My Decade of Studying Japanese

It’s been 10 years since I started studying Japanese. 10 years! That is a long time. I thought I would take this major moment to reflect upon the experience, how I got to where I am today, and why I am still actively studying Japanese even after 10 years. There will be a lot of information here that I’ve never talked about anywhere on the site, and hopefully you’ll be able to relate to and make use of this story.

Reflections On A Decade Of Studying Japanese Beginnings 8

That’s it. I’m going to Japan

In response to my absolutely most favorite question in the entire world, “why do you study Japanese,” I don’t have an exciting answer. I’ve made plenty up. But in reality I’m typical. I liked Japanese culture, liked some anime, and had Japanese friends in university who told me I needed to go to Japan. And when people tell you that you need to go to Japan, you just need to go to Japan.

The tipping point that actually propelled me into Japanese was one anime: GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka). It’s about a super unconventional and a bit crazy teacher who kicks ass and changes everyone he teaches forever. That’s pretty cool. That looks like Japan to me. I can do that. I have a reason now.

Reflections On A Decade Of Studying Japanese 1 - Beginnings

It was winter vacation before my last semester of university (late December 2004). I scoured the Internet for an answer to my newly found desire to get to Japan. While information about teaching in Japan was nowhere near what it is today, I found the major sites, and applied to them all (Aeon, ECC, Nova, GEOS) online.

I was determined. I was going to get to Japan no matter what.

Starting Japanese

Now that I was convinced I would be in Japan shortly (I actually didn’t hear a response back to my applications for a long time), I had to do the obvious: study Japanese.

This is where information was a little more scarce. Most Google results only brought up dull lesson sites, Japanese blogs were rare, and the only article I could find that talked about it in a down to the earth format was this:

http://www.stmoroky.com/links/sywtlj.htm (the original 2004 article was republished here)


Reflections On A Decade Of Studying Japanese 4 - Beginnings


I did what anyone in 2004 did when they wanted to learn something: Go to Borders Book Store (R.I.P.) I found the foreign language section and there, in a small corner, were some Japanese learning books lined up neatly. Perfect. I’m set.

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I think the first book I ever touched was called Living Language (or maybe Human Language?) or some catchy title, with a shiny listening cd attached, and written entirely in romaji. The book said that Japanese has 3 more writing systems but not to worry about them. Well I didn’t like being told not to worry about something, so I went back to Borders and picked up this hiragana/katakana practice workbook.

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I figured if I worked real hard I would become fluent in a year. A year is a long time. Should be good enough. 6 months studying in the U.S. With 6 months in Japan. How could I be anything but unstoppable?

I started going through my two new wonderful textbooks. While I was excited to learn the language, the books were rather uninspiring, confusing, and not well written. I had a few days left until my final semester was starting, and was wondering if it was possible to sign up for Japanese 101. Maybe a class would help me out. After all, if you really want to learn a language, you have to take a class, right?

Japanese 102

That’s all they had. Which required having taken Japanese 101 to get in.

Pushing aside my fear about not getting the credits for the class if I didn’t pass that would cause me to graduate late, I went to it anyway. I had been studying for a few weeks. I’ll wing it.

I walked in and everyone knew each other from having been in Japanese 101 together. I got a look of “are you in the right class?” and sat down. The teacher came in and asked everyone to go around and introduce themselves and say a few things. I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I stumbled through my name and said I liked sushi (which I don’t, but was the only word I could think up).

The class used Genki 1 and started from the second half of the book. I knew 0 kanji, couldn’t speak, had no special methods. I was completely overwhelmed for several weeks as I tried to play catch up. I was by far the worst student in the class.

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By the end of the semester, I was the best student in the class, won their Japanese speech contest, and got so bored with the pace that I started Genki 2 while the class was still finishing Genki 1. My love of Japanese propelled me forward, so I put in a few hours a day after class listening to the practice CDs and studying vocabulary lists and previous chapters. I thought I was hardcore.

Somewhere in the middle of the semester, before I made the turn to Japanese beginner superstar, I suddenly got 2 interviews for the English teaching job. Piece of cake?

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Except: They were on the same weekend. I was incredibly sick. There was an intense blizzard. They were in 2 different countries (Toronto and NYC), involving 20+ hours of driving. If I didn’t go to these interviews I couldn’t reschedule to make it in time for graduation.

The entire experience was an extreme deathly blur.

I found out before the end of the semester that I got both jobs. I graduated, and then was off to Japan. Yes. Japan!

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I arrived in Narita airport and with 6 months of studying Japanese using the oldest rote and traditional methods possible, I felt invincible. For the next few years I would be known as Great Teacher Adam (to 2 year olds).

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After seeing the terrible Japanese ability of many other teachers who had been living in Japan for years, and experiencing real Japanese in the real world, I had two revelations:

1. My Japanese sucks. Not just a little. A lot. What the hell had I been studying for the past 6 months?

2. I would not stop until I had the most amazing Japanese in the entire universe.

I had to change things. I had to put everything into this. So what did I do?

Fail miserably at every method I tried. Pretty much everything I advise on this site not to do I did at one point.  Where do you think all this advice comes from? My chain reaction of failures.

Forum fail

It’s mid 2005. Still not much excitement with Japanese learning sites just yet, but The Japanese Page Forum caught my eye.

