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My first true exposure to Japanese language was Rosetta Stone.  In fact, I remember the first word I ever learned:  otokonoko.  I became very disillusioned with Rosetta Stone very quickly, and decided that it wasn’t worth it, particularly for the price.

But lately I’ve been studying the kanken books.  You see, in Japan, there are ten levels of kanji certification.  I could probably pass test 10 right now, but honestly, so could most first graders.  But what really interested me was the beginning of the book.  Because, you see, there is a section dedicated to practicing hiragana.

But there are no word definitions.  I wondered why, but it hit me quickly:  it’s because these books are for Japanese children, and they already know the words.  They just don’t know how to read and write them yet.

So the Japanese children already have a command of the Japanese language through immersion – they know the words, they have to know the words.  They have to know how to ask for food and to make their needs known, and they do so in Japanese.  Not because they want to, but because they have to.

When I realized that I looked back on my experience with Rosetta Stone, and I realized why I was so dissatisfied with it.

They were selling immersion, but it wasn’t immersion.  Because while you can repeat the words back, there’s no meaningful interaction.  You just get a multiple choice test, and while the creators of RS actually have the right idea, they aren’t doing it in a really useful way.  Japanese children know the words they know because these are words that they need in their lives to get through their days.  RS taught words that really weren’t all that useful, with very little context, and in some cases, weren’t even the correct words.  For example, I have only heard the word “otokonoko” used in every day language a handful of times, Japanese people would never say “o-genki desu ka” as a greeting, and “kanojo” actually means girlfriend in colloquial language.  But you’d never know that.  Especially from Rosetta Stone, which is, frankly, useless.

But it did have a kernel of the right idea.

And I think that kernel is this:  Learn through immersion, but find the words that children know.

So I’ve started making lists of basic children’s words.  Words like “monkey” and “elephant”, etc.  Words that children would know from childrens’ books, zoos, songs, etc.  And those are the words I’m prioritizing learning right now.  The other words are useful.  They’re even necessary.  But I think that those are the words that will give me the same foundation as Japanese children, and thus make the Japanese-oriented learning material, such as the kanken books, more useful to me.

And they’ll also give me a little insight into Japanese culture.  Because for conversational Japanese, us gaikokujin would never even know to look for those words.

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