Japanese Fluency Is A Race To Make The Most Mistakes Will you make it to the finish line?

    In Daniel Kahneman's book, "Thinking, Fast & Slow," he talks about how the brain can be divided into two thinking parts: System 1 & System 2.

    System 1: Fast, instinctive, emotional. System 2: Slower, more deliberative, more logical.

    I'd recommend reading the book if you want to learn (way) more about these processes, but here's the gist:

    System 1 includes all the thoughts that automatically come to mind. For example, when I say "2+2=?" you automatically think "4" (at least, I hope you do).

    Or, take this more complicated question:

    "You buy a baseball bat and a ball for $1.10. The baseball bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much did the ball cost?"

    Approximately half of you got the answer right. But, almost every single one of you thought the answer "The ball costs $0.10" for at least a moment. This is System 1 at work. It brings out information quickly. There's no thinking. You have no control over it. Even the half of you that said the correct answer, "$0.05" most likely found the answer $0.10 popping into your brain for just a second. Then, you used System 2 to resist and then check this answer.

    System 2 is the rational, thinking part of your brain. Using System 2 is almost always painful. By "painful" I mean it takes effort to use System 2, whereas System 1 takes no effort at all. For an example of System 2 at work, simply try to work through the following multiplication in your head: 343×934. The harder you have to think, the more your pupils will dilate. Your heart rate will also go up. Some of you will reach your cognitive limit and then give up. Others of you will be better at multiplication, which means you have to put in less effort to come up with an answer. But you are all using System 2 (unless you're some kind of savant).

    But what does this have to do with language learning?

    System 1 is fluency. In many language learning circles, this is known as acquired knowledge.

    System 2 is learned knowledge. This is basically the learning many of you did in school. You have to think deliberatively to recall and use something you learned. It's not automatic or intuitive. It's not fluent like system 1.

    Increasingly, our goal at Tofugu (and WaniKani, and EtoEto) has been to figure out ways to change your Japanese language to be a System 1 task. Essentially, we want to help you to make your Japanese fluent — Not something you have to think about and deliberate on. Deliberation isn't something you can necessarily avoid, but there are strategies to get you through it more quickly. The question is: How do we make your Japanese knowledge into System 1 knowledge? And then, with enough System 1 Japanese knowledge, how do we make you fluent in Japanese?

    There are a lot of answers to this question. Ask everybody and their grandma and they'll have an opinion. For now, let's just start with a single strategy I've been thinking about lately:

    Make The Most Mistakes to Achieve Japanese Fluency

    Here, I even made a video on the subject:

    Making mistakes, and making a lot of them is one of the fastest ways to improve your Japanese (or anything, really). Actually, I take that back. The action of making mistakes isn't going to make you better. But, the mindset of being willing to make a lot of mistakes, then fixing them in realtime as you make them… that's a recipe for success.

    It reminds me of the story in the book Art & Fear, which I wrote about in the article "Quantity, Not Quality, Makes You Fluent In Japanese."

    The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an "A".

    Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

    The quantity group made more mistakes. When they made a mistake, they just made another piece of pottery, this time trying to fix the mistake they made previously. They did this over and over again until they were able to make a high quality pottery thing, quickly. My guess is that on the last day of the class they could make a piece of pottery using less brain power (less System 2) compared to the quality group… but that's a whole other topic that we may get into in a later post. In a sense, making a high quality piece of pottery had become "fluent" to the quantity group. It had become a System 1 task. Not a deliberate, logical, System 2 one.

    Rows of pottery that achieve japanese fluency
    Source: Heather Cowper

    It's also a lot like a story I was told when I was a kid (sorry, I don't know where this was from so I don't have a source!).

    A man wanted a drawing of a cat. So, he went to an artist.

    "Can you draw a painting of my cat?" he said as he showed the artist a photograph.

    The artist said "Sure, no problem, I can get this done in two weeks."

    The client came back two weeks later and asked if the painting was done.

    "Not yet," said the artist. "Give me a minute." He then grabbed a canvas and painted the most beautiful cat painting the client had ever seen. It was perfect! But, the man was not pleased.

    "If you were able to do that so quickly, why didn't you just draw that for me when I came in? Why did I have to wait two weeks for this?" he asked angrily.

