I have this bad tendency of never looking back in the past. As a result, I often have an extremely spotty memory of past events and the order in which they occurred. I also have another bad habit of never keeping anything around. Looking back, I really wished I had kept a journal of my Japanese studies so that I can better remember how I personally learned Japanese. Instead of crying over split milk, I decided to dig into my crusty memories and document what I remember before I forget it any further.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to show off or anything. My intent was to write an interesting account of my personal experiences with Japanese. Feel free to share your own experiences with learning the language. You also might want to think about starting a journal and keeping all your old material together so you don’t end up in my position now.
Holy crap, class every day??
I started learning Japanese in my sophomore year in the fall of 2000. I had considered taking Japanese or Chinese during my freshman year but balked at the fact that unlike every other class, language classes met every weekday and often as early as 9 IN THE MORNING.
I had thought I could squeak by the language requirement by taking a proficiency exam in Korean. Then I spoke with a fellow student whose Korean was 10x better than me. I was freaked when she told me how hard the test was involving reading articles, writing essays, and other crazy activities in Korean. Unluckily for me, the college recently hired a Harvard grad from Korea to teach East-Asian History and he took over the role of conducting the test. So in my sophomore year, I bit the bullet and prepared myself to take Japanese class every weekday and IN THE MORNING so that I could graduate.
I sucked most of the first year
We spent about 2 weeks learning Hiragana and I remember how difficult it was to memorize all the characters. I spend hours practicing on the whiteboard and would still space out on certain characters like 「ぬ」. I also remember lamenting the fact that 「学生」 sounded like “gaksei” instead of “gakusei” on an audio quiz.
I personally went through all the stuff I complain about in this blog. The Japanese curriculum recently switched to Nakama, which is not a very good textbook (though there are worse textbooks out there). It was weeks before we even learned any verbs and we started out with the freaking masu-form. I was also very confused by the “emphasis” explanation of 「んです」 and completely baffled when the teacher wrote 「Aさんは、何が好きですか。」 since it used both 「は」 AND 「が」. My poor knowledge of Korean certainly didn’t give me much of an advantage. Finally, casual form and slang wasn’t taught in that class nor in any of the more advanced classes.
Anyway, I was a pretty big slacker in Japanese 101. The only time I went to the Japanese club activities was at the end when “tea night” became “sake night”. The second and third year students spoke some stuff to me in Japanese and I was like, “Oh god, where’s the booze?”
I think it was somewhere between Japanese 102 and 103 (we were on trimesters) that I really started to pick up the pace. I really wish I could say what got me started putting so much extra time and effort on Japanese but I think it was for a number of reasons that came about gradually. I started hanging out with the Language Assistant and still remember our conversations about Japanese while walking around campus. It was from her that I learned casual speech and that you can do amazing things like modify a word more than once, for instance 「みたくなる」. I also asked her to coach me to make sure I was pronouncing every sound correctly, in particular 「つ」 and 「ふ」. (I have to admit Korean did help me with the 「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」 sounds.)
Even though we did end up going out for a while, I’d like to stress that it was my insistence on constantly asking questions and trying to speak in Japanese as much as possible that really improved it. I also asked her to correct my mistakes every time and took her corrections with the utmost appreciation and followup questions unlike other students who just got annoyed and brushed it off.
I think it was so easy to talk to her in Japanese because she knew exactly what I knew and how much I could understand. She was also very good at “dumbing down” or simplifying her Japanese for me. So I was very lucky to have such a tailored teacher and conversation partner. The only drawback was my girly Japanese since everything I knew about Japanese was from a girl.
In the summer, I stayed on campus to do an internship for an internet startup in Minneapolis. I didn’t do much at my internship (it was during the bubble) but I picked up what meager Japanese material I could find at the library and studied with Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC. I quickly went through all of Nakama 2, which we started in Japanese 103 (you can imagine how boring 204 and 205 became after that) and waded through “An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese“, which was pretty challenging. By the way, I don’t recommend either book though the latter wasn’t that bad as self-study material. However, the grammar explanations for patterns such as 「にとって」 and 「として」 are confusing and didn’t really help me much. My housemate also kindly lent me some comics to study, specifically 烈火の炎. I never got too far with that however because it was still too advanced for me at the time.
I think this was also the time I really started learning Kanji not by themselves but along with the vocabulary. I remember going to the school library and spending hours on the blackboard writing out the words I encountered in Kanji.
Also, for about a month, a bunch of students from 中央大学 came over to do an English summer program at my school. Hanging out with them after work was one of the best times of my life and really motivated me to improve my Japanese. The fact that I couldn’t understand any of their conversations was also another factor. They once tried to explain 「やばい」 to me because I kept hearing it all the time and I never really did get it until much later. (Hint: It means “dangerous”!)
At the end of the first year, I would say I was at a low intermediate level. I could speak Japanese but my vocabulary was limited and I still couldn’t understand many conversations in Japanese at all. The sad thing is, in terms of college courses, the fact that I could even speak at all put me past Japanese 204, 205, and 206. Needless to say, I had no trouble getting straight A’s in all those classes except 206, which I skipped for an advanced elective since 206 wasn’t part of the language requirement. (I got an “A” in that too by the way.)
Fluency in 2 years before setting foot in Japan
My second year was pretty much a continuation of my studies using what I could get my hands on and the WWWJDIC. When I had no internet, I used JWPce on my laptop instead. The fact that I had absolutely nothing else to do and was bored out of my mind during most of my breaks really helped
I really don’t remember what I studied but I think it was just random stuff of no particular interest. I didn’t have access to a lot of Japanese works to study from and didn’t know where to find them. I think it was mostly anything I could find in Japanese at libraries and a 「きまぐれオレンジ☆ロード」 light novel I picked up somewhere, which I never even came close to finishing anyway. I’m sure I looked at some random stuff online too though I didn’t have the skill or dedication to read any Japanese news. I also installed Windows 2000 on my laptop so that I could install a Japanese version of IE/Explorer and other Japanese programs. I think every little bit of Japanese studied here and there really added up, even if it was just a paragraph or even a sentence.
I also spent a lot of time with the International students from Japan and the Language Assistant (which changes every year). Though we were just friends, I even unofficially helped her grade the workbooks from time to time.
At this point, after having met some really great people from Japan, I was determined to do study abroad in the fall of my senior year. I applied to the Waseda program as part of the ACM (finally, a good thing about going to a Midwest college!) and was soon on my way to go to Japan for the very first time.
After the end of the second year, I would say I was at a high intermediate level. My vocabulary (with Kanji of course) was greatly increased and while I didn’t understand everything, I could speak pretty fluently and understand the gist of most conversations.
Studying abroad and getting a job
I arrived in Japan for the first time in my life in the fall of 2002. This was after staying a month in Korea with my Aunt and a full 5-10 lbs heavier from pigging out on the amazing food. I was nervous and excited but also pretty confident in my Japanese. So I was shocked when I couldn’t understand a word when I went to stores and restaurants. It took a little time before I could adjust to the unique language such as 「店内でお召し上がりでしょうか？」 and the speed in which they spoke.
One of the first things I did in Japan was buy an electronic dictionary. Due to my student budget, I selected a cheaper, low-end Casio EX-word. Though the WWWJDIC and edict dictionary were long time pals, I could finally do some studying without having to use a computer or laptop. I really wish I know how many words I’ve looked up in those tools. I would guess somewhere in the thousands or even tens of thousands of words.
Anyway, all that studying must have payed off because when it came time to take our Japanese placement exam, I managed to finish the entire test while most gave up early as the test got progressively harder. Our Japanese language classes were divided into a total of 13 levels and I passed into level 13 for both Japanese and the Kanji classes. We didn’t even get any textbooks like the other students because most of the material were articles and documentaries such as プロジェクトX 挑戦者たち. The only other person to make it through level 13 in our ACM group had actually gone to High School in Japan! In total, there were 5 or so additional students from the GLCA and other schools and all of them had lived in Japan at some time before.
Needless to say, the class was insanely hard but I still managed to get through 3 months with a B+. After another month in Korea during Winter break, I returned to Minnesota to finish up my Computer Science degree. I also continued taking advanced Japanese electives, which seemed like a breeze after my ordeal at Waseda and continued to boost my overall GPA. I’m pretty sure this is also when I started writing my guide to Japanese grammar.
While I was preparing for my senior CS presentation and exam, I realized I needed a job. I thought, “What a great idea it would be to advance both my CS career and Japanese by working at a Japanese tech company!” My great idea brought on some stressful times as I had to fly twice to Japan (the first time at my expense), and stay with friends and host family to interview in Japan. This is all the while I was still taking classes. I actually did my paper midterm exam (take-home obviously) from my friend’s computer in Japan. Fortunately, it was all worth it as I finally got the job after anxiously waiting a month after graduation for all the paperwork and whatnot to go through the monster that is Hitachi.
At the end of my third year, I was at a very Advanced level having close to an adult vocabulary and able to successfully interview (multiple times) in Japanese to land a job with a Japanese company. I could also live comfortably in Japan and do day-to-day activities. However, I still didn’t have those native ears and had trouble understanding people in very noisy environments or middle-aged men who mumbled. I also had little experience in business Japanese. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a problem for long.
The death of a salaryman
Though the next three years working as a salaryman in Japan were very stressful times, it certainly did improve my Japanese. At first, it was embarrassing that I still couldn’t understand a lot of what my bosses were saying because they spoke so quickly and with almost no enunciation. But after a couple years, I got used to it and even started sounding like a middle-aged salaryman myself. And what do you know, I got some good job skills at the same time. I even mastered the dreaded phone!
I finished up the remainder of most of the grammar guide during this time. I also took the JLPT level 1 just to have something to prove I knew Japanese. Thanks to company policy, I also took the TOEIC every year and got a perfect score but I don’t think that’s going to help me with anything…
Also, my trusty Casio EX-word finally died and I replaced it with a Korean-equipped EX-word XD-H7600 just in case I wanted to study Korean ever. Unfortunately, this never happened. Around my 5th or 6th year, I also began to take an interest in Chinese and bought a Canon wordtank G90 to study Chinese. I do still use that one for my Chinese studies but not as often as I’d like.
After 4 or 5 years of studying Japanese, I’m at a near-native or 帰国子女 level. I can follow all conversations even with the most hard to understand people even with dialects and in crowded situations such as the cafeteria or 居酒屋. The only part I’m still missing is a lot of cultural information such as famous actors, locations, history, etc.
Not much going on now
Now that I’m back in the States and after almost 8 years, I really don’t do much in terms of learning Japanese. Sure, I read the occasional novel and buy One Piece every 3 months, but my Japanese has been pretty much the same for the last 2 or 3 years even while I was living in Japan. The major difference is that I’m missing out on recent and popular culture that I was finally starting to accumulate.
Lately, I’ve mostly been thinking about effective ways to teach Japanese and why the success rate for mastering it is so low. Of course, I also spend a lot of time on this blog and increasingly more time on the textbook.
I’d also like to improve my Chinese but I’m leisurely taking my time (started several years ago and still not at my first-year Japanese level). Maybe that will change if an opportunity involving China turns up.
Did my experiences shed any light on mastering Japanese? I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to start studying Japanese today with all this new stuff such as podcasts and social networks. In particular, I wonder how much my own grammar guide would have helped me if someone else had wrote it 8 years ago. What do you think?