Ten Reasons Why Getting Used to Languages is Exactly Like Baking Cookies

“Textbooks prepare you for the real world as much as cookbooks prepare you for real cooking.”
Chris W. Hubbard

So…I like to bake. Cookies, that is. Big cookie fan. Got into cakes when I was 12, but that phase kind of passed after an extra helping of boarding school, so…cookies it was in college, and cookies it is again now (just getting back into it again).

Baking is a lot like “learning” (getting used to) languages…

  1. There are many ways of doing it. An infinity of variations.
  2. It’s simple and straightforward, but we make it complicated. Sometimes for fun, sometimes for profit, too often out of a misguided sense of obligation; the last of these has led many to ruin.
    1. A friend of mine recently showed me an email from his friend, a girl, who’d just “failed” a mock JLPT. For now, let’s ignore the fact that it’s impossible to fail a test — a test is just information. This dumb broad was calling herself all manner of terrible things 1. A failure, a loser, a terrible person. The poor creature has completely missed the point. All this suffering and self-abuse, and for what? For whom? Is she hoping to win a Purple Heart for self-inflicted injury and misery? She doesn’t even have to be learning Japanese; it’s a game, there’s no good or bad; it’s just for laughs; it’s like playing tag with your friends in the park: the only losers are the people who take it seriously and start yelling and fighting.
      1. And the adults who tell you to stop playing so you can come inside and have boring conversations with them can truck off, too. You’ll come in when you’re good and ready.
  3. You’re best off starting incredibly simple with a stripped-down recipe, and then adding things you think might be cool in later batches.
    1. A lot of people try to “swallow” the so-called AJATT method (or non-method, really) “whole”, as it were — they want it ALL. ALL! NOW! GIMME THE WHOLE THING!
    2. There is a certain percentage of human beings for whom such an approach works wonderfully. But for many (and perhaps most) people, it’s a terrible way of going about things.
    3. You may want to do things the l33ts4uce way right out the gate, but you might not be ready for it quite yet. I would love to dump all my awesomesauce on you in one go, but the truth is that you might just drown in it. Better to dribble and drizzle it on a bit at a time. Come up by accretion: much like baking itself, it’ll take a little more time than you wish, but a lot less time than you fear.
    4. In cookie terms, it’s like jumping straight to those crazy, hostess-with-the-mostest Betty Crocker style recipes that call for butter and oil and Crisco and salt and baking powder and whatever other dumb sheet they could think of — oh yeah, baking sheets — to give women more busywork.
    5. No, screw that. From behind. I bake man-cookies. Spartan cookies. With wholewheat flour. And, like, 3 ingredients (not really exaggerating that much). To some people, they seem more like rusks than cookies…those people can go auto-erotically asphyxiate themselves.
    6. …This is…very…aggressive, misogynistic baking.
  4. Use what you’ve got. The less ingredients you start with, the better. Start with something fun, simple, and easy — add the tweaks later. In other batches, at a later time. Don’t turn lack of cinnamon and nutmeg into an excuse to go cookie-less. Too many people waste time, energy and even money, scurrying hither and thither accumulating ingredients, tools and tips, not allowing themselves to do things the easy way, not allowing themselves to even start unless and until they have got all their ducks in a row. Your ducks will be dead and rotting by the time you get them lined up.
    1. This is especially true of Immersion. Stop trying too hard to use what you clearly don’t have at hand at the time! It sounds obvious enough, but you’d be amazed how many people (myself included) often try too hard to fight the environment and then complain that the language is hard. No, you want to work with the environment, it’s not your enemy, it’s your easel; limits provide traction; Twitter is cool because of the character limit, not despite it.
      1. Only have one hand free? Then don’t try to do something that requires two hands!
      2. Sleepy? Then don’t try too hard to read — hear instead.
      3. Too tired to concentrate when listening? Don’t! Just hear!
      4. No Internet or slow Internet (same thing, really, innit’)? Then don’t do things that require fast Internet access — go offline, playa. I know, I don’t like it either, but it exists, this…”offline” place.
  5. Substitute to win. Don’t have regular sugar? Use brown sugar. Use maple syrup. Use honey. Bananas. Dates. Whatever. A resourceful=rebellious mindset will open up entire universes of possibilities for you.
  6. Even the dough tastes great — you don’t have be fluent/native-level (in cookie terms, baked, cooled and hardened) to enjoy experiencing a language. Contrary to popular misconception…
  7. There is no One True Cookie Recipe. There are timeless cookie principles. Your best bet is to look for these, rather than focussing on the dogmatic specifics of whatever method religion you’ve decided to believe in. Look for the things that every recipe, I mean, method, contains. That’s the common ground. Run with that.
  8. It’s not a competition. You compete, you lose. Interpersonal competition is for the weak, the intellectually lazy and the oppressed. Mark Cuban isn’t on that court; Mark Cuban owns the team. Stop being a gladiator: at least own a ludus or something 2. Hint: the trick isn’t to win the Hunger Games, it’s to not be playing in them to begin with. Not everyone will like your cookies, and that’s fine. Screw ‘em. They can go buy their own. Don’t invite people into your house to have them eat and then insult your food. The only question that matters is: do you like your cookies? 3
  9. Localize your tests and failures. Run crazy experiments on small, sequestered, batches or sub-batches. Then globalize your successes — systematize and “industrialize” them, repeat them en masse.
    1. This is especially of SRS card formats. Many millions died that MCDs might be great.
  10. You shouldn’t read any one cookbook as if it were freaking Gospel…but many (most) people do.
    1. No single cookbook is holy. Even the set of all extant cookbooks isn’t holy. It’s precious. Not holy.
    2. The cookie canon is open. You can create valid and valuable new knowledge, new ideas, based on your experiences. And you’re not holy, so neither is your recipe. It’s just another one in the collection. That doesn’t make it un-awesome, it just makes it…not a thing to be worshipped, just a thing to be used, not used, accepted, rejected, ignored, misunderstood and modified at will.
  11. It looks bad. Things look bad in-process. They don’t look like the final product and you wonder if they ever will. They probably will, if you can silence your amygdala long enough to see them through, to let nature takes its course. You wonder if you’ll ever be fluent, how can this dough turn hard? What about that nutmeg?
    1. I’m not saying not to freak out. I’m saying, pencil it in for 10 minutes 10 years from now (no, really, open up your calendar app and do it), when you’ll have real information and perspective instead of the oozing ball of pure, 24-carat FUD that you have now.
    2. I’ll give ya 5 years if you’re in a rush. 5 years from now, for 10 minutes, you can have a freak out session about the thing you were going to freak out about now.
  12. Following the instructions is not always the right thing to do.
    1. Just because the recipe says 20 minutes, doesn’t mean 20 minutes is right for you. Depending on your altitude and the peculiarities of your oven, you may only need 12 minutes. 12 minutes: golden brown. 20 minutes: golden burnt, on fire.
    2. You follow when you can or when it makes sense or when you have no clearly conflicting feedback. Otherwise, you don’t. Let the recipe guide you, don’t let it rule you — use it, don’t be used by it. Don’t be a slave. Be a bau5. Take advice, not orders.
      1. There is something of an art to this, but “better to go wrong in freedom than go right in chains”, right? There are a handful of times and situations where I would prefer that people follow my advice to the letter (or thereabouts). Ironically, these appear to be precisely the times and situations where otherwise-anal people grow a spine and put some bass in their voice and rebel. 具體的に言うと (more concretely), anal people tend to rebel against my advice to chillax the heck out a little, instead preferring to go find a new “religion” (i.e. learning technique) to believe in and be oppressed by. Anything but their own judgment and their own happiness and their own preferences, it seems, will do.
    3. School has taught you to reject your own judgment and reject your own experiences and to follow orders — I know; I also received “the treatment”. But the people who wrote the cookbooks are humans just like you. They put on their undies one leg at a time and their pooh smells. They were born unable to walk, talk or cook. Remember that. Don’t be arrogant; don’t be humble; be scrappy. And if you can’t be scrappy, be arrogant. Because watching you being humble hurts me.
    4. Get this: I have a friend, a distinguished lady, who used to hate cooking and, quite frankly, used to be pretty bad at it. From what I observed (which was quite a lot), the main reason why she sucked so hard 4 was because…she would literally try to follow every recipe to the absolute letter, as if it were holy writ from on high. She also tried very complex Martha Stewart black belt recipes. Invariably, this would result in burnt, gnarled, mangled…let’s be generous and call them “baked goods”.
    5. And do you know what her reaction was? Self-loathing. To add injury to insult, she would resolve to follow the recipe even more exactly next time! It seems that she attributed the failures to microgram-level deviations from the quantities given in the recipes. It was painful to watch. Anyway, eventually she started just winging it and now she bakes like an absolute champ; on another continent she is and I miss her food.

