How to Avoid The Two Biggest Mistakes That Almost All Language Learners Seem to Make

1) Don’t Ask The Internet For Permission or Predictions 1

Don’t ask the Internet for permission to try something. Don’t ask it whether it thinks your method will work. Do it and then tell it what happened. Don’t effing ask the Internet, TELL the Internet. Because you know who’s mostly on the Internet? Rectal orifices (there’s another word for them). 90% human chaff. And rectal orifices are to be spoken to or at, not listened to. And 10% wheat. But most of the time, the wheat has no time to respond to you because it’s too busy being awesome. Let me not throw stones from a glass house — I am also one of those rectal orifices, OK? There are plenty of people with methods and results and ideas better and faster than me, but you know what? They’re too cool to write about their experiences; they’re busy with life. We live in a world of quiet, polite lurkers. Don’t let their silent evidence be drowned out by the advice-dispensing idiots online. I’m not saying the Internet is bad (it’s full of crap, but it’s not bad); I’m not saying “never ask for advice online” 2, I’m saying…

Frame your questions in such a way as to get the best of the ‘Net 3. Like preparing and eating fugu, you want to avoid the poisonous elements of the ‘Net while enjoying the sweet, juicy meat. I’ve never had fugu, because I’m not nucking futs, but…I hear it’s good. “Risk death” good? I dunno. Anyway, you need to ask:

  1. Questions that the Internet is good at answering,
  2. In a way that is likely to get you good answers, i.e. without getting you into an Internet quagmire of unsolicited, unqualified opinion (I already said I was a rectal orifice, so consider this piece of irony successfully lampshaded)

What that means is:
Ask for recipes (does anyone here know how to X?), ask to be pointed to specific pieces of information, but don’t ask “hey guys, do you think this will work?”
Ask for links to cookie recipes, don’t ask whether cookies can be baked, and if anyone tells you cookies can’t be baked, ignore the Lord FARQUAD out of them.

Ask the Internet specific, concrete (so-called “low-level”) questions. Don’t ask it the big-picture questions 4 like I see so many people doing on Reddit (when it comes to languages at least)…the Internet is not good at those, and you will get nothing but reams of opinionated, misguided animal waste matter masquerading as text. Don’t ask it how to get rich, ask it for 3~10 book recommendations, ask it for software it recommends for writing or membership sites or, I dunno, trading stocks.

And that, children, is why StackOverflow (for the uninitiated: the best programing help website evarr) is so awesome. They don’t even allow you to ask ambiguous, poorly worded or big-picture questions. Only specific questions are allowed. On a topic that could easily be overwhelmed by WhoseProgrammingLanguageIsTheTrueReligion pissing contests and dissolve into bellum omnium contra omnes, on a site by ubernerds for ubernerds, all you have 5 is the businesslike exchange of unambiguous, concrete information, answers to unambiguous, concrete questions.

2) Don’t Live in the For-Foreigner Language Materials Ghetto

Don’t live in the foreigner (L2 learner) ghetto. Please, please, please move out as soon as possible. Use FUNBUN (for native, by native) materials as far as possible. I can’t even put into words how bad the foreigner ghetto is, and you probably don’t know how bad because maybe the ghetto is all you know; it’s comfortingly familiar; you grew up foreign, all your friends are here and you speak the lingo.

So, I listen to a lot of Japanese and Korean materials for people learning English. It’s great for learning Japanese, but the English and the learning advice you get there is dangerously crap. The former is heavily accented, the latter is just wrong — dangerously misguided. Now, engage in a little second-order thinking with me here: you know how, once in a while, you see the materials that Japanese people (or other non-native English users) use to learn English and you laugh out loud because of how dumb and stiff it all sounds? You laugh out loud because all the over-analyzing makes your head spin and you never really thought of that as a rule, you just say it? Well, guess what Japanese people think of the materials you use to learn Japanese?

See what I did there?

Sometimes, to see yourself, you must look at another first.