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What did I do there?

I spent most of my time watching discussions and complaints “about” Japanese, but nothing in it. While there were mostly nice and helpful people, I would go to this forum every day, thinking this counted as studying Japanese. It didn’t. It never did.

Subtitles

I started getting into Bleach (which was fairly new) and Naruto (which had been running for a few years). While I used to watch anime dubbed, now I could watch it subbed, and finally start using it to study Japanese. I would pay attention to the Japanese and just use the subtitles as a guide, take notes, and compare those notes.

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Worked great! For maybe an episode or so. But once I started to get into the story, I realized that I was focusing more on the show and less about analyzing the Japanese. I repeatedly tried to focus. But anime is engaging. And not in a study-engaging way.

At least I was still listening to Japanese, right?

After watching hundreds of subtitled episodes, my Japanese wasn’t improving at all. Even the material I was hearing over and over again wouldn’t stick one bit.

Private lessons

Maybe I just needed more classes? That seemed to work well for me in college…

I learned from my English students that the more money you spend on classes, the better your language ability gets. So I signed up for four private 90 minute lessons a week. I had a sweet old lady as a teacher, and studied with her before work nearly every day. We used the then popular Minna No Nihongo 2, memorizing vocabulary lists, writing kanji over and over (and over) again, and then she would quiz me on what I learned.

I tried to make this work. I really did. It just bored me to tears. She was sad when I left. I wasn’t.

Textbook Hoarding

I also learned from my students that the more textbooks you buy, the better you’ll get. Textbooks cost money, have been written by experts, so more textbooks = better Japanese. I would go to Kinokuniya (big international book store) in Shinjuku every few weeks and pick up a bunch of new textbooks (they had a selection of hundreds). My new goal was to buy and complete every last one of them.

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I’d bring them home super excited to do them. For the first dozen or so pages I would be filled with renewed motivation. Then that feeling would taper off over the next dozen pages. Then I’d decide I would make my way back to it at some later date. I never did. I did made it back to Kinokuniya for more textbooks though. My book shelf was filled with intermediate textbooks that were barely touched.

Language Exchanges

Meet new people. Talk in japanese. Have fun. Perfect!

Except my Japanese wasn’t that great. So conversations always turned to English, and even when my Japanese grew, there was always this weird power balance and struggle between English and Japanese. It also didn’t help that I taught English all day at work. I didn’t want to teach it on my time off too.

Expanding Bad Habits

I eventually found my way to J-dramas, and instantly fell in love. My first were Densha Otoko, GTO (of course), and Ikebukuro West Gate Park. I used this very old J-drama ranking list for advice.

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It’s still around and looks exactly the same as it was in 2005.

Of course I used subtitles while watching.

Manga and turning everything into English

I started buying manga. A lot. Everyone knows manga is the solution to all your study woes. I read, read, and read some more, which sounds great. However, whenever I didn’t know a word I would look it up and then write the meaning in English. I started to do that with everything.

The result was every book I had was scribbled with English all over it. Of course I would never go back to these books. Eventually I stopped writing out the words, and would just look up a word I didn’t understand every time I came across it. This made for some extremely slow reading and discouraged me from doing it altogether. Who knew you could make something as entertaining as manga so boring?

Downward spiral

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I was in a rut. I had all these methods and materials (which I spent most of my monthly paycheck acquiring). But it felt like nothing was working. Frustration was compounded with discouragement. It was 2007. I was over 2 years into studying Japanese. I wasn’t fluent. I was stuck in a massive intermediate blues.

I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I was still studying all the time. Reading all the time. Watching all the time. And I was living in Japan. I doubted myself repeatedly, thinking maybe this was as far as I could go. The best I could possibly get. Looking at others’ progress reaffirmed me of this pessimistic view.

To be fair, my Japanese wasn’t bad. Compared to other foreigners living in Japan, I was probably “good.” I could hold a conversation fine, read a lot of kanji, and was your nice low level intermediate learner.

But I was so down. And at times ready to give it all up.

Decision to change

This was my turning point, and I decided rather than wallow in self-pity, I was going to do things differently. One by one, I would drop every last thing that wasn’t working and find out what would.

1. I stopped going to forums. I would easily spend over an hour a day wasting time not actually using Japanese.

2. I dropped subtitles. I knew that this wasn’t helping, but had difficulty leaving the comfort they provided. My comprehension and enjoyment dropped, but it forced me to pick easier material that I could enjoy at my current level. The value of using level-appropriate native material was unparalleled. It was all trial and error to find what was easier, but I eventually did.

3. I stopped going to private lessons after 3 months of being in Japan, and stopped language exchanges several months after that. Self-study was just more powerful. I could set my own pace.

4. I dropped textbooks and started working with light novels, manga and Japanese websites for reading. It was significantly harder, but much more meaningful.

5. I finally understood the fun factor. As long as there was fun, I could deal with the more painful parts of studying. Enjoying native media puts the goal right in front of you and gives you purpose to what you are doing. I never bought another textbook again.

First contact with Japanese-Japanese

I started meeting some English students who used monolingual English dictionaries, and I always noticed they were better than other students that just used bilingual ones. They would just “get it” in a way that others weren’t.

Feeling I could duplicate this success, I started playing with the Japanese-Japanese on my electronic dictionary.

