Mark Gallucci is a Japan Society Communications intern. In addition to receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University at Albany, he completed a study-abroad program in Kansai Gaidai University, Japan. As an English-Japanese tutor, Mark talks about his experience learning Japanese and shares some tips for self-study and classroom-based learning.
Coming from an English background, learning Japanese can seem like a daunting endeavor. It’s easy to look at the written language and be intimidated by the complexity of its three writing systems—hiragana, katakana and kanji—when compared to the English alphabet. But Japanese is a language like any other, and learning it is just a matter of taking the first step.
Before I finally decided to learn Japanese, I went back and forth several times. I was a junior in college, and I’d never had the chance to take Japanese classes in high school, which offered only Spanish, French, Italian, and German.
After a bit of research, I decided that self-study would be a great way to start. I found tons of websites and programs that could help, but before I could begin, I noticed that there were several different paths of study to choose from, depending on your priorities.
You can ignore the writing system and focus solely on speaking, you can choose to learn kanji later, or you can start with kanji. If you’re looking to watch Japanese TV or anime, or listen to Japanese music, you can prioritize speaking and listening skills. But if you’re looking to communicate with people in writing, especially online, or if reading manga or classic literature are goals, then a solid knowledge of kanji is vital.
It’s for that reason that I chose to learn kanji first. It may seem counterintuitive, as it involves learning what the characters mean before even learning the words they’re used in. But it also helps when identifying new words. For instance, if you don’t know a certain word but recognize one of the kanji used in it, you can make a reasonable guess as to what that word is.
As for how my choice turned out, two years and one semester of studying abroad in Japan later, I still need English subtitles when I watch Japanese TV, no doubt a result of prioritizing kanji over speaking and listening. On the other hand, I read and reply to messages in Japanese every day, and thanks to speaking practice with friends, can have long conversations with native Japanese speakers without having to resort to English to get my point across. And while I did end up taking several classes along the way, there were two resources that I found invaluable in my studies.
For kanji, vocabulary, and other things I need to memorize, I use Anki, a popular, completely free digital flashcard program that has tons of user-created decks, including ones for hiragana and katakana. This is a great tool for memorizing large amounts of information. For everything else, I use Lang-8, a platform for free language exchange – you write entries in the language you’re learning, and native speakers of that language will correct it for you. You can then return the favor by correcting entries written in your native language. It’s also common for language learners to exchange Skype info. There’s nothing more helpful than having a native speaker correct your Japanese as you talk.
What I love about both of these resources is that whether you’re taking classes or not, they’re both very useful and can adapt to your current skill level. Plus, they provide a nice mix of textbook learning and exposure to “real” Japanese.
The Classroom Path
Self-study alone may not be enough to reach your goals, and this is where classes come in. Having a native Japanese teacher answer questions and having a clear, stable measure of progression is something that only classes can provide. There’s also the routine. It’s a lot easier to skip a day of Anki reviews than it is to skip a day of class. Not to mention that if you’re just starting out and have no idea what to do, a class will have a set curriculum, and you don't have to figure it out on your own.
Should you opt for classes, the spring session at Japan Society's Toyota Language Center starts at the beginning of February, with thirteen levels of Japanese courses available, meeting once or twice weekly. Kanji courses and specialized courses are also offered. For anime fans interested in learning Japanese, they are offering for the first time a weekly beginners class that uses anime to teach basic vocabulary, sentence structure, and conversational skills.
But if you’re still on the fence, you can get a feel for the classroom environment with one of Japan Society’s free trial lessons taught by Language Center Director Tomoyo Kamimura.
In an interview about the classroom experience, Kamimura-sensei said of her students’ trial lesson experience, “They definitely got the sense of what it is like to learn Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed the lesson. Some are interested in signing up for a regular class. I always enjoy teaching and this occasion was no exception. I hope they got a taste of what it’s like to study and learn Japanese in this brief session.”
Part of that experience is working with other students, a point of focus for classes at Japan Society, and one which Kamimura says can be very effective.
“It kind of motivates you to stay in the class, because when you’re alone, it’s hard to have self-discipline.”
It’s this challenge that can cause people to quit learning a language midway, which is why it’s important, even for those who self-study, to talk to other language learners to compare progress.
Because there are several different areas to focus on when learning a language, there’s no “right” way to learn, but no matter how you’re learning, nothing’s quite like having a conversation in the language you’re learning with native speakers, a fact that Kamimura acknowledges.
“I have had several students who taught themselves through self-study. Many of them were not sure if they were doing it right, so they wanted to take lessons. Amazingly, some of them are very nearly fluent! For me, it may be possible to learn grammar from a book if you have a very conceptual, abstract mind-set. But in my experience, if you can arrange a language exchange with a Japanese student—I have paired up several people here—it works very well. You spend one or one and a half hours speaking only Japanese, then one hour speaking English. You have to get exposure to real Japanese, not just what’s on a screen or in a book. So I do believe in self-study to a certain extent.”
For me, the biggest benefit of taking classes was gauging my progress. When you’re studying in a very unstructured way, there’s no real measure of progress other than looking at past essays or entries you wrote and finding all the mistakes you made. After a while of self-studying , it felt good to take a class, learn new things, and see that my process really was showing results.
Additionally, for beginners who still aren’t sure where to start, classes can provide a foundation to build upon while simultaneously giving students an opportunity to meet new people who share a common goal, and learn from them as well.
“One good thing about taking a class with others, at Japan Society or at college, is, let’s say you hear people making mistakes, and you know the answer. The teacher asks a question, and someone answers it completely wrong, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s wrong, I think that’s wrong’ and the teacher explains why it’s wrong… So you learn from other people’s mistakes.”
After all, making mistakes leads to more efficient learning in the long run.