Posted in Attitude, Choices and sacrifices, Motivation, Study methods


I really like Instagram. Sure, I like Facebook too, but I truly grew to like Instagram over the last 3 years since I opened @mikuwashi. At the moment, I’m following a variety of accounts: bullet journal-related, watercolour-related, Japan-related and a few months ago so-called language studygrams joined my “following” list, too.

As more and more posts uploaded by self-study language learners started to pop out in my feed, I began to notice that while most of the posts had this positive undertone in regard to that person’s studies, some posts were of complaining or demotivational nature, like: “I’m studying X atm, such a pain” or “I finally finished topic X, almost died doing it”. I often approached such people via dm (as I find it completely understandable that most people don’t like some pointing-out remarks being thrown in their face in the comment section) and asked them WHY they are/were studying such a topic then if it doesn’t “spark joy” in them (if we were to quote Marie Kondo’s famous words). 

Here’s a quick remark – I’m not talking about topics people find difficult for them. Everyone has their strong and weak spots in terms of topics, grammar structures, even words (some of them just can’t stick, no matter what you do to remember them). In such cases, it’s only natural that people need more time to grasp a particular term or structure that they find confusing – it depends on a person and is completely normal. It’s also a separate issue when you’re going to school or university and the teachers ask you to learn something because it’s in the curriculum and you need to learn it in order to pass a subject or to get a better grade. Yet, as I’ve already underlined in one of my previous posts, I believe it’s possible to give yourself room for choice and freedom in your official education. Just not as much as you can when studying on your own. However, here I’m talking about learning a topic, vocabulary or some other aspect of a language or target culture that doesn’t interest you or that you find completely unnecessary in your studies, yet you go over it anyway – just „BECAUSE”.

Most people I asked were independent learners and they were unable to tell why exactly they do that. Some even gave it a longer thought because it had never occurred to them before that they HAVE A CHOICE not to follow the textbook 100%. “Because it’s in the book and I do it from cover to cover”, “because I saw other people learning it so I’m doing it too” or “because I have to” – those were most common answers I received. But another question immediately popped in my head: who imposes this topic it on you if you’re self-studying? The answer is simple: only yourself. So why aren’t you questioning your material? Why don’t you stop for a second and give yourself room to think: do I really need this?

Why do we tend to learn everything we encounter without filtering information? For example, if we have just started our journey with a language and right now we’re learning its first grammar aspects like basic tenses, why do we tend to learn ALL the uses of a particular tense? “Because I won’t have to go back and learn it later” – sure, but are you going to use all, give or take, 7 uses of Present Simple (if you’re learning English)? Do you really need to know that you can use it to comment a football match or is the fact, that you can use it to talk about your daily routine enough for a beginner?

Of course, you don’t need to know that and you even shouldn’t. At least not in the beginning – unless you want to feel as if you’re going in circles without making any progress as you’re too focused on stopping and learning everything there is instead of moving forward. Give yourself time, you’re not going to become fluent in one day. There will come a day when that match commentary will be crucial to you and that’s when you will learn that Present Simple can be used there. You have to realise that fluency is a long journey, it takes a lot of time and effort and (unfortunately) it never ends – languages evolve and change all the time, so we have to update our knowledge. Instead, be patient and do things at your own pace – don’t look how fast the others are going, don’t get discouraged that somebody could grasp a particular topic faster than you – they’re probably thinking the same thing when you breeze through something else they found difficult and time-consuming.

This is one of the reasons I love “Try!” books so much (grammar books for Japanese). They’re divided by their JLPT level (where level 1 is the highest, advanced, and level 5 is the lowest, elementary) and even if some structure was introduced on the elementary level, they gradually present its additional uses in the next books. For example, in the book for N4 level, I learned that なら (nara) is used to create a conditional sentence. In the book for N3, I learned that besides the conditional, you can also use it to make a suggestion or to give advice. Providing information bit by bit is something I truly appreciate in grammar books – instead of throwing all there is to know about a structure in your face, they reveal more and more uses before you with each book, just as your language competency grows and you’re ready for that next twist.

Yet, even if we do pace ourselves and try to do things our way, why do we still treat textbooks as some kind of a bible that tells us what exactly needs to be studied? They don’t always cover everything, after all. It doesn’t include certain topics that you’re curious about – you’re left on your own trying to submerge into the Internet for answers and information. And also – why are we reluctant to skip something that doesn’t interest us or doesn’t bring pleasure but we decide to succumb to pain and endurance instead? Does covering all the material bring satisfaction? Yes, perfectionism brings pleasure somehow, but is it worth the discomfort and/or decrease of motivation?

