Why I learned Japanese
Imagine waking up one day and all the letters and the language people conversed in were incomprehensible to you. You’d panic and try to make sense of everything, but even the simplest tasks such as ordering your food or asking for directions is suddenly the most nerve-wracking thing in the world. No matter how hard you try to explain to other people that you don’t speak their language, they can’t comprehend why because you look like them, have a similar name as them, and your father is one of them.
I was not completely lost because I can sumimasen my way through situations, but I did not like feeling confused and I also wanted to expand my options if I wanted to continue my studies in Japan. These are the reasons why I learned Japanese.
How I learned Japanese
Self-study: Blood, Sweat, Tears and a Bottle of Pocari Sweat
I started learning Japanese in the first summer of my stay in Japan. At home, I started to spend my afternoons learning the basics: hiragana and katakana. I searched for a hiragana and katakana chart online and made my own chart at home. After a couple of weeks I started throwing in basic greetings and started learning how to write my name and home address in Kanji (chinese characters). I went through stacks of notebooks and sketchbooks (yes, you read that right, sketchbooks! ) practicing how to write and read. Before I knew it, the writings that looked more like stick figures are now letters I can recognize and read.
Tips: When you’re studying Japanese on your own, make sure that everyday you set aside a time to study it for a couple of hours. The key with learning this language is not how much you do it in a day, but constantly doing it consecutively. Repetition and consistency is very important to reinforce your learning. One of my earliest study guides was Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog. Through it, I got to read more about Japanese culture, travel guides to different places in Japan, and improve on my Japanese language.
Help from volunteers: Your Friendly Neighborhood Sensei
Experience: A teacher from my sister’s school recommended us to MISHOP, which in a nutshell is a volunteer group in Mitaka that offers Japanese language classes in small groups or a one-on-one lesson. There, I learned Japanese through both the textbook-based learning and also through a Native Japanese speaker. It was a very interesting experience because you also become part of the local community, engage in cultural exchange festivals, experience Japanese culture at first-hand and meet different people from different backgrounds, both local and foreign.
Tips/Information: It varies from where you live, but there is definitely a high chance that an international volunteer group is in your city too! For more information, you can inquire at your local city hall. They offer services from language learning assistance to helping with easing you into your life in Japan, so don’t be afraid and ask for help!
Japanese Language School: A Bunch of Misfits in Fussa
Experience: After being referred to by people from MISHOP, my parents enrolled me to Youth Support Center (YSC) Global School in Fussa. This non-profit organization offers assistance in Japanese language studies and support in entrance exams at junior high school and senior high school. Here, I learned Japanese alongside other young people who had a different cultural/ethnic background, and also prepared for my high school entrance exam with them.
Tips: Alongside local international groups, there are non-government organizations and non-profit organizations that specialize in teaching Japanese to children and young students who are struggling with learning Japanese while studying at a normal Japanese school. A thorough search on the web as well as inquiring at your local city hall about these organizations are ways to connect to them and ask for assistance.
Studying at a Local Japanese High School : Is This the Real Life or is it Just Anime?
Experience: After studying at YSC Global School, I entered a local Japanese High School that accepted returnees and foreign students. For me, my three years of stay at this senior high school was where I really improved with my Japanese because I was able to use it everyday to communicate with my teachers and classmates, and I was really submerged in the Japanese way of life. It’s also part of the reason why I chose to continue my university studies in Japan.
Tips: For a list of Japanese High Schools that accept foreign and returnee students, check out this article.
Keigo – The Art of Elaborate Scripted Politeness
Experience: Unlike English, Japanese has Keigo(敬語）which is the formal version of Japanese, mostly used when talking to someone of a higher rank or older than you, and usually at the workplace. When i started working part-time, I learned Keigo from my seniors(先輩）who taught me how to speak formally towards them and towards customers. Keigo is very tricky, so being able to learn it and immediately use it too helped with remembering.
Tips: Learn proper Keigo by textbooks, then practice it at work or with your senpais. If you also pay attention and listen attentively to how people in the service industry or those who work at customer service talk to customers, you will notice how fluently and smoothly they use keigo, and you can pick up a couple of words or two from them.
To Wrap Up Like a Conbini Onigiri
I’ve reached a certain level of proficiency in Japanese wherein I no longer struggle with day to day life, and can even go to the doctor and have myself checked or arrange a contract with my cellphone service provider by myself. However, learning Japanese doesn’t stop there and shouldn’t stop there because there are still many words, expressions, and an endless number of Kanji to continue to learn.
In my university, I took up a Geisha seminar class to learn more about Japanese culture, and in that class I learned certain Japanese terms that you can only encounter when talking about Geisha related topics.
In addition to this, I read short novels in Japanese to expand my vocabulary. It’s not easy to understand the stories, so usually I would buy one with an English translation along with the Japanese version. The very first short novel I read was the Japanese version of ‘The Little Prince’. It was very interesting to read the Japanese translation because there are nuances in the translation of words that you can only understand when you’re fluent.
There are many reasons why one would want to study Japanese, and there are many ways to do it too. I would suggest finding the best study habit that would fit you, and really immerse yourself in Japanese culture and language.