Knowing your limits: learning a language, among other things

Hi all,

Haven’t posted in a day or two. I’ve been spending time with my daughter now that she’s back home with me. I didn’t realize how much she missed me until she saw me at the airport and did a little dance, then fell down. She couldn’t sleep last night either partly due to jetlag, and partly because she wanted to play with Daddy too. Also, I’ve had many good conversations with my wife about our future, and topic that came up was my efforts to get a job in Japan. We both decided long ago that we would live in Japan if we could get a good job there.* So, to get a good job there, I need to speak Japanese well, and to that end I’ve been focusing for about a year on getting certified through the JLPT program. Of its four levels, with 1 being very advanced, and 4 being easy, I planned on taking the level 3 test, bypassing level 4 altogether.

My thought process was this: I’ve been happily married to a Japanese lady for years and studied in college for a while, so I have some background in the language. I figured if I could study hard for the next year (test is in December), I would be able to pass. Lately, after talking with a nice fellow who’s been through the tests, as well my wife, I realize that despite my background, taking the level 3 test is actually kind of risky at this point. The more I study for the level 3 test, the more I realize how little Japanese I actually know. My wife, who spent 10 years living in the US, reminded me that it actually takes a long time to learn a language. You really can’t cram for it, as I intended to do. And even with the most basic level, level 4, there are still words and grammar points I don’t know, and my ability to listen to Japanese, is still in doubt. When learning a language, listening is by far the hardest skill to acquire but still one of the most important if you intend to succeed, and despite good efforts, I am realizing my limitations.

Still, it’s good to know your limits. I am reminded of a wonderful phrase from the Chinese Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching:

Chapter 71: Who recognizes his limitations is healthy;
Who ignores his limitations is sick.
The sage recognizes this sickness as a limitation.
And so becomes immune.

So, after talking with my wife and a fellow Japanese student online, I will be doing a more realistic goal of passing the level 4 certification test, and if all goes well, trying for level 3 the following year, or two years later. Even if I should fail, my Japanese will still have improved, and that will go over well with my in-laws.**

Although I have been actively studying Japanese since January 2008, I decided in the last few months to really start making my environment line up more with my studies, which is among the reasons why I switched my blog to a more Japanese-theme, and less Buddhist one (while still retaining the latter). Instead of studying Japanese through Buddhism, I felt it best to continue studying Buddhism through my studies of Japan, if that make sense. Making my environment more conducive to language studies has helped, but as I realize, it still just takes time and almost endless rehearsal.*** Also, not studying Buddhism as actively has taken loads of stress of myself, and allowed to settle into a more concerted long-term practice, without getting my head full of facts and texts I struggled to reconcile. I suppose this is a lesson for Japanese students but also students of Buddhism as well. :)

Namu Amida Butsu

UPDATE: After further study, I realized that I can still comfortably pass the Level 3 test if I keep studying throughout the year, so I decided to try for that instead.

* – English teaching jobs pay poorly and vary widely, as well as a contingent immigration status. Not the kind of thing you want to risk putting a family through.

** – This is why I love I listened to the beginner lessons for a year, starting in Jan 2008 even with the big move to Ireland, and on my last trip to Japan, I found I could converse with my in-laws more easily, especially my father-in-law who speaks a real difficult country-side dialect (to me at least). On New Year’s Eve, my father-in-law and I enjoyed a simple, but good conversation while watching old-school Enka singing contests, while Baby slept nearby. It was nice to see my studying paid off.

*** – This is where the Anki service really comes in handy. It manages my vocab lessons for me (as long as I keep adding in new vocab), and as long as I keep reviewing daily, gradually my vocab expands and I can read words faster, and without stalling to remember what the kanji meant.

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7 Comments on “Knowing your limits: learning a language, among other things”

  1. Jeannie says:

    Hi Doug! Glad that you and your family are reunited. I can imagine how hard that was on everyone.

    A classmate took JLPT 3 back in December. He found it easy but he has many years experience with the language. Another friend took it too- one whose background is like mine in that he has studied Japanese in school for two years. He found it very difficult. And another friend, who lives in Japan and took JLPT 1 says that to pass 2, you need to live in Japan, or at the very least, use Japanese everyday and often.

    Good luck to you!

    P.S. If my hubby spoke Japanese, I would insist that he’d use it primarily at home in order to help me learn. Just a suggestion. :)

  2. Hey There,

    I was coming over to link your site to one of my posts and got sidetracked as I read your latest. I’m no Japanese wizard, in fact my skills are pretty mundane. I have however, read one of your posts in Japanese and you are leaps and bounds beyond me. I just took the JLPT 3. I won’t say it was easy… But based off your knowledge compared to mine… You’ll do fine. I scored 1.5 % away from passing, I’m confident I’ll ace it next year.

    Two things for a sure win -
    1 – Go to this web-page, print the vocab, practice what you don’t know and run through the grammar.

    2 – get the 04/06 JLPT lvl 3 study guide from the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services. Its a white book with a green 3 on the cover, includes a CD. It covered the 2004-2006 tests. They were very similar to the ’08.

    You should do fine with the lead time you are giving yourself. Helps to have a buddy to study with too!



  3. Marcus says:


    “English teaching jobs pay poorly and vary widely, as well as a contingent immigration status. Not the kind of thing you want to risk putting a family through.”

    You are so right. Please, consider teaching English only as a very very last resort. (This from someone with 13 years in the industry).

    See you in Japan some time!


  4. Victor says:


    Do you know anything about the iKnow! Japanese language learning platform? (Recently became

    FYI, I work as a researcher in second language acquisition at a US university center, and we do consulting and research projects for large USG institutions with major interests in language learning and technology.

    Best wishes,

    PS My 2nd language is Russian, which I learned as an adult. Difficult but definitely not as difficult as Japanese!

  5. Doug says:

    Hi all,

    Sorry for the late reply:

    Matthew: Sadly, after taking a prep mock test though, I failed pretty miserably. Most of my online stuff is possible through good dictionaries and such, not because I actually know the words. I do know the URL you mentioned and dumped all their vocab into Anki for practice, and that helps. :) Still need to work on listening and grammar among other shortcomings.

    Marcus: Yeah, my wife keeps discouraging me from doing that idea. Since I have a nice job in an IT company, she doesn’t like the idea of me trading that for something risky and inconsistent like a teaching job, but on the other hand it would get me to Japan. Ah well.

    Victor: I haven’t looked at iKnow yet, but will definitely give it a look. I certainly welcome your input given your background on the subject. :)

  6. Victor says:

    iKnow! is now, and it looks like they are experiencing some problems migrating their web operations :(

    Actually I’d value your impressions, given your experience as a developer and learner of Japanese!

    The allegedly “cognitively enhanced” aspect of iKnow! and Anki look interesting. They are certainly onto important cognitive principles of memory and learning.

  7. Doug says:

    Actually I am not a developer, but more like a system admin. I couldn’t write computer code to save my life (or to get out of paper bag). As for Anki, I noticed the same trend in myself when memorizing things before, in that short-term cramming, no matter how much I did it, wouldn’t work. I noticed that when I could recall something two times over the long-term (weeks, months later after learning it), it usually “stuck”. Anki functions on the same model where long-term memorization is emphasized rather than short-term drilling, and that’s why I like it. :)

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