You Need to Stop Studying!

by David · 18 comments

I broke a rule of mine recently in my approach to learning and it turned out to be a great decision.

I’ve been obsessed with my study of Japanese characters for the last few months and I’ve  managed to learn approximately one thousand. It has certainly been hard-work, nevertheless I’m pleased with my progress. However, two weeks ago I stopped studying despite the fact it meant breaking my number one rule – consistency.

Learning the characters had become boring and I reached a point where I dreaded having to study what was once fascinating and exotic. I didn’t want to accept it and I forced myself to continue by studying in small chunks spread out across the day. It worked – for a while, but then even that began to feel like drawing blood from a stone. It had also become difficult to learn new characters. As if it couldn’t get worse, I started forgetting the old ones, too. I tried everything I could and it only seemed logical to stop.

I broke my number one rule and I felt terrible, but sadly studying made me feel worse. It hurts me to write that, but it’s the truth. I wondered if I would ever return. Could this be the end of my journey? I’ve spent countless hours studying, and even more day dreaming about the day I’ll be able to read manga (Japanese comics). However, none of that matters if there isn’t a flame of passion burning, and sadly my flame seemed to have burnt out.

That was how I felt two weeks ago, and I’m happy to say that I no longer feel that way. I’ve started studying again and I’m loving it more than ever.

Why did this happen? I was being an impatient learner and I burnt myself out. Fortunately, two weeks was all it took to make a full recovery, you might not be so lucky.  Be sure not to make the same mistakes as me – be smarter.

The lesson here today is simple: familiarity breeds contempt and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you can solve your problem if you take a break and just stop studying.

  • This parallels exactly my experience with Chinese. I had committed myself to completing James Heisig’s Remembering Traditional Hanzi using Anki for review, and I stuck at it for a good eighteen months, getting up to about 1350 odd. But  it was utter misery all the way and the whole project appeared to have lost its charm and intrigue. In addition, the prospect of working through a second volume of 1500 characters (to a total of 3000) reminded me of Tim Robbins’ character in the Shawshank Redemption, who picked at away at his cell wall for twenty years with a tiny little pick-axe and finally got through to freedom. I just wasn’t sure whether I could…hack it.

    So I simply stopped. I quit Heisig altogether and instead began more casually using graded readers, learning the characters not by inventing bizarre, disconnected little stories for each character, but instead letting them wash over me repeatedly in context. Unfortunately, owing to the tedium of Remembering the Hanzi, my love for and enjoyment of handwriting was dampened considerably, to the extent that it has now been over a year since I regularly laid pen to paper. I can still produce characters quite fluently, as the writing patterns are ingrained in me, and that is about the only positive to have come from using Heisig’s method.

    Where to go from here? I think joy should be the number one factor in learning anything. I’m happy to hear you found your enthusiasm for Japanese again. I myself have rekindled the spark with Chinese after a total absence of about two months, and it’s great fun again.

    All the best,


    • Thanks for sharing your story! 

      I also really like the analogy you used, It illustrates beautifully that fun is what’s really needed to succeed!

  • I have a similar feeling. I spent 2 months with intensive studying in the summer. I became tired. But after a 3 weeks break, I really miss my daily schedule and I want to continue my studies.

    • How are your studies coming along? 

      • Well, I completed two English textbooks in the summer, and I’ve bought a new one already. I use Anki every day, listen to the BBC news quite often, watching movies in English and so on.
        As for my Korean studies: I’m using Teach Yourself, and I started Colloquial Korean in August. 
        You don’t know, but I’m majoring in civil engineering at the university, so sometimes I don’t have enough time to learn languages as my primary hobby.

        • Your approach sounds similar to mine. 

          I must say, your English is great! What’s your native language? 

  • Ebogomazova

    That kind of intensive studying indeed burns you out sooner or later. Taking a break is good, and I bet you didn’t forget as much as you thought you did. BTW, if you have this many characters under your belt, you can definitely start reading manga — most of manga for kids has furigana anyway!

    • Oh, really, is that true? I’ll be checking out some manga soon! 

  • The same thing happens to me David, but it looks like you can go for much longer than I can before that feeling of burn out starts to kick in. I went to approximately 600 Kanji or so the first time I burned out. Now I’m at 1100 and that feeling is occurring again.

