PictureRockin' that yukata.
    Well, I’ve finally reached the one year point of my stay in Japan. Honestly, the day passed by without me even realizing it, so now it’s about a year and two weeks since I first I arrived in Japan. It’s been a pretty awesome year, if you ask me, minus my freaking family and girlfriend being so far away (talk about a downer). I’ve learned a lot in my year abroad about the Japanese people and culture, being a good teacher and mentor, and being less shy around people.
    But this post is more about another important part of me being in Japanese; learning Japanese. I’ve been studying Japanese for a long time now (four years in November!), and Japanese is now (I’ll say officially) my second language. I studied German in high school, but it was never a serious thing and I never felt like I could (or even tried, really) to speak with people in German. It was just a subject to me, which is why I can understand a bit, but I can’t speak a lick of it. Japanese is the first language outside of my native language where I can have an actual conversation. This is VERY different from sounding like a native, just as a matter of fact for those who haven’t taken a serious stab at language learning.

    As of writing this post, I have reached the point in my Japanese where, even if I can’t catch all the details, I can mostly follow Japanese conversations (movies and TV, too) and I’m now studying more intermediate grammar and nuance. Ever heard of the causative form in grammar? That’s what I’m dealing with. As such, I feel like I can confidently consider myself bilingual. Still a long way to go to the level I really want to be at, but progress is progress, and it’s important to be able to see your improvement in any prolonged practice or study.
    This post is written as a self-evaluation of how I’ve studied Japanese so far. I’ll start with what I think I’ve done well, then move on to what I think can (and should) be improved, and finally, I’ll talk a little about my plan of action for the near future of my language learning career. Sorry everyone, this one won’t be quite as entertaining as my other updates (assuming those are as entertaining as I THINK they are), but if you want to speak another language, I really hope you’ll read on and learn from both my successes and failures. So without further adieu, let’s get this thing done!

1. Immersion
    One of the things I’m happiest with is the fact that I basically turned my computer into a Japanese パソコン very early in learning the language. My facebook, iTunes, browser, skype, etc. are all in Japanese to this day, as well as many of the language learning sites that I joined. This was after reading Khatzumoto’s blog, All Japanese All the Time, which extolls the virtues of immersion. The benefits are multiple and significant.
    First, it forced me to get used to and manage Japanese script. Because it was necessary in using my computer, I learned hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic scripts of Japanese) very rapidly. If I remember correctly, I was able to slowly sound out words after about three days, and now I can sing along with songs I’ve never heard at karaoke. It also forced me to read common kanji (Chinese characters) that appeared repeatedly. After seeing 検索 on every single website ever, it would be amazing if I couldn’t understand or read it.
    Another important point was the audio aspect of immersion. I accumulated many Japanese movies and music and had them on constantly while doing homework, folding laundry, etc. The benefit is that I can determine whether something SOUNDS right or wrong based on the audio I’ve ingested. A lot of foreigners get confused by the one or two syllable words on the end of sentences that convey emotion or nuance because we do that through tone in English. I briefly looked up what they mean at one point, but I think I truly learned them by hearing them in situations. An angry character will often addぞ or ぜ, and a character looking for confirmation tends to end sentences with ね. The other good point is that I can sometimes guess how to read town names and compound words by trying out a few of the readings and looking for the one that sounds right. Things like 変更 are words I that I guessed the readings of before looking up, and I was often correct or very close.

2. Learning Kanji through words
    Another thing I think helped me is the fact that, while I did start out studying individual kanji (which was freakin’ BORING), I learned many kanji through compound words they are used in instead. For an example of why this is beneficial, let’s look at a very common kanji; 本. Learning to read this character is not so difficult because it only (usually) has two readings; hon and moto. But let’s look at the definition of the character. The program I use says is means “book, present, main, true, real, counter for long things.” That’s all in one character. So do I have guess all the time? If you learned the common words without worrying about the meaning as much, it’s no problem. 本 by itself usually means book, 日本 is Japan, 本当 means really, 一本 mean one (long thing; let’s say a rose. I have a romantic side ;D ), and 見本 is a sample for viewing in the store. I don’t think about individual characters when I read these words, the whole word is more important, and this works for all languages. When you say “automobile,” most people don’t think “mobile means it moves and auto means by itself,” you just imagine a freakin’ car! Animals move on their own, too, you know. And now I have the image of a squirrel with a spoiler and racing tires.
    Visit kanjidamage.com for a great, fun, and useful way of memorizing kanji. Radicals are your friends. No, not the type that try to force their far out political views on you, they are most certainly not your friends. J

3. Contacting Native Speakers
    This is probably the most important if you want to be able to “make” language. I had a number of contacts, mostly on skype or facebook, that I messaged fairly regularly, and this gave me a chance to screw up and learn the right way. And many Japanese people are very nice and accommodating to non-native speakers (I’ll also get into how this can hurt you later on). Simply speaking, I learned a lot of more common colloquial phrases and words from natives. Classroom language is great…for the classroom. Without native feedback, I’m pretty sure you might NEVER be able to speak a foreign language well.

1. Passive Listening
    So remember how I said I listened to music and audio constantly? Let me correct myself; I HEARD a lot of music and audio constantly, and this was something that I didn’t realize was as unhelpful as it actually is. It seems obvious, but you have to give your full attention when listening in your target language, and I didn’t fully get it until fairly recently, actually. Listening passively isn’t bad, for the reasons I stated above, so don’t think that, but the benefits are very limited! It’s good to catch the sounds of the language, and the Mimic Method, a program and blog by Idahosa Ness, is all about using this early on, through music, to make it easier to hear and pronounce the sounds of a foreign language. His languages, especially, sound great, and I can’t really differentiate him and some native speakers. (Let me clarify. His method is NOT about passive listening, as it does require a lot of attention. I’m using the sound aspects to make a point about why learning through sound is so good.)
    But just absorbing or focusing entirely on the SOUND does not mean that you will magically figure out the MEANING of what you’re listening to. An example of this is my karaoke knowledge of much of the music that I constantly listened to. I can sing whole Japanese songs from memory because I’ve heard them so many times, but aside from maybe the choruses, I don’t really understand what most of them mean at all. The lyrics are often just another instrument to me, and I’ve considered how much I like the lyrics of a Japanese song, even without any idea of what they mean! Needless to say, this means that when learning a language, you have to switch from “passive” listening to “active” listening. What’s the difference? Do you try to ACTIVELY hear familiar words, or ACTIVELY try to determine the meaning of something you’re listening to? Do you ACTIVELY focus your attention entirely on what you’re listening to? Then you’re doing it right. J If this isn’t this case, as it is RIGHT NOW for me writing this post, then just realize that it’s not really improving your listening any noticeable degree.

2. Speaking Practice
    And again, let’s go back to one of the things I think I did well, and pick it apart a little bit. I had a lot of contacts that I chatted with over the past few years, and as I stated earlier, I can understand and make a lot of good written Japanese. But I never took advantage of the enormous benefits of skype and actually SPOKE to people, online or in real life! I’m going to be saying this a lot in this post, that “it seems obvious,” but the only way to get really good at speaking another language is to speak another language. For example, going to a school and paying lots of money for classes is great, as long as you actually speak in these situations, and speak candidly. Unfortunately, most schools focus mostly on reading and writing (which can be easily and objectively measured), and they do it in your native language, leaving little room for actually getting to use the language.
    If there’s one thing I’ve learned (and I’m still trying to learn), one of the essential parts of learning languages is getting out of your little, comfortable, English speaking box. Much of this revelation for me was also fairly recent and with much credit to Benny Lewis who is the author of the Fluent in 3 Months blog. If you read his blog, you’ll see that I’m talking about many of the same points, including leaving your comfort zone, and perfectionist paralysis, which is important not just for language learning, but in moving away from the “shy” persona and being more confident. One of my favorite things he says is from a video (click here) where he and another well-known polyglot, Moses McCormick, go to a mall in Columbus, Ohio and practice French, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, even Hindi. In any case, this is one of the most important things I’ve been missing up to fairly recently.

3. Planning and Goals
    And this is another really important, though often underestimated factor in learning languages; making short-term goals. Again, this is something I’ve learned from reading around other language learning websites and was something I never really considered for a long time, but something important to do when starting a long project, practice, study, etc. is to identify a definable final goal that can be measured. “Fluent” is not a good final goal because what it fluent? I know when I started, I imagined fluent as “sounding like a native.” Over time, the definition for me has changed a little, so I now consider it as “being able to understand and survive entirely in a foreign language,” which is different from some others’ definitions, like “the ability to participate in conversations without slowing them down.” But still, these aren’t concrete, measurable goals. So what definition of “fluent” is applicable to making a good end goal? It all depends on why you’re learning.
    For many polyglots, that might be to communicate with other people who speak the language. Others want to be able to get a job working in another country (doing something other than being an English teacher J). And for some people, that goal is to be able to read books or understand television and movies in their chosen language. For each of these, the end goal is different, and the study strategy differs, but in each case, it’s important to make MEASURABLE short and long term goals. Again, if you read Benny’s blog, he has a goal of three months, after which he subjectively measures his ability with an interview with a native speaker, but he also makes daily and even hourly goals. These are things like “I will learn X vocabulary words in the next two hours,” or “I’ll translate X lines of dialogue between these two characters.”
    THIS is the meat and potatoes of getting substantial results FAST. And it’s something that I’ve NEVER done, really. I’m a “go with the flow”-er (not flower), so I never really consider what I’ll accomplish this hour, or this day. Heck, even this month. I never set a concrete time-limit, goal, or measuring stick during my language learning, which results in a laidback approach where I’ll do X “someday.”

