Here’s the latest monthly update on Project “Learn Japanese”. I started working on the language at the beginning of 2019, a full fifteen months ago (video at the bottom).
Before my first trip to Japan (last October), I aimed to dedicate thirty-minutes to focussed Japanese study. That reflects the importance I attach to consistency and habit in my language learning and how I use shortish “slots” to anchor it in my busy life.
Since I returned from the trip, I’ve dropped the goal to thirty minutes, five days a week.
In my last monthly Japanese update post, I brought things up-to-date till the end of March.
By that stage, the UK was already two weeks into the COVID-19 semi-lockdown (and I’d already been working from home for a week).
As a result of the “lockdown”, I’ve gained about two hours a day on the three days a week when I normally commute from my part of London into the office.
Month 16: week-by-week log
In April, maybe energised by the gain of time (not to say energy) of my commute-free life, I powered ahead with the regular study. I managed to study every day and actually averaged at 48 minutes a day.
Here’s the April breakdown:
Week 1 (Wednesday 1st April to Sunday 5th April): 2 hours, 40 minutes (studied every day).
Week 2 (Monday 6th April to Sunday 12th April): 2 hours, 50 minutes (studied every day).
Week 3 (Monday 13th April to Sunday 19th April):
6 hours (studied every day).
Week 4 (Monday 20th April to Sunday 26th April): 8 hour, 50 minutes (studied every day).
Week 5 (Monday 27h April to Thursday 30th May): 5 hours (studied every day)
April 2020 Total: 24 hours, twenty minutes over 30 days (so averaging about 48 minutes a day).
Running total (1st January 2019 to 30th April 2020): 243 hours, 10 mins.
My approach to Japanese
It took several months last year for my approach to “settle down”. An early decision was to postpone speaking and listening much longer than I’d done with Basque, my last serious new language (which I’m still working on very actively, as an intermediate learner).
I quickly learned the phonetic katakana and hiragana writing systems using Heisig’s Remembering the Kana. These two alphabets are combined in written Japanese with the kanji (Chinese characters). A typical sentence might contain all three: kanji for the core noun or verb, hiragana for Japanese grammatical endings (of which there are none in Chinese) and other Japanese aspects such as particles. Katakana for loan words from languages other than Chinese (mainly a huge number of English loans).
There are 2,200 characters that you’d need to know as a native Japanese kid graduating high school. Learning them is doable but still a tall order. In the early months, I was trying to combine covering the basic Japanese structures and core vocab from a textbook with learning the kanji characters.
However, given the limited time I’m putting into the project, I paused learning the characters, except the limited number (eighty) that are introduced in my current core textbook, Japanese from Zero 3.
Using Japanese from Zero
If you’re starting a new language through self-stduy, I really recommend having one core resource, be it a printed textbook or an equivalent online course.
For me, that’s Japanese from Zero, which is a five-volume series that teaches the three writing systems progressively.
I’m on Book Three, which introduces those first eighty kanji (as well as serving up more vocab and grammar patterns).
The series has its weaknesses (not least fiddly on-line audio) but a major plus is that it’s very conversationally based, with loads of simple, everyday examples and a good range of self-correct exercises.
At the end of March I had just started Japanese from Zero 3, Lesson Nine.
I finished that Lesson on 28th April and in the last few days of the month, started the kanji section of Lesson Ten.
The main new structure in Lesson Nine was the -ていform of the verbs (the “want to” form). This ending turns, say, to eat たべます into to want to eat たべたい.
Something else introduced for the first time いじよう – or above (as in “one hundred people or more”; “1000 dollars or above”) and いが – or below (as in one hundred people or fewer).
Dictation exercises: Assimil’s Le japonais
In April, as in February and March, I’ve been spending a lot more time using my “back-up course”, Assimil’s Le japonais.
As reported in my previous monthly Japanese update, by the end of March, I’d reached Unit Thirty. By the end of April, I was in Unit Thirty-Four. I also doubled back and did dictation exercises with the MP3 audio from some of the earlier lessons. I always check my results against the transcript and use the parallel translation (in French) to unlock what I don’t understand.
The course offers a “natural” French version and a word-for-word one. It’s the word-for-word translation that I’m finding of most help as the way the same “idea” is expressed in Japanese differs so much from French (or English).
Pimsleur Japanese on in the park
I originally started to use the Pimsleur audio course because I didn’t like the very “clicky” audio interface on the Japanese from Zero (Yes Japan) website.
During April I reviewed many of the lessons in Pimsleur Level Three and started on Level Four. All levels consist of thirty, thrity-minute lessons. The idea is that you should study one a day.
I don’t sit down in the proverbial darkened room to give Pimsleur my full attention, though. I just have in on through the earbuds when jogging (thirty minutes or so three times a week).
Pimsleur introduced the -てい form of the verbs back in Level Two, so I’ve heard it a lot since then. That really helped to “prepare the ground” for the latest unit in Japanese from Zero.
This works the other way, two. For example, one new Pimsleur lesson taught “いじよう” (- or above) a few days after I’d covered it in Japanese from Zero. The flash of recognition – and the repetition – is great for getting this vocab into my long term memory.
Working with Teach Yourself Japanese
As mentioned in my last monthly Japanese update, I bought a 1970s reprint of the 1958 version of “Teach Yourself Japanese”.
It’s a classic grammar-translation textbook split into thirty lessons, each with lots of translation exercises (a set into English and a different set into Japanese).
I think this book would be very difficult for most people to work at from scratch. It throws a lot at you in each unit and the explanations are sometimes pretty complicated. That said, it’s good for someone like me who has an interest in the “nuts and bolts” of language and who has already covered the material (at least at the point in the course I’ve reached to date).
I’ve been advised to treat this old Teach Yourself book with care, as the language presented is quite “stilted”. While that’s a point I need to be very aware of, to be honest, I’d be thrilled to speak even stilted, unnatural Japanese at this stage 🙂 That said, my main courses, and all my audio, is modern, conversational Japanese, so I don’t think I’ll end up speaking like a 1950s gramophone record.
The main value for the course for me is in forcing me to review the main structures and core vocab and as a work offering a further set of explanations and covering “the whole” language in a condensed, portable form.
Goals for May
For May, it’ll be more of the same. I’ll stick with the goal of thirty minutes a day, five days a week.
At the beginning of April, I said I wanted to have a second, thirty minute “satellite slot”. That only happened on a handful of days. On the many days when I did more than thirty minutes, it was usually in one sitting. I often switched courses half way, though. In my defence, most days I was also doing thirty minutes Basque…but I’ll report back on that in a (long overdue) separate post.
I hope this update on my undramatic, plodding moves with Japanese will have inspired others of you in your language learning journey. If you’re studying Japanese, how is it going? Does your approach differ? As always, I love to get comments and suggestions from Japanese enthusiasts (students and teachers). Don’t be shy!
A new format for the next monthly update
Between February 2018 and March 2020, I posted an article once a week here on the site, without fail. If you’re a regular here you may have noticed that I’ve slackened the pace since mid March. After two years’ disciplined writing and sharing, it’s time free things up a bit. That will give me some time to polish some of the content that’s already on the site and to continue to develop my own course offer.
As part of the new pattern on the blog, I’ll be starting each month with a “Language Learner’s Update” when I’ll be looking forward and back at what’s going on with all my languages. As I’m only actively learning Japanese and Basque at the moment, they will be centre stage. I’ll continue to post the monthly Japanese update on YouTube and embed it in the blog post. Thanks as always for your interest and support and I hope you find (at least some) of my output as helpful as I find it stimulating to share.