Learning Japanese - Week 1 - 4月20日

はじめまして。I want to start this out just kind of talking about why I wanted to start learning, what I know so far, what my goals are... things along that line. I've always really appreciated Japanese culture. From the polite, collectivist mentality to media like video games and anime (though I'm not as into anime as most, Cowboy Bebop had a massive influence on my overall tastes when it comes to TV and movies). I never really had much drive to learn more until I started getting into cooking Japanese foods more. I really loved sushi, sashimi, chicken katsu, teriyaki and, most important of all, well prepared rice.

I started preparing a lot of recipes from Just Hungry and Just Bento. I gained a huge appreciation of the cuisine and seeing how so few core ingredients can prepare so many different dishes. At some point in time, I stumbled across YouTuber Chris Broad's channel, Abroad in Japan. I found Chris' general disposition to be agreeable (sarcastic Brit) and fairly similar to my own. I suppose that seeing Chris manage to make his way to Japan and learn the language and culture without being a fedora'd neckbeard made me feel a lot more comfortable taking up the task of learning the language myself.

While I have this website, I really kind of keep my massive interest in video games and other nerdly pursuits to myself until I know someone. I suppose I've never felt too comfortable having this as a hobby of mine as I find most people who are very.. out there with their video game hobby to be a pretty generally disagreeable lot. Plenty of looking down on people and holier than thou attitudes to go around. I think that since this is my impression of nerd culture I tend to hold back in some regards in favor of just appearing as a plain human beng, at least as much as I can. Chris didn't really seem to have this. He's just a normal guy who ended up in Japan. Didn't seem to have any strong fixation on anime or specifically going to GLORIOUS NIHON, as it's so often called by those of the nerdier disposition. So, that gave me the self-confidence to just go for it.

I do have a few friends who are...fluent or semi-fluent in Japanese (one of my friends actually went to assist with the Tohoku earthquake clean up and brought back some fabulous sake, which we drank all of one night) and while I was in college there was a large exchange program with a university in Japan (or a だいがく...fucking nailed it). I'd usually befriend one or two of the students each year, I was always fairly bewildered because a lot of Japanese media that had become semi-popular here was pretty unknown to them. None of the students I met were familiar with the band Boris and most weren't familiar with the film Battle Royale either. Even with these facts, it still wasn't enough to push me over the edge and learn. Call it pure stubbornness, I suppose.

I'd like to learn Japanese to the extent that I would be fluent in travelling to the country and playing video games. There's a lot of games I'm interested in that have never been translated and probably never will be. I see many people online saying that this is not a good reason to learn, however I call bullshit on that. If you want to do a thing, do the thing. It doesn't matter why if the reason works for you.

What I've Learned So Far

I started off with learning the hiragana. I decided to do this without any other learning tools just to test my commitment. Once I had this down, I decided to seek out some resources for starting to learn the language. There's a lot out there. The two most common recommendations I found were Japanese from Zero! and Genki. I ultimately decided on Japanese from Zero as Genki seemed to be aimed at college students since people recommended buying the Genki workbooks and answer key to supplement the text book. The other thing that appealed to me about Japanese from Zero was that the author had a lecture series on YouTube to accompany the books. Well, I ended up switching over to Genki fairly quickly.

Here's my thoughts on Japanese from Zero and what I learned about myself as a learner. Japanese from Zero really truly is from zero. The fact that I had already learned the hiragana made the book very slow and painful for me, and I think hindered what I already knew about hiragana since I had stopped using a lot of them. Trombley teaches hiragana progressively meaning that you'll be learning one set of the syllables per chapter, and then he'll mix those with English. For example, arigatou might be written out in the first chapter as あrigatoう. By the end of the book you'll know the full set of hiragana. This quickly became frustrating as I was ending up writing out all of my notes in hiragana from studying the lectures and using the book felt like a step backwards. The other thing I learned is that I need a fair amount of details about how or why something functions as it does. Trombley is really great at making things simple, but he doesn't always excel at explaining why something is how it is. Don't get me wrong; I really like George's videos, but he's kind of an exciteable guy. He clearly loves teaching this stuff, but I think in his excitement he can lose the plot a bit and leave out some details. I don't gain much as a learner by being told "x is y but x can NEVER be z" without explanation. My other issue with JFZ was the vocabulary lists. The vocabulary is generally given to you as words that you can write with the hiragana that you know for where you are in the book. The problem with this is that I have no reason to remember the word for elephant at this stage in my learning process so for my learning style, I have no reason to retain that information (and indeed, I have no fucking idea what the word for elephant is right now).

