Throwing in the towel?

I just took my second Japanese test at ACC.  And while I think I did okay at it, I’m feeling very discouraged and I’m very close to giving the whole thing up.

I am pretty good at remembering kanji, pronunciations, and grammar, but it all falls apart when I need to actually put together coherent sentences.  Perhaps I’m not getting enough practice, perhaps I’m just not good enough.  But I really feel as if I have about hit the limit of how well I’m going to do if I keep going the way I’m going now.

But I’m really embarrassed to speak it.  I feel like I’m not good enough to hold even a basic conversation and that everyone I attempt to speak to would rather I just didn’t, but I also know that there’s no way I’m going to get better unless I find people to speak with.  So I’m in a position right now where I don’t know why I’m learning it, I find it interesting but I don’t have a really persuasive reason to continue, and every time I attempt to speak with someone it just leaves me embarrassed.

So, why try?

I recognize that learning a language is grammar, etc., second, and exposure and familiarity first.  If I can’t find that, then there’s no point in wasting my time.

I’m certainly not throwing in the towel until this class is over, but after that, I don’t know.  I don’t have a reason.

The Most Important Thing

Every now and then, I take a step back and try to reassess where I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, but even more importantly, how to get where I want to be. And frankly, there’s a lot of noise, and not much of it is helpful.

I’m on several sites. Each one of which claims that they all I’ll need to get fluent, which is essentially a lie with a little bit of truth. But they only teach the mechanics. Even if I were to be fluent mechanically, I’d only be speaking Japanese with an American “accent”, so to speak.

No, I think the most important thing is to let go of my American preconceptions and try to understand how the Japanese language works to a Japanese person. And maybe that’s the hardest thing of all, because I’m not one. But that’s probably the essence of learning any language – just doubly important in Japanese because it’s so different.

How, though, is perhaps the toughest question, short of going all in and moving to Japan.

Why Does One Study Japanese?

I’m sure there are many different motivations.

Some people study Japanese because they love anime and manga.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to go to Japan.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they love the culture.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to find a Japanese partner.  This is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because it’s difficult.  This is not why I study Japanese, though it’s getting closer.

Why do I study Japanese?

Because I’m bored.  Seriously.

I picked one of the most difficult languages in human history to study because I had nothing better to do.

That is me, in a nutshell.


Learning Japanese has been frought with challenges – I mean it’s been really, really difficult.  I think one of the reasons is the scattershot nature of the resources I’ve been using to learn.  They all seem to emphasize something different, and each advertises itself as the only resource I’ll ever need.

That is, of course, bull-pucky.

But the word that is the title of this post is an example of why I feel this way.  大丈夫.  Pronounced “daijoubu”, this word seems to be one of the most commonly used words in colloquial and conversational Japanese, and is arguably one of the most useful.  I’m not saying it’s the most, obviously, but it seems to be used quite frequently and in quite a few different contexts.  I’ve seen it used multiple times in almost every single Japanese video I’ve watched since I’ve learned it.  And not only that, but by its nature, it tends to be used in particularly pivotal moments.

It means “okay”.  As in “I’m okay” or “are you okay?”.

And it took me months to find it.

And then you have resources similarly teaching Japanese words that are not used or are not used in the context that’s being taught (aishiteru, for example), people trying to learn Japanese from anime where that is probably the worst idea ever (don’t ever call someone “kisama” unless they’re literally a king) and basically all sorts of resources teaching you stuff that you find out very quickly is either useless or worse than useless.  And you wonder why it’s so easy to give up.

If I were to give advice to someone just starting out (and I mean much more of a beginner than me), here’s what I’d say:

  • Hiragana and Katakana are not alphabets, and don’t try to learn them as one.  Memorize them, but remember what they are.  They are a precise phonetic syllabary, no more, no less.
  • Don’t skimp on katakana.  Most resources don’t spend any time on it, but probably half the language are borrow words from different languages, and ten percent of the language is borrowed from English.  But you’ll never recognize it if you don’t understand katakana.  It’s not a skill you can afford to not have.
  • Kanji radicals are closer to an alphabet, and use those to your advantage – breaking kanji into their component parts makes it much easier to memorize them.
  • Kanji are not words.  Don’t try to treat them as words.  They’re concepts that can be turned into words.
  • Don’t rely on any one resource, textbook, website, or anything else.  Pick among a few and switch between them.  You are guaranteed to learn something from one that you wouldn’t have learned much later from others, and it’s usually going to be something very helpful.
  • Corollary: Just because someone is good at speaking Japanese, it doesn’t mean they’re good at teaching it.
  • Corollary #2:  Just because someone’s charging money for a lesson plan doesn’t mean it’s any good at all.
  • Learning conversational Japanese only takes you so far.  If you’re not trying to cram for a trip in two weeks, don’t fall into that trap.  Learn it right.  (If you are, of course, all bets are off)
  • The first time you try to speak with a native speaker, you are going to fail.  I had that experience today.  I hope it gets better.
  • Culture and language cannot be separated.  If you try to learn Japanese with an English dialect, your efforts will collapse the moment you meet a real Japanese person.
  • Anime is “real Japanese”, but you don’t know the difference between anime Japanese and actual Japanese that people use.  Don’t risk it.  Don’t try to learn from anime or manga.  Do it right.

Maybe this advice will help.

Oh, and if you want to see something cool, write a post on Facebook with 大丈夫 and watch what happens.  Not even kidding.



A Post About Actually Learning Japanese

After all of the posts about Japanese culture I’ve been spewing forth, I thought I’d write one about actually learning Japanese.

I finally found a tool that I actually like, and I finally feel like I’m actually learning things.

Putting the effort into learning hiragana and katakana has been completely invaluable.  I say this because it underpins absolutely everything else, and I think that this is probably the first thing that needs to be done – before kanji, before pronunciation, before everything.  Because it makes everything past that so much easier.  In fact, I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that it opens up entirely new worlds – even if you don’t know the vocabulary yet, you can sound it out and at least you have something to look up.  And with katakana, you’re about halfway certain it’s a borrowed word, and sometimes it’s even an English borrowed word!  Of course, this is probably completely obvious to someone who has studied Japanese, but for someone just starting out, this is actually not obvious.  It’s very tempting to go right for the vocabulary and to learn conversational phrases, but I’m actually thinking that’s a pretty bad idea, unless you’re heading to Japan in two weeks.  Then I guess you do what you have to.

The tool I found is Japanese Level Up.  Specifically, Jalup NEXT.  It’s like Anki flashcards, but more portable (anki doesn’t work well on a chromebook, if at all).  I didn’t need to take the hiragana and katakana courses, but it’s there if you need them.  I’d suggest taking that, making sure you’re solid on those, then taking the kanji and beginner courses at the same time.  If you’re familiar with even the basics of Japanese, you’ll sail through at least the first few flash cards of the beginner course.  The kanji is a little more difficult, but even after a few repetitions, you’ll look at something written in Japanese and even recognize a few kanji!  You won’t know how to pronounce them, necessarily, but I guess that comes in time.  Of course I want it all now now now, but it’s a big topic, and that won’t happen.

One thing I also like about Jalup is that you can buy the flashcards as you need them – they’re about $8 for a set of 100.  Of course, that will get spendy after a while, but you can space it out over a long period of time, and you get indefinite access to what you’ve bought, unlike Rosetta Stone, which you lose access to when you stop paying (and Rosetta Stone isn’t all that effective anyway, in my opinion).

I’m going to work with that, probably even after I start community college classes.  Hopefully, with all of these things working in concert, I’ll at least get to a point where I don’t feel like a complete fraud when I start trying to speak Japanese.