How do you start learning Japanese? I’m finding out first hand thanks to my recently-announced “Learning Japanese” project. My goal is to be able to function at a basic level in the language when I visit Japan for the first time for the Polyglot Conference in October.
This is the first of my monthly update posts, where I’ll be sharing how it’s going and looking ahead to the coming month.
Time targets and log
My aim is to do at least half an hour a day of Japanese seven days a week or, over nine months, a total of about 130 hours study over nine months. To keep it real, let’s remember that to pass the “Basic Level” Japanese Language Proficiency Test N5 (the equivalent of the CEFR A2 upper elementary level) between 450 to 750 hours of study are normal.
Thirty minutes a day for January would amount to 15.5 hours. I easily achieved that, clocking up 26 hours in total. I studied on 28 of the month’s 31 days.
Here’s how my study breaks down:
Week 1 (Monday 1st January to Sunday 6th January): six hours (every day except 1st).
Week 2 (Monday 7th January to Sunday 13th January): eight hours (every day).
Week 3 (Monday 14th January to Sunday 20th January): six hours (every day).
Week 4 (Monday 21st January to Sunday 27th January): four and a quarter hours (no study on 26th, 27th (Edinburgh language meet-up).
Remainder of month (Monday 28th to Thursday 31st): two hours (every day).
Total: 26 hours (28 days)
Main textbook: Japanese from Zero 1
I am structuring my project round Japanese from Zero, which is a five- volume course. My aim is to get on top of the first three volumes before I travel to Japan for the conference, so my medium term “path goal” is to complete one volume every three months.
I’m just finishing lesson 6, so I’m ahead of schedule. There are thirteen full lessons in the book and four pre-lessons. The pre-lessons are shorter, so let’s say fifteen units in total. That gives five a month. I’d only need to be at the end of the third lesson at the end of Month 1.
The style of the book is less dense and academic than I’m used to (and less so – according to the reviews – than Genki, which seems to be the other popular textbook). I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though. I’ll do a fuller review later when I’m further into the course.
Although I’m powering on, ahead of schedule, I haven’t fully internalised all the vocab and expressions from each unit yet.
There’s always that tension between “learning thoroughly” and the attraction of what comes next, isn’t there?
“Moving on before you’re ready” is not always bad advice. To an extent, as with every well-designed course, each subsequent chapter also makes use of earlier material, so things I’m shaky on at the end of one chapter will be reinforced in subsequent ones.
All the same, I will be doubling back in February.
There’s a companion website to the books. It includes a lot of free content, including YouTube versions of each lesson, with George Trombley teaching to camera.
I place a lot of emphasis on pronunciation and listening in the early stages of learning a language and I used the JFZ pre-lesson videos (besides pronunciation, they cover the numbers and some basic greetings).
Once I got into main part of the the book, though, the video versions of the lessons felt too slow and inefficient for me. When I only had half an hour, I didn’t want to spend twenty minutes or more listening to George Trombley (engaging though he is) explaining in English things I’d already just covered in the book.
That said, I want to return to the site in Month 2 and explore what’s there more thoroughly and give it another chance. There’s more to it than just video lectures. For example, are audio recordings of a lot of the vocab and phrases, tests and games. There’s also a membership section and I want to see what’s on offer.
Heisig’s “Remembering the Kana”
The only other resource I’ve used so far is Heisig’s Remembering the Kana, which uses mnemonics or what the author calls “imaginative memory” to get you to remember the shape (or components) and sound of each kana (kana is the collective name for the two syllable-based phonetic Japanese writing systems, the hiragana and the katakana (the third system is kanji – Chinese characters).
In the middle of the month I finished the first half of the book, so I now know the hiragana.
Did it take three hours as billed by the blurb on the cover?
No, it took four hours, thirty minutes.
Still, not bad going.
Some of the images that Heisig uses to help you remember the kana are very strained and silly. Maybe it’s partly that, though, that helps them stick!
After finishing the hiragana, I had a ten day break before returning to the book in the last few days of the month (and the first couple of days of February). A lot of the katakana are simplified forms of the hiragana, so progress was more rapid. It took just over three hours to work through.
I do feel less sure of my katakana, though.
One reason for this is that, to me, the second half of book feels a lot weaker, almost as if the author lost interest. Taken overall, though, the book works and I’m a fan. I’ll do a separate review later.
Another reason I’m less sure of the katakana is that they aren’t introduced in Japanese from Zero until book 2. In book 1, my hiragana reinforces as Twombley introduces them in batches, chapter-by-chapter.
He calls this the “progressive” system, with more and more Latin letters disappearing from words from chapter to chapter once the relevant hiragana has been taught.
It feels good to have already covered each new batch thanks to Heisig.
It’s exciting to be initiated into something that has always seemed impenetrable and to find that, once you make a start, there’s actually no magic to the kana.
