Steps Toward Fluency

One of the things I continually harp on this blog is the fact that you can’t rush Japanese.  It’s too big.  No matter how much you memorize, or how much you cram down your mind and then forget, you’re not going to get much closer to fluency with the language.  I think there are two reasons for that.

The first reason is that there are actually two different vocabularies in Japanese.  This isn’t something that’s played down per se, but I don’t think it’s emphasized.  There’s the native Japanese words, and there’s the jyukugo.  They are generally pronounced entirely differently, have different origins, and the kanji are read differently.  But they’re all treated the same – as part of the Japanese language, which makes it very confusing.  Rote memorizing jyukugo is almost impossible.

The other is that in order to become fluent with Japanese, you have to start thinking like a Japanese person.  This means leaving all of your preconceptions about what a language should be at the door, and just accepting it for what it is.  Everything’s backwards, and until you can actually internalize it, you’ll be forever struggling with it.

This is one of the reasons that I am finding wanikani so valuable.  It truly is spaced repetition.  So when a review pops up, after I’ve seen and answered it enough, the pronunciation and meaning just immediately pop into my head.  If it doesn’t, then it resets until I remember it.  Sometimes the mnemonics are helpful, sometimes not, but I’ve noticed that as I progress from master towards enlightened on certain words and kanji, that the recall becomes faster, and I can read the particular word just as fluently as I can an English word.  In context, it’s still difficult, but the words themselves become easier as the repetition continues.

But as I keep saying, it’s a very slow process.  Anyone who says “I’m going to Japan in two months and I need to learn enough Japanese to get around” is better off getting a translation app and studying common phrases, because that’s about all you’ll get.  It’s almost a lifetime commitment, because there’s no way you’re going to become fluent in it in less than two years.

But, I think, it can be done, and that’s also very important.  It’s not hopeless.  It’s just that patience is needed.

2 thoughts on “Steps Toward Fluency

  1. I totally agree with the general gist of your post, there’s no way to rush (proper) Japanese study.

    However, after many years of studying Japanese I’ve come to believe that yoji-jukugo are really not that all important. I’ve read a bunch of adult-level novels, and while you do see the once in a while, it’s reasonable to either look them up or just gloss over the meaning (which you can sometimes guess if you know the individual kanji). For certain, some authors do use more yoji-jukugo than other authors though.

    I’ve rarely made studying the a part of my normal routine, and the times I have studied these (via flash cards, for example), it seems that I rarely come across the ones I’ve studied, so I just forget them eventually. There is a handful that are used pretty commonly though, and it’s good to memorize those (一生懸命, etc.)

    Please note that I’m not saying you should completely ignore them, and I think they are very important for anyone who wants to write fiction in Japanese fluently. I just don’t think they are one of the major reasons Japanese is so hard.

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    1. I see where you’re going with that, but at least for an intermediate student like me, I don’t agree with your conclusion. It is true that knowing all the jyukugo there are to know probably isn’t helpful, just like knowing every single English word out there also is pretty useless. So I agree with you on that. But as you mention, there are quite a few common jyukugo that I find really hard to memorize, especially because all of the different kanji readings are really hard to remember. Perhaps that becomes less of an issue the longer you have studied and become familiar with what you need to know and what you don’t, but for a beginner and intermediate student, they are quite intimidating, and one of the most challenging things for me when it comes to learning the language. Perhaps once I get a good grasp of what is useful and what isn’t I’ll come around more to your point of view.

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