Hello, my name is Michelle and I’m a fourth-year ALT on the JET Programme. I’m currently on my third attempt learning Japanese after two hiatuses of three years and one year respectively. During my third attempt, I’ve progressed to being able to pass the JLPT N2 with a very high score–and I hope to continue much further. Here’s the story of my on-and-off Japanese study.
First Attempt & Three-year Hiatus
I took Japanese courses during my first three semesters at university (September 2004 to December 2005). During high school I had been a hardcore anime fan and had taught myself the kana, but other than that I was starting from the beginning.
In class we completed the textbook Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese, which is maybe JLPT N5 or N4 level. After taking these three courses, I think two things happened that lead to a three-year hiatus from 2006 to mid-2009. First, I was starting to resent Japanese for being my most homework-heavy course despite being an elective. Second, my interest in anime was waning. I dropped Japanese to free up my time.
Second Attempt & One-year Hiatus
Late in my degree I switched majors to a new joint major between my home university and a university in another city. Because course offerings were sparse, this decision sentenced me to a total of 6.5 years in undergrad, but I ended up with a lot of free time. Somewhere along the way I started missing Japanese. At this point I’d basically lost interest in anime, but had started watching J-dramas.
In fall 2009, I re-took one of the Japanese courses I’d already completed, then continued to the next course. We got partway through the second Yookoso! textbook (Continuing with Contemporary Japanese), which probably brought me to a solid N4 level.
A game-changer for me was starting the Heisig method. I’d actually encountered his book in the past, but had quit using it because I’d hated making physical flashcards. Thanks to the Reviewing the Kanji website, I covered 1,000 kanji this time. I also discovered Anki, but was just using it to review Yookoso! vocabulary at this point. Finally, I tried watching J-dramas without subtitles, but didn’t really understand much.
After that school year, I quit studying Japanese again. This time I took a one-year hiatus from mid-2010 to mid-2011. I mentioned before that my degree was a joint major between two schools, one of which was in a different city. For the fall 2010 semester, I temporarily moved cities to get all of my remaining credits done. Then in January 2011, with my coursework completed, I decided to volunteer in Thailand for four months. During all this, Japanese was the last thing on my mind.
In April 2011 I returned home with a useless BFA and no direction. That summer, my old Japanese professor asked me if I wanted to be a TA for a beginner Japanese class. Having nothing better to do, I said yes. Time to brush up those Japanese skills. However, not making much money from TAing and hating my other part-time job in retail, I soon needed to do something different.
In November 2011, I applied for the JET Programme. The application process was long, but I continued studying Japanese for my TA job and just in case I got accepted. I started by catching up with what I’d left sitting around. I cleared up my 1,000 overdue reviews on the Reviewing the Kanji site, then started ploughing forward. I also reviewed all the vocabulary I’d ever learned from Yookoso!
In March 2012, I was accepted into the JET Programme and sent to Japan very soon after, as an April departure. Three and a half years later, I’m writing this story in Hyogo Prefecture, and my Japanese is better than it’s ever been.
How the Third Attempt Stuck
Moving to Japan helped in the motivation department, but that’s not the whole picture of why my third attempt succeeded where my others failed. I think there are major differences to how I approach study now compared to before. Based on my experience, I have some advice for struggling learners.
First, accept that you’re going to have to learn a ton–and then don’t give into despair. During my second attempt, I realized that if I ever wanted to read Japanese, I would have to learn all the jōyō kanji. The problem was that I gave up. Now on my third attempt, I’ve ploughed through almost all of them using Heisig, and have studied enough in depth to pass the Kanji Kentei levels 7, 6, 5, and 4 (1,322 characters). Anki, and the mobile app in particular, has made it possible to face not only these kanji but also thousands of vocabulary words.
Second, motivate yourself with measurable targets. I’ve been immersed in Japanese since I arrived here, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been studying hard the whole time. Taking exams like the JLPT and Kanji Kentei has motivated renewed bursts of intense study again and again. You don’t have to take exams, but having something measurable to work toward (especially with a deadline) is major.
Finally, practical experience is where it all comes together. I’ll be the first to admit that my speaking ability lags considerably behind my passive abilities. This is because I’m generally afraid to seek out conversation but am willing to pick up a manga or (attempt to) watch a quiz show. I’m working on my speaking now, having realized that the only way to improve is to practice. Even if you’re not in Japan, you can find everything you need on the Internet. Use those resources!
I’m in it for the long haul at this point.
Whether you’re on your second, third, or fourth attempt, I don’t think that a history of failure means you’ll be doomed to fail in the end. You can always come back even stronger than before.