Delete Your Japanese Learning Apps (and What to Do Instead)


When I lived in Japan, it was in the pre-smart phone era. I had a large map of Tochigi city and the whole surrounding area pinned to the wall in my apartment, and I studied the routes to the many elementary and middle schools I needed to visit. Some of them were quite far away by bicycle.

I’d be on my way to school in the morning, zig-zagging gingerly along narrow paths between the rice fields, perched on my mama-chari bicycle, and clutching in my fist a small, damp note for security. On the note had been written neatly, in Japanese (not by me!): ‘Excuse me, I’ve lost my way, where is Chizuka Shogako?’.

If my spoken Japanese was not immediately successful, which was often the case, I could show the innocent victim the note. I’d be pointed in the right direction and off I’d trundle again. I would breathe a deep sigh of relief when the school I’d been sent to as a visiting English teacher finally materialised, hazily, in the shadow of the mountains.

If I’d had a smartphone back then, it would have been SO MUCH easier.

I wouldn’t have had to attempt to memorise my route from a map. I wouldn’t have even needed to ask directions. Or, if I did, I could have had the phone speak the words, instead of me, slowly dying inside of acute embarrassment.

That would have been AMAZING! So, no, I’m not really serious about deleting our incredibly handy Japanese learning and translating apps. We do have the technology, and we should make good use of it.

BUT, what I am concerned about is the PASSIVITY that the comfort of APPS can create.

It’s not always easy to reach your destination, but it sure helps to know where you are heading. I believe that apps take that agency away, eliminating the need to actually know where we are going in the first place. I think it’s really important to set our goals and then use apps as stepping stones towards these pre-determined goals.

There is A LOT of information available these days about goal-setting itself, but I’m going to focus on a few key points to consider from two experts, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, and Mark Manson, author of swearily titled books including The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

Apps encourage passivity not just in terms of taking away the need to set goals, but also in terms of the actual Japanese skills that are learned and practised. Listening, reading and vocabulary building are naturally easier to present through the means a teaching app, or indeed a Japanese textbook. But listening and reading skills are passive skills, and only one part of communication.

The other language skills, speaking and writing are active skills, that is, they require us to produce something using our own creative faculties. These skills are harder to learn when studying by ourselves, using the technology of apps.

In this article I will talk about setting your own goals (one that don’t make you bored stiff), the difference between goals and systems, and deciding whether you actually want to speak and write in Japanese (spoiler alert: you don’t have to).

1.  Set Your Own, Unique Goals for the Lifestyle You Want

Earlier this year, before I had the chance to work with the amazing copywriting and story strategy coach, Anna Iveson, I wrote a goal setting planner based on the SMART goal system, that I planned to make available on my website for learners of Japanese. If you aren’t familiar with it, the acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-orientated, Realistic and Timed.

I just got it out of my files to check, because I knew I was focusing on goal-setting in this episode. And do you know what? It’s RUBBISH. It’s soooo boring I almost fell asleep reading it! I mean, I honestly do think the SMART principles are great, but my planner was drier than a Rich Tea biscuit.

Goals are the trunk of the tree, providing a firm centre to all the areas where we will branch out with language learning. We can come back to our central goals as a reference point whenever we wander off on a tangent. We want to have ambitious goals that excite us and give our Japanese study real purpose.

But conversely, it’s easy to set super exciting goals about getting fluent and working in Japan. We can get carried away with lofty thoughts about all the things that we could, figuratively, achieve.

But here, I am reminded of Mark Manson’s approach. He asks: ‘What’s your favourite flavour of shit sandwich, and does it come with an olive?’.

That’s gross. But it’s memorable, right? And what he is saying, is that rather than considering what kind of exciting success we want, we ought to ask: ‘What kind of pain do I want on the way there?’.

In other words, ‘Do I want the lifestyle that comes with this quest?’.

So, in setting your Japanese learning goals, consider, for example, whether you you’re your lifestyle to include using flashcard apps such Anki to learn hiragana? Do you want to subscribe to the particular learning system of Remembering the Kanji? Do you want to include that type of learning in your daily routine?

Of course, you might need to try a technique of learning Japanese before you know. But don’t be afraid to drop it like it’s hot if it’s not fun & interesting for you.

2.  Know the Difference Between Goals & Systems

So this is something I didn’t fully appreciate until recently, when I’ve been working with my fantastic coach, Ri Justin. She’s a coach for busy mums, if you’re interested. An app which teaches you Japanese is a system. A tactic.

Using apps without having set the firm central pillar of goals is a bit like having branches without a tree. Where do they lead?

