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    The "Minimum Effective Dose" Of Learning Japanese One pill at a time, kids!

    You'll have to bear with me, here. I'm going to teach you how to cheat. Cheating!? Blasphemy! I learned from my mommy that cheating is bad! But let's think about cheating for a moment, here. If you're taking a test in school and you cheat, you get a better grade. Plus, you don't have to put in as much work. But, in that scenario, you're cheating yourself too because you're not learning anything. You are, however, getting to your desired outcome, which is to get a better grade (what you learn in school is mostly useless anyhow).

    Now, let's think about cheating in real life. Here, your desired outcome isn't to get a good grade, it's simply to get to your desired outcome. So for example, let's say your desired outcome is "to become fluent in Japanese." If you "cheat," and you get to your desired outcome (becoming fluent in Japanese), you're still getting fluent in Japanese. The cheating part is how you get there. Of course, cheating in real life can bring about very negative consequences as well, but in this case cheating is just helping you out.

    Minimum Effective Dose (MED)

    A pile of Japanese learning pills
    Source: Shutterstock

    In order to help you to "cheat" to learn Japanese better, you are going to have to learn about something known as the "Minimum Effective Dose," or MED. MED, put simply, is the smallest dose that will still produce the desired outcome. In bodybuilding, it's the amount of any particular exercise (or steroids) one can do in order to release an ideal amount of muscle building hormones. It's also choosing the most effective exercises to get them to that point with the least amount of effort. If you exercise way too much, on the other hand, you're not getting the same amount of results for the time put in (not to mention the way longer recovery time after).

    Here are some other examples that help to explain MED, from Ferris' book, The 4-Hour Body (he's the guy who popularized the concept).

    To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it "more boiled." Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.


    If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach. During this forced break from the beach, let's assume one week, someone else who heeded his natural 15-minute MED will be able to fit in four more tanning sessions. He is four shades darker, whereas you have returned to your pale pre-beach self. Sad little manatee. In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months.

    You get the idea, right? Doing more isn't always better. In this article my goal is to show you where you're going over the MED just in your Japanese studies. I'll also talk about some interesting ideas you can use that relate to MED to cut your quest to Japanese fluency down considerably.

    Your Inefficient Japanese Study

    With Japanese study, one way to measure MED is to think about how long it takes to learn a kanji, vocab word, or grammar point. Another way to think about it is in terms of "time to fluency." I'll be covering both of these things, but in the end it comes down to what works best for you. Everyone's MED is going to be a little bit different. These ideas and suggestions will need to be altered to fit you as an individual, so keep that in mind.

    First, Solidify Your Pronunciation

    Think about something abstract. You probably can't, can you? This is because abstract things are things you know nothing about. You have nothing in your brain already that you can hook this "abstract" thing into, making it very difficult to memorize. This is why on TextFugu and WaniKani we make sure that everything builds on previous lessons so that nothing is abstract. New memories are attached to old memories, making everything much easier to grasp. With TextFugu, we start you off with hiragana as the very first foundational step that you get to build off of. Why? Because it teaches you Japanese pronunciation.

    A silkscreen of Hiragana
    Source: Ray Larabie

    Now why would this be important? And how will this save you time? First of all, it helps to reduce the "abstractness" of the Japanese language. When you feel solid on pronunciation (not to mention the kana), you have something to work off of. In fact, everything works off of the pronunciation for the phonetic "alphabet" that makes up the Japanese language. When you're not thinking about and worrying about the sounds, you can think and worry about the words and the grammar instead. These are the things that move you forward.

    Spending a little bit of time on the pronunciation will speed everything up quite a bit. The MED here is that you're allowing yourself to focus in on what it needs to focus in on. Ignoring pronunciation will make you less confident down the road and make things harder and harder as you try to learn more, thus wasting time in the long run. A small dose of pronunciation has a lot of positive effect!

    Instead Of Going To Japanese Class…

    An empty Japanese classroom
    Source: Shutterstock

    While joining and going to a Japanese class has its obvious benefits, think about what you're giving up in return. First of all, it's a lot of time, and that time is spent at a speed set by the teacher. If the teacher makes you learn faster, you learn faster. If they have you learn more slowly, you'll learn more slowly. That's the problem with classes, they go as fast as the teacher (or slowest student) wants. But, there's some other things to consider as well. How much money are you spending on a semester of class? What about a year? Some Japanese classes are going to be very cheap, so good for you. Others will be in the thousands of dollars, if you consider what a college education will run you. Instead, why not take those thousands and go to Japan for a week or two?