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My 2nd one. At a time when I didn’t have much money at all, I acidentally stepped on and broke my first one ($400)

I felt potential, but I couldn’t figure out a way to remember the definitions and this slowed me down. When definitions had more words I didn’t know it just got me lost. I tried making lists of unknown words, but this primitive attempt at branching failed. I knew I wanted to do something with J-J, but it required further thought.

Stumbling upon immersion

The base concept of immersion, or filling your life with as much Japanese as possible came quickly. I would read only Japanese books, watch only Japanese TV shows, and tried to fill up my entertainment with as much Japanese as possible.

This was all active. Sit down and do it. But there is so much downtime during the day where passive immersion can be used. I discovered this by accident.

I was watching a new fun j-drama that I was really getting into.

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I didn’t have time to catch an episode the night before, and was dying to know what happened. I had a long commute in the morning, and really wanted to watch the episode before going to work. This was before smartphones/tablets had made there way into common use, so I thought it would be fine to just rip the audio to my iPod. I wouldn’t get the video, but I could always watch it later if I missed something.

I got on the train super excited to continue this ridiculous time travelling love saga. But a big problem: I had the wrong episode. It was the previous week’s. Annoyed, I was ready to turn it off. But figured I might as well just remind myself of what happened since I would just watch it later that night. I wasn’t focusing directly on it as I stared out the window.

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Then it started to hit.

As I was listening to this episode (which was the second time), I started to catch words I hadn’t the first time around. I understood parts I missed. Phrases started to stick in my head. All from one episode. All while just relaxing on the train.

Brilliant.

I had to try more. If it worked on the train it should work anywhere. So I downloaded the full season (like 12 episodes) of the show on my iPod and started listening to it everywhere. In the morning, while eating, while cleaning, while walking, while in the bathroom. That same season over and over again. The more I listened to it, the more I was picking up new Japanese. I started being able to repeat things. I started being able to mimic what I was hearing. And this whole process was extremely enjoyable.

I planned on deleting the season and getting a different show on my iPod because I was getting kind of bored listening to just that all week. However, I decided to just keep the show and add other material, and then just shuffle randomly. This turned out to be essential. While listening to it repeatedly had all of the positive effects listed above, that didn’t mean I understood the whole show in its entirety. If anything, far from it. Maybe my understanding was at around 30-50%.

As my iPod list grew, and I’d come back to those shows randomly, that percent slowly went up. This combined with continually expanding my Japanese vocabulary/grammar through normal studying created a powerful progression.

But I was still missing something.

I needed a better way to remember words. A way to make J-J work. And more importantly, a way to get through the kanji. My approach had always just been to learn the kanji in context one at a time. My kanji ability was slowly growing, but I lacked a major internal connection with them. I would forget kanji all the time, was a long way off before mastering them all, and needed a solution to free me of these issues.

All Japanese All The Time

Towards the end of 2007, I came across a website called All Japanese All The Time (AJATT). It was a small blog about a guy named Khatzumoto who told his story of how he became fluent in Japanese. He had a crude sense of a humor, but wrote in a down to earth way about study methods that were working for him.

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He recommended the book Remembering The Kanji (RTK), which used a technique of story mnemonics and English keywords to master the kanji. Back in the day when I was still using the The Japanese Page Forum, I remembered talk of this series and how “ridiculous” it was, how it didn’t work, how it wasn’t Japanese, and was to be avoided at all costs.

So I thought this blogger with a ridiculous picture on his home page obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Ready to close out his site, I noticed a lot of info about studying Japanese as much as possible (“all the time”) by using passive immersion. Since I had just come across this myself recently and had massive success, I decided to read on.

He introduced me to 2 novel ideas.

1. Spaced Repetition System (SRS)
2. Learning sentences, not words, using J-J

This struck such a chord with me, and sounded like it was addressing exactly what I sought out to fix. So I went right into it.

The beauty of Anki

I chose Anki as my SRS of choice (version 0.4.X). This was about a year after Anki was first created. I have to say that over the years Damien Elmes has done such an amazing job growing the software into the massive popularity it is today. 7 years later I can say from the bottom of my heart: “Thank you.”

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I created 1000 J-J sentences in Anki in about a month, and was blown away with what it was doing for me. Sentences, rather than words, created a stronger mental image, helped with the J-J definitions, and made sure I was using those words correctly. The spaced repetition worked amazingly with the memorization process. It allowed me systematically “branch” unknown words together from the sentences and definitions.

This is it. But there was more.

The magic of RTK

After creating my first 1000 J-J cards, and experiencing the fruitful rewards, it made me rethink what AJATT said about RTK. Was I really going to let forum folk discussion from a forum I quit convince me otherwise? I downloaded the RTK shared deck on Anki (one of the first shared decks that actually existed). I decided to take a break on adding new cards to my growing J-J deck till I finished.

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It took me about a month  and a half (I had some extra time because there was a long winter vacation from work).

Magic.

If Anki + Sentences created the connection I needed for J-J, Anki + RTK created the connection I needed for kanji.

While AJATT today is a very different experience then it was when I first came across it, 7 years later I also can sincerely say “thank you.”

Triumph

The missing pieces were finally found and I was able to work towards “completion” of my Japanese study puzzle. I went back to adding new J-J sentences, and now had an unstoppable quadruple combo of 1) Immersion fun, 2) Anki, 3) J-J, and 4) RTK.

With the fog completely cleared, I was enjoying learning Japanese immensely. I would devour all forms of media. My progress was growing at an exponential speed.

In total I spent about 3 years in Japan, and decided to return to the states to go back to school. My goal was to use Japanese in my future career, but I felt at that time my options were limited remaining in Japan. So I headed home.

At this point I had considered myself fluent. Looking back on it now though, I was really probably closer to level 50.

Enjoying The Game

Despite no longer being in Japan, the fire had been lit, propelling my desire to go further. Once the mystery of how to play the game was solved, I could appreciate the actual game. And that’s how I began to treat it.

I was a huge fan of one of the original MMORPGs, Asheron’s Call, in early 2000. I quit MMORPGs completely after I quit that game, but I began recalling the qualities of the game that made it so fun, rewarding, and addictive.

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I made parallels to that game’s system and studying Japanese. Achievements, attributes, grinding, skill sets, experience points, leveling up, etc. Japanese was my new game, and I was going to play it till my original dream of being better than anyone would come to fruition.

Going further despite not being in Japan

People would assume that after coming back from Japan, my level would go flat or decline a bit. On the contrary, I was so pumped up to take my game as far as it could go. I continued to add thousands of new cards, would read every Japanese book I could get my hands on, and probably watched nearly every j-drama from 2000-2010.

Most of what I do is still in Japanese, though I’m not quite as hardcore as I once was. I still do Anki reviews (from Jalup RTK Mod + and 13k J-J sentences found in The One Deck). My reviews are around 15-20 a day which usually take a few minutes. And I still add new cards to Anki when I encounter unknown Japanese (though this has become increasingly rare over recent years).

The Beginning of Jalup

I decided at the beginning of 2011 that I wanted to share what I learned with the world. My hope was that chronicling my trials and triumphs might be able to help anyone else who struggled like I did, and felt like they had nowhere else to turn.

So I started a tiny blog:

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I graduated school, got a job in my field using Japanese, and have been working here in NYC since. Recently I’ve turned to more freelance work (translation and interpretation), as I want to spend more time building Jalup and turning it into the best possible Japanese learning site in existence.  I love working on this site and I love the community that has formed. It allows me to use my Japanese to inspire and innovate in ways I never thought possible. There’s so much more I want to create, share, and change. This has become my major passion, and I thank you all for supporting me with this. Japanese Level Up has only begun…

Japanese level after a decade

Where am I today?

At 10 years of studying, I figure I’m around 76, which is just before native (80). The better I get, the stricter I become on myself. The perfectionist side of myself rears its ugly head and I know I still have a ways to go. My skills have also diverged based on what I like to do.

76 is a composite average, but I’d put my 4 skill attributes at the following levels:

Reading (84): I can read slightly faster, more in depth, and know more kanji than the “average” Japanese person.

Listening (82): I can understand as much as an average Japanese person, with specialties in many areas average Japanese are unfamiliar with.

Speaking (73): I can speak about pretty much anything (including many technical subjects) with excellent pronunciation. Sometimes I’ll get mistaken for half-Japanese or raised in Japan. However, I have a few pronunciation holes I need to patch up and my accent still has the occasional hint of foreigner if I’m not careful.

Writing (65): My writing is great, but is my weakest skill. Casually I write a lot. Texts. Emails. They will look native. However essays, reports, and more in depth writing I just have never really done. I haven’t spent enough time on writing, as it is a skill I haven’t needed or decided I want yet.

The thrill continues after 10 years

Is level 99 my goal? I still haven’t decided how far I will go, but for now, I still have the strong desire to continually move forward.

Level 99

Even after this long, the Japanese flame has not subsided in the least. My journey of Japanese has been the most wild adventure of my life. It has taken me across the world and back, introduced me to new ways of living, new views on the world, and unforgettable experiences. If I never made the decision to learn Japanese I’d be living an entirely different life.

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I wish the same for you all and your decade of Japanese. Your journey will be unique and worthy of its own story one day.

Enjoy every moment of it.



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).

Comments

My Decade of Studying Japanese — 66 Comments

  1. This is a great post Adam, and I definitely want to say thank you for starting this blog. I’ve used your methods from about the beginning, and am so grateful for how far it’s taken me. I also want to learn Japanese the fastest way possible which is of course power leveling using your methods. I’ve been studying 6 months and I’m around 35 on the level test. It’s all been thanks to this site, so truly thank you. Your efforts have helped me and so many others.

    • Level 35 in 6 months is extremely impressive and it sounds like you are on a very nice power leveling pace. I’m glad Jalup was able to assist in that speed. これからもよろしくお願いします!

  2. All I can say is WOW. This was a great read it gives me hope that one day my Japanese will get a lot better. As well, it has given me some ideas on what to do with my own study habits.I feel that I need to drop the text books and dive deeper into Japanese media. I will admit I am still afraid of J-J sentences and I believe it because I don’t understand them(maybe someday haha).I also felt the same when after I came back from Japan this summer I want to get better and better. Going to Japan really helped me I was studying Japanese for 2.5 years I was barley getting any speaking practice with natives. Now that I’m back I can’t wait to get back to Japan and show my friends how much I have learned. Lastly I want to thank you for the site it has helped me a lot over the years :)

    • Regardless of what path you choose, phasing out the textbooks and increasing the media provides value to nearly everyone.

      I know you’ve struggled with J-J a bit in the past. Have you tried the transition J-E-J with any success?

      As this post hopefully has shown, everyone has their lows and struggles with various methods and progress. You’ve come this far and don’t sound like you are giving up. So the only place your Japanese can go is up.

  3. This was both hilarious and painful. It reminds me of my own adventure in learning Vietnamese and also this quote by Niels Bohr: “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

    • Great quote! During the process mistakes can feel terrible, but looking back on it, it was the only way to move forward.

  4. Great post, I love how in-depth it is. I haven’t been on this site too long, but I definitely have to give you a thank you as well. I can’t be sure, but I probably would have quit studying without this site’s advice. Just five months ago, I thought learning another language was not in my ability. (It looks like 6 months of studying Japanese will be more productive than 6 years of German classes). Maybe I’ll be in the same boat 10 years from now.

    • I was a little worried about the length, as this is at least 5-10 times longer than then the average post, but I’m glad I was able to put everything in one place.

      I’m glad this site has been the boost you needed, as we all can use a little help finding our own path.

      One of the biggest challenges in learning a language is finding what works for you and then finding the motivation to get there. Sounds like you are well on your way towards that.

  5. Wow. I never thought about how hard Japanese would’ve been back then! I’m so grateful I’m studying it now otherwise I probably would’ve quit after a week or less, especially considering there was no Jalup! Great job Adshap. I’m very grateful for the effort you are putting into this website and it’s community. Thank you.

    P.S. This is the best article I’ve read since I started Japanese over 5 months ago.

    • While 2005 was considerably harder than 2015 is, imagine 10 years before that (1995). At least I had the Internet!

      But yes, fully enjoy all the tools available to you in 2015. I always say that now is the best time in the history of language learning to be studying Japanese.

      All we need now is a fully A.I. equipped robot that speaks in natively pronounced Japanese to act as our speaking partner, correct all our mistakes, and keep track of our progress… I’ll get back to you when I’ve invented it.

  6. Wow, already 10 years? o.O
    I’ve known this blog since 2 years and haven’t known that it existed already that long.

    But how about pronunciation? That’s at the moment my biggest problem I think…
    I just don’t know how to get a perfect accent? That’s why I’m still afraid of speaking because I don’t want to build bad pronunciation habits…
    So how did you do it? The most difficult thing is ん in my opinion… especially at the end of a word かん or in words like ぜんいん、かんじ、かんしゃ、でんわ…

    • Thanks for sticking around for 2 years! Not sure if I’m misinterpreting you but the blog has only been around for 4 years, so you came at the halfway point.

      My solution to pronunciation was just to listen and mimic, listen and mimic, in an endless cycle.

      A split second after you hear something it is much easier to match that pronunciation than if you wait or are attempting to form your own sentences. Eventually you will be able to, but in the beginning there is no better way then to just be a copy cat.

  7. どうもありがとう御座います!七年間ぐらい前から、時々日本語を勉強しています、時々していません。四ヶ月前にこのブログを見つけた。それから、毎日勉強します。金曜日にレベル25に成りました。今「J-E-J」と勉強しますでも、すぐ「J-J」を使いたいです。頑張りますよ!

    最初の日本語のコメントですから、多分文法は悪い。すみません!

    • よくできた文章だと思いますよ。これからも日本語コメントを頑張りましょう。そして
      レベル25になっておめでとうございます!

      J-E-Jが終わったらJ-Jを恐れず一歩ずつ進みましょう。

  8. Nice post Adam,
    I was once obsessed with learning Japanese through content. My first language is not English but I can use English much better than Urdu. That is because I was immersed in English from a very young age. TV, textbooks, video games, the internet, pop songs, news and pretty much everything was in English.

    I too felt the eureka moment when I realized that re-watching something after a while made it really natural for me to be able to understand it more deeply. I learned about Branching ad j-j form this blog. Since then, this blog has been my go-to site for Japanese Learning advice. Thanks 先生

    • It’s great that you know about immersion through experience learning English. It gives you a nice advantage in Japanese to avoid the pitfalls that others will encounter.

      I think a lot of people have their own eureka moment about re-watching things. It’s a fantastic feeling. I’m happy that this site has been able to provide you advice in the areas you needed!

  9. These are the kinds of posts I love the most. Makes me think…not only am I not alone in my quest, but someone has pretty much completed it. Brings back memories of the old AJATT website.

    • Just Curious… what happend exactly with the old AJATT?
      I haven’t visited the website for a long time… but even when I searched for it I haven’t seen anything suspicious… maybe because I don’t know what happend? Because in some minutes I didn’t notice any big difference expect that the new articles aren’t… well… very interesting and that he hadn’t post for some months now…

    • You definitely aren’t alone. And almost everyone on this site is going through the same challenges and battles you are.

      It was fun getting old images of different sites using http://web.archive.org/

      You really get a nice nostalgic view of how sites change over the years.

  10. I’d also like to thank you for this post. The “downward spiral” bit resonated in particular, especially since I’ve coincidentally used those same words on a recent blog post to describe my current status. While my missing pieces seem not to be the ones you found, this gave me some hope that they’re still out there somewhere and its worth continuing the search for them.

    • I think it’s common feeling among all language learners when they reach a certain stage. I’ve seen your progress and enthusiasm over the past few years so I’m confident you’ll escape the spiral.

      And as you know and said, everyone’s missing pieces are different, but you will find them too, and what makes everything finally click for you.

  11. There is not much I can say but WOW!
    Knowing the struggles you had just makes me appreciate the content you have created even more.
    A big thank you for all your efforts and sharing your knowledge!
    May the next 10 years be just as amazing as the past years.

    • One of things I wanted to accomplish through this post was to show that there is no smooth easy progression to success. The struggles, challenges, and lows are faced by us all, and it’s only by meeting them head on and overcoming them does your Japanese get better.

      10 more years? I’m excited. I hope your 10 years are also at least as fruitful (if not many times more) as mine were.

  12. Thank you for this! This was a really good read. Its hard when you are struggling and sometimes its good to show how someone else did. I read AJATT for a while but found the articles to be more words than substance and the cost for anything on that site is insaneeeeeeeeee. I like the articles here since they cut to the point and when I want to buy something (which I have) I don’t feel like I have to save up for a month to get it.

    • I agree that seeing how other people have done it shows you new possibilities you never thought of and allows you to engage in a lot of self-discovery.

      With this article, and a few others as exceptions, I prefer to write shorter articles because I prefer to read shorter articles. So it’s good that others feel the same way!

  13. It is great to see how much you did and progressed over the years.

    I remembered that I started to want to learn Japanese just about the same time as you, 2004 or 2005.
    And I tried it, in wrong ways, all over the years. I recently started studying Japanese in a serious way, three months ago.
    If I started to study it seriously 10 years ago… hehe. So that is why I keep studying it seriously today, to not regret in 10 years from now.

  14. @Jean: I came to post almost the exact same thing. I also started almost 10 years ago. (Well, not quite: I printed out the first few chapters of Genki I in 2006 or 2007 I think.) But I’d study for 6 months, then stop. Then a year, then stop. And so on. One step forward, two steps back. I managed to pass the lowest 2 levels of the JLPT, slowly worked my way through Genki I and II, randomly took a Japanese 103 class when I was in grad school. But I’d always get discouraged and quit, thinking it must be impossible.

    Kanji got me down more than anything — I figured if it took Japanese *kids* like 9 years to get all the jouyuo kanji, it’d take me even longer, and the idea of not being able to read “real” Japanese for that long was excruciating. What was the point? It didn’t even occur to me that I could go at a faster pace than that. (Or a faster pace than the college courses I saw, where you’d know a solid 350 kanji at the end of 2+ years.)

    Then about a year ago, thanks to a better-paying job, I bought myself a ticket to Japan. Figured I’d better pick it back up if I planned on not embarrassing myself. Found my old Anki decks, busted out my textbooks, the whole nine yards. Then, a few months later, I discovered this site, with people talking about learning the jouyou kanji in a matter of MONTHS, among other things. Hugely inspiring.

    More than the concrete study methods (I don’t follow the Jalup methods exactly, e.g. no RTK for me), I found this site totally changed my *outlook* on learning Japanese, which was even more valuable.

    Now it’s been maybe 10 or 11 months since I’ve picked it back up again. I’m planning my next trip to Japan. (I did wind up embarrassing myself the first trip… but only a little!) I’m on track to have all the jouyou kanji by next month. I’m comfortably reading manga, with a dictionary. My listening still sucks, and I keep coming back to subtitles, and I haven’t gone J-J yet… I’ve got a ways to go, in other words. But it just doesn’t feel *impossible* anymore, which makes a massive difference.

    Anyway, I’m just rambilng now, probably sounds like an infomercial :P

    Long story short: thanks for this post, and thanks for this site! It’s been awesome.

    • I mentioned this in the previous comment but it’s relevant to you as well.

      http://japaneselevelup.com/start-and-stop-learners-free-yourself-of-study-baggage/

      I remember being in Japan feeling the same way about kanji. Japanese natives (teachers of English especially) would say it takes Japanese people until junior high (or even high school) to learn all the kanji to be proficient in reading like an adult, so expect a long time (see: impossible) ahead of you.

      When you are already struggling, this can be one of the most discouraging things possible that you could hear. I’m just glad that this statement turned out to be complete and utter BS, and is both false and ridiculous.

      You sound like you are fully on track now, have found your own way, and are soon to be an unstoppable force.

      Stories filled with failures are always more meaningful, and it sounds like you will one day have a lot to say about your rough but rewarding path to success.

  15. This post was fun to read. It was intriguing to read your journey and see the reasons for all the advice you give, rather than just the advice. :-)

    I envy the rate you accomplished RTK once you got to it.

    The biggest key to learning is really to make mistakes, so although what would have worked best for you is all laid out here, maybe the next person could do with a bit of trial and error without taking treating everything as gospel (not that you ever suggested to do that in the first place). I know I got a bit evangelized by AJATT and later JALUP and stuck with methods that weren’t working for me for far too long (years). For things like Kanji and SRS, I really thing having some exposure and context really adds to the motivation, rather than starting out purely from scratch. I’m inspired by your story of taking up SRS after failing to remember vocabulary – I’m in that exact situation now (after having abandoned SRS once already, but that was because it was full of boring beginner sentences) so may dabble a little again and see if it works for me this time.

  16. Thanks for the comments btw! ^^
    I think it’s just a wonderful experience when a language grows in you without doing any great effort. I’ve never read a explanation between the difference of は and が (Ok I did, but srsly who read it and thought afterwards “Oh, I got it! That’s so easy!). I just didn’t understand it and that made me quite nervous… but when I began to let go any feelings of anxious I just got the meaning more and more while listening a lot. I’m not sure if I’ve understood it to an extent of 100%… but I’m sure with just listening more I’ll will get it completely and also all the other things in this truly amazing language. Nevertheless it just feels different in a sentence If I hear or read 天使が/天使は. Or 菓子を/菓子は. But now I couldn’t translate in English ^^ because it only makes sense in Japanese somehow.

    • Fully getting it in a Japanese, but not being exactly able to translate into English is often a sign that you are making a strong connection with Japanese and doing things right.

  17. Best post ever!! Extremely informative and motivating at the same time, not at all too long. I think you shouldn’t be afraid to make it personal – it often touches people in a more profound way.
    I’ll just take this opportunity to extend a huge thank you for managing this amazing site for so long. I started ever so slightly with AJATT in spring 2010 and found this site early 2011(much has happened). If it wasn’t for the continued motivation and techniques found here I would have stayed in some mid-level-blues forever. So, in short, THANK YOU!

    • Yeah I have a few more personal posts planned somewhere down the line now that I realize people actually are interested in hearing about this type of thing.

      And thanks for your support from the beginning! All the way from your Joker video contest entry.

  18. Love the post! Been reading your blog for quite some time.

    Your post hits home because my first attempt to learning Japanese was at 2007 so just shortly after you started. I agree, good online resources were limited then (so much romaji >.>). But unfortunately, I was so discouraged that I would never learn the language and dropped it entirely until 2011.

    Present day: not at all fluent but better than I was 8 year ago. Even with my recent return from a 1 year hiatus, I have never stopped wanting to achieve fluency. It might take a lifetime, but I’m willing to take that chance.

    • All that matters is that you are back and ready to play. You’ll get there in less than a lifetime and then have your lifetime to bask in the rewards of what you set out to do many years ago!

  19. ✲゚。.(✿╹◡╹)ノ☆.。₀:*゚✲゚*:₀。

    Congratulations, and many thanks! Seeing your story like this all in one place is really very inspirational. No doubt many other readers a year or two deep in their journey feel the same.

    Inspired by the advice from JALUP, AJATT and Antimoon, added to the leverage of tools like Anki, Glossika and Skitter, I’ve become quite efficient with my Chinese learning. So despite a high-powered job, building a startup, etc. – with about 90 minutes a day I’ve clawed my way up to around Level 30.

    Thanks for everything! Reaching a very high level of fluency, becoming a masterful player of a language… that is a great goal and look forward to seeing how it goes for you.

    • That’s great you were able to use this site for Chinese as well. And what you say shows that the excuse “I just don’t have the time” is invalid. Nice progress despite a super busy life!

  20. I’m Japanese and really interested in your story. I wanna share this article with my students.
    Regards,

    A teacher from “Nihongo teachers.com”

  21. Funny that you should mention AJATT, because that site was what gave me the final push to actually start learning Japanese, not just think about learning it.

    Kanji tend to be this big, scary thing for Japanese learners, but thanks to AJATT and RtK, (even if I didn’t like the latter much) I stopped being afraid of kanji – definitely a big step.

    Though I’m now at a point where I can read a lot of stuff (lvl40-ish), I’m sorta getting discouraged right now… but I probably shouldn’t be judging my reading ability based on an article about ancient Japanese poetry, lol.

    • Yes, his site has a lot of various advice that has provided a boost to people in different ways.

      And no one should be judging their ability by knowledge of ancient japanese poetry.

  22. What an inspirational story. It’s interesting to see how each piece of the puzzle was put together over time, something I’ve sometimes pondered.
    I found your website/blog in January 2012, a few months after I began studying the language, and have used it as a resource in all aspects of my study from how (and how not) to study Japanese, to what to study in Japanese (or more accurately, what to read/watch/listen to), even to why to study Japanese. JALUP always provides something new and fresh that keeps me coming back, and I enjoy re-reading old posts and reminiscing on the steps I took, and struggles I endured in my own journey.
    I’m sure I’m not alone in praising and recommending your site and methods to lost and confused Japanese-learners I encounter in my community. Thank you for sticking with it for all these years, pushing through the hard times, and constantly rethinking and refining yourself, you have truly created something remarkable.

    • Thanks for staying around so long and for continuously recommending the site to others learners. Jalup has definitely evolved over the years, as I’ve found out what doesn’t work (often painfully!) and what does.

      I’m very happy you’ve found the site to be such a useful resource.

  23. Wow! What a story. Truly inspirational. Reading this makes me feel super motivated to study. Thank you for sharing

  24. Thanks for writing about your personal experience. I found your website a few months ago and have found it very inspiring. I had studied abroad in Japan in college but afterwards went to medical school and residency training so didn’t keep up Japanese. I thought that the door was shut for acquiring high level skills in Japanese but it’s inspiring that you reached a high level with self study methods.

