It's good to realize when you're in over your head.

It’s good to realize when you’re in over your head.


Effort-shmeffort. Psssh. Who needs it?


A lot has been made of passive learning—listening to the material while you sleep or having a TV show on in the background while you work. While there’s little evidence that material listened to while sleeping is anything more than white noise, Khatzumoto argues that it was during the falling asleep and waking periods that having something to listen to helped. Makes sense.

A recent study from MIT came to the conclusion that working to understand a language, something that adults can excel at, also hinders elements of the language-learning process. Their results noted that those who were asked to focus on the material they were hearing were better at word segmentation and worse at morphology, the latter of which tends to be one of the harder aspects of language-learning. Something that, incidentally, kids take for granted when they learn.

Combined with Krashen’s Affective Filter hypothesis that says being in tough and uncomfortable situations lowers your ability to understand and process new information, it seems like being in stress-free environments paying little attention to the material might be the best way to learn. Or at least, that’s one way of interpreting it.

Broadsword of Effort+1

I don’t think Krashen would like that interpretation though: his whole argument was for i+1, not i+none. Imperceptibly more information, so much that it doesn’t stress you out and become un-understandable, is ideal for learning. You’ll be trying, but you won’t feel like you’re pushing yourself. Like running an extra 50 feet a day. After a while, you’ll notice that you can run further using the same amount of effort.

Sometimes I wish I were an shonen anime character, where I could always muster extra effort and be rewarded with amazing results. Why only run for 5 kilometers when I could run for 20? Why study from Genki when I could read 源氏物語?

But in the real world, there is a price to pay for exertion. If on that 8th kilometer you pull a muscle, finishing the last 12 km won’t help. It’ll hurt. And not just temporarily—it could give you a permanent injury. One of the Japanese words for “to exert effort” is 骨を折る. Break your bone. Don’t do that.

In fact, forget injury and big things like that. A Danish study (according to this article) found that lazy people who did 6 hours of cardio in a week lost just as much weight as those that did 3, in no small part because the ones who only did three felt willing to continue to move after their workout. The ones who did double just keeled over and hugged their couches. Running back to the extreme side of the spectrum, too much workout can deteriorate your muscles rather than building them.

Damn shonen anime, lying to me.

While you could convince yourself to exercise more than you should, the brain can stop you in ways your body can’t. When a Japanese 101 student opens up 源氏物語, her eyes glaze over the text. Her brain turns off. She picks up something here and there, but her time is better spent with Genki. Going back to the workout metaphor, if she does manage to bull-through and read 源氏物語, essentially a 20 km run, she’s just going to hurt herself. She’ll get through page 1, looking at the dictionary after every word, and be tired by the end. An hour will have gone by.

“An hour! Wow! I’m exhausted! That was a good study session though,” she says, lying to herself.

Now she’s tired of studying. She won’t pick up any more Japanese for the rest of the day. She won’t “move after her workout”. No more words, because she studied for an hour. And how many of those words will she retain? I can guess, but I’d look like a pessimist, and I’m not, I swear!

In other words, i+1 10 times a day is better than i+10. It’s leaps and bounds better than i+20. i+1 twice a day is better than i+2. Yeah, the math looks wonky, but that’s because there’s some hidden values.

Calculations That Make No Sense

This is just me having fun making sense of things:

Some phrases to make this section easier for you and me included…

  • wm = word/meaning pairs
    I pair them up like this because just knowing a single word doesn’t mean you know all the meanings. 引く means “to pull”, like in the case of a door, but it can also mean “to draw a line” (pulling a pen across a paper). This would constitute 2 wm in spite of it looking like a single word.
  • wm+ = word/meaning pair strongly learned
    These are words that you can use freely. When someone says something using just these words, you understand them 99% of the time.
  • wm- = word/meaning pair weakly learned
    These are words that you’ve heard before and can probably understand. When someone says something using a combination of these words and wm+, you can understand them 90% of the time. When someone says something using only these words, you can understand them maybe 75% of the time.
  • xwm = word/meaning pair not yet learned
    Maybe you’ve seen the word before. Maybe not. In any case, you have no idea how or when to use it.
  • gr+ = grammatical pattern strongly learned
    「私は____です。」 in the sense of an introduction. Like a word/meaning pair, it doesn’t include something like 「私はカツ丼です。」 when ordering food, because while the actual function of the は is the same grammatically, the purpose to a learner’s ear could be different.
  • xgr = grammatical pattern not yet learned
    Like the xwm, this is all about grammar that’s unfamiliar.
  • EP = effort points
    We all have a number of effort points in our day to allot to tasks. For arguments sake, let’s say someone has about 10 EP. No matter how hard they try, they’ll probably have no more than a max of 10 EP. Like money, you can overdraw EP, which means it will recover more slowly the more you overdraw it. At midnight, you normally recover all your 10 EP back. But if you used 12 that day, maybe you only withdraw 8 back. Then 9 the next day. Point is, using more than your allotted EP is worse for you in the long run because you’ll have less EP to use overall.

With that out of the way, onto the calculations:

  • i = Your knowledge right now (e.g. 230wm+, 614wm-, 35gr, 10/10BP)
  • i+1 = A text/task that’s just slightly above your level (e.g. includes 65wm+, 289wm-, 24gr; 18xwm and 6xgr. It’ll take about 1 EP to consume and will yield 0-6 new words. At best, EP to new word ratio is 1:6)
  • i+2 = A text/task that’s above your level (e.g. includes 155wm+, 416wm-, 35gr; 68xwm and 9xgr. It’ll take 2 EP and will yield 0-10 new words. At best, 1:5)
  • i+10 = Something that’s far above your level (e.g. 203wm+, 614wm-, 35gr; 492xwm and 29xgr. It’ll take 10 EP and will yield 0-30 new words. At best, 1:3)

Especially considering that any task you do might result in nothing gained, there’s no sense in wasting so much EP. The smaller the task, the greater ratio of EP to words gained.

There’s a time and a place for exerting more effort, but it’s rare. Races. Tests. When you can’t do whatever it is you’re doing for the next couple of days, so might as well see what you can get done today.

Which Metaphorical Bowl of Language Learning Porridge Is Just Right?

How do you find the perfect i+1? How to know it’s not an i+0 or i+2?

I dunno. Who knows but yourself? Start now with the tough stuff and see if it makes sense. Nope? Go to the next easier thing. Nope? Maybe start from the easy stuff. But the key is to experiment.

That, and to not surround yourself with material that’s obviously too easy. If you can read short stories in Japanese, don’t waste your time with the dialogue from the first chapters of your textbook. It’s reinforcement, not learning, and when learning can double as reinforcement anyways, unless it’s fun, it’s a less-efficient use of your time. Find what you feel comfortable with.

But don’t delay moving on. Always look for that opportunity. Maybe you’re not ready to speak on day 1, but maybe you are. Have you tried it? Give it a shot. Two shots. Speak for 20 minutes. 5? Good thing about speaking is that other people often unconsciously make their speech into i+1 for you.

Okay, that’s enough fun rambling for today.

Back to game making. Peace!

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