    Think about it. First of all, it will probably force you to cram a whole lot in the week or two before you leave, meaning you'll be focusing and learning a ton during that time period. Procrastinating will do that to you. Then, when you get there, you can make it your goal to talk to as many people as you can. Listening and reading will get a huge boost too! There's nothing like a concentrated immersion to jump you several levels up. This will vary from person to person, but if someone told me I could spend the same amount of money hanging out in Japan to learn the same amount of material (or more) in a tenth of the time… why would you not do it?

    Most people bring it down to the cost, but if you're already spending money on an expensive class, going to Japan to immerse yourself for a little bit is almost certainly a more efficient option (a lot more fun, too). The MED here is that you're getting the most out of a shorter amount of time for a similar amount of money. Less time waste, more language gain. Win-win.

    That being said, effectiveness and cost of said class will vary. Something to think about for many of you, anyways.

    Kanji Repetitions… Repetitions… Repetitions…

    A textbook with a note saying Very Good! in Japanese
    Source: Kanko

    I think we've all done it. "Write this kanji 100 times!" they say. "You'll learn the kanji this way!" they say. But, in the end you don't remember how to write the kanji you wrote all those times the next day. This is because after the first few times, your brain goes on autopilot and you write the kanji over and over again without making much memory progress. Even worse, a lot of the time you write the kanji again by looking at the previous kanji you wrote. That means you're not performing any recall at all, which also means you're not learning anything (memories are made stronger by recalling said memories, not by trying to stuff them into your head repeatedly).

    Yet, this is how almost everyone has you "learn" kanji. It's easy for the teachers. Also, it's "the way its always been done," especially if you look at Japan and how their kids learn kanji. There's a myth, though, that Japanese kids learn all the Joyo kanji faster than anyone else. They're Japanese! They must be able to learn the kanji faster than us! Boo. Thing is, it's taking them 5-6 years to learn all the Joyo kanji. Sure, being in Japan they have the advantage of being around kanji all the time. But, you can learn the kanji faster than any Japanese kid if you stop learning like a Japanese kid. Adults really can learn faster than children. The reason they don't is because they're not smart about how they learn (kids have that sponge-brain advantage, so they learn somewhat fast despite using poor learning systems). Use your adult smarts to become an insanely good learner!

    With kanji learning, there are a few things you need to do to cut out the wasteful repetition.

    1. Think in terms of radicals. This means you learn pieces of the kanji that can be re-used in multiple kanji (efficient!) as well as decrease the amount of things you have to learn per kanji (3 radicals to make a kanji or 15 strokes? I'll choose the smaller number, thank you very much). Resources that use this method include: WaniKani, KanjiDamage, Kanji Koohii, and Remembering The Kanji.

    2. If you do insist on writing the kanji (more on that in a second) force yourself to recall the kanji from scratch each time you write it down. Looking at a reference while you write will not make your memory any stronger. It's just a waste of time.

    3. Use an SRS (spaced repetition system). These will help you to study the kanji items at ideal times. The strongest advancement of a memory you want to improve on happens right before you forget it. Forcing yourself to recall an item at this period in memory will tell your brain it's very important to keep. Spaced repetition will help you to achieve this without having to think about when to study. It cuts down on wasteful study repetitions as well.

    The main thing is… don't do hundreds of repetitions of kanji just because everyone else does it. I know a few of you on Twitter will say "well, actually it works for me," but I promise you… there's some inefficiency going on there. Writing a kanji three times (while forcing yourself to recall the kanji from scratch) is going to give you a lot more progress than writing a kanji 100 times that you copy over and over again. Guess which one takes less time (and cramps your hand up less)? You got it. There's your MED for kanji repetition.

    Writing By Hand

    Writing kanji with a fountain pen
    Source: Yasuyuki Hirata

    I've written about this before, but I think it's important to reiterate. At least when it comes to MED, you do not need to learn how to write kanji. There are two main reasons for this:

    1. When was the last time you had to hand write something? Sure, it happens sometimes, but almost all writing communication is done via cell phone or the computer.

