Last week on Wednesday, I reached the one month point of my Japanese project. After an excellent start, I had a little bit of a bumpy final bit of my first month that slowed me down a little, but am back on track now to hopefully make up for lost time by the end of my second month. As such, let me share with you how my first month went, and where I am now!
Since I’m behind on my planned schedule for various reasons I’ll mention in a moment, I won’t have a video update this week, but next week I can finally give you a clearer catch up on where I am, as I get into uploading almost exclusively spontaneous conversations in Japanese for the next months.
Is Japanese the hardest language you’ve ever learned?
Firstly, let me confirm that Japanese is not going to be the one language that I finally admit is “the hardest language in the world“.
While some would put it on the same level of difficulty as Chinese, and I have already retorted those who claim Chinese as being mega hard, by saying that it’s way easier than you think, I have to say that I honestly find it to be much more manageable in comparison. The lack of tones makes such a huge difference, since that is essentially what slowed me down so much in my initial weeks learning Mandarin, and there are loads of other features of the language that make it feel a little bit more familiar to be honest.
You essentially have to simply get used to new grammar and vocab, as with any European language learning challenge.
If you put aside learning Kanji (which, of course, is the most heinous form of blasphemy to so many purists, but something I will definitely highly recommend to Japanese learners with a spoken focus), and get used to the Kana writing system (which you can easily do in a day or two if you are focused and do it well), then I can tell you [brace yourselves online trolls...] that it feels like learning a European language to me.
This totally removes the context of cultural differences of course (which I will focus entirely on early next year), but I am dealing with grammar that to me feels just as hard (not harder, not easier) as learning grammar from any European language whose linguistic family I wouldn’t have touched yet.
While European languages have noun genders to think of every time you say something, Japanese has formal or informal verb usage to consider, while a language like Spanish may have strangely morphing conjugations (contar-cuento) to worry about, Japanese has special verb forms/suffixes for certain things like to want or if. Once I learn a new Japanese grammar rule, I feel like it applies itself pretty consistently, so to me the amount of work here feels almost the same.
One major advantage of having learned many languages, is that when you come to rules that make a language very different, rather than bitch and whine about it, you simply acquire the rule, practise it, and move on.
European languages do indeed have lots of familiar looking words (when you read them; not so much when spoken until you get used to the accent), but Japanese has a truckload of very familiar loan words (although, like in European languages with shared Latin vocabulary, you have to get used to a new pronunciation of them).
I honestly feel like the most intimidating parts of Japanese to people are that it comes from the other side of the world, the people who speak it don’t have the same skin colour I do, and it uses a strange writing system. None of these things scare me, so I refuse to be intimidated by this perfectly reasonable and logical language.
My first weeks
With that in mind, I started by learning the Kana writing system first, and was able to read a script on camera (albeit very slowly, and with some mistakes) almost immediately after starting the project. This is way easier than it seems. I applied my previous strategy of learning any phonetic script in just a few hours, to Japanese’s 2 phonetic alphabets. Memrise helped a lot with some fun suggestions, and when I didn’t like one of its suggestions, I made my own up.
Having said that, learning through Romaji isn’t that bad, and shouldn’t be feared. I have a couple of books that rely on Romaji whose explanations I like, and I don’t think this deters from the fact that I can now read Kana in any way. If I was doing this challenge over again, I would have actually simply stuck to Romaji for my first days to get me speaking quicker. The diversion meant that it wasn’t until day four that I transitioned to Japanese-only mode in my Skype conversations, but through either Kana or Romaji, I could learn phrases and basic vocab to get me started.
And get started I did! I went on Skype regularly to chat to my teachers, and a week later uploaded an example of how I keep the conversation just in the target language as a beginner, by referring to dictionaries a lot to not make me have to switch to English or ask my teacher to switch to English. It’s a very “tarzanesque” way of doing, it but it’s basic communication and my teachers are more than patient to help me.
Someone suggested that I had found the “one” Japanese person with the patience to speak to a beginner. He definitely needs to get out more.
Since I was starting to get a little comfortable with the sound of the language and communicating absolutely basically, I could learn set phrases such as a long introduction about myself that I would tend to say when I meet a Japanese person.
To apply this and demonstrate with an example, I learned a script off to give a tour of my home, to show that learning something off can get you started and fill your conversations between spontaneous bursts very easily.
Scripting your conversations as a beginner is incredibly helpful, and having a bunch of set phrases I could sprinkle into spontaneous conversations gave me the boost of confidence I need to launch my progress forward. Things were going great and I was ready to work on my spontaneous spoken aspects.
Some bumpy final weeks
This is where I hit a little bit of a brick wall, not through difficulties with anything inherent to Japanese, but because of an illness that left me unable to study or think straight for an entire week, and a backlog of work that I had to clear. Normally I can manage my time well, but the illness threw my carefully structured time management system into major disarray.
In intensive projects, momentum is everything, so I only tend to take a break once a week for a single day a week. It took me 2 or 3 days to get back into the swing of things after my sick week, and then I finally got another good week of work done, before I reached my one month point. My plan in advance was to take a weekend off per month, and I had booked a weekend holiday in Paris (Ryanair flights make such quick visits in Europe very affordable, and it had been years since I was there) to celebrate my one month point, but I was already a week behind at that stage, and the weekend ended up slowing me down further since I had just got my momentum back from before and immediately lost it again.
As well as this, a backlog of work from my week off ill, and the weekend away meant I had to take three entire days just to catch up on work when I got back from Paris and got no Japanese studying done in those days
When I do a little work every day, I can balance work and study well, but it’s like spinning plates, and if I don’t manage my time well, things fall apart; I had hundreds of important unanswered emails, coding errors crashing my site, some really important tasks relevant to the secret-Berlin mission that I’ll announce in January that required a lot of attention, and other stuff I really needed clear off my to-do list.
A lot of people get the impression that I don’t work at all, but I actually work a lot, only doing it very efficiently so that I have the time to invest into language learning. That wasn’t the case in the last week or two. Because of this, I’ve only started making progress in Japanese again in the last 2 days, since I absolutely had to clear my work backlog to be able to focus.
Essentially, that trip and the illness have taken away my momentum to slow down my progress for the last 2 weeks of month one, and I’ve made way less progress than I could have. I need to work extra hard in month two to catch up for lost time, since I feel like I’m almost two weeks behind where I wanted to be at this point. This is no reason to give up, only extra motivation to work extra hard
Fixing some grammar and vocab issues, and then ready for video updates!
My biggest issues are now acquiring some essential vocabulary that I won’t need to refer to dictionaries to allow me to have basic conversations spontaneously (which I was hoping to do in week three), and being confident in the most important features of Japanese grammar (which I was hoping to do in week 4).
Both are very manageable tasks, but simply require the time investment. Flashcards and mnemonics are helping me learn that vocabulary, and I have create an Anki deck of grammar rules in such a way as to help me produce unique sentences (that implement some grammar rule) through examples. I will be focusing on consuming as much of these as I can for the next days, and then will record my first video of month two next Wednesday, for upload on Friday, and you can see my current conversation level.
It is definitely improving though! For instance, I have bought my flight to Asia and will spend a few days in Thailand before going on to Japan in January (thanks to finding a cheap flight there to reduce the overall travel cost), and my teacher was asking me about my previous experience in Thailand. I felt that I had enough verbs and adjectives, and a good enough understanding of past tense usage of both, that I was able to describe (in a not very complex way) my experience, and ended up talking about it for the entire session. I’d rather be having somewhat more complex conversations at this stage, but it’s still a good place to be for now.
I won’t get everything I had wanted to finish by now done by Wednesday, so you’ll still see some basic holes I need to fill in my next video, but I’m hoping that will add to the feeling of progress you’ll start to see again! Sorry that my illness and work backlog have meant I wasn’t able to upload a progress video, but I did feel the need to do something and had a blast recording the fun video to give you a feel for how many English words are in Japanese, so I hope that video between progress updates was fun to watch!
Since I had said from the start that I would be making scripted videos for month one, I didn’t feel like I was breaking that trend by making a singing video . I have noticed though that I have a whole new set of pedantic readers (hi there!!) who think singing and having fun has no place in language learning, and thumbed down a video I think actually did a good job in showing how accessible Japanese can be. Boo to you!
Anyway, you’ll see my unscripted conversations very soon – the first video will have some basic issues still, and then hopefully the week after I’ll have solved the basic vocab/grammar problems I had wanted to by now, and can move on to making my conversations more complex, so that by the month two point I can see myself as able to have varied conversations with a native, and have a good starting point to launch myself at my B2 fluency target. Still not promising anything, other than that I will continue to try my best!
Burning Questions for Benny
As an aside, I thought many of you on similar projects would be interested in a series of questions that Brian set up as a Google Hangout that people could ask me live to tackle some pressing questions they had about their own language projects. I answered them as best as I could, and many of you may be interested to hear those answers:
Don’t forget to subscribe to Brian’s channel to see his own language learning project, and an upcoming follow-up to my English words in Japanese, with his “Japanese words in English” music video!
I hope you enjoyed this update, and will enjoy seeing my upcoming spontaneous recorded videos! If you’d like to offer to record the video with me, and are a native Japanese speaker, please write me an email! Hopefully I will have a few people who are happy with me recording the video chat to upload to my channel, so that I can get back to weekly updates, each one being slightly better than the previous one.
I’ll still be having somewhat basic conversations in the next video or two, and then can have much more interesting ones soon after that if I can make the kind of progress I’d like to!
Thanks again for reading, and let me know your thoughts on my first month and the kinds of things you’d like to see me discuss in the upcoming videos!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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