I’m starting a new language project. I’m learning Japanese. This post sets out how I’ve gone about two of the important first steps that you should be taking to set yourself up for success when you begin any new language. You need to work out your “why” and your ultimate destination. Then you need to plan the first concrete, initial short-to-medium term goals that will get you moving in the right direction. I’ll also flag up the key materials I am planning to use.
Why I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese
It helps to get clear on motivation at the beginning of a language project. Language learning, as they always say, is an endurance sport. A pressing need or a strong desire aren’t enough in themselves. Without them, though, you’re unlikely to keep going over the longer term.
There’s no reason why I have to learn Japanese. The drive is all from within.
As a language lover, I’ve been wanting to learn about Japanese for a long time out of pure curiosity as to how the language works.
First, Japanese is a totally unique language. It isn’t related to English’s relatives French, German, Welsh, Russian…Persian…Hindu or other such “Indo-European” languages. It’s a “language isolate”, just like Basque.
Second, there are intriguing cultural differences which are reflected in how things are expressed and what is said in what situation. That’s true between all languages to a degree but the differences seems greater in the case of such a distinctive, non-European society such as Japan’s.
Third, the fascinating writing system(s). I’ve studied Russian, which has a different alphabet from ours. But it’s still alphabet. One letter, one sound, more or less. Chinese characters are a completely different ball game. They are the basis of one of the Japanese systems. But the Japanese do have three.
Fouth, the sounds of the language. Japanese pronunciation is said to be much easier than Chinese because there are not many elemental sounds and it’s not tonal. It does have “pitch accent”, though, which will be quite new for me.
I could satisfy mere curiosity just by reading about the language, of course.
Learning it offers a whole different experience and – if I manage it – direct access to Japan’s vast culture and a chance to experience Japan from the inside.
For me as a language teacher and mentor, having a serious go at a language with very different writing and sound systems also makes a lot of sense.
How the need to learn the writing system impacts on and interplays with my language learning is one of the big things I want to work out and share from this project.
At the moment, I can only help people learning Japanese (or another language with a similar writing system) on the basis of what I’ve read and heard from others. I want to speak from first-hand experience.
I also want to have a better appreciation of the challenges that Japanese students of English face.
The immediate reason that I’m starting Japanese now is that I am hoping to make my first visit to Japan in October. That’s been more-or-less a dead cert since it was announced that the Polyglot Conference would be in Fukuoka this year.
This gives an great reason on the horizon to learn survival Japanese. My new project has developed from that.
The time feels right from the wider perspective of my “language learning life” as well.
I have done some sampling projects in the last few years (Indonesian, Icelandic) but I haven’t thrown myself seriously into a language since I started Basque in 2013.
Otherwise, since then, the focus has been on developing my advanced Russian and German. They are both now humming along and I’m pressing on with Basque at an intermediate level.
It’s time for another language.
Unless you’re a fellow language-lover, the “whys” you come up with as you start will probably be very different from mine, but do remember to work them out very clearly at the beginning. Let me know what your “whys” are in the comments below. If you’re some way into your language, have your motivations changed over time?
The destination or “vision” goal
As you work out your “Whys” you should be aiming to come up with a concrete goal that you can envision vividly: a “vision goal”.
That might be “enough French to communicate in daily life with the in-laws” or “enough German for citizenship” or “enough Russian to matriculate in a Russian university” or whatever.
Unless, that is, you’re a language-lover like me, doing it “just because”.
I see my vision goal at the moment as getting to a solid basic level, in the nine months or so before my visit to Japan. If things go well, though, I’d like to focus on Japanese as my main “beginner level” language for the next two years and to see whether I can get further in that time.
Learning Japanese is no small task.
The US Foreign Services Institute classify Japanese in the hardest language group, category 5. In the FSI’s view, it takes 2200 hours or 88 weeks at 25 hours a week to reach ‘Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3)’ and ‘Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3) on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (roughly the B2/C1 border on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).
The FSI estimate cannot be hard and fast. There are certain obvious variables such as individual aptitude and language learning experience and whether self-study (my basic approach) is more effective than the classroom study that the FSI assumes.
All the same, the relative picture is clear. Japanese is not a “walk in the park”. The FSI come up with an estimate of 575-600 hours – 23 to 24 weeks for French or Spanish. For Russian or Icelandic it’s 1100 hours or 44 weeks). For a native English speaker, much longer than a language closer to English.
The way forward is to split up a large task into smaller intermediate “path goals”, with clear staging posts.
My intermediate or “path” goals
The Polyglot Conference is in October, week 42 of 2019. I’m planning in some slack and assuming I’ll have till about nine months or about 38 weeks.
From a planning perspective, nine months hence is quite long period. Shorter goals can be more effective for planning concrete steps.
I’ll split the time into three months periods. There will be a “path goal” at the end of each one.
Three months long enough to make real progress, even if life gets in the way at some points. It’s not so distant that you lose focus, get run down or feel you can slack or postpone things till “next week” again and again.