Enter Genki. Again, I hesitated on this because it seemed to be a college level book... but that was the exact reason I shouldn't have hesitated on it. Genki may not boil things down to as simple of a level as Trombley does, but you'll have covered about the first 3-4 chapters of JFZ in the first two of Genki. Genki doesn't hold your hand as much - you're expected to know hiragana and katakana by chapter 3 and you'll start being introduced to kanji for numbers and time in the third chapter. Genki is hardcore enough that the entire answer key is actually written in Japanese, barring questions where you are supposed to translate a word, phrase or numbers. This sounds daunting but trust me, it isn't. You feel much more rewarded. Knowing the hiragana and katakana is a slightly bigger ask, and I will admit that I am currently stalled out on chapter 3 a bit as I don't have my katakana 100% down. I don't want to advance much further until I know them well enough to not refer to the chart, as I can with hiragana. Genki does a satisfying job of explaining vocabulary concepts more in depth so I can have a deeper understanding of the material as well, instead of being told what it is.

Moving forward, I believe that I'll primarily be relying on Genki. However, I did mention that I like Trombley's videos and he's good at simplifying things. I can easily see myself continuing to use them as a resource alongside Genki if there's anything in the book that I don't feel 100% comfortable with and could use a simpler explanation. A big part of starting this on my own has been coming to understand what I need to succeed on my own as a learner. An important part of that is admitting that as a learner, you aren't always perfect and that some concepts can just be beyond you for any variety of reasons. Maybe just a simple misunderstanding, maybe just... not getting it for any particular reason. That's why it's important to have some kind of a resource that can dumb it down considerably.

Swallowing My Pride

Flashcards. I really hate flashcards. I always have. I felt that I never benefitted from them. Really I think I just didn't know how to use them. By that I mean I just never spent enough time doing them repeatedly to ingrain anything into my memory. I would go through once or twice and feel very... well, whatever about it. In any online discussion, you frequently find people recommending Anki, a flashcard program that you can download or create decks form. Since I'm a stubborn fuck I decided I wasn't going to use Anki because nyeeeh. Well, I had to swallow my pride. I was having a hard time remembering the vocab from Genki. I installed Anki to my phone and downloaded vocab lists for the Genki chapters I had reviewed. At first I was pretty unimpressed and went about flash cards how I had previously. I kept coming back to the app and found that wow, I was actually gaining something from it. There's still a few words that are just a pain in the ass for me for whatever reason, but I can tell I'm gradually getting better. So, deal with it and try something you don't like. It might help.

Where I'm At Now

Here, basically. (The joke is that they're just saying incredibly simple phrases for beginners with basically no context) I'm still very solidly in the bginner stage. That's not to say I'm doing anything wrong, though. It's going to take quite a while, and I came in with that expectation. I have an understanding of basic sentence structure and particles. I've had a few moments I was proud of. I've got a copy of Ganbare Goemon 2 for Famicom, and in playing the game I was able to decipher the hiragana I was coming across with ease. I couldn't always discern meaning, however. Last night I was playing Yakuza Kiwami and through my understanding of sentence structures I learned that ゆびわ (yubiwa) means ring (as in one you'd put on your finger - yubi is finger). They're small victories, but they are victories. It shows me that I'm getting somewhere, even if I feel somewhat stalled out since I'm holding back a bit right now in order to better know the katakana.