Here’s an autumn update on my Basic Japanese Project (update vid at the end of the post). I started learning the Japanese twenty months ago in preparation for my first visit to Japan (last October). I had a great time there both exploring as a tourist in Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo and attending the Polyglot Conference.
Since then, I’ve continued with this fascinating language.
My aim has been to put in at least thirty minutes of focussed study and practice, at least five times a week.
Japanese learning language log
By the end of July this year, I’d clocked up 299 hours, 30 minutes.
Here’s an update of the numbers on the clock:
August 2020: 18 hours, ten minutes (including 3.5 hours conversation) over 23 days.
September 2020: 21 hours, twenty-five minutes (including 4 hours conversation) over 23 days.
October 2020: 13 hours (including 30 mins conversation) over 20 days.
Running total (1 January 2019 to 31 October 2020): 352 hours, 5 minutes
Whether or not you should start speaking your target language early depends on your personality and how you motivate yourself to learn.
The last language I started learning seriously was Basque.
I put a lot of emphasis on speaking early and often. From the early stages I had regular, live one-to-one lessons via Skype, booked through the excellent italki platform.
With Japanese, I’ve returned to my “traditional method” of internalising the key grammar patterns, a core bank of key phrases and the most frequent vocab before starting to speak.
I’ve done this by working through several courses in as interactive as possible a way (using audio for listening practice, developing my listening skills through dictation, using the shadowing method to practise the pronunciation and rhythm of Japanese; doing self-correct exercises).
I did some basic spoken Japanese on the ground in Japan after nine months of preparation, of course.
I only started with some one-to-one speaking sessions in summer 2020, though.
The push that got me trying to speak was participation in my friend John Fotheringham’s Language Accelerator programme, which ran through July.
In July I took had ten live one-to-ones with a Japanese native-speaker teacher as part of the Accelerator. Then I continued with John’s follow-on programme in August and September, which involved taking another four sessions in August and four in September. Now that programme has finished too and in October I deliberately switched back to my previous mode of operation and only did one live session.
My summer 2020 foray into speaking confirmed that my Japanese is still very basic but it was fun to see that, yes, it does work, after a fashion.
Shouldn’t I be better by now?
In my last update vid, I shared the clip of me practising my basic Japanese “self-introduction” phrases (for John’s Accelerator programme). I wasn’t reading the phrases out but I did need to rehearse them a lot.
Commenting on my very elementary performance, one regular viewer over on the YouTube channel suggested that by holding back on speaking, speaking for me had become “almost as a review activity”.
She added: “You are here going through the very basic sentence structures of early A1 and practising those. I would think that you will advance through the rest of A1 and A2 now with a reasonable pace, as you have already accumulated so much more vocabulary and grammar, and have trained your eyes and ears to take in more advanced material in the language.”
I think there’s a lot in this. In the vid, I’m a bit like a foal trying to stand up for the first time on fully formed, but very, very shaky legs.
The experience got me thinking “Am I ‘on target’ with my Japanese?”. What’s reasonable to expect at this stage?
It’s estimated that to get to a “upper beginner” (A2) level in Western European language on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, you need to put in 180 to 200 hours. To get to the top of “B1” (lower intermediate), you need another 400 hours.
When I shot my “self-intro” vid in early July, I had 286 hours on the clock. So, could I expect to be well into B1 with a bit more speaking “activation practice”?
Just how well formed can I expect my “legs” to be at this stage?
First, I need to recalibrate that 286 hour total.
Some of that time has gone on thoroughly learning the two phonetic alphabets (more accurately “syllabaries”) that are used in Japanese’s eclectic writing system.
A lot of time has gone on learning the third ingredient in the mix that is written Japanese: the kanji (that’s to say, the Chinese characters). In the first months of my project I studied the first 200 in James Heisig’s classic Remembering the Kanji book. The 80 characters taught in my core textbook, Japanese from Zero 3, were nearly all from within those 200, but it still quite a lot of time to go through the six or seven that the authors presented in each lesson (and to do the reading and writing exercises in the book that use the characters).
Most European languages are, of course written in Latin script and both the Cyrillic and Greek scripts are quite simple to learn. So, I think it’s fair to deduct “kana time” and “kanji time” were to be deduced from my running total. If I did that, I’d guess my total in early July would still be at, say, 240 hours.
On the other hand, I have also done about 50 hours listening to the Pimsleur audio only course (not included in my time log), so that might push my total back to around 300 hours.
A running total of 300 hour suggest I “should” be able to activate my language even to mid B1 if I keep speaking.
This is especially so given that, compared with French or German, Japanese has some very easy aspects: no word “gender”, no cases, a simple and regular system of verb tenses), a great many loan words from English.
On the other hand, the way that Japanese works (and most of the core vocabulary) is very different from the European languages and it often seems to take Europeans longer to learn (even if you factor out the writing system).
On balance, then, I’d say I should be able to advance “at a reasonable pace” to A2 with more activation practice. But with these time totals on the clock, I shouldn’t be beating myself up for not being further on than that yet.
Japanese from Zero
My main course book is Japanese from Zero. by George Trombley Jr and Yukari Takenaka. It’s a five volume course and at the end of June I’d finished Lesson 11 (of 13) of Book Three. I didn’t use the book at all in July. The time went on the “Accelerator” instead.
I got back to Book 3 towards the end of September and finished the course on 27 October.