Once we define clearly the goals to which we are heading, using apps is to get there can be a really effective system. Systems achieve results.

Systems and tactics need to be fixed carefully and sustainably into our lifestyles. In this awesome article on goal setting, by James Clear, he cites a study which asked people to fill in this sentence:

‘During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at / in [PLACE]. Researchers found that people who filled in that sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise.

Let’s do that now for our Japanese learning.

‘During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of Japanese learning on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at / in [PLACE].’

So determining our goals, and then using study apps on a specific day, time and place can be very effective. Apps are built to demand our attention, and they can train us to have a certain lifestyle.

We just need to be sure that we want that lifestyle.

For me, at the moment, I don’t feel that I can use apps to learn Japanese with. This is because it is a particular priority of mine to spend less time on my phone. In fact, I have just bought myself a lovely little lock box to put it into at certain pre-determined times.

One big reason for this is because I have young children. I don’t want them to see me constantly on the phone. They don’t understand that I’m not just playing Pac-man. I’d rather they see me doing something else more tangible, and perhaps easier to break off from.

And also, I crave the calm that other types of activities, such as reading books about Japanese wisdom and ways of doing things, and doing calligraphy can bring me.

3. Decide If You Actually Want to Speak Japanese

Speaking Japanese will mean that you need to find Japanese people to speak to. Coming back to the lifestyle question again, is that something you want to do? Is it something that you can do  right now?

I remember a colleague of mine. Let’s call him Barry. He was famous for his ability to clap with one hand. No, he really could, having large flappy hands. Barry was always to be found droning on, practising his Japanese with waiting staff in restaurants, who were a captive audience, and too polite to tell him to stick it. Don’t be like Barry.

Here are some ways to learn to speak Japanese:

  • a.  Restaurant staff (respectfully – remember Barry)
  • b.  Join The Japan Society’s Bilingual Speaking club
  • c.   Sing! Learn Japanese lyrics
  • d.  Find a Japanese study buddy – try online meet-ups
  • e.   Watch films, paying particular attention to the dialogue
  • f.     Get a 1-1 Japanese tutor

Although I sincerely believe that language is for the purpose of real communication, which involves speaking to other human beings, there is a time and a place for this.

You may find that what you are enjoying most of all IS learning the Japanese writing system, using a textbook or an app. And that is absolutely fine! The important point is your intentionality and feeling good about the choices that you are making.

3.  Decide If You Actually Want to Write in Japanese

When I taught in Japanese schools, I was always struck by the calligraphy hanging on the walls in the classrooms. At first glance, the papers appeared identical, the very same kanji or phrase having been inked by the 30+ students in the class. I wondered why they bothered? Why such uniformity?

But on closer examination, I realised they were, of course, all unique, and that writing calligraphy serves several purposes.

Firstly, it teaches penmanship and stroke order. It also teaches the words and phrases themselves. But perhaps most importantly, it is a creative, focused artistic endeavour with set parameters for learners. It can be intensely calming and satisfying. Calligraphy can be a valuable life skill.

Learning to write in Japanese really can be quite laborious. Although I’ve always prided myself on having a very nice cursive hand in English (I learned to write in Canada, so it’s that swirly, American style), my flowing style did NOT immediately translate to the minute, intricate strokes of kanji.

There’s a reason why mechanical pencils are so popular in Japan. They are very precise, rendering tiny, neat lines, and can be easily and accurately erased.

If physically writing Japanese doesn’t sound particularly appealing to you, rest assured, you don’t have to do it. Many Japanese people rarely put pen to paper these days, and instead rely on predictive text functions to find the right kanji. Many Japanese people say that are forgetting the correct stroke order, in the same way the English users forget how to spell words.

Others are really put off learning Japanese as they literally just don’t want to learn another writing script. It’s useful for these learners to note, that, several Japanese textbooks, such as Japanese for Busy People have beginner levels which are written entirely in roman letters, known as romaji. That is, the English alphabet.

You get to decide how far along the road you want to go with your Japanese learning. I sincerely believe that any distance covered is valuable – after all, sprinting and marathons are both valid pursuits.

So, I hope you found this useful to reflect on to your Japanese learning goals, and the systems or tactics that lead to a lifestyle that you can really enjoy – whether or not you want to actually speak or write Japanese.

The problem with apps is you can only go so far. But that might be where you want to go! Only you can decide.

If you are serious about learning Japanese and would like someone to point you in the right direction, do get in touch with me, Vanessa and we can talk about connecting you with a 1-1 Japanese tutor.

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