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Isn’t Real Japanese Too Hard for Beginners?

This is in answer to an email which raised some really cool questions, so here it is for your benefit (I’m all “because I know what’s best for you!!”)…Whatever, anyway:

“…I can certainly see how an emphasis on reading sentences leads to a large vocabulary and an intuitive sense of grammar and usage. However, what about listening and speaking? To what extent have you found that reading skills transfer over to these areas? On the site you talk about surrounding yourself with Japanese TV, movies, and music, but unlike reading material, real-world sources of audio and video are more difficult to capture in an SRS. I can imagine how intermediate students might be able to learn something from TV & movies, but as a beginner, things like TV Japan just go over my head without helping me to learn very much. Do you recommend the use of simple (yet admittedly contrived) audio resources like Pimsleur, JapanesePod101, or something else?”

Perhaps there’s nothing intrisically wrong with your typical language-learning tape, but:
1) I never used them
2) The people I have met who have used them, have trouble with real Japanese as it is spoken by actual Japanese people…
…because, as you said, they ARE contrived. So contrived as to be almost useless. Have you heard the kinds of tapes people in Japan and other countries use to learn English? Let me give you an example:

“How do you do? My name is Smith”
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Tanaka.”

The same Japanese people who listen to this kind of thing are the same ones who can’t successfully order fast food at a Wendy’s in America, or follow an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. These are the people who blame English for being “hard”, blame people for “talking too fast”, and/or buy into some quack-science nihonjinron theory that “the Japanese ear cannot process those frequencies”, because, well, it certainly couldn’t be the case that their learning methods were deficient to begin with, since they spent so much time and money on them, right? Hmm…

You see, the stuff on those English tapes, it’s not that it’s not English, it’s just that it’s the dead corpse of English injected with linguistic formaldehyde(?)…that was a spectacular failure of a medical metaphor…Anyway, it’s not alive. It’s like a wax sculpture of the actual living person that is English. I mean, who in their right mind goes around saying: “how do you do”? The English tapes would have you believe that that’s normal. And to top it off, those tapes tend to be about as entertaining as watching nails grow. Fake and boring — not a great recipe for learning.

“unlike reading material, real-world sources of audio and video are more difficult”

Aha! There’s a contradiction. Most people go around wailing about the perceived difficulty of written language. Now it’s spoken language that’s the problem. It can’t be both. Which is it? Well, in truth it’s neither one. I will admit that listening to real Japanese and reading/writing real Japanese require attention, effort and some time. Which is exactly why you can’t afford to put them off. You HAVE to start with them as soon as possible because they are “difficult” (which really only means “different” — you just need to get used to them).

So start with real Japanese audio-visual sources right now. Of course, you won’t understand most of what’s said, but I guarantee you will understand at least one word. That’s how you start. With one word. For the longest time, you’ll only be able to pick up individual words. But from words you’ll grow until you pick up whole phrases, then sentences and then, eventually, the entire show. It takes months, but it is a finite process.

And it’s not just words — prosody (the rhythms and cadences of real Japanese) is important for you to hear, too. There are sounds that Japanese people naturally shorten, lengthen or combine. There are places in the sentence where you pause or don’t pause. The visuals — the facial expressions, the shape of the face/mouth, the bridges (“さあ”, “ええ”). The hand gestures, the body movements. All of these are part of Japanese, too — a part that is a heck of a lot more easily, more enjoyably and more effectively (in terms of memorization) learned by direct observation than by having some textbook just list them for you.

Of course, it’s rough when you start, but it gets easier. In the beginning stages, take words you hear on TV and get short sentence examples of those words, then build on that. Nouns of course are a big part of any language — always learn a noun together with a verb that acts on it. Adverbs with verbs. Adjectives with nouns. Pay attention to what particle (wo, ni, de, etc,) is used with it. Start taking small, single steps every day while literally keeping your eyes and ears on the prize (reading, speaking and understanding REAL Japanese), and you will get there. It’s not a matter of “whether”, but of “when”. And the more time you spend on it on a day-to-day basis, the sooner “when” will come. The more you are exposed to real Japanese, the more comfortable you will become with it. It will become your default daily reality because you’ll have made it so.

