The Two Pillars of Success

There are two pillars to success when learning any language: vocabulary and grammar.

The thing about them is, they are actually rather orthogonal to each other. Even in Japanese, as long as you learn the dictionary form (or to some degree even the polite form of the word) you don’t need to worry too much about how to use it to know the word.

You need to know both, obviously, but you can work on both separately, and not lose anything when it comes to learning whatever language you’re trying to learn. Eventually, of course, you have to tie them together, but that actually happens rather naturally with exposure.

And each requires a separate way of learning. Vocabulary seems to work best through a combination of exposure and rote memorization, but grammar seems to work best mostly through exposure and immersion. Grammar is how you learn to think in a language, and vocabulary is how you learn to express the thoughts within the framework grammar teaches you.

I think this is one reason why Japanese is seen as so difficult: in order to learn either vocabulary or grammar, you first need to learn the framework in which both of those things are expressed. Such as hiragana, katakana, kanji, particules, etc. And you have to learn them before you can move on.

That’s the “hump” I was talking about earlier. Japanese is very much not an instant gratification language, if you’re starting from zero.

The Other

Western people know many Japanese place names. Osaka, Tokyo, and even for more unsavory reasons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But what many western people don’t know is that these are actually very ordinary names in Japanese.

Hiroshima, for example, means “Wide Island”, and Tokyo means “Capital City” (or something similar).

The fact that the names are in a language we don’t understand makes them sound exotic, but they’re not exotic at all. Just like, for example, “Austin” might sound exotic, but it’s just a random guy’s last name, and “Round Rock” is named for a literal round rock in Brushy Creek.

How much learning another language makes the culture behind that language seem so much more ordinary.

But does everyone want to lose that otherness, that exoticism?

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.

Drinking From the Firehose

I have been learning Japanese now for a little over a year.

One the one hand, I know more than I did. I can put together basic sentences, I know probably a thousand words (a hodgepodge of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and things I picked up from variety shows and songs), and I think a fair assessment of my skills right now is that I could probably find my way around Tokyo if I needed to. I am very familiar with hiragana and katakana, and I even know a few kanji, and even more importantly, how to use them.

Which is really no small feat, don’t get me wrong. I’m already ahead of most casual Japanese media consumers, and I have learned enough about Japanese culture to lose my unthinking admiration for all things Japanese. I see that as a sign of maturity.

But a year in, I find myself overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, because as much as I’ve learned and progressed, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s, as the title suggests, like drinking from a firehose, and theres just so much of it that I haven’t yet found a really effective study method. I don’t feel like picking up a few words a week is going to get me where I want, but I can’t seem to absorb them at a faster rate.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Japanese at the moment, to be honest. I think it’s a really cool thing to learn, but sometimes I step back, facepalm a little, and wonder what the heck I’ve gotten myself into.

A year in, I still find it interesting, I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still not convinced I’m not wasting my time and money.

Japanese Does Get Easier

So the final grades are in.  I got a 91%.  I would have gotten higher but sensei dinged me on participation.  I’m not sure why, but the difference between 91 and 98 percent is really just ego, to be honest.  So I’ve let it go.

Japanese is an interesting language – it has a very, very high initial learning curve.  It’s intimidating as heck and it’s hard to even know where to start – because you have to learn several entirely new writing systems before you can even start doing anything productively with it.  It’s really easy to want to give up during that stage, because it can feel like you’re getting pretty much nowhere.

And that’s because you are, actually, getting pretty much nowhere.

But once you gain some proficiency with hiragana and katakana, find a study system that works for you, and figure out how to immerse yourself in the language enough that you start to understand how it works, it actually becomes much like learning any other language.  You pick up words, you learn grammatical constructs, and you start figuring out how things fit together.

It gets easier.

That’s not to say it gets easy.  It still requires a lot of work and study.  But the “a-ha!” moments start getting closer and closer together, you start studying the kanji and suddenly things start clicking, and you find that somehow you picked up about five hundred different words and a hundred kanji and you weren’t even really trying, it just happened.  I mean, it was a lot of work, but it just kind of happens when you put in the effort.

I found an app called “kanji tree” which has become my new favorite kanji study app.  It helps you with recognition, with readings, and with drawing the kanji – and if you do these things with any regularity at all, you’re going to learn a whole hell of a lot without really doing much more than fiddling with your phone.  It won’t take the place of a native sensei and also a good textbook, but it’s an invaluable substitute and I’m spending an hour or two per night with the app.

Getting over that hurdle is hard, though.  I think it’s when most people give up, because while you’re trying to learn hiragana, katakana, and enough kanji to not feel like an idiot, you’re not going to get very far at all, every word you learn seems disjointed (without the kanji to help, it’s really hard to memorize words), and it just seems insurmountable.

But… it’s not.

Just find a method that works for you, and go for it.  And even though it feels like you want to every step of the way, don’t give up.  It gets easier.  But you have to get over that hump first.

