Now it’s the start of 2021 rather than stating generic new Year resolutions to ‘study more’ I wanted to review my Japanese learning experience in 2020. See what worked, what didn’t, and how I can improve going into 2021. This is in part an honest self-reflection to better understand and motivate myself but I also hope to share some useful tips and tricks which can help others studying a language.
This turned out to be a rather lengthy blog post in the end and it’s now February lol. So if you just want to know the tools I use and my general tips here is the summary.
Read: Genki or Minna No Nihongo (1&2 for both)
Review: Download Anki to review kanji, vocabulary, and short sentences
Speak: Get a teacher on Italki for practice (use my link if you want a $10 discount and it will gift me some lesson credits too 🙂 win-win)
Listen: Engulf yourself in the language every day with youtube, anime & podcasts etc.
Time Management: Use a ‘don’t break the chain’ to create a daily habit.
Download and print our Don’t break the chain for FREE 🙂
Now for the deep-ish dive, but first I think it’s important for you to know a bit about me so you can better see if these methods are a fit for you. I have a full-time job 2-3 days a week and spend the other days managing Hai Hiragana. Around that, I try and study as much as I can and create new learning resources for Hai! Hiragana as I go. I prefer self-study and private tutoring as it really crosses wires in my head when a class of students all say things out loud differently at the same time. Plus it’s nice to go at your own pace and decide what is the priority or to go back if needed. However, I do really miss the structure that comes with a class setting and find it hard to maintain a healthy schedule the longer self-study goes on (especially in lockdown my alarms get later and later haha).
I’m also quite likely dysleix (dyslexic) I kept that spelling mistake in for the irony of how hard that word is to spell! I really dislike rote learning and traditional school teaching methods. I dropped languages in favour of creative courses in secondary school and ever since I always felt very demoralised that I could ever learn another language. From speaking with many of you at markets and shows I feel this is a commonly shared belief which is a shame. I was drawn to Japanese however through my love of the country and design, the writing system looked so interesting and I felt invigorated to try learning the language the more I discovered about it. Now I believe that anyone with time, a good attitude and the right approach can learn another language. So I hope the materials we make and the methods I go over below will inspire you to pick up Japanese (or help with any language!). I’ve broken down my Japanese studies into 4 separate sections and will evaluate my method and goals for these to see how I’m doing.
1 Vocab & Kanji: This would probably be my strongest area, It’s quite addictive learning bite-sized single words and Kanji meanings and it’s easy to do every day in a spare 5-10 mins. I primarily use the app Anki and highly recommend it if you don’t use it already. It’s a bit like Duo-lingo but you create the flashcards it shows you and how often they are shown (so you don’t learn things like ‘I am apple’ haha). I study using the Genki and Minna No Nihongo workbooks which I may do a review of in the future but for now, I’d say the Genki is generally a bit more modern and better at explaining things for westerners and has a good flow to it. Whereas the Minna no Nihongo is very commonly seen in classrooms as it is all in Japanese and can be used for mixed language groups. So if you are in a class using it then it makes sense to stick with that as the Genki is taught in a slightly different order and may confuse you.
If anything I focus too much here, it’s comfy and provides a sense of progression but without the grammar and speaking practice then I just become a walking dictionary. My goal here will be to keep adding new vocab to my Anki deck and keeping up with this daily but I should really limit how many new words I put in a day so I don’t spend all my time on this.
2 Reading & Writing: I use Japanese Kana for all my flashcards in Anki so reading Hiragana & Katakana comes quite naturally now (if I know what the words I’m reading). Being exposed to it on a daily basis has helped for sure, it’s odd once you’ve read something once or twice in the real world you subconsciously start being able to skim read it easier. Menus are still tricky especially when it’s handwritten and some Katakana words can throw you as they will be a French or Italian word for the food in certain places such as Gateau or Fettuccine. Kanji is defiantly trickier and even harder to read handwritten!
As for writing, personally, I really dislike writing even in English and honestly in this modern age I rarely ever do so it’s not a big priority for me. I have installed a Japanese keyboard on my phone/laptop and I’m trying to improve the speed at which I can type with those. It’s quite fun once you get the hang of it, you type in Hiragana, and then it kinda autocorrects this into Kanji/Katakana but you need to be careful that you select the right ones.
Saying that learning the stroke order of Kanji can really help and I want to make some printable materials for this to go alongside the new book. It’s not a crime to write Kanji in the wrong order but it definitely flows better when you do it correctly and helps with recognising it in the future. My goals here are to write more Kanji. Take pictures of menus to learn to read more ingredients so I know what I’m eating, especially at yakitori izakaya this helps with all the different cuts of meat. Also, Charlotte has a collection of lovely illustrated Japanese children’s books which slowly advance in difficulty so I want to read all these to get better at reading longer texts.
