I Think I’m Learning Japanese

In my quest to burn through all of my money and leave time at work as quickly as possible, the Polar Pencil Partner and I have booked our next international adventure. This August we’ll be winging it across the Pacific to Japan! As a result, I am taking a pretty big plunge: attempting to learn Japanese.

Trying to learn other languages has always made me feel frustrated and vulnerable, but I think making a good-faith effort to pick up what you can of the local tongue(s) is courteous and respectful when visiting a country whose predominant first language isn’t your own. I bristle when I am abroad and encounter other Americans who so obviously don’t share this viewpoint, and I actually get a little offended when I attempt to start a conversation in the local language and the other party switches to English without at least letting me try. And anyway, from a purely practical standpoint, I’ve found that even if you only know a little bit of the local language, and a local with whom you’re conversing knows only a little bit of yours, you can often meet them halfway and manage to piece together a semi-coherent conversation.

For this trip, I’m determined to put more effort into it than my previous jaunts abroad. I didn’t put much into learning Icelandic in advance, because everyone there is fluent in English except for the very young and old. I already knew a little bit of Spanish before I went to Spain. I regret not knowing more Thai before I left. So, I am determined not to make the same mistake with Japanese. Also, based only on anecdotal internet evidence, I get the impression that Japanese people in general don’t have as much patience as Thais do for foreigners who don’t know their language.

The tasks seems a little intimidating, but with a solid five months to go, I should have time. The biggest problem now is figuring out where to begin. So, I asked Google!

I found that the website Tofugu really breaks the task of learning Japanese down into a series of very approachable steps. The first step, according to them, is to learn Hiragana. This seemed like a bit of a deeper dive than necessary for just a one-time vacation, but what the hell — I’ve got time to prepare, and in the long run it might help me pick things up faster. So I’ve started giving it a whirl. However, I came across a segment of their guide in which the author proposes skipping over the step of learning to write Hiragani, which gave me a bit of a chuckle — or perhaps a disappointed sigh:

I know what you’re thinking. But, think about it for a moment. When’s the last time you actually wrote something by hand? Probably the last time you had to sign your name on a receipt at a restaurant…Learning to write doubles or triples how long it takes to learn hiragana, with very little real-life benefit.

Oh boy, where do I start to unpack this one?

My first thought was that it was remarkable that the author and I come from such different worlds. As a reader of the Polar Pencil Pusher blog, you probably know that I try to write as much as possible by hand and, aside from writing this blog, glean little joy out of typing. At any given point of my day, the last time I wrote something by hand is almost always within the past hour (and I wouldn’t count signing a restaurant receipt, since my loopy scribble of a signature barely constitutes “writing”). I found this aspect a little comical.

It was also a little bit of a bummer to read, though, for a couple of reasons. I would argue that it’s objectively incorrect to say that learning to write things with a pencil and paper has “very little real-life benefit” since there is very strong scientific evidence that handwriting has numerous benefits over typing, including improved memory retention. Reading and speaking a language is probably 99% memory retention, so I’m all about doing anything that helps me out there. In fact, that’s the main reason I decided to try my hand at writing Japanese in the first place, instead of skipping straight to verbal conversation. On my timescale, the added reinforcement from handwriting will probably outweigh the time “wasted” learning to write in a language I’ll probably only use for one two-week span of my life.

The other aspect that made me a little sad was just realizing that there really are people out there who view handwriting as obsolete. I’m guessing that the author and I have totally different reasons for our interest in the Japanese language. I don’t have any particular affinity for Japanese culture above and beyond what I feel for, say, German culture or Nigerian culture. If I were more of a weeb I might be more interested in talking to my Smart Fridge rather than just writing down a goddamn grocery list. Different strokes, I guess, but part of me feels sad that so many people are missing out. Maybe that’s what they’d feel if I told them I hate anime, though.

Then again, with so much amazing Japanese stationery out there, are you really experiencing Japanese culture if you’re not writing anything by hand?

So, reading (and writing) Hiragana seems like a good place to start, and I’ve already been giving it a whirl. You can see my terrible attempts at it in the photo above (I can’t believe I even posted it). In my efforts to do so, I’ve learned that it really is beneficial to use grid or dot ruled paper for writing in Japanese — and come to understand why those types of papers seem to be more prevalent in Japan than in the United States, where we generally prefer simple lined-rule pages. That’s because each Hiragana character (or character of the other Japanese scripts, such as Kanji) fits precisely into a square. The Roman characters we use to write in English each have a different width, and there isn’t really a mandatory height/width ratio for your writing. From what I understand, that wouldn’t really fly in Japan!

