Are you struggling to master Japanese?
Is lack of confidence in Japanese preventing you from seeking a job, or career change in Japan?
If so, you are not alone; probably more people around the world agonize over acquiring a foreign or second language than any other kind of skill. Yet there is one very simple strategy that is guaranteed to help you learn any language with a minimum of fuss or grief.
In this article, I am NOT going to tell you to take Japanese language lessons or suggest you buy ANY textbooks. I am not going to tell you how important it is to have good Japanese ability when working for a Japanese company, or how essential qualifications like the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) or the BJT (Business Japanese Proficiency Test) might be when applying for jobs here. What I AM going to tell you is to enjoy yourself!
Learning Japanese Should be Enjoyable
In tests, 8 out of 10 cats said they learned to climb trees because it was fun, and the same can be true of learning Japanese. That isn’t to say you need to prance around Tokyo wearing a red nose and a pink wig, swapping dirty jokes with the locals to master the language. But it does mean that the process of language learning is more efficient when it is enjoyable for the student. Unfortunately, having fun is not the kind of experience that most Japanese classes and textbooks offer, even though practically every educator and textbook publisher appreciates how important personal enjoyment is to learning.
Reassess Your Motivations
Of course, orthodox learning systems can be immensely important in teaching us the grammatical patterns at the heart of a language, but they can also be immensely dull (just read that sentence over again and you’ll see what I mean). And let’s face it, nobody would do a day’s work ever again if they didn’t have to, so the dull-factor in learning a language is easily doubled when the motivation for doing so is because it will/may/might possibly win you a job as a data-entry clerk for a golfing supplies wholesaler.
The point is, orthodox language learning is often so fixated on an end result – ie. some measure of fluency – that it acts like 10mg of valium on anyone who is predisposed to learning in a different, or unorthodox way. This is why some people feel they are failing, and why they become demoralised, thus feeling they are wasting their time and that of their teachers. It isn’t anyone’s fault per se; we are all different and all learn in different ways and at different speeds. But anticipated end results can apply unrealistic time constraints on some learners.
Try A Different Approach
The first thing to remember is that time is yours to command, not the other way around. The second thing to understand is that when you start treating language learning like a hobby, you will find more time for it. And thirdly, such enjoyable and constructive use of your time will lead to greater confidence. Then, and only then, should you start to think about satisfying the requirements of end results such as proficiency tests and their like.
The first step to escaping the tyranny of the classroom and textbook is to declare your independence from it. Try saying this to yourself in the mirror each morning and evening:
“I am not learning Japanese to improve my career prospects, but because I enjoy it!”
You may be surprised at the positive effect such a simple statement can have on your subconscious, opening up a whole new world of potential learning ideas – creative ideas that come from you, not from a textbook.
Ways of studying Japanese, and having fun while you are at it, are only as limited as imagination, so the possibilities are literally endless. Here are a few suggestions to get you started, but if something isn’t working for you, don’t waste time on it; drop it and find something new.
People as a Resource
Language learners are often encouraged to socialise with native speakers of the target language, typically colleagues and friends. But don’t stop there; try to get into the habit of greeting neighbours or chatting with staff in shops and businesses you frequent locally, even if only to comment on the weather or the quality of cabbages at your local green grocer’s. Most people are very friendly once they have got to know you, and are very forgiving of your errors. This strategy will also help to make you feel more a part of the local community, so always try to attend local festivals as well and raise your profile.
I have never believed mainstream news media to be very helpful to any but the more advanced of language learners. However, there are some constants across cultures, notably in sports and popular music shows. Japanese TV can be exceedingly banal, but it does feature a lot of sport, so try following some of the J-League football matches, or homegrown baseball games, etc. and notice how similar the commentary is in tone to sports commentaries the world over. Similarly, for lovers of popular culture, look out for shows that echo your own tastes and take note of the way Japanese presenters discuss or critique artistic imports from your own country.
This is a really easy way to learn vocabulary. Just buy a pack of adhesive labels and label literally everything around your home, or even your desk at work. And make sure to use hiragana and katakana, which were probably the first things you learned before your Japanese classes became too boring to continue!
Set the Japanese Menu
For devices like mobile phones, tablets, PC browsers, TVs and cameras, etc., setting the menu or viewing preferences to Japanese will encourage you to think more carefully about the functions you use and learn to recognise the kanji associated with them. From there it is just a short step to learning how to pronounce them and in what other contexts the words they represent can be used. I call this the ‘take the plunge’ method.
Yes, Take the Plunge!
Taking the plunge is about throwing yourself head first into situations where only Japanese is spoken. For example, if you are married to a Japanese or have children attending Japanese schools, going to community meetings, or PTA meetings, etc. with – or even in place of – your partner will force you to become more immersed in your own life. You will be surprised at how much Japanese you have actually mastered when you have to use it without a safety net.
Be a Culture-Vulture
Enrol yourself in a cultural class like shodo, the tea ceremony or flower arranging, one that is NOT aimed at foreigners. Not only will you be taking the plunge linguistically, but you will gain significant insights into traditional Japanese culture that, again, will help you to assimilate more fully.
Dial ‘M’ for Mastery
Telephone skills are always useful in a business career, so practice these in your daily life where possible. If you need to call Apple Care, don’t use the number for English support. Similarly, if you are calling ramen delivery, your bank, or any other Japanese service, learn to do it yourself rather than asking a Japanese friend or partner to do it for you.
To develop your Japanese reading skills, try children’s books. Written in easy to to follow kana with pictures, and introducing kanji gradually according to the intended age level of junior readers, these are really useful for developing reading fluency. For more advanced students, you can easily find stories you have previously read in English translated into Japanese; knowing the story already will make understanding the Japanese that much easier.
A Final Thought
Successfully learning Japanese is all about exposure and practice, but finding daily opportunities to achieve this will be substantially more fulfilling than dedicating time to orthodox rote study. It should also be more fun and more challenging as a result. So if you are losing confidence, maybe it’s time to try a new approach.
By Bill Ambler
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