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Dear Readers:

Welcome to a language acquisition FAQ of tips, tools and answers to common questions regarding language learning.

Q: How do I learn a foreign language?
A: Input. The difference between a language you know and a language you don’t know is your depth of experience. To learn a language, you need to take in a massive quantity of input.

Q: What do you mean by “input”?
A: “Input” means hearing and reading that language in use. (Reading = hearing in your head.) “In use” means “for native speakers, by native speakers”.

Q: Don’t I need to practice speaking?
A: No. Listen intently for a year, and one day, you will speak. I promise. Speaking is for soliciting input. So, is output necessary? Like a catalyst in a reaction, it can help. You need 1% output and 99% input. Assume you won’t speak for the first year. Indeed, this is in complete contradiction to what traditional language classrooms teach.

Q: Don’t I need to take language classes?
A: No. Unless you’re learning Hittite, there’s probably a wealth of input material waiting for you on the Internet. Taking an academic course taught in your target language (and designed for native speakers and the very proficient) is a great way to learn, but that’s once you’re far along. If you teach yourself, you will never be bored.

Q: So how do I teach myself?
A: Use Anki SRS to memorize sentences. You make digital flashcards with a sentence you want to learn on the front, and the meaning on the back. In the beginning (AJATT recommends ~500 sentences) you can use English on the back. Then, graduate to all target language. Aim for 10,000 sentences. It takes years, and it’s a random number I stole from AJATT, but it’s a good goal. I’m at 4,200 in Japanese and 4,800 in Chinese, so 10,000 still feels like a reasonable but challenging goal.

Q: Isn’t that like Rosetta Stone?
A: I don’t know. I’ve never used Rosetta Stone, because it costs a fortune. Anki ( is free.

Q: So why use Anki instead of Rosetta Stone, or paper flashcards?
A: Three basic reasons. 1) You can’t fit thousands of flashcards in your pocket. 2) You can put an unlimited amount of information on an Anki card, all of which you copy from the Internet in seconds with no typos. 3) Anki uses an algorithm to calculate the “forgetting index” and optimize reviews. As you study, you grade yourself on how well you remember cards, and Anki uses this to schedule hard reviews sooner, and easier later. This allows you to drastically reduce your study time, or drastically increase the volume of material you study.

Q: How long does it take to learn a foreign language?
A: Years. More or fewer depending on the time you spend. After six months of concentrated daily study with Anki, you can probably order in restaurants and make broken conversation. After a year you can probably read an easy novel. After two years you can probably get along fairly well with more complicated literature. After that it’s hard to say. However, I must add that while native input, Anki, and sentences are the fastest route to native fluency (that I have come across), the goal here is native fluency, not travel competency. If you want to learn some phrases for a trip, use a phrasebook and Anki.

Q: What languages do you speak?
A: Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. See the language pages on this blog.

Chinese FAQ:

Q: I speak Chinese, but I can’t read it. How can I learn to read hanzi?
A: Use Anki ( A Chinese language class assumes the students know neither Chinese nor hanzi, so it’s not much help for fluent Chinese speakers who simply don’t know the hanzi. Use the “Mastering Chinese Characters” public decks, or simply grab a list of the hanzi in order of frequency and start memorizing them. Progress to sentences ASAP.

Q: Aren’t Chinese characters ideograms that represent ideas and not sounds?
A: No. See the Ideographic Myth.

Japanese FAQ:

Q: How many kanji are there?
A: From 2,136 to infinity. See the jōyō kanji, the 2,136 characters and standard readings that are taught in Japanese schools. Despite claims to the contrary, these are all necessary. As in, ABC necessary. Know 1,000 kanji? Cool, you know A to M. Let me know when you get to Z.

Q: Is it really necessary to know 2,136 (plus) kanji?
A: Yes.

?eadi?g ?a?a?e?e ?i?h??? ka?ji l??k? like ?hi?.
(Reading Japanese without kanji looks like this.)

Or, more accurately:
??ing ?? without ?? looks like this.

Q: Isn’t it hard to learn kanji?
A: Yes. Start now. Use Remembering the Kanji and Anki. See the Japanese page. But don’t despair! It’s actually not difficult to learn kanji, only a bit time consuming. Remember, you’re trying to match spoken Japanese to the symbols on the page: that’s it!

Q: But I heard Japanese people can’t even really read kanji…
A: I heard Red Bull gives you wings.

Q: Aren’t Chinese characters ideograms that represent ideas and not sounds?
A: No. See the Ideographic Myth. This myth seems to plague Japanese learners worse than Chinese, probably because the phonetic components that indicate the rhyme of Chinese characters are more apparent when read in Chinese. How could one fail to notice that 蜘蛛 is the bug version of 知朱? Easily, when it’s read “kumo”.

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