Some of the things that I hear from time to time when it comes to learning Japanese are:
“You shouldn’t learn to read Japanese until you have a pitch perfect accent, otherwise you’ll mess up the pronunciation of words!”
“You shouldn’t start speaking Japanese until you’ve got hundreds of hours of listening to it, otherwise you’ll sound weird and awkward in the language!”
“You should only learn from natives, because you don’t want to develop any misunderstandings from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about!”
While I can certainly appreciate the intention of the people who say these things (hey, they only want what’s best for you. “Thanks mom!”) I think that they’re going a little overboard in their concern.
One of their favorite things to point out when defending their positions is that “it is harder to break a bad habit, than to install a good habit.”
To which I respond, “yeah, so what?”
So what if your accent is bad when you’re a beginner? So what if you learn how to use the particle が incorrectly for a couple of weeks? So what if you make mistakes in the new language?
It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but you are going to suck at Japanese while you learn it.
Get over it.
Where you are at now, is not where you are going to end up. Let me elaborate on why this is.
“No one’s ever made the first jump…”
You remember in the Matrix when Neo learns it’s all a simulation and Morpheus jumps from one skyscraper to the next, and then beckons for Neo to do the same?
This is Neo, the chosen one, and it’s his first attempt at doing the fantastical.
He falls on face. BAM!!!
In fact, Neo pretty much sucks it up for the entire freaking movie right up until the end when it all finally “clicks” for him.
Well, it’s the same thing when it comes to learning Japanese. You (the chosen one) are going to be bad, for a while.
- There are going to be words you pronounce incorrectly.
- There are going to be grammatical structures you completely butcher.
- You’re going to talk like a girl sometimes (when you a dude).
After Neo fails the jump:
Mouse : Wha…what does this mean?
Switch : It doesn’t _mean_ anything…
Cypher : Everybody falls the first time. Right, Trin?
Here’s the point: everybody is bad at Japanese before they are good at Japanese.
Japanese kids have the best environment for learning the language, and it’s not just because of the total immersion (which certainly helps).
It’s because of the love, attention, and feedback that they receive from their parents.
- Japanese kid uses the wrong word, and mommy corrects him.
- Japanese kid has weird pronunciation, and daddy corrects him.
- Japanese kid keeps using the wrong tense, and big brother rubs it in his face!
Okay, so that last example isn’t exactly “loving” unless you count tough love!
So how can you, as a gaijin without Japanese parents, take yourself from a person who makes common mistakes in the language to a person who speaks and writes correctly without even having to think about it?
Well my friends, it’s a process, and I’m going to give it to you for F-R-E-E because I’m such a nice guy 😉
You’re going to need these four things. Price isn’t a concern, but there will be a cost.
#1 – Never Stop
You have to commit to learning for as-long-as-it-takes!
How long will it take you to reach fluency? The whole time. Until.
The only way to lose the game, is to quit the game.
Think about it, who creates the rules to this game? Who decides what the winning conditions are?
The answer is YOU. Not the teacher you had in college, not the opinionated dude on Reddit, not your grandparents who just want to help.
That means that perseverance is your Mewtwo, your Master Sword, your 5 cards of Exodia the Forbidden One!
With it, you are guaranteed victory, but only so long as you don’t stop playing the game.
#2 – Improve Every Day
You have to continually upgrade your skills.
You know how you start with crap equipment when you are level-1 in a video game?
It sucks, that’s true, but you don’t really worry about it because you know that as you grow and get stronger, you’re going to throw away that bad armor and get you some better stuff.
And yet, people don’t do that with their Japanese equipment.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s use a typical student’s “understanding of the sounds of Japanese” as our example.
Normally, you learn the rule from a book. You know, the う sounds is like the “u” in “Luke.”
That’s fine to get started, but there comes a time when you need to throw that away and say “actually it’s more like the 「う」 in 「みず」.”
Eventually you are going to take off the training wheels that are the English word comparisons for correct pronunciation, and you’re just going to go straight to the source of those sounds, which is the Japanese language itself.
It’s fine to suck at first, because as you level up you are going to upgrade your:
- Word choice
- Grammar structures
- Omission of unnecessary words
- And so on
The perfectionists will never get the ultimate gear, because they “have to” have it from the start. But you can’t afford it at the beginning, or even the middle of the game. That’s end-game stuff.
No DLC available for this one. No downloading a native understanding of the language (“I know Japanese!”)!
Here’s how it works:
What you learn, is limited by, your current capacity to understand it.
Here’s an example:
You are a level-1 Japanese learner and you get exposed to some level-9 anime. Unfortunately, you can only understand the level-1 stuff at this point.
You get it when they say “kawaii, sugoi, and yoshi” but then they drop a bomb on you with “I can locate even a super-wizard-class hacker if they make a call during domination!” within the span of three seconds, you are left scratching your head saying “nani?”
Guess what? This is normal.
