You’re reading a line in Japanese. Suddenly, an unknown kanji attacks you out of nowhere. And then another. And now a compound word. Your brain can’t make sense of it and this exercise is no longer enjoyable. So you switch to something that’s much more fun, like language shadowing your favorite J-drama. With the subtitles on. What? Passive listening is still learning!
This post is coming to you from the most unscientific point of view imaginable, but as someone who doesn’t know much about the brain, I can only speak truthfully from my own experiences. This next story has nothing to do with Japanese learning, but stay with me for a moment. My last semester of college was undoubtedly my most difficult as I had to take a class I had been putting off since naming my major. As I sat through the first day of class, the last day half of us would remain enrolled, I was hoping I’d scrape by with a D. “Intimidated” could not even begin to describe how I felt on that first day. Forward to the end of the semester where I not only passed but earned an A and my final presentation was regarded as the best in the class by my professor and my peers. Me. Lazy and not a genius. Yup.
How did I do it? Sure, I worked my ass off and cried myself to sleep at night, but who doesn’t in college? (Please say I’m not alone). The difference between me in my final semester and average me is that I finally accepted that the moment studying becomes difficult and you feel that stretch in your brain, you are learning the most effectively. I did a lot of searching online for study tips and videos when I stumbled upon Cal Newport’s 40 minute presentation titled “Study 30 Minutes a Day, Get a 4.o GPA!” Gimmicky much? Seriously though, if you’re currently a college student, sit through that presentation. It changed the way I learn. The title is clickbait-y, but what he’s really explaining is the concept of doing less studying and retaining more information by using efficient study methods. The most efficient study method of all, according to Cal Newport, is “Active Recall”.
Passive learning methods such as listening and reading are beneficial as well, but no where near the level of active recall. Active recall is basically what it sounds like. Instead of spending most of your learning time looking at the material, you should be actively recalling the information without any aids. Cal Newport suggests acting as your own teacher and explaining concepts to yourself out loud. In the case of Japanese learning, however, I find that explaining grammar concepts out loud to myself as a teacher would is less useful, but actually speaking and using the most difficult to grasp concepts has helped the most. It also works wonders with memorization. After a long hiatus from Japanese, I forgot a lot of numbers, but I really never had the ability to instantly recall large numbers to begin with as I hated learning them. Since getting back into studying, I made it my purpose to randomly quiz myself throughout the day whenever I see a license plate number or look at the time. The more I struggle to recall the information and push through, the more I retain.
I’m still using the Genki book as my main study aid and am currently seeing a tutor (more on that in another post). Instead of doing most of my studying while reading and trying to memorize what I see, and using the book as a crutch during tutoring sessions, I try to do without for as long as possible after reading and understanding the material. I was always afraid to speak. Embarrassment was part of it, but mostly it was just a lot tougher. I felt that unpleasant brain “stretch” as I like to call it, which made me feel inadequate. Little did I know, I stopped myself right at the moment when my brain was working its hardest to learn Japanese!
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take breaks and switch things up. As Cal Newport states in his presentation time and time again, practicing active recall means you don’t have to do as much of the difficult studying later because you’ll remember it. Bombarding your brain with tons of information and no breaks isn’t very practical, but making sure your brain gets a good “work-out” and making it actively recall difficult material is the most efficient and effective way to learn.
So how can you make this work for your Japanese weakness? Quizzes. If your issue is grammar, like mine, spend more time using your “favorite” grammar points out loud (mine is currently past tense). If your issue is kanji, pick the characters that are most difficult for you to recall and write them (without looking!) or say their readings and meanings out loud. Again, during your study sessions, if you can’t recall items automatically, you haven’t learned them. Spaced repetition systems can help, if you don’t cheat. But now you know how important it is to feel the burn, so you wouldn’t cheat, right? 😉
I REALLY hope this post made sense. Learning the importance of active recall has helped me learn and memorize in ways I never thought I could, with Japanese learning and beyond. Next time, don’t avoid it! Feel the pain!