I don’t actively oppose audio-learning tapes like I oppose classes, but it seems to me that they give you a false sense of security and achievement. In reality, Japanese is never going to be spoken as slowly, clearly and precisely as it is on those tapes. People (especially women) are going to talk FAST. Men are going to mumble. Things are going to be shortened — “azzaimass” is as common and natural as “arigatou gozaimasu”. Better that you face reality on a daily basis from the beginning than be lulled into safety only to have it pounce on you suddenly.

The fact that people who listen to language tapes of Japanese/French/whatever are STILL floored when they go to the country only underscores the fact that those tapes can’t have been such great preparation in the first place.

“I can imagine how intermediate students might be able to learn something from TV & movies, but as a beginner, things like TV Japan just go over my head without helping me to learn very much.”

Right. That is true. But I would still recommend that you watch as much TV as possible. Having said that, understanding only bits and pieces can be unsatisfying after a while. That’s why I also recommend JAPANESE-DUBBED VERSIONS of movies and TV shows you already know and like. In my case, that meant lots of things like “Star Trek”, “CSI”, “Monk”, “The O.C.” and “Independence Day”. You know the premise; you understand the relationships; you know the plots and you may even have all the dialogue memorized. So it becomes a matter of seeing and hearing the stories you love recounted in Japanese. Since you know what’s happening, you can focus on the Japanese. I’ve found it to be fun, effective and satisfying. Even crappy B-movies turn to gold in Japanese because the predicability of the plot and dialogue frees you from figuring out “what the heck is going on here?”, allowing you to focus on “oh THAT’s how to say ‘arm photon torpedoes’ in Japanese”. You never know when you might need to have a photon torpedo armed :).

In terms of learning languages, cause and effect behave strangely . If you want to get good at listening to real Japanese then the way do it is by listening to real Japanese. In other words, being able to function in real Japanese settings is both the effect and cause of exposure to real Japanese settings.

Language tapes make you feel like you are really learning something; they give you a sense of progress and achievement…But again, sometimes, I’m afraid this is a false sense. For one thing, you will almost never hear or have the same conversations as are on those tapes. Even if you ask a question that you learned from the tape verbatim, will you get the same response? Almost certainly not. But those tapes don’t prepare you for the asymmetry of reality — there are a myriad of ways to say the same thing; other people are going to use words and expressions in a quantity and variety greater than you personally ever will. Your ability to understand can’t just be on a par with your ability to produce, you have to understand much more than you will ever produce. Going back to the Japanese people who’ve learned English but have trouble at fast-food restaurants: “Here or to go?” and “Shall I supersize that” were the questions that stumped them.

What was the problem? You could fill reams of paper with the answer to that question. They didn’t know about the “verbing” of nouns, compound words, slang…whatever.

What is the solution? Put more fast-food sections on the English tapes? No. That’s simply patching a problem without actually solving it — treating a symptom without curing the disease.

You can’t just increase the amount of vocabulary either, at least in part because the obvious basic features of a language (standard grammar structures, noun vocabulary) alone will not allow you to function smoothly in that language. Not even close. As much as the more obvious features of a language are necessary, equally necessary is a deep or deeper understanding of the underlying logic of a language. I don’t know what this understanding should be called, some people call it an instinct or an intuition, but that almost sounds too intangible because whether or not someone understands this underlying logic very tangibly makes or breaks them in a language. Not understanding this underlying logic is the cause of translations that are grammatically and syntatically correct but that just don’t “work”. They just don’t “sit” right. They’re awkward, stilted. They’re not “wrong”, yet they are completely wrong. For proof, watch any Japanese TV commercial with English in it: “For your number one”, “Inspire the next”…Hurrrnnh?

There are linguists who devote their careers analyzing and explaining this underlying logic. And that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, textbook writers try (and almost always fail) to codify this logic, which leaves a student confused; or they ignore and sidestep it, leaving a student ignorant and defenseless: after months or years of fake, whitewashed textbook-style Japanese, some students never recover from the shock of “real” Japanese and give up, mystified and mystifying this “impossible Eastern language”, because, you know those East Asians, so “inscrutable” (*eyes roll into back of head*).

