Learning Japanese: My Journey

Learning Japanese


I blame it on the Coronavirus. I only wanted a few phrases for my interview with the Japanese Peace Boat at the end of 2019.  It didn’t help (long interview but no offer) and I just picked up a new learning habit that stuck instead.  For now, learning Japanese is a pandemic pleasure but I’m hanging on to a fantasy of borders reopening and putting my basic Japanese to use travelling or teaching in Japan one day.

My self-learning journey has progressed at a very relaxed pace but hasn’t felt old yet.  I think this is the appeal of  Japanese as an English speaker, that the language is challenging but oddly fascinating and feels fresh after languages like French and Spanish.  The grammar is a little odd but there are clearly well-behaved rules and it’s mostly harmless.  Having three different scripts still seems bonkers to me but the range of sounds are fairly limited and Hiragana and Katakana at least are phonetical. Practicing Kanji stroke order feels more like an art project at times than a serious language pursuit.  I doubt I’ll ever get much good at it but will be able to read texts more easily.  So interesting and so much I don’t understand!

My go-to study resource has been the Genki series of books, audio files, and apps.  As an ESL teacher, I appreciate how well constructed the clarification and controlled practice exercises are and I have borrowed a few ideas for my own ESL lessons.  The progression of stories and characters through the chapters is engaging.  Will Takeshi and Mary get married by chapter 23?  They seem to be awfully fond of each other by chapter 15.  Trying not to peek ahead.

For variety, I also listen to JapanesePod101 and Nihongo Con Teppei podcasts when driving or working out. When I’m out running, I try to recall and mumble vocab or grammar I’ve learnt.  No idea what the other runners think!   I’ve found that Japanese counters are a great way of keeping track of lengths swum in a pool – days of the month and times are my favourite.  My greatest weakness is conversation which I’m simply not getting. I got lost trying to find out how conversation groups work in Discord – any tips very welcome.  I’ll probably take private lessons at some point.

Learning Japanese has made me more aware of interferences for students whose L1 is very different from English or Spanish (I teach ESL to students from around the world at a non-profit as a volunteer).  From the students’ perspective, English is clearly the odd and difficult language and I like to think I have a better idea now where some of the problems lie.  Everyone’s different but I try to avoid using students’ L1 in class.  Instead, I might say ‘I don’t think you have this sound in Japanese, do you?’ or ‘is this the same word order you would use in Spanish?’ and let the students draw their own conclusions, without alienating the other students who don’t speak Japanese or Spanish.

Anyway, that’s my Japanese learning journey over the last two years or so.  If you like languages, aren’t afraid of a little self-study, and haven’t gone much beyond Romance languages previously, give Japanese (or something else wildly different) a shot.  You too could be stuck with a lasting language habit that may or may not be useful one day.

– John Barton

Has anyone else been learning Japanese? Have any tips or tricks to share? Do you agree or disagree with anything John has mentioned? What has your journey been like? Comment below!