Is Doing Something Really Better Than Doing Nothing?

Is doing anything better than nothingA positive and common idea in the language learning world is “just do something” because “something is better than nothing.” Study 5 minutes. Watch a news clip. Do a few flash cards. Even the smallest effort will push you forward and you will only get better. You have nowhere to go but up.

Truth in this?

Maybe. But we briefly need to talk about memory first.

Mastering control of your memory

The memory is an amazing thing. It can learns multiple languages with tens of thousands of words and grammar patterns.

But in order to do this and the million other things it handles in your lifetime, it has to be efficient with its resources. It analyzes your every day, every week, every month, and every year, and decides where it should spend its energy. And what is the deciding factor on whether your memory puts energy into your Japanese?


Your memory works for things you need in your life. How the hell does it know what you need?

It looks at frequency. The more it sees the same things over a long period of time, the more it realizes that this is something you need. The more it sees a need, the more energy it expends.

So you want your memory to see Japanese. To think you need Japanese.

Best way to do this?

Constantly interact with Japanese every day.

Worst way to do this?

Just occasionally touch Japanese.

Language learning requires upkeep

So back to something is better than nothing. With the above logic, as long as you continually touch Japanese, no matter how little, your memory will see need in it.

The bigger problem

Remembering a language is a massive use of memory resources. Even if you don’t learn anything new, your memory is still deciding whether the need is great enough to justify such a high allocation of resources.

So comes the “need upkeep.”

Little by little, your memory will start moving resources it once allocated to Japanese to something else.

So doing something, which usually refers to a little, isn’t pushing your need high enough. You still have a need deficit. Which means that studying a little overtime can actually make you worse.

The effects of this are much worse as your Japanese memory base grows as there is more to upkeep. A super beginner doesn’t have any resources allocated to Japanese, so your memory may be able to keep it improving. You can’t go negative after all. But the higher level you are, the more it takes to stay where you are.

The discouragement issue

According to the above, even if your Japanese loses the need upkeep battle, doing something will at least slightly slow this progression.

Something creates more need than nothing.

True. Except.

By doing something, you will feel like you should be progressing. You are still putting in an hour or so a week. It’s more discouraging to get worse when you are doing something rather than when you are doing nothing.

When you do nothing, you expect nothing. When you do something, you expect something.

Two major benefits of doing something rather than nothing

1. Creating Momentum

People often have trouble getting around to studying, both consistently and frequently. The idea of having to study for a few hours, or do 100 flash cards can be daunting. And ultimately, the result is common. You end up procrastinating.

By doing something (even 1 flash card), you increase your likelihood of actually studying Japanese because there is no pressure. This leads to the best thing possible:

Whatever minimal amount you intended to study, you are likely to do more than that.

Most people that intend to study 1 sentence will study more. It’s just human nature. Once we start an activity we are much more likely to continue that activity.

2. When you take a break from Japanese (long or short)

Rather than not touch any Japanese for a week, touch it a little. This lets your memory keep a reminder that there is still a need left for Japanese, and it makes it easier to get back into it.

And the ultimate conclusion is?

Doing something is actually better than nothing. I believe the 2 benefits outweigh the 2 issues.

Want to add any other pros or cons of doing something over nothing? Maybe tip the scale?

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


Is Doing Something Really Better Than Doing Nothing? — 14 Comments

  1. I think one thing worth mentioning is that the upkeep part gets a lot easier once you get to the point where you can use the Japanese you know for something you enjoy. A good example is manga. It doesn’t take that long to get to the point where you can read an easy manga like Yotsuba& without it feeling like a chore (or even studying!) because you have to look up every word. I look up on average maybe one word in ten on my phone when I read Yotsuba& which is very manageable, and because it’s fun I don’t have to push myself to do it every day.

    • I agree. The easiest way to move from the “something is better than nothing” phase to the “doing things in Japanese everyday” phase is to have hobbies in Japanese.

      I wasn’t a big reader in English (I did enjoy a book here and there and liked manga) but now I’m a huge reader in Japanese and it’s my biggest hobby right now. Definitely is a big part of keeping myself doing things in Japanese everyday.

    • Excellent point. Once you can start enjoying native Japanese material that you are just having fun while experiencing, the word “upkeep” really is kind of silly.

