Do you want to write the most beautiful kanji with ease, to translate your favorite stories back to your own language, and to speak Japanese so well that nobody in Japan would think you were a foreigner if talking to you over the phone?
Or do you want something else—for example to understand anime, manga, novels, and movies so well that you get lost in them just as easily as you do in the first language you learned?
Perhaps like many people who decide to study Japanese, you want all of these things—and not a moment too soon. I hate to say this but all of that isn’t going to happen, certainly not soon, and maybe not ever. In other words, as the Dread Pirate Roberts once said:
That you can’t do it all is one of the most obvious statements that people agree with and then immediately ignore.
In learning Japanese, it sends people down so many different paths that they get nowhere fast, leads them to feel needlessly frustrated at their lack of progress, and turns meeting other people studying the same language into a constant source of unhappiness.
The solution is not to work harder at everything, all at once. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) It is to consciously choose what you are going to suck at.
What does that even mean?
I’ll tell you. And, to quote the Dread Pirate Roberts once more,
Choosing what to suck at means being aware that you can’t do it all and deciding exactly what you do not want to do.
For example, you may decide that you are going to suck at speaking, something you may not do much of in your own language anyway. Or you may decide that you are going to suck at writing beautifully, as twenty years of chicken scratch in your own language never cost you a minute of sleep.
Whatever it is you choose, making this decision has enormous benefits.
For one, it frees you from the urge to compare your progress in specific skills with other people on a different path. In fact, it turns the unhappiness that usually arises from such comparisons into a useful kind of inspiration.
The person who speaks much better than you is no longer a reminder that your speaking sucks—after all, you’re fine with that. Instead, it fuels your desire to become as good as that person is in the area you value most—for example, in writing kanji, or reading novels, or watching (and understanding) anime.
This decision also helps you to not be overwhelmed with the huge amount of resources that exist for studying Japanese. You can happily ignore all those books teaching the latest slang or, perhaps, all those books teaching super-polite Japanese, and focus instead on working through a series of Anki decks that bring you to fluency step by step.
Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember there is no duty to learn all of Japanese, nor exactly one order for learning it.
As Adam says, “This is your quest.” It’s not anyone else’s. You get to decide what you need to learn in order to do what you want to do. You also get to decide what you don’t need to learn.
Here, ultimately, is why you should do both.
1. Make sure that your actions are taking you in the direction you want to go.
2. Make sure that you don’t lose your path in the woods along the way.
The good thing about both decisions is that they’re negotiable—because you are the one in charge.
You may decide to suck at speaking while you’re a high school student in Iowa so that you can build up your vocabulary and your listening skills until you can enjoy your favorite anime in Japanese. Later on, as you prepare to study abroad in college, you may decide to not focus on improving your listening skills in order to focus your efforts on learning to speak with ease on topics that interest you.
Of course, you can’t really excel in one area without improving others. But that’s just another benefit of choosing what to suck at. When you’re not trying to improve a skill, you don’t get frustrated for not doing so. And when you improve in that skill anyway, even a little bit, it comes as a pleasant, unexpected surprise.
What skills are you focusing on at the expense of others?
What have you decided is most important for you right now, and what have you decided you’ll save for another day (or never)?
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