Those Little Sparks


Why am I learning Japanese when there’s still so much English I don’t know?

Why Aren’t I Learning English?

For someone who likes reading, writing, and speaking English (listening is dumb), I should really be spending more time with it. There’s a false idea that languages are permanent parts of our brain. In spite of being fully immersed in English for my entire life prior, my half year in China degraded parts of my English, replacing normal phrases with ones that would be more easily understood by learners. In the same way, I’m finding certain wrong phrases coming to my mind more easily than they should.

“How are you?” someone asks.
“I’m happy,” I respond. “What’s for lunch?”
“Um… rice and salad and fish.”
“Oooh. Yummy. I want to eat it.”

Is the above wholly incorrect? Not at all. But I would never say “I’m happy” or “yummy” in America in those situations. “I want to eat it” sounds way more forced and robotic than “Looking forward to it” or “Can’t wait!” Unfortunately, language is neither static nor permanent. It adapts to your environment. Given that most of my English interactions these days are with English learners, my language sometimes ironically suffers.

But I’ll survive. I have enough English exposure in my daily life and enough recent English-based memories that the language won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. But I guarantee you, if I neglect it, it will die. Why some people neglect the languages they learn is beyond me. Everything needs maintenance.


Have you ever considered where words come from? Like, did someone point to an object and arbitrarily name it? “This is a shoop.” And then some words connect to that. “Ah, you put this on the bottom of a shoop. It’s a shoopbottom.” Certainly, that’s how it worked with Chinese. “This is a bottle. This is a thing that opens a bottle. It’s an open-bottle.” Chinese is awesome.

Most people, especially language learners, find these connections naturally. Puns, for instance, are essentially the result of learners confusing similar words. おかしいand おかし, funny/strange and candy, respectively, formed a basic connection in my brain because they were so alike.


Wow, hysterical. I’m falling out of my chair. Seriously though, puns are the great tool of the Japanese learner. Not only are they easily recognizable as “funny”, and thus an easy way to join in Japanese humor, but they’re also another way to cement word meanings.

Take this fan-favorite:


Okay, you have to admit that one’s at least a little funny.

Word Origins

Actually, with the examples above, the words have no real natural relationship. パン and パンダ are both foreign loanwords from different lexical backgrounds. Their connection, a good one to help you learn Japanese vocabulary and grammar, is otherwise tenuous. おかしい and おかし may have a connection, but like my 覆す example, it’s likely a stretch of the imagination more than anything else.

When you’re lucky though, things do click. Learning that いってきます wasn’t just a set phrase, but in fact literally meant “I’ll go and come back” ( 行って 来ます) blew my mind and gave me an important emotional connection to Japanese. All the set phrases, as I figured them out, became chains that bonded me to the language. Sometimes I hold back from telling students these connections because that personal sense of discovery was so important to me, and I don’t want them to miss out.

But English too will surprise me from time to time.

George R. R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series is full of older word usages that have given readers new light on old words. Though I was well aware of breakfast being “to break the fast”, the concept had more than a few of my friends impressed. For me, “pitch black”, or “as black as pitch”, as George would write, blew my mind. Pitch is a real thing! It’s very black! That’s where that comes from!

More recently, an article over at Tofugu used the word “outcaste” instead of “outcast”, and suddenly it all made sense. In the past, there was a caste system, and therefore anyone outside of that system would be labeled an “outcaste”. The respelling tricked me, that bastard.

Of course, I find these connections emotionally powerful, which is why they help me. They make me want to dig back into English. If they make you think “eh, so?”, don’t bother.

People learn languages because they have emotional impact on them. A baby learns his first language so that he can interact with the world. A child learns words from her favorite shows even if they have no other connection to her. When are you going to use “Triforce” or “Megazord” in daily life? A middle schooler learns phrases that will make him popular. A college student refines her words to make her better suited for the workforce. If language had no impact on us, it wouldn’t be learned. And all impact is emotional.

The Sparks, or; I Like Improvement

As I walked to the school the other day with my gym teacher, he asked what my hobbies were. I’ve always remarked that in spite of things being my hobbies, I’m not very good at many of them. At least, I don’t perceive myself as being good at them. I like table tennis, but I have nothing to teach anyone. Go is a great board game and a source of endless enjoyment, but my level is barely above that of a beginner. Writing is great fun because I see it improving (not on the day-to-day, but in the overall progress).

When it comes to my hobbies, I like progression more than anything else. I like being able to run an extra quarter mile longer than I could yesterday. Improving my mile time by a minute feels far better than improving it by a second. Learning a word that will help me understand 10000 new books feels much better than learning a word that will help me understand 15 new books. I’m a sucker for big numbers.

Those jumps in ability—revelations, sparks, whatever you want to call them—bring such a personal euphoria that I actively seek them out. Being able to handle one relationship better in America because of a new insight can’t compare to being able to handle a hundred thousand relationships better in Japan because of a new insight. Big gains.

It’s important to know that the gains aren’t always easily apparent. Learning plateaus. But know that there’s always a big gain right around the corner. Keep going. The gains exist.

Perception is everything. The fact is, I don’t like to consider myself good at something because that means I would see myself as near the top, and the closer you are to the top, the fewer big gains exist.

In the end, this is what I like—searching for the big gains. Work on finding something you like, not necessarily something that’s valuable. My route isn’t a perceptibly practical one: A jack of all trades is far less valuable than a master of one. Someone who speaks English and Japanese fluently is in greater demand than someone who speaks English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch at an intermediate level.

Why am I learning Japanese when there’s still so much English I don’t know? It’s an important question to ask yourself. I just kept writing hoping I’d come to a conclusion, but even now, I’m not sure.

I think it’s because I like making Japanese puns.


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