How The Little Epiphanies Add Up [Obvious]

This is the second article in a series all about “Making Japanese Obvious” where I guide you through various things that will help you to get to the point where Japanese becomes obvious. Why? Because when something is obvious, you know it (and I mean really know it). The mystery, however, is getting to that point. Today’s “obvious post” is about epiphanies and how they add up into something awesome.

Little Epiphanies Big World

A while ago I wrote the article “When Learning Japanese It’s All About The Little Victories.” This is kind of like that, but this time we’re focusing on epiphanies. Oh, just in case, here’s the definition of epiphany.

A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

Basically, it’s something you realize all of a sudden. Now, most people usually think about big, life changing epiphanies when they think about epiphanies. But, I don’t think these are particularly helpful when it comes to language learning. Little epiphanies are where the progress is at – the problem is that you just don’t notice them too well. Just the act of noticing little epiphanies (they really do happen quite often, as long as you get little enough) will change your outlook on your progress through life (as well as your progress through the Japanese language).

Now, why do you want to have more epiphanies? How is that helpful to learning Japanese?

Unfortunately, I don’t have studies, science, or really anything else to back this up. Just personal experience. Here’s what I think:

In order to learn Japanese, you have to have X number of epiphanies before Japanese becomes “Obvious.” This is when things just sort of make sense on their own. It’s a magical moment, but a moment you probably won’t notice right away, because it will sneak up on you.

To have X number of epiphanies, you need to:

  • Study and do the right things.
  • Study enough / be exposed to enough Japanese.

This is all pretty general and unhelpful, but I hope at least you agree that you have to do the right things in order to get epiphanies. Also, bear with me on the idea that you need “X number of epiphanies” to reach the “obvious” point. I don’t know what “X” is, but it’s a pretty big number. Everyone has to have the same epiphanies (as in… “ohhh, so that’s how that grammar works!”) to progress towards obvious land… though some people will experience bigger or smaller epiphanies for different things.

Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that people have to have these epiphanies. What’s really important is the question of how to get them and how to notice them. The more you notice the epiphanies, the more you can do with them. The more epiphanies you end up having (remember, everyone has to have the same epiphanies, pretty much!) the closer you’ll be to “obvious.” Let’s look at those questions – I think they’re a lot more interesting… and helpful!

Noticing Your Epiphanies

One thing I want you to try is to pay close attention to your epiphanies. I believe epiphanies are happening all the time, you just have to think smaller.

There are two things that I think make it a lot easier to notice them, though.

  1. Paying attention (duh)
  2. Writing down things you don’t understand

Paying attention seems simple enough, but it’s actually really hard. You have to constantly be thinking “am I realizing something?” throughout the entire day, and that gets difficult to do until you do it enough (and it just becomes a natural question in your head). Whenever you feel confusion, or something similar, you should automatically get ready to notice your epiphany. When you have one, think through it and how you came to it in your head. Eventually, you’ll actually get better at having epiphanies. Epiphanies are the steps towards greater understanding – you want to have a lot of these if you can.

To make this even easier, I’d recommend writing down things you don’t understand. I’m talking about everything (Japanese included). Bring a small notepad with you wherever you go or set up Evernote on your phone. Writing things down that you don’t understand is a lesson in humility and a lesson in epiphanies. You should go through your list every day and take note of the things you understand (between the time you wrote them down and the time you looked at them again). Then, think back to how you came to that understanding. What epiphany brought you over the edge? What epiphany made that concept make sense? Think through the epiphany and slow it down (usually they come on pretty suddenly!) so you can figure out how you reached that point of understanding.

Eventually you’ll get better at noticing and analyzing epiphanies. You’ll actually get good at having epiphanies, because you’ll learn the things that give you epiphanies, and therefor give you more knowledge (dare I say you’ll get an epiphany about it?).

Having More Epiphanies

More isn’t always better, but when it comes to epiphanies I think the more the merrier. You’ve learned how to start noticing your epiphanies (as well as how to analyze them so you can set yourself up to have them more easily) so now it’s time to look at ways to have more epiphanies, especially with your Japanese learning. These are just some suggestions, and not everything will work with everyone, but I imagine most Japanese studiers will get something out of at least one of these. In general, these all just follow good study habits as well, so nothing here will be a bad thing to try.

Write Down The Things You Don’t Understand

Already mentioned this above, so I won’t harp on it long. Use Evernote, it’s pretty much the best note-taking software ever. I use it for everything, including Japanese. If you write down the things you don’t understand, you can focus on the things you don’t understand (rather than avoid them… or ignore them). When it comes down to it, people who get better at the things they don’t understand or aren’t good at are the ones who win in the end. The people who ignore the things they don’t understand are the ones who end up falling apart later on. Why? Because these people avoid the difficult epiphanies, and everyone needs to have these epiphanies in order to progress.

Study Consistently

Studying consistently will garner you more epiphanies than studying eight hours all at once for one day a week, even if you’re only studying 30 minutes a day instead (totalling 3.5 hours a week of study, versus the eight). Why? Because it allows your brain to rest and think on things. Also, it brings up reminders more consistently, meaning things you don’t understand have a much higher chance of breaking through. Studying consistently (rather than in bursts) is just about the best thing you can do for your Japanese. Why? Because it creates more opportunity for the epiphanies you need to move forward and get better.

Make Things Small

Shooting for the big epiphanies is a mistake. Shoot for the small stuff – they add up automatigically into the big stuff without you knowing (that’s why “obvious” status will sneak up on you!). Don’t make your goals gigantic, make them small. Achieve your goals often. Anki is one of many great tools for this. Anki is best when taken in smaller doses on a daily basis. It can take ten thousand vocab words and give them into small chunks (just enough, not too many). It also brings things back to review, depending on how well you answered the card before, giving you every opportunity you need to have a small epiphany. Nothing huge or gigantic here… just small epiphany after small epiphany after small epiphany after… oh, wait, did I just learn 10,000 words?

Finding Your Epiphany Groove

It’s easy to do a lot of this stuff… but it’s hard to notice epiphanies. It’s sometimes hard to have epiphanies. But, with a combination of consistency as well as analysis of yourself (how did I have this epiphany? What did I do to get here? etc) you’ll get better and better at it. Some people think that “smart” people are smart because they’re naturally smart. That’s totally untrue. Smart people are smart because they practiced being smart. They got better at learning than you, so learning is a lot easier for them.

Noticing and having epiphanies is the same thing. You can learn to have epiphanies. You can learn what sets them off, and do the right things to make them happen more. If you practice at it every day, you’ll get better and better, and soon you’ll find that learning is a breeze, and that you understand things you’ve never thought possible to understand.

So, take it all in stride. Start now. Do it little by little. You’ll be surprised at what you come to realize.

P.S. Oh! Epiphany! Tofugu is on Twitter.

P.P.S. I bet you already know Tofugu’s on Facebook, though.


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  • アントン

    AWESOME!!! Keep it up!

  • Hailey

    Koichi, do you know why I love you/tofugu/textfugu? Because of lessons like these where, not only can I apply them to my Japanese study, I can apply them to several different aspects of my life. Oh! Just had an epiphany, you’re freaking awesome! Or maybe that’s always been obvious…

  • Fireheart2star

    I totally understand this! Some of my favorite momments of studying japanese are those little epiphanies:

    My most recent one is how to say “I must…” I can finally say I must study Japanese or I must do my homework!
    My mother can’t seem to understand why I’m so excited because of this XD

    Great article ^^

  • EMP

    sweet you mentioned the software I use on a daily. Evernote and Anki ROCK! especially on mobiles

  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.argo1 Josh Argo

    So you just wrote three pages of text about how realizing things about Japanese helps you learn Japanese. College must have been a breeze.

  • http://www.dramabutton.com/ ドラマティック

    So what you’re saying is that this stuff is… OBVIOUS?!

  • フレヂィー

    Great post, Koichi. First off, thank you, Hashi and John for all the work you put into this. It’s much appreciated.

    I wanted to pose the question. How did we, as youngsters, learn? Do you think we had small epiphanies as well? Or were things just perfunctory growing up for us? Can anyone remember having epiphanies growing up (and I do mean as a young child)?

  • Foozlesprite

    Most of my epiphanies are single kanji or vocab words, usually ones that I’ve learned recently (I tend to notice them more if they’re recent acquisitions).  Like when I see 数える and not only know that it means to count, but also know that it’s pronounced かぞえる, or when I watched No. 6 (an anime) and understood the word 工場 (こうじょう・factory) without subs.  It’s all about the little pleasures :)

  • Anonymous

    Yup, I know the feeling. I’ll listen to Japanese podcasts and catch some words that I know, when lucky I can catch a whole sentence and it starts putting context around what I am listening. That gives me a kick, every time it happens.

    ~ fv

  • Waiting At The Pillars

    I remember, as a child, this great rush of excitement when I finally cracked how to spell ‘elephant’, of all things. XD

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Britt-Olinder-Stevens/100001695518468 Britt Olinder-Stevens

    It’s OBVIOUS that you love teaching Japanese! :) I love learning about Japan and think you’re funny. OBVIOUS. But I didn’t know I’d learn fun tips for other studies! i.e. Cell Bio… duhn duhn duhnnn (If you don’t add that last part people don’t know what you’re talking about.)

  • Liz

    I really like this article! Especially the sentence about smart people having learned to be smart.
    I totally agree that these little epiphanies add up to something big. My latest epiphany: At our local Japanese conversation table, I realized that I had been focusing too much on having 100% perfect grammar, to the exclusion of actually listening to and understanding what the other person was saying, or even really trying to get the point across of what I was saying. When practicing conversation, it’s far better to immerse yourself in the moment and to not spend all your time worrying about making mistakes.

  • Peptron

    About 2 months ago I noticed that I had reached the One Epiphany to Rule Them All.
    That was the moment I realised that I knew enough Japanese to learn Japanese using Japanese alone. That is, doing away with English as a medium. The moment you can use a kokugo dictionary and no longer really need an EnglishJapanese dictionary, you enter an exponential curve of improvement, and I feel like my proficiency is almost doubling every month now.

    This One Epiphany to Rule Them All also makes it so you can easily study 8 hours+ a day without getting tired, since you can think quite a bit in Japanese naturally. It took me roughly 5 years on and off to get there.

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  • Josh

    I started reading this and was thinking how abstract this concept was. Then I had an epiphany about having epiphanies and realized how applicable this really is. Essentially you are learning how to learn and when you pay attention to how to learn things you can learn them faster and more efficiently. I appreciate the article.  

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