I believe that the individual wanting to become a native-like speaker is best off training her brain’s instinct to simply DO it. To get it right and “keep it real” from the beginning. Leave the analysis for the academic discussion because it’s too long-winded and clumsily-worded to be useful anyway — you need to know real Japanese and you need to know it soon. You need to be flexible, fast on the uptake and quick on your feet. The way to do that is to expose yourself to authentic, by-and-for native-speakers Japanese on a constant basis — to observe, understand and imitate real Japanese. Face reality from the beginning.

And that’s not all. Don’t even get me started on different regional accents. Where’s the tape for those? Just think of how many accents you as an English speaker can deal with, even though you may only speak with one. Japanese has dialects, too. You don’t need to use them, but you can’t pretend they don’t exist.

Just because you feel like you’re learning, that doesn’t mean that you really are. Just because you feel like you’re drowning, that doesn’t mean that you won’t swim and live. Feeling that you know Japanese because you can follow fake tapes of it is like feeling like you know an animal because you’ve seen it stuffed in a museum or tamed at a circus. It just doesn’t work that way. You need to see the critter “alive” and in “the wild”. Build yourself a “hidden observation post” ( i.e. acquire and surround yourself with real Japanese materials whether or not you are in Japan) if you need to. Or, if you’re in Japan, turn on the TV and radio; go down to the video store. Whatever it takes. You can take this “language as animal” analogy further. Who are the Western world’s greatest experts on gorillas and chimpanzees respectively? Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall. Both these people literally surrounded themselves with the subject of their study. They didn’t go to the circus, the museum or the zoo. They went to forests in Cameroon and Rwanda to see the real thing. It’s not that they were smarter than their colleagues — they just had better methods. The same goes for language, except that language has the benefit that you don’t have travel to it in order to “feel the realness”. The very nature of language allows you experience it across space and time. In other words, you can bring the language to you; you can turn wherever you are into a little Japan without any fundamental loss of authenticity.

I know I’ve said some harsh things here, and it’s not meant as an attack on any particular audio publisher. They are all trying their best to help people. And there are, in fact, realistic audio tapes out there (I used some for Chinese once), but I definitely get the impression that these are few and far between, the exception rather than the rule — the same company will produce one or two good (realistic) tapes, but then put out a lot of cookie-cutter stuff, too. When learning a language HAVING FUN is crucial. If something gets boring, take a break. If something is always boring, throw it out. Life is short, so do things that are fun and productive.

A baby is born into the world. She doesn’t know ANY language or ANY customs. Three years later, she’s not only talking, she has to be told to shut up. “Well, babies are magical”, people say. Bollocks. Babies are stupid and ignorant. But with that ignorance comes an ignorance of embarassement, of fear, of limitations. 24/7/365 for 2-3 years, they are exposed to their native language(s) and as toddlers “suddenly” become quite fluent in it/them; no one ever tells them that it’s “hard” or that “it can’t be done”.Nothing is ever expected of babies but success. There is no magic to it; it’s not a “miracle”. If you take a seed, plant it, water it and give it light, don’t act surprised when one day things suddenly start shooting up out of the soil. If we really look at the conditions under which babies are working we see that their success is virtually inevitable. When we as adults work with the daily devotion and unshakeable conviction of a baby combined with our extensive knowledge, life experience and abstract reasoning abilities, we also inevitably succeed; we work our own “miracles”. You and I have to believe that we adults have a lot more going for us cerebrally than babies. What, then, stands in our way? Only ourselves.

Spoken and written language are not hard: if given the chance, they come naturally to all of us. Just think of all the idiots you’ve met in your life ;)…most could speak and write just fine.

  9 comments for “Isn’t Real Japanese Too Hard for Beginners?