I have also started keeping my own, DIY translation notebook. This serves as kind of an on-the-go, English/Japanese dictionary that I can consult and add to as needed. This has worked well on my other trips. Not only has it been convenient to whip out as needed, but the process of writing it also helps reinforce the language in my memory. I have started a draft version now, but I’m anticipating that I’ll re-copy it into something much more organized before I leave the States.

Meanwhile, I’ve been picking up as much vocabulary as possible to fill my brain and notebook with! For this part, I am going digital. My ultimate goal is to verbally converse, so a sound-based medium is important to me. That said, I’ve noticed that my ear is really bad at picking out the subtle nuances of certain syllables. Therefore, it really helps me to simultaneously read what I am hearing so that I can get the pronunciation right. Language apps are ideal for this multimedia approach.

The only problem with that is, which app? There are numerous free options out there, but they seem somewhat limited. My favorite one so far has been Drops. I think I have picked up the most useful vocabulary from that app, and it really combines all of the features I need to really internalize the words (and add them to my dictionary). The drawback is that the free version only allows a short burst of learning each day. On the other hand, I really like that Rosetta Stone listens to, and grades your pronunciation. That’s a feature that has helped me as well. Sadly, without paying to unlock additional lessons, only a small amount of content comes with the app for free. Due to the drawbacks with the free apps, and uncertainty over which (if any) I should spend money on, I have so far relied on a combination of apps to approach learning from multiple angles. One final method that occurred to me to try, but which I haven’t put into practice yet, is to use some “analog” methods of picking out vocabulary words to learn and then utilize Google Translate to obtain the correct pronunciation and spelling.

Finally, I’ve started a consolidated notebook for all of this stuff: practicing my writing, noting vocabulary words that I want to add to my dictionary, etc. I picked a Norcom 5×5 grid composition book to keep all of this organized in, since I can write the characters in a 2×2 box, nice and big, without being too big.

And of course, a nice soft pencil — like the Tombow 2558 B-grade that I just reviewed — helps make all of this a pleasurable experience!

Well, that’s the story of my journey into the wonderful world of reading, writing, and speaking Japanese so far. I figured that it was worth posting up since it intersects with analogue writing in several ways. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have any advice for learning Japanese, or languages in general…or anything else for that matter! Feel free to leave me a comment.

5 thoughts on “I Think I’m Learning Japanese

  1. Adam Prebola February 18, 2020 / 5:38 am

    I studied Japanese in college and lived there for 10 years. If you’re working/living in Japan full time maybe taking an unorthodox approach and not learning writing in favor of typing could be a good strategy. That being said, that’s not how I learned. I think you’re on the right direction and would recommend the Anki app for flashcards. I use it currently to keep my skills up and learn new vocab. Android version is free, iOS costs a bit but there are many user created decks out there with great cards that will get you started. Manbi reader is also a cool app to help learn reading after you master some of the basics. Japan is awesome!!


  2. orderofthegoldenbear February 19, 2020 / 2:21 am

    The man behind the YouTube channel “That Japanese Man Yuta” has an email newsletter that you can sign up for where he sends you free Japanese lessons. Very useful for basic sentence structure and pronunciation.


  3. orderofthegoldenbear February 19, 2020 / 11:20 am

    The man behind the YouTube channel “That Japanese Man Yuta” has an email newsletter you can sign up for where he sends you short Japanese lessons for free. Very useful for pronunciation.


  4. Joseph February 22, 2020 / 7:33 am

    Review/learn the international phonetic alphabet to learn sounds we do not produce here, not English approximations.

    Use minimal pairs to learn to hear different sounds.

    Use spaced repetition to target only what you have a hard time remembering. Anki is an app that does that well. Make your own flash cards in these systems because that is a part of learning well. It can be sound to picture relationships, not just written to written.

    Learn pictures of meanings instead of translations. Remember ‘dog’ vs
    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/24/7b/8d/247b8d75234c8845548a733fddd0efac.jpg [pinterest]
    (Maybe even sketch a picture then sketch a character for analog!)

    Forvo is a pronunciation resource, but it’s quality can vary.

    Books like Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner capture a lot of this for language specifically. Barbara Oakley teaches and writes more generally at Coursera and in her books.

    I have used similar methods to learn other things, found these helpful but lacked discipline learning other languages, and believe these methods work based on numerous resources on learning in general. Maybe one thing I said will help you because there is not one answer (or everyone would already do that). I am interested in what works for other people, so post updates. 🙂


  5. Blunt Japanese Woman February 24, 2020 / 11:29 am

    I will save you a lot of time: AJATT.
    The online community is polarizing, but looking at the results, it works.


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