Learning Japanese

One of the reasons that I don’t update this blog very frequently is that I am trying to learn Japanese, so I’m trying to limit my interaction with English-language sources and trying to maximise my interaction with Japanese-language stuff. It’s harder than I thought. (It’s also harder than I thought to write something interesting about learning Japanese, so the following is intended mainly for fellow learners who are looking to compare notes.)

Before coming to Japan I had tried to learn Japanese from various textbooks without ever getting very far. I started out, several years ago, with a book called Japanese in Three Months, which contained a lot of words and grammar points in rapid succession and haphazard order. I guess I lasted about three or four days of memorising vocab on the train to work before deciding I wasn’t getting very far. So then, at the suggestion of a colleague (who is now my wife), I decided to learn hiragana and katakana, and bought a book called Japanese for Busy People. It was better than the first one, but I still wasn’t making great progress, so, at the advice of someone on the internet I decided to switch to the Minna no Nihongo series of textbooks.

That was in September 2006. I’ve still got the email receipt. I’d say that was when I really seriously decided to learn Japanese, instead of just dipping into a textbook every now and then and telling myself I was learning Japanese. Certainly, the Minna no Nihongo textbooks were better than my previous textbooks, consisting of 50 lessons that each contain vocab, grammar points, sample sentences and dialogue, and various exercises. So whenever I could I’d learn the vocab and grammar points, and I’d listen to the Japanesepod podcasts while out running to consolidate what I was learning. Even still, there were still long periods where I was so busy with work that I did little more than reviewing words and grammar that I already knew, or even when I was so busy that I didn’t even do that (there was one six-month period where I didn’t open a textbook at all).

By March 2008 I’d largely completed the first two Minna no Nihongo textbooks and had moved on to yet another textbook, in the Kanzen Master series, which contained all of the grammar points and hundreds of example sentences for level 3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Still, though, the major obstacle I faced was lack of time. And so I took the decision to apply for a place on the JET programme, which I did around September of the same year.

Around that time, I stumbled on yet another new wheeze to learn Japanese. At the recommendation of the All Japanese All The Time website (or AJATT as it’s sometimes called by people who like abbreviating things), I decided to go through Heisig and learn how to read, write and understand the meaning of all of the basic jouyou kanji. Even with the help of the awesome Reviewing the Kanji website, it still took me somewhere between three to six months to finish it, but when I did, it made a huge difference. Having only had a haphazard understanding of kanji, all of a sudden (if you can call several months a sudden) anything in Japanese was fair game. Instead of being limited to textbooks, or having to ask my wife to help me read stuff, I was able to start to read anything in Japanese. Now, if there is one thing that I would recommend to new learners of Japanese, it’s Heisig.

And so, inspired by Heisig, I decided to abandon the textbooks and embrace the method endorsed by AJATT, which is to a) immerse yourself in Japanese, reading and listening to it all the time; and b) to take real-life Japanese sentences that you encounter while immersing yourself, and stick those sentences into a spaced repetition flashcard programme called Anki. What Anki does is to test you when it thinks you’re about to forget. In my case, it tests me every day to see if I can still understand those Japanese sentences.

I’d say the second part of that formula has gone pretty well: about a year after starting, I have over 5,000 sentences in my Anki deck, and I would say that I am probably about ready to pass the JLPT level 2.

The first part has gone pretty disastrously. I had thought that coming to Japan would help me immerse myself in Japanese, but in practice it’s much more difficult than I thought. I work pretty hard at school and so I spend almost my entire working day speaking or correcting English. There is little time for chit-chat at work, and the other teachers don’t really engage in it. When I get home, my wife insists on speaking to me in English and whenever I beg and plead with her to speak to me in Japanese we end up having a row. She doesn’t like me buying manga or books because we’re still paying for our wedding. And she doesn’t like it when I sit in front of the computer trying to learn Japanese, because she prefers me to spend time with her.

So for now, apart from overhearing incidental Japanese at school, or having the TV on in the background, my immersion environment consists of about half an hour of Japanese every day, listening to those podcasts, audiobooks, or Japanese movies that I’ve ripped to my ipod on my way to work, or out running. And since I never say anything in Japanese, my spoken Japanese is probably worse now than it was when I was working my way through Minna no Nihongo.

And that is how I am learning – or trying to learn – Japanese. In case it’s of any interest, like.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Phoenix said,

    Sounds like you went through a lot of ups and downs already. I can totally understand your problem with being caught in an English speaking environment. When I was working in Japan I made the same experience because there were so many foreigners in my company that we only spoke English all the time.
    Fortunately I had a Japanese girl friend at that time and we almost exclusively used Japanese which helped me a lot.

    But hang in there! I can recommend the series of 日本語総まとめ問題集. Pretty cheap and pretty good.

    Also, check this article http://japanandtheworld.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/5-tips-to-improve-your-japanese/


  2. 2

    […] under Uncategorized &#183 Tagged ALT, Anki, Japanese, JET, Yamanashi The last time I wrote about learning a language, I wrote a turgid, boring piece that was a crime against both the English and Japanese languages. I […]

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