It’s been eight months since I last reported back on my basic Japanese project. Yes, I’m still at it with Nihongo (as the Japanese call their lingo). I started Project Basic Japanese at the very beginning of 2019. This is an update on what I’ve been doing. I’ll lay bare what real, longer-term language learning can look like – warts and all – when you’re an independent adult language learner with a life full of things to juggle. Every so often, you need to stand back and take stock of what’s gone right and what hasn’t gone so well. I’ll do that. Then I’ll explain what I’m going to do in what will be a new phrase to take me forward for the next three months or so. (YouTube video catch-up version at the bottom of this post).
Language learning log: August 2021 through March 2022
Since getting back from my first visit to Japan in late October 2019, my aim has been to do a daily focussed study slot of at least thirty minutes on not less than five days a week.
Like many language learners, I find it really helpful to log my progress: time spent and what I did with it.
In my last report to 31 July 2021, my running total for focussed study (beginning on 1st January 2019) was 486 hours, 20 minutes (see my last update post).
Here’s what I’ve done since (excluding passive listening, discussed later in the post):
August 2021: 9 hours, fifty minutes over 14 days.
September 2021: 6 hours hours, fifteen minutes over 11 days.
October 2021: 7 hours, forty-five minutes, over 13 days.
November 2021: 3 hours, forty minutes over 7 days.
December 2021: 3 hours, ten minutes over 7 days.
January 2022: 16 hours, forty-five mins over 26 days
February 2022: 7 hours, fifty minutes over 14 days.
March 2022: 12 hours, fifteen minutes over 21 days.
Target hours for eight months: 86 hours, thirty minutes
Actual hours for eight months: 55 hours, thirty minutes
Total Calendar Days in the seven-month period: 243. Target Total Days (focussed study slots): 173. Actual Total Days (focussed study slots): 113.
Project Running Total (1st January 2019 to 31st July 2021): 541 hours, 50 minutes
My method: no to “speak early, speak often” or Back to the Future (Part One)
With my last new language (Basque), I tried out a “speak early, speak often”. For me, as quite a studious introvert, this felt unnecessary and inefficient.
With Japanese, I’ve returned to the approach I used to get fluent in French, German and Russian and Welsh: study first (apart from about ten one-to-ones just to “try the language out” in summer 2020).
By study first approach, I don’t mean learning about the language for its own sake. I’m talking about throwing up the mental scaffold of key grammar patterns in my head first and building up a basic vocab of a couple of thousand words.
From the start, I’ve supplemented this with a lot of listening practice.
My learning materials: struggling and juggling since January 2019
Jan 2019 to Oct 2020: Japanese from Zero. The series has its strengths but wasn’t a good fit for me. I should have abandoned it much earlier than I did. By spring 2020 I had found two alternative courses that suited me better and my focus had shifted, but I did come back to Book Three in September and October of that year, just to finish it off. I’m a bit too much of a completionist at times.
Feb 2019 to Oct 2020: Assimil’s Le Japonais course. I worked on and off thorough the first 44 lessons. It has been (and will be) a very useful supplementary course.
From mid 2020: Work with Teach Yourself Japanese by C J Dunn and S Yanada (1958) and Colloquial Japanese by H. D.B. Clarke and Motoko Hamamura (1981). They became my exclusive focus once I’d got Japanese from Zero out of my hair in October 2020. One of the drawbacks of Japanese from Zero was the lack of accessible audio. Colloquial Japanese comes with cassettes and I had a teacher record sentences of the first third of Teach Yourself Japanese (there used to be gramophone records to the book, published separately by Linguaphone, but I have been unable to find these).
End Mar 2020 to early Oct 2020: worked thoroughly through Lessons One to Nineteen (of thirty) in Teach Yourself Japanese, including some doubling back for revision of the first seven lessons.
Late Oct 2020 to March 2021: shifted my attention to Colloquial Japanese for reinforcement. By mid March 2021 I had worked through Lessons 1 to 18 (including doing dictation exercises of the audio) and then re-did the first eight.
In late March 2021 to mid March 2022 I started engaging seriously with Teach Yourself Japanese again. By the end of July 2021 I had gone through Lessons One to Sixteen a second time (including quite a bit of dictation and redoing all the translation exercises). Since last summer, I’ve continued to work on the course. I re-did lessons Seven to Nineteen and then pressed into new territory. On 9 March 2022 I completed my first work through Lessons Twenty to Twenty-Nine. I have left Thirty for now as it’s focussed mainly on honorific and brusque registers.
Middle of March 2022 onwards: I’ve switched my focus back to Colloquial Japanese and am working through the whole book again from the beginning.
