We’ve previously discussed the importance of turning your environment as Japanese as possible. With very little money (far less than you might need for a typical class), you can turn wherever you live into a little Japan.
Even if you already live in Japan but your Japanese needs work, these suggestions will still work for you. If you’re like most expatriates on these islands, you may have turned your life into a little enclave of non-Japaneseness. I would like to show you how to turn that on its head.
Wherever you are, it is crucial that Japanese become the “official language” of your life. Japanese can’t be just this thing you visit for an hour a day, five days a week, and then go on with your “real” life the other 90% of the time. It has to be pounding at you 24/7; it has to be the 90%. I don’t know all the reasons why this works, but one that comes to mind is this: In life, whether it’s learning a language, losing weight, or waking up early we usually don’t fail at a major project because we’re lazy or stupid. We fail because we’re forgetful. We forget what thing it was that we were ultimately trying to do, especially if the road to that thing just seems painful; we get lost in the fog of effort and forget the joy that the mere thought of our destination can give us. Remember that what you are trying to do is to become your dream: you are trying to become indistinguishable from a native speaker of Japanese. If you don’t constantly hear native-spoken Japanese, then you might forget that; it might just seem like you’re trying to get through a mountain of gruntwork. On the other hand, if your eyes and ears are bombarded by things Japanese all the time, then you will always remember where this is leading—to fluency, not to Gruntwork Valhalla. That which you cannot now fathom (Japanese), you will one day fathom fully.
Learning in general is the birthright of human beings. We humans, relatively speaking, don’t have sharp teeth, big lungs or fast feet; instead, we have flexible minds. Language is so fundamental to our lives; it’s foundational — language is just the basics and it’s not “hard”; there’s nothing truly difficult about it; it takes time, but it’s not some intractable problem. Unfortunately, somewhere between boring classes, boring textbooks and boring teachers, we’ve forgotten that. In a sense, this site exists to remind you of your power to learn.
So, here is a list of about 10 things to do (and not do), in order to Japanize your environment.
1. Music: Japanese only
Put away the Avril Lavigne. Sell the CDs on EBay; give them to a Japanese friend who’s learning English. Whatever, just get rid of it. Delete the mp3s. Don’t “put aside” your non-Japanese music; that includes the Manu Chao; I don’t care if he sings in English, Spanish *and* French; it’s irrelevant. Destroy it. I know this is harsh, but it’s something you have to do. Why destroy it? Because if you don’t, you will listen to it in a moment of weakness or nostalgia (you’re all: “(sigh) I remember when I understood the lyrics in the songs I listened to, those were the days”); it could lead to weeks of regression, or even destroy your immersion program altogether. Replace it all with Japanese music: music by Japanese *in* Japanese. It’s best not to even “do it in stages”, just go cold turkey. Even if you have so little Japanese music that you have to keep repeating the same song, then that’s a good thing! Repetition is the mother of skill, remember? Let go of the non-Japanese bands; there are plenty of Japanese bands that have the sound and feel you’re looking for.
Not only should you exclude languages other than Japanese from your life, but you should actively include Japanese music with you wherever you go. If you don’t yet have a portable music player, acquire one, and where it around with you *everywhere*. If you are not in an important conversation with someone who does not speak Japanese, then you should be listening to your Japanese music.
2. Movies: Japanese only
Movies that are not in Japanese no longer exist to you. Now, fortunately, you can get Hollywood movies dubbed into Japanese at www.amazon.jp (be sure to check the item details, especially for movies more than 5-10 years old, since these may be Japanese-subtitled but not dubbed).
Don’t use your significant other as an excuse. “But we have to spend time together”, you say. Bollocks. Take a walk together and hold hands, but make sure to be listening to Japanese music on your portable player; come on, let’s be honest, you don’t really want to hear what they have to say anyhow 😉 (joking)! And don’t let your friends or family make fun of you or browbeat you into going along to see the latest mindless flick with them. Don’t let them tell you that you “have to unplug sometimes”; they’re full of crap; they’re only saying that to get you to go along. Don’t let them tell you “you can do it later”. Will they be there for you when your Japanese sucks because you didn’t practice because you were always “going to do it later”? Do your friends know Japanese fluently? Probably not. Because if they did, they would understand why you need to do what you need to do, and they wouldn’t try to dissuade you from it. If they do know Japanese fluently, then they should know better than to attempt to strip you away from the very thing that got them fluent: constant practice.
Be strong. Your friends and family will make fun of you for a while, but just hold on. In the short-term, they may not seem to like you unless you do what they want. But it in the long run, they’ll respect you more than if you’d just given in to their pressure. They may say horrible things to you: “Do you think you’re better than us? Do you value the advice of random people on the Internet more than that of your real world friends and family? Do you think you’re Japanese or something?” to which you may reply under your breath: “actually, I do”.
3. TV: Japanese only
Unless you live in an area with a large Japanese community, there may not be Japanese TV available. But you never know. Check with your local cable/satellite provider. Failing live TV, even if there’s only a small Japanese community, there may be a Japanese store in your area. More likely than not, that store sells/rents tapes of Japanese television, complete with commercials. You want to patronize that store and buy some tapes. Failing that, there’s always Ebay, YouTube and even (shudder) BitTorrent.
