People often ask me how I learned Japanese, so I thought I would make a post about it. I’ve been studying Japanese through a combination of self study and formal classes for about half my life – that’s a long time!
If you are interested in learning or improving your Japanese, you should be aware that there is no magic trick to learn Japanese quickly and easily. If you have studied Japanese (or any foreign language), you know this is true. If you’re new to Japanese, it’s going to take some effort and dedication on your part to get anywhere near fluent.
But that moment when you can finally have conversations in Japanese without having to use a dictionary or wave your arms emphatically, it’s a pretty cool feeling. So even if it seems daunting, trust me, it’s worth it! For a little inspiration, here is my story of lifelong Japanese learning…
When I was younger my uncle lived in Japan and he brought me Japanese books and toys. I decided then that I wanted to learn to read the strange characters and learn the children’s songs that I couldn’t understand. I had Spanish and French classes when I was in elementary and middle school, so I have always been interested in learning foreign languages. There was just something about Japanese that attracted me, and I began self study with software when I was in middle school.
When I reached high school, I had the opportunity to take Japanese as a foreign language, and I was excited to finally formally study what I’d already begun on my own. I had a group of Japanese friends in high school so I had access to practicing the language outside of the classroom. I watched anime with subtitles on, and dramas on the NHK cable channel without subtitles (although I’m not sure how much I really understood at that point!). I learned hiragana and katakana, beginner kanji, grammar and basic conversation skills.
When I entered university, I tested out of the first quarter of first year Japanese, so I had to wait until the second quarter to resume Japanese study. The second quarter was a lot of review of my high school Japanese, which was frustrating at first, but I think it reinforced my basic knowledge (and made my homework easier!). The end of the first year began to challenge me again, and I learned more grammar, kanji, and vocabulary.
During university I kept in touch with my high school Japanese friends and made new Japanese friends. I also met American and Chinese friends in Japanese class. I took as many opportunities as possible to use Japanese outside of the classroom and I was comfortable with my moderate Japanese ability. My Japanese boyfriend (at the time) and I spoke in only English at first, but also used more Japanese as we spent more time together. I finished first and second year university Japanese before I applied to study abroad in Japan.
Then I arrived in Japan to study abroad, and I quickly realized that I was nowhere near as proficient as I had believed. Speaking was like talking in, well, a foreign language. I had assumed I would understand everything, but I struggled with most conversations. However, I found that as time went on my confidence and ability quickly increased.
In less than 6 months my Japanese ability improved significantly more than it had in the 5 years of classes I had taken so far. So how does that work? It comes down to language immersion. In Japan I was reading and speaking Japanese in my everyday life, taking daily courses in Japanese, making Japanese friends, and participating in a circle (a school club). As a result, my Japanese improved exponentially. Although I still don’t consider myself fluent (will I ever be?), I know that studying abroad was when I improved the fastest.
When I returned from Japan, I took the advanced Japanese course offered at my university, which was focused on reading and discussion of news articles, rather than studying out of textbooks. Most of the students were first generation American children of Japanese parents, along with a Russian guy who had lived in Japan during high school. Critical thinking in Japanese and discussion with native and near-native speakers really cemented the skills I’d picked up during my time abroad. I also made good friends who I could speak Japanese with in daily life in the US.
Life After Formal Study
Since returning from Japan I have continued to speak Japanese with old and new friends. I try to improve my Japanese skills daily through continued self-study and less formally through entertainment (movies, magazines, manga, etc.). When I was in graduate school I was a teaching assistant for first-year Japanese. Teaching Japanese to other people really helped me to remember and to better understand the mechanics of the language.
Japanese is an important part of my life, even while living in America. It doesn’t hurt that my husband is Japanese, and we converse almost exclusively in Japanese. My key to Japanese language (or really any foreign language) success? Make it a part of your daily life, and keep using it until it becomes a part of your life. After all, you learned English by using it everyday!
Have you studied Japanese or another foreign language? Did you have formal training or did you learn it by yourself? What are your best language-learning tips? Let me know in the comments!