The Origins of Living Japanese:
This is the tale of how I came to learn Japanese, and in doing so,
discover what would become the Living Japanese method.
Growing up in rural Florida, I can't say there was any practical reason to want to learn Japanese. I'm still not entirely sure what triggered the thought, but one day I said to myself (probably aloud), “It would be pretty cool if I were to learn Japanese on my own.”
I must have had a million ideas like this throughout my life, all of which never went beyond that first thought, but for some reason this one stood out. It really would be cool if I learned Japanese on my own, but would that even be possible? No matter how I approached the concept of learning on my own, I couldn't see any way to actually become fluent. That made me want to do it even more.
So I did what anyone presented with a near impossible task should do: I jumped in head first. At this point I was using Rosetta Stone. I had no knowledge of Japanese, but the program insisted I was getting things right, so hey, I must be learning. Right?
Okay, so I wasn't really learning. Turns out Japanese has a whole other writing system, and the romaji I had been learning was utter nonsense from the perspective of any self-respecting Japanese person. I didn't know any Japanese people, but I assumed that the majority of them were indeed self-respecting.
So what was I to do? Apparently I needed to learn a new alphabet or something. How hard could it be? I found a website with flashcards for the hiragana and started going through them. To be honest, I didn't really have a clue how to write them, so I had to go find some other site to show me. Through the combined power of many websites, I was able to half-ass my way through the hiragana. I remembered them for maybe a whole 2-3 hours. It felt good.
Obviously if I wanted to remember this stuff, I was going to have to find some tool to make me keep reviewing them. Something sort of like a class, but still completely governed by when and how I wanted to approach stuff. That was when I found Smart.fm (now iKnow.jp). I don't really get what the site name was about, but it had some cool online “classes” that were basically lists of words with images, example sentences, and pronunciation guides. Oh, and it was in beta, therefore FREE. I spent a while on this site.
It was around this period that I finally began to learn. Unbeknownst to me (is unbeknownst a word?) I was using a spaced-repetition type of flash card system. So the better I knew a particular word, the less often I would see it. The opposite also being true, if I sucked peanuts at a word, the program would keep showing it to me. This system meant I would not only learn new words, but also remember the old ones. Good stuff.
But then the honeymoon period came to an end. While I was finally learning Japanese, it was also pretty boring. The sum of my entire Japanese experience at this point was flashcards and quizzes. Not fun in school, and not fun in learning Japanese either. I needed something new.
I've always been an avid reader. Well, okay, there was a period when I was a kid and I didn't really “get” books, but that passed. The point being, I wanted to start reading Japanese. Not the example sentences that sounded like the words of a simpleton, but real Japanese written for real Japanese people.
Trying to figure out how to just “start reading” another language is pretty tough. As a kid I certainly didn't just learn the alphabet, learn a couple words, and then sit down and read. There was a long stretch of having adults correct me and show me how to do it. Of course, now I was the adult, and I didn't know a single person who knew Japanese (no hand holding here). I had to fly solo.
“I've got it!” I exclaimed one day - again aloud, and again to myself. My genius plan was thus: I would get some Japanese books for little kids and read them. Gotta start small and all that jazz. So I found some books to try out online. I knew within moments that I had learned something vitally important to the process: kids books are boring.
I had to wonder – did I really find this interesting as a kid? Where is the plot? The conflict? The stories basically consist of cute things being cute. Plus, thinking back to my own childhood books, the language is, a bit...simple. Suffice to say, an adult man repeating the things from those books would sound like an idiot.
Kid's books: OUT.
However, I did learn this from the experience: Pictures make it a lot easier to understand a story. That's basically what books for children are: pictures. I think the words are really only there for the benefit of parents, and to give the kids a brief lesson that “words are important.” If only there was some genre of story that had pictures, text, AND a good story. I just don't think anything like that exists...
Oh, yeah. Comics. Manga. Duh.
So unlike English comics, Japanese comics (manga, whatever) cover all kinds of genres – not just superheroes. Which is good, cause I don't really care for the superhero thing. So I had to find manga that would be good for a beginner. Seeing as I was doing my best to pretend that kanji didn't exist, I went with random volumes of manga that had furigana (a reading guide for kanji). Yep. I was gonna do it. Read Japanese. Guaranteed success. I imported the books, put them up on my bookshelf. Grabbed the first volume, popped it open, and...
