By Kyle Smith
Let me preface this by saying I am awful at Japanese. I’m the guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know in a conversation, and just says hai and hopes it moves the conversation along. I’m the guy who spends 5 minutes looking up a kanji character he’s used for over 3 years. I studied four years in high school before entering Japan and PEAK, so I thought my Japanese ability must have been hot stuff. “Yeah, sometimes I turn away from my subtitled anime and I still understand what’s being said, I’ve pretty much mastered this language”. Turns out high school isn’t the most intensive environment and watching mameshiba cartoons and Miyazaki movies doesn’t quite equate to hitting the books.
In the PEAK program, all students are required to take intensive Japanese courses their first year. These courses do it right– essays, speeches, presentations, the need for flash cards and notebooks of the same character scrawled out a thousand times over. I learned more in one semester of intensive Japanese than I did in four years of high school. I want to continue learning Japanese, but now that my time in intensive Japanese has ended, it’s hard to find motivation to study. So, I’ve started to branch out, or at least broaden my definition of “study,” to find ways to use and improve my Japanese skills.
It is extremely useful to simply hear Japanese being spoken. For this reason, subtitled TV and movies are very useful. There are two ways of watching: actively and inactively. Inactive viewing is the non-Japanese learner’s case of simply reading subtitles and watching what’s on screen. Active viewing is where the viewer attempts to simultaneously listen to Japanese dialogue and read translated subtitles. By doing this every line of dialogue can be treated like some algebraic equation waiting to be solved. “I know this means this, but what did that word mean? Or that grammar form?” This is where the active viewer uses the context of what they can understand in Japanese, and identifies and fills in the blank with knowledge gained from subtitles.
As far as reading goes, my personal demon is kanji (chinese characters)– if a kanji is unknown, there’s no way to understand without help. I acknowledge the value of sitting down and practicing writing kanji, but I’m not disciplined enough to find time for it. This is where my personal hero, furigana, swoops in and shines a phonetic alphabetical light upon the dark forces that are kanji. Mixing study with play, I think reading manga and playing video games in Japanese can be helpful. Most manga will have furigana to show the pronunciation of kanji, and being comics they have pictures to help give context. Most kids games like Pokemon will have furigana or no kanji in the first place, so if others games are too difficult I recommend trying them. These mediums are similar to anime where new Japanese skills can be gained by reading context, but if you prefer gaming or reading over watching, and maybe want to chip away at their mountain of unknown kanji, they should give these mediums a try.
The best method I’ve found is actually, believe it or not, talking to people! Whether it is in person or online, talking to others will present you with a wide variety of topics to talk about, and friends can adapt their language to your skill level. It’s good to have common interests to talk about, so joining circles with others with similar interests can help you build conversational skills around your interests. Reading and writing (at least typing) skills can then be honed by keeping in touch over messaging services like LINE. Messaging can also be practiced through online video games, and apparently Japanese Tinder is full of those seeking language exchange.
For new and old Japanese speakers alike, I think it’s important to find what works for you. Find ways to not even necessarily study, but expose yourself to the language in ways interesting to you. Whether it’s staring at characters in a textbook or characters in a book or on a screen, exposure is exposure. When we all learned our first language, it was new and exciting, and definitely not done through a textbook.
Those new to the study of Japanese might find themselves studying in a kanji workbook like this one.