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You have to start somewhere! My first few days learning Japanese [+video of day 3, reading Kana]


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

As you know, earlier this week I started my project to try to reach fluency in Japanese in 3 months! As promised, I am going to be uploading very regular updates of my progress, and when better to do that than by recording my first attempt at a Japanese only video, just three days after starting!

This video is 30 minutes long… not because I'm that good to be able to fill up so much time with Japanese, but because I'm that bad that a script a native would read in 3 minutes or less takes me ten times as long to get through, since I was reading absolutely 100% Kana (the Hiragana and Katakana Japanese writing system; no Romanized help).

Check it out, but please keep in mind that this is a painful video to watch because of how slowly I am reading!!

If you scroll down, you can see the entire script that I was reading, and can avoid watching me squirm for a half an hour by finding out what I said by reading it yourself quicker! I consider this video simply a snapshot in my journey of improvement, and it is not to demonstrate anything in itself.

For instance, I messed up or hesitated a lot on rather easy Kana, because I didn't realize until I had started recording already that the font had changed in being transferred to an iPad. Just when I had gotten comfortable with the font I had practised the script with, in my Skype sessions!

Day One

Anyway, going through the week chronologically, I started on day one with absolutely zero Japanese. As I said in the intro video, I only knew Konichiwa and Sayonara, and had learned Ganbatte in the last week or two since announcing the project, since so many people had written it to me (thanks! – it means something like Good luck to those of you who don't know)

Even though I've known that I'd be learning Japanese for a while, I've totally avoided even opening the books as they arrived in the mail (here is a shot of some of the books I'm using, on my Instagram account), or learning anything online. I want to truly start from scratch on Monday.

I had my first Skype lesson at 9am, and don't think I'll be doing this any more, as I prefer to have study sessions leading into a spoken session. Life in Spain runs later than other places, so I don't get up as early here as I do in other places. From now on, I'll only have sessions from 11am on, so that I can be up and do 2 hours studying leading into it.

Because of that I only had 30 minutes to prepare for that first session. Like in my hour long Polish learning project, I crammed some basic words, and tried to prepare a few to have on the side. If you are learning European languages, then you can muster through in your first sessions with a site like Google Translate, but I am finding it to be beyond useless for Japanese. It translates basic words wrong, and full sentences are incomprehensible. This slowed me down every time I wanted to say something, and tried to get a translation.

This poor planning meant that I had no choice but to fall back to English (normally, I would just say what I want to say through GTranslate in my first week or two, when in a Skype session, and then discard it when I have some momentum). My teacher explained an overview of Japanese to me, and introduced the Kana to me. I was a little annoyed with myself, because these are the kinds of things I can do outside of a class.

Finally, my teacher gave me a few phrases that I'd need when introducing myself, which was good use of my time, since I'll definitely need to rely on natives to make sure translations even of simple phrases is acceptable. Here are a few phrases that I could say after that first class:

I got a bunch of comments from people that I shouldn't repeat “Watashi wa” (I…), and that you don't pronounce the ‘u' at the end of “desu”. This was useful feedback to keep in mind for my later uses.

Based on recommendations by so many people, I decided to skip Romaji explanations altogether, and after this first session, I dove straight into learning Kana. I found the system on Memrise to present it very well, and like any phonetic script, you can learn it in a few hours. Since I had to wrap up the introduction Monday blog post, and add some things to the video, I was quite distracted that first day, so I only had about two hours of solid studying for Hiragana, but this was more than enough to absorb it and practise texts.

I had a second Skype session, which I had to fall back on English in, once again. To avoid GTranslate's issues, I relied on my phrasebook's list of basic sentences and tried to work off this, and managed to keep most of my side in very broken Japanese.

Day Two

This day I went on to learn Katakana – the second phonetic system used more for foreign words (of which there are LOTS in Japanese!!) I learned this slower and less efficiently, even though they aren't complicated, and there is the same number as in Hiragana; the Memrise deck I tried to use was not good because it seemed to be mixing up Hiragana with Katakana and kept showing Kana I had already learned. I downloaded an app with some images instead, called Dr Moku. The examples were better, but the app kept crashing for me.