3 Grammar & Sentence structure: I’ve been using a private teacher on Italki to go over the above-mentioned workbooks with me to get a foundation of the rules of the Japanese language. Initially, I was purely self-studying the books but I found things wouldn’t always stick, and slowly I would fall behind with how quickly I was advancing through the chapters. The sensei ‘Shunpei’ I found on Italki is really great, he is very patient and explains anything I’m not quite getting and it creates a bit of structure making me stay on track. There are hundreds of teachers and everyday people on there waiting to help your studies. If you’re interested to use Shunpei I very much recommend him and although I’m not sponsored by Italki if you sign up with this link it gets me and you a little discount on our next lessons. (hopefully, he doesn’t get swamped and still has time for me!)
Grammar for me has always been a problem, I think the issue is I’m trying to learn it as rules and recall these when speaking.. but this is slow and I couldn’t really even explain the grammar rules of English lol. What I’ve done now is make an Anki deck just for simple short sentences. By reviewing these I’m starting to get a feel for what sounds right and what doesn’t and it’s helping a lot with my sentence structuring as I can swap vocab in and out of these. My goal is to add more sentences to Anki and do them daily! They do take longer to review and get correct which can make them easily pile up so it’s important to review daily.
4 Speaking & Listening: You’d think as we have been living in Japan for a year now this would be a strength… the issue is we’re here during a pandemic and have been staying in a lot. On top of that Charlotte and I work remotely so we just end up speaking English all day. When we do go out we can’t join conversation groups and make friends in the way we would have during normal times so our practice of speaking isn’t enhanced by being here much as we’d like. We have gotten really good at what we call ‘Conbini’ small talk though haha as convenience stores, cafes and shops are the main places we use our Japanese.
Using Italki is a great practice but is limited and doesn’t have the same interaction and curveballs as the real world. The issue I find is I just can’t quickly find the right words/sentences to use at the right time. When someone speaks to me in Japanese It’s a bit like when Sherlock goes to his ‘mind palace’ but instead of whooshing between all the correct answers and solving the puzzle, a bunch of useless words that keep flying through my head not right for the situation. Then I suddenly realise I haven’t replied for 10 seconds and freeze up out of awkwardness or revert to one-word answers.
Really this is a confidence issue for me and the only way I’ll break through it is to get out of my comfort zone, make mistakes but get understood and honestly, people are so friendly here they really appreciate the effort of you trying at all. It’s weirdly hard to think what words you use naturally on a daily basis, so my plan is to start noticing and documenting the English I use every day to later translate it so I can add phrases I use frequently to my Anki deck.
In terms of listening, I think it’s important to engulf yourself in the language you are learning. People often say that children pick up languages quickly but when you think about it all they do 24/7 is hear and absorb the language around them. If you just study books and practice in class your brain doesn’t process the information in the same way. When you encounter a phrase you have learned outside of a class setting though your brain notices that it’s actually useful and it really starts to stick. So I’m going to start making sure that every day I spend time consuming media in Japanese whether that’s a Netflix show like ‘Midnight diner’, youtube/podcasts with native speakers, or from watching anime.
2020 was a very strange year, lockdown learning has become a thing. It’s a strange oxymoron though, you’d think you have so much extra time that you can do anything and it did start off that way. Yet now we are getting used to this lifestyle it seems time is evaporating and hours blur into days into weeks and before you know it half a year has gone by! So it’s more important than ever to manage your time well and create good habits and not get sloppy.
A good method to stay on track is to use a ‘don’t break the chain’. A method whereby you set a task and commit to a certain amount of time to do it each and every day, no excuses! The idea is that once you complete the task for the day you get to cross it off the calendar and form a ‘chain’ of unbroken days. After a while, it becomes very motivating as you see all the progress you would lose if you don’t do your daily task. I did one in early 2020 and kept it going for 120 days but then I slipped and couldn’t get back into it in the same way. I’ve now designed my own version which is for 50 days with the idea being that every 50 days I can reevaluate the task to keep it fresh.
Try not to set a big time for your daily goal or else you will feel deterred from doing it every day. The trick is to set a small realistic time and then it will feel more manageable every day and once you get going on a task that’s half the battle usually. I’m also committing to doing my chain first thing in the morning as it’s all too easy to think ‘you’ll have time later’ only to see it’s suddenly midnight! I currently have three chains on the go (although you really don’t want more than this for the same reason above). I have one for Japanese for 40mins, one for working out for 20mins and one for French for 20mins.
I hope it helps you stick to your goals in 2021 too! Share a pic of it on your wall or when you complete it. That would be really cool to see and keep everyone going together 🙂
More specific blogs to come, in the meantime good luck with your studies Lewis ❤️