Small Wins

Today I finished reading my first book in Japanese. “Reading” and “book” are both perhaps exaggerations; the book in question is the first volume in a manga series called Shirokuma Café, widely recommended to beginning Japanese learners. It is 165 pages long, and it took me 7 months of painstakingly reading a page per day (whenever I had time, which during the working semester was not always) to finish it. Most of the text made use of furigana (phonetic transliterations in Japanese kana) of the kanji (Chinese ideographic characters), making it possible for a beginner like me to look up words even if I didn’t recognize the kanji themselves. With the help of an excellent online dictionary and an excellent online translator, I collected 25 pages worth of vocabulary notes that I will probably never use for anything but that serve as a record of my progress.

60 days ago, I accomplished something else that seemed worth celebrating: a 500-day streak practicing Japanese on Duolingo. And yet, I didn’t celebrate it, not anywhere: not on Facebook where my friends might congratulate me (I had already posted when I reached 365 days, so another post so soon seemed gratuitous). Not in conversations with anyone but my husband (he high-fived me, but that’s kind of his job). Not even here; I began writing a post about it, but quickly realized I had nothing to say other than what I and plenty of others had already written (don’t use Duolingo as your only tool, use the web version and not the app…even the title I’d chosen for the post, “500 Days of Duolingo,” was already in use by a NYT article). So I let that milestone pass by without acknowledging it outside my living room.

When I finished reading Shirokuma Café, I felt similarly disinclined to make a fuss about it (except, of course, by telling my husband, whose first response was sympathy, as he knows how much I’ve liked hanging out with Shirokuma-kun, Panda-kun, and Penguin-kun and participating in their adorable adventures each morning. Fortunately, I have four more volumes on my shelf, so I’m not sad yet.) But something stopped me from just closing the book and moving on. It seemed worthwhile to note this small achievement. So here I am.

A small win of this kind contains within it many other small wins: the first time I was able to recognize and understand a kanji I’d learned elsewhere; the first time I read an entire page without looking anything up (it only happened once, but still); the first time I laughed aloud at a Japanese pun. Stopping to acknowledge the advancements I’ve made since the day I decided to start studying Japanese a year and a half ago is something I need to remind myself to do, because in the moments when I feel like I’m making little progress at all (when, for example, I earn 57% on my morning Wanikani reviews), I need to remember the moments that show clearly that I’ve come a long way.

This morning, a handyman came to install a new bathroom fan for us, a task I wish I could do myself. I regularly feel shame about my uselessness when it comes to home maintenance, and that shame translates into nerves and mistrust, as I have no way to evaluate whether a contractor is doing a good job. One way I’ve chosen to combat this is to first look up YouTube videos about DIYing the task, and to then ask if I can hang out and watch and ask questions during the work, not to monitor but to satisfy my curiosity about the process and about the weirdnesses of our old and irregular house. By the time the handyman was done, I did not feel confident that I could install a bathroom fan myself, but I did understand why the fan I’d chosen was the best one for the job, how to use a fibreglass and aluminum patch plus some plaster to repair a hole, and what our very strange second-floor ceiling looks like inside. I know more about home repair than I did yesterday. High-five, me.

The main reason to celebrate small achievements is to maintain motivation, which is notoriously difficult when learning a language. Frustrations and setbacks are more likely to remain embedded in our memories (and in our visceral reactions, like the way we feel when we sit down to study each morning or when the bathroom fan stops working). Positive moments are less crucial to our survival (remembering which berries are delicious is important, but remembering which ones brought us to the brink of death is much more so); however, the positive moments are what make us want to keep trying even when we fail, as this article reminds us: “The positive feeling you get when you succeed is what ultimately builds confidence. It builds hope that you will be successful again. When you are confident and hopeful, that improves your ability to focus naturally. When you feel that way, you are more likely to concentrate again on a challenging task in the future because you will feel motivated to get that feeling back.”

So here I am, noting to myself and anyone else who’s interested that I just read an entire book in Japanese. Tomorrow I will start on a second one (probably Yotsubato!, another manga widely recommended to beginning readers). I will try to note whether this one goes more quickly, whether my vocabulary list is less extensive because more words are familiar, whether I am better at reading Japanese than I was a few months ago. And when I’m done, maybe I’ll buy myself a bottle of shouchuu or at least a nice plate of sushi, to embed the small win in my memory a little more firmly.

Please do the same for yourself – you did something today, however small, that you might not have been able to do yesterday or ten years ago. This is important! Give yourself a high five.