Japanese Learner Success Stories

Yo. There’s a lot of misconception out there about the supposed difficulty of Japanese. There’s a lot of misconception about Japan itself. And here I am preaching to you about misconception, but I grew up with kung-fu movies, too, just like you. I thought all East Asians knew martial arts, ate rice (wait, this one’s true!), meditated daily on the Analects, and were just generally superhuman. But Japan is, at the end of the day, a country of human beings, just like you and me. Lazy, candy-eating, comic-reading people who wish their parents would just can it so they could play some more PlayStation; who learn their own language like we all do — because it’s there. As Oscar Wilde once put it:

“The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them.”

Way to bring us back to reality, Oscar Wilde. You go, boyyy.

Back on topic. Everyone loves a success story. They inspire us; they drive us; they let us know that our dreams are possible because someone’s gone done already done it. So here are links to stories of people who have had success learning Japanese.

  • His Excellency James W. Heisig, Prince of the Kanji Realms himself. A lot of people give me guff and accuse me of making up all this Japanese fluency crap. But it doesn’t compare to the guff that Heisig has been getting ever since the very inception of his method. You go, boyyy. Speaking of which, there are two quotes from Heisig in this interview that I really love: “the only languages that should be learned in school are dead languages” — although, if this is anything to go by (thanks, quendidil!), maybe not even dead languages fit that rubric; I certainly don’t think they do. And then there was his thing about going to: “live in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, where he ‘played with the children there and learned how to speak.'” Good stuff.
  • Manny Sultan, an architect from Egypt. In his own words, he turned his room/apartment: “into a Japanese language camp. There were kanji cards on the ceiling, the walls, all over the floor. It was a challenge. I had put myself into a corner; I had to perform or sink. I believe in that sort of situation, the human mind has no limits.” You go, boyyy.
  • Arudou Debito (formerly David Aldwinckle), a naturalized Japanese citizen and political activist. Also a published author in Japanese. I love his, to paraphrase: “get the heck fluent before coming to Japan” advice. If you’re already in Japan but not yet fluent, don’t worry — just hurry up.
  • Dr. Mary Sisk Noguchi, university professor and head of KanjiClinic. She learned kanji using the Heisig method, and then learned readings by reading (duplication duplication woo!) furigana books. You go…boyyy.
  • Chris Houser, the guy who told me to use SuperMemo (an SRS) for learning kanji. I pestered the poor man with emails for weeks thereafter. He doesn’t actually have his success story up there, not in full anyway. Maybe you can pester him for it.

Your Success Story

But enough about other people. Now it’s your time to shine. I want to hear your success story, partly out of curiosity for myself, but more importantly, to help those like you who will come afterward. I’m going to put them up on this site, and people will read them and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So, if you’ve been using the methods discussed on this site, and you’ve had success and you’re willing to share (you’d better be!), email me right now! Operators are standing by! “What operators?”, you say? — Shut up and start typing!


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  27 comments for “Japanese Learner Success Stories

  1. toadhjo
    June 26, 2008 at 13:15

    Aye, I fully agree with this quote:

    “get the heck fluent before coming to Japan”

    I’m in Japan now on a foreign exchange (from April-July, 4 months), and really, I kind of see it as the waste of an opportunity. I figured I’d take my classroom Japanese, come here, and actually get better. Uh…not so much…

    Actually, maybe I could get “better” if I spent a lot of time talking with the Japanese folk around here, but I think “better” would mean I could throw more words around in improper grammatical patterns faster than before!

    I discovered this site maybe about a month after I got here, and I’ve been doing my best to adhere to the whole AJATT concept. In some ways, I’m not sure if it’ll be easier or harder to do once I return home. On one hand, I won’t have quite the same access to Japanese language material (ahh…Book Off)…but on the other hand, I won’t have this nagging in the back of my head that I should be going out and trying to speak Japanese with lots of people. Also, maybe others feel differently…but I think it’s a lot harder to “pretend you’re Japanese” when you’re surrounded by real Japanese people.