And, as if its sheer sick-and-wrongness weren’t enough, the foreigner ghetto is also boring as all get out. Suicide-inducingly boring. There is no humor or emotion or even relevancy and when there is it’s tame and lame and stale (KanjiDamage being a notable exception; plus KanjiDamage is just for kanji — it has a clear path OUT of the ghetto for you; its entire purpose is to make itself unnecessary fast). I have no idea what the verb groups in Japanese are and neither do normal Japanese people and neither should you.

Indeed, the only transitive/intransitive verbs I have trouble with are the ones I analyzed instead of just picking up and saying. And I only have trouble with them because in/transitivity was the only grammar concept simple and clear enough to be sticky in my memory. To make a long story short: Declarative knowledge is not what you need. You need procedural knowledge. You don’t need why, all you need is how, how, how. In other words — just say things that Japanese people say…and you know how you get access to those? That’s right…not in books that were sanitized and dumbed down for foreigners, by clueless foreigners or (perhaps worse) stuffy, hyper-opinionated Japanese people (“educators”) who hate the way real Japanese people naturally talk.

  • “What time is it?”
  • “Do you know what time it is?”

Same question, but apparently there’s some rule in English involving question inversion (is-it → it-is). That’s why when you hear someone say:

  • “Do you know what time is it?”

You feel icky. But do you know the rule? No, you just know that “do you know what time is it?” sounds wrong. You don’t consciously know any rule and you don’t run through a rule checklist or some dumb mnemonic in your head. And it’s not because you were a kid when you learned English, it’s because you were human when you learned English. Human beings excel at that: knowing how without knowing why (arguably, in their own way, so do computers, and that’s why AI is gradually moving away from context-free, data-less inference to Big Data (the subfield of neural networking no doubt led the way 6), but that’s another story). Work with your human attributes, not against them.

If you want to be “educated”, turn on some “Ikebukuro West Gate Park”. All the education you need, right there. Almost every possible register/sociolect of Japanese — police, news, formal speech, youth slang, old women, young women, young men, old men, country bumpkins, posh people, restaurants, children, motherese, toddlers, sexy talk, angry talk, speechy talk, convenience store…it’s all there. Oh, plus there’s sex and violence. You can’t go wrong.

Free yourself from Japanese-for-foreigners. Right now. It’s not what you signed up for. Get real, literally.

OK, let’s review:

  1. Don’t ask the Internet questions it does not have the expertise to answer. It’s like those people you see trying to diagnose and treat themselves on WebMD. On the (one would hope rare) occasions that you visit a hospital, do you grab random people in the lobby and ask them about your symptoms? No? Well what do you think an online forum is? True expert advice is bought, friends. And experts like to get their clever little derrieres paid for their expertise 7. New knowledge comes from field experimentation, not the armchair generals of the Internet fora of the world. Again, tell the Internet how the experiment went, don’t ask it how it thinks it (=a future experiment) will go. The Internet is amazing and wonderful and I love it to pieces, but it is neither omnipotent nor omniscient nor prescient 8: it does not know everything, it cannot do everything and it sure as fornication under Charles the King cannot tell you the future.
  2. Leave the for-foreigner language materials ghetto, visiting only rarely and briefly, and eventually not visiting at all.



  1. Exception: An experiment where you’re trying to see how wrong the Internet is
  2. Although on some issues, that’s probably a good policy. Legal comes to mind…most medical issues, too.
  3. By which I mean the Internet. By which I mean the web. By which I mean online fora.
  4. The Internet sucks at answering those, but it doesn’t know that it sucks…
  5. give or take the odd scuffle…or maybe I just don’t know enough about StackOverflow? Perhaps you can enlighten me?
  6. You probably know way more about AI than me. Please feel free to correct any mistakes or misconceptions on my part.
  7. I’m not saying doctors or other experts are perfect or omniscient. It’s entirely possible that, on certain topics in their field of expertise, you’ll know more than the expert. Nobody hates authority more than me. I’m saying, they’re experts for a reason and their advice in their fields should definitely be taken into account. No, I’m not even saying that…I’m saying that their advice, while frequently flawed and imperfect and sometimes even wrong, must not be replaced by the even more flawed, imperfect and wrong crap that’s online. Having said that, not all experts are created equal, so if you grab onto a crappy one, throw them back into the ocean as quickly as possible and reach for a good/better one.
  8. In fact, on many issues, it’s not even scient: it can’t tell you about the past, the present or the future. Or was a young Cullen Jones supposed to boot up Reddit (pretend it existed when he was a kid) and go: “hey guys, I almost drowned in a public pool when I was a kid, do you think I have a talent for swimming?”)?…I’ll let you and your imagination fill in the rest.

