Boiling Water

Um…I guess I’m going to keep this short. I went on a really long walk today, through forests and leafy neighborhoods and narrow streets. Anyway, near the very end of the walk, it occurred to me that learning a language is like boiling water.

Picture from that walk where the boiling idea cameWhen the water has boiled, you have reached fluency. Thereafter, you can keep the water at boiling point with less input (of thermal energy) than it took to get it there in the first place. Where a lot of people right now fail with language-learning is, they try to boil water…but then they keep turning off the fire, and when they do turn it on, it’s only for a short time (they’re being three-day monks). So they wonder why their water isn’t boiling, after all, they turn on the stove for 3 seconds once a day(!!!?!?!??!). And then they think: “maaan, water is so hard to boil!!!”

Yes, let’s blame the task instead of realizing that the process is faulty. Doing things that way is not the way to boil water. In fact, doing things that way, the water will likely evaporate before it boils — the language itself will change or the learner will die before ever having learned it.

Turn on that fire, and turn it on high, and keep it on high. The way to boil water is in a single, continuous stream of intense heat. Forget your worries about whether or not the water is going to boil or whether your pot is the right colour — leave that to the laws of physics — just focus on keeping the fire lit.

I guess a picture of boiling water would have been more apropos…

  30 comments for “Boiling Water

  1. Stephen
    October 18, 2007 at 14:28

    This is a great metaphor as it instantly captures my previous failures at learning languages. Thanks for your inspiring words, they’re a big help, and keep up the intensity!

  2. James
    October 18, 2007 at 14:54

    damn.. this makes me even more depressed about cheaping out on my chinese study to cram for midterms today :(

  3. ジェームス
    October 18, 2007 at 21:50


  4. Wan Zafran
    October 19, 2007 at 02:36

    This is the part where I mention the concept of thermal equilibrium. Since your Japanese ‘temperature’ is higher than mine, I would most definitely appreciate a bit of ‘heat transfer’ as such. (Haha.)

  5. khatzumoto
    October 19, 2007 at 08:27


  6. quendidil
    October 19, 2007 at 22:31

    Khatzumoto, it’s me again, sorry in advance if I’m bugging you again
    but, could you tell me of how you managed your time in school?
    Do you find Steve Pavlina’s “Do It Now” article similar to your own experience? (you
    seem to have read him)


  7. Lionelltd
    October 21, 2007 at 13:53

    Great stuff. Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. October 21, 2007 at 20:48

    It’s so true…I think a lot of great advice can be learned from those who were on the bad side of a situation. Coming from that side :p, I can assure you that you really do have to tend to the fire. Picture yourself on a desert island, with no matches…if the fire goes out, you’ll have to spend all day rubber sticks together to get it going again. Or you can be vigilant and tend to it.

    I say this as someone who often winds up rubbing sticks all day. Trust me, you don’t want be that person!

  9. Hakushon Daimao
    October 23, 2007 at 11:50

    I just wanted to leave a comment and say how inspiring I’ve found your site to be. After almost 5 years in Japan I am still in the intermediate stage and that’s been getting me down. I’ve started using your Khatzumemo everyday to help me remember how to *write* kanji not just read them. Plus, putting in all new vocab I come across. I’m at day 5 now and I’m detirmined to keep going. I’m sure that by my 5th anniversary next year I’ll be at a much better place with my Japanese.
    Thank you (^-^)

  10. Lane
    May 19, 2008 at 12:56

    I think stellar bodies would be a better comparison. Or think Katamary Damacy if you like. Add mass. You eventually create a star and fusion begins (understanding?). But it becomes a self-sustaining process… uh… I didn’t really think this through so bear with me. If your star is massive enough… then you’ll fuse to iron or lead or something, blow off your lighter elements and implode into a black hole. This is where I was trying to start my analogy because as you add matter, your Schwarzschild Radius (domain of your knowledge?) grows. But, as information leaks out in the form of Hawking Radiation, your black hole is literally evaporating. The SRS will help you sort of ‘recapture’ that Hawking Radiation as it were… To the extent that letting your language black hole atrophy for too long will cause it to literally evaporate and disappear. On the other hand, continuously adding mass will expand your domain indefinitely.

    Hmm… How about it?

  11. Lane
    May 19, 2008 at 13:01

    Okay. I forgot to mention… The reason stellar bodies might be a better comparison is that Wan mentioned that khatzumoto’s “water” was boiling at a higher temperature. At STP and with regular water, that’s not possible. You can, however, have variously massive black holes with respectively varying Schwarzschild Radii or domains of knowledge and experience…

    Just thought I’d not forget to mention my point… ; )

    By the way, great site. I’m working on Heisig as we speak.

  12. jpavlakovich
    May 20, 2008 at 11:08

    Careful, he never said his water was actually “boiling”

  13. Elvagejo
    August 1, 2009 at 05:51

    Heating water takes less energy than a phase change ( boiling ).

    A beter analogy ( sorry Lane, you went a little too far ) is pushing a car. Hard at first, but once it’s moving you don’t have to push very hard at all (ignore the having to run along side it). Stop long enough and friction drives it to a halt and you start all over again.

    You are free to use this for AJATT the book, movie, musical etc.

  14. RainbowPinku
    August 21, 2009 at 16:46

    Great website, I love to read your posts. I had Japanese private teacher for over 2 years, did selfstudy in Japanese for 1.5 years and then had to stop taking lessons when I moved abroad. (could not afford it) Now I want to continue my studies, and really I forgot a lot since the 1 year break, even tho I watch Japanese TV shows or anime daily, or listen to J-pop I try to stop taking beraks, and finding excuses. Everyone has at least 10-20 minutes a day before you go to sleep the read thrugh your kanji’s or to learn a few new ones. I have a fulltime job and a part time job (7 days a week) so I can not study 18-24 hours a day like you do. :( I will still try, I started labeling all items in my room with their Japanese names, and I bought myself the laminated Kanjiposter advertised on your site, I will read your site daily yo get fresh motivation, and to feed the fire I need for boiling my water.

  15. 星空
    November 14, 2010 at 09:24

    お湯が沸く 天に飛び出す 汽になって。

    スゲエ、私! 考えないで俳句を書いたんだよ!やった~^_^ 

  16. Jon
    November 23, 2011 at 07:29

    i think master gichin funakoshi used the same metaphor for learning karate

  17. Erick
    July 16, 2012 at 05:11

    Wow… that analogy is gonna stick with me… I’m never gonna forget this. This is just precious.

  18. October 9, 2013 at 06:22

    I’m reading this article again for the first time in a few years.

    It’s interesting how the ideology of AJATT has morphed over the years. The mantra now seems like, “Some Japanese, Most of the Time”.

    I find that interesting because the method that includes short breaks is probably perceived as an easier route to fluency. But I think the keep-the-heat-on way is actually the easier way to go.

    The goal seems more clear cut, when every decision you make is one to deepen your immersion.

    I don’t know, that’s just my two yen. It’s been a while since I visited AJATT so I guess I’ve got some catching up to do :)

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