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What Learning to Cook Taught Me about Studying Japanese

To say that my culinary tastes are unrefined would be an understatement. I’ve never been one to enjoy cooking. However, when it comes to being healthy, exercise can only get one so far. So eventually, I had to acquiesce and learn how to cook at least a few nutritious dishes that also have a modicum of flavor.

I struggled at this endeavor for quite some time. Eventually, I realized that just a handful of basic techniques and ingredients could unlock a myriad of relatively healthy and tasty meal options. For example, mastering the use of a frying pan (trust me, this is more complicated than it sounds) and a few basic ingredients (i.e. pepper, butter, and perhaps a sauce or two) enabled me to skillfully cook omelets, steaks, stir-fried vegetables, teriyaki chicken, and more.

This story isn’t about me going out and writing a best-selling cookbook. Trust me, it would fail. However, I have learned how to cook meals that match my fitness goals and require minimal time, effort, and cost. In other words, I just applied the Pareto principle to meal prep: 20% of my kitchen ingredients and tools can create 80% of my best home-cooked meals. When I look back on my years of studying Japanese, I wish I had applied this principle from the first day I started studying.

I’m an advocate of formal, classroom Japanese study. However, it’s a good idea to supplement that with a concerted effort to study the vocabulary, kanji, and grammar that is most frequently used in everyday Japanese writing and conversations. Unfortunately, most classes, textbooks, and learning systems just aren’t structured this way. Some of them have their own internal logic, while others are designed for test preparation. In hindsight, I wish I had studied word frequency lists or simply focused more on the words and phrases that appeared all around me when I first moved to Japan. Doing so would have accelerated my progress toward proficiency while boosting my confidence along the way. Few things are more motivating than seeing real-world vocabulary and kanji come alive in your mind’s eye.

So, if you are just getting started with Japanese, try applying the Pareto principle to your studies. Focus on the 20% of the language that will deliver 80% of your fluency results. And, if you’re anything like me, consider applying the Pareto principle to cooking too.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.