No, actually I’m not a weeabo. Just a guy who loves Japanese culture. It’s been a while since I fell in love with Japan. I think it started with anime when I was eight years old. Eventually, manga fell into my world, I started learning about the land of the rising sun, it’s people and their habits, and something ticked inside me. It was all so different, so beautiful, so fascinating. I just had to know more about all of this.
Now, after years of learning different things about Japan, I have taken the step to acquire it’s language. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but that just makes it more interesting, doesn’t it?
Traditional language learning will usually involve parroting silly phrases like “good morning, my name is Jack”, rote learning, and getting you to talk as soon as possible. It also involves retarded classmates, and teachers who speak the language so-so, and pretend to charge astronomic fees for their wisdom. Needless to say, I’ve taken my own path to language acquisition. Considering that Japanese will be the fourth language I obtain fluidity in (assuming I get there), I’d have to say that My Approach doesn’t work too badly.
Drafting this study plan took me something like a year. I dabbled between many online resources, read a lot of bulletin boards, and blogs, and books, and eventually gathered a mental picture of the path to Nihongo Enlightenment (hopefully). I’m nowhere near done with this plan, so bear in mind that all of this might just be wishful thinking. I, however, plan to stick to my path until proven wrong.
The actual plan is rather simple: Do The Kanji, basic grammar, basic vocab, and then grammar & vocab together until I either gain fluency of throw the towel. Of course, the devil is in the details. Choosing resources for each topic on your own can be a daunting task, and every online community you dare to ask will have it’s own opinion as to which are the best, and which are a waste of your time and money. If wading through flame wars on bulletin boards, and figuring things out on your own based on whatever you gather is not your kind of endeavour, you might want to reconsider enrolling in that paid Japanese course.
As for this post, it shall serve the purpose of documenting my intentions of studying Japanese. If you are intending to pick up self-study of Japanese, and are not sure where to start, maybe you’ll find something useful, which would make me very happy. Make sure to let me know, if you do!
After trying several different methods of kanji training, I decided to entrust my kanji-fu to Dr Heisig, and bought all the books off Amazon. There are heaps over heaps of negative reviews of this series on the net. If the name sounds even just vaguely familiar, you’ve read the haters. Their problem is usually that it won’t teach you any actual Japanese along with the kanji, and that this is a waste of time, because you “should learn it all at once”. Well, let’s just say I consider this a big truck load of male cow excrement. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning in steps. Baby steps, if you have to. The only important thing is eventually getting there, and having fun along the way. And trying to deal with twelve things at once doesn’t sound fun to me.
The Heisig method, outlined in his Remembering the Kanji series, RTK for short, divides the kanji hurdle in two steps. While with traditional kanji study, you will tackle the writing, meaning, and reading all at once, Heisig splits the “reading” part off into a second book, and has you focus on just the writing and meaning of characters to begin with. The second book will then teach you the different Chinese readings that go with each character through a set of systematic rules, as well as give you a bunch of sample words for each reading, which serves the secondary purpose of bootstrapping your vocabulary.
With the myth out of the way, let me say that Heisig’s method is exactly what it says on the tin: A complete course on how not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese characters. Nothing more, nothing less. And considering 90% of Japanese language students (yes, I did in fact pull that number out of you-know-where) consider the kanji to be the biggest hurdle to fluency, this is no small feat. You don’t even need to finish the first book to start seeing the effects. After a couple hundred characters, and assuming you deal with any sort of Japanese material at all, you will start recognizing kanji in the wild. And you will know what they mean, even if you won’t be able to say the Japanese word to it aloud. Heisig turns kanji from “oh my gosh, that’s a lot of strokes at once” to “wait, I’ve seen that before”, and that’s just fucking awesome, if you will pardon my language.
Many a time, the stories presented by Heisig don’t make much sense. This is absolutely fine. What makes sense to the old professor doesn’t need to make sense to you. Creating your own stories is better anyway, since these will naturally draw on elements that are already firmly settled in your memory, making it a lot easier to remember these stories than trying to get a grasp of a story someone else came up with. If, after all, you can’t come up with a coherent story for a letter, you should visit Kanji Koohii (Kanji Coffee), which is a community of RTK-ers where many will share their stories for every character. The site also features a web-based SRS system written entirely for RTK. It’s an invaluable resource when it comes to RTK.
The idea is that once you are done with the writing and meaning part, you move onto the reading part, which will teach you the main Chinese readings of all the characters you just learned to write and interpret. However, I’d strongly advice against this, as this is a bit of a waste of time, at least to begin with. You can always go back to RTK2 after you have some proper, real Japanese under your belt, and systematize your reading knowledge.