    Anyway, I WILL do it, and hopefully I’ll be back here again after I graduate next spring doing something or other, and if not right away, definitely sometime shortly after that.

    On a side note…nothing like avoiding my English speaking friends to do kanji reps during lunch break. Anki’s syncing functionality rules. 😛

  2. Tuan
    June 26, 2008 at 14:20

    Wow toadhjo, I’ll be studying abroad for a year September. I was also planning on doing it like you did (go to japan, and “get better” while in japan)

    I found this site recently, like 2 or 3 weeks ago, and I think it’s great! I’ve been spending my summer so far being lazy with japanese. After reading this site, I want to kick start my immersion in japanese.

  3. tomwat
    June 26, 2008 at 23:29

    Hey, I’ve been having some trouble finding Debito’s advice on learning language. (Teh Goog is being stubborn today.) Can you give me a pointer?

  4. ジェームズ
    June 27, 2008 at 04:34

    こんにちは

    ミスター九割以上です。(ご自分のブログでニュースを理解するための投稿を上奏したスコットランドの青年)。相変わらず勝元のブログを拝読し続けています。また面白い記事を書いてくれて有難う御座います。
    ずっとこのあいだ(三ヶ月前ぐらいから)TBSのくりぃむしちゅーのオールナイトニッポン“電話が鳴るまでを拝聴しているけどずっとわからなくてじれったいですよ。それに質問があります、 勝元さんは先述した番組を理解できますか? 爆笑問題やアンタッチャブルは結構わかるがどうも有田哲平さんなどはわからない。

    もうひとつの質問がある、  勝元さんは当番組を理解するためのヒントやティップがありますか?

    わからないのは多分自分の不勉強から生まれるものでしょうが、なにか役に立ちそうな情報があれば是非教えてください。

  5. L
    June 27, 2008 at 06:00

    I’m not sure if this is really a success story… yet.

    I started trying to learn Japanese about 6 months ago and wasn’t making much progress. 3 weeks ago I had minor knee surgery and had to spend a week bumming around the house. Determined not to let my time go to waste I got out my still crispy new copy of RTK1 and loaded Anki on my laptop. The next 6 days consisted of nothing but kanji, pain killers, pizza, and crude references to Mr. Heisig’s mother. By the time I reached frame 2042 I was red eyed, unshaven, and had an interesting odor… but I felt like a kanji god. At that moment I could have probably gone Super Saiyan and carved kanji into my walls with lasers from my eyeballs.

    The following Monday morning I installed Anki on my work computer and sync’d my deck. That first day I could only remember how to write about 60% of the 400 cards I saw. After 2 weeks of coming in a few minutes early and powering my way through the 200 or so cards that Anki has waiting for me I am up to a daily average of around 90%.

    Being a programmer and in college, I am forced to stare at English all day. However, leaving Anki open and having it bug me every few minutes for an answer keeps Japanese in the back of my mind all day long. I get in my car to go home and my iPod starts playing whatever language learning podcasts I sync’d that day. At home all I want to do is get through the next lesson and learn a new word or kanji compound. My apartment is now covered with post-it notes and dry erase scribbles, even my bathroom and shower. I found this blog last week and immediately added it to the top of my RSS list. Suddenly my life really has become all Japanese all the time!

    I think that forcing myself to power through the kanji was just the push I needed. I’ve learned more in the past 3 weeks than I did in the previous 5 months combined. It is such a motivator to be able to know what a kanji character means, even if it is completely out of context. My new favorite thing is to go to the supply closet and “read” the boxes and manuals. My coworkers think I have developed Disney rated Tourette’s syndrome.

    “Hill! Property! Hurry! Fan! Play! Podium! Agreement! Saber! UHHHHHHHIDUNNO!”

    -L

  6. Jair Trejo
    June 27, 2008 at 14:53

    Khatzumoto-sama!

    My name is Jair Trejo, I’m a native Spanish speaker from Mexico City, and when I started learning Japanese I wondered whether I could apply the same method I used to learn English. The problem is, there was no method: after finishing elementary school, where they taught me the very basics of English, I started reading fan-fiction, books, web sites (He, in those days you could only very seldomly find websites in a language different than English), watching American TV shows, movies, etc. In about two years of ‘self-study’ (it didn’t feel like studying at all), I attained native-like understanding, and pretty good speaking and writing abilities, almost magically. Moreover, without ever speaking a word of English for like, three years, when I needed it my pronunciation was native-like… so input before output really works wonders!

    Anyway, when I read this site, I discovered a very nice systematization of what I did during that two years. And I’m convinced it is a systematization that will considerably reduce the amount of time I’ll need to attain native-like fluency in Japanese. Thank you very much for that.

    By the way, お願いしてもいいですか。 ¿How did you practiced the numbers, and telling time in Japanese? I am very slow with them, and when I hear them rather than see them written it usually takes me a very long time to understand them. I suppose I could just add a bunch of them to the SRS, but I would probably just memorize them. Please share your tips! 😀

  7. Lloyd
    June 27, 2008 at 20:50

    yo, khatz! i really enjoyed reading that interview with heisig 🙂 he was living with the poets of some rebel army? what?! haha.

  8. aitsunodudsuito
    June 27, 2008 at 22:01

    No success story here yet.Keyword is yet. Just wanted to say congratulations to L- 2042 kanji in 6 days isn’t just impressive – its unimaginable. I’ve had days where I’ve been unable to sleep from ramming through just 100 or so, and felt kanji “burning” in my head, all wanting to get out!!!
    Good stuff man- keep on keeping on – pull harder on the strings of your kanji – or whatever else keeps you motivated!

  9. June 27, 2008 at 22:41

    Jair Trejo; I used to have trouble with numbers until I started a part-time job in Japan as a store assistant. Telling customers how much their bill was and then counting out the change in Japanese was tough at first and I made silly mistakes (324en was “three hundred two hundred and fourty” etc) but after a while I got used to it and now am fine. Try getting someone who can speak even the most basic Japanese to read numbers out loud and you write it down. Or get a list of numbers from an online random number generator and practise reading them out aloud.

  10. June 28, 2008 at 09:49

    Jair Trejo,

    Following up on what Alec said, one thing I did to help me was use TTS (I used this website — it’s not the best, but it’s free) and had my wife randomly type numbers into the box. I’d listen and write what I heard, then check it with my wife. Helped a *lot*.

  11. Rob
    June 28, 2008 at 12:32

    John B that site is great! Khatzumoto might want to link that site to the post regarding using dictation of sentences in the SRS. All you need is a free audio ripper and you’ve got a native speaker for your sentences without dropping a dime!

    Now for a strange question. And this kind of relates to this post in that it is a small success story. I started watching the Tiger and Dragon series. I’ve watched the first episode and most of the prequel episode. My Japanese has gotten good enough over the last 7 months that I can understand and/or get the gist of most of the scenes. The latter being the case most of the time but….

    I watched the prequel up to a point (the part after Toraji is rescued in the woods and is explaining why he yelled out, “Kaa-chaaan!!”) anyway, there was a moment while watching that scene where my mind stopped trying to get it and just – got it. I found myself spontaneously laughing at what was being said as if I was watching a comedy in English. This was an exciting point in the Japanese process.

    After that moment I stopped watching. I decided to stop watching Tiger and Dragon. The reason being is that I think the show is great so far and I want to watch the rest of the series after my Japanese is at native or near-native level. Does anyone think this is strange?

    My original intention was to break down Tiger and Dragon sentence by sentence and put them in the SRS, but I fear doing this will kill the enjoyment that I could possibly get if I wait and watch it after I’ve gained greater fluency.

    So my final question is, does anyone have any recommendations for shows or movies that might have similar type language that I can break down and put into the SRS?

  12. Jair Trejo
    June 28, 2008 at 13:35

    Alec, John B: Silly me, I haven’t realized you could input numbers directly in that page. It is definitely a great resource. Thank you very much!