Closed it. Put it back on the shelf. Went back to my quizzes for three months.
Hey, don't judge me! That book was scary! It had, like, words and stuff. Actual grammar. You know... Japanese. I was pretty poor. I'm still pretty poor. Point being, I spent money on those books – there was no way they were just going to sit there. So after a few months of contemplating the idea and avoiding looking at the books directly (so as not to provoke them), I finally pulled that first book back out.
It was slow. So slow. Kinda like the progress this story is making. I had to look up every word. I had to look up every grammar point, every particle. I still didn't really get it. But I made it to the end of the page. I didn't really feel accomplished. I felt tired. My head hurt. I put the book back and went back to my normal, English life.
I'm not sure when it occurred to me, but eventually I realized that if I could read a single page of Japanese (as I had done), then I could read two pages. I could read three, four, etc, etc, and eventually read an entire volume. It might take a while, but it was possible, and if it was possible, then why not do it? So I did it.
I'd like to say that I actually finished that volume within a couple days. Or even within a couple weeks. But honestly, working on my own and learning everything piece-by-piece, it took a long time. But with each page, I got faster and my confidence grew. It was hard work, but it could be done, and in doing it, I was learning Japanese. On my own.
The impossible was possible after all.
I continued to read and study on iKnow for a while. Eventually I realized that the process would work better if I had a study program based around the stuff I was actually reading, instead of just common words. After all, the words I needed to know in my books were common enough for me to need them now – so why not learn them now?
It was then that I learned about spaced-repetition systems (what I had been using on iKnow) and how I could download a program (for FREE!) and make my own flashcards with my own content, and they would behave just like the ones in the iKnow system. So I downloaded it and started making my own flashcards based on the words I found in my manga. Things were peachy and I was learning.
Of course, there was one large aspect of Japanese that I had neglected entirely. Kanji. While I had managed to recognize a handful, I couldn't write any of them. I couldn't remember more than ten. I was hopeless. To my dismay, I came to find that if I wanted to move beyond manga with furigana, I was going to have to learn the kanji. All like ten thousand of them. Who makes a writing system like that?
So as it turns out, there are more like two thousand common use kanji, but that's still way more than I wanted to learn. Surely, if there was an aspect of Japanese was impossible to handle, it was this. I mean...how would you even do it? How can there even BE that many ways to write stuff?!
As you may have noticed already, I am a bit of an idiot. When faced with something that is impossible, I kinda want to try my hand at it anyways. So I started learning the kanji. I found a list of kanji based on Japanese grade levels and started writing them out and trying to remember their “names.” After about a week I remembered maybe ten of them. Yep. Impossible. No way to do it.
So I found a way to do it.
I went in hunt of a non-school based learning method for the kanji. Something that a young man from rural America could understand. “After all,” I said to myself, “Those Japanese kids had like 12 years to learn those kanji!” I finally came across the James Heisig books: Remembering the Kanji. The subtitle for the book is “A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters.” A rather long subtitle, but it really spoke to me.
As it turns out, this James Heisig fellow had found a way of relating the kanji to each other. You started with the small little pictorial kanji, then you put them together to make more complex kanji. Each piece had a keyword, and you put the keywords together to make a story about the kanji. So when you saw the keyword for a kanji, you remembered the story, and the story would tell you how to draw it. I like stories (I mentioned that already), so it was perfect for me.
My one gripe with the book was that the author, Mr. Heisig, stops giving you stories that he wrote. You have to actually think. Ugh. I can't do that, my head hurts from learning kanji! So I found the website “Reviewing the Kanji.” Aha! Other people write stories and share them for each kanji, AND it helps you review them (another spaced-repetition system)! “Oh we're cooking now!” I thought.
In case you're confused, no actual cooking was taking place. Until writing the phrase out just now, I hadn't realized how odd it sounds. My apologies.
While I was now having a much easier time with the kanji – typically “learning” a kanji involved writing it out five times while reciting the story – it was still very time consuming. After all, it was over two thousand characters. Luckily I was a bit of a shut-in at the time (is that lucky?), so I had plenty of time to dedicate to my studies. I made it to the end of the book and the end of the common kanji within 2-3 months.
It's worth noting that “learning” a kanji wasn't enough to know it. I had to review each kanji I learned using the website's flashcard system. If I forgot a kanji, I had to go back through and reinforce the story. The bulk of my time was spent reviewing what I had learned in previous days. Even after reaching the end of the book, I would spend an hour or two each day reviewing flashcards. It was hard work, and many days I didn't want to do it, but what I wanted even less was for my work to go to waste. Giving up on my reviews would be like hiking miles and miles up a steep hill, then rolling down to the bottom before reaching the top.
Not. Gonna. Happen.
I'll be entirely honest. I thought the kanji was it. The end of the journey. I could read some books, I could recognize and write kanji, so clearly I was done with learning Japanese. Right?
You're never really done learning a language. While I had tackled the biggest challenges, I still had a lot of vocabulary and grammar to learn. And when I moved to another city and decided to test into a Japanese class, I realized that I had completely neglected an important language aspect: speaking.
Imagine with me, if you will, that you had been studying Japanese for a while, but always through books and text. You had heard enough of the language to know how the words sound, but it was always through TV and other recorded media. You'd never once had reason to write your own thoughts out or speak aloud in Japanese. That was me. Now imagine that you go in for an interview with two native speakers.
It was bad.
What shocked me was that I could understand them almost completely. They would speak to me in Japanese, and while I knew what they said, I couldn't reply in Japanese – I didn't know how to form a sentence on the spot. I was like a fish out of water. In the end I had to use a weird combination of English and Japanese semi-sentences. I could convey meaning, but it was clumsy. I wasn't used to it.
To make matters worse, since I was completely self-taught (and had never used a textbook), I didn't know any of the “forms” they kept asking me about. “Say something in -te form for us, please” they'd ask (in English). “Umm...what's that?” So they had to ask me to instead translate sentences from English to Japanese, and when I would succeed they'd say, “That! That was -te form! You just used it!!”
Then they saw my answers to the basic knowledge questions. “You know over 2000 kanji?” I could see the doubt in their eyes. I explained about my methods and they seemed intrigued (they added the Heisig books to the course curriculum about a year later – guess I made an impact). Needless to say, it was difficult to place me. My knowledge on paper was outstanding, but I sounded like an idiot when I spoke. They decided to play it safe and put me into the fourth semester class.
To explain about the classes, there were four years of classes. Each year, except for the fourth, had two semester-long classes. So I was in the second class of the intermediate level. My classmates, much like my professors, were confused by me. On the one hand I could read any kanji that they gave me, but I also had trouble with remembering the difference between polite and casual forms of speech. However, by the end of the semester my speaking ability had caught up (somewhat) to my ability to understand. Writing, as it turns out, was another field where I was fairly strong, as a result of having read so much.
At this point in our story there is a bit of a break. Little did I know, but I had a genetic disease that suddenly emerged during this period. Due to health issues, I barely attended the first semester of the advanced level and skipped the second semester altogether. Fortunately for me, my knowledge of Japanese was already so strong at this point that they still gave me credit for the courses. Yeah. Self-study is the best. So I got my life under control and came back for the fourth year class.
The journey to learn Japanese was really over at this point. I could do whatever I wanted with the language. I had overcome so many obstacles along the way that I knew I could handle anything. I was no Japanese master - there is always more to learn. But for my purposes, I was really done. I started translating in my free time and decided to go ahead and get a Japanese degree and study abroad in Japan.
Life in Japan was a struggle. A struggle deserving of its own story. But I learned a lot in my time there, and more importantly, I finally had my proof. I had learned Japanese. Talking to the ladies at the grocery story, traveling around Tokyo with friends, renting an apartment and setting up my hospital visits – all of it in Japanese. If there was any doubt left in my mind (Oh, yeah, there was), it was gone after those experiences.
In the beginning I thought to myself, “It would be really cool if I learned Japanese on my own.” And while I did have help along the way, as I sit here writing about my experiences, I can definitively say:
It was indeed really cool.