Amongst the thousands of small breakthroughs that happen daily.
Before The Breakthroughs (2002?)
I’d been interested in Japanese in some form or fashion since, perhaps, the early 2000s. 2002, maybe? I’d like to say it was some fascination with traditional Japanese culture like the tea ceremony or bunraku, but that would be a lie. My wanting to understand Japanese was actually more closely tied to wanting to watch anime and play video games that hadn’t yet reached American shores. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
Between, say, 2002 and 2009, I’d managed to toss a couple of Japanese expressions in my head. I could count from ichi to juu (not bothering with yon and nana, because doesn’t everyone just say shi and shichi?). I could write 死神. I knew an obscure four-character compound (千軍万馬), though I didn’t really know what a four-character compound was yet. I liked it because it sounded cool.
From 2003 to 2007, I played Final Fantasy XI, an online game which boasted being one of the only MMORPGs with region-free servers, thus allowing players from around the world to play together. While it wasn’t a truly global community, both Japanese and English were ever present. Depending on the hour, messages within cities were either dominantly English or Japanese. If I logged in early in the morning, I was greeted to a wall of gibberish. Sometimes groups gathered, half-English-speaking, half-Japanese. Communication was difficult, but a handy auto-translate function provided enough glue to keep things running smoothly, if that makes any sense.
This amount of Japanese inspired me to learn, but it wasn’t nearly enough to get over an initial hill. I’d learned katakana, the syllabary dominantly used for foreign loanwords. It was fun to be able to write people’s names and whatnot, and since so many names of people, places, and things in a videogame tended towards the foreign word camp, there was a lot of opportunity for practice. I still think katakana is one of the most fun parts of Japanese.
Hmm. セブン・イレブン… What could it be?
Se…bu…n… i…re…bun. Sebun… irebun…
In the end, I’d learned something during this time, but I definitely didn’t have much. Speaking of Final Fantasy XI, I remember a specific incident with a half-English, half-Japanese party. When the party disbanded, some English members were writing “domo” in the comments. I was dumbfounded.
Don’t they mean “domo arigato”? “Domo” isn’t enough for “thank you”! It’s more like “very”! You need to affix it to something else.”
Thankfully, I wasn’t too rude, but I did private message the people who said “domo”. Most of them had just copied the first person. The first person, however, wasn’t confident in his usage of the word. I informed him that it needed to be “domo arigato”.
I’m so sorry, guy! I was wrong. You were right. Why did I insist on something I didn’t fully understand? But then, people do it all the time. I’ve always looked at that experience as proof that I shouldn’t offer up a correction until I really believe I know it. But then, there’s lots of things I think I know right now, and I’m sure I’m wrong about.
In any case, I had some Japanese. It would be enough that some people would say they “knew Japanese”, but I knew better. I knew what I had was nothing.
A Real Start (January 2009)
BREAKTHROUGH 一: CLASSES
High school offered Spanish and French, and neither interested me. I’m sure that’s what students in Japan feel like too, learning English, so I can sympathize. But when it came time for college, I made sure to settle on an institution that offered Japanese classes. Luckily, unlike high school, most colleges offered an assortment of languages. It didn’t really limit my search.
While I didn’t get started on Japanese classes right away, when I finally did sign up, they classes came hard and fast. Some people rail on classes for not going fast enough, but it felt like I was at the limit of what I could do at the time. I came away from my first class solidly knowing my kanas as well as over 60 kanji, basic usage of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and a smattering of over 300 words (I was using the Genki books, which when both are combined together, have a little more than 1700 vocabulary words nestled within them). Some people would argue that I knew far too little for 4 months, but on the contrary, I knew way more than my 7 years of admittedly pathetic “self study” ever taught me.
The classes also brought me some additional benefits.
Firstly, I’d made some good friends / rivals in my classes. Even now, I’m still in contact with some of those friends, two of which are living in Japan with me. Different parts of Japan, but still the same island. One of them in particular still inspires me to continuously improve. We started at the same time, and while I’ve always been a little better at reading, he’s leagues above me in speaking ability. It’s been good to have people to compete against, even if they don’t know you’re competing against them.
Secondly, they allowed me a fast track to tutoring Japanese. Teaching someone else and helping them understand the material you’re learning yourself not only reinforces old grammar, it also forces you to be confident in your ability. Sometimes I’d find an explanation for something that helped me as much as it helped a tutee. In the same vein, I’d often look for study material to help my tutees, which improved my own arsenal of study tools.
Thirdly, it put me in situations I’d never put myself in. Specifically, I got an opportunity to do a speech contest. Memorizing that speech (we couldn’t read the speech when we presented it) and dealing with the questions afterward was a unique struggle. Similarly, classes taught me how to write kana and kanji correctly, as well as forcing me to write essays about odd topics in Japanese. Doing these things helped my Japanese, and I’m not sure I would have done them in a self-study environment.
Finally, it gave me my first experiences with real, live Japanese people. On one occasion, I remember sitting in a room with three teachers, each of them talking rapid-fire. I’d learned then to nod and make sounds, one of the most useful tools in speaking the language. I walked away from that incident tired, but came out with a nice skill up my sleeve.
My classes lasted from January 2009 to June 2010, coming to a head with a trip to Japan accompanied by my friend-rivals. A great deal of the time, I spoke mostly English, letting those who were better than me take the reins. But on one occasion or another, such as a time in which I and a few others with not nearly as much Japanese were trapped in a train station we didn’t want to be in (you have to talk to the train station attendants to get out), I was the one tasked with getting us out of there. Having my Japanese be required, not just for me but for my friends as well, was a godsend.
When I returned from that trip, I felt like my time with Japanese classes was over. They’d served their purpose. Well, that and I didn’t have much room left for them.
From then on, I would self-study my way to Japanese proficiency!