This week, I got an email from a reader having a problem that I myself have struggled with many times:

How to Maintain Progress in Language Studies

I have been studying Japanese for 4 months, I know the kana well, and about 150 kanji.  The problem is, I don’t know what to do next.  I get distracted all the time with all the new resources, and spend all day reading the great sites on learning Japanese without learning.  I planned on dedicating months to just learning the kanji, and nothing else.  So after using Anki, and RTK book, I get to about 200 kanji,I get a little bored, get distracted,  then read your site about listening to anime to learn Japanese.  Then I read part of Tae Kim’s book on grammar, because I find it so interesting.  Then I start studying kana only vocab. etc. etc.


So, after this, I forget most of the 200 kanji and start all over again.  I’m sure you must know what I’m talking about.  What do you recommend?  Do I study strictly kanji then move to vocab, then grammar.  Or try to learn to listen , read.  It’s confusing on how to proceed in the best order.  So any recommendations would be very appreciated.

I used to have this exact same problem.

What can I say? I’m an impulsive guy.

And it’s so easy to see some new, exciting study resource, and then to attack it head on… leaving behind whatever I’ve been working on for the last week, month, whatever.

What Order Should I Study This Language In?!

Dude, I have no idea. I’m sorry.

Only you can know that. I mean, yeah, I have a lot of opinions and educated guesses about the best ways to learn a language, but at the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning anything.

The basic structure that is presented in my e-book on learning Japanese is:

Pronuncation and Kana –> Kanji –> Vocab (A Lot) and Grammar (including speaking).

It’s a really fleshed out approach, and I even have daily schedules and calendars and all that business, because it’s an approach that worked for me.

The thing is, the study schedules in my guide will not match your actual study progress. Because everyone’s different. The other day, I got an email from a reader saying that he got through all 2,200 of the general-use kanji characters in 42 days. That’s amazing! My guide is actually for 97 days, but he turned it into 42. Some people go through it in six months.

Finding your study pace and approach is part of the fun of learning a language. You figure out how you learn things. It’s amazing.

So I wouldn’t stress over what order you’re studying in. Rather, I’d focus on not wasting your study investments.

Just DON’T Move Backwards

I read this really awesome post about finance and investing once. Being the scholar that I am, I have no recollection whatsoever where I read it, but it went something like this:

The #1 rule of investing is this: Don’t Lose Money.

Whenever we talk about investing, we start daydreaming about “making it big.”

If only I could invest in the next Facebook, you think. So then you go make an impulsive investment on something that sounds like it could be the next Facebook. And boom, your savings are gone.

Good investing is about holding onto the money you’ve worked so hard to get. Ideally, it increases. But at the very least, you don’t lose any.

Well, in a very similar sense, good studying is about holding onto the knowledge you’ve worked so hard to get.

Seeing as how I’m the king of “bad study investments,” I’ll give some examples.

60 Hours Wasted on a Bad Study Investment

Last spring, I had this brilliant idea.

I told myself, “Niko, babe, you should learn Chinese.”

And I was stoked.

So I spent like a month plowing through Anki flashcards, and it wasn’t long before I’d put away a solid 200 or so Chinese words, along with 400 or so Chinese characters (knowing the kanji helped a lot).

Fast forward another month, and I’ve already gotten distracted moved onto the next thing–walking along the river in Nakameguro drinking beer. Or something like that.

I just didn’t feel like studying Chinese anymore. After all, I only started on an impulse. So I started skipping days with my Anki flashcards. And a couple of months later, I just deleted the insurmountable flashcard deck.

I threw 60+ hours of study time in the trash.

Looking back, I kind of wish I’d stuck with my studies. Oh well. Live and learn… or tell yourself you learned something so that you feel better. Or something. I don’t know.

Since I’m starting to hurt to my own feelings, let’s look at a completely opposite example, a good study investment…

4,237 Vocab Words Memorized on a Good Study Investment

Since we’re on the topic of my impulsive, unrealistic schemes, let’s go back to right around February of 2014 (before the Chinese fiasco).

I had a great idea: “I should move to Medellin, Columbia. For no reason!”

It all seemed perfect in my head. I’ll buy an electronic keyboard so I can learn piano and Spanish at the same time, and I’ll live in a fancy studio apartment right next to Universidad EAFIT, where, of course, I have like a hundred best friends. Probably graduate students in science programs. Or something like that.

Like I said, I can get carried away with impulses.

I dove headfirst into my Spanish studies again.

I’d had a lot of experience with Spanish before, as I studied it for a solid half-year or so back in 2011 when I lived in Cusco, Peru for a few months (another awesome idea). In other words, I already had a nice foundation of Spanish. I pretty much didn’t need to study grammar at all.

So I was just plowing through vocabulary. There were some days when I “learned” (or rather, “re-learned”) 200 Spanish words.

After only a couple of months (right up until the “Chinese incident”), I’d amassed around 3,500 or so Spanish flashcards. Wow.

I learned 3,000+ Spanish words.

And then I quit studying Spanish… kind of.

However, here’s the one big difference:

Thankfully, for the last year I have done my Anki review cards for Spanish just about every single day.

I reviewed what I’d learned every day, so that I didn’t lose it.

Even when I was learning new Chinese words, my Spanish review flashcards (which I was way less interested in) took priority.

The result:

Today, I have memorized (i.e. not forgotten) 4,237 Spanish vocabulary flashcards.

Here’s a screenshot from my Anki deck:

I HATE reviewing my Spanish flashcards. I don’t know why, but my Japanese flashcards are kind of fun for me, whereas doing my Spanish review cards every morning is like pulling teeth.

But it ony takes like 5-10 minutes to get through them. And looking at the huge number of “memorized words,” I know it was worth it.

I didn’t lose those few hundred hours I invested in Spanish back in early 2014. I took care of that study investment, and it’s really going to come in handy if and when I jump back into my studies.

Maintenance Is About Priorities

If these stories are boring you out of your mind, here’s the simple, step-by-step version:

1. Make an easily-reviewed Anki flashcard for every new thing you study.

If you’re learning new kanji, make sure you’re learning them through Anki. If you’re studying anime, study anime through Anki. If you’re studying Tae Kim’s grammar guide, put example sentences of new grammar constructions into a well-formatted, blank Anki flashcard deck. Anything new and vital goes in a flashcard.

2. Review Flashcards are the most important thing in your life.

It’s chill if you get distracted and go buy some awesome book about Japanese ghost stories. Or whatever, I don’t know. But before you go play with [new, shiny study toy], do your review cards. You invested those hours. Don’t let them go to waste.

3. Never stop. And never stop enjoying yourself.

I talk about this at length in the Hacking Japanese Supercourse, but the only way that anyone truly masters a language is through thousands of hours of consistent, structured exposure over a long period of time. It’s not a race. It’s a cross-country road trip. If you keep driving, keep exploring, you’re gonna see some f-ing rad stuff. Or you could run home crying to your mom after your first flat tire.

Don’t Fret About Bad Investments

Lastly, I should mention that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself about bad study investments.

This is something that I need to tell myself all the time, because I waste hundreds of hours per year studying things that I quit.  It’s the curse of an impulsive nerd like me.

But whatever. I still make bad study investments, but at least I make less than I used to… kind of.

Good luck with your studies everyone.

Keep swimming,

Niko

p.s. Here’s the best study investment ever (because it’s free):

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.