j_rant: Are there any kabuki actors who don't look grumpy? (suspicious kabuki face)
[personal profile] j_rant
What if I can read kanji but not write them? What if I only know the kun readings and not the on ones? What if I know how to say a word, but I've never seen it written? What if I accidentally waste time memorizing rare words?

You know what: What if you stopped worrying for a minute?

A lot of time is devoted to hand-wringing over questions like these, but it's pointless. Instead, consider two things: economics and memory.

Economics
Economics? Yes. Economics. One of the first things you learn about in intro econ classes is "opportunity cost" and the related "sunk costs fallacy". Or, in layman's terms, don't throw good money after bad. Who cares whether you failed to learn X in the past or whether it was a waste of time to learn Y. You can't change the past, so the only thing that matters is what you're going to do starting right now.

If you did waste time learning something "not useful" or you've learned and forgotten the same boring stuff over and over, use that experience. Don't waste any more time on those words. Switch study methods to something that will work better for you. Sometimes you should just cut your losses, whether it means switching flashcard programs or giving up on a few jouyou kanji that you just can't seem to remember to make more time for words you'll actually use. This goes for study habits too: Make goals based on what you know now, what you want to know, and how much time you realistically have, not on how guilty you feel about your past crappy study habits.

Passive vs. Active Vocabulary
Language is big and messy. You don't know all of the words of your native language and you never will. (Try playing Free Rice if you want an example. Still think your English vocabulary is impressive, smartypants?) You're never going to know every word of Japanese. Even if you ignore scientific terms and slang, you still won't.

On top of that, people always recognize more words than they "know". So, for example, you might be able to understand a sentence of English without being able to give the dictionary definition of every word, or you might know what a word means in a particular idiom but have no idea that it also has three other meanings. This is normal. Native Japanese speakers always half-recognize many more kanji than they know well and know many more kanji well than they can write, from memory, in pretty handwriting.

This is the difference between "active" vocabulary and "passive" vocabulary. It's nearly impossible to measure how many words a person knows, but the best estimate I could find suggested that most people's passive vocabulary is half again as large as their active one. (So for every 100 words you really know, you kind of know another 150. Or, put another way, out of all of the words you know, you only know about 40% of them well.) I'm pulling these statistics out of my ass; the exact numbers really don't matter. What's important is that this is true for all speakers of all languages.

No matter how hard you study kanji, you will still always recognize more than you can write from memory. You don't need to feel guilty about this, and you should not waste time trying to fix this "problem".

Memory: How does it work?
Memory is messy too. Some words you'll remember easily for no reason you understand. Some words you'll remember because they're unusual. Some words you'll remember because they remind you of others. Some you'll remember because of exactly how they differ from words you already know. (I usually find that I remember meanings based on similarities and kanji based on differences, for example.) Some things you'll remember because you saw them first in place names or set phrases long before you understood what they actually meant.

Any word or kanji that you kind of know is one more piece of knowledge you can use to look for similarities, differences, and connections. Don't think of language as discrete blocks of information that you've failed to learn perfectly. Think of it as constructing a building. The more scaffolding you can build, the more places you have to attach things. Anything you've already learned is one less thing you'll need to learn in the future. Knowing well is better than half-knowing, but half-knowing is still pretty useful.

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March 2011

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