    I am going through the Heisig book and the reviewing the Kanji website and am at 1500 so far. Looking forwarding to finishing in 2 months and ordering your J-E decks and trying them out.

    • There is always an opportunity to start studying Japanese right now, no matter where you are in your life, and despite your age or “busy level.” Many people on this site started way after I did and have less free time then I did, and are still kicking ass!

  25. I’m wondering, how do you calculate your individual levels per skill? I feel like my listening and reading are at the same level, 55, because they both have their own pros and cons that balance each other out. Same for my speech and writing, but at a lower level. I could list qualities, such as being able to participate in group conversations and essay writing. But I don’t know how to give it a number.

    • I judge the individual skills levesl based on how close they are to native (80). I know what an average native is able to do in all 4 and I can see either how far I am away from that level or how far I’ve gone over it.

      For you I’d pick a level to base things off of, and know the expected skills of that level. Then you can judge each of your individual skills based on how far off it is from the expected skills.

  26. Hi Adam,

    I’ve been reading many blog posts and forums on learning Japanese. I have looked through the many ways of successful language learners and polyglots. I can say this has inspired me to push on with my dream to be fluent in Japanese. Reading this blog post strikes a chord in my heart as I understand the frustrations and struggles of learning Japanese. I am currently stressing myself out to find the best ways to study Japanese now that my time in Japan will soon be over. I have been an exchange student in Japan since April 2014 and I can say that my Japanese has SIGNIFICANTLY improved from when I first started. (Studied for 3 years at university but not serious and treated it as routine)

    Being in Japan also doesn’t mean fluency.

    I’m still not there yet, but after reading this post. I am totally fired-up. Thank you.

    • Glad this could give you that extra charge you need. Going back home after living in Japan for a decent amount of time is a crucial turning point. You can either continue to go full speed ahead, not letting your location interfere in the least. Or you can start to get sloppy, lag behind, and get complacent with the thought that “well it’s because I’m not in Japan.”

      Make sure you choose the former!

  27. Great website and content. This site will really help beginners a lot. Well done! However, there are a few things in this article (in the section about your level after 10 years) that I have to question. For example you wrote:
    “I can read slightly faster, more in depth, and know more kanji than the “average” Japanese person”. I have no doubts that your Japanese is high level but that’s a tall claim to make isn’t it? Anyway, no offence intended, keep up the good work.

    • Not really that tall a claim to make. An average reading speed in a native language isn’t fast by itself. For example the average reading speed in English is around 250-300 words a minute. But with heavy reading and fast technique, people go significantly above this.

      Reading is the easiest skill to catch up to quickly in a foreign language. I am a heavy reader (these days I’ve been reading a few novels a week), and have worked on techniques to increase reading speed (these techniques carry over from English).

      I read very complex and in depth subjects for my job, and I am a bit of a kanji fanatic so I study rare ones for fun.

      So these three combined have given me a “slight” over average. Don’t forget that I took a trade off for weaker writing and weaker speaking.

      I’ll assume you are new to this site (Jalup isn’t just for beginners), but none of this was meant as a brag, but just to show that you can break what people think are limits. I usually don’t discuss my own level on the site, but since this is my personal story, I decided to include it and how I view my own progress. This also isn’t an average “I’ve been studying for 10 years!” that people might throw around. This is dedicating a major part of my life to something I love, and putting everything I have to get to where I want to be.

      Sometimes it’s good to look at examples from your own native language. You’ll run into plenty of foreigners who speak eloquently or write in beautiful English. For example, on this web site alone, there are a number of non-native English speakers who write English above the average native English speaker. And writing is more difficult than reading.

      But I’m just some guy on the Internet. Rather then concern yourself over me, enjoy studying some Japanese!

      • Make an article about said reading techniques please :)

        also, how do you approach these new kanji? RTK style or just memoring words and their readings?

        Also, in defence of Adam. Some of the Kanji I use with my tutors (native japanese living in Japan) were absolutely shocked with some of the kanji I know. And I can tell you now, Adam knows a hell of a lot more than me.

        • I don’t know if it’ll be anything that special, but I’ll work on writing something up on this topic.

          As for kanji, I either put it in Anki as a new sentence (since if I can’t read the kanji it means I don’t fully know the word), or I’ll just highlight it to see what the reading is and hope I’ll remember it again. The decision depends on whether I want to interrupt reading with Anki.

    • It’s a perfectly plausible claim. Adam consciously focuses on improving his language skills. He talks about reading a novel every couple of weeks. I certainly don’t do either of these things in English, and most Japanese people won’t do it in Japanese.

      ‘Native level’ is a fuzzy concept. I guess it means the typical man on the street. A university professor is going to have better language skills than a high-school drop-out, despite both being native. I think it’s quite reasonable that a smart, highly motivated foreigner can have stronger skills than some natives.

      In fact I just got back from Tokyo yesterday where I interacted with a lot with Japanese people. They were extremely impressed with my Kanji writing. But I have been writing out hundreds by hand every day for months, whereas most of them probably haven’t written a single one by hand in as long a period of time. Most likely they were just being nice, but when you consider how we’ve been allocating our time, it’s certainly plausible that they were being honest.

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