How to master a new language

How to master a new language

Aug 19, 2021 09:10 AM
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Nov 4, 2021 10:43 AM
Dominic Zijlstra
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I talk with James Stuber about how he got through his step when learning Japanese and went on to become fluent.
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Learning a new language is hard.
We are often motivated at the beginning, but soon we hit a dip.
I talk with James Stuber about how he got through his step when learning Japanese and went on to become fluent.
We also talk about spaced repetition, immersion, sketch noting, and a barbell approach to learning.
Connect with James at
Find out more about Superlearning at
Video preview
Learning a new language is hard. We are often motivated at the beginning, but soon we hit a dip. I talk with James Stuber about how he got through his step when learning Japanese and went on to become fluent. We also talk about spaced repetition, immersion, sketch noting, and a barbell approach to learning.
Join me for the interview.
~Hello, and welcome to another interview in the series super learning professionals. Today I have with me
James Stuber. James is an engineer from Seattle, Washington. He's also a fellow in the OnDeck course creator fellowship. And I talked with James before about his fascinating journey to learn Japanese.
Welcome, James.
Thanks so much for having me.
No problem. So, James, tell me a bit more about your background. Where do you work? what are your main activities?
My main day job is as an engineer at a fusion energy research and development small company. We build diagnostics and run simulations for anyone who's doing fusion energy research, and also related research in the fields of plasma science or also magnetics. That's my day job, but on the side, I really enjoy the act of learning things, of maintaining knowledge.
So there's this field of personal knowledge management that I'm really into. And actually right now I'm a mentor for this class called building a second brain, which is all about personal knowledge management.
And do you see it in your professional life as well, that knowledge management is important. And was that one of the reasons that you got into this or were there different reasons?
I originally got into PKM as they call it Because I was learning all this stuff on the side, but I felt like I wasn't able to turn it into anything useful. And I found myself constantly having to go back to websites and kind of relearn things that I had already learned.
So in that sense, I started learning about PKM and realizing that, Hey, like I can store this knowledge somewhere where I can access it easier later. And it's much more efficient than relying on Google or whatever. But that did eventually move into applying it to work because at work we have multiple projects and keeping them all straight and keeping the information you need all in order can be like juggling a lot of balls or something. It can be kind of crazy. And what I found was that by applying some PKM materials to my work-life It was much easier to switch between projects while working, the context switching was reduced. It's still there of course, but it's much easier to, just pull up my notebook full of all the information on this one project.
And get to work there instead of having to constantly context switch. So that's been really helpful at work.
So what have been some practical PKM practices that have helped you professionally?
One is just how to organize information. I think in building a second brain, there's this style of organizing notes called PARA where you can organize your notes kind of by actionability.
So instead of going, oh, this note is about magnetic wire. It's more useful to think about the note as, oh, this note is helpful for the specific project. The acronym PARA stands for projects, areas, resources, and archives. So, you know, we started organizing information by project and that's super helpful.
Keeping this information, Siloed in projects, it's helpful in that way. And then when we launched similar projects, we can look at past projects and sort of pull that information out that's relevant and move it to the new project.
That sounds like a good way of organizing that.
And then also personally, you've been learning Japanese to a very high level. So can you tell me more about that journey and how that's related to the PKM practices, which you also use professionally?
Yeah. So I took Japanese in high school and my teacher was amazing and I learned a lot, but the pace of foreign language learning in America at least is too slow to really be able to get into having real deep conversations with other people.
So when I graduated high school, I really wanted to continue learning Japanese. It was something I wanted to take to a high level. And that brought me to a lot of brand new learning techniques that I had never encountered before. Some of them are spaced repetition was a key cornerstone to my being able to remember all this stuff.
Languages require, thousands and thousands of vocabulary, words, and Japanese in particular uses Chinese letters, which means that there's at least 2000 characters, you have to remember how to read and recognize and learn how to pronounce. So there's just all this information that we hadn't had the time to learn in school and I realized that I needed a different path. So I started looking at all these online forums about people learning Japanese and learning in all these different styles. And I came across these people who were using spaced repetition to learn both the Kanji, which is the Chinese characters, and also to learn vocabulary and to learn grammar.
