Friday, April 21, 2006

How I Learned Japanese

The Beginning Period
I have been living in Japan for 8 years. Before I came to this country I took a 6 week long Japanese class and learned most of one of the Japanese alphabets, hiragana, as well as how to say simple sentences using polite verbs that ended in -masu or desu. The class was very difficult for me as the teacher used a lot of grammatical terms I had never heard before such as "verbals", "nominals" and "adjectival verbs". I did not know what the difference between a "verbal" and "verb" was and I had no idea what an "adjectival verb" (ex. omoshirokatta desu, tanoshikatta desu) was.
When I came to Japan I was shocked that nobody spoke much using the -desu, -masu forms of verbs. For the first six months all I could say was "Where is the bathroom" and "Dozo yoroshiku onegashimasu" (It is hard to translate but is said after you meet someone and means "Please be nice to me"). I started studying Japanese because I lived in a small town and had very few Japanese friends. I found a textbook that someone had left at my school a called "Japanese for everyone". The book had a lot of dialogues and grammatical expressions. I learned the grammatical expressions and when I heard them actually being spoken I would remember them. I also made my own vocabulary notebook and would enter about 20 random words in it every day. Sometimes, I would learn random difficicult words such as "yuujufudan" (indecisive) or "tenshinranman" (purely innocent) and try hard to use them in conversations to impress people. I aslo would enter the vocabulary in my computer, print out the sheets and tape them on the walls of my apartment and toilet area. As a language learner, I like output (speaking, writing) more than input. My first two years in Japan, I tried to learn as much as the language as I could by speaking and writing it. After two years, I had many Japanese friends and was sad to leave the country.
The Intermediate Period
I went back to the USA to attend graduate school. I signed up for a Japanese class and was placed in the third year class after an interview with the teacher. I will never forget being reprimended by another Japanese teacher for not using polite language. In my two years in Japan, I had learned informal Japanese but had not picked up formal Japanese. In the USA, I realized that if I wanted to return to Japan and find a good job, I would have to learn to speak formal Japanese. I realized that the polite "masu" and "desu" verbs I learner a few years back were actually important. In my Japanese class, I also finally realized what an adjectival verb was and how to use one. In the class, we also learned a lot of the Chinese characters used to write Japanese. To learn the chinese characters I would make many cards and study them as well as write them over and over again to prepare for quizes. I think that what really helped me learn to write them, though, is the writing assignments we had. In the class we had daily assignments where we had to write answers to questions about the readings we were doing in the class or videos we had to watch. Gradually, I relied less and less on the dictionary to look up Chinese characters when writing the assignemts.
The summer after I finished graduate school I went to a special "Japanese camp" at the Middlebury Summer Language School. There, I only spoke Japanese for 6 weeks and had about 5 hours of Japanese class a day and 4 hours of homework. I was placed in the highest level class (4 nensei) but my Japanese was the worst of anyone in the class. My teachers were frustrated with me and one told me after the first test that I was not 4 nensei level. While listening to the Japanese teachers, I noticed the difference between how the teachers spoke and how I spoke. Thanks to this experience, I realized for the first time how a good Japanese speaker talks and writes. This was very important for my development in the language.
The Advanced Period
After the Middlebury Summer Language School I received a scholarship to study at the Hokkaido University of Education as a research student. I took seminars with the Japanese students and was expected to do all the readings in Japanese. Sometimes I would also have to present the reading and speak for an hour! Somehow I did it but I feel sorry for my classmates who had to sit through it. Through this experience, I developed the ability to read difficult academic works in Japanese without relying on a dictionary. In other words, I developed good skimming skills in reading. After a year at the graduate school I realized that I could read novels (written in modern Japanese meaning post world war II) and newspapers. Comics, though, are still difficult for me to read. I also passed the first level of the Japanese Proficiency test my second year.
The Fossilized Period
I came to Iwate University a little over three years ago. I have been very busy at my new job and actually use a lot of English. Sometimes I write papers in Japanese or do academic presentations in Japanese. However, I do not read as much as I used to in Japanese because I do not have much time. This year I have only read two books in Japanese and they were about English Education (Book 1: How to teach debating skills and Book 2: Applying the input hypothesis to English education in Japan). My Japanese has not improved much in the past 3 years. In fact, it might have even regressed. I am probably what you would call a fossilized speaker. I really need to read more novels in Japanese and watch more movies in the langauge as well as keep a vocabulary notebook (I recently started one). This year, I hope I can improve. Language learning is really a life long endeavor.


Sean said...

This is a great post - Thanks for sharing it. I posted links to it on two of my blogs EFL Geek and Let's Learn Korean.

Alex said...

Great inspiration for me. I've majored in Japanese, but really towards the end just went through the motions to get my degree. I am now living in Korea after having lived in Japan for 2 years, and need to continue my J-studies, as well as begin my Korean studies (my fiancee is Korean, and although we speak Japanese together - she's fluent - her family doesn't speak a word of Japanese or English!)

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Unknown said...

This is very helpful! Great post!

JH said...

Thanks for reading my post. It seems to me that you have put the Japanese you learner to pretty good use by finding yourself a Japanese speaking fiance!
I was first exposed to Japanese at the age of 22 and did not start studying it seriously until the age of 23. I think that you are at a good age to start learning Korean.
Good luck with your langauge learning and with your new life in Korea!

goofypunter said...

Great post! I am currently learning Japanese using the Pimsleur Japanese course. I can fully understand what you mean about the politeness levels of speech like the -masu and -desu forms. When I use some of those with my Japanese friends they often have a good laugh.. Hahaha.
Anyway, I'm posting on my blog my study notes for the Pimsleur course for anyone that is studying Japanese using this course.

Anonymous said...

Good post. You mention that you learned more from output than input, but reading over the details it seems to me that you probably got just as much, if not more from input.

"While listening to the Japanese teachers, I noticed the difference between how the teachers spoke and how I spoke. Thanks to this experience, I realized for the first time how a good Japanese speaker talks and writes. This was very important for my development in the language."

Also, near the end you admit you haven't been reading much, and that your skills have not improved.

Definitely you are an active learner and that's a real strength. It seems to me that speaking and writing are good to work up fluency and sometimes will make you aware of what you don't know so well. But I think we only really learn something new when we shut up and listen (or read) carefully and extensively.

JH said...

I agree with you; I think we get our knowledge from listening and reading and refine it through writing and speaking. It took me a while to realize this, even after I studied the theory.

Gabriel Chou said...

Dear Jamie,

The account of your language learning journey reminds much of mine. I'm now learning Spanish and as you mentioned, keeping vocabulary notebook and posting them everywhere you go is definitely a wonderful idea to keep myself exposed to the language. I also admire that you used to have opportunities to immerse yourself in the target-language country. That absolutely will allow more possibilities of successful language learning.

PS. I'm the student living in Taiwan, from Alice Chiu's class

JH said...

Hola Gabriel,
Como esta? Soy Jamie de Japon. Yo enseno ETM3.
I have read your blog and am very impressed with your writing in English. If I could write Japanese as well as you write English I would be very satisfied with my foreign language ability. If you ever have time, I would be interested to learn about how you learned English.