Learning Japanese Part One – The Agony

For anybody moving to a new country, learning the language is one of the most obvious ways to make your life easier and stress free. A few years ago, I lived in Spain for a while. My Spanish was at a high-school level, I had good grammar but weak vocabulary and not much confidence in speaking. So, while I could understand the general gist of what people were saying, actually speaking was tough. With time though I did improve to the level where my mistakes were only hilarious rather than totally incomprehensible. I thought that this experience was a good forerunner to moving to Japan.

Boy was I wrong. Somehow I had forgotten that I had spent years learning Spanish. Classes every day, homework, studying for exams. I thought my Spanish was bad, but I wasn’t a complete beginner. I also missed the most important difference between learning Spanish and learning Japanese. I could read Spanish. If I didn’t know a word, I just broke out the dictionary and looked it up. If I was in a store looking for something, I could just compare the words to the dictionary and easily find what I wanted. Sure, it was a little more time-consuming than shopping at home, but really, it was no sweat.

When I got to Japan, I realised that I was illiterate. Totally illiterate. I couldn’t read push or pull on doors. I wandered into the men’s bathrooms. I tried to fry things in mirin instead of oil. I tried to bleach towels in toilet bleach instead of clothes bleach. It was unbelievably frustrating.

So, I went about the task of learning the kana – the two sets of phonetic symbols that Japanese uses. There are 46 symbols in each. It wasn’t all that fun, but it was so essential that really I didn’t have a choice. I did hiragana first – it looks like this ひらがな. Then I moved on to katakana – カタカナ. I used the old write/cover/check method. I tried to read anything and everything I could find and eventually it came together. I still sometimes confuse similar-looking symbols like シ (shi) and ツ (tsu), ン (n) and ソ(so), but mostly I’m ok.

Before I came to Japan I signed up for a class. It was run by a language school near to where I worked, and the class was for 2 hours a week. Ten minutes into the first class we had all introduced ourselves and I had realised that it was going to be a hideous waste of time. Nobody else there had any intention of moving to Japan. Their answers were variations on “I’m going on a 2 week holiday in eight months” and “I love manga“. I was moving to Japan for at least a year in two months. The teacher had no intention of teaching us to read and write the kana, never mind any kanji. If we could stammer out “Watashi wa John desoo” she was happy. I thought sheesh, why can’t they just buy a phrase book and be done with it?

So, I rang up the owner of the school, explained my situation and got a refund. I took the book (Japanese for Busy People 1) and worked on it myself. I got through a fair bit of the book before arriving, but hadn’t really anticipated the illiteracy thing. The whole book was in roman letters! Still, I didn’t see much of a problem with it and ploughed on even after I arrived.

The book came with a cd that I loaded onto my iPod and listened to over and over. Eventually I realised that I was learning a lot more from listening than I was from trying to memorise things from the book, so I joined the library here and borrowed some dvds. I got out things I had already seen in English that had been dubbed into Japanese. I watched them, but still I was lost.

I needed a new method.


One Response

  1. […] writing the previous two posts about learning Japanese (click for parts one and two) I’ve changed tack a […]

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