As far as how that applies to PKM. Honestly, I wish I had more PKM knowledge back then. What I was doing was, I was taking notes on what other people were doing and then figuring out how I could use those techniques in a way that worked for me.
I think one of the biggest hurdles in language learning is getting through the dip. There's this period, at the beginning where you're learning a whole lot and it's super fun and easy. And then you get to a point where you've got all the basic grammar down, and maybe the top a hundred, 200, 300 words.
And after that, it's just this huge long slog of studying vocabulary, studying obscure grammar, continuing to practice your listening and speaking skills. And that dip is where it's really important to have a solid plan in place that you can trust, that you're not just wasting your time.
So how did you get that plan in place to get through the dip? Did you get help from community, from others? Or did you design it by yourself?
So it was a combination of both really. There were a lot of people online who were studying these things and trying different techniques for learning. There's a couple in particular one is this website called anti . Their approach is all about learning English, which is weird. Why would I look at people who are learning English? But their approach was unique in that instead of atomizing information to single vocabulary words, they were more about learning via sentences, right? So instead of learning the word Cat, you would learn the whole sentence. The cat is on the desk. This helps reinforce the grammar while you're also learning the vocabulary. And the really big thing here is that it keeps it more fun. Just studying a flashcard with the word cat on it, is really boring. Studying a flashcard with a sentence like the cat is on the desk is not that much more fun, but another big aspect of their learning system is going really deep on immersion.
So listening to a lot of the target language. So in my case, Japanese, and not just listening to textbook Japanese, but listening to TV shows and movies and pulling information from books. So I'd actually take the Japanese translation of Harry Potter. And because I knew the story already and, I'm not the biggest Harry Potter fan, but at least it's a fun book. I would pull sentences and words and audio from that series. And in that way, I made the learning process much more fun during this huge long dip.
And another factor was my college had a language learning exchange program where you could hang out with foreign exchange students and, half the time speak in English and half the time you'd speak in Japanese. And it was sort of this freeway to practice the language and, both parties benefited and actually made a lot of friends that way.
That was another way to keep it fun.
Yeah. it sounds like good practice. To become really fluent have you found it helpful to just listen and immerse yourself? Or was it more the speaking practice that's helped you get there?
I believe you need both.
The immersion and the constant listening to a lot of the target language is in my opinion one of the reasons why my accent is not as strong as a lot of people who may study in more traditional techniques. I don't have a perfect accent, but it's not as stereotypically bad, as a foreign accent might be. But I do believe that the speaking part of it was, instrumental to actually being able to speak because you can listen to as much as you want, but you'll always understand more than you can output consistently.
If you forget a word, you might be able to understand it if you heard it, but my personal Japanese speech, I'm constantly forgetting words and having to explain my way around them, right.
Yeah. It's the difference between the ability to recognize the word versus being able to actively recall and use it.
So I've been learning Chinese for quite a while, so I'm also learning the characters. I memorize them in a very visual way, come up with a visual story for every character. I was wondering if you have done anything similar in Japanese.
Yeah. In school, when you learn the characters, you learn them by frequency, like this is a really common character, so we'll learn it and we'll learn it by rote.
It's like this character is pronounced like sheen and this character, you draw it like this. When I got out of high school, I knew I wanted to learn all of them. And I had found this book by James Heisig called remembering the Kanji.
I know that one.
Yeah. And he uses a lot of these techniques with the visualizing.
So, the characters are made up of these little parts that are kind of rearranged. So he has you assign like visual characters or actions to each of these little primitives. And then by combining them, you can sort of learn all of the characters in that way.
Instead of going by frequency, he goes by, putting together these different primitives and that helps. It helps a lot just with familiarity. I think for me, the biggest part was I could get through the Heisig book in like three to five months or so, and then suddenly instead of the whole world looking like these incomprehensible characters suddenly it was like, oh, I kind of recognize that one or that one I think it means this, and it makes the whole process much less intimidating. The visual aspect of that is very powerful. That's definitely a great approach where you're making these visual stories about the character. it might be like, Mr. T walking down the street and yelling about his gold chains, could be a character, right? These kinds of stories that you come up with stick much better. And are also a lot more fun to do?
Yeah, definitely. Have you applied this style of visual learning also in other areas of your life?
Do you think it could be applied at all?
I think it definitely could be applied. That's an interesting question because I haven't done anything like systematically where I'm applying this type of visualization to what I'm learning.
Language is unique and that there's so many things you need to memorize to get through it. But I would imagine in other fields where there's a lot of maybe a lot of techniques or a lot of terminology that you need to memorize, that this kind of technique would be super helpful.
I'm trying to think of an example where I have done it specifically. I think one thing I've been doing, not necessarily just to memorize, but to understand the concept more is to, take a concept and, and write it up in words, but then also sketch out a visualization of the idea itself.
That to me helps lock in the idea.
Yeah. Very helpful, to make just a diagram or sketch.
Yeah. Have you heard of Sketchnoting? A technique for taking notes during a lecture or during a class where instead of just writing things down, you're also sketching the ideas in sort of conceptual visual imagery.
I'm not super good at it and I'm not a good drawer, but I find that that doing that keeps me more engaged and makes my notes more useful for me at least.
Yeah, I think that definitely works. So you mentioned before, you looked up lots of forums, resources and I can imagine people starting out to learn a language, get overwhelmed by all the material that's out there. So what's your process for choosing what to learn?
And maybe what not to learn.
I'm kind of unique in that I love finding these obscure niche forums and just going way into the rabbit hole and learning everything I can about it. And I quickly discovered that not everyone is like that, and I'm not like that for other topics I don't care as much about.
So in terms of pulling out the important information, one thing to do is, a lot of these like internet forums or subreddits that are very dedicated to certain topics will usually have some sort of FAQ or introductory thing or, a Wiki or something set up where they have resources for, people who are just starting or people who are just getting into the field.
So it's really important to kind of seek those things out first and find them. Another useful technique is to hang out in these forums for a little bit and kind of get the lay of the land and, see there's these guys who have been around for years and there's these guys who are kind of new and asking kind of like newbie questions.
And then, once you sort of get an idea for, who knows what you can message people and be like, Hey, like, you know, I see you've been learning Japanese for a long time. do you mind chatting with me about how you did it, or do you mind sharing with me some resources about how you did it? And most people who are spending their free time on these forums are more than happy to chat with you.
It's like this untapped wealth of knowledge that most people don't try because they're scared that someone will say no. And people will say no, of course, but most of them honestly will be super excited to have someone who wants to listen to them.
Definitely reach out to people who seem authoritative enough in that field.
That's a very good tip. So you were also a mentor for Building a second brain and maybe also in your job, you have people you're working with who struggle with learning or want to know about learning better.
So how do you inspire those people around you to use PKM methods use effective, learning techniques
It's one thing to go up to someone and say, Hey, I found this really cool thing about how to organize your folders. And, I think to 99% of the population, that's like, okay, good job. Like nice for you.
I think the way to inspire other people to want to learn more or want to tackle these PKM ideas is to just live it, to demonstrate it. If you can show people that like, oh, Hey, James is always the one who managed to pull up that information or Hey, ever since James started setting up our slide deck in this way suddenly it's much easier to get the job done and it's a similar thing for learning as well.
I try to sort of exude my joy and wonder of learning on public spaces like YouTube or Twitter, or even, in class, like in ODCC. Showing people how exciting and wonderful learning is, is a great way to inspire people to do that as well. I think learning is sort of tarnished by school. Everyone associates with the school the hard work and the grades and the mean teachers with learning, but learning doesn't have to be about school. It can be about the stuff that you love and you're really interested in. And that to me is beautiful.
Yeah. I think you touched a very important point there that the way education is set up actually diminishes the children's natural learning drive. I don't know if you ever, if you have any ideas about what we could do to improve that?
Ideas about keeping that love of learning alive in children?
I'm not an education expert or anything like that, but I really do think that allowing children to be where they're at and to follow their interests, I think is a much better way to educate them, than force them to be on a certain path. For example, I was lucky enough that I managed to function well enough in school without too much effort.