    I will not do what I did last time though, I kept going until I utterly couldn’t take it any longer and I lost my passion for Japanese for a while. I still really like Japanese. I’m watching a lot of Japanese shows, listen to Japanese music, and even reading Japanese. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t mind studying kanji using RTK, because I really like coming up with stories. It’s reviewing on Anki that really gets me though.

    I’m going to stop for a bit and hopefully I want to go back later. Great blog post David!

  • Akinsola Akinwale

    I must confess it happens a couple of time but i have learn’t to pursue my passions most often, anytime i’m out like you did i just cool off for sometime doing some other things, thank i get but sometimes it takes days or weeks.
    Always you are incredibly superb

    • I think identifying your usual pattern is the first step to making the desired changes.  In my experience, the first couple of months are always the easiest,  I call this the warm up stage because the *real* work hasn’t even begun at this point. Unfortunately, I’ve observed that most people give up just as the real work begins. 

      When it gets tough is when it’s most important to keep going! 

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  • So how are your studies going now?  I studied both French and Spanish before I learned Japanese, and I don’t think I realized how hard it would be to learn the language.  Even living in Japan and speaking, reading, and writing Japanese 24 x 7, it still takes a long time to make any progress. 

    Also, I wonder if you’ve really thought this through.  I mean, I’m in Japan.  I need the language for my work, and for daily life.  But outside of Japan, it’s really not that useful.  Not trying to dissuade anyone, but are you sure you want to spend several years learning something that’s only marginally useful?  You seem like you want to learn a lot of things.  Are you sure this is the best use of your time?  Check out my site if you want to learn more about actually living in this country.  I mean, I enjoy it, but it’s still just a place.  It’s got its ups and downs. 

    • I study Japanese purely for fun. I enjoy the process of learning and I love manga + anime. That’s enough of a reason for me to learn. 

      However, I have more reasons, I’m a student of Linguistics and Social Anthropology and I hope to make documentaries in Japan someday.  Understanding the language is a must. 

      • Cool.  Socialogically, Japan will rock your world.  The Japanese understanding of life, personal relations, and even reality itself is so far divergent from the Western perspective that it almost defies description.   I would love to see your documentary about Japan, because almost 100 percent of the information disseminated to the West is laced with hype, orientalism, or is just plain wrong. 

        But here’s the deal, and I say this because you seem like an open and real person (insomuch as anyone whose head appears in a YouTube video can):  You’re right.  You gotta learn the language.  And you have to use that language to unlock the culture.  I mean really get out there and spend years with people.  Don’t believe anything anybody tells you.  Westerners.  Japanese people.  Some website you read.  Don’t believe me either.  I came to Japan a decade ago and told everybody what it was like, and I was wrong.  Five years ago, I told everybody how wrong I was and gave them a better understanding.  And that was wrong too.  Then two years ago I was like, Okay, finally now I know Japan, and this is the real deal.  Yeah right, wrong again.  Nowadays, hell, I don’t know what’s going on.  And that’s the real deal.  It’s not a simple place.

        So I’d ask this.  Don’t go to Japan for a year or two and then start writing about it.  Resist the urge to post a bunch of videos of ornate temples and women in kimonos and salarymen passed out on the sidewalk and talking toilets.  That’s not it.  Virtually everybody who documents Japan ends up rehashing established mantra:  Japanese are polite.  Japanese are tattmae/honne.  Japanese are conformist.  All of that is too simplistic.  I try to capture some of that complexity on my site, but I’m just one dude.  Japan’s not a simple place.  But then no place is, huh?

        • This is really awesome advice, and I appreciate you taking the time to write it.

          I agree that people often make false generalisations. This happens all the time, I think it’s because people think they actually understand the world.

          When I finally start to make documentaries, they’ll be more like a journey of discovery than a collection of supposed fact, if you that makes any sense?

          I’m more about asking questions and exploring than I am about answers.

          Thanks for your great feedback. It’s really appreciated 🙂

  • Buck Wade

    Thanks! I’m having the same problem now. When I first started taking Japanese and the teacher sent assignments to me it was fun and all, but then I kinda got bored and it became hard because I never was speaking the language in a conversation. That’s why I want to go to Japan, or find a Japanese speaking partner, so my Japanese will improve and I’ll get interested again. The only reason I can come up with for learning the language is to be able to watch anime when only the Japanese version, and play video games that are still only in Japan.

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