At the end of each period I can take stock and take a bit of a breather.
My core textbook and some SMART goals
How am I going to set intermediate path goals? They need to be “SMART” (there are various versions of this acronymn. My prefered one is specific, meaningful, action-orientated, realistic, time-bound).
I’m a fan of having a textbook (coursebook) to provide a basic structure to my focussed study (as opposed to more casual exposure to the language). It’s that which will give me my three, three-month milestones.
The textbook I’ve chosen is Japanese from Zero. This is a series of five books (plus another couple dealing with the writing systems).
The beauty of a textbook or a textbook series is that the lessons (chapters/units) provide obvious staging posts.
My aim is to get on top of the first three volumes before I travel to Japan for the conference. JFZ 1 has 13 lessons (plus four shorter “pre-lessons”, JFZ 2has 12 and JFZ 3 has 13. That’s thirty eight lessons, which means I can pace myself at one lesson a week.
If I fall behind, the path ahead will still be clear: on through the textbooks. What matters above all is not meeting the target. It’s to keep going.
After the Conference, I’ll decide on other path goals. If I’m still with JFZ by October, these later path goals may be later volumes. Or I may aim for an exam.
I won’t have the luxury of full time focus.
I’m going to have to fit this in around the rest of my life. That includes the small detail of the day job and my work on the site and as a course creator and mentor.
Also, there’s Basque, where I currently aim for about thirty mins at least five days a week, plus lots of audio exposure.
I am aiming to do the equivalent of at least half an hour a day of Japanese seven days a week. There will by some days I miss and others where a do an hour or more.
Looking at my diary for 2019, I can confidently predict that there will be weeks when everything ends up on hold because I’m travelling, snowed under at the office or for as yet unanticipated reasons.
At this overall rate of three and a half hours a week, I’d clock up about 130 hours before my trip.
More materials and resources
I don’t want to dilute my focus with too many materials.
At the moment, the only other books I have are James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kana and volume one of his (much larger) volume Remembering the Kanji.
Kana is the word for the special hiragana and katakana writing systems. Kanji are the Chinese characters.
Written Japanese uses a mixture of all three systems, which certainly looks like a challenge.
I’ve already started using the Anki spaced repetition app for basic vocab and phrases.
I am generally a fan of Assimil, usually as a supplementary course. I have not yet got a copy Assimil Le Japonois sans Peine but I want to have a look at it and to decide whether I should work on this (or another course) in parallel.
I am also exploring online resources, both as a supplement and to start getting more “natural” exposure as soon as possible. This will include YouTube and I’ll be looking for learner Podcasts as I advance. I’ll report back later.
What about teachers/classes?
With Basque, Indonesian and Icelandic, I have put great emphasis on speaking practice from the beginning. I booked regular one-to-one lessons with a teacher on italki.
This time, I may do some early samplers or a once-a-week sessions to help control pronunciation may make sense. That said, looking back over my Basque experience, I think am going to return to my older method of trying to learn a lot of the basic structures and, especially some core vocabulary before trying to have conversations.
This may be more efficient use of time for me as an experienced language learner with high motivation who likes working alone. We’ll see.
How far can I get?
My goal for my first visit to Japan is to be able to function at a pretty basic level in the language. I mean getting around on public transport or in taxis, ordering food at restaurants, shopping, visiting sights.
Of course, it I can get further than that, great! It’s worth having a reality check at this stage, though.
I am anticipating about 130 hours study.
A range of 450 to 750 hours is the estimate I have seen for students aiming to pass the easiest Japanese Language Proficiency Test. That’s the JLPT N5 exam (the “Basic Level”, the equivalent of the CEFR A2 upper elementary level).
In essence, it would be wonderful – and not mean achievement – to have a firm, active command of the language presented in the first three books of Japanese from Zero.
Blogging and vlogging the Project
I will be covering the project on the blog and the YouTube channel. The underlying plan is to do an update post and a vlog at the end of each month. I’ll review what I’ve done, how I’m feeling. For those of you who aren’t sqeamish, I’ll post videos of me attempting to speak. I’ll also flag up what I’ll be doing in the next month.
Aside from reporting on my progress monthly, I’m sure I’ll want to cover specific aspects of learning Japanese as I learn more about them.
I’m currently about ten days in and still in the exciting “honeymoon period” as I start to learn the hiragana writing system and get stuck into Japanese from Zero volume one. I can feel vistas opening as I start to discover things about the language and start reading what others have to say about the process of learning it. I’m even starting to recognise hirgagna as I walk past sushi shops here in London.
Of course, reality will soon bite in the shape of the enormity of the task. Yes, it all looks overwhelming from the bottom of the mountain. Then again, many foreigners do manage to get fluent in Japanese, so why not me?
Why not you, too, in your new language? Sort out your “whys”, get clear on your vision goal set some SMART interim path goals and just get started!
Tell me about your project in the comments below and, if you’re more experienced Japanese learner, do you have useful tips to share for those of us just in the earliest of stages?