     So from now, I have almost exactly a year left in Japan (if I stay another year, my grandmother will fly over here, beat the crap out of me, and drag me back to America). I know my starting point for this year, which is intermediate knowledge and ability in understanding written and spoken Japanese, and I know my weaknesses, including a lack of spoken communication skills. I have some experience in the area of learning language now, both good and bad, and I have a goal, which is to be able to read high school level literature (technical reports, poems and stories, magazines, etc) and to feel comfortable communicating casually with native speakers (as I still usually have to fish for some words and feel the pressure). So what’s my plan of action?
    In order to improve my communication ability and fluency, I need to take advantage of the fact that my coworkers are all Japanese, and even though I can’t speak Japanese in front of students, I need to commit to using only Japanese in the office. I need to make daily opportunities to speak with Japanese people and try actively to use new phrases and things I’m learning in my weekly Japanese lessons. I also want to start a new idea, which is to make a YouTube video every week of me speaking about a topic I choose randomly and do not prepare for. I hope the result is that I will be able to use much more of the grammar I already know, but have a hard time taking advantage of in conversation.
    In order to improve my reading ability, I need to learn at least 10 new words a day, and they need to be things that are special interest words I choose myself. Because each field has a special lexicon, it makes sense that I should become familiar with the vocabulary of topics I find interesting and not bother with words relating to subjects I do not get invested in. And of course, I need to make time to actively read and try to understand these materials.
    And I think most importantly, I need to continue to do things in Japanese that I normally do in English. Cooking, playing video games, taking part in activities with the local International Association, and…learning languages! Basically, I am restarting my journey on Italian. And because I have such a decent grasp of Japanese, I’m doing so through Japanese. My vocabulary flashcards are all Italian-Japanese, and the one book I have on phrases and such is written for Japanese people learning Italian. The result is that, while learning one still ultimately takes time from the other, it will ultimately mean even less time in English, and it will keep me motivated in learning. This is to say that if I’m feeling amazingly frustrated with one, I can take some time in the other and then come back to it. So for Italian, I’ve already started with learning the common, core vocabulary (about 30 new words a day, plus review), made some contacts, have an Italian radio station and some music to listen to, and I’m comparing Italian and Japanese versions of some cartoons I like. But I’ll keep you posted on that as well. :D

    So before I get out of here, thanks SOOO much for reading my whole post! If you made it this far, you deserve a pat on the back. And a cookie. Here’s your e-cookie.
    Chocolate chip! So keep checking up, and I’ll keep up the advice, anecdote, picture and resource posts coming in the future. どうもありがとうございます!Grazie mille! Feel free to leave a comment or contact me with questions and junk. Cheers, all!


17/06/2013 07:25

I really enjoyed that Zach. I'm very proud of you! I was wondering though...What are your long term goals with the Japanese you've learned and will be learning during the next year? Do you have a job in mind where you can use what you've learned?

17/06/2013 07:35

Thanks for reading! It's been too long since I've seen you and I miss ya! Because of my engineering background, I'm thinking about working for an engineering company that has offices in Japan (so I might be able to travel every now and again), or maybe being a translator for engineering documents. Still not quite decided there, but even if it's not something I use in my career, I just love learning it. :)
Talk to you soon!

Joseph Pierog
29/06/2013 02:34

Your dedication to self improvement is astounding. What you've accomplished and continue to accomplish is quite inspiring. I'm going to try to use you as model for my own ambitions. Also, I had no freaken idea that you spoke Italian. We need to plan a trip damn it. There's a Jazz guitarist that I've been working with who lived there for a while, speaks fluently and wants to set up some shows there. We could go meet some people and you chat to you're hearts content (while I find my future wife). Anyway, like I said before I hadn't realized how much I missed you till I saw you again and I can't wait till the next time. I may even want to come see you one more time before you come back. Japan is very much worth the airfare never mind the fact that we'd get to hang again. By the way the morning that we parted ways a bit scary. I got a hold of the situation but I almost just took the Shinkansen back to Fukishima. I realize I'm rambling on your blog so I'll ease up. Just know that I'm proud of you and I can't wait to kick it again. Maybe in some foreign land. Ciao,


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