Class is over

Last night I tool the final exam for the Japanese class I’ve been taking for three months.  I learned a lot.  I’m pretty sure I passed with an A (or at the very worst a B).  I feel like I have a better foundation than I did when starting the class.

I am not taking Japanese II for the time being.

I have felt uncomfortable in a college setting from the very beginning, and there were many reasons for that.  A relatively large percentage of the students there were teenagers, and as a man in my early 40s I was rather uncomfortable with that – one must be far more careful in that context than one would with people closer to one’s own age.  It was also uncomfortable because I am trying to hold down a full time job and the amount of studying and time commitments required were very difficult to fit into an already busy life.  Trying to go to every class prepared was very stressful.  Also, today’s college settings are very PC and I was not comfortable with the fact that I felt like I had to always be careful what I said, being concerned that someone would take it the wrong way and bring the wrath of the PC gods down on me.  Don’t get me wrong – I actually do think professionalism is important in such a setting, but these days there’s no room for even a slip-up.

All told, it was just too stressful an experience, and I don’t want to do it again for the short term.  Truth be told, if it weren’t for the experience I’d already had with hiragana and katakana I would have been completely sunk.  Even towards the end I kinda stopped studying.  Which didn’t hurt me all that much but it will if I have to keep this up.

But all is not lost.  When I told sensei that I was not going to take the next class and outlined some of the reasons why, she offered to give me semi-private lessons.  They are about twice as expensive as class for the same amount of time, but I think I will be more comfortable in these kinds of lessons.  I don’t have to stress out about attending every single one, and maybe the interactions with adults closer to my own age will be a little less… awkward.

I start those tomorrow.

The background is important.  The fact that college was able to help me to solidify my hiragana and katakana was invaluable to me.  I feel much better prepared to move on in my studies than I was three months ago.  I also feel like I’m going to be better served in a smaller, more focused environment.

Also, in the past few months, my views on Japan have changed some.  I no longer think of Japan as this strange and exotic place full of amazing wonders – though I think there are certainly some aspects of that!  I, instead, have begun to think of Japan as a country that has found its national identity under attack over the past century or so, and are trying to figure out how to square their ancient and proud culture with the modern pressures towards assimilation and integration.  They don’t want to assimilate their culture into the larger world – and in some cases, with good reason! – but they are finding that as their population dwindles and their economy stagnates, that they may not have a choice in the matter.  It is almost as if I am watching an imperfect parallel of my journey out of a cult on a country-wide scale.  Their culture is ancient and proud, and they have a lot to offer the world if we choose to pay attention.  But the world has a lot to offer them as well, and they need to pay attention as well if they hope to survive.

But I feel that we in the west need to also help.  And I think the best way that we can help is to learn about their language and culture, and maybe use that knowledge to explain some things about my language and culture as well.  Perhaps I am a gaijin, or gaikokujin, but at the end of the day we are all people.  I live in Texas.  I see many pickup trucks every day, I see cowboy hats and wide skies and eat BBQ frequently (too frequently).  I don’t share the same language or cultural assumptions.  In some ways I feel that my culture is superior, but not in all ways – in some ways I see much to admire or respect from Japanese culture.

But how will one who only speaks Japanese know if I don’t share that?

I have a dream at some point to start a blog or youtube channel where I talk about my experiences of America, as an American – in Japanese, and to a Japanese audience.  That is a niche that I don’t think has very much content, and I think could be very useful.  I think that is one reason why I continue to learn Japanese.  I want to do that.

So, ikimasu.  On to the next step.

How did the skit turn out?

Pretty well.

The constraints were, we had to use introduction phrases, speak relatively fluently, and make sensei laugh.  So early on, we came up with the idea of a doctor and patient.  My partner was the doctor, and I was the patient.  I had not filled out the forms and she kept asking me questions while I asked for help.

The kicker was that the questions got more and more absurd the longer we went on.

Towards the end, she asked my cats’ names (Inoki Antonio, Abe Shinzo, Takahashi Minami, and Kaori Iida), and their birthdays, at which point I abruptly ended the interview by dying.

The biggest laugh was at the reveal of the cat names!

I threw in an easter egg, too.  When she asked for my address, I recited the address of the AKB48 theater.  I don’t think anyone in the class picked up on that.

I got an 88%.  So there’s that.  Even though I hated doing it with an utter passion.  My partner didn’t seem much happier with the assignment, so there’s that, too.  Frankly, that assignment is one of the major reasons why I’m not taking the next class, now, anyway.

After this class ends, I’m going to start studying for the N5.  Probably by studying Japanese to an N4 level so I can be sure I’m overprepared for the N5.  I hear that’s the best way to do it.

Still not sure why I’m learning Japanese but walking up to my boss and saying “今は医者にいきます” and seeing the utterly confused look on his face almost makes it worth it.