Reflections on Learning Japanese

I’ve been working on learning the Japanese language ( 日本語 )for quite a number of years. It all started when my wife and I decided that Japan would be an excellent honeymoon destination; I love big cities, we like traveling to exotic places, and we both enjoy Japanese cuisine ( 日本料理 ) and anime ( アニメ ).

Being the planners and analytical minds we are, that (obviously) meant that we needed to dedicate ourselves to learning enough Japanese to get by. So, we enrolled in a community college night class to get started… and feel in love with the language. Now, over a decade later, we’re still at it: we’ve both taken 3 semesters of university-level Japanese courses, and are trying to find ways to take more.

So, I wanted to reflect a bit on what I’ve enjoyed about Japanese, the learning process we’ve been through, and resources that we’ve discovered along the way. My disclaimer, of course, is that I’m still hopelessly a novice, so don’t take anything I say below as gospel truth on the Japanese language!

What’s so fun about Japanese?

First, it’s hard! That may seem counter-intuitive, but I love a good challenge. And it is: Japanese is considered one of (if not the) hardest language for native English-speakers to become proficient at– the US State department calls it a “Class IV Super-Hard Language”. So, it feels like an accomplishment to gain any proficiency at all.

Second, I find it beautiful and engaging– Kanji are similar to an art-form, and can convey nuance; and the combination of multiple syllabaries and Kanji together give a huge range of possible linguistic expression. Plus, I’ve always been fascinating by etymology (one of my first favorite books was A Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms), and the history of the evolution of Kanji is so amazing: developing in China, faulty repeated transfers to Japan, evolution of native adaptations, and then multiple periods of simplification and consolidation (a great book I got is The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji). There’s something magical about a sentence that puts to all together, even something simple just looks neat:


Wandering Tokyo

明日、アメリカの博物館に行きましょうか。 (“Shall we go to the American Museum tomorrow?”)

Third, and perhaps what has kept me motivated all these years: There’s a really beautiful language feature in Japanese (particles / 助詞 ), which I sometimes wish I could express more easily in English. One thing they’re really good at is allowing you to express nuance in writing; the sort of nuance that is easy in spoken English, but difficult in the written form For instance, in English, we can dramatically change sentence meaning by putting the emphasis on different words in a sentence. Modern typography has given us some ways to show this in text (using bold, for instance), but it’s not “baked-in” the way it is in Japanese. For example, in English, if I didn’t have the luxury of using bold font, it would be hard to show the difference between these two sentences:

“I don’t drink coffee.” VS “I don’t drink coffee.”

Whereas, in Japanese, it would actually be written with different symbols:

コーヒー飲みません。 VS コーヒー飲みません。

And that’s just a simple example– particles do everything!

So, I feel like I’ll never run out of things to learn and be amazed by.


Wanikani Spaced Repetition System

How I learned

As I said at the start of this, it all started with a community college night course, which taught the first few chapters of the well-regarded Genki textbook, with a big emphasis on introductions, excuses, and polite ways to indicate you had no idea what you were talking about– just write for a soon-to-be tourist! I supplemented this with a study game on the Nintendo DS, of all places, an excellent language learning application called My Japanese Coach. Between those, we prepared for our first trip to Japan, draining the DS’s batteries during our trans-Pacific flight.

We had an amazing trip, and resolved to bring my wife’s parents with us on our next trip. But we had also learned a big lesson in humility– our Japanese wasn’t even enough to check into a hotel, let alone really communicate. So, we recognized the gap ahead of us.

Our next step was to start learning Kanji– and we quickly focused on the WaniKani system, which I still have a lifetime subscription to and use regularly. It uses spaced repetition to help you learn the meaning and readings (how it’s pronounced) of Japanese vocabulary, with cute mnemonics and gamification. Years in, I’m still only half-way through the system, with a total knowledge of ~1,000 kanji and about ~4,000 associated vocabulary items. So… not inept, but not yet ready to read a newspaper (though I’m getting closer to reading the deliberately simplified NHK WebEasy newspaper!)

We also realized that we needed the structure of actual classes– and that my university covers tuition for employees and spouses. We were very lucky: my university has some excellent Japanese instructors and a vibrant program for it’s size. So, I ended up chatting with the program director and enrolling in Intro Japanese 2— which was incredibly rewarding, while also kicking my butt regularly. I then was able to take the next class in the sequence, Intermediate Japanese 1, and I’m looking forward to finding a chance to take Conversational Japanese and Intermediate Japanese 2.

What’s the challenge ahead? It’s two-fold:

  1. Finding time to keep working on Japanese and incorporating it into my routine, like taking meeting notes in Japanese.
  2. Finding time to practice spoken Japanese– which is lagging far behind my written Japanese.

But the reward that keeps me going is always in sight: we want to go back to Japan again in the next few years, bringing our kiddos! So, wish me luck the Japanese way: 頑張って! (“gawn bah tay!”)


A quick recap of resources I’ve used and found useful:

1 thought on “Learning Japanese

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