A Stumbling Block on the Road to Fluency

Roughly a year and a half ago, I wrote about my then-five-year-old son learning Japanese via the Kana Conqueror deck. You can go back and read it for the details, but to sum up the post: the deck allowed him to master hiragana and katakana, to understand hundreds of new sentences, and to do so in an enjoyable way and at a comfortable pace.

Obviously, it made sense to keep on keeping on with Jalup’s Beginner deck. And that is just what he did—although not without an unexpected challenge.

The Unexpected Challenge

One of the unexpected rewards of finishing Kana Conqueror was the joy in simply completing it. Somewhere past the halfway point, my son began to enjoy looking at the graphs which showed him how much of the deck he had learned and how much he had to go to finish.

I wrote about this some in that original post, but I didn’t realize how much of a motivator this was for my son. He continued to show up and tackle a couple new cards each day. In this way, he got through half of the deck right before turning six. But the joy of seeing his progress simply wasn’t there. Even past the halfway point, when I expected it to return in earnest, my son didn’t show nearly as much excitement toward finishing this deck as he did for the previous one.

There was still some joy in learning new words, and certainly in understanding more of the shows he watched in Japanese, but as reviews piled up just beyond what he was comfortable with, and as more kanji showed up in sentences, I began to fear that this whole thing was becoming an unwanted chore.

An Unsuccessful Response

My first response, if I remember right, was to remind my son how he personified the black part of the graph representing unknown words as a monster that he was fighting each day by learning new ones.

This wasn’t very successful. In fact, it was downright unsuccessful. After thinking about it, I realized why: the Jalup Beginner deck is four times bigger than the Kana Conqueror deck, and at the pace we were going it wasn’t as easy to see the progress we were making through the deck.

Put differently, at only a couple new cards per day, the hero did not seem to be getting much stronger and the monster wasn’t showing much damage. So I basically brought more attention to the fact that he was doing work each day and seemingly not getting anywhere. That, unfortunately, had the exact opposite effect of what I wanted. Far from being motivating, it was actually demotivating.

An Opposite Reaction

In such situations, the usual response is to pick up the pace. That is fine if you’re making that decision for yourself.

But sometimes it pays to do the opposite of what you initially feel is right, and I had a few good reasons to think that this was one of those cases. Instead of encouraging my son to pick up the pace, I asked him if he wanted to take a break from adding new cards.

He agreed to that right away, and enjoyed a well-deserved break. The reviews came down. The cards he had already learned solidified. The focus on progress itself disappeared. The ratio of time spent watching shows in Japanese versus learning in Anki went up a lot. As I suspected, after some time he was ready to start adding new cards again.

The Dragon-Ball Quest

Without getting too side-tracked here, my son is a fan of Dragon Ball, and one of the things my son and I do throughout the year is to design quests that consist of seven goals, corresponding to the seven dragon balls.

The goal might be trying to find a dragon ball, or catch and take one from me, in a famous spot—something we did when visiting Sword Lake in Hanoi. More often, however, it’s related to education. He might get one for finishing a challenging book, learning something particularly difficult, and so on.

The dragon balls we get are from Namek (well we pretend they are). This means that we can do a quest every 130 days. Of course, the dragon grants three wishes—which in our house inevitably means new board and card games.

You can probably see where this is going, but long story short: this quest became super-helpful in finishing the Beginner deck. We set a goal of finishing 250 new cards for a dragon ball, which meant roughly two cards per day, but also set up a situation where he could see himself moving 1% closer to his goal each day.

After just two quests like that, he finished. Even better, the more visible his progress was, the more motivated he became. The more motivated he was, the more cards he did. The more cards he did, the more he got to enjoy shows in Japanese.

It has been a wonderful experience to watch, a meaningful one to take part in, and I’m happy to report that it’s not over yet! My son’s already working through Jalup’s Intermediate deck and enjoying the J-J cards. (The description of 同義語 as “反対語”の反対語 is a personal favorite.) For future updates then, stay tuned. For now, remember this one thing…

The Take-Away Point

Your path to fluency need be no different than a six-year-old boy’s. Whether faster or slower, it’s going to happen one step at a time, and if you can find more joy in the process, more pleasure in each step, then all the better. Look for it. If you can’t find it ready-made, if you can’t find everything customized just for you, make it happen yourself!

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I love reading books in Japanese and plan to start translating them into English in 2015.


A Stumbling Block on the Road to Fluency — 6 Comments

  1. I was really looking forward to hearing about more of your son’s journey. I’m routing for him. I think that was a wise choice breaking the deck down into 250 card sections so he could see a more dramatic dent be made in the black zone. (I assume that is what you did. I was going to suggest that, but then I read that you broke his goal into 250 cards and that seemed like what I was about to suggest).

    Thanks for continuing to share this wonderful journey you two are taking together :’)

  2. I think that sharing your passion with your child is really amazing.
    I’m also very impressed with his perseverance at such a young age. I hope that when I have kids, I’ll be able to do the same.

    I’m looking forward to hear more about it.

    By the way, how do you approach the kanji?

    • Thanks for letting me know! The best resources I’ve found for kanji are some books by Kumon–which also makes good worksheets for the kana–and Kanji Kingdom by Jalup. Both are mostly at a standstill or in maintenance mode, however, just waiting for the next surge forward.

  3. Thank you for once again sharing the story of your son with us. I really feel it as an inspiration for when I will be getting kids myself sometime.

    • My pleasure! And I hope you enjoy your kids whenever you get ’em. They’re more challenging but also more rewarding than many people think.

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