can’t cram either one too much and still achieve the desired results. Learning simply takes time.

          But let’s take an example a little closer to home. I guess I studied 3 hours a day for a year and a half to get a Master’s degree. That seemed like a good pace, and 3 hours a day is a lot of time to give up.

          But hey, if you could put in 17 hours a day and take, well, all the courses at once, then theoretically you’d complete the degree in three months. Sweet. At that pace, you’d get a doctorate in a couple of years, easy. But who does that?

          No doubt there’s some guy who has, but I’m guessing he’s a pretty wacked-out dude.

      2. Thanks a lot for the thorough response Ken!

        I’m always interested on knowing how others learn and what works best for them. I guess in part it’s to analyze what could also work for me, and in part it’s that hearing that it is complicated for most people which motivates me a bit, on a “it’s not that you’re stupid, it takes time and dedication” kind of way.

        About “you may not want to do what I do”, I do ponder from time to time what actually my motivation to learning Japanese is. For the time I’m putting into it, I’m pretty sure I could be doing something more enjoyable, productive or rewarding (I mean, for a while I used to do programming as a hobby and that did actually helped), and yet I don’t see myself stopping any time soon…

  9. Thanks a bunch for that article, Sir – it really shows how limited that binary perception of knowledge is. See, whenever i speak to a smart person in my native language, i feel like i still have lots to learn. And even after learning English since grade school and living/working in NZ and OZ, i catch myself struggling for words quite often – and i’ve got the impression that my workmates and employers think of me as a very simple minded dude, avoiding any difficult expressions and disregarding the fact that i understand them perfectly well. Sometimes i just don’t know how to apply certain words, that’s all. There is more to language than grammar and vocabulary, for example proverbs, synonyms, slang and so on. Fluency is one thing, but complete knowledge is a whole different story.
    Reminds me of the time when my mother used to brag about me, telling everyone that i tought myself how to play Piano. But being able to to smash those ivory keys to some catchy zelda-songs doesn’t make me a Mozart, right? Well, maybe. By the way, i’m fluent in japanese now, at least according to my mom.

    1. “There is more to language than grammar and vocabulary, for example proverbs, synonyms, slang and so on.”

      This highlights the importance of simply knowing facts, regardless of language, related to a culture. For example, Japan has 47 “states”—what are their names, and what are they known for?

      To hold a decent conversation, you need thousands of these facts: famous singers, songs, actors, movies, TV shows, sports teams and players . . . the lists are extensive.

      I bet most people in the world can name a dozen facts related to MacDonald’s: what’s on the menu, who the mascot is, and what the corporate symbol looks like. But how many people can do the same for MosBurger?

        1. You can’t write off the kinpira burger that quickly. Anybody who makes a burger out of root vegetables sandwiched in rice deserves at least a mention.

      1. As I was waiting for the bus to work the other day, the woman next to me started talking to me in Japanese about the Crown Prince’s current visit to the prefecture (news to me). I was able to (barely) fake a conversation based on some half-remembered vocabulary from a potted history text I had once read. But I never cease to be amazed how the most obscure thing I learn one day pops up a few days later in a very everyday context.

        1. Yeah, it never fails to amaze me how useful even apparently useless pieces of information are. I think this is even more prominent in Japanese, because of kanji’s strange six degrees of separation, where even the most obscure words usually have some link to common words.

  10. After studying 33,000 Anki cards almost 500,000 times at an average of 620 times a day while immersed in a nearly 100% Japanese environment for 2.5 years I’m finally starting to feel comfortable calling myself fluent. I’d say 2.5 years to fluency is damned fast, too, all considering.

    Of course the price of that fluency is that after drinking all weekend without touching Anki I showed up at work today on Monday with, I am not kidding, 1830 flashcards to look at. Considering it’s almost lunch time and I’ve only gotten through about 500, I better get back to it before the intense moral guilt of not obsessively doing my reps drives me into a bottomless pit of depression and self-hatred. Learning Japanese sure is fun!

    1. Half a million reviews and overwhelming feelings of guilt? Now that sounds like truth.

      Two and a half years to fluency is fast. You should feel good about that, for exactly one minute. Then resume your studying and report back in another two and a half years.

  11. It’s true that we never stop learning, both in our own languages and in foreign ones. But there is also a point we reach when a language becomes mostly intelligible to us in spoken and written forms. I think this occurs long before we are anywhere near as good as a well educated native. (And of course I don’t mean mostly in the sense of some ratio of everything that -can- be expressed, but rather of what typically is expressed). Some people online might fudge this distinction. Khatz is arguably guilty of that in places. Regardless of if we call it “fluency” or not, I think what causes people the most stress (especially with languages like Japanese) is getting to this point of being able to fairly comfortably understand and make oneself understood. A lot of the online “language gurus” are trying to help get people to that point.

    So, when you say you have “40%” of the skill you would like to have I assume that means you would like to be as good as a well educated native speaker and think you are “40%” of the way to that point. (probably being too humble?)

    Numbers are nice. So here are some. I was “pretty comfortable” with everyday Japanese when I knew about 15,000 words, as measured by this test… http://www.kecl.ntt.co.jp/icl/lirg/resources/goitokusei/goi-test.html

    So in other words I had a primary school student’s vocabulary (in terms of the raw numbers if not in terms of actual spread, as I knew a lot more advanced academic vocabulary but a lot less everyday words like “toothbrush” or “gums”.)