Once you’re done with stroke-contraption-recognition, it’s time to move onto Real Japanese You Can Actually Use: Grammar & Vocab.
Tae Kim & A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar
The de facto online resource when it comes to Japanese grammar is, of course, Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. While it doesn’t tackle any really advanced topics, it will get you a very long way to understanding actual Japanese, and throw in a little vocab on the side. It may not be a very gentle introduction, as it is rather dense, but it’s absolutely possible to pick up basic grammar with nothing but this guide. It’s also a very good and searchable grammar reference, once you’re done with it.
I was mainly considering sticking to Tae Kim, the Genki series, and the ADoJG series. However, the anti-geek in me (a rather small part of my being) insisted that I acquired a physical resource for grammar acquisition. There is just something special about kicking back on the couch with a real book in your hands that no electronic device so far has managed to emulate for me. Genki is a text book that teaches silly little sentences and expects you to pick up grammar points from them. I hear this works pretty well for most people, but I’m a lot more comfortable with the dictionary approach, where each point is explained to comprehensively and densely. And that’s exactly what ADoJG does. It also ships a good amount of example sentences, so it’s not like you’re left on your own figuring how to put all that grammar to use. This series is also the most expensive of the three contenders, but I believe it’s worth the extra pennies.
While grammar is very structured in nature, vocabulary is more of an organic thing. There are lots of “most used words” lists out there, but I’m pretty sure the researchers didn’t research my little slice of the world. My approach to vocabulary is rather simple: just pick it up along the way. You will learn a good bunch of words before you ever come to the vocab-focused stage of your learning. Most basics should be covered by now, like colours, numbers, days of the week, etc.
That’s about as far as it goes for sensible structured vocab acquisition. Once you’re past the evident basics, there are just way too many words for you to bother and stuff them into a structured and ordered list. Your time is much better spent doing stuff in Japanese, and picking up the vocab as you go. Keep a little notepad (I keep a trusty Moleskine around at all times), and jot down anything you don’t know, and devote some time every day to research these unknowns.
There is nothing out there that can beat real world context when it comes to acquiring vocabulary, and that doesn’t just go for Japanese, but also for your mother language. There’s not much else to sa about vocab. Just get doing stuff, and you’ll learn heaps of new words every day.
Spaced Repetition Systems
SRS software is basically an intelligent version of traditional flashcards. It will analyse your performance on every card, and will space out those you know well, while showing the rest more often, until they stick. As facts sink into memory, they will show less and less. This enables you to handle a vast amount of facts easily. Imagine having three or four thousand flashcards. That’s just silly. Having over then thousand facts in your SRS is absolutely doable, and the software will take care of spreading things out so you don’t find yourself doing eight hundred cards every day.
Of course there is quite a bit of science and math behind SRS software, but I don’t feel I know enough to explain how things work behind the scenes. As far as I’m concerned, SRS just works, and really helps you retain a lot more in your head. SRS is a very valuable tool when it comes to language acquisition. Do not underestimate it. I heard some people refer to it as if though it was a clutch that, once removed, would take all it’s benefits with it. This is not true. You will see for yourself the first time you skip your reviews. Things won’t vanish of your memory as soon as you drop the tool. My tool of choice is Anki, but there are many others. Just find one that you like, they are all pretty good, but make sure it has good Unicode support, since we’re looking at displaying Kanji and Kana here.
There are pre-made decks for many topics, but if you can help it at all, you should be making your own. Reason behind this is that learning about the cards as you add them is a rather important step. Reading about a fact, and manually making a card about it is not quite the same as opening a deck someone else made and encountering new cards you’re not sure what to do with. SRS is a memory tool, not a tool to teach things. You should use books, teachers, Google, and friends for this, and once you have a fact you understand and want to remember, it’s time to hit the SRS. One exception to this rule are the excellent RTK decks found out there on the net. You can safely skip creating the ~3000 cards by hand, and instead download a deck that contains these, and is ready for you to insert your mnemonic stories. Just suspend everything, and reactivate as you learn new things from the book.
Natural practice and fluency
I’m not even sure about this stage. I speak three languages at native or near-native level, and yet I’m still unsure about what exactly fluency entails. At this stage, I’m assuming it’s like the proverbial state of being in love: once you are, you’ll just know.
I intend to assume natural practice of the language as soon as my level allows it. My own idea of this would be watching anime with no subs, reading untranslated manga, Japanese video games, and hopefully some actual social interaction with Japanese natives. I’m still way too far off this stage, though, so I guess I’ll document it once I’m a little further down the road.
Hopefully, learning Japanese is as fun to you as it is to me. The language and culture are simply fascinating, and every new kanji, every new grammar point, every new cultural concept, amaze me beyond words. Happy 日本語 learning!