All done! Maybe you can think of some more reasons ;) .


  1. Irony. It’s what’s for dinner.
  2. You can do better than even that.
  3. Way, waaaay too autobiographical :) .

  12 comments for “Ten Reasons Why Getting Used to Languages is Exactly Like Baking Cookies

  1. Kurono
    November 21, 2013 at 06:16

    I don’t know if it’s the cookies analogy which struck me or what but… this post is perfect.

  2. November 21, 2013 at 10:04

    You’re speaken’ my lingo! I love to bake, language learning and you are so very correct! Thanks for this, I’m going to share :)

  3. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    November 21, 2013 at 11:59

    Those of us who have cooked know how apt this metaphor is.

  4. Dan
    November 21, 2013 at 13:33

    Great post! I loved how you mentioned that girl who failed the mock JLPT test and just talked about people who take it seriously and start fighting and yelling about it :P Seriously felt like I needed a post like this in my AJATT progress, thanks Khatz :)

  5. kiddolink
    November 23, 2013 at 12:17

    Hello. Excuse me, is the term 具體的に言うと (more concretely) misspelled? Because I can’t translate it properly with Google Translate. I get: “To put it the ingredients 體的”. Maybe the correct term is 具体的に言うと, isn’t it?

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      November 24, 2013 at 03:22

      Those of us who have read this blog for a while now know that Khatz likes to use traditional Chinese characters (旧字体 in Japanese) in place of the new forms common in standard Japanese. Of course, Google is just a machine and doesn’t know any better, but human beings who are actually familiar with the language will be able to understand such things more easily.

      • kiddolink
        November 24, 2013 at 05:07

        Good to know. Thank you!

  6. A
    June 6, 2014 at 05:50

    I know this is entirely missing the point and ignoring the sound advice to spread your own wings and experiment, but I kind of want to see one or two of Khaz’s ghetto man-cookie recipes… You know. For reference.

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