Having lived in Japan for 9 years, one would be forgiven in believing that I must be a native Japanese-speaker by now, surely. (I can’t count the number of times people ask me that question when I’m in the UK and tell someone I live here.) However, it is a bit more complicated than that. I wouldn’t go as far to say that my Japanese is bad exactly, but having studied it at university and now lived in the only country in the world where it could be put to good use and practised on a regular basis, I do feel that it could be ten times better than it is. The British are notorious for their terrible foreign language abilities but that, as with anything, comes down to lack of effort.
On the ground level I’d say it’s fine. I can order comfortably at a restaurant. I can get around supermarkets with ease and navigate myself around a city with what guidance is available. I can hold myself reasonably well in a general conversation. Politics, taxes and pensions? Eh, I might get a little lost there. In my earlier years in the country I think I tried a bit harder to continue my post-university self-study and on a daily basis I found myself in more situations whereby Japanese was my only option while I lived out in the countryside of Okayama prefecture. I used the language because I had to, and I think that was key.
But it was also short-lived. I did have a small disparate group of friends, both local and foreign, whom I would occasionally hang out with, but only ever so often. One discovers very quickly that Japanese people generally are very unavailable to ‘hang out’. This could just be something to do with becoming an adult as well, that I have naturally come to associate with the Japanese, but either way, it would be very difficult for me to meet with my Japanese friends on a regular basis. I suppose if you move to an area where the local people have very well-established lives, friends, routines, etc. it is very difficult to get involved in that, which could result in some very lonely nights indeed. That, however, is a topic for another time! Ultimately it was far easier to hang out with the other ALTs (assistant language teachers) in the area and that is generally what I would end up doing.
During my first two years in Japan, I took up the challenge of taking the second highest level of Japanese language proficiency test (JLPT) and passed with a relatively good score that resulted from some effort, but I know I could have tried harder. As an ALT there was a lot of downtime for me to fit in an hour or two of study on some days when I’d have a free period and thankfully the teachers at the schools were supportive and genuinely interested at having a peek at what Japanese I was learning. Generally speaking, I would say most Japanese people don’t expect a foreigner to be able to speak their language, which may lead some to think why should they even bother.
Working as an ALT was the perfect opportunity to try really hard at brushing up my Japanese but unfortunately I have to admit that looking back, I think I wasted it. Since passing that test, I have attempted the highest level twice and failed both times. Of course, I can only blame myself for this. The first time I naively thought that as I had passed level 2 years ago, that I would naturally be able to take on level 1 with little effort. That was a mistake. The second was just a poor attempt and since then I haven’t tried to take it, no matter how many times I thought to.
In an effort to not let the Japanese feel that they’re talking to a five-year-old, as a new year’s resolution for this year I decided to really try harder at not only studying Japanese, but also using it. Like most of my resolutions it has had its ups and downs (mostly downs) and it is only these past few weeks that I have made a concerted effort to ‘study’. I use the quotations because I think what I am doing now isn’t quite proper levels of studying yet, but it’s a familiar and comfortable way for me to get back into the habit of studying and gradually building myself up to more serious efforts once I’m back on track, so allow me to go over what I’ve decided to do.
One of the problems I found that had allowed my Japanese to slip was that I realised that I just didn’t consume anything in Japanese anymore. For the longest time I had gone off one of the things that I was interested in initially even before I made that final decision to study it at university. And that was manga. A part of me now thinks that perhaps I had felt that I had ‘grown out’ of manga and that it was a bit embarrassing to like that kind of stuff amongst the international community in Japan. To be honest I wasn’t a voracious consumer of the medium back in the day either, and I never used it as a study method the way that I try to do now. But something in me made me pick up a comic book one day and I suddenly got back into it pretty hard. Just reading it is a learning experience, I suppose, but I decided to take it a little further and read it alongside my trusty electronic dictionary. And with each book costing only 100 yen at my local Book Off, it’s a very cheap means of study.
