Here’s a quick update on my learning Japanese project which began at the beginning of 2019. In October that year I got to pay may first visit to Japan. Little did I know that would be the last foreign travel I got to do to date. (There’s also an update vid at the end of this post).
Language learning log: March through July
Since returning from my trip to Japan in autumn 2019 my target has been to spend at least thirty minutes of focussed Japanese study a day, at least five days a week. By the end of February 2021 I had a total of 418 hours on the clock (see my last update post).
Here’s what I’ve done since:
March 2021: 13 hours, thirty-five minutes over 19 days.
April 2021: 13 hours, fifty minutes over 22 days.
May 2021: 17 hours, twenty minutes, over 23 days.
June 2021: 13 hours, forty minutes over 24 days.
July 2021: 10 hours, fifty-five minutes over 18 days.
Total hours for the five months: 68 hours, twenty minutes.
So, I studied on 106 of the 152 days in this five-month period. On an average months, my target (five study sessions a weeks) would be 21 days. I was a little under that target in March and July. Taking the period as a whole, I just missed the the target of about 108 days. If I’d done 30 minutes a day five sevenths of the time, I’d have come to 54 hours, so I actually overshot on the time put in.
Of course, the target is arbitrary. It’s about motivation not some objectively necessary amount of study. The totals above do not include the additional listening that I discuss below (Pimsleur, podcasts).
Running total (1st January 2019 to 31st July 2021): 486 hours, 20 minutes
My approach to learning Japanese
The last language I started to learn in earnest was Basque. I’m now at an intermediate level. My strategy was to start speaking as early as possible. I took part in a weekly in-person class here in London and I spent a month in the Spanish Basque Country on an intensive residential course in 2016. But the mainstay of my speaking practice, then and now, has been one-to-one lessons with a teach, on Skype, booked through the italki platform.
This time, with Japanese, I decided to delaying serious speaking practice and focus on throwing up the mental scaffold of key grammar patterns in my head first and build up a basic vocab of a couple of thoussad words. The logic is that I don’t spend time and money on repeating the same basic conversations over and over again with a range of teachers until it all sinks in. That said, I did try the language out with a number of one-to-one sessions in summer last year. I prepared set topics for each one, with a vocab and phrase sheet to hand as a crutch during each session.
I learned the kana syllable-based phonetic writing systems, called katakana and hiragana and continue to use them for my written exercises. Since spring 2019, though, I have put off the serious task of learning the 2200 most-important kanji characters (bar a few tweaks, the same as the Chinese characters) for a later stage. I’ll treat that as a separate, two-year project at some future point. Why? Because my time limit for this project is thirty minutes a day I can’t do vocab, grammar and kanji in that time.
How do I use my thirty minute study sessions? Well, the key for me is keeping it “interactive”. In detail, this involves:
- developing my listening skills through dictation
- using the shadowing method to practice the pronunciation and rhythm of Japanese
- doing self-correct exercises (either writing in kana and, where I can, kanji or orally my phone’s voice recorder)
- flashcarding sentence patterns and vocabulary using a mixture of the electronic flashcard app Anki and good old paper flashcards
Japanese courses I’m using
I have accumulated a range of different courses:
- Japanese from Zero textbook series. I completed as far as the end of book Three (out of five) back in October 2020. Since then, I have not used this course but I do intend to review it later. The course has its strengths but it’s back on the shelf for now because of its weaknesses. A review to follow (at some point).
- Assimil Le japonais. The new edition hasn’t been published in English, so I’m using the French version. Second-hand copies of the earlier edition in English translation can be found. I had previously worked thoroughly through Lessons 1 to 44 (of 98). During the last five months I have dipped in and out to revise one lesson or another. I have not yet done more new lessons (though I intend to).
- Pimsleur audio-only course. There are five levels, each consisting of thirty, thirty-minute lessons. From November through to mid June I re-listened to all of Levels Two to Five inclusive. As I mentioned in my last update (to end February), my sense is that I’ve got a lot more out of the course the second time round. It feels like there’s been reinforcement in both direction between my focussed study and the Pimsleur listening.
- Teach Yourself Japanese. Several completely different books have appeared from the same publisher under this title over the years. I have one of the most ancient: C J Dunn and S Yanada (1958, reprinted 1971). It’s a very old-fashioned text using the grammar-translation method, with a supplement of twelve conversations. I love the book, though I wouldn’t recommend it to you if you’re not an experienced language learning geek and it only makes sense to use it in combination with a lot of listening practice (on which more below) and, ideally, a more modern, user-friendly course. There were Linguaphone gramophone records of the conversations but I do not have them.
