Saturday, June 20, 2009

Learning Japanese, Part 1 - Incentives

One of the interesting things about learning a new language is that the deck is stacked against you from the beginning. Foreign language schools don't teach the language as it is actually used, night classes don't have the time to cover the vocabulary and grammar in detail, you can't learn conversational language from books, and conversational classes don't get into written structures. You can spend years trying to learn a language, yet when you get to a country that uses it, you discover that you can't understand anyone that talks to you. What this means is that there's no substitute for growing up in that country and practicing the language every day in real-life situations. Which isn't an option if you weren't born in that country to begin with.

I fell in love with anime after watching "Akira" in 1990, and I decided to learn nihon-go in order to understand what was going on in unsubbed TV shows.

I started out by driving to Chicago (8 hours from Minneapolis) to visit the Japanese import store there to buy a kanji dictionary and a book on verb forms (this was before Amazon.com). I also picked up a color comic of one of the Lupin III TV episodes. After returning home, I sat down and practiced reading and writing hiragana and katakana - spending an hour writing all 5 characters from a given row, then writing down from memory all of the other characters I'd learned up to that point. After finishing katakana, I started on the first 100 of the simplest kanji from the dictionary. After the hour of character practice, I'd move on to the manga. First, I copied the dialog from the book to a ruled note pad. Then, I converted the nihon-go into the equivalent English sounds. Next, I looked up each word in the dictionary (if I could find it), and finally I cleaned the English up to make it sound more natural. Because I didn't understand how verbs worked, I made a lot of mistakes. But, this approach at least allowed me to memorize the alphabet, and introduced me to the difference between Japanese readings and Chinese readings.

After about 6 months of working on my own, I attended a couple of night classes offered by the extended learning department of the local community college. You've probably seen catalogs for these classes - 60 minutes per night, 1 night per week, for 6 weeks, for $45. All that was offered were two very basic beginner's courses, in which I learned the words for various colors, and various simple verbs (i.e. - "to see", "to walk" and "to run"). The only really useful thing to come from these classes was having access to a native Japanese speaker to ask her for help on translating the "Dragon Half" manga.

By now, I'd spent about 1.5 years trying to read manga on my own. The time had come to travel to Japan and try to get a job. I left as a tourist, sent out resumes cold to 150 companies, and got one job offer. The job was at a small video game company with 8 employees, and the president spoke English. It was too easy to survive without knowing Japanese, so my skill level didn't change. After 4 months of this, I left the company due to poor health, and then got a 9-month contract with Hitachi to write their user manuals in English. I had to interact with about 20 people, almost none of whom spoke English, so I ended up learning Japanese really fast just to be able to do my job. The problem here is that I only learned engineering Japanese. I could describe a bug I'd found in a menu system, but couldn't talk about the weather to strangers on the street.

But, I have learned one thing that has nothing to do with nihon-go itself. And that is the importance of incentive when tackling something new. Most people go into a new venture with a wide-eyed sense of innocence. There's a happy glee while learning all these new and wonderful things. But then, reality sets in. Learning becomes a chore, practice never seems to end, and no matter what you do, you never really seem to master everything like the person next to you does. This is the point where most people drop out and move on to something else. What causes the remaining group to plow on through the tough spots is that they have either an ultimate goal, or a larger incentive to keep at it. That is, they're not learning something simply for the sake of learning, but because they either love what they're doing, or they're doing something to achieve a larger goal. In my case, I was learning nihon-go in order to read manga in the original language. And now, I'm moving on to passing the JLPT level 2 test so that I can stay in Japan and continue reading manga as I like. In other words, I have a reason to keep studying that will carry me through the tough spots.

Continued in Part 2.

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