I got a twang of nostalgia as I booted up (well, tried to anyway. The batteries were long since dead) my dictionary that I don’t think I’d really used since I graduated from university. This was an essential purchase for nearly all of the exchange students in my university in Fukuoka, and I’m glad that I kept hold of it. I may barely keep in touch with anyone I met there now, but at least I still have my little blue device to remind me of my time there. I’m not really sure how popular they are nowadays with the way that the smartphone has evolved so much in the past decade, but I like to keep things separate and I would say that although there may be some newer words or slang that aren’t fully represented in this dictionary, it does a much better job than any app I have on my phone.
Anyway, the process is incredibly simple. As I do when I read any book (whether Japanese or English), when I come across a word I don’t know, I’ll look it up, write it down in my notebook along with its meaning in an effort to review it later on. (I haven’t quite got to that stage yet, but it’s in the works.) While this can be very good for learning new vocabulary in context, I do have to be careful; while my girlfriend is very supportive of me trying harder to study Japanese, she will often remind me that a lot of words in many comic books are not used on a regular basis and it may sound weird if you tried to use them in a conversation. I totally get that and I think I can distinguish between what is and isn’t used.
You may think it’s a waste of time to study words that you’re never going to use, but there are elements to this style of studying which I find particularly useful. For fear of confusing the reader I choose not to give an example, but although I may never use the word itself, the construction or words and the kanji allow connections to form in your brain, helping you understand the meaning or the reading of a word with the same kanji even if you have never seen the word before. This a very good aspect of the Japanese language but does require a lot of exposure to text in order for it to work. For that reason, it is an incredibly important part of learning the language.
After reading all this manga and collecting pages of new vocabulary, what am I going to do with them? It’s impossible for me to just read a word once and then remember it forever so it’s important to review. This is where Anki comes in. Anki is a program that I used a lot in university and I can’t imagine what I would have done without it. It has its fair share of enemies, and my Japanese teacher as an example was not particularly a fan of it as a sole means of study, which I think I can agree with, but it does its job very well. Rote memorisation seems to be frowned upon in many circles, but to be honest, when it comes to remembering vocabulary, I don’t think there is a better method.
Anki has been around for quite some time now and has managed to gather a lot of followers who have created a lot of ‘decks’, made available for free to all users. These decks have ‘cards’ which you use to test yourselves on. It’s basically a digital version of flashcards, but with more features. The quality of these decks, however, can be questionable. In addition to putting in words I may pick up in other areas, I use a deck that supposedly covers all vocabulary that can be found in various textbooks from levels 1 – 5 of the Japanese proficiency test. As with comics, my girlfriend will comment occasionally that ‘we don’t use that word’, but I’ve come to think that isn’t the point and it doesn’t really matter. I am sure that there could be a better way for me to set up my Anki, but this is a good way to jump back in to an old way of studying, which for me, worked very well.
Another criticism of Anki is that it is primarily recognition, not production. It does tackle this problem fairly well with making sure to not only test you on your recognition of a Japanese word, but also giving you the opportunity to test your knowledge from the English as well. This helps a lot and I will also make sure to test myself by writing the word down in Japanese as well, which I know is great writing practice. The vital thing about this method is that you have to do it every day. The occasional slip might not hurt too much, but if you leave it for too long, the number of cards to review increases dramatically and you’ll have a mountain of words to go through instead of something more manageable, which will only make you put it off more.
For me, the biggest downside to Anki is that I’m learning these words completely out of context. It’s simply a word with a definition, and as my girlfriend kindly points out, some of these words ‘aren’t used’. This requires a little more effort to ensure that alongside the meaning of these words, the usage is also covered. This is the tricky part and one part of the process that I haven’t quite got to yet, but will add to it in the hope that it gives me a better understanding of the language and prevents me from changing from a five-year-old boy to a thirty-three-year-old weirdo.
This is just the start of further efforts to improve. I spent all that money and time to learn the fundamentals of the Japanese language, reaching a reasonable level of comprehension and ability, and to not take it further (or at the very least maintain) I feel would be a complete waste. I want to study it more because I enjoy it and because I don’t want to lose it. Japanese is a fascinating language and if I’m going to live here for the foreseeable future, I should probably make sure that I keep on top of it all and get more involved. It took me a little while to finally get round to this, but I’m glad I finally got there. Will I ever get to the point that the Cocoichi curry house staff will stop asking if I need an English menu? Well, no. That’s an entirely different thing and would require quite a lot of expensive surgery.