Don’t Play The Comparison Game

While studying Japanese is for the most part your own private and personal world (especially in the beginning), it is human nature to compare and compete. You want to know how others are doing. You want to know how you are doing compared to others. You want to know how long it took them to achieve what you are trying to achieve.

Now I love good competition. It pushes you further than you could go alone. It motivates you. I always recommend finding someone (whether in real life or online) who you can compete with as you progress forward. Competition spawns success. However, it comes with a risk.

The Comparison Search

In order to get your comparison fill, you go to various forums, blogs and websites, and will often ask or search for the answer to the following question:

How long did it take you to ______?

Most commonly asked:

1. Pass the N(X) level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test
2. Become Fluent
3. Read Novels
4. Watch anime without subtitles
5. Finish RTK
6. Finish 1000 Anki Cards
7. Understand X

The Japanese Learner Fearsome Four

On your search, you encounter four dangerous types of people that end up skewing the statistics online. There are four types of learners that make you question your own studying and hard work, your pace and your ability.

1. The Exaggerator

The exaggerator pulls out the unbelievable and the improbable. It’s not necessary any ill will. He probably has studied hard and achieved various impressive goals, but he is just exaggerating the length of time it took him to get there.  The exaggerator does what he does to get you to listen to him more, make his story more appealing, and often feels like he is doing little harm. He did do X, maybe not as fast he said, but within a relatively close period of time. And when he exaggerates enough about his methods and time frames to enough people, he eventually starts to blur truth with fiction, and it becomes hard even to him to remember what he was originally doing.

2. The Troll (Liar)

The troll wants your attention. He wants to stir up trouble. It is fun for him to see people’s reactions. It brings him pleasure. He will state absolutely impossible things (even more than the exaggerator).

3. The Unbalanced Mirage 

This person usually is doing one of two things:

He is only showing an edited/rehearsed version of what he can do:

Example: on TV, when you see a foreigner talk, and he says he has only been studying for X months or years, remember, his speech is being edited and cut to sound good. The same goes with people putting up videos of themselves on YouTube. When they consistently edit and retake the same scenes over and over again, they will appear much better than they are.

He has a narrow focus on certain specific skills at the sacrifice of others:

Example: People who pass high levels of JLPT in short periods of time usually are specifically studying to pass this test. I’ve met my share of N1 and N2 passers whose spoken Japanese was quite weak. But if you focus on exactly how and what you need to pass the test at the cost of other skills you would normally develop, you can usually accomplish this.

Example 2: There are people who focus on only one specific talent. Only reading manga or only speaking casually. And they will be pretty good. The time it takes to achieve singular skills is much shorter than to round out everything.

4. The Power Leveler

The power leveler usually has a lot of free time to study Japanese. He may even be dedicating his schedule full time to it for months at a time. He may be in a full time program in Japan. He is extremely hardcore and works like crazy.

Compete but don’t compare

Everyone’s life, schedule, priorities, and ways of thinking are different. This isn’t a place to make excuses, but you are you, and no one else. Don’t fall into the trap of constantly measuring yourself up against others, especially when their are large groups of people out there skewing what would be considered good pacing.

Set realistic goals.  Look at averages. But always focus on you.

This is your journey. Not someone else’s. No two paths will ever be the same. And that is what makes learning Japanese so exciting.

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.


Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Don’t Play The Comparison Game — 11 Comments

  1. I have to be honest: when I saw “JALUP” under the Troll section, I thought it was me being perceived as such. This is despite the fact that I’m coming from the complete opposite direction.

  2. this isn’t part of the “fearsome four”, but it is a form of comparison.
    Only compare yourself to your previous self & to Japanese people you respect or look up to.

    • Very good advice! Sometimes, the Japanese learners you looked up to give up on their study and slowly forget their Japanese or you just simply surpass them. It’s pointless to compare yourself when both of your Japanese abilities are fluid and changing all the time. But a Japanese native speaker is a role-model of what you’d want your Japanese to be like, and should be your only role model. While your Japanese in the past can be an encouragement to how much you’ve improved! And if you haven’t improved or have gotten worse, a motivator to get yourself back up to where you were and better.

  3. The role model is, of course, native Japanese people, but when you are at a near fluent level, hearing other foriengers speaking higher level Japanese is a good kick in the butt. For example, people like Peter Barakan and Dave Spector who have lived in Japan for the better part of their lives and I consider to be pretty much on level with normal Japanese people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    With that being said, everyone is at a different point in their language learning journey, so it’s pointless to look down on others or compare yourself to anyone else.

    • Perhaps for competitive people, seeing a person who is fluent or even near native level in Japanese can be a huge motivator to kick it into gear. But for me, it’s only an excuse to make myself feel worse about my Japanese and doesn’t motivate me. I think it depends on your personality type. I’m an easily jealous person. So it’s a healthy reminder to not compare myself.

      However, there can be something said for looking up to a fluent or near native level Japanese learner in their methods and trying to learn from them. As a Japanese speaker grew up in Japan and learned it naturally, while that fluent or near native speaker had to work at it like you and can give their own personal experience, which you can learn from.

  4. There’s a great quote along these lines from Nido Qubein: “Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people.”

  5. This is excellent advice. Especially seeing as Japanese learners seem to be ridiculously competitive in general.
    There are a lot of people who are, admittedly, very good at Japanese, but seem to feel the need to show off how good their Japanese is in front of other non-Japanese, or to constantly prove that their Japanese is better than anyone else’s.

    When I went to job training for my first job in Japan (as an ALT), there was a guy who, when practicing introducing himself, talked for about 10 minutes in Japanese about all of his hobbies and all about himself… which just would not be acceptable when introducing yourself in a morning meeting at a school, which is what most teachers have to do. And then he decided that my Japanese was obviously crap and gave me a lecture on how I could improve, even though mine was better than his (well, okay I shouldn’t really be comparing, but it was, dammit!), I just didn’t feel the need to have everybody praise me or show off about it.

    It would be nice if the Japanese learning community was more friendly, and less about proving that you’re the best. Interestingly, I’ve only seen this with people from America, Australia, the UK and some other European countries. I have many Thai and Korean friends who have various levels of Japanese ability, but I’ve NEVER seen any of them show off about it, or put anybody else down for their lack of Japanese ability.

  6. Adam,

    I know this post is from a while ago, but you may want to know that you were just quoted by Khatzumoto in a “Nutshell Nugget!”

    “There are people who focus on only one specific talent. Only reading [comics] or only speaking casually. And they will be pretty good. The time it takes to achieve singular skills is much shorter than to round out everything.”
    [Don’t Play The Comparison Game – Japanese Level Up]


  7. I feel like I’m an exaggerator. I’ve been messing with the language for nearly a decade and made almost no progress – probably didn’t pass A1, but I discovered my current methods about 5 years ago and didn’t apply them until about 2.5 years ago. So I had time to get used to things like listening because I’ve been doing it so long, but I didn’t start acquiring vocab and kanji seriously until 2.5 years ago, so I tell people that’s how long I’ve been studying. I think it’s pretty believable. I even know a guy who speaks better than I do even though he’s been at it for 6 months, but my focus has been on reading/writing. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like much of an exaggeration because a motivated student could do more than I did in that time, but I can see how the cultural context and listening practice over the last 10 years could give me an advantage. When people ask more specific questions, I come clean : )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *