The African Way of Learning…Just Do It

“The African way of learning is: you listen to the rhythms since the day you are born, so when you first touch the drum as child, you already know the rhythms and know how it SHOULD sound. Nobody ever has to explain anything to you, you just copy what you hear…”
Sanementereng: the sound of the djembe in Gambia

This is such a huge topic I don’t know how to…even explain it really. Or where to start. But I’ll try my best.

Let me first start with what motivated me to write this post. I was skimming Yahoo Answers/Bag O’ Wisdom in Japanese on my cellphone, and I came across this sentence:

l’d like to get serious about learning gospel music/seriously learn gospel music.

This person isn’t a bad person or anything. But the sentence just struck me as “off”. “Wrong”.


Well, because gospel music is an art that was invented and is still dominated by Africans. And therefore the methods for learning it are distinctly African. Interestingly, jazz music was also invented by Africans, but as the number of African jazz artists has dwindled with the influx of non-Africans, so the methods of learning it have seen a change as well: nevertheless, I find it almost nonsensical that people would even attempt to “teach” improvisation or syncopation: “here, let me teach you how to ‘wing it’” — huh?. And one of the things about the African way of learning is that you don’t “learn” as such. You…do, and through doing, become.

Do you get what I’m saying? Does this make sense? I’m walking a very fine line here. Um…

There’s no textbook of gospel music that enumerates the various styles and sounds of gospel music with a step-by-step historical introduction and a chapter devoted to defining what is and is not gospel music, and various “grades” of gospel music. Dude, I don’t even know how many gospel music artists use annotated music.

But does that mean it’s not music? Does that mean it’s not good? Does that mean people don’t know what they’re doing? Absolutely not. I’m not even Christian, but you need only go to a church that has gospel music and compare it to a church that doesn’t, and see that there’s a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge, red-giant-about-to-go-nova-size gap in musical quality.

What about basketball? Lots of Africans in the US play it for fun. Hours and hours of ball with their friends.

And what do we say about all these Africans?

We say they’re “talented”. It’s “genetic”. They’re “tall”. They have “fast-twitch muscles”. They have “big hands”.



Because it couldn’t be that, oh, they’ve put in thousands of hours of enjoyable practice? Heaven forbid their bodies might have changed as a result of all this practice (just because it looks effortless, that doesn’t mean there was no effort involved)? It couldn’t be that it was the only thing that seemed fun to do? It couldn’t be that certain Kenyans live at 2500m above sea level, eat more fresh vegetables than the Fresh Vegetable Monster on Sesame Street [there is no such monster, but if there were, he would have nothing on a Kenyan dinner bowl], and run to school all their childhoods and then join the military where it just so happens that they keep exercising [lots of Kenyan runners, like Moses "I eat 3000m steeplechase world records for breakfast" Kiptanui are or were military personnel], and have immense financial motivation to run, a motivation only made more immense by the fact that since cost of living is so low in Kenya, chump change like $1 million can keep you living in comfort for not one but several lifetimes. No, that couldn’t be it. Because they’re not sensitive, unique, individual human beings with psychological, social and economic motivations. No, they’re not human beings at all; they’re just specimens; little more than rabbits that can talk. They do well at the things they do well because of nothing but instinct.


OK, I’m going a bit off topic, and perhaps sounding bitter, but this is a massive subject, and it’s worth more than one post; it’s worth its own book; it’s worth its own entire research field. But I’m going to keep it short, because I don’t feel like writing too much 8) .

What am I trying to get at? Well…

The way of learning that is now dominant in the West is motivated by two ideals: classification and reductionism. Reduce everything to its parts, classify it according to those parts. And this isn’t a bad thing; it has its place. When it’s useful, it’s very useful [see Heisig for details]. But when it’s not, it sucks Type-A bird-flu infested eggs. Why? Because it tends to lead to a fallacy known as reification. Making something that is not the res, “the thing itself”, into the thing itself. The methods of learning that now dominate the West have led people to confuse the classification, the explanation, the description of a thing, with the thing. So, when a Western person comes and says “Cantonese has nine tones” [you know it's a Western person who did this :) -- I'm being facetious, but seriously, I find it painfully hard to imagine a Chinese person back in the day losing winks tone-counting], “Chinese has X # of characters”, “In Navajo, you can make XYZ grammar structure”, “Japanese has THREE alphabets”, “The Japanese speak BACKWARDS”, “In Swahili, there are noun classifiers used as prefixes”, and my personal favorite:

Dholuo is a tone language. There is both lexical tone and grammatical tone, e.g., in the formation of passive verbs. It has vowel harmony by ATR status: the vowels in a noncompound word must be either all [+ATR] or all [-ATR]. The ATR harmony requirement extends to the semivowels /w, y/. Vowel length is contrastive.

Dude, I am a native speaker of Dholuo [through disuse I understand tons more than I speak now, but if I went home, I'd take care of it] and I had NO IDEA that Dholuo was tonal, I just thought that was how it sounded; that was the only way there was to pronounce those words; there is no other way. My Mum told me when she came to Japan last year (2006) and was teaching some to Momoko: “yeah, dude, Dholuo is tonal, just like that Chinese of yours”. This struck a chord with me, and has affected the way I’ve decided to approach Cantonese.

I am also a native speaker of Swahili [also getting rusty through disuse -- as with Dholuo, living in countries and situations where I never talk to fellow native speakers has taken its toll] and I didn’t find out about the noun classifier thing until I got into college in the US. I thought that was just how you were supposed to say the words; there could be no other way.

Can you see what I mean? Discussion ABOUT language, no matter how detailed, erudite or numerical, is not, cannot and will never be language itself. The belief that it is is the source of all difficulty and calamity. The typical student of Latin today probably knows more about Latin than most Roman citizens ever did; I can just see Roman kids all: “hey, Quintus, what’s the ablative singular on that, bro?”, but still could barely comprehend a raw Latin text let alone use the language. Put another way, you could be fluent in Japanese without ever knowing ABOUT Japanese, but you could never be fluent in Japanese only by knowing about it. This was never more vividly illustrated than when, last weekend, I went to my Sengalese friend, B-star’s house. B-star came to Japan aged 27, 7 years ago. Not a word of Japanese. He’s now completely fluent. We talked to each other in Japanese, he told me:

“When I first came to Japan, I went to a Japanese school and looked at the books, but it just kind of sucked, you know? So I was like…this isn’t going to work; I’m not going to learn this way; I just have to go out there and figure it out. Pretty soon I was speaking, and people asked me ‘how did you learn?’, I said: ‘I don’t know! Not even I know!’”.

Later in the evening we were watching a Bruce Lee movie in Cantonese, and he said:

“Once I was hanging out with some Chinese guys, and after a while, I started saying things to them in Chinese. And they said: ‘how did you do that?’; and I said: ‘I listened‘”.

Anyway, B-star isn’t the star of this tale, his four-year-old daughter is. She was talking circles around some people who had taken university-level Japanese. Because children have magical language midichlorians? Negatory…I think it has more to do with the fact that B-star’s daughter doesn’t know what a base 5 verb is (as a matter of fact, I’m not sure what this bases business is).

So knowing the path and walking the path are clearly two different things. Knowing what you’re doing and knowing about what you’re doing are two different things. I mean, I could write you volumes (no, I really could) about iconicism, subtext and hyper-realism in Toy Story but does that mean Toy Story is hard to watch? NO, for crying out loud it’s a freaking children’s movie. A thing is not its abstraction. A description or abstraction can be useful, until it isn’t, at which point it becomes little more than a legend, a ghost story whose only real purpose is to impress and/or intimidate.

So here is the African Way: stop freaking worrying, stop reading ABOUT it, stop pussyfooting around poring over the rulebook, pick up a ball and go DO IT! Or shut up and watch how it’s done, and try your own little versions of each cool thing you see. Language is not hard. Yes, LANGUAGE IS EASY. ALL LANGUAGES. Anyone who doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with bad methods or attitudes can learn any language. ANYONE. So chill out and just Nike it. Yes, even if you had no systematic method, if you were to spend the next 18-24 months, 24 hours a day, surrounded by one language to the absolute and total exclusion of all other languages, I am almost certain that it would be impossible for you to come out without fluency.

I don’t think the way of learning I’m describing is limited to Africa or Africans, and it’s not the only way of learning that African civilizations have used. All civilizations use classification, all civilizations use reductionism, and all civilizations use ad hoc learning [I think it’s safe to say that, barring RIDICULOUS exceptions, all human beings learn their so-called “native” language using ad hoc, informal, immersive (Ai2) methods, the methods I have grouped under the “African” Way], but different civilizations tend to place more importance, faith, or prestige in certain styles of learning over others, which is stupid all around because our goal shouldn’t be to do the job in the most prestigious way, but merely to do the job. Anyway, the way I’m calling the African Way is definitely something that is culturally strong among Africans inside and outside Africa. Similarly, the so-called Western Way has been increasingly preferred by people in the West over the past 250-500 years. But Westerners have made the fatal mistake of applying it in places where it cannot or should not be applied, with the result that it now handicaps them; it hurts them; it keeps their minds so…bound.

Case in point: Swahili is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn, it was invented by people in what later became Kenya and Tanzania, for the purposes of trade, it is as smooth as botox-laced eggs. YET, many Westerners who live in East Africa can’t speak it worth a darn, and whine about it. Why? It’s not because they’re bodies can’t do it; it’s because their minds won’t let their bodies do it. And this is why when a Kenyan friend came up to me and said: “Khatz, is Japanese hard? Can I learn it?”. I said: “Yes…just remember that you’re not a Westerner. To the extent that most of what you’ve read about Japanese has been written by Westerners, you can safely ignore it and just go about your business”. That sounds racist but it’s not meant to be, and I hope no one takes it that way (I was really freaking out about whether to write it or not). It’s just illustrative, in a way, of the whole point of this post. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of ethnicity, it’s a matter of worldview. Due to peer-group effects, worldview happens to correlate geographically, but…not all Africans learn the African Way, and not all Westerners learn the Western Way, and no one is bound by blood or divine decree to any particular way — you can choose to play the game differently. I recommend you do. Choose, that is. Choose how to play the game based on the conditions. Choose the tools to get the job done. Believe in yourself, have faith in yourself. But don’t bother “believe”, as such in the tools and methods. Methods are for using or not using, not for believing in or agreeing with — remember that and you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time and energy — for example, you realize that you need not bother defend your methods because they have no feelings. And you also realize that it’s simply good common sense to do the job in a fun, efficient way, regardless of whether that way is officially sanctioned as the “correct” way, regardless of what people tell you will or won’t happen.

So if you want to be good at something, maybe you should let go of whatever reservations, ignorance, academic snobbishness, cultural superiority complex or cultural inferiority complex that may be holding you back, and just try it. Don’t think ABOUT it, don’t analyze it. Stop talking, stop arguing, stop considering, stop comparing and contrasting. Just do it.

  80 comments for “The African Way of Learning…Just Do It

  1. JDog
    January 6, 2008 at 13:41

    Awesome! Great post!

  2. Eric
    January 6, 2008 at 14:27

    Good points all around. I especially liked your comment about learning Gospel music.

    I taught myself how to play bass guitar a few years ago. Just by fiddling around with it, though. I only wanted to play along to my favorite songs, so I didn’t use any of the instructional books or videos floating around out there (most of them are boring as hell, and quite frankly, most of them suck balls). It was rough going at first, but I kept at it, and now I can say with pride that I’m a fairly capable player. I’m not at Les Claypool’s or Victor Wooten’s level, mind you, but that’s not important. What is, though, is that I can play because I didn’t worry about the theory behind bass playing and concentrated on actually PLAYING.

    Seriously, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a pentatonic scale and a ham sandwich.

    My eyes just glaze over when I hear other musicians (and oddly enough, people who haven’t touched a musical instrument a day in their lives) talking about abstract stuff like major 3rds and economy picking and how to properly play a blues scale. I don’t have time for that garbage. I just want to jam.

    So yeah, I totally understand where you’re coming from.

  3. January 6, 2008 at 14:43

    Good post and liked the examples from around the world. I don’t want to get petty though but I dont like the labels ‘African Way’ and ‘Western Way’.

    Millions of Europeans (dare I say most Europeans?) are multilingual because they have to speak German to tourists, French to their family and Italian at the market etc. Montessori, a popular learning method in the West, was invented by an Italian.

    Like I said, I don’t want to get petty because it was another great article; I just wanted to point out a couple of things.

    • Warsie
      November 30, 2012 at 12:42

      well more Europeans did it in the past because ethnic nationalism was weaker so many diffeerent ethnic groups lived together speaking each others’ language. WWII got rid of that largely i think

  4. khatzumoto
    January 6, 2008 at 14:52

    That’s definitely true…You definitely see a lot of Scandinavians speaking multiple langs REALLY well. And Dutch people too. I wasn’t sure what to label it…”ad hoc, informal, immersive” is probably much better. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Chiro-kun
    January 6, 2008 at 15:13

    Sensei, have you been advertising for Nike again? That aside, brilliant post! :D

    Lol, and we Indians grow up knowing ATLEAST 2 languages if not 3. For instance I know 3 languages: Hindi (national language, which *almost* everybody in the country knows), Bengali (the mother tongue of my state) and English. And it’s not like we learnt English from textbooks, heck English isn’t even our national language. We just grew up with English watching Cartoon Network and reading the Amazing Spider Man (and talking with friends and teachers in English of course, hehe). Fully agree that this whole concept of over-analysis sucks….I mean, previously I was really confused when I was reading about the difference between だ and のだ/んだ but after watching a lot of anime it was crystal clear to me. And this goes to those annoying Heisig critics as well. I mean, if you have the time to criticize and pick out faults, you can just blaze through the entire book and get those kanji in your head…..

  6. khatzumoto
    January 6, 2008 at 15:20
  7. January 6, 2008 at 15:24

    I finally found the word to describe what intuitively I thought was so wrong with the processes of language learning that people take and it is here in this article: [...]

  8. vgambit
    January 6, 2008 at 15:32

    You know, I’ve been listening to for about a week, and this post has begun to solidify a few doubts I have had about doing so.

    A few weeks ago, I downloaded the entire podcast series (up that date, at least), so I’ve had a playlist of about 600 lessons, and I would estimate that I’ve listened to 200 of them, randomly. Some lessons (survival phrases in particular) teach you general things (e.g. the phrase “ども” can get you very far), while others (basic, intermediate, and advanced lessons) seem more geared towards the learner that is already fluent in Japanese, but wants to improve upon it. Essentially, it acts like an English class would in America; teaching you things you normally don’t consider while talking, such as intransitive verbs or what have you.

    I think I should just switch to Japanese-only podcasts from now on. The only problem is, there are only two Japanese podcasts listed on this site; the comedy podcast takes too long to download , and the Marimo podcast is just too short.

  9. Empathic
    January 6, 2008 at 15:32

    Excellent post.

    I wasn’t aware of the style of thought taught in Western education until later on, and that most people are subconsciously utilizing it until they realize it.

    When you brought up Bruce Lee, it suddenly reminded me of one of his quotes that captures some of the essence of your post:

    “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land, no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

  10. Cooper
    January 6, 2008 at 15:40

    It’s a brilliant point which you make, sir. Though it does make me, at least, feel a bit silly spending time on the website :p

    The way I read it was: it’s important to know when to apply an analytical approach and when do apply an intuitive approach. So there are probably some things which require analysis to produce further results- some of the sciences for example. And even the methods there sometimes need to be analyzed.

    But there are others- languages, music, art- where analysis is usually detrimental to progress, and an intuitive approach is the best way forward. Like how it’s always the students who drop out of Berkely who go on to become the best muscians, or the directors who never went to film school who are the best (Stanley Kubrick’s advice was to just get out there and do it, and my favourite film maker Christopher Doyle, I love hearing him bag film schools), and as you have often said, people unlucky enough to study a language through university…let alone those who study linguistics….they often come out sucking hardcore.

    By the by, if you hadn’t heard about it, you might be interested in , since it’s a website for Mandarin speakers wanting to learn Cantonese- I’m thinking this would be a good way to ladder the language given all the similarities.

  11. Charles A.
    January 6, 2008 at 17:46

    Here’s a bit about reductionism: In exercise (weightlifting in particular), there’s a trend that started 30 years back called HIT (high intensity training). The idea was that you take your exercises to burn-out. Now, the weight should be low enough so that you burn out at around the 10 or 11th repetition. Let’s just say the movement never caught on, but you had your “zealots” that keep preaching it. One the ideas used in it I’ll talk about.

    For “safety”, you also can break down complex movements into its parts where individually you can do safer than the whole. So, to put a weight from the ground over your head, you’d train a dead lift. Then train your high pull. Then train a shoulder press. Problem was, you never got good at taking a weight from the ground and putting it over your head. You got good at the parts, but you could not put it together into a useful whole (if you did not know, you have smaller muscles that deal in transition movements that you couldn’t train in an isolated way). Sound familiar to the problem of how a language is taught?

    Taking this analogy further. You can have muscle bound guys that are not physically fit: not flexible, no endurance, no power, not overly strong but they have all the knowledge to help you be physically fit? Such was the idiocy of making Swarzenegger the president of physical fitness.

    So why attach this discussion about physical fitness to language learning? For physical fitness, you should have flexibility, strength, power, endurance, accuracy, agility, and stamina. No one way of training will get you great at all of them, just one or two. To become physically fit, you need to train numerous ways (weights, running, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, body weight exercises, etc.). Everyday, do something a little different but try to do it more than the last time you did it. Apply that to language: what qualifies as being fluent? This blog has touched upon Cultural (Manga, Music, News, Movies, Television, and Books), Studying (SRS, Heisig, Certain literature), and Conversation. I’m sure you’re not doing all the above everyday. But you do something everyday, changing it up as you go along. In addition you build upon your difficulty especially in the studying part.

    Perhaps that’s why I like this blog so much. It struck a chord about learning by doing. It preaches a variety of methods to bring about being fluent in a language (and what qualifies as being fluent).

    Keep up the good work. Great article.

  12. mark
    January 6, 2008 at 19:26

    “Millions of Europeans (dare I say most Europeans?) are multilingual ”

    Most? I’d agree – here in Britain we all speak at least two languages – regular English (to other native speakers), and LOUD English (to people who don’t speak a word of English) :-)

    Sad situation.


    • Ketutar
      November 22, 2011 at 08:27

      LOL – in Finland we have a saying: “I speak four languages; Finnish, Savonian, low and loud”
      In Finland, majority of Finnish speakers won’t speak any other language than Finnish, majority of Swedish speakers won’t speak any other language than Swedish, it’s not that they couldn’t, it’s that they won’t. Except for the cultural elite who considers ability to use several languages a sign of cultural superiority, and some young people who think it’s fun to communicate with people.
      As far as I know, this goes for the rest of the Europe as well.

  13. January 6, 2008 at 22:26

    Heheh, reminds me of an old article I read:

    Isiah Thomas, the All-Star guard from the Detroit Pistons, used to say that he was sick of all the fawning over Larry Bird’s brainy, hardworking play while he himself was praised for being so “naturally” athletic. “When whites perform well, it’s due to [their] thinking and work habit,” he commented. “It’s not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It’s like I came dribbling out of my mother’s womb.” ~

    Anyway, off to the morning kanji review.

  14. Mark
    January 7, 2008 at 01:47

    BTW- lots I agree with in the post, but there is a tinge of …something about it :-)

    Were you swigging a little too much Kirin when you wrote it, Khatz?!

  15. khatzumoto
    January 7, 2008 at 02:13

    LoL. Actually I don’t drink.
    But, there are 3-4 references to Nike, eggs and botox. Which is about 3-4 more references to NIke, eggs and botox than is typically recommended for a blog post. Also RAMPANT USE OF ALL-CAPS. It reflects pretty closely how I think and speak, but…yeah. Sorry for being too wired! 反省! :)

  16. mark
    January 7, 2008 at 03:54

    “Sorry for being too wired!”

    Hey, I, for one, am guilty of that too sometimes. It’s when my friends start to frown at me that I know I should take ‘the caps off’ :-)



  17. Billyclyde
    January 7, 2008 at 06:06

    Brilliant, brililant post– I think your best yet, summing up what you’re doing here.

    Don’t forget the Japanese way of learning, though. Rote repetition divorced from practice. Which is why the only people who speak English are the ones who forgot what they learned in school!

  18. JDog
    January 7, 2008 at 06:46

    I recently took snowboarding lessons at a mountain in Colorado (for those who might be wondering why I wouldn’t know how already, since I said I live in Denver, I just moved here 6 months ago so I have had no other chance to ski or snowboard). Anyway, our instructor said that most of overcoming your fear of anything in snowboarding is not listening to your brain. He said, “When you get off that lift for the first time, you will swear, or if you don’t swear, you’ll be thinking it.” The same for trying new techniques. You’ll be scared. BUT, he said, just don’t let your mind freak out about it, because it’s really supposed to be relaxed. The more you relax, the better snowboarding you can do.

    I know this is a great lesson for probably about anything, but I was thinking about it with regards to my kanji studies. You know, I’m up to 250-odd, and it only took 3 weeks or so. I wrote all of them out the other day to make a poster for my wall. If you just look at the poster, it seems like it would be crazy-hard to keep all those straight in my mind, but if I just relax and do more SRS reps, I automatically get better. It seems so simple! I know that if I am getting stories mixed up, I can just review that section on Anki a few more times and all the “kinks” will just disappear magically! It’s cool. Anyway, I suck at telling stories…hope that one wasn’t too boring :)

  19. Brittany
    January 7, 2008 at 07:24

    On the snowboarding lesson, I just took my first indoor rockclimbing lesson yesterday (what is it about Japanese learners and extreme sports, eh?) and it was the same thing. Stop listening to your stupid brain that only wants to understand logic and listen to your body.

    Many things that seem counter-intuitive in rock climbing are really freaking brilliant. And it’s NOT necessarily counter-intuitive to human nature, I think, but counter-intuitive to “Western” (for lack of a better describing term) nature. That is, Western nature says “climb like you’re climbing a ladder and try to find the quickest most vertical way” whereas the best way is really a lot more inventive, fluid, and creative than that.

    Anyhow, great post. I need to get my bum off the internet and get my Japanese on. Where’s my iPod? Why isn’t it on?

  20. Mark
    January 7, 2008 at 07:59

    “Brilliant, brililant post– I think your best yet, summing up what you’re doing here.”

    I’m sure Khatz writes some of these posts himself :-)


    ‘Khatz, you are deeply wonderful person, and were I a woman, I would want to bear your children.’


    ‘Why thankyou, Bob. Perhaps you could donate your entire life savings to my fund in lieu of bearing my offspring.’



    P.S. I do think (the C A P S, botox, Nike, and eggs [?] notwithstanding) that you are doing a very good job with your blog. Please continue to enlighten us…

  21. phauna
    January 7, 2008 at 13:30

    Khatzu, you have good points but I’m not fond of your nomeclature. Lots of European cultures have a very casual way of going about things, like Italians, and I think the whole of South America is pretty laid back too. Ditto for South East Asia.

    I think you’re confusing the study of something with learning something. Learning a language is a ‘do it’ kind of thing. Studying linguistics is a classification and grouping kind of thing. Maybe language books do add a bit too much academic waffling about language, however I doubt anyone truly believes they can be good at language without using it in some real world way. The discussion is really about what works, and what doesn’t.

  22. khatzumoto
    January 7, 2008 at 13:39

    Yes, the naming is inaccurate — bipolar and geographically overspecific. Sowwy! :( :)

    >I doubt anyone truly believes they can be good at language without using it in some real world way.
    I know! You’d think. But it seems that not everyone has the combination of intelligence and common sense that you do. If they did, then they might not publish books like this. The people that made this book are smart. They’re just barking up the wrong tree, this book is for learning about Japanese not for learning Japanese, but that distinction seems to have been lost on them. Smartness doesn’t seem to make people immune to error.

  23. taijuando
    January 8, 2008 at 10:53

    just wondering if anyone else was listening to jpod101…i’d be curious to hear your objections….I’d also love if anyone had some podcast links handy… anything fun…I also like informative…like National Public Radio in the United States…..

  24. Charles
    January 8, 2008 at 11:24

    Hi taijuando,
    I haven’t listened to JPod101 since they started charging for it. My real objection was that it seemed they spent too much time explaining everything. While, I think that’s good, I felt that I would get more out of listening by downloading the news or audio from movies (my current favorite audio input method). I never really had a problem with Peter. I know a lot of folks complain about him, but he seems like a genuinely outgoing and fun guy.
    As for other podcasts, I’m actually looking for something myself. I did have a few Japanese podcast subscriptions but they were so PAINFULLY BORING that they would put me to sleep, hence the audio from movies.
    Any podcast suggestions, please!! Oh, and I did listen to the Marimoe that Khatz suggested, but I think that they quit…

  25. taijuando
    January 8, 2008 at 11:39

    how eactly do you download audio from movies?

  26. Chiro-kun
    January 8, 2008 at 12:25

    @taijuando – Do you mean ripping audio from movies which you already have? If so, there are specific software for those.

  27. taijuando
    January 8, 2008 at 12:51

    yes–i bought densha otoko–i l downloaded handbrake but it was complicated

  28. JDog
    January 8, 2008 at 13:17

    OK, here’s a question. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately, evaluating whether or not Japanese will do me good enough for my life for how much effort and time I am putting into it. I’m trying to get a concrete image to dream about for motivation. Then I realized, yes, I want to go live in Japan, but I just can’t see myself staying there for more than a couple of years (as a “stint abroad”, because everyone and everything I know is here in the U.S. (mostly my family), and…DISCLAIMER: I’m sorry for sounding like a snobbish American but we are very patriotic and I’m sure your country is awesome too (if it’s not the US), but I don’t know how else to say this next thing…I mean, people come here all starry-eyed and dream to be able to live in “the land of opportunity” and what not, so why would I throw that away? I am not saying Japan is worse or the United States is better than any other country (because no, I’ve never been outside the bubble of the U.S. [and Canada], but I’m just saying I know this place because I grew up here). So for the long-fricking-drawn-out-question: What are some jobs that would permit me to maybe stay in the U.S. but would still require me to use Japanese, maybe even read up on the papers and books and stuff? I love Japanese, and would want to keep that in my life. I am a Computer Science major still in school, and I have a good friend of the family who works in Seattle for a video-game company (maybe you’ve heard of it, it starts with an N and ends with an O) who told me a few years ago when we visited that that would be a great place for Japanese and you could get far as like half the employees there are Japanese. Anyway, any other ideas?

  29. Charles
    January 8, 2008 at 13:20

    I was going to wait until I got home to be more specific, but seems like your ready to get your audio now.
    I can’t help you with handbrake, all I can say is that I’ve never tweaked any of the settings and it works well. One thing though, you have to set the audio to the Japanese track when ripping for Japanese audio.
    I usually rip the movie from the DVD with Handbrake, then open up the movie in quicktime. In the menus for quicktime (I’m at work on a Windoze machine so I’m not sure where) there is Export or Export audio in one of the pull downs. From export the audio. It will then be a Quicktime audio file. From there you have to import into iTunes and it will still be a Quicktime audio file. You have to then encode as an mp3. It’s somewhere in iTunes but I don’t know without looking at it. You will then have to identical looking files, actually one is mp3 the other is a Quicktime file. Trash the Quicktime file. You can’t do much with it without Quicktime.
    It’s a roundabout way of doing things. It works but takes an awful lot of time. Lately, I’ve been looking at AudioHijack. It will just pull any audio from anything on your Mac and save it. It would make the audio ripping take 1/2 the time easy. And you can get Fission which enables quickly segmenting audio into tracks. A whole movie in one track is great until the first time you accidentially rewind it. grrrr!
    Hope this helps.

  30. JDog
    January 8, 2008 at 13:21

    Oh, and another thing that I was thinking about today (man, I did too much thinking today and not enough Japanese!) was “what would Japanese be without kanji?” I mean, it’d be kinda lame. As cumbersome and exhausting as kanji can be to learn, we should think of it as a cool adventure because the more and more you learn, the more you decode all those symbols right in front of your eyes!

  31. Billyclyde
    January 9, 2008 at 14:34


    “I’m sure Khatz writes some of these posts himself”

    I’m sure he even writes the criticisms to make it look like I’m a real person!

  32. zodiac
    January 9, 2008 at 16:56

    I’m not trying to 添油加醋, but the title almost made me skip the article. African vs Non-African just doesn’t sound right…and for all those bilingual countries, congratulations, I personally find it hard to imagine living in a country where you only have one native language, not two or three.

    @khatzumoto Regarding the sentence that you gave at the start, the translation says “seriously learn”, and you’ve been emphasizing “learn” over “learn about”, so as long as it isn’t “learn about gospel music” or “study gospel music”shouldn’t it be alright? Or is it something with the Japanese?

  33. Nathanael
    January 9, 2008 at 19:57

    @zodiac I’m not Khatzumoto, but this is my take on the matter anyway. The translation “seriously” simply comes from 本格的 in the original, it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the article. The point is that unless this entails moving to a community in the US and participating in a church that has gospel music, regardless of in what other manner the author of this sentence pursues his interest in gospel music, it won’t be the same − it will be lacking something. However, sentences like this one when not explicitly followed by such a statement of intent, generally mean nothing of the sort.

  34. Cal
    January 10, 2008 at 20:29

    One of your best post yet.

    I have to say after finding your site and applying what I have read here, I have made more progess with Japanese in the last 5 months then in the last 1.5 years.

    Thanks Dude !!!

  35. Cal
    January 10, 2008 at 22:07

    I was just reading some of the replies to this post and saw alot of folks making refrences to sports and sports figures. This got me to thinking perhapss learning a language is like learning a phyiscal sport and less like learning an academic subject in which you get better only by getting out there and doing it.

    Sure you can read all about racing cars or skydiving (my sports hehe) or write tons of books on the subject, but to learn to do them, and do them well, you have to get off your butt, get out there and do it.

  36. Mark
    January 11, 2008 at 03:01

    “… or skydiving”. Still, there’s not much to skydiving (unless you want to ride a board or do something ‘special’) – just flop out of a plane and remember to pull! (yep, my sport too).


  37. khatzumoto
    January 11, 2008 at 09:08

    >What are some jobs that would permit me to maybe stay in the U.S. but would still require me to use Japanese, maybe even read up on the papers and books and stuff?
    Off the top of my head, software engineering, electronics, video games, engineering, translation (technical and otherwise), tourism, writing. And anything else involving people organizations and industries from Japan. I mean, look around your house, your car, your computer, lots of these things come from Japan in some way. So, virtually anything, I think.

  38. khatzumoto
    January 11, 2008 at 09:21

    It’s more something with the Japanese. Besides that, the distinction between learn/learn about is not intrinsically one of terminology, it’s one of action. When kids learn to speak, they learn they language. When most people learn languages in class, they really, in actual fact, learn ABOUT the language. We call both this things learning, but I was just Krashening it (Stephen of the Krashen distinguishes between language acquisition — learning a language — and language appreciation — learning about/studying a language).

    So, it’s not what people call it that matters so much as it is what people do. The gospel music person on Yahoo wanted directions in the form of like a school he could go to in the US to get class instruction in gospel music, hence my uneasiness and now I’m out breath :) whew!

    For more, check the original doc:

  39. Cal
    January 11, 2008 at 21:56

    “Still, there’s not much to skydiving (unless you want to ride a board or do something ’special’) – just flop out of a plane and remember to pull!”

    That’s parachuting not skydiving. Knowing how to do the ‘special’ stuff is what makes it skydiving and not just being a trooper jumping out the back of his transport plane. Just as knowing the traction limit of your tires is what can help to make you a racer and not just a driver.

    The details are everything I would argue and these details can’t be learned from reading books alone. Just like Japanese IMHO….

  40. mark
    January 11, 2008 at 22:57

    “That’s parachuting not skydiving. Knowing how to do the ’special’ stuff is what makes it skydiving and not just being a trooper jumping out the back of his transport plane. Just as knowing the traction limit of your tires is what can help to make you a racer and not just a driver.”

    As I said, I am a skydiver too (been skydiving for about 12 years), so save the freakin’ lectures for the wuffos, pal. Like I said, skydiving is essentially pretty simple, unless you want to make it complicated…

    Blue skies!


  41. arthur
    January 13, 2008 at 08:30

    Khatzumoto, man, seriously, this site was one of best things that ever happened to me. When I started learning Japanese, a few months ago (by having classes, ugh!), people thought it strange and even discouraged me (even my own japanese teacher told me that I would’nt learn too much, that had to go to Japan to be able to learn anything). But after finding this site, I found out that I could do anything I wanted, if I just believed, in the first place. So thank you very much, man! Great post, by the way!

  42. Max
    January 14, 2008 at 04:51

    I think this is a great example of the why Khatz stresses the importance of just gritting your teeth and putting in the hours necessary:

    This is polyglot Alexander Arguelles’s 2007 chart for maintaining his many languages, and you just have to look at the hours he totals to see the effort he’s put forward to learn and retain these languages at such a high level.

    For those not familiar with Professor Arguelles, his account of how he learned his many languages is definitely worth a read. 英語で書いたけど…勘弁してよ。 ><

  43. Abbass
    March 1, 2008 at 09:44


    Awesome site. Good attitude. Wise words.

    I have a TEFLA certificate for teaching English. On the course I had to learn most of the English grammar rules and labels for the first time, so alarm bells rang. In Japan (JET Programme), I found myself amongst a similar bread of ‘teacher’, asking me to teach via grammar, for grammar tests. Man did the students hate this – it was like asking kids to put down their Playstation controls to learn Latin… It’s such a testimant to the INTEREST in English that some of my students were still keen after years of this torture.

    Making it interesting is what it’s all about, and what it’s all FOR. Teachers are not required for putting the bits together – the human brain is an unbeatable supercomputer for this. You just need to learn vocab and kanji, then throw yourself into context (TV, newspapers, Internet sites, beer gardens). Your brain will figure out the rest.

    You only need to figure out how to walk, and where the food is. Your brain will get you to the food.

    It may be that Japanese grammar teachers just can’t break out of the vicous cycle of their own teaching education. Maybe they can’t handle the truth that grammar occurs (and is understood) naturally, and much quicker without them.


  44. kanjiforme
    June 20, 2008 at 16:14

    Some question and reflective comments on your post, dear Khatzumoto. You wrote saying “Yes…just remember that you’re not a Westerner.” with its connotation being somewhat negative. But what needs to be first addressed when comparing linguistics and geographical regions is the semantics behind what it means to be a Westerner to begin with. By extension, most people conceive a “Westerner” as a person originating from the either North America or Western Europe. What then happens to Eastern, Central Southern Europeans, and Scandinavians? The reason why it’s not proper to group these people along with Western Europeans and Americans is that they’re linguistic structure is different from the Anglo-Franco-Germanic languages. The Europeans not belonging to the West have much more difficult languages (i.e. Norwegian, Finnish, Polish, Slovak to name a few are way more difficult than Italian, English or French). This mistake is also made in Japan as anyone Caucasian-looking is automatically slated 欧米人 – the kanji itself means “Europe American Person” somehow unconsciously lumping everyone else in that category. So when you say that Africans have an easier time learning Japanese (for example, which is true as I have a friend from Africa here in Japan who speaks well), don’t forget that there are others out there who share the sentiment. Always good to keep the dialogue alive I think. Your thoughts?

  45. khatzumoto
    June 20, 2008 at 17:01

    >Your thoughts?
    I think you’re right. The whole naming is too simplistic.

  46. Ying
    June 27, 2008 at 08:18

    You’re right about how people make languages much more complex. I’m Chinese and although Mandarin is not my native dialect, I do speak at a conversational level. I’ve been trying to brush up on it and the books are confusing the hell out of me. All this time, I thought Chinese had pretty much no grammar at all, and what do you know, it does! A lot. I just speak it the way it is because it sounds right, and not because some guy says that it’s the right way. ..I feel a little bad for those who have just started learning Chinese.

  47. ゴスペル
    July 3, 2008 at 20:52

    Commenting an old article, but I thought some people would find this interesting to listen to ^^. It is the Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra in Japanese sang like gospel.

  48. Chris
    August 25, 2008 at 09:09

    “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Thelonious Monk (Jazz Pianist)

    I guess the same could definitely being applied to talking about language.

  49. querido
    September 27, 2008 at 00:53

    I’d say I’m a member of a classificatory/reductionist subculture, but your post gives me a chance to tell a story.
    During some of my very early childhood years, I had a nanny. She was probably not too far removed from African roots, given the time and place I’m talking about. Among other things, she sang to me. I know she did, although I can’t remember it consciously. I loved her and would pitch an out-of-control fit (my sister says) when my mom would come home and my nanny had to leave. So my mom had to terminate her services.
    I’ve always believed that my nanny gave me a gift of understanding a tiny bit of what the gospel/soul/funk music of the sixties was about, and of the meaning in the rhythm and tone in her voice. Much of that world is passing away, I think. But a tiny bit is in my gut, a pearl of great price.
    My mother gave me a different gift. Her painstaking work over the piano, learning bit-by-bit, beautiful songs such as “Days of Wine and Roses”, taught me about music as a puzzle of little bits, which when put together right paint a beautiful, delicate edifice in the air. I would say now that it “spiritualized”, in a different way, the human effort, the dedication to truth and beauty that it took to learn it.
    So, while, as he admits, it is a difficult topic, I endorse sincerely the kernel of wisdom in Khatzumoto’s post. Thanks Khatzumoto!

  50. oobey
    January 24, 2009 at 03:54

    I agree 100%. I have been learning Japanese for a while now and I never thought that I could come to point where I could watch Japanese shows without subtitles(I was so nevervous in the beginning about this). But now, if I am watching something with subtitles, I rtend to find out that those very subtitles are differetn from what the character is saying in Japanese. Also too, I have always loved J-R&B and at first, I was nervous to blast my iPOD on train rides home cuz I thought everyone around me would be like(yo, what the heck is he listening too?) But when I finaly got over the fear, my japanese improved to the point that I have had 2 interviews in straight japanese. If you like it, who cares what everyone else thinks. Just do it, and you will suceed. Thanks Khatzumoto!

  51. Rowan
    February 16, 2009 at 22:45

    I went to Japan after university, with no prior study or experience of the language. By the end of my first year, with no serious study, I was already speaking better than some people who had been there for three years (and who had studied the language, both back home and in Japan). I put that down in large part to the fact that I didn’t stress about the language, I just got out there and did it.

  52. Ryu
    April 7, 2009 at 01:32

    You’re absolutely right with this article. I was born and I grew up in England, but was always fascinated with Japanese Manga (and Japanese obvs ^_^). However, because it was an eastern thing, my schools kind of..well looked down on it, so I had to rely on just copying and practicing over and over. I can’t say that I’m amazing, but it’s an easier system to get on with it. When I look through some manga books and see stranges lines and boxes on how to do figures, I always think “I don’t wanna do that, it looks so dull, is that the only way?”. I can’t tell you if it is or isn’t, but I’m not gonna let it be the only way. Very good blog btw ^_^.


  53. Mirmana
    June 2, 2009 at 22:37

    The thing that suprised me most when I went to University was how they could turn the simplest things into mega-complex theories. I don’t really come from an upper-class family or anything so my vocabulary is pretty simple. That aside, I did understand most of the theories – I just didn’t see the use in saying the same thing over and over again, using all kinds of beautiful-looking sentences.

    This is why I like the way you “teach” here. It’s to-the-point, giving everyday examples. And I think that’s also something people forget these days – to be to-the-point. Don’t just theorize about wanting to learn how to make movies – make movies. Don’t plan on doing ‘something’ ‘someday’ – do it now.

  54. Dieuwertje
    October 14, 2009 at 18:24

    Fantastic post and really the way I felt about the way I got the hang of English. I never studied for it, I just did it … and I still don’t know how I learned it. At this point I’m better in writing the darn language than most native speakers (or so I’ve been told). Same goes for French and German, I failed the classes but I had a perfect understanding of the languages and my pronounciation was almost flawless just because I read books, watched TV etc.

    Yet people dared to say it was just because I was Dutch and we have it easier leaning different languages than the English native speakers considering they never come in touch with foreign sounds, what a nonsense.

    So please do keep teaching people this way so I may never have to face the horrors of textbooks like I did with my Latin and Greek in the past and so we all have fun while learning.

  55. Emp
    October 27, 2010 at 12:46

    The “Western Way” can be nice and good to deal with unforgiving things like chemicals that might explode in your face, or to prepare you to actually go learn, but I agree with you that many times, you should just go do it instead of fussing so much.

    One example I can think of is computers/cell phones. My father (who is a reasonably tech-savvy man) reads the manual and still has trouble getting something to work. I (who admittedly have a degree in computer science, but no personal familiarity with the actual issue at hand or anything really close) fiddle with it for a minute, looking through menus and options, trying things out, and maybe looking at the manual once as a reference on a specific nuance. And I figure it out right away. xD Most of this stuff is not as hard as we make ourselves think it is, or if we make small mistakes, it’s no big deal. Again, the only time it’s really necessary is when a small false step can have catastrophic consequences (like nuclear physics), so we have to be careful and paranoid before we do anything.

    I still like linguistics and analyzing language stuffs, but that’s more for fun and context than for practical use. /geek

  56. 星空
    November 6, 2010 at 10:20

    1)昔、好きな友人は私にXJAPANの 「CIRCLE OF LIFE」を聞かせた。 あの歌が30分間なんだってばよ!それに、ピアノと太鼓を弾く者は piano bangingしなきゃ。この友もピアノを弾けるの。 あの歌にはsheet musicを買って私に見せてあのpiano bangingしなきゃ所に何も書かれなかったのよ。
    2)4週間前XJAPANはNYに来て 新聞にそれについてを読んだんだ。日本語を分からない友に訳詞を送ってあげた。エメールで ”一番じゃなくて編集して方がいいかもしれないのに、どうぞ”って書いた。



  57. September 28, 2011 at 23:31

    I like what you’ve written here, very truthful and hits the spot exactly. We can’t battle tiredness and fatigue in the body but we can make the best of what we have and can do.

    I’ll take the points on board and keep on ploughing towards what I want to do. Hoping to take the JLPT N1 in December, pass and improve my job chances. Getting out there and doing it is the best option though, regardless of race, sex, age, circumstances and education.

     Need to work on being more ruthless. The one ability I seem to lack unless pushed.

  58. Kimchi
    July 31, 2012 at 12:42

    Gosh I love this so far. . .haven’t read the whole thing yet but hey, I wanna get this off my chest.
    I relate so well to this chapter because of my native tounge (the so called swedish language). Which is so naturally learned by its people some of it can’t be explained by grammar and has zero grammatical rules. . .which sucks for the poor students but alas.
    And as for myself I didn’t even know a spot of grammar before 18 but that didn’t stop me from winning short story contests and acing swedish class.
    I can also distinctly remeber my teacher saying “subject, verb conjugate” in spanish class but as for the spanish itself. . .not so much heh
    well I’ll get back to reading now.

  59. Daikoru
    December 9, 2012 at 04:08

    Normally, my way of learning a game is to first have a feeling of the subject, then read about advanced stuff about it… Then just play it naturally again. Up to now, this is what I’ve been doing with japanese: Listened a bunch of anime to get a feeling of it (despite not wanting to learn the language yet), then started studying it (that’s where I’m at), and as soon as I can understand good enough, I’d simply start throwing myself in a bunch of japanese game to make my knowledge natural.

    It is also how I do to remember the Kana and Kanjis: Learn the character first, see if I can remember it naturally, and if I don’t, I look for a tip to remember it (like あ looking like an Apple) and practice it until it becomes natural enough that I don’t have to remember the tip.

    The problem with me learning the “African Way” is that I think too much with logic. If I find logic in something, I remember it easily, while if I don’t, I rely on my memory which is very bad. And this is why learning Japanese is hard for me, it is not a language of logic. But I persevere, and try to immerge myself more and more often into japanese.

  60. Otacon
    March 31, 2013 at 23:29

    I recently had a discussion about this with a friend of mine. She was convincing me that you need to learn grammatical rules and structures in order to put together sentences. I argued that I don’t need to know how a sentence is assembled as long as I can assemble it :D

    Like other people here said, I learned English just by watching shitloads of Cartoon Network as a kid. Like hours a day, every day, for a couple of years. English was actually one of the few subjects I liked in school because it was so easy – I already knew it. I could chill out during class, not study a damn thing and consistently get great grades. The teachers didn’t bother me either because they saw I knew my shit. And all because of cartoons. Who would’ve thought, huh? ;)

    Anyways, you nailed it with this post. Then again, you do with pretty much every post :D Keep them coming. I’m off to watch Live free or die hard in Japanese. [OK, side note. If some of your are poor fucks like me or jewish, you can find Hollywood (and Japanese) movies dubbed and subbed in Japanese by using Perfect Dark. Google it. Khatz, I'm not sure what your policy about blatant pirating instructions in the comments is, but I guess we'll see :D {Side note 2 - I have nothing against jews xD}]

  61. Edwin
    June 13, 2013 at 05:02

    Fantastic post!
    I was especially intrigued by how Dholuo is explained by “who you’d believe to have been a westerner”. I always found the whole idea of Chinese being tonal, and Turkish being agglutinate (both are languages I’d really like to be fluent in) very disturbing (and I must admit, hard to wrap my head around!). That was until I searched wikipedia for “Luganda” – a language virtually understood by all Ugandans, and which I happen to speak more fluently than my mother tongue. Apparently, Luganda is not only tonal, but also an agglutinating language! I also found out it has things such as “germinate consonants” and “slightly labialised labiodental fricatives”… Christ! I learnt this language before I could even spell ‘slightly’! I’ll just go and start speaking these languages, and not fret about their descriptions.

    By the way, just started reading your blog (learnt through Benny – Fi3M), and I love it! Bookmark added!

  62. Petra
    November 7, 2013 at 23:55

    Whgat a great article. I totally agree, we can do anything we set our mind too, as long as we really want to do it and we do our best.

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