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Fast Learning - You Can Do It!

It’s that dreaded time of the year: Exam Season. That time when you’ve been procrastinating and taking things easy by going to the cinema with your friends and watching TV with your flatmates. The usual. That is, of course, until you realise you have an exam in two days.

Not only was it an exam, but a Japanese exam. Japanese reading and writing, all combined into a solid two hour back-to-back exam. You’d think that someone learning a new language (especially since this was my first year learning this language) would have the vocabulary under control; know how to use the grammar correctly; understand the nuances between that language and your mother tongue. But oh no. Not I. I didn’t know the vocabulary. Even something simple, such as “swimming” or “family” or “bank”. I had no clue and the stress of exams was getting to me. It was time to make a call to a very special friend.

I have two computer science friends, one who is intrigued by the Japanese language and one who thinks it’s a bunch of random squiggles. Obviously, the best choice was to ask the latter friend. It’s midnight and they’re currently engaged in an online Steam game. Definitely not a good time to ask, but things were getting desperate.

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing. Why?”

“Well, I have a Japanese exam in two days, over 100 flashcards to learn and I need your help. Wanna meet up tomorrow afternoon?”

Who knows what must be going through his head, but he says that he’ll stick with me to the very end. In the meantime, I create flashcards like no tomorrow. I end up with a stack of just under 200 cards, which include verbs, adjectives, nouns, places, dates… basically the entire syllabus worth of vocabulary. Desperate times, desperate measures, you know?

The following day, we meet up to practise these flashcards. He’s aware that he can’t read Japanese, but after some planning, we found a method to learn these words: He says the English name, I write the Japanese and we just plough through the stack of cards and mark how many I get right. After that, I let him sort the correct answers into a pile (which was in his hat) and then we repeat the process for the cards I got wrong. Like a recursive algorithm.

Slowly but surely, the daunting stack of cards to learn became smaller and smaller - apparently I knew about half of them before I began. The constant mistakes after mistakes reminds me of GCSE mathematics where we learnt about “trial and improvement” to narrow down to a value of a function. About 8 hours into this revision, there remains a small pile of words which just cannot be remembered. It’s time to delve deep and come up with a silly way of remembering things - some say silly ways of remembering things stick in the brain easily.

いそがしい (忙しい) - the Japanese word for busy, pronounced (i so ga shi) definitely didn’t seem to stay in my mind, no matter how many times I failed to write this word down. Let’s think. Let’s say I’m busy at my computer. I’m trying to burn an iso file to a disk. It goes wrong and I exclaim ga! in disappointment. Suddenly, the computer dies and I say shi–… iso ga shi. Busy.

Never did I ever believe that such an insane story of learning a single word would be so effective, and sure enough, in the exam, busy came up a lot in the text and was necessary to answer one of the questions they were asking.

All in all, in nine and a half hours (from 3pm to 12:40am), given a friend and true determination, it’s possible to learn 180 new words the day before a languages exam.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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