      That’s like saying you watch Game of Thrones to upkeep your English ability.

      So as you mentioned, the whole process gets much better if you give it a little time.

  2. This is a very interesting post.

    As an ESL teacher, I learned that one method of teaching, which is more prominent in ESL classes than foreign language classes in America, is building lessons around “need” as opposed to “grammar”. For instance, students will need to learn the language for going to the doctor. This kind of teaching is especially applicable in ESL, because these students really do need this language immediately since they are living that need.

    But with foreign language learners, the need isn’t as imminent and hard to create. By creating your environment focused on frequency, increasing the amount of Japanese you engage with on a daily basis, I suppose “need” is simulated so that the memory finds it important, even though none of us really need to read manga or play video games. Which is why I find this interesting.

    • I need to read manga and play video games haha.

      This is a really interesting point about ESL learners. I wonder if this is a reason that once many of these learners meet their living needs (which can be very basic English with problem pronunciation), they don’t go any further.

      I think creating the need combined with passion and excitement makes a big difference.

    • The beginner series I learned from, Situational Functional Japanese, has chapters that are based around this concept as well. The grammar points are still all organized in a similar order to what you see in other books each chapter has a ton of information on speaking strategies and such. I used to recommend it a lot, but it’s three volumes and over twice the price of Genki and nearly impossible to get in the US.

      Also, I’m with Adshap, I think you vastly underestimate our need to read manga and play video games. :)

        • Not from an entertainment perspective, no. The characters are your typical foreigner stereotypes and the plots are basically purely functional: going to the post office; going to the hospital; going to a party. Although I found some of their explanations more clear than Genki and it’s a lot more dense; it’s still doesn’t have any fun or memorable characters.

          Ultimately, instead of a better textbook, I think self learners probably need a much more interactive learning platform. At some point I think the cost of technology and software development will be at a point where something amazing can be built. Right now people are too focused on providing content, because that’s where the money can be made, instead of improving an extending the learning technology.

  3. Doing something on a regular basis is much better than doing nothing for the following reason: Our brain has a limited amount of conscious memory storage. If we have to remember to study Japanese, we are using precious storage space. However, if we create a new habit, and automatically study even 5 minutes a day, then we free up our conscious memory for something more important. Excellent article! Great advice for developing any positive habit.

  4. I also think doing something ‘new’ is important. Reading the same 100 or so sentences over and over is going to become less and less beneficial each time. Not only because it will become boring, but because you brain will just naturally ‘fill in the gaps’ and skim things as opposed to absorbing them.

    I often have to resist the urge to ‘wait until I 100% understand’ a chapter, sentence, or whatever before moving on the the next. I find that once I have moved on, it often becomes clear later on by itself, plus I have learned new things.

    Keeps the momentum going, and keeps it fresh, keeps my brain thinking, which I think is important.

    • Great point about always moving forward and maintaining that momentum. The “I must understand 100% before moving on” is definitely some that many experience in the beginning and must be overcome.

    • That resonates with me when I use Anki. I think it can be a “danger” with sticking to only Anki and not doing other stuff, if you keep seeing the same old cards over and over (even if you keep adding new ones). At least for me it then feels like the method gets more and more passive and eventually my brain just filters more and more of it away.

      I only recently signed up for lang 8 and figured that I’d try to formulate some random thoughts there every day to force myself to create a more active part as well (since I unfortunately don’t have any japanese people to chat with otherwise). I then realize how easy I have to mess things up, like particles, not being able to express the advanced phrases that I seem to “breeze” through in Anki while understanding most of it.

      It sort of reminds me of when I had learned kana and could read it without any problems, but when I tried to conjure up those characters in my mind without looking at them, it was completely impossible. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they looked like. It wasn’t until I got a cell phone with a stylus pen and started actively writing them down with most things I did (shopping list, etc) instead of just using the anki kana deck, that those two parts of my brain started fusing together so I could both read and write them.

  5. I have one exception to add, where doing nothing is better than doing something. It’s not good to put off your study until the time of day when you are most tired. If you try to use your brain when it is tired (especially if it’s night-time), then you may be very discouraged at your lack of progress. At that point, it’s better to say, I won’t do it now, but I will schedule my work for tomorrow at the time of day when my brain is at its most alert. You’ll feel hopeful and a greater success that way. It works better for me to do that.

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