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Supercharge Your Japanese with the Ultralearning Principle of Directness

On an unforgettable April day back in 2008, I found myself sitting across a desk from a travel agent in Nishi-Shinjuku, clutching a pair of freshly minted Narita Express train tickets in my hands.

Awash with mixed feelings of accomplishment and disbelief, I had just managed to complete a relatively high-stakes transaction without using a word of English. At this stage in my life, I was, at best, a novice Japanese speaker. This situation I had thrown myself into was a far cry from ordering food and asking directions—common occurrences during this, my second trip to Japan.

It wasn’t long until a new sensation hit me: disappointment. Successfully obtaining these train tickets to Narita Airport sealed my fate: my vacation would soon end, and I would have to return home.

This was the moment that solidified my resolve to live in Japan. And, sure enough, a mere seven months later, I found myself just a few blocks away from that same Nishi-Shinjuku travel agency, this time as a gainfully employed resident of Japan.

This article, however, isn’t about how I came to live in Japan. There’s actually a language-learning lesson buried within this travel agency adventure. Unbeknownst to me at the time, through this experience, I was deploying an incredibly effective technique for improving my Japanese: the principle of directness.

What Is the Principle of Directness?

Scott H. Young, an author famous for completing the entire MIT undergraduate computer science curriculum in under a year, introduces and expands on the principle of directness in his best-selling book, Ultralearning. Young defines direct learning as tying what you want to learn to the context you want to use it in.

According to Young, “The easiest way to learn a thing directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at. If you want to learn a language, speak it… If you want to master making video games, then make them… If you want to pass a test, practice solving the kinds of problems that are likely to appear on it…”

In other words, as tempting as it may be to hinge most of your Japanese studies on indirect learning tools, such as textbooks, you can supercharge your progress by directly engaging in a specific aspect of the language as soon as possible, be it daily conversation, reading native content, or public speaking.

First, Find Your Focus

The first step in applying Ultralearning principles to your Japanese studies is to clearly define your focus. For most working adults, simply saying “I want to learn Japanese,” is too vague and overwhelming if your aim is to emulate Young’s success.

I imagine that most of you reading this article aren’t in the position to ultralearn Japanese in its entirety by taking a couple of years off to move to Japan and fully immersing in the country, culture, and language. (However, if you can do this, go for it!) Most of us have to balance language learning with competing aspects of our life: work, relationships with family and friends, and dare I say, hobbies and interests unrelated to Japanese. Therefore, if you’re busy, to truly feel the benefits of the principle of directness, I recommend applying ultralearning principles such as directness to one or two specific language goals at a time (while continuing to rely on passive learning methods to improve gradually in other areas).

An Example of How to Apply the Principle of Directness

Perhaps your language-learning priority is to pass the JLPT N1 exam and unlock up all the job opportunities associated with doing so. Sure, you could continue studying Japanese the general way and eventually achieve that goal. However, many JLPT examinees will attest to the narrow focus of the exam and that success relies on test-taking strategy just as much (if not more) than overall Japanese knowledge. Therefore, applying directness to this goal means that mock exams, taken under simulated conditions, should be your primary method for passing the JLPT as soon as possible.

Mock exams represent the “context” Young mentions in his definition of directness, and what you study should radiate from there. As Young puts it, “Building knowledge outward from the kernel of a real situation is much better than the traditional strategy of learning something and hoping that we’ll be able to shift it into a real context at some undetermined future time.”

It’s important to note that in this example, prioritizing mock exams means just that—putting them above all else. Other, passive study tools remain in play and are, in fact, necessary for filling the knowledge gaps revealed through self-testing.

The Principle of Directness: A Versatile Learning Tool

Direct learning works for almost any language-related goal that you wish to achieve. If you desire to become a better public speaker, join your local Japanese-language Toastmasters chapter, where you’ll be put on the spot to give speeches and presentations on a regular basis.

Are you wondering if your Japanese is good enough to travel to the most remote parts of the country on your own? Hop on a plane train, or bicycle and find out firsthand.

Perhaps you’re trying to grow your professional network here in Japan. In that case, don’t hesitate to join Japanese networking events, even if you feel that your language ability might not fully be up to the task.

In any of the above scenarios, not everything will go perfectly. However, more often than not, you’ll realize that your Japanese is better than you expected, and most importantly, you’ll receive valuable real-world feedback on your shortcomings.

Speaking of which, regardless of how you apply directness to your learning, make sure that you can somehow receive and process feedback, which happens to be Principle 6 of Young’s ultralearning framework. Sometimes, your feedback will be obvious—the explicit feedback you would receive at a Toastmasters meeting, for example. In other situations, you may have to pick up on vague feedback cues such as the confused looks you receive when you fail to clearly describe your occupation at a networking event.

Learn Directly but Don’t Throw Out Your Textbooks Yet

As someone who constantly extols the virtues of classroom study and flashcards, I may seem hypocritical in advocating direct learning. However, direct and indirect learning actually complement one another. Learning with directness doesn’t mean saying sayonara to textbooks, apps, or your favorite Japanese teacher. Instead, the goal is to engage in direct learning as soon as possible—well before you think you’re ready to do so. Receiving immediate real-world feedback will reveal the path you need to take with your passive studies. So, when you start your flashcard drills, you can be confident that you’re working on the right words. When you pick up a textbook, you’ll know which chapters will address your immediate needs.

Moreover, if you’re anything like me in 2008, you may already be engaging in direct learning without even realizing it. In that case, you have a head start. From here, just be mindful of the process, gather real-world feedback, and enjoy learning Japanese faster and more efficiently than ever before.

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.

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