    2. It doubles (or triples) the amount of time you have to spend on each kanji. If your goal is fluency, or even just the ability to read, learning to write all the kanji by hand is a waste of time and effort, at least when you compare it to what benefit you're getting.

    I'm going to pad this "you don't need to learn to write" statement by saying that sure, it's nice to be able to hand write kanji, but if you're looking to learn the most possible in the shortest amount of time, learning to write kanji is going to slow you down considerably. We're looking at the minimum effective dose, here.

    Plus, if you learn your kanji radicals really well, and then you learn the basic stroke order rules, you can learn to hand write any kanji you want later on. Don't waste your time on something you will barely be using in exchange for getting to fluency more quickly.

    On an ending note, a lot of people will say that handwriting helps with retention, and those people will indeed be right. But, in terms of the time versus benefit, I don't think it's a fair trade at all. Many, many WaniKani members will be able to attest to both the speed and benefit of only focusing on reading, I think. Writing may improve retention, but it will hold your overall progress back as well if you let it.

    Hacking Grammar

    A yellow book about basic Japanese grammar dictionary
    Source: Evan Blaser

    This is something I've been reading up a lot on and thinking about while working on the next revisions of TextFugu (that unicorn does exist, believe it or not!). Anyways, let me share with you some of my thoughts on this, and perhaps you can apply them to your own studies right now.

    One thing I've found is that there are a handful of grammar terms that you can learn that will give you a lot more bang for your buck. Once you've learned them, you'll be able to say and understand a lot more than you've ever thought possible. Supposedly, these are them:

    A chart explaining basic grammar

    How long would it take to learn and understand these 12 grammar points? Probably not that long, if you put in the effort. I bet you could get them all down in three hours or less. How long would it take you to learn all these grammar points in a classroom? Three months? Six months? I guess it really depends on the teacher.

    A couple things to note about this:

    • The vocabulary is pretty much all the same across the board (meaning you can focus on the grammar part), and it's mainly about finding and understanding the differences between them.

    • It teaches you a lot more than you might think at first glance. Check out the tenses, parts of speech, and so on, and you'll see what I mean.

    Now, this only gets you grammar, though it gets you a lot of grammar in a shorter period of time. Any other grammar will probably work off of this grammar in one way or another, so it will also provide a solid base for you. One big thing is missing, though, and that's vocabulary. Let's cover the MED of that, next.

    Japanese Vocabulary Learning

    Pages of an old Japanese dictionary
    Source: P K

    Learning the 1,000 most common words in any language is said to cover around 70% of the words used in everyday speech. Learning 2,000 will get you to somewhere more like 80%. The last 20% requires a lot more words than that, so I think you can see how ordering your vocabulary learning will increase learning efficiency.

    While 70-80% of "everyday speech" isn't quite enough to be fluent, it does get you a lot of the way there (70-80% of the way, in fact!). This is enough to talk with people, understand a lot of what's being said or written, and giving yourself a very solid base to work from.

    But, how do you know even what these 1,000 common words are?

    There's a lot of lists out there (this one is pretty good) that are worth looking at. In fact, a Google search for "most common Japanese words" will give you an overwhelming number of results. I think the main thing to do here is to not get caught up in all the lists, because they're all somewhat similar. WaniKani could even be considered a "common words list," though by adding kanji in there we're complicating things quite a bit.

    Speaking of kanji, Japanese isn't like most other languages. Learning the kanji and their meanings / readings can help you to learn vocabulary as well. While combining kanji and vocab learning will require a different ordering from most "common word lists" it does have its perks, especially if you want to learn to read Japanese down the line. So, word frequency isn't the only thing you can think about when learning Japanese vocabulary. You have to think of the kanji ordering as well. Let's do that…

    Kanji Vs. Kanji Meaning

    Kanji painted outside the Swiss Pavilion
    Source: hibino

    How complicated a kanji is and how complicated the meaning of a kanji is are two completely different things. If you're a Japanese kid, you'll learn kanji with a less complicated meaning first then work your way up to the concepts that are more difficult to understand. It's the same thing in English, too.

    Cat: Short word, simple meaning, easy to understand, learned early in life.