I had to give up trying to use other systems and come up with my own mnemonics, which was slower and some I came up with weren't as good. Nevertheless, I got about 90% of them down pretty well.

For the one Skype session I had that day, I had the teacher write me example sentences that I would try to read and she helped me get them right. I was doing it very slowly, but I was starting to get the hang of it, and found Kana a pretty straightforward system – it will just take me time to practise it and feel comfortable with it.

I had enough Kana to start using some materials finally, but the book I used wasn't providing me with content I could use in my early conversations, and was more of a long-term problem solving course.

I wrapped up the day by writing out a short description of my first day in English and sending it to my Japanese assistant. I have someone to send text to to translate for me, and someone who will do all captionning for my videos. It's not a huge expense, as this is just a few hours work a week, but those are hours that I have free to focus on Japanese learning.

Day Three

kana1

I woke up to see the script I needed, which had been written in Kana in advance for me. Most of my day was going to be around this script, but I wasted loads of time trying to get the sound working on my camera after noticing comments about issues from my recent videos. (Some of you may have noticed the sound in my t-shirt or Japanese project intro video not work on some systems unless you use a headphone set), and finally figured out that for some reason the left and right phase of the audio cancels itself out on some systems.

I still have to see if I can fix this permanently, but set up a temporary sound system to record the video, which unfortunately buzzed whenever I held my iPad close to it.

I had wanted to use my beloved Kindle but wasted another bit of time figuring out that it had kicked the bucket after years of travelling with me. So this day involved lots of time wasting not relevant to learning Japanese, and I could only go straight onto Skype without previously practising the script and practise it live with a teacher.

She edited what I had to include spaces and commas to make it easier to read, and I got the hang of it. I tried to fix the technical issues for a few hours and had a second hour long session to practise the script which was seeming much longer than it should have been, some more, and felt somewhat confident at that stage.

Then I transferred it to my iPad, pressed record and realized a few seconds in that this was not the same script I had spent most of the day practising! In transferring between systems the font had changed and this made previously familiar characters almost unrecognizable. As such I did worse than I could have done, but went on ahead regardless.

Thirty excruciating minutes later, the video was done! I took the evening off since my brain was in overdrive mode from trying to read this new script 48 hours after seeing it for the first time in my life while caring what it actually says.

Here is the script that I read in its entirely, including the English translation:

Here is the script that I read in its entirely, including the English translation:

こんにちは、アイルランド じん の  べニー です 。

Hello! I am Benny from Ireland,

 

これ は 、ぼくの  にほんご で  の  はつ ビデオ です 。

and this is the first video I am ever making in Japanese!

 

この  ビデオ で は、 ぼく の  にほんご  がくしゅう の  しょにち  の  ようす を、 みなさん に  お みせ し たい と  おもい ます 。

In this video, I want to tell you about my first day learning Japanese.

 

これ は 、げつようび に  はじめて 、 すいようび に  ビデオ ろくが

し て い ます 。

I started on Monday, and I am recording this video on Wednesday.

 

きんようび に は 、 グラフィック  と  じまく を つけ て、 Youtube に

アップ ロード し ます 。

I will put it on Youtube on Friday after adding graphics and subtitles.

 

ぼくが いつも  いう の は 、 しょにち  から  はなそ う ! と いう こと です 。

I always say that you should speak from day one,

 

できれば ネイティブ が  つくっ た  きょうざい  が  いい です ね 。

and one way to do this is to read something a native has prepared for you.

 

きょう  ぼく は  にほんじん  が  やくし た  スクリプト  を 、かな で

よん で い ます 。

Today I’m reading a script translated by a Japanese person for me, and I am trying to read it in Kana.

 

これ です !

Look!

 

この よう に  ぼく の  しょにち の  もくひょう は、 かな を  よむ こと です 。

So, of course, my focus for my first day was to be able to read Kana.

 

ぼく は 、ほとんど  よめる よう に  なり まし た が 、 いま おききのように、

まだ  ゆっくり  よま ない  と  いけませ ん 。

I can do most of it now, but I still have problems and I read it very slowly, as you can hear!