    It’s a fraction of what you would need in order to have the same vocabulary as a native college graduate, and even now, years later, I only score at about a “middle school” level with my vocab (less than 40,000). But I wouldn’t say that I’m still “learning” Japanese, much as I wouldn’t say I’m “learning” English. Even if in some sense it very much is true that I’m learning both. So while I must certainly agree with you that the road is so very, very long, I am optimistic about what is possible when it comes to a more modest level of achievement when good methods are used. Even one year of hard work is enough for some people in some cases to break through into understanding most of what they read and hear. They won’t be anywhere near native level, but they might be pretty good. The problem is when people can’t even break through to that point after ten years of bad methods, and then argue that because language X is so darn hard they can’t even reach this basic level when they just haven’t spent the large amount of time needed for lots of reading and listening etc. (I.E. > http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html) (Of course, I know that is not what your position is. I think you are more of a realist. But just as there are very optimistic people out there like the Khatzumoto’s, there are also very needlsly pessimistic people. To me they are even more infuriating.)

  12. Hey, don’t knock learning from kids. I have learned many core vocabulary words such as うんこ、ちんこ、and just yesterday, 鼻くそ. I have also learned how to endlessly tattle on other people, so I am even getting some training for a career in business.

    But in all seriousness, I think this is the article that every person studying Japanese needs to read. Particularly with the sheer volume of (mis)information that is on the internet about learning Japanese, it is INCREDIBLY easy to waste a LOT of time. Everyone likes to say that any method will get you fluent in Japanese if you stick to it. From experience, I know this is not true. This is a warped version of the reality that there are MANY roads to fluency, but that doesn’t mean that EVERY road leads to fluency. So don’t have your entire study method based around your interpretation of what Joe Schmoe said made him fluent in this many months. In fact, if you have already decided to go all on Japanese, stop counting months and years at all. Thinking about your length of study will either a) depress you or b) make you a show-offy jerk, neither of which are beneficial for you or anyone else (unless someone who is counting the cost of studying Japanese is asking you about it. This really seems to be the only appropriate time to have this conversation).

    “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.”

    It wasn’t until recently that I realized how truly important this is. I say this only in part out of spite; I have been studying an embarrassingly long time and am still almost completely useless in daily conversation. You see, I thought because I was working HARD, that I MUST be gaining a lot. Anyone who has seen the products of English education in Japan can tell you this isn’t always true. I can’t even go to the convenience store here without being confused, not by the kanji, but by basic questions such as “do you want me to heat this up” or “do you want me to put these in separate bags?” I realize now that if you really want to learn the language, just find a method that you can prove is objectively improving your ability to read, write, listen, and speak and just 頑張れ.

    Wow, sorry for using your comment section as a place to rant. It’s been a rough go out here in Japan this past couple of days. But hey, all you can do is look forward. I love Japanese too much to give up on it, I have already accepted that. So here’s the bonus question I have for you, Mr. Seeroi. Sorry, where are my Japanese manners? I have a bonus question for you, Ken. What is the best way to objectively test my ability to use the language? Tests like the JLPT? How well I can hold a conversation with someone? Ken Seeroi’s magical book of objectively testing Japanese?

    1. The lack of a decent test is a bit of a problem. The JLPT is a reasonable measure of reading ability and grammar accuracy, but not a good indicator of overall ability. Still, it’s one data point, and we shouldn’t dismiss it.

      How well we can hold conversations with a variety of people on a range of topics is, for me, probably the most valuable measurement. It would be interesting to develop a rubric for use as a self-evaluation tool. I could see it being especially meaningful for people you meet periodically. The first time you met your father-in-law, how well could you understand his grunts and subject-less rambles? 1 out of 8? Then six months later, a 3 out of 8? Hey, that’s progress.

      I think a really good thing to do is make a list of your weaknesses. If you can’t understand the clerk at the convenience store, or the lady at the post office, or the train announcement, put it on the list. Be as specific as possible. That gives you something to focus on and seek explanations for. Then six months later, review the same list. Now how much trouble are you having getting your onigiri heated up? Can you now at least make out the words “express train”? I think such self-evaluations are quite useful.

      It’s probably worth it to videotape yourself. Prepare and deliver a two-minute speech. I bet if you did that every six months, you’d see some good progress. Probably a bit too embarrassing for me, but hey, it’s a good idea. Just do the world a favor and don’t upload it to YouTube.

  13. you said “That’s just the way it is, and for the amount of discrimination you get speaking Japanese in this country, it’s of dubious value. English only is the key to living a happy life in Japan. You may not want to do what I do.”, but I don’t think so. I am one of thise strange white japanese people, but once your japanese reaches a certain level, people will be very happy they can get down to business once they get over the initial shock. Trust me, I have worked at a lot of major Japanese companies where 98 percent of the staff didn’t know any English at all. Sometimes people are shocked that I know English. The annoying people are the foreign people who want to follow me around and have me translate everything for them just because they think I look like them. Its better not to tell people you know english just to avoid getting translation work dumped on you.

    1. And here’s the English word of the day: equality.

      It means not being shocked when you meet a white, black, female, gay, or whatever kind of person who is, wow, “just like a Japanese.” It means not dividing the world into us and them based upon a level of ability. Amazing, a black man who can drink green tea. A woman who can use chopsticks. A white person who doesn’t need the English menu. It means that regardless of what you think you know about “those people,” you simply treat everybody the same.

      Just treat everybody the same. Japan’s got miles to go on this issue.

  14. It used to happen to me when I learnt chinese, I came to very good level where I feel comfortable speaking, reading and writing. I am currently learning japanese and at the beginning is quite tough, but once you passed the several intially tricky grammar structures (about 6 months of study), it becomes easier and more pleasant to read and use. My case is not a typical one since I already knew the kanji through the chinese characters, which look very similar and can give you a lead on the japanese meaning. I used to study japanese in a class with another 20 chinese students, so I used chinese to learn japanese; few in that class really grasped the language due of the fast pace of teaching (got from N5 to N2 in 14 months) and the lack of real practising; only those who were very, very interested in japanese and Japan acquired a noticeable level, some of them were even working in japanese companies at Shanghai. My point is, you can’t compare with any chinese because they knew the characters beforehand, and there are so many that those that get to Japan are la creme de la creme, top of the class. And for master the language, I would try to find a one to one teacher, follow a good method, build reading, listening and writting experience thru Noken studying materials, and use it at much as possible; after all, most of us chose to study this, we were not force, so better take it easy and enjoy the ride to fluency 😉

  15. All these comments and no one is asking for more information on the kancho? Huh…

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this post. The conclusions you’ve come to seem to ring true for many of my own observations — keeping in mind I’m no linguist, just a jaded ex-Japanese learner (though not an ex-language learner).

  16. Ken, in your own studies how long did it take you to get a “working level” of fluency? As in being able to talk, describe & comprehend in Japanese at a level that didn’t have as much detail as you liked, but the message was able to get across anyways

    1. That’s a good question. I’m going to say 3 years.

      I spent about 2-1/2 years in the U.S., studying fairly steadily, let’s say an hour a day. Bear in mind I was starting from absolute zero, and didn’t even discover hiragana for about 3 months.

      After the 2-1/2 years, I moved to Japan, and immediately began trying to use Japanese exclusively. Within 6 months, I was able to manage most simple conversations.

      So I guess I could claim that I learned Japanese in 6 months. Buy my secret method.

      Now, I certainly could have done the first 2-1/2 years much faster and more efficiently, but that’s part of the learning process too. It’s pretty easy to look back in retrospect and see what you would’ve done differently. (Learning kanji very early on would have been a tremendous help.)

      On the other hand, after those 6 months, there was still a ton of even rudimentary things I couldn’t manage. Those probably took another 2 years to go away. So it might be fair to say that it took me 5 years to become fluent in most situations.

      Now, 11 years in, as I mentioned in a previous comment, I feel like I’m at about 40%. By which I mean I can do perhaps 40% of what I can do in English. I can hold a conversation for hours in Japanese, if the other party speaks standard language. That’s the good part. But slangy expressions and jokes about TV shows and I’m lost. Looking at it another way: in English, I can sit in a cafe, and know exactly what all the people around me are saying, without listening or concentrating. Often, I can pinpoint the part of the world or the U.S. they’re from. I can glance at a poster and know in one second precisely what it says, without even reading it. I can’t do those things in Japanese.

      But then, I keep raising the bar. I guess I never thought I’d get this far, so I should be satisfied and happy. But of course I’m not. Guess that’s part of the process too.

      1. “I guess I never thought I’d get this far, so I should be satisfied and happy. But of course I’m not. Guess that’s part of the process too.”

        Ain’t that the truth. Do you think you’ll ever reach that level where you’re at 100% in Japanese and can do all those things like understanding everyone around you and knowing what a poster says before you’ve even really read it?

        I had a Filipino friend who came to Canada when he was five and by the time we were in high school he told me he felt more comfortable with English than his native tongue. He was beginning to forget his native tongue as well. It got me wondering if the only way to achieve 100% in Japanese is to “lose” some of your English. Like only one language can be at 100% at one time.

        1. I think it’s possible to reach 100%, and what would really help would be a couple of years full-time in a language school, then attend college afterward. Now that’s immersion. Just playing Japanese TV in the background while SRS-ing and reading the newspaper half an hour a day isn’t going to do it.

          All Westerners who live in Japan eventually lose some of their English. You forget words or phrases, and unless you consume a lot of foreign media, you lose touch with what people are talking about. But I don’t think I’ll ever lose the fundamental structure. I may struggle with some of the details, but I still retain the overall ability to form English sentences, sometimes even correctly. But yes, I believe it’s theoretically possible that my Japanese ability could exceed my English ability, with enough time and effort. Sigh. More work.

          One extra thing to keep in mind is simply the number of opportunities to use English in Japan. I don’t know how much Tagalog there is in Canada, but there’s a ton of English in Japan, and unless you look pretty Asian, nobody’s gonna let you forget it.

      2. To Ken Seeroi.
        On learning foreign languages.

        Differences do exist. Huge. Similarities do exist. Huge. Let’s not confuse differences and similarities.
        I’ve seen and heard Spanish girls chatting with Italian sailors on the Ramblas in Barcelona. The girls spoke Spanish. The sailors, Italian. No problem at all.

        You can read Spanish? Then you also read Italian and Portuguese. No special effort needed. Are you Dutch? Then learning German won’t exhaust you. Swede? Hell, you can speak Swedish with a Dane and he’ll understand you perfectly, no problem either! Same logic applying to Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish and Czech, etc…

        Over half the English vocabulary having been borrowed from the French, that does sound like a two-way switch, doesn’t it ?

        I can READ French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, no problem, no genius needed either. It’s part of my work and hobby. Daily user. Within the confines of my work and hobby, mind. There ARE similarities. Huge. Thank God. On the other hand being fluent in six languages, or even two or three is QUITE a different matter! Huge! But I won’t fantasize about a head-on collision with Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese, etc. There ARE differences. Huge.

        So yes, you should very seriously ask your followers to consider WHY learning Japanese (or Chinese, etc.) suddenly appeals to them.

        But not so much if they consider learning Spanish. Or Italian. Or French… In which case breaking their neck is not really an option.

        On the other hand, Russian ? Well… Think ahead!

        Au revoir! Bye! Até à vista! Hasta luego! Arrivederci! Tchüss!

        Have Fun Will Travel…

        1. I’m born in Holland , at the age of 16 I was hitchhiking and ended up in Dover UK didn’t speak any English but found a job helping a driver delivering goods from an COOP store , long story short after 2 years I found out that a fucking fridge/freezer was just a fridge freezer, and fucking is something different. This is over 40 years ago since then I’ve learned some English German Danish Spanish and of course some Swedish because I have been living here for many years now.

  17. Your conversation with Heisig was in Japanese, right? Did he speak fluently? Get his WAs and GAs right? Did he have a strong accent? Did he talk obsessively about his new Gundam action figure? That he doesn’t like girls much ’cause they’re stinky and really weak.

    Seriously, has anyone heard him speak Japanese?

    1. I had lunch with him a couple of years ago with a few other profs at his institute. We all spoke English. The Japanese woman who was with us said that he speaks in a kind of impolite or slangy manner as a result of how he learned the language.

      With Japan though, being Japan, and English being Engish, I’m inclined to understand. Much more so than if it was the reverse situation. You write in English. You have conferences in English. Most or all of your colleagues are either native English speakers, or Japanese who have studied abroad. It’s a pretty natural state of affairs. Regardless of his speaking ability I know he reads well. He also has an awesome study, and smokes a giant pipe. Very nice guy.

    2. My conversation with him was in English, and I was a little surprised that, even when speaking with Japanese people, he continued to use English. But he’s been in Japan for decades now, so I’m sure he speaks enough to order the Happy Meal at MacDonald’s.

  18. Hey Ken, another great article that helps keep me focused on learning Japanese properly.
    In a week I will be moving to Fukuoka to study abroad for 10 months. I’m hoping to improve my Japanese greatly in this time.

    I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near fluent, but I notice that I’m able to pick up language very easy, (hence why Linguistics is my major). I’m a pretty strong proponent that learning any language takes a lot of effort and a lot of luck. Some people just struggle with language while others can absorb it through some strange osmosis like myself.

    All in all, I think the individual that struggles and studies hard is in a much better boat than I am. Being naturally good at language makes it really easy for me to ignore studying or understanding more complex parts of language.

    Lastly, I’d love to meet up with you sometime Ken, I’ll be traveling over the country when I can. Shochu on me.

    1. Congrats on coming here to study. Fukuoka’s a fun town, part of the challenge is avoiding the fun so you can study. Guess you’ll get a chance to put that osmosis to the test.

      1. Well with all the classes I’ll be taking we’ll see how much free time I have.
        Though all of the Japanese students I speak with say that Japanese classes are extremely easy, even easier than American college classes.

  19. I personally find it discouraging when you put all this work in to learning a language and some moron comes around and claims he learned it in 3 months. what’s the point? Unless you are a linguistic wizard there’s no way you can learn that fast. So why pollute peoples minds? why not just be up front about it?

    1. I’m convinced there’s an element of self-deception. Tim Ferris in particular is almost pathological. I think he actually believes that he’s done all the things he claims. Benny Lewis too. Honestly, I’d like to think that when he’s with his close friends that he laughs about all the people he’s fooling, but unfortunately I think he really believes he can speak all those languages.

  20. I think age and interest has a lot to do with the amount of time you spend learning a language. I am polylingual: I am fluent in three languages, but I mastered two of them before turning 5 and the third by the time I was 15. When I started studying French, I realized that it was somehow much harder to commit things to the memory. Yes, I still had an advantage over many of my peers, but on my own scale, I was learning very slowly. I had no interest in it either, so I quit as soon as I graduated. When I started Japanese, I was much more enthuasiastic about it, in 2 years my Japanese was much better than my French.
    However, learning Japanese has proven to be even harder than learning French; and I think one of the big reasons it is so is because I am even older now. Even after 3 years, many words still sound very similar to me and I just can’t memorize things as quickly. I think the biggest problem is *gasp* the kanji. I am stuck on the 400-500 mark. It seems that I just can’t get past that. When I stidy new kanji, I begin to forget the old ones and vice versa. I actually stopped studying kanji altogether about… 3 months ago? I really don’t know how to tackle them in a way that won’t be overwhelming.

    Also on the topic of passing tests and memorizing: I had a math teacher who was Korean. He was a very smart guy who had passed his university exams on the top of the country and prided himself on MEMORIZING THE ENTIRE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY! Now, yes, he did memorize the dictionary, but he was far from being a fluent English speaker. (Though I bet if you asked him, he’d tell you he was fluent.) In fact, it was often hard to understand what he was teaching. So, I guess the point is that just because some guy could pass the N1 exam after 7 months (or 7 years) doesn’t mean that he’s fluent.

    1. Wow, a lot of good things in what you said, and I agree with all of them.

      The JLPT measures certain discreet aspects of the language, and fluency isn’t one of them. Still, it’s one measure of Japanese ability, so we shouldn’t dismiss it.

      As far as age goes, it’s clear that people slow down as they get older. A fifteen year-old is slower than a five year-old, and a 25 year-old is slower still. People sometimes note that older people have better discipline (or at least self-motivation), but that’s a different argument.

      And yeah, kanji are the challenge of the language. Even if you get through 2000 or so, you’re still stuck with the problem of combining them into bazillions of words, where the same kanji has different meanings and pronunciations depending on the word in which its used.

      It is an overwhelming problem, and there’s really no way around it. You’ve just got to power through memorizing (within a margin of error) the 2000-plus kanji, then get started on learning the essential 10,000-15,000 words necessary to hold basic conversations. Reading with furigana helps. Conversing with people helps. Watching videos helps. It all helps, but it’s still a massive challenge.

  21. This article is spot on. My favorite part was about Heisig learning Japanese from kids, elementary students do not speak Japanese! I understand them completely, but if I repeated what they said to any other Japanese person they would immediately respond to me in Engrish. Cuz that shit ain’t Japanese. Junior High students are only marginally better. Even the other teachers say that the students speak 学生弁.

  22. Hey there Seeroi-sensei!

    I just found your blog today, strangely enough while searching for a proper way to say sorry for your loss to one of my fellow insei.

    Learning Japanese was maybe not one of my best decisions in life, but hey here I am. Six years and a master’s degree in Japanese later, and I still can’t speak it especially well.
    This is my second time around in Tokyo (was here for a year back in 2009-2010), and it is harder this time. The first was a short visit (1 year exchange) so I never got out of the pink and innocent view of this country.
    Now I’ve been here a little over 4 months (and have about 3-4 years more to go) and all hell has broken loose.
    Or not. Actually that is just me overreacting a tad bit.
    You see, I’m studying archaeology for my Ph.D, and let’s just say that being a woman and a foreigner is not a good combination in that field. Especially the girlpart. I’m about 10 years older than most of my fellow classmates, and to be fair, quite a bit bigger than them. But still I’m not “allowed” to do boys-job. A girl carrying around shovels or heavy boxes? Heaven forbid! And also, appearantly my last name is to hard to pronounce so I’m Karin with everyone. But at least they ask if its okay to call me by my first name. That’s an improvement. And also, I get called “san” most of the times….
    But… The field of Archaeology. Well, it’s not an easy field to try and make a place for oneself in.
    So to say, I was at an excavating site for over ten days, and just about started to hate everyone there. I don’t know everything about archaeology so they just basically let me take care of labeling stuff. Like, “wow, do you know how to write in Japanese??”.
    Not to talk about the fact that everyone expected me to pass out from the heat about ten minutes in. Really. If I just stand in the sun doing nothing for five minutes, I won’t pass out, promise. I probably will be fine even if you let me carry that not so heavy thing to the tent.
    One of the oldies even had the gut to spit out that “Europeans can’t stand the heat”. Well, I wasn’t the one taking all my clothes off grandpa….
    But of course, this might just be them being concerned about my well-being, and I’m a stupid foreigner for not seeing that. They don’t teach this kind of interactions at university.

    And instead of saying a bunch about how funny and great your blog is, I just complained. Sorry.

    Anyway, your blog is awsome, and surely brings perspective to those who are currently living in Japan, and those who are planning on it. And it makes me laugh, which is a plus in my book.

    Well, thank you for letting me intrude a little.


    1. Hi Karinさん, thanks for the comment.

      You know how in the Bible God does all this horrible stuff to Job just to test him? No? Well, he does. It’s in like Chapter Three or something. And then the last thing God does is send Job to Japan, just to really mess with the guy’s mind. Maybe that’s in the footnotes, I can’t remember.

      Japan will test you. The longer you stay, the more it’ll put you through the wringer. It’s one thing to be here as a student, or on holiday, or even as a worker for a year or two. But to actually live here and try to integrate into the society, whew, that’s when the fun begins. It’s more fun the whiter or blacker you are. And being a woman is supposed to be even funner still. Lucky you.

      It really helps to hate your home country. People from England, rejoice. And maybe making a list of the good things Japan has to offer is helpful too. Let’s see, there’s delicious food, and convenience stores, and . . . well, anyway, I’m sure there’s lot of stuff. Mostly food though, but still.

      Bottom line is, just about everybody who stays long enough feels this way. The challenge is finding some way to cope. I find beer to be quite effective. And talking to people in the same situation helps. You’re not alone, that’s for sure.


      1. Ya know, according to the “History channel”, ancient alien theorists believe that Job actually was visited by extraterrestrials… Hmmmmm.

        1. Well, I guess either way God qualifies. So now it’s just a question of whether He’s got a flowing white beard or pointy green ears. Eh, details.

      2. “You know how in the Bible God does all this horrible stuff to Job just to test him? No? Well, he does. It’s in like Chapter Three or something. And then the last thing God does is send Job to Japan, just to really mess with the guy’s mind. Maybe that’s in the footnotes, I can’t remember.”

        I almost spit out my tea reading this comment. Hilarious

        After finishing the blog ‘This Japanese life’, I’m glad I found yours with a similar sense of humor. I’m not sure if I enjoy reading your posts or comments more.

    2. Ahhhh soo,
      Loved your post. Very subtle and full of Seeroi satire. You obviously “Grok” the situation. (That’s sort of a triple entendre too – dig = rock, rock = cool and “Grok” from “Stranger in a strange land” by Heinlein). You sound like a really lovely human being. Hope you can visit often as I would enjoy reading your comments also.

  23. hehe, this is the same concept in trying to be a “senior” software developer.

    Its kind of mythical, and hard to gauge.

  24. Okay,

    so all of you articles have these stunning, mind-blowing (like literally I have to clean my brains up after looking at these), and next level professional pictures. Do you take these yourself? I assume you save them up weeks in advance too, or your bi-weekly life is awesome because that’s how Japan be. Word. Just kidding about that last part. Anywho. Flippin’ awesome pictures man, makes me want to live in J-World even more.

    ~Noah (^~^)v

    1. Ah, thanks much. Yeah, I take all my own pictures, and they are stored up over time. Years ago, I had a pro camera setup, but I sold it (like pretty much everything else in my life) to move to Japan. Now I really wish I had an SLR with a good lens again, because there are plenty of photo ops. On the other hand, the iPhone does a pretty serviceable job, and you don’t stand out nearly as much, which is nice. Anyway, thanks again for the compliment.

  25. I have to tell you, reading this made me feel a hell of a lot better about how much I know for how much effort I’ve put into learning Japanese.

    I guess because all I see online are people either complaining that they don’t know stuff (and admit to not studying) and people who claim to know all the Japanese (buy this overpriced stuff from these guys who are only going to tell you things you already know), that it’s pretty easy for me to get disillusioned. Sometimes it’s nice to just close out the browser and back away… and study like I’m actually supposed to.

    長いだから、読めない(?): Thanks for the article!

    1. Thanks, that makes me feel a hell of a lot better about my writing.

      People writing “Learning Japanese is easy” are doing a lot of damage. The vast majority of people who start out on the journey drop out, many after investing significant amounts of time and money. If we had the same approach toward swimming the English Channel—try it, anyone can do it—there’d be dead bodies floating all over the ocean.

      You can do it, of course. It just may take a fearful amount of time and effort. Or it may not. That depends on your individual composition. For a really good book on the subject of human performance (in sports, language, and intelligence), there is no better read than The Sports Gene. I strongly suggest picking up a copy.

  26. How to grab your teacher’s penis and exclaim “bigu sticku”

    You nail it every time.

    It’s similar in the music industry. “Ookay, producing for only one year, now has his hits in the Top 10!”…You basically laid out not just Japanese but any “skill” that one acquires.

  27. Hey Ken,

    I’ve been a reader for quite some time and cannot stress enough how valuable it has been in my time here to have your notes to compare with. It is amazing how the social pressure to signal success leads us to decieve others along our track even in the absence of a profit motive.

    As far as language learning is concerned, the collection of “panacea salesmen” are most certainly playing a deception game. It is a strange confluence of affiliate marketing and rehashed methods that people like Benny present. They couldn’t sell their (borderline fradulent) services without the guru persona yet because they do not explicitly talk about religious or spiritual subjects they get a total pass in the West. It amuses me how truly metaphysical much of the material circulating about Japanese language learning actually is and similarly how this is not identified and questioned. Concepts barely removed from “willing your Japanese fluency into existence” are not only respected enough to be discussed but are taken entirely for granted. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to read a Japanese self help book, but many of them are similiarly whimsical and hollow. I can’t think of the name at the moment, but there is a somewhat famous one for expecting mothers that I found myself reading due to some accident of fate that essentially says besdies remaining thin the only law of pregnancy is “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Similarily, there is a disturbing lack of discrimination in many of these packaged “methods”. They have, in my experience, almost never delivered a reliable metric by which to guage one’s progress and instead sell what amounts to a soothing balm for an assumed inadequacy.

    My point in all of this being that it would be better to consider people like Benny to be self-decieving counselors who earn their living more through channeling their inner Dr. Phil than through any sort of sage-like insight into language learning. “This is going to be a changing day in your life” and “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge” seem surprisingly fitting in one of these packaged Japanese products, and for good reason.

    I think the final piece of the puzzle is the ambiguity of language used in purpose statements. “Learning Japanese” can very well be an end in itself, and not in the sort of way you describe it. Japanese is perhaps the most “exotic” language one can socially signal with and more often than not these people support the previously mentioned TED talk Dr.Phils. When you complete one of their programs you are both soothed abd credentialled. You don’t actually speak Japanese fluently, but in the absence of an actual credential with some real teeth about it, these guru sessions become akin to diplomas in their own right.

    In closing, I saw someone mention making friends in the comments of another article and must confess this area in particular begs an anonymous tell-all above all others. Too much pride and posturing stands in the way of an honest dialogue in person.

    1. Interesting take. It seems there are people willing to pay for “coaching” or counseling—really hand-holding—as opposed to just up and learning the language. And that’s fine, I think, as long as you’re clear what you’re paying for.

      But folks would be better off hiring a teacher rather than a counselor if their goal is language acquisition. And ultimately, it’s up to the individual to do the work. No amount of motivational mumbo-jumbo can change that.

  28. Great article. Recently found your blog and have spent a large chunk of today indulging in past posts. 🙂

    I really needed to read this back in 2011 when I was being evangelised by AJATT and proceeded to spend two years not finishing Heisig and listening to streaming radio I didn’t understand with no progress on the actual Japanese. But then I’d have probably just dismissed you as a naysayer who was trying to divert me from the One True Path.

    1. The fact is, it’s pretty darn hard to learn Japanese. It’s crappy to tell people how easy it is, and then sit back while they get discouraged and blame themselves.

      But we see this same game time and again. Build big muscles, lose weight, make a lot of money quickly. There’s always some simple and easy method for sale. Personally, I’d rather someone just level with me, tell me what I really need to do, and then I’ll get started doing it.

      I’d say if you’ve made some progress with Japanese, then keep at it. It may not be quick and easy, but it is doable. Keep that faith.

      1. I think my comment came across too negative. I beat myself up over taking “too long”, but I stuck with it despite the supposedly express methods yielding average results. まだよく間違ってるけど普通の会話できるし、毎日仕事で使えるし、まあとりあえずそれは十分じゃないかなぁと思っています。^^;

        Last year I moved to Japan and now I live and work here. I’m coming up to a year in the job, and due for a visa renewal soon (the visa article was a fun read also), so if that comes through I’m planning to make the most of the next year too 🙂

        1. Hi Adam,

          The kanji for じゅうぶん is 充分 not 十分. Just wanted to point it out, since we are on the Japanese learning topic.

          Wish you luck on your visa process.

          1. Technically, the meanings are very similar. My dictionary said they were the same. So I consulted a Japanese person, who then consulted two more dictionaries, and then spent ten minutes worrying about it. The conclusion was that it’s more correct to use the former (充分), but the latter (十分) wouldn’t kill you. One of those “tire” versus “tyre” kind of things, and there are probably bigger fish to fry.

            Speaking of which, gotta get started on breakfast.

  29. …Im like Saint Thomas with his incredulity about the Jesus wounds regarding these Gurus. I mean, where are in fact the proves that Heisig, Khatzumoto et all, are so good with Japanese language? or learned and achieved a very good level in short time?
    Who is this Khatzumoto guy anyway? Nobody know about him; I think he s a Black guy.
    The Argentinian wife of a friend somewhere in the past studied Japanese…she CAN translate scientific books wrote in Japanese! even several years ago, she worked for a big international bank there in Tokyo dealing everyday with complicated language; I do not know in how many years she achieved that but she s not so old and that happened long time ago…
    So, like everything, as you implied, depends on the level that you want to achieve and in how many time you have that goal.
    But again, I need a prove about these gurus. By the way, I had the Heisig book, and is really bad so I discarded; there are better ways to learn Kanji; all stuff that some one try to learn out of context is just a waste of time.
    Also, seems that for you English speakers, Japanese is harder to learn…I think that s somewhat similar to Spanish or Portuguese.

  30. …regarding that some of these guys really believe that they think they know the language etc, few months ago, I d watched the first part of a video by Michel Thomas; he thought he was a polyglot…in this case the Spanish video…well, I tell you, what he talked was a mimic of Spanish and with bad and limited pronunciation plus obsolete.
    The same way that Pimsleur and other bad curses does; they even teach you wrong sentences! Normally bad in most languages, due to they translate almost the same method in all the languages they provide.
    Check your language version an laugh a lot.

  31. Regarding the sumos:

    I read that Japanese sumo campions are almost exclusively ethnic Mongolians. They move to Japan and take a Japanese Name.

    Note that Mongolian, Korean and Japan are in one language family. The writing system is different but the structure of the language is very similar. This might give them a significant edge. I know a Mongolian who learned a Korean to a high certified level in less than a year. He studied about 10h per day :D.

    1. The recent champions have been from Mongolia so your point may be valid. As Ken has mentioned, it’s something of a myth anyway. That is, it’s easy enough to sound good in a language if you are only talking about your narrow topic. In this case, sumo.
      As well as Mongolians, there are Bulgarians, Russians, Brazilians and Georgians represented in the top ranks at the moment. There may be more but I can’t recall them.

      As an aside, and I love Sumo, it was good to see the first Japanese wrestler take out a tournament in ten years, a few days ago.
      It is now possible to watch the tournaments live on VOD. A very big deal for me. It costs Y1000 per day and Y1500 for the final day. I sat at home and watched the last 2 days. What a luxury! Of course it’s free on NHK TV if you’re in Japan at the time.

  32. My method was the sink-or-swim, as in, there I was in a non-English-speaking village and good luck to me, and I foolishly did not, indeed, know much if any japanese. I think for the narrow uses I had I learned it pretty quicky. That said, many years later I now want to know better what I am saying and what is being said to me, and I have had to go back to the drawing board with basic grammar books. Also, I forgot nearly all the kanji i learned. I think having to not speak English can teach you in a year or 18 months and an intensive course can come close. I think memorizing kanji is probalby the single hardest part and will take the most time. Intensive courses tire you out (I did some interpreting once and it’s comparable to that), but are the way to go. None of the “secret technique” guys mention intensive courses, and I think that’s insane. So this would be my secret technique to learn Japanese in 18 months. 1. pay through the nose for intensive courses for 6 months. 2. Study kanji like mad, have no life/study balance. 3. put yourself in a situation where you can’t use english. Continue studying kanji there.

    Some of this is “but who would WANT to” territory.

  33. To Ken Seeroi.

    On learning foreign languages.

    Differences do exist. Huge. Similarities do exist. Huge. Let’s not confuse differences and similarities.
    I’ve seen and heard Spanish girls chatting with Italian sailors on the Ramblas in Barcelona. The girls spoke Spanish. The sailors, Italian. No problem at all.

    You can read Spanish? Then you also read Italian and Portuguese. No special effort needed. Are you Dutch? Then learning German won’t exhaust you. Swede? Hell, you can speak Swedish with a Dane and he’ll understand you perfectly, no problem either! Same logic applying to Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish and Czech, etc…

    Over half the English vocabulary having been borrowed from the French, that does sound like a two-way switch, doesn’t it ?

    I can READ French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, no problem, no genius needed either. It’s part of my work and hobby. Daily user. There ARE similarities. Huge. On the other hand being fluent in six languages, or even two or three is QUITE a different matter!

    But I won’t fantasize about a head-on collision with Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese, etc. There ARE differences. Huge.

    So yes, you should very seriously ask your followers to consider WHY learning Japanese (or Chinese, etc.) suddenly appeals to them.

    But not so much if they consider learning Spanish. Or Italian. Or French… In which case breaking their neck is not really an option.

    On the other hand, Russian ? Well… I’d think ahead!

    Au revoir! Bye! Até à vista! Hasta luego! Arrivederci! Tchüss!

    Have Fun Will Travel…


  34. @Forrest,

    I agree. You have to ask yourself what are your real motivations for learning Japanese. Several years back, it was a big fad to learn Japanese, then it was Chinese. Now China is in a bit of a rut, so that has faded. Somedays I wish I didnt understand Japanese, the things you hear them say about foreigners, while your standing right there, well, its not a pleasant experience. It does open up job opportunities, however, after all if your going to be commanded all day to run over here, put this there, move this, youd better understand what they are saying. Answering emails in business Japanese is good skill also to have. I recommend studying how to correspond in Japanese, its not like conversational Japanese at all, its very formal. If the recruiter, HR, etc responds to you in Japanese and you understand all their kanji and you can reply back in near perfect keigo level business Japanese, you will impress them and your chances of getting the job have increased greatly. Youve also just shown your now on the hook now for games that might of been off limits due to language/cultural barrier assumptions they had about you. Welcome to the rabbit hole known as Japan Inc, it will most definitely cure your case of yellow fever.

  35. I have to disagree about the children part.
    I’m a Brazilian that lived in Wisconsin for a year, and some of my best learning experiences were talking to kids. Not 5 year olds, I mean maybe 8 to 13.

    They are not as anxious, and explain everything in a very simple and truthful way, if that makes anysense.
    Adults usually rush explanations, if they ever bother to give any, and try to make simple things unnecessarily abstract. An adult would use a bunch of words to describe something a kid will explain using their hands in a way thats very very intuitive to any human being.

    I actually remember asking my english teacher something to get no useful answer, then asking a 9 year old and he made it seem so easy, more than once actually.

  36. I spent 2 years in university learning Japanese and a lot of time afterwards in my free time to improve my knowledge of Japanese. I just got back from a two weeks holiday to Japan. I worked in Tokyo 28 years ago as an exchange student in a department store for 3 months and I just found out I was more able to communicate back then than I am now, despite the fact that I must have put in 1000+ hours of studying japanese daily for the past five years with Iknow.jp. I totally agree with what you have written on your blog about learning Japanese but without the prospect of having a long term relationship with a japanese girl I figure it’s not worth the 5000+ hours it will take to attain proficiency in Japanese, I don’t want to end up as an english teacher in Japan anyway.I will still give it a try in my free time to learn to read Japanese but it’s not a major goal in life anymore as it used to be.
    I must say there’s no one out there who touches the finger on Japanese society as you do. I do recommend your blog to anyone who wants to understand Japanese society. I wish you all the best in Japan, keep up the good work because your blog is priceless.

  37. Hey Ken,
    I have learned Japanese on and off again with Anki for 3 or 4 years after being fluent enough (could read books and understand almost everything spoken in tv shows) in Chinese, and I think it’s funny when people tell me you can “learn a language to fluency” in 6 months or 1 year.

    Excellent summary of this phenomenon. I also find it interesting that you have come to a conclusion that seems similar with my own: learning a language to an incredibly high level doesn’t pay off like learning other information does money. I did it and enjoy living my mostly-Chinese now a little Japanese life, but if I would have had that same passion for dentistry or doctoring I would have made a LOT more money.

    It seems the formula for learning a language to a high level is a fairly simple formula: Watch a lot of tv + read a lot of materials + review + make a lot of only foreign-language speaking friends + spend a large amount of your life for a long amount of time = language proficiency.

    There won’t be many shortcuts to that level of mastery minus doing audio and sentence-based SRS reviews.

    1. I’m sure it’s no surprise I agree with you. I’ll just add that doing SRS reviews (flashcards at intervals) isn’t exactly what I’d call a “shortcut.” They’re absolutely useful, but what we’re talking about is really just steady work over a period of months or years. That’s about like saying a lot of weight repetitions at the gym is the shortcut to having a good body.

  38. I have the title & concept for your patented secret method:

    “The Ken Seeroi Method: Learn Japanese – One Drink at a Time!”

    You’re welcome.

  39. That myth about learning languages being easy has to keep being busted. The only language book I’ve ever enjoyed was called ‘How to Learn Greek in 25 years’. I’ve just discovered your blog and it keeps that message going. It’s hard. Don’t pretend otherwise. For me, it’s French people keep trying to get me to learn. And I think I’d find it much easier if people didn’t keep telling me how damned easy it is…..

    1. True that. Everything is harder than it looks. Literally everything. Stick with something long enough, and you’ll hit the hard part. The only people who say things are easy are kids and fools.

  40. Learning a language isn’t hard or long if you know what you’re doing. With language learning apps, many people learn 1000-2000 Kanji characters in a year. It’s a native level, btw. Reaching N1 (which means being fluent) in two years isn’t even hard, so IDK how it could have taken someone 11 years.

    Then again, there are different levels of knowing a language. After I had graduated from high school, where I had gotten some basics of the English language (it’s not my native tongue, btw) it took me less than a year of reading machine translations to reach the level where I could read English books understanding 99% of the text. My vocabulary increased from somewhere around 500 words to 5000. But it took me years to learn how to write in English properly, because I was never interested in it. And even now, eight years later, I still make some common grammar mistakes. And that’s despite the fact that I’ve read more text in English than in my native tongue. Why? Because you learn what you learn. Reading, writing, and speaking are all different skills.

    1. “many people learn 1000-2000 Kanji characters in a year.”

      Many people are Chinese. At any rate, memorizing 1000-2000 kanji (which is a pretty big disparity) just provides the alphabet. After that, you need to learn the tens of thousands of vocabulary words built upon that alphabet, along with all the pronunciations. And collocations for those words. And grammar. And then how people actually speak. Eleven years is an underestimate.

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