It’s over five months since I started my latest language learning project: learning Japanese. This is my May update (belated due to my trip to Bratislava for the Polyglot Gathering). At the bottom of the post, you’ll find my May update vlog from the YouTube channel.
A recap if you’re new here: my aim is to study Japanese daily, seven days a week or, over nine months to September. The cut-off date isn’t an accident. In October the Polyglot Conference takes place in Fukuoka, Japan and that’s a perfect occasion for my first visit to the country.
For my daily study amount I’m aiming low, or rather, realistic (given the other priorities and demands on my time that I have): just thirty minutes a day.
For May the target total was 30 mins x 31 days, that’s to say fifteen and a half hours.
My actual total was 21 hours, ten minutes. I missed three days, one more than April but still much better than March.
Here’s the May study breakdown:
Week 1 (five day “week”) – Wednesday 1st May to Sunday 5th May): 3 hours, fifteen minuts (every day YAY!).
Week 2 (Monday 6th May to Sunday 12th May): 5 hours, forty-five minutes (every day YAY!).
Week 3 (Monday 13th May to Sunday 19th May): 6 hours, fifteen minutes(every day YAY!).
Week 4 (Monday 20th May to 26th May): 4 hours, ten minutes (one day missed).
Week 5 (five day “week”) (Monday 27th and Friday 31st May): 1 hour, forty-five minutes (last two days missed).
Total: 21 hours ten minutes over 28 days Running total: 104 hours 35 minutes.
Main course: Japanese from Zero
My project goal is an active command of language in the first three volumes of the Japanese from Zero course.
This needs to be achieved by the end of September but I started to fall behind in March and I didn’t compete volume 1 until the second week of April….
In May I continued to work with JFZ Book 2 but I haven’t been able to catch up to the original target.
For that I would have needed to be at the end of Lesson Eight by the end of May.
In fact, I only got to the end of Lesson Six.
New language covered included counting living things and people (Japanese, like Chinese, has special “counting words” that you have to use when expressing numbers of particular classes of object), the object particle を and the verb ending -ましよう (let’s…).
Learning to write Japanese
Written Japanese combines three writing systems.
First “hiragana” and “katakana”, two sets of 46 symbols which represent (twice over) all the sounds of Japanese.
Together they are know as the “kana”. They are both phonetic “syllabaries” (rather than alphabets). In other words, each symbol represents a consonant plus vowel combinations (plus five free-standing vowels and the consonant “n”).
JFZ Book One covered all the “hiragana”, which are used to represent the sounds in native Japanese words.
Book Two covers the “katakana”, used, mainly for loan words into Japanese and foreign proper names.
The language also uses the “Chinese” characters, known in Japanese as kanji, but they don’t appear until book three.
I’d already learned the kana in January using James Heisig’s Remembering the Kana book.
All the same, recall, consolidation and practice are central to effective learning and it was really helpful to have the hiragana reinforced in JFZ Book One, even though I felt pretty confident with them thanks to “Heisig”.
I felt less confident with the katakana, so I am also really glad to be reinforcing my knowledge of them in Japanese from Zero Book 2.
While the focus on the katakana in JFZ Book Two no doubt rather skews the picture, it’s striking just how many foreign (mainly English) words there seem to be in Japanese.
Sometimes this will be to contrast a traditional Japanese concept or object with its Western equivalent. For example: futon (Japanese-style bed) and beddo (Western bed).
Other times it’s because the word is really associated with a unique foreign brand.
Othertimes, it does seem like a magpie-like love of borrowing for its own sake where other languages might have coined a new word from their own resources.
Take for example コインロッカー (koin rokka – coin locker) or スクランブルエッグ (sukuranburu eggu – scrambled egg). I mean, really?
Continuing with the Pimsleur Japanese course
As I’ve mentioned in previous updates, audio files for Japanese from Zero are available online. While the Book One materials are available free online, it’s USD8.99 a month for access to the other levels.
I didn’t find the Book 1 audio resources particularly user-friendly. When I tried them in March and I haven’t used them since.
All the same, taking sound seriously is a (the?) crucial element of language learning.
In April, I started working through the audio-only Pimsleur Level 1 Part One B CDs that I’d obtained from the local library (Level 1 Part One A being lost from the library’s collection).
I’ve never used Pimsleur before and I’ve continued to enjoy using it in May.
I finished Pimsleur during the first week of the month.
Since then, I have bought the CDs for Level 1, Part A, to which I intend to return later.
That’ll be partly for consolidation but also out of curiosity to see how Pimsleur introduces the language at the very beginning.
My main Pimsleur focus for May, however, was Level 2. I bought the premium version which I can now access on my laptop or on the app.
The core of Level Two (as Level One) is thirty half-hour lessons. I completed about a half of them in May. The premium comes with some bells and whistles (such as flashcards, quizzes), though I’ve hardly used these so far.
I’m mainly listening to the lessons through the headphones when jogging and when commuting to work and the time spent is NOT included in my totals above (in other words, on many days I’ve had an additional thirty minutes audio listen-prompt-response exposure).
There’s an opportunity cost to this extra listening: no more Basque radio on my jog. No more Anki flashcarding of JFZ vocab on my commute (which itself had ousted reading native-level German).
Assimil Le Japonais and Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji
Besides the Japanese from Zero books, the course book that I’m using is Assimil’s Le japonais (earlier editions were called “….sans peine” (with ease, ohne Mühe). As in April, my engagement with Assimil was low level – I reviewed the first fourteen lessons over two days, that’s all. This is not because I don’t like the course. It’s because of the time constraints.
For the same reason, I hardly touched James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, my wonderful resource for learning the (Chinese) “kana” characters.
I only worked on the kanji twice in April and covered characters 185 to 200 from Heisig.
On 17th May I did another five (201 to 206).
There are 2,200 characters in the book so, at this rate, I’ll be walking around Japan as an illiterate. At the moment, can’t square the circle on thirty minutes a day.It looks like really tackling the kanji is going to be a project for the whole of next year.
Goals for Month Six
For June, the name of the game will be continuing with the thirty minute slots (even during the launch of my new intermediate (B1) German programme), with the focus firmly on Japanese from Zero. On current projections, I should cover the next four Lessons (Seven to Ten) of Book 2.
I still expect to do occasional dips into Heisig and Assimil.
In addition, there’ll be more Pimsleur audio when out and about.
For this project, in contrast to my previous Indonesian and Icelandic mini-projects and my serious attempts to learn Basque, I’ve reverted to my previous practice of delaying attempts to speak until I’ve got more of a foundation. I expect that it will make sense to start some one-to-one lessons on italki.com towards the end of July or August, once I’ve finished Japanese from Zero Book 2.
All-in-all we’re in an undramatic “steady as she goes” phase at the moment, then. All the same, I hope reporting on that in itself helps give you a picture of the behind-the-scenes reality of a lot of language learning.
If you’re a beginning Japanese learner, how was May for you? If you’re a more advanced learner, or a teacher, I’m sure those newbies among us would welcome your advice and encouragement.
Look out for the next update, early in July.
Other posts in this series: