Currently it’s almost 10 a.m. on a holiday, and I’m sitting in my Osaka apartment, trying to prop my eyes open. I am about to drink some (what I’m assuming will be) awful coffee, because I’m actually procrastinating on the gigantic manga translation project I was asked to do during Golden Week. I’ve worked in Japan as an English teacher for over one year now, and I started doing manga translations about five months ago as a side job.
Why I wanted to learn Japanese
When I was a kid, I really loved learning languages (as Dutchies, we have to learn at least three of those in high school) and I wanted to pursue that in college. Long story short I went from English, to Chinese, to finally deciding that I wanted to study Japanese, because I thought it was a beautiful language. It didn’t truly become my passion until my second year of college, after I’d been to Japan for the first time over summer break.
I got started, as so many others did and still do, through anime. A friend introduced me to (now) classics (give me a moment as I cry for my youth) like Naruto and Bleach. Comparing words from the subtitles to what I heard was pretty much my method for learning English, but it proved difficult for Japanese.
I didn’t really start learning to read until a week before college, when at the introduction we were told that all of our books were in Japanese and we’d better be able to read hiragana and katakana before classes started. A fun week, that was.
College language classes
Not really an option for most of you, I know, but I learned all of my basic knowledge through language classes so let me just give you an idea of what we were doing. (Also, so you don’t get too confused about my timeline, I took an extra year for my BA because college is stressful!)
We went through the Minna no Nihongo books. All of them. We had about thirteen hours of language classes a week (grammar, reading and translating, conversation and listening, kanji) and were expected to spend at least the same amount of time preparing for classes. There was some additional reading material, but most of the time Mike Miller was our best friend.
I didn’t bring any of my books to Japan with me, so I can’t give you the exact titles, but this is when we started working with intermediate level books. (The only ones I’ve found through googling are Kenkyusha’s テーマ別 中級から学ぶ日本語 and The Japan Times’ 会話のにほんご)
We didn’t have kanji classes at this point anymore, but we were expected to learn all the kanji (individual and compounds) we encountered in our readings. We had kanji tests every two weeks and the amount of words would usually come down to about 150ish, we had to be able to both read and write these.
I did a 6 week summer school program in Tokyo after this year.
No more books, but we were now expected to read (parts of) academic texts in Japanese and present them in class.
I did an MA (60ec) in East Asian Studies as well, and we had a ton of language classes for that again (probably had something to do with getting all the international students and the Dutch students on the same level) but I can’t for the life of me remember anything about these books other than that I didn’t buy one of them and the one I did buy was purple. I was that student.
I did a three month internship at a museum in Kyoto during this year.
I studied for the JLPT N1 and passed it on my second try in December 2013. For serious studying time, I was using mostly memrise, and the 新完全マスター books. Less serious things I did to study: listen to NHK news in Japanese, watch Ari Keita’s とりあえず時事ってみた, watch dramas, and read 下妻物語.
Milestones and rock bottom
Getting chosen for both the summer school program (20 months) and the internship (fifth year) were huge milestones for me, as was passing the JLPT (sixth year).
My biggest rock bottom moment came in my third year. I was about two months into the semester and I was completely burned out. I reached the point where I couldn’t remember how a sentence started by the time I got to the end. I went to my parents and they helped me make the difficult decision of quitting my part-time job, moving back home, and commuting to my classes from there.
Things still weren’t perfect after that (I had a stress-induced seizure at one point) but little by little they got better. For about eighteen months after that I was more interested in learning beginner level Korean and Chinese than anything to do with Japanese, but eventually I regained my passion.
Don’t get too hung up on all the articles you read about how you too can become fluent in Japanese in under a year. I didn’t consider myself (functionally) fluent in Japanese until the end of my fourth year. Going slow is fine.
On the other hand, don’t be lazy if you want to take the JLPT. Study study study. (I’m looking at you N5-N3 hopefuls!) Mostly you need to know where your priorities lie. Ask yourself, is becoming fluent in Japanese your life goal, or just a hobby? Adjust accordingly.
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