    The artist then took the client to a closet. He opened it, and hundreds of cat paintings fell out.

    "I had to practice," he replied.

    Through practice, and through many mistakes, the artist made the action of "drawing a cat" into a System 1 process. You can do the same thing with your Japanese language learning process as well. It's all a matter of making lots and lots of mistakes, smartly.

    How To Make Mistakes

    A Honda automobile crashed on its side
    Source: Aaron Parecki

    I find that a lot of people are afraid to make mistakes. This is a problem, because making mistakes is very important if you want to improve at a skill. In fact, I'd bet that every person who is fluent in Japanese (as a second language) made a similar total number of mistakes to get there. If only they kept count, then I could average them out and give you a number to work towards. My point is, everyone has to make a similar number of mistakes if they want to become fluent in a second language. It's not something you can skip, so you might as well get through them as fast as possible.

    But making mistakes isn't as easy as it sounds. There are a couple of problems:

    1. Many people don't have access to the right resources. Or, they just don't know what the right resources are.
    2. Many people are too embarrassed about making mistakes. If we can solve these two problems, making mistakes will become not only possible, but easy too!

    The Right Resources

    The easiest way to make mistakes is through conversation practice. You say something, someone tells you what you said wrong, and then you fix the mistake. Maybe the grammar/word you fixed comes up several times in the conversation. You learn from that mistake and eventually the correct process becomes natural to you. Eventually it is fluent.

    But, not everyone has access to someone like this. If you want to become fluent in Japanese very quickly, you're going to have to have these conversations on a daily basis. This is out of most people's price ranges.

    Luckily, the internet exists. Websites like italki have tutors you can hire. If you're just looking for casual practice (that's probably best for this exercise) and not "tutoring" you can find native Japanese speakers for ~$5/hour. Five hours a week would cost your $25. Just don't go out to eat dinner once a week and it's paid for.

    Alternatively, you could try to find a language exchange partner. But, there are problems that will (probably) arise. First, you have to be a good partner too. That means you need to help them with their English (or whatever your native language is) as well. That makes your study half as efficient. If you have a lot of time, this is possible, but I'm selfish and don't want to give up time that I could be using to get better at my own thing. The second problem is that they're less reliable. You get what you pay for, I guess. You'll have way more cancelations and no-shows. You'll also find that they won't be as forward about fixing your mistakes, and that's the whole point. If you're lucky and you can find someone good, that's great. But, for the most part a tutor that you pay for is going to move you along faster.

    If you can't find someone to talk to live, try Lang-8, HelloTalk, or even language shadowing.

    Overcoming Embarrassment

    Maybe you want everything perfect. Maybe you just don't like messing up in front of people. Whatever your issue is, I get it. It's hard. But, try to think about it from the other side of the fence. If someone was practicing English (or your native language) with you, would you judge them harshly? Would you make fun of them or think they're stupid for making mistakes? I sure hope not. Most likely, you'd just want to help them to get better. And they would, too, because they're willing to make all those mistakes in front of you. Then you fix them. Then they improve.

    If that shift in perspective doesn't do anything for you, just remember: 1.5 drinks is the perfect sweet spot between reduced inhibitions and still being able to learn things.

    Making Mistakes Into A Game

    Sorry board game slightly askew
    Source: John Liu

    Photo by John Liu Whether you're having trouble finding a place to make mistakes, or just embarrassed to make mistakes, one thing that I've found to help is to keep track of your mistakes. That way, you can put a number next to them. "I made 30 mistakes today! Uh oh, that's 50 less than yesterday. What did I do differently?"

    Turn your mistakes into a good thing. Something that you strive for instead of enjoy. If you give yourself a big goal (let's say… 100?) you will have to come up with creative ways to mess up. As you get better at Japanese, it will become harder to make mistakes, too. You'll have to push yourself with more difficult Japanese in order to reach your goal. If you make 100 mistakes per day and keep it up for a year, that's 36,500 improvements and fixes you've made! You're going to make some great progress. I'm not sure if there is any other study method that can match this.

    As for the "magic number" of mistakes one needs to make before they become fluent in Japanese? Let's just make a guess. I'm going to say 50,000 different mistakes. Why don't you start keeping track and then let me know when you get there?

    What mistakes did you make today? How did you fix them? Let me know on Twitter.