    Elephant: Long word, simple meaning, easy to understand, also learned early in life.

    Zinc: Short word, difficult meaning, learned later in life.

    Do you see the difference here? Kids will learn the word "elephant" before they learn the word "zinc," even though it's longer. With kanji it's the same thing. Kids will learn shoku しょく and よう before they learn na or hisa ひさ. Just from looking at those, you can see which one is simpler from a visual standpoint. The meaning is more difficult on those two simpler looking kanji, but the actual kanji itself is easy!

    Being a non-child yourself (I'm assuming), you don't have to learn kanji the way Japanese kids do it. You can learn kanji in an order that focuses on the difficulty of the kanji itself (at least at first) rather than the difficulty of the meaning of the kanji. From there, you can build up and learn more and more complicated kanji. As a bonus, these simpler kanji will Voltron into more complicated kanji, helping you to build up, step by step. Since the goal is to learn the joyo kanji (for most people), the order should be set up so it's ideal for getting you to that end goal as quickly as possible

    Yet, most people don't learn it this way, going from simple meaning to difficult meaning, ignoring how complicated the kanji is. Just because Japanese kids do it a certain way doesn't mean it's going to be the best way for everyone (though many teachers will try to tell you otherwise, so be careful!).

    Some resources that do it the good way: WaniKani, KanjiDamage, Kanji Koohii, and Remembering The Kanji.

    Studying In Smaller Doses

    Vector graphic of a lightbulb merged with a brain
    Source: Shutterstock

    I've said this a million times, but it deserves to be said again and again… consistency is going to be your best friend in language acquisition. Short, frequent bursts of study all the time are going to get you further forward than studying infrequently in bigger chunks.

    There are a few reasons for this.

    • First, the typical brain can only take so much at one time. You have to let information process a bit in between study sessions. Sleeping between studying helps a lot too.

    • It's harder to focus for long periods of time, but it's easy to focus for short periods. Shorter focused study is better than a long unfocused one.

    • Frequent but separated studying also allows you to recall memories in a more spread out fashion. Just like with SRS, recalling things before you forget them is more helpful than repeatedly recalling something over and over in a short span of time. It tells your brain that this information is important. Short, separate study bursts encourage this.

    Studying this way takes the least amount of time overall and gives you the most benefit from the effort. As long as you make it a habit to study in all the little cracks of time you have, you'll be making a ton of progress in no time at all. In fact, it'll be like you aren't even taking up more time at all, which is nice for those of you who are "forever busy."

    Do The Hard Things

    A Japanese farmer picking out his crops
    Source: Shutterstock

    Ha! Just because we're cheating doesn't mean it's going to be easy! In fact, doing the hard things is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. If you want to become fluent in Japanese, you have to do the hard things too. So, find out what your weak points are (no really, sit and write them out). Be brutal. These are the things keeping you from making any good progress. They're the things that make MED more difficult, and you need to get them out of the way.

    While I can't speak for everyone's weak points, here are some general ways to get rid of them.

    1. Figure out what those weak points are. Enough said.
    2. Break them down. Figure out what makes the concept tick. Can you identify three things that make the concept what it is? If you removed any of the three, it wouldn't work anymore.
    3. Focus on those three separate things, trying to improve them apart from each other. Then, combine them back together.
    4. Repeat.

    This isn't easy, and it isn't particularly fun, but it's way better than just letting it sit there forever, hoping it gets better (it won't). If you don't focus in on the things that give you trouble you're never going to advance. It's better to know that now rather than later. And, once they've been removed, you'll find yourself moving along faster than ever before.

    Applying MED To The Rest Of Your Life

    You can, of course, apply this style of thinking to the rest of your life too. While it becomes tiring to always think "MED this" and "MED that," it can really help you to make improvements on just about anything you do on a regular basis. This will give you more time for doing the things you actually love, and maybe it will have other perks and benefits too (promotion?). As you develop this framework of thinking, you'll naturally get better at just about everything.

    But, it's not a fast process, and it will be one that you keep refining and learning about, but that's half the fun. I know that not all of the above techniques and methods here will be agreeable to all of you, but I hope you found something you can take away with you that will help you in your life and in your Japanese. I may be helping you to "cheat," but you still have a lot of work to do, I promise :)

    Good luck!