Although the symbols represent whole syllables (plus the vowels and “n”) they are conceptually the same as an alphabet and can be learned almost as quickly as the Russian or Green alphabets.
It’s been a little thrill to be able to decipher the odd sign above Japanese food outlets here in London, too.
I’m really enjoying the physical act of actually writing the hiragana and katakana by hand.
I’m also finding that visual memory of the hiragana is helping me to recall individual words. I’m a little uneasy about that, because I think sound should come first, but I’ll take help where it’s on offer.
In January I started using the Anki spaced repetition app for basic vocabulary and phrases. I also want to step up its use for my Basque learning. The main resistance is that I’m a technophobe.
So far I have only created my own Japanese “deck” (set of virtual flashcards)(rather than downloading decks from the net). I’m entering individual words and phrases from JFZ in English on the front side and the Japanese on the back (I only work from English to Japanese). This takes quite a lot of time (not included in my study totals).
For the Japanese “side” of the card, I was initially just typing in transliterations in the Latin alphabet (or Romanji, as it’s known in Japanese).
By third week of the month, I’d done all the hiragana, so I could start inputting into Anki in hiragana alone.
At least, I could do that once I’d worked out how to type hiragana on the Mac (no small challenge for a technophobe like me). In English I’m a trained (and rapid) touch-typer. I delayed learning to touch-type in Russian until I was preparing for the advanced C1 exam. Despite myself, I want to be a “digital native” from the word go with Japanese.
As you’ll know if you follow my vlogs over on YouTube, last weekend I went up to Edinburgh to attend a language learners’ meet-up. I used a lot of the four-and-a-half hour train journey north to add items to Anki.
I’m now reviewing with Anki on my three or four weekly commutes from home to the office. That’s maybe thirty minutes a day review (not included in the totals above).
My aims for Month 2
Japanese from Zero
When I get to the end of Japanese from Zero 1 lesson 7, I’ll be over halfway though the 13 full units of Japanese from Zero 1 and I plan to spend a week formally reviewing.
I’d only actually need to get to the end of lesson 8 to stay on track for Month 2. As I don’t have any travelling or other major commitments this month, I could well finish well ahead, even with the review week.
Some of the slack will go on to checking out more of the online audio and video resources that goes with JFZ, though.
A secondary course?
I want to be careful not to overload myself with too many materials I won’t have time to use.
Nevertheless, in February I’m also thinking of starting a second course to run in parallel with Japanese from Zero. The benefit would be to come at the language from another angle and for both courses to reinforce each other. Also, I want a course with integrated audio (given that the Japanese from Zero books do not come with audio).
Several experienced language learners I know and respect are great fans of Pimsleur for the early stages. It’s an audio only course and I’m planning to try out level 1. I’ve never used Pimsleur before, and it’s time I gave it a go.
I’m also going to get the Assimil course Japanese with Ease. I’ve used Assimil for several languages in the past (always with other materials). In English (or German) you can only get the previous (two volume) edition of their Japanese course. The latest one volume (combined) edition is only available in the original French.
Begin Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji”
The biggest development in Month 2 will be starting with Heisig’s main course, Remembering the Kanji. This uses the same system as Remembering the Kana but was written much earlier.
There are two volumes of Remembering the Kanji. Whereas Remembering the Kana has 147 pages and teaches you the 46 hiragana and 46 katakana, Kanji weighs in at 484 pages and teaches you the meaning and stroke order for the most important 2,200 Chinese characters. And that’s only volume one. Volume two deals with how they are pronounced in Japanese.
Some people manage to get through the book in six months or even less.
I’ve got 35 weeks left, so I’d need to do about sixty characters a week or, let’s say, ten a day, to get through the book in eight months or so. I’m certainly not promising to do that at this stage. First, I’m going to make a start and see how it feels.
Remember that “slack” I was mentioning that’s come from being ahead in Japanese from Zero? I might just need it for Heisig!
No speaking yet
With Basque (and my mini projects in Icelandic and Indonesian) I started speaking “from day one”, using tutors on italki.com.
This time, I’m going to wait until I’ve got a good base.
I’ve no plans to book any sessions in Month 2 and may not even do this in Month 3 (March).
What I am doing is keeping a running list of what I call “toolkit phrases” as they come up in Japanese from Zero.
I mean things like “Could you repeat that please?”, “How do you say x in Japanese?”, “I don’t understand”. These will come in to smooth the experience when I am ready to start speaking.
So, that’s how it’s going so far. I’ve managed to maintain a regular, focussed study habit this month and am particularly pleased that I’ve learned the kana and got into the swing with Anki for Japanese. Work on my main textbook Japanese from Zero is going well and I’m enthusiastic for Month 2.
What about you? If you’re an old Japanese hand and have comments and tips to share, let me know in the comments below. If you too are just starting Japanese, how’s it going? What about other language projects? Has the year kicked off well for you and what are you plans for the coming month?