- Colloquial Japanese. Again, there have been various entirely different books from the publisher with this title over the years. I have the version by H D B CLarke and Motoko Hamamura (1987 reprint of 1981 edition). It comes with two audio cassettes.
- Two courses that I own, but haven’t spent much time with yet are Beginner’s Japanese by Joanne Redmond (Hippocrene Books, MP3 audio available online) and Olly Richard’s Japanese Uncovered (online twenty lesson course). Both of these look to have a lot going for them and I hope to try them / use them for consolidation and review in the future.
How I’ve been using my materials, March to July Teach Yourself Japanese
From the end of October to the end of February March I worked thoroughly through 18 of the 20 lessons of Colloquial Japanese (including working with the audio). There were some new structures such as the -tara (if) form, the passive and causative tenses but, in the main, working through the book for me was all about repeat exposure from a different angle.
Colloquial is now back on hold and the main focus of my study since late March has been Teach Yourself Japanese. By late summer 2020 I had worked thoroughly through the first 19 of the 30 lessons. In late March 2021 I started engaging seriously with the volume again. By the end of July I had gone through Lessons One to Sixteen a second time (including redoing all the translation exercises).
I’m please to report that a lot in the course makes much more sense the second time round and I generally found the exercises less of a struggle. There’s a lot more retention and even when I don’t get the translations correct, I’m much less often clueless about how to render a phrase than I was first time round.
More listening input
Since February, I’ve been aiming to sit and listen to Japanese for at least fifteen minutes every day. I’ve made time for the daily listening practice by using the fifteen minutes or so I typically spend watching YouTube anyway (in other languages) over my after lunch coffee. As I finished re-listening to the final Pimsleur audio-only course (Level Five) in mid June, I listen to Japanese podcasts for half of my thirty minute jogs or my fifty-minute walks round the local park (I aim to jog and walk on alternate days).
The podcasts I listen to are all Japanese-only and all aimed at lower-level learners:
- Thinking in Japanese podcast
- Nihongo con Tepei podcast
- The Real Japanese podcast
- Japanese with Shun podcast
- Easy Japanese (also a podcast)
- Olly Richard’s Japanese Conversations
I also occasionally try the (native-level) NHK news bulletins (available as a podcast) and some YouTub several native or learner YouTube channels.
I’ve been listening in a semi-active way: attentive but not rewinding, not working with transcripts to use dictation. I don’t try to pull out phrases to learn. All of these things are great to do but my really interactive time goes on the course book work. I do often re-listen to episodes of Japanese with Shun and Thinking in Japanese, my two favourite podcasts.
It’s great to find myself understanding more and more of a podcast episode. Something else that “feels good” is hearing familiar words but not understanding them. These are often common adverbs, fillers, intensifiers. I know that the exposure will help things click when I see them again in my course books, and vice versa.
My pitch for the second half of 2021
It’s going to be more of the same for the second half of the year: keeping up with the same amount of regular, focussed study and doing the same sorts of things in order to internalise the main grammar patterns and core vocab and phrases.
- Keep working through Teach Yourself Japanese to the end of at least Lesson 22
- After that, return to focussed work on Colloquial Japanese and Assimil in the same way
- Sample Japanese Uncovered and Beginner’s Japanese.
You can’t study yourself fluent. Study can be very powerful in my experience but only when combined with a lot of input practice. In the later stages reading makes increasing sense, but for beginners/lower intermediate, I think listening is much more important. So, I’ll continue to listen to the podcasts.
At the end of my last update in early March, I said that I envisaged getting speaking practice form July and onwards. All I can say is, not yet! Still doesn’t feel efficient. And yes, I’m aware of the dangers of “not speaking until you feel ready”.
That said, I do expect to do the occasional live one-to-one in the coming months. That’s not just impatient curiosity to see whether speaking is easier than when I first had a few sessions in summer last year. It’s do do with an aspect of the language that I haven’t discussed so far at all: pitch accent.
In Japanese if you change the pitch of a syllable, this can completely change the meaning of the word. We do something similar in English but with a change not of pitch but of stress: addict, addict; conflict, conflict and so on.
I’ve read about pitch accent and understand some of the theory. But that’s very different from tuning in your ear to hear it and actually producing the pitch differences. While you can usually be understood if you don’t get pitch accent right, it seems that if you work on the pitch accent, it really helps make your Japanese more convincing to native speakers.
As you can see from this at month thirty, progress is not dramatic but I am certainly feeling more confident in my (basic) listening comprehension and in my grasp of the basic grammar patterns and vocab of the language. Both of these are getting easier to recall and new things are easier to remember. I’m still really enjoying my Japanese journey.
Look out for another update here on the blog. If you’re a Japanese learner or teacher – or otherwise have thoughts or experiences to share – I’d love to read them in the comments below.