One of the cool things about Japanese TV is some of the most popular American TV shows (and even some of the good ones) are dubbed in Japanese, including 24, Monk, CSI (all cities), Friends, Full House (the worst show in human history) and many more.
Whatever your sources, get some Japanese TV arrangement going, and have it playing constantly. Like me, you may not even watch TV. But when it comes to Japanese, and only Japanese, you have the permission to be a couch potato. Or a couch carrot: lighter and leaner than a potato, but still a bit vegetative.
4. Radio: Japanese only
Again, unless you live in an area with a large Japanese community, there may not be Japanese radio available. Not a problem. That’s what the Internet is for. Sometimes, running Japanese TV could be distracting for you. But you can listen to radio and podcasts while you cook. Get some (ask me if you want to know specific places).
In the case of both TV and radio, don’t worry if you can’t understand it all. The point initially is not for you to get everything that’s going on. The point is for you to have it turned on, and playing. At first, you probably won’t understand a single word. Then you’ll start picking up single words. Then you’ll start picking up sentences. Then you’ll start picking up scenes. After some time, you’ll be able to watch and understand it all. It may take a while (many months), but stay patient and let the bright colors, shiny objects and detergent commercials entertain you.
5. Computer/Internet: Japanese only
Do it. Do it now. As far as possible, only visit Japanese websites. Need to check your favorite website? Check the Japanese version instead. Need to check the news? No, you don’t ;). In addition to original Japanese websites, there are Japanese-language versions of several of the most popular English webpages, including Yahoo, Wired, CNN and Slashdot.
What operating system do you use? Better get the Japanese version.
What’s your browser’s homepage? Better make it a Japanese one.
Tip: enter a JapaneseURL into the box on www.hiragana.jp/, and it will add kana pronunciation aids (furigana) to the kanji.
6. Friends: Japanese only
OK, this is as harsh as they get, but you’re going to need to work on your social circle. I’m not saying that you should kick out non-Japanese-speaking people from your life, but you should definitely surround yourself with Japanese speakers.
Sometimes you can’t always be with your real-life Japanese friends, so when you’re alone, your Japanese friends are the singers and actors you watch and listen to.
7. Walls: Japanese only
What is on the walls around you? You need some Japanese posters and signs. If you’re in the kanji-studying phase, then there’s this cool poster of all 2000 odd General Use Kanji; at $24 it isn’t cheap, but in the spirit of “discipline is remembering what you want”, I think it’s a valuable reminder. I had one on my wall. You could also make your own poster by filling in each kanji you acquire. Whatever you do, Japanese the walls of your home.
8. Food: Japanese only
The Japanese restaurants I know of are expensive. Maybe you can visit them only once in a while. You could also visit Japanese food shops, buy the ingredients, and cook your own food. You don’t know how to use the ingredients? Just ask the shopkeepers (or your friends) about what to cook.
Also, whatever kind of food you eat, eat it with chopsticks. I started using only chopsticks years before going to Japan. Don’t be intimidated, they aren’t hard to use. Plus, you can almost eat anything solid with chopsticks: rice, cake, ice-cream. So use them! Again, you may earn the ridicule of those around you, but just grin and bear it. Since moving to Japan, it’s dawned on me that the chopsticks thing wasn’t just a psychological tool and it wasn’t just for getting attention. It really is a social skill; outside of Japan, they may be rare, but in Japan everything comes with chopsticks; you need to know how to use them.
9. Floor and Furniture: Japanese only
This is similar to the chopsticks suggestion. Again, before moving to Japan, I thought I was just being kitsch by doing this, but it turns out (again) that in addition to reminding you of your goal (Japanese fluency) this is actually an important social skill. Japan very much remains a floor-centered society.
Use Japanese-style furnishing in your home. You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy new furniture to do this, and even if you do, it needn’t be expensive. All you need is a low table (zataku, 座卓) to sit at. Low enough that you can sit on the floor with a cushion (seiza, 正座) and use it.
You should also sleep on the floor on a futon; if you don’t have one, you can lay down a duvet/comforter and sleep on that. Anyway, the point is: sleep and work close to the ground. Outside of offices, almost everything in Japan is low, close to the ground (private homes, restaurants, etc.) You’d do well to get used to it sooner rather than later. If you’ve been working high off the ground until now, this may take some getting used to, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. The task doesn’t change; you do.
10. Brain/Thoughts: Japanese only
Last but not least, your brain. You probably have thoughts and some of them might be in words and those words might be in a language that is not Japanese. Well, that won’t do. My method for changing the language of thought, the “inner monologue” if you will, was to carry around a Japanese dictionary (electronic) with me. Whenever I was walking, if I had a non-Japanese thought, I would look up the words in a dictionary, and then re-think the thought in Japanese instead. I now have an inner monologue mostly in Japanese, except when I’m speaking or writing English. Don’t feel silly — it’s worth it. Surrounding yourself with Japanese should eventually Japanize your thoughts anyway, but this forces it to happen sooner.
Anyway, as always, go out and have fun doing Japanese! Take control of what goes into your brain, and your brain will reward you handsomely.