  13 comments for “How to Avoid The Two Biggest Mistakes That Almost All Language Learners Seem to Make

  1. Lunar
    November 28, 2013 at 04:53

    Regarding the second part, wouldn’t you still need to have some knowledge of grammar to be able to understand what you’re reading? I don’t mean sitting down and drilling all those verb endings and particles etc., just… reading through a guide or a textbook just to know what each ending/particle/whatever does, in general, just to be aware this stuff exists so you won’t be utterly confused when you run into it in the wild.

    I use “just” far too often.

    But anyway, that was sort of how I learned English. I, like every kid, started with classes at school which gave me enough background to be able to sorta understand what I’m reading (with a lot of assistance) and then I discovered the internet, anime (w/ English subs) and video games and it went from there.

  2. Thomas Smith
    November 28, 2013 at 19:49

    If you ask the internet (especially the learning Chinese brigade) if ANYTHING will work, they tell you it won’t. So instead I just have articles of faith. I have zero evidence for them. One day, when they happen, and I have evidence, I’ll tell the internet.

    Here they are, for those interested.

    Articles of Faith

    1. Even if I can’t choose native pronunciation yet, I will be able to, eventually.
    2. Listening to music won’t ruin my tones.
    3. The tones will one day 「split out」, just as the non-tonal sounds did.
    4. Language-feeling will come, eventually.
    5. Material relevant to the things I want to say will eventually show up in the immersion environment.
    6. You can trust and mimic FUNBUN that has been translated into Chinese from another language.
    7. Something valuable is happening when I read something I only partially follow.
    8. I can pick up a massive adult vocabulary without SRSing absolutely everything. It will go in somehow.

    (A few things used to be on the list, then they happened:

    * I will get native handwriting, eventually, somehow.
    * The character elements will 「blend together」, eventually, somehow.
    * The sounds will 「split out」.
    * The grammar will stop sounding weird.
    * I’ll start thinking in Mando.
    * I’ll read a comic with 100% one day.
    * I’ll follow the plot in a novel one day.

    and countless others)

    So yeah, next time you have a doubt, make it an Article, and promise to check if you still doubt it 365 days hence. You almost certainly won’t. If you still do, well, maybe you were right, or maybe you need more time.

    I know *exactly* what the internet would tell me if I asked about any of the above, so why bother asking?

  3. November 30, 2013 at 00:52

    I really like the first point, and it seems to apply to more than just language learning.

    Sometimes, I feel the need to Google something like, “How to be happy” or, “How to think positively” or even, “How to become motivated/productive”. On occasion I will find something interesting (which will lead to a more specific follow up search) but usually, I’ll come to the conclusion that the answer to my self-improvement question must come from within.

    What I mean is, only I know what will work for me. The Internet can give me some fresh ideas/suggestions, but when it comes to how effective they are, only I can accurately gauge that for myself.

  4. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    November 30, 2013 at 01:56

    Some people on the internet give good advice about learning languages though, like this boy:

  5. June 5, 2014 at 18:28

    last week I realized an acquaintance still sucks at Japanese despite being a teacher, therefore, the teacher’s learning/teaching methods must not work. (the students who learn by watching anime/reading manga surpass the teacher at reading kanji.) number one thing this teacher is doing right is not using a textbook. in the ESL world we like “authentic material” and it works for any language. I like education reform – especially when it comes to language learning. if I can’t teach you to have a natural conversation or read and understand クレヨンしんちゃん, what’s fun about studying Japanese?? if your level is around intermediate/B2, you should be using an English-English dictionary and able to watch tv without subtitles at my school. same goes for learners of any language.

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