    I tought I might write a program the generates random numbers, and make the Text-to-Speech software in my computer to read them aloud for me. It would spare me the cumbersome task of writing the numbers in the page, but unfortunately I’d have to write the Number to Words translation software myself. I wonder if there is something like that already done?

  13. June 28, 2008 at 19:28

    Jair Trejo; there are lots of random number generators on the internet and currently existing text-to-speech can read digits into numbers. I use TextAloud with NeoSpeech’s Show as my voice, and it reads numbers perfectly. Just copy and paste numbers from the online generator into TextAloud and you have your solution! No need to make stuff. =)

  14. Nivaldo
    June 29, 2008 at 02:05

    Hi, Khatz!
    I’ve been thinking (you probably wouldn’t like, that 🙂 ) and after reading your posts, I came to the conclusion that INPUT is the key to fluency in this method like you had pointed at some article (I think it was something about showing up). I’m not getting new input lately(new music, movies, dramas) and as a result all the things I already have are boring me, like watching the same Naruto movie for the 100th time. So I was thinking: “OK, I at least have some input, I may be bored, be unable to obtain more input but hey I got input after all”. But what would you say to someone who just can’t get input no matter how hard he/she tries?

  15. Nivaldo
    June 29, 2008 at 06:32

    By the way, this question popped out because I have a friend that was influenced (quite uncounsciously) by my Japanese environment so he also wants to learn Japanese. I was encouraging him but now I’m a little bit worried about him because he has no computer at home and the computer is the only way to get to Japanese things here. Therefore, I’m really worried. 🙁

  16. dancc
    June 29, 2008 at 07:48

    Unrelated question.

    I want to put a JP OS on my computer but I am unsure how to do it. I thinkg I remember reading a post about it here but I was unable to find it through searching, so if anyone has any helpful advice that would be great.

    Where can I get a JP OS? torrents?
    Do I need a special keyboard? Or can I just label my current one once I get the OS installed and find out what keys are what.

    And then I have a general JP computer typing question. How can someone type japanese fast? Like I said I use the IME pad and when I type out the words in kana then hit tab it pops out a kanji and then a list of other possible kanji, it almost never displays the kanji I want, so I’m just wondering how someone can be typing japanese at 70 words/min, or does it just take practice? or are their keyboards different?

    thanks
    dan

  17. June 30, 2008 at 00:12

    Responding to dancc: what OS are you looking for? Windows…try checking Yahoo! JP auctions and using a shipping service if you’re outside Japan. Other OSes: the Japanese version of Ubuntu Linux is free: www.ubuntulinux.jp/. I’ve downloaded it, but I’m not brave enough to foray there just yet.

  18. nacest
    June 30, 2008 at 02:26

    If you choose Ubuntu, the “standard” version supports all the languages you want, and you can choose the one you want at boot time. Japanese Windows, you’ll have to buy it.
    Anyway, there’s no need to be brave to use Ubuntu. I’m using it. That means almost anyone can use it 🙂

  19. Jair Trejo
    June 30, 2008 at 13:29

    Although my japanese is very limited, I’m using Japanese Ubuntu. Thanks to Heisig I can recognize most messages and commands, and the Japanese dictionary does the rest for me… There are only so many things a computer can babble at you, and I’ve seen them all 😀

    Anyway, I can switch back to Spanish at boot-time without any pain. But I try not to do so.

  20. Nuke-Marine
    June 30, 2008 at 23:42

    I was typing up a large “in process” story. However, I’ve been posting my steps in this blog’s comment area over the last year, so no need to repeat it. I don’t consider myself a success yet as I’m still learning. I’ve “lived” in Japan since January 2007. I use quotations since I’m in the US Navy. The base I work (and live on) is NOT Japan, plus I travel 6 months out of the year (no mandatory immersion for me). I’m done with RTK1 (25k reviews on RevTK) which I started in July, 2007 and finished on Dec, 2007. I’m only 700 sentences in the sentence method which I started in January 2008. Again, full time job aboard a US Navy ship (no walking around with iPods in my ears for me, no televisions constantly on a Japanese program, etc.). Still, I made do.

