Working Hard at Japanese Doesn’t Work.

I have been on Wanikani for a few months now.  I am taking the lessons very slowly so that I don’t get overwhelmed.  It’s funny – every time I learn a new kanji or a new pronunciation, I think “how am I going to remember that?”  And then, a month later, I look at it and it pops to mind, completely unbidden, the moment I look at the word.

So I think the harder you work at Japanese, the more you’ll seem to advance, and the quicker you forget.  It seems to me that a slow, steady path of absorption seems to work much better than trying to cram as much into your head as possible.  That certainly seems to be true to me.

I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t take time or effort.  Of course it does.  You’re not going to get anywhere by watching anime with subtitles and never studying the language – you’ll go backwards.  But I’m saying that if you’re struggling, you’re trying too hard.  It does sink in eventually, and things start to seem natural pretty quickly that didn’t seem to before.  You just have to get used to it.

I have told the story before about how I got acquainted with Japanese.  When I first heard the Japanese language spoken it was literally gibberish.  I could not pick a single word, phrase, or meaning out, and even when I started learning greetings, their accent was so different than I was used to that even if I knew a word it was difficult to pick it out of the sentence.  But now, I still have that problem, but much less so.  I still go back to that video every now and then, and I find myself understanding more and more of it.  And the thing is, I’m not really trying.  I’m just working on my Wanikani, practicing it as much as I’m able, and otherwise just letting it sink in.

That seems to work for me.

Study, but not too hard.  Work, but not too hard.  Memorize, but not too much.  Japanese is a language you have to be in for the long haul.


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.

Three Months Later…

Posts like these are hard to write, because I never quite now how they’re quite going to turn out, and I never quite know how much of my soul I’m going to bare in the process.

About three months or so ago, I had a medical crisis that caused me to pretty much drop off the grid for two months.  Thankfully, I have good insurance and am in decent financial shape after having to take two months off of work, but many things in my life had to take a serious hit, and my Japanese study has been one of them.  I have been continuing to take classes after I was able to get stabilized enough to make it there, but that’s pretty much the only practice I’ve been doing.

I haven’t lost interest in the Japanese language, but after having taken a rather forced break from it for a couple of months, I no longer see it in the same way.  I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s just fact.

Japanese is pretty much everything English isn’t.  I think that’s a broad statement that I feel comfortable making.  Everything’s backwards in comparison to English.  The sentence structure is backwards.  We have twenty-six letters that come out to about fifteen thousand syllables.  They have about one hundred syllables and over 2,300 letters (I’m counting kanji as individual letters because, in my view, they are).  It’s not that it’s impossible to learn, it’s more that one’s thought patterns have to be almost completely wiped and all of one’s assumptions about what a language is or should be have to be put aside.  How many times in my lessons have I thrown up my hands in an only semi-joking manner and said something like “well, of course that compound word is pronounced differently and means something differently even though it’s written the exact same way depending on where and how it’s used!  It’s JAPANESE!”.

My sensei laughs, because even though she’s native Japanese, she gets it.  Every time you try to pull the language apart into its components so you can put it back again, it refuses, laughs at you, and pulls another exception out of its bag of tricks for no reason other than I’m a gaikokujin and it can.  How many times have I asked her why something is the way it is and gotten a shrug, I look online, and find a fascinating, halfways sensible, completely counterintuitive explanation so loaded down with exceptions and rules about when to use it and when not that you’re actually worse off than when you began?

I’m trying to get back into studying right now, I really am, but to be honest, even though the language interests me, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of unforgiving kanji, and there are no lifeboats.

Japanese Class: 1st day.

Today was the first day of Japanese class at Austin Community College.  For many reasons, I will avoid any mention of the other people in the class, other than to say there were other people in the class of varying ages, backgrounds and knowledge of Japanese.  As expected.

As for me, it is clear that there are gaping holes in my knowledge.  In my “introduction” (which I absolutely, positively, did not want to do) I said that I “know enough to be dangerous” – and I feel that more strongly now than when I began the class.  In some ways, I feel handicapped by the fact that we’re using romaji instead of hiragana and kanji, but in other ways, there are things I’m learning even now, and the holes are obvious.  I learned the mechanics of Japanese, but not how to think in it, or more accurately, not how to think on my feet.  I will have significant challenges in this class – but they’re not the challenges that most of the other students will have.  I will have little problem with grammar.  I will have little problem with kana.  I will have some problem with vocabulary.  I will have a huge problem with the fact that speaking to other people is a requirement.

Which leads to the obvious question:  Why, then, oh glorious blogger, did you decide to study a foreign language when the last thing in the world you want to do is actually use it?

That, dear readers, will have to be a mystery, I suppose.  Even to me.

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.