Two years ago when we arrived in Japan, I devised what I believed was the perfect language acquisition strategy. I would use my Rosetta Stone application for an hour every day, read and write kanji for an hour every other day, and “absorb” the language through my everyday interaction with Japanese society. I had to pat myself on the back for being so brilliant. Brilliantly naive.
A few weeks later, I dropped the Rosetta Stone from my plan. I always hated it anyway; it was annoyingly repetitive and the stuff it was “teaching” me was 90% stuff I already knew. Next to go was writing kanji. Why should I learn to write kanji when the majority of the time I use it is behind a keyboard? For the next few months I focused on reading kanji, which was mostly instant gratification given my bent toward visual learning. But once I hit 600 kanji and the new ones become more complex or too similar to ones I already learned, it became a chore to learn new kanji and I quit studying that too.
Which left me with absorbing the language through everyday interaction with Japanese society. Which is a complete and utter sham. As it turns out, there is only so much you can learn from a 15 word interaction with the grocery store cashier or train station attendant. And most of it is “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? My Japanese is poor.”
So a few weeks ago, I finally admitted defeat, swallowed my pride, and went crawling back on hands and knees to where I should have started all along: with a Japanese tutor. My Japanese tutor is the sweetest, most gentle teacher one could ever hope for. Yet showing up at my lesson still feels like climbing into the dentist chair for a root canal.
Because learning Japanese is painfully difficult. The language itself is fairly straight-forward and follows more rules than English by far. But the context of Japanese and the different sets of vocabulary and word forms based on who you are speaking to is mind boggling. This is why I believe some Japanese people prefer to learn English, which is for the most part, a one-form-fits-all kind of language.
But I have already learned some important things only a few weeks into my lessons (apart from Japanese grammar and vocabulary). I hope these lessons are helpful to you as well if you consider whether or not to study Japanese.
I know more than I think I do. My Japanese tutor coaxes me (she’s too gentle to demand) to express myself in Japanese. As it turns out, I can say quite a bit in Japanese, though it doesn’t come naturally and I struggle with finding the right words and sentence formations. But if I don’t practice, it never comes naturally, so as much as I hate to verbalize in Japanese, I do it in conversation with her. And I hope it becomes more comfortable soon where I can also try it with others.
There is a strong connection between speaking and listening. My biggest worry has been that I have been slow at improving my aural comprehension of Japanese. From the time we arrived here to the time I started my lessons, I probably improved my listening skills from about 15% of what I heard to 30% in two years. In the past 3 weeks alone, I realized that my listening skills have already improved noticeably, though my focus has been on speaking and writing. I can easily imagine my aural comprehension reaching 60-70% within 6 months if I remain diligent.
There is a strong connection between reading and writing. My biggest mistake in learning kanji was to stop writing it. When I look back at the kanji that I practiced writing, I still remember almost all of them. The practice of writing definitely ingrains the image of the kanji in your head so when you see it, you recognize it. My tutor has me writing a journal in Japanese every other day, at least. I actually enjoy it though my vocabulary is small and my sentences sound like something a preschooler would say.
Passive learning can only take you so far. And really, it’s not very far at all. Trying to absorb language through “immersion” only works if you are an active participant. People who live in homestay situations with native speakers and engage in conversation every day will learn a language through immersion. If you are only an observer in social interactions, you won’t learn much. Force yourself to engage and push yourself to learn new vocabulary and grammar so you can be confident in interacting with others. Even if you try to learn by watching TV or listening to the radio, parrot the words you are hearing so you are speaking as well as listening.
You’ll probably regret not studying the language. Looking back, I think about how many more conversations I could have had with people, how much deeper I could connect with acquaintances if only I had started studying Japanese immediately after we arrived here. It’s water under the bridge now, but that doesn’t mean I should let another day go by without trying to become fluent in Japanese. We may not live in Japan forever, so is it really worth wasting the time we have here not being able to communicate with people on a deeper level?
I will still admit, it’s hard to approach language acquisition with eagerness and joy. But I am trying to focus on the goal: the day I can talk about almost anything with anyone I happen to meet, without fear of stumbling over my words or sounding like a child. And that gives me hope.