“A Japanese learner’s first visit to Japan, linguistic aspects”. That’s the slant in my tenth, monthly report on my journey to Japanese. Back at the beginning of the year, I set my self the goal of studying some basic Japanese before my visit to Japan in October, to attend the Polyglot Conference in Fukuoka.
My Japanese study routine took place in a daily study slot of a modest thirty minutes, seven days a week. Over nine months, January to September, that would have meant a total of about 130 hours. My actual total to the end of month nine was 166 hours. While I missed some days, I managed broadly to maintain the routine. I hit the monthly time target through to the end of August. I did less in September as the demands of the day job cranked up. That culminated in the third week of the month, when I was delivering training to colleagues in Singapore. The following week I was doing the same in Hong Kong.
Then, whoooooosh, I was in Fukuoka.
Here’s how it went with the language.
Initial overwhelm and first attempts to speak
Even on boarding the aeroplane in Hong Kong heading out for my first visit to Japan there were snippets of spoken Japanese coming over the loudspeaker that I could catch. Nothing amounting to fully comprehended sentences, but things like loan words and the familiar particles (used very frequently in the language) and some of the verb endings.
I landed at Fukuoka airport from Japan and my first task was to get from the airport to the centre of town and find the hotel. This involved taking the transit bus to the other terminal and then the underground to Tenjin and then a walk to the hotel.
It was a good thing at this initial stage that instructions were available in English as my initial reaction was a feeling of total linguistic overwhelm.
When I arrived in Tenjin station in the centre of Fukuoka, I found a team of volunteer helpers out to assist the flood of foreign visitors who were in Japan for the Rugby World Cup. They gave me a map and pointed out where my hotel (probably) was. At this stage I didn’t have any phone as my UK provider only had a very expensive roaming option. As a result, it took me about 40 minutes to locate the hotel, even though it was only about a five minute walk from the station.
I couldn’t muster the linguistic wherewithal to ask for directions, though as the hotel was on the upper floors of a building set back from a side street and part of a co-working space with no signs indicating its presence, asking probably wouldn’t have helped.
At check in, I used my first small amounts of Japanese with the young woman on reception, which felt good, and she used some broken and limited English, too.
In Japan, you won’t be short of opportunities to speak Japanese (!)
My linguistic experience checking in on day one turned to be quite typical. Even in hotel receptions and other “touristy” locations most of the staff, even young ones, either spoke no English or spoke very limited amounts of the language.
That’s great if you’re keen to use your Japanese. Even if you have only a small amount of the language, you won’t feel pushed back into English, as can happen often when, for example, you’re trying to speak Dutch in the Netherlands or German in Germany.
Gradual lifting of the linguistic fog
For the first few days, it was as if I’d forgotten all but a few words and phrases that I’d worked hard on as a Japanese learner.
It took several days for the “linguistic fog” to lift a little for me and for a few more to bubble up.
I was then able to use my minimal Japanese to maximum effect for simple transactions such as shopping for groceries or, buying museum tickets.
There were lots of opportunities to practise the numbers.
I took a cab once (in Hiroshima) and also managed to explain to the driver that I wanted to go to the station.
At a Japanese/English language exchange
The one opportunity I got to have lengthier exchanges was at an English-Japanese meet-up in Fukuoka the night before the Conference opening.
This was a regular meet on Meetup.com that Dave, a fellow Conference attendee and Japanese learner, had found out about and publicised in the Conference Facebook Group.
It was quite noisy but I sitting with two Japanese regulars at the meet-up who were very patient listening to me explaining my name, where I was from, that I was in Japan for the first time….and answering my similar questions to them.
Tourism v language learning
I could have created more such “artificial” opportunities to speak. I could, for example, have arranged one-to-one exchanges or lessons in local cafés or online.
This would have been at the expense of the limited amount of time I already had for sightseeing, though and that just didn’t feel like a good trade off, given that my level is so low that the conversations would have been very basis and repetitive.
The thing is, I can create these opportunities at home later on, while it may be a long time before I get a second twenty-three hours in Kyoto or a repeat four days in Tokyo.
You can’t use what you haven’t got
Overall, although I had enough Japanese to lubricate basic transactions like buying groceries or taking a taxi, I couldn’t actively deploy a lot of what I’d supposedly covered in the Japanese from Zero course books.
In the launch post in January I wrote: “It would be wonderful – and not mean achievement – to have a firm, active command of the language presented in the first three books of Japanese from Zero.”
In practice, I only got to chapter four of book three and don’t yet have that “firm, active command” of the material up to there.
I couldn’t remember words and phrases, even some of the stock “toolkit phrases” that I like to use to help me learn through the language (“could you repeat that please”, “please speak more slowly” etc).
I couldn’t remember some of the basic grammatical patterns either (such as how to construct negative adjectives in the past or present or the past forms of the informal verb conjugations).
This really was just confirmation of what I’d started to realise towards the end of the project: that I’d become too fixated on trying to keep up the pace working through the textbooks and not spent enough time focussed on vocabulary building and on spaced recall of material that I’d already covered.
That was something that I’d started to correct in the last few weeks before I hit the road as I reported at the end of August. I pivoted to more work on flashcarding vocab from the Japanese from Zero and my toolkit phrases but it was late in the day for this.