So I would do things in class, in my high school, physics class, I would sit there and program games on my graphic calculator. To me, that was way more interesting than whatever was going on in class. And because I was able to get good grades, the teachers let me do that.
But I think a lot of teachers would, be like, Hey, stop, stop playing around with your calculator. Pay attention to the class. And that would have made my life much more boring. And also I wouldn't have learned, some of these basics about programming on my calculator.
I really do think that loosening curriculums, removing a lot of testing where it's like, oh, you gotta meet these standardized tests. And just allowing children to have the space to play and explore the things they really want to learn. Especially with the way technology is moving, I don't think that a lot of the things we teach our children right now, aren't going to be super important in the future. When I was growing up, it was always Oh, like you need to pull references for your essays from real books and from real publication articles.
And you're not allowed to use Wikipedia at all. And the thing is Wikipedia is an amazing starting point to find resources. The way information was handled was very old school. And that's only about to accelerate as we keep going on and as more forms of information show up.
Students would learn more if they were just like put in a room with an internet connection and, some mentors to help guide them if they had questions about certain things, that would be much better. I don't know how that works at scale with all the children we need to educate, but, allowing more play and pursuing what the kid is interested in can be so much more educational than forcing them to learn like algebra or something when they don't want to.
Yeah. So it sounds like a teacher should be like a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Two-way traffic rather than just the teacher pumping stuff into the children.
Obviously, there's, there's scale challenges there and all sorts of challenges, but I really do think that that facilitation model is so much more powerful than the lecture model.
Yeah. And taking that into your professional life as well, knowledge in your field is growing at a faster pace that you can keep up with. So, what solutions do you envision to enable knowledge workers, to be able to, to keep benefit benefiting from the growing knowledge, basically?
Yeah. This is an interesting field of discussion and like this whole personal knowledge management thing, the pace of information is speeding up. The pace of information decay is also speeding up, right? So the information is not useful for as long as it used to be. The news decays and can be useless in an hour. How do you stay on top of all of this information without getting overwhelmed while still also maintaining some ability to think deeply about problems? That's definitely a difficult thing. I think that there's two extremes to this, right?
There's the extremely online. I'm just sitting on Twitter all day and I'm sucking in the algorithm. I think that approach fully is wrong, but also I think that going to live in a cabin in the woods is not a good solution because, if you go into live in a cabin in the woods, you can get really deep on maybe some older texts that have been around for a long time.
And yeah, you can get, get really deep there, but you're missing out on this rapid change that's happening. The way I like to approach it is to have a mix of both. It's sort of if you're familiar with the term barbell, it's like, you have a lot on one side and a lot on the other side and nothing in the middle.
Right. So, I prefer to, spend some time in the timeline, like sucking in the algorithm and seeing what's going on in the world. And also sometimes just like really diving deep on certain books or material that I think is really important. And at least resonates a lot with me.
Splitting the two, having a balance of both, I think is the best way to do it. For my personal work, this looks like keeping abreast of new publications. There's always tons of new publications and just having an idea of what's being published, what's out there.
But also going deep on the core things, the physics that has been around for decades and making sure that those basics are still all there.
I love that, a barbell approach to learning. That's really good stuff.
So thanks for all the ideas. And who do you think, should I interview next for the series?
Well, that's fun. The person that comes to mind is Alexander Hughsam. I can send you his contact info but Alex is a product manager in Canada and he has recently done this project where he learned a lot about copywriting. I think he did a hundred days of copywriting or something like that. He's also recently learned about public speaking, which is pretty cool. He's constantly learning cool stuff and joining courses. So I think he'd be a good person to interview.
That sounds great. Yeah. Looking forward to get in touch with him. . I'm learning copywriting as well at the moment. So that would definitely be helpful.
Nice that'd be a fun conversation.
So If people want to find out more about you, James, what's the best way.
Probably the easiest thing to do is go to
That's my blog, my website. And you can also find me on YouTube. If you search for my name, James Stuber, you'll find me. And I'm also on Twitter. If you search for @uberstuber or just search my name, James Stuber. Okay.
All right. Awesome. Okay. Thank you, James, for this interview.
Thanks so much, Dom.
This has been fun.

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