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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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!
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).
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.
It’s mid 2005. Still not much excitement with Japanese learning sites just yet, but The Japanese Page Forum caught my eye.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
It took me about a month and a half (I had some extra time because there was a long winter vacation from work).
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.