Lesson 12 was very light on new grammar. For some reason, the series really rations out the verbs as if they’re a special treat. Lesson 12 introduced two very useful new verbs できる (to be able, can do) and かわる (to change, turn into). Lesson 12 also covers how to turn adjectives into adverbs (final -い changes to -く).
In the Lesson’s “Culture Clip” introduced the traditional way of counting years. The reign of each Emperor is an “era”. The Heisei Emperor reigned 1989-2019, Western style. So, if you were born in 1995, you’d say “Heisei 6” and so on. This system is still very much in use, though the Christian date system is also widely used.
I knew all this before from my other courses, so Lesson 12 was consolidation for me (none the less important for that).
Lesson 13 introduced something new: the potential form of the verb (can/could)(the “eru” form). Like all the Japanese verb forms I’ve met so far, it is very regular and not difficult to form. Using it correctly will no doubt be a different matter.
There were also some more useful verbs. I’d met three of these before elsewhere:なくす (to lose), めつける (to find), めつかる (to be found) and おやぐ (to swim). The fourth was new to me: がきんする (to have patience, endure, bear with). This verb, says the course, has a lot of cultural significance. The Japanese are known for their ability to hold back their emotions in public and to endure.
When I started this project, my aim was to complete the first three books of Japanese from Zero before I left for Japan (so, by the end of September 2019). Erm, I was just over a year out. I have lots of thoughts about the series, but I’ll come back to those another time.
For now, I have not ordered Japanese from Zero Book 4. Instead, I’ll be spending some time between now and the end of the year to review the first three books (as a secondary activity, rather than my main focus).
Assimil’s Le japonais
My complementary course is Assimil’s Le japonais
At the end of July I’d worked thoroughly through the first 37 lessons (of 98). I’d also doubled back and reviewed many of the lessons. By the end of October I had completed to the end of Lesson 44. I’m still enjoying the course. One of the main ways I interact with it is by using the excellent audio for dictation exercises.
Pimsleur is a five-level, audio only course.
In June I completed Level Four (of Five), Lessons 23 and 24 (of 30). As I reported in July, I hadn’t used the at all since June and didn’t use it during August to October either.
This isn’t a negative comment on the course.
Until mid March I’d been listening to the course on my walks to and from the underground station on my commute to work and on my daily run or walk round the local park. Since then, I’ve been working from home, so the commute has vanished. Also, I’ve been using my time in the park to listen to native-level Basque talk radio (either live or podcasted).
As I write this (early November), I’ve started fitting a little Pimsleur in again on my walks. I do intend to get back more fully to Pimsleur Level Four before too long. I also bought Level Five, so won’t want to let that go to waste.
Teach Yourself Japanese
Since April, I’ve also been working a very old version of Teach Yourself Japanese (C J Dunn and S Yanada) (1958, reprinted 1971). Some of the vocab is dated and some of the phrases stilted but it’s still a great reference work and a source of extra grammar explanations and exercises.
I finished Lesson 18 in mid August. Since then, I haven’t moved forward with any of the remaining Lessons (19 to 30). Instead, I’ve doubled back on some of the exercises. I used some of my live lesson time to have my teacher record sentences from the book for me and I’ve been doing dictation with the aid of those recordings.
In September, I acquired another older course, Colloquial Japanese by H D B Clarke and Motoko Hamamura. (1987 reprint of 1981 edition). This has is much more conversational in focus than Dunn and Yamada. It also comes with an audio cassette (which I’ve copied onto .mp3). There’s lots that I really like about this book and so I’m planning to use it a lot for the rest of this year.
Like Teach Yourself, this edition of Colloquial Japanese uses romanisation rather than the kanji and kana.
Kana and kanji writing practice?
I’m continuing to get reading exposure to the kana phonetic syllabaries (and some of the kanji characters) as I read Japanese from Zero and Assimil. I do quite a bit of kana writing as I use them for the written exercises from all the courses and my own dictation practice with the Assimil, Teach Yourself and Colloquial audio.
I also try and incorporate the 80 kanji I’ve consolidated in Japanese from Zero 3 Aside from the eight kanji taught in Japanese from Zero 3, even though “Project kanji” is very much on hold. It’s a question of what to prioritise in the time I have available for Japanese.
Goals for November and December
The plan is to continue with my thirty-minute focussed study slots through November and December.
Part of the time will go on review as I dip in and out of all three of the Japanese from Zero books that I’ve completed.
I’m also aiming to work through the whole of Colloquial Japanese, in a very active way (flashcarding and/or speaking the answers to the written exercises into my phone’s voice recorder and self-correcting them). I anticipate moving very fast through at least the first three quarters of the book, as it will be mainly consolidation.
I’ll also use Teach Yourself Japanese whenever I can fit it in.
I’ll continue to work with Assimil, and I’d like to have completed as far as least to Lesson 50 (that’s half way through the course).
In January, maybe I’ll be ready for a new phase: a lot more listening to authentic (non course-book) audio and maybe booking regular speaking practice sessions again…. Watch this space 🙂
If you’re a Japanese learner (or a teacher), let me know what you think of my approach so far. How is what you’re doing (or what you’d recommend to your students) different? What are your favourite materials? I’d love to hear in the comments below.
By the way, although John Fotheringham has now paused his Japanese Accelerator programme but if you’re beginning Japanese or are a more experienced learner wanting to get back into it, you should definitely check out his Master Japanese guide. I’ve partnered with him as an affiliate, so if you buy it with my link, it will benefit my work here at the site, at no extra cost to you. You can check out the offer here:
Here’s my August to October “Project Basic Japanese” update vid: