The George Costanza Guide to Learning Japanese

Do you remember “the opposite” episode on Seinfeld? This episode began with George Costanza reflecting on the sad state of his life:

“Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but . . . I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat. . . It’s all been wrong.”

At that point, Jerry makes a useful observation, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

And George takes it to heart. “Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do. . . something.”

The decision to do “the opposite” proceeds to work well for George. And that same method could work well for anyone learning Japanese, too.

Consider, for example, the following three challenges—comparing what people usually do and what doing “the opposite” would mean.

1. Remembering the Kanji

Not realizing the time and effort required, many people begin what is ultimately a Japanese-learning marathon with an all-out sprint.

For such people, completing Remember the Kanji (RTK) in 1 year or even 6 months is a laughably slow pace. “How about 6 weeks—or 4 weeks, or 2?” they’ll think. And some will actually attempt it in that time.

Although there are exceptions, we all know how this usually works out. Most sprinters exit to the sidelines before the marathon has even begun. They’re holding their sides and gasping for air. They are not enjoying the process whatsoever and they may actually be feeling bad about themselves for not being able to keep up an impossibly fast pace.

These people should have done “the opposite.” Rather than trying to complete all of RTK in record time, they should have just set out to learn 10 to 15 per day at a comfortable pace.

Doing this would have taken an all-or-nothing, win-or-lose situation and turned it into a situation where they “won” each time they understood more kanji. And that would have increased the chances of both finishing RTK and enjoying the process.

2. Managing Time

One of the things that led to George’s pathetic life was that he would “sit . . . and do nothing” as opposed to doing “something”—and in particular something that would bring him closer to what he wanted.

It’s not in the episode, but I can imagine what George Costanza would usually do if he set out to study Japanese. He would spend most of his time not actually learning the language, but being on a Japanese study forum where he would gather opinions about how he should do so.

This forum would be the first place he went each day. It’s where he would get involved in debates about the best way to learn languages in general, It’s where he would argue philosophy with strangers, attempt to teach logic to trolls, or maybe make wild claims about his own skills in order to get the approval of people he has never even met.

Doing “the opposite” here would require George to not waste all his time on a language-learning forum, but rather devote it to actually learning the language. And this would be a good policy to follow for any other Japanese learners, too.

3. Speaking the Language

If advancing through RTK at a breakneck pace is unnecessarily frustrating, trying to speak from day one is even more so.

This is the equivalent in the language-learning world of someone trying to go to the bathroom before having eaten anything—or of someone trying to paint a canvas without a brush.  They simply don’t have the materials to do what they want to do and they’re going to look like an idiot for even trying.

Admittedly, not everyone new to Japanese will try to have conversations right away. Nevertheless, many people mistakenly judge what their level is and the progress they are making in improving it on their ability to communicate.

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. And, as it happens, doing “the opposite” is a much better option.

That means, in this case, focusing on output after input, or on how to speak Japanese well after having heard other people speak it well. It means knowing words, and their meanings, before trying to use them—a process that not only cuts down on a lot of unnecessary frustration but also allows people to understand and enjoy conversations when they’re ready for them.

Turning Opposite?

Of course, always doing “the opposite” of what you would normally do, or what beginners often do, is not a full-proof strategy toward learning Japanese (or succeeding in life).

But if you see many people repeatedly fail at something you want to achieve, it may be worth asking what “the opposite” of that approach is and whether that is a better way. If it could work for someone such as George Costanza, why wouldn’t it work for you too?

Written by: Daniel

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


The George Costanza Guide to Learning Japanese — 13 Comments

  1. This was a really entertaining post! Had me laughing but nodding my head at the wisdom. Thank you.

  2. Follow this and you too can be master of your domain.

    Now…what would be the Japanese language learning equivalent of “having hand”?

  3. Great question StereotypeA! What do you think of “interesting and just barely comprehensible input” as an equivalent? Like “the upper hand,” that is what almost everyone wants. But it is also, as Jerry says, “tough to get.” Anyway, that’s the best I can do off-the-cuff. Would love to see some other answers.

  4. What’s the opposite of translating in your head? I haven’t been able to come up with any decent answers.

        • Listen/read for thousands and thousands of hours ;) I don’t think it’s possible to not do some amount of translating in your head in the beginning. You have to spend a lot of time with the language before your brain gets used to it, but eventually you’ll get to the point where you just understand what’s being said without that extra translation step.

          • That’s a non-answer. Rather than answer specifically what implicit understanding is and what it is to do that, you say that it’s the inevitable result of practice. If I’m still translating in my head, then it must be because I’m still in the beginning stages and I’ll get there eventually, regardless of how much time I’ve actually spent with the language up until this point. It’s unfalsifiable logic.

            And listening/reading a lot would presumably reinforce translating rather than move me away from it, at least without being able to practice any other clear alternative.

            • Implicit understanding (to me) is simply a lack of needing to mentally translate from the language you are learning to your native language (or some other language that you are good at). Just as you don’t need to translate anything when someone speaks to you in your native language. You just understand what they are saying. I don’t think there is a way to practice implicit understanding, because it’s not so much of a skill that can be practised, but more of a side effect of reaching a high level in the target language.

              It’s kind of like learning how to read as a kid. At first you have to go very slowly. You have to look at and make the sound for each individual letter in a word before you can put the sounds together and make out the word, and you can’t fathom how grown-ups can read so fast. Then as you read more and more your brain gets better and better at processing letter patterns, and eventually you don’t need to think about the letters any more, you just look at a word and read it. And once you reach this stage you simply drop the training wheels so to speak and your reading ability is not hurt by the fact that you at one time had to make out the sound for each letter in a word in order to read it. I think implicit understanding works much in the same way.

              This is just my personal opinion that I base mostly on learning a second language (English) to a rather high level. It would be interesting to hear what some other people who have done the same (Adshap?) think.

        • How do you practice it? Comprehensible input and massive amounts of it.

          What forms does it take? Mostly reflexive reaction. If you hear 元気? and then you go 「元気→energy; vigor→Do I have energy?→Yes, I do!→はい、そうです。」vs just spitting out 「うん、元気。」. You can tell when people have to translate because they are slow to respond to questions, slow to laugh at jokes, and miss cultural nuance when the English gloss they’ve associated with a word doesn’t fix the context they’ve just heard it in. You also notice it in their responses since it will have that kind of 私は・・・ feel to it.

          Implicit understand requires zero actions in the same way you don’t instruct each individual muscle to contract just the right amount in order to move your legs to walk. You outgrow the need for translation complete and for that moment in time, even if it is super brief, you exist only in Japanese.

          Also it’s not magical at all. Foreigners that live here for long enough have an implicit understanding of many Japanese things even if they don’t speak any Japanese at all. They know what keitai, onigiri, and nomihodai are just as well you know samurai, sushi and karaoke.

    • I’m not sure how much Carlton could help, but Will Smith is a good model for anyone wanting to level up quickly. His work ethic is inspiring.

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