    It’s been a constant learning experience. For me, it’s been about finding the most efficient manner to learn Japanese. In the process, I’ve found out so much about languages, learning, memory, motivation, techniques, etc that can be applied to many areas of life. If anything, I learned do not be afraid to try something new to see if it works for you. DO NOT take a “this is the only way” mentality either. Some people just react differently to learning methods than others. I find that as long as your methods are diverse, the weaknesses in one method is covered by the strengths of others.

    For success, I’ll be honest – Karaoke. I love it. I love going to a karaoke bar, hitting a song just right and hearing the crowd go nuts. Well, now I’m doing Japanese songs. I’m not “memorizing” them and pretending to read. No, I MUST read the darn screen in order to sing it. The more I get into the sentence method, the more I’m able to read Karaoke. I will add, I’m not learning Japanese from Karaoke. I find that singing Japanese is fun, and I can sing more if I learn more Japanese. Heck, I’m even considering “mining” songs so I got a bit more understanding of what I’m singing. In case you’re wondering (Yuzu – Harukaze, Ken Hirai – Kimi no Sukina Toko, Crazy Ken Band – Tiger and Dragon, Fukuyama – Tokyo Ni Mo Attanda, “one more time, one more chance”), yeah not much, but I can hit it.

    For what I wished I had up front: pre-made sentence packs. Yeah, many advocate making your own, but I disagree. So long as you study the sentences prior to putting them in an SRS, add in appropriate definitions (J-E then J-J later) and notes, you’ve put in the leg work. However, with the pre-made packs, I was putting in more sentences. I procrastinated when I had to type them in manually. Besides, it was RevTK (a group effort website, no doubt) that got me through RTK. Therefore, a sentence pack getting me through Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar and Kanji.Odyssey.2001 I’m not going to ignore for a nobler but less efficient ideal. Plus, that’s just to get the basics down. You’ll move on to your own sentences in time.

    Ok, longer than I thought. Keep up the great works.

  21. Nivaldo
    July 1, 2008 at 03:24

    また馬鹿な事を言いましたね、勝元さん。ごめんなさい
    本当に難しい問題だと思いましたが問題だけですね。また馬鹿のように話すことになりません。
    下手な日本語はゆるして下さい。

  22. July 3, 2008 at 10:27

    I just wanted your opinion on usings songs to learn Japanese. Do you think that they are too “poetic” or abstact to teach you useful grammar and words? Or do you think that listening to Japanese music helps with fluency?

  23. Jon
    July 3, 2008 at 18:41

    I reckon that if you arm yourself with the following words you can tackle 50% of J-Pop. I guess it’d be easy to make a list of overused words in English language music too, but these are the ones that seem to pop up all the time in the stuff I’ve heard: 掌、光、耀く、足跡、闇、繰り返す etc.

  24. July 4, 2008 at 14:24

    Just like every Spanish song has “corazon” in there somewhere…

    It seems that a lot of the words in J-pop aren’t necessarily the ones I hear people using, so I was really wondering if listening to songs aids with fluency, or if they are enjoyable (to some) but not that useful for teaching. Opinions?

  25. Teishukanpaku
    July 10, 2008 at 20:50

    Love the Oscar Wilde quote (but then, all his quotes are great). This was a realization I had come to myself some time ago.

    After living such a long time with a skewed, mystical view of the ‘Orient,’ I found it hard to shake that stereotype after coming to Japan.

    Now that I can understand what people around me are saying, I’ve realized that, like many Americans back home, they actually have very little interesting to say.

    Kinda kills some of the excitement of learning the language. It hasn’t stopped me from studying Japanese or living in Japan – but it does lead me to chuckle sometimes.

  26. June 29, 2010 at 04:38

    Nuke-Marine@

    All the premade sentences you will ever need =)

    tatoeba.org

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