 

もし、 まちがい  が  あっ たら  ごめんなさい 。

I’m sorry if I’m making mistakes.

まだ  ビギナー です ので 、おおめ に  み て ください。

Please be patient with me, because I am a beginner!

 

しょにち は、はやおき し て  きほん の  フレーズ を  べんきょう し まし た 。

On my first day, I got up early and tried to learn some basic phrases ….

 

たとえば 、 おはよう ござい ます 。 ぼく は  べニー です 。 アイルランド じん です 。

like Good morning, my name is Benny, I am from Ireland,

 

そして  スカイプ で 、あたらしい フレーズ の  レッスン を うけ まし た 。

and then I had my first lesson over Skype and learned some new phrases…

 

ざんねん です が 、 この  レッスン で は  ろーまじ  を  つかい まし た 。

ぼく は、 これ が  きらい  です  。

Unfortunately, I had to do this with Romaji, which I didn’t like.

 

そのあとは 、Memrise . com で  ひ ら が な  の  べんきょう  を し まし た 。

So after that class I went on the website Memrise.com and studied its animations for Hiragana.

 

メモライズ  に は 、え  や  がぞう で  せつめい  が  あり 、 かんたん に かな の   はつおん  を  おぼえ られ ます 。

You can learn to read any phonetic script very quickly with good memory aids!

 

たとえば 、 かな の “ む ” は 、 うし  が “ ムー ” と  ない て いる よう に

みえ ます 。

For example, the Kana ‘mu’ looks like a cow saying moo!

 

これを スマホアプリ で 、なん じかん か、 べんきょう し 、

そのご 、また  スカイプレッスン で 、 せんせい が  ようい し た 、

しん たんご の

はつおん れんしゅう  を  し まし た 。

I studied this on my smartphone for several hours, and then I had another lesson on Skype and had a chance to practice saying new words that my teacher wrote to me.

 

その  よる  は 、ふたつ め の  ひょうき ほう 、 かた か な を べんきょう し

ほとんど  を  そのひに  おぼえ まし た 。

Finally, in the evening I started studying the second Japanese phonetic system, Katakana.  I almost finished it on my first day.

 

よくじつ に は  ぜんぶ  おわり 、 さらに  よみかた  の  れんしゅう を し て

この  ビデオ  に  そなえ まし た 。

Of course, on the second day I could finish it and then start practice more reading so that I would be ready to make this video!

 

しょにちに ついて の 、もっと  くわしい  せつめい と 、 さいしょ の

いつかかん の ようす は 、ここ を  クリック  する と  ブログアップデート で  み て いただけ ます 。

For a much more detailed explanation of my first day, and my first five days learning Japanese, please click to see the blog post here!

 

らいしゅう は  にほんご で の  しん ビデオ を  だし ます ので 、

ていき こうどく を  お すすめ し ます 。

Don't forget to subscribe, because next week I'll have a new video in Japanese,

 

じかい は、 できれ ば、 もうすこし  はやく  はなし たい  とおもいます。

and I hope to speak quicker!

 

ともだち に も 、この ビデオ を  しょうかい  し てください 。

Share this video with your friends if you liked it,

 

みなさん の  いけん や、 おうえん の ことば を  おまち し て い ます 。

それでは 、 ありがとう ござい まし た 。

and leave a comment to give me some encouragement please! Thank you and bye bye!

Day Four

Now that I had the Kana writing system more or less down (when it's the right font, I can read it a little faster and more confidently than in this video, but I'll get used to other fonts soon), I could finally get to learning phrases and words, and now I come to the first observation of something I would have changed for this project:

People are way too obsessed with avoiding Romanization. Don't listen to them.

What I should have done was have day four as day one, and just learned as much phrases and words as possible using Romaji – the romanized equivalent – and got into speaking sooner. Delaying this was a bad idea, because I wasn't really speaking from day one, but was reading aloud from day one.

The Kana material I had waited to use is not so ideal for absolute beginner conversations, so I had to go to my Romaj focused phrasebook, learn to say much more, and then hop on Skype, and something really cool happened:

I was able to keep my end of the conversation 100% in Japanese!!

I'm very pleased about this!! One issue I had in Arabic was a slow start (due to moving around so much), and I didn't transition into Arabic only mode on Skype until day 16. This time I did it on day 4, even though I could have done it day 1 if I had enough words to be able to say something in the sessions.

While I regret it because I think it's better to start as you mean to go on, at least I had Kana learning done (apart from getting used to it with lots and lots of practice that is certainly to come), so in my spoken session, new words I was to learn would be written to me in Kana and keep me in the right frame of mind. Ultimately, I don't think this will actually slow me down.

Having said that, if any of you are doing something similar, despite what all the experts may tell you, I would recommend you learn lots of words and phrases first in Romaji, and when you have just enough to introduce yourself and ask the person to repeat themselves and keep some kind of basic flow, then transition to Kana only mode. I have a book or two that uses some Romaji to explain grammatical concepts, and I won't be scared by them, since most things I'd do will be in Kana anyway.

On day four, I also took a grammar summary of Japanese and read it in a nice sunny cobble-stone-street café here in Valencia for several hours. Somehow, I doubt this is how most people learn the language 😛

I flicked through a 200 page grammar book in a few hours to get a quick overview of things to keep in mind, and just this browsing without real studying, already helped me for my second spoken session of the day as I recognized parts of sentences and what their function was, or knew a little about how verbs worked. Some aspects of Japanese grammar, while complicated, are familiar to me from other languages (question particle like in Esperanto, different number words like in Irish, postpositions like in Hungarian etc.)

I only want to know enough grammar to allow me to get started – I don't need to study it in depth until I have more momentum as a speaker with lots of words to fill up between all that grammar. Having said that, I'll definitely put a few hours a week into grammar studying, even though my focus will be vocab learning and practice.

Day Five

Another thing I've been doing this week is alternating between different teachers on italki to decide who I would learn the most with. Sometimes they use way too much English, despite me insisting on Japanese, and if they keep it up then I don't request future sessions. One or two teachers showed good initiative and themselves were insisting on Japanese only before I could mention that I'd prefer this, so I'll be sticking with them, even though (and precisely because) those are the sessions that absolutely exhaust me the most.

As such, this first week has been slower than most because I've also had to go through ten (so far) different people to see who I'd work with best. Today I did it again, and felt it wasn't a good hour spent other than knowing I wouldn't work with this particular teacher again.

I feel like I have the absolute basics of what I need to read new words they write to me, and I have enough absolute basic vocabulary to try to keep the conversation in Japanese. But I'm still at an absolute loss of what to say most of the time, and need someone patient with that or who can effectively introduce a new topic to keep the conversation flowing until I can handle filling up the time myself better.

Rather than another scripted video, I may even go as far as to record one of my basic Skype chats for next Wednesday, but I'd have to find someone willing to let me do that and don't want to ask my teachers this so soon.

I've also had time to research around Japanese some more and have found that my initial comparison to JLPT and aiming for its N2 level was not a good one.

It turns out that exam is nothing like CEFRL tests. It doesn't test your spoken skills (or even written skills) at all, and is a $20 multiple choice test, which makes it scalable, but not so relevant to individuals in too many ways. It serves its purpose and I'm sure is extremely challenging to take, and very important to many institutions in Japan but it doesn't measure language skills (I thought the person telling me there is no spoken component at all was joking at first) to a good enough level to make it ever work for me. So I'll only be interested in aiming for B2+ on the CEFRL scale, and don't care where I may be on the JLPT scale because it simply doesn't measure your ability to interact with human beings.

I'll try to find someone with academic experience with Japanese to evaluate my level informally when I'm in Japan, or I'll just upload a spontaneous unedited chat where I am being interviewed by someone, like I did with Arabic, so you have a general idea where I end up.


That's it! Let me know what you think of my first days, and of my struggling attempts to read out Kana, in the comments below! If you have any feedback at all, I welcome it, but please check that it hasn't been given already (I heard about my ‘u' issue on “desu” about 20 times the day I uploaded the Instagram video, and once or twice was more than enough 😛 )

And look out for another video next week 😀

Learn the way you want with Pod101, Benny's favourite way to start a language. Get your special discount here.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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