Japanese is one of those languages that has been on my list for some time now.
Despite its proximity to my native Korea (and one might argue, grammatical proximity), I never did get around to learning it.
On the one hand, I honestly did not see much practical use for learning it, and it wasn’t the case that I watched Japanese anime or was really into Japanese games, either. I guess I did play a lot of Japanese-made games, but there never really was a need for me to learn Japanese.
In university, I picked up an introductory book on Japanese because our bookstore was having a sale. I got it real cheap, so I decided to take advantage of it and try to learn some Japanese.
I read through the first bit, and focused on trying to learn the characters – Hiragana and Katakana, of course.
The key to learning new characters or a new alphabet is lots and lots of repeated exposure, but I never really got into the habit of reviewing the characters, so I never really learned them at all.
Fast-forward a few years. In October 2013, I decided to take introductory Japanese lessons at a hakwon (language school) with my girlfriend. My girlfriend wanted to learn it, and I figured since I like languages, learning, and at the same I could get to know my girlfriend better, I decided to join her.
The classes were basically three months of basic, introduction to Japanese for absolute beginners. Classes were 4-hour sessions every Saturday, but I could take classes during the weekdays as well. My girlfriend and I opted to take Saturday classes because we both had to work during the weekdays.
The first few classes, first month was a breeze. To get going, we had to really work at learning the Hiragana, but because we read Hiragana all the time (there was no Romaji), we got the hang of it pretty quick.
At this point in time, I don’t quite remember what we learned point-by-point, but initially, I felt like I could use Korean grammar as a reference point to understand Japanese grammar. Japanese, like Korean, is an agglutinative language, meaning that you add on little markers that indicate the role of that word in the sentence. This helped a lot to get a grasp of the language.
For obvious reasons, it really helps a lot to have a reference language you can sort of lean back on and compare. Currently, I don’t know any Slavic languages, but I’m sure knowing one Slavic language will help me in learning another Slavic language.
Back to Japanese. Into the second month, we started learning about verbs and how to conjugate them. We learned that there are three groups of verbs depending on the verb stem, and how to conjugate them into the basic -ます ending. The biggest and most important component of the second month was learning the verbs and how they work. We also learned expressions and connectives along with the verbs. By connectives I mean things like ~ので, ~でも. Then in the third month, we just did more verb endings, went into a little bit of honorifics and humble language. I was surprised to learn that Japanese has a very complex honorifics system. Much more complex than Korean, for sure.
After the 3 months of introductory Japanese, I was ready to take conversation class. I managed to pass an interview with a Japanese native speaker and get into a conversation class with a native speaker. It was my first time in a real Japanese conversation class, after 3 months of basic Japanese grammar. For better or for worse, our Japanese conversation teacher didn’t really speak any Korean nor English, for that matter. So I found myself in a completely Japanese-only environment. I was quite overwhelmed at first, trying to decipher everything that the teacher was telling me. There were two other people in the class with me, but they had had experience in a conversation class like this for some time, and had already studied the conversation book we were using.
Immediately, I realized I didn’t know enough words, and that I didn’t know enough Kanji. Because I didn’t know the words and didn’t know the Kanji, I really couldn’t read stuff in the book and the handouts she gave out. Most times, I tried to decipher the first Kanji character in a verb or something and figure out the meaning of the verb. But since I didn’t know how to pronounce the Kanji, I couldn’t read it. Overall, it was a great experience being able to converse with a native speaker of Japanese for the first time, albeit with my limited speaking abilities.
I unfortunately did not take another class after that, and I’ve just been listening to Japanese conversations on LingQ, picking up a few words here and there. I do want to focus more on Japanese once I get some clear goals in mind where I want to take Japanese, what I want to do with Japanese. As of late, I’ve been listening to Japanese on LingQ and brushing up on the grammar I learned in the first three months at the hakwon. When I first learned about the three verb groups, it was quite mentally overwhelming to take in everything all at once, but now as I listen to LingQ and gradually internalize the verbs and words, and see it contextualized in an authentic conversation, I’m getting it a lot more. So I’m combining listening to authentic Japanese content and doing a little bit of grammar review on the side. I feel like once I get more familiar with the verb conjugation system, after that, it’s all words and expressions. And I’m taking advantage of my (limited) knowledge of Chinese characters to guess at/identify meanings of nouns and verbs I find in my Japanese listening. Perhaps studying Chinese and Japanese at the same time could be beneficial?
I actually thought of registering for Phone Japanese. In Korea, a lot of people sign up for Phone English where they can have a 10 minute conversation with a native speaker every day. I was thinking about maybe trying that with Japanese, so I can actually utilize what I know and just hit the ground running to gain more vocabulary. Oh well, hopefully, I can try posting something in Japanese in the near future.