I recently realized what a spoiled brat I am. A couple times a week I gripe about how Japanese “doesn’t make sense”. Finally I realized why. Apart from Spanish, it’s the first language I’ve had to learn from nothing.
(I make a conscious effort not to whine and moan, because I know it won’t help me learn. Also, I’m incredibly fortunate just to be living in Japan, not to mention having the freedom to study the language. And eat sushi.)
Thinking about it reminded me that lots of people are starting with their first foreign language and starting from zero. So here are some experiences you may be going through, and some tools you can use to ease the load.
My first Spanish course was 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve studied French and Italian, and a little bit of Portuguese and German. All of these overlap significantly with either Spanish or English. Not so for Japanese.
Learning Japanese is requiring me to double-down on language-learning techniques like the following:
- Just in time vocabulary
- Muscle memory
Association – Or what does this remind me of?
With my first second language, I had to build all my Spanish associations through repeated exposure. After that, French was easy to associate with Spanish. Italian associated easily with French, and sometimes with Spanish.
Japanese associates with nothing, so I’m back to square one. Except I know new memory tricks now. For example, I learned the Japanese Hiragana characters by thinking of them as pictures. む is “mu”. I first associated it to a bull sticking out it’s tongue making a “moo” sound. (Complete with a dab of slobber.) き is “ki” and looks like a “key” to a door. さ is “sa” and looks like a primitive handsaw (albeit with only one tooth).
Japanese is fun/frustrating because there are more layers of association required. Spanish uses nearly the same alphabet and punctuation as English. You can learn the vocabulary and grammar using an alphabet you already know how to pronounce.
With Japanese, I get to learn to associate the following:
- English words to Japanese word sounds (like “hone” for book)
- Japanese sounds to the Japanese phonetic alphabets (“hone” is ほん, or ho+n)
- Japanese sounds to Japanese hieroglyphs (“hone” is 本)
I’m getting more confident in the Japanese phonetic alphabet, so I’m starting to update my flashcards to skip step 1. Instead of book = hone, I now have book = ほん. I’m looking forward to the day when I can update them to book = 本 and still know how to pronounce it.
Just in Time Vocabulary
This is possibly the coolest brain idea ever! You know how your brain sweeps out any information that’s just sitting around collecting dust? This is why we can never remember an actor’s name unless we talk about them all the time. Our brains may be the best neat-freaks ever.
Some brain scientists measured how long your brain is willing to something stay around if you don’t use it. Every time you review something, you get a longer period until the next cleaning. At first it’s about 10 minutes. If you review a vocabulary word within 10 minutes, you buy yourself a day. If you look at it before time is up, you get two more days, etc. This means you don’t have to look at all 500 words every day. Instead you space out your reviews, which is called spaced repetition.
The best part is that there is now an App for that! It’s called Anki SRS, and I use it every day. I’m still doing Italian vocabulary review for about twenty minutes per day. I also made all my Japanese cards with the answers in Italian, so I get two for one!
Learning a language often seems very academic. You take an Italian class. You have Japanese homework. You’re studying German.
My biggest revelation on this trip is that languages are not academic subjects. They’re sports.
Your goal is to speak the language. That means you have to build the neural connections that get a sentence from your head to your mouth. And it has to happen without you thinking about every stage of the process. (What’s that word? Arg, which ending do I use? Where’s the emphasis? How do I make that choking sound?!) You have to create muscle memory.
This has a couple practical implications for my studies. For one thing, I go up to strangers and ask beginner questions like “What time is it? Where does this train go? How do I get to [blank]?” This is just like a drill in any other sport.
Second, I schedule practice sessions with language tutors. For three days in a row I’ll have the same conversation with different teachers. Or better yet, let’s call them coaches.
Benny Lewis sums up this approach on his blog as Speak From Day 1. Pretty much every article he writes includes a reminder to put the language into practice every day. Make that your goal and the ripple effects are amazing!
So I’m not going to get as far with Japanese as I did with Italian. And I’ll probably keep changing my mind on whether I want to learn the Kanji hieroglyphs, or just focus on speaking. But that’s OK. I’ve learned a ton of Japanese words. I’m able to pretend I’m fluent for about five minutes. And I even recognize a few Japanese words when I watch Fairy Tail.