Japan Debrief


Learning Japanese is like being eaten by Godzilla…

Learning Japanese was a shock after speaking Italian. Italian was almost effortless. In Italy, I could just throw out a Spanish word with an Italian accent and be understood. Knowing French and Spanish really gave me a huge head start.

By comparison, I started Japanese with nothing. Nada. Zero. I had to memorize alphabets – three of them. I had to conjugate adjectives (that’s a new one). And I had to re-arrange my thinking so that the verb always came out last.

What follows is an assessment of:

  • My level
  • What worked
  • What I would change

My Level

I did not reach taxi-ride-to-the-airport level like I did in Italian. More like order-from-starbucks. Besides ordering food I’m pretty decent at asking about traveling on trains and subways. I can also write about what I did each day – what I ate, where I went, how long I studied, and who I met with.


I’m gonna miss those ricotta and honey pastries.

In other words, I’m very comfortable at simple statements using the past, present, and future tense. I even got pretty handy at the wanting to verb form.

I’m not doing this for any certifications, but I guess I’m around an A2 level (beginner high). I didn’t spend nearly enough time on complex statements. I never really learned how to say “I would” or “I have to.”

By the final month, I could tell a couple jokes in Italian, and flirt a bit. I was good enough to impress people for the first five minutes of conversation. Once that was up, I was basically inarticulate.


Maybe “horse-carriage-around-the-park” level of speaking…

What worked

The biggest thing that works is a speak every day approach. I’ve realized that speaking is mostly an issue of muscle memory. It’s training your mouth to make the motions and form the words you want, without consciously thinking about it. Like learning a sport or a musical instrument, you have to do it over and over until the conversation flows naturally from your brain to your tongue.

Setting up a daily routine was a new tactic that paid off. I set up a schedule that was entirely centered around my studies. It made it super easy to stay on The plan included:

  • A bedtime
  • Starbucks for breakfast
  • A bookstore for morning study
  • Four options for lunch eateries
  • A bookstore for afternoon study
  • A mid-afternoon Skype session with a language tutor
  • Late afternoon exercise
  • Another four options for dinner

The third tactic I liked was taking a class for two weeks when I arrived. I had so much material to study afterwards! And I kept going to school events for the rest of my time in Fukuoka.


I did origami every week!

What I would change

First, I needed to start reading much earlier. I found stories at my reading level when I only had two weeks to go. I’m a visual learner, so seeing the words is really useful for recalling them when I want to speak. I found a great series of simple stories made for my iPad. Stories like “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” They even came with a voiceover and flashcards! It was like having someone read me a bedtime story.

Second, I need a desk in my apartment. For a couple of weeks I stayed at places with just the low, coffee-table typical to Japan. I can’t sit on the floor and accomplish anything for more than ten minutes.


2000 manga books that I didn’t know how to read.

Third, I wish I’d started the routine much earlier. Now that I’m in Germany, I know I need to get in a rhythm early.

Wrapping up

I’m simultaneously proud of my accomplishment in Japanese and regretful I didn’t make it further. I don’t know when I’ll ever need Japanese again. It’s going to get swept away pretty fast, but now I know there is no reason to be concerned about it.

I could come up with some really radical changes if I wanted to supercharge my learning. I would do even better if I moved in with a family that spoke only German. Or if I signed up for Toastmasters, so I had to prepare a speech in German every week or two. I could also cut off all English sources, like Facebook, NYTimes, NPR podcasts, and even this blog. (Not like I’ve been very prolific lately.)


Himeji Castle – newly renovated – and also a world wonder in Civ 5.

Instead I’m working on being content and enjoying the adventure as it is. I’m eating amazing food. I’ve seen beautiful historic buildings. I’ve spent quality time with important friends who have joined me out here. I’ll learn as much as I can/want/need to. If I ever need more, then that will be motivation to stretch further.

Ciao, またね, Tschüss!

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