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Method Change-Up: Writing Is Overrated

August 1, 2013
This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Method Change-Up

When I started this site, I mentioned that, from time to time, my method would be changing slightly. Now is one of those times.

Japanese Writing

Japanese Writing

This marks the first article in a small series that I’ll be writing up about some of the changes I’ve made to the method since all of this began.

From the time we are children, we are told that writing things down helps to retain information you are studying[1]. It is said that performing the action of writing puts more than just one of your senses to work, which always improves retention of subject matter[2].

Before you get the wrong idea, allow me to clarify the fact that this is true, and has been proven many times over. I am not stating that writing study material is wrong, or that it’s pointless. It does help. A lot, actually. That being said…

Writing Japanese when you are in the beginning and intermediate phases as a method of retention is not efficient.

You heard me, it’s just not. It’s great, and helps a lot of things, but it’s far from an efficient means of retention. Let’s take a moment to consider the following scenario:

As you are stepping through your Anki reviews, you are writing your sentence out in its entirety, or maybe just the clozed section of the sentence. Now we will say that it takes an average of 15 seconds to a minute to write out the material, depending on how well you know it, how fast you are and whether you’re writing the whole sentence or just a portion of it. Don’t forget that this is after the time it takes to read the question and recall the answer in its entirety. Let’s also give that an average of 10 seconds, give or take 10 more. So that’s a range of 25 seconds to a minute and 20 seconds, roughly.

Now suppose you set yourself a maximum of 10 minutes per study session (because you’re using time-boxing, right? right!? ). Considering the average of this scenario, 40-45 seconds per card, you can get through approximately 13 cards in that time – give or take[3]. Not bad right?

Sure, that’s not bad, but it certainly could be better.


Now consider this alternate scenario:

This time, we will keep the average of a 10 second question read and answer recall (obviously bearing in mind this can vary based on difficulty as well), but throw out all the time it would take to write the sentence. That gives a range of anywhere between 10 and 25 seconds per card on average – yielding about 35 cards (maybe more, maybe less) in that same 10 minutes. That’s almost triple the throughput of Japanese material in the same amount of time!

Now then – why, after just writing an article on quality over quantity, are we now focusing on quantity? That’s a fair question, to be honest, and the answer is simple.

Quality should be top priority, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still move at a good pace. 

Why know 10 sentences backwards and forwards when instead you could know 27 ideas instead? Don’t misconstrue what I am saying here, though. It is absolutely imperative that your reviews be as correct and accurate as possible. However, if you can have more of those correct, accurate reviews, why would you not?

But Torabisu, I thought you said learning to write is important? Now you’re saying it isn’t? What gives?

Actually, I didn’t say it’s not important. It is important – very important. However, when you are just starting out, the bang for the buck just isn’t there[4]. The idea here is to get up to speed as quickly as possible so that you can go monolingual – that is, to know enough Japanese to study your Japanese in, you guessed it, Japanese.

Again, I do think that writing is extremely important, and anyone learning Japanese should absolutely learn it. But let’s face it – how often will you actually use it up front, in the beginning? This brings me to my next point…


Japanese Girl Using Cell Phone

Japanese Girl Using Cell Phone

People don’t write all that much in Japan these days[5].

Most communication is done via computer or cell phone, using either a Japanese keyboard or an Input Method Editor (IME). There’s no immediate need up front to learn how to write because you can use one of these devices to do it for you while you focus on learning the ropes. Unfortunately, there is a downside to all of this technology known as “Kanji Amnesia”[6], but we needn’t worry ourselves about that now.


So if I’m not writing the sentences, how am I retaining them?

Speaking. By simply reading the questions and answers out loud, you are doing the following:

  • Reading the kana and kanji, reinforcing your visual recognition of these characters (vision).
  • Saying (out loud) the questions and answers in their entirety (taking physical action). This is considerably faster than writing, yet accomplishes 80% of the goal while using 20% of the time. Also has the benefit of improving your spoken Japanese, obviously.
  • Listening to yourself read the sentence (hearing). If you can, try to find accompanying audio recordings of the sentence as well, and include it in the answer side of the card. This is using another sense for input (hearing), which further solidifies that sentence in your mind.

The take away here is that you can accomplish essentially the same goals while not practicing something you won’t be using immediately.


So when do I need to learn and practice writing?

For now, I’m going to keep this simple and stick with this answer:

Much later, when you’re well into intermediate (and monolingual) studies. Once you are at the point where you can learn Japanese from Japanese and not rely on your native tongue, you are ready to practice writing. It’s at this point that you may see some return on your efforts in writing, and you have enough of a foundation in Japanese to no longer be concerned with what you do or don’t know in the language.

Some may view this point as the start of diminishing returns – and maybe they are right – but I don’t look at it that way. I see it as the start of a downhill journey (a good thing), with the hardest part being completed (that is, climbing over the peak of going monolingual).


How this has helped me

I have noticed that since I have embraced this study pattern my knowledge gain rate has gone up significantly – as has my retention. I have found that speaking actually reinforces topic matter better than it was when I was just writing it[7]. I’ve noticed that I no longer struggle to keep up with reviews either since I get more done in a single sitting.

Keeping up on reviews and getting them done when they are due has contributed greatly in keeping me motivated to continue, and has made studying more like a game than like work.


The bottom line

Point blank, I am by no means saying you shouldn’t learn writing. I am not saying that it isn’t important, or that it’s completely pointless.

I’m saying to put it off for a bit. Draw some Kanji and kana once in a while to keep your skills up, but I’d hold off on anything more than that until you surpass the “midpoint”[8] of your “intermediate” phase. You’ll be amazed at how much faster you’ll pick things up in the beginning.


Photo Sources:

  1. http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3166/2850206796_468d70989e_z_d.jpg?zz=1
  2. http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5300/5408434512_25bfca637d_z_d.jpg



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Drills, remember those?
  2. And it does.
  3. I know, I know. So many numbers!
  4. You know, where “bang” is your variety of Japanese knowledge and “buck” is your time spent.
  5. Srsly, they don’t.
  6. This is an issue occurring in Japan today. People are forgetting how to write kanji because of IMEs and the like. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_amnesia 
  7. This is my experience, however. Note that yours may vary – we’re all different, after all.
  8. Whatever that is…
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