  1. KanjiCane
    September 29, 2008 at 14:33

    I have been reading a lot of posts here at this site ever since I learned of it from TkoSam. I must admit I am getting a grasp for this, and I really find I enjoy and learn more than if I were to take a class. In anything Japanese I listen to/watch, I always find a word that catches my ear and forces me to look it up… Stupid OCD. Anyways, I appreciate it, and I enjoy being apart of AJATT Uni, if you will. 🙂

  2. Rafikichick92
    October 27, 2008 at 22:29

    Hallelujah — this is so true. I was helping out in an ESL class and a Korean guy commented on how I was helping him more that the teacher because I was speaking like a regular American–fast, slurring words, etc. rather than speaking slowly and clearly like the ESL teacher.

  3. June 6, 2010 at 23:09

    Very nice article. Not often do I find someone who feels the same way about language learning as I do. Authentic material from day 1 is what you need to really learn a language. It should be obvious to everyone. I know MANY people who’ve majored in languages in college and still have trouble understanding simple things from a native. The problem is that they never delved into authentic media (TV, podcasts, movies, etc). They relied on textbooks and grammar rules. Studying grammar is something that kills language learning. Grammar isn’t something you get spoon fed from a book and then know. It’s something you slowly internalize with exposure to the language. People take grammar books and try to learn a language like it is a mathematical formula, but the brain is MADE for learning language. It naturally notices grammar and internalizes it. You’ll start to say things a certain way because it just sounds “right” that way. You won’t know the reason, but who cares what the reason is? Only people who study linguistics and grammar but who can’t speak a language other than their mother tongue.

    I’m ranting here, but this is a topic that I’m passionate about. So few people (in the US at least) really know how to learn a language. They think it involves spending hours with grammar textbooks and in classes, but really what it takes is lots of exposure to authentic audio. Think about how much exposure to the language a baby has before it can even put together rudimentary sentences. At least 2 years of being immersed in it every single day. Yes, that’s a lot, but he wasn’t focusing on learning. He wasn’t having to do boring repetitive tasks. He was doing things that he liked and not stressing when he didn’t understand something.

    People don’t like to start with authentic material because at the beginning there’s so much they can’t understand, and even after doing it for a while there’s still a lot that they don’t understand. They don’t feel like they’re improving. But really, you are improving. It’s just not so noticeable at the beginning. It’s something you have to keep at every day for months, but it’s not hard work. How hard is sitting in front of the TV watching a show in your target language? A lot easier than pounding your head with a grammar book.

  4. Ken
    August 19, 2010 at 02:38

    I was watching the Japanese dub of a classic Western movie the other day, with the Japanese audio track and Japanese subtitles turned on. The subtitles were in some kanji/kana font that was all sloppy, as if handwritten. (I guess that’s their idea of translating things in the Old West?) At first I wasn’t even sure it was the right language!

    It took a little while, but eventually I figured out how to read Japanese in the sloppy-font. File that one under “things not found in the textbook”, too!

  5. Sarah
    October 1, 2010 at 00:37

    I was watching English-subbed TV shows for awhile, but now changing to raw ones [well, Chinese-subbed] and I found that I actually can understand much more than I thought I would..but I always find it distracting when someone says something funny that I can’t understand, and I’d *have* to go and look it up. :p sometimes I don’t get the joke (puns! Japanese love puns!)
    Wish I could find some Japanese-dubbed english movies over here, but I think the only dubbed movies I can find are in Russian~ T_T

  6. Insiya
    December 23, 2012 at 07:15

    Hey Khatzumoto!
    I’ve been wanting to ask you, what was your original reason for learning Japanese in the first place?

  7. naijahusker
    March 4, 2013 at 05:00


  8. joe
    July 13, 2013 at 06:23

    Babies probably have it easier because they have no internal dialogue already known. They will only be able to think in images or external sounds they previously heard. So any learned new sounds would “stick” easier. Plus ALL of their thinking would be in the target language.

  9. Ron
    April 28, 2015 at 06:15

    Hi, I am a bit late coming to this party but I love reading the daily post from you Katz. Thank you I am inspired and have become an addict to language learning. Would you agree that as adults we have to overcome or somehow deal with the structures and learning of our native language we learned so well as babies. When we first learned as babies this issue didn’t exist. They learn clean, so to speak. So Katz how did you manage this issue in your learning. Did you find you needed to address this as a specific issue?

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