The answer is simple: no, it isn’t.

It’s one of the first conclusions that had come to me, even before I graduated. I hated the fact that I was forced to study something I didn’t perceive as useful or interesting. It made me sick to my stomach to think of learning such material. There were times when I sat in the class and wondered “Hey, what am I doing here? I’m wasting my time.”

Do you want to waste your time?

Or do you want to feel you’re on the right track and making progress towards your goal?

Then make choices in your own studies.

But also learn to make sacrifices.

Because if you start to choose what to learn, you will have to sacrifice something at the same time. That’s what choices in studying means – they are intertwined with sacrifices. That’s exactly what happens when you take responsibility for your own studies rather than rely on somebody else’s judgement (like school’s, in form of a curriculum or teacher’s demands) in terms of the studied material. You have to learn to omit, to skip, to sacrifice things on your way towards fluency. TO omit, not HOW to omit. Before all else, you need to realise that you CAN actually omit stuff you don’t like or don’t want to learn. HOW to do that surfaces later and is a very personal matter – it’s all about you and your choices in the end. But first, take a breath and do that initial step – embrace the freedom of choice that was given to you and make the most of it. Because I’m guessing you’re gunning for that fluency, right? You want to understand your target language, speak it, devour it, chew it and then release your progress to the world?

After you start thinking about those two aspects, you’ve already become a different, more aware learner. This is something school doesn’t teach you, at least it didn’t teach me – it asked me to blindly follow what was imposed. So I did, I didn’t ask questions WHY we have to study this. Nobody taught me to think differently. But at some point, when my frustration was on the verge of exploding, I started questioning myself: does studying really have to look like that?

No, it doesn’t.

After realising that simple fact, your world of studying starts to change. It’s terrifying at first – you don’t yet know how to make that choice CORRECTLY. But let me reassure you – there’s no right or wrong here. It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes and take your decision back. Yes, they’re reversible! After all, you’re growing in your studies, you’re gaining knowledge, so of course your choices are going to differ, too. Heck, even things outside your studies change, you’re maturing as a person, your life situation and preferences become different – so obviously they’re going to influence the way you study and alter it.

My N4 vocabulary textbook with 3 types of vocabulary highlights I use

For instance, when I learn vocabulary, I tend to highlight words. I actually have a separate colour (grass green) dedicated to, as I call them, “bullsh*t” words that I choose to skip. This colour helps me recognise them and go “Oh, THAT word. What was it? (Checks the word) Oh. Okay. Let’s move on.” For example, when I was doing my vocabulary textbook for the N4 exam, I stumbled upon the word for the catholic church. I hovered over it with my usual highlighter for new vocabulary (orange) and then suddenly thought: “You know what? I don’t need this. I’m not going to waste my time memorising something I find unnecessary”. And that’s when I chose another highlighter for words I’m skipping. Why do I highlight them at all if I don’t want to pay attention to them? Simple enough: as I create flashcards, my eyes just search for any highlights on the page – if I see green, my brain already knows that even though it’s a new word, I can carry on looking for other highlights without bothering with the green ones. If I see orange, I know it’s a new one and needs to be added to my flashcards for sure.

To tell the truth, I use a third colour too – dirty yellow. It indicates that I had trouble recalling what that word meant but I have definitely encountered it before and I label it as necessary to my studies. What’s more, if I use that yellow to highlight, I leave myself a bit freedom, as it’s a signal that I can postpone the final choice whether I want to learn this word till the time flashcards will be made. As a result of such colour-coding, I don’t have to read the entire page again, I just scan it for highlights every time I create new flashcards.

You can actually see how I remade my decision on two words

The same situation happened with Japanese words 輸出 (yushutsu; export) and 輸入 (yunyuu; import), which I have highlighted with green at first, as I thought: “Hey, I’m not going to read stuff about economy, so I don’t need them”. The funny thing is, these two came back to bite me in the ass and I’ve encountered them numerous time since I first saw them in my vocabulary book, not only in economic context! So I went back and rehighlighted them with orange and then quickly added them to my flashcards.

This is one more thing that’s important about choices – don’t be ashamed of them. If it turns out you actually need something you initially omitted, don’t be afraid to MAKE YOUR CHOICE again and welcome something back in your studies. Nobody’s going to stick it to you and don’t let them if they try – you’re learning for yourself, not somebody else. Others don’t have to like it. YOU DO. YOU – and your choices – are the most important element of your studies.

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