How to start learning Japanese? I decided to find out first hand. As I announced at the beginning of the year, my new language learning prooject 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 second of my monthly update posts: a review of how study went in February and looking ahead to my goals for March. There’s a video update too (at the bottom of this post).
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. If I achieve this, I’ll have clocked up a total of about 130 hours study over nine months.
This is a very modest amount.
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 (and the lower end of that range is for Chinese speakers and others who already know the kanji characters).
Thirty minutes a day for February would amount to fourteen hours. My actual total was seventeen hours. Hurrah! I studied on twenty-two of the month’s twenty-eight days.
Here’s how my study breaks down:
Week 1 (Friday 1st February to Sunday 10th February): 8 hours, 50 minutes (every day except one).
Week 2 (Monday 11th February to Sunday 17th February): 4 hours, 15 minutes (every day except one).
Week 3 (Monday 18th February to Sunday 24th February): 3 hours, 5 minutes (missed three days).
Remainder of the month (Monday 25th February to Thursday 28th February): 50 minutes (missed one day, only 10 minutes on 28th).
Total: 17 hours (22 days) Running total: 43 hours
So, I’ve kept up a fairly regular pace, though things got a bit sticky in the last full week of the month, when I was out three evenings in a row and extra busy working on my up coming German course.
Main textbook: Japanese from Zero 1
I am structuring my project round the five-volume Japanese from Zero coursebook series. I aim 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.
On the 17th February I finished unit 7: a good half way through the book. Checking my calendar, I realised that there was no time to review earlier lessons if I wanted to maintain a pace of one unit a week and finish book one on target by the end of March. That said, I decided to spend a week reviewing the units up to unit 7. Targets aside, there’s no point building on shaky foundations.
I felt a bit of resistance to reviewing at first. It feels more exciting to push on to new stuff, doesn’t it? Once I kicked off by reviewing the four “pre lessons”, though, I did find it useful. Due to not putting so much time in during the week 18th – 24th, I only managed a review up to the end of chapter 5.
For the last few days I did go back to the open frontier and pushed to the end of unit 8.
This month started had another look at YesJapan.com (the website version of Japanese from Zero). You can do the first course online for free (you need to register to create an account). Each online lesson follows the content of the book (grammar, vocabulary), though there are some minor differences in exercises and some items of vocabulary are covered in one format and not in the other. You can hear native speakers pronounce all the individual grammar items and some sample sentences. There are also comprehension checking questions.
Going forward, I’ll continue to use this on-line material.
One half of the author team, George Trombley, also does video versions of the lessons on YouTube. As I noted in the first end-of-month catchup, the videos simply take too long (as there is a lot of explanation in English which I find quicker to read). If you’re going to use the course, though, try the different formats and think about ways that you could combine them. You may find GT’s explanations help you to lodge things in your mind.
Starting Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji
Anyone wondering about how to start learning Japanese comes up against the question of whether or not to learn the writing systems. I decided to do this from day one.
In the first month, I completed James Heisig’s Remembering the Kana. A Guide to Reading and Writing the Japanese Syllabaries in 3 Hours Each.
I’m practising the hiragana in particular as I work through Japanese from Zero (the katakana are only introduced gradually throughout book 2).
This month, on the writing front, it was time to start with the main gig: Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. The kanji are the Chinese characters.
I’ll write more fully about the book at a later date. For now, I’ll just say that it uses the same system as the “Kana” book: creating mental images to help you remember the characters.
Heisig isolates what he calls “primitives”, the elemental building blocks of the more complex kanji. The more complex characters are remembered by stories involving the images associated with the relevant primitives. In the later sections of the book, the stories are no longer served up on a place. You have to create your own.
What you are doing is learning the meaning of the characters in English. The second stage – there’s a separate volume for this – is learning the actual words in Japanese and associating them with the kanji. Of course, when I come to do that, I’ll already have learned the sound of many of the words (and will already know how they are written in the kana. All Japanese words can be written just in kana, but (children’s books aside), the three systems are usually combined.
There are 2,200 kanji in the book
As I noted in last month’s update, some people manage to get through the book in six months or even less. To do that before I go to Japan, I pointed out that I’d need to do about sixty characters a week or, let’s say, ten a day.
I didn’t commit myself to that goal, as I wanted first to get a sense of what learning the kanji was going to be like. That was a wise move as, so far, I’ve done kanji 1 to 160, rather than the 280 I’d need to have covered.
At the moment, it doesn’t therefore look likely that I’ll have internalised the book before my trip. Also, I haven’t fully memorised all the characters I’ve supposedly “done”. There is some revision and doubling back as you go forward (and primitives or earlier combos reappear), but I’ll also need to start reviewing more systematically.
I have bought the RTK app for my iPhone and it seems good for review. I haven’t used it much yet though, as most of my commute goes on reviewing vocab from Japanese from Zero.
I have to say, I’m really enjoying the kanji. Learning them is a revelation and it feels like a sort of puzzle, a kind of addictive game. I like getting lost in the process.
It does take a lot of time, though. This partly explains why my progress with Japanese From Zero has been much slower this month than it was last month.
I haven’t been working with RTK every day, either. I had an eleven day gap (!) in the middle of the month.
Last month I said I wanted to have a secondary course or maybe too.
I have now acquired Assimil’s Le Japonais sans peine. It’s the usual Assimil “octavo” format but pretty thick at over eight-hundred pages long (the earlier editions were published in two volumes). So far, I’ve just been dabbling a little in the early units, but it felt good to come at things from a slightly different angle, to get some different basic vocab and to see some words and phrases that I already know..
Pimsleur audio courses are best used (I understand) at the very beginning of a new language. Rather than buy yet more materials, I’ve ordered the basic course from my local library, but it hasn’t become available yet. I’ll update next month on that once I’ve tried it out.
At the language bookshop
One day this month I paid my first visit since this project began to Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road. This is London’s largest bookstore and it has a great language section. Here’s a vlog I did from the store last year:
This was my first opportunity since I started learning Japanese to browse the Japanese shelves. There are a wealth of different courses and other, more specialist books on offer, but I’m glad to report that I managed to resist the temptation to buy more materials that I simply wouldn’t get round to using.
In the face of all those riches, I inevitably caught myself wondering whether I had chosen the right core course for my project. I’m sticking with Japanese From Zero, though. Consistency is king!
Looking forward to March
I have my work cut out in month three. There are four full weeks in March and five lessons of Japanese from Zero still to cover, plus reviewing (especially units six and seven). Also, I go Berlin for a week (beginning 27th March), so I certainly don’t want to fall behind before travel gets in the way.
My main goal, then, is to finish Japanese from Zero book one.
I also want to keep it more regular with Remembering the Kanji.
I’ll get hold of the Pimsleur course at last (and maybe start listening to that when I’m out jogging, for example). Also, I’ll start working more systematically through Assimil, even if it’ll only be in very short sessions.
I still don’t plan to book any live online speaking sessions. I am, by the way, still doing a couple of half-hour Basque sessions on italki.com each week and trying to fit some other focussed study of the language around my Japanese (and listening to quite a lot of native-level radio in Basque).
Here’s my second month update vid:
If you’re wondering yourself how to start learning Japanese and still have questions, let me know in the comments below. As always, it’s great to hear about your own projects, whatever the language and whatever your level 🙂
Other posts in this series: