Language Learning and the Logic of Large Groups

By | March 8, 2021

With the WordPress app installed on my phone, it’s all too easy to check my blog statistics, and as a result it’s easy to fall into the habit of checking things every few minutes. Fortunately, each time only takes a few seconds. But the time can add up, so I try to avoid overdoing it.

Besides the little bursts of emotion caused by abnormally extra high (or low) stats on a certain day––emotions that are quite fleeting––I’ve noticed some interesting patterns over time, one of which I wanted to talk about briefly here. After all, I enjoy writing posts about blogging and I think it’s been a while since I’ve done one.

Ever since I started getting around 1,000 hits a day, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: this blog’s statistics are surprisingly consistent. There are definitely variations, sometimes as much as a few hundred hits between days, and some days (like Monday) are typically higher than others. But all in all, the numbers are pretty stable.

At first, this may not seem like a big deal, especially considering that the behavior of large groups tends to be somewhat stable, if not somewhat predictable (depending on the situation, of course). Traffic engineering is one field where I think this really comes into play, but as a simple example just imagine how the traffic levels of a certain highway vary in a consistent way based on the day and time. This seems reasonable because human lives generally have a pattern to them: wake up, go to work, go home, go to the grocery store, eat at a restaurant, go to sleep, etc. While we have seen some drastic changes in this area since the introduction of COVID, it seems that some of these patterns are finally starting to return to normal. Even if a larger percentage of people now work from home, there clearly are many jobs and errands that can’t get done effectively (or at all) without a physical presence.

But language learning activities, the main thing driving hits to this blog, are a very different area. They don’t relate directly to work, or basic needs like eating and buying groceries.

And yet, based on what I’ve observed, humans seem to have some inner drive to learn more, and language learning is not only fun but can have major positive contributions to one’s career (or even other areas like family life). This alone is a fairly significant point about human behavior. For a large part of my life, language learning has been an important part of my life, but that alone doesn’t mean I can assume the same about others.

I don’t mean to suggest that the same sets of people are coming to my blog day after day, the “language learners”. In fact, based on some other less-formal data I’ve gathered, the turnover for typical language is so high such that many people tend to take a break from language learning within a few months, if not a year or two. While that is a bit saddening to me, it makes sense since effective language learning typically takes a great deal of effort, time, and sometimes even money––all things that are hard to guarantee having an abundance of. If something serious happens and a person needs to work even more to make enough money to live, it’s pretty unlikely they will decide to stay home and study some foreign language instead.

And yet, when you look at large groups of people, really large groups of people (since a large proportion of people on the Earth have access to the internet), we see a pattern develop with somewhat consistent hits over time. This can be explained if you consider that some people quit or take a break from language learning, and other ones take it up. They may even switch languages. In the really long term, some people die and others are born, who in turn eventually take up language learning.

I mentioned about COVID’s influence on things earlier, and one of the biggest blips on my long-term statistics seems to coincide with much of the initial COVID craziness last year. Specifically, I saw traffic spike to around 20% above average last year in the months of April and May. There are many ways to interpret this, but my theory is that people simply had more time to sit home and do various forms of research on the computer, as opposed to leaving the house. Language learning is best done in person, but you can get a lot done on your own––much more than many other hobbies (like team sports).

Anyway, in this post I haven’t given any great language tips, or any details about Japanese for that matter. But I think sometimes it’s important to take a look at yourself as part of a vast system, what we call a society, and understand that your actions are, to a certain extent, predictable as a human being. To me, this feels like a disturbing lack of freedom, but at the same time there is a degree of comfort to know I’m part of this group of people called humans.

On a less philosophical note, I have a huge amount of data available to which I can analyze and use to drive content for future articles. And I do use this info, at least indirectly, when I think about what to write about. But there’s a fine line between productive analysis of data and gazing at daily stats for pure self-satisfaction (:

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