I’m not just passively reading the Lessons. I’ve been working with the two books in an interactive way:
- doing the self-correct exercises (sometimes in written form, using the kana) and sometimes saying the answers out loud into my phone’s voice recorder;
- two-way translation;
- dictation from the audio.
Since February last year, I’ve been watching Japanese YouTube on and off over my after lunch coffee.
Each day I visit my local park, where aim to alternate a walk round (50 minutes) with a run (25 minutes). During the time in the park, I listen to Japanese podcasts for about two thirds of the time (the other third I listen to Basque podcasts).
My favourite podcast is Japanese with Shun. I devour every new podcast (one or two a week). Otherwise, I tend to relisten to Shun’s podcasts and some of them I’ve listened to many times.
It’s great to find myself understanding more and more of a podcast episode.
I haven’t included all this listening practice in my “hourly totals” in the log, above.
Things that have gone well so far
I’ve covered most of the important grammar patterns several times. While I can’t use them all, I have a pretty thorough sense of how the language works and my interactive practice with the course materials has helped with this.
Sure, knowing about the language isn’t the same as being able to use it but a sense of the “lay of the land” is a firm undergirding for those of us who like to move from the general to the specific.
Lots of listening from early on. This is really feeding into my interaction with the textbooks and helping me now as I move to more systematic, deliberate vocabulary learning.
I nailed the kana writing system (syllable-based) early and use it for the written exercises and when doing dictation exercises (even though both Colloquial Japanese and Teach Yourself Japanese only present the language using Romanisation).
Problems I’ve encountered so far
In the early months, I spent too long on the kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese). I stopped learning new ones in May 2019 after I reached number 206 of the 2200 “official” kanji in my book (Heisig’s brilliant Remembering the Kanji). Still, I continued to work on revising the first 57 until early 2020. If I were starting again, I’d just learn thirty or so revealing ones to demystify the system and the process. I now see learning the kanji as a separate project (I’d aim to learn them in two years, though it would take a lot longer to get really proficient). It’s a project I fully intend to undertake at a later stage.
Switching resources has advantages (repetition in different contexts, benefits from the particular strengths of each course) but it has dissipated my focus. I should have ditched Japanese from Zero earlier but, in fairness, it took me time to discover the courses for me.
I still feel I have weak passive recognition and active recall ability of the most frequent grammar patterns, words and phrases.
On balance, my overall achievement “feels” less than optimal at 541 hours in.
An objective yardstick for my achievements so far?
Yep, I “feel” I should be further ahead with my listening and active recall phrases) at 541 hours.
JLPLT Level N5 is roughly equivalent to A1/A2 border on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Only reading and listening are tested and you need to know 800 words and 100 kanji. On average, it takes students who don’t already know Chinese characters 325 to 600 hours of work to pass the N5.
JLPT Level N4 (A2/B1 border in reading and listening) is expected to take kanji newbies 575 to 1000 hours (a cumulative total, including the time spent on N5). You need a cumulative 1,500 words and 300 kanji.
I think on some counts I could already be into N4: I worked on 206 kanji (though I’ve forgotten many of them again) and I guess I know more than 800 words passively. I’m probably familiar with a lot of grammar patterns at a higher level even than N4.
On the other hand, as I said, I do feel that my active recall is weak (and of course the exams don’t even begin to test the speaking aspects of active recall).
I don’t want to start having one-to-one conversations until my active recall has improved and that’s going to be a major new focus in the next stage.
Plans for April – end of the summer 2022 or Back to the Future (Part Two)
My listening has been going right so I’m planning more of the same.
I’ll continue with listening to podcasts on my walks and watching YouTube videos in Japanese.
My active sentence pattern and (especially) vocabulary recall is still weak and I’m now going to focus on that expressly by some deliberate, effortful practice with flashcards.
Since the middle of March, I’ve started making (and using) paper flashcards of the early lessons of Colloquial Japanese (Japanese on one side in kana and English on the other). It really helps that I’ve done some much interactive study with the course (and other courses) already and that I have had so much listening practice. I’m coming “warm” at any of the vocabulary, phrases and sentence patterns.
This is “back to the future” for me. I’ve only dabbled with flashcards for Japanese (and Basque) so far. Yet they were one of the main tools I used (along with listening a lot) to get me off the ground with French, Welsh, German and Russian.
My immediate goal now is to “flashcard” the whole of that course thoroughly.
Then, I think, will be the time to start speaking.
Are you learning Japanese? How is it going? Is your approach different from mine? Let me know in the comments!
Here’s the video catch-up: