You’ve set up your study space.
You know what you’re going to study and why you want to learn, but the problem is you’re stuck mulling over how to go about studying it.
As Japanese language learners, we’ve all been there. I’ve definitely been there, scouring the internet looking for ways to effectively use my time. Here’s one approach that’s worked not only for me, but also for many others.
- Common Problems with Self-study
- One Fix: The Pomodoro Technique
- An Example Application of the Pomodoro Technique
- A Schedule for Maximizing Learning and Minimizing Burnout
Common Problems with Self-study
Before we get to the approach, we should explore some motivation-killing stumbling blocks. Two major hindrances in studying a language are inefficient time management and a lack of short-term learning milestones. Let’s consider these obstacles individually.
Most people lead busy lives—working, running errands, doing chores, socializing—never mind studying! It can be hard to carve out a slice from your 24 hours to set aside for your personal goal of learning Japanese. Even if you do have quite a bit of daily free time, it can still be hard to figure out how to use your time efficiently.
Most language learners have a natural tendency to do what I call the language blitzkrieg: A full-force attack trying to break open the gates of understanding between you and your target language. It works for some but it might work for most. However, there’s a dangerous cost of employing the language blitzkrieg, which is burnout.
Having a lot of time to study doesn’t mean that using all of that time, at the sacrifice of other activities, is the most efficient way to go about learning. There are limitations to the amount of information your brain can absorb through short-term memory. Much like highways at rush hour, your brain is susceptible to a bottleneck effect, so you need to give it time to let new information sink into your long-term memory. This is how learning becomes acquisition.
So, with a well-structured, balanced schedule of study, you’ll know what you need to do at any given time, avoid burnout and give your brain time to allow Japanese to become your language.
A lack of short-term learning milestones
Another issue, somewhat related to time management, is personal goals. Typical language learners eagerly jump into a new language with the goal of “becoming fluent.” After all, isn’t that the main reason for studying a foreign language—to use it?
That’s a good goal to have, but it should usually only be at the very back of your mind because it’s actually a huge motivation-killer. The problem with always thinking about becoming fluent is that you’ll constantly be measuring your current self against your future goal, and you’re just inviting self-criticism. No one becomes fluent overnight, so why should you worry about it at this very moment?
Instead, learners usually benefit from more attainable short-term learning milestones. Let’s assume you’ve found a good chunk of time to study through your improved time-management skills. What should be going through your head at that very moment?
You should be thinking something along the lines of, “At the end of this study session, I want to be able to do X in Japanese.” After you finish your study session, you can self-assess yourself. Can you do X in Japanese now? If you can, great! And remember that super long-term goal of “becoming fluent”? Well guess what: You’re one step closer to that.
One Fix: The Pomodoro Technique
When I was just a neophyte, newly set out on the Japanese learning path, I often looked for study mentors. I looked for language learning advice. I looked for the ultimate secret to learning Japanese. I’m probably not the champion of Google searches, but I’m a heavy contender.
After all of my time spent searching, reading and experimenting—from the positions of a Japanese language learner as well as a language instructor—I have found that the Pomodoro Technique is an extremely useful driving force to push learners towards their goals.
Some background on the Pomodoro Technique
I won’t get into the history of the Pomodoro Technique (that’s what Wikipedia is for), but I will briefly explain what it is. Originally, it was a cyclical time management system whereby you set a timer for 25 minutes of focused study. After the timer goes off, you take a short break and then repeat.
This concept has been explored more recently, in what has come to be called “timeboxing,” though the Pomodoro Technique also focuses on keeping track of the downtime as well as the focused study time.
The technique was designed to promote concentration for improved productivity, and it lends itself well to language learning. For each Pomodori (that’s what one Pomodoro session is called), you are supposed to have a set task to complete. The technique provides a simultaneous solution to time management and short-term milestones.
Flexible variations of the Pomodoro Technique
The original Pomodoro Technique was designed with 25 minutes of focus followed by 3-5 minutes of rest, repeated with every fourth Pomodori followed by a longer 15-30 minute break. However, I think the technique leaves some room for flexibility as long as the fundamentals are left intact. My personal Pomodoro schedule is as follows:
- 30-minute Pomodori
- 15- to 20-minute break
- Repeat (with a 30-minute break after the fourth Pomodori)
With this schedule, I can usually get at least about three hours of studying done per day. Best of all, the “forced” breaks leave me craving the next study session, and the study timer pushes me to get as much done in the time frame as possible.
An Example Application of the Pomodoro Technique
I’d like to give you a more concrete example of how I put the Pomodoro Technique to use. My personal toolset includes some textbooks, news articles or video content; a good dictionary; note cards and my Pebble smartwatch loaded with the PblPom Pomodoro app. But you don’t need a smart gadget for this—a plain old egg timer will do!
Now here’s what I do:
1. I select my study material, like to set up my Pomodori session—which will be 30 minutes long.
2. I begin to study.
Let’s say that during this session I want to learn the verb 供える (そなえる – to offer) within the sentence:
(いまでもわたしたちは としがみさまをおむかえするために、かどまつをもんのまえにかざったり、かがみもちをそなえたり、ぜんじつにじゅんびした おせちりょうりをたべたりしています。)
I translate the sentence using my dictionary of choice. [Translation: Even now we adorn our front gates with kadomatsu*, offer kagami mochi** and eat osechi*** in order to welcome the Shinto Gods.]
*kadomatsu: a traditional Japanese pine decoration placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits.
**kagami mochi: “mirror rice cake”; a traditional Japanese decoration consisting of two stacked rice cakes symbolizes the continuity of the family over the years.
*** osechi: (osechi ryouri) traditional Japanese New Year foods served in decorative boxes.
3. I create flashcards in the following way: front side – English, back side – Japanese
(optional) Sometimes, I also create additional flashcards in the following way: front side – Japanese sentence with a blank for the target vocabulary, back side – target vocabulary with meaning.
4. I continue to study.
5. When my Pomodoro timer goes off, I take a 15-minute break.
6. During my next Pomodori, I review these flashcards.
This is my personal workflow for studying. It keeps me focused, it keeps my time structured and it keeps my brain in language-acquisition mode. This approach can apply to any level of language skill. All that changes is the content you are studying.
While making flashcards with paper works best for me as one of my various study activities, I realize it’s not best for everyone. If you want something a bit more interactive than pen and paper, there are a ton of great flashcard apps you can choose from, such as Anki, SpeakEasy and FluentU. With the language learning program FluentU, you can create multimedia flashcards based on the words that appear in the app’s subtitled Japanese media clips.
A Schedule for Maximizing Learning and Minimizing Burnout
The last thing I’d like to mention is how the Pomodori might fit into your day. Daily schedules, of course, can be vastly diverse, but I will present an example schedule based on the typical 9-5 work routine. (And for the record, my schedule is actually much different from this!)
6:30 Wake up, shower, etc.
7:00 Get some food in you
8:00 Leave for work
8:30 Arrive at the office, do another Pomodori #2 before your colleagues arrive
9:00 Start working for your paycheck!
12:00 Lunch time! You can finish in 30 minutes, right?
12:30 Pomodori #3!
1:00 You’re back on the clock
5:00 Head home
6:00 Get some more food in you
7:00 Do some chores
8:00 Pomodori #4
8:30 Watch a sitcom on Hulu
8:50 Pomodori #5
9:20 Watch another episode of that hilarious sitcom
9:40 Pomodori #6
10:10 Start to wind down for the night. Try to get eight hours of sleep!
With this schedule, you’ve worked a nine-to-five, you’ve done three hours of Japanese study, you’ve taken care of housework and you’ve kept yourself relaxed and entertained!
As I mentioned above, this schedule will obviously not work for everyone, but you can adapt it to your own schedule. The important part is getting in those Pomodori throughout your day, and finishing the sessions when the timer goes off.
The Pomodoro Technique is just one approach to managing your studies. It may not be universally appreciated, but it is what I have personally seen to be one of the most effective ways to pushing learners down the path towards their goal.
Try it out and see if it works for you. Give it a week or two to let it become truly habitual. You might just find yourself easily empowered with more motivation and finer control over your own studies. Good luck!