Commitment

Learning any language, particularly Japanese, for most people is a major commitment.  There are some people who seem to be able to pick up languages very quickly, and don’t hesitate to make sure you know that, but their tricks don’t work for everyone, and I’m pretty sure their knowledge is broad but shallow.

But I think sometimes someone goes into a language thinking “I’m going to learn this language”, and then give themselves a goal.  “I’m going to study for six months”, or “I’m going to study for a year”…  and then they start to learn the language and find out it’s, like, really hard.  Some languages are harder than others, of course, but no language is easy.

And people have lots of reasons why a language is hard, and most of the time, those reasons are legitimate.  I’ve gone over why Japanese is a difficult language to learn many times in this blog alone, and I haven’t even begun to cover the important points.  Mainly because I’ve been studying for two years, and I don’t even know what they are yet.

But the major obstacle to learning a language is time.  Not to study, while the study is important.  Not to learn grammar, while that’s important too.  Not even practicing speaking it, while that’s important too.  No, it’s the time you spend immersing yourself in the language enough that you can actually start to think in it and understand the vocabulary you know without effort when someone else speaks it.  That is a process that takes time and can’t be rushed.

And, I think, that’s honestly the most valuable form of practice.  When I first started to learn Japanese, it was literally gibberish to me.  I listened to a young woman speaking quickly, and I could not even pick out words.  It was utter nonsense – she may as well have been speaking in tongues for all the good it did me.  But every now and then I go back to that, just to see how well I’ve progressed, and now I understand most of it.  All of my studying was important to get there, but no amount of studying can prepare one for actually letting it get into your head, sink in, and start to live there.

And to become fluent, that’s what you need more than anything else.  The vocabulary and grammar come in time, but fluency only comes with deep familiarization with the language – the kind that study simply can’t provide.

All of this is a lot of words to say:  If you’re only studying Japanese and not living and consuming it as much as you can, you will never truly succeed at the language.  It may be good enough, and Japanese people will certainly appreciate your efforts – even at where I am now, I could probably get around Tokyo or Osaka pretty well.  But there will always be that limitation – that wall that will be difficult to climb.

Only experience breaks that wall down.

Immersion

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.