How I learnt Japanese

by Yaska Sahara

I have said this on my blog, I have said it to many people and I will continue to say it to anyone who will listen, and even some who won’t, immersion is the key to language learning. Obviously, the best form of immersion is going to a country in which the language you are learning is spoken, constantly evolving your understanding and putting what you learn to use just as you learn it. But with Japanese, I didn’t quite get that. I’d been able to speak Japanese at a good level for about two or three years before I’d even set foot on Japanese soil. Even a year or two before that, I could speak okayish Japanese. The next best kind of immersion if you cannot be in the country is consuming media in the language you’re learning.

So consume Japanese media I did, a lot of it. I mainly got a good base in Japanese from anime. Before you roll your eyes and click away, I’m not saying I learnt entirely from anime. I’m not saying it is the best way to learn for all. But it is a good way. One cannot watch endless anime hoping to learn Japanese to perfection. But anime got me pretty damn far. My brain was a young sponge and so I watched a lot of shows. (I probably should have been doing homework. Whoops!) Me being so new to this eclectic medium meant that I watched whatever I could. While I watched a lot of good shows, I also watched many that were, frankly, crap. But I was just so fascinated with something so far from what I new. And you know what? Even though many shows were crap, they were all in Japanese.

So odd to see Ghibli Merchandise in Akihabara, Ghibli is what started it all!

Yes, I know that people in anime and real life don’t sound the same, but you still often get a feel for the language, pronunciation, word order etc. Many people in English language shows don’t talk like real life English speakers. If someone learns English mostly from TV, they may sound funny if they lift lines from shows verbatim, but they will be able to understand a good amount of English idioms, slang, various accents etc. Even if the accents and slang are exaggerated or off a little, it is far better than only learning from a textbook. Textbooks are not evil, they can be very helpful in defining things like grammatical rules, interesting facts and guidelines, but they are far from a perfect source.

I was learning to speak rather broken Japanese through anime but found myself understanding real life conversations, far more than I would have dreamed countless hours in front of a screen watching these large-eyed drawings go on adventures would ever reward me. Somehow, at some point, I realised that I was learning. It was purely accidental, a positive side effect of my somewhat dangerous addiction.

So, with a foundation already set for me, a base in Japanese I’d gained from enjoyment, I took to the internet. I learnt about the beautiful complexity of the Japanese writing system. I printed out hiragana and katakana and put the sheets on my wall. I sat down and wrote them a few times but I mostly passively learnt them when I woke up, when I walked past, when I had an extra few seconds… I would sometimes be curious what a word was in Japanese and then ended looking up all sorts, from common phrases that don’t always have an exact translation like shoganai, iktadakimasu, otsukaresamadeshita, to slang like yabai, bimyou, to the beautifully profound like komorebi and so many more. (See bottom for translations)

So after about three years of sometimes learning from the internet and being a homework-abandoning-die-hard anime fan, it got to exam time, where my mother had to sit on my head to get me to study and not watch Kaichou wa maid sama for the sixth time. What then? Would my Japanese and anime phase be left behind me? No. My parents were not letting it go to waste, and nor was I. My mother found me a Japanese teacher. He was a nice Indian man who’d learnt Japanese, not perfectly, but very well. He’d never even been to Japan. But he was dedicated to helping me pass JLPT, which he knew how to help me pass well. Native or more practiced teachers were not available in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad (where I lived at the time) finding a decent Japanese teacher was a blessing enough.

I wanted to pass JLPT, which meant serious studying. I was rarely disciplined enough to do it myself, to be honest. Maybe I could use this for university, I thought. But, mainly, it was just an accomplishment for myself. My teacher taught more about formal Japanese, grammar and kanji, those complicated picture word thingys which there are thousands of. I was around N4 level when I met him (the second lowest). But just to get the ropes, I took N5. I got top marks. Six months later, after sitting down with him everyday, I passed N3 with top marks again. I don’t plan on going further for now. It only gets harder, with N1 being very advanced, what one needs to work and live in Japan. It covers very advanced and technical words. I am very proud of my progress so far though.

Once I turned 18, I started travelling, Spain, Rwanda and then Japan. I spent a month and a half studying in a Japanese language school in Tokyo and living in a small flat nearby. I went to Human Academy Language School. The whole experience was very convenient and fun. The incredible pace at which I was learning blew my mind. I’d spent years picking up Japanese rather than studying it, so sometimes it had felt slow, other times fast. But here, my learning pace was constantly speeding up, and my ability to learn more diligently improved greatly too. The immense power of the human brain astounded me.

learning on my own for years to studying to Japan
Takadanobaba, my local area

Being surrounded by Japanese people, culture and classes deepened my understanding of the language. I was speaking it faster and more naturally than ever. I had different teachers and got to talk to lots of students. It was great to talk to people who spoke Japanese and only Japanese with me, because they couldn’t speak English or any other language I knew. Other Japanese speakers I’d met had spoken English so as soon as I’d hesitated, they’d switched to English. Speaking to Japanese speakers who knew no English, forced me to search deeper in my brain to communicate something that I did not know a word for. The Japanese are not well known for being able to adapt when a conversation goes off script, but the awkward silences while you think are well worth the pain, and they gradually reduce to the point that you find they barely exist.

some classmates

I will admit, I focused far more on speaking than reading and writing, on my own when I should have been doing homework and while in Japan. That is generally the case with all language learning I have done up until now. I love to have conversations in the languages I learn more than I love to read in them. But due to Japanese’s complicated writing system, the gap between the two sides was and still is far larger for me. I do try and close it, to get better with reading and writing. However, it isn’t particularly urgent for me at the moment, maybe in the future. Perhaps, I’ll be in a sort of almost there state, not so fluent that I know loads of complicated words but fluent enough to have fun and some serious conversations, fluent enough to be able to explain something in simple, normal language. I’m fine with that at the moment, but who knows what the future holds. Will I live in Japan? Will I work for a company where I get to interact with a lot of Japanese speakers? Or will I just use it on holidays, with Japanese friends, to watch anime without subtitles?

I often get asked, but what if you forget it all? Sure, when you don’t use the language, you get a bit slower. Then after years and years, it may start to slip away if you don’t use it or are not exposed to it. But I love Japanese. I watch youtube in it, I still watch anime (though I don’t just watch much crap these days, nor do I abandon important tasks for it), I try to read some easy novels and manga when I get some time, I have a few Japanese friends… I will get rusty at times but I’m confident I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. My mother learnt Kiswahili as a child and didn’t speak it for two decades. But then, with a little bit of practice, she managed to speak it with relative ease when we visited the DRC. If you really learn a language well and if you love it, it’s impossible to forget entirely.

So if you are thinking of learning Japanese or any other language, find your own style, immerse yourself in it with travel and media and have fun. Just don’t drop your homework for it!


Translations:

Shoganai – roughly translates to ‘it can’t be helped’.
Itadakimasu – Said before eating (a meal). Like, ‘I will humbly accept/enjoy this food’. Gouchisousamadeshita is what is said after eating, like, ‘This meal was satisfying. I enjoyed it.’
Ostukaresamadeshita – Said to commend someone for hard work, after school, work or anything else. Tsukareru is to tire, so it’s like saying ‘You must be tired after working hard’.
Yabai – Said when something bad happens, adjective meaning bad.
Bimyou – Roughly translated to ‘so-so’.
Komorebi – Rays of sunlight seen coming through tree branches.

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