Don’t let yourself get discouraged when this happens, because until you grow to level-10 (max level), it’s going to happen a lot.
Here’s the good news, eventually you will grow to level 5:
And at this point you can understand much more than before (at level-1)!
It’s a weird feeling when you are level-5 and you encounter the monsters (Japanese words) that are level-3 and that gave you such a hard time when you were still a level-1 squab.
You think, “how did I struggle with these weaklings?! These guys are so easy, they are actually boring now!”
And that’s the magic of gaining levels. Eventually you get to level-8 or level-9 and all the things that are hard for you right now, because so plain-Jane-vanilla-lame that you yawn when you see them.
#3 – FOCUS
You have to pay at·ten·TION!
This is how you can upgrade your gear. You can’t get rid of your wooden sword until you find a copper one. Then a steel one. And so on!
How many sounds do you think the character “n” in 「ん」 makes? Is it the same “n” as in “Nick”?
Even though the beginner books tell you that.
「ん」 in particular has A TON of different pronunciations all depending on what sound immediately follows it!
But you won’t know that, unless you listen to it in lots of situations. And I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y listen to it! Because the sounds it makes, they are oh so subtle. They are level-4 stuff and above.
There’s a lot of situations like this in Japanese. To catch them, you need to notice things such as:
- “What word did that Japanese person just use?”
- “Who did he/she say it to?”
- “When and where was he/she when he/she said it to the other person?”
- “What is the relationship between these two people?”
The answers to these above questions will explain, albeit silently, why Player 1 used Word X the first time, but then used Word Y in the exact same situation the second time.
Because it wasn’t the exact same situation! There was one, single, tiny difference, but it was enough to change the word. But you didn’t catch it unless you were present and truly observing the scene.
This is true for most languages, but it is super-true for Japanese.
Your brain is always looking for “the reason why” and you will find it, as long as you pay attention to the information, and as long as you get enough examples to start figuring out the rules.
- “Ahh, so the word ‘kimi’ is typically only used by guys.”
- “Ahh, since this guy is a samurai he is using all these special words and verb forms.”
- “Ahh, since it’s a Japanese clerk, they are ‘talking up to’ the customers in the shop.”
You gotta’ pay attention to what is actually happening, not what you think should happen based on the rules you learned at the beginning of the game.
If a 5 year old kid grew to be 21 years old, but still believed all the exact same things about the world, you would think he’s an idiot.
But are you also upgrading your understanding of how Japanese works as you progress? Or are you still using your baby level beliefs about it?
That leads to the final point:
#4 – Get Corrections
|Image credit: vmconverter|
You have to be able to accept feedback.
Look, I get it. You were in school your whole formative life where the rules were “if you know the answer, then you are smart and a winner! But if you don’t (already) know all the answers, then you are dumb and a loser”
This is a (harsh?) summary of how things work in the Academic world, but not in the Real world we know as Life.
Life tends to kick you in the teeth first and then ask, “do you know why I did that?” You learn the lesson after the test, not before it. But that’s really a discussion for another time.
If a person tells you that you made a mistake, or that your pronunciation sucks, or that you use awkward phrasing, tell them “thank you” and then ask them to elaborate on it so that you can level up your fire spell.
Most people won’t take the time to help you get it straight. Most people are really just trying to show the teacher “they are smart” because they know when other students make mistakes.
Ignore them. If they can’t (or won’t) help you to get better at Japanese, then they are useless to you for all intents and purposes.
There are lots of nice people out there who will take the time to tell you:
- “It sounds more natural this way.”
- “Actually it would be better to use this word in this particular situation.”
- “It’s more of a ‘___’ sound than what you said.”
If you can take your ego out of learning Japanese, then you will love it when other people help you to get better.
It’s like, if I hear a song on the radio and say “Oh I know. This is that new One Direction song” and my friend says, “Naw dude, this is Justin Bieber” I don’t get upset. Mainly because I don’t care about OD or BB or about “being right” when I say what song is playing on the radio.
But due to the school system (or as I like to call it “classical conditioning”), it seems like everyone is obsessed with “being right” about everything, even when it literally doesn’t matter (and they actually don’t know).
What I’m telling you is this: DO NOT “have to be right” when it comes to Japanese. Be a learner. Be a person who is growing to level-10 in the language, but not at level-10 YET.
Once you’re at level-10, then you can get into arguments with others. And preferable in Japanese too!
Granted some people will try to correct you when they themselves are wrong about the subject, so just be willing to verify whatever they tell you against some other sources like native Japanese people or the textbooks you bought from the store.
You Don’t Have to be Perfect, Just Head that Direction
It’s like the way that airplanes fly from New York to San Francisco:
They are off course 99% of the journey, but since they are constantly making small course corrections along the way, and they never stop flying until they arrive, they complete the journey, 100% of the time.
End of story.
No if’s, and’s, or but’s… or butts. Don’t want those.
But what do you guys think?
Leave a comment and let me know!