I don’t regret not having done speaking practice earlier. For early speaking practice to have made a real difference, I think I would have needed a lot of it.
For me, from January to August, it made sense to stay in the “silent period”.
I wasn’t discouraged in the slightest by my very limited linguistic achievements on the trip because I had realistically low expectations.
I was under no illusions in January about the scale of the task ahead.
First, Japanese is a very different from English or any other language that I’ve learned before. It has no close relatives but you do have some advantages if you’ve already learned Chinese (writing system, loan words) or another Asian language influenced by Chinese).
“My goal for my first visit to Japan is to be able to function at a pretty basic level in the language. I mean getting around on public transport or in taxis, ordering food at restaurants, shopping, visiting sights.”
Learning any new language takes time. In January, I pointed out that my plan was for about 130 hours study. I actually managed 1st January to 30th September): 166 hours 35 minutes (1st January to 30th October) but this is still well under half the 450 to 750 hours usually required to pass the easiest the JLPT N5 exam Japanese Language Proficiency Test (450 to 750 hours).
To start to understand a new language, you need to be on top of a lot of high frequency words and phrases and to have had a lot of listening practice.
As neither was true in my case, I not at all surprised that I couldn’t understand very much of the flood of language that I heard around me when out and about in Japanese cities.
I wasn’t disappointed at the absence of miracles, because I wasn’t expecting any. At the same time, I know I’ll be able to get fluent in Japanese in good time, because I’ve done it for other languages.
Learning Japanese “wins” from the trip
Although I regret not having done more flashcarding, I don’t feel that the 166 pre-Japan hours were wasted.
I gave focussed, interactive attention to Japanese from Zero, a course which is rich in simple, realistic dialogues and related exercises.
I am expecting to find as I review with the aim of internalising and activating the material better, my previous thorough first-time coverage will stand me in good stead.
The work I’d done meant that I could used basic Japanese. This really helped lubricate encounters in shops, cabs and at the language exchange. It showed me that the language “is real” and “works”.
I was really glad of the thorough work I did learning the kana (Japanese phonetic letters each of which represents a syllable). That was thanks to James Heisig’s brilliant little book “Remembering the Kana” and then to way Japanese from Zero, introduces the kana gradually in the first two volumes.
Once on the ground I immediately found myself trying to decipher as many kana signs. While it will take more practice to be able to read off the kana as if they were Latin or Russian letters, I was certainly up and running.
Although I put my work on the kanji (the “Chinese” characters in which a lot of Japanese is written) on hold about half way through the project I was able to recognise some of those that I’d learned.
I now understand the system, so even though I can’t understand very much, the kanji didn’t feel to me like a set of random squiggles any more more like an enticing system to be explored and a challenge to master.
Next steps: Japanese from Zero – “I’ve stated, so I’ll finish”
My first visit to Japan really brought the language and culture to life for me and I certainly want to carry on learning Japanese and that’s what I’ll be doing, beginning this week (second week of November).
The core of my efforts will remain the “thirty minute focussed study slot”. I’ll be dropping from seven to five days a week, though, as other priorities jostle in the pre Christmas period.
I’ll be sticking with Japanese from Zero Book 3, resuming work in lesson three at the point I left off in September.
The course is a mixed bag. For me, it’s a case of I started….so I’ll finish…. at least until the end of book three (there are four in all). After all, every textbook has its strong and weak points. I think it’s a mistake jump from one resource to the next in search of the perfect course. Far better to make more effective use of what you’ve already begun with.
That said, When touring the bookshops of Fukuoka and Tokyo I found a large range of enticing learning Japanese materials. Yes, I did succumb to the temptation to buy some new learning Japanese books but they’ll be “supplementary”, for next year, rather than replacements for JFZ. Look out for a “book haul” vid on the YouTube channel before too long….
As I keep moving through Japanese from Zero, I will also continue flashcarding the earlier lessons (and the first two books) to learn items of vocab, phrases and the grammar patterns.
Continuing with Pimsleur Japanese and the Assimil book
Before I went to Japan, I completed the Pimsleur Level 2 audio course. I have now acquired Level 3, so I will begin to work on that as well. I’ll mainly be listening when jogging or on my three-times-a-week commute to the office.
I will also continue to work slowly through Assimil’s Le Japonais. I’ve already looked at the first twenty-four lessons (of ninety-eight) and want to revise them and maybe do a few more.
Limbering up with the kanji again
I’m going to start working on the kanji again, using Remembering the Kanji. The focus between now and the end of the year will be reviewing the 206 that I have covered so far (to the end of Heisig, Lesson Nine) plus any new kanji introduced in JFZ Book Three that are not included in that 206. This will put get me back in the swing for a bigger push with the kanji next year.
Look out for the next update
Enough writing….Back to some Japanese learning…and video editing. In addition to my on-going “Asia Diaries” vlogs of the trip (in Russian, German and Basque), I’ve got vlogs from the Polyglot Conference in the pipelines, including some tips from experienced teachers and learners on aspects of learning Japanese.
My next Japanese update will be at the end of November/early December (a review of “month eleven”). Look out for that and, in the meantime, if you have questions or suggestions or are a fellow Japanese learner and have recent experiences to share, don’t be shy; the comments section is down below 🙂