Take a Bow

by John Dinkel

The Biggest Pitfall


As Host of the Manga Sensei Podcast, People that are learning Japanese, or any other language, often fall into bad habits unknowingly. These bad habits can hurt your language learning. After years of hard experience, teaching language and learning two (Japanese and Korean) I have fallen into enough pitfalls to know my way around the major ones. In my years of experience, there are 5 main pitfalls and problems that beginning language learners should know about in order to avoid.


Not having a clear purpose

The word in Japanese for 'purpose' is 目的 (Mokuteki) which is written by using the kanji (characters) for ‘Eye’ and ‘Target.’ Your language learning should be just that, your eye centered on the target. Often, people lose the reason for which they are studying. The overarching goal for why they are learning the language is key to making sure you don’t give up. Moreover, it keeps you from wandering into things that would otherwise hinder your language learning; there is no reason to learn medical terminology if your Mokuteki is to do sales or speak fluently. While there is something to be said about ‘fleshing out’ one’s language ability, straying too far from your language goal will often do more harm than good. Make sure you are doing those things that will help achieve your language learning purpose, rather than studying something that may be really cool or just interesting. 


Jumping ahead of yourself

Before you study Kanji you should know your Hiragana and Katakana, Before you learn to read the newspaper you should most likely learn basic conversation, and you should know the basic structure of the language before you begin writing prose. It is often very frustrating to keep studying and growing one step at a time when you feel like you could just take on the world. However, I wouldn’t recommend being a patent translator or acquisitions and mergers interpreter after only a year of study. When you jump ahead of your current language capability you grow. But when you jump too far into the deep end you can actually do more harm than good. Making sure you are doing things in the right order is a struggle and a challenge, but knowing when something is only going to mess up your later acquisition is an important skill. 

Not setting measurable goals

People often get discouraged when they don’t achieve the results that they want right away. That or people set astronomically high language goals and don’t clearly define what that means. I cannot count how many times I have had someone tell me they are going to be conversational at Japanese in one year. This is a completely doable and seemingly sound goal, but what even does it mean to be ‘conversational?’ Do you want to be able to talk about everything or just about your weekend? Heck, I have been speaking Japanese now for almost 8 years and I still cannot talk about cars, computers, or the tea ceremony. Then again, I don’t really care too. That falls outside of my preview as a conversationalist. Setting goals are best done on the SMARTER system in my opinion. 


  1. Specific: You know exactly what you are trying to accomplish.
  2. Measurable: How many vocabulary words, grammar points, and Kanji do I need to know?
  3. Attainable: See Point 2
  4. Relevant: See Point 1
  5. Time-bound: By When, how often, and for how long are you going to study?
  6. Evaluated: reporting back to yourself how effective you were after the specific and measure time.
  7. Recorded: literally written down, somewhat where you can preferably see the goal. 


Abusing Dictionaries  

We currently live in a microwave generation, where supposedly everything can be done with google translate. While there are a number of useful Japanese and English language apps, dictionaries and resources, people often rely too much on these tools. When you literally google every single word in an article, you may be relying too much on your digital memory. Instead, try front-loading, which is a process of pounding your brain with vocabulary words in attempts to memorize large quantities. That and using mnemonics, which may be a little better short-term crutch, as it actually helps you memorize the new words. 


Trying to be perfect

This is the biggest mistake someone can make in my opinion. Unfortunately, this is something that the university system inherently tries to promote. Being free to make mistakes and actually try to write, read, or speak a language is foundational to the development of an individual’s linguistic capacity. It is through mistakes that we learn a language. Experiences, memories of failures, and allowing ourselves to fail are the important things someone can do to learn a language. Literally, the only way someone is going to do, is by letting them do. 


Why is it that when a child is learning how to speak we allow them to speak, and then correct them without persecution, but when an adult is learning a language, failure is rewarded with having to lower their grade? In today’s language learning society, we are so obsessed with perfection we get lost in the thick of thin things. I have met people who have passed the JLPT, or have a degree, yet cannot string together a well-executed paragraph or idea in that target language. This is the epitome of the current method’s idea of ‘perfection.’ 


When I worked as an interpreter, I met many other wonderful linguists. I often asked for tips and tricks from the more senior and obviously talented individuals. I asked them what separated them from the other people who were learning the language at the same time. Their response was almost uniform. Every single one of them imitated native speakers and put themselves out there to be corrected by them. If you want to really master a language, do that. It is only by embracing mistakes that fluency can be obtained. Learning Japanese or any other language, falling into bad habits is often part of the process. Being able to recognize the pitfalls and either avoid them or get out of them is what really separates the good from the amazing.  


Want to learn